Meeting with Michael Reed—gardener, thinker and doer in Albuquerque’s South Valley—gives me a new and clear understanding of what it means to be grounded. He is engaged less with the rhythms of hard drives and internet connections and more with those of plants, days and seasons. Michael runs La Orilla Farm with his wife, Susan, and teaches the Mother of All Back-Yard Gardening Courses; he is also part of the Erda Gardens and Learning Center’s core group.
When I arrive at La Orilla Farm, Michael is out front, keeping an eye open for me. I stop and put the window down. “You must be Michael Reed,” I say.
“Yes,” he replies, smiling and looking around. “I must be.” Based on this response, I know we’re in for a good conversation. Michael has a strong, lean build. He’s in his mid-60s, and I bet he can show quite a few young whippersnappers what a day’s physical work is. He leads me across the property, past outbuildings, greenhouses and plantings of trees. We finally situate ourselves at the kitchen table in his and Susan’s snug home and have a talk. On the countertop sit jars of homemade pickles, beans and honey, as well as stacks of cookbooks. A neat row of pruning shears, not a speck of rust on any of them, rests on a side table.
Michael’s nature is quiet and thoughtful. He chooses his words with care. In the tumultuous 60s, as a student at Kalamazoo College, Michael says he faced many realizations. The college “sent me to West Africa to study for six months. I saw what America was doing in my name. They were cutting down forests and pushing John Deere tractors and fertilizers and taking away people’s livelihoods.” He pauses. “I did a lot of growing up in Sierra Leone. It’s a pretty bloody country anyway.” Michael was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, where the Appalachian forests meet the Great Plains. It is also corn country. He continues, “I knew you weren’t supposed to be planting corn in rain forests, in tropical West Africa, that this is very destructive ecologically.”
Home again in 1968 without illusions, Michael followed his inspiration, which led him to the arts and gardening and teaching. “More and more, I was drawn to the study of whole systems,” he explains matter-of-factly. “I want to know everything. I don’t really understand anyone who doesn’t, to be honest with you.” We share a laugh over this—grasping the reality of being insatiably curious while at the same time recognizing that “everything” is, well, a lot to know.
“It took me quite a while to understand you don’t do that by accumulating data,” he continues. “You can never keep up—that’s the rub of the current paradigm, this information gathering. We have very big intellects and very miniscule quantities of wisdom.” Michael’s words carry considerable weight in this time of madcap data processing without much care for data interpretation. “Wisdom is what it takes,” he says. “The ability to see patterns and speak pattern language. If you master that, I assume because I haven’t yet, that’s your way of knowing everything. You can be dropped into a situation or landscape and see not only what’s going on but where you are—and when you are in the development or failure or collapse of that particular organism or system.” When Michael looks at current industrial agribusiness, he sees collapse. “By understanding the patterns, you can begin to recognize how to heal this.”
In 1976, Michael started Artspace magazine with three other people and was supporting himself on the side doing little landscaping jobs around Albuquerque. “I’d go into the country club area and prune roses for all these rich ladies. They all thought I was sweet and charming, so I’d ask if I could plant a little garden in just one section of the back and tell them, ‘You can have as much of the produce as you want. When I come once a week, I’ll take some for myself.’ They all said yes, every one of them, so I had this farm spread through all these backyards, and I would take all of this produce back to my starving artist friends who were living on hot dogs and Coke and say, ‘OK, come on, let’s eat.’”
Michael then started his own editing, typesetting, and design business, Prototype, and it took off. “It was very successful, so I never had any time to do what I loved. I was making money and getting a good reputation and hated every minute of it. It was killing me.” As serendipity would have it, he did a catalog for Plants of the Southwest. Being knowledgeable about the plants, he could edit and fact-check as necessary. “The owner and I became good friends. We were talking and she looked at me and said, ‘You sound just like Mollison.’ And I looked at her and said, ‘Mollison who?’ [She was referring to Bill Mollison “the father of permaculture.”]I picked up his book and started reading and realized I had been trying to invent permaculture on my own, and he’d already done it. When I began to get involved with that, I realized this would be the direction I would go.” During Michael’s time with the Permaculture Institute, his instructors suggested he teach. “I’d never thought of myself as a teacher at all,” he says, “but they really encouraged me. And so I have them to thank for everything that’s happened since then.”
