Tuesday, November 25, 2008


November 27, 2008

Every school day at 7 a.m. sharp, 12-year-old Mame arrives at the Peace Garden adjoining St. Augustine Catholic School in the South Bronx.
The chickens are waiting.
The rustle of her footsteps through the fallen leaves brings 15 big, colorful birds out of their coop and into the pen. They come around her, eyeing her intently, clucking curiously. Mame (pronounced "Mommy") checks their water and food, then looks inside the henhouse. Today she finds a clutch of three large brown eggs, neatly laid in a nest of straw on the floor. She gathers them up.
"I love to take care of the chickens!" Mame smiles. "They look so beautiful, and they know me!"
Mame, whose family immigrated from Senegal two years ago, is a member of the school's Chicken Club, nine students whose year- long project is to learn about ecosystems and human nutrition while practicing hands-on animal husbandry. They perform the daily tasks of keeping the water fresh, the food abundant, the pen cleaned and layered with sweet-smelling straw: farmers' work. They monitor the health of the chickens, their egg production, and the cost of feed. In the spring, they will present their findings at the New York Catholic Schools Science Fair. They're confident they'll win.
"Whenever I go to a principals' meeting," says Cathryn Trapp, St. Augustine's principal, "their first question always is, ‘Well, how are the chickens?' They're jealous."
The school's experiment in urban agriculture is sponsored by Heifer International, the same folks who turn your donations into beehives in Bolivia and goats in Ghana, and Just Food, a nonprofit group committed to localizing the food supply by organizing neighborhood-run farmers' markets and showing community gardeners how to increase their productivity and diversify their output. Their mutual goal, in the word of the day, is "sustainability."
"Chickens are a must for farming ecologically," remarks Owen Taylor, who heads up the chicken project for Just Food. "They eat everything. They'll pick off the insect pests in your garden and consume all your kitchen scraps — meat and egg-shells included. They also aerate the soil by their scratching. In return, you not only get absolutely fresh eggs but the best high-nitrogen fertilizer around. It's great nutrition for you and less chemicals for your garden. And they're not that much work. Plus, they'll bring people to your garden just for the interest."
Mike Brady, the development director at St. Augustine's, was intrigued by the idea and last summer secured a grant from Heifer and Just Food for a coop and pen, 15 chickens, and dry feed enough for a year. In accord with Heifer's philosophy of "passing on the gift," the school's chicken corps will share their expertise with other interested gardeners and lend a hand in new coop construction. Just Food currently sponsors six sites in the city, and Taylor anticipates three more next year.
The St. Augustine group built their structures over three days in August. It was a cooperative project: Taylor drew up the plans and ordered the materials — basically wood, nails, and of course, chicken wire — from Home Depot. Students (Mame among them), teenage alumni, and community gardeners performed the labor. "Working with St. Augustine's was really satisfying, with all the young people involved," Taylor notes. "That's where it's at in terms of community involvement."
The chickens arrived in October from Awesome Farm, a 30-acre organic livestock operation in Tivoli, N.Y., about a hundred miles north of the city.
"The kind we brought them," says KayCee Wimbish, a crazy- for-chickens young woman who runs the farm with her partner Owen O'Connor, "are called Black Sex-linked chickens, which I know is a weird name — it means you can tell male from female chicks by their color as soon as they hatch. They're a cross between the Rhode Island Red and the Barred Rock varieties. They're bred for their heartiness and their productivity, and because they mature early."
The hens at the St. Augustine Peace Garden are mateless — New York City codes forbid roosters because of their noisy crowing (car alarms, however, are permitted) — but this does not matter, to the humans at least; unmated hens will still produce an egg every 18 hours or so.
The fowl are well-fed. In addition to poultry pellets (which Brady buys along with bales of straw from the only remaining feed store in New York City, right down the block), they are given the leftovers from the school cafeteria, which in the past were just bagged up as garbage. That's urban ecology.
But there's human ecology too.
Sixth-grader Ken, age 12, is a member of the Chicken Club.
"He's a little crazy — attention-deficit," Trapp admits. "He's on meds, he's in special ed, he's a terror in the classroom, but he's a different person when he gets out there. I call it ‘chicken therapy for the soul.'"
"I like animals," Ken says. "I can tell all the chickens apart — they're just like people. I have a favorite one, too — I named her Cassandra. She always comes when I call to her."
"It's amazing," remarks Brady. "Kids who are hyperactive, who have no patience in the classroom, are patient with the chickens. They love it when the chickens pile out the henhouse door to greet them."
But there is another side. The productive life of a laying hen is about two years, which means that before they graduate, Mame and Ken will have to face the hardest fact of farming: turning the hens they have come to love into chicken soup.
Brady is unruffled at the gruesome prospect. In the spring, he'll add a pair of turkeys to the school's micro-farm; they'll be ready for slaughter by November.
"I'm not sure what next Thanksgiving will bring," he says. "There may be some heartbreak here. But kids need to experience that too. They need to know how food really gets to their table."
That teaching may come slowly. Right now, the children — and even some of the teachers — will not eat the eggs. "They think it's robbing the cradle or something," Brady guesses.
"They're learning about the cycle of life," says Trapp. "They're learning about caring and taking responsibility. And they're learning that we're all part of nature — even here in the South Bronx."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


