1 September 1939

On this date 70 years ago, Germany invaded Poland and WWII began.  Babci was buying shoes with her father when the sirens sounded and the planes roared.  I’m reminded that those of us who have never lived through war cannot even imagine the terror.

When fighting began, Poland had a population of 35 million – afterwards, 22 million.

Even then, it wasn’t until 1989, when Poland became the first nation to leave the Eastern Bloc that life began to resemble that of Babci’s pre-shoe-shopping days.

I remain appalled at how little I know about all of this.  Too bad Eli Whitney and the cotton gin doesn’t come up very often at cocktail hour.


long overdue

It’s a rainy day in Grzybow.  The cows and goats have been milked.  The cheese has been made.  Laundry’s in the machine. Only thing left to do now is catch up on writing.

Peter and Ewa just came back from a three day vacation to the Polish seaside (their first extended stay away from the farm in two years), and left myself, another American wwoofer, and their 20 year old daughter in charge.  This meant milking twice a day and generally caring for thirty goats and three cows, making cheese, planning and teaching two English lessons to the village children, preparing three meals a day, and keeping the dogs from running into the neighbors’ fields.  Needless to say I’ve had my hands full.

All went well until the last ten minutes, when the cheese curd decided not to set, the calves escaped from their enclosure, and the horses (oh, yeah, I always forget to mention the horses) went for a gallop through the farmyard just as Peter and Ewa drove up and illuminated the scene with their headlights.  Oh well.

In other news:

  •  Had a fascinating Polish history lesson while visiting Warsaw; I don’t understand why this stuff has been kept from me.  In the 15th century, Poland was the largest country in Europe.  The royal line died out in the 16th century and the ensuing democratically elected rulers weren’t quite so good to the Poles.  For 123 years, Poland ceased to exist.
  • Visited Plock (pronounced: “Pwotsk”) a lovely town on the banks of the Wisla (pronounced: “Veeswa”), once the capital of Poland, visited by Jan Pawel II, with a rather impressive art deco museum.
  • Remembered the fourth anniversary of Brother Roger’s shocking murder at a small Taize service in Slubice (pronounced: “Swoobeetsa”).  About a dozen of us gathered around the village priest’s candle-lit dining room table and sang short choruses in half a dozen languages.  French was the hardest to get in sync with, latin the easiest.
  • Learned how to make Polish spaghetti sauce;  1 tin tomato paste, 1 lb butter, season to taste.

My Russian Visa finally came through, so the next phase of the journey looks to be on.  I’ve got one more week on the farm.  Then, I plan to couch surf (www.couchsurfing.org) through the Baltics and into Russia.  Spend a little time harvesting potatoes at an Orthodox monastery outside Moscow before embarking on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Stay tuned.

What I’ve learned from living on a farm

Small-scale organic farming in developing foreign countries is not exactly ideal professional development material.  It’s true that the real world applications are not always immediately visible, especially for someone like myself for whom farming was never really a career consideration.  This is of course not to say that my time here hasn’t been reaping benefits.

Concerning food:

  • I’ll never shop at a supermarket in the same way. Growing up in America, it’s easy to think that all food is vacuum-sealed, anti-bacterial, pasteurized, processed, and packaged.  And, that all that manhandling is necessary for food to be safe, healthy, edible.  Here on the farm you can’t escape the reality that food comes from the earth.  Milk comes from a real living organism and you don’t choose its fat content.  Bread is made with flour which is ground from wheat which is grown in fields which are sprayed with slurry.  Cheese is bacteria.  
  • Small scale farming is more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable than industrial farming.  Purchasing foodstuffs from local producers is not the cheapest choice in the short view.  In the long view, though, the extra dollars spent on locally produced, ideally organic, products goes further towards keeping the earth in good working condition, supporting hard working families and the communities in which they live and work.  Industrial farming may make grocery shopping easier on our individual pocketbooks, but the government subsidies required to maintain the system and the irresponsible way these corporations treat the land are not sustainable.
  • Meat is expensive and unnecessary.  Seeing how much it takes to fatten a calve versus tend a garden, makes me question the centrality of meat in my diet.  Also, not eating it much, I haven’t really missed it.  (We did feast on pork knuckle, boar steak, and pig’s neck in Plock yesterday, though, and it was mighty tasty.)

Concerning labor:

  • Work never stops.  Weekends and evenings are nice ways to organize our lives.  The reality, though, is that while we rest the world doesn’t  I’m very aware of this on the farm as the goats continue bleeting and composting continues steaming even on Sunday.  It’s not too far of a leap to translate goats and compost to a 9-5 application.
  • It’s much easier to complete a task when you understand and value the whole to which it is contributing.  Milking a cow, making cheese, milling flour, baking bread: the rewards are immediate.  Making “mountains” of hay, moving trailers, cleaning silos: not so much.  Nevertheless, I trust that Peter with all his knowledge of bio-dynamics understands how all the pieces fit together.
  • Poland was the first country to leave the Soviet Bloc in 1989 and it’s evident how hard they’ve worked to build-up social organizations for themselves that previously had been provided by the government.  In America, I think we too often fail to recognize how our, even modest, contributions of finances and labor to community organizations of value are essential to their perpetuation.

