Category Archives: Lumos Project

Happiness Loves Company Too

I boarded an international plane back to America nearly two and a half weeks ago, and if I was being 100% upfront, I was extremely torn. I returned to five pm sunsets and cloudy skies, to welcoming warmth and winter chill. I returned to Christmas bedlam and New Year fervor. I came home to the dawn before political back lash in 2012 and to the chaos of filling out job applications. How do you honestly pull yourself away from Beauty once you’ve seen and touched it? How do you remove yourself from a location that encompassed 24/7 of healthy living, where all you had to do was say “yes” and it was available?

My best friend in the States explains it better than I probably ever could. Here was our conversation, through online interaction, after my first few hours away from Marama…

December 13th at Rucksacker Backpackers in Christchurch. Me:   “So, I’m off the farm. I barely slept last night a part from Clyde coming to visit (she stayed with me the first night and the last night I was there). And this morning I stayed strong until I hugged Tina goodbye and got in the car. I’m assuming Giselle couldn’t see my tears because I was wearing sunglasses, and I held back most of them on the way to the bus stop in Gore – even when we passed the boundary sign on the way out (god that was hard to see). Then Giselle cried after my luggage was put under the bus. Then I lost it too.

And cried most of the way to Dunedin where I met Graham for lunch. You know how much I hate crying. The worst part is Dunedin is two hours by bus.

Things have been better since but my heart aches a lot. Now I know how you felt when you left your friends in England. We practically had a new family, pure and precious and unconditionally loving to us, and it’s almost like they were only there for an instant and suddenly yanked away. Neither of us have any idea if we will ever see any of them again. I only wish I had as much time with them as you had in Sunderland.

How long does this feeling last?”

Heather Cooprider:Stephanie, darling, first of all I am so sorry you have to go through this. It is without doubt one of the most weighted feelings you can experience from a life abroad.

With that said, it is also something that fundamentally moves you. It is my belief that you will now always have a life that goes on there, continuing to live and work and be with the farm. It won’t only be a memory. A piece of you will forevermore be there, watching sunsets from your window and laughing at the table with Giselle, Graham, and all of the beloved people you became a community with in New Zealand.

Of all the things I could say about our shared experience of loss in this, I want to say that I am glad we can share it. I can’t express to you in this message how crushing the moment was on the tracks to London, listening to Southbound Train, staring out the window, and crying silently, watching shadows of my experience and the people I loved flash past me over the summer fields. It would never come again the way it had been, who I was there could not be who I am now, because the train kept going, with or without my consent.

Yet, I knew then as I know now that I left a part of me back there in Sunderland, and that part would continue to walk the littered streets past the pubs full of people, it would stare out across the English channel while crossing the Wearmouth bridge, it would cook soups from scratch for beloved flatmates and friends, and it would smile and laugh with a freedom the part of me writing this message matches when I call out to its memory.

I am sorry, and yet not sorry, to tell you that the feeling never goes away. It fades, as you continue to live where you are and who you are now, but it will never leave you. The weight will hit you unexpectedly, when you’re walking, or talking, or about to sleep, and you will stare off for a moment, caught back up in the life you had, the community you were in. It will cause you to talk about it with people who will never fully understand, and after time they will understand less and less, as time departs farther from the moment you were at Marama. I am sorry that this may not be the news you wanted to hear, but I feel it is my duty as your best friend to tell you the truth.

Just remember, you are not alone. I deal with this as you do, and though it was a different place, a different experience, it is still a shared weight, and something we can hug, laugh, and cry over. You will be fine. It may be difficult to come back, hard to adjust, but as long as you know a part of you still lives on there in New Zealand, the weight will be a blessing.

I love you very, very much. And I am with you.”

I found myself persistently asking what will you remember the most? …the hard work and proving you could do it? Sure. …the lessons you needed to learn and the education of organic farming/gardening you acquired? Of course. …the sights, the smells, the raw liberty? Absolutely. However, now that I think on it, no tangible object or intellectual property could truly come close to the souls I’ve met and engaged with along my journey. So, I’d like to dedicate my last entry to those of you who became a part of the Lumos project too. Below are the moments and the once-strangers-now-friends who got me as close to earthly rapture unlike ever before.

Alec, from Scotland, & Martie, from Seattle – our “poo”losophy revelation planting pumpkin seeds; singing Akuna Matata in the spa pool; the pyro master; random facts; creating the recycling center; your love of whiskey and avocados; Peter, the neighbor, asking if you would trim his gross bushes since they were brought to the country from a Scotsman; crutching practice

Shelby, from San Francisco – laughing at my pronunciation of bible and key Southern phrases; finding Wally (New Zealand’s version of Waldo) on every page except the last one; ghetto mocha; making the best pizza I’ve eaten while abroad; your pride over weeding perfectly all around the strawberry plants; reading neurology articles out loud; acid jokes

Laura, from Tasmania – the Ted walk; the “ghostbusting queen of drenching”; you and I hiking to the river; the first person to ever get a song of mine stuck in their head; whipper snipper vs. weed wacker; perfecting rhubarb crumble; the lengthy debate over 1080 with Graham

Jana & Justus, from Bavaria – nicknaming you “doch & oder” and you nicknaming me “thingamajig”; the tailing marathon; 2 marbles left on your first try playing Solitaire; the other Germans and their world record of the shortest WWOOFer stay; missing Beau’s birth because we were tailing in the wool shed; watching the movie Babe and laughing our heads off at the scenes with the three mice; Spot’s death procession; potato salad masters; a record of 14 liters in one milking; illegal sweets/treats; playing games of Rummy; using your fascination with German breweries as a bribe to get me to come to Nuremberg

