Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Iowa unexpected: Fairfield

We spent our last three days in Iowa as the guests of Stacey and Bill Hurlin, in the Abundance Ecovillage near Fairfield. The houses in the sustainable community are off the grid, providing their own wind and solar energy and composting.

I was especially interested in how air is circulated in the houses. Each dwelling has tubes buried eight to ten feet in the earth, where the temperature is about 56 degrees year round. A small fan draws air from outside into the tubes and then into the house, where the temperature is modified by a furnace or an air conditioner as needed. The air is completely replaced several times a day inside the house, so there are no stuffy rooms or stale air.

I hope you'll want to learn more about the ecovillage here.

Here's the kitchen of the Sweetwater Bunkhouse, Stacey and Bill's rental. We shared the space with Jim, who lives in Chicago but commutes to Fairfield for three days each week. Interesting conversations!

Fairfield is a town of about 10,000 in southeast Iowa. A major presence in the town is the Maharishi University of Management, formerly known as Maharishi International University. Transcendental meditation is an important part, and many residents of Fairfield practice it daily. Two domes on the campus were built specifically for group meditation.

Additionally, artists have come from around the world to live in Fairfield. Stacey estimated that 3,000 of the town's population have moved there from somewhere else.

Our conversations about GMO continued in Fairfield, where the people I spoke to were opposed to it. While there we went to see the current movie "GMO OMG". By the time we left town I felt more informed on both sides of the controversy.

Next week Washington residents will be voting on Initiative 522 which would require labeling of GMO foods. Lots of money has been spent by out-of-state companies to defeat the measure. I'm not a TV watcher so I have seen very few of the media ads. I know how I'll vote.  I got educated in Iowa!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Harvest time in Iowa: Riding in the combine

On Thursday I rode in the combine to harvest feed corn; on Saturday the crop was soybeans. Our B&B host, Doug Helm, farms 4000 acres with a crew of four or five. The fields are scattered all over the county. Some of the land is his; some is his dad's; some land he rents from others. I asked lots of questions. Doug taught high school for ten years before he decided to farm. He's patient and a good teacher.

Here's what I learned about the combine in these pictures. The following description may not be entirely accurate, so bear with me if you know farming. The head attached to the front is for harvesting corn. What looks like little missiles from the passenger seat of the cab fit between the rows of corn, drawing the stalks toward the combine. The stalks get separated from the ears and are discarded on the ground; the ears continue on into the combine. There's some kind of drum or wheel rotating very fast; the kernels of corn are spun off the cobs by centrifugal force. The cobs are ejected onto the field and the kernels go into a bin in the combine. The kernels eventually get transferred to a truck bed for hauling to the cooperative.

Doug harvested 12 acres of corn in about an hour. Inside the cab is a GPS, a computer monitor, and a radio. The cab is heated. There is power steering. It was like being in the cab of a large truck.

Here's some of what I learned:

1. In Iowa, the ground is excellent for corn and soybeans.  A lot of the crop goes to feed animals being raised for slaughter. 

2. I asked whether the seeds were GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) and Doug said yes. These seeds have been modified at the genetic level to be resistant to pests and Roundup, an herbicide. So crops can be sprayed midseason to kill all the weeds. Proponents of GMO say the genetic modification is just speeding up what nature would do over time. In nature, plant mutations which provided protection against pests would survive and their seeds would carry on that protection. I've since learned that herbicide-resistant plants and pesticide-resistant insects have evolved in the last 15 years. Not a long time for the effect of the GMO seeds to be neutralized. 

3. The manufacturer of the seeds is Monsanto. Seeds have to be reordered each year. Farmers cannot retain some of the seeds for planting the following year. There have been a couple of lawsuits where Monsanto won. I'm thinking the company says the modified seeds are intellectual property.

4. Doug said, "We have to feed the world. A lot of people will starve to death if we don't produce enough food." We also talked about food as a U.S. export. I didn't think much about CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) at that time. I know about them, but the subject didn't come up in my conversation with Doug. Still, even in the unfortunate conditions of CAFOs, those animals need to be fed.

5. The farmer uses Roundup as a pesticide for weeding between the plants. I told Doug my understanding was that Roundup contains Agent Orange, used as a defoliant during the Vietnam War and later recognized as a health hazard to those exposed to it. Doug said he didn't think Roundup contains Agent Orange. We looked it up on the computer in the cab and found out he was right. Monsanto used to manufacture Agent Orange and DDT but do not produce it any more. Roundup has another chemical, glyphosate, as its main component.