In sum, after living on a farm, I don’t feel the call to start a farm.  I do know, however, that I will live in the world differently after this experience.

A day of rest

When I signed up to Wwoof one of the many things I wasn’t completely clear about regarded my work schedule.  I ralize most of the civilized world works 40 hours a week Monday through Friday, the animal kingdom not so much.  Consequently, I wasn’t surprised when Satruday turned out to be a day like the past five but was delighted to hear breakfast would be at 10 instead of 7.30 on Sunday.  (I’m pretty sure Peter had already milked the cows and goats, made some cheese, and fed the horses by the time we made it to the table.)

After breakfast I went with Ewa to mass in the adjacecent village and and was surprised to see the church was standing room only, especially considering this was the third of four Sunay services and it’s harvest season. 

(Celebrating the harvest has, incidentally, taken on awhole new meaning for me.  It’s not just about abundance, but relief that the work is done and the harvest has been stored.)

The Catholic church plays a hugely significant role in Polish culture that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.  Clearly it”s a touchstone along side language that has allowed Poles to retain a national identity.  This was evident in the diversity of parishioner, from graying farmers, to young parents to youth.  I was intrigued to hear Ewa say she takes a group of youth to Taize each summer.

After mass, we met up with the rest of the crew and drove 35km to Chopin’s summer residence for a free afternoon concert.  Unfortunately, 2010 is 200th anniversary of his birth or death so most of the site was closed for construction/renovation.  Be on the look out next year, though, for lots of Chopin inspred events.

I’m still trying to figure out how got this far along into life never realizing Chopin was Polish.  Apparently, Copernicus and Marie Curie, too.

Just when I thought the day was coming to a close, the work assignments started rolling: let out the goats, mill the flour, move the hay, feed the calves, feed the wood oven.

Who needs a whole day to rest anyway?

Tomorrow Ewa has appointments in Warszawa and Peter is meeting his old girlfriend in Krakow so Cleona and I are left to our own devices. Should be interesting.

smacznego (bon apetite)

I thought I’d write a bit about food today, but first a run down of the day’s activities.

1. Sanded fence.

2. Filled the hay loft.

2. Milled rye into flour.  Once the hopper was full and I just had to wait for the barrels of flour to fill, I:

a. Fed the goats who nearly de-pants-ed me;

b. Watered the horses;

c.  Took garbage to compost;

d. All while keeping an eye on the mill and making sure the barrel didn’t overflow;

3. More fence;

4. More flour;

5. More hay.

I’ve never been so filthy in my life, imagine the layers of dirt.  (I have pictures, but am struggling to transfer them to the computer with minimal rest and Polish instruction. I’ll continue working, though.)

As for food, we eat lots of chleb (bread), ser (cheese), and maszlo (butter).  All of these products are made at the farm with resources grown at the farm.  Bread, cheese, and butter is basically the menu for breakfast and dinner.  Occassionally, there will be a few slices of cured ham, vegetables from the garden, honey, jam, and on days that have been especially trying a little Bulgarian wine before bed.

Lunch aka Dinner aka Obiad is the main meal of the day, eaten around 2 in the afternoon. It generally consists of hearty Polish peasant food: borscht with big chunks of beet, potatoes, carrots and assorted beans;  fried pork chops with boiled potatoes and mushroom gravy; remarkably tasty cauliflower soup.  Needless to say, nothing comes packaged or pre-processed; most everything orignates within a few hundred meters of the kitchen, and there’s no anti-bacterial hand gel in sight.

On the train to the monastery, I read Michael Pollans The Omnivore’s Dilemma which got me thinking more acutely about where my food comes from.  Tonight at dinner while eating my chleb with butter and honey, I was struck by how intimately involved I was in its production.  In just the one week I’ve been at Grzybow, I’ve cleaned out the silo that holds the grain, filled the silo with new grain, cut wood for the oven, moved the wood into the oven, ground the grain into flour, and on Monday, I understand, I’ll actually turn my flour into bread.  That little piece of dense, dark, rye chleb might not have cost me any zloty, but I’ve nonetheless paid dearly for it.

I haven’t quite figured out my takeaway from this observation just yet.  Surely, I’m not going to return to the States and start a biodynamic bakery, but I think I can be intentional about weighing the expense – monetary, environmental, labor – of my food.  A loaf of Wonder bread might not cost many dollars (does it  even cost 1?) but surely it charges its fee in other places and in other ways far away from my home kitchen.

