Paradise

I’m in a little corner of paradise in the wildest part of Costa Rica, and I just keep having to pinch myself to believe that I am where I am. I just got here, and I’m already sad because I don’t know when I’ll get to come back. I’m on the Osa Peninsula on the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica at a little ecolodge called Iguana Lodge. October is the rainiest month in Costa Rica, so most places have ridiculously low prices this time of year. I think it might be my favorite time of year here because things are much quieter, and it only rains a few hours each day in the afternoons, which can make for a really peaceful afternoon! Another lady from Colorado and I are the only two guests at the moment, so we kind of have the place to ourselves! I’m torn between just wanting to play on the beach all day and wanting to see all that this beautiful place has to offer. It’s whale season here, so there are plenty of tours you can take to go whale watching or kayaking or waterfall rappelling or ziplining or surfing!

So far the whole trip to Costa Rica has been so lovely and peaceful. I wasn’t sure what to expect because it’s been nearly four years since I was here last and this country and I have so much history!

I first came here when I was 19 to study Spanish. I studied at an institute in the mountains of Santa Ana called Conversa and lived with a host family in the town of Santa Ana. I was only here for three weeks but fell so much in love with the country. I hadn’t been back in the states for a day when I called my host mom crying because I missed everything so much. I love the outdoors and outdoor adventures so incredibly much that it really was the perfect place for me to keep working on my Spanish. I’ve always struggled when I have to sit still or be indoors for long periods of time, so to be in outdoor classes that consisted of hiking or ping pong or swimming was my perfect learning environment. After returning to the states, I talked with my advisor in college and worked it out so I could come back to spend the summer here that same year and get school credit for it. That summer I started dating a “tico” that I had stayed in touch with from my first trip to Costa Rica. Between my love for him and the beaches and mountains and waterfalls, I never wanted to leave. I tried unsuccessfully to find a job down here and return the next semester, but when that didn’t work out, our relationship fizzled.

In the meantime, I had found a small community of ticos in Birmingham that could ease the pain of being so far away from my little paradise. I still came back whenever I could to visit and explore new parts of the country. Then a couple of years and a few Costa Rican boyfriends later, after I returned from a five month trek around Europe, I started dating my future husband. We met at a party that my Costa Rican friends hosted and would then see each other and dance together every Friday night at Assagio for Latin dancing. I tried my best not to date him, having sworn off all latin men, but after about six months of him insisting, I gave in!
We came to Costa Rica a few times while we were dating, and I had so much fun with his gigantic family of 11 brothers and sisters and countless cousins and nieces and nephews.
It was such a welcome contrast to my white middle class America that seemed to want to lead me down such a conventional path.

After about two years of a tumultuous courtship, partly because we thought we could love each other forever and partly because of logistical reasons such as immigration, etc, we decided to get married. Our marriage was one of extremes, things seemed to swing back and forth from extremely happy and good to horrific and unbearable. One month he would seem to love me more than he’d ever loved anyone and the next month he’d seem extremely distant, ready to pack his bags and leave. We both struggled to adapt to each others’ expectations and cultures, and after 4 years of marriage, because of so many different reasons, we separated. It was extremely difficult, but after crying nearly everyday for several months, I was able to see things with more clarity and trust that it was the best thing for both of us.

After we split up, I wasn’t sure if I would ever come back to Costa Rica, but I’ve discovered since then that my love for this country was not at all dependent on my ex-husband. He now lives part of the year next door to my goddaughter with his wife and 5 month old baby. He let me borrow his car and his cell phone for the time that I’m here, and something about being here and holding his baby and laughing with his new wife has brought me a strange sort of peace and happiness. Even though I’ve felt peaceful about our divorce for a long time, it’a strange thing to feel so happy and sad at the same time. I’m still sad for all that was lost, but I know that it’s better now that we aren’t together. And I’m so incredibly grateful that we can all spend time together without feeling any anger or resentment towards each other. It means the world to me to be able to stay next door to each other and have that be ok.

It’s also strange because in some ways it feels like the country hasn’t changed at all and in other ways things are different. The machismo is still very present here. Women are expected to stay home, clean, take care of the kids and cook three meals a day- and to ask the man in their lives permission for everything. I’ve been asked repeatedly, “your boyfriend let you come here alone?!” I still haven’t found a very good answer to that question, and every time I’m asked that, I feel so grateful to come from a place where I have the freedom to carve out my own path. But at the same time, at least in the rural areas, there is still so much poverty here that the machismo almost makes sense. There’s not enough demand for both spouses to work so the only way they can afford to get by is if the wife stays home, raising the children, cleaning and cooking rice and beans over and over again. Most people seem to have enough money to buy food and to pay their monthly water and electric bill, but not much else. Marita, my goddaughter’s mom, is an awesome seamstress who makes most of their clothes because she can’t afford to buy any. All the toys the kids have are decades old and look like antiques- in many ways it’s kind of refreshing. And it’s definitely been a good reminder of how little we actually need. Most of the trash at their house is compost so they just throw food scraps into the jungle behind their house. Of actual trash, they may have a small plastic Wal-Mart bag full each month. For many years they had a big hole that they had dug themselves to bury the trash. Marita was excited because I made some cookies and brought them in a tupperware container- she was thrilled to have a container to put her husband’s lunch in everyday! Many people here still use banana leaves to wrap their lunches in!

Marita’s family used to raise pigs, and they would use the methane from the pigs’ waste to cook and heat their water. But Marita says that since the free trade agreement with the US was passed, the meat from the factory farms in the US can be imported so cheaply, that it no longer makes economic sense for them to raise their own pigs. A similar thing seems to be happening with coffee. My ex’s brother has a coffee plantation, and he says that the price off coffee dropped over 60% this year because it can be imported so cheaply from other places. With the current price of coffee, they can barely afford to pay the workers to harvest it and then have it transported to the co-op.

