Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ordinary Things

RAIN. I have been in California since early November, facing sunshine day after day after day. I have gotten used to it. And then today it's raining, and right away I get depressed and I wish the sun was shining, even though I live on a farm and I know we need the rain.

SNOW. LaConner artist Janet Laurel called me at 7:15 this morning. She is an early riser and a high energy woman. I am barely awake at that time, but I welcome her calls, because I am inclined to be gloomy and her voice cheers me up. She said, looking out her window, there was six inches of snow on the ground and it was 18 degrees cold out there -- really cold, but the skies were diamond clear. LaConner is all socked in by the snow.

Janet loves to drive around -- she will zip down to Seattle on short notice, and fight all the way through traffic and then come back hours later and still be energetic for some other project.

But today Janet is housebound -- not by the snow -- but she is confined to her living room sofa, recovering from surgery on her foot. The doctor said, "Janet, stay off your foot, or it won't heal." And she is not allowed to drive her car.

This is not easy for her to do, being so energetic. I said to her "Do you knit or embroider?" She said no. But she's an artist, so I said, "You get a small sketch book and start sketching. That will use up some of your restless energy."

She agreed that was a good idea. We talked about other things for a while and then I said, "Goodbye, I gotta eat breakfast."

But it's still raining. I have to change my farm routine on account of the rain. On most days the first thing I do, upon arising at 6:30 a.m., is put on my coat on and my shoes over my pajamas and walk over to the chicken coop and let the hens out. Then I feed them and gather what eggs might be there.

Then coffee and journal and email and shower and eat.

Then work -- but this is where I am adjusting. Yesterday, knowing the rain was coming, I spent extra time in the garden planting seeds.

I planted shelling peas, 51 days to harvest. I planted turnips in the other row, and I snuck a row of radishes in between, because the radishes will come and go quickly.

I also planted two rows of beets.

I avoided planting carrots. They make a problem for me because the seeds are so tiny, and I think I just have bad luck or some kind of mental block when it comes to growing carrots.

Do you ever have that problem in your garden? Like some vegetable, and you just can't seem to grow it, even if you try year after year?

Tomatoes, for instance. I used to have bad luck with tomatoes, but this year I feel that my luck has changed. This year I am going BIG on tomatoes, Brandywine, Heirloom, Zebra Stripe, Grape-size and a few others. I believe the force is with me. I have the seedlings started in the greenhouse, and I watch them with loving care. The danger is over-watering. If you water them too much you can love them to death. Better to have a little faith and not watch them too closely

But that was yesterday. It's too wet to work in the vegetable garden today. I might plant some more flats of seeds in the greenhouse, but we are running out of space. The greenhouse is close to a 1,000 square feet, but it is full of 3,000 dahlia tubers, all carefully marked and identified, all 200 varieties, all laying in 3 inches of compost on tables -- it's very complicated. I would have to give you a seminar on how to grow dahlias, but this is the commercial part of the organization, so dahlias, and the space to grow them, are the Prime Directive on this little farm, this little piece of heaven by the Ventura River.

We were planning to have a tractor class today. Andy was going to show me the tractor and how it runs -- it's fairly simple, a diesel engine with hydraulic power to the front scoop and power take-off in the rear.

We were going to scoop out and re-arrange the manure pile. It's getting to be quite a pile, considering that we have five horses boarded on the farm. They generate two to three cartloads of manure per day. It's black gold, but it has to composted first, and we need the tractor to up-end the pile.

But it's too wet. Okay, I know what you're saying. If we were really hard-core farmers we wouldn't let a little rain stop us from the tractor work.

Except there are plenty of things to do around here that do not involved getting wet and muddy. My Mom and Dad sent me to college and I am an educated man. So I will apply myself agriculturally but keep my socks dry at the same time.

Ordinary things. I am writing about these ordinary things because the news is full of mass demonstrations and violence across the Middle East. It's scary and it's hopeful, and some young people are having the best time of their lives, and some other young people are wounded and dying, and some other older people, in those blessed countries, are wishing with all their might that it was just back to normal and be quiet and ordinary, like it is here on the farm.

So I am writing about these ordinary things on the farm as a gesture of solidarity to the struggling Arab people -- their countries will get back to being ordinary again, and I hope and pray with all my heart that it's a better place than it was.

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Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog: Frog Hospital

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Fred Owens
7922 Santa Ana Rd
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Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Writers Life

Kentucky author Wendell Berry courted arrest when he and some friends occupied the Governor's office. Berry objected to the coal mining which strips the mountains of soil, and this kind of civil disobedience was a very strong move on his part, way past his usual comfort zone of essay-writing and speechifying.

