Homesteading and Permaculture

 From San Francisco to Millbrook
The annual garden at Lost Cat Farm in Kerhonkson, New York.

In the years just before I left San Francisco for New York’s Hudson Valley, growing my own food and living close to nature became my passions. I wanted to learn and practice permaculture — the art and science of living in harmony with nature, which starts with regenerating soil and leads to regenerating farms, communities, and local economies. Permaculture is both a discipline and a movement, both scientific and spiritual. It’s aim is to heal the earth and ourselves by working with, not against, the soil, watersheds, habitats, wildlife, and ecosystems that shape our destiny. It’s an effort not just to live healthy lives, but to avoid ecosystem and economic collapse. The task is herculean, well beyond any one person’s grasp; permaculture teaches us that only with the cooperation of family, friends and community can the task be accomplished.

In 2008, I was working part-time on the crew of the HANC (Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council) recycling center and native-plant nursery in Golden Gate Park, as well as part-time as an editor for the California-centric forest-protection organization Forests Forever. The HANC experience included working with notoriously cranky but much beloved local native-plant guru Greg Gaar, who had written the book on San Francisco native plants habitats. He had us create compost on an almost industrial scale, which we used for sowing the plants we sold in plastic pots.

My older sister, Judith Curtis-Mardon, a master gardener and rosarian then living in Grand Junction, Colorado, had deeply inspired me during a two-month stay with her in 2007. She showed me some of her gardening secrets, and she entertained me and countless others with the tongue-in-cheek “Bossy Gardener” column she wrote for a local newspaper, the Free Press.

Judith captured the zeitgeist of the time in powerful columns that pulled no punches. She, like myself, had grown up in the desert of Arizona. If as kids we’d been asked where our frozen peas and spinach came from, we’d have said: “They come from the store, of course.”

In her column, “Mother Nature bats last – redux,” Judith made a point that stuck with me: “It is news, now, when a local man converts his Main Street front yard into an urban garden. We are all, even in an agricultural region such as ours, so disconnected from the reality of food production that a front yard vegetable garden could be considered weird, or a potential nuisance.”

That disconnection is exactly what I was feeling. I became determined to change course and become as connected as I could.

In another column, Judith wrote of home food growers: “One farmgirl at a time, locavores are trying to live well without being a burden to the earth. They’re smart — in hard times, they’ll be less dependent, or vulnerable. And I know exactly where I’m taking shelter when the revolution comes!”

Amen, sister!

Around about then, my friend Ryan Geller and I were spending lots of time exploring the Bay Area’s local, organic, community driven food-garden scene. An Oregon native and electrician by trade, Ryan was and still is part of the young, enlightened, impassioned generation currently bent on creating a sustainable alternative economy as the mainstream economy falters and collapses. He had extensive knowledge of and experience with solar panel installation, organic gardening of produce and medicinal herbs, labor issues, fuel-efficient vehicle technologies, food sharing programs, and social justice issues. He and I were deeply impressed by how many people were taking food security seriously, not just in the countryside, but in inner cities. Hundreds of our friends, along with hundreds of thousands or even millions of other folks across America and around the world, were demonstrating a high degree of resourcefulness and self-reliance in creating low-impact, “off-the-grid” alternative lifestyles and enterprises that co-existed with mainstream society while at times challenging mainstream conventions and legalities.

The movement toward self-reliance and permaculture was booming in California and up and down the West Coast. We saw it among urban homesteaders and back-yard gardeners; people with HIV/AIDS employing alternative therapies; naturopaths practicing their herbal arts; yoga and tai-chi teachers and practitioners; intentional communities pooling the skills and resources of carpenters, electricians, solar installers, plumbers, chefs, caregivers, and gardeners; community organizers; restaurateurs drawing upon locally grown organic produce; wildcrafters creating teas and recipes for wild foods; foragers and herb cultivators creating salves and tinctures; legal organic marijuana growers providing their healing herbal medicine for cancer patients and other sufferers; women’s child-care collectives; Burning Man devotees; Rainbow Family tribespeople; Radical Faeries in their free-spirited clans; artisans and craftspeople hosting crafts nights and skill shares; art galleries, nightclubs and theaters showcasing local art, music and film; and so much more. People were cooperating to establish community gardens, growing produce and selling it at farmers’ markets. The key words are community, and cooperation. Without those elements, individualism and isolation would prevail.

For individuals working apart from community, self-reliance often becomes a form of survival of the fittest, predicated on securing food and shelter for the immediate family. “Doomsday preppers” they’re called: people who store up food, water and ammunition in bunkers in case of catastrophe. They have a bunker mentality — precisely the opposite of the permaculture mindset.

Ryan and I saw that the ideals and currents that motivated community minded people and enterprises were right livelihood; open-source sharing; interdependence and interconnectedness; sustainability; human-scale technologies; gift and barter economies; ecological ethics and esthetics; and — perhaps key to everything else — survival with dignity and grace in the face of hard times.