6. In Iowa the crops are not irrigated. Farmers rely upon the rain. This year had a rainy spring, so the planting was late. Once the planting was done, there was hardly any rain all summer. The harvest this year is also late. I rode on the combine on October 17 and October 19. The weather was cooling down - temperatures in the 50s. 

7. If it starts to rain during the harvesting of soybeans, work stops. Rain toughens the soybean stalks and makes them hard to cut. It had rained the day before we arrived in Iowa, so my first day on the combine was harvesting corn.

8. Prices for crops depend on demand and the amount of crop available. This, too, depends on the weather. A farmer's success might be luck; for example, the price of land when they start farming, the price of crops, whether they have family land or rent from family.   

9. A farmer is a businessman. He has to know how to make connections and market his crop. He has to be able to get along with people. There are a lot of dollar numbers involved, supply and demand, prices and weather, equipment and labor.

These next pictures are of the soybean harvesting. Note the tractor and trailer driving alongside the combine, which can keep moving as it unloads the soybeans. This is more efficient than returning to a location where the trailer is waiting. Both drivers have to be talking to each other and know what they are doing.

The head for harvesting soybeans is different from the one used for corn. Instead of little "missiles", the head has tines or teeth. They straighten the soybeans so the plant can be pulled into the combine.

A pheasant was running along in front of the combine, and we were catching up. The tractor driver dismounted from his vehicle and induced the bird to move out of danger. Doug always watches out for animals in the field.

We loved our four days in Montezuma. The hardest part was dinnertime. We were staying at the bed and breakfast, so we ate in the farmhouse every morning. We usually had lunch with the harvest crew. For dinners we were on our own. Montezuma is a small town with limited dining opportunities. We ended up three nights at the Monte Tap Room, a bar with a newly opened restaurant attached. We had burgers one night, catfish/shrimp on another, and split a rib eye dinner the last night. With a couple of sides, we were good. The servers remembered us each night - we were the only out of towners in the place - and wished us well as we left after our last meal there.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Iowa: Search for the pioneer cemetery

A volunteer at the Tama County Genealogical Museum had sent me a typewritten list of people buried in the Butlerville Pioneer Cemetery, seven miles west of Tama. My great great grandmother Rebecca was not on the list. But the volunteer had also sent Rebecca's obituary, which indicated she had been buried there. So I wanted to visit the cemetery even if I couldn't find her grave.

The Butlerville Cemetery description included its location: about 3/4 mile north of Highway 30 on T17, "surrounded by the farmland of Burton Benson".  I knew it was near the village of Montour. From our B&B in Montezuma, we set the GPS for "shortest distance" to Montour and started the 30-mile drive north.

We got lost at mile 28. The paved road turned to gravel. We came to a Native American housing project and turned in. I asked a woman at the office for help. She directed me to Highway 30, "just past the casino on your left. You can't miss it."

We didn't miss the casino with its enormous, nearly empty parking lot. But we did turn the wrong direction on Highway 30 and drove three miles before realizing T17 was behind us and turning around. Once on that road we drove the 3/4 mile north as directed and found no cemetery. We turned into the driveway of an apple farm and asked for directions from a woman working amid apple crates. She said, "I think Burton Benson's farm is south of 30, not north." We thanked her and returned to Highway 30. Contrary to the map, T17 did not continue on the other side of the highway. We meandered on side roads, searching, and came upon a sign that said "Pioneer Cemetery". We followed five offshoot roads from there, winding up on a faint trail through high grass along a creek. After a mile the trail disappeared. I thought about how we have no cellphone service here -- apparently AT&T does not have an active presence in this area -- and we had no way to notify AAA where we were. Fortunately, Art is a courageous off-road driver, even in a rented vehicle, and he backed us out and returned us to the road. I tried not to think about possible scratches on the side of the vehicle from the bushes and shrubs we scraped by.

Finally I turned on my iPad Maps app and entered "Butlerville Cemetery". And there it was - three miles away, 3/4 mile south of Highway 30 off T17. We found it - another "Pioneer Cemetery" sign. Drove up Burton Benson's driveway, turned right just past the barn, and followed a road through harvested soybeans to the fenced cemetery at the top of the hill. The grass inside the cemetery hadn't been mown this year. It was chest high and full of burrs, which clung to my jeans and my fleece vest. We opened the gate to the cemetery.