I don’t know if the free trade agreement has benefited the country in some ways or not. Marita says that people have more access to technology than ever before, which could be a good and bad thing! Nearly everyone has a cell phone with prepaid plans- most people text here because it costs less than a penny to send a text message.

I’ve also noticed a shift in the mentality of Costa Ricans with regard to conservation efforts in this beautiful country. When I first came to Costa Rica, I was struck with how reckless people could be with such a gorgeous place. Piles of trash would line the streets and river banks. People didn’t think twice about leveling primary rainforests to create pasture land. Then they would douse the land with chemicals that went straight to the rivers to keep weeds from growing. But those practices seem to be changing, due largely to the influence of foreigners.

In some ways, all the foreign influence and immigration from the US and Europe has made the country a lot more expensive for the locals. But at the same time, the tourism industry has created so many jobs and has helped people understand that they need to protect their country if they want it to continue being a prime eco-tourism destination. I think when people come from such poverty, it’s easy for them to only focus on what money can buy. They take this beautiful paradise for granted because it’s all they’ve ever known. So it’s really nice to see that now many schools are teaching kids about recycling and conservation.

As I navigated around potholes on the five hour trek to reach this lodge, I was struck by how alive I felt. And after I reached the lodge, I sat down to listen to the crashing of the ocean waves and three macaws flew over my head. I felt a familiar pit in my stomach that usually happens when I’m afraid. And I thought to myself that maybe I was afraid of being in a place so unfamiliar and so wild, but then I realized that I was afraid of just the opposite. I’m afraid of leaving. This is the place where my soul can rest, and I can feel alive at the same time. And I’m scared of going back to a routine and a life that flattens me, that I’ve tried so hard to mold into a life that I love but that still doesn’t let me feel totally alive. And I feel so sad and trapped when I think about leaving this little paradise. At home I get consumed by responsibilities, to-do lists and trying to “be somebody” or achieve something.

But for now, I’m going to try and be here while I’m here, knowing that I’ll leave here a slightly different person than when I came. And trusting in the fact that life unfolds at its own pace and that the answers will come to me as I’m ready for them.

Here are a few photos from this lovely place, the school where I studied, my goddaughter and the peninsula (I haven’t figured out how to caption photos from my phone yet!)

20131101-114841.jpg

20131101-114949.jpg

20131101-115049.jpg

20131101-115021.jpg

20131101-115133.jpg

20131101-115209.jpg

20131101-115318.jpg

20131101-115226.jpg

20131101-115627.jpg

Lessons Re-Learned

I’m grateful to be feeling good again. Life has been pretty great over the last few weeks, and I’m ready to dive into some new projects. I’m playing with the idea of balance as things start to get a little busier.

Here’s a list of a few things I’ve learned (or re-learned) over the last few months:

1. The need for the tension of the opposites is an important thing to accept.

I had plenty of free time when I was sick. I got lots of much-needed rest, but the more time I spent at home, the more miserable I felt.

I learned that although I need love and support, I don’t really want other people to take care of me. I don’t want all the free time in the world- and this was a huge thing for me to experience. It’s allowing me to accept the tension of the opposites that Jung talks about. Because even though I don’t like it when I have to wake up to be somewhere at 7- I also don’t like not having a reason to wake up.

I would often think about how fun it would be to be suddenly wealthy, so I could be totally free to pursue my creative interests. And even though I’m sure I wouldn’t turn down a million dollars, turning it down could be the better choice! Because I want to create my own success – there’s something so satisfying about that. And I want to have plenty without having too much. It reminds me of a quote I heard somewhere that said, “Give your kids enough money to do something, but not so much that they can do nothing.” Creating new businesses involves hard work and uncomfortable risk. I was hoping for a natural, effortless evolution as I transitioned into a relaxed, prosperous new business. But I’m realizing that I’m just going to have to dive into some things that are hard and that terrify me! I’ve just gotta close my eyes and jump! There are going to be some things that I don’t like or even hate, but I can accept that and work hard while I still take time to rest and care for myself.

2. Our beliefs about life and ourselves are inseparable from our physical health and well being.

As I was sorting through my health woes, I ran across a book by Louise Hay called, You Can Heal Your Life. The book talks about how our lives are a manifestation of everything we believe- be it our health, our relationships, our work. Louise was diagnosed with vaginal cancer, and she decided she was going to heal her life with nutrition and healing beliefs and exercises. And it worked for her!

I’ve always believed that our belief system can keep us limited, but I didn’t quite know to what extent. I listened to a talk by Deepak Chopra last night that said our bodies renew themselves by 98% every year, which means there’s only two percent of my physical body that’s left from this time last year! In my mind, that creates an amazing possibility for healing.

So I started to experiment. I could feel myself starting down this lengthy road of spending thousands more dollars, chasing a medical diagnosis, feeling awful and sorry for myself. If I looked hard enough, I’m sure I could have found something that was wrong.

But I also believed that I could choose to get better, and I refused to accept that I was going to feel weak and sick for the rest of my life.

So I decided to go kayaking one Saturday, regardless of how I felt. I felt sick during the first half of the trip, but then I felt pretty great. And it’s been mostly better since that day. When I’m tired, I think, “Oh, I’m tired today.” Rather than, “oh, god, I’m exhausted, what horrible illness is this a symptom of?” When I start to hurt, I stop and take a few breaths. Letting go and believing that my body can heal has been a really powerful experience for me.

