Wildcrafting

(Story by Michael Dax / Photographs by Stephen Lang)

Most simply, wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting wild plants that are typically intended for medicines, foods or other practical uses. But for Tomas Enos, who founded Milagro Herbs nearly 30 years ago, this relatively simple explanation only scratches the surface. For Tomas, he more aptly describes his life’s work as the “sustainable harvest of wild foods.”

“We’re not only gatherers, but we also study the plants and how ecosystems are doing, how they’re growing, what their populations look like and what impacts there are,” he says. “So it’s a little more involved than just harvesting.” It is this perspective that helps Tomas stand out. It’s not just about making a living, but rather, teaching people to interact with and integrate themselves into their environment while providing an opportunity for them to better understand the cultures that have shaped Northern New Mexico for more than a thousand years.

More than ever before, Americans have become wholly disconnected from the natural world, and as the impacts of climate change, as well as residential development, roads, overgrazing and other human impacts have degraded our natural landscapes, we are less and less equipped to understand and combat this ecological deterioration. So although outdoor recreation is experiencing a historic boom, people are not necessarily engaging in deep observation or forming the kind of meaningful relationships with the plant and animal communities around them.

This is where Tomas comes in. Sixty percent of his products, which include hair and skin care, nutritional supplements, pain relievers and dried herbs, are locally harvested. But for him, this is just the first step. More than anything, he hopes these products will help spark an interest and inspire people to learn more about the native plants and herbs growing from the Rio Grande to the highest ridges of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And with this curiosity for knowing how to harvest, process and use these plants in a responsible and sustainable manner comes a deeper appreciation and understanding for the natural world and humankind’s place in it.

Like many people, Tomas’s initial interest in wildcrafting began with spending time outside and wanting to learn the names, applications and cultural histories of the plants around him. But soon, his hobby became a passion and as he studied more, his interest grew beyond just knowing when and how to use these plants, but also, as he puts it, “how to live at the level that all other living things can tolerate.”

Part of this process is knowing when and when not to harvest, and for Tomas, his joy comes not from harvesting, but rather the opportunity to be out in the woods gaining knowledge. “Each time, it’s like a pilgrimage just to see what’s going on, maybe with the intent to harvest, but certainly with the intent to be in that environment,” he says. “It’s listening and the environment communicating.”

Perhaps no example better illustrates how seriously Tomas takes this ethic than the dilemma he faced during 2018’s historic drought.  “Last year, we had an incredibly dry year and things weren’t as viable and the plants were stressed, so it wasn’t an optimal time to do much collecting, and I had to adapt my business and life activities around that,” he says. “I’ve made a pact that if I’m going to live this kind of life, I have to live according to the natural ways. I can’t let business practices dictate my activities in the forest or else it will negatively impact the plants.”

As much as he laments how climate change and other human impacts have altered our natural landscapes, making certain plants increasingly hard to find, for Tomas, adjusting to those new realities is part of the point. Nothing in nature is ever static. Although the idea of living “sustainably” has become increasingly fashionable, often manifesting in such actions as installing home solar, driving an electric car or using recycled products, for Tomas, many of these efforts largely miss the mark. “Technology doesn’t provide the deeper answers to sustainable living,” he says.

More than anything else, Tomas views our fundamental disconnect from the environment as the largest overarching threat, and in many ways, wildcrafting both as practice and process offers a path forward. “We can’t take it for granted that those things are going to be there,” he says. “We have to be on our toes about what’s the right thing to do and our relationship with the natural world—finding our place and being aware and sensitive to that.”

While the impacts of climate change may have made last year particularly difficult, they have also engendered a growing interest in wildcrafting and the larger ethic of self-reliance that it represents. To meet this demand, Tomas offers a variety of classes and workshops focused on topics like herbalism, the cultural contexts of healing and making herbal medicines. He even has a six-month certification course in the foundations of herbal medicine.

While some of the classes can be fairly intensive, Tomas also leads a series of casual two-hour walks that provide a softer introduction to some of the fundamental principles of wildcrafting. In addition to what he describes as “a beautiful walk in the forest,” these classes also include overviews of identifying plants as well as when and how to harvest plants and herbs in order to promote future growth and not damage the plant. In the spring, these walks take place at lower elevations where participants might find commonly used medicinal plants like yerba mansa, which has a variety of uses, from reducing inflammation to easing stomach pain to curing common skin ailments.

As summer approaches, Tomas’s walks move up into the Santa Fe Ski Basin where people might find plants like osha, which Indigenous tribes have used for centuries to treat a variety of different aches and pains. Tomas will even lead walks around town to help demonstrate how many common plants we see growing as weeds can actually be quite useful. Yerba de negrita, also known as globe mallow, is a particular favorite. Blooming in July and known for its beautiful orange blooms, both the root and the leaves have long been used to treat sore stomachs, cover insect bites and condition hair and skin.

No matter the course, it’s not merely about teaching students about the plants and their uses, but about instilling an understanding and appreciation of how we, as humans, employ them in a respectful and ecologically responsible manner. Tomas is aware that in the wrong hands, certain herbs and plants can be overexploited and harvested at unsustainable levels. “We teach it very carefully,” he says. “It’s sacred information and we don’t want people using the knowledge and over extracting.”

