On humility

20 01 2014

Travelling is always somewhat of a humbling experience. You step outside your ordinary, comfortable routine and embark on new territory of unknowns – a new landscape, new friends, and often a new culture, a new language, and new customs. Amidst these novelties, I often return to a state of childhood, eyes wide and ready to see, do, learn and discover all the new things.

This latest adventure has been no exception, and once again, I have found myself humbled on a number of fronts:

1. Mechanical matters

Quite frankly, I know very little about how vehicles work, and I’ll be the first to admit it. However, I know how to check my oil and maybe that’s enough for my ego to sometimes get away on me. But when you drive a vehicle that’s older than you are, it often requires more TLC than that. Driving down the road, there have been various mysterious rumbles that have left me humble, completely dumbfounded as to what it could be. In such a circumstance, I’ll often pull over, look, listen and smell, and call Dad at the earliest convenience. Further, whenever we visit a mechanic, I try to ask as many questions as I can, which is likely a source of annoyance for the mechanic who is just trying to do the job as efficiently as possible. I haven’t had this luxury since entering Mexico though due to the language barrier.

Some of our mechanical troubles have been easily fixed with a bit of 20W50, others a bit more complicated – spark plug cables, or “cables para bujia” so I learned.  But the turned out to be more difficult to source than they were to install, and Joni is back to her usual purr. While I’m still riding the ego boost of changing the spark plug cables by myself, I know my next humbling encounter is never far down the road.

2. The curse of Babel

Hablo un poquito español, or at least enough to get by, but unfortunately it ends there, at least for the time being. So, I’ve become familiar with the experience of being completely unaware of a conversation that is happening in your midst. As we have met and become friends with more locals, this occurrence has become more frequent. It can be an unsettling feeling not to understand, and sometimes a bit of narcissistic paranoia sets in as you wonder, “Are they talking about me?” They probably aren’t. So, sometimes it is still interesting to try to understand, and other times ignorance is bliss, and you can embrace the opportunity to occupy your mind with other matters.

Often, or at least in times of confidence, I will pose my question or request in Spanish. Of course, I have already mentally recited my question or phrase a dozen times beforehand. Sometimes I’m successful and get what I need. Other times, the interaction results in confusion by one or both parties – either they don’t understand me, or they respond and I don’t understand their response. If I’m feeling determined, I might ask for them to repeat it more slowly. Alternatively, I might just say, “Si, gracias,” and walk away identifying all their possible responses.

Regardless of whatever comical or confusing circumstances occur, it is certain that to learn a language, you must take some risks and at times feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed by how much you still have yet to learn.

3. Mother Earth

Since our departure two and half months ago, the landscapes we have seen have been nothing short of extraordinary. From the towering giants in the Redwoods to the vast depths of the Grand Canyon to the thunderous tides of the Pacific, I’ve been amazed, repeatedly. As of late, whilst living on the beach in El Pescadero, the ocean in particular has been a source of humility.

A few days ago, Olivia and I had the opportunity to swim with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez, just off shore from La Paz, where they winter. They are the largest known species of fish, spanning as long as 12.5 meters and weighing up to 79,000 pounds. While they are gentle giants, being within arm’s reach of such massive creatures can be a bit unnerving. However, one can be granted piece of mind knowing they are filter feeders that eat plankton rather than people. What an unforgettable experience!

The gentle giants of the Sea of Cortez (Photo credit: http://www.bajainsider.com)

A more commonplace yet equally humbling experience for me these days is being pummelled by waves. Whether swimming or on the fairly rare occurrence of attempted surfing, the feeling is as close as I ever hope to be to taking a ride in a washing machine. This morning, I had a particularly unsettling encounter when we went for a swim. Swimming out wasn’t too bad, and it can be surprisingly easy to swim through the waves if you dive beneath the surface. Further, we were quite enjoying our time riding the large, but soft swells when beyond the break. Only when we decided to head back to shore did we find ourselves repeatedly pummelled by break after break, with barely enough time to catch our breath in between. Not an experience I hope to repeat, but nevertheless a good reminder of how mightily Mother Nature can be.

As the Tao Te Ching reminds us, “The wise man is one who knows what he does not know.” Experiences such as these either gently or quite brutally remind me of all that I don’t know and have yet to learn. And this curious, humble and child-like perspective is one that I hope to bring home and maintain long after my travels end. But if it does fade, I am certain that another brush with humility is just around the corner.