I don’t say that to discount the pain that so many people are experiencing. I think that pain is very real, and I don’t pretend to know to what extent our beliefs contribute to all pain, tragedy, and illness, but I thought it was worth trying in my own life.

3. Self-loathing often gets disguised as self care.

Another thing I’ve learned is that I was still trying way too hard. I still had an agenda of wanting to “fix me”.

When I first started feeling bad, I didn’t want to see a doctor. I thought, “fuck, I’m already exercising, eating healthy- I don’t have time for anything else related to my health. “

Pete Egoscue, the founder of the postural therapy method I practice says, “Pain is your body’s voice. Listen to your body.” My body was trying to communicate with me, and honestly, all I wanted it to do was shut up.

At times there’s an underlying aggression that permeates the things I do in the name of “self-care”. Self-loathing can easily get disguised as “self-care”. We say we’re going on a diet to be healthier, or we’re going to exercise for our health. When what we really feel is that we are disgusting, over indulgent slobs who need to punish ourselves into shape. But we rebel against that because something at the core of our beings refuses to believe that we’re defective or horrible.

Something within us says I won’t give up until you see the value in me- the value in me just as I am. And I will continue to rebel until you love me, listen to me and pay attention to what I’m saying.

We talk ourselves out of our feelings and desires, we wish we could cut off half of the fat on our bellies or erase the wrinkles from our forehead because some ancient voice is yelling at us saying that life would be easier if we didn’t have feelings, desires or imperfections. If we could just fit perfectly into the mold that our parents or society have set out for us, then our existence would be validated. Then we wouldn’t blame ourselves anymore for the problems that were never ours to begin with.

4. Complete self-reliance doesn’t work (nor does it exist)- I believe that healing is impossible without the support of other people.

I was trying to be way too self-reliant. One of the main reasons that I got certified in Postural Therapy was so that I could treat myself. I thought getting treated was too expensive, so if I was certified, then I would never need a therapist again! But I’ve learned that there is no substitute for having another human being to help us heal and to support us in our suffering. We weren’t meant to live in isolation, and as much as I would like (at times) to avoid the messiness of needing other humans and relationships, it doesn’t work for long.

5. If I try to use my head to make sense of everything, I go crazy.

This health drama has reminded me of a religious quest that I went on in college. After some events in my family caused me to question nearly all my beliefs, I set out determined to find the ultimate truth and to live my life according to that truth. So I obsessively read books, took religion courses, had discussions with friends, and the more I sought out concrete answers, the dizzier I became. When I finally gave up and quit trying to figure it all out, I found the freedom that comes with accepting the paradox and mystery of it all.

And I think I’m learning that lesson again now- if we can humbly exist and rest in the complexity of life that can never be fully understood with our intellect, then we find peace and freedom. As soon as I quit trying so hard and relax into my experience, then I usually feel pretty good. If I can do things that are fun, that’s the best medicine I’ve found. I don’t remember the last time I was hurting while having an awesome time!

So I think it’s been a combination of all the things I just wrote about that have helped me feel better: the shift in my belief system and attitude, the nutritional changes and supplements I’m taking, the love and support of the wonderful people in my life, treatment from some really great doctors and therapists, meditation and relaxation techniques that help me slow my mind down and sleep, remembering to have fun, and listening to my body with kindness instead of yelling at it to shut up. I hope to have internalized these lessons a little more over the last few months, and hopefully they will continue to shape my life and my actions.

I’ve started working with people in postural therapy again, and so far the results have been pretty great. I have a cute little therapy space in my mom’s building in Cahaba Heights. I’m still happy to work with anyone who is interested. Right now, I’m seeing people on a pay what you can basis. I need to cover some basic expenses, but I also want it to be accessible for anyone who is interested. So feel free to shoot me a message if you’re interested- I’d love to work with you! Here’s a link to the post explaining more about the Egoscue Method and postural therapy, if you’d like to read more about it! And I’m planning to start teaching a posture class one evening a week sometime in the next few months.

I’m also dreaming about some Passive House projects. I don’t think it’s the right time to start building my Avondale house. But I have been thinking of building an affordable Passive House on a different property to sell. I’m hoping to find some existing Passive House plans that I like and modify them a little, which would make the process much shorter. I’ve also started looking at some historic properties in Norwood and Roebuck Springs, to see if I find something there that I could renovate.

So we’ll see where all this takes me, but thank you again to everyone who let me know they were thinking of me. And to everyone who shared their own stories of similar struggles. It really meant a lot to me.

Obsessively Un-obsessing

I have a newfound commitment to not obsess about anything!

Which is interesting, because in the last few weeks I’ve cut my income by about 30%, and I’ve enrolled in a “plant-based” whole foods month long challenge. It seems like the perfect opportunity to get obsessed!

I have all this new time on my hands now; why not get crazy about couponing and all the money I should be saving. Growing my own food, so I can be a good plant-based student, while saving money!

It’s oh-so tempting. There are so many options and so much information out there-it’s hard not to get overwhelmed. It’s ridiculously hard to not constantly pound ourselves with a bunch of rules that somebody else came up with.

I think I’m ready to quit obsessing because I’m finally starting to believe that it doesn’t work. I don’t like rules that aren’t in my best interest. And if someone is telling me to eat kale (whether it’s an actual person or the voice in my head) when I’ve already had 12 servings of oil-free, salt-free, animal protein-free vegetables in 3 hours, I’m going to listen when my body screams “no!”.

I think the reason that diets or food plans don’t usually work is because someone else is making the rules for a body that’s not theirs. It’s because we’ve forgotten that we can trust ourselves.

Sure, there are general guidelines that are generally healthier for the general population. But if you’re forcing yourself to eat salad, when your body needs fat, that’s not healthy. No one can be inside you and say tomorrow at noon, you’re going to need x number of calories, or some vitamin D or calcium or sodium.

