Bundanon Days 3-6: Reading, Recording & Walking in the Wind

The reading continued apace in the cottage for the second half of the residency. We bunkered down to ensure that, by week’s end, we had a working plan for our Earlwood Farm Radio project. Although we had hoped to blog and share each day while we were at the estate, it didn’t work out that way. Largely because writing is a time-consuming pursuit and we found we were spending more time sharing our ideas on the blog than properly discussing and developing them, which seems to defeat the purpose of a residency-retreat in the bush. So we stopped blogging and started working; this post is a summary of the rest of the residency.

One of the key ideas that emerged in the last few days of the residency was the Australian specificity of the project. Jen read Judith Brett’s 2010 Quarterly Essay “Fair Share: Country and the City in Australia” which explored the historical power divide between country and city at the start of the Gillard Government, when the three rural independents (Katter, Oakshott & Windsor) were integral to the formation of the hung parliament. The essay emphasises the specificity of the environment of our island continent, in relation to nation building, or, indeed, the failure of nation building, something that Libby Robin also explores in How a Continent Created a Nation (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2007). Brett illustrates how plans for massive population growth in the 1920s–to have a nation to levels of 100 or 500 million by century’s end–were utterly thwarted by the land itself (such failure is fictionalised frequently by Australian authors in what Ken Gelder calls “Rural Apocalypse” novels, like Tiffany Carrie’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living). Ambitions to emulate the growth and development of population and food supply of, say, the US, is physically restricted by our ecology and climate, despite the technologies provided by the “Green Revolution”.

So we want to use the podcast think about Australian agriculture both in terms of how indigenous people cultivated the continent and the ways in which they lived with the land of droughts and flooding rains, girt by sea, for over 40000 years before colonisation, in relation to the subsequent failed attempts of colonisers to turn the centre into vast salad bowl; but then we also want to look at permaculture and other politically complex and innovative agricultural ideas like Keyline farming and ask, why did such things develop in Australia?

That this is project must involve the more than human world is the other key development. While Craig continued on his epic 500-page quest into the history of agriculture and Jen read chapter 3 “Food”, from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, we realised that we need to include ants, potatoes, fungi, fats, rivers and storms, in our stories as well. Both texts, in quite different ways, emphasise the agency of the more than human world as key to the story of food production and consumption. So we will figure out ways to include such things in our episodes.

Overall, a movement from a vague idea about developing a farm-related radio program, to an idea for a program that will have specific historical and ecological dimensions is the main outcome of the week. This doesn’t seem very specific here, but we don’t want to lay out all our plans just yet: this is a snappy summary! That such progress can be made with just 6 short days away from an ordinary routine is quite extraordinary. It was a good length of time to achieve a simple goal: a 1 page plan for a podcast project, a draft for a pilot episode and some preliminary recordings. We left with those goal achieved. Although it was sad to leave, we also feel charged with ideas and driven to read more and continue to develop the project. So, watch this space for future developments on the project.

Thank you to the Bundanon Trust for supporting our residency.

Here are some snaps from our activities in the final few days:

Singleman's Hut (A tiny house!)

Singleman’s Hut (A tiny house!)

Jen

Jen

Craig

Craig

Bye bye Bundanon (as the storm rolls in)

Bye bye Bundanon (as the storm rolls in)

Roo Convention

Roo Convention

Illawarra flame trees will blind a weary driver

Illawarra flame trees will blind a weary driver

Riversdale (the other Boyd property)

Riversdale (the other Boyd property)

Hyper Hyper (an amazing local coffee house in Nowra!)

Hyper Hyper (an amazing local coffee house in Nowra!)

Horizontal Hair (strategies for representing wind!)

Horizontal Hair (strategies for representing wind!)

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Bundanon Day 2: Town and Country

Although it was a frosty morning, the very pregnant lady in the team desperately needed to go lap swimming. So the agenda for the morning of day 2 was to get up, have breakfast, scrape the ice off the car and go into town to Bomaderry pool. After a good swim and a gourmet snack at a local café, we returned to our humble digs in the country for an afternoon of reading, discussion, billy tea and oranges.

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One of the ideas we want to explore while here in the bush is the middle-class fantasy of fleeing the city for the good life in the country–the “sea” or “tree” change. Such a fantasy is sometimes combined with the desire to set up a small hobby farm. The other idea we wanted to think through beside the desire to flee, is the desire to stay and farm in the city and, in particular, farm the suburbs. In this regard, we think suburban agriculture as not an oxymoron, but rather a strategy for having it both ways: the suburban block of land emulates some kind of rural ideal on a small scale, but those living in the suburbs remain proximate to the city. There is much more to think and read on this point. Andrea Gaynor’s book Harvest of the Suburbs: An Environmental History of Growing Food in Australia (Perth: UWA Press, 2006) would be particularly pertinent, but we didn’t bring a copy of this book down. For now, Brendan Gleeson’s short GRIFFITH Review essay “Backyard Gardens” will supplement our thinking on the matter. He argues that in contrast to the idea that suburbs are inherently anti-environmental, the suburbs “beckon a new, comprehensive makeover which will make them fit for food production”, which is kind of what we are trying to achieve with the Farm.