Here we go

1 11 2013

After a splendid summer of sunshine in the Oakanagan, a relaxing visit with friends in Squamish and an epic trip to Pacific Rim with a van load of rocking ladies, we’re off on the next adventure! Over the next five months or so, I’ll be road tripping with two dear friends, down the West Coast, across the southern US and back up north to my home and native land by next spring.

Now that I have graduated from my formal undergraduate studies, I’ll be embarking on a new program of learning that asks “What am I here for?” and “What does it mean to live well?” Along the way, we’ll be learning from both extraordinary landscapes and extraordinary people. We’re looking for farmers, brewers, beekeepers, sheep shearers, builders, hunters and gatherers, innovative entrepreneurs, sustainability gurus, cyclists, treehouse dwellers and fellow van dwellers, movers and shakers, tribes, and other rad folks who could use the help of three volunteers. Hopefully, through these encounters, we’ll be able to glean knowledge and skills about how to live healthfully and happily.

Our vessel will be my beloved ’89 VW Westfalia, recently named “Joni Estevanagon”. While the quarters will be close and cozy and living will be simple, I have no doubt that the laughs will be plentiful.

Hope to see you down the road!

No fungus, no forest, no FUN!

20 10 2013

I’ve been struggling with this whole blog thing. For one, over the summer, my computer usage was fairly limited because of van life, and I was pretty happy about that. Also, I couldn’t really figure out what to write about and what was worthy of writing about. Of course, I could tell you about how I fill my days. That’s always the easiest think to talk about, but it seemed a tad narcissistic. So, I considered ditching the blog altogether, but I think it’s a good platform to keep up on my informal writing, and it’s a nice record to have for myself if I get nostalgic for days gone by.

So, for now, I’ve decided to write about what I’m learning. Now that I’m no longer pursuing formal education, I worry about my brain going to mush. Hopefully, this project will keep me on board the lifelong learning train.

Without any further rambling, I’ll tell you about my latest study – mushrooms. My apologies in advance for such an earthy and nerdy topic. Yesterday, I went to the annual Fungus Among Us Mushroom Festival in Whistler. Fungi gurus Bryce Kendrick and Terry McIntosh guided our morning walk and answered our incessant surge of questions.

Getting serious about mushrooms

Getting serious about mushrooms

The following are a few of the most interesting things I learned:

  • Wild mushrooms have a mycorrhizal connection with the trees, meaning they have a symbiotic relationship whereby the  tree provides the fungus with sugars and the fungus returns the favour by helping the tree absorb minerals, water and nutrients from the soil with its mycelium. As Paul Stamets explains in Mycelium Running:

Is this the largest organism in the world? This 2,400-acre (9.7 km2) site in eastern Oregon had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it.Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees. Mushroom-forming forest fungi are unique in that their mycelial mats can achieve such massive proportions.

  • In identifying a mushroom, there are a few key questions: Does it have gills or tubes or ridges under the cap? Are the gills regular (straight out from the stipe, aka the stem) or forked? Are they decurrent gills (growing down into the stipe)? Is the cap floppy or chalky? Does it have a ring around the stipe where the veil (partial or universal) has broken away? What’s the coloration and texture of the cap? Is there zonation?
  • The white patches of the infamous hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria are the remains of its universal veil which encloses the mushroom when it is young.
  • Truffles, the underground treasures of the fungus family, are formed by mycelium. As Bryce explained, they are like mushrooms that get cupped, closed up and condensed into balls. Truffles used to be harvested by pigs, but this practice ceased for two main reasons: 1) the pigs were too conspicuous if a harvester wanted to keep his favourite truffle patch a secret (since the truffles are extremely expensive, used in haute cuisine), 2) truffles rely on animals to eat them in order to disperse their spores, so they emit pheromones to attract animals, the same pheromones as a boar’s saliva. So, they found that the pigs were eating the truffles, making it impossible to collect and sell them.
  • Raw mushrooms contain carcinogens, so they should always be cooked.
  • Pine mushrooms and gypsy mushrooms are delicious when fried with onions and garlic!

To read more about Fungus Among Us, check out this article from the Pique, which includes the following sneak peak from the day.

