Archive for December, 2010

My first journey into the blogosphere

Well, here goes. I was a Denver Post columnist for a brief time, but this is my first journey as a writer into the blogosphere. I hope it’s mutually beneficial. I stand to gain some discipline and momentum in a period when there’s no book deadline hanging over me, and readers may benefit from in-the-moment thoughts that I keep having – kind of like a leaky faucet that occasionally drips fine wine. (Or at least it tastes like wine to me.)

Callout Title
“publishing a book is like having a baby, except you don’t have to go out and sell a baby”

So, at least a few times a month I’ll put on my blogging cap (with the letter “B” on it) and pour and lay out little glasses of wine, compiled from entries in my daily journal (which exists mostly in my head.)  What’s up for me now – right around New Year, 2011, is a book that’s just being born. My standard quip is that publishing a book is like having a baby, except you don’t have to go out and sell a baby. I do feel intimidated and a little embarrassed about having to sell labors of love and commitment.  On the other hand, there’s useful and urgent information in The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living.  I drew on the brilliant ideas, insights, and carefully-compiled data of people like Lester Brown (Earth Policy Institute), Christopher Flavin (Worldwatch Institute), Alex Steffens (Worldchanging Bright Green), Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute), the editors of YES! Magazine, and many other pioneers of a more sensible way of being in the world.

The book contrasts “Old Perspectives” and “New Perspectives” in each chapter to make the case that we need to reprogram the software of our industrial civilization. This is a mission far more critical than going to the moon, and it’s more about conquering inner space – the final frontier. It’s about a resurgent ethic that will steer our policies, technologies, and everyday routines in a completely different direction. As Gandhi once said, “Speed is irrelevant if you’re traveling in the wrong direction.”  As a culture, we’re idiotically sawing off the scaffolding that supports us to have what? – a brief moment in the sun. It’s not physically or biologically possible for our way of life to continue. The New Normal’s underlying theme is that normality and sanity are not necessarily synonymous. In other words, our culture is crazy, and it is there that we need to create fundamental changes.

Like Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, we’re living in the shadow of a wicked worldview that forces us to destroy our communities, our personal health, and the health of the natural world. The instructions – that we consent to – in effect direct us to swing wrecking balls against our own homes, wild areas, and places of worship.  Why is this okay?

Callout Title
“it’s possible to teach other people how not to kill, by killing them”

It’s time for us to confess that we are addicted to a worldview whose systems and assumptions are broken and irrelevant. And to celebrate the fact that we do have effective tools to overcome addiction. Addicts publicly acknowledge their addiction, seek support, and define a new, healthier identity. So must our addicted, wayward culture, which promotes so many backward assumptions. For example, we collectively assume that the environment is inside the economy. That technology should define human behavior. That people who are paid less are worth less. That convenience and reduced physical activity are primary goals. That growth is always good – that it’s okay to destroy natural systems and permanently warp the minds of children in the name of profit. That it’s possible to teach other people how not to kill, by killing them.

Our civilization seems to have agreed it’s a good idea to use more and more of what we have less and less of (resources); and less and less of what we have more of (people) as we substitute technology for humans.

In the emerging era, production and consumption will no longer be the defining features of our civilization; cultural richness, ecological design, and biological restoration will be. We’ll focus on health and wellness rather than wealth and “hellness.” Our overall direction will shift from “Destroy nature, make money” to “Restore nature, save money.” If nature and culture are abundant – providing security and freedom – we won’t need or want as much material wealth, individually or collectively. For example, for two-thirds of the cost of a massive flood event in 1993, the restoration of thirteen million acres of wetlands along the Mississippi River and its tributaries would permanently prevent catastrophic flooding. Similarly, by preventing a catastrophic rise in global temperature, we will save more money than we have spent so far in the history of the world.

In a sustainable future, we’ll ask key questions like, “What’s the purpose of a company?” We should feel ashamed that in our times, companies have a single, dogmatic mission – to make money. When we experience a cultural epiphany, a collective flash of insight, we’ll know that, of course, companies should be vehicles of service. They should exist to make money AND provide stimulating, creative work; to be good neighbors in their communities; to make products that glow and resonate with quality; to be centers of social abundance and creativity. Places where the human spirit thrives and the goal of innovation is to fit human and natural systems the way well made gloves fit our hands.

