Thankful for Time-worn Life Lessons

1954FrankCamilleHappy Thanksgiving to our family, friends and any readers that happen upon Plastic Farm Animals!

First and foremost, Bob and I are thankful for Emily, Tyler and our first grandchild Nolan Trout who turns one week old today. Welcome to the planet little Nolan!

Second, I’m thankful for delicious Thanksgiving memories going all the way back to Nana granting me the honor of decorating a giant basket with fruit, nuts, and animal-shaped hard candies.

Third, I’m thankful for all the glorious advice I’ve gleaned from the many people who have passed through my life. Much of it came from the older folk and I’m excited to pass it down.

Life is simple if you’ve got a good work ethic, healthy moral compass and respect for the natural world and all its creatures, including your fellow human beings.

It’s the externals that make life complicated. Our many possessions impede movement and clutter our minds. We’re bombarded by media promoting a culture of selfishness and waste without consequences.

Here are a few tips to help navigate the dark waters of our time:

  1. Leave some surfaces clear of stuff – an empty horizontal space is an invitation in the same way clutter is a rebuke
  2. Make sure everything has a place and you know where it is
  3. When you’re done with something, put it away
  4. Close the gate or door behind you unless you found it open
  5. Take an extra moment to leave things nicer than you found them
  6. Don’t waste food, water or words
  7. Give yourself idle time without screens to think and create
  8. Spend as much time as possible outside
  9. Walk in the woods
  10. Learn the calls, colors and habits of the birds in your yard
  11. Be nice to others, even when you are unhappy – it will make you feel better
  12. Share what you have and others will share with you
  13. Listen to what people are saying and imagine being in their shoes
  14. When you see someone working, give them a hand
  15. Always take the high road, pettiness makes you feel cheap

These fifteen lessons have served us well. May they do the same for you.

Nana, Cookie, Johnny and Grandpa

Nana, Cookie, Johnny and Grandpa

Safe House

MaryAnnAilloTexas1920sBad shit is going down in Paris, there was another earthquake in Japan and the world situation is desperate as usual. It’s enough to make me want to crawl back under the covers.

Everything looks good from my sunny desk window. Colorful birds chipping away at the feeder, traffic purposefully whizzing by, leaves lazily fluttering. I’m taking it slow today, recuperating from vascular surgery and my belly is full of the cheeseburger Bob made for breakfast.

My weekend “To Do” list is benign and easily realized. A little writing, some crocheting and a bit of work in the kitchen. Our browsers are off and neither Bob nor I will climb into a vehicle today.

Yup, all seems well if we ignore the news. We didn’t have the heart to watch the 911 footage and this new mess is equally distressing. If there were something we could do, we would. Meanwhile we’re going to carry on and look the other way.

But wait, actually we are doing something. Along with our friends, neighbors and co-workers, we’re creating a local economy which will survive cataclysmic collapse. Call it sustainability or call it resilience, the model harkens back a century to when people grew food, heated with wood, made their own hooch and shared their homes.

Nearly 100 years ago my Sicilian great-grandmother Mary Ann ran a boarding house in Dallas Texas. This was one way of getting by back then. You gardened, cooked, cleaned and did laundry for your family and your roomers. I imagine Mary Ann’s world was small, and what was happening on the other side of the world wasn’t too much of a threat.

Our work at The Plant involves shepherding a distillery through their first years, supporting two farms, a fuel-maker and a nonprofit whose mission is “to cultivate and celebrate community resilience.” All of us working together are consciously creating a local economy that is more reciprocal and enduring than the global model. Our work seems purposeful and real.

At home, we have twelve quarts of sauerkraut and a big box of Bob’s sweet potatoes to help us through winter. Next door Haruka and Jason are preparing for their annual rice sale tomorrow while another neighbor finishes work on a hen pen before bringing home a flock of layers. Zoila stopped by with some locally made goat cheese so we gave her a bottle of local port. Lyle came by with pecans he picked off the ground and we sent him away with cheese.