But also, on a potentially much larger scale, Nick, Kirsten & Ashar from Milkwood Farm have just relocated from their rural setting of Mudgee to the ‘burbs of Kiama to enact such a suburban makeover and to push their extraordinary permacultural project further and into contact with many more people; as Kirsten put it on her fantastic blog, to “build on (their) experience (at Milkwood) to catalyse communities, individuals and food systems into action”. We are really looking forward to hearing the next installment of their story.

We are also interested in fictional stories and how they link into the broader themes we want to explore. So, going on a foggy memory of the story and a seemingly relevant title, Jen had it in her head that the fable “Town Mouse and Country Mouse” could be a useful hook into a story about urban and rural agriculture, but when she read over several versions, from Aesop to Horace and Beatrix Potter, she found that the general jist of the story is kinda dry: town mice are rich and country mice are poor, and both mice are more-or-less content in their respective lives. The story didn’t have an interesting commentary on relationships between town and country, but made mild social observations about the different characters of townspeople versus country folk. However, she did stumble upon a Romanian version in which the town mouse covets the life of the field mouse. In this version, there is no return to normal life after reciprocal town/country experiences. Rather, in the Romanian tale, the town mouse preys upon the field mouse’s naivety: town mouse encourages field mouse to liase with a cat. The cat kills field mouse and the town mouse steals all of her belongings. Jen also came across the Norwegian tale in which the country mouse gets drunk, and this neat 1926 silent animation, Le Rat des Villes, et le Rat des Champs, which is fun watching. But the Romanian version has the most scandal and intrigue and potentially could say something interesting about the town/country divide in this context.

In contrast to these reflections on relatively recent aspects of the town/country split, Mazoyer and Roudart begin their sweeping 500-page study A History of World Agriculture: from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis with the creation of the biosphere itself.

As foreshadowed in yesterday’s post, the distinguished French agricultural thinkers see their project as addressing the ‘crisis’ in agriculture from a historical materialist standpoint and outlining solutions based on the “theory of agricultural systems” that they elaborate in the pages of this volume. The ‘crisis’, as they see it, is comprised of (but not limited to):

  • the persistence of mass malnutrition despite exponentially -increasing global agricultural productivity
  • environmental destruction due to agricultural activity
  • depletion of natural resources to support agriculture
  • the deepening and contradictory impoverishment of small farmers, particularly in developing countries and
  • the use of advanced technology to further sequester the riches of the natural world in the hands of private interests (GMOs, for example).

The authors argue that, despite the enhanced productivity of the current system, we cannot use the same methods to solve the crisis. Increased mechanisation of agriculture in developing countries, for example, would result in an overall decline in prices and the ruination of those small farmers, who are the majority and too poor to afford the expensive equipment and fuel involved. These people would then likely join the masses of slum-dwellers in the growing cities of the Global South (see also Mike Davis, Planet of Slums).

This infernal logic is not surprising when viewed within the wider context of generalised worldwide capitalist crisis; such perverse outcomes are common in market economics, as has been particularly demonstrated in the wake of the post-2008 global financial crisis. For mainstream observers, some of these problems can be addressed by increased education, food aid and so on. While necessary, such measures are replete with pitfalls and are in the end completely insufficient to address the problem.

The authors see the crisis as a logical consequence of the unjust distribution of wealth and resources and the price pressures set by venal international trade agreements. Systematic problems require systematic solutions, but the system involved in this case is the largest and most enduring endeavour in human history. Its story is that of human biological, societal and cultural evolution, and ecological impacts on a planetary scale. So it is that Mazoyer and Roudart set out to understand the conditions that gave rise to agriculture and the settlement and cultivation of virtually the entire globe by Homo sapiens sapiens.

The ancestors of today’s urban agglomerations were, in general, areas in which a substantial level of predatory activity (including hunting, gathering, foraging of wild species) gave way to the cultivation and breeding of domesticated species about 10,000 years ago. In this period, developments in technique particularly around stone toolmaking—the Neolithic revolution—enabled and necessitated expansion of human settlements and the saw vast changes in the extent and quality of social differentiation, not to mention innumerable associated cultural impacts in housing, furniture, art, family structure, language and so on. The first ‘towns’ in what is today the Middle East were characterised by their residents’ relationship to the food production process. In a sense there was no ‘country’ that stood in contrast to the pockets of human settlement where agricultural development was rapidly occurring.

Leaping back, then, to the Country Mouse’s visit to his/her cousin in the town: the urban centre is now a place almost entirely divorced from the primary process of food production (with the exception of technical activities such as food packing, ‘food science’, farm equipment manufacturing, chemical manufacturing and finance) and is a net consumer of products from the countryside. The relationship between the two is best characterised by what John Bellamy Foster has termed (paraphrasing Marx) the metabolic rift. This general term refers to capitalism’s tendency toward an alienated relationship with the natural world.

