of local grapes

July 6, 2014

Trying a new grape in the back. It’s called Roger’s Red. It’s a hybrid between California wild grape (Vitis californica) and our everyday grape of commerce (Vitis vinifera).

I have already planted the wonderful Mojave wild grape (Vitis girdiana). It has lovely woolly gray-green leaves and the fruit is a small black grape. Any plant with wooly leaves like this is well-adapted to conserving moisture.

desert wild grape

desert wild grape

Foliage of the Roger’s Red is supposed to turn red in the fall. Also may not be the best eating grape since the skin is supposedly bitter.

Still, I imagine the ground squirrels and birds should love it…

And I will find something to do with the fruit.

Roger's red grape.

Roger’s red grape.

I have begun to see RSF as an experiential station as much as an educational center. The workshops are for drylands growing and for all kinds of re-skilling presentations. It’s all practical work.

The experimental stuff is my passion. Talking and writing about it brings me some joy.

I have experimented in the garden since I was nine years old in Ohio.

It’s in my blood.

High desert gardening has become more challenging over the years.

Is it because I’m getting older? Maybe, but I don’t think that’s all of it.

I’ve blogged a lot about climate change. I think that’s what’s happening. Remember the wind.  I talk about the wind a lot. It’s a big factor out here.

One thing the wind does is dry out the plants.  And in the high desert, drier plants are not happier plants.

I used to count the plants and fruiting trees that died from our unpredictable hard freezes. I still have to do that. And now I have to count the wind-desiccated plants as well.

I’ve lost two young manzanitas this last year from either/or wind and cold. I’ve had to replace a fig due to the cold. A few other fruit trees in the orchard have been replaced.

I tried propagating trees from branches. You cut a smallish branch and peel back the bark. Then you coat it in rooting hormone and stick it into a pot with soil and vermiculite or peat moss. After several weeks little rootlets should begin to grow. Eventually you can plant these very young saplings in your orchard. I planned to give mine a good start and keep them in that structure I lovingly call a greenhouse (it’s not but that doesn’t stop me from calling it that).

This. Is. My. Greenhouse.

This. Is. My. Greenhouse.

Sadly the wind tore my plastic cover to ribbons over the winter and early spring. That can be fixed.

Sadder yet, ground squirrels ate every single one of my tree starts. See them happily poking up in the background before they were devoured? Apples and apricots and peaches.

One of my friends is a local rancher. She said her success rate with tree starts was about 50%. I felt happy to have a 60% rate of sprouting. Ground squirrels took me down a notch. I’ll do it again in a month or so. Meanwhile I’m trying it with manzanita right now.

I’d like to try using our local desert wild almond, Prunus fasciculata as a rootstock for cultivated Prunus species, saving water in this dry climate.

local desert wild almond

local desert wild almond

Apricots at RSF

Apricots at RSF

Can you see these grafted?

I’ve heard there’s a wild plum in the Sierras that might work as a rootstock also. Maybe someday, that.

Meanwhile these desert and California grapes. If they flourish, I will incorporate them into a living windbreak for the patio.  Even if they appear to be doing marginally, I will plant some in to my patio windbreak. It’s a different microclimate and the soil is somewhat different. It will be worth a try.

Here’s the plan.

On the south and southeast sides, I want a cover/arbor with grapes and wisteria. I have plenty of commercial grapes and now the local grapes. I have multiple wisteria vines and they transplant very well.

One idea:  4X4s sunk into cement with lattice.

The other idea: use what’s on hand: t-posts woven with creosote branches to support grape and wisteria vines. This I could begin immediately and it would cost less.

Designing and building it will be very therapeutic…Not sure what I want do with the top but I’ll think of something.

This whole production could be turned into an art installation with plants.

Right here. This is the start of the green windbreak.

Right here. This is the start of the green windbreak.

What’s been growing in your world?


skateboard learning

July 6, 2014

Check this out.

Everything you need to know, you can learn from skateboarding.

I have worked on my farm with skateboarders. My so- in-law and some of his friends are skateboarders.  Skateboarders are amazing, creative, and bright people.

I once interviewed two teenage skateboarders about environmental issues. I interviewed them as part of my dissertation research. They had worked alongside me at Rainshadow Farm when we began establishing the learning center here. They were two intelligent, lively, and creative young people. I learned so much from them.

I found their views of skateboarding phenomenological and deeply environmental.

They both talked about the profound connection they feel to the natural world as they skateboard.

They mentioned things like the texture of the pavement and ground changing under their feet, “the qualities of sand, pebble, rock, cement,” and the ground’s curvature as the feel of it traveled up from their feet through their bodies.

They spoke of how “there is only the board and wheels between your body and the earth.”

Isn't he amazing?

Isn’t he amazing?

Both of them spent a lot of time outdoors and were both very aware of weather patterns on an hourly basis and qualities of light and dark.

They talked about moment by moment feeling the air on your skin.

One of these young people  mentioned that “it is too hard to be indoors too long,” and that he “needs to feel his body in the sun, the wind, and the rain to feel good.”

One of these young people said that as he skated through the high desert, he would feel  distinct pain when he saw trash dumping in the high desert – to him, to love the land was “like taking care of your own body.”

