Kisses from Katie

I just finished reading a book called Kisses from Katie, about an 18 year-old girl from Tennessee who left her home and family to work with orphans in Uganda. She had planned on staying only for a year before returning to the states for college. But she fell in love with the country and the people, and now Uganda feels like home. At age 22, she lives in Uganda and is a mother to 13 adopted children.

The book resonated with me in so many ways. Although my own mission isn’t a religious one, I believe the essence is the same. It’s what Buddhists call groundlessness, and Christians surrender. It’s about love and connection and being a part of something much larger than myself. It’s about surrendering to uncertainty and getting away from all the static and excess that interferes with that larger purpose in our modern Western lives.

As I read the book, I began to think harder about how I could create that same sense of purpose and connection in my own everyday life.

The paperwork and the monotony of the work I do as an interpreter kills me. I can feel the liveliness leave me, every time I have to say, “Please sign these 15 pieces of paper,” as I proceed to ask the same 10 questions over and over again, while pondering how many trees die to supply hospitals with excessive amounts of paper, most of which goes straight in the trash. I despise that part of my job, and unfortunately, that’s most of what I do. On the days where I have to stand under fluorescent lights, registering 20 kids for routine doctors appointments, sometimes I feel like I can barely contain my frustration as I try to merge our bureaucratic, litigious society with people who come from a totally different world where healthcare and education are never a given. Often I’m the bridge between someone who hates their desk job and a person who doesn’t know their child’s birthdate, and I feel like pulling my hair out.

But the moments when I’m sitting in the Emergency Room with a mother whose daughter is dying from a rare genetic disorder, and the doctors insist that she won’t live much longer; I watch the mother refuse to give up on her daughter, and I can feel myself come to life.

In April of last year, I fell in love with two boys who had lost everything, their home, their mother and their brother to the tornadoes, and in the few months I spent working with them, I’d never loved my job more.

When I sit with children who have been sexually abused, and I see them slowly learning to trust someone again, or I watch as parents come to therapy themselves, recognizing their mistakes and learning to be better parents. When I see a sickly, precious little girl recovering from a stem cell transplant, or I have to tell a family that their child has just been diagnosed with cancer, their pain breaks my heart, but those experiences yank me back to the present moment. I feel so connected to those people, and those moments are some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Much like the feeling of being in the woods with only my backpack, I feel at home.

It makes me sad to think about how many years I’ve spent doing less than the most meaningful things in my life. I’m constantly searching for meaning, but I wonder if I’ve been searching in the wrong places.

I’ve spent most of my adult life being responsible, trying to enjoy the moment, while I plan for my future. At my first real job, I would have them deposit half of my paycheck into my savings account to begin investing in my retirement plan. But I don’t want to obsess about the future anymore. I don’t want to be reckless or put anybody else out either, but I’ve been living as if I could somehow avoid pain and tragedy if I just planned or invested well enough. As if enough planning could protect me from the messiness of life. I don’t think it works that way.

I have rental properties, and although they probably cause me more stress than anything, my goal was to pay off my houses in another 15 years and retire. And by retire I mean, only pouring my heart, work, and energy into the things I love the most.

But I can’t wait that long! My life is slipping away while I wait to have enough money to live the life of my dreams. So I’m thinking of trying to live the life that I want and trust that the money thing will work itself out. It may or may not, but the worst-case scenario would probably just be me living with my mom and trimming her bushes in exchange for some of her delicious organic meals.

As I write this, I’m thinking to myself: “You know you have a life that many people would dream of. You get to travel, you have loving friends and family, you have your health, a decent job, a beautiful place to live, an adorable dog, a boyfriend that loves you.” But that’s not enough. It’s not enough because I’m still spending A LOT of my time, dealing with paperwork, sitting under fluorescent lights in an environment that stifles me.

And I don’t feel very alive.

After my divorce, I was in so much pain that the whole world lit up. The intensity of pain I was experiencing opened me up to a whole new world. I couldn’t possibly hurt anymore than I was already hurting, so there was nothing to run from. I could be totally open to anyone and everything because there was no need to protect myself. And that openness brought me such joy and showed me parts of myself that I never remembered having experienced.

Although I don’t miss the pain, I miss that feeling, that openness. As I move further away from that painful time in my life, I become more and more comfortable and less willing to be uncomfortable. And the more I run from discomfort, the smaller my world becomes.