Welcome to the Rock

6 05 2012

I’ve landed on the Rock, otherwise known as Salt Spring Island, and am quickly settling into island life. I arrived on Tuesday and have worked 3 days here at Foxglove Farm, run by Michael and Jeanne Marie Ableman. So far, I’m enjoying myself and learning a lot. I have been itching to get my hands into the dirt for quite some time now, so I’m glad to finally get to do so. I’ll be a farm apprentice here for the month of May.

At Quest, we complete at least one, but up to four, experiential learning blocks. This means learning outside the classroom. My farm apprenticeship will count as my first

experiential learning block. Back in April, I had to find a site supervisor (which is Michael in this case) and a faculty supervisor, and complete an experiential learning plan, identifying the context, activities, objectives, assessment and application. My learning objectives for my apprenticeship are:

  • To learn to grow food more successfully
  • To develop research methods to apply to my Question (particularly a process for measuring collaboration and social capital in a particular context)
  • To begin considering possible Keystone projects (like a thesis, which I will be completing next year, in my final year at Quest)
  • To gain a greater appreciation for the food I consume

In addition to my day-to-day farm duties, I will also conduct some interviews, maintain a journal, and continue to read one of my seminal works, E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, as well as a collection of

research papers.

As you may recall, my Question is “What is the role of collaboration in developing effective institutions?” I hope this experience informs answers to some of my sub-questions, such as: Why should we

collaborate? What circumstances do and do not benefit from collaboration? How can we facilitate collaboration? How can we measure collaboration? What does it mean to be “effective”? More specifically, in the context of the farm, I am thinking about:

What form(s) does collaboration take on the farm (both internally and with the local community)? What role does social capital play in facilitating these collaborations? Is the farm an effective institution? If so, what makes it effective? Do farmers’ markets serve as a social hub that facilitates collaboration and generates social capital? Obviously, I’d like to focus a bit more, but for now, this is the scope of my studies.

Now on to what I’ve actually learned! Although I cannot chronicle everything, here are some of the main things (most of these can be accredited to Michael):

  1. Observation is the most importantagricultural skill. Michael claims he doesn’t know anything about agriculture. He just knows what he sees, and tries to make connections and understand why certain things are happening. To hone our observation skills, we are supposed to walk around the farm twice a week (following the same route each time), recording our observations. I did my first observational farm tour on Thursday. (This kind of reminds me of an activity we did in ERM in high school where we visited our spot every week and and made observations.) Observation, along with a bit of common sense, is all you need.
  2. Cultivating (with a collinear hoe, the best tool ever!) beats hand weeding any day. Ideally, you never have to weed if you do this often.
  3. “It’s often not about the big ideas, but the millions of little details that make the difference.”
  4. Human waste is not managed effectively (Thanks to Chris for this insight). For example, why do we shit into good drinking water? Further, urine is nitrogen-rich and totally being under-utilized.
  5. It is difficult to do everything well, so grow what you like to eat. If you love it, it will usually work out for you.
  6. You need to know the context of the land. We are merely passing through. Ownership is overrated.
  7. Don’t be afraid to break all the rules and experiment. Find out what works for you. Give up everything you’ve been told. Don’t hold on to dogmas too tightly. We really have more ignorance than knowledge, so approach farming with a beginner’s mind. Take risks and innovate. (Planting spinach and eggplant together is our own example of this) A farm should be a manifestation of your own needs and personality.
  8. Don’t underestimate the aesthetic. Take a peak at our patchwork of kale for proof!
  9. Diversify your palate. It seems to be narrowing, so we can only really distinguish between salty and sweet. There are so many other flavours we are missing out on!
  10. It’s not about products, but systems.
  11. More people need to be farming. A few percent of the population is not enough!People write about food, work in food policy, etc. without actually doing it. It is hard, but gratifying work. Put the farmer out of business by growing your own food. It is more fun at a smaller scale anyway.
  12. Pleasure is a more effective motivator than doom and gloom. If for no other reason, grow food because it tastes good!
  13. A bit of a paradox emerges when you look at collaboration in small towns, generally speaking. On one hand, a small town is a very conducive climate because the sense of intimacy and community provides a common vision and facilitates networking. On the other hand, there is a deepsense of ownership and often stagnation that can prevent something from evolving and emerging.

Okay, so maybe that was more than a few, but learning is good, right?

Photo of trailer that I am living in at Foxglove Farm

My Little Abode, Foxglove Farm, Salt Spring Island