WARNING: This post begins as a real-life downer, yet gets lighter with delights, ending with a shot of hope. Stay with me.
This week environmental news (though it comes as no surprise) came on two fronts. The first came from one of my favorite environmental news digests, Treehugger News. It reflected on what I have been feeling all summer long. Fewer bugs on the windshield, fewer frogs in the lake, no insects in my garden except for a small band of diligent bumble bees, and way fewer birds.
I am not alone. This is the case everywhere. The reason, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is due to land-use change, the process of converting wild ecosystems into residential, commercial, or agricultural land. Around 30% of all land that sustains biodiversity has been converted for food production. Agriculture is also responsible for 80% of deforestation and 70% of freshwater use globally.
I feel like I am witnessing this in real-time. I live in a suburb, albeit an outer-semi-rural-farm suburb. However, in terms of land-use change, there are new high-rise apartments, senior homes, and strip malls being built everywhere I turn. More people. Need for more food. Less space for wild vegetation and animals. There goes the neighborhood.
The second comes from a new report from Greenpeace that the recycling rate is getting worse. Much worse. The so-called “circular chemical recycling” is a big fat lie. I have known about the Recycling Myth for years, but this takes what once was a way to conserve natural resources like wood, ivory, and tortoise shell into a freaking ubiquitous monster. Still, people invented it. People can slay it.
Enough With The Bad News.
I had to get that out. It has been weighing on my mind all week. It’s tough news for people to comprehend how bad things have gotten and what to do and for artists like myself who really loves wild and uncultivated spaces and places.
But There Are Always Festivals To Attend!
Maybe it’s post-pandemic-panic fallout, or festivals have always been happening. Still, I feel I could attend a festival every weekend of the year if I wanted to. The thing about festivals is they have been around since pagan times. Those hedonist heathens would gather about every six weeks for festivities, celebrating and catching up with each other. That, and drinking a wee bit too much mead. Can’t blame ’em. Hell, life was hard. Festivals did serve a more conventional purpose, though. Pagans didn’t have a written calendar to follow, and their gatherings marked notable times of the year. Not a shabby system if you enjoy a party.
One Particular Festival.
Fast forward to the present day for the “festival of festivals” held last month (September 2022), namely, Take Me to the River organized by ArtReach St. Croix. My partner and I took a road trip to The Acreage in Osceola, Wisconsin, a place open to the public once a year and part of this year’s festival event roster.
SIDE NOTE: I considered traveling to The Acreage as an “artist date” as defined by Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way. Having never heard of the place before, The Acreage was a new place to experience. Artist dates ought to be a place or experience one has not had before as a means of recharging the creative spirit.
A Place to Gather and Learn. (Just Like a Festival)
The Acreage at Osceola is made of 360 acres of woodland and prairie habitat situated on the bluff above the St. Croix River. It embodies the vision and legacy of Horst Rechelbacker, founder of Aveda and Intelligent Nutrients.
It once served as Horst’s residence farm and retreat. Today the historical property serves as a model for sustainable conservation methods, a center for land and water stewardship, a place to learn, and a gathering space for creatives, visionaries, and change-makers.
There’s also a gallery featuring an eclectic collection of art from India and Eurasia. Classical-style statues preside over the land. A family of goats takes care of invasive species, like the infamous buckthorn. On a sprawling swath are tender tree seedlings of mixed variety.
Local beekeepers from Bone Lake Meadows Apiary did a show-and-tell about honeybees and how they keep them healthy and able to survive over winter. (No mention of mead, however. It was a family-friendly primer).
Places like this give me hope. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, quiet except for the sounds of birds, insect hums, grasses waving in the breeze, and people mingling. The land felt balanced, not stressed or overworked. A living project, working by example on how things can be done better for everyone.
It’s a place to cultivate, too. There’s evidence of it in the greenhouses, even this late in the season. One example is Cala Farms, organic, founded by two brothers from Mexico City. In cooperation with The Acreage, Cala Farms grows celosia and Marigolds (or cempasuchil). Marigolds are an essential flower during the Dios de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Festival, happening November 1st-2nd. The bright yellow flower is believed to help guide the spirit of lost loved ones to colorfully decorated alters during the festival. I can go for this cultural tradition better than I can our Halloween.
While Marigolds aren’t a staple on most dinner tables (yes, you can eat them!), what I love about the presence of Cala Farms at The Acreage is they bring their story and culture to us. At the heart of making something better and resilient, based on equity and economic fairness, people need to talk, be open and kind, and share ideas and experiences. Kind of like how a democracy should work, right?
There is a Drawn By-Product.
In a roundabout way, this leg of the festival cultivated my latest piece. It’s been a while since I took on a large drawing and those curious bumpy pumpkins I found at The Acreage gave me the nudge. Discovering I had a stockpile of Twin Rocker handmade artisan papers stashed in my studio (surprise!) gave me the nudge beyond the nudge. If you have never heard of Twin Rocker papers, their origin story is worth a gander.
Ever curious, the best backstory I could find about my bumpy specimen is it’s an Italian heirloom whose name comes from a seaside village of Venice, Maria di Chioggia (also called Chioggia Sea Pumpkin). The bulgy rolls are the result of sugars building up under the skin. I could say the same happens to humans after too much Halloween candy.
The Cucurbitaceae Family, for you plant nerds, comprises pumpkins, squash, and gourds. There’s a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes originating from Cucurbitaceae because they all happily cross-pollinate with one another. It’s always about sex with plants.
I may have to start a whole series devoted to what we cultivate. The heirlooms, the seed keepers, civilized botanicals, the opposite of my wild and messy scapes within landscapes. They are part of the environmental story, too. The paradox is we all need to eat and have a whole lot of people on this planet to feed. At the same time, what we are doing to the Earth is making it harder and harder to grow food reliably.
For every horror story about corporate farming, clearing the Amazon for agricultural use, and abusive raising of livestock, there are more and more stories of people working the land using restorative ways and practicing humane husbandry.
What can the average Joe and Jane, who, of course, eat, do? This is stating obvious and yet a movement in the right direction. Support and shop local farmers’ markets — many are like festivals in and of themselves. Grow your own vegetable garden (and compost) if possible. Support local farm cooperatives. Educate yourself as you go about what is going on agriculturally in your area.
One Last Thing and This Should Lead You to Hope.
If you haven’t seen the film, check out the documentary Kiss The Ground (2020). Narrated by Woody Harrelson, it’s the story of soil and how it’s one of our best sources of optimism in the face of climate change and putting food on the table.
And it’s good. Really, really good.
There will always be bad, shitty news. They most likely will always be festivals. In the end, we can still all talk with one another, get stuff done, and make the world a better place.