By John R. Pierce, Farm Fellow
I’m writing on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
It’s been a little over a month since I came to AMI, and I’ve already noticed my schedule changing in response to this place. When I arrived, I don’t think I had fallen asleep before 2 AM regularly since grade school. I had been eating mostly vegetarian for a few years, so the culinary transition to seasonal eating here was easy enough. I’d only been a devotee of identifying Pennsylvania’s forest plants and fungi for about a year and a half. And when I arrived, I couldn’t make it up the big hill from the farm to the village without multiple huffing-and-puffing breaks and a full bottle of water. Now I’m fluent.
I’ve been thinking a lot about identification these past four weeks, but what I’ve been thinking most about is that strict identification isn’t the only way to understand the world around us. Identifying something is the starting point. Identifying with another being, learning not only identity, but its motives in a system, methods of interaction, prey, predators, basic empathy, is something I learned early in my life and this has helped me immensely in the past month. Being able to recognize the different crops and trees and fungi and animals around you is the base level that this mountain asks of you. To truly know where you are in space and time, in life, you have to dig deeper. The artifice inherent in the false separation between man and nature has become clearer to me here. You have to learn who is hanging out with whom to get anywhere. I can tell you about the rest of the cohort, but you won’t really know any of them until you spend some time with us.
So much about this place is relational - bean crops can restore nitrogen to soils that are depleted by heavy feeders like corn. Morels sprout in spring in the remains of orchards or old elm and tulip stands, while reishi begins pinning from the decaying skeletons of eastern hemlocks. We collect eggs from our laying hens, and humanely process Cornish Cross chickens for their meat. We deal with the emotional aftermath of ending an animal’s life for sustenance, together and on our own. We have no choice but to think about this process as we hold the newly hatched chicks. Mice chomp our breadcrumbs. I gently whisk sister spiders out of the Timberframe and the root cellar. Hoverflies mimic wasps to ward off predators; hives of honeybees swarm then disappear into the next grove; colonies of carpenter ants storm the common areas looking for food. Worms and nematodes and hyphae battle in the dirt. The air force base nearby buzzes the farm and surrounding valley with fighter jets in training a few times a week. Vendors at the Farmers Market trade maple syrup for veggies. Forested mountains charge west into the sunset, blunted remnants of an ancient range that was taller and more jagged than the Rockies, some so far away that they look like cutouts. Rock from these aeons-old formations now underlies our fertile soil.
Remember Gondwana crashing into Laurentia? Neither do I, but words like “tectonics” and “orogeny” keep springing into my head. Meanwhile, the unflinching night sky stares down at the ten of us, completely ambivalent. Our families and friends miss us back home. We are all here as a result of a beautiful, vast, interlocking web of relationships. And yet it is so easy to isolate ourselves from the processes of nature, destroy bacteria, insect, fungus, edible weed, and wildflower alike in pursuit of some mythical, ahistorical metric of purity that never existed and cannot save us from the challenges of the present. Humans excel at finding patterns in static. Maybe that’s what I’m doing here.
Since I took on the preservation manager role with Farm Fellow India, I’ve been thinking, reading, and talking a lot with her and the staff and cohort about fermentation and the processes of forming beneficial bacterial cultures. I think everyone in the cohort has something or other fermenting in a jar at this point. But as a proud hedonist and pack-rat, I wanted this role because I wanted to learn more about how to keep seasonal crops with me year round - and how to keep them delicious. I’m in the process of reading Sandor Ellix Katz’s excellent "The Art of Fermentation," which has helped me to start on this new stage of my journey. He talks at length about humanity’s coevolution with bacteria, animals, plants, and fungi; the presence of an alcohol processing gene in every liver in the land-dwelling animal kingdom, the linguistic connections between “culture” in the human sense and the bacterial/fungal sense… he covers a lot of ground.
There is no identification with ferments - at least at this scale. You can’t know what a bacteria’s life is like, just like you can’t look at something fermented and know exactly what is living in the jar. Sure, you can guess, but you’ll probably be missing the whole picture. That mystery is kind of exciting to me. I’ve always thrived in the in-between.
I’ve already started to get a little creative with my ferments. I made an Easter Egg radish and apple kimchi that has turned a gorgeous coral by the influence of both radish-skin anthocyanins and copious chili flakes. My sauerkraut is heavily influenced by my obsession with numbing spilanthes. I want to learn to make herb jellies and tinctures.
Even so, I still can’t get a hold of exactly how my sourdough wants to be treated here. Something about the altitude, humidity, temperature, the bowl I’m using... just isn't quite right. Let alone the buckwheat starter my dad sent with me. So, I’ve started a kombucha ferment named Special Agent Dana Katherine SCOBY. And, India and I have big plans to build a solar dehydrator this summer as part of our Capstone project. I hope to continue experimenting with this ancient and time-honored artform that is completely new to me.
Bacterial growth responds to slight changes in salinity, acidity, humidity, light, movement, and temperature. I’ve noticed myself changing in this new environment, too. I’m listening more. I’m considering the amount of physical and conversational space I take up, and adjusting accordingly. I’m revisiting conversations I’m not happy with. I’m thinking about rigid categories of identification much less. I rarely stay up later than 11 PM. I eat meat once or twice a month. I eat a kimchi egg sandwich with moka-pot coffee every morning before (or during) my trek down to the farm. I drive a bit or read in the woods to recollect myself. I’m making art again. I can’t wait to see what the next eighteen months holds for us. I know it will be transformative.