Pacho Gangeteno, a farmer and agroecologist, describes social change as a ground-up process in an interview cited by Steve Brescia: “Social change in agriculture will not come from above … It will come from the thousands and millions of small farming families that are beginning to transform the entire productive spectrum.” I write this autoethnography as a way of considering how relationships in the environment allow for spiritual flourishing, teaching us in the process how communities include more than human beings.
I am a farmer. I own land in Saratoga County in northeastern New York with my husband Jim. We live with the land, our cats, vegetables, chickens, ducks, geese, and goats. Our land is disorderly. The rows are uneven; weeds abound. Yet, our land is part of our family. As Leah Penniman puts in her ground-breaking book Farming While Black, when your land becomes a part of your family, you have an obligation to listen to what it needs, to understand its history – a history that often contains trauma from neglect and abuse – and to help it heal. (p. 12)
Penniman and Gangeteno speak primarily to those who have been most hurt from Western imperialism and the modernization that resulted from it: Blacks, Indigenous peoples, the working poor. I am a child of immigrants from India who grew up with British colonialism. I feel keenly the hurt of being rendered brown and exotic as a Hindu Indian born and brought up in the United States, a society organized by white and Christian supremacies. I have, however, also inherited caste privilege and am the child of a family that quickly found a space in the American middle class. My husband Jim is white. Unlike many farmers, we own our land. Still, I hold Penniman’s words close to my heart and regard our land as a part of our family, our healing, and our vessel for contributing to social change.
Our land consists of three acres, a mere fraction in the estimated 915 million acres of farmland in the U.S. It sits behind our house, which is along a residential road on one side and a creek on the other. Much of the area around us is swamp or sand and covered with red and white pines, which were planted in the 1950s for lumber and paper but through neglect and failure to harvest have become invasive. No one on either side of us farms. Most everyone around us is white.
We appear isolated. Yet, over the years that we have brought our farm into our family, I have come to see ourselves as part of a worldwide imagined community of small farmers. We are part of what adrienne maree brown calls an unseen emergent strategy that will provoke social change. We are part of a fractal pattern within an interconnected system. I create food on my land, and at a community garden for a local food pantry. That garden, along with produce donations I gather from local farmers each week, helps feed an estimated 400 families a month. I receive glimpses of this interconnection when I am bringing fresh produce into the food pantry, writing out recipes for others, and sharing our harvest at local farmers markets.
Histories and Origins
My name means snow. It is derived from the Hindi and Sanskrit words for snow and is associated not only with the Himalaya mountains but also with the incarnate of the Hindu deity Parvati during the times that she resides in the mountains with her consort Shiva. Shiva’s beard, it is said, breaks the mighty flow of the Ganga (the Ganges) from its glacial source into tributaries that nourish the plains where much of India’s agriculture thrives. Farmers in India worship and use the waters of the Ganga and its many tributaries, but they are still cognizant of its strength. In a smaller way, our farm receives water from the Vly Creek, a tributary of the Kayaderosseras Creek that originates further north in the Adirondack foothills and meanders through Saratoga County.
The land we own is not fully ours. It is Haudenosaunee land. The Mohawks within this confederacy fished and hunted in the area. They established trading posts, but the land was not widely cultivated before European contact.
I did not intend to become a farmer. I had lived most of my adult life in cities, and so had Jim. We met in Honolulu, then moved to Seattle, where we had a small backyard garden. We had hoped when we moved to New York for a larger garden. Our land, however, needed help when it came to us in 2011. It was nearly dead.
Perhaps we were dying, too. Jim was 38 years old and a chain smoker. Soon after we moved to New York he awakened with an intense pain which turned out to be two herniated disks in his neck. I was 48, borderline obese, and had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. I had earned a degree in journalism and had worked for 22 years as a journalist. I had completed a master’s degree and a doctorate and had taught as a graduate student and an adjunct. When the offer for a tenure track position came in Saratoga Springs, NY, I jumped to accept it.
When we moved to Saratoga Springs, we rented a downtown apartment, thinking that we would eventually buy a house in the city. It soon became apparent that downtown was not where we wanted to be. Something felt vile, almost as if an evil force were lurking. One night a neighborhood stray cat entered our apartment through an open window. Soon, two of the four cats we had brought with us from Seattle disappeared. Not long after, I stumbled on a doorstep and developed an unusually high fever. Then, Jim suffered his herniated disks.
We found a house with a large yard – along with a barn and chicken coop – about ten miles from downtown Saratoga. It seemed well matched to our desires to live in a not-too-large house with space for a large garden and with a reasonable commute to my work. We moved into the house in March 2011, and when the snow melted in late April, we went outdoors. We found land so dead weeds didn’t even grow. The previous owners had been a couple, until the husband left the wife following an affair, leaving the wife to manage the house and two boys on her own. One of the boys borrowed a tractor and hollowed out the backyard to create a racetrack with numerous hills, bumps, and turns. Jim sensed that we were faced with a difficult task.