On one occasion, Ryan and I traveled to Oregon for a weekend workshop put on by author/activist Derrick Jensen of Endgame fame — a bleak prognostication of impending civilization collapse — who hopes to speed up the demise of industrial civilization so that “nature” can reclaim her natural balance sooner rather than later. We listened to what he and his colleagues had to say, and I came away with the strong impression that attempting to undermine the dominant industrial paradigm is not the path for me. At that workshop, I charted a different path, the one I’m still on. The participants divided into groups according to our perceptions of the problems facing humanity and all species, and how we intended to address the issues. While the mostly twenty-something crowd chose direct action against the system, I chose permaculture. It sets out to create the conditions for sustainability. It might not work in the short run. Civilization might collapse before real sustainability is achieved. That’s sort of Jensen’s point. But the principles of permaculture, if adopted widely not just in rural farming areas but in inner cities, pave the way for a post-industrial culture. Whatever the fate of industrial civilization, coming up with sustainable ways of living is paramount.

Back in San Francisco, Ryan and I began outlining ways to network like-minded people. We saw the need to connect inner-city gardeners with their rural counterparts, and vice versa.

But I had to start with myself! I wasn’t growing my own food and never had, so how could I help others?

Fortunately at that time, my Radical Faery housemates, master gardener Lorna Dune and his partner Peridot, had created a fantastic ornamental garden in our Portola Heights back yard. It was a glorious retreat overlooking the Bay in the direction of Oakland. Fortunately Lorna happily agreed to convert a couple of flower beds to food production, and I planted my first edible plants. That first experience of growing my own food became a game changer for me.

I was no youngster — elderhood was fast approaching with all of its needs and responsibilities — but I still had plenty of drive and ambition. I was practicing qigong, tai-chi and Ashtanga yoga, so I was fit and eager to engage life. Food security was uppermost in my mind. I had seen around the world how dependence on industrial food sources had diminished the quality of life for so many people, myself included. Instead of being self reliant, I and billions of others had become dependent on industrial food and energy systems, which for many millions meant impoverishment. The solution was to return to self reliance, which meant pursuing a livelihood as much as possible off the industrial grid. The most accessible path toward that end was to grow food without chemicals.

Much to my surprise and delight, my friend and music partner Aaron Black, who had moved to New York state a few years earlier, texted me, saying I ought to come out and join him. He was living in the heart of the richly fertile Hudson Valley, but he missed my recorder playing and our jams together. He told me the region he was in offered just what I was looking for: lots of family farms and opportunities for farm work, lots of forested land teeming with wildlife, plenty of streams for fishing, lots of interesting small towns and historic villages, lots of homegrown music and art, beautiful scenery galore, and great, friendly people who cared about creating and maintaining community. I wanted to re-learn some of the survival arts — especially hunting and fishing — that I’d learned as a child under my father’s tutelage. Food security had to become paramount in my life. Plus it was relatively close to Brattleboro, Vermont, where I had spent a year in college in the late ’70s, and had loved the Eastern forest and small New England town feel. The Hudson Valley would be a lot like that. It made great sense to take the leap across the continent.

A Californian in New York

In April, 2011 I made the leap, heading from San Francisco to the Hudson Valley. Aaron picked me up at the train station in Manhattan and drove us north to historic Dutchess County, on the eastern side of the Hudson River. Our destination was the home of Patti Smith, Aaron’s good friend and housemate. The two had met at Vassar when Patti, showing up for breast cancer treatments and eventually a double mastectomy, had been charmed at the front door by Aaron, her courteous valet. She and pretty much everyone else adored his charm. At the time he was living out of his car. He’d been on a cross-country journey and hadn’t put down roots. Since she had an empty nest and comfortable home, she invited him to stay at her place. That’s how I came to stay there, too, which began an enduring and invaluable friendship that energized and galvanized my life.

Patti’s house was situated in a densely wooded area not far from Omega Institute, a renowned spiritual retreat and conference center that would eventually play a huge role in my life. The surroundings were pastoral. Everywhere horses, cattle, goats, and especially deer grazed in wide-open fields. Wild turkey were a common sight, as were Canadian geese, groundhogs, squirrels, muskrat and many other creatures. Patti, trained as an ecologist, coordinated an undergraduate student research program at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Hudson Valley’s ecosystems and the issues scientists were grappling with, such as Lyme disease, then and still highly prevalent in the region.

Soon Patti became my closest friend apart from Aaron. With the two of them as my sole support network in New York, I embarked on a journey of discovery and awakening that brought me lots of hard work, much gardening and community organizing experience, an abundance of food I’d grown myself, and the satisfaction of building community and establishing roots in one of the most fertile and productive growing regions in the Northeast.

Living quarters at Millbrook.

Aaron and I were looking for a place to rent when Patti saw a sign posted at Cary Institute advertising a living space for rent in Millbrook, a village I would soon learn had a rich and storied history in Colonial times. Surrounded by huge estates, most given over to pastures and horse farms, Millbrook was the tiny nucleus of one of the wealthiest parts of New York state outside of Manhattan. Rich folks including film and television celebrities had their summer mansions and horse farms in the area. Singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright lived there and named a song for the town. Fox hunting once was among the popular sports for the in-crowd.