Is Wendell Berry a farmer or a writer? Can you be both? Can you do both well?

I heard Noam Chomsky speaking with Amy Goodman on her TV news show, Democracy Now. Chomsky is an important and very intelligent idiot, known for the volume and quantity of his prose. My take is that if you spend enough hours typing you might get something right and Chomsky does.

Chomsky should write less -- you can't be an expert on everything even if you are the smartest guy in Boston.

From Bahrain to Wisconsin. But something is going around, from Bahrain to Madison, Wisconsin. People are in the streets in both places -- is this only a coincidence, or is some there some kind of surging energy coursing across the globe, like a wave about to crash on distance shores, fueled by atmospheric changes we can barely understand?
Is it from the left? the right? forward? backward? I have no read on this.

Brought to you by Facebook. This revolution is brought to us by the faceless billionaires who operate Facebook and Google.

I am glad -- don't get me wrong -- glad that the young people are using social media to get around the current regime in the Middle East. But I warn them to remain skeptical of the new powers and the new media. Use Facebook -- I do -- but don't trust it.

In Wisconsin, the governor is selectively breaking public employee unions. He is targeting the teachers and letting the police and firemen keep their arrangements. I would listen to the governor's argument if he wished to abolish or reduce the power of ALL public employee unions.

One is reminded of Governor Calvin Coolidge in Massachusetts when he broke the police union in Boston in 1919. This staunch stand against public employee unions won him a vice-presidential nomination in 1920, and then he became President when Warren Harding died in office.

At least Coolidge took a consistent and clear position.

But when you pick on the teachers, and let the cops and firemen take a pass -- because they supported your election last year -- well that just stinks of politics, and I oppose the whole thing.

What I read: "Police and fire unions, which have some of the most expensive benefits but who supported Mr. Walker’s campaign for governor, are exempted."

The Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, trouble erupts in Bahrain, and concerned citizens like me rush to Google and Wikipedia to find out where this little island IS. We don't even know where it IS, or what they do there, except it says that the Navy's 5th fleet is based on this little island.

Why is the fleet there, for the fishing?

Let's back up to last week's revolution in Egypt. We all know a little about Egypt. Many Americans have been there as tourists. The pyramid appears on the backside of our dollar bills. Our Biblical heritage depicts stories of the pharaohs, and we older folks can't help but picture Charlton Heston as Moses, leading his people out of Egypt.

We know SOMETHING about Egypt, but NOTHING about Bahrain.

So why is the fleet there? For the oil. We need to bring the fleet home and get off the oil economy. We can do this in five years if we ever really wanted to.

As clumsy and as cynical as our foreign and military policies can be, we meddled in the affairs of Egypt and Israel and helped maintain a broader peace. We have done more good than harm in that area.

But the Persian Gulf is nothing but war, death and oil. And I say get out now.

Okay, that's enough opinion. The title of this piece is "the Writer's Life." That's me, the writer.

Last week on Wednesday, I woke up feeling lonely and I was tired of working on these four acres. I was irritated at my co-workers for no apparent reason.

By the next day I figured it out. I ain't a farmer, I'm a writer.
I don't know how or why Wendell Berry does it, but it drives me nuts. Farming is a clear second choice for me, as a way to make a living. Writing is my first choice, but it always leaves me broke and breathless.

I figured by this time in my life, I would have some modest success, a few books sold, a newspaper column that paid, a writer-in-residence gig -- something. But it didn't happen.

That's why I went back to work at the farm last summer, and glad of it. But I will never be a first-class farmer like Dave Hedlin, the man I worked for back in the Skagit.

I just get tired of it. That's what happened to me last week.

Fortunately, they are not working me to death here at Love House Dahlias. I only work part-time and I can adjust my schedule, so I have begun spending more time at a house in Altadena -- not a farm, but a home filled with books and a darn good high-speed Internet connection. I go there to write.

But I do not like this multi-tasking life, trying to farm and write at the same time. You end up doing poorly at both. I don't know how Wendell Berry does it.

The Seven Storey Mountain is Thomas Merton's autobiography, a tale of his spiritual journey, one of the great confessions, from a man whose confessions are worth knowing.

The confessional genre is the most debased in current literature. People feel compelled to bare their souls in blogs and Facebook rants, and they have NOTHING to say. It's awful.

