Monday, March 19, 2012

Conservation vs relationship - Part 1

Chamaeleo senegalensis
Most of us, at least those of us who haven't numbed our love of beauty and life, like the idea of land conservation.  Throughout our lives we've watched with sadness as countless landscapes around us were decimated by the seemingly unstoppable machinery of industry.   An oak tree, however majestic, however old, however life sustaining, has less value in our current economic system than the land it stands on would if you cut it down and put a house on it.  We fear that unless we put fences around whatever patches of natural landscape are left, beauty will be expunged from the face of the earth in our lifetime, and the ecosystems that support life on earth will collapse.

I, too, find the idea of land conservation attractive.  But I've also come to recognise that it is only a half good, a partial solution.  In order to create "nature preserves" we must define that nature as excluding humanity.  And by deeming man and his impact as unnatural, and all else as natural, we do both man and earth a great disservice: we exclude man from participating meaningfully in the story of life.

Of course, our interactions with this story are inevitable.  We can not escape the fact that we are fully dependent on this earth for our food, clothing, water, warmth, and all of the resources that we use to construct our habitations, our tools, and our entertainment systems.  And as long as that is all that defines the relationship, our environmentalist subculture are heroes for minimising this interaction.  As long as we are basically consumers who treat the rest of the world like our proverbial pantry, our interaction with the the rest of Creation will be a primarily negative one, and limiting this interaction becomes a noble goal.

I've seen few signs of this attitude toward natural resources changing.  If you are reading this, you have probably been encouraged your whole life to consume in ways that are less damaging to the environment, but probably rarely encouraged to interact with it in meaningful ways.  Think about it: in the west, "interacting with nature" usually means hiking along a trail and looking at nature.  The fact that you're probably trying to figure out what interacting with nature even looks like betrays the fact that we, as a culture, have greatly distanced ourselves from actual relationships with it.

"Wow! Look at all this nature!"
If we step back, however, and look at what our relationship with Creation was meant to be, then building fences between "us" and "nature" becomes nothing short of criminal.  It's a little like putting kids into an orphanage to protect them from their living, but indifferent or cruel, parents.   We, who are called the stewards of Creation, are prevented from actual stewardship, restricted to mere visitation rights.  The fact that this has been deemed necessary for the sake of the rest of Creation is indeed a sad reflection of our failings as a species.

Here in Senegal, like in much of the developing world, relationships with nature are still more intact than they usually are in the west.  While many farmers are giving up farming and moving to the city, others still trim trees to feed their cows, who poop on the fields, which produce next year's millet crop.   Yet even this relationship can become consumeristic.  If a farmer only cuts down trees, harvests grasses, and extracts other resources, without also tending the forests, the grasslands, and the soil, he's treating it only as a pantry.  It's not a relationship - it's a dependency.  And most Senegalese have much more reason to be tempted into this type of relationship than you or I do.  Often, harvesting those resources as fast as he can is the only way a Senegalese farmer sees to keep his children from starving to death.[1]

A farmer told me last week that when he was a kid, this land was so thickly forested that nobody dared walk through the area alone, for fear of wild animals.  Since then, the forest has been cut down, the land farmed to exhaustion, and finally the sand itself has been dug out by hand and sold for construction.  Since this picture was taken, even the dry grass on the "tree islands" has been cut and sold.
And so in all places, rich and poor, we see a need for fences to protect, at least until tomorrow, what would otherwise be destroyed for today's use.  In the developed west, we can easily afford to do this; nobody is dependent on the natural resources of Yosemite National Park to make a living.[2]  Here in Senegal, however, we can't.[3]  And that, ironically, might be our saving grace.  For it forces us to restore our relationships with the land, rather than just avoiding them all together.[4][5]   This will probably be a painful and difficult process, but in the end, I see hope for healthier community-land relationships than are possible through building fences alone.

This photo is of a fence protecting a plot of land from Africa's most efficient natural resource extractor - the domestic goat.

Part 2 will be about that land on the other side of the fence.


