Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm

Best of NightLife

Crap for The Cure

Did you ever have something you wanted to say for a long time, but held off because you knew you’d offend a bunch of people?

Good.  Then you know where I’m coming from on the subject of The Cure.

I bit my tongue through the fun runs, the yogurt lids, the bumper stickers.  I said nothing about “tough enough” cowboys in pink shirts.  I kept my silence regarding the beribboned teddy bears and advocacy days, the special credit cards, the posters and preachers and ads and fads. 

And then it happened:  The camel’s back broke when I stumbled across someone’s Facebook lament that the latest “I like it…” meme is a lost opportunity because it fails to make a connection raising awareness for breast cancer.

Excuse me?

Is she serious?!

Raise awareness?!?!

Does anyone honestly believe that we still need to “raise awareness” for breast cancer?  I don’t think there’s a rock big enough that you could live under it and fail to be aware of breast cancer. 

That’s proof that raising awareness works!

Erm, no.  I’ll bet you’re aware of pancreatic cancer and esophageal cancer and bladder cancer, too.  When was the last time you saw a ribbon “reminding” you of them?

But it isn’t just about awareness!  We’re raising money for The Cure.

Congratulations.  How’s that working for you?

According to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, despite over $1 billion raised since 1982, 1 in 8 women are still diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetimes.  Statistics indicating slightly decreased mortality rates over the past 30 years are the result of changing diagnostic patterns rather than an actual decrease in mortality among cancer patients.  Furthermore, researchers have yet to discover a cure for any cancer since Nixon “declared war” in 1971.

That’s why it’s so important we keep searching for The Cure!

For existing victims, yes, I’d say it is extremely important.  But wouldn’t the majority of us, who don’t have breast cancer but stand a good chance of developing it at some point, be better served to put our money on prevention?

You don’t have to cure something that never occurs in the first place.


Don’t you think we would already be preventing breast cancer, if we knew how?

Frankly, no. 

Scientists have known for years that lifestyle factors, particularly nutrition, have a dramatic impact on the incidence of most cancers, including breast cancer.  It turns my stomach that they understand this stuff, but go on letting millions of people, and their families, suffer anyway.

Want to know what they know, but aren’t bothering to tell you?  Here’s a summary:

Sugar feeds cancer.  You can prevent or starve many cancers by changing your diet to eliminate sugar (including grains and excessive fruits, as well as the more obvious refined and unrefined sources like HFCS, table sugar, and honey).  I particularly like this quote from Dr. Dan Ayer: “It’s been known since 1923 that tumor cells use a lot more glucose than normal cells.”  Since 1923.  Nice.  

Visceral fat (belly fat surrounding the organs) contributes to cancer development.  You can reduce risk by changing your diet to reduce your girth.  Dr. William Davis explains:  “Visceral fat…produces large quantities of inflammatory signals…that can trigger inflammatory responses in other parts of the body. Visceral fat also oddly fails to produce the protective cytokine, adiponectin, that protects us from diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.”  He goes on to note that eggs, meats, vegetables, and natural oils do not contribute to the accumulation of visceral fat.  Wheat, corn, potato, and fructose do.

 Other preventative measures you can take include the following:  Getting adequate Vitamin D; avoiding environmental toxins such as pesticides and added hormones in food; avoiding damaged and processed fats in favor of natural, healthful plant and animal fats; getting plenty of sleep; ensuring adequate Omega-3 intake; and increasing fitness through exercise.

You claim animal foods aren’t a risk factor.  What about The China Study? 

What about it?

Wouldn’t someone tell us if we could really prevent cancer with lifestyle changes?

I just did.

But no, the government and industry aren’t likely to say anything.  Cancer is a cash cow for the medical and pharmaceutical industries — and the politicians they support.  Why prevent something when you can make billions “curing” it, especially when the “cure” often contributes to return business a few years down the road?  (Radiation, anyone?)

You don’t really still trust those guys, do you?

Use your brain.  And your money.  To prevent instead of pretend.

You sound like a heartless bitch.