Healing the Land
Neighbors told us we would not be able to grow anything in the soil. Farmers who we were beginning to meet proposed a different story. Over the next two years, we poured dozens of bags of topsoil into the racetrack and mixed into it whatever clean animal manure we could find – dump trucks of sheep manure, buckets and buckets of goat manure, bags of cow manure. We planted potatoes which require hilling to help build up the soil. We planted way too much zucchini, which had the beneficial effect of rotting and creating green manure. We composted everything we could and poured it back into the soil. The winds and birds dropped seeds that became weeds. We threw them into our compost heaps and then back into the soil, knowing the breakdown would give us more weeds but also more green manure. We invested in a flock of chickens with four adult hens and gradually added more. I gave into Jim’s wish to have goats, and, in March 2015, we acquired our first “kids” – three week-old bucklings and two doelings: Mary Helen and Jodi-Goat – who have since birthed numerous kids.
What I did not realize then was that building our soil was healing the land. Our methods of adding manure, turning rot into the soil, bringing animals into the land, and letting weeds decompose and go back into the soil was restoring organic matter, which Penniman describes as being a part of the process of healing from colonialism (p. 87). As we grew and raised food, we brought ourselves back to health. We began to produce way more than we could eat. We donated to the food pantry, and still had a surplus. In 2015, we were invited to bring our goods to a small farmers’ market in our community. We hesitated because we were not doing this for profit. Making money on what had become our passion, in fact, seemed wrong. But with some prodding from others we came to see that selling did not have to be for profit: it could be for sustenance. It would cover our costs, and let us grow more food, which would then allow us to feed more people.
Throughout my childhood, my mother told me my name meant Princess of the Snows. I did not like the princess reference because it seemed pompous. I did like the idea that my name meant snow, especially as I came to realize the snow references were tied to the Himalayan mountains. I saw the mountains briefly in 1973 when our family went to India and took a trip to Simla, where my mother was born. I felt – or imagined – some connection to the mountains.
I never connected much with Hinduism. But I dreamed of hiking in the Himalaya to the source of the Ganga. That opportunity came in 1999 when I traveled to India with a study abroad group. We traveled to Gangotri, which sits at 10,000 feet elevation, and after a day of rest, began the trek to the source of the Ganga – a glacier with the name of Gaumukh (which translates roughly to cow mouth). The river pours out of the mouth of Gaumukh, and the actual source is impossible to pinpoint because the size of the glacier varies by season.
The hike is 18 kilometers (about 12 miles) one way. Most people hike to the base of the glacier and stay overnight in a guest house there. We did the same. There were tea houses along the way – which are essentially huts built into the mountain where shepherds and other mountain folk live. Serving tourists was a big part of their livelihood, and the tea and hot paratha that we could get at these rest stops were quite nourishing.
Our study abroad group split into clumps. Those of us who walked more slowly took up the rear. I often walked alone, but sometimes one or two individuals would join me. At one point, the group leader, who was traveling with his partner, left his partner behind because he wanted to walk and talk with me. Throughout the study abroad trip, I had felt out of synch with the more traditional aged college undergraduates. I was angry and unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. During this walk, the group leader treated me like an equal. We talked about research, and he encouraged me to trust myself. He was Muslim so I talked to him a little about how he perceived the place of Muslims in India.
Then, we hit a point on the trail where a rockslide had occurred. What had been a fairly safe and wide mountain trail had become reduced to a narrow treacherous path that could only be crossed single file. The group leader who was in front panicked and said we had to go back. It was, however, getting dark. Drawing without thinking on some deeply buried reservoir of internal trust, I insisted we keep pressing forward. The group leader seemed shaky. I asked him if we could trade places. I started walking in front and took his hand so I could guide both of us. He worried about his partner who was walking behind us, and wanted to wait for him to catch up. I told him to trust the mountain to take care of him and of us. Soon we arrived at Gaumukh with the partner right behind us.
That moment strengthened me. I found peace and power in my connection to a mountain that was part of a range from which my name had come. Prayer became a reminder that we and the land were interconnected.
When I did the trek, I had a chip on my shoulder. That chip began to loosen when the rocks slid down the mountain. The next day, upon reaching the glacier, I bought some incense and flowers from a shepherd and placed them in the snow. The mountains offered a protective quilt. I felt as if I were them and they were me. As the incense flared with a match light, I heard a noise. Snow was tumbling down a cliff. I listened and felt a few more chips slide off.
These days, as I move through the seasonal cycle of farming, I try to listen – to the wind, stars, sunshine, rain, and the land. I see them as guides. One evening in 2015, I was gathering okra for dinner. I came across one fruit that seemed ready for harvest but deformed. I picked it and a few others. I washed the okra and began to cut them on a chopping board crosswise. The deformed okra seemed to resist this treatment. I turned it over and noticed a small slit near the stem. I prodded the slit open with my fingernail, and to my surprise a flower lay in the folds. Its petals parted slightly, and I recognized the blossom as the okra flower, the sign that the plant would soon fruit. What I had not realized was what comprised that fruit. It was the flower furled into a bud that forms a skin around it.
The okra helps me understand how a farm is a series of fractals as well as a fractal within a larger interconnected system. The okra itself is a fractal, a minute relationship between the soil that enables its growth, the insects that pollinate its flower, and the humans who gain nutrition from the flower furled into a plant. We are alone together, part of a larger system that comprises hundreds of thousands of such okra, such vegetables, in gardens, small farm fields, people farming and harvesting alone together, bringing food to markets or to pantries to feed communities and ourselves, transforming the productive system, one step at a time.