Through community involvement and the many questions friends would bring to him, Michael began to see the need for knowledge. He sat down and developed the Mother of All Back-Yard Gardening Courses. (“It’s about everything,” he laughs.) Now in its third year, the 12-part course runs from the spring equinox to the autumnal equinox, and then it starts over and runs through the dark side of the year. This development coincided with Michael’s deepening involvement with Erda, and at that time he started giving scholarships each year to one or two gardeners from the center. Classes today typically have 8 to 10 students, and instruction consists of a mix of lecture, demonstration and hands-on processes.
On the importance of genetic diversity, Michael says, “My thoughts on this are very simple.” But they are profound. “The only long-term possibility we have for maintaining ourselves as a species is to become enlightened hunter-gatherers. Diversity means [living in] the most complex and resilient organism that you can. That’s true health, where everything is continually showing its adaptation and flexibility, so all of the nutrients are being recycled, not being hoarded—including money, including water. Storing for appropriate use is not the same as hoarding; that’s a very important distinction.”
He goes on. “Even a lot of organic orientation is about how to make the most money, and frankly there are a lot of unsustainable organic farms. You don’t have to be a genius to understand if something is not sustainable, it will stop.” With this, Michael’s voice drops to almost a whisper. “And so all of our food producing systems, right now, and all of our interactions with the environment to the extent that they are unsustainable, people better take notice of that.” Mother Nature, he says, is “teaching us lessons out here, knocking us around pretty good. ‘Hey, wake up!’”
Michael is not an alarmist, but in his measured way he is very pragmatic. “We can heal this. There are ways of doing it, and there are no compromises in those steps. Do it in small steps, do it incrementally. Nature will work with you, and help you. This is the foundation of my teaching. We’re not the master of nature at all; she’s in charge. She’s the big teacher. We’re simply here to do as little damage as possible, stay out of the way whenever possible and work with her as we are learning where she’s going.” Michael’s face lights up. One look at his gardens and you see the proof of his methods. “After a while that gets to be really fun, because things just pick up, and then it’s like riding the crest of an enormous beautiful wave. You’re no longer being batted around by nature, you’re not fighting it.”
Michael gives me a tour of La Orilla Farm. He has some 400 varieties of trees, primarily fruit. We pause for a moment beside a plum tree that is in full bloom. The invisible envelope of perfume overwhelms me. Wandering among hoop houses and sheet-mulched beds, Michael digs up a handful of soil; the richness, the life, practically jumps out of it. He picks sprigs of cress and celery and arugula, sharing them with me. We munch. I love the bitter greens; the flavors are pure and strong. I can feel their vitality in my mouth. Sandhill cranes roosting in the nearby Rio Grande bosque chortle as low flying jets on final approach to Albuquerque International Sunport sweep overhead. We stand quietly in the garden. I take all this in—these systems, the harmony and dissonance.
“We have a choice,” says Michael. “We can adapt and advance or we can collapse. It’s common sense.” And he grins. “The tricky part is enlightenment. We’re a little thick; we’re still working on that. We know how the systems function, but do we have the wisdom to live that way?”
For more information on La Orilla Farm and the Mother of All Back-Yard Gardening Courses, email Michael Reed at email@example.com or call 505.877.2877. Additional information on Erda Gardens and Learning Center where Michael teaches see their website erdagardens.org or call 505.610.1538.
Story by Gordon Bunker; photos by Joy Godfrey
To read Gordon Bunker’s interview with Amanda Rich of Erda Gardens, click here.