More specifically, this can be seen in the town/country divide, where farmers grow food that is shipped to the city, but whose nutrients are never returned to the soil. This implies a long-term depletion of soil fertility, made possible by the long-distance transport necessitated by pushing farms farther from urban centres. Likewise the local urban ecosystem (such as it is) is threatened by an overabundance of human waste. These conditions led to the intense putrefaction of the River Thames in Marx’s time, and the consequent depletion of England’s soils to the point that French battlefields were dug up and shipped to England after the Napoleonic Wars (see Foster, Marx’s Ecology, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000, 163). It is no surprise that some versions of the Tale of Two Mice end with the Country Mouse being hornswaggled and dispatched by her clever city cousin.

OK, so obviously our innocent little question about the Town and the Country is a topic as deep and rich as an Iowa cornfield. Mazoyer and Roudart have taken the first steps down the path toward their theory of agricultural systems, and will surely be tracing out the roots of the metabolic rift along the way. There will be much more to say about them, and Raymond Williams, the two mice, and the future of humanity in blog posts to come.

Also, there are lots and lots of kangaroo here as well. We shouldn’t forget the poor kangaroo, even if they aren’t as exciting as wombats. We are also pleased to be in their company. And the cows. And birds.

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Bundanon Day 1: Bleary-eyed Wombats and broken Wifi

We have been given the most excellent opportunity to visit the Bundanon Trust for the week to develop our new project: Earlwood Farm Radio. This is an extension of the ideas we have been exploring both at the Farm and also in a more explicitly creative context with projects like erskineville for Tiny Stadiums in 2013.

We created a slow schedule for our first full day here, which involved conversation over stewed apples at breakfast and perambulatory reflection (AKA walking and talking) down by the Shoalhaven river. We talked about everything from what the hell we think this project is to what we think about the Farm now after 18 months to what kinds of audio works we see as inspiration for this new project. The morning was indulgently productive. The kind of productivity that would be possible in Sydney, but is obligatory at Bundanon. What else are you going to do with a free morning but wander through the paddocks and talk about your ideas?

Saw this sticker on a fence near the river. What is it?

Saw this sticker on a fence near the river. What is it?

After sketching some basic conceptual and formal parameters for ourselves by midday, we had set aside the afternoon for reading. But, we were steadily being sucked into the wifi world. Jen was veering into useful-but potentially endless-research rabbit holes, looking up the fable “Town Mouse and Country Mouse” and exploring the vibrant radio/podcast community in Australia, for example; meanwhile Craig was taking a break from formal AIR duties to write letters to the Government in protest of cut backs to renewable energy research. All these tasks were useful, but we were swiftly put back on our specific track when the internet stopped working.

The initial moment of panic, involving such worries as “How on earth are we going to update the blog?” and “Oh my god, do you know that our shared Dropbox folder is now not going to sync?”, swiftly turned into a very productive afternoon. We sat side by side in the spare room with hot tea and crunchy snacks, reading, taking notes and watching live wombat politics play out in front of the window (and, according to the visitors book, everyone who comes here gets to experience this amazingness!), as the clouds turned pink and the sun set.

Some of the very famous wombats of Bundanon! Feel honoured to be in their company.

Some of the very famous wombats of Bundanon! Feel honoured to be in their company.

Jen began reading Raymond Williams’ classic leftist literary history The Country and the City from 1973. In this work, Williams explores the development of ideas of the country and city in poetry and literature. In particular he tracks how those ideas either reflect or utterly mystify concomitant social histories. Her favourite idea so far is the idea of a “charity of production” as opposed to a “charity of consumption”. Williams explores this idea specifically in relation to pastoral poetry that omits mention of the labours and toils of workers in the field, and yet represents all characters sitting around a table with a shared meal provided by the magnanimity of a wealthy landowner.

He writes:

“The Christian tradition of charity is … weak. For it is charity of consumption only, as Rosa Luxemburg first pointed out:

The Roman proletarians did not live by working, but from the alms which the government doled out. So the demands of the Christians for collective property did not relate to the means of production. But the means of consumption.

And then, as Adrian Cunningham has argued, this version of charity­­–of loving relations between men expressed as a community of consumption, with the Christian board and breaking of bread as its natural images, and the feast as its social consummation–was prolonged into periods and societies in which it became peripheral or even damaging. A charity of production–of loving relations between men actually working and producing what is ultimately, in whatever proportions, to be shared–was neglected, not seen, and at times suppressed, by this habitual reference to a charity of consumption, an eating and drinking communion, which when applied to ordinary working societies was inevitably a mystification. All uncharity at work, it was readily assumed, could be redeemed by the charity of the consequent feast. In the complex of feeling and reference derived from this tradition, it matters very much, moreover, that the name of the god and the name of the master are significantly single–our Lord” (31).

Craig read Val Plumwood’s article “Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling” and began reading A History of World Agriculture: from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis by Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006). In her piece, Plumwood considers the political implications of being attached to particular places as a response to the apparent fragmentation of our relationship with land and ecology. She notes:

“[P]lace attachment is developed and exercised in the context of dominant market cultures which commodify land and place, and of markets in labour usually requiring individual workers who have few or portable attachments. […] Since the industrial revolution, attachment to place has been punished in the economic and employment systems…and current examples are either hangovers from an incompletely realised project or practices of resistance.”