Well, it wasn't Thomas Merton's fault. We were put on this earth to commit interesting sins -- that is why God does not destroy humankind. I hope we never bore Him.

Merton preached, hypocritically, against worldly fame and fortune. His books were best sellers. He was a media star at the time. Merton was a Trappist monk with a vow of poverty, but the revenue from his book sales made him a great power within his monkish community.

That was his sin -- success and wealth, and he enjoyed it.

I have committed some interesting sins. Those are the ones I find worth writing about. But Merton never "told all" in his confessions and neither will I.

The Style of Leo Tolstoy. I am at page 771 of War and Peace. It is such a wonderful and very long novel -- 1,300 pages altogether, as broad and as deep as Russia.

I was trying to identify Tolstoy's style of writing and became astonished. He has no style! That's why he's so good.

Style has its place with lesser works and lesser writers. I have a style, a way of saying things. But I am going to rise above this. I am going to write like Tolstoy -- with no style, just the story itself. What a grand ambition.

Harvey Blume. Harvey Blume is from Brooklyn and lives there now. I met him in the 1990s when we both lived in Boston. We both attended the Tikkun salon on Sunday mornings, a discussion group of bright Jewish Intellectuals. I especially remember Debbie Osnowitz -- she could speak, off the cuff, in whole paragraphs. But Harvey was a pretty good talker himself.

Anyway, Harvey wrote this piece and I liked it. Boomers -- Part One.

Wendell Berry, Noam Chomsky, Thomas Merton, Leo Tolstoy and Harvey Blume. These are some writers I admire although I did not find anything good to say about Chomsky. These are guys I hang out with. They say writing is a lonely occupation -- not so. I live with these people, learn from them, steal from them, despise them, love them -- and other writers too.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog: Frog Hospital

send mail to:

Fred Owens
7922 Santa Ana Rd
Ventura CA 93001

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

10,000 years of farming in Egypt.

The silt comes down on the annual flood, making the soil fertile. The ancient people began to grow more food than they needed. It was the surplus that made it possible to build the pyramids and the cities that came to follow.

The great city of Alexandria rose at the mouth of the Nile, a center of ancient learning and trade. Learning was possible because with enough food came the leisure to read and write books, and with a surplus of food there was something to trade.

Egyptians traded wheat to the Greeks who would have starved on their soil-poor rocky shores that were only fit for grazing goats.

In later centuries, Egypt became the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.

Trade and knowledge -- it was the farm that made it possible.

Farmers in Egypt and elsewhere tend to be more conservative. The country people, since those early times in Egypt, were very conservative. And in all places and times, in our nation as well, the country people have been more conservative, more old-fashioned, resisting change and clinging to orthodoxy and the ways of their fathers.

The city people work for changes, admire fashion, trends, and ideas, pursue novelties, develop progressive philosophies, concoct startling new theories, and they want to overthrow the established order.

But the city people have always depended on the agricultural surplus from the conservative country side.

That is a curious mutual dependency, which began in Egypt.

So the old Egyptian farmer said, "It would be so much fun to be in a riot and get my fair share of abuse. But I am too old for that now, so I think they should all be arrested."

He did not trust those young upstarts in Tahrir Square, even though he had once felt that way himself.

But everywhere, across Africa, voices rose crying out for change.

In Zimbabwe they heard the call and said, "Dear Mr. Mubarak, When you leave, will you take Robert Mugabe with you?"

In South Africa, they upheld an image counter to the stubborn-ness of Mubarak.

Nelson Mandela was the real hero of African statesmanship. It was not his years in prison, not even his service as a President of a liberated South Africa. No deed was more important than his final choice -- to step down after serving one term. Mandela went home when his job was done, and that made him the best man in Africa.

But Mubarak could not learn that -- he had to be shown the door.

I am glad that Mubarak will stay in the country side, in a resort villa near the Red Sea.. His plea was heartfelt -- "I will die in Egypt."

He may deserve exile or criminal prosecution. Yet it will be a strong testament to the strength of the Egyptian people if they can let him live out his days quietly -- because they no longer fear him.

It's just kind of classy -- if they let him go.

No Jobs for College Graduates in Egypt. They are educated but unemployed, by the millions in Cairo, festering on their Blackberries and iPhones, boiling with knowledge.

This revolution began in Tunisia with a college graduate who got tired of looking for a job that did not exist, an office job where he could wear office casual clothes, like he had seen from videos on YouTube, designing and selling Arabic software.

