Friday, September 2, 2016

Black Lives

I am studying with a midwife.

One thing we spend time talking about is health inequity, and how reproductive health outcomes are solid indicators of greater scale health outcomes.

My teacher shared that black folks who grow up in here in the US experience greater rates of negative health outcomes (and reproductive health outcomes) than poor immigrants or poor white folks. Like even black families who are well educated and middle-to-high-income. Part of the distinction she made was compared to folks who grow up in a context where their skin color is well represented.

My teacher chalks this all up to the effect of stress on the body and it all comes back to microagression, macroaggression, and safety. If you are black and you grow up poor in Jamaica, for example, you might have a context you feel like you belong. If you are black and you grow up in the US, even not-poor or middle class then you are still existing in a context where you're constantly being Othered and questioned. Each day is an uncertainty in a context where police brutality, for example, is an ever-present reality.

All that means the body is constantly processing stress, and that is getting in the way of things like carrying oxygen in the blood to all the tissue. Making enzymes to break down and absorb nutrients in food. Filling the lungs. This makes health outcomes an uphill climb.

Fuck that.

We all deserve a fair shot at fucking perfusion.

So lets remember, while we work on black lives matter. This is about more than the priceless lives of the citizens slaughtered by their own regime. That, an unending debt.

But this too, is about the health of those still present, and the unborn, those who long to live.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Nature, Non-Binary

In this moment of history, as controversy around gender swirls and spills from bathrooms in North Carolina to boardrooms and legislative chambers, there is an element of the conversation that I would like to address. This is the suggestion that a binary view of gender is somehow supported or even necessitated by a 'natural order.' As a student of both the natural world and identity politics, I struggle with this suggestion, though it lurks in the background of some of the circles I inhabit.  This line of logic, drawn into the social sphere, says that norms regarding gender and sexual identity are in support of a species' desire to maintain population, reproduce, and carry on genetic information, all in support of survival of the species. Males mate with females to produce young. When launched into a social sphere with strict conceptions of masculinity and femininity, this suggestion quickly introduces people to a rigid  set of instructions about what gender can look like: male and female. Aggressive Protector and Yielding Nurturer. You know the drill.

So, what does gender in the natural world really look like?

Apart from the interesting and fabulous cases we will look at here, let's attempt an overall look at female-ness and male-ness in general in the natural world.  First comes the freaky-deaky world of plants, where many are self-fertile, containing both testes and ovum, and fertilize themselves, maybe with the help of bees, wind, wasps, bats, etc. (ooh la la!) Other plants have male and female individuals and require the right ratio and spacing. Plants are all over the place in terms of gender.

omg blushing.

In the animal world it's crazy too. We tend to classify most animals as male or female, with males having traits like being smaller and daintier and showing flashier colors. Females tend to be bigger, more aggressive (when protecting young) and more choosy, sexually speaking. Male penguins parent in a way that might look like 'mothering' to us. Female black widows are fierce. It's not all pearls and ties, pink and blue, or whatever binary supporters think.

So let's get right into it with the spotted hyena. The female spotted hyena has a massive clitoris, often referred to as a pseudopenis, which has erections and through which she has sex, urinates, and gives birth. No big deal.

Clownfish in the genus Aphiprion are protandrious hermaphrodites, meaning they are able to switch up their gender as needed to sustain breeding pairs. This means that Nemo's dad would have started behaving like a female just a couple of hours after Nemo's mom died. This behavior triggers the hormones that cause the anatomical changes necessary for transition.

Wrasses (a type of fish) organize into a system  where a harem of females correspond with one male. However, the dominant female can sub in,  becoming male in the event that the male gets eaten. She changes her behavior, causing her hormones to change her gonads into male gonads, and her colors into the male morph. This all takes just a couple of weeks.

The African bat bug, who has a brutal mating strategy similar to bedbugs, has females with no sexual organs and males with sharp penises who stab females injecting sperm  willy-nilly into her body and bloodstream, which can make her sick. So, over time, femalesdeveloped paragenitals, a funnel-like genital opening with tons of immune cells. Then, to confuse everyone, the males developed  copycat versions of these paragenitals, mimicking the females. Then the females started to mimic the more successful male paragenital mimics. Wow!

And the Caribbean hamlet, who are simultaneous hermaphrodites (meaning each individual is male and female at the same time), has a mating ritual that uses a strategy called 'egg trading' (preventing self-fertilization which is bad for the gene pool). Luiz Rocha, fish biologist, explains:
'After meeting in the same familiar spot in the reef (let’s call it the “bedroom” rock), the pair of hamlets rises in the water column and a mesmerizing spawning event happens: the fish acting as a male embraces the one acting as a female while releasing sperm, and the fish behaving as a female releases eggs. The embrace lasts a few seconds and the pair goes back down to the reef. A few minutes later they rise again, but now the roles are reversed! This fantastic courtship and spawning behavior is easy to observe in shallow reefs of the Caribbean and happens every day during a very romantic time (just before sunset.)'