To this end, he makes a point of incorporating plants’ cultural and human histories to better contextualize their practical applications. “We can’t always predict how people are going to use the information, and yet it is really important to get [that knowledge] out there, so along with teaching about the information, we have to work with people’s state of understand and being,” he says. “Without cultural meaning, the plants become just a commodity.”

Despite the mounting impacts of climate change and our increasing dependence on technology, he has found reason for hope. More and more, young people have become especially interested in wildcrafting and all the principles of self-reliance it embodies. “People are feeling a strong sense of wanting to reconnect with the natural world and wanting to know what all the uses are for plants,” he says.

In this movement, he sees a growing sense of community and shared experience among people who value that foundational connection to open spaces, biodiversity and healthy ecosystems he considers so essential. Wildcrafting’s prevalence may still be relatively small, but for Tomas Enos and his fellow enthusiasts, its potential to imbue a deeper sense of reverence for the plants that have sustained us for centuries is boundless.

Milagro Herbs is located at 1500 5th St. in Santa Fe, 505.820.6321, milagroherbs.com.

 

 

A Smidgeon of Homesteading

Alegria Farmstead

(Story by Cullen Curtiss / Photographs by readers)

The beneficiaries of 1862 Homestead Act must have been a bold bunch. Yes, the government granted them up to 160 acres of Western-ho land, but in exchange for keeping it and the opportunity to buy it, these hardscrabble folks had to tame it and make it produce. As we order boxed cereal to arrive at our door with the click of a mouse, we may struggle to fathom living even a smidgeon of this lifestyle.

For 20-some years at Local Flavor, we’ve featured hardcore 21st-century homesteaders, who’ve devoted their lives to extreme self-sufficiency. We’ve learned a lot, including the fact that those who homestead just a smidgeon are also pretty hearty. In fact, we feel any amount of homesteading is noble in the effort to live independently and believe in one’s own industriousness. In response to our call for stories from those composting, hunting, foraging, gardening, farming, sewing their own clothes, and beekeeping a smidgeon, we received a full crop of responses. Thank you all. We celebrate your self-reliance as you inspire us toward a more do-it-yourself lifestyle.

For consultant and teacher Rachel Hillier of Corrales’ Little Dirt Farms, self-reliance starts with the soil. And it’s about soil on the mend with her latest project at the two-and-a-half-acre

Courtesy of Albuquerque Museum

Heritage Field on the Albuquerque Museum’s Casa San Ysidro property. “Soil restoration is essential to sustainability,” she says. Appropriately, her “Introduction to Homesteading” curriculum begins on April 27 with a class titled Soil Prep and Pest Management and ends in October with Soil Restoration and Cover Crops. The 11-class hands-on program will help participants understand the ecological restoration in process on Heritage Field, the time necessary to grow local organic food, and the ancestral methods of farming and sustainability used by Spanish and Native peoples. Rachel will also introduce the idea of teamwork as a homesteading concept, which might seem anathema to the sovereign. “Determine your area of strength, and collaborate,” she insists.

Courtesy of Sam McCarthy

Another super soil advocate is Santa Fean Sam McCarthy, who shares, “When I was a kid my mother would say she wished to be buried in a compost heap. Now I raise red worms and teach people how to use them to develop fertile soil through composting.” Twenty years ago, red worms invited themselves into Sam’s backyard compost pile. He now sells generations of these red wrigglers under the name Do It With Worms at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, where he also talks with the full spectrum of individuals—enthusiast to grossed-out naysayer—to help them become composters of their household scraps and yard waste with “the least labor and the least water.” He says, “Composting in your backyard takes the burden off the local landfill, and leads to long-term carbon sequestration. Healthy soil leads to healthy gardens, which lead to healthy people.”

Two of many healthy Do It With Worms customers are Melissa Homann, a retired chef, and her husband Joe, who’ve gardened everywhere they’ve

Courtesy of Melissa Homann

ever lived—window boxes in a five-flight walk-up on Manhattan’s East 4th Street, an alfalfa field in Pojoaque, a backyard rental in Brooklyn. When they moved to Albuquerque, the first thing they bought was a composting bin. Due to their particularly stubborn patch of ground, they’ve also introduced fertilizing chicken poop pellets and calcium to the soil to help the roots absorb nutrients; as well, they sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the cement block walls, “because Albuquerque has a serious cockroach problem.” In the fall, they plant a cover crop of rye or red clover. Melissa and Joe have taken advantage of Albuquerque’s gardening, composting and water classes, learning, among other things, to aerate the city’s water before applying it to their plants, to employ vertical piping with holes to guide water into the soil roots, and to mulch with straw bale. Melissa says, “I bucket all the water I use for washing vegetables back into watering the garden. Lots of hauling!” To which she also enthusiastically adds, “Shop for your produce out back! Last year, the leeks were amazing. Carrots and radishes the year before. It’s always a surprise.”

Courtesy of Andrea Balter

Santa Fean Andrea Balter, a retired Los Angeles police officer, shares the same joy, but for her 19 girls. “I am enchanted with my hens,” she says. Andrea has several breeds, including Columbian Wyandotte’s, Production Reds and Araucana. And these beauties yield pink, blue and several shades of brown eggs, which she’ll sell if she cannot eat. She uses the hens’ nitrogen-rich droppings in her compost piles, which in turn help grow her veggies. “It’s a wonderful feeling to have a sense of self-sufficiency, and raise chickens in a way that is healthy and happy,” Andrea says. “Factory farming is so brutal, that if one does some research, one might never buy another egg!”