Callout Title
“we’ll realize that what’s bad for the beehive can’t be good for the bee”

“What’s the purpose of nature?” will once again be self-evident. Far from being a just warehouse of booty for an over-productive economy, nature expresses life on Earth, providing and sharing everything it needs to perfect itself as an experiment: clean air, pollination, natural defenses against infestation, climatic stability, species diversity, and on and on. In a more mature phase of our own evolution, we’ll realize that what’s bad for the beehive can’t be good for the bee. Products will flow from and through nature the way honey does: without harming the flower.

In the new normal, we’ll realize at last that political polarization is self-defeating; that our basic goals are universal, and that policies should simply be devices for achieving goals like these:

  • Healthy, low-stress lives, with more leisure time
  • Happy kids
  • Real security in our neighborhoods
  • An environment with a stable, sustainable “immune system”
  • Places we can go to experience and be renewed by nature
  • Genuine, non-pretentious connections with friends
  • Contentedness rather than anxiety as a starting point for each day
  • A sense that life has purpose and meaning.

So now, along with my “B” cap, let me conclude for the moment by pulling on a New Normal T-shirt.  My new book is worthy of being parentally defended because it presents 33 high-leverage shifts in direction, including specific policies, technologies, and behavioral changes in these essential areas:

  • Where we live and how we build
  • What we eat and how we grow
  • How we interact with, and protect, nature
  • What we buy, and how we design and make it
  • How we provide power, mobility, and access
  • How we prioritize and budget both private and public capital

Callout Title
“enough of this hyper-individuality we’ve been stuck with”

Be well, my friends, and as the copy on the new book’s cover suggests, “Let’s work together to keep the planet healthy.”  Enough of this hyper-individuality we’ve been stuck with. Let’s create a new way of being that actually satisfies our needs rather than relying on a huge machine that’s programmed to leave us hungry for more.

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Articles and Essays

Selections from a total of over 200
  • “Sustainable Simplicity,” Mother Earth News, February, 2008
  • Eight Great Places You May Not Have Heard Of,” Mother Earth News,
    August, 2007
  • “A Tool Kit for Dry Times,” Denver Post, April 28, 2006
  • “The Future on Your Street,” Denver Post, July 31, 2005
  • Extreme Makeover: Neighborhood Edition,” YES! Magazine, Summer 2005
  • Waste Makes Haste,” Alternet, June 16, 2003
  • “Waste Makes Haste,” Denver Post, Sunday, August 3, 2003
  • Superbia!” Alternet, May 21, 2003
  • Transforming Suburbia into Superbia!” Terrain, A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments
  • “A Four-Season Cold Frame,” Organic Gardening, November/Dec, 2002, p 34
  • “A Recipe For Saving the World – One Bagel at a Time,” Cohousing Journal, Fall 2002)
  • “Five Ways to Stop Junk Marketing,” Denver Post, 1/27/02
  • “Reducing the Flow of Junk Information,” Denver Post, 1/20/02
  • “Real Survivors Get By Without Television,” Denver Post, 1/13/02
  • “Disposable Income Needs Rechanneling,” Denver Post, 1/06/02
  • “9/11 Raises Questions on Meaning of Security,” Denver Post, 12/01
    “Toward a Holiday Rich in Experience,” Denver Post, 12/01
  • “Test Tells Whether You Have Affluenza,” Denver Post, 12/01
  • “Organic Farmers Forge Links With Consumers,” Denver Post, 12/01
  • “Right Stuff Becomes Evident on Vacation,” Denver Post, 11/01
  • “Climb to Economic Peaks Induces Vertigo,” Denver Post, 11/01
  • “Investing in a Healthy Economy,” Denver Post 11/01
  • “Little Things Add Up in Saving Energy,” Denver Post, 11/01
  • “Affluenza: Too Much Stuff,” Denver Post, 10/21/01
  • “A Solitude of Community,” Denver Post, 10/22/01
  • “Out of Mind,” Denver Post, 10/23/01
  • “Civic Involvement in Need of Re-energizing,” Denver Post, 10/24/01
  • Summer 2000 through summer 2002, monthly articles on gardening for Colorado Country Life Magazine, Denver, CO
  • “Our Town: Identifying the Cornerstones of Great Communities,” Denver Post, 7/4/99
  • “Negotiating the Future by Design,” Whole Earth Review, Winter 1995
  • “Right Here, Right Now,” Environmental Action, Jan/Feb 1990
  • “Technologies That Fit Like Gloves,” Buzzworm, Nov/Dec, 1990
  • “A Burning Issue,” The Bureaucrat, Spring 1990
  • “Biologic, Designing Products With Nature in Mind,” Environmental Action Nov/Dec, 1988
  • “A National Challenge that Keeps Building Up,” The Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 1989
  • “Paper or Plastic, a Tough Choice,” Rocky Mountain News, 10/13/89
  • “Environmental Crime Doesn’t Pay,” Rocky Mountain News, 6/89
  • “Hungry Bugs Might Be an Answer,” Waste Age, October 1986
  • “Wheat vs. Ducks,” Denver Post, July, 1986
  • “Science, Corporations and the Common Man,” Bloomsbury Review, October, 1985
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Other Books