Both young skateboarders had a finely honed sense of place, a love of the landscape, and a definite land ethic which they had developed as skateboarders.

Someone I know told me that he knew surfers with the same approach to their environment.

Whenever I used to do field archaeology, I felt the same way. I had a place to be and a sense of caring about that place. Since most of my work has been in the high desert, and I’ve travelled all around the bounds of this high desert, I’ve developed a sense of place here that rivals the sense of place I learned growing up in northwestern Ohio, which was substantial. I was a child outdoors back then, in all season, in all weather, in all variations of environment. Walking and biking and playing and sitting.

Outdoor sports and outdoor sciences are a way to learn how to develop and foster a variety of intelligences about the natural world and human impact upon it.

Their words essentially described a phenomenology of skateboarding. One of these young people mentioned that she always felt  “deeply connected to the land – whatever land I find myself in.”

I got to know the teens I’ve mentioned when they were in one of my college classes and they expressed an interest in learning about organic gardening.

Perhaps this is one reason that they are both attracted to gardening: gardening holds the same phenomenological attractions.

farm women katie and katie

They are both older now. I’ve stayed in touch. They are married to each other and preparing, both, to graduate with university degrees in mathematics. They want to teach high school math eventually, both of them. This is wonderful because the more teachers out there with a deeply phenomenological sense of place, the better for environmental learning.

Installing a new garden at their place.

Installing a new garden at their place.

These two young people still love nature and they are masterful gardeners.

And they still skate.




leaning toward permaculture ideals

June 11, 2014

Modern permaculture was inspired by Chinese-derived wet-rice and tree-crop systems employed in Southeast Asia, which remain reasonable models of sustainability. Southern China, on the whole, has done less ecological damage in 8,000 years of agricultural history than Western practices have done in the last 200 years to the Great Plains of North America and in California’s central valley.


Stereoagriculture in Wuhua County, Guangdong Province. (Photo from Luo Shiming, South China Agricultural University, Guangzhou, 1991) from http://southchinaenvir.com/degraded-lands-south-chinas-untapped-resource/

Stereoagriculture in Wuhua County, Guangdong Province. (Photo from Luo Shiming, South China Agricultural University, Guangzhou, 1991) from http://southchinaenvir.com/degraded-lands-south-chinas-untapped-resource/

The Chinese were aware early on that people drawing sustenance from the natural world must be proactive in employing protective management of natural resources. They valued groves nearby their villages and temples. The necessity of maintaining clean water, of not over-fishing and over-hunting, of not over-using the land in planting, all of these principles have been traditionally woven into the patterns of life in south China. Their traditional views of environmental management may have helped bring them to the current day with less ecological damage than the region would have sustained otherwise. Contemporary China has ended up with a less ideal situation, however. Development projects including large scale damming of big rivers, over-fishing, soil erosion, and deforestation have contributed to China’s ecological breakdown. Perhaps it would have been worse without their early cultural warnings against abuse of the natural world.

There are regions in northern Europe where the land has not been ruined as quickly as the prime agricultural regions of north America. It may also be that some of these regions stretching from eastern Europe to Ireland, including farming villages in the Alps, leaned toward small scale and localized food production until the steamroller of modern industrialized agriculture passed over their lands. Wendell Berry talks personally and in detail about the benefits of small scale traditional sorts of agriculture in Ireland. He compares some of the practices to his own small scale farming practices in Kentucky.

The Great Plains are eroded, denuded of helpful native vegetation, and the soil is in terrible condition.

Wes Jackson’s call for a new farming approach and agricultural economy is based on revitalizing the Great Plains and the prairie lands of the heartlands of North America. He starts with an ideal of biomimicry of the prairie ecosystem and place-based, sustainable agricultural practices.

He’s asking for nothing less than a massive salvage operation. We could use that kind of action in California too.

So we have industrialized agriculture with erosion; salinization (much worse in regions that require irrigation); petrochemicals made into pesticides, herbicides, fungicides; immense agricultural machines running across the land; pollution of water resources by land erosion and by agricultural chemical runoff; pesticides and herbicides that are killing farmworkers and destroying our pollinators; devastating loss of aquifers and over-consumption of all precious water resources. And that’s only the beginning.

California’s central valley is succumbing to desertification and the water shortages in the region are deeply affecting current farming. Water shortages and current unsustainable land-use practices will have a serious impact on future growing in California’s historical 400-mile long bread basket. Over the last century, this agricultural valley has been producing one-quarter of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, rice, and soy products eaten in the United States. Whether the central valley should have ever become an agricultural monolith is another question.

Dust Bowl. California. Now.

Dust Bowl. California. Now.


Agricultural practices that ignore the landscape and the ecology of their region, trying to force human will upon the landscape, will never succeed over the long haul.

Cultures with sustainable land practices and social ethics have tended to be the ones that survive the longest.

As far as I can see, agriculture must be done in the context of community, with an ecological paradigm, on a small, human-sized scale. That’s all. That’s if we all want to keep eating food and not Cargill’s (or some other huge food supplier’s) food-from-a-vat. I’m serious.