Agata, from Chicago – hugging me as I cried after finding out my dog in Tennessee was killed; watching the sun disappear from the airstrip and later star gazing in the spa pool on my 23rd birthday; photo session with putting sunglasses on Hatch; playing with the ‘flyshooter’ in the dining room; finding the giant wall painting in Gore; your incredible chilled, chocolate drinks; Tom’s high-pitched squeals as you tried getting him back into the pig pen; going to the river to cool off; your creation of a ‘tree obstacle’; the most hilarious chicken herding attempt I’ve witnessed

Dave – the “slacker” or earning every Speight’s you drank; our waves and salutes as we passed one another; bringing you sunscreen because of your lack of memory (and getting burned anyway); your soft-spoken voice and kindhearted nature; singing “It’s Not Easy (To Be Me)” by Five for Fighting after picking us up from the river; how I never beat you outside in the morning; Tina – “You naughty sheep!”; your beautiful and intelligent son; becoming champion herders for morning milking with Missy & Beauty; countless chuckles and timeless conversations over things that mattered and things that never would; having a theory for everything; your contagious smile and laugh; a day out in the paddocks on the quad bike; fencing (or our best attempt at it); my jealousy over your ability to tan; having the touch with animals; my ride to Gore and back; chocolate sprinkled cupcakes for my birthday; my kayaking partner

Giselle & Graham – the people who gave me the opportunity to change my life for the better; my new, adopted Kiwi relatives

Over the last three months together, we labored toward the future of Marama Organics and toward ourselves, just as those before us had and those to come will. We stood the test of time and nationality and cultural differences. Here’s a final, written toast to each of you and the permanent impressions you’ve marked within me. Here’s to your faces I shall never forget. But most of all, thank you for teaching me that our short and self-driven lives should never be concerted from behind the curtain, and rather, LOUD and proud and front of center stage. May the lives you lead be long, jolly and full of music.

You are all rockstars. Know that I was incredibly happy with your company.

Bon voyage,
~Stephanie Brake

 

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”  ~A.A. Milne

My Organic Defense

Go ahead and cut to the chase, Stef. What’s the real harm in commercial farming?

For starters, it’s estimated the United States is at a 2% domestic production rate of what it was in 1930; the nation lost farm and ranch land 51% more in the 1990’s than in the 1980’s, according to the Huffington Post (search for “Vanishing Farmland: How It’s Destabilizing America’s Food Supply”), at about a million acres per year. In California alone, our Hail Mary of prime farming regions, 1 of every 6 developed acres since the Good Rush disappeared from paving between 1990 and 2004. The majority of American farmland today is used to grow corn stocks that feed CAFO’s (factory farms) of beef, poultry and pork OR eventually becomes high fructose corn syrup for nearly every processed item we buy in supermarkets (to assess what CAFO’s are about, try here: http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/factoryfarming/ and for high fructose corn syrup, try here: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S26/91/22K07/).

This all means for the last 7 decades, general efficiency, quality and sustainability of food security has shrunk so much and so fast that I doubt the long term repercussions have been entirely thought through by consumers, including me. The chances of accessing and providing proper vegetables, fruits and meats the human body craves and needs and all too often deprives itself of seem pretty bleak in the global food economy we help to reinforce and safeguard. Fields are turning rock solid, and we can forget about the giant, beautiful red barns and Little House on the Prairie. Think growth of large corporations. Think dependency on foreign imports. Our current industrialized path, once assumed to be an easy solution, is generating genuine and unnecessary damages.

So now I’m lead to two, frank inquiries.

  1. How many more people we love have to perish from cardiovascular diseases
    Or cancer
    Or stroke
    Or COPD/CLRD (chronic bronchitis and emphysema)
    – aka the 4 out of 5 leading causes of death in the U.S. (the other is unintentional accidents) –
    Before we realize a) something needs to change and b) that it’s primarily linked to physical wellness choices we individually make every day AND to environmental problems surrounding a highly corrupted food system?
  2. What can honestly be done?

If you are in disbelief from my claim within the first question, the answer for tackling the second provides some evidence to conclude it (taken from www.healthaliciousness.com):

To help prevent cardiovascular disease, one should…

  • fight high cholesterol by eating foods naturally lower in it and that naturally lower it
  •  fight high blood pressure by finding a form of activity which increases your heart rate and do 20 minutes daily
  • reduce intake of sodium/salt
  • fight insulin resistance by reducing intake of refined sugars and syrups, including brown sugar and evaporated cane juice
  • fight diabetes by watching sugar in-take as well as adopting a regular exercising schedule
  • sleep 7 to 9 hours nightly
  • find a medium to release negative stress
  • limit the amount of alcohol consumption

To help prevent cancer, one should…

  • fight a poor diet by eating more fiber, fruits and vegetables
  • exercise regularly
  • stop or reduce the habit of smoking
  • know your family history and develop alternate lifestyles
  • apply sunscreen to long period(s) of UV-ray exposure

To help prevent stroke, one should…

  • repeat all the steps for preventing cardiovascular disease
  • consume recommended daily amounts of water

To help prevent COPD/CLRD, one should…

  • avoid inhaling large amounts of dust
  • breathe sanitary air

Furthermore, another answer to the second question may be what I came across at Marama and what they do. It’s a fairly new understanding but certainly an old trick in the book. The applications of organic farming strictly limit or do not permit the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, livestock antibiotics and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s are a whole other story in themselves) and does not interfere with the natural development of soil, plants, livestock and then of course, human beings too. This and that and so much more that would take me many more pages to jot down.