We have an innate ability to know what our bodies, minds and souls need. We know when we need green vegetables and when we need chocolate- we’ve just forgotten how to listen.

Our bodies’ signals have been so clouded by our dysfunctional pasts, our crazy culture, and the constant to desire to escape through food, alcohol, work or whatever. And so much of our food has become so distorted that it’s nearly unrecognizable as food. No wonder we’re confused.

But why do we keep doing crazy? Why do we keep relinquishing control over our own bodies and well-being to a set of external rules or to the voices from our childhood?

I think it’s because it’s easier in the short term. Because it can be a long, heartbreaking path to begin looking at why we do what we do. It’s hard to reconnect with a wisdom that we abandoned decades ago. We associate the familiar with survival, so we keep doing what we’ve always done. And maybe we’re scared of what we’ll find or of what we could lose if we really listen. Or maybe we’re scared of what we’ve already lost.

It’s been a process of several years for me, but I now know how to recognize what my body needs. The hardest part is really listening and then letting it shape my actions. Most of the time I don’t want to listen. I’m still scared of what could happen if I really pay attention.

But I no longer believe that someone else knows what’s better for me than I do.

So you may wonder why I’m even participating in this challenge if I don’t believe in rules.

It’s because in general I believe that a diet that consists of whole foods and that’s mostly plant based is what’s best for my health and the health of the planet. And because lately I haven’t been listening as well to what is best for me as I’d like to. It’s great to have a community of support and a place to share ideas and recipes. It helps me pay a little more attention to the choices I’m making about what I eat. I think challenges like this one can be helpful, as long as I use it as a way to support and encourage my own wisdom, rather than as a way to ignore it. Which is why I still eat meat or eggs or cheese a few times each week. Even though it’s not part of the plan, there are times when I feel like that’s what my body needs.

And sometimes I don’t care if something’s good for me or not- sometimes I get tired of being “good,” which is also ok, I just want that to be more the exception than the rule! And the more I make decisions for myself, rather than basing my choices on other people’s expectations, the less I need to rebel.

So when I feel those obsessions creeping in, I try and catch myself. I try and stop that voice before it totally grips me because I know now that obsessively worrying about anything, whether it be calories or money or whether or not the radio waves from my cell phone give me cancer, doesn’t help or change anything. It actually hurts. And it robs me of a whole lot of happiness in the process.

One Year Later

At many times a long the way I’ve wondered if change was possible. Sometimes my old beliefs and habits can feel so ingrained, that it’ll make me question whether or not humans are truly capable of change.

When I started this blog about a year ago, I was hoping to have my new home built by now, but more importantly I was searching for a shift within myself and a different outlook on life.

And a year later, I can honestly say that a lot has changed. My life has become less frantic, and I take time to do things that truly nurture me. I’m saying “no” a lot more, and I have a new overall commitment to my own well being. I cook healthy meals for myself. I take my lunch to work. I’ve reduced the amount of clutter and waste in my life. I take time to write. I spend time most days doing stretches and exercises that help me realign my posture and stay out of pain.

It’s amazing how good I can feel just by taking care of myself.

It’s very different than trying to force myself to live a “healthy” lifestyle or “be good” or “save the environment.” It really comes from a deeper place of wanting to truly live my life in alignment with what’s best for myself and the world around me. And I really don’t believe that those are two separate things. Of course I don’t do it perfectly (not even close!), and I don’t think I would want to. But I’m grateful for what this project is bringing me, and I hope to be able to continue sharing the things that are changing and the ways I hope to shape my professional life to line up with that vision as well.

I watched a you tube video this past week about a family of four who manages to only have one tiny bag of trash every few months. Here’s a link if you’d like to see how they do it.  They say that some people have criticized them and called their lifestyle extreme but that they are truly happier and healthier and their expenses have been reduced significantly by living this way!

Like with so many things, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. I try to continually, gently incorporate smaller things into my life and see what habits I can gradually change. Things that feel really awkward at first, can become second nature over time. The last time I went to the grocery store, I looked at the conveyor belt and saw how nearly everything I was buying came in a package. So I’ve been saving my packages and buying more in bulk, using cloth bags to put the bulk items into. I keep a couple of tupperware containers in my car or purse to use as to go boxes at restaurants and take my water bottle at work, so I don’t have to use disposable cups. It’s fun; remembering is the hardest part! I’ve also been more conscious about only bringing things into my home that I really want or need. So just a few small changes at a time, that hopefully over a lifetime can make a difference!

Later this week I’ll write more about our progress with the house! I’ve been working on a few construction projects lately, so here are some photos from a Homewood bathroom remodel I just finished, and a screened in porch we tiled in Mountain Brook. In the bathroom, we used a low flow toilet and plumbing fixtures, an LED light fixture over the vanity, low VOC paint on the walls and ceiling, and we re-used the medicine cabinet over the vanity and painted it to match the vanity wood! All of these options were comparable in price to their conventional equivalent.

Here’s a link to my first post around this time last year if you’d like to read more about what this project means to me!

From Alaska to Illinois

I’m headed to Illinois tomorrow for my first Passive House builder’s training. It’s their inaugural builders training and takes place in a college town called Urbana, “the heartland home of superinsulation, air-tight envelopes, ERV, and solar gain principles that underpin the modern passive house movement.” The US Passive House Institute is located there and 8 Passive House projects have been built there in the last 10 years.

The training focuses on general passive house principles, hands-on field focus on the building envelope, HVAC considerations and cost optimization and bidding. I’m really excited about the training and learning more about how to actually build a Passive House (and a little nervous that I’ll be totally under-qualified). Hopefully, I can post some pictures of the Passive House projects there that have already been built!