We are secure in our friendships, making it easy to turn away from the news. The world situation inspires us to work in the garden, put up cabbage, bake bread and trade with the neighbors. And maybe one day we will follow in my great-grandmother Mary Ann’s footsteps and open up our house to lodgers.

1920 census

Jesse and the Widowmaker

StandingJessBobWidowmaker [wid·ow-mak·er] noun – A dead branch caught precariously high in a tree which may fall on a person below. Oxford Dictionary.

Jesse was my golden boy until he became Bob’s golden boy and later Julie’s. Never mind that he was a bay. Bob and I had him for ten years and now Julie has owned him for eighteen. We referred to him as Jesse the Wonder Horse because he always came through, and one day I’m convinced he saved my life.

I brought Jesse home when he was two years old and Julie met us with a brand new halter and a big bag of carrots. I started walking him in that halter every day, like a dog. We’d walk around my 13-acre pasture next to the railroad tracks and on down the road. I taught him to walk across the ditches at first and later to leap over them. If I walked, he walked. When I leapt, so did he. After we started work under saddle, I always had a choice whether to take it slow or plunge ahead.

There’s nothing more unsettling than a horse that jumps out from under you rather than step down into a ditch and back up. You can feel them twitching under you, tensing for the jump and there’s nothing you can do but hope they can clear it and land on the other side instead of down in the bottom.

On the other hand, it’s fun to jump anything you don’t feel like slogging through. I recall cuing Jesse to jump one yucca bush after another to alleviate the boredom of a long hot ride on the otherwise featureless Colorado plains.

By the time Jesse was five I’d put over a thousand hours on him. He was so push-button I could ride him in a halter and lead rope. After work I’d ride him ten miles just to keep him fit. I joined the Larimer County Horseman’s Association and rode up into the mountains on the weekends with twenty or thirty other people and their horses.

It wasn’t unusual for Jesse and I to trot around the bend and find a group of riders standing beside an obstacle. “Everything alright?” “Everything’s fine. We just thought we’d wait and let Jesse cross this bridge first.” And we would walk right across so the others could follow.

JesseCamSandOct90It was on one such ride that Jesse saved my life. We were walking up a switchback trail when Jesse started. Reflexively, I pulled back on the lead rope to stop him from running off. An instant later a loud crack from overhead reached my ears and I loosened my hold and leaned forward. Like a bullet, Jesse launched into a full gallop and up the trail we sped. A minute later we stopped, sides heaving to look far below as an enormous widowmaker crashed upon the very spot we’d been moments earlier.

What I love about this story is how it illustrates the deep trust between me and my horse. Jesse heard the crack and reacted, I second-guessed him, he acquiesced, I reconsidered and gave him the go-ahead. In a matter of seconds we made a decision which may have saved our lives.

Jesse turned thirty last April which is remarkably old for a horse, and he may not see another Spring. Julie has given him a perfect life and now must make an unimaginably difficult decision, whether to watch him struggle through another northern Colorado winter or let him down easy. When he goes, a part of me goes with him, but this time he will be the one to show me the best way across the ditch.


527JessJulie  JessSuperSweetSiderSummer85

Julie and Jesse on her ranch in 1998, and Jesse and his mother, Freckles in 1985


A sad image of high-schoolers being evacuated with hands in their air.

Umpqua Community College students being evacuated with hands in the air, as if they were perpetrators rather than victims.

I couldn’t take another word so I punched a finger into the car radio power button and sat in silence. A prestigious panel had been discussing the latest school shooting on the Diane Rehm Show and I was still bristling from their word choices.

People who kill other people are murderers, not “shooters” and yet during the few minutes I listened, everyone used the term shooter. When they began referring to the massacre as a disaster, I lost it. Man-made violence is not an act of nature as the word disaster would imply. The latest killing was pre-meditated mass murder, plain and simple.