Are you still with me?

The pattern that comes to me through looking at all this is that nature doesn't love rigidity. It doesn't really seem to ever group anything into two strict categories: this over here, that over there, they never intertwingle. It seems like one species oozes into the next, sometimes gender and sex oozes into different forms, sometimes forests become fields become oceans become glaciers. What I see when I look at the natural world is groups of individuals: responding to stimuli, having experiences, adapting accordingly. They pee and poop wherever they want (I’m looking at you,  North Carolina).

literally anywhere.

So I reject the idea that nature has the binary’s back, because it wants more pregnancies, all the time. Perhaps, the great unconscious collective 'survival of the species' instinct is actually actively guiding us away from a rigid and binary view of gender, away from conformity and from the building of boxes into which we must stuff ourselves. Maybe the instinct is drawing us more toward the frontier of authenticity, realness, and vulnerability in our realms of the self, of love, and of expression.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Food and Privilege

Yesterday, as the sun receded from her longest workday, and the full, ripe strawberry moon rose orange, I had a conversation with a dear friend that is still on my mind today. We had been talking about water springing forth from mountains and food jumping out of the earth in our gardens and fields.

“Good food and pure water, those are the luxuries of our time,” somebody said.
“Yes, and we have to live like peasants to be able to have them.” my friend said.
“It's also a pretty privileged thing to be able to live for and with” I chimed in.
“Well, maybe if you're drinking, like, Fiji water bottles,” my friend replied.
There was kind of a lot going on, a group of us, people talking at once, but he asked me to say more about what I meant. I didn't have a perfectly articulated reply in my pocket, but I tried with “well, if you were a single mom, working three jobs to support your kids, taking the bus, living in a part of a city without access to a grocery store...”
he got the drift and reiterated how hard it would be to be a single mom. But I'm not sure I got across what I really wanted to.

We didn't stop, sit down together, and sift through privilege, bias, access, and environmental racism. We didn't talk about frontline communities. We kind of just kept hanging out, looking for a break in the fence so we could walk around the cemetery, catching up.

It's not terribly startling that a person, even someone with a certain level of expertise about growing food (and standing in the circles where people care about that sort of thing) would be unfamiliar with how privilege plays into food and clean water access, but what keeps this exchange on my mind is that this is a friend I met through a two year educational program about growing food and building community, where we were out in communities working with people around food security and nutrition and gardening and eating vegetables.

For me, this is a stop-and-fix moment, and I think that it's a message for the food movement as a whole. It's not a personal attack on this individual or even the educational program, because people are experts in their lived experiences, and that's pretty much all they have to work with. But I think it is an indication that despite the amazing work food justice folks are doing across the country, the food movement still has conversations to have.

Here's what I didn't quite articulate thoroughly at the time, but I wish I had:

  1. That access to good, clean, fair food is blocked for certain people: not just passively by unfortunate circumstances, like missing the bus and then the grocery store was closed, but also actively and systemically by local urban land use policy, zoning and development, national agriculture policy, and cultural barriers.
  2. That environmental racism means that harmful environmental outcomes are borne by marginalized communities, because they have less political clout than more educated, wealthy, lawyered-up communities. This means that there are black communities, native american communities, appalachian communities, latino communities across the country who have shitty water to drink as their only choice because of an oil refinery or fracking or a massive oil spill in the gulf.
  3. That as overwhelming as these and every set of social justice issues can be to face, the most important thing we can all do is to be okay with the discomfort of them, be brave and vulnerable, and have conversations and listen, listen, listen. People have no more control over being born into privilege than they do being born out of privilege. What everyone CAN actively do is educate themselves about the lived experiences of people whose lives are different, whose struggles are real (all of our struggles are real) and about the way that bias plays in to the world around us. When we talk about uncomfortable things like institutional racism, class struggle, and sexism, we take risks, step outside of our comfort zones, and actually learn to quiet judgements originally directed towards ourselves.

So yeah. I think in a maturing national food movement or scene, it's clear that we still have work to do and conversations to have. That feeling may never go away, but we all can just keep showing up and listening. When we show up and listen we can understand how local issues like development projects affect more members of our communities, see it from a few more angles. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

My piece in Auntie Bellum

As I continue to reflect on 2015, a highlight that persists is having my piece, Lessons From a Seven-Year-Old published in Auntie Bellum, a southern feminist online magazine.

I absolutely love this illustration for the piece done by Jaime Chason. It was an honor to have my writing put up in such a sweet publication. Auntie Bellum is "an honest, unapologetic voice for southern women." Their content interweaves personal stories, intersectionality, and current events. They are based in South Carolina (a place so dear to my heart) and I really enjoy reading their offerings and encourage folks to check them out.