Did you hear me say that breast cancer isn’t a devastating disease?  Or that it wouldn’t be wonderful if we did discover a cure for cancer?  Or that anyone is stupid for desperately wanting a cure? Or that we shouldn’t rally around cancer sufferers and their families?  Or even that some cancers won’t still occur among the fit and well-nourished? 

I didn’t say those things, and I didn’t mean them.

What I said is that the tremendous amount of time and money we pour into research for The Cure would be better spent on educating and aiding people in prevention.  How’s this for a plan:  Let’s teach people what they can do to avoid getting cancer in the first place.  Then, let’s help them afford the whole, real, unprocessed, fat- and protein-rich, low-carbohydrate foods they need to pull it off.

Unless, of course, you’d rather see them undergo some new, painful, and expensive attempt at The Cure.

[Now, before you get your bra in a bramble — if you’re so inclined — please take time to read the rest of the series:  Cancer for a FortnightBefore Early DetectionIn the Beginning:  The Cancer-Inflammation Connection, Only YOU Can Prevent Inflammation, Supply Lines:  The Importance of AngiogenesisShort-Circuit:  Inhibiting Angiogenesis Naturally, Please Don’t Feed the Cancer, Blaming the Victim?, Fighting Mad(ness), Too Much of a Good Thing:  Estrogen and Breast Cancer]


A few good resources on cancer and its prevention:

Robb Wolf on Cancer and Ketosis

Cancer’s Sweet Tooth, Quillin, 2000

The Cancer Files:  Why are the Best Cancer Treatments Not Used?

Can a High Fat Diet Beat Cancer, Friebe, 2007

Animal Fats Don’t Cause Breast Cancer, Groves, 2008

The Cancer-Carbohydrate Link, Blackbird Clinic

The Paleo Diet Breast Cancer Testimonial

Anti-Cancer, a New Way of Life, Servan-Schreiber, 2008 (book)

Beating Cancer with Nutrition, Quillin, 2001 (book)


The Organic Pocketbook: A Struggle Survived

You’ve heard of debtors prison. Even if it still exists somewhere in the world, I will never go there. I was reared to be responsible with money. Very, very responsible. If a fool and his money are soon parted, count me among the wisest folk you’ll ever meet. For me, a major spending spree runs about $150.00 and involves durable goods. I’m positively allergic to debt.

My dad once told me that money is choices. For me, like many women, it is also security. In my case, this means not only my own security, but also that of the 40 of so critters that depend on me for everything from fencing to feed.

I’m telling you this so you can understand what it cost me to go grocery shopping today. Normally one of my favorite activities, today’s shopping trip made my stomach literally ache with indecision.

There sat organic avocados, $1.89 apiece. Beside them, conventional for $.78. Organic tomatoes, $1.99/lb. Conventional, as low as $.89. Cherries, $1.99 for a pound of organic, or the same price for two pounds of conventional. Baby spinach, $4.99 or $3.50? Zucchini, $1.29 or less than a dollar?

But I said I would do it, and if there’s one thing I hate more than irresponsibility with money, it’s irresponsibility with words. Integrity is doing what you said you would, even when no one is watching. Even when it hurts.

And so, despite sufficient stress that I’m considering downing an extra teaspoon of fish oil before bed, I checked out of the store with $23.86 worth of produce. Even though my garden is currently languishing between early crops (greens, peas, rhubarb) and later ones (tomatoes, squash, peppers, beans), that should last me a week.

So, let’s multiply that up to about $100 per month for produce. Huh. Not so bad, actually. My former food budget was $200 per month. (Yes, it’s possible. I live alone and cook virtually all my meals.) $100 for produce is steeper than my comfort zone — I need to spare funds for meat and a few extras, like coconut milk and nuts! — but it’s not outside the realm of reality.

Because I’m not really that crazy about money. My bedroom walls, alas, are not stuffed full of hoarded cash. I’m quite content to spend money on priorities: my horses, my farm, adventure, knowledge, and certain people.

Including myself, I suppose. My health. My choice not to slowly poison my cells with daily doses of pesticides and genetically modified mystery plants.

If money is choices, there aren’t many more secure than that.

Hungry for more? You might also like A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude.