 

BIOLOGIC: Designing with Nature to Protect the Environment

 

  

An argument for more
inspired design in products,
the built environment,
agriculture, and other
sectors – based on how
nature actually works.
Widely used by architects,
planners, and environmental
consultants and activists.

 

 

 

 

Reviews

“Biologic is lively, provocative, insightful and delightful – one of the best environmental books in years.” ~ Amory Lovins, President, Rocky Mountain Institute

“An indispensable guide to those working to build sustainable societies.” ~ Hazel Henderson, coauthor of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy

Excerpt

One orientation says, “Make it work,” while the other says, “Let it work.” One says, “We can conquer nature!” The other says “Go with the flow.” Since ancient times, one of the orientations has been associated with the military, huge engineering projects, and centralized government, while the other is more closely linked to crops, crafts, and villages.

I call one discipline technologic and the other biologic.  In the last century, technologic has been personified by the engineer with the “can do” attitude. Of course he can do, with a million years of stored-up fossil fuel at his disposal. Technologic is like a two-legged stool based on physics and chemistry, but sorely lacking the critical third leg – biology.

 

DEEP DESIGN: Pathways to a Liveable Future

Deep Design explores
a new way of thinking
about design that asks
“What is our ultimate goal?”
before the first step
has even been taken. 
Deep Designs are sensitive
to living systems,
and can potentially accomplish
their mission without
the seemingly unavoidable
side effects of pollution,
erosion, congestion, and stress.

 

Reviews

“Deep Design is timely, it is necessary and it is wonderful. The ability to design beyond our instincts separates humans from other species and we now realize how much our ‘designs’ separate us from and endanger the natural world we inhabit. To design well, we must look everywhere and we must look deeply. This is what David Wann has done with this important book.” ~ William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle

“The concept of deep design provides us with a sense that nature’s constraints are a pathway to elegant, innovative systems changes that will change life on earth for the better.” ~ Paul Hawken, coauthor of Natural Capitalism

Excerpt

We sometimes think of progress in a strictly technical sense – new medicines, new appliances, and faster airplanes. But these products are only a reflection of an underlying, more significant progress in human understanding. In this century, we’ve developed a deeper knowledge subatomic reality, human psychology, and the complex patterns of ecology. We can now begin to incorporate the latest knowledge into our innovations, to make them not only “smarter” but wiser, that is, more responsive to environmental as well as social needs.

 

LESS IS MORE: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy, and Lasting Happiness

 

 

 

Dave Wann contributed
three essays to this anthology
about a Caring Economy.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reviews

“No good idea stays local for long,” writes Jay Walljasper in Less is More, a smart collection of essays that chant the simplicity mantra without oversimpifying the issues at stake. Many of these ideas seem bound to travel far.” ~ Utne Reader

“Even if you’re no stranger to the sustainability or environmental movement, there’s plenty of hard-hitting research and provocative insights from Less is More contributors. For example, David Wann writes: “If so many of us are willing to die for our country, why are we afraid to live for it, moderately and unselfishly? Why do we place a higher value on convenience, size and speed than the well-being of living things (including ourselves)?” He calls for a change in the patterns of how and where we live, work and eat. It’s exactly these kinds of changes that will contribute to a more sustainable tomorrow in a restoration economy, if only the politicians would pay closer attention.” ~ John Ivanko, Sustainablog

Excerpt

from Less is More, in the Chapter “The Real Wealth of Neighborhoods,” by David Wann

What Makes a Neighborhood Great

Cultural Assets

Great neighborhoods have active residents; newsletters and email listservs for sharing tools, tickets, civic information, and good-hearted jokes. They have discussion groups; community projects like park cleanup or creek restoration; potluck dinners; volleyball games and skiing parties. (The neighbors of Elgin, Illinois have a four-foot tall, wooden Blue Tulip that makes monthly rounds from one yard to another. When the Tulip appears on your front lawn, it’s your turn to host a Friday night neighborhood party.)