As 2016 continues to take shape, and I examine my direction and make decisions about the focus of my creative energy, I hope to continue to participate in this honest, unapologetic conversation.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

an Excersize in Epic

Note, this post was written in September for the Living Earth School. It relates my work as an instructor there. 
This fall, Living Earth School is running two homeschool programs: In Goochland, Virginia on Tuesdays and in Charlottesville, Virginia on Wednesdays. We are really fortunate in this bioregion to experience fall as a time of great beauty with leaves changing and really mild, pleasant temperatures.
We wanted to share with you an update from a day with the advanced group of our Wednesday class in Charlottesville, as told in photos taken by one of our students, Alex.
This day was a special treat: the instructors decided to scrap the schedule they’d planned for the day and put the day’s activities in the hands of the students: granted they include three elements: gratitude sharing, some sort of challenge, and a sit spot (our tradition of quiet time observing nature.)
The students opted for a wander down to the Rivanna River where one of them led gratitude and all of them ate lunch. Upon arrival, we immediately spotted a red-headed woodpecker, a now-rare treat. Did you know that red-headed woodpeckers catch insects in the air and store acorns and beech nuts in trees? Not your typical woodpecker behavior. Needless to say, our kids were beyond stoked.
Then, it was time for challenges. Students had options: two continued wandering upriver, with the challenge of returning with two new (to them) plant acquaintances. Some students met sycamore and paw paw leaves; others spotted apios americana  -or groundnut or hopniss, a native perennial nitrogen fixer with edible tubers and beans- for the first time on this land.
The other option was this: build a raft, and make a fire on it. Bam! this one really cranked up the epic factor. Behold, instructor Erin or Soupy’s masterful take on the challenge.
Needless to say, we were all feeling pretty great as we parted ways for sit spot. A few sitters noticed the redheaded woodpeckers (a pair now!) STILL hanging out in the dead tree. Once the group reconvened, there was another round of ooh’s and ahh’s over this amazing specimen.
That was it, an epic day, self-designed by our advanced group of homeschoolers one lovely warm autumn Wednesday. Thanks for reading, enjoy yourselves out there!
All photos Credited to Alex Goldberg.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Note, this was written in October. It relates my work as a student with the Living Earth School.
A couple weekends ago, I woke outside to a brisk green morning. Peeking out from the depths of my sleeping bag, my face was greeted by cold air and my vision with the white ashes covering the coals of our overnight fire. Beyond that, a few other friends nestled in sleeping bags around the fire. It was the beginning of the second day of the first weekend of the Living Earth Adult Foundations or LEAF program. Later as we all moved around making our preparations for the day, our instructor Hub appeared with a big branch still covered in leaves. Its reddish brown bark was smattered with small horizontal lines, and the leaves were finely, doubly saw-toothed. He snapped a twig and had us all take a sniff—the refreshing wintergreen smell hit me right in the gut. It’s a smell that warms you in the belly. Hub invited us to come and snap twigs and place them in the kettle, placed on the fire for about 15 minutes, to brew up some Sweet Birch tea.
This plant was Sweet B6753817555_f503268444_zirch, betula lenta, also commonly called black birch, cherry birch, and mahogany birch. There is one other birch in our area, bonus points if you can name it in the comments below (a hint: it’s more in the high mountains.) Birch is a profoundly useful tree: the bark was traditionally used in the making of canoes, baskets, and cups. The tar is called the first superglue as well as an early form of chewing gum. The Creek people used birch to treat tuberculosis; the Catawba boiled the buds with sulfur and made a salve to treat ringworm and sores. The Cherokee treated colds, dysentery, and urinary problems with birch tea and by chewing the young leaves. Today, folks laud the teas diuretic and sedative effects in addition to the soothing quality in topical uses—say, for example, that wily case of poison ivy that won’t respond to usual treatments like calamine, jewelweed, and even tannic acid made from boiling acorns (an anecdote from Tom Brown’s Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants).
In addition to all this, inBetula_lenta_-_K√∂hler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-021credibly enough, the inner bark can be boiled like noodles or dried and ground to make a flour. The wood burns reliably, even when wet, and can be used as dye for a fawnlike color. A birch feeds birds with a million seeds per year, and is the exclusive host to birch polypore mushroom, which I’ve read is used in finishing the finest edge in sharpening a knife.
While our tea brewed, Hub told us of an elder of his who said that sweet birch just lends a feeling of happiness and well-being. On that cool morning, with that sweet taste, we couldn’t argue with that.
I’ll leave you with this recipe for birch beer from Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods by Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman:
4 gallons birch sap (tapped in spring, 3-4 after the sugar maples)
1 gallon honey
4 quarts fine twigs
1 yeast cake
Boil honey and sap ten minutes and pour over twigs. When cool, strain and add yeast. Cover and ferment one week or until cloudiness begins to settle. Bottle and cap tightly.