The day’s work is done at New Leaf Gardens, the half-acre urban farm my family nurtures and tends in Colorado. We have worked since early morning, watering and weeding. The sun is nowhere near the horizon, but today is unusually hot; we’ll sit out the mid-afternoon heat indoors. It is early August and the harvest will crescendo soon—hitting a high, green note the plants will sustain through September; well into October, if we are lucky. At this altitude (5,400 feet) anything can happen after the equinox.
But, for now, an expectant gathering of green tomatoes grows heavy, tipping toward a cascade of red. Pole bean vines strain skyward, clothed in brand new white and yellow blossoms; slender, crisp beans are only a few days away. Cucumbers, peppers, squashes, cabbages, onions, carrots, beets, cantaloupes, pumpkins, eggplant, Brussel sprouts, potatoes—all are queued up for their turn, a dramatic entrance foreshadowed since Spring.
I close the gate behind me, tired and satisfied. Until this year, weeds and gravel had ruled this ordinary corner lot—though, on paper, the deed assigns ownership to the Valley Vista United Methodist Church. Through the years the space has been used as a part-time parking lot; makeshift baseball field for neighborhood kids; convenient turnaround and storage yard for county paving equipment when the streets needed maintenance; a shortcut for pedestrians headed for the library across the street, or to the post office two blocks away. It was a place to drive by or pass through, certainly nothing to look at.
Not anymore. Last November my wife and I sat around the dining table with our adult children to discuss a brave new family venture: Neighborhood Supported Agriculture. Outside, an early snow was falling; inside, winter had already begun to melt as we warmed to the possibilities of spring. For years we had grown an astonishing amount of food in our own yard. Now we felt ready to kick things up a notch. We tossed around ideas for asking the neighbors (none of whom we knew well) to let us plant in the unused corners of their property, in exchange for a share of the vegetables. As successful as that approach can be, all evening long an alternative image kept forming in my mind of the empty, disregarded little square of church land, just a block away from the kitchen where we’d gathered. Wouldn’t it be fun to put all that food in one place—in the open, where neighbors might be drawn to it? Could this be the elusive nucleus around which local community might form?
In December, I approached the leaders of the church with a proposal. In January we signed a three-year lease for a modest sum. In March we got to work—building a fence and creating raised beds on top of the less-than-suitable native soil. Sure enough, within a few days curious neighbors began stopping by to see what was up. In just weeks we went from knowing virtually no one nearby to forming friendships with a couple dozen people (and counting). The neighborhood that had once looked like an impenetrable wall of drawn shades and locked doors was filling up with smiling people, each with a story to tell, each enthusiastic about our project. They’ve offered us tools, labor, encouragement, grass clippings and kitchen scraps for the compost pile, even pitchers of lemonade on hot days. In a variety of small ways the project began to belong to all of us. Now, in steadily increasing numbers, these neighbors come and buy produce every Saturday morning at a stand we’ve set up just outside the fence. Many of them walk from home to shop for fresh organic vegetables—in America! For them, there is no mystery about where the food comes from, or how it is grown. The farm is an open book. Compared with petroleum-soaked industrial agriculture, the carbon footprint of this food would fit many times on the head of a pin.
Farming by hand can be a meditative occupation. If I allow it, my mind and body begin to synchronize with sun and earth time. Ordinarily, the wavelength of change in maturing plants is imperceptible to modern people raised on restlessness. In a garden, nothing discernable to human senses happens in an hour or a day, much less within our ever shrinking attention span.
That’s a shame, because the amplitude of this slow moving, verdant wave—that is, its capacity to carry creative energy and information—is enormous, practically limitless. To someone whose internal clock is set to Play Station time, this sounds ridiculous. Stand still in a garden; what do you see? Nothing much. The only motion comes from an occasional breeze; the only sound from drunken honey bees. Yet, to beets and onions slowly swelling beneath the soil, the human habit of measuring things in gigahertz—a cycle that completes itself a billion times a second—is pure science fiction. “Miles per hour” is an absurdity. All is here. Everything is now. No need for a high speed chase through existence. The attentive and willing farmer begins to know this too.