Who Needs Lulus? (Or, How to Turn Your Ass from Sag to Sass)

Have you ordered your Lulus yet?

Apparently, they’re all the rage among Crossfitters. Why? Because (in addition to being high-quality and high-comfort), Luluemon Athletica’s pants are reputed to make even the most mundane female backside a head-turning exhibit at your local gym.

Which is great. I guess. If your backside is boring and you don’t mind cheating in order to turn heads.

But who wants a Wizard of Oz butt? I mean, c’mon. Are those admiring looks really satisfying when you know, deep down inside, that your Luluemon tush is, behind the veil, a lemon? Who wants to worry about running into the gym guys at the grocery store, when your non-Lulued backside is waving its true colors behind your unsupportive slacks?

Talk about false advertising.

You want a real sassy ass, you’re going to have to work for it. And don’t give me that crap about being too old. The only reason we Westerners tend to lose muscle mass with age is that we get lazy. We expect to get soft. And weak. And unhealthy.

You do not have to lose muscle mass with age. At almost 32, I’m falling seriously behind on the bat-wing and saddle-bag curve that’s practically required of women who’ve left their twenties in the dust. (Just try to find a scrap of fat dangling from my triceps. I dare you.) Similarly, Ironman, at 40, is regularly mistaken for a much younger guy. Why? He’s lean and cut, and we’re not used to seeing that on anyone over 30.

It’s as simple as you’ve always heard, people: Use it, and you won’t lose it.

But what if you’ve already lost muscle mass? Well, shut up griping and start doing something about it. You can build muscle whether you’re ninety or nineteen, and whatever lean tissue you add will help keep you lean. The notion that metabolism must slow with age is a myth.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that you do actually have to put some effort into achieving the backside of champions. Since it’s we females who typically agonize over our butts — resorting either to baggy sweats or Lulus to conceal or modify them — this post is especially for women. (Guys who give a rat’s ass what yours looks like: the concepts apply to you, too. Just keep away from the Lulus, k? K.)

Without further ado, here are four steps to a sassy ass. Guaranteed or your money back.

1. Diet

Yeah. Sorry girls, but nutrition is the single, biggest factor in leanness. If you want a perky butt, you’re going to have to get rid of the layer of fat that conceals the muscles beneath. (We’ll talk about developing those muscles in a moment.)

Contrary to popular belief, undamaged dietary fats (not to be mistaken for the frankenfats that are rampant in processed foods) do not make us fat. Sugar makes us fat. All carbohydrate is, as far as the body is concerned, sugar. Some carbs (most notably, vegetables) are worth the tradeoff. Most (especially grains and sweeteners) are not. Clean up your diet ala the Primal Blueprint or Whole 30 Paleo, and watch your bodyfat vanish — not to mention a host of other health problems.

Still in the does-not-compute phase? Watch the Lustig and Taubes videos for accessible explanations of the science.

2. Squat

Air squats, heavy squats, Tabata thrusters, pistols… Pick your favorite variety, start at whatever level you can, and do them. Lots of them. Work up to heavy squats, because that’s where the real money is in terms of gluteal development. You want perky, you gotta squat.

In a typical week, I do several kinds of squats. Thrusters and air squats appear in metcon routines, pistols are a staple of my gymnastics/bodyweight days, and backsquats are my personal favorite among all the heavy, compound lifts.

Do your homework on form. You know all those aerobics instructors who warned never to squat past parallel for fear of wrecking your knees? They were wrong, k? Here’s Mark Rippetoe on the subject of squat form. Rippetoe (literally) wrote the book on strength training.

3. Lunge

Ah, lunges. These suckers are my best friend and worst enemy. Done properly, they’re hellishly hard…but do them properly, and your glutes will be heavenly hard.

I started out with walking or standing lunges 3-4 times per week — first without weight, then with dumbbells in each hand, then with the dumbbells plus a backpack stuffed with 35 pounds of sand. (Hey, you use what you got.) 4-6 sets of as many reps as you can do while maintaining good form will do the job. These days, I barbell lunge up to 95 lbs for 5x5s (5 sets of 5 reps each).