I often wonder if I should pack it in and move myself out of this high desert valley. We have accumulated too many people in the region to ever create anything vaguely resembling a sustainable food system. Maybe the best thing I can do for this endangered ecosystem is to leave it. I could make the same argument for leaving California. And then what? The planet?

So for now, I’m here. And I’m dealing.

I may leave the high desert but not until I know that I need to be somewhere else.

And, yes, a job somewhere else that could support me would be an indicator that my time to leave had come. While I’m concerned with how we are destroying the land, I need to survive too. More on that later.


I said permaculture, way up at the top of this post.

I agree with generally stated permaculture values, ethics, and practices. I have never been able to afford to take any kind of certified permaculture course but these are modern practices most closely allied to what I do.

With regard to a parcel of land like RSF, one of my biggest revelations has been the use of edges and the “value of the marginal” (Holmgren, 2002).

Observing and valuing the marginal has been simultaneously one of my greatest difficulties and one of the biggest benefits of growing food here.

The edge effect in ecology shows that when two plant communities collide, there is likely to be more biotic diversity in that intersection than there is in either plant community alone. If one of these plant communities is a sustainable agroecosystem, emergent diversity helps produce more abundance than expected from a marginal situation.

Here at RSF I’ve learned about edge effects from volunteer plants, those that come up unexpectedly in places where they hadn’t been planted. I’ve seen corn, tomatoes, barley and a variety of herbs spring up from wind-blown or bird-dropped seeds.


volunteers (sunflower, yarrow, mint, oregano) in front of irises.

volunteers (sunflower, yarrow, mint, oregano) in front of irises.

Here at Rainshadow, it is possible to make use of the edge effect through shrub, tree, and crop selection. Raspberries and blackberries do not thrive in the desert but along the outside edges of the orchard area, they do and they spread.

Between the main orchard and the wilder desert zone that surrounds the farm, we’ve seen marked increase in wildlife since we moved on this land in 2006.

quail family by Erin Ward

quail family by Erin Ward

For maximizing biodiversity and agrobiodiversity, I’ll be looking to the edges in coming seasons.

On a micro-farm like RSF, the edges are numerous. Edges here blend into what some gardeners call micro-climates. And microclimates make use of every part of a garden/small farm. For instance the ecological concept of “nurse plants” can help conserve water as well as promote growth in a layered, natural pattern. I plant herbs and some vegetables under the shade of my orchard trees (see Nabhan, 2013, for ideas in arid lands).

I also plant flowers for beauty. It’s good to put them where water already goes.



This year all the fruit tree basins had flowers, herbs, and/or vegetables. Some survived and some were eaten by desert critters.




The daffodils and chives are supposed to repel invading ground squirrels. I think our adopted barn cat may do a better job of that.


Sheltering overstories of plants (like the orchard trees to the herbs and vegetables) allow some plants to grow outside of typical, expected ranges.

lilacs at RSF_2

Twelve permaculture design principles:

Observe and interact; catch and store energy; obtain a yield; apply self-regulation and accept feedback; use and value renewable resources and services; produce no wastes; design from patterns to details; integrate rather than segregate; use small and slow solutions; use and value diversity; use edges and value the marginal; creatively use and respond to change.

These might be applied to any sustainable food-growing situation. Maybe I’ll do a blog post about each at Rainshadow Farm.

These principles seem particularly useful in a situation where conditions are normally thought of as unproductive, difficult, and marginal.

Hmm. That sounds like my life as well as my farm.

Sounds like a writing prompt and a way to think about how to approach making  life in general more sustainable.

Coming soon.
You might want to read:

Anderson, E.N. (2010). The pursuit of Ecotopia: Lessons from indigenous and traditional societies for the human ecology of our modern world. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
(Dr. Anderson is one of my mentors and a friend. This book studies the complex relationships between ideologies, resource management, and cultural representations of the environment.)

Berry, Wendell. (1982). The gift of good land: Further essays cultural and agricultural. New York: North Point Press.

Holmgren, David. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Australia: Holmgren Design Services.

Jackson, Wes. (1996). Becoming native to this place. New York: Counterpoint.

Nabhan, Gary Paul. (2013). Growing food in a hotter, drier land: Lessons from desert farmers on adapting to climate uncertainty. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Peña, Devon. (2005). Mexican Americans and the environment. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
(He tells the true story of the human cost of industrialized agriculture)

California fires, landscapes, and traditional ecological knowledge

May 25, 2014

Fire season in southern California used to begin late in summer, maybe right before autumn.

Last year our first fires came before June. Every year over the last decade they’ve been arriving earlier.

Last week, mid-May, San Diego was on fire.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the whole place was one fire. These photographs are amazing and appalling.

We’ve had winter wildfires during the last decade, right here in the region of the Transverse Ranges and the high desert valley places in between the mountains.

The mountains of the so-called Transverse Ranges (because they move oddly east to west across the state, not south to north like the magnificent Sierra Nevada) are the San Gabriel Mountains and the San Bernardino Ranges.  I live about five miles east of the magical pass between the two main mountain ranges: the Cajon Pass.