Marama’s organic certification

Enter the clincher. Nutrition is simply everything. What we put into our mouths has a direct correlation to our overall well being, and diet (and exercise), as we’ve been told since we learned the ABC’s, is a major factor in predicting and warding off most health issues likely to develop in our futures. Thus enter the basics. You and I cannot get good, clean and fair food without good, clean and fair animal health. And we cannot have good, clean and fair animal health without proper care of plants. And plants need nourishing soil, not an approach fostered in the opposite direction.

Organic farming precisely starts there: the dirt. Then builds up. And doesn’t disrupt a cycle intended to enrich the life of everything participating in it.

My open recommendation and organic defense, like Graham and Giselle once hinted to me, is to get extremely nosy about your bodies. I mean Curious George type crazy! I also encourage you to read on it (i.e. books like Eating Animals by Jonathon Safran Foer; Eat Right for Your Type by Peter D’Adamo; Animal, Vegatable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver; The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan; Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser; The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer; On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee), view it (i.e. films like One Man, One Cow, One Planet; Polyface Farm; The Real Dirt Behind Farmer John; Sicko; Ghost in Your Genes; Cancer, Nutrition & Health; Food, Inc.; King Corn; The Future of Food; Food Stamped; The Garden), and research some organizations and websites in order to determine for yourself. Or, if you’re feeling ultra revolutionary, find an organic farmer near your location and ask about the possibilities of coming to witness first-hand how they do things.

It just might make all the difference – at least it did for me.

 

“Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost. If that was the reality, then every meal would have the potential to be a perfect meal. We would not need to go hunting for our connection to our food and the web of life that produces it. We would no longer need any reminding that we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and that what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. I don’t want to have to forage every meal. Most people don’t want to learn to garden or hunt. But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again—something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature. Every meal would be like saying grace.”
~Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Kiwi Puzzle

Most of you are probably wondering what New Zealanders eat, drink, listen to, watch and how they entertain themselves. What do they embrace to claim as their own? Allow me to put some pieces of their culture together. This is me trying to complete the Kiwi puzzle, as brief as possible.

1. The word kiwi; it could mean anything and everything. It’s a type of fruit, their native bird (nocturnal and flightless), nickname for citizens, the dollar of their stock exchange and simply used as an adjective for anything related to the country (i.e. Kiwi dance, Kiwi fashion, Kiwi territory, etc). Once this is understood, all other pieces can fall into place.

Stuffed kiwi in a window seal of a backpackers in Christchurch

2. Most of the population consists of English (white-Caucasian) and Maori (indigenous people) descendants. Thus the popular languages are also English and Maori, and though both communities have had their fair share of blood and hatred, the nation highly encourages the presence of each history and heritage to recognize and be proud of. I was fortunate enough to visit the War Memorial Museum in the Domain of Auckland two days ago where I first went on a private tour with two others, and our guide by the name of Barry clearly appeared to be a part of a British bloodline. Then, two hours later, I watched 7 Maori performers dance their hearts out to instrumentation and chants in native dialect. It was an incredible healthy experience of understanding the beauty of diversity from a Kiwi perspective.

Oh, I’ve also started a new Kiwi-to-American dictionary. Some terms you may already know.

quad bike = four-wheeler
rubbish = trash
pellock/wanker = censored name for someone you don’t particularly like
heaps = lots of
keen = set on something; sarcastic, goofy
“cheers” = slang for “thanks”; “see you later”
bum = buttocks
fine chap = good fellow
torch = flashlight
bathroom = a bathroom without a toilet
kia ora = famous kiwi greeting meaning welcome, hello and be well/healthy in Maori
mate = friend
chooks = chickens
number plate = license plate
fizz = soft drink
ute = pick-up truck
“choice” = slang for “sweet”; a good decision
egg = idiot or moron; mainly spoken by elementary children
bench = countertop
spa pool = hot tub
“ta” = thank you
biscuit = cookie
“sweet as” = slang for “cool”/“very good”
“pass” = I have no idea
“I can’t be bothered” = “I have no motivation” or “I do not want to”
chips = potato chips AND french fries
gutted = disgusted; disappointed
tea = that stuff you brew AND dinner/supper you make at home
“gidday” = “good day”
tyre = tire
brollie = umbrella

Of course there will be many, many more added to the list later.

3. It’s called rugby. Among its enthusiasts and counterparts alike, this high-energy, contact game has been deemed ‘the hooligan sport played by gentlemen’ – and with good reason. Imagine 30 players on a field dressed in skin tight soccer uniforms, without protection of any kind except for the optional headgear or knee pads, continuously tackling each other until their side got a penalty, a turnover, went out of bounds or scored either by a ‘drop kick’ or ‘try’ – as if they were playing gridiron like the non-stop energizer bunnies! After watching one test, my first thought was it made American football look like a civilized activity between friendly neighborhood kids. Just madness!

And boy, New Zealand has certainly been struck with a fever by it. Their team is the All Blacks, and little did I know when I arrived here, it just so happened to be in the middle of the World Rugby Cup 2011 frenzy – and hosted in New Zealand. The flights with Air New Zealand from then on out included fans of many colors, from various parts of the world and, to satisfy everyone’s humor, the safety videos before take-off ended with a blurred image of a streaking granny running down the aisle among cheering passengers. There were All Black flags, gossip, posters, rants, commercials and messages everywhere you went. Video streaming of the “haka”, a famous Maori war-dance the team performs in front of rival opponents prior to each match, had reached an all-time high (and if you haven’t seen it before, please do yourself a favor and watch this one before the semi-final with their arch rival, the Australian Wallabies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GIS5iJqLyw). One man had even cut down a tree in his front yard to paint it entirely black with white letters of support. I call that commitment.