In those circumstances it’s no surprise that an over-romanticisation of particular places is a common artistic or socio-political mode. People might profess deep love for their side of the mountain, their secluded bay, their abraded urban quadrant, their stretch of arid scrub or whatever it might be, aiming at a kind of transcendent approach to uniting with the essence of place. However, Plumwood replies, “[it] may be vital to love, but in these conditions, individual love for a place is unlikely to be innocent, may register false consciousness and be exercised at the expense of other places, and fostering individual attachment must be incomplete as a strategy.” Instead, Plumwood has in mind a deeper and more complicated—and explicitly political—solution. “Think what it would mean to acknowledge and honour all the places that support you, at all levels of reconceptualisation, from spiritual to economic, and to honour not just this more fully-conceived ‘own place’ but the places of others too. Such a program is politically radical, in that it is incompatible with an economy of privileged places thriving at the expense of exploited places. Production, whether from other or self-place, cannot take the form of a place-degrading process, but requires a philosophy and economy of mutual recognition.”

Here Plumwood has in mind a type of networked exchange of mutual benefit with justice at its core: “The responsibility principle is compatible with some forms of exchange…provided [they meet] the ecojustice criterion of making one or both places involved in the exchange better and no places worse. Is it not perhaps poorly accountable commodity systems of exchange at whose door we should lay much of the blame for the contemporary fragmentation of place, rather than the existence of exchange itself?”

Critical to Plumwood’s conception of place-attachment is the knowledge of other places and the ‘places’ appreciated by other species in addition to our own, and how these spaces are attached to one another. Ecology is at its heart the study of interconnected natural systems operating under the drive to establish equilibrium. Our ‘places’—both those worth putting on a postcard and those relegated to wasteland status—form nodes within an ecological web that are characterised as much by their intrinsic properties as by the regulation of their exchange with each other. Plumwood’s call is a reminder that no place stands alone, and that a conception of place based on (eco)justice is a goal that is desirable, radical and urgently necessary.

Tomorrow: Mazoyer and Roudart diagnose the causes of the crisis in world agriculture and present their prescription for change. No surprise, it will be a radical and invasive procedure indeed.

Open Days for The Garden of Bad Flowers

Nasturtiums are a symbol of patriotism (Photo by Lucy Parakhina)

Nasturtiums are a symbol of patriotism (Photo by Lucy Parakhina)

We are hosting a final series of open days for Gabrielle de Vietri’s work The Garden of Bad Flowers with talks animating the broader themes of the work and its social and political context.

First up on July 20 the Garden will host the award-winning author of Profits of Doom (2013) and My Israel Question (2006), Antony Loewenstein (antonyloewenstein.com). Antony will talk to us about the politics of boycotts amidst the flowers that abstained from the 2014 Biennale of Sydney.
On August 10, the Garden will host a winter Supermoon party and Sydney’s favourite weed activist, Diego Bonetto (weedyconnection.com), will lead partygoers on a walk through the variety of rogue plants that have sprung up amongst the bad flowers.
Finally, on a date in late winter yet to be confirmed, Professor David Schlosberg from the Sydney Environment Institute (sydney.edu.au/environment-institute) will discuss the politics of everyday life and new environmental activism.

Where: Earlwood Farm, 45 Bayview Avenue, Earlwood
When: July 20, 1-4pm (Antony Loewenstein), August 10, 1-4pm (Diego Bonetto) TBC (David Schlosberg)
Cost: Free (Pizza by donation)
To RSVP or for questions email: rsvp@earlwoodfarm.com
For more information visit gabrielledevietri.com and/or earlwoodfarm.com

 

 

Bad Basil in the Garden of Bad Flowers

With only a handful of plants actively rejecting their installation at the Farm (or not receiving enough love from us, perhaps), most of the bad flowers in the garden have taken root. That said, growing is slow for some of these malicious magnoliophyta, given the dry Autumn we had in Sydney and the ever-shorter and cooler days we are getting as we head into Winter.

In this regard, the responsibility for tending a garden artwork is a kind of nightmare for an aesthete. This is largely because, beyond watering them and the odd dose of fertiliser, one has very little control over the plants themselves. They have minds of their own; a statement we perhaps should understand literally, by taking a leaf out of Michael Marder’s new book Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, in which he uses plant life to deconstruct the tradition of western metaphysical thought and encourages us to rethink the lively agency of plants (listen to Marder summarise his argument on RN’s The Philosopher’s Zone if you’re interested).

What brings the plants together in the installation are their negative historical meanings from in the European and British tradition of Floriography in the 18th and 19th centuries. The plants themselves, however, do not identify in this way. This means that the plants do not willingly live in accordance with the aesthetic desires of the artist (de Vietri) and the artist’s helpers (us at the Farm). We desire an abundant and beautiful garden that surprises the audience by being a pleasant aesthetic experience and yet at the same time signifying things like perversity and horror. But the garden’s abundance is patchy at best. This is largely because the desired abundance in the garden is developing unevenly and at a radically different pace to the events and open days we are having to exhibit these plants and their negative significances.