ID it 1 very large shrubs

ID it 1 one red berry

sunflowers and mountains

We live in a fire-adapted zone. I talk about this all of the time on this blog.

Two things dominate my ecological thinking as a high desert dweller: water and fire.

Make that three things. Wind. I have to include wind now. I’m pretty sure it’s not because I’m getting older and I’m tired of the wind (well, maybe that is a factor, but not the main one). Local people who have been here a while agree with me about the wind taking over this place. It’s stronger and more frequent than it was ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, even thirty-three years ago. I can’t go back further than that, from personal experience. Before that I lived at the beach, the South Bay. And before that, in Ohio.  I suspect 33 years of ecological observations count for something. I doubt they count for the whole thing, but still. The wind is definitely a thing and we definitely have to consider it.

It’s related to other factors at play in climate change.

So, wind and fire.

They talk about 10 year fires and 500 year fires.  When a region is in a constant state of recovery from fire, I’m not sure what meaning those terms have. Bad fire and worse fire? And near-apocalyptic fire?

cajon fire start3

While much of southern California, especially the chaparral regions and conifer forests, are fire-adapted, fires that occur too often along with continuing urban-ish development, encourage the growth of rapidly spreading, nonnative species. Brome grasses, wild mustards, filaree, all of these dry out when the warm weather hits and become highly flammable.  These plants replace native plants that serve as food and habitat for regional wildlife.

Since all of this ecological change has been occurring apace during the last 100 years, native wildlife hasn’t yet had time to adapt to the new plants. And these plants increase risk of more fire each new year, creating a positive feedback loop of more fire frequency and additional destruction of native plant growth.

ID it 4 yellow flowers closeup

Manzanita crown sprouting after the fires

I’ve already talked on this blog about the Middle Ages in California, with its mega-droughts, lasting 140 years and 220 years.

Seems I never stop talking about how we are living with and growing with false temperature and precipitation norms.  All of the Euro-American settlement of this golden paradise has taken place in one of the mildest and wettest periods of California’s history and prehistory, according to the paleoclimatologists. A day of reckoning is coming (as my dad used to say).

The other drum I never stop banging, and probably won’t, realistically speaking, is how we face a reckoning here in California not only with climate realities, but also with anthropogenic climate change. That’s the impact we humans have made over the last 200 years or so on California’s ecological landscape.

Remember, the UNIPCC climate models have shown us that California will continue to suffer decreased rainfall, shifts in our accustomed seasons (not good for farming in an agricultural state), increased fire dangers, and potential for alternating severe drought and floods. The stuff of more disaster.

So we have a century of fire suppression as public policy. A massive buildup of biomass that is tinder by mid-June.  Nearly a hundred years of filling fire-country hillsides with homes, towns, and cities.

View to east from top of groves_crop

View to East

We’re essentially screwed.

We look for ways to change our fire management policies so that people and their natural surroundings can coexist.

The usual suggestions:

(1) Zoning. Make it fire-safe.

I’ve seen some lovely and pricey housing communities that creep up the south side of the San Gabriels that only have one way in and one way out. Bad zoning. Bad news.

east 20 Oct 04 005

(2) Fire-resistant construction of buildings. You know, the roofing tiles.


The roofing tiles all around are good but the massive swathes of grass are deeply puzzling for a desert.


(2) Defensible space.  Clear the brush around your house.


We get rain and then plants pop up. Along comes the dry weather and everything becomes tinder.

(4) And, finally, the idea of new public policy encouraging a more ecological approach to dealing with wildfire.

Only the last of these begins to get at the root of our fire problems.

Native Americans called the LA Basin “Valley of Smoke” because of the regular hillside fires that burned. Chaparral plants burn. Chaparral needs to burn. But not too much. It doesn’t need to burn too much. My eternal refrain: it’s fire-adapted vegetation.

Up and down the state, Native Americans have fire practices that are time-tested and effective.

When do the appropriate agencies get really serious about listening to tribal groups who have essential traditional ecological knowledge?

view from juniper highland terrace

figs and other warm weather plants in the high desert

May 18, 2014

I realized recently that I’m finally thinking like a desert gardener/farmer.

Maybe I should say thinking more like one.

You can’t grow any kind of garden out here without altering your thinking about gardens somewhat and rapidly.

I began to look to the land on my first high desert farm. I responded to what I observed. Still, I used so many conventional practices back in the day, chief among them “just apply water.”

Of course we have to find ways to get water to cultivated plants in arid and semi-arid landscapes. And we want to use it carefully, conservatively. That goes without saying.

Also, I did learn the value of microclimates on the old farm: olive trees were able to thrive and bear fruit in a warm and sheltered enclosure between my kitchen and garage. Places where water pooled (but didn’t stagnate) were helpful for some plants. Shady places helped other plants.

That was only the beginning.

Rainshadow Farm has required me to sit with the land more than I ever have before. I’ve learned from the land more than I ever thought possible. And I’ve done a few things more unconventionally than I had ever expected when I began this arid lands journey over 25 years ago.

Last week I saw this video of someone growing figs in a pretty unconventional way.