As always, do your homework on form. Then work it. At first, you’ll notice sore quads. But those will develop, and you’ll start to feel the real work in your gluteal muscles. Be warned: heavy lunges can give you a seriously sore seat for a couple days! It’s worth it. I have yet to find a better way to sculpt my butt.

4. Sprint

Sprinting is particularly useful for developing a shapely tush because it tones the muscles without adding a lot of bulk. (Depending on individual genetics, most women don’t need to worry about excessive bulk anyway.) Rusty of Fitness Black Book discusses sprint form and butt benefits in this article. And we all know that sprinting offers myriad other rewards, not the least of which is the promotion of a hormonal response that leads to the burning of bodyfat for fuel.

There you go. Applied with consistency and commitment, the four steps above will turn your ass from sag to sass. Then you can buy LuLus and really rock ’em — because you don’t need them!

The Gift of Fitness

One of my favorite things to listen to is the sound of my father’s voice. I have listened to it so long, so intently, over the years that we are as alike in the cadence of our speech as in physical appearance.

I have gained more from his words than the rhythm of language. I’ve gained knowledge as well, much of it neatly encapsulated in remembered turns of phrase that I imagine he doesn’t recall having spoken all those years ago.

“Money is choices” is one quote that stuck with me. Simple. Obvious, once you notice it. Ringing with the force of truth. And, I have come to realize, quite as applicable to fitness as it is to finance.

I once read that fitness is the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do. I like to keep that difference big. Huge. Broad enough to swing me from deep sleep to the oars of a raft sweeping into Crystal Rapid on the Colorado, to the back of a horse forty miles into a mountain race, to the summit of Pike’s Peak with bare arms outstretched above the snow.

Fitness, like money, is bought with work. Time. Commitment. Effort. Often we enjoy it, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes, it is just plain hard. The barbell is heavy, the hill is steep, the road is long.

But look what we get in exchange! The embrace of life, my friends. Choices, and the strength to pursue them all.

Making Tracks

I am a nerd.

I carry books everywhere, complete with “to research further” lists for bookmarks. I set aside Trivial Pursuit cards as reminders to look up more information after the game. I use spreadsheets for everything from calculating my annual hay order to plotting my endurance horses’ conditioning schedules…for the whole year.

So, no one will be surprised to learn that I like to track my food intake.

One of the beautiful things about primal (or un-weighed/unmeasured paleo) eating is that, in the vast majority of cases, there’s no need to chart every bite of food that goes down the hatch. Most of us can simply commit to eating only certain types of foods, paying reasonable attention to quantities of particularly calorie-dense choices like nuts, and forget the tedium of counting carbs and calories and all the rest.

But as I said, I’m a nerd. Obsessive, some would say. I actually enjoy plugging my meals into Fitday or My Fitness Pal, tweaking selections and quantities to get just the right macronutrient balance day after day, maintaining accuracy down to the last almond. I like poring over the resultant charts and graphs, noting trends in the data, comparing my intake and performance and looking for ways to improve.

That all sounds useful, right? And it is. To a point.

After which it becomes unproductive.

Or even destructive.

You see, my problem with a paint-by-numbers approach to eating is that I begin planning meals around the necessity of filling in particular categories:

Let’s see…I’ll need more fat tomorrow…better add an avocado to my breakfast salad. Oops! That bumped my carbs too high. Okay, so I’ll nix the carrot from the roasted mixed veggies at dinner. What about protein? Hmm, looking good, but a touch on the high side. Better cut that leftover pork roast down from six ounces to four…but then I’ll get hungry. I have room for more fat, though, so how about I add a shot of coconut milk? Yes, that’s better…but it inched the carbs back up a shade…

Not a good way to practice listening to one’s own body. Not a good way to live on the least-best quantites.

Ah, what’s this? I have another 200 calories available. Dark chocolate sounds lovely, now that I mention it…

Certainly not a good way to let intermittent fasting happen — which is exactly what did happen the day after I decided to suppress my inner nerd and resume eating by feel: I ate dinner at 7:30 p.m. Went to bed. Woke up, fed the horses, drove to the office, hurried to a meeting, drank some coffee, felt energetic and bright, carried on working right up until 12:30, when I broke my 17-hour fast with a bowl of leftover red-hot chicken, vegetable, and coconut curry.



