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Earth Words

“. . . we go to poetry … so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”  – Christian Wiman, poet

Gabriella Donofrio ’13 (left) and Alice Bowe ’13 sort and plant lettuces at Harvest of Joy Farm in Shelbyville, MI.

Amy Newday plants seeds in soil (she runs her own farm), and she plants seeds in students (she directs K’s Writing Center and teaches classes in the English department). Some seeds grow green crops. Others grow green poetry.

Newday recently completed a winter term course called “Ecopoetry,” and is currently teaching a spring term senior Capstone class called “CSA (community-supported agriculture) and Sustainability.” The two courses are an integral part of Kalamazoo College’s ongoing creation of a Center for Environmental Stewardship, teaching students about the impact of human life on their world.

“I feel a strong call to be of service to the earth and the non-human beings we share it with,” says Newday. “As I get older and get to know myself better and as our ecological crises worsen, this call becomes stronger. What I was curious to explore with my students in the ecopoetry course was—what does poetry have to do with ecological crises? Can poetry be a vehicle for transforming our relationships with the ecosystems in which we dwell?”

A farmer and a poet, Newday grew up on dairy farm in Shelbyville, Michigan. Her “Ecopoetry” course drew thirteen students, all of whom participated in a reading on campus to draw their class to a close. Each student read a poem from the textbook that had especially moved or inspired them.

Emily Sklar ’15 was one of those students, a biology major with an interest in ecological issues. “I love biology, although I’m not quite sure yet what I will do with it,” Sklar says. “I also love being outdoors, and I’m concerned about the environment, so I’ve been wondering how to combine all that. Science comes short on the ethical and moral aspect of ecological issues, so that’s why I took the poetry course. Poetry gives me another way to understand what’s around me, and the course has given me a blend of language that builds collaboration between scientists and poets.”

“Ecopoetry” is a relatively new term, if not quite a genre in its own right, Newday explains. “Writing about daffodils is no longer enough. Critics beat up poets like Mary Oliver for being what they call a ‘nature poet,’ writing about birds and trees. Writing about birds and trees is important, but ecopoetry includes the bulldozer that knocks the tree down and destroys the bird.”

Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.

Three main groupings of poetry compose the new genre, Newday says. As defined by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura Gray-Street, the editors Newday’s class textbook, The Ecopoetry Anthology, poetry that explores nature and the meaning of life falls into the first group. A second group includes environmental poetry with a more political slant that may address social justice issues and is often related to specific events. The third group includes poetry about ecology, often in more experimental forms.

“In this course we explored how the language of poetry has shaped and reflected changing perceptions of nature, ecology, and humanity over the past two centuries,” Newday says. “We looked at what poetry can contribute to current cultural and cross-cultural conversations about environmental justice and sustainability.”

Students at the reading in March read favorite poets they had studied, such as, yes, Mary Oliver, and also Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Ralph Black, G. E. Patterson, Deborah Miranda, Tony Hoagland, Robert Duncan, Lucille Clifton, Lola Haskins, Sandra Beasley, and Linda Hogan. Some students also read their own work.

“I’m not a big reader,” Sklar admits. “But I fell in love with this poetry. What I had hoped would happen, happened. The facts in science are great, but poetry gives us a way to connect to people who aren’t scientists.”

The ecopoetry course, Sklar adds, helped her to solidify an idea for her Senior Individualized Project that she’d been mulling over for about a year. Her interest in nature, biology, ecology, and human responses to all three came together in a plan to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Along with a K alumna, Margaux Reckard ‘13, Sklar began 2,200-mile adventure a few days after the poetry course concluded (see “Where the TinyTent AT?” in this issue of BeLight).

“Poetry can help us question,” Newday says. “We are losing all kinds of diversity in our world, and cultures and languages are being lost along with biodiversity. Languages each give us a unique way to see the world and add perspective. Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.”

Harvest of Joy farmer John Edgerton (left) discusses with students (l-r) Chandler Smith ’13, Caroline Michniak ’13, and Alicia Pettys ’13 different techniques for organic and sustainable planting.

In her senior Capstone course, “CSA and Sustainability,” Newday digs even deeper into building connections between students and the earth. Along with textbooks, she hands them trowels, hoes, shovels and watering cans. She takes her students to her own CSA operation, Harvest of Joy Farm, where she and partner John Edgerton practice sustainable and organic methods of farming.