I struck more luck since I was able to see the conclusion of the tournament with 12 other people at the farm who came for a community dinner. The All Blacks defeated France 9-8 and earned the Webb-Ellis Cup. I celebrated with them! Newspaper headlines the next day printed only two words: “It’s ours.” Had The Cocks won, rumor has it all of New Zealand would still be in mourning. I actually wouldn’t doubt it…

Captain Richie McCaw shaking hands with Prime Minister John Key

4. Food and beverages. Here’s the goooooooooood stuff. For beer, I’d definitely say Speight’s (the Old Dark is my favorite), Steinlager, Tui (for the lighter drinkers) and DB Export are among the finest. Wines are an even bigger A+. Go with reds from Nelson, Canterbury and Hawke’s Bay and whites from Marlborough, Martinborough and Central Otago. Furthermore, the pub atmospheres are one step down from England’s but still a good notch to get out and enjoy. Teas are popular too. I’ve taken a liking to the taste of chamomile, lemon & ginger and red bush.

As for another, today I had an organic smoothie mix with kiwi, strawberry and gooseberry (all fruits that grow extremely well in NZ, of course), and I’d recommend it to anyone.

And goodness, have I been fed well! I’ll greatly miss having Clevedon Valley buffalo yoghurt (oh my, the lemon zest flavor), Jimmy’s pies, fish & chips, Glasseye Creek wild meat sauce, yams, leeks, pumpkin soup, Lisa’s hummus brand, whitebait, organic muesli, Marama lamb & beef sausages, garlic & herb cream cheese, home rolled sushi, oyster curry and hangi, a traditional Maori feast (you should see how this meal is prepared: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCjpHWpTYGA). Oh, and did I mention that since there are plenty of folk from Asia and the Pacific Islands that New Zealand has some fantastic Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Indian cuisine too? YUM.

Now to the really great part… chocolate… the winners, without any doubt, are Whittaker’s (milk, especially the berry & biscuit and kiwifruit ones), Cadbury (milk and white) and Old Gold (dark – LOVE the variety box that includes caramel, mint and espresso truffles). Trust me, dear readers, no other local brands can match these.

Ran into the makers at the La Cigale French Market in Auckland

5. Here’s some good music I’ve come across. Dave Dobbyn*, Margaret Ulrich*, Brooke Fraser, Tim Finn, The Feelers*, Hollie Smith, Bic Runga*, Avalanche City, Midnight Youth* and 2’s a Crowd.
Here’s some good literature I’ve come across. The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones* and Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera.
Here’s some good art work creators. Theo Schoon*, John Pule, Julia Morison*, Ruth Watson, Para Matchitt, Geoff Thornley, Charles F. Goldie, Kennett Watkins, Walter Wright, Frank Wright and John Perrett*
And
here are some good films. Boy*, Whale Rider*, Lord of the Rings trilogy*, In a Land of Plenty, The Last Samurai and Eagle vs. Shark.

6. Sheep. 60 million of them and nearly 5 million Kiwis, which would indicate a 12:1 sheep-to-person ratio. There are herds all over the North and South Islands, and Marama Organics alone currently has around 6,000 or so ewes. Heaps of wool! Heaps of meat!

7. There is a great sustainability push. More goooooooood stuff. Kiwis care about the natural environment and actively push themselves and their elected officials in government to ensure wildlife and landforms are preserved and protected. During a day of tailing with Graham’s neighbor Peter, I was thrown off guard when his partner Michelle yelled out, “Hey, who threw this potato chip bag on the ground?!” No one answered. She continued, “No littering in New Zealand!” Or reading about the reaction of the people when the MV Rena, an oil vessel, grounded on a reef off the coast of Tauranga and caused the worst maritime disaster in their history. They were outraged and ready to make a move.

Near the I-Site in Wanaka

8. Which brings me to my final point. I could not conclude without discussing the people’s character. Imagine an Aussie who’s less hyper and equally charming and full of humor and humility. That’s a Kiwi. I’d also say their accent was a cross between an Aussie and a Brit. They have wide, bold and quick eyes, as if they were lingering on your every word and experts at paying attention to their surroundings. They aren’t quiet or particularly reserved like their British ancestry; they’re not afraid to make the walls dance or let you know they are in the room. But perhaps the most important and celebratory bit about them, as I’ve hinted, is their strong sense of community. When the MV Rena caused its stir, volunteers rushed to the beaches, set up tents and waited for bird and sea life to come ashore for them to be rescued as well as for the oil clean-up. Or when the devastating earthquakes shook Christchurch earlier this year. People were on stand-by to clear the rubble to find anyone who could be stranded. People always seem to be on stand-by for each other.

Kiwis want happiness and joy. They want social equality. They want to feel alive and safe and free. The best kind of folk, if you ask me.

 The kid on the left has my vote.

 

“One man may hit the mark, another blunder; but heed not these distinctions. Only from the alliance of the one, working with and through the other, are great things brought to life.”

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Of Gardening & Rainbows

A part from the farm animals, much of where my time is spent is in the garden. Some of the basics this entails are the following: weed eating the property, watering the greenhouse, weeding the existing beds, creating seedlings, planting seedlings and sprouts directing into prepared ground, planting trees, making eggshell fertilizer, netting berry bushes and young trees, painting signs, forming teepees with stakes and string, throwing food scraps into the worm farm and fencing. Oh, here’s what’s currently growing or being eaten!