I quit tracking because I realized that I was using the practice to control my intake rather than to learn from it — and as a result, the intake was controlling me. Yes, it was fun and interesting, but it was neither productive nor beneficial.

I don’t mean to say that tracking has no place in primal living, at least for the nerds among us. I found it useful when I first went primal because I needed to learn the carb content of the foods I eat most often. Fine. It became useful again when I got curious about the macronutrient rations to which eating “by feel” had led me. Fine.

Tracking lost its usefulness when it told me what to eat, rather than me telling it what I ate. The time had come to let it go.

Will I ever track again? Sure. When I have a good reason to. But when I’ve learned what I need to know, I’ll make tracks for the “log out” button posthaste.

Now, y’all better be prepared to remind me I said that.

You Are Here

I realized something the other day: For the first time in my life, I feel completely satisfied with my physique.

At 31, I am fitter than I have ever been. Leaner. Stronger. With a BMI of roughly 18, I’m in the “low-normal” or “athlete” range for females (who, me?). I have a six-pack and obliques and (according to Ironman, who might be biased) a pretty nice butt.

But it isn’t about looks, is it? It’s about health. Longevity. Vitality. Ability.
I love being able to lift heavier and run faster than ever before — not for numbers on a chart, though visual progress is satisfying, but because it’s practical, here on the farm, to be able to lift ranch panels and buck hay and haul water.

I love being able to hike up a mountain, row down a river, camp in the wilderness, ride a horse 50 miles in a day.

I love feeling as though I have, for once, actually arrived.

Not that I’ll stop striving. I’ll still add weight, still try to make each hill sprint faster than the one before. All the same, it’s high time I settled back a bit, mentally, so as to enjoy not just the doing, but the sense of having done.

Fitness is freedom, my friends. It ought to be earned — and once earned, it ought to be enjoyed.

Seize the day.

Related Posts
Go Figure

Go Figure

I once dated a guy who told me I was too fat. His reasoning? The insides of my upper thighs touched each other.

I’m sorry to say that, presumably because I was young and brainwashed by our weight-obsessed culture, his comment affected me for years. It became a measure by which I assessed my own fitness, which was never poor, but wasn’t always peak, either. I recall with dismay the internal monologue: My thighs are touching! Crap! Gotta run more! (Wrong.)

This past March, while still eating flegan, I dived into a fitness regime unprecedented by anything I’d tried before, including my distance running days. A friend put me onto bodyweight training and Tabata, hill sprints and weight lifting.

In my typically obsessive manner, I devoured literature on the subject of strength training and HIIT (high intensity interval training). Plenty of science backed it up, but the best proof of all was the changes in my own physique. By June, I was leaner than I’d ever been. My biceps earned admiration from colleagues, and the shadow of a six-pack appeared in my midsection. I was getting close to doing the first pull-up of my life. And, my thighs didn’t touch. Score!

Then, something changed. Along about July, my fitness efforts bogged down in a quagmire of fatigue, bloating, and poor quality sleep. I looked pretty good, but I felt worse and worse. What on earth was I doing wrong?

My research led me first to the possibility of removing grains from my diet. It took me two months of reading to accept that the “healthy whole grains” that comprised nearly half of my daily intake could actually be wreaking cumulative damage on my intestines due to glucose intolerance, or simply the toxins such foods contain.

By the time I was convinced that going grain-free was worth a try, I’d also come around to understanding the detrimental effects of excessive carbohydrate intake. Thus began my shift to primal eating, which I embraced whole-heartedly by mid-August.

Now, looking down the barrel of October with a growing set of Tuesday Tallies documenting my new eating patterns (low carb, high fat, moderate protein) and continued bodybuilding and sprint workouts, I have replaced bloating and fatigue with muscle mass and power.

There’s just one problem: My thighs touch.