I get it. We’ve come a long way since two perpetrators murdered twelve students during the Columbine High School Massacre sixteen years ago. Yes, those are the words they used back then. Perpetrator, murder and massacre.

There have been 163 School shootings since then with 45 this year alone, according to Newsweek. Mass murder has become commonplace, an earmark of a violent gun-obsessed society. We’re inundated with murder and so it makes sense that media would try and soften the assault with damped-down language.

It’s a small thing, I told myself and tried to forget it. In the hours that followed my little tantrum, I wanted to share my outrage. But by the end of the day, after dozens of conversations with peers and co-workers the only person I was able to vent to was Bob. Not only are we as a nation becoming numb to the mounting legacy of violence, it seemed futile to voice my indignation. Sad times, I tell you. Sad and frustrating times.


Denver Post December 12, 2013 – School shootings since Columbine High massacre

Newsweek October 6, 2015 – Map: Every School Shooting in America Since 2013

Oxford Dictionary – dis·as·ter [d??zast?r/] noun
“A sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life.”

Resilience Diva Tami Schwerin – Getting it done by making it fun

Queen Bee 2009Few people are as good at their jobs as Tami Schwerin. The dynamic executive director of a small North Carolina-based nonprofit, she moves through her day like silk across polished oak. Her ready smile and signature girl-next-door charm exude a level of calm which belies the magnitude of her accomplishments.

In the twelve years since creating Abundance NC, Tami has built a vibrant local economy, beginning with Chatham Marketplace, a local food co-op grocery. In support of the Abundance mission “to cultivate and celebrate community resilience,” Tami and her team provide farm-to-table dinners, workshops, conferences and festivals. All of which handily promote community resilience by building awareness and fostering connections.

Tami’s husband Lyle Estill is also a local hero, playful and well-connected with a giant roll-o-dex. Between them they must know everyone within 100 miles of Moncure and their influence extends across the nation and globally. If you want to make something happen, all you have to do it pitch it to Tami and Lyle.

Tami’s secret is her natural penchant for parties. Even as a young girl, she loved to throw a party and has developed her talent into a fine art. Tami’s parties are legendary events, often themed and thrumming with costumed revelry. Her Mardi Gras parties come to mind, as does the Alice in Wonderland party she put together to celebrate her daughter Jess’s engagement.


Two hearts aligned, Judy Wicks and Tami Schwerin at the Money and Meaning Conference September 10, 2015

What Tami has always known and many of us are just catching onto is this; people like to have fun. If I had a nickel for each time I’ve heard the word fun come out of Tami’s mouth, I’d be swimming in dollars. It would appear that her life’s mission is to make sure everyone around her is having a good time and in that, she succeeds mightily.

I’m reading Judy Wicks’ memoir “Good Morning, Beautiful Business – The unexpected journey of an activist entrepreneur and local economy pioneer” and noticing the parallels between her life and Tami’s. Affirming Tami’s wisdom, Judy writes:

“And we’ve seen that when people get together, amazing things happen. So we create opportunities for people to come together to learn from, inspire and support one another, in their shared efforts to build more resilient communities.”

Today is Pepper Fest day and Tami is already out at Briar Chapel, setting things up for another legendary party this afternoon. It’s been raining for three days and the forecast is for more this afternoon but Tami is unfazed, posting to facebook: “Super excited about my new raincoat and THE 8TH ANNUAL AMAZING PEPPER FESTIVAL TODAY! 3-7pm….It will be an adventure…come on out and enjoy the covered food and music and kids events. Wear your rain gear! Ha!”

As I have come to realize, Tami’s ability to make everything more fun is what makes her nonprofit, her community and her life so successful. People respond to her and gravitate into her circle of light, eager to participate and support. Indeed, it was the twinkle in Tami’s eye that lured Bob and I here eight years ago. I couldn’t wait to throw in with Tami professionally, and when we saw the opportunity we bought a house in her neighborhood.

So there you have it: Tami follows her heart, and we follow her, eager to help create the antidote to the destructive soul-sucking global economy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading out to Pepper Fest!