[1] - Certainly, this is an oversimplification.  Often resources are also extracted for profit or prestige.  But the fight for survival is real for many of Senegal's rural dwellers.
[2] - There once were, but this was no longer the case by the time we designated it a park.  Now, there are still people making their living off of Yosemite National Park (I'm related to several of you), but this living is not based on resource extraction or exchange.
[3] - There are plenty of natural reserves in the developing world, including right here in Senegal: most for ecotourism purposes or (I suspect) because of international pressure.  But any scrap of land that isn't fenced and guarded is used by someone for something.  There is very little "unutilised" land like we see in the western US. 
[4] - Actually, it forces us into a situation where doing so is most beneficial.  Results still depend on desire and effort.
[5] - Incidentally, financial poverty has the same effect on human-human relationships.  Money buys independence, which allows you to avoid difficult relationships.  If you don't get along with your family, you can buy a bigger house, or better yet, move away from them.  Being poor takes away those choices, and thereby supplies ample opportunity to work out those relationships instead of avoiding them. However, being forced to live in close proximity with people doesn't automatically mean you'll learn to get along with them.  This is very visible here in Senegal, too: many women live in continuous strife with their abusive husbands or fathers-in-law, or the contentious other wives of their husband (Muslims are allowed up to four). 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A year later, across the sea, two trees.

"The most important thing for a farmer is, you have to love trees." [1]

 Most of us don't think of trees when we think of farms, but here in Sahelian Africa, where I'll be living until July, trees are vital to life.

There are few trees left.

A baobab watches the Sahara desert blow by in the wind.
The countryside around M'bour, Senegal is generally denuded of trees.  There are many reasons for this.  Most Senegalese cook all of their food over wood or charcoal fires.  Add to this the demand for lumber, animal feed, and field space, and most trees have been found to be more useful dead than alive.  Those that regrow from seed or roots are usually eaten by roaming cattle or hacked down to build a fence.  Among the Sereer people who inhabit the countryside around here, however, there are two exceptions[2]:

The baobab (Adansonia digitata) is a highly revered tree[3]:  the bark is harvested repeatedly for fiber, the fruit is delicious, and the leaves are a nutritious vegetable.  Added to this, the trunk isn't fleshy, so cutting it down for lumber wouldn't work anyway.

The kad (Faidherbia albida) is so useful that the Sereer have integrated this tree into their agro-pastoral systems for centuries.  While most trees leaf out in the rainy season and loose their leaves in the dry season, this tree does just the opposite!  That makes it an ideal companion tree to millet fields and cow pastures.  In the rainy season, when crops can utilise all the sun they can get, the tree looses its leaves, fertilising the crops below.  In the long dry season, new leaves and nutritious seed pods appear, providing shade for the maturing crop below and a source of fodder for the cattle herders.  Over the centuries, Sereer farmers would carefully manage this tree, nurturing new seedlings that sprouted in their fields, and maintaining them through careful pruning.  Since the 1970's, however, social shifts have all but ended this practice; today, almost all of the remaining kad trees are adults, and their numbers are slowly diminishing.

Kad trees (and a baobab, 2nd from the left).  Note the heavy pruning for cattle forage.
 Together, these two species make up over 90% of tree numbers in Sereer-managed landscapes.[4]  Since this is a managed landscape, we can ask: Is this a functional and successful system?  In some ways, the answer is yes.  Every living tree in the landscape is utilised.  Sereer herdsmen are still pruning the kads to feed their cattle, and every single baobab shows signs of recent bark harvests.  By and large, though, it is also failing.  Few Sereer are still able to make their entire living off of farming.  The number of cattle this system can support is falling, and most of the remaining millet fields are severely depleted.  The lack of young kads in the landscape is a reflection of a dramatic population shift: farmers are leaving millet farming and seeking jobs in the cities. 

Perhaps the landscape has failed the farmers.  Perhaps the farmers have failed the landscape.  In any case, there are fewer and fewer trees, more and more dust, and less and less harvest.