I know this is not a linear process, and I’m not a linear person. I struggle to focus on one thing, and the details around what I think I want can change as quickly as Alabama’s bipolar weather. I’m interested in and passionate about so many things. One day all I can think about is building this Passive House and how much that means to me. Then the next day I want to either take off into the woods or go care for dying children in Africa, and my Passive House dream starts to feel incredibly privileged and pretentious.

I go in circles, zig-zagging back and forth, just hoping that ultimately I’m moving in the direction of my deepest desires. I know that I will continually swing back and forth between my desire for safety and comfort and the longing for aliveness that only comes from first feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Simplicity is my luxury, and I can only hope I’m slowly headed that way, whatever concrete form it may take.

I was looking at an old journal and found this poem I had written a few years ago:

I feel a terrifying peace
Something that says,
“You don’t have a choice.”

It’s something infinitely bigger than me
Yet at the same time as small as me

I realize that somehow
I’m the most and the least
Important thing in the universe

And I think maybe I don’t have to be scared
Or maybe I do

Maybe being terrified is part of it
I’m terrified of my peace being stolen from me…

It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted out of life
I believe it’s all any of us ever want

I want to spend the rest of my life
Being with that peace
And looking for it in places it can truly be found.

Why Passive House?

Affordable Passive House in Urbana, IL, built for $110/ square foot. The trellis is designed so future vines can provide shading for the south facing windows.

The Passive House builder’s training last week was more than I could have hoped for! I met some wonderful people, learned so much, and now feel more confident in my understanding of what it takes to build a Passive House.

I have a newfound respect for the amount of attention I will have to pay to the details of the construction of this home and for the amount of time and energy I will need to invest in convincing people that we can do this, especially here in Alabama.

I’ve gained confidence and fear at the same time. Building such an air-tight envelope makes for a more energy efficient building, and the intentional ventilation creates superior air quality and comfort within the home, but it also means the building is less forgiving if mistakes are made during construction. If the walls aren’t designed well or the windows aren’t installed correctly, you can create a situation where water can accumulate in your walls. And with airtight walls it’s much more difficult for the building to dry itself out.

Up until now, I’ve relied a lot on my experienced subcontractors to educate me about their trades and best building practices. But in order to make this project happen, I will have to be able to communicate and demonstrate how to do a lot of the construction details to my subs. I think many of them will be open to it, but some will probably fight it.

Building a Passive House, in many ways, is like turning conventional construction on its head. It will be an uphill battle talking with inspectors and subcontractors, to convince them that this new way of doing things is going to result in a better building.

Essentially, Passive House is a building that won’t become obsolete in 20 years. The goal is to create a super-insulated, airtight, thermal bridge free envelope that uses balanced ventilation through efficient mechanical systems, high performance windows and doors, and passive elements to create a comfortable, durable building that’s renewable ready!

On the first day of training, we looked at some graphs that showed our projected increasing energy demands over the next few decades. With a growing global population and technology reaching parts of the world that have never known things such as air conditioning, the only way we’re going to meet the rise in our global energy demands is through energy-efficiency.

In the U.S., 40% of our energy consumption comes from the operations and maintenance of our buildings. Buildings built to the Passive House standard consume approximately 90% less energy than conventional buildings, so imagine how much energy can be saved if all of our buildings were built to this standard!

I often hear the argument that renewable energy is too expensive, out of reach, but that is largely due to the fact that our buildings are inefficient, so it requires a lot of renewable energy to operate the building. If we make our buildings 90% more efficient, then renewable energy, such as solar, starts to make a lot more sense.

Currently it costs around 10% more to build a home to Passive House standards, but a lot of people are working to show that it can be done affordably. One of the Passive homes that we visited in Illinois was built for about $110 per square foot, which is pretty cheap! And as the construction standards and some of the materials used become more widely known, it will become even more affordable. As Adam, one of our instructors at the training says, with a Passive House, your monthly payment, when you add up your mortgage payment and your energy bill, will be equal to or less than your total payment with a conventional home. What doesn’t make sense about that?! And then you’re putting your money into the quality and equity of your home instead of giving it to the power company!

The Passive House standard is based on the performance of the building. For example, to meet Passive House certification when the home is tested under pressure with a blower door test, there can be no more than 0.6 air changes per hour, compared to 7.0 allowed by code! But the specific way the building is built depends entirely on the climate of the area and the availability of materials. So each project has to be evaluated individually to come up with the best system and materials to use on the house.