The theme of excitement continues on a large scale with Farm & Landscape Manager Wes Brittenham of Los Poblanos Historic Inn &

Courtesy of Wes Brittenham

Organic Farm, whose team is in constant conversation on 25 acres of ancestral agricultural land. He says, “Our homegrown food travels less than 300 yards from the field to your fork!” Wes describes blooming fruit trees, month-old chicks awaiting new digs, Slovenian beehives, fields primed for planting edible and decorative flowers, as well as nearly 1,000 new lavender plants, garlic coming up, several hoop houses yielding multiple harvests of greens and radishes, and carrots to come. Meanwhile, a variety of seedling trays promise exuberant starts. As for the essential elements of water and earth, Los Poblanos practices conservation, managing flows from the acequia, and treats its soil with cover crops, manure and compost, which Wes calls “homegrown,” lovingly mixed and layered with offerings from the kitchen, the landscapes and plant materials—using the strength of a tractor. Wes writes, “We are so excited to be a source of local, organic and fresh food to share with our guests, visitors, the community and each other.”

Courtesy of Philip Rothwell

While the “strength of a tractor” is not always necessary, “non-stop hard work, experimentation, education and lots of trial and error” are. Phil and Nazca Warren of Alegria Farmstead bought their half-acre land in Ribera in 2010. “It was completely over-run with weeds and trash, and the house needed renovating. We created earthworks, water catchment systems, fixed drainages and pathways, carved rows in the field and double-dug beds. With water harvesting and permaculture, the land is healing and our harvests are abundant,” they write. Their micro-farm, which includes some fowl, is mainly subsistence, but they sell some harvest at the Tri-County Farmers’ Market and the Eldorado Farmers’ Market. All grown from organic heirloom seeds, their crops include lettuce mix, kale, chard, arugula, walking onions, sunflower sprouts, tomatoes, green beans, herbs, corn, amaranth, carrots and radishes. They also wildcraft seasonal edible plants and medicinal herbs to make remedies. Nazca writes, “It’s humbling to grow in Northern New Mexico,” but she indicates that’s just a part of the overall journey.

For Resa Sawyer of the Middle Aged Spread at Aspenwind Farm on Taos Pueblo the journey has been decades-long, homesteading in various locales and living off-grid, growing food and medicine, saving seed, raising honeybees, dairy goats, chickens and guinea hens, and using her farm products to create goat milk and honey soaps, shampoo, herbal salves and lotion bars. In 2017, she moved to 20 acres on Taos Pueblo, where she built barns, erected fencing, planted fruit trees, shrubs, and perennial herbs and flowers, not only for product ingredients, but to provide nectar and pollen for a burgeoning apiary. Resa also serves on the board of the Pueblo’s Red Willow Farm, a nonprofit community farm and educational center. “Our priorities are not to just make use of water and land, but to reinvigorate the skills of self-reliance,” she writes. “In an age when Romaine lettuce can kill you and there is no security in our current economy, the true benefits of a homesteading life can’t be quantified.”

Also in Taos is Nan Fischer, who founded Taos Seed Exchange, a free community service for home gardeners to share their seed. Through the organization, Nan has become a bit of a

Courtesy of Nan Fischer

guru in the community, teaching people how to grow their own food, put it up, and save seed. She also sells nursery starts. “My garden is mostly things I can store, freeze or can—zucchini, dry beans, beets, carrots, green beans, garlic, soup peas, snow peas,” she says. “I have a greenhouse and use row covers and frost cloth to extend the season. You can’t get the flavor or quality of homegrown food out of season. It’s cheaper, tastier and more nutritious than buying. And it’s exhilarating and rewarding to eat your own broccoli or squash in January! It makes the hard work so worth it!”

Courtesy of Anna Martinez

Same goes for Nathalie Bonnard-Grenet, owner with her husband Chef Xavier Grenet of Restaurant L’Olivier in Santa Fe. In addition to the restaurant, she manages up to seven beehives. “They are magical because of what they produce—honey, propolis, pollen, wax,” she says. Nathalie describes the restaurant’s location on the tree-lined river as a great spot for one hive. Contrary to popular belief, honeymaking bees such as hers are “nice,” so guests on their patio are completely safe. Just last year, Nathalie harvested 170 pounds of honey, using it in restaurant dishes like Honey Ice Cream, Briouat Dessert, Honey-Glazed Pork Chop and Honey-Glazed Roasted Squash. Her hope is to inspire others to try beekeeping and help bees survive. “They are the main pollinators for our trees and flowers,” she says.

While the aforementioned have chosen to create some independence from modern convenience and are generally thrilled by the hard work and grateful for the rewards, they are aware they are standing on the aching backs of those who came before. On display in the form of artifacts, photographs and biographical profiles, through the summer at Los Alamos’ Municipal Building is the Women of the Homesteading Era exhibition. Imagine the Pajarito Plateau between 1887 and 1942 (when the Manhattan Project arrived), where 30 Hispano families and six Anglo families homesteaded and dry farmed. The exhibit highlights the lives of three women, fighting bad weather, insects and other threats. After your perusal, you might pick up a Los Alamos Homestead Tour brochure, which will guide you to sites of homesteads around town, in and amongst gas stations, clothing, hardware and grocery stores, and convenience marts—evidence that we’ve progressed so far that we want to go back, even if just a smidgeon.