Main garden fence at Millbrook.

One such former fox hunter was our landlady, Margarita Viana, who had come to the U.S. from Venezuela back in the ’60s. In her younger years she had lived a celebrated life as a singer of Spanish ballads. She was now retired, along with her older sister, Louisa, in a comfortable old ranch house on property that once had been a dairy farm. Margarita had been a real diva in her day, a singer and socialite of international acclaim. Now she occasionally picked up a guitar and sang old Spanish songs in a warbly voice, the fingering imprecise, and yet every note resonated with the soul of Latin America.

Margarita rented Aaron and I a cute two-bedroom apartment — with absolutely no insulation! —on the second floor of an old barn, above her painting studio. She was also an artist, and in summertime she would open the barn door and sit in the shade at her easel, painting the trees, flowers, fields and animals she saw in the fields and forests surrounding the house. Margarita still occasionally sold paintings, but now she was mostly retired, painting only occasionally. She still had a second home in Manhattan, but she rarely went there and was in the process of selling it.

Aaron tending the main garden

Margarita possessed an old-world charm and graciousness. She liked Aaron and I immensely and often invited us over for dinner. Always she regaled us with stories of her colorful life, which included participating in some of the wild psychedelic parties that Timothy Leary held at an estate in Millbrook in the ’60s —before he got booted unceremoniously out of town for attracting hippies into an otherwise conservative stronghold.

Since I had arrived in New York with next to no money, Aaron hired me for a part-time job. He was managing a car-park service for patients at Vassar Hospital’s cancer treatment center in Poughkeepsie. He gave me work as a part-time valet, a fun if sometimes physically demanding job that kept me on my toes. I continued to work remotely, via Internet, for my long-time employer, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Forests Forever. The executive director there, Paul Hughes, kept me on staff for four years after I left for New York, despite my being some 3,000 miles away from the forests we were trying to protect. I also found part-time landscaping and gardening work via Margarita’s landscaper. The work took me to several of the big estates in and around Millbrook. I worked up a sweat mowing, trimming, weeding, planting, and watering.

Purple loosestrife

My biggest effort went into creating the main garden, which meant restoring it from its abandoned state. The garden space was situated within a stone-walled enclosure separating our barn from Margarita’s house, which had an addition for her elder sister, Louisa. Louisa’s bedroom window overlooked the garden, and she encouraged us to plant whatever we liked in all the beds except one: she asked that we create a flower garden in the big central bed. To this we readily agreed!

The space had been abandoned years earlier, and its seven big planting boxes, separated by wide grass paths, had become overgrown with masses of purple loosestrife, which also grew abundantly in the marshy field nearby. My objective was to grow food in six of the beds and flowers in the big, central bed. Aaron and I would work on it together, but while I was not working and had time on my hands, I spent mornings and late afternoons in May, 2011, pulling out and composting the loosestrife, leaving in the beds only rich soil.

Compost bin at Millbrook

We had to create rich compost fast for amending the soil, and Patti’s goats helped. She had raised her children to appreciate goats and other animals, and was a 4-H leader who taught generations of children to care for the animals. She had a goat barn in her back pasture, and so of course she had plenty of goat manure to spare for a couple of gardeners. That compost became the richest I’d ever seen, crawling with masses of earthworms.

At that time I had neither first-hand experience with growing in the Hudson Valley, nor had I read up in advance of starting the garden. I began to access readily available resources — most notably the Cary Institute, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Farm and Home center, both in Millbrook.  I also began to befriend experienced gardeners. The most helpful was Margarita’s groundskeeper (and eventually property manager), Keith DiPalo, a graduate of Cornell’s master gardener program. He saw me restoring the center garden and offered invaluable advice. Eventually he hired me on as an assistant for his own projects, lending him a hand at several of his landscaping and gardening accounts.

Food from the garden

For the most part, however, Aaron and I operated by the seat of our pants. We were planting without knowing much if anything about companion planting. We made wild guesses, depended on our instincts, persisted, and almost by sheer luck we created the bountiful garden we envisioned.

Long story short: The garden abounded with lush growth! Even though we planted late in the season, in mid-May, by late spring/early fall our garden flourished! It exploded with what to me was a mind-blowing array of healthy, good-looking vegetables and fruits. We had heirloom tomatoes galore, some with a deep, dark-red, meaty richness, beefsteak-like in their deliciousness. Three or four kinds of lettuce grew fast and thick; chard went wild, their stems festively multicolored; zucchini came in so fast and so huge we couldn’t keep up with them; so did cucumbers. We had potatoes, carrots, onions, strawberries, corn, broccoli, basil and herbs including two kinds of mint, rosemary, thyme and oregano. Our output was more than we could consume so we freely shared it with friends, hosting countless barbecues and dinners. Aaron and I both hunted squirrels, and so we had squirrel meat to add to our vegetables. On one occasion we got a deer, so venison became a staple.


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