The Capstone course, Newday says, offers students the opportunity to explore and experience food systems, agriculture, community building, education, economics, business, and food justice as an alternative to the mainstream food economy. If that sounds like it’s dealing with a great many topics—it is, and that’s the everyday life of a farmer.

Part of the course will take place in the traditional campus classroom, and for at least three hours each week students will work on the farm. They will help plan the CSA business, prepare the soil for planting and then plant a wide assortment of seeds and plants, maintain compost and learn about permaculture, and maintain and harvest the garden. Students will also experience the business aspects of running a CSA, the marketing and selling of vegetables to community members, and the relationships built between farmer and community members.

The course will also involve an ongoing blog of farm activities, and a student-generated on-campus collaborative project. Students will participate in discussions about their experiences and observations working on the farm.

In informational sessions held prior to the beginning of the course, Newday and Edgerton met with students interested in learning more information before making a decision to enroll.

“I was surprised how much I loved running a CSA,” Newday says to the students gathered to hear about the course. “The relationships we developed through the CSA were very rewarding. There’s an instant gratification when you give good food to people, and you see how excited they are to receive it, taste it, and share it.”

The concept of a CSA, Newday tells the students, is not the traditional business model of trading cash for product. “A CSA offers people the opportunity to invest in the kind of world they want to live in.”

The Harvest of Joy Farm is in its fourth year. At the beginning of last summer’s (2013) growing season, 45 members paid for 28 shares and half-shares in the operation, which provided the funds to cover the costs of farming. In return, shareholders receive vegetables and fruits each week during harvest.

“The course will help students to better understand the economics of farming, especially on a small scale, and to consider how small farms fit into the larger agricultural economy, in the United States and across the world,” says Newday. “Along with learning about sustainable agricultural practices, students will learn how to critically consider what it means to make environmentally, socially, and ethically sound food choices.”

To learn more about the Kalamazoo College Capstone CSA experience, read student blog entries, and view photos, visit kzoocsa.blogspot.com.  To learn more about Harvest of Joy Farm, LLC, visit harvestofjoyfarm.wordpress.com.

Oyster Wars with Camera Cutlass

Editor’s Note: Try on this image: if author David Hammond ’73 were a recipe, its ingredients are the liberal arts—mostly literature and writing (he was an English major, after all), but also heaping measures of food and travel (in Strasbourg, France, and beyond, to be specific), enough science to understand the effect of nuanced environmental differences on organisms in seemingly close proximity, a taste for history (in chronicles such as The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay), and an appreciation of the ebb and flow of economic-environmental influences. I hope readers enjoy, as much as we did, the following piece–product of a curiosity refined by an education in the liberal arts. And not just any such education. Like oysters, a liberal arts education can have important variations, even in close proximity. Cheers to David Hammond, and to the K way of doing a liberal arts education.

Pleasure House Oyster … none better! Photo by David Hammond ’73.

In a recent Chicago Sun-Timesoyster guide”, I mentioned, with a hint of disbelief, that “some oyster enthusiasts even claim to detect subtle flavor differences between bivalves grown on different sides of the same bay.”

That claim once seemed to me somewhat unbelievable. I’m not scoffing any more.

A few hours after landing in Richmond, Virginia, I went to an oyster tasting that involved sampling the same breed of oyster grown in multiple locations all around Chesapeake Bay, north and south.

What I discovered in this pan-Bay sampling was that flavor variations in oysters from different parts of this bay are, indeed, clearly palpable.

It just makes sense: oysters cultivated closer to the Atlantic Ocean are saltier, and those further north and deeper up into the bay, closer to freshwater rivers, are sweeter. Similarly, oysters cultivated near moving waters tend to be somewhat cleaner tasting than those in beds where water moves more slowly.

Flavor differences, it turns out, are readily discernible, even in oysters that live a few miles apart. Historically, the oysters from Chesapeake Bay were known for being some of the finest in the world.

Faded Glory
According to John R. Wennersten, in his highly entertaining The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, there was a time in the late nineteenth century when Chesapeake Bay provided 40 percent of the world’s oysters!