For example, of the 30+ basil seedlings planted for the garden, only three have developed into proper plants beyond their emergent growth. Although we planted at the end of basil-season, we aimed for a sunny spot. This spot, we now realise, is still too shady for most of the little ones to grow into the plants we had hoped them to be. Two very lucky plants and a few other side-kicks happen to get a bit more sunlight than their siblings because of a surprising gap in the foliage of one of the trees on the western side of the yard; the ones with accidental access to the most sun have grown to about 50cms, the other two are about 20cms. But the rest are waiting patiently in the cold wintry soil for the earth to move around the sun, for the south pole to be pointed toward its rays and the antipodean days to grow longer once more, giving them more light to make into food, so they can grow. Abundance will come, but not until next Summer.IMG_2367 IMG_2369In some ways the plant-artwork reveals the gap in the meanings that flowers have been awarded by humans and the  meanings plants generate for themselves by gathering nutrients from the sun and growing into larger plants. But despite the slight departure from the intended aesthetic experience because of the pace of growth over the colder months, this material fact also gives the “bad” in the Garden of Bad Flowers an added significance. Where as “bad” previously referred to the human meanings given to the plants, some of the flowers are now bad in the sense of disobedient and disruptive, like bad kids in the playground refusing the play by the rules. But they are not just “bad apples”, or exceptions to the rule. Rather they are more like exceptions that prove the rule; to make artwork with living plants that at the same time adheres to our aesthetic desires, we cannot just turn to the history books for our ideas, but rather we have to collaborate with the plants themselves and give them a role in shaping the artwork. For, as this bad basil has shown us, they do so anyway.

 

The Opening of the Garden of Bad Flowers

In late April we had the official opening for The Garden of Bad Flowers. With Gabrielle de Vietri up from Melbourne and the woodfire pizza oven ready to create pizzas with horror, hatred and patriotism topping, we celebrated the event by opening the doors to the farm to the wider world. Here is an album of the event with photos by Lucy Parakhina.

Stay tuned for more open days to follow in May, June, July & August of 2014.

Letting Mara In: Installing the Garden of Bad Flowers

Over lunch during the install of Gabrielle de Vietri’s work, Garden of Bad Flowers, one helper commented that we are courting trouble at the Farm by bringing hundreds of bad little seedlings into our care. The installation is inspired by numerous 18th and 19th century publications that go by the name The Language of Flowers, is a garden that focuses on plants with negative symbolic meanings. The garden presents an opportunity for visitors to investigate the plants’ rich histories and their contemporary resonance. The implication of our concerned worker was that life at the Farm, shared with hundreds of bad flowers, could end up like a sequel to Little Shop of Horrors, but one wherein the plants consume us emotionally rather than physically. Gabrielle’s response to this concern was quite reassuring. Perhaps this was because, after two days of hard labour, she didn’t want me to turn around and ask her to rethink the work’s location once more. Nevertheless, she argued that by inviting the bad in, we somehow are able to better confront and manage the threatening implications of the flowers. She likened it to “letting Mara in”. Mara, Buddhism’s version of Satan, is a spirit that tried to tempt Buddha. By inviting Mara in we are better poised to contend with the spirit’s demonic powers. And so it was, that with an openness to unwanted affects and with the help of a small army of volunteers that we welcomed Garden of Bad Flowers to the Farm in late March of 2014. We are having the first of several Open Garden events on Sunday 13th April, this will allow other people to come and experience the work. Here are some images from the two-day install.

Day 1 and there were only 4 of us. We worked hard, were sore for days afterwards, but we resolved not to do any more work until there were many more hands on deck.

Day 1: 3 people work very hard, wishing there were at least 3 more.

Day 1: 3 people work very hard, wishing there were at least 3 more.

13 cubic metres of soil dumped on driveway

13 cubic metres of soil dumped on driveway

One of three giant drive-way blocking piles of soil

One of three giant, driveway-blocking piles of soil

After moving two boxes into place, and clearing a path through the soil, we called it a day. And we were relieved on Day 2 when about 12 people showed up to help. The boxes, made of recycled hardwood, needed an army to move into place, and as well as it was fun meeting new people and sharing the experience with an impromptu team of gardeners, the adage that “many hands make light work” had never felt more relevant.

Day 2: Many hands make light work

Day 2: Many hands make light work

CMJ wheeling a barrow

CMJ wheeling a barrow

Lunch!

Lunch!

Group shot!

Group shot!

Gabrielle and Will lunching!

Gabrielle and Will lunching!

A storm comes to eat the city at the end of the day

A storm comes to eat the city at the end of the day

It also comes to eat us!

It also comes to eat us!

The storm passes and Will gets back to work.

The storm passes and Will gets back to work.

and, in the dying light, so to does Gabrielle.

and, in the dying light, so to does Gabrielle.