I had also meant to write about dinner-time conversation tonight. Topics have included bio-dynamic farming, anthroposophy, the role of the Catholic church in Polish politics, etc.  Maybe tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow, I understand it is a day of rest (Saturday, obviously, was not).  Breakfast at 10 instead of 7.30.  Mass at noon.  Then, a concert at Chopin’s country home a few kilometers from here.  (How is it I didn’t realize he was Polish?)

Must go now.  Ewa just brought me a book about Polish Benedictine meditation.  Apparently, I’m supposed to translate the introduction by breakfast. . .

Labor Day

When I left my job to embark on this adventure, I did so ostensively with the idea that I wanted my labor to be concentrated in an effort to contribute good to the world.  That has by and large been the case.  What I hadn’t expected was just how much labor I had to give.

Since arriving at the farm, I’veplayed the role of cheese maker, cow herder, lumber jack, miller, plum picker, and general gardner.

Whrn Cleona and I ran out of things to do yesterday afternoon, we consulted my Polish dictionary and crafted a sentence to ask Babci: “Czy my plemy w ogro’d?”  Which I’m reasonably sure means “can we weed in the garden?” since the garden is where she led us with instructions to rip up the tomato plants that had not performed well this season.  Later she returned with a couple baskets and a ladder and led us to the plum tree laden with fruit.  Ever the dutiful servant, I climbed right into the middle of the tree and got to it, while Babci scurried around the base eating fruit and telling me “No! No! No!”  Her body language led me to believe that this didn’t mean what I thought especially since I knew “no” in Polish was “Nie.”  Sure enough, “No! No! No!” means “Yes! Yes! Yes!”  Try to get your heads around that one.

Today, I turned forty wheels of cheese and scrubbed them with salt water.  Also turned the milk that we had just taken from the cows and goats into cheese curds and starting forming them into wheels.  I’m pretty sure the “cheeserie” would not meet many American health codes.

Also today, I got in touch with my inner lumber jack wielding an ax and chain saw in an effor to make firewood. (All human limbs remained intact, while the wood was decimated.)

Finally, we cleaned out the goat barn, gave the cows one more milking (cows are really big, incidentally), and fed the left over cheese water to the calves.

I think about what I would have accomplished on a Tuesday a few weeks ago and am ashamed by the thought of how much less I would have done, how much less significant what I did do was, and how much better I was compensated.  There’s something fundamentally wrong with our economic system when basic food production has to be subsidized by the government and friendly neighbors to continue operations while superfluous economic ventures support gluttonous consumer lifestyles.

I’m working on pictures, seriously.  I’ll also try to be a bit more reflective, less descriptive in the future.

Thank God for Babcis

Happy to report that I’m in Poland and on the farm, which sounds a lot more straightforward than what has actually transpired the past 48 hours.  (Lots of details follow; feel free to skim.)

My flight transpired without incident.  I flew LOT, the Polish national airline, which meant I was able to get a direct flight from JFK to Warszawa, and taht I got an early taste of what I was going to be in for.  After finding a seat at the gate, it became apparent that I couldn’t understand a word being spoken around me.  Even though I understand English is part of the national curriculum, it’s not widely spoken or understood.  I tried to make small talk with my seat mate who simply looked at me with terror in his eyes and said “No” apologetically but dismissively.  Since I didn’t have to talk to him, that gave me plenty of opportunity to watch the in-flight film: a vintage Donald Duck dubbed in Polish.

Frederic Chopin airport in Warsaw is one of the most modern, clean, and beautiful I have seen anywhere.  Unfortunately, this efficient design does not follow through to their transportation system.  It took half an hour, visits to both the information desk and tourist center as well as  half a dozen butchered conversations to discern that “Sanniki Warszawa Zachodnia platform 2  via the PKS bus,” my instructions for how to get to the farm, meant go to the Warszaswa Zachodnia bus station and get a bus to Sanniki; no one knew what “platform 2” referred to.

Nevertheless, I made it to Warszawa Zachodnia, I bought a ticket for the bus to Sanniki, and even figured out how to buy a phone card to call Peter to let him know that I’d be on the 16.00 bus.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get either of the two phone numbers I had to go through, so I gestured a passerby for help.  He was unsuccessful as well, so he pulled someone else over.  At one point, I think their were four people animatedly talking in Polish trying to help me make a simple phone call.  I’m still not sure how we got it to work, but we (they) did, and Peter assured me he’d be waiting at Sanniki.  Of course, that assurance only came after I had to chat in Polish for several confusing moments with a woman who I later met as babci (generic label for old lady/grandma).