Skill sharing, tool sharing, mentoring of the young by the elderly, job referrals, day care, dog care, neighborhood rosters with telephone numbers and emails; bulletin boards – these kinds of activities and tools encourage the creation of “neighbornets.” (In Seattle, famous for its distinctive neighborhoods, Phinney Eco-Village – an existing neighborhood — has a Home Alone group, a natural health group, a peace group, and other networks. It has recently begun taking pledges from neighbors to fight global warming by driving less, not using dryers, using compact fluorescent bulbs, etc.)

Free entertainment, like twilight conversations in the park; wine tasting parties in someone’s backyard; or spontaneous, no-pressure bike rides to a landmark in the town (like an overlook, favorite bar, or ice cream parlor).

Sharing of life’s ups and downs. (If I let you vent your frustrations as we each get home from work, I know I have a listener when I need to vent.  If you show me your family album, I’ll show you mine.)

Neighbors who live in their house for years, creating neighborhood history and neighborhood stewards. (Studies show that hometowns are the most popular places to retire, despite all the literature about “where to retire.” Of the 35 million people 65 and older who lived in the U.S. between 1995 and 2000, only 22% left their homes and neighborhoods.

Physical Assets

Community gardens on vacant lots, utility rights-of-way, and land donated/lent for tax write-offs. Also, the trading of garden produce and recipes from private gardens and kitchens; and neighborhood contracts with local growers (community-supported agriculture). Information about local growers can be found at http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa/.

Transportation by proximity: location, location, location, and planning, planning, planning. Great neighborhoods need stores, parks, pathways, bike trails, and access to public transit (Some banks offer lower interest rates and down payments – often called location-efficient mortgages and green mortgages — to homebuyers).

 

TAKE BACK YOUR TIME: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America

 

 

Americans have less
free time than anyone else
in the industrialized world.
In fact, Americans work longer
hours than medieval peasants!

  

 

 

 

  

Reviews

“This book is not about time really; it’s about power. It’s about realizing our own power to be in control, not slaves to inexorable economic forces. Read this book and take a long, deep sigh of relief.” ~ Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet and Hope’s Edge

Excerpt

from the chapter “Haste Makes Waste,” by Dave Wann
I had an unsettling thought the other day as I wrestled, scissors in hand, with the fortress-like plastic packaging around a new electric razor. I wondered if anyone had accidentally taken his own life trying to unwrap a consumer item like this one. If a person’s flustered grip on the package slipped, I thought, those sharp scissors could plunge into vital organs. Cause of death: thick, stubborn packaging.

I knew the packaging was as much for the manufacturers’ and retailers’ benefits as mine, and in a way, I resented that. They were making the money, I was spending the time — first the work-time to buy the expensive razor, then the fluster-time to penetrate its package.

I’d bought the electric unit because I was tired of buying and throwing out blades. I wanted something that lasts longer than refrigerator leftovers. I hoped to do less damage to my checking account and to the environment with the electric razor, but considering all the electricity the razor would use and all the energy that had gone into its manufacture, I wasn’t completely certain. Still, it did feel better than the prospect of tossing another five thousand blades (and all their packaging) before I die.

 

Log Rhythms (1983)

 

 

 

 

A book of poetry by David Wann

  

  

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpts

responsibility occurrence

“I will wait & see,”
              he mumbles/
 
While at the same instant
pyramids crumble at ghiza
 
a surgeon’s hands
wither to pinecones
 
a bus driver smashes
into a steel girder
on the golden gate bridge
 
avalanche buries two
mountain goats in love

 

If you’re here NOW,
     you win

You don’t win by killing, because
they kill you back.
 
You don’t win by growing, because you
grow too big, and fall over.
 
You don’t win by spending, because
eventually you end up spending

only that portion which is either
stolen or imaginary.
 