It’s also fun to be in a hotel for a week where there’s nothing but me to clean or take care of! It’ll be quite the contrast to the tent I was sleeping in last week in Alaska.

Last week, eleven of us spent nine days in Alaska through UAB’s Outdoor Pursuits. We spent a few days in Denali National Park, backpacking in the Denali wilderness, hiking on tundra, which is actually a plant and not a place like I thought.

The views were amazing, and I didn’t suffer nearly as much as I expected. The weather had gotten cold enough to take the mosquito level from intolerable to just annoying. And we were among the lucky ones that were able to see Mount McKinley, all 20,328 feet of it!

The mountain spends most of its time hidden behind the clouds and only about 30% of visitors get to see it in all of its glory. If you get to Wonder Lake on a cloudy day, unless someone told you, you’d never know a giant mountain existed behind the fog. Josh, our trip leader woke us all up at 5:30 one morning when he saw that the mountain was totally exposed.

Early morning Mt. McKinley

In the backcountry part of our trip, we got caught in a freezing 12-hour windy rain storm, which made for a cold, uncomfortable day and reminded us that tents are only water resistant and NOT waterproof! But it also made for some quality time with Xuan my tent partner and made clear sunny days seem like heaven!

After climbing out of the wilderness, we headed south to Valdez, where we spent a day sea kayaking up to the Shoup glacier. It was absolutely beautiful. I even swam in glacier water, and if you know how much I hate the cold, I’m sure you’re really impressed!

We saw every kind of wildlife we hoped to see, from grizzlies to moose to wolves to loons, luckily most of it was from the safety of the park’s camper bus and not on the trail! The landscapes are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and I hope to venture back some day to do some more glacier hiking and ice climbing.

No matter where you are in Alaska, it takes 8 hours to get somewhere else. It’s one of the few places in the US that has been kept truly wild. And especially in the national parks, they’ve worked really hard to keep it that way. Other than social trails that people have created, there are no trails in the Denali wilderness. No private vehicles are allowed on the park road, and the park rangers work incessantly to educate people on how to respect wildlife and “leave no trace” as they explore the park.

Kayaking at Shoup glacier

So from Alaska to Illinois, it’s been a happening month. I’ll have to miss half of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend, which breaks my heart. But I got an early morning flight back on Sunday, so that I could at least catch some of the Sunday films. Sidewalk is one of my favorite local events!

My home hasn’t leased yet, so if it doesn’t happen in the next few weeks, maybe I’ll start working on finishing the basement. David has the house drawings and the climate data for our region and is working on entering the data to run all the Passive House numbers for the Avondale house. Once we’ve entered all the data, we’ll know if we need to change any window or door sizes or anything else with the design before we finalize the drawings to meet Passive House standards.

Jones Valley Teaching Farm

It’s about becoming ”understanding and connected to the life that is giving you life”.

This was my favorite quote from my January interview with Rachel Reinhart, the Program Director with Jones Valley Teaching Farm.

Jones Valley recently changed their name from Jones Valley Urban Farm, and I learned a lot through this interview about the focus of the farm and all they’re doing to better our quality of life and the health of our families, communities and environment. I hope you will enjoy Rachel’s insights as much as I did!

(It’s so long it took me four months to transcribe it, but I think it’s well worth the read!)

Me: Why do you think what Jones Valley is doing is important?

Rachel: I think it’s important for a few different reasons. One is community redevelopment.

Jones Valley is a way to get people back outside, knowing, talking to and caring about one another. Not just at the Jones Valley location downtown, but also through what we help people get started, through other community gardens, farmers markets, food policy council…

Me: Do you feel like it reconnects people across class lines, bringing the community together as a whole, rather than keeping us so compartmentalized?

Rachel: I wish it did, but I don’t think that we’ve really realized that yet, which is part of why we do what we do.

One program I run is a community garden training program. So even if all of our community doesn’t come together, you can start a community garden in your neighborhood, bringing your neighborhood closer together. Then we facilitate a chance for your neighborhood community garden to meet with other neighborhood groups.

Me: So you’re actually showing people how to create their own community gardens?

Rachel: Yes, how to create and sustain them because the hardest part is sustaining them. And the trick to doing that is community organizing, so we also teach community organizing.

So there’s the community redevelopment part of it, and the other part of it that REALLY matters to Jones Valley and to me personally, is creating better access to fresh, healthy food. And that’s partly through the gardens, partly through the farmer’s markets, and partly through teaching people a way to value and actually get food locally that is good for them.

In Jefferson County, we’re number three in the country in obesity, number 2 in the country in childhood obesity and that number is growing. All the diet related chronic health problems that come from that, like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc. are all going up, and if we can combat that by providing better food and teaching people to appreciate it, find it, cook it and eat it, then we have a chance of improving their personal health as well as our community and environmental health and safety.

Me: Why do you it’s important that Jones Valley is an organic garden? Or in general why do you think organic gardening is important?

Rachel: I think it’s important for a few different reasons.

One, we’re building on an ideal appellate. And it’s not just physical health or community health. It’s also environmental and economic health. For environmental health, it’s important to be conservative and sustainable with our natural resources, such as soil and water. Organic gardening is the most careful with those resources and promotes the health of the soil.

Organic gardening has a way of building the health of the soil and the health of the plants, so that you actually leave a garden bed healthier than you found it. You’re able to repair and undo past damage.

I think that’s important because in Birmingham we are still recovering from the contamination of our industrial area. We’re still recovering from the contamination of our social set with the racial injustice that has happened and still does happen. And until we tend to our soil and our communities and our neighborhoods, I don’t see that [recovery] happening.