What am I doing in Senegal? Well, this week I'm picking up a chainsaw and cutting some wood to make charcoal.  And thoroughly enjoying it.  But more on that next week.[5]

A Sereer family's dwelling

[1] Opening statement by the Senegalese founder of a local agriculture training school, when introducing his school and philosophy to us.  He couldn't have endeared himself to us any faster.
[2] Four, if you include villages and towns: mango and neem trees have been widely planted around habitations.
[3] I mean this in a literal sense as well as a figurative one.  I don't yet fully understand the full dynamics of Sereer relationships with Baobab as a whole, but they fear the evil spirits that inhabit one of the trees I camped under last week so much that they wouldn't get near it after dark.
[4] This would have been my estimate, but here's a source (pdf) that substantiates that number.
[5] Inshallah!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Farm Challenge - Day 7

The last day!

Saturday breakfast

Why cook when there are so many leftovers to choose from?  How about some quinoa salad and tilapia ceviche?  Mmm yes, that sounds good...

Saturday lunch

This lunch was notable for several reasons:

1. It was our final farm challenge meal!
2. Even though it was our last farm challenge meal, several new ingredients showed up: peanuts, sesame seeds, and chicken feet!

Chicken feet being readied for the fryer
Because it was a Saturday, many of us were around to help out with lunch.  Fried fish was on the menu, along with fried chicken feet, goat and tomato soup, and a salad.  LauraCatherine created a delicious sesame-lime-peanut sauce to go with the fish, and Andy whipped up some mashed sweet potatoes.  Another supreme meal, but it's no longer a surprise.

Jen and LauraCatherine shell peanuts harvested from the Monsoon garden
LauraCatherine ground the peanuts in a food processor along with half of a jalapeno pepper, some freshly threshed sesame seeds, a spoonful of oil and a healthy dose of lime juice.  This was a delightful creation that went well with both the fish and the mashed sweet potatoes.  I'd highly recommend it!

The mashed sweet potatoes were pretty good on their own, too!

The complete meal:

Papaya-grapefruit smoothie at the bottom, tomato-goat soup in the upper right.
When our 5:00 finish time arrived, it did so without the mad dash to the sugar shelf one might have expected.  While we did later enjoy a celebratory meal of wheat, dairy, bacon and chocolate, none of us were really starving for these ingredients.  Andrew popped an olive at 5:30, I nibbled at the cheese we were grating for the pizza dinner, and somewhere on a plane headed to Nicaragua, Kate enjoyed a piece of chocolate.  We're glad to have these ingredients back, but we're also less dependent on them than we once were, more comfortable cooking with the seasonal abundance around us.  It has truly been a blessed week, one which has taught us just how much abundance we really have, both in the volume and variety of food growing on our small farm, and in the creativity given to our fellow interns.  These are not things we created ourselves; much of the food was harvested from perennials planted and nurtured by faithful interns and staff in years past, growing in poor soil enriched by years of care.  We don't take these blessings lightly.  Many of us desire to work in communities whose land does not produce so abundantly, whose people are not as well fed as we have been.  It has been good for us to experience first-hand the bounty of a land that has been blessed through the faithful lives and work of its laborers.

Saturday dinner

Celebratory pizza & key lime pie

"Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow" - James

Friday, January 21, 2011

Farm Challenge - Day 6

When this week started, many of us took a few days to get comfortable with what ingredients we had available and what to do with them.  As the week has progressed, meals have generally become more complex and flavorful.  We've discovered what herbs and fruit juices combine for the best salad sauces, and are becoming more fluent in the use turnips and daikon radishes.   What was a sense of guarded sufficiency on Sunday has turned into an unabashed feast of bounty.  Now on day 6, it is apparent that we are in no danger of using up our food supply, and it is showing in our meals.

Friday breakfast

The interns all eat breakfast together on Fridays.  We've been saving up our eggs for this breakfast for several days, so Andrew whisked up some a fluffy omelet.  More sweet potato hash browns were a given, and Andy cut up some grapefruit.  Kate suggested we fix banana pancakes, despite not having any flour, milk or baking powder.   This seemed like a great idea, so we stirred eggs, oil, water, cane molasses and mashed bananas into some corn flour.  This mixture didn't hold together well enough to make large pancakes, but we made lots of small ones and they actually turned out really great!  They were not only sweet and tasty, but had a remarkably pancake-like texture.  It was nice to eat something bread-like for a change!