But, today I must reluctantly admit that my mind has been elsewhere. As I head for home on foot, I am aware of how preoccupied I’ve been with the usual scary events “out there”: Wall Street oligarchs and their ruthless power plays; environmental catastrophe; rumblings of war (and not just the “little” kind we’ve grown used to. Big, capital “W”, War). I have spent the day worrying about the fate of the Gulf of Mexico; the state of the Greek economy; the deployment of warships in the Persian Gulf; oil field depletion rates in Saudi Arabia and what they mean for the future of civilization. If thoughts were made of lead, these would be heavy enough to sink a battleship.
I keep walking toward home, still thinking, still tired—and, with each step, growing more tired of thinking. Looking up, I notice for the first time the cumulonimbus cloud throwing its skirts up and out over the mountains in the west. The sky has grown dark enough to promise rain, but not so much as to threaten hail or tornadoes. The breeze quickens, cooler than it has been all day. I lift my hot and sweaty face and breathe deep. My step feels a little lighter.
I pass by Claudia and Vern’s house (two of my newfound farm friends) and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen Vern for three weeks now. They are past retirement age; an extended absence might well be bad news. Why didn’t I notice sooner? I make a mental note to drop by tomorrow. Just then a young boy, nine or ten years old, whom I’ve seen often since starting to make this daily walk to and from the farm, zooms past me on his black and red bicycle. He turns off the street into a driveway and, without slowing, runs his front tire into the weathered fence beside the house. “Yeah!” he says with gusto, after barely avoiding becoming a crash dummy. Clearly, a soul bent on adventure.
I am nearing the corner now, where I’ll cross another street to my house. Before I do, I see a young woman, mid-thirties perhaps, sitting on the concrete steps of her front porch, smoking a cigarette. She wears loose fitting gym shorts and a baggy T-shirt. Not that her clothes are far too big; she is too thin. Her shoulders sag forward as if she has run out of reasons to sit upright. She suddenly speaks, her voice a weary drone, and I realize she is cradling a cell phone under her limp blonde hair. I just got back from the hospital, she says. My husband’s leg is infected. They told us he has severe diabetes. It’s bad.
By the time I reach my front door, the tectonic plates in my mind have begun to shift. I remember an anecdote I once heard describing this idea: Whatever we concentrate our attention upon is what we will see—is all we will see, no matter what else is present. In the illustration, a man is driving a car through paradise, surrounded by magnificent landscapes. He is nevertheless convinced the world is a dangerous and dirty place—all because his eyes are fixed, not on the breathtaking beauty beyond the glass, but on the car’s dusty and bug-stained windshield. He is focused on things that, though they may be equally “real” (bug guts, road grime, and other global issues), they are not equally important to local life. They are two-dimensional and inert, signifying nothing about life where he actually is. Here’s the lesson for me: If the world appears hopelessly flawed, maybe it is only an illusion, created when global problems too large to grasp are superimposed over local life. Perception trumps reality. In the here and now, real trouble (usually) comes in more manageable, less overwhelming sizes.
Compared to the average American, I am well informed. I have spent a lot of time educating myself about current affairs. I know what mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps are, and why they spell big economic trouble for the foreseeable future (no matter what anyone says about “green shoots”). I understand what geologist M. King Hubbert predicted in the 1950s about the inevitable decline of world oil production, and can cite plenty of current evidence to suggest he was absolutely right. I can talk geopolitics with you long into the night. I am well versed in the science of climate change. I know that Arctic sea ice is shrinking; the oceans’ phytoplankton are disappearing; methane is outgassing by the ton from melting permafrost. I am generally aware of humanitarian conditions in the Gaza strip; Sudan; Congo. I know how much Bill Clinton is planning to spend on Chelsea’s wedding cake (though I wish I didn’t).
What I don’t know is the name of the obviously frightened woman who lives a stone’s throw from my house, or what her family needs to survive her husband’s illness. I know a lot about “foreclosures” in America, but nothing about the “foreclosed” who live (or who used to live) nearby. I can tell you about the effects of globalization on Ethiopian coffee farmers, but I have no idea who or what was here before this place was “developed” in the 1950s and joined to that amorphous geographic entity called the “suburbs”. I know Mexico is melting under the withering heat of drug violence and economic stress, but I can’t tell you my next door neighbors’ story—except that his name is Juan and he speaks little or no English.