Tami and Camille in the throes of the second annual Pepper Festival October 18, 2009

Lawns and Hay Fields

If the photo on the left troubles you and the one on the right makes you happy, you are like me. I find large expanses of lawn depressing. What a waste, I think. All those hours of mowing, and for what? Hay fields, on the other hand are full of pastoral promise. They evoke images of thriving farms and happy horses. Unfortunately, there are four times more lawns than hay fields in the my country. 40.5 million acres of lawn compared to 9.4 million in hay to be exact.

You may be thinking, “Oh Camille, here you go again. What could possibly be wrong with a lawn?” Well, for starters, it’s a waste of fuel. Add high-particulate air pollution, unnecessary water consumption and toxic lawn chemicals, and the lawn begins looking like a bad idea. Especially when you weigh the alternatives: farms, gardens, orchards, pastures, hay fields and wood lots.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Homeowners spend billions of dollars and typically use 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops.”

“According to IBIS World’s Landscaping Services market research report, the US lawn care market in 2014 generated revenue of $75 billion. The country with the next largest lawn care industry is Australia (with a) Garden industry worth $3 billion.”

“Spending an hour behind a roaring lawn mower can spew nearly the same amount of oily pollution into the air as a 100-mile car trip, according to a Swedish study.”

“Lawns with high maintenance (mowing, irrigation, and leaf blowing) and high fertilization rates have a net emission of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide that have large global warming potential.”

“More troubling still, the American perfect-turf ideal has been exported across the globe to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even Asia, where it is transforming parts of the countryside into replicas of the Augusta National golf course in Georgia.”

A large lawn is not just a field of grass, it’s the worst kind of mono-cropping. High maintenance, non-productive bling. Super-sized lawns represent conspicuous consumption in a country infamous for showing off its assets. No wonder they make my stomach churn.

Science Line – Lawns vs Crops in the Continental U S

ABC News – Study: Lawn Mowing Equals Car Trip

Wikipedia – Lawn

Columbia University – The Problem of Lawns

Lawn Starter – Lawn Care Around The World

AP Central – Lawn and Landscape in World Context, 1945-2000

Communication Roulette – reaching out in the techno void

CommunicationSometimes you just need to bitch a little before a solution up and slaps you in the forehead. Here goes.

I’m confused and frustrated. Every day the communication gods heap another app on the technology pile and now no one quite knows how to get ahold of anyone else. I’m spending way too much time trying to figure out how to reach my friends, co-workers, etc. I just want to connect!

Not long ago my conversations were either face-to-face or over the phone. The good news is my communication choices have expanded to include voice mail, email, skype, text and facebook. The bad news is that none of these methods work for everyone, forcing me into trial-and-error mode.

I usually start with a phone call. If the person answers their phone, we have a conversation and I’m done. If they don’t answer, I leave a voice mail unless that isn’t an option, an increasingly frequent possibility. Next I try texting. If I’m close to my laptop, I can send an intelligible message in seconds. If not, I get my glasses, hunker down in a shady spot and use my 9-key phone pad to sketch out my query.

If it can wait, I make a note to either catch them face-to-face or email them later. When email doesn’t work, I try private messaging on Facebook, making sure to check it for the next couple of days. And even if I go through all these steps, a growing percentage of people will not return my call, text or PM, a natural response to communication technology overload.

Two days ago I emailed 22 volunteers a spreadsheet, asking them to review the information and confirm their commitment. So far, three people complied without issue. A fourth person wrote that they were unable to decipher the information, leading me to presume that they were looking at the snapshot of the attachment rather than opening the spreadsheet. I sent a second email to the group suggesting everyone open the spreadsheet to properly view the file and received another a reply from a person stating that the document consisted of blank lines. To fix this unfathomable problem, I created a google sheet and shared emailed the URL to the group.