You don’t win by winning,
but living,

 

the future of jazz

what appears
any more bizarre, really,
than a human hand, with its
ingenious, independent fingers,
raising a shiny, 4-pronged fork
mouthwards?
 
yet far stranger
are the goons clutching
thermonuclear bombs
in trembling, psychotic hands.
 
but think:
never again, an elephant. never again,
springtime in America.
never again, a beautiful woman.

 

53 Slaughtered in Mid-East Skirmish:
Better Totals Expected Over the Weekend

From the bottom of the flagpole
just at twilight
the soldier could barely see
the drooping flag of his country;
but Venus, the evening star,
rang out like a distant gong

 

when the wind
is strong,
the seed-feather
will be ready

 

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Reinventing Community

Click to enlarge

 

 

A collection of first hand
experiences from inside
cohousing’s unique neighborhoods,
offering a glimpse at the personalities
and dynamics that make them work.
The first “report from the field”
about how cohousing is working,
written and photographed by
people who live there.

 

 

 

 

Reviews

“The folks David Wann profiles in Reinventing Community are the vanguard for the future — they’re learning today, often by painful and sometimes humorous trial and error, what it takes to go beyond the solitary and alienated survival tactics of modern urban life to the full flowering of the human spirit of tomorrow, in community.” ~ Eric Utne, founder of Utne magazine and editor of Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac.

“Reinventing Community is an accessible and inspiring book, a rich tapestry of voices and insights from modern pioneers who are creating human scale villages, friendly to people and the sustainability of life on this planet.” ~ Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity

 

What you’ll find in this anthology:

Stories that mainstream Americans as well as culture shifters can relate to:

Whether it’s photovoltaics on the common house roof in Davis, CA, community activism to shut down a pesticide-happy strawberry farmer on adjacent Oceano, CA land, the offer of a kidney in a Boston-area community; a wacky way of celebrating rather than competing at a Golden, CO garage sale; the annual retreat at a New York cohousing community; an all-African American neighborhood in downtown Chicago; an existing neighborhood-turned-cohousing, also in Davis, CA (by UC students;) an operating farm in Vermont – an off-the-pipe village that designed 26 computer-controlled compost toilets into its village infrastructure – and they’re working; the celebration of marriages, deaths, graduations, births, promotions, new books; and the creation of neighborhood cultures, complete with community traditions — cohousing is establishing itself as a proven component of new urbanism.

Common meals created by teams of chefs; community gardens, pedestrian walkways, labyrinths; carsharing; bicycling and skiing outings; kids who are especially articulate in school, and whose teachers visit cohousing to find out why; cohousing residents who become politically active (city council, etc.) because they’ve learned how to interact with a group;

An interview with Chuck Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, who “imported” the idea from Denmark in the 1980s, and a vicarious design workshop led by a cohousing architect in which a group decides what their neighborhood will look like–

Excerpt

I believe the mini-movement of cohousing is partly a response to a perceived loss of trust and individual control that’s becoming pervasive in our world. People gravitate toward do-it-ourselves communities because they sense they can be better heard and understood in a place that strives for cooperation and support. They can be neighbors with others who want to help put the pieces back together. When I first joined the group that would become Harmony Village, my old Subaru sported the familiar bumper sticker “Cohousing: Changing the World, One Neighborhood at a Time,” and I’m still convinced that the reinvention of community can bring individual empowerment as well as cooperative action. The world is sorely in need of focused, nonpartisan cooperation right now. Why not deliberately create neighborhoods that are safer, friendlier, and healthier? Is there a downside to this?

The reason cohousing fuels my own burning soul is that many of its experiments are extremely valuable to a society so distracted by materialism and so shell-shocked by the frantic American lifestyle. What kind of experiments am I talking about? Consensus decision-making; participatory design; alternative sources of energy; alternative sources of information; shared resources and designs that reduce each person’s ecological footprint; aging gracefully and vigorously; neighborhood activism in surrounding towns and communities; and collaborative management of neighborhood resources, to name just a few. In general, residents of cohousing are living actively rather than passively.

The underlying intent of cohousing might be seen as the deliberate substitution of real experiences for canned ones. Cohousing at its best provides a structure for learning to trust other people and for learning to be unselfish, at least in theory.