November 20, 2008

It is ironic that after the passage of Proposition 8, the "California Marriage Protection Act," on November 4, its opponents singled out the Mormon Church as the first target of their anger. In 1846, the Mormons were forced out of Illinois by an act of the state legislature for practicing an alternative to traditional marriage, polygamy. Decades later, they were coerced both by the federal courts and by military force into repudiating this core religious belief in order to win statehood for Utah, their refuge. This fall, the church spent $20 million to influence voters to impose a single official definition of marriage on all citizens.
Wouldn't you think that both Mormons and gay-marriage advocates would recall their respective histories of persecution and exclusion at the hands of government?
What is telling about the Proposition 8 campaign and its aftermath is the resemblance to religious wars. The framers of the U.S. Constitution remembered the devastation caused by state- supported religion in Europe and wrote religious liberty into its First Amendment. Of course, this did not eliminate the restriction and even persecution of religious groups by legislatures and courts, as Mormon history readily attests, but it laid down a principle of equality and tolerance that is refining judicial decisions to this day.
The same could be true of the marriage wars. Were a state to disestablish marriage, recognizing it as a fundamental right but refusing to endorse any particular form of it, it could defuse the battles that have grown more fierce and costly with each round.
In deliberating the case for same-sex marriage last year, the California State Supreme Court considered just such a step. It asked state Attorney General Jerry Brown whether under California law, the legislature could "change the name of the legal relationship of ‘marriage' to some other name, assuming the legislation preserved all of the rights and obligations now associated with marriage" — that is, a name that could equally apply to all conjugal contracts regardless of gender. Brown responded yes, because "the words ‘marry' and ‘marriage' have no essential constitutional significance under the California Constitution."
In a brief submitted to the court on August 31, 2007, he spelled out the state's argument: "The State does not deny the significance of marriage as a social and spiritual idea; after all, marriage existed long before the State of California ever recognized it in a statute. The state does not create a marriage: From antiquity, Western society has recognized that a marriage is created by the witnessed interpersonal commitment of the two persons themselves. The state can only give a marriage standing in the law. The only institution at issue in these proceedings is the state-sanctioned regime to which the label ‘marriage' has been attached in statute."
Thus, "so long as the Legislature ensures that all rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples under the law are also available to domestic partners — including, most importantly, the right to self-declaration and public legitimation of one's life- partnership," it could "employ a ‘neutral' term to describe state-sanctioned life-partnerships regardless of the couple's sex."
Though courts both state and federal have established a fundamental right to marry, the attorney general continued, "the focus was on the relationship of the couple, not the verbiage used on state legal forms." Further, the arguments of both parties to the case that a neutral legal term would diminish the honored place of marriage in society "are not arguments of a constitutional status."
The reason both parties agreed (in opposite ways) on this point of "honor" is that both were seeking state approval of their own particular definitions of marriage. As Brown noted, "the meaning of marriage comes from the understanding that it has been given in our society." But at this point in our social history there is no universally agreed-upon meaning of the term — even within some religious groups.
With this information, the court could have taken the bold step of disestablishing marriage, letting the many and various societal groups embrace their own definitions and restricting state involvement to the administration and adjudication of a universal family contract available to all couples regardless of gender or even implied sexual activity, including dependent or interdependent blood-relatives and friends who also deserve the rights and benefits presently reserved to the married and to domestic partners.
Such a move would have turned the question of the meaning of marriage back to the social and religious communities from which the institution arose and to whom it properly belongs. Rather than detract from the honored status of marriage, it would have allowed all societal groups to honor it in their own way. It would have mooted the well-taken point that denying the term "marriage" to gay couples makes them "second-class citizens" by making all couples simply citizens, equally. Further, it would have put the capstone on the right to privacy by denying state approval to particular sexual life-styles and focusing its attention on the family unit, no matter how it is constituted — something that California family law in fact does anyway.
Instead, the court bought the honored-place argument, the one the attorney general said had no constitutional status. After 120 pages of opinion, it came down to that.
Whether or not a neutral stance would have quelled the marriage wars is hard to determine — there would have been much residual frustration on both sides for neither getting their way — but at least it would have pointed them toward an authentic recognition of the diversity in our society and encouraged everyone to respect it.