As I write this I realize the folly of trying to reach everyone on their terms. The fact is, I don’t want to get a fancy phone and spend the day staring at text messages. Nor do I want to check my facebook as frequently as I do my email. So for now, I’ll answer texts with a phone call or text them back a default “Please call me” and handle email and facebook the same as always. As for sharing spreadsheets and other information, I honestly don’t know what method will work for everyone.

Communication has never been this difficult and I fear things are only going to get worse. It anyone has an idea about eliminating the frustration from modern communication, please leave a comment. Or call me, or email me, or…

Rediscovering Manners

MannersA smug laugh echoed through my nasal passages when I ran across my old friend, Miss Manners in the Washington Post online. Rubbing my hands together I dove in. How fun to discover her advice has kept up with these changing times.

Gentle Reader that I am, I never missed a column of hers back in the day of newsprint and paper boys. I’d snatch up my copy of the daily rag and open it to the comics, crossword puzzle, letters to the editor and Miss Manners. What I like about Miss Manners is that she is genteel. She is never rude, never stoops to insults and yet, manages to put the ill-mannered in their place while pumping up the meek. Her turns of a phrase are priceless ammunition in a world where good behavior is often taken advantage of. I love that she prefaces her advice with “Gentle Reader.”

Judith Martin, started her Miss Manners column in 1978 at the age of forty and she continues dishing out good advice, of late with the help of her son and daughter. I see that she’s written a slew of books, too and can’t wait to read her latest, “Miss Manners on Endless Texting.”

When interviewed by Smithsonian four years ago, Miss Manners was asked “What is etiquette? And why is it so important?” to which she answered, “It’s important because we can’t stand the way that other people treat us. Although we want the right to be able to behave in any way we want. Somehow a compromise is in order, if you want to live in communities. If you live on a mountaintop by yourself, it’s not necessary.”

I found this post from August 18th especially appealing:

DEAR MISS MANNERS: How quickly should one respond to personal e-mail?

I seem to remember a snail-mail rule that one was supposed to have a reply ready for the next post. Does a similar guideline exist in netiquette?

I’m asking because I have a list of several dozen far-flung friends to whom I send a group e-mail every week or so. I do this not only to let them know what my wife and I are up to, but also to stimulate some sort of reply so I can keep up with them.

Alas, relatively few respond. In fact, the biggest response came when I was sick recently and could barely lift my head, let alone dash off a witty communique. The brief absence of e-mail prompted several folks to write in, saying they missed my missives.

I suppose it’s nice to be missed, but I’d rather receive the e-mail responses. I should hasten to point out that I respond swiftly to personal and work-related e-mails.

GENTLE READER: There was a moment when Miss Manners wondered if all those people who never look up from their devices were merely trying to be polite by responding instantly to their correspondents. But the requirement to respond instantaneously to every instant message would unfortunately remove the polite from the gene pool.

As you have discovered, etiquette rules based on technological limitations (such as how long it takes the mail carrier to cross the road) have as short a shelf life as modern electronics. Miss Manners requires only that business and personal correspondence (from which definition she excludes group e-mails — no matter how witty or well-intentioned) be answered reasonably promptly.

Frog in a Well

FrogInAWellOnce there was a frog that lived in a well. Ever since he was a smidgeon of a tadpole, all he knew of the world came from the well’s mouth a hundred feet over his head. In his experience, the world was the sky and whatever else might happen to fly over, peer down, or fall into the well.

One day, a turtle wandered by and seeing the little frog, began to tell him about the wonders of the sea. “The sea? Hah! It’s paradise in here. Nothing can be better than this well. Why don’t you come down and share my joy?” The turtle pushed his head into the small opening couldn’t get his shell to fit so he said, “Why don’t you come to the sea instead?”

Twenty-one years ago, I married my soul mate, Bob Armantrout in Loveland, Colorado, the place where we had met and fell in love. Lucky to be born in the USA, we soon manifested our own gleaming version of the American dream. We bought a sporty black car and a little horse property and settled in.