Gettin’ Dirty Since 1975

(Story by Melyssa Holik / Photographs by Ramsay de Give)

When Bob Pennington started Agua Fria Nursery more than 40 years ago, he had no horticulture background, no retail experience and no idea what he was getting into. What he did have was a belief in tomorrow and a desire to make the future a little bit better.

Clad in a flannel shirt and overalls, Bob has an easy, relaxed manner as he greets shoppers, teases employees and answers customer questions. He’s a man of contradictions: simultaneously hopeful and jaded, world-weary yet idealistic, at once lighthearted and thoughtful. He’s quick to crack a joke and yet deeply serious in his desire to improve his small corner of the world.

Before he was a nursery owner, Bob worked with troubled adolescents. After graduate school at University of California, Berkeley, Bob and his wife, Jeni, ran a foster home for runaway youths in Philadelphia, PA. Even then, Bob was torn between his innate optimism and the difficult realities around him. His voice is compassionate yet tinged with resignation as he describes the circumstances of the children who were in his care. “These kids were in really messed up situations,” he says. “They had very good reasons to leave home.” And while he says it was rewarding work, Bob found it emotionally draining.

After a few years, he moved back to Denver (where Jeni was from), and worked in what he wryly calls “the juvenile INjustice system.” There again, the harsh realities collided with his inborn idealism. His desire to help was frustrated by the futility and scope of the problem. By 1975, Bob was looking for a new direction. His father, who was already living in Santa Fe, asked him, “How would you like to run a nursery? Plants, not children!” Bob thought it over and decided to give it a go. By November, he and his father had purchased the non-operational Agua Fria Nursery, Bob and Jeni had relocated to Santa Fe, and the entire family was ready to embark on their new adventure.

None of them had any experience running a nursery. “We had to learn everything from the ground up, literally!” Bob jokes. It was a welcome change, though. Bob compares his current profession to his past careers, saying, “Working in the juvenile injustice system, it’s hard to find a lot of pleasure in what you’re doing there.” It’s much different than his current livelihood, he says, as he returns to his good-natured kidding. “I still do a lot of grief counseling, but now it’s for dead plants.”

As the business grew, so did the Pennington family. Bob and Jeni’s three sons were all born in Santa Fe, and sons Shane and Mark have worked at the nursery with their father for pretty much their whole lives. Most recently, Agua Fria Nursery has included the fourth generation of Penningtons with Bob’s grandson, Aeneas, joining the crew.

“It’s a collaborative effort, nobody does one thing, but we all carved out little areas for ourselves,” Bob says. “My specialty is native plants and perennials; Mark orders most of the shrubs and trees; Shane is more interested in evergreens and, to an extent, annuals; Jeni ordered most of the seeds.”

His voice wavers as he reminisces about Jeni, who passed away this past August. He takes a deep breath and as quickly as the sadness came over him, he shakes it off with a quip about the secret to a lasting marriage—“Argue a lot but get over it!” He says their 54-year marriage was partly because, “We were both strong, stubborn people, but also too stubborn to give up.”

The family’s tenacity has paid off as Agua Fria Nursery continues to thrive. From the start they were guided by their principles as they built the business. “My dad was a minister, and I studied for ministry,” Bob says. “So it colors everything we do. We try to make really ethical choices and run a business in a way we can be proud of on an ethical and environmental basis. We live on this earth. I would love to pass on a better earth than the one I grew up in. I’m going to do my best to make sure that happens.” A look of exasperation crosses his face as he sighs and adds, “Well, it’s not happening, but… we try. We are politically sensitive and it shows.”

In reference to the controversial Monsanto herbicide, Bob says, “Take Roundup. We have never ever sold Roundup, and we never will. The neonicotinoids which are implicated in bee deaths, we have never sold them.” Bob considers those chemicals unnecessary and dangerous. “We don’t use ’em, we don’t buy ’em, we don’t sell ’em,” he states adamantly. The upshot is, as he puts it, “You don’t have to walk through the door with a gas mask.” His children were able to play safely in this environment, digging in the dirt and running through the plants without the risk of contact with dangerous chemicals. Today, employees’ children do the same. In fact, the employees are more concerned about cars in the parking lot than anything used on the plants.

“We have learned a few things about how to use better soils or better fertilizers, but we’ve also learned some are junk,” Bob says. “Peat moss is environmentally, a total disaster. It’s sold as renewable, but it takes 3,000 years to recover from strip mining!” Instead, he advises, “You can use coconut fiber, which was strictly a waste product.”

In keeping with their convictions, Agua Fria Nursery aims to use as many waste products as they can. This includes using animal waste as fertilizer, and some lesser-known plant waste products such as bark, rice hulls and the remnants from cotton ginning. The pots the nursery uses for their roses are made of paper waste, and other pots are made from rice byproducts—something Bob wishes to see more of industry-wide. He says, “Hopefully we can figure out how to use more waste products and less plastic; plastic is probably the biggest waste in industry.”

In addition to the organic methods and sustainable materials they use in their greenhouses, Agua Fria Nursery encourages people to plant native plants and appropriate exotics. Bob says, “Native plants grow here with the least supplemental inputs. You want things to grow with as little artificial manipulation as possible. For your own sake, you don’t want to be watering and spraying and feeding; it’s better if you can just enjoy it.” Beyond the advantages for an individual, Bob points out the global benefits of native plants. “Native plants and animals evolved together,” he says. He explains that desirable pollinators like butterflies and bees can’t utilize plants from China the way they can take advantage of native plants. Planting native species supports the entire ecosystem. “It’s just part of being stewards of the land we are responsible for, the land we live on,” Bob insists.

