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Midwestern Meanderings: Part Two.

November 3, 2010

Of Love and Lefse

Continuing with thoughts and reflections on my recent trip back to the Midwest – exploring adventures in sustainable agriculture in small town Iowa.

Day Four

This is my first day of classes at Luther College in Decorah, IA as part of the college’s Sense of Vocation speaker series. First event chapel. Thursday mornings at the Center for Faith and Life have recently been reserved as mornings of quiet reflection and song centered around Marty Haugen’s Morning Prayer. After three or four drafts of a mini-sermon preaching the wonders of relationship to land contrasted with our industrial consumer culture, I decided to opt for a Wendell Berry poem instead. In keeping with the quiet reflective atmosphere. So I shared my favorite Wendell poem, one I’ve adopted as my own manifesto on staying sane in the city while struggling to be a bit more agrarian – Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front.

English professors and old acquaintances for some Thursday morning Wendell – reassuring me that he is a theologian of his own sort.

From chapel I proceeded to Human Behavior and Social Environments (HBSE to the social worker world) – where I was to talk of ways for young social workers to be poor but not feel poor (voluntary service) as well as my path through the profession – in which I continue to be poor, but not feel poor.


Riding bikes with the Scallywags in Chicago – note tallbikes and homemade choppers. On dumpster dive spree.

To provide a brief background, I left college in small town Iowa for the southside of Chicago to work with ex-offenders (for no money); moved to the northside of Chicago to work at a family shelter and live in an intentional community (Jesus People USA) – for no money; served with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps as a homeless outreach worker in Wilmington, DE – for $100 expendable income/month); then wound up in Texas as the urban gardening intern at the World Hunger Relief Farm (making a whopping $250/month). Now I’m holy rollin’ with the Urban Gardening Coalition – and as I like to say – working for God and the government as an AmeriCorps VISTA banking $800/month.

The typical response in most classes where I spoke included the following questions: How do you pay off college loans? How do you avoid burnout? Obviously you can do this while you are single – but what about when you have a family and kids? Why?

Good questions. And I’m still figuring it all out. But my practical on-the-spot answers included: I was blessed with parents that scrimped and saved for their (only) child’s college education since before they met and married. I live in community, write, and find ways to express my joys and frustrations. I plan to struggle and love living on limited income. And I feel God has led me to many unique places and people and my life has been beautifully enriched by them all – and this life is just part of who I am

After lunch, I had the privilege of attending Amy Weldon‘s creative nonfiction class. As I walked in, Amy was presenting one of her own works about a horse giving birth, incorporating reflections of a modern-day patriarchal birthing industry and midwifery days of yore. Perfection. Amy invited me to the front to give a brief background of my story – as well as why I write. Currently the class is exploring the politics of place and how experience informs ones relationship to his/her particular place. Conversation hit upon the familiar topics already mentioned, as well as writing your own manifesto (or at least reading Wendell’s), goat cheese-making and delving deeper into dirt – dirt as a living matter, upon whose fertility we are dependent and whom flavors the food we eat. Terroir. Amy also happens to be dating an organic farmer, which seems to me one of the best combinations of vocations.

My last class for the day was another social work class – Practice III – of working with communities and organizations. Beyond my usual spiel, I added reflections from the time I worked on a congressional campaign four years ago in New Hampshire (and the tough decision not to drop out of college and work in politics). And my work now, attempting to encourage more and more people – young and old – to participate in their food system through growing or meeting those who do – while working to shift conversations about health care and hunger away from the reactionary to preventive approaches that include growing good grub.

This is a Norwegian sweater. This is not Decorah.

After class, Jonathan and I joined Pastor David Vasquez (who I might add – has recently returned from his sabbatical studying the social and theological implications of the 2008 immigration raid at the Postville, IA kosher meat-packing plant – the largest immigration raid in the nation – 20 minutes from Decorah) and some students for dinner at the Angry Pickle in downtown Decorah. Most of our conversation centered around food – the growing and distribution of food. Post-dinner, Jonathan and I scampered down to the Vesterheim – another Decorah jewel – as it is the largest museum in the country dedicated to any one cultural heritage – Norwegian-Americans. Decorah is famous for its proliferation of Norwegian sweaters during the winter season, as well as Nisse gnomes in windows across the town. And here at the Vesterheim, a person can learn all the reasons why we should be proud to be Norwegian-American – besides the obviously wonderful word uffda.

Our evening ended in a reunion of old farm friends. Kelly and Hannah now both live in Decorah – after both having served at the World Hunger Relief Farm in Waco as CSA interns. Kelly now works with Seed Savers Exchange and Hannah with a local farm, Rock Spring Farm.

Hannah and Kelly.

Day Five

Another day of classes – beginning with Jon Jensen’s Environmental Philosophy. Jonathan and I gave our spiel about the Farm and were hoping for a bit more back and forth about the environmental implications of domesticating the land through agriculture – industrial or not. We inserted comments about Masanobu Fukuoka and the one straw revolution and even mentioned anarcho-primitivism. But we didn’t get many takers.

From environmental philosophy, I transitioned back to social work for an Intro to Social Work class. I enjoy talking to folks interested in social work – but not really sure what that means. To a certain extent, that’s still how I feel. But when I read about women like Jane Addams and Dorothy Day – I knew I wanted to become a feisty old woman living alongside those she served, doing things the world told her could not be done. And although I no longer “do” “traditional social work” – I still consider myself a social worker.

And my favorite response came from this class – “I don’t mean to be offensive, but it sounds like you hate wealthy people and are a bit communist . . .”

Jonathan and I ate lunch with Jon Jensen and a handful of former students to discuss farm-to-school programming in Decorah and their work with the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness program. We traded stories about working with students in garden club before heading to trails running along the Upper Iowa River to take in some fresh autumn air.

For dinner we supped with the LEFSE (Luther’s Environmentally, Fiscally, and Socially responsible Edifice) House – Luther’s latest and greatest sustainability house on campus. We talked about vermicomposting and dreams of a permacultured landscape over our dinner of butternut lasagna and arugula salad. And for dessert, a berry pie. All of it homemade and delicious. With full bellies, the most of us paraded down to the Elks Lodge for a Poetry Slam hosted by ArtHaus, the up-and-coming hostess of all things artful and great.

You might be thinking – o boy, a poetry slam in white-bread, All-American small-town. But believe it or not – it was stupendous. Poems flooded the floor telling of being a pregnant single lady like Mary, tending a friend’s farm when the cows run amok, and basic agrarian ponderings. These are my kind of people. The man who won the slam is also a baker of wood-fired sourdough from wheat that is bike-ground. He rambled about farming. And the crowd went wild.

We saw him the next morning, selling his baked fare at the Decorah Farmers Market. We didn’t buy any – but we meandered – oogling over apples and winter squash and finally purchasing a package of lefse.

End Day Five. End Part Two.

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