November 13, 2008

The fight for the presidency is finally over. Before turning to the future, it's always good to see how we got to the present. Here are excerpts from previous columns, beginning almost a year before the Iowa caucuses:
February 15, 2007 — So which of the pack in the presidential race will survive the shakedown? The ones who can articulate, both programmatically and personally, the new vocabulary of the common good. Single-issue candidates like family-values Brownback and anti-immigrant Tancredi are now anachronisms. Image-only candidates like Giuliani, "Mr. 9/11," will eventually be judged by the sum of their public life, not just one day of it. Hillary says she is "listening," but we are as sick of listeners as we are of Deciders. Biden, bright but neither articulate nor clean, broke his leg before leaving the gate. Obama has a vision, but is it just a vision of himself? Kucinich has the vision, but the articulation of the self-righteous. McCain and Romney run without a base. Edwards shows some daring, but carries Kerry's baggage. Al Gore is more tarred by Clinton than Hillary herself. Richardson, with his national and international expertise, could be the dark horse, if he can only stay away from Comedy Central.
January 3, 2008 — The horses are at the starting gates at last...
My bet is that not even [Super Tuesday on] February 5, nor the several primaries and caucuses that follow it, will determine the nominee of either party.... By convention time this summer, no candidate will have amassed enough delegates to enter as the winner. Then Old-time Politics ... will take over: All that ad money down the drain, only to have the nominee selected in smokeless rooms and with multiple floor votes. The convention will become the high drama it once was.
January 31, 2008 — Long before Iowa, all through that year- long string of Democratic presidential debates, I sat before the TV thinking: "Dream Team." With the exception of Marijuana Mike Gravel and Don-Quixote Dennis Kucinich, any one of those people at the podium would make a superior president....
In the short-term quest for long-term power, the dangers of bitterness and hatred increase. We the voters can only hope that the inevitable attacks will be friendly sparring and not friendly fire, and that the Dream Team will not end up as just a dream.
February 14, 2008 — And then you have voter fatigue. After a year of foreplay and the multiple climaxes of the early primaries, people may start waking up thinking it sure was nice but do I really want to spend so much time with this person?
February 28, 2008 — Over the months, the Democratic race has evolved into a microcosmal clash of the generations, a symbol of what is going on, largely unarticulated, in the country as a whole. The caucuses and primaries threw out all those graying friends of the family, Biden and Dodd and the rest, and what remained was the fundamental: the test of wills between Mom and the Kid.
July 24, 2008 — Put images of John McCain and Barack Obama side-by-side on the satellite news, and there is no doubt who gets the focus [abroad]. A different view of America emerges.... His complexion and the ethnicity of his name, as well as his youth and energy, tap into the deep well of symbol and draw up something universal, transcending the old polarities.
August 21, 2008 — Achieving effective political goals does not start with legislation, it ends with it. The way to bring about large-scale change is first to bring about small-scale change, change in individuals' attitudes, practices, and vision of themselves and their communities....
This is what Barack Obama learned from his youthful years as a community organizer in Chicago ....
If only his experience will remind him that the politicians don't own the issues, the people do.
August 28, 2008 — Now that the pieces of the Democratic presidential puzzle have been put together, the picture turns out looking like a Picasso portrait: No part of the face is in the right place....
Will the campaign emerging out of Denver be able to overcome the sense that somehow the arrangement is askew? Unless the Democrats, like a good art teacher, can reveal the beauty and the genius of their Picasso portrait by election day, people may end up voting for the devil they think they know.
September 4, 2008 — As Gustav aimed at the Gulf Coast, a third hurricane arrived from exactly the opposite direction — Alaska — and in exactly the opposite form — not a storm with human qualities but a human with storm qualities....
Palin may not finally draw very many disgruntled but issue- oriented Hillary women, but she's got even them thinking twice. Those she will draw are the non-ideological independents and undecideds, female and male, old and young, people who vote from the gut, admiring the veteran McCain yet looking for freshness, youth, and that certain feminine quality to balance him out — yin and yang.
September 17, 2008 — It was change-change-change, and we were so hungry for it we didn't bother to ask what it was exactly, we were just enamored of the very idea of it. A bold, fearless plan to redirect the country would have forced voters to make a choice for or against a real change. But the issues weren't the issue anymore.... And if you don't stand on substance, voters start thinking subliminally. A lot of White people who claim they aren't racist will turn away from him because he's Black.
October 2, 2008 — What we may see tonight [in the Biden- Palin debate] is not a political contest but a psychodrama, a playing out of various meanings of power and weakness.
October 9, 2008 — Barack Obama, who at an earlier stage of the campaign was giving many Democrats "buyer's remorse" by appearing distant and hesitant when off of his fiery stump, has turned decisive and forceful — "presidential" — in recent weeks. John McCain, by contrast, has betrayed a disconcerting dithering behind his hero's mask....
No candidate, no party will fulfill all your wishes; they either are too paralyzed by the polls or don't know what to think themselves.
But develop your wish-list anyway, and go with your gut about those personae. Then hold your nose and vote.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