The climate in Northern New Mexico is dry, with poor soil, hot sun and high elevation. That combination creates unique challenges for gardeners here. Bob reflects, “Things people think they want to grow may not do well here. We’re here to help. We really do care about the success of your plants, and we do our best to provide you with the best plants we can lay our hands on.” He is determined to help guide customers in selecting plants that they’ll be happy with, and that will work in this climate.

“Great basin plants love it here; they think this is a cool place,” he says. “Are they native? Maybe not, but they’re very similar. Plants from all over the world thrive here because they come from similar environments.” He considers it his responsibility to help educate people on what works, what doesn’t and why. “I have taught Continuing Education for years at Santa Fe Community College, and I’m the state instructor for New Mexico Certified Nursery Professionals.” Agua Fria Nursery employs all certified, educated professionals because Bob believes in having qualified employees who know what they’re doing.

Setting a high bar for their employees hasn’t hurt the nursery one bit, either. “In reading trade journals, finding employees is the number one issue nurseries report, and getting younger customers is number two,” Bob says. “We’ve been really lucky to have a whole cadre of young people working here and a fair amount of young customers. We’re lucky, I think. We fill our roster each spring [and] summer. Maybe it’s the way we treat our employees, I don’t know.” He dismisses those issues, saying, “Water and space are our main problems!”

Continuing, “We have great customers! We have the best customer base in the city. He confides, “Quite frankly, I love all the people that I see. I’m sure for the last eight months, that’s what’s kept my sanity.”

Bob shows gratitude, joy and contentment as he reflects on the life he’s led and his business. “My wife and I, we traveled all over the Southwest looking at wildflowers, and it was all for business. Not everyone gets to do that. I get to play in the sun. I get to play in the dirt. I get to make beauty. I get to help people grow things to eat that are better than anything they can buy in the store.”

Bob says, “The rewards are pretty tremendous. I can’t imagine doing anything else.” With complete sincerity he sums it all up simply, “I love what I’m doing, and I love all of you.”

Agua Fria Nursery is located at 1409 Agua Fria Street in Santa Fe. 505.983.4831, aguafrianurserynm.com.

Homesteading in Taos

(Story and photographs by Gabriella Marks)

It starts with a dream. In this one, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s words transport a young Chrissy Streit from her family ranch in Hawaii to a small house on a thing called “a prairie,” something she’d never seen before, where the land was level, there were no trees and the grasses grew in tall waves. That little girl would one day become a homesteader in her own right with her family in Taos, but until then, her imagination was illuminated by the adventures of another young girl, just about Chrissy’s age, but out of the fabled Western past—a girl and her family, who braved the elements and hardships to cultivate a life for themselves on the frontier, living with a sense of purpose off the land as best they could in the late 1800s.

And then there is the everyday. For young Chrissy, it meant dining daily on the fruits and produce of her mother’s prolific garden. Her

Courtesy of Streit family

mother was a committed and accomplished gardener—“she could grow anything, year round”—an abundance Chrissy simply grew up with, took for granted. It wasn’t until years later, as she tried to reproduce that tradition in Taos, that she truly recognized the craft and value of that garden, and began to make her own connections between it and her dreams of raising a family in a homestead on the frontier.

Those dreams were relatively quiet, hibernating in a childhood past, by the time Chrissy met her future husband Nick Streit through mutual friends at the University of New Mexico. She was studying elementary education, and he had left school for “bigger and better things at the end of a fly rod,” she says. A New Mexico native, Nick grew up in the embrace of his own parent’s dreams. His father arrived in Taos in the late ’60s, where he joined in with the New Buffalo Commune, a small yet infamous collective farm of hippies in Arroyo Hondo. There, in the adobe house his father built (but to which he didn’t add internal plumbing), Nick grew up a mountain boy—exploring, fishing, hunting, skiing, hiking.

Courtesy of Streit family

“When I met Nick, I had no idea about this world of hunting and gathering your own firewood, and the outdoors being such a big part of your life, because it was so different in Hawaii—there are no public lands,” Chrissy says of the cultural divide she experienced at the beginning of their relationship. At the time, Chrissy didn’t really even eat meat. She was what she jokingly refers to as a “bacon-a-tarian”: she did not eat red meat but could not resist the temptations of bacon. To mark her own transition since that time—just last year, she successfully completed her first hunt.

Although Chrissy and Nick were young, 22 and 24 respectively, they knew early on that they wanted to be together, and to live out in the country. In 2004, they opened the Taos Fly Shop, and were married shortly after. But the idea of “homesteading” per se was less an articulated mission than a gradual journey that drew from what came naturally and was inspired by the re-emergence of those childhood dreams.

“In Northern New Mexico, you grow up culturally with some level of understanding of the outdoors. You know, everyone around here gets their own firewood and fishes and that’s just a part of life,” Nick explains. In complement to the fish and game that Nick brought home, Chrissy started her garden. “It was funny, people assumed because of my mom that it would just come naturally to me, but it was hard, and where we live, it’s really difficult.”

