Thursday, July 23, 2009

Finding Beauty in a Broken World

This place is more a prayer than a garden

A piece of the planet so long abused for the sake of human progress

Sparkplugs are more common than worms in the earth here. If you can call it earth. This conglomeration of dirt and concrete and car parts and plastic pieces and broken glass. This pit where dirty automobile oil has been sopped up and vitality of life has long been forgotten. This place is where I want to build a garden.

So to the old abandoned factory lot I bring in compost and discarded tree parts to hold the soil in place. I bring in seeds and a hose.

I plant a prayer

Terry Tempest Williams entitled her latest book “Finding Beauty in a Broken World”. And this is exactly what I have set out to do here.

This place is lifeless and I want to bring life back to this point on the planet. I want to heal what is broken.

Inside and out

I put a blue plastic tarp in the back of my chevy astro van, buy a cheap shovel from the neighborhood hardware store and get to work filling up my van with composted suburban lawn debris. Day after day, load after heavy load I go back and forth from the recycling center in Morristown to the factory lot in Boonton until I just can’t shovel anymore. Until the dirt is so far lodged in the van door that it won’t shut. Until the compost pile has become a big mass of muck. Until I got a phone call from my mother asking that I take her to the hospital. Her blood pressure is 80/50 and the visiting nurse was insistent that she go to the emergency room.

Big black leather boots

Big black rubber treads on big black leather boots


Glossy waxed white sterile hospital floor

Antiseptic antibiotic hygienic controlled environment

Mud ripped clothes rustled hair wild microorganisms

Finding Beauty in a Broken World

I planted seeds

Water fell from the sky

Death and disease lingered around the edges of my world

The seeds sprouted. Life bursting forth from the mysteries of the dark earth. A salad was eaten of spicy arugula, freckled lettuce, dark green spinach, mustard greens, and red russian kale. All it takes is some nurturance of micronutrients, water and sun. Vibrant green life entered me, invigorated me, brought love and gratitude to my heart and nourishment to my body

30 year old woman, cardiac arrest, maybe it was the alcohol mixed with the anti-depressants, maybe it was the years of bulimia, maybe it was just a mistake, but the fact remained that a loved one was dead.

Groundhogs devour the garden. All life that had sprouted was gone. Depressed and determined I erected a fence.

Seeds planted

Peas, beans and greens sprouted

Rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain rain

Rain rain rain

No light, no sun, no growth

Critters comes and eat it all (again)

Then one day the sun came out. I watched after weeks of rain how 2 days of sun can create such a burst of life. I build trellis’ for the peas.

Erect a bigger fence

More seeds planted

More time in the hospital with mom

Another young loved one dies in a car accident

Uncle dies of sudden heart attack

Critters eat whatever grows (again)

Another fence around the fence. Tomatoes and herbs that were started indoors go out.

I have planted something here

And it wasn’t what I thought it was

Grubs, wire worms, ground hogs, wasps, ants, dragonflies, robins, beetles, crows, flies, rabbit, cat, bees

The food on this ground would have been toxic to me anyhow.

I am growing hope

For life

Life carries on

In this lot of death and toxicity, these critters come and thrive now. In those quiet moments of hopeless despair, I know that I have provided refuge for fellow beings on the planet. When their world looks like it is being gobbled up they found a place to settle in where they are not threatened (when I am in the right frame of mind of course). These are the underdogs, the ones that humans are all too eager to label as pests and exterminate.

A big fat groundhog waddled in front of my moving car yesterday. I had the opportunity to press my right foot to the skinny gas pedal and put an end to that gluttonous marmot; put an end to the devouring of gardens and hope; put an end to all the disappointments and pain of loss. But it was in that moment of choice between braking or accelerating that I realized that the fate of this place depends on my relationship to it. That the only way to really find beauty in a broken world is to see clearly what is before me and not to be governed by selfish desires. We are one being on this planet with many parts and my fate is dependant on the land on which I live. So I nurture what needs to be nurtured and clearly it is my heart and the marmot's belly.

My prayer continues to grow…

Saturday, July 18, 2009


I wrote this in 1998 and just came across it. Anyone who has grown tomatoes for a living might relate?

i brush up against her
she turns me green
the longer i caress her the greener i get
slowly turning brown
i look at her fruit
her shiny red curves
her flesh is so quenching to my thirsting lips
my body quivers as i swallow
i forage for her plump body
through the forest of poison leaves
How can her body be so deadly and her fruit be so sweet?

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Garden State

As I was walking down the rain drenched streets of Vancouver with a virtual stranger this evening, he asked me where I was from. I told him, with a bit of reluctance, New Jersey

New Jersey, everyone has got the wrong idea about the place. I mean, shoot, I’m thankful for The Sapranos, The Garden State movie AND soundtrack, and the new founded ‘cool’ in blue-collar heroes like Bruce Springsteen, but really, we are so much more than that!

