Archive for January, 2013

a beach tale

The past two days have been full of adventure and connection with the wild beauty of Molokai. I’ve been to the beach three times in 24 hours! Photos coming soon. One of the wonderful perks of being an intern at the Hui is that we get invited along on photography forays with the retreat guests. On Wednesday, we piled into the rental cars and headed to Kepuhi Beach on the western edge of the island. For hours, we snapped photos of the crashing waves, unique lava rock formations, and a delicate sunset. I did yoga in the soft sand. Yesterday we returned to the area for another sunset, this time to Papohaku Beach. The 3-mile stretch is one of the largest beaches in the state. But unlike many of Hawai’i’s beaches, there was hardly a soul to be seen.

There’s a reason why the throngs of tourists were absent. I’ve heard Molokai called by many people “the real Hawai’i.” With a population of only 7,000 and the highest proportion of Indigenous Hawaiians, Molokai has a history of strong resistance to the kind of commercial tourism development that other parts of Hawai’i have succumbed to. The views of the locals about land management and other political issues are starkly visible on colourful painted signs by the roads. Back in 2008, the island’s major employer was partway through building a huge luxury golf resort on the west end when local resistance became so organized that it retaliated by closing all of its operations, including restaurants, hotels, and the island’s only movie theatre. Now, Molokai has Hawai’i’s highest unemployment rate. Although some of the properties we passed on the way to the beach had been converted into condos and sold, many of the buildings are boarded up. Mauna Loa, a name perhaps familiar to those who have never been to Hawai’i, is actually a ghost town. Walking to the beach, we crossed the remnants of a golf fairway being reclaimed by the red clay earth.

It’s not very often you hear a story of small-town success in the face of distant, faceless business interests. But the people have been here at least 1,700 years. I reckon their sense of time has a much wider scope than the fiscal quarter of the investing world, whose language of money just doesn’t translate their connection to the land.

Efforts to restore and protect the native ecosystems of the island have not been without their controversies, either. Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of waking up at 5am to share a spectacular sunrise with the photographers at the Mo’omomi Preserve, on the north side. We passed a sign that read “Mo’omomi to be gated illegally.” We had to go through two locked gates, but as I learned, anyone can access a key most of the year, except when the seabirds are nesting. The problem was that local residents would drive their 4X4’s on the sensitive dunes and leave trash and beer cans behind. And this is not just any beach, either. Twenty-five years ago, the Nature Conservancy acquired the lands from private ranchers. Molokai is overrun with invasive, non-native species, and the western half of the island is highly degraded due to grazing and poor land management practices. Mo’omomi is now the most intact coastal beach strand and sand dune area and one of the last remaining strongholds for native coastal plants and animals in the Hawaiian islands. This breathtaking beach is surrounded on both sides by sharp lava rock and native grasses. The landscape looks more like Scottish highlands than what most people would envision when they think of Hawai’i. It’s being stewarded by Molokai Land Trust, which is also running the major native plant restoration project right here at the Hui (more on that later…)

We drove back along the bumpy dirt road, the staff standing in the box of the Tundra pickup, singing songs from the ‘80s. Grabbing the frame, we ducked quickly as the thorny branches of kiawe (an invasive tree) narrowly missed our heads. Turning at Coffees of Hawai’i, we climbed up the hill for another mile before turning into the Hui to begin another sunny day in the garden.

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Ube, Kulolo, and the all-star Gotu kola

I’m sitting on the front deck of the lodge, watching long, drawn clouds blend into the calm  water as they meander across a pale peach sunset. The workshop guests are snapping photos in the quickly dimming light. Yesterday after lunch, I went for a drive with Connie. It was the first time I’d been off the property since I arrived! Our first stop: the Molokai post office. I waited for Connie to post-a-nut to her grandkids. Posting a coconut from Molokai is a classic visitor routine–the coconuts are free, you just have to decorate them and pay for shipping! As I waited, several locals passed through, each offering a friendly hello. The post office worker shuffled about, smiling as she slowly typed in each order. People here move on serious island time, allowing you to soak up the richness of each moment and interaction. I feel right at home.

Next, we went to Hikiola’s: the co-op garden store. We sailed past the RoundUp and checked out the organic fertilizers. The labels showed different mineral ratios, just like the chemical fertilizers. Connie explained that it’s not a great idea to go by the ratios: as soon as you start tinkering with the level of one mineral, you throw other levels out of whack. The solution? Skip the fertilizer and add more quality compost. Connie sometimes gathers kelp from the ocean. It has the most balanced and bioavailable combination of vitamins and nutrients (and is excellent for munching too!).

Connie walked me through the long list of impressive-sounding ingredients. Bat guano? Taken from an ecosystem where it was probably an important food source. Blood and bone meal? A slaughterhouse byproduct of the factory farm industry. Fish fertilizer? Not simply the scraps from fish processing: the scale of the fish fertilizer industry in South Africa is so massive that the harvest of fresh kelp is no doubt leaving a whole in the marine food chain. Not to mention how far all this stuff traveled to be processed, repackaged, and shipped here. If your food shouldn’t travel thousands of kilometres, why should your fertilizer? The solution? You guessed it. More good old fashioned compost.