The learning curve on all this is steep, which is why it’s taking me so dang long! The other houses I’ve built were designed and built in about 9-12 months total, and I think we’ve been in the design phase with this house for about 9 months now. We probably have another 3-6 months to go just to finalize the design, to enter all the data in the Passive House Planning Package Software, estimate the costs, and submit the project to the Passive House Institute for pre-certification. I’m hoping to have every construction detail drawn and planned out before we start building, and I’m guessing that once we break ground, the actual construction will take a year or so.

I’ll write another post soon for any construction geeks out there that want more information about how I plan on building the walls of this house and an explanation of the ventilation system that makes Passive House possible!

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.

A Few Steps Back

There hasn’t been much happening in the way of Passive House lately and the peaceful life thing kind of comes and goes.

I should really quit proclaiming with such confidence what my next step will be. I’ve felt some sort of pressure to define where I’m headed and then follow through with it. I think I’m scared of looking like an idiot for starting a whole blog about a Passive House that isn’t being built.

But the larger message of this journey and project is about creating a life that’s more in line with my deepest values and the life I want for myself.

I believe that this house will be built someday, but I don’t know that for sure. And if it does happen, I don’t know when it will happen. The truth is I don’t know anything. Although I can hedge my bets on what tomorrow will bring, I NEVER truly know what the next moment holds. A minor car accident, a busted sewer line and a broken air conditioner within the last few weeks have been good reminders of that.

For the moment at least, I’ve taken some pressure off myself. The number one thing I know is that I’m tired. I need to rest, and I need more time and energy for me, and my patience for riding out the uncertainty of all this is waning.

I’ve enrolled in some certification programs to learn more about some things I’m passionate about and want to make part of my professional life, but I need more space and less responsibility in my life to dive in fully and really make those changes.

I had planned on building the garage first and possibly living there while I built the rest of the house. But the city gave me a big huge NO on that one. Then I decided to finish my basement. I was going to rent it out and create more income that way. I had started gathering materials and checking out thrift stores, getting prices from subcontractors and was just waiting on the carpenter to get started.

Then last Thursday, I got a call from a realtor that handles corporate relocations. He thought he could easily find people who would be interesting in renting my property. Based on the monthly rent he quoted me, I decided that was a good option. He listed the property on his website and a couple is going to view the house today. Who knows if they’ll rent it, but when I looked at the numbers, this option really does make the most financial sense.

So that’s the idea of the day! I’ll lease my home, live with my mom for a while, and take some time to myself to figure out what I can achieve professionally and personally, some time to focus on me without having to take care of anything else, just existing and exploring!

I’m sure by my next blog post, I’ll have a totally different strategy, but I’m trusting myself, one tiny half step at a time and seeing which doors aren’t dead bolted shut.

And those are the doors that I will walk through. Sometimes I walk up to a beautiful door that I REALLY, REALLY want to open, so I turn the handle, but it’s locked.

Then I knock really loudly and even yell to see if there’s someone inside who could let me in. When that doesn’t work, I pull out my sledgehammer and try to beat the door down.

But when that iron door still doesn’t budge, that’s usually when, exhausted, I take a step back and ask myself if maybe there’s another door that I could open with a little less effort ☺.

Trusting myself is something I’ve talked about in theory for a long time, but I’m really just beginning to understand what it means to live that way. And that’s the most valuable and rewarding thing this project could bring me.

Most of my life I have longed to feel passionate about something, anything. I would think to myself, if I just knew what I was passionate about, then, I would gladly pursue it.

It’s hard for me to believe, but I now have an inkling about the kinds of things I want to spend my life doing. I still have a lot of fears and doubts, but it’s like I’m standing on one side of a raging river and the fog has finally cleared enough for me to see through to the other side. Now I just have to figure out how to build the bridge to get there.

It’s pretty amazing to live in a world where it’s possible to fine tune and tweak my deepest desires and longings. I have enough support and security to move beyond survival mode and create my dream life.

I believe it more than ever, I believe that I can create a life full of fulfilling relationships, and professional and financial fulfillment, no excess, just bountifully, beyond my wildest dreams enough.

