Sunday, March 28, 2010

Alone in the Wild

I just watched the reruns of the National Geographic four-part special "Alone in the Wild." In the show, Scottish outdoor explorer Ed Wardle sets out to survive alone in the Yukon Territory in Canada for three months. It's a boyhood dream of his that he's finally getting a chance to live out. He brings the very basics - shelter, rations of rice and oats, cooking supplies, an ax, a fishing pole, and a shotgun (plus some other minor necessities). He does a practice run in June for 6 days, meets various outdoor experts to learn what plants are safe to eat and to do if a bear attacks, then sets off in July for the main event. He has a tracking unit that he uses to check in once a day by pushing either the OK button if he's okay or the SOS button if he needs help. His activities and thoughts are recorded on video via a small camera he can hook up to his pack while he walks.

The first few days are grand - it's beautiful, he manages to find things to eat, he's enjoying the peaceful environment and the challenge of surviving. But as time goes on, he struggles more and more. Canadian law prohibits him from killing the two moose and one caribou he sees, each of which would easily have fed him for a few weeks. Law also prohibits him from shooting ducks out of season. So he's left to subsist on the two porcupines he finds, wild berries and other plants, and fish from the river and lake. His whole existence becomes focused on finding his next meal, but food is hard to come by in the Yukon. Small animals are few and far between. The salmon he expected to start spawning soon don't show up. Wild leaves and tubers provide far fewer calories than he needs. And to top it all off, he's constantly terrified of being attacked by a bear.

Not every day is bad. On the clear, warm days, when he's found something to eat, Ed's spirits are high. He set out to do something extraordinary, and the successful day he's having proves that he can survive in the wild. But when he is cold, hungry, tired, scared, he cries a lot. His loneliness and frustration get him down. He questions why he took on such a difficult challenge. He keeps reminding himself to be strong, but the mental challenge proves to be too much for him sometimes, especially when he already faces physical hardships. After 42 days, he receives food, airlifted to him from nearby, because he realizes he's just not able to subsist. That seems to be the beginning of the end. Loneliness and food deprivation take over. If he had been allowed to kill even one of the moose or the caribou, he may have made it a lot longer. But perhaps the law proved to be a blessing in disguise. Ed follows the cardinal rule of camping: don't give bears any reason to take an interest in your campsite. Butcher and cook animals away from your site, and hang all your food in a tree far out of a bear's reach. The fish, rabbit, and porcupines Ed caught were easily placed in a bag and strung up for the night. But where do you store a whole moose? What do you do with three weeks worth of meat? A bear surely would have taken an interest in Ed at some point, and things could have ended far worse than they did. The laws meant to protect wildlife protected Ed as well.

I think we can all relate to Ed on some level, wherever we choose to take chances and live out our dreams. When times are good, when things are going our way, we feel strong, like we can conquer the world. Building a fire and catching a meal can be incredibly fulfilling, and they help us live another day, but what does it mean if we have no one to share those successes with? And facing challenge after challenge with no success can leave us feel beaten down, especially if we have no one to lean on. What finally pushed Ed past the point of no-return is when he pulls out the letter his girlfriend wrote for him and the photographs of his family and friends, and he realizes that his dream means nothing without the people in his life to share it with.  On day 50, emotionally drained and physically weak, he decides to return home. It's a conflicted decision for him. As he says after being picked up from his site, it's hard to go out and live your dream, only to find out it's so difficult to do. But still, he feels uplifted by the fact that he made it for 50 days, on his own, in a beautiful place where most people would love to spend even just a day or two. He lived out his dream, proved he could make it for more than half of the time he had planned to spend in the Yukon, took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something extraordinary.

Challenges can make us appreciate the small things in life, especially when those challenges occur in nature. Back in the hotel room in Whitehead, Yukon, Ed shoots his final minutes of video. After 50 days in the wild, the tv, the coffee pot, the refrigerator - everything in the room - seems needless. Once you can find happiness sleeping in a hammock and eating food cooked over a fire you built yourself, the modern amenities in life seem so unnecessary. I know I have felt that way after returning to civilization from a camping trip. It's a nice reminder that fretting over the small things, the unsuccesses and the struggles, is pointless, and that having people to share life with make all the difference.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Women and Green Jobs

The Green Economy Post had this interesting article on March 9th about how the green jobs push may be leaving women behind because they may need child care and they may not have the ability to do hard physical labor - much of the green jobs created with stimulus money have been for renewable energy development. But this idea contrasts with the discussion of late all over the Internet about the growing movement of women in agriculture, a field that one would argue is the oldest green job out there. (I, myself, mentioned the agriculture-as-green-collar-job thing here.)

This past Sunday, the New York Times had an article called The Femivore's Dilemma, about how women for a long time had shunned homemaking in favor of entering the workforce, both to provide income for the family and to seek autonomy and personal fulfillment. Being a stay-at-home mother, doing the cooking and cleaning, managing the home, was seen as so 1950s. But women are once again returning to the home to garden, raise chickens and other livestock, can food, and create self-sufficiency, and indeed personal fulfillment. I like this quote from the article:

"My femivore friends may never do more than dabble in backyard farming — keeping a couple of chickens, some rabbits, maybe a beehive or two — but they’re still transforming the definition of homemaker to one that’s more about soil than dirt, fresh air than air freshener. Their vehicle for children’s enrichment goes well beyond a ride to the next math tutoring session." 

