October 22, 2015

In Upstate New York, Talking Tanka Poetry

Here's some of what I collected at Tanka Sunday in Albany over the weekend.

Tanka, the ancient form of Japanese poetry, is alive and well, I found out. Two lines longer than haiku (formulated in a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern instead of haiku's 5-7-5) it's being given new life every day by by ardent practitioners of the form, not just in Japan, but around the world. Present at the Tanka Society of America's bi-annual meeting were poets from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan, who shared their poems and discussed why it is they write tanka. 

Pulled into this world of verse by a collection of tanka that my grandparents published in 1960, little did I know that it would lead to such a rich and warm community of like-minded poets. Included in the photo above, center, is The Sky Unchanged: Tears and Smiles, a collection of tanka about the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster, many of them written by survivors themselves. Amy V. Heinrich, former director of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University, was one of three translators who rendered the poems into English, and also the keynote speaker at Tanka Sunday. 

Here are a few poems from the book:

locally grown
hardly sell--
I eat my heart out
this evening
        Toko Mihara
        Fukushima, June 2012

unkempt and unshaven
the town mayor
encourages his staff
"we can do it!"
all the while crying
        Yoshihiro Yamauchi
        Iwate, May 2011

Michael Dylan Welch, the founder of the Tanka Society of America, also runs a small press for haiku and tanka books called Press Here. On the left in the picture above is his most recent tanka publication, a beautifully designed and produced collection of tanka by the late poet Pat Shelley, titled Turning My Chair. On the right, is the latest edition of The Tanka Journal, from the Nihon Kajin Club (Japanese Tanka Poets' Society). At 5,000 members strong it's the largest organization of tanka poets in Japan. Editor-in-Chief Aya Yuhki, who studied English literature in university, traveled from Tokyo to attend Tanka Sunday.

My friend and translator Kyoko Miyabe and I each gave presentations on our forthcoming English-language translation of my grandparents' book, By the Shore of Lake Michigan. Yet for sure, it was we who learned more about tanka from the assembled poets, not the other way around. 

October 6, 2015

A Greenhouse Tour at Stone Barns

Guide and farm staff member Ryan Sokoloff, who started his studies at
Cornell in neuroscience, but decided sustainable ag was more interesting.

Over the weekend, I visited Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, the farm lab, four seasons farm and education center whose Rockefeller land and money have made it a Shangri-La for sustainable agriculture experimentation.

It was the center's annual Harvest Fest, where visitors, many of them wide-eyed future consumers, participated in egg collecting, hay rides, bread and butter making, pickling and carrot top pesto making, among many other things. The weather was cold and gray, and what the day lost in picture postcard ambiance it gained in a display of the kind of real-life weather that comes with the job of farming. 

Destined for the salad plate.

My favorite activity was a tour of the Stone Barns greenhouse led by Stone Barns apprentice Ranan Sokoloff. The Stone Barns 22,000-square-foot greenhouse, he explained, involves 55 different varieties of vegetables that fall into around 10 different plant families. These families are rotated on a 10-year cycle. Each year, each crop family is planted in a new location so the different crops draw on different accounts of the soil's nutrition bank, preventing depletion. In between harvests "cover crops" like sorghum, winter rye and vetch are planted for the sole purpose of enriching the soil.

Cover crops in their infancy.

In preparation for winter, two types of crops are underway: those that are planted in the fall to be harvested in March or April (celtuce, tsai tsai, peas), and those that are planted and harvested continually throughout the winter (carrots, mustard greens, turnips, radishes, lettuce, kale, chard, spinach and mache). Since the growth rate of all of these crops is slower during the winter, it's important to plant successively in order to ensure a constant winter harvest.

Purple peas!

An engaging guide, Sokoloff explained that winter crops are finicky, and must be started from seed and transplanted early enough in the season so that they can take root before the real cold hits. The greenhouse's electric heaters keep the temperature just above freezing, so it's no Florida. The season's heating bill is low enough to be easily recouped by sales, says Sokoloff

He compared this to greenhouses that grow tomatoes in winter. These heat-hungry plants need a steady 65-degree environment, which means that in the Northeast, the annual cost of heating a greenhouse makes it the lucky farmer who breaks even on tomatoes, while burning through lots of fuel. Yet worried about keeping customers through the winter, some farmers feel compelled to grow them. Something to think about when you reach for that alluring winter tomato, the apple in today's sustainable Garden of Eden.

Bees and humans both love these. 

At Stone Barns, added, Sokoloff, "You can eat delicious fresh food all year around. But no tomatoes. That's something you have to wait for."

White dahlias, blue bedder salvia.

In the greenhouse, every square inch of soil is maximized. So often, longer-term growth plants will be inter-planted among shorter-term lettuces. The benefits of some greenhouse products just can't be measured, though. Sokoloff guided us to a row of beautiful white dahlias and spiky blue bedder salvia, noting that their benefit, besides providing beautiful cut flowers, is to attract vegetable plant pollinators and break up the disease and pest cycles of other plantings. The flowers have helped recruit an astonishing 114 varieties of native bees, an added value that Sokoloff notes "might not show in the bottom line."

Farm tours at Stone Barns are offered every Friday, and are well worth the price of admission.