New Jersey, you know the place… “the girls with big hair”, “the land of shopping malls and greasers”, “the armpit of America”. Too many people have the wrong idea. Tonight, as I walked through this quiet rainy Canadian city, this man informed me that “New Jersey is one big suburb”. His comment was made from his observation from the interstate. His observation as he drove through the state was one made of ignorance, one made by someone on his way to somewhere else. He didn’t know the Jersey that I knew.

As people drive through the ‘garden state’ like addicts on their way to their next fix they don’t see all that I know of this beautiful land. I would bet my last Atlantic City dollar that they never put a spade in the earth and witnessed just how deep and rich this garden state soil is. I would bet that same dollar (now that it is two) that they have never planted a heritage tomato seed brought to NJ by the struggling Italian great grandparents of the now flourishing mobsters. Have they watched the massive green fruit grow darker and deeper in its hues of red to match their European skin, as the days grow even hotter and brighter in the July Jersey sun? Have they even tasted a Jersey tomato? Maybe. But one of mine? Doubt it! The soft, sweet, ruby flesh dripping onto the cutting board after a sharp stainless steel knife slices through it. Ya wouldn’t fuhgetaboutit.

Have these people who have ‘been through jersey” driven the back roads? Where for miles all you see is old deciduous forests accented with meandering rivers and train-tracks and then, out of no where you are in a beautiful old town that has sat among these hills for hundreds of years. Not only do the buildings speak of their age, but also one visit to the cemetery and the crumbling gravestones give you the sense of the antiquity of this state.

I imagine the same ignorant people who talk trash about Jersey are the ones who have moved there with their multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies and chemical plants. These are the same people who stand to make a profit off of people agreeing that Jersey IS a dump. Because if you think it ain’t worth anything then why would you defend it? It is not the people and the land that stink, it is the corporate pollution.

It really wasn’t coined ‘the garden state’ for nothin’ and I just really want them to know that.



When we talk of nature, we often exclude humans, ourselves. We speak of the innate knowing in nature. How amazing it is that nature knows how to do whatever it is she does. How the bees know how to create hexagons and honey and wax and queens. How the earth grows bramble to protect and cleanse the land. How salmon know how and where and when to go every fall to spawn. It is common to find someone standing in awe at the mystery of how the geese know how to fly in that pattern and which direction south is or how the killer whales know where to hang out every year to eat on their migratory journey south.

The human entity is just as miraculous as the rest of nature. The designs and intricacies of timing and function are astounding when observed. We take so much of human nature for granted and scoff at the destruction our societies have created. I have heard it said that it is easier to see what is outside of ourselves, but if we take some time to look inside, we might be in awe of what lies in our bodies, hearts and souls and learn to love human nature a bit more. When is the last time you heard anyone talking about how miraculous it was that for about 1/3 of our lives we are in hibernation? Our bodies just shut down shop and say good night when the sun goes down. Or what of the mystery of women shedding blood and tissue every 28 days in accordance to the moon? I stand in awe at our relationship to the sun and the ocean and the mysteries that conduct much of our behaviors.

But what of these relationships between humans and the rest of nature? If we gave ourselves as much forgiveness as we gave the rest of nature and viewed our place on this planet as essential, then maybe healing could take place. It is my belief that until we do that; until we recognize that we are an integral part of nature, we will not survive these trying times.

We look at the bees and see their eminent demise.

According to many, past and present, it is due to the industrialization of their life cycle.

Industrialization of life cycles is happening to all life on the planet, if we are to look at it in a broader sense. Humans included. Our natural inclinations are being suppressed and superseded as well as all other creatures on the planet. This has a dreadful effect on us, just as it does on the bees, on the salmon, on the whales, the birds, bats, cows, frogs, on the ecosystem in general. Sleep disorders, anxiety, heart disease, ADD, menstrual discomforts are just a few effects of industrialization on humans that pop into my mind as I write this.

As humans, we tend to take the blame for all the worlds woes (I do anyway, but I can also blame that on being raised Roman Catholic). We blame human nature for all the destruction in the world. I want to encourage a shift of thinking though. A way to recognize our wondrous and mysterious link in the sacred web of life. A way to honor ourselves and listen to our natural inclinations as opposed to following what is expected of us or demanded of us by the industrialized thinkers. Life is dynamic and with consciousness and care we are all welcome to walk into that mystery.