I think regional buses are the same everywhere in the world – sketchy and cheap but efficient; regional bus stations, not so much.  In my mind, a ticket to a destination implies a station and a stop goes without saying.  Not so with the PKS.  After a couple hours of driving – longer than I thought it took to go 100km even with some traffic – we stopped in Gostynin where everyone appeared to be getting off.  I timidly approached the driver to ask the driver “Przsepraszm. Sanniki?” which elicited an eruption of Polish from the driver and a flurry from a pair of babcis behind me. I later learned that we were 40km past the Sanniki stop and that it wasn’t a stop at all.  There wasn’t even a station, just a bench on the side of the road with an inconspicuous sign.  Thankfully the babcis took pity on me and eventually got me in a taxi going to Sanniki, but not without a lot of confusing gesticulations (sensing a pattern?).

Got to Sanniki, had to wait for Peter, so what else to do with the taxi driver but compare drivers licenses and teach each other numbers in in Polish and Angielsku.

Finally made it to the farm in time for dinner (freshly baked rye bread using rye grown on site, homemade goat cheese, garden grown basil, tomatoes, cukes) and met my fellow Wwoofer, a professor of English from the University of Cork who did her Ph.D. at Cambridge, the first person I’ve met since checking in at the LOT desk who speaks my language.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about work: sweeping the mill, picking plums with babci, weeding the garden.  Maybe some pictures, too.

It’s a monk’s life

The few times in my life that I have watched the clock strike 4 am have more often been the result of a late night than an early morning.  After two weeks as a vocationer at an Anglican Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan, (www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org), I, unfortunately, don’t think I can make this claim any longer.  Though I think getting Pizza Hut to deliver outside their delivery zone, after hours and breaking the Greater Silence to do it has better story making capacity, any.

St. Gregory’s Abbey is a community of men living under the Rule of St. Benedict in the Episcopal Church.  Each July they sponsor a vocational program for individuals who are curious about monasticism and serious about faith.  Seeing as how I recently found myself with a free July, I figured living a couple weeks as a monk would be more productive than haunting Salem coffee shops, so I hopped the Amtrak to Kalamazoo and arrived just in time for the Feast of St. Benedict – an auspicious beginning to my monastic tenure, which had a couple consequences for my first day as a member of the community:

1. I got to sleep in.  Instead of the bell for Matins ringing at 3.50 am, Matins and Lauds were combined and held at 5.30.  The other five offices (Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline + Matins and Lauds = 7) were similarly enjambed.  Tea was a full hour instead of just a half of one and we didn’t have class. 

2. I got to talk at dinner.  Traditionally meals are taken without conversation.  After being summoned to your place by a bell and a short prayer, everyone sits in his assigned seat, uses various improvised gestures to pass jugs of milk, Tobasco sauce, or the  dense, dark “monk’s bread” that serves as a staple of each meal and listens as a brother reads aloud from a book selected by the Abbot.  During my time at St. Gregory’s, we finished Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making and began Touched By God: Ten Monastic Journeys inspired by the BBC’s recent miniseries “The Monastery.” In addition to conversation, we got to enjoy some table plonk to celebrate the Holy Father’s life.

3.  I didn’t have to work.  For two hours in the morning between Mass and Sext and for two hours in the afternoon between None and Tea, the brothers work.  This is not to say that they only “work” for four hours a day, however.  A monk’s primary labor is prayer and he engages in this activity 7+ hours hours a day, 7 days a week.  Those four hours designated as “work,” then, are for earthly labor: beer making, groundskeeping, office work. While I got out of work my first day, the rest of my days as a monk involved moving dirt to fill in around some newly poured side walks.

Many of my preconceptions of monastic life were true – it’s very quiet, the refectory menu is similar to that of a nursing home’s, the majority  of religious are homosexual.  There were surprises, too, though – I had conversations about the band Tool, Facebook shenanigans, and post-modern East European literature.  Playing corn hole does wonders for humanizing the otherwise other-ed character of a monk.  It quickly became apparent that each of the brothers had a story of life before entering the Order, and that while one gives up a lot to devote himself wholly to the worship of God, having a personality is not among the prohibitions.

While I don’t anticipate formally entering the novitiate anytime soon, there are some things I do plan to takeaway from my experience (and wearing a black cassock on a regular basis is not one of them):

  • Ritualizing the day by reading the daily offices.  I don’t think I can swing taking seven prayer breaks everyday, but reading morning and evening prayer from the BCP is surely doable.
  • Don’t work so hard to fill the silence.  Following Vespers each day for 30 mins we would sit in the choir and silently meditate.  At first I considered this an intellectual exercise: how could I keep my mind busy with no outside stimulus? – free association gone wild.  Then, I realized it was a time not to concern myself with what I was putting into the universe but simply to be aware of what was happening around me on a micro and macro level.

Tomorrow I meet the goats. . .