Many poachers were shot by the guns of the Oyster Navy.

Throughout the past century or so, the oyster industry in Chesapeake Bay, much like that in the Gulf Coast, has waxed and waned, building up and then slipping down due to a variety of causes.

By the late twentieth century, the glory days of Chesapeake Bay oyster production had faded, due in part to fertilizer run-off that caused vast algal blooms that made life difficult for oysters. A little algae is just fine; oysters like it; too much algae crowds out the tasty creatures. Given the chance to increase and multiply, relieved of the burden of trying to live in heavily polluted water, oysters actually filter the water and make it cleaner.

Today, with regulations in place to reduce run-off, farmers are moving back into the Chesapeake area in a continuing effort to satisfy the perennial taste for oysters. Oysters are amazingly resilient creatures, and even though their numbers in Chesapeake Bay have dwindled over the years, the industry is undergoing a rebirth, with new oyster farms cropping up all over the bay.

Pleasure House oysters: Bringing Back the Old Ways
I had my first Pleasure House oysters at a restaurant called Terrapin in Virginia Beach. The oysters were much bigger than I’d usually prefer an oyster to be, but each was stunningly delicious, with briny, balanced flavors and beautifully firm flesh. Terrapin is one of only three restaurants that serve Pleasure House oysters; production at this oyster farm is understandably low.

Pleasure House oysters is one of many farms that have reclaimed their place around Chesapeake Bay. In response to the increasing demand for oysters, companies that had previously gone under are coming back to life, and new companies are starting up; some are doing their best to bring back the old ways of oyster farming.

At the Pleasure House oyster farm, cages are pulled up and the oysters sorted and tumbled by hand. This totally manual approach might seem like a gimmick, but Pleasure House oysters were perhaps the finest oysters I’ve ever eaten.

You cannot get oysters any fresher than this. Photo by David Hammond ’73.

We went out on a Pleasure House oyster boat with Chris Ludford, whose regular job is serving as the area’s fireboat captain. When he’s not keeping the bay area from going up in smoke, he works his oyster beds on the Lynnhaven River, cultivating and harvesting oysters by hand. We pulled up next to a patch of marsh grass where Ludford had his cages.

The fresh-from-the-water oysters were glistening jewels of deliciousness, brimming with briny liquor and dense with layers of flavor. Somewhat fleshy, their texture was excellent.

“We’re in a perfect location here,” said Ludford, “a few miles from the ocean, so we get a lot of fresh salt water washing through.”

The Lynnhaven River has been yielding oysters for centuries. Local legend has it that shortly after landing in the New World, the first European settlers sat down with the indigenous residents to enjoy fire-roasted oysters.

Shoot Photos, Not Guns
In The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, Wennersten relates many tales of pirates—some local, others coming down from Maryland—who raided oyster beds all over this area. To combat such pilferage, an Oyster Navy launched in the late nineteenth century. There were frequent pitched gun battles between this local law enforcement agency and oyster pirates. Much blood was shed. Many poachers were shot by the guns of the Oyster Navy.

Finally in 1959, a colorful local character named Berkeley Muse was out pilfering oysters with some good ole boys when he was shot and killed by the Oyster Navy. Beloved by the community, he was immortalized (more or less) in a song (I found it on iTunes) by Calico Jack & Janie Meneely:

Potomac was as good a place as any man could choose
Till the Oyster Navy came and shot down Berkeley Muse

With the death of Muse, and ensuing public outrage, the Oyster Navy was throttled back.

Predictably, the pirating of oysters continues.

“Every Fourth of July,” Ludford told me, “we have people coming in and trying to poach our oysters. It’s traditional for people to have some oysters and beer, and I guess some folks just can’t afford them. Last year on the Fourth, I got a call from a buddy who told me there were pirates in my oyster beds. I jumped in my boat and went out there. They took off, but I shot a picture of the license on their boat with my brand new iPhone.”

Police eventually caught the malefactors and their loot: a passel of Pleasure House oysters. No blood was shed.

Slurping unbelievably fresh Lynnhaven River oysters in the sun, with the wind blowing off the nearby Atlantic, it was easy to see why the oyster was one powerful food. Indigenous people, English settlers, red-blooded American boys, for all of them, oysters hold an enduring allure.