(As far as concrete progress with the house, the city did approve the variance for the garage, so that’s good news! I turned the garage to take up a little less space in the setback area. Here’s the visual if you’d like to see the updated site plan. I like how it frames in the back yard. Site Plan 2_070212)

Exterior Images, Variances, and Gas Leaks

In Avondale, the zoning regulations say that a detached garage can’t take up more than 30% of the back 25 feet of a lot, but since there’s no alley access and my lot is so narrow, a 2-car garage would take up about 40% of that area, which means I have to apply for a variance. Here’s a link to the site plan if you want to see a visual of where the garage sits on the property. (You can also see the first floor plan; we angled the back wall of the master to create a little more space in the bedroom without encroaching on the driveway!) Site Plan_062012

I spoke with the variance guy at the city today about getting the approval, and apparently the deadline for their July board meeting was yesterday, but he said if I got him the paperwork today, he could try to squeeze me in. (I swear it feels like there’s some unwritten rule saying that every tiny step of the building process must take a minimum of six weeks!)

So I rushed to get everything together and ran down to city hall between appointments.

I walked in, and the building was vacant. It seemed strange, but I looked around and tried to walk through the metal detector. At that moment, a guard appeared and said I would have to leave, the whole building had been evacuated because of a gas smell that has been permeating the city of Birmingham today.

Shucks!

So I called and left variance man a message. Hopefully he’ll still take my paperwork on Monday, and hopefully, they’ll approve it in July! That’s the first hurdle to getting the building permit.

If the variance gets approved, I should be able to take my elevations, color rendering, material samples and landscape design to go before the historic design review board in July. Once we have their approval, then we can finalize the construction documents and start building!

I did get some disappointing news last week when I talked to a city official. Things seem to change according to who you talk to, but when I went in person, they told me I wouldn’t be able to get a permit for the garage alone. I’ll have to get the permit for the house and the garage at the same time. Because the garage is an accessory structure, you can’t get a permit for the accessory structure unless there’s a primary structure that’s already built. I’m still hopeful that I’ll be able to move along more quickly with the garage, so that I can use it for storage while I build.

Here are some images of the exterior elevations, so you can start to get an idea of what the outside of the house will look like!

I’m working on a color scheme right now, but I’m leaning towards an old looking Bessemer like red brick for the foundation, the brick columns, and the partial brick walls of the house, then a blue/green/ grey color for the siding, chocolate brown on the window trim and eaves, and a bright red for the doors and window grids!

Any thoughts?

🙂

On the Road Again

It’s been a traveling month!

I spent a week near San Francisco, exploring the city and attending a retreat where we worked on our inner selves for a few days.

Then last week, I took a road trip up to Virginia for my friend’s baby shower. I couch surfed at a community house in Asheville that focuses on sustainability. They capture their grey water in buckets and use it to flush the toilets. They dumpster dive outside of a local natural foods store and bring home the slightly damaged packages of food that get thrown away. The have earth paint on their walls, make their own mead, live without air conditioner, and capture their rain water and compost for their organic garden. Their mosaics on the shower walls were made from found broken pieces of tile. It was inspiring to see all these guys were able to achieve in real life. It pushed me to think a little deeper about what other things I could be doing in my own life. It also helped me realize what things I wasn’t interested in, like crapping in a box to make my own biogas!

After leaving the precious historic town of Lexington, VA, where the baby shower was, I worked my way back home.

I headed to Damascus, Virginia to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail and spent Sunday night at the Hiker’s Inn, which is a cozy little inn/ hostel that provides a hot shower and a comfortable bed for the thru hikers that are walking the 2,000 miles of the Appalachain Trail, a footpath that goes all the way from Georgia to Maine.

On my way to Damascus I thought to myself, “I’m really glad I’ve gotten over the urge to hike the Appalachain Trail myself.”

But of course, all it took were five minutes of talking to the hikers, and I was ready to just abandon everything and follow them down the trail!

It’s a strange desire that’s hard to even articulate, but I have such an intense longing for the ridiculous simplicity of carrying everything on my back in the middle of nature with nothing but what I need to survive. It’s rugged and dirty and there’s no pretense. It can be lonely, scary and incredibly uncomfortable, but something about it feels like home. I miss Chris and other people/comforts while I’m gone, but I come home and after a few days, I’m ready to be back in the woods!

It brings the rest of my life into focus, magnifying the things that matter most to me while encouraging me to let go of the things that don’t.

So I guess it’s partly about the experience itself and partly about the contrast that allows me to appreciate all of life a little more.

As one of the hikers from the inn mentioned, “Being on the trail is like life in a capsule.” He said, “In the last six weeks, I’ve been extremely happy, intensely depressed; I’ve gained and lost friends, and I’ve had a relationship that lasted two weeks, but felt like a year! “ And I thought, yeah that makes perfect sense! Six months on the trail is like a metaphor for a lifetime.