But you know what? Cohousing isn’t Utopia, as you’ll see in some of the stories included here. For example, the process of codesigning a neighborhood involves many, many meetings, some of them very emotional. Children begin to role-play going to meetings as a way of life, and outside friends of cohousing participants begin to suspect insanity. But the dividends begin to accrue as future members start to know and rely on each other, learning how to create and maintain a mutually beneficial neighborhood. By the time houses begin to rise up from construction sites, cohousers are ripe and ready for life in cohousing. 

And then other challenges — lots of them — pop up like jack-in-the-box puppets. What happens if the community won’t let your free-range cat roam the neighborhood? What if one of the neighbors is “difficult,” a carrier of stress? What if nobody wants to do the work required for the maintenance of commonly held property?

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The Zen of Gardening

 Click to enlarge

 

 

 

Gardening is not only
productive in terms of  yield,
but also meets human
needs for expression,
exercise, social connection,
purpose, and leisure.

 

 

 

 

Reviews

The gardening tips are delivered in such a delightful and good humored way, the reader (green-thumb or not) discovers the joys and abundance to be had, along with the trials and climatic challenges of a region visited by hail and drought. Throw in a little Zen-like humor, and a good-dose of other spiritual insights and this book will have you back out in the garden. ~ Earth Literacy Journal

From Fulcrum Publishing:
Drawing from his own considerable gardening experience and expertise, as well as leaning on 500 years of collective wisdom from the people he calls “The Zen Masters of the Western Garden,” David Wann gathers a mix of stories, how-to advice and simple, doable projects that are ideal for gardeners in the high and arid landscapes of the West.  The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West is a friendly and invaluable guide to such topics as strategic gardening (how to grow salsa or pesto from scratch), pest-proof planting (he playfully advises using a photograph of his face to deter the bugs), choosing the right varieties of edibles for the region (he’s bullish on Sungold cherry tomatoes), how to become a seed-starting maniac using a Farmer’s Almanac approach to gardening (plant peas when the first cottonwood leaves appear!), as well as profiles of colorful local gardens and gardeners.

Wann offers inspiration and invaluable practical advice for success in the garden.  He shows how gardening can offer “a Zen exercise in mindfulness, discipline, and the joy of being right in the moment.”

Excerpts

When it comes to gardening in the Great Plains and mountains, the first step is to deal with the cruelties of geography. There’s an invisible line that separates gardeners of the high, arid west from eastern gardeners. Known in geography jargon as the 100th meridian, it cuts the layer cake of Kansas and Nebraska in half, roughly separating the primordial short grass prairie — where rainfall is typically a distant memory — from the tall grass prairie, where gardens are essentially automatic.

East of The Line, farmers grow corn, a tall grass, and west of The Line, they grow wheat, a short grass, if they’re lucky. Okay, okay, I may be exaggerating a little here, but it’s indisputable that on topographical maps, east is green and the arid west is brown. From an airplane in mid-summer, it’s the same two-toned story, unless you happen to fly over a brief blush of green at the foot of the Rockies right after a three-day, flood-thirsty monsoon. So we’re talking biology and meteorology here, not just hearsay. Scientific fact, not just precipitation envy.

We gardeners of the high plains and mountains are meteorologically and topographically challenged, that’s the long and short of it. “The wildest weather on the planet,” western landscape expert Jim Knopf calls the front (easternmost) range of Colorado. “Arctic fronts collide with tropical air masses here, creating an ever-changing house of horrors.”

About 150 years ago, U.S. officials inscribed a box over 100,000 square miles of the territory I currently live in, and named it Colorado. Average elevation, 6,800 feet. Average precipitation, about 15 inches, including the most frequent hailstorms in the U.S. Average organic content of native soil, less than half a percent. They concluded it was futile to try growing anything in this box, shaking their heads sympathetically. (Eventually, of course, they inscribed “no grow” boxes over most of the Sunbelt, mountain and high plains landscape.) In 1805, Lewis and Clark reported to Jefferson and colleagues back east that it took undaunted courage to even set foot west of The Line.

Another easterner with a long historical shadow, Civil War hero and explorer John Wesley Powell, went so far as to pronounce the west largely unfit for human habitation. Fortunately, we’ve proven him wrong, haven’t we? Here we stand, shell-shocked grins on our faces, dinged-up shovels in our hands, and feet firmly planted on barren, rocky soil!