Looking inside can be difficult, as there is often pain lying there within the truth of our souls. In finding those imprisoned wild places within us we will be able to relate to the natural world with more clarity. It is in the relating and listening that we will know what we need to do to shift the course that we are on.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

As Seen in Edible New Jersey

saving grace

The honeybee has a new hero. You.

by tammy toad ryan

For thousands of years, honeybees have been an important part of human lives. From magical rites in ancient Egypt to pollen on shelves in health food stores, bees have offered us a connection to the natural world that inspires a certain humility coupled with a notion of healing powers. So it’s no surprise that, when news came around a few years ago that our little ally was sick and dying, a rallying cry was heard across the continent: What is going on? What can we do?

It used to be that this Garden State was full of gardens and farms. Generally, each of these farms housed a few hives containing bees that would forage on the land, which held a diversity of plant species. The farm’s trees, weeds, shrubs and flowering plants offered nectar that the bees would use to make honey, and the pollen was used as a protein source to feed their young. In the bees’ quest for food, they moved pollen from one flower to the next, ensuring pollination and reproduction. With the help of these pollinators, the land provided abundant crops.

Monoculture, a system of farming that uses vast tracts of land to grow a single crop, changed this arrangement. With monculture, chemicals are often used excessively to eradicate weeds. Without diversity of flowers, the bees are not able to survive. On land with only one species of flower in bloom for a short period of time, bees must move on. And, since pollination is vital to the production of the food that we eat, farmers who practice monoculture must import bees at certain times. So beekeepers haul thousands of hives around on flatbed trailers every three weeks or so depending on how long the bloom is on the specific crop that needs pollinating. In some cases, bees are moved from state to state to pollinate.

“Bees pollinate 60 percent of the food that we eat,” says Jake Matthenius, former New Jersey State bee inspector. “From clover and alfalfa for animals to cranberries and blueberries, they help produce food.” After 42 years as state bee inspector and 65 years of beekeeping, Matthenius should know. Bees are said to be the backbone of
agriculture. Without them life on the planet as we know it would end. Melons, squashes, blueberries, apples, nuts, alfalfa, clover, cocoa, vanilla, mango, plums, apricots, cherries, avocado, canola, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, cotton, carrots, coffee and kiwi are just some of the crops that would not survive without the efforts of pollinators.

So how are the bees doing? “When I left the Department of Agriculture [in 1990] there were 40,000 hives in New Jersey; now there are 10,000,” says Matthenius. “You tell me how they are doing.”

Jean-Claude Tassot of Tassot Apiaries in Milford has been keeping bees most of his life. Six years ago he and his family decided to make a business of it. Over the years, Tassot has seen many changes in beekeeping. “It was more natural before; it is worse now because of chemicals. The bees are not healthy. If they were, there wouldn’t be problems like CCD [colony collapse disorder, the most recent assault on the weakened colonies]. They are not healthy because of chemicals.” Tassot disapproves of the use of insect-control products like Bayer Advanced, which is given to plants in food, water, or soil. The insecticide is actually taken into the plant. Rain and water cannot wash it off. Insects are killed when they come into contact with the product or when they attempt to eat the plant. “We need to ban the way we use chemicals now. We have
to realize this is not good for the bee and it isn’t good for humans.” Tassot’s hives are faring better than many. He uses essential oils, rather than chemical or acids, to treat his bees for the varroa mite, a honeybee parasite that can cause serious damage to a colony. Like many beekeepers, Tassot would like to see more farms and lawns “go organic.”

Organic beekeeping is something that Earl Rowe, of Douglas Farm and Apiary in Gladstone, is very familiar with. Like Tassot, he too has been beekeeping much of his life. Rowe is a hobbyist and has about 25 healthy hives that he cares for organically. He believes that there are “too many toxic chemicals given to bees to make them ‘better.’
They are little creatures and they are really stressed out. When human beings overwork themselves, they get sick. It is the same with bees.” Earl and his son Brian teach a bee club for children at the Somerset County 4-H. They also do outreach at schools and clubs, showing people the gentleness of the bee as well as the magic of the hive. Through teaching about the bees, they encourage children and adults alike to be more intimate with their environment.

From a bee’s point of view, the environment is the surrounding area that provides food. The bees will travel up to three miles from their hive to collect nectar and make it into honey, which they store for later use. According to Tim Schuler, current New Jersey State bee inspector, “the biggest threat to honeybees is the lack of forage because of changes in land use and pesticides in our environment. The image of the perfect lawn needs to go.”

Earl Rowe agrees. If we are to help the honeybees we must be “willing to accept dandelion, daffodils and a bit of wild.” He suggests “throwing down a bit of wildflower seeds to provide nectar for bees. Each flower has different flowering times.” When a person keeps the bees in mind the whole of nature opens up to them. Flowers are no longer just pretty borders to the highway or pesky weeds, they are viewed as a source of food for our much-needed state insect.