Since I’ve been home, it’s become crystal clear to me that I have to make some changes in my professional life. I feel like I’m underpaid and under functioning. I have to find a way to increase my income and create a professional life based more on the things that I enjoy most, or else I will always feel trapped.

My hope is to slowly work on creating a business that helps people live happier, healthier, more sustainable lives! There are some certifications that I’ll be working on this year. One is the training to become a Passive House consultant.

I’m terrified and excited. I don’t know how I’ll work out all of the logistics yet, but I’ve started doing some research and am excited to have some direction.

We’re also making headway with the house! The elevations are done, and I’ve decided to go ahead and start building the garage.

Very few people have looked at my house in Hoover, but I can afford to build the garage even without selling my house. That’ll give me lots of storage space and an upstairs office above the garage where I could occasionally sleep while the main house is being built! That means only having to move once!

Rebecca suggested the idea, and I love it. It helps me feel like the project isn’t becoming stagnant.

It will also be great practice; I’ll get a chance to try incorporating all the Passive House techniques on a smaller scale without the pressure of having to get the structure certified.

The plan is to go before the design review board to get the neighborhood approval for the house and the garage on July 11. I have to apply for a variance because the garage takes up more than the allowed space in the backyard, but I’m hoping that won’t be too much of a hurdle. The goal is to break ground on the garage in August, and then start on the house as soon as the garage is finished, which will probably be the first of next year. It’s nice to have a concrete plan for the house and my life!

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.

Waiting

I haven’t written much lately because there hasn’t been much to report. Rebecca is working on the elevations and the exterior of the design while I try to sell my current home.

At moments, the process has felt painfully slow. But overall, I’ve felt surprisingly patient with everything (except for feeling terribly rejected every time someone comes to see my house and doesn’t want to buy it!).

I think part of my patience comes from feeling really comfortable where I am. I love the trees that I can see through all the windows of my house. I love the spaciousness of my home and the backyard that my dog can play in, and I feel very safe and protected here.

I’m not really looking forward to the hassle of moving and renting or living in a tiny space while I build. I’ve kind of been just waiting, taking one step at a time while I see how things unfold.

I know from past experience that worrying doesn’t help anything, and it would keep me from enjoying all the things I love about my current situation. I’ve put a lot of myself into my home, and I’ll be sad to leave it. The place where I live starts to become a part of me and of how I see myself. I associate it with comfort and familiarity.

I also know that almost without fail, things tend to evolve in a totally different direction than I expect them to. So it seems rather pointless trying to obsessively plan my next step, when I know there’s no way to predict the outcome.

I don’t know where I’ll live when (or if) my house sells. I could live with my mother and save some money, which would be a lovely option if she didn’t live 10 miles down highway 280. We get along great, and it would be nice to be in such a comfortable space for a while. But I’m not sure what I would do with Stevie, my pup, and I wonder how my patience would hold up fighting that traffic everyday.

I could also rent a home with a backyard and try to find a roommate. Or I could find a tiny apartment or a carriage house near downtown! So many options. The main thing is that I want it to be affordable (and by affordable I mean cheap) because I want to put every dime into the construction of the new home.

I’ve also been going back and forth about whether to start construction if my Buttercup home hasn’t sold yet. We still have a few months left in the design phase. Once we finalize the drawings and construction documents, I will have to set up a meeting with the neighborhood association and the historic board to see if they approve the plans before the city will issue me a building permit. I also want to bid out the entire project before I get started to see if I’m anywhere close to my budgeted amount.

So there are still a few months left of planning and permits before I could break ground, but my current sentiment is that I might go ahead and start even if I haven’t sold my home. I can at least get the foundation done with the savings I have, and then maybe I’ll find some creative ways to continue financing the project.

Who knows, we’ll wait and see!

I’ve been reading a book called Enough by John C. Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, a great book and one I’d highly recommend.

Here’s an excerpt from the first paragraph of the introduction:

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.”

That paragraph struck me because it’s so true. It’s sad that so many of us, despite all of our wealth and comforts, will never experience what it’s like to feel like we have enough.

So in the meantime, while I wait, I’m experimenting with what “enough” could look like in my own life.

(I’ve also been working on the interview I did with Rachel Rhinehart from Jones Valley! I’ve nearly finished transcribing it, and it’s no less than 10 pages long! So now I’ll start editing, to get it down to a length that some of you might read. But I promise to get that out soon while the information is still relevant 🙂 )

The Mighty Magnolia Tree

There is a magnificent magnolia tree on the corner of my lot that’s at least 80 years old. My neighbor said he has a photo of his house from the 40’s that shows the tree as pretty large at that time. That tree is part of the neighborhood’s history!