Friday lunch

It's build your own salad day!  A large bowl of greens (New Red Fire and Ithaca lettuces, swiss chard, new zealand spinach, and katuk) was surrounded by bowls of salad builders, like shredded carrots, broccoli florets and cherry tomatoes.

Today's salad sauce was orange juice, olive oil, and blended strawberries with rosemary, tropical oregano, green onions, salt and garlic chives.  If a vegetables salad doesn't fit your bill, the fruit salad composed of pumelo (a giant citrus similar to, but sweeter than, a grapefruit), strawberries, and jujube might.

To make  sure our salad needs were met, Andrew also prepared a phenomenal ceviche out of tomatoes, cilantro, onions, jicama, cooked tilapia and citrus juice.   And just in case we were still craving fresh fruit, a papaya and grapefruit smoothie served as a drink and desert!

The cornbread on the lower left was made from leftover pancake batter
To balance out all of these raw vegetables, Andrew pulled out the deep fryer again and made his best sweet potato chips to date, with a side of guacamole!  Mmmmm.

Friday dinner

Yesterday, half an hour before dinner, 7 interns could be found huddled around a fencepost behind the shop, a dead rabbit hanging from it's back legs from a crossboard above a bucket.  Animal butcherings are usually learning and teaching experiences for us, a chance for us to pass practical skills on to each other[1] and review our anatomical knowledge.  "That's the gall bladder, right?"  Yup, that's the green one there.  Don't puncture it, it'll spoil the meat.

Yesterday's butchering lesson was today's dinner.  Matt took the brace of coneys home to his English wife, who rubbed them with herbs (pronounced with a hard "h") and roasted them up in classic European style with a side of broiled turnips and sweet potato.

Served with a green salad, some lemon kale and leftover fruit salad, this was a handsome meal.  It was nice to eat rabbit on its own, and to get a feel for how many people two rabbits can feed.[2]


Reflections, day 6

This week has been so much richer experienced in community than it would have been alone.  One of the wonderful things about doing this challenge together is that we get to share in the motivation, planning, and execution of this pursuit.  This not only makes it easier to resist the draw of chocolate and cheese, but has the added benefit of allowing us to share the challenges and enjoyments of the work involved together.   Some meals can take up to 5 man-hours to prepare as we have to harvest each ingredient from the field.  However, by working together or taking turns, the workload is quite manageable.  And what's more, it gives us lots of excuses to depend on each other, to serve each other, to be community.  It's fun, rich, and unifying.


[1] One thing I love about ECHO is that there are always people who know less than you about something, and others who know more.  This means that everyone in the community is at the same time a teacher and a learner.  Yesterday, I learned from Andrew how to kill a rabbit with a karate chop.  Quick, clean, and painless.
[2] Apparently, a family in the tropics can raise enough rabbits from one breeding buck and two does to have a steady supply of one rabbit per week.  This number is higher in temperate zones, where the colder temperature allow for a higher litter frequency.  These two rabbits fed us well, and we had over half a rabbit left over.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Farm Challenge - Day 5

Thursday breakfast

Another day, another breakfast of sweet potato hash browns.  Can't beat 'em.

Thursday lunch

I started fixing today's lunch yesterday.  Quinoa is a grain-like[1] seed crop related to amaranth and beets.  It is native to the Andes where the Incas called it the "mother of all grains."  Not only does it have a delicious, nutty flavor, but it features a balanced set of essential amino acids, making it a good source of a complete protein.  Brandon, the recent mountain intern, grew a demonstration size plot last year, which yielded about 6 quarts of seed heads.

Last night, I threshed these by rubbing them together between my hands to loose the seeds from the heads, and then dropping the mixture past a fan, which blew away the chaff, leaving the seeds behind.  It was a little tricky getting the wind speed and drop distance just right to accurately separate out the seeds.[2]

The end result was pretty satisfactory, though, even though the volume was diminished more than I'd expected - down to just one quart!