I confess this bothered me, when I first noticed it a few weeks back. Were the primal advocates wrong? Would all that new thigh muscle make me look fat? How about the newly-defined obliques that both strengthened and thickened my core? Was I losing the figure I’d worked months to achieve?

Yes, the questions bothered me…but not nearly as much as the thought of giving up my workouts. After all, my primary goal had always been to achieve a high level of functional strength and cardiovascular endurance — and I’d never felt better nor been more powerful! No way was I going to sacrifice athleticism for cultural ideals.

All the same, I was most gratified to stumble across the photo below.

I’m no professional pole-vaulter, but I’m proud to say that my physique doesn’t fall too far short of this chick’s. I’m no guy, either, but I think she’s pretty damn hot — sculpted obliques, touching thighs, and all.

Go figure.

Related Resources:

The Definitive Guide to Grains from Mark’s Daily Apple

The Real Truth About Those “Healthy Whole Grains” from Fitness Spotlight

Unexpected Effects of a Wheat-Free Diet from Heart Scan Blog

The Definitive Guide to Fats from Mark’s Daily Apple

Fats: The Real Story and Why You Need Them from Fitness Spotlight

Saturated Fat Intake vs Heart Disease & Stroke from Free the Animal

Sugar is Poison — a link from Fathead to Dr. Lustig’s excellent video presentation. Highly recommended!

A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude

When I was in high school, my family owned a whitewater rafting company. Our offerings of four- to seven-day expedition trips down wilderness rivers attracted mostly outdoor-types from the West, but we also booked the occasional city slicker.

Mary Jo, a hefty and good-natured soul with glossy, black curls and florid cheeks, was one of the latter. She hailed from Boston and was startled to learn that there really wasn’t any point in packing her alarm clock in her waterproof gear bag. (Nope, not even with an extension cord.)
Along about Day 3 of Mary Jo’s trip, we were floating through open range, where cattle spend the summer feeding on the vast acreage of public lands. Mary Jo, spotting a pair of Herefords drinking along the bank, exclaimed, “Look! Wildlife! What kind of animals are those?”
Sure Mary Jo was kidding, the nearest guide joked, “Oh, those are Oregon elk. They’re very rare!” Imagine his surprise when Mary Jo pulled out her camera and started clicking away. He did some fast talking to spare our guest the embarrassment of hauling out her photo album and showing all her friends back home the elusive “Oregon elk,” which almost anybody would recognize immediately as garden-variety cattle.
That night in camp, we served up an Italian feast of wine, garlic bread, salad, and spaghetti with marinara and meatballs. Mary Jo ate with her usual gusto. Watching her from across the circle of canvas chairs in the fading light, I wondered if she had even a passing thought connecting her “wildlife” sighting with the meal rapidly disappearing from her plate. I was saddened to conclude, probably not.
Saddened, I say, because although Mary Jo may have been an extreme case, she is far from an anomaly. Too many people these days believe that food comes from the grocery store. I once heard of a woman who, listening in on a discussion about the danger a single plant disease could pose to our inadequately-diverse food supply, said “Oh, I’m sure they’ll always have flour at the store.” She, like Mary Jo, clearly had no concept of the sacrificial exchange that fuels our bodies.

We the People, with our fast food joints and deep freezes, are so far separated from farm life that we rarely consider that from the T-bones we gnaw once hung the loin of a cow with a swishing tail and liquid eyes. That neat mound of poultry breast was made to nestle warm about a clutch of eggs. Those egg yolks formed to nourish chicks ’til they grew large enough to hatch.

I’m not saying I have a moral problem with eating meat or eggs, any more than I have one with tearing carrots from the soil and scattering my salad with their precious roots. Zucchini grow to ensure there is seed for the next generation, not to be sauteed in my breakfast hash, but saute them I do. To live is to take other lives. Any farmer knows there’s no escaping the fact, no denying it, no point feeling guilty about it.

But I do believe there is benefit in understanding it — not just believing it intellectually, but experiencing it firsthand — for in understanding there is value, and in value, gratitude.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to be reared in agricultural country should be at least halfway there. We visited U-pick orchards every fall, plucked wild blackberries from their vines, perhaps retrieved eggs from the nests of disgruntled hens. Some of us even fattened stock for slaughter.