Tomato
Asparagus
Cucumber
Broad bean
Pak Choi
Snap pea
Pea
Gooseberry
Leek
Chamomile
Parsnip
Silverbeet
Florence fennel
Celery
Strawberry
Rhubarb
Garlic
Rosemary
Cauliflower
Lettuce
Cabbage
Beetroot
Parsley
Dill
Pumpkin
Courgette
Kale
Lemon
Spring onion
Cilantro
Spinach
Broccoli
and many more I’m probably forgetting

Compared to the soil I worked with in Tennessee, this rich stuff is soft and dark and chemical free. It’s easy to manipulate and shape. It hardens well in sunlight and filters rainfall with little to no water logs. I’d be lying if I said I loved doing anything more on the farm than putting my gloves on and using various garden tools, even if I haven’t expressed it as fully to the family. I’ll confess here accordingly. There’s something incredibly melodic about coming in for smoko or lunch and earning dirt stains on your trousers that weren’t there before breakfast. Or replacing your bandana after accidently dropping it in liquid manure. It’s a therapeutic act to use a water can for the greenhouse and to see several days later how the recipients grew a couple of inches.

Which brings me to ask, can you imagine a scenario where there wasn’t a need to go to a supermarket for most of our food needs? Where we simply walked into our backyards (or to community gardens for the city folk) and picked what you needed for dinner or had a local butcher package your meat? That we met and visited the farmer(s) who raised and supplied our produce?

Veggie garden (behind the WWOOFer cottage)

Greenhouse

Latest batch of seedlings

Bed to weed

Harvested rhubarb

I’ve been learning about the important components to a successful organic garden, and the elementary ingredients are 1) timing, 2) geography, 3) health of the soil, 4) the presence of worms and bees, 5) the H2O/sunlight/fertilizer relationship and my absolute LEAST favorite… 6) the annoying mood swings of Mother Nature.

Once upon a time I thought the frequent weather patterns in Nashville were bi-polar, but recent evidence would conclude that was an underestimation. It’s more dramatic in the Pacific. For example, from a hostel room in Te Anau, a town on the border of Fiordland, I witnessed and experienced a 24 hour forecast turn from sunshine (around 65 or so degrees) to snow (around 30 or so degrees) and to rain that caused the lake to fog over so much you couldn’t see the dominating mountains on the other side. Then I’d be at Marama walking maybe a dozen or so meters and in an instant, practically without warning, the unforgiving wind challenged me to stay on my feet. Temperatures staying in a small range can’t be counted on either; just because that bit of dirt is dry now doesn’t mean tomorrow won’t turn it into a mud bath or keep your fingers crossed, from moist earth to a frost the crops have to combat.

A clear, moon-lit night

The next morning at dawn

Mount Luxmore & Lake Te Anau

Same scene some hours later (that’s snow, by the way)

So with outdoor conditions like I’ve described, it’s a constant battle to work with and against them. But, when you fight them, continue to push yourself and finally win on a rare occasion, the reward is remarkable. Mother Nature might send you a rainbow to marvel at – when She’s cheery again.


“Triumphal arch, that fill’st the sky
When storms prepare to part,
I ask not proud Philosophy
To teach me what thou art.”
~Thomas Campbell

Gateway to Aspiration

The end of the second week carried me to Wanaka, New Zealand. The city is known as the Gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park since the tracks leading to the peak the conservation is named after start there. Graham and Giselle wanted to give me room to breathe as well as send me on some health business.

I already imagined the next few days of holiday would be worthwhile simply from the bus ride. If the fact that the driver was Bono’s bald twin didn’t suffice, it was definitely the views from where I sat. The landscapes on the other side of the glass would change nearly every 15 minutes. And dramatically: hills like Marama to begin with, then canyons with cliffs I’ve never seen more rocky, then flatlands with rows of fruit trees and vineyards, then river dams and historic gold mines with caves, and finally… the mountains. My quiet traveling mates and I bid hello and farewell to Rae’s Junction, Roxburgh, Alexandra, Clyde and Cromwell through our pondering glances before we stopped at the I-Site location right off Lake Wanaka’s shores. I remember stepping off, throwing the duffle over my shoulder, walking out onto the dock and standing in awe until the sun went down.

Mount Apiring National Park from Eely Point

The health business mentioned above was an appointment with a naturopath highly recommended by my host family. Her name is Margaret Balogh, and her occupation aligns in the holistic movement. Though I’m still digging into what this is, from what research I’ve conducted, practitioners in this “medical” field generally don’t agree with mainstream physicians and scientists. These could include the acupuncturists, massage therapists, zen masters, yoga instructors, etc. They put nutrition and natural, human wellness at the forefront of their work as well as recognize that each person’s body is different.

Again, prejudice followed me into the waiting room that Friday afternoon. I was socialized by a system to accept the diagnostics of those in white coats. It never occurred to me that medicine usually attacks the symptom(s) but ultimately, not the problem(s) which created the symptom(s); or how prescriptions constantly fight against our immunity. It never occurred to me that genetics has been, time and time again, used as an excuse (i.e. “Oh, well since your mother has a bad fill-in-the-blank, then there’s nothing really you can do if you have it since it was passed down to you” or “He died of a heart attack at 50, but it ran in the family”); could it be that through DNA, our bodies are prone to certain conditions if we follow the diets and lifestyle trends as our parents and especially if we are raised in the same environments as they were? Could it be that if I started focusing my finances towards good groceries now, would I need to worry so much about the necessity of health insurance later on?

Marg came out of her office and invited me inside so our session could proceed. From first looks, she had the wisdom in her gaze of someone middle-aged but seemed, physically, at least 10 years younger. Her voice was gentle and encouraging, and she answered questions firmly and with grace. She performed a vegatest on me, which sent painless electric currents throughout my body to determine a) intolerances, b) deficiencies, c) acid levels and d) how organs were functioning. I held a metal rod and she poked at my big toe. Apparently, I was too acidic. The worst organs were my intestinal lining, liver and thyroid. I lacked zinc, magnesium, chromium and boron. I didn’t respond well to dairy, sugar, wheat and coffee. Her feedback would require me to change what I ate and how I moved, like exercising three to four times a week, adding meat again because my blood type was O positive, consuming six handfuls of veggies and three palms of protein a day, going gluten-free, and taking a dietary supplement, a multi-vitamin, B12, detox clay, high-concentrated fish oil and zinc powder; she supplied the last three.