In other words, for all my work as a community activist, helping to create New Leaf Gardens and bring affordable, locally grown, organic food to my neck of the woods, at heart I’ve been a “windshield” kind of guy. How disappointing. Something’s got to change
But wait. All those seemingly distant global problems are real. They truly are likely to erupt like stirring volcanoes and to dramatically alter the landscape of our lives. Ignorance of the world is never a wise strategy. To be informed is a prerequisite to good citizenship. Some of the informed argue that the signs “out there” point to a fast crash of life as we have known it. Vulnerability to sudden catastrophe, they argue, is hardwired into complex systems, an inevitable price of technological advancement. Others believe that entropy—the tendency of all things, civilizations included, to move toward disorder and lower states of energy—drags on complexity like friction, assuring us of a slow and grinding deceleration, what author James Howard Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency”. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life swinging between these two poles, trying to discern the truth of the matter.
Today, I realize something new and startling: It doesn’t really matter. Why? Because when the dust of the fast crash settles, or the grind of steady decline has finally reached a standstill—either way—my world will have shrunk radically and irrevocably. “Collapse”, it turns out, is an apt word, because it implies that what was large and expansive (globalized) will soon be small and immediate (localized). In any scenario you care to spin up, the end result is the same: The frontier of daily life moves much, much closer to home. Food, water, politics, security, health care, even information and entertainment—all of the basics of life—will come from places nearby, or not at all. Not only will riots in Paris have no power to help or harm anyone in my neighborhood, we may well lose our ability to know they ever even happened.
Here is the stark truth of it: In a “powered down” future—the one almost certain to follow the end of the era of “Hydrocarbon Man”—the practical size of my collapsed world (and yours) could well be defined like this: How far can we walk away from home and back again in a single day?
My own answer? About ten miles. And that’s optimistic.
With this thought in mind, I go into my office, take out a map of Denver and tack it to the wall. I stare a long time at the tangle of abstract lines and the shapes they form. Areas administered by the county I live in are white. Municipalities are blue, pink, yellow, and tan. Numbered streets run east and west; boulevards with other names, north and south. I search for patterns in the naming, but am usually stymied: Why should Kipling and Wadsworth be followed by a street named for a general: Sheridan? Symbols logically pinpoint schools, churches, fire stations—but why cemeteries? Where are the gardens? Where are the shops still owned by people who live here? Where do the geese nest in spring? Where is the best hill for sledding in winter? Where are the subversive poets gathering tonight?
I look for meaning in the map, for an answer to the questions growing larger in my mind by the minute: Where in the world am I? What and who shares this place with me, right here, right now? Of course, for this purpose the map is useless. If you need to know how to get “there” a map is just the thing. If you want to know what’s there that is worth getting to, you are on your own. I am on my own.
So be it. I put a pin in the precise location of New Leaf Gardens. From now on it will mark the center of the world. I draw a circle, centered on the pin, with a radius of ten miles—the new size of my world. Territories beyond still exist, of course. But I will now give their goings on the same attention I presently devote to the current cost of coffee in Constantinople.
So much for the easy part.
Now comes the real work, the true turning point in the drama. This is the pivotal moment when the story of my life officially becomes the story of this place. I’m astonished to realize what a large area my circle encloses (roughly 314 square miles). I’ve driven through some of it, flown over it once or twice. But after living here six years, it is shocking to discover how little of it I truly know. Now, like a nineteenth century anthropologist, I will set out to explore this terra incognita—and to do it, as much as possible, on foot. What I seek will never be found out the window of speeding car.
The purpose of this chronicle is to report back what I find—people; places; Earth, Air, Fire, Water—and the fifth element, Spirit; plain sight ugliness and hidden beauty (and vice versa); the artist and the artless; angels and demons; what works, what doesn’t; yesterday’s waste and tomorrow’s raw material; backrooms where God has left His fingerprints on everything, and others where He hasn’t been seen for a while.
What do you know? I don’t feel tired anymore. Outside, a gentle rain has started to fall, refreshing the air and watering the earth. Inside, I’m all charged up, ready to get going. Purpose will revive you like nothing else can. Here’s mine: to find and tell The Story of Here: Mapping the Geography of Home. Join me.
Next week I’ll climb “water tower hill” near my house and survey the lay of the land before us.