This installation was initially intended for exhibition in the 19th Biennale of Sydney on Cockatoo Island. There it would have sat in the remains of an old sandstone cottage. The work is now at Earlwood Farm because of a complicated set of circumstances involving Art events, corporate sponsorship, mandatory detention and an individual’s politics and agency. That is to say, de Vietri was one of the two artists that remained boycotted from the Sydney Biennale due to the founding Sponsor’s, Transfield, $1.2bn worth of contracts with the Federal Government to manage offshore detention centres. The Boycott story is long and complicated–you can read about it here, here and here, and a bunch of other places if you care to ask Dr Google–but the nub of the issue with regards to the Garden of Bad Flowers is that although Transfield and the Biennale of Sydney had parted ways, Gabrielle de Vietri remained boycotted. Maria White has written an compelling piece on this for the CoFA publication Framework called “Time to Look at the Art”; which argues that, in the wake of the break-up between the BOS and Transfield, the Biennale quickly tried to distance themselves from the politics of the situation by cancelling public forum on the issues and claiming it was now “time to look at the art”, as if art and politics can be separated. For White, de Vietri’s “desire to remove herself completely from the Biennale is clear, making her involvement with the Boycott and her politics inextricable from the work itself”. Keeping the work political. I like this reading and I hope that lots of people come and visit us at the farm and experience the work first hand.

It is already Autumn

The farm is a different place in 2014. We can feel time working. While it is far from an established garden, it doesn’t look so new anymore. The perennials have had time to take root. The pig face is taking over the centre of the front yard. The lilipilli recovered well from the heatwave of early 2013 and grew some in the warmth of this more forgiving summer. The passionfruit vine is taking over the front fence and the new peach tree is taking root out back. The soil is slowly becoming healthier with the variety of plants, a lack of pesticides, mulching, and the frequent applications of worm wee, seasol, compost and rock dust. We are starting to understand the patterns of light, and how to respond to the less predictable periods of heat, cold and rain. We have dug out new garden beds, harvested the old and planted the late summer crops, and, with all that said, its hard to believe that summer has passed without a report on all of the happenings in this little house on the hill. There has been no time for reflection!

Time is something of critical importance to me as an aspirational farmer and/or gardener. When we were in Atlanta in January we went to a fundraiser event held by the amazing Joe and Judith of Love is Love Farm. I can’t now remember what they were fundraising for, but we were meeting a lot of people from ATL involved in the new farming movement in the US. We dosed up on exciting conversations about all kinds of community projects and ate lots of delicious food. One conversation I remember in particular was about the difference between gardening and farming. This conversation for me is ultimately about labour, time and temporality but I will have to digress for a moment before coming back to it.

The question of a distinction between a garden and a farm is something I am constantly wrangling with here at the farm. I know that when we say “we have a farm in Earlwood”, and surprised people respond with the question “you have a farm in Earlwood?”, the image that the word “farm” conjures in the minds of others is very different to what we actually do. If they went to Love is Love Farm, they would say “yeah, you guys have a farm!” But we have what most people would recognise as a garden. We say farm because it is a stated intention to work towards something bigger.

At the dinner in Atlanta, a girl I was speaking to had a very specific definition of the distinction between gardening and farming, in fact she teaches a community workshop on this very question. A garden, on the one hand, is something someone does as a hobby, on the side of other primary work. The garden can possibly be growing edible food, often it is ultimately an aesthetic project or exercise in wellbeing. A farm, on the other hand, is where every cabbage is an individual unit of economic value carefully calculated to correspond with the farmer’s required sales in order to cover costs. A farm is where a lettuce is part of a livelihood, not where a tomato is nice by-product of a risk-free pastime. It’s a good distinction. It’s the same distinction that exists across the board between, say, writers and bloggers, indeed, it is just the old distinction between the professional and the amateur. And, upon hearing it, it made me feel like less of a farmer, more like a gardener with delusions of grandeur (We have a website, for God’s sake! How embarrassing!). I talked to Joe about it afterwards. Joe, who hasn’t seen the farm and whose livelihood (and that of his few employees) depends on his careful plantings of lettuce and mushrooms and everything in between at Love is Love endorses our use of the word “farm” in spite of this distinction. He’s very nice.

While I do believe that it also shouldn’t just be reserved for the business of selling food and I do think that what Joe and Judith do is more Farm than Earlwood Farm, I’m not going to change the name of the farm. For me, as someone who is risk averse and thoroughly institutionalised, the idea of dropping everything to start an independent small farming business simply does not compute. I want to know how t0 take such risks, but I am slow in the uptake of information, slow in deciding how to go about decisions and even slower to act upon the decision made. This farm is a personal transition town. The economy is not one of lettuce for money, a direct exchange. The economy is of time, labour time and in an attempt to making time for the labour outside a professionalised market of direct exchange. This is a durational kind of exchange between us and the soil, between us and the chickens. It is an exchange between worms and our scraps, between us and our scraps, between us and the worms, and the worms and the chickens. It’s a farm of a different order; it is of a different temporality and operating on a different time scale to the one that governs the rules of small business.

Anyway. That’s enough on that for now.

It is 2014. We currently have in the ground rock and watermelons, corn, basil, tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, chilli, cucumber, sage, parsley, rosemary, thyme, okra, rhubarb and we’ve even started growing our own “clucker tucker” so the chickens will get their own home grown food. We’ve built up the beds, built new beds and things keep on growing. I’ll spend more time farming and thinking about time in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

We failed to harvest this black Spanish radish!