Plus organic gardening produces healthier food. The food is more nutrient dense. It doesn’t have the toxic contamination of synthetic pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers.
It doesn’t create a contaminated water supply by causing toxic runoff into our streams. It helps increase the water retention capacity of the soil, making it more drought tolerant. And it creates a better habitat for bugs and birds and worms, all the small creatures that not a lot of people care about!

Another thing about organic gardening, especially when it’s done on a small scale like we do it, is that it connects you back to the work of producing the food that you eat. So you suddenly become understanding and connected to the life that is giving you life.

Instead of purchasing it in a store, where it doesn’t seem to be part of your own eco-system. I mean when you have a bag of Spinach that came from Atlanta, was packaged in Michigan, and grown in California 6 weeks ago, it makes for a real different connection than planting a seed, nurturing it, watching it grow and finally harvesting it and loving it.

Me: I’ve heard a lot about the difference in the energy requirements for producing plants versus animals. What can you tell me about that?

Well, I can talk about a few different things related to that. One difference is conventional farming versus organic farming.

I recently read a wonderful article from the Atlantic monthly. They were saying that people always say that organic farming cannot feed the world, but there have been more than a hundred studies to the contrary, saying that it can. So the Atlantic mentions and links you to all of those studies. In fact, even agro-business says that not only can organic farming feed the world, but a change in our food systems that includes organic farming is going to be necessary if we’re going to feed a world of 9 billion people. Organic farming requires 50% less energy input than conventional farming because we rely on a lot less mechanization.

It’s also a lot less consumptive of water. Because on organic farms, conservation is a key ethic. So generally, you water with drip tape irrigation rather than by overhead irrigation. Less is lost to evaporation, and the water is more directed, straight the roots of the plants, rather than on the leaves where you don’t need it.

The same article in the Atlantic says that when we compare conventional farming to organic, we should really look at conventional farming as a 75 year experiment that has not necessarily turned out a positive result because we’ve only been doing this centralized factory farming of plants and animals since after WWII. It really didn’t exist like that at all before then. Everything was grown on smaller farms, and families had gardens.

And that’s just conventional versus organic, but when you’re talking about plants versus animals. It takes so much energy just to raise an animal. Even when animals are pasture raised or free range, they still require supplemental feed, medical care, housing, heat, etc., depending on the climate. Then the meat has to be butchered, processed, refrigerated, packaged, transported, etc., and every step along the way adds up.

If you’re looking at conventionally raised livestock, they are now in confined animal feeding operations, usually housed in a building with a concrete floor, where there’s timed, mechanized distribution of their feed and washing off of their waste. Animals kept in confined conditions must be given antibiotics because they’re all so close together which leads to antibiotic resistance among humans because we’ve bio accumulated their resistance by eating their flesh. They’re given hormones to increase their rate of growth, so that they can be turned into food more quickly. And now we’re looking at the possibility that their growth hormones are being bio accumulated in us. Besides that, to keep a whole lot of animals in one place, takes a whole lot of energy, a lot of water, a lot of electricity, and a lot of fuel.

Me: So what are the main programs that Jones Valley is offering right now?

Rachel: In the last year, because of a change in leadership and really a change in focus, we’ve tightened our focus. So what we’re doing now, and this is really new, within the last 6 months, is our flagship program, called the Seed to Plate Nutrition Education Program for grades K-8. And typically Seed to Plate is a field trip program to the farm, with kids coming from schools or camps. The group of kids performs a series of hands-on farm activities, a series of hands-on nutrition activities, and a series of hands-on kitchen activities. Each program is built around a theme, and the kids harvest, learn about the nutrition, and cook or otherwise prepare and eat the food that they’ve harvested.

We’ve found this program to be really powerful. We’ve already served thousands of kids and our aspiration is to serve every kid in our metro area. We want to be a regular stop on school field trips. There is no one else who really does this, and we feel it’s a critical need.

We’re seeing that it’s not being covered in the classroom, so we’ve developed a curriculum and a set of activities that we do on the farm, as well as a curriculum that the teachers can use in their classroom. And this summer we’ll be developing an Alabama Math Science Technology Initiative (AMSTI) kit for teachers to take back to the classroom to use in agriculture, food and nutrition activities. They’ll be able to then connect it back to the core curriculum that they’re required to teach.

So we’ve really narrowed our focus for that to be the main program that we offer.

One of the other two programs that we still offer is Delicious Nutritious, a cafeteria cooks training program. We’ve found in working with schools that the cafeteria staff really loves and cares about the children, and they take great pride in what they do. But most of them, with the exception of the registered dieticians and the cafeteria directors, or child nutrition directors, have never been trained in nutrition or in cooking.

So they still cook things in a way that’s not very healthy. For example taking a giant tray and filling it full of giant cans of corn, putting two pounds of butter and two cups of sugar in it. Because they haven’t been trained any differently. So when we go in and talk about the health statistics of the children and what that means as far as their ability to pay attention in the classroom, and what it means with regards to their long term health outcomes, the cafeteria staff is appalled and says, “Teach us something else to do”.

So we give them recipes on how to use things like fresh herbs rather than salt, or on how to replace some of the battered, fried things with meats and vegetables prepared in different ways. And it’s gone over great.

So far every public school cafeteria worker in Jefferson County has been through at least one training session through this program. And we plan to keep doing it. Pretty much every school that we’ve talked to would like us take over the training of their cafeteria staff. So we have to try and find funding to provide. We had a grant that funded that program, but that grant’s finishing. I don’t think we’ll be able to do them all because we don’t have the staff or the funding to serve that. But what we would like to do is train the cafeteria managers, so they can go back and educate their staff.

And the other program we’re still doing is Grow Together, which is our community garden training program.