November 6, 2008

On an unusually warm autumn afternoon last week, a tour group wandered around and under an immense bamboo art-work, “Clouds,” in the courtyard of the century-old conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden here in the Bronx. Supported by six-inch-thick logs of timber bamboo, the installation is a dense canopy of hundreds of stout sticks and curly shavings 20 feet tall and 50 feet long, seemingly chaotic but tightly geometrical, nothing rounded, nothing fleecy, nothing at all resembling clouds.
That is the point.
The gray-haired Anglo docent told the group that the artist, Tetsunori Kawana, built it on that spot in ten days last month, and that in mid-November it would be dismantled and tossed on the garden’s compost pile.
A woman gasped. “That’s terrible!” she cried. “It’s so impressive! Can’t they move it someplace else on the grounds so people can enjoy it for years?”
“I agree,” said the docent. “I’ll mention it to the curator.”
But that is the point, too.
The installation is one facet of Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum, a month-long tribute to the chrysanthemum festivals of Japan; it ends November 16. Surrounding “Clouds” in the expansive conservatory courtyard are stands of young bamboo, sculpted Japanese maples in fiery fall color, flower-drenched rock gardens, groves of bonsai trees, and most noteworthy of all, four traditional three-sided bamboo pavilions festooned with silk curtains and braided ropes, sheltering the most spectacular display of chrysanthemums outside Japan.
The chrysanthemum — the kiku — is the Japanese imperial flower, introduced from China by Buddhist monks 1400 years ago. As with bonsai, in which trees that in nature grow tall and wild are miniaturized by confined potting and stylized by wire restraints, this simple, cheerful plant with its showy little flowers has been turned into an object of rare, even grotesque beauty. Staring at the elaborate arrangement of these living things inside the pavilions, you can glimpse the mind of Zen.
Cultivation of the chrysanthemum for exotic display has been going on in Japan for centuries, formerly for the viewing pleasure of the royal court. The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, once part of the imperial palace complex, showcases this art most lavishly, but the autumn chrysanthemum festival, like the celebration of the cherry blossoms in the spring, is a national event, and both professionals and hobbyists show off their work in gardens and parks everywhere.
Chrysanthemums common in America are stubby round shrubs with profuse daisy-like blooms that brighten the landscape in the dark days of fall. The Japanese value this type too, but through selective breeding they have developed cultivars producing flowers of most atypical sizes and shapes — pompoms eight inches wide, for example, and specimens with spindly, spider-legged petals in variegated colors. But it is not so much the variety of the plants, but how they are trained for display, that pushes Japanese chrysanthemum-growing beyond horticulture into living art.