I was eight the first time I observed the death our annual beef cow. The man from the packing plant shot her three times, right there in our barn, before her sway turned to a topple and her topple to utter collapse. He hooked a chain to her hind legs and winched her outside to his truck, where he peeled away her chestnut coat and spilled her foul-smelling offal among the weeds.
My mother worried that I, an empathetic child who had bottle fed that animal as a calf, would be put off our daily meals of hamburgers and steak. But I was untroubled. Somehow, with the innate wisdom of the very young, I understood.
Not all children have such opportunities. One of my best friends grew up in the jungles of Chicago. He claims once to have stumbled over a pile of milk bottles and thought he’d found a cow’s nest. Does that mean he shouldn’t be permitted to eat meat, because he hasn’t paid his dues?
Of course not. But I do think those in his position should look for opportunities to connect with the lives and deaths that feed them. From farmers markets to bookstores, there is plenty of recourse for those who wish to understand their meals. A number of authors have addressed the concept of late, all from different perspectives. Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), and most recently, Lierre Keith (The Vegetarian Myth) come readily to mind.


For the most adventurous — and wisest? — more creativity could lead one to a farm on butchering day, to feel the blood from chickens’ throats run hot across trembling fingers, see the feathers float on scalding water and stick like rain soaked leaves to pluckers‘ wrists. To pull the trigger that ploughs a painless path through the brain of a hog, or gut a fish from the neighbor’s pond, or simply gather the bosoms of ripe onions as they press up from the soil, strip peas from their pods, sever the stems of living herbs to rub beneath a turkey’s freshly-denuded skin.
I remember one blustery day in early spring at In the Night Farm. A freshly-slaughtered lamb had hung for several days from the north deck, aging beneath its burlap wrap. Meanwhile, out beyond the horse paddocks, lambing had begun. I spent the entire day running between the kitchen, where I rinsed and packaged chunks of carcass for later meals, and the lambing jugs, where I knelt in the hay to draw colostrum from ewes’ udders and coax it down the silken throats of newborn lambs.
I ate lamb that night, with the smell of sheep’s milk still strong upon my hands. The following winter, I butchered the wooley babies whose lifes I had saved. Come spring, I nurtured several more.
Death. Life. Death feeding life feeding death feeding life. The unbroken circle. Don’t feel guilty. But please, don’t forget. Real food costs more than pennies for pounds.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Stop by and see what else is on the menu!

The Iris Story

Here’s something you don’t know about me:

I grew up on ten acres of hillside in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, in a house with one glass side overlooking a panorama that encompassed miles of farmland spread like a cloak to the foot of the Cascades. We moved away when I was seventeen — an event about which I’d had nightmares for years — and I have been trying to get back ever since.

At In the Night Farm, I am content. True, my windows gaze over different farms, and my horizon constitutes the Snake River breaks instead of a mountain range. Here, I see sunsets instead of sunrises. But here, nonetheless, I am home.

At the foot of my childhood home lay a bank trellised with railroad ties. Between the ties grew prize-winning irises given to us by the professional iris growers who were our nearest neighbors. When we left, my dad took some of the rhizomes to plant at his new home. Five years ago, he passed divisions on to me.

I lived in Pullman, Washington, at the time, and it was winter. Before spring, I moved to Idaho and brought the rhizomes. They followed me from an apartment, to a house, to a duplex, to another house, to a cottage, to a Barb horse ranch, to a rental house, and finally to In the Night Farm. Here, after five years in pots, surviving to send up sword-like leaves but never blossoms, they found a place on the west side of the house.

And, at long last, they bloomed. I know just how they feel.

Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living

You’d think that owning on a farm would make sustainable living relatively easy. Grow a garden, raise some livestock. Hoe and weed, water and feed your way to health and self-reliance. After all, this is how most of the world’s population has lived for thousands of years! Sadly, these days, the simple life is anything but.

Take my latest research on natural chicken feeds. Motivated by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explains the myraid benefits of eating eggs and meat from chickens that eat as nature intended, I’ve been looking for ways to eliminate commercial layer pellets from our hens’ diets.