Me: Going back to the cafeteria training program, I feel like that’s so important because you’re bringing kids out to the farm, showing them how to harvest their own food, prepare it, eat it and enjoy it. But then if they go back to a school cafeteria where nothing is fresh and everything is processed and unhealthy, then there’s a huge disconnect. It could seem very hypocritical that their school would send them on these field trips while they keep feeding them junk on a daily basis.

Rachel: For the past 2 years, we’ve had a farm to school program, which focuses specifically on changing the policies in the school regarding what the policies allow the schools to purchase and serve and also regarding what education and preparation the staff has in order to provide healthy meals.

That program is grant funded, and that funding is coming to a close. But it’s been a very successful program, so we’re looking for ways to continue that.

Me: So do you think that will come through another grant? Or will it depend on private donations?

Rachel: Everything we do is dependent on private donations, grants, and community and corporate support. There’s no one thing that we do that can live by grants alone, so we’re constantly looking for new funding opportunities.

That’s one of the reasons we still grow produce. We grow produce partly to inform and validate our educational program.

Me: Right, to show people that it’s possible. It’s hard to teach people that organic gardening is possible if you’re not doing it yourself.

Rachel: Exactly, and it’s a demonstration farm for them to see, and it’s also a hands on learning facility for them to do.

So we do that, then we also sell the produce as one of the ways to fund our mission.

And then we ask a lot of people for money! We ask for little bits, big bits, one time bits, sustained donations… and that’s just part of being a non-profit. That’s how the game works.

Me: So would you say that the garden is more about education than it is about sourcing produce to the community?

Rachel: Oh, yes, because we can’t source enough produce to feed the community in a sustained, meaningful way. Our actual mission as it stands right now is “helping Birmingham grow organic produce and healthy communities through urban farming and education. “

So it’s never been our intention to grow a bunch of food and give it away. It’s never been our intention to be a highly productive urban farm. But it’s always been our intention to teach the principles and practices that we have, the organic gardening skills and the nutrition education to promote better health in our community.

We can grow food ourselves. I don’t know that in our current culture we’re going to get back to it. But 2 generations ago, if you had land, or even just a yard, you had a vegetable garden. And you didn’t call yourself a farmer; you just had a garden.

Me: Yeah, I know in the area of Birmingham where my boyfriend grew up, he said it was just normal for everyone to have a garden, and all the neighbors would share vegetables with each other. And that was only 30 years ago.

Rachel: When I was a kid, my parents didn’t garden, but both sides of my grandparents had huge gardens, and the gardens were more important than any other part of their yard.

You know I call myself a lifelong organic gardener because my grandparents would have us picking peas as soon as we could walk. Then after I became a “greenie”, I asked my grandfather about the methods and chemicals he used in his garden. He was a very simple man that never graduated high school, but he said, “I don’t know about organic gardening. All I know is that I don’t even know what that chemical mess is. Why would you put that on your food?”

And the idea that my parents wouldn’t garden was shameful.

Me: So I’m sure Jones Valley has faced many unique challenges. Do you feel funding is the biggest challenge the garden faces right now?

Rachel: We have a few challenges. One is definitely funding because our annual budget is somewhere around $500,000 now. And that’s after shrinking our overall operation considerably. We let go of our Mt. Laurel site in November, and Jim N’ Nicks is now running it.

Me: Oh wow, that’s cool! Is that so they can grow their own food for the restaurant? Are they still using organic growing methods?

Rachel: Oh yeah, Jim N’ Nicks has a big commitment to sustainable food. They use sustainably raised pork, and as much as possible, sustainably grown vegetables. That’s just one of their personal commitments. Nick of Jim N Nick’s actually lives in Mt. Laurel.

It’s in the beginning stages of them taking it over. But they’ve developed a very successful business model, and as their success has grown, they’ve wanted to do things more sustainably. And so far that’s really been working for them.

Me: That’s neat. So was Mt. Laurel just more than Jones Valley could handle with the staff and funding that they have?

Rachel: The idea when we moved out to Mt. Laurel was that it would take us 3 years to turn a profit. But there is a lot that has to go into it as far as infrastructure, etc. The Mt. Laurel property is actually owned by Ebsco Industries and Ebsco is one of Jones Valley’s big supporters, and they subsidized that three-year process. They put a lot of money and assistance into it. Their grounds crew would come out and bush hog anything that wasn’t cultivated, and their maintenance crew would come work on the irrigation systems and any equipment failure, etc. They provided housing to our staff. And they’re tremendously successful, but over time they were looking for it to be self-sustaining. They still own the property, but they were looking at our growth to increase the funding as they decreased their commitment, but that didn’t happen. It is really, really hard to make a living as a farmer, especially if your small scale and organic. So it was consistently costing us more than we were making.

Since it was an outgrowth of our original enterprise, and although we had a few educational programs going on out there, it was mostly production. We were seeing a lot of our resources going to support that enterprise and not enough was coming back from there to support our educational mission, so eventually our board of directors decided that it was a good effort, but it was longer working for us.

When we first were offered the option to use it, we considered moving our entire operation down there. Because it’s beautiful, huge, and says, “farm.” It doesn’t say urban but it says farm. And it serves a really different population. We saw that we would lose a lot of the spirit of what we’re trying to do if we moved down there. The school buses for Birmingham City Schools can’t leave Jefferson County without a special dispensation, so if we continued to serve school children, they would have to go into Shelby County to get there. Not to say that Shelby County isn’t deserving, but it would have been a real shift in our focus. We decided that education was more important than production, and we were best suited to do that downtown.

Another challenge is that we still don’t have a building. So another thing we’re looking at is having a permanent, stable infrastructure to support our mission and activities. Right now we’re in a construction trailer that was supposed to be temporary, but we’ve been in it for four years now.