The question is, are we heroic or pitiful?

Well, either way, here we come! When hailstones the size of river rock shred the lettuce a few hours before a dinner party, our first inclination may be to throw childish tantrums and vow never ever to garden again, but instead we lace up our boots and get out the seeds.

In the garden, life’s struggles, snags and snafus decompose into rich, black earth. Idiotic interest rates, nagging bills, and the slow-motion speed of bureaucracy may be out of my immediate control, but in the garden, I see and feel things happening – things that are real, not just white-knuckle policies and commercial blabber. As I plant seedlings or hoe a sturdy crop of basil, none of “the operators are currently busy helping other customers.”  The operators (bees, worms, and ladybugs) are all busy helping me, and they never put me on hold, either, because we’re all in it together.  What’s in my best interest is also in their best interest.

In the garden I can touch, smell, see, and taste where I live. I know about Golden, Colorado partly by making horticultural deals with it.  I learn what it can provide, and what I can coax from it, as my knowledge and skill continue to expand.  In the garden, life and death dance before my eyes every day, and I come to a better understanding of my own health and mortality. The garden literally brings me back to my senses.

Panning for Garlic: a Western Gem

Imagine it – a garden crop that’s unappealing to pests, including leaf-eating bugs, deer, rabbits, and most viruses.  A crop that stores for at least half a year, is useful in many different kinds of cooking, and is great for your health.  Sounds like a fantasy?  Wait, we’re not even through yet. Imagine a crop that also grows dependably in western soils and climates, and that– believe it or not—sometimes grows right through the snow, cold, and darkness of winter.  Garlic!

Seeing me bent over a freshly dug garden row in the fall, with a bowl of garlic cloves ready to be planted, neighbors might take me for a prospector who’d lost his way. And in a sense, they’d be right.  While it may be an exaggeration to say that homegrown garlic is worth its weight in gold, it’s definitely a western gem — one of those few, precious crops that’s well worth the effort.

My success with garlic began just a few years ago.  I’d always heard it was easy to grow, but a few past experiments with it hadn’t worked. Maybe I planted the cloves too deeply, or maybe they’d gotten waterlogged in the spring. Whatever the cause, my bulbs were miniature, in perfect scale with elf recipes. Then a friend and I rented a cabin outside Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where Angelo, the proprietor, loves to grow a type of garlic called Rocambole.  He gave me a sack full of garlic cloves that had been drying on his workbench, and told me a few of his secrets.

“With loamy, well-drained soil and enough water,” he told me, “you can’t miss.” Maybe as a result of his Italian heritage, Angelo likes garlic so much that he presses it and spreads it on homemade bread, all by itself. I’d have to say, for an 80 year-old, he’s pretty lively – is it the garlic? Research indicates that in addition to keeping vampires at bay, garlic lowers cholesterol, helps prevent cancer, and lowers blood sugar.  I confess I sometimes crunch a clove or two before bed, if it feels like unwelcome bacterial visitors have landed.  This last-ditch remedy usually works, and I recently found out why. Garlic contains allicin, a powerful natural antibiotic that kills bacteria like staph, strep, and e. Coli.

After seeing Angelo’s great results, I went home and double-dug some beds for the seed-cloves he’d given me – two beds that were each about 18 square feet. I dug in some black, loamy compost and about two pounds of rock phosphate, and on the same day that I planted tulip bulbs –about mid-October — I pushed 50 or 60 cloves 3 to 4 inches into the soil, spaced four inches apart, incanting Angelo’s name as I watered them. The following June, I harvested two buckets of garlic bulbs that made the supermarket’s look shriveled and wimpy. I’m told that supermarket garlic also has a much shorter shelf life than homegrown, because shipment time and refrigeration speeds spoilage.

I traveled all the way to Dixon, New Mexico to talk with Stanley Crawford, author of  The Garlic Testament.  Because the guidebooks didn’t have the right information, Crawford had to discover by experimentation that the proper time to plant garlic in the arid west is late fall. He noticed that leftover bulbs from the previous year’s crop sprouted early in the spring, and so he began planting in October. “At my altitude,” he says, “garlic will spend most of its life under the ground, a good nine months of the year, and if the bulbs had their way they wouldn’t come up for air at all.”  We tend to think that the mission of garlic, or any crop, is to come to our tables, when really its mission is just to grow.

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