This picture was taken at the Edible Schoolyard at the Martin Luther King School in Oakland. It’s the sort of place I would love for my daughter to go. In the picture you can see a handful of young human beings sitting in a garden surrounded by young plant beings. Vines curl their tendrils around the beams of the ramada, flowers break open their blossoms, canes send forth their berry.

Both the children and the plants are at school together. They are all learning. They are all peers.

The young human beings nurture the young plant beings. When it comes time for the children to eat, they take the body, the leaf, the fruit, the seed, the progeny from the plant beings and ingest it. Their own beings use the energy from the plant beings to grow and emerge.

Ideally, their own waste – the carbon dioxide they exhale and perhaps even their own shit – one day may become food for the plant beings.

That whole process is what we call life. It’s a verb: to be.

Quite tragic and beautiful, really.


The Orchard and the Raven

It was partway through the transaction that I learned the adjoining orchard was for sale.  People had known and no one had told me and I was livid.  Like all the old Grav orchards in the area, it was destined to go to vineyard.  The water would be drawn down, pesticides would be sprayed.

But it wasn’t just that, can you understand?  It was an old way of life, it was the culture of the Gravenstein orchards that had shaped this town for nearly a century.  And it was the life itself, one hundred and twenty apple trees, many over 80 years old.  Whom do you know who has lived to see eighty years? Termite ridden, some barely husk and bark, they still yielded apples.  Year after year giving up their own progeny so that others could drink and take sustenance.  A collective 100,000 years of sentience would be taken out because they couldn’t turn a profit.  By that measure, I should have been dead a long time ago.

So I had a vision.  I’m prone to visions and they sometimes overtake me.  Rarely to great fruition.  Sometimes to no good at all.  All the same I had a vision.

We would buy this orchard.  We would somehow find a way to make it work.  I would learn how to care for Gravenstein apple trees and we would learn to press our own cider and make our own vinegar.  We would have this raven Poe and over time he would get better, we would nurse him back to health and he would be our family mascot and my friend and companion.  Our home and the orchard and the adjoining parcels would become a haven where our friends, and the wild turkeys and the quail and deer and ravens, where all manner of life could come and live.  We would do this crazy thing and we would do it together.

But Anna would have nothing of it.  She was away in Arizona, Mazie and I in California.  Me running between her school, and a sick bird, and the county recorders and a West County real estate office.  Anna said it was too much to take on and what was the point.  She was distracted and preoccupied, and what with all it was hard for her to get the time to listen.

She didn’t want to be tied down, she said.  She wanted to be free and unhampered by an orchard.

I finally did figure out how we could get the land, but I was five days two late.  The vineyard people bought it.  Four days later the bulldozers arrived and began to rip out the trees.

That night I walked out into the orchard, and row by row, I sprinkled homa, and laid my hands on each and every tree standing and fallen. I said I was sorry.  It began to rain, slowly, then heavily and I trudged on in the mud and the dark.  I thanked them for all the life that they gave, for their sacrifice, for everything they had given.

A house is just a house, my father-in-law once admonished.  You are the moveable feast.

You can say that.  But it doesn’t matter in the end.  The truth?  Dreams and dreamers are just slim pickings.


One morning I go out at dawn to walk the orchards.

Is this a good place? Is it safe? What life will present itself?

I walk among trees laden with apples. The coastal mist dampens my skin. I imagine Hopi plants and how they would drink this moisture up. Gopher holes riddle the loamy ash colored soil. A civilization of them. I find old walnut shells. And ancient gnarled California oaks bend exquisitely toward the ground. An oyster shell pokes up from the dirt. There’s evidence of artesian springs.

A flock of wild turkeys waddle toward the vineyard. Everywhere I find turkey feathers. And jay feathers.  And the horn of a deer. Quail dart among the trees. I see large cat prints. Rabbit pellets. Fox scat. Chickens wander in the distance. The grapes just now are coming onto the vine. A line of does steps up from the hollow. Later I learn that a mountain lion was spied coming up the Blucher creek. I see a few corn stalks volunteering among the Gravenstein apple trees.

I hear the sweet call of the crows. And then, at last, the rasp of the ravens in the fog. Two sentinel redwoods tower above one of the old farmhouses.

These are the beings that govern this place. The LaDukes. Me. My family. We’re all interlopers. We need the help of the others if we’re going to live here. And likewise we have an obligation to all of them. If nothing else, simply to let them live.


Yeast Shit

Call it what it is. Fermentation is basically what happens when certain yeast cultures do their thing. They eat, they breath, they shit. Yeast eats sugar. When it breathes, it exhales carbon dioxide (the stuff that makes bread rise and beer fizz). And when yeast defecates, it shits out alcohol.

Which, it turns out, humans actually like to drink. Kind of gross isn’t it?

And that brings me to Colorado spirits. Back in the day there were lots of small scale yeast farmers. Practically everyone did it. Picture the toothless guy making his hooch in Appalachia. Then it became the exclusive provence of industrial distillers: factory farms for yeast and yeast crap.

But now we see the resurgence of small-scale local artisanal distillers. And the San Juans have become a hotbed. Maybe it’s the remoteness or the mining past (when any three block town sported six saloons and as many cathouses). Or maybe just chalk it up to southern Colorado wackiness.

Throw it all together in a copper still, boil away the vapor, and what’s left? Jackalope gin out of Telluride. Montanya Platino rum (big gold and silver medalist) out of Silverton. Telluride vodka (rated 92 by Wine Enthusiast). And of course Stranahan’s whiskey (actually out of Denver, but they count for wackiness).

So do you really need to drink all that yeast shit? Not really, though it’s all exemplary for smoothness and taste. The really BIG thing is that those gazillion defecating yeast are leading the way in the relocalization of our economy.

And as big oil falls apart, those little yeast (or at least their agricultural counterparts) will become literal lifesavers. In ecosystems, heterogeneity and diversity equate to stability. As does small scale interdependence coupled with relative self-sufficiency. You make the whiskey. I’ll grow the corn. And if you don’t come through with the whiskey, I’m still good for the corn.

Furthermore, when I get my whiskey from you, 80 cents out of every dollar remain in the community and are shared among us. If I buy from Diageo (the world’s largest liquor company) god knows where that money goes. And on top of that, both my corn and your whiskey create social currency – you and I have a relationship, we’re working to support one another. Relationships are uber-currency. They’ll support us when both the dollar and the euro fall apart.

Which leads to a great irony. All those abandoned silver towns high in the San Juans that have struggled for five decades? They’ve had a head start in trying to figure it out. And woe to those large cities that are still on petroleum life support.

I’m sure there’s some mountain rat who’ll drink to that.

Written in Mancos