This technique is sometimes called ground layering. I do it with the lilacs I grow because I need to have lilac plants around my house, even if I don’t live in Ohio any more. A farmer friend told me I should try it with the grapevines that grow along my fence line.

Lilacs at RSF

Lilacs at RSF

Beechey ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

Beechey ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

When I watched the video, I thought about our figs. I planted four young fig trees. One did not last through a high desert winter, three did.

Of the three that remained, there was some die-back. Two of the trees lost some branches. In fact they lost the “central leader” branch. By late spring and early summer of the following year, I realized I had one tree beyond recovery and three young fig trees that winter had pruned into fig bushes. If I wanted to sound more professional, I could say my figs are pruned into an extremely modified central leader pattern.

But that’s not entirely true unless I were to add “Nature did it.”

I suppose if you live in the low desert, you’ll have other problems with your figs, but winter die-back is not likely to be a problem.

Figs prefer well-drained soil where it is sunny, hot, and arid. They don’t mind sandy, rocky soil. They like a lot of sun.

Ours are on a slight rise with coarse sandy soil. They are located where they get plenty of high desert sun. The  fig that died completely in the high desert winter was exposed to a week or so of sub-zero temperatures.  Mulching it heavily at the base did not help it to survive.  The other figs were tougher and did survive.

Here’s how we handle the winter now.

People say figs don’t like it below 10 degrees F. We get at least a week of that and even colder temperatures each winter.

Here’s What I do: I place a poultry wire cage (the kind I use to deter ground squirrels) around the young tree and fill it up with straw. That’s all. After I started doing that, my remaining fig trees managed to survive.

If I wanted to offer more protection, which I will very likely do when I plant more young figs, I will prune (if needed), then wrap the tree with burlap. I’ll leave the top of the burlap open , so that excess moisture and heat doesn’t affect the tree. After that, I’ll install the poultry wire cage and fill it with straw mulch.

Finally, if I want some serious extra protection, I’ll wrap a cylinder of bubble wrap or some heavy duty gardening plastic around the  cage.  In extremely cold weather I might cover the top for the most extreme cold, but that may not be necessary.

I used a bubble wrap bubble to protect a yerba mansa ( Anemopsis californica) plant that I installed near the patio since a friend told me that it might die at temperatures below 20 degrees F.

native plants from RSABG

The yerba mansa is in the very front here and right now it looks pretty much the same. Well, bigger. It’s in the ground. It’s spreading. Spring growth is happening. It’s in a moist micro-zone.

Why yerba mansa? I found some growing once along the Mojave River when I did an archaeological survey and it fascinated me.  Just look at it!

Daniel Moerman  (1998, see below) says that Native Americans across California and the Desert Southwest had an abundance of uses for yerba mansa, mostly medicinal but also as food.  It’s a pretty powerful medicine from the looks of the ethnobotanical list. I don’t know if I’ll use it, but it’s very cool to have it growing here.

Back to the figs.

Figs at RSF

Figs at RSF

The young trees not only need some winter protection, they need some extra water in the heat of the desert. Wilted leaves are a good indicator they are thirsty. At the end of summer if they dry out a bit it seems to be okay. People say this makes the fruit sweeter.  We like them; the birds like them for sure.

Check this out:

Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel E. Moerman

storm watch

April 7, 2014

It rained here twice in the last three weeks. That’s good news, at least for the time being.



California is experiencing a serious drought. Our reservoirs are appallingly low. Our population is high. We are certainly overpopulated for the amount of water we have available, even at the best of times.

Here are side-by-side photos of Folsom Lake, a northern California reservoir that is near Sacramento. At least 500,000 people get their water from this reservoir. The picture all across California is not too different from this. California is in a “drought emergency.”

Folsom Lake, California Department of Water Resources.

Folsom Lake, California Department of Water Resources.

What is this – a drought emergency? Let’s start with damage to the California farming economy. We’re facing higher food prices, less food choice, and significant job losses. Since so much of California’s economy is tied into agriculture and California agriculture is tied into irrigation, this is a serious situation, indeed.

Farm fields will go unplanted. Some predict farmers will pull back and idle crops like cotton, wheat and corn. Maybe they will divert irrigation to orchards. If fruit and nut trees aren’t watered in California, they die. It can take up to seven years to replace their crops. California tomatoes, garlic, onions, lettuce, and melons will eventually increase in cost all across the nation. So will fruit. So will everything, eventually.

Seedling in the desert.

Seedling in the desert.

Ranchers will be hurt. Larger-scale California ranching is a fairly water-intensive operation. If grass/pasture doesn’t grow, ranchers rely on alfalfa, a thirsty crop.

Bless our sustainable ranchers.

Bless our sustainable ranchers.

Rural northern California is hurting already. Nearly twenty communities there face severe water shortages in the next two to three months. The state of California said last Friday that, for the first time since 1960 (that’s 54 years), it will not be releasing water from reservoirs to 29 water agencies serving something like 25 million people. That’s half the people in the state, at least.

What about the Southland? The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) is a water wholesaler for various cities and municipal water districts, serving 19 million people. Southern California has stockpiled water from diverse sources (snowpack from the Sierra Nevada and local mountains, Colorado River water, regular precipitation, and groundwater). Still, the district has asked users for voluntary 20% cuts.