I should pause here to confess that my results were not what surprised me the most nor did they have the biggest impact. It was actually our discussion beforehand, as she filled out my profile sheet. We got the generic health information out of the way when the more personal inquiry came – things like my sexual history, family background, childhood, what I wanted to be, and if I supposed any problems/fears associated in these areas might have contributed to unwanted weight gain. After a brief and painful story few people in my life know about, this was her response: “Yeah, we tend to do that, don’t we? We use food as a defense mechanism. So we don’t really have to face what hurts us.”

Aspiration is such a funny term; it could mean ambition, goal, objective, aim, target, hope, desire and wish. You need it to get off your butt. You need it before every step. You need it so you don’t throw your arms in the air and wave surrender. You even need it to forgive and to just let the crappy stuff go. When Marg said that, it was exactly what I knew had to be done. No one had previously pointed out the sheer importance of strong mental power in the equation or that success had a particularly higher probability if I entered the race with a clean slate. I had to clear up the baggage in my head before I took on her suggestions. Mind before matter.

Wanaka was my gateway to aspiration and believing that with a combination of carefully-guided support, emotional release and self direction, I could achieve virtually anything. If I was entirely truthful (with no offense intended towards education or religion), four days there and one meeting with Marg taught what four years of college and two decades of spirituality failed to confront or counsel. Wanaka empowered me to make the choice; it presented the evidence, gave me the tools and said I deserved happiness.

Sculpture at Lake Wanaka

Sculpture’s inscription

Let’s fast forward several weeks. If you knocked on the cottage at 8:30 am, you’d discover I was already gone getting things done – and at a much faster rate than before. My hair grew like a weed, and I’d brush my fingers through it to show how soft it was. You’d find my acne about cleared and my skin tan from all of the daily sun I got. We’d be at dinner in the evening and talk about ourselves, and you’d notice my confidence freely displaying itself.

Oh, and as of yesterday, I’ve thus far lost four belt holes around my waist. Something must be right about the weirdos, as Graham would say.

 

 “The chance is yours for the taking, and everything depends/ On this transient moment that could turn strangers into friends/ The possibilities fill the air like a song played from far away/ Full of stories, hopes, dreams/ And laced with insecurity, scars, and pain/ The possibilities float like ghosts/ And theyre haunting my every thought.” ~Foreverinmotion

Living Arrangements

It wasn’t only the countrysides and creatures I grew accustomed to. Coming to Marama asked for me to adapt to a whole new routine and way of life. I had to give a little and get a little.

On eating matters…

Over 90% of the food I’ve consumed since my arrival has been locally or organically grown or both, even the meats (more on this and why I gave up pescetarianism later on).
The water comes from a nearby creek and is pumped back to the farm through a piping system; it’s safe to drink on tap without the aid of a purifier.
My interest of unveiling the magic of tea has quadrupled.
I get my eggs from the chicken house.
I get my dairy products from Missy, which would include milk and learning how to make butter, yogurt and various cheeses from scratch.
Many of the veggies, along with herbs, come straight out of the garden and/or greenhouse.
On any given day, I cook my breakfast and dinner. “Smoko” (a term for morning tea known by Kiwi farmers) and lunches are shared together with Graham and Giselle.
We daily bake our own bread usually combining ingredients exempt of gluten. Sometimes we add a variety of nuts or dried fruits into the mixtures too.
Food scraps can go to one of the following areas: compost bucket, worm food bucket or fed to the chickens.

On lodging matters…

I live in a three bedroom cottage that can hold up to 6-8 occupants.
It is as tidy as the residents keep it.
It doesn’t have central heat or air. If I’m cold, I must make a fire by putting paper down, then pinecones, then dry kindling after the cones are ignited – in that exact order.
If I’m hot, I open a door/window.
Space is not an issue. I have everything one would ever need. Lots of book shelves.
No locks on the doors. Turns out the world is not out to get me after all.
There’s a compost toilet separate from the house; it does not have plumbing.
To be mindful of water, I give myself no more than 15 minutes for a shower. I’m hoping to get it down to 10.
Trash is burned daily in a drum bin.
We recycle or re-use as much as possible – glass, plastic containers, metal cans. Cardboard goes to the worms.

 WWOOFer House

Kitchen area

Living & dining area

My bedroom

My bedroom continued

Washroom

Entry to outhouse

Compost toilet (I’d be lost without those feet prints...)

Creative toiletry rules

First successful fire, after 100 or so repeated failures 

All the change has been equally challenging and rewarding. I had to come to terms that nature and I couldn’t be separated. I had to trust that others would not invade my privacy. Until I went on top of the roof and wrapped chicken wire around the chimney, I even had to rescue trapped birds in the furnace; the first one chased me throughout the whole house! But with the new cycle in motion, I also began to catch on to the fact that trifles are celebrated here. Things I would’ve normally ignored were now brought in full, uncensored swings to my conscious.