The sun, or lack thereof in the cozy canyon just outside Taos proper, where they now live, is the key determinant of an abbreviated growing season. At that elevation, frosts last later into spring—sometimes as early as the first week in June—and arrive earlier in the fall. Chrissy describes being caught off guard by a sudden frost mid-summer, running out into the night like a woman possessed, arms laden with blankets and sheets to protect her still-thriving garden.

What she doesn’t grow, she sources locally within her community, trading eggs and produce for fruit. But her true passion is foraging, sometimes for berries, sometimes for wild onions, but most of all, for wild mushrooms. “I’m a little obsessed,” she confesses. Mushrooms aren’t hard to come by in the forests around Taos—there are hundreds, if not thousands of varieties. Yet only a mere handful are suitable for human consumption, and it takes the trained eye of a mycologist to identify the right ones. Nick and Chrissy have learned over the years which are the ones to bring home. And bring them home they do, by the poundful. “We pick morels, starting in the spring, we pick bolete (porcinis), chanterelles, lobster, oyster, hedgehog mushrooms, and we discovered cauliflower mushrooms this year.” After the particularly parched and sparse conditions for foraging last year, Chrissy and Nick are enthusiastically bursting-at-the-seams in anticipation of this year’s haul. They bring them home, and cover every inch of the entire long dining table with mushrooms, slicing them in preparation for dehydrating in batches for use all year round.

And this is one place where the the Streits go about their own brand of homesteading in a manner that both differs from that original inspirational literary fantasy and sets an example for what is possible when there is both the will and the imagination to create your own way. When they first began as foraging novices, Chrissy and Nick hiked with a friend who helped them learn how to see and discover edible mushrooms in the wild. And now they have their very own little fungi sighter, who has a knack for finding the mushrooms—their son Christian.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at an early age, this unlikely mushroom detective sights small outcroppings from the special backpack his mother wears. His older sister Tess, who

Courtesy of Streit family

received her very own pocket knife for the first time this past Christmas, helps collect them. The Streits are a close-knit team committed to maximizing their outdoor opportunities together as a family. So that might mean building the egg boxes on the chicken hutch at a height Christian can collect from in his wheelchair, and it mostly means that creative troubleshooting—the true tenant of any homesteading ethic—is perhaps the most valuable tool in their toolbox.

Over time, Chrissy’s dreamy aspirations of the prairie frontier have turned into a passionate commitment to raise and feed her family with a deep appreciation for the value of knowing exactly where their food comes from—grown, hunted or foraged. Hunting is central to their senses both of ethics and aesthetics. Each year, Nick applies for a draw license to hunt elk, deer and turkey. Because permits are awarded by blind lottery, his strategy is to apply for less popular hunts, to increase his odds of getting a tag. After a successful hunt, Chrissy and Nick process and package the meat at home, and with the occasional exception of store-bought chicken, it’s the only meat they have in their home.

And together, they’ve managed to carve a life from the woods that balances the pragmatic needs of working in the “real world”—earning a living, having health insurance—with a healthy resourcefulness and relationship to their environment. Nick sums it up well with characteristic clarity: “The main thing for us—we’re not trying to be 100-percent perfect—we’re very much a part of society. I’ve got two businesses in town, the kids go to school, Chrissy teaches. We’re still going to the store to buy milk.”

Ultimately, this is the story of one family living an enthusiastic and resourceful life engaged to the fullest extent they’re able with the land on which they live. But from another perspective, it’s a story for us all, about how the little decisions we make every day can bring us closer to the lives we dream of. Not unlike those Laura Ingalls Wilder stories Chrissy read once upon a time as young girl.

Follow their adventures on Chrissys blog: forestandfarm.blogspot.com.

Children of the Earth

CaminoDePaz-28(Story and photos by Gabriella Marks)

“Can we eat our own DNA?” When the DNA in question is composed of gummy bear nucleotides strung along a base of red licorice, the question seems entirely reasonable. In a school where growing, harvesting, preparing and selling food is an integral part of the daily education, yet another hands-on, edible learning experiment is par for the course.

For nearly 20 years, Camino de Paz School & Farm—a 10-acre agricultural Montessori school nestled in the hills of Santa Cruz, just east of Española—has offered middle-school students a profoundly different alternative to standardized education. Experiential learning has gained traction in recent years as a more effective approach to learning for both adolescents and adults. According to co-founder and school director Patricia Pantano, “…every day is a ropes course here—if a gate breaks or a goat gets out––it’s an ongoing cooperational game.”

Class—outside the room

Pairs of waders line a homemade boot rack beside a blue barn door. Up the path, in the building that houses the kitchen and the main classroom, pegs on the patio, labeled with each student’s name, hold gloves and over-shirts. Arrive any given morning, and class begins outside that classroom. There are five different crews between which the students rotate—animal, dairy, horticultural, marketing, and nutrition and culinary arts. Each day begins, and ends, with these crew responsibilities.

The founding principles of the school are inspired by the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian scientist and educator who worked at the turn of the last century. Montessori believed children who are at liberty to choose and act freely within an environment prepared according to her model would spontaneously learn and grow with optimal development. She used the term erdkinder (“children of the earth”) to describe adolescents who are preparing to enter the larger, global community. Camino de Paz is part of a global network of Erdkinder programs that are involved in teacher training and exchange programs from Sweden to Italy to Mexico.CaminoDePaz-22

Founders Patricia Pantano and Greg Nussbaum developed Camino de Paz based on that theory of childhood development, emphasizing that what children need most is to build self-confidence and to be aware of responsibilities within and for a group. Greg and Patricia saw a farm as the ideal environment in which to engage with land, with community and with others through meaningful work.