Art walked ahead of me. That's him, between the trees.

I looked back at Burton Benson's farm.

It was about 55 degrees out, with a slight breeze. A really peaceful and pretty cemetery location.  As I stood there in the quiet, I heard my great great grandmother Rebecca's voice in my head. She said, "Hello, Dearie." I hadn't expected it, but I wasn't surprised. Two years ago, in the Gordon cemetery in western Nebraska, Art and I cleaned the tombstones of Rebecca's daughter and son-in-law, Mary Catherine and Samuel Wallace. As I worked, I heard my great grandfather Samuel's voice: "You're using the wrong tool for the job, Girl." I love it when that happens. See, I don't use the word "Dearie" and I don't use "Girl". So I'm figuring it was my great great grandmother Rebecca and my great grandfather Samuel greeting me.

We drove to the genealogical museum. I handed the sheet to the volunteer and said, "You might want to change the directions to the Butlerville Pioneer Cemetery. It's 3/4 miles south of Highway 30, not 3/4 miles north." She said, "Oh, that's right. They moved Highway 30 since these directions were written."!!

I said, "Rebecca's obituary says she was buried in the cemetery, but the sheet doesn't list her." The volunteer said,  "The names were gathered by someone walking through the cemetery years ago, looking at headstones and writing down the names.  If the grave had been marked with a wooden cross instead of a headstone, it would have decayed."

"Hello, Dearie."

Hello, Rebecca.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Why Iowa, again?

Two years ago we took a road trip from Seattle. Our easternmost point was Tama, in central Iowa. My great grandparents had married there in 1867, and Iowa was one of three remaining states I had never been to. I found a bed and and breakfast in Montezuma, about 30 miles south of Tama. We had a memorable time there, during the planting season. You can read about that visit here.

This was a good year to go back during the harvest. We thought about it because, as frequent flyers on Alaska Airlines, we were about 2500 miles short of qualifying for MVP status for next year.  Minneapolis was about the right distance away and about the right cost, so if we added a short flight to Des Moines and a Budget car rental to Montezuma, we would be set. I talked to Stacy, the owner of the B&B, about the best time to visit. They had had a rainy spring, so the planting was later than usual. She said mid-October was a good time to experience the harvesting of the corn and soybeans.

Also, since our last visit to Iowa, I had found the name of my great grandmother's mother. We planned to visit the pioneer cemetery near Tama where she was buried.

The second half of our trip would be to Fairfield, Iowa. Three years ago we got a home exchange offer from a couple there. It sounded like an interesting place, but the timing wasn't good. Later that year the woman, Stacey, contacted me. She is an artist and was planning a trip up the west coast to find galleries where she could display her work. She asked if she could stay with us during her visit to the Seattle area, and I said yes. Stacey stayed for three days. She and I did a lot of talking; we actually discussed teaming up on a book. She reminded me that we now had a place to stay when we came to Fairfield. So we will be doing that as well.

Our trip was uneventful and we are settled into our room, in the barn at English Valley Bed and Breakfast in Montezuma, Iowa.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

There's something about compassion

For most of my life I've had a hot button around unfairness. Just about the only time I get angry or resentful is when I think I've been "unfaired against". For example, I keep my end of a bargain and you don't keep your end. I show up on time and you are late. I lend you money and you don't pay me back. You say you'll call me back and you don't call. I've worked hard to be rid of this issue but it still gets me from time to time. It's probably related to fear of some kind. I'll keep working on it. That's usually part of the solution for me when I have an issue - to work on it.

That hasn't been the case with compassion. I haven't been working on it. Compassion is one of those things I'm usually decent about. That's especially when I'm feeling it for an issue distant from me. Like famine in Africa, or homelessness in the U.S., or wrongful imprisonment. I may send money to a cause for which I feel compassion - like Doctors Without Borders or Habitat for Humanity or Kiva. I may give my time for a cause. I am a volunteer mediator partly because I feel compassion for people in conflict.

What I'm noticing recently is that I'm beginning to feel compassion for people in conflicts that are close to me or affect me directly. Like the neighbor who is operating a metal and tire recycling business from his driveway, which is illegal in our city. People coming and going, hammering at night, stacks of tires on the lawn. I was thinking about calling the police. Then I found out the police found a stolen vehicle in that same driveway and various authorities have been called. I don't like illegal activity in my neighborhood but I feel compassion for the person who has found no other way to make a living - and for his family.