One point made in the article is a question that many of my friends, both male and female, have been asking as we enter the workforce: What is this all for? If given the opportunity, many of us would buy some land, set up some buildings, and start a farm. Women abandoned the domestic arts because they felt hemmed in, as though sewing and cleaning were occupations they attended to because they felt they had few options, and they sought out meaningful experiences in the workplace. Now, we're all feeling like we just go to our jobs because we have to earn money, and we think that work with tangible results, like farming, cooking, canning, quilting, can be more meaningful. Perhaps some day we'll find a happy medium.

Perhaps it's just coincidence, or perhaps there's something else out there driving the discussion, but the topic of women in agriculture is hot right now. The DC Environmental Film Festival, which starts today, features a film on March 20th called "Ladies of the Land". The Women in Agriculture national conference is next Wednesday, March 24th, in Baltimore, MD. The book Farmer Jane, about thirty women who are making a difference in sustainable agriculture, has been getting some press lately because it comes out May 1st. Why the recent focus on women in farming? Or have we been talking about it for years without much notice? Does Michelle Obama's involvement in food and nutrition have anything to do with it? What do you think?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Filling holes

It's been a rough couple of months. Remember all the happiness I posted about those many months ago? I've had the rug pulled out from under me, my well-laid plans now a pile of rubble. (Sorry for mixing metaphors.) So now I'm just figuring out what to do with myself, trying to pick up the pieces and put things back together. It's not that I walk around in a daze or wail about how awful things are - most days are okay and the lovely weather here in DC has been a curative. And I'm so thankful that I have a home, a job, food, fantastic friends, my health. I have the things I need. It's more like when the wily coyote devises an elaborate plan to catch the roadrunner and puts it all into place, but before he knows it, he's just gone off a cliff and hovers in mid-air, looking at the ground hundreds of feet below, wondering how he got there. When faced with a situation like that, all you can do is accept where you are, let yourself fall, and hope that when you hit the ground, you can pick yourself up and start devising a new plan.

Staying busy is key. While trying to figure out how I got here and what to do next, I've been focusing diligently on my work, a satisfying endeavor. And I've been filling the holes with nature. I volunteered to participate in a lion behavior watch at the zoo - they're introducing the two female African lions to the male African lion with the hope of starting a new pride at the zoo. So far, the male has been shy, wary of the two older females who giggle secretively in the next enclosure over. Last weekend, I got to see them up close, three feet away from the fence separating the humans from the felines. It's an indescribable feeling to stare into the eyes of a wild animal, seemingly as tame as my kit but much bigger, with much more ancient souls. It was like looking back in time, to a place when we were all a little wilder. Tomorrow is my first practice run. I'll report back with any worthwhile notes or thoughts.

Now that spring is springing, I'm looking forward to some local wildlife watching. I just ordered my first binoculars, some Nikon Ecobins at a steep discount from REI - I'll report back what I think of them after they come in and I get a chance to try them out. Already the air has started to fill with the cacophony of birds returning from their southerly winter vacation. There's really quite a diversity of birds in this city. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I only ever knew of a few bird species: robins, cardinals, the mourning doves that nested in the evergreen tree outside my bedroom window, and some others that I never bothered to identify by name. Here, I've only really noticed the house sparrows and starlings, plus some robins and cardinals. But a few weeks ago, I saw what I suspect were some black scoters in the bay near Old Town Alexandria, and last Sunday, as I waited in the warm sun at the bus stop on a busy street, I took in the melodious song of a male northern mockingbird in a tree right above me. It sounded so joyous, chirping to the other neighborhood birds, bathing in the sun's rays, mimicking the street noise. A female northern mockingbird appeared a few days later on a fence further up the road, and it reminded me of the bird I saw in Meridian Hill Park during Snowmageddon. Hearing the raucous chirping each morning makes me miss the North Carolina bird symphony I enjoyed during the two years I spent there, and it makes me yearn for a quieter home (meaning less street noise) where I can enjoy daily encounters with local wildlife.

The next few months will be tough. Losing something you loved so deeply can be achingly sad. A lone mourning dove perched on the roof outside my window the other day, and its gut-wrenching hoo-hoos perfectly expressed my pain. It's best to take each day as it comes and figure the next day out when it gets there. Hopefully the soft sunshine and the cheerful chirping can buoy my spirits, at least until it gets a little easier to breathe.


I signed up for the feed from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition a couple weeks ago, and since then I have opened up my Google Reader inbox almost every day to find a well-written post about interesting things happening in the world of sustainable ag. As a member of the agricultural policy community, I have really enjoyed reading thoughtful pieces from people who are actually affected by national policies. Seriously, go to and check it out. They posted some excellent recaps from the Ag Outlook Forum last month, and the two posts this month about beginning farmers and ranchers are worth a read as well.

While we're on the subject, check out this interesting article from The Atlantic about local foods at Walmart. The store has been the symbol for much of what ails society, but it's hard to ignore the strides the company has taken in the past few years to improve its sustainability. I still won't shop there unless I really have no other choice and it's an emergency, but in many areas of the country where the only store around for miles is a Walmart, providing a market for and access to fresh, possibly local food, is a good thing. Let's hope the company is really committed to taking their local food initiative a step further and isn't just stealing marketing opportunities from local producers.