And these students are incredibly engaged. Whereas one might expect chores to be met with the dragging of feet or sullen resistance, there’s no sign of either. Whether quietly working independently harvesting in a hoop house, or running in unison to herd the goats from the pens where they sleep to the fields where they graze during the day, there is an atmosphere of both focus and fun. And there’s an ease in the way the students interact—with the land, with their hands, with each other—that is unlike most middle-school settings. Their responsibilities are a source of pride among the students, each of whom echoes sentiments similar to those of Grecia, now in her third and final year at the school, who says, “I like being active and doing things with my hands and feeling responsible for things.”

From the books to the barnyard

While the students are relatively young––ranging in age from 12 to 15––they are not playing at farming. This is the real deal. The youth are directly responsible for the health and wellbeing of horses, sheep, goats and crops on a working farm that participates actively in the regional economy. Students harvest produce and make products they sell weekly at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, as well as to the independent grocers in the area—Cid’s Food Market in Taos, La Montañita Co-ops throughout Northern New Mexico and Keller’s Farm Stores in Albuquerque.

CaminoDePaz-08From the student in the classroom completing a spreadsheet for this week’s orders, to the white board outside the produce “walk-in” that lists the amounts to harvest this week, the lessons of the farm aren’t merely chores—the economics of sales and tracking orders, the chemistry of making cheese, the biology of planning nutritious meals for both students and livestock‑—each provides academic learning animated from the pages of textbooks and hypothetical problem sets to actual physical experiments with real-world consequences. Classic “standardized” educational progress goes hand in hand with working the land. At a minimum, students keep pace with conventional school tracking, although most actually accelerate standard grade rankings through their time at the school.

A thriving working farm

Students are involved in every aspect of the business of the farm, from planning, budgeting and preparing weekly meals, to compiling vendor orders and harvesting quotas, to selling at their booth at the Farmers’ Market. In terms of sheer output, the numbers are beyond impressive. Fifty percent of the feed the animals consume is grown on the farm. Production on the farm supplies the majority of ingredients used in the 500 meals made monthly and consumed at the school, while outside sales—wholesale to groceries and retail at the Farmers’ Market—were in excess of $125,000 last year, and have already surpassed that number this year.

According to a recent legislative report, of the 24,000 farms in the state of New Mexico, two thirds of those farms generate less than $10,000 in revenue annually. Hardly enough to sustain an individual farmer, let alone a family. This 10-acre school, powered by draft-horse tilling and diligent students, is among the top 10 percent of all working farms in the state.

For Greg, whose academic background includes a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, a Master of Arts in economics, as well as a Master of Business Administration, the financial sustainability of the school is an essential tenet of its design. Just as the physics of heat transfer is integral to actual agriculture, for the school to be truly successful in its mission, students need to graduate with a sense of both accomplishment and potential for their own future ventures. Typical Camino de Paz graduates pursue college degrees in economics and education, and foster hopes for their own farms. It’s amazing how empowering it can be to see your own photo on the label of a Camino de Paz product in a local store.

After the harvest, sowing seeds

On graduation, many students stay involved with the school through summer and after-school jobs, and even through younger siblings who follow in their footsteps. Demographically, CaminoDePaz-04the student body is surprisingly representative of a cross section of New Mexico, averaging around one-third Hispanic, one-third Native American, one-third Anglo. While this year’s roster is a modest 17, the current campus can accommodate three times that number. The challenge to growing the student body lies primarily in the fiscal challenge of being a private school with tuition that must compete with various free public options. However, many Camino de Paz students receive financial aid through fundraising, and can even partially pay on their own through the school’s work programs. One might balance the price of tuition with the outcomes of students, especially compared with those of public schools, and find that over the long term, the investment more than pays for itself.

In addition to the original campus, Patricia and Greg are also developing plans to open a second campus for high school. The goal is both to extend the academic mission of the Montessori theory of development through high school, but also to resolve a key pain-point in the agricultural ecosystem that affects not only Camino de Paz, but all small, independent growers: the lack of places to sell their goods––distribution opportunities. While there are co-ops for consumers, there is no such infrastructure for producers. Included in plans for the new school is a retail front/distribution center through which not only Camino de Paz, but other growers, too, can sell.

It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure. Just like the idea of creating a school on a working farm of 10 acres with draft horses in place of tractors. It’s a plan that is singularly contrary to the notion that bigger is better, a vision that is uniquely grand in its human sense of scale and a quantifiable positive impact on the community.

Children of the earth

CaminodePaz-AllStars02-05Phrases like “sustainable agriculture,” while rhetorically popular, lack effective resonance without real-world examples. And there is no single right route toward creating a sustainable agricultural future, especially in a region struggling with widespread food insecurity and water scarcity as climate change becomes more acute. But teaching personal responsibility to the next generation through real-world lessons on a thriving small farm is a sterling example of what sustainable agriculture can, and in fact does, look like.

In a time when a shared sense of foreboding and concern for the future hangs heavy on the horizon, it’s profoundly invigorating and inspiring to walk rows of flourishing chard on a brisk fall morning, while school children buzz around with purpose, and to feel that rare sense of optimism and hope that sustains us all.