Governor Brown has asked all Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 20%. Mandatory residential or business cuts of 20% to 50% are in place for some communities, mostly in the north from what I’ve heard.

I want to talk about groundwater in southern California later. It’s not a pretty picture. None of this is, really.

Back to mega-drought. Governor Jerry Brown has very recently advised us that this upcoming year could bring a “mega-drought.”

We’re hearing that term “mega-drought” tossed around. It sounds like one of those D-grade films on the SyFy Channel that I sometimes can’t stop watching.

You know, though, it’s not hyperbole.

Folsom Lake, above, is at 17% of its total capacity. Two and a half years ago it was at 97% of its total capacity. Last year brought California 7.48 inches of rain. That’s the lowest amount in 119 years of record keeping. In fact, that’s less annual precipitation than my region of the southern Mojave is “supposed” to receive, as an average.

Marc Reisner once said that California had a “desert heart.”

Many have pointed out that much of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County are located in harm’s way.

Housing tracts have been placed on floodplains and in wildfire zones. Large industrial districts, entertainment complexes and vast tracts of housing, not to mention city centers, are constructed on and near filled-in wetlands and liquefaction zones (bad news in earthquakes: sands and silts give way, causing roads and buildings to collapse).

The potential for earthquake tragedy has not been fully fathomed. Mike Davis has quoted seismologist Kerry Sieh maintain (after the 1994 Northridge earthquake), “Until this last year I was never truly scared. Now, I am.”

FEMA photograph of Northridge earthquake taken January 17, 1994, by Robert A. Eplett.

FEMA photograph of Northridge earthquake taken January 17, 1994, by Robert A. Eplett.

Every year, now sometimes twice a year, Californians turn on their TVs to watch nearby wildfires eat up acres of land and often homes and businesses.

My desert's on fire.

My desert’s on fire.

And now we are hearing about some kind of frightening mega-drought. I have lived in southern California since 1974. The real consequences of building one of the world’s economies in a region with a “desert heart” and building it with a flourish are rarely considered.

The news of the day is full of talk about “not enough water,” “I will not be able to wash my car,” “how will I take a 10-minute shower,” and potential effects on local lawns. We really need to start talking seriously about what it means to be overpopulated in an environment that cannot carry all of us.

In the Middle Ages, California experienced two serious droughts, droughts that some of my students might refer to as “epic.” And epic they would be since they lasted 140 years and 220 years.

These days we talk about long-lasting droughts of a decade, or close to a decade. The medieval mega-droughts have been carefully measured and dated in northern California, in the eastern watershed of the Sierra Nevada and they encompass a time scale unlike any we’ve been experiencing or even speculating about . There is also research in paleoclimatology that shows while the water in the eastern Sierra was drying up, the salinity of San Francisco Bay was climbing precipitously, indicating a serious lack of fresh water flowing into the bay.

SF Bay

SF Bay

SF Bay and city.

SF Bay and city.

Here in the south, things were not much better. In Santa Barbara, Orange County, and coastal Los Angeles, the huge droughts of the Middle Ages had an effect as well. What is now coastal Los Angeles County with its Mediterranean sort of ecosystem was a semi-arid zone backing up to the Pacific Ocean.

There is global paleoclimate evidence that the great Medieval droughts of the California region were part of a global pattern of climate anomalies.

Those droughts of the middle ages were natural occurrences, global interactions of ocean and atmosphere and polar ice, that flipped a climate switch and created a worldwide series of changes, including massive and prolonged drought in many parts of the world.

To keep things interesting, climate studies show that the normal temperature and precipitation amounts recorded in California over the last 150 years or so are at odds with any real, long-term conditions. California Gold, our mild and beautifully Mediterranean climate, has been documented over about 150 years of West Coast modernity. What we’ve documented is an anomaly. We live in a climate anomaly. We have been recording one of the wettest, yet, mildest periods of California history.

Marc Reisner was correct, in a deeply perceptive, maybe almost prophetic, way.

First, we are living with false norms as far temperature and precipitation go. Second, the reports of the UNIPCC indicate that California will suffer decreased rainfall, seasonal shifts, increased fire dangers, and potential for alternating severe drought and floods. Increased anthropogenic climate change is not going to ameliorate the potential for disaster here in the Golden State.

The upshot is that climate change along with our current drought could increase many risks of living in California.

What would happen if we were to be plunged into a drought like either of the very severe Medieval droughts? What would happen to our cities, our farmland, all of our infrastructure? Throw in a major earthquake, something the geologists have been predicting for several decades, particularly on the southern portion of the San Andreas Fault, and then what?

Dust Bowl. California. Now.

Dust Bowl. California. Now.

Good grief, I’m not an apocalyptic person. If a woman like I am, one searching out the calm ponds in life, can acknowledge this is happening, in fact can KNOW this is happening, friends, it’s time to take a long look at the disaster-prone region we have chosen to inhabit. There are no extra scraps on the table in Sacramento, sadly, to mitigate this.