Or a business friend of mine with a flair for drama who has lost employees - most recently her bookkeeper - partly because of the drama. I'm watching this happen. I feel compassion for both her and the bookkeeper.

Or a friend of a friend who took a couple of our autographed books to our outfitter in Kenya. (The friend of a friend, Rick, is also a friend of the outfitter, Steve.) I'd made arrangements for Steve to pay Rick when the books arrived. Rick had forgotten he knew the books were being purchased by Steve instead of being given as gifts by me. Rick wrote me a nasty email late one night, accusing me of using him for transport to save postage and then expecting his friend Steve to have to pay for the books. I responded with compassion, sending him copies of conversations I'd had with Steve - and with him - before the books went to Kenya. I got an abject apology the next morning. I wasn't mad at Rick. I felt compassion for him, that a misunderstanding and a forgetting had caused him such anger and distress.

There was a time when events like this would have resulted in righteous indignation or resentment on my part. For some reason, that isn't happening much any more. What I especially like is that increased compassion hasn't been a goal of mine. I haven't been working on it. It has just happened. Isn't that great?

There's something about compassion that makes me feel more like a grownup.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reading the old journals

I've started working on a new book, about our travels; it will include material from journals and blogs I wrote between 1994 and 2013. To that end, last Wednesday I pulled out the old handwritten and typed pages to refresh my recollection - and I came upon my life in the 90s, when we lived with teenagers. I read for hours on Wednesday, remembering.

Amidst the daily reflections, I glimpsed a view of my self at 50. I still recognize me in the pages, but I can see how I've grown and changed since then.

I was exhausted just reading about my life. We had two resident teenagers and two more who visited their dad three times a week - plus another four offspring who turned up from time to time. They were normal adolescents for the most part - moody, messy, partying procrastinators wanting freedom but eschewing responsibility, getting in their share of trouble that parents worry and grieve over. I spent many journal pages wishing they were different and looking forward to the time they would be grown up and gone. During that same period I was working full time and taking two classes. My life was crowded and chaotic. I yearned for quiet and time for myself.

Now those teenagers are grown. The two who lived with us are today a nuclear engineer and a marble and granite fabricator, with the financial resources to make it on their own, paired with the restricted freedom that comes with adulthood and responsibility. I'm pretty sure they would have turned out about the same if I had been more relaxed about the whole adolescent thing. But I hadn't learned that yet.

Now I have. Our house is quieter these days. We're still busy, but with different activities. I can usually detach from the issues of family members unless my assistance is requested.  My children and my husband are managing their own lives without my participation, leaving me free to embrace my own life.

In some ways, though, I'm the same as I was 15 years ago. I still don't like the dark days of winter, still worry obsessively about my body even though I'm very healthy, still bemoan the excess weight I carry. But I am now a regular exerciser instead of making excuses for not doing it. I've learned to leave my husband alone when he's in a mood rather than trying to track it down and discuss it with him. I rarely try to get him to get rid of all the useless stuff in the garage and the shed. And most days I don't worry about a future as a bag lady.

Since the kids left home, and especially since I stopped working three years ago, I've taken time to identify and prioritize my values, which I've discussed in previous blog posts:
  • spirituality
  • health
  • community
  • curiosity 
  • purpose
When I had kids at home, I might have had the same values, but they were buried by the day-to-day jobs of parenting and work that came first.

I'm looking at my values now and am grateful for the progress I'm making in aligning my life with what I think is important. I started going to church in June and am now involved in that community - I participate in small group discussions and a drum circle and have gone to Sunday services, vespers, and, recently, a celebration of the autumnal equinox.

The local senior center opens its doors to the homeless on nights where the temperature is expected to drop below 33 degrees, and teams from my church feed and shelter the people on Monday nights. I can only do this until we leave for Arizona in late December, but I signed up for the Mondays I'll be in town. On the cold nights I'll be at the senior center from 6 in the evening until 8 the next morning. This activity actually hits all five of my top values, but I've never done it before, so I have a decent mix of apprehension and anticipation.

Now that I've finished reading the journals, I'm looking forward to my work on the new book. As I gather and develop the material, I expect many reminders of the gifts of my life. That's partly why I'm writing it. To remember.