And we have holding tanks; we’re not on sewer. The tanks have to be pumped out twice a week because we’re serving lots of people. We’ll have a hundred kids a week or more that use the bathroom. If we have an event, we have to rent port-a-lets. And our events are a big part of how we bring in revenue as well as educate people about what’s happening at the farm, but if we have an event and there’s inclement weather, then we have nowhere for people to go.

We’re looking at where and how we can stabilize and grow our organization. We’re very interested in staying downtown. We love our spot, but again, we don’t own the property.

Me: So who owns the property now?

Rachel: It’s owned by the Rushton Foundation, which is a private family foundation that has very generously allowed us to use the property for years. The Rushton Foundation provides us with financial support and spiritual support. They have a commitment to revitalize the city center especially for the community residents of the city center, and they’ve all been very, very generous with all kinds of things downtown. Initially they asked us to assist with a community garden that was there when the community was temporarily displaced for the building of the Hope 6 project. And as we gardened the garden, we began looking at the whole rest of the block. We approached the Rushton’s and said, “What are you guys planning to do with the rest of this block because we’ve got some ideas!”

So we negotiated a partnership, and they’ve been so wonderful. But we have to again negotiate with them to see if this is their long-term vision for the future of the lot, and if it’s part of their vision to have a permanent structure there.

We’re turning 10 years old now, and we feel we’re an established entity. There’s a lot to figure out right now, and the garden is under new leadership. Our new leader has been meeting with a lot of people and developing a lot of partnerships, and we’ll figure out the solution. It’s just that there are a lot of moving pieces to the puzzle.

Me: So who are the full time staff members at the garden?

Rachel: We have six people on staff right now. The executive director is Grant Brigham. He started in June. I’m the Program Director. Katie Davis is our farm manager. Katie’s been there three years. And Steph Munkachy is the Assistant farm manager. She and Katie run all things growing. Bree Garrett is our Nutrition Director, and Scott Silver is the director of Farm to School.

Me: Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you want people to know about?

Rachel: I think what I would like to see in Birmingham is this: If people believe in the kinds of things that we’re trying to do, like revitalizing communities with community gardens, like nutrition education for all these children and adults, like connecting people to food resources within their communities. If they think that’s important, they need to make that known to their decision makers. Whether it’s through their neighborhood association meetings, or as part of the Birmingham Comprehensive Planning Process.

Contact your community groups, be it through your faith community or groups of friends or city councilor or commissioner. Because we hear again and again from individuals that they really support us and think that what we’re doing is important.

But when we speak to the community decision makers and legislators, they say that they haven’t heard that from other people besides us. So I would like to see these issues supported, whether it’s through talking to decision makers, or through volunteering to start or sustain your own community garden, or supporting an initiative like ours that focuses on our food systems. We aren’t the only one out there. It could be bringing a farmers market to your neighborhood or volunteering at your local food bank.

For example, my parents’ church, Mountain Brook Presbyterian, started a community garden two years ago. And it’s thriving. They are harvesting 2500 pounds of produce from it and giving it to Magic City Harvest where it’s distributed free to low-income people.

And they aren’t the only one. There are several other churches that have started gardens. They just aren’t as big.

Me: So talking to policy makers, volunteering, doing what we can to support or sustain small community gardens…

Rachel: And also, really advocating and using your power as a consumer to demand better food.

Me: And being willing to make those changes in our own diet. Like you mentioned, understanding where our food comes from and the value that it has for our own health, and then to incorporate all of these concepts in our individual lives.

Rachel: As a consumer, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And you can ask your supermarkets to carry local and regional produce. The supermarkets will stock what the consumers demand. And if there’s not a demand for something, its availability won’t grow. It’s not just about organic. It’s also about just having access to fresh foods.

Me: Definitely, I was talking to a retired GI pediatric physician the other day, and I was asking him what he thought about organic produce. Because in working as a Spanish interpreter, I see so many childhood cancers and other diseases that seem much more common than in the past. All I can think is that it has to be environmental. It has to be related to the air that we breathe, and the chemicals on our foods, and the prescription drugs and chemicals that end up in our drinking water from our sewers and the runoff from lawns and gardens that have been sprayed with chemicals.

And His response was, “Well, that may be true. But when we’re eating so many processed foods, and we see such a huge improvement when people just begin to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and get more exercise, that should be our primary focus. Once we’ve got that worked out, we can start thinking about eating organic foods.

Rachel: The first step before organic is eating fresh fruits and vegetables. The step before that is just eating fruits and vegetables, and so many people just don’t. If they can eat them fresh, that’s great, but if they can only eat them frozen and prepared or canned, it’s not as great, but it’s still good. If they’re not eating them at all, then they aren’t getting their nutritional needs met. They can’t do appropriate protein synthesis. They can’t heal; their immune system doesn’t work properly. Their energy level is messed up. Their neurons aren’t firing properly.

There are all kinds of things that food makes happen. This is the first generation in the history of the US in which children are not expected to outlive their children because of chronic conditions, many of which are diet related. And when you think about that, that’s really scary.

So as you can tell, Jones Valley is working hard to revitalize our communities, protect the health of our planet, and to provide nutrition education in the areas that most desperately need it. And the best thing we can do is support the things that we believe in, whether it be through financial contributions, volunteering or speaking to decision makers. We can educate ourselves and make choices in our own lives that reflect our deepest beliefs about health, community, sustainability and well-being, all with an awareness of how those choices enhance our quality of lives and of how interrelated our individual well being is to the health of the world around us!

If you’d like to visit Jones Valley’s website, it’s www.jonesvalleyteachingfarm.org.