Like the budding of a flower or the flight of a colorful bird; neither goes unnoticed. Or how sensational supper tastes at the making of your own hands, even when you did not get the recipe entirely right. The softness of soil. Riding the quadbike and the wind brushing your hair. Rain right after you’ve put seeds in the ground. Bentley’s obnoxious morning calls when you forgot to set your alarm. Work gloves hanging out of your back pocket. Standing on top of a pumpkin patch and knowing you are the king of the hill. Turning your cell phone off. Constant chuckles during newspaper quizzes, a Marama tradition after lunch, always facilitated by Graham’s hilarious remarks. Silence when everyone in the same room is reading something different. Giselle’s winks when she catches your eye. Just when you begin to think you aren’t doing good enough, a compliment comes or a message from someone you miss. Playing an original song on an acoustic guitar outdoors and looking up to find you’ve gained an audience of cows and sheep lined up at the fence. Hatch’s obsession for you to pet her. Clyde’s cleverness to escape any catastrophic situation. Dave’s and Tina’s (the farm managers) short fuses and profanity as plans go wrong. Cozy, comfortable light one lonely lamp can produce.

This and that and so much more. Amazing to see what happens once I widened my eyes and paid attention.

 

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  ~Leonardo da Vinci

Lovely Non-Humanoids

Should a circumstance arise when Giselle and Graham must leave the farm for a day or longer, I have the pleasure of caring for and spending quality time with the Marama animals (excluding the sheep and cattle in the paddocks, of course), which are all lovely non-humanoids. This means

Missy (house cow)

Mick (Missy’s calf)

Spot (female lamb in middle)

Sherlock (male lamb, whom I named)

Watson (youngest male lamb, whom I also named)

Rose (herding dog)

Kuna (Rose’s puppy)

Hatch (huntaway dog)

Ted (Graham’s mate)

Bentley (rooster) and his Ladies (hens; there are actually 16 now)

Clyde (female house cat)

Tiger (Clyde’s kitten)

Wizard (male house cat)

and I rehearse our harmony together; and boy, our songs are long because of the schedule they require. This is how they are composed (original instructions from Giselle):

8 am – 1. Feed lambs; take their bedding out of their drum to hang out to dry on fence; check they have water.
2. Milk Missy; fill her water bucket up.
3. Let dogs out; put Kuna & Rose together with their chains, then onto dog lead which is hanging on kennel; fill up their water bowls (nearest door); use small shovel hanging up beside water tap to clean out any mess the dogs have made.
4. Fill cat bowls once inside.
5. Then walk all the dogs to the top of the hill (airstrip)! If hot weather, on the way back, there is a round water trough on the left hand side on flat piece of road near the horses; let them all drink and swim if they want to! Walk for an hour; they need it! Once back, tie the dogs up under the large tree if dry or in garage if wet; give them a bone or pig’s ear to chew on; Kuna can have milk or eggs or something! Make sure they can access water to drink and let off every two hours for break/toilet.

Have a cold drink, cup of coffee, play with the lambs!

Lunchtime – say 1:00 pm? 1. Let chickens out; put some food scraps into their netted outdoor area; collect eggs for house.
2. Collect our mail & newspapers from the letterbox; feel free to read the newspapers!
3. Take dogs for a wander but away from Missy!
4. Feed lambs their mid-day meal. :)

Around 4:00 pm – Take dogs for another long walk.

Around 5:00 pm – Milk Missy.

Around 7:00 pm – 1. Put chickens to bed!
2. Put dogs into their kennels with fresh water, some dog roll [say 3-4 inches wide] and biscuits [4-6 each]; take care to keep well away from Missy!
3. Ted gets fed once they are all done; he can have some milk, meat scraps or egg and some dog biscuits from jar in pantry (looks like dog food).
4. Feed lambs last time.
5. Fill cat bowls for night.

Needless to say, there may not be other people staying in my cottage at the moment, but I am definitely not alone or hardly ever catch a stroke of boredom. The animals keep me on my toes!

Some even come to visit.

 

“Our task must be to free ourselves... by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”  ~Albert Einstein

New Boots, New Mind, New Everything

Jet lag took the best out of me and woke my body after the noon hours had begun. Graham, Giselle and I drove through the dark from Dunedin to Waipahi the previous night, so I had no clue what to expect once the bedroom curtains were pulled.

The sun kissed green paddocks where sheep and cattle grazed. Trees danced with the wind. Dogs barked. Engines of four-wheelers and tractors roared. Human voices and clinging pots and pans filled the hollow space of the stairwell. Commotion was all around, yet they managed to be equally congruent and cordial. To give you an idea of the scenery I’ve described, please enjoy the following views.

Photo: Marama’s airstrip, looking southeast

Photo: Marama’s airstrip, looking east

You’d suppose I wouldn’t have been as eager as I was since I come from a state with a long agricultural history, but to sugarcoat the level of my enthusiasm would certainly be deceitful. This was a real, honest to god working farm, right before my own eyes. And because I had zero previous experience, I needed a new pair of boots, a new mind, a new everything, really.

Though instead of getting right to the labor, Giselle and I took things slowly. I was fitted into a warm jacket and hat to wear. Giselle then showed me the property, explained what had to be done on a daily basis and introduced me to all the animals, among others. When we came to one of their big, black and white house cows, Missy had created a spot under a tree and continued circulating until a perfect boundary of dirt formed beneath her hooves. It was explained to me that she was pregnant and as a part of the process, she had specifically chosen this area for the delivery. Her calf was due at any second.

I’d never witnessed the birth of anything before, so I approached the happening with caution. Stories of women having children generally grossed me out, so I sort of anticipated quite a messy process here. But to my astonishment, Missy was right on cue. I watched as her water broke and how quickly she spun her large body around and ate it up in order to keep the area clean; how the baby cow gradually pushed out from behind and came tumbling down; how mamma removed its membrane so no suffocation could occur. The entire ordeal was done with such grace, courage and intuition that I almost believed a part of me had abandon its old self and embraced a new one – that by the start of Mick’s life, coincidently on my first official day at Marama, it was also an invitation for me too.