Luckily this was more than enough for the meal I had in mind: wait for it... quinoa wraps!  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

If you buy quinoa in the store, you can cook it more or less like rice, without further processing.  Most quinoa in the store, however, has already been soaked and rinsed before being re-dried.   The reason this needs to be done is because raw quinoa is coated with saponins, chemical compounds that foam like soap when washed in water:

I rinsed the quinoa, soaked it in water for several hours (removing the floaters), rinsed it again, and then put it in the fridge for cooking the next morning.  In the morning, I cooked it, and combined it with chopped cilantro, bunching onions, garlic chives, jalapeno pepper, lime juice, ground toasted pumpkin seeds, cherry tomatoes and fish beans (Tephrosia vogelli).  This mixture was served with broiled sweet potato sticks and blanched Wong Bok leaves (Brassica rapa var. pekinensis, related to Bok Choi) as a wrapper.

Since I had to sacrifice a pumpkin to access its seeds, I cut up the pumpkin and broiled it in a grapefruit and cane molasses glaze with crushed Brazilian red pepper seeds and dried chili peppers.  For a drink, we mixed up some strawberry lemonade, sweetened with more cane molasses.

Thursday dinner

If you haven't noticed already, we have a lot of citrus available to us - not only in variety, but in quantity.  Last night, we started marinating the goat meat for tonight's dinner.  But firsts, the girls decided to juice some citrus.  And by some, I mean a lot:

By the time we got around to marinating the goat, it was getting late, so we threw some goat ribs and stew meat into ziplock bags, poured some of our bounty of orange, lime, and grapefruit juice into the bags, and added some herbs:  mint to the orange juice ribs, habanero peppers and tropical oregano to the lime juice ribs, and bunching onions and garlic chives into each bag.  We also added a few slices of green papaya to each bag, as the enzyme papain, found in green papayas, has been utilized as a meat tenderizer for thousand of years. Into the fridge, and off to bed!

12 hours later, we rubbed the ribs with salt, transfered them to aluminum pans, and poured in a sauce made of goat broth, orange juice, cane molasses and hot peppers.  After covering the pans, we baked them at 250 F all afternoon while we worked on the farm.  By 4:30, the meat was falling off of the ribs.  Ruth uncovered them, turning them once more at 5:30 so that they were nice and caramelized by the time the rest of dinner was ready at 6:30.  These were truly among the best, most tender ribs I've ever had;  those in the orange-mint marinade were especially sweet and scrumptious.

Meanwhile, the stew meat and soup bones were cooking all afternoon in broth along with bunching onions, garlic chives, turnips, sweet potato, daikon radishes, tropical oregano, Indian firecracker peppers, and other herbs.

At dinner time, we dipped into Andrew's sauerkraut that has been fermenting in the fridge.  It's still pretty young (less than two weeks old), but already pleasantly sour.

The girls made a large lettuce, tomato and strawberry salad with a citrus-cilantro dressing:

And if that wasn't enough, Katie pulled out some fruit leather she had made by blending and drying papaya, bananas, citrus and prickly pear leaves:

With so much good food, we had to invite friends to share it with.  Six volunteers, staff members and visiting missionaries joined us around the table for what was truly a feast.  Given such a bounty, the term "farm challenge" seems inappropriate.  Perhaps we should call this "farm feast week."


Reflections, day 5

Andrew noted that he's been dreaming a lot more at night this week.  He attributes this to the fact that he's been eating fewer snacks after dinner, so all the blood usually bound up in the digestive process is now running to his head and giving him dreams.  It's a theory.

Citrus and papaya marinated goat ribs are a win.  I'm sure this week's diet wouldn't be quite as rich if we weren't eating our animals at such an unsustainable rate, but I think we could still eat off of the farm for much longer than a week without starving, become malnourished, or growing bored with our food.  Though I'd probably miss cheese, bacon and bread after a while, I haven't started craving them yet... not while I'm getting a fresh glass of citrus juice with every meal!


[1] True grains, such as rice, wheat, corn and sorghum, come from grasses.
[2] I reckon the learning curve could have been shorter if this practice was part of our cultural knowledge, something people around me could have passed on.