Compendium Vol. 4 No. 1: Blessed Unrest

Compendium Volume 4 Number 1 July 2020

In continuation of the “blessed unrest” section of previous issues of the Compendium, the following sketches illustrate how people everywhere are seeing that humanity depends on nature for both our physical and spiritual wellbeing and our survival. As this awareness takes hold, people act to protect and restore not only the land, but also our relationship to it. As the stories below show, growing food in an eco-friendly way does that. Adopting Paul Hawken’s terminology and characterization of “blessed unrest” as a spontaneous, decentralized global social movement, we here present a diverse series of vignettes of everyday heroes. May such stories light the fire for new heroes to perpetually emerge in defense of all life on Earth.

The hopeful work of turning Appalachia’s mountaintop coal mines into farms

In Mingo County, West Virginia, the soil on a flat expanse of what had been a mountaintop is compacted, composed mainly of blasted rocks, and lacks organic matter, due to several years of coal mining. The ground is harder than anticipated; even the soil scientists say they are not sure how long it will take to bring the soil back to life. Besides, the ground does not retain water very well as it was engineered to drain water into the valley. Furthermore, there is the problem of aggressive invaders (autumn olive, multiflora rose, and tall fescue), making it difficult to penetrate the terrain.

As Ben Gilmer, president of Refresh Appalachia, which helps convert post-mine lands into agriculture and forestry enterprises, says, “it’s a long-term science project.” Refresh Appalachia provides job training and encourages farming systems that form a loop between the animals and plants, where one nourishes the other, cutting down on feed and fertilizer, providing food and land management, and helping ensure food sovereignty in an economically depressed region. Refresh farms raise poultry, goats, pigs, and honey bees, along with fruits, nuts, vegetables, and herbs.

Appalachia is a temperate region with heavy rainfall, not a barren moonscape. Each site being restored “just needs some care and management appropriate to their characteristics,” says Carl Zipper, Virginia Tech crop and soil science professor specializing in mine-land restoration.

The workers previously responsible for blowing up are now trying to put back together that which was blown up. Many are working on associate degrees in conjunction with job training in sustainable agriculture and related fields. “I’m living the dream,” Refresh member Wilburn Jude exclaimed. Former miner Chris Farley is excited to be part of the first group to attempt to farm these lands. Everyone was eager for the arrival of a mulcher to remove and chew the invasive shrubs into the wood chip. The clearing would then be planted with over 2,000 berry, pawpaw, and hazelnut seedlings.

In South Korea, centuries of farming point to the future for sustainable agriculture

In South Korea, knowledge of ancient farming techniques adapted to various harsh conditions, along with a sense of urgency about the need to adapt to even harsher conditions as the global climate system deteriorates, is bringing about the blossoming of an environmentally friendly agriculture movement.

Farmers draw on traditional knowledge of “nitrogen-fixing plants, soil bacteria, micro-organisms, and the relations between all of them to optimize yields by increasing soil fertility, boost crop health and biomass for livestock grazing, and reduce weed and pest infestations.” These practices are combined with intercropping (planting multiple crops together in a field) and crop rotation (constantly changing crops over time in a field) in a developing agricultural ethic that favors biodiversity and soil health.

Interestingly, the role of soil microorganisms is understood and valued in a way that intersects a fermentation-based food culture.

Traditional Korean knowledge of soil nutrients and food fermentation techniques is also used by some farmers to create natural fertilizer and pesticide. This is done by culturing and proliferating indigenous microorganisms – fungi, bacteria and yeast – to enhance the soil’s fertility without the need for livestock waste.

Such practices are supported both by national policy aiming to facilitate transition to organic and environmentally friendly methods, and by community-led organic farming movements. From participating in national climate strikes to demanding protections of native seeds to facilitating organic food commerce, consumer coops are doing their part to help make South Korea a global model for sustainable farming.

Similarly, both government and grassroots groups have established initiatives to recruit youth into agricultural careers.

The South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has set up a Back-to-Earth Promotion Project, Youth Farmer Fostering Policy, and the Farmland Banking Project, aiming to promote and fund startups and businesses in the agricultural sector and in farming villages. …

Grassroots initiatives that are part of a similar movement can be seen in the Milmeori Farm School in Yeoju county and the Geumsan Gandhi School in Geumsan county. These are boarding school programs that bring youth from cities to experience the countryside, learn Korean organic farming, and cook plant-rich dishes from their harvests.

Gardening advice from indigenous food growers

Covid19 has been an additional stressor on many Native American communities already burdened by deprivations from centuries of ongoing injustice. According to Julie Garreau, project coordinator of Cheyenne River Youth Project, which operates a 2.5-acre youth garden in South Dakota, gardens are a source of both food and healing. “Gardens represent so much more,” she said. “Food, yes, but a belief in our future. Gardens represent resiliency, strength, wellness, culture.” During the pandemic, the Youth Project delivered garden produce and other foods to the homes of Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation children.

Another youth-focused gardening organization is Dream of Wild Health. Based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, this Native-led organization operates a 30-acre biodiverse suburban farm that supplies food, learning experiences, and the chance to reconnect with nature. Kids learn cooking and seed saving, and student interns called Garden Warriors help grow food. Due to Covid19, workshops moved online, with the organization delivering ingredients to kids’ homes and then leading them in an online cooking class.  

“Working in a garden develops your relationship to the land,” says Aubrey Skye, a Hunkpapa Lakota gardener who for many years ran a gardening program on Standing Rock Reservation on the border of North and South Dakota. “Our ancestors understood that. Look at the old pictures. It’s etched on their faces. When you understand it as well, a sense of scarcity and insecurity transforms into a feeling of abundance and control—something we all need these days.”

Some tips from the gardeners mentioned in this article:

  1. Start small if you’re a beginner (in a few pots or a raised bed).
  2. Favor companion planting. (“Look at nature, and figure out combinations that mimic it,” recommends Traditional Native American Farmers Association Director Clayton Brascoupé.)
  3. Embellish your garden with colorful native flowers to attract and nourish pollinators.
  4. Use rocks to keep crops cozy and supported; rocks act as heat sink and can protect seedlings from early frost.
  5. Reuse discarded materials – you’ll get for free while building a network in the collection process: mulch with used cardboard and paper; create drip irrigation from soda pop bottles pierced with a needle at the neck, fill with water then bury the neck in the soil close to the plant.
  6. Make compacted soil soft and plant friendly using dandelions, a supposed weed with nutritional value, whose taproot breaks up hardened soil enabling earthworm activity.
  7. Include healing herbs, especially native varieties.
  8. Save the seeds of the plants that thrive best and are favorites, which not only enables future food supply, but also, as Aubrey Skye says, preserves history like little time capsules.
For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 4 Number 1 July 2020