The lot is already small, and initially I didn’t think we could save it without destroying its roots and ultimately killing it during construction. But Rebecca, my architect, went out to the lot to take measurements, and she thinks that if we do a partial porch on the front of the house, we should be able to save that beautiful tree!

When she mentioned this, I was hopeful but skeptical. This whole project is about not causing more damage than necessary, and it would break my heart to tear it down. But I knew from experience that it could be very costly if the tree didn’t make it. There was a tree about 5 feet from my current home that I desperately wanted to save. And against the advice of Shannon, the builder that was mentoring me, I decided to leave the tree. Within a year, it had died from the trauma to its roots during construction. I finally had to pay to have a 50 foot tree taken down, and with a house 5 feet away, a fence and air conditioner another few feet away, it was a difficult and expensive task.

After I talked to Rebecca, I called David to ask his opinion. As well as being a licensed builder, electrical engineer and all around good guy, he’s also a certified arborist. We met out at the lot and spoke with my neighbor, who’s a landscape architect to get his opinion.

David agreed with Rebecca. So unless we run into unforeseen obstacles, the tree shall be saved! It will have to be trimmed by a certified arborist, and the tree will be very close to the house, but it will provide really nice shading on the southwest side of the house, while preserving the beauty and history of the property!

I had planned on using an insulated concrete slab for the home’s foundation, but to make sure we don’t cause too much root damage, I’ll have to use helical piers and an insulated crawl space as the foundation. I’ll also have to be extra diligent at keeping all construction equipment off of the trees roots.

The front of the house will have a partial front porch, which I think really adds a lot to the exterior of the home. It adds some complexity and uniqueness to the architecture. Here are some rough sketches in the works for the exterior. I love the sketch on the middle left! I can see it all coming together!

Perspective and Slot Canyons

We’re driving back from the Grand Canyon today. A group of us through UAB Outdoor Pursuits has spent the last week driving cross-country to the slot canyons in Utah. We spent three days in the backcountry of Paria Canyon, hiking through freezing river water that they call a trail and pooping in plastic bags.

The canyon walls are beautiful and terrifying. I would find myself thinking of what I would have for dinner or planning my escape route in case a flash flood were to come. It was like those thoughts were keeping me grounded. They were keeping me in touch with the menial tasks of this earthly existence, so that I wouldn’t be terrified of the vastness and wilderness surrounding me. At times while I was hiking, I felt extremely happy and grateful, splashing through the freezing muddy water. At other moments, all I could think about were my painfully frozen feet as I struggled to make it through the shaded areas of the canyon.

Everything is more complicated in the wilderness. It’s difficult to find a clean, flat rock to set your morning coffee cup on. It’s hard to pee without getting your shoes wet. If it’s cold, I fall uncomfortably asleep with several layers on, dreading the moment when I’ll have to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag into the freezing air. I miss fresh fruits and vegetables and cappuccinos.

But I love it so much. I love how ridiculously simple everything becomes. I love that I totally forget about my to-do list at home. The things I was worrying about the day before I left, suddenly seem extremely petty as I’m surrounded by hundred foot red canyon walls. It’s a humbling experience that reminds me how fragile, yet how strong we are as humans. It gives me the perspective and feeling of aliveness that I so desperately long for.

Yesterday as we left the Grand Canyon, I felt a physical ache. I wanted so badly to be down in the canyon by the river staring at the canyon walls and the layers of earth’s history. It’s hard to get too caught up in my obsessions when I think about them in the context of 4.5 billion years!

There are moments when I want to leave everything to be a backpacking vagabond. The park rangers live in dilapidated trailers, tents, and most of them get no retirement plan or health insurance. Why is it hard for me to be happy with a 2,000 square foot house and $3,000/ month? Why not risk a secure future that may never come to truly enjoy the moment?

I know for me it’s about balance. As much as I love travel and the wilderness, I also like stability, comfort, and being close to loved ones.

These trips are my reset buttons. They bring me closer to the things that I value most, and they help me appreciate the luxuries I have in my day-to-day life. They remind me that more than fancy things and retirement plans, I value simplicity, relationship, nature and authenticity. It’s important for me to remember that as I build my house, so that I create a home that provides me with more freedom to be closer to what I love most.

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