Feeding poultry a natural diet eliminates the use of (and the need for) antibiotics such as coccidiostat and results in food products whose nutritional content is properly balanced. Like most livestock raised en masse, chickens that eat typical commercial feeds take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s. In livestock and the humans who eat it, this balance should be tipped the other way, in favor of omega-3 fatty acids.

Balanced fat consumption leads to lower rates of heart disease, cancers, and mental degeneration, so I’d like to know that the small quantity of poultry and eggs I consume represents an appropriate nutritional profile. Hence, my interest in feeding chickens like nature intended — as hunting and gathering omnivores. It’ll only take one acre per chicken.

One acre per chicken?

Let’s see. One acre per chicken…fifteen chickens…Call the real estate agent, Honey. Looks like we need to buy the property next door!

So much for keeping my hens nourished without supplemental feeds. Surely, I thought, there’s a way to feed them naturally without quadrupling our mortgage.

As it turns out, there is. I’ll need: a wide variety of living plants, wild seafood, additional protein in the form of grass-fed meat and milk, nuts and seeds, varied grains (freshly cracked, of course), boiled soybeans or other legumes, sea salt, and oyster shells for calcium.

What? I can’t afford wild salmon for myself, let alone for my chickens!

And it isn’t just the chickens. Raising healthful lamb requires irrigated pasture or extensive range, quality hay, and oats. Pesticide-free gardening means losing part of the crop to insect damage. Irrigation requires electricity to run the pump. Rototilling large plots requires gasoline. Even our organic fertilizer started out as expensive horse hay, and this year’s diesel prices will drive that bill even higher.

And so, in an attempt to fund a more sustainable lifestyle centered around local foods, we are forced to drive nearly forty miles into the city to work. Gas costs us a fortune these days, though we carpool whenever possible and make no gratuitous side trips. We bought a motorcycle to cut back on consumption, at least when the weather cooperates. (I took my first ride on the new bike the other day. Ye gods, I’d forgotten!)

Day after day, I am appalled by the expense of trying to do the right things to spare our land and bodies from the behemoth of our industrialized food system. Why do you think most poultry growers, whether commercial or gentleman farmer, buy pelleted feeds? Twenty-five bucks will buy you a month’s worth of scratch grains and layer pellets for a flock like ours. It’s easy, too! Just open the bag, scoop, and serve.

As much as I would like to, I simply cannot afford to feed my chickens on soybeans, seafood, and hand-split corn. In this instance, like so many others — purchasing enough land to grow our own crops, installing solar panels and a propane refrigerator, even building the oh-so-sensible root cellar — converting to sustainable living is a proposition that implies tremendous financial strain.

Some people manage it. You can read their stories at the Backwoods Home Magazine forum. I suspect, however, that the majority have either lived long and well enough to free themselves from debt — including home mortgages — or are not trying to create a self-sufficient homestead while preserving and promoting a rare breed of horse. Reading the BHM forum is, for me, both inspiring and discouraging.

So, what now? Shall we move back to the city to eat factory farmed poultry and pesticide-laden, chemically-fertilized, genetically-modified broccoli while we wait for cancer to set in? Or, shall we, like other small farmers across our nation, continue to struggle against the economic and political tide?

A horse trainer in my area likes to say, “Start where you can, not where you think you should.” I find that his advice applies to more than just horse training — it’s useful in our progress toward sustainable living, as well.

For now, I’ll hand-pick a daily bucketful of weeds and grass for my hens. I’ll save them vegetable scraps from the kitchen and check prices on bulk legumes at the grocery. I’ll even look into the cost of canned wild fish. While I’ll still buy pelleted feeds, I’ll restrict their use as much as possible.

This decision, like replacing a truck with a motorcycle but still commuting to work, represents a compromise between practicality and perfection. Such choices are often unsatisfactory, but for now, for us, “ideal” isn’t an option. Surely doing our best is better than doing nothing at all.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we’re going to make this small farm work.

…but I also don’t know how to give up.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Be sure to drop in and see what else is on the menu!