Along with serving as the state apiarist, Tim Schuler is also the coinstructor of the beekeeping courses offered through Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Their course for novices, Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping, covers the basics of beekeeping such as bee biology, hive management and how to put a hive together. They also
offer a beyond-the-basics class for more experienced apiculturists. This class covers Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for honeybees, methods and equipment for moving and feeding bees, honey removal methods and small-scale queen and “nuc” production (a “nuc” is a small start-up nucleus colony of bees, brood [babies] and honey).
According to Schuler, “Of the 1,000 registered beekeepers in New Jersey, the vast majority has one or two hives in their backyard.” He believes wholeheartedly in IPM. “Some measure needs to be done [to treat for the varroa mite],” he says. “Use nonchemical means as much as possible but if that doesn’t work use harder chemicals.” It is better
to have a hive that is alive with chemicals in it than a dead hive.

The growing public awareness of bees and their mysterious disappearances with colony collapse disorder has generated a new momentum in beekeeping. A few short years ago, the average beekeeper was 60 years old and male. That is changing as more people are catching the backyard buzz. Along with the 4-H program and the Rutgers
classes, there are programs in southern New York State that promote organic and biodynamic beekeeping, emphasizing the importance of respecting the entirety of the web of life. Chris Harp of Honeybee Lives teaches regularly at his New Paltz Apiary and he also conducts classes with Ross Conrad, author of Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, at the Pfeiffer Center in Chestnut Ridge, New York. Harp and Conrad have established a following of
new beekeepers who are interested in the bees and helping the planet.

Stephanie Smith is one of the new breed of beekeepers. She keeps bees the old-fashioned way in a Kenyan top-bar hive. Top-bar hives allow bees to make their own comb in the shape that they would in nature. It is about trusting the instinct of the hive instead of forcing the bees into rectangular boxes with cells designed to get more honey
out of the bees. Smith started keeping bees in Frenchtown last year after taking courses at the Pfeiffer Center. “It is such an amazing experience, to witness such a cohesive social system. Their way of living provides for us a model of cooperation.” Beekeeping for her isn’t simply about honey or pollination, as it has been to many beekeepers in the past; to her and to many new beekeepers, it is about stewardship. “We need to shift our perspective of small creatures and start seeing them as partners, not our enemy.”

After starting to keep bees last year under the tutelage of a friend, Shaun Ananko, 26, is an inspired new beekeeper. This year will be his first with his own hive. When I asked him what motivated him and what the bees have to offer, he didn’t give the typical answer of pollination or honey. He said, “They have lessons to offer us, love and
inspiration. The bees help me find my place in the world and understand my purpose of giving back what I take and not harming the environment. They work together as one organism.” For someone who is just forming his relationship with the bees, he has a strong view as to the lessons we have learned from the bees’ ordeal with colony collapse disorder and mites over the past 20 years. The bees have offered us a way to find our connection with our environment, to take care of the small as well as the great. “Through commercial beekeeping we have put stress on the bees and it is our responsibility to bring the bee population back to its natural order,” Ananko says.

Indeed, it is our responsibility to foster these relationships with the natural world around us. For us to really help the bees and to change the course that we are on, we must be more conscious of the chemicals we use and the impacts we have on the whole of the environment. Everything is connected and what hurts one being will have a
ripple effect throughout the ecosystem. Planting flowers to feed our pollinators will help offset some of the environmental degradation that has occurred in the past century. Let us remember what our ancestors knew thousands of years ago. The bees are our messengers and our symbol of the deep interconnection of all that exists. We
must sit still and pay attention so that their message can be heard.


Become a beekeeper. Even keeping one hive makes a difference, and you don’t need an expansive farm or field to be a beekeeper. Hives can be set up in a small backyard or even on a building rooftop.To take a course, or to simply learn more, visit one of these websites:

  • HoneyBee Lives with Chris Harp, Beekeeper/Bee Doctor
  • Dancing Bee Gardens: Caring for Bees Organically
  • Pfeiffer Center.
  • Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Center. Information on their many courses, including their Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping workshops, is .

Get involved. The New Jersey Beekeepers Association offers a variety of events, products and promotions designed to increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of bees. Join your local branch.

Get the kids involved. The 4-H Beekeeping Club of Bridgewater allows kids to start keeping bees at the age of nine. Their website offers a variety of kid-friendly information for teachers as well as participants.

Create a bee-friendly landscape. Instead of focusing solely on evergreens, choose shrubs and trees that bloom, such as maple, blackberry and hollyberry, along with perennial flowers. And don’t forget: clover, thistle, dandelions and milkweed are bee-favorite sources of nectar.