We failed to harvest this black Spanish radish!

We made kilos of Green Tomato Chutney with these unwieldy weedy fruit

We made kilos of Green Tomato Chutney with these unwieldy weedy fruit

 

Basil before it is minced into Pesto

Basil before it is minced into Pesto

The first shoots of "Clucker Tucker" for the Chookies!

The first shoots of “Clucker Tucker” for the Chookies!

 

2013: The Farm of Ideas

We are at the end of our first full year in the farm. 2013 has been great! I’m going to try and summarise the year and the ideas we are grappling with at its end, in a short series of photos all taken on Christmas Eve.

IMAGES 1-3: WEEDS

1) Mint as Weed

The big question for any farmer is what to do about weeds. There are many ways of handling weeds. We are good friends with Sydney’s Weedy One, Diego Bonetto who makes a living out of encouraging us to embrace wild food and view the outcasts of the plant world differently; we’ve read Michael Pollan’s lucid reflection on his own battles with pioneer species, “Weeds are Us”; and recently were at a luncheon with my mum and her neighbour announced proudly that she was late for the party because she’d been out spraying weeds. While we have taken a clear position on the latter – we do not spray weeds at Earlwood Farm – we cannot entirely embrace the wild either.

This first image is of our hot water system. We have encouraged two weed-like plants – common mint and cosmos – to compete with the insanely innovative Asthma Weed in a bed of poor soil between the house and the driveway. In our speedy neo-darwinian experiment, the mint and cosmos are winning! So one way we handle weeds is to grow things that will beat them!

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2) Happy Accidental Weeds

Secondly, we have recently realised that tomatoes are actually better as weeds. When we try and grow tomato from seed we struggle to get the plant going, when it springs up by itself from the compost we find it is much happier. If we wanted to get into seriously farming tomatoes we might have trouble with this method, but for now we aren’t pulling out all the weed tomatoes and we have found a steady supply in the kitchen in the early summer. So another way we handle weeds is to compost and encourage the spread of seeds we want in the soil and let them grow when they come up.

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3) A weed by any other name

We also pull out lots of weeds, from farmer’s friend and dandelion to asthma weed and onion grass (all sorts of grass, for that matter!). But we also utilise the knowledge we’ve gleaned from Diego and others to bring some weeds “into the family”, so to speak. We have kept portulaca (pictured below) growing in many nooks and crannies in the yard which is a good substitute for lettuce in greek salads, we’ve put flaxleaf fleabane in the pantry to discourage moths and other unwanted critters, we munch on certain types of oxalis, and, of course, we’ve stolen some nasturtium seeds from the laneway down the hill and have actively cultivated its bright coloured and mustard flavoured flowers.

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Images 4-6: CHICKENS

4) Omnis Gallina Habet Die

When Craig was writing his PhD, he took some time out to create a logo for the farm that existed entirely in our imaginations. “Every Chicken Has Her Day” is the translation from latin motto and the chicken’s crown is, obviously, more like a real diadem. The logo is part parody of unnecessary branding, part serious branding exercise and part reimagining of the relationship between humans and non-humans that we’d like to see take hold in cities.

EFlogo5) Free Ranging Chooks

2013 has been a year of scandal when it comes to the labelling of commercial eggs “Free Range”, with what can pass as Free Range being challenged by consumer groups and animal rights advocacy organisations. The result is pressure to redefine what free range is; in the meantime companies who exploit the lax regulation around the term are being named and shamed. We think our three little chooks are having a pretty good time. While we think they have an ethically free rangin’ life, the main threat to their quality of life is foxes. Many of our friends have lost chickens to the sly creatures and so we are working hard to be responsible and grown up and make sure the coop gets closed every night when they go to bed.

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6) The First Egg

We are happy to say that after several weeks of waiting and watching, Daria, our biggest Australorp, layed one small egg on Christmas Eve. A pressie for us all! This is doting farmer, CMJ, looking lovingly upon Daria’s Christmas Miracle!

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Images 7-10: IDENTITY

7) Greek Heritage

Earlwood is an old Greek suburb. After we moved in we realised quickly that the main road, Homer Street, was not, in fact, named after Homer Simpson, but the ancient Greek poet. The main markers of this cultural heritage are the continental delis and imported wine and food shops in downtown Earlwood, Acropolis funeral services and the Olive Trees that are scattered around the suburb. We are lucky enough to have a big kalamata olive tree in our yard and this year it is heavy with fruit. We plan to get picking and pickling in early 2014.

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8) Kale

Kale is the hipster of the brassica family and the #1 vegetable choice of hipsters. Most people eat it just like a spinach or silver beet, but it also comes as Kale smoothies, Kale chips, Kale Hashtags, Kale T-Shirts and so on. With our desire to pickle olives (and other things like radishes, cabbage etc), as if Earlwood Farm were merely a spin-off of the parody of such tragically hipster pursuits, Portlandia, it seems only appropriate that we give urban-ag skeptics something to snark at with our giant Kale plants that grow strong and tall, downstage centre in the front yard.