Any chance we might look to Boulder, Colorado with its slow-growth ordinances intended to limit residential growth? Could we develop an interest in zoning regulations that take ecological factors into consideration in new ways? I honestly don’t see this happening. People want to build and live in the chaparral, profound fire danger be damned. Before I lived in this desert, I resided in a mountain village here in southern California that had the San Andreas fault running directly through it. In addition, the forest land surrounding the village was/is filled with pine trees riddled with bark beetles, producing a huge fire hazard each dry season. Now, it’s all dry season. We were blithe about the fire danger. We somehow considered the bedrock of our mountain a protector against shaking on the fault line. Human nature? I don’t know. At least when I grew up in Tornado Country, we all had basements and storm cellars. There was some sort of tentative respect for the elements.

So, southern California.

Are we going to stop building in ecosystems where the native plants are adapted to fire in order to germinate? Those ecosystems would be our beautiful hillsides, everywhere up and down the Golden State. Are we even going to insist upon more stability and soundness in our built environment, for everyone?

Finally, are we going to insist that our children and young people be provided with an education that not only (possibly) includes but clearly forefronts regional environmental education so that they can make intelligent and socioecologically sound, reasonable, and just decisions as the years unroll?

If we decide that’s a good idea, where will we get the money to do it? Even an old unschooler like me, even I cannot continue to run a learning center like this on a shoestring forever. Or can I?

Maybe this is exactly what learning toward a safe and sustainable way of life will look like – a series of learning centers running up and down the state, each one connected to the next in a patchwork.

Rural, exurban, suburban, urban. Maybe we will have to begin to implement environmental solutions on producing farms, in backyards, on hardscrabble country farms, in small-scale household gardens, in city yards, on donated city land.

farm-based learning.

farm-based learning.

Weeding the orchard. It's almost her birthday here!

Weeding the orchard. It’s almost her birthday here!

Books to look at:
Davis, Mike. (1998). Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster. New York: Vintage Books.
Reisner, Marc. (1986). Cadillac Desert: The American West and its disappearing water. New York: Penguin.


April 7, 2014

Last night someone whose opinion I trust indicated to me that using the term “pedagogy” was really not going to fly for me. I think he was laughing at me for using that word to explain something to him.

Heck, I decided the same thing years ago. I don’t really believe in something called pedagogy. I think there is something called teaching and something called learning. We teach sometimes and we learn sometimes.

All of those years homeschooling/unschooling a houseful of kids and working with co-ops pretty much eliminated for me the whole idea of pedagogy as a viable process. Maybe it’s a convenience word for educators to use when talking to one another.


In a supportive environment, people learn if they are engaged with their work, if it makes sense to them, if they feel it is relevant to their lives, and if they feel they can actually do it. Right?

aaron and the drill_sm

Illich talked about the “educational church,” a dogmatic, transmissive mode of teaching and learning that so many of us sought to eliminate in our home environments.

We wanted to revise the architecture of pedagogy itself: creating a learning environment in homes, in learning centers that do not necessarily resemble modern Western schools. We wanted to develop a variety of enriching environments around any given community. I know I did. And I wanted to be within the natural world.


In sustainability education, I suspect most facilitators want to foreground direct experience of the natural world. Nature becomes teacher in theory and practice.

I have liked thinking about teaching and learning as an ecology for a long time, when my kids were all at home, before my grad school adventure. That’s one reason I liked calling the workshops at RSF “learning ecologies.”

outdoors 1_29_11

With a working agroecosystem at the center, I like to think we’re building a regenerative, enriching community environment.

Interactions that occur between human beings, their built environment, and nature on a small farm can help avoid splitting ecologies into “the human” and “the natural.” I think this is healthy for the humans and for the other-than-human world. We’re all in the matrix. We all are the matrix.


In “pedagogy” we become overly theoretical and our mind-body connection is ignored. We become all mind, no body. I think we learn better when we acknowledge the body as much as the mind in learning and when we become earth-based, even seasonally oriented with an organic punctuation. The mind-body connectivity is experienced.

Well. that's over.

Well. That’s over.

I am not convinced that it is possible to address education in terms of theory. I prefer to think we are generating recursive learning ecologies. Our work is process, it never actually ends and continually builds upon what came before.

If pressed to define the learning ecologies at Rainshadow Farm in academic terms, they might be called holistic community-based learning workshops that are collaborative, engaged, eco-justice learning situations, all deeply place-based. Okay? Not pedagogy.


In addition, these workshops are dynamic and seasonal. They emerge from the very context of the farm and the specific participants/learners present.


The ever-present hope is that they will become transformative to all concerned.

kath with desiree greenhouse_2

I was pretty much expected to go against my own grain and use the term pedagogy in my graduate school years. That’s okay because it was what it was.

What do we do at RSF? Community farm pedagogy. What do we really do? We learn together and we teach one another.

We can grow barley!

We can grow barley!

ripple effect

April 7, 2014

So, this is how we are embedded in our place.

ripple effect

Speaking personally, my current place is the southern Mojave Desert where it stretches from the eastern face of the San Gabriel Mountains eastward to Lucerne Valley. The geo-region, the southern Mojave Desert, part of the North American desert biome.