Then, two short days later, Graham and Giselle bought me these…

 Photo: Pair of gum boots

Consider my initiation complete.

 

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”  ~Ambrose Redmoon

Definitely Not in Kansas Anymore

We know the saying, and for me, it rings true. Folks, I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Because Kansas doesn’t have cinnamon-coated mountains (and some with frosting on top) nor river water so dark green the hunter himself couldn’t recognize; or the colors of the Maori; or pastures that seem to forever roll into infinity. Kansas can’t compare to the Kiwi phrase “Kia ora”. Nay, Kansas isn’t Colorado with a wrap-around beach.

After approximately 21 hours served at 30,000 feet, I woke to calm morning light pouring through the oval windows of an international aircraft. It was 10:00 pm on Sunday, September 25th as I set off from LAX and now Tuesday the 27th approaching 9:00 am. September 26, 2011 will evermore be recorded in human history as a day I never lived. The pilot announced we were starting our descent into Auckland and right there, among other passengers of multiple nationalities, I wept. A concerned flight attendant ran over, “Honey, everything alright?” And looking back to her with a grin which stretched from ear to ear, “Happiest moment of my life.”

Waiting for the boarding call to Christchurch

I had two more short flights, to Christchurch and then to Dunedin in the South Island, before I officially arrived to meet my host family. Graham found me soon after I claimed my luggage by a curious twist in his head and asked hesitantly, “Stephanie?”

Many of the farmer profiles I knew in the States, particularly Tennessee, tended to be men and women who wore frayed overalls with gloves in their back pockets, work boots, flannels that rolled up to their elbows and hats that always shaded their faces – even on public outings. But if I placed this expectation on them, it was a misguided mistake. He had on a sleek collar shirt with slim black pants and dress shoes. And Giselle, whom we caught up with later, was clothed in a blue-white dress with sleeves and dark boots; she got in the backseat of the truck, placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “Hello, Stef. How are you?” Once all together, my first impressions were they are a couple constantly on the move and didn’t tarry about breaking the ice with newcomers. I was immediately asked essential questions about myself: what I studied, where I was from, my hobbies, familiarity with farming/gardening, how the journey was, etc. This did not exclude more serious inquiry as well, like health problems, nature vs. nurture and other general conversation on subjects that are normally deemed sensitive at the dinner table.

We laughed and ate and spoke to each other without fear or judgment. It was as if the two of them simply had not known there existed a definition like stranger, as if they were champions at creating a tension-free environment for anyone willing to enter it. Their friendly gestures and admirable hospitality briefly tricked me into believing I was back in the Deep South, and the only evidence lacking was the accents. Because from minute one to the moment I fell into one of the farmhouse beds exhausted from travel, which they graciously allowed me to use for the first night, I could not help but already feel most at home.

So then again, maybe in that sense, I hadn’t really left Kansas at all.

 

“See the world/ Find an old-fashioned girl/ And when all has been said and done/ It’s the things that are given, not won/ Are the things you want.” ~Gomez

A Bow, an Arrow & a Flag

No one prepares you for this. Cramming your self-acclaimed and equally materialistic identity into two bags – one to be checked and the other to carry-on; to be so overwhelmed with excitement and anxiety that rest and nutrition are simply the furthest values from your mind; and gazing into the faces of your beloved and attempt at convincing them that despite the distance, you’ll manage and promise never to forget them.

Instead, most of us were taught how to brush our teeth, eat essential fruits and veggies, say our bedtime prayers and recite the infamous lines of the Preamble… We memorized multiplication tables and various biblical verses… We said please and thank you and ma’am and sir and tried not to ease drop simply because it was none of our business… We held the door open for strangers and shared our crayons with classmates. We even appreciated our siblings most of the time.

Let’s face it though. These were easy.

Not one soul mentioned to me what it would be like to leave the only world you ever knew of behind. Yet in a matter of hours, I will board the first of many planes set to depart out of Nashville and eventually be bound for the real Middle Earth, a place we call New Zealand. I feel like a young member of a tribe whose about to go on his solo hunt – that if successful, would become a direct rite of passage into his manhood. Or a soldier, fresh out of boot camp, parting for a tour on foreign soil. It’s a kind of sweet liberation and novel terror to experience the moment when you realize your childhood protectors will be half way around the globe. When you realize you are, in fact, on your own. And say to yourself “this is it” and “there’s no turning back now”.

Yes, the dangers are clear and very authentic. My project for the next three months is fair game for failure, emergencies, and health challenges which can only be imagined at this point. And the more I sit still, the more likely I will become psychologically vulnerable about the animosity of uncertainty.

But the only threshold, reasoning and purpose preventing me from dashing back through the Music City terminal and out the sliding doors, however, is to know what awaits me at the other side of the Pacific Ocean: 3,000 acres of natural paradise and an organic farming family who was more than willing to open up their home to me. Such great persuasion could never be produced by fear’s fiercest smite.

So I’ll swallow the knot in my throat and revere the mystery of ambiguity. I’ll endure the eighteen hour time difference and contrary seasonal period. I’ll rummage with a bow and an arrow. I’ll fly the flag from my shoulders. For this is the narrow way I have chosen to undertake, the way of freedom, how I will be present in my own skin. Hands, be untied; hot diggity dog, here I go, go, go!

 

“As I’m leaving/ A change comes on my eyes/ These streets persuaded me/ With mumbles, strange goodbyes. Through the water/ Through the ring/ To the soul of everything/ I throw my heart out/ On the stones/ And I’m almost gone.” ~David Gray