On Mondays and Thursdays, the barge comes in, carrying literally everything to supply the island (talk about food security…) so the stores were buzzing. After stopping at the grocery store (where everything costs twice as much as it does back home, and the avocados under the sign that says “Hawaiian Grown” have “Product of Mexico” stickers on them) we did what any sane person on the island would do on a Monday: we got two scoops for the price of one. I ordered the two most exotic ice cream flavours I could find: Ube (Hawaiian purple yam) and Kulolo (taro, a traditional Hawaiian staple). They were delicious!

Yesterday, something wonderful happened: my first seeds sprouted! It was so exciting!!! After worrying that I didn’t water the lettuce enough right off the bat, perfect rows of tiny sprouts appeared. It truly is a miracle. They felt like little babies (sure enough, last night I dreamed I had a baby…Too close of a parallel for comfort!)  Connie also showed me how to save lettuce seeds today–it was sunny and windy, so the seeds would be as dry as possible. It’s really easy, and it’s so important to save seeds from varieties that work well where you live. Saving and replanting the ones most suited to local growing conditions helps to continually improve the yield and the plants’ resistance to pests. We plucked off the fluffy seed heads and rubbed the pods open to drop the tiny seeds into a paper bag. Once they’ve dried out more, we’ll separate out the seeds and store them in the fridge. Seeds need to breathe just like we do, and keeping them cold helps them last longer by slowing respiration.

To top off the afternoon, I was introduced to another Hui ritual: 3pm green drinks. For this, I harvested fresh collard greens, yellow chard, parsley, and gotu kola. Gotu kola grows like crazy in the garden. It’s been called “the fountain of life” for its incredible array of medicinal uses in South Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. I blended these with ice, green veggie powder, rice milk, fresh lemon juice, and a bunch of papaya, mango and banana. The ladies loved my concoction! I think I’ve found the easy way to everyone’s hearts…

 

 

what do you want from your food?

When I said in my last post that Molokai was sunny, I didn’t mention that the sun was dominated by endless sheets of rain and huge gusts of wind. Sure, it wasn’t what I was expecting (or anyone else here, for that matter) but I was so wrapped up in my scarf (and my coat and sweater.. it’s winter, remember!) and my excitement I didn’t care. It made it all the sweeter today to sweat in the brilliant sunshine. The past two mornings I’ve woken up before my alarm, so something must be going right.

I spent yesterday harvesting an unbelievable amount of Swiss chard blown over by the storm. In hues of white, yellow, red and green, chard stands out for its beauty, its hardiness (except in tropical storms, apparently), its tastiness, and above all, its nutritional content. Chard is brimming with phytonutrients, over a dozen different antioxidants, and several other important vitamins and minerals. Doing a quick search of recipes for chard stems (any ideas?), I learned that it has been rated second only to spinach as the world’s healthiest vegetable. Go chard!

Last night, over locally caught Ahi tuna and beets I harvested that morning, I met the manager of the biodynamic ranch I mentioned in my last post. Jann is a wonderful woman who patiently answered my curious questions. She explained the myriad of challenges the ranch faces to keep up its organic certification. Upon prodding, she began explaining some of the principles and practices of biodynamic farming. She invited me to visit the ranch sometime to see the integrated approach in action, so stay tuned. Jann used to be a conventional farmer in the mainland US–the kind of farming with huge machinery, monocropped fields, chemical fertilizers, and Round-up galore that dominates the food system and wreaks havoc on the landscape, waterways, and ocean life.

But wait.. is chemical fertilizer really all that bad? Isn’t “unsprayed” (no pesticides) good enough? Well, I learned from Connie that this is horribly untrue: she told me about news reports that farms are failing and farmers are getting sick due to exposure to heavy metals. Sure enough, the chemical fertilizers added to grow the food you buy contain toxic substances like arsenic and lead! These are intentionally added as the “recycling program” for big industries with hazardous wastes, such as those from mining tailings ponds and steel mills! YUCK. Food sovereignty, anyone?