N.B. The absence of front lawn! In the working bee of 2012 we spread the mulch and got rid of the grass. With intermittent weeding, we have largely succeeded in keeping the grass at bay and the soil beneath is getting sweeter and richer every day. N.B.II the passionfruit vine in the background has grown 100 times bigger since we planted it a year ago, nothing to snark at there!

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9) The Natives

Aside from the definitional complexity inherent in the term “native”, there is a meaningful tension between food crops and native plants. Australian Native plants are defined by ecologists and plant taxonomists as plants that were on the Australian continent prior to the arrival of Europeans, anything that came after is invasive. There are a range of complexities around this and such complexities are a hot topic for debate at Earlwood Farm. This is largely because one resident is an ecologist and the other is a cultural theorist suspicious of such labels and taking a strong position on either side of this debate is important for our respective professional identities.

Regardless, there are some points of bipartisanship. Firstly, we agree that “native” trees offer important habitat and food for threatened wildlife in cities. The other thing that is really interesting, and something that we are making a bit of a project out of at the Farm, is how to balance the desire to create habitat and food for wildlife with the desire to produce food for humans. The preferred habitat for wildlife seems to be certain kinds of native trees and most of the food plants we prefer to eat are non-native. So while we have an abundance of food crops, we also have a natives garden in the back corner of the back yard and a lillipilli and foraged pig face growing in the centre of the front yard. We are attracting all sorts of birdlife as we create more habitat for the nonhumans, at the same time as producing food for the humans. We want all animals to be happy at Earlwood Farm and we hope to continue to cultivate in this way in 2014!

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10) Work

Despite the subcultural status of urban-ag in Sydney, it still is hard and often unglamorous work. We didn’t succeed in transforming as much of the backyard as we’d planned. This has frequently caused us to have to explain to people that “yes, this is a farm” and assure them that it is very much a work in progress. The word “farm” conjures up certain images, as if everyone’s brain was programmed by google image search, and Earlwood Farm has yet to appear in the that particular search. At the end of 2013, the name Farm is still a bit more of idea and intention rather than a coherent reality. The the goal for 2014 is to bring the name and the materiality of the site closer together! But for now we have lots of grass that needs mowing, grass that threatens our identity as farmers and grass that clogs up our little push mower.

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Thanks for following the blog in 2013! Happy Holidays!

WALKSHOP: Thinking through the environment of Wolli Creek & the Cooks River

The third day of the inaugural UNSW Environmental Humanities Symposium took place outdoors and it was a walking workshop or ‘walkshop’. Dr Matt Kearnes designed the day as an kind of scholarly experiment, allowing different discourses to flourish in the same conversation. Dr Thom van Dooren and I (Jennifer!) helped out.

We engaged a community conservationist (Peter Stevens from the Wolli Creek Preservation Society), an urban ecologist (Sophie Golding from the City of Sydney), a historian (Professor Ian Tyrell, Cooks River History, UNSW), a human geographer (Professor Lesley Head, AUSCCER, UOW), a poet (Andy Kissane) and a performance artist (me!) to animate the site from a variety of different perspectives.

Lunch was at the Farm, Andy Kissane read parts of his poem ‘The Earlwood-Bardwell Park Song Cycle’ and Lesley Head was charged with the task of linking some of the threads of the day in an informal keynote talk. The photos that follow capture the different aspects of the day.

It is great to use the farm as a site for critical thinking about broader environmental and political issues, as I did in previous weeks with the NYU Students. What Lesley’s thoughts demonstrated with regards to our site was that you only need to look as far as your own backyard to find an array of complex and contradictory concepts and materialities situated side by side, sometimes within the one plant. Lesley spoke of tensions between ‘weeds’ and ‘natives’, bioregions and local government jurisdictions, the vast imaginings invited by geological time and the immediate pressures of the present moment. While all these things may play out in our yard, garden or, if you will, farm, what Lesley’s talk highlighted for me it that is important not to have that thinking end in the privacy of your yard, but to extend them out to connect to wider social, political and ecological concerns. Some photographic evidence of the day is included below!

Start at Bexley North

Start at Bexley North

Peter Stevens (WCPS) tells us this clearing is used by dog walkers and medievalists

Peter Stevens (WCPS) tells us this clearing is used by dog walkers and medievalists!

Andy Kissane Reads from the Earlwood-Bardwell Park Song Cycle in Girawheen Park

Andy Kissane Reads from the Earlwood-Bardwell Park Song Cycle in Girrawheen Park

Eben and Thom descend from Nanny Goat Hill

Eben and Thom descend from Nanny Goat Hill

Walking down the new bike path to critique the new Turrella Reserve pedestrian bridge!

Walking down the new bike path to critique the new Turrella Reserve pedestrian bridge!

Thinking about megabats (Pteropus poliocephalus)

Thinking about megabats (Pteropus poliocephalus)

Lesley Head ties the threads together.

Lesley Head ties the threads together.

A small stop at Adora chocolates before Ian Tyrell takes us along the Cooks!

A small stop at Adora chocolates before Ian Tyrell takes us along the Cooks!