No jobs existed like that. But he was determined and he borrowed a cart, loaded it with orange and bananas, and began to pursue the noble occupation of fruit peddler.

This man is my hero, I too am a college graduate, I too have sometimes worked peddling fruit.

But this young man was harassed and beaten by the Tunisian police because he had no permit and no money to bribe them.

It was his outrage and self-immolation that sparked the revolution in Egypt.

What this means, and I tell this to the young men and women in Tahrir Square -- you are know free to become fruit peddlers. You can repair shoes, you can open a cafe -- seriously, I'm not kidding.

Because there is no way on earth that any new democratic government in Egypt can provide millions of professional-level jobs to college graduates. It won't happen unless they hire a million more bureaucrats who will then burden the working public with massive taxation and regulation and by doing so, create a government as bad as the one they just got rid of.

No, that won't happen. If the government is good at all, it will stay out of the way, and permit and allow the young people to sell fruit from a cart, and build up the country that way.

That would be a good thing with so many young people wanting to work.

Egypt imports food. Egypt was self-sufficient in food until 1960. And let's not forget the long-term time frame. Egypt was self-sufficient in food for 10,000 years and was often a net exporter. In Roman times Egypt was the most valued province because of the vast wheat crops, harvested for the hungry thousands in Rome.

But not now. Now Egypt imports 40 per cent of its food. The production of food has not kept pace with the increase in population.

Where is the is freedom? Where is the independence, if you can't feed your own people?

So the young college graduates in Egypt had better face this problem squarely. Take your Twitters and your Facebook and your Google and start talking about food independence. That's where the work is.

Grow more food. The future of Egypt depends on better farming.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog: Frog Hospital

send mail to:

Fred Owens
7922 Santa Ana Rd
Ventura CA 93001

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Out of Africa

Never forget that Egypt is in Africa -- it is clearly and most definitely an African nation. Only look at the map to confirm this fact. The media repeats endlessly the Arabic character of Egyptian culture -- true, but not true enough.

Egypt is African. The great book of the Bible is the Exodus, about going "out of Africa" -- a sentiment repeated endlessly in Jewish liturgy -- "Thank God we are no longer slaves in Egypt."

Thank God we got out of Africa.

Out of Africa -- The title of Isak Dinesen's wonderful book, and the movie of the same name, with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.

Out of Africa -- the story of the human race, is it not? The human race began in Africa and lived within that vast continent on the savanna for a hundred thousand years, and another hundred thousand years, and we did not leave, expand or evolve until a mere 60,000 years ago -- although scientists keep adjusting that figure up and down, but they all agree -- we came "Out of Africa" and spread across the globe.

And the people of Africa -- always mentally include Egypt, even though it is also Arabic and part of the Middle East -- but the people of Africa endorse the findings of scientists -- that Africa is the true home and mother of the human race.

This all happened before the invention/development/discovery of agriculture, and we need to know what happened before that, before we planted crops and built cities and learned to read and write.

That is what we call pre-history, which is actually pre-literature and pre-agriculture.

Almost all pre-history took place in Africa, where the Nile and the Congo Rivers flow, and the River Niger, and the Limpopo and the Zambezi Rivers flow. Those are the principle rivers.

So, as events unfold in Cairo, I just want to remind people that this is a story about Africa.

Who Cooks for You? I'm going to write a book about Africa, but not until next winter. I'm too busy on the farm right now.

But the book will be about, or developed from, the year I spent in Africa in 1997.

I would like to call it "Out of Africa" or "Exodus" or "Heart of Darkness" but those titles have been taken. Well, I have plenty of time to think of a title.

The book will be classified as fiction. It has to be fiction. There are no facts in Africa -- I never found any. Anything that looked like a fact in Africa turned out to be a mirage, or the first layer of a hidden truth, which also turned out to be a mirage.

All non-fiction books written about Africa are quite dubious, in my opinion.

So the book will be fictional, and one chapter will be titled "Who Cooks for You?" which is the story of my romance and engagement to an African woman.

She -- She -- I'm not even sure of her real name, but I met her near the Matopo Hills, which is clearly, or possibly, the site of King Solomon's Mines, as described by H. Rider Haggard.

You understand? It will be so much easier to write this if I just let it be a fictional story.

These kinds of stories are really necessary for understanding Africa, and understanding the current crisis in Egypt.

Well, I have to go out now and tend the sweet peas and look after the horses. We had a good rain yesterday -- what a blessing.

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Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog: Frog Hospital

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Fred Owens
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