Part of Mojave River Watershed.

Part of Mojave River Watershed.

I felt last week in Sedona as if I’d moved from one yard to another, so many facets of the natural world were connected in spite of that great barrier the Colorado River and the many mountain ranges in between. Nature is relentless and very persistent. Always on the move.

Manzanita in the San Gabriels.

Manzanita in the San Gabriels.

Manzanita in Sedona.

Manzanita in Sedona.

RSF manzanita

RSF manzanita

Ripples of belonging move from the most personal, inner places, and externally (if you forgive the dichotomy) from the area surrounding our home, outward.

Discovery. Sisters.

Discovery. Sisters.

In holistic farm pedagogy, nature is viewed as mentor; nature has intrinsic value, rather than being humanity’s own endless resource pool or humanity’s sewer.

Here at RSF, I hope to understand ourselves as human persons within an environment that includes other nonhuman persons. Such interdependency between the human organism and its environment may involve a paradigm shift for those who are envisioning a more sustainable future. In some settings, particularly urbanized zones, even growing our own food is a potentially revolutionary act. Gardening and growing food is not only inherently pedagogical, it is potentially transformative on many levels.

Beechey ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

Beechey ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

Young exurban gardener.

Young exurban gardener.

backyards are the beginning…

April 7, 2014

Backyards are the beginning of a bioregion for a child.


My backyard (and my front yard too, for that matter) in a rust belt city held all the wonders that helped make me the person I am today. Nature helped me survive to full adulthood and it began in a backyard.

For me the backyard was more mysterious and more deeply natural than the front. The centerpiece was a centuries-old apple tree. It was one of the wonders of that neighborhood. I didn’t realize it at the time. I was often more interested in the cherry tree two houses down where our neighbor, an older woman let the neighborhood kids sit and eat fresh sweet cherries while we socialized. Or the extremely overgrown yard in one of the houses behind ours. There were things that bloomed there, brushy plants and several trees. Neighborhood children who lived next door said a witch lived there. We were afraid to explore that yard. I expected that if the householder was a witch, she’d be ready to go on Halloween, but I never saw here even then.

Over the long haul, though, the apple tree was my friend. It was inconceivably large with cartloads of fresh apples and thick branches to climb on. It reached up past the balcony jutting from my parents’ bedroom. If I went out to sit on the balcony, I was in the midst of the tree top. When my parents had to get those branches pruned back I always was a little sad.

The backyard is where I had my first garden. It was where every spring, masses of purple woodland violets popped up in the grass. They made me happy. To this day, I make sure I have at least a few bunches growing somewhere, even in this desert. Even if they’ve had to be in a pot, I’ve kept them. At my old farm, they gladly grew wild in the edges of areas where I had to drip irrigate fruits and vegetables. Here, at RSF, the ground squirrels like to eat their rhizomes. I will figure out a way for the violets, the squirrels and myself to coexist. Hopefully without my ever-present poultry wire cages!

The back yard had a fort for my friends and I. It was an old lean-to sort of shed that was covered with some kind of wild grape. Maybe Concord, gone wild.

There were animals and birds. City animals and birds but they were as magical to me as any.

When I try to bring up my first memory on earth (I’m one of those weird people who remembers elements of my own birth, so we’ll exclude that for now), I see the interplay of light and shadow with green, green of all shades. Once when I asked my mother about that, she told me that it may have been when she used to put me outside, under the trees in the backyard, in my baby carriage. I’m old enough that I traveled about in a baby carriage, not a stroller. And I’m also of an age and time that I never experienced a wrap or a baby sling, like my children did.

Each backyard meshed into the next. Every one of them had a different character. Some had shrubbery to crawl into where we could play for hours. Some had a woodland feel. Some had interesting outbuildings to explore. One had a huge horse chestnut tree, even more imposing than my backyard apple tree. The trees gave me a sense of humility and the sure knowledge that I wasn’t the first to step on this land.

It wasn’t a far walk to the wooded ravines, with creeks at the bottom and mysteries to explore. It wasn’t far to the river. This was a river city and we lived nearby the water. All of this was my wilderness and it formed me. Hikes along the muddy riverbed. Borrowing a little rowboat to cross the river to a mysterious island.

As children we moved easily from the backyards through the neighborhoods and into the general ecosystem of the region. This was true whether I was living in Ohio or at my aunt’s in Connecticut.

When I lived in Houston and Bowling Green, I lived the same way. The campus became my yard and I moved out from there to learn the ecosystem. Brays Bayou. Corn fields upon corn fields and on to the oak woodlands.

This has been true for my own kids. The older kids flowed from backyards perched on a mountainside up through the fire roads and across our part of the east face of the San Gabriels. this was true for the middle kids as they explored a landscape very much like the one we inhabit now, on our first farm.

And the younger kids have experienced both city ecosystems and those here at RSF. It always seems to begin with the backyard.

Katie with Chickens by Sam

Katie with Chickens by Sam

At work.

At work.

At work in chicken coop, farm day.

At work in chicken coop, farm day.

ripple effect for developing a sense of belonging

April 7, 2014

ripple effect

More to follow….