Four examples of this art are represented in the exhibition; they were home-grown at the NYBG greenhouses under the supervision of Yuki Kurashina, a young Japanese-American woman who apprenticed with the kiku masters at the Shinjuku Gyoen. For the kengai (“cascade”) display, a common mum is woven through a draping wire mesh; the flowers bloom in a waterfall of color. For the ozukuri (“thousand-blooms”) pattern, an individual cutting is meticulously pruned and pinched to produce hundreds of long branches which are strung into a dome-shaped frame to show off each large flower blooming at the branches’ tips. For the ogiku (“single stem”) arrangement, dozens of plants have all their side growth cut away to put forth a single huge bloom atop a six-foot stem and then are placed in color-coded rows to look like ranks of parading soldiers. And for the shino-tsukuri type, spidery-flowered varieties are trained up trellises for a dense vertical effect — its name means “driving rain.”
Western eyes boggle at the bizarre beauty of these displays (How do people do this?), made all the more bizarre with the knowledge that each one of these plants has been worked on daily by a team of specialists for almost a year, to produce flowers that will last a couple weeks at most (Why do they do this?).
The answer lies in Zen.
A fundamental teaching of the Buddha is the impermanence of all things. The everyday mind takes what it sees as real — the shapes and forms of things supposedly reveal their underlying essences: humans, animals, plants, and inanimate objects all seem to have substance. The Buddha-mind recognizes that things we call real have no more substance than ghosts or fantasies; they are merely the random coming together and pulling apart of qualities, nothing more.
The same applies to time. Neither past nor future actually exists except in our imagination, yet they make us miserable with regret and anxiety.
To be set free from the illusions of space and time and live at the still-point of the present moment, the mind and senses must be jarred into realizing that things are not only not what they seem but they aren’t anything at all.
In words, this is done with the koan or riddle: What is the sound of one hand clapping? The Zen garden, like the one represented in this exhibition, is a sensory koan: Rushing rivers are formed of dry sand, and run without moving. Majestic trees are tortured to grow just one foot tall, and generations of caretakers keep them flourishing through a hundred or more seasons. Waterfalls and driving rains become sprays of chrysanthemums, cultured for a year to bloom for two weeks and then die. Clouds are constructed of bamboo sticks and composted after barely a month.
This surreal world turns the categories of the mind upside-down, pointing the viewer — the participant, really — beyond appearances to behold formless, timeless reality itself.
The gasping lady in the courtyard longs for permanence, while the banks of mums all around her are silently speaking. Nothing gold can stay.

(Photos and a video of this exhibition are on the Garden’s website, nybg.org. A fascinating video of the “Clouds” installation is posted on vimeo.com; in the Search box at the site, type in “Tetsunori Kawana.”)