The Gifts of Fate

3 years ago we moved to a cookie cutter subdivision. It wasn’t our first choice, hell it wasn’t in our top 20 (literally) but time was against us. I have been thinking about that move lately. I was asked to give a talk at a local Citizens Group, Heart of the City, that has strong Sustainability leanings. I was asked to give a bio (I guess there is to be a press release- when did I start rating that?) and it afforded me an, apparently, rare moment of reflection. In looking back it became very stark just how important that move was in getting me to where I am today.

I often complain about our home. We live on the freeway. Not near… ON. Our back fence is owned by the Wisconsin D.O.T. and the I-94 corridor between Madison and Milwaukee is not the road less traveled. The backyard is rather loud- like you have to shout at the kids if they are more than 20 feet away. We knew this going in of course, and we got the house for a song which is why we’re here. But it is rather odd digs for an aspiring Sustainable Farmer.

The gardens have progressed enough that we gave several tours last year. While I complain privately, many people who come to our home gush over the property. Sure they hear the freeway (can’t miss it!), but they focus on the permaculture gardens, the productive edible landscape, the worm bins, the rain gardens, the kiwi vines on the fence, the rubble rock walls of local field stone. They see the simple beauty that is often missing in their homes. Heck, some even say how envious they are.   The thing is that 3 years ago, and at any other home I had ever lived at, I would have been envious too.  I can reach no other conclusion than that I have to give credit for the past 3 years of incredible intellectual and experiencial growth to that god damned freeway.

Permaculture teaches that the “problem is the solution”  That usually means that waste or excessive inputs in a system is a sure sign of sloppy design (no one fertilizes a forest); if you have a problem use it to steer you to a more elegant design to solve it.  In my case the problem of the freeway in my backyard led me to a solution to the “dual” life I had been living -very environmentally concerned, but unable or unwilling to commit to Being the Change I wished to see in the world.  Moving in to a blank slate of a home -no lawn, no yard, not even a shrub -on land competely denuded with 100% of the topsoil scraped off and replaced by completed dead subsoil from 200′ underground in a nearby quarry.  The home itself was “perfect”: a builder Spec Home used to display the model for all comers.  But it was as dead and lifeless as the yard – a yard that 18 months earlier had been a famer’s field.  We were Urban Sprawl.

That stark reality gave me the gift of action.  Thanks to it, I have read more, listened more, dug more, and met more people in the past 3 years in my attempt to overcome the reality of our home and turn it into an example of Sustainable Suburban living.   We have cut our energy consumption by 40%, reduced or trash to 1-2 grocery bags/week, sold my sports car for an Insight, and hugely reduced our overall consumer consumption.  We managed to grow 500#’s of food on site last year, and the momentum has pushed me to partner with local farmers for enough land to grow upwards of 3-4000#’s more this year in a (hopefully!) fully sustainable system.  We are living lighter than we ever have, and through our LLC and my community organization contacts are helping others do the same.  All thanks to a series of unfortunate events that placed us on a freeway instead of a small farmette.

Fate is Fickle.   I was crushed when the deal on our farmette fell through 40 months ago, but the New Reality is that I am living a fuller life now -and if we do end up getting that larger piece of paradise in a few years I will have a knowledge base and support network that was incomprehensible to me 3 years ago that will allow me to make it more successful than I could have ever dreamed.

Do I still feel rage well up at every Semi Truck that Jake brakes down to the exit?  Hell yes.  But in a perverse sense that I am only beginning to come to terms with, I am grateful for that impetus as well.

But I still wish the 13 Sycamore trees I planted on the DOT fence would grow faster!

11 Responses

  1. kudos on the epiphany. The Dervaes over at PTF call it “growing where you’re planted” I like to think of it as the difference between isolationist strategy (like the survivalists) and inclusivist strategy (like you and many others who build community as well as great food and soil)

  2. Rob-

    Would you post something to the effect of “Ten steps to turn subsoil into garden soil”? That’s my project for a large swathe of our property, starting this spring. It had some ryegrass last year; I’m thinking winter-kill alfalfa, field peas, and rye this year to start getting organic matter into the soil. Loads of horse manure are also an option.


  3. Yes, to grow where you are planted, is a good reminder. We do dream of this or that, chickens, land–but while we are here, there is much that can be done!

  4. “While we’re here, there is much to be done!” Amen!

    Kory, the beauty of sustainable ag is that you HAVE to be close to markets or else you can’t make it work -Organic is still niche and you need a large (ish) population center to get critical mass of interested food purchasers.

    Emily, I am sure I can get a list of things to do for topsoil building. Probably a more in depth version of: Add organic matter, Stop spraying poison, Mulch, Repeat!

  5. Nicely put – a lesson from which we could (nay, should) all learn. by the way, what is a #?

  6. # is American abbreviation for a pound of something. Rob’s 500# of food from the garden is very impressive!

  7. so now I know why american telephone emssages ask me to press the pound key when they mean the hache key!

  8. This was a great and thoughtful posting. We live in a totally different situation – more land than we know what to do with – and newly retired – but speaking from decades of experience in MANY different living situations – I think you have correctly identified The Gifts of Fate.

  9. Could you post photos of your gardens? Sounds so inspiring, it would be great to them.

  10. Thanks for all the coments!

    Evan, seeing as my gardens are under 6″ of (melting) snow right now the best thing to do is hit the gardening tab on the category cloud and go back to last summer.

    Here are some highlights though:
    Mature gardens several weeks before harvest:
    Nascent Permaculture beds, several years from harvest:
    Rough list of 75% of the plantings that earned us 500 lbs of food in 2007-the rest are in mixed plantings -no pics:
    Gardens in June WK1 Prime lettuce season, and the week I put in my tomato transplants:

  11. This posting struck a real chord with me. I can’t stop thinking about it, so forgive a second comment. It made me think about 2 friends of mine, an architect, and a landscape architect. They both feel that constraints are what feed creativity. The constraints are always there in whatever situation or site – and it is up to us to supply the creativity – which you have done brilliantly and generously. Thank you.

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