To learn more about Camino de Paz School & Farm visit their website at caminodepaz.net or just stop and say hi if youre at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

How to Show Reverence to the Planet

Reverencewebdreamstime_xxl_30717493(Story by Amanda Bramble)

We all know what it’s like to receive a genuine and heartfelt thank you. That person looks you in the eyes, speaks directly to you and demonstrates authenticity.

Looking our planet in the eye means acknowledging her aliveness and sentience. Just as our bodies miraculously keep our hearts pumping, our pores opening and closing, our lungs turning air into nutrition, our earth has amazing self-regulatory processes, too. The forests and oceans and soils are crucial organs. Her blood circulates as rivers and streams and clouds. Her weather patterns and ecological systems are the most complex display of intelligence I have seen.

When you say thank you, speak to this intelligence. You can see it in the cloud patterns. You can see it in the ants. It’s hard not to be humble in the presence of this wild and powerful being who gives us everything we have. For some, simple words of gratitude to our Mother Earth may be an important first step in cultivating a dialogue with the planet.

When you see the landscape green up after a rain, when you hear the gentle cracking sound of soil soaking up water, you are experiencing the breathing of our planet. Watch how the fall leaves create a blanket that warms the roots of the trees during the winter. This protective layer harbors the life that turns this blanket into rich soil, food for the trees from which it came.

Think of all the gifts our creative planet bestows. All of our food, fuel and water. She allows us to live on her lands and she shelters us with the material that makes our homes. She provides the minerals that make up our cell phones, Subarus and satellites. She gives us all this, as well as teachings of how to live well with these sacred gifts. The teachings are all around us. We can say thank you for this guidance, but even better is to truly receive her teachings by demonstrating the lessons.

This is a good time to evaluate our relationship. Has it been reciprocal? Have we honored all these gifts of sustenance by also absorbing the teachings? Have we treated all these gifts with proper reverence or have we taken them for granted? In a culture that values productivity over health, being reverent is like swimming up stream.

When products are designed to be useful for less than a year and then tossed away, it’s easy to become numb to the impact of all the resources that have been used to produce and transport these items. Then we quickly deposit them in the landfill. But numb is not part of gratitude. Let’s keep our eyes open to the world we live within, and the impacts we have. The Earth does not want our guilt. That only separates us more. She wants our love and intimacy and care. We humans are her daughters and sons; we are meant to stay close.

A genuine thanks between humans can acknowledge the experience of that particular relationship. This spring, I grew several dozen veggie starts for my local community garden. When I handed them over to the garden manager, I received a verbal “Thank You.” But just recently, as the harvest has come in, a couple of community gardeners presented me with jars of pickled Armenian cucumbers and canned tomatoes, all from the plants that I had grown from seed. Now, that’s a real thanks. That’s a thanks that shows an understanding of the value of the gift.

Giving back to the Earth always demonstrates this intimacy and connection, whether it’s tending a garden, building soil or opening your curtains in the morning to let the sun warm yourReverencewebdreamstime_xxl_104333862 home rather than dialing up the thermostat.

Here is another way to give thanks. Eat of the wild plants of the Earth. But ask permission first. Approach the wild being. Go quiet and still. If you have never done this before, it may feel a little silly. That’s because we have all been conditioned to see the beings of the Earth as objects rather than beings.

Ask if you may harvest a bit for your own nourishment. Then listen. You may receive an answer. Your mind might not be able to stay quiet enough to hear. Keep asking and keep listening each time you go to the wildness. Eventually, you will hear an answer. And you will know you are in a dialogue with the plant, and with the planet. That is one way to reciprocate. Being in dialogue with our planet acknowledges her depth and intelligence. It is actually an experience of it. From there, your authentic gratitude will naturally grow.

Look down at your feet. What part of the Earth do you stand on? Go outside. Be close with her where you are. As she has cared for you all these years, care for her. Is the soil bare? Cover it with organic mulch to allow water to absorb, soil to grow and plants to take hold.

Organic matter, vegetative debris, is far from a waste product. That’s what the Earth uses to create so much, from coal to human arteries. But if we are not aware, we can turn those carrot tops and potato peels into pollution for our environment. Once fresh organic matter makes its way into a landfill, it reacts with the metals in an oxygen-free environment and becomes toxic leachate. This poisonous soup settles in the bottom of a landfill. All landfills eventually leak, so it makes its way into the ground, and perhaps even into the groundwater. Organic matter in landfills also releases methane, a greenhouse gas 20-times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Compost your kitchen scraps. Keep that valuable resource right there in your dirt. A great way of saying thanks is to take that which was given and to teat it well—rather than turn it into poison.

Activate your innate sense of gratitude by indulging in the delights our Earth freely gives us. Wash your hair with rainwater. Appreciate that softness like a caress from the sky. Eat berries straight from the bush. Try picking them off with your teeth. Make dinner with a solar cooker; delight yourself by using the gift of that abundant local fuel source. Mix up mud in a wheelbarrow, pour it into adobe forms, let the sun harden them into bricks and build a house. Or when it rains, and you catch a chill after dancing around in this precious treat, stand under a tree. See who is sheltering you, and give thanks.

Learn to activate your own sense of deep gratitude and express it in your own way. The Earth will thank you back for that. Being in this place of reverence is a beautiful place to be. Thank you for giving your thanks.

Amanda Bramble is the director of Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center. She has been featured several times in Local Flavor over the past 15 years, twice on the cover. This essay is in her own beautiful words.