On the bright side, we do have the power to grow our own, and…oh..is it satisfying. I spent hours today harvesting baby greens, tender sunflower sprouts, edible nasturtium flowers, and radishes so spicy they made my mouth burn. I also got versed in orchard duty. Sabine, the lovely German WWOOFer, showed me the ropes of harvesting lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, papayas, and my all-time favourite, avocado. I’m in heaven. In fact, every morning I’ve had the joy of walking past the avocado tree beside my home, slicing into a fresh Lilikoi (known to me previously as Passionfruit), and slurping up the sweet jelly and seeds for breakfast. The Lilikoi is everywhere. In fact, it’s invasive here, and the guys working on the Hui’s restoration project bemoan the plant. But it’s tolerated (and even actively planted) because, well, it’s just so damn good. It reminds me of the juicy Himalayan blackberries back home. Everybody likes you when you’re sweet.

my first Hui day

I’ve officially landed at the Hui Ho’olana Retreat Centre and the first thing I have to say is: they were right. There is definitely some special energy on this island. Everyone I talked to who had been to Molokai before had tipped me off to this already, and I can feel it. What else could explain my incredible amount of energy here on the first day? I should have been recovering in bed after several 3am nights in a row aiming for the Vancouver airport from icy Saskatchewan, followed by a night sleeping on concrete in the Maui airport baggage claim area. I almost fell asleep while my body banged around in the bumpy Cessna, but as dawn over Maui became a sunny morning on Molokai, I stepped off the plane and Connie greeted me with a warm hug and a lei of beautifully scented plumerias. Feeling immediately welcomed here, I promptly forgot about my lack of sleep and dove in.

Over a strong, creamy coffee, I got to know Connie–she is the kind of person who feels like an old friend right away. Connie is from my bioregion back home, and has several decades of experience teaching horticulture and organic food production. I will be learning one on one with her for the next month, and after that I will be managing the veggie garden that feeds the retreat guests and staff of the Hui. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I’m excited for the challenge. Not to mention the immaculate garden is a food grower’s dream! Raised beds, tall sunflowers, pungent herbs, tropical fronds swaying in the wind, and a love nest (shaded lounge bed) right in the middle. It’s not going to be hard to spend all day here.

The crown jewels of the garden are, without a doubt, the leafy greens. This is partly the reason for the name of this blog. My main job here is to plant greens, grow greens, harvest greens, and….grow more greens. The Hui folks eat tons of leafy greens, and we need to provide at least a giant bag of salad every day from what we grow. Looking at the garden, you wouldn’t think there would be enough for everyone. There are huge spaces between the plants, and most of the salad greens are very young. It used to be much thicker, but when Connie arrived, she started gardening her way, and I am fascinated to learn how this can be done.

After an afternoon seeding Devil’s Tongue lettuce till my eyes were crossed, I joined my fellow staff and volunteers for dinner. I couldn’t believe my eyes–Beef burgers and free Rogue Pale Ale for the taking! I hardly ever eat beef burgers these days, because it’s hard to get happy meat that I can afford, and because meat production has such a huge environmental impact. But this was certified organic, biodynamic, grass-fed beef from a family friend right here on Molokai! My taste buds rejoiced.

To burn off this wellspring of energy, I joined the others in their Thursday night ritual. The Hui runs on a two-week cycle: one week there is a retreat, the next week we breathe and prepare for the next retreat. In two days, a photography workshop will begin. So tonight, we trickled down through the darkness to the yurt. Eli’s Yurt is a beautiful circular building where many of the workshops take place. Tonight we turned it into an ecstatic dance space. For some, this can be a spiritual practice; for others, it’s a fun sweaty workout. We danced around wherever and however our bodies moved us, to tribal beats, Hawaiian a capella, slow fiddle notes, and Simon & Garfunkel. With an opening and closing circle and many deep stretches along the way, it was the perfect way to drop my body, mind, and spirit into this community. I was definitely meant to come here. I’m home.

 

planting the seed

Welcome to my first post! Why am I writing this blog? Well, it’s not because there aren’t enough gardening blogs out there already with tons of useful information. In fact, if you’re looking for the hottest gardening tips, I’m sorry to report that you probably won’t find them here. Or you will, and they will be buried amid my musings as I try, fail, experiment, rejoice, and reflect on a new chapter of my journey–a journey into writing and a journey into growing my own food. Why me? Why now? Why the heck would anyone read this blog?

Well, for starters, maybe you’re a family member or a friend, and this is the best way to stay informed about what I’m up to as I embark on three months of learning organic gardening on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Thanks for stopping by! But regardless of who joins me, I wanted to write about this experience anyway, and I’ve never gone more than a few days writing in a journal before I take a several-year hiatus. The more public I am about it, the more motivated I’ll be to actually sit down and write. That’s the hope, anyway.

I really enjoy writing, and there’s so much going on in my head that never seems to make it out, so much thought-provoking info I come across that I want to pass on and never find a chance. So many creative activities that I take up, and then set down halfway through because I’m lured away by something new. Why should I succeed with writing this time? No, it’s not a New Year’s resolution–I carefully avoided that dead-end. With a creative writing class freshly under my belt and a thirst to keep the words flowing, a bit of long-needed spare time, and a strong desire to remember and to share the stuff I’ve learned and the places and people I’ve encountered here, I am more than set up to do this thing. My highest hope is to keep writing when I return home, creating a shared space for pass-on-worthy things–especially about food, leafy green things that grow, other sustainability-related stuff, epic things happening in the world–and my own ideas too. Here’s hoping!

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