Soon enough, our life didn’t look quite as shiny. Early every weekday Bob strapped himself into his forty minute commute to a stressful job he didn’t enjoy. After dark, he’d return and down a couple of white Russians before relaxing enough to eat dinner. Often he would confide that he had not taken so much as a bathroom break all day.

Meanwhile, I ran a little boarding business on our seven acres, working outside, riding with our neighbors and keeping house. I loved my life but complained, “I have the life, and you pay the price.” It galled me that Bob wasn’t there to share my happiness. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for, a perfect life at my husband’s expense.

The American dream felt like a trap and yet, we couldn’t imagine an alternative. My analogy at the time was that it was like being in a kitchen that had suddenly caught fire. We were panicked and confused and the only course of action that made any sense was to run out of the room.

It was a dream of the sea which finally woke us up. One morning, Bob and I both recounted similar dreams in which we were feeling trapped, when suddenly we noticed the ocean nearby. We had only to step out of our life onto the beach and we would be free.

So we sold or gave away everything, including the horse and hay truck and left the country. We weren’t going to be like the little frog trapped in a well, insisting that there wasn’t any more to life than what we had experienced. Instead, we went off in search of a new perspective.

Here’s how I think the fable should end: Said the frog to the turtle, “I will go to the sea with you if only I can figure out how to climb out of this well.” With that, the turtle went and got a long rope and gripping one end in his strong beak, threw the rest down the well. The little frog wrapped his little webbed feet around the rope and the turtle pulled until he made it to the mouth of the well. Then, together the two new friends went off in search of the sea.

Good Neighbors in Spades


Nana creating a new garden, circa 1920

Dear Nana,

I’ve been busy “Nanafesting” all week. That’s what we call it when we “manifest Nana,” usually in the kitchen. Seems like I’ve been cooking all week. I baked a cake for Jason’s birthday, made twenty sandwiches for Alisa’s moving party and five dozen chocolate chip cookies for Geoff’s birthday.

No, they weren’t as good as your cookies. No cookies ever could be. I’m still kicking myself for not paying better attention when you taught me how to make those extraordinary cookies. I could have at least written down the recipe!

For one thing, I’m not using butter these days. Was it sweet or salted butter that you used? Was the right kind of day rainy or dry? Did you use all brown sugar or half brown and half white? I do remember how important it is to cool the cookie sheet between baking, though. I can picture you putting it outside the back door on a cold day for a few minutes.

At any rate, it’s the thought that counts and my cookies were well received. The target of my affections felt suitably honored and the cookie plate was soon empty.

You would love it here. Our neighbors and co-workers are pulsing with good energy and generous to a fault. Bob and I do our best to keep everyone fed and happy and all their problems solved. It’s a lot like your neighborhood, the one where friends dropped by with garden produce or cake, where people had time for each other and shared the burden of life’s challenges.

Jason and Haruka left for Dallas yesterday, gifting us twelve pounds of tomatoes which I’ll be turning into sauce. I haven’t forgotten your sauce secrets; red wine, Italian sausage and beef stock, only I use vegan sausage and beef broth. Bob brought in a bucket of peppers, so I’ll be adding five pounds of green bell peppers. I’ve even got some celery to throw in!

I’ll use the sauce in baked ziti which I’ll bring to the Biofarm CSA dinner on Tuesday. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Piedmont Biofarm is one of our tenants at work and we get a share of their vegetables every week. It’s fun to take tomatoes from one farm (and garden peppers), turn them into sauce and share it with another farm. We like to keep it moving, spreading the wealth as it were. Surely we don’t have monetary wealth, but food and comfort are the real currency of life, and that we have in spades.


Sarah, Joe and the moving crew after unloading the outhouse

Alisa, her husband Chris and their three kids and extended family Sarah and Joe are a great addition to the ‘hood. They brought all kinds of animals too – dogs, chickens, rabbits, parrots and pigs! They’ve got a back-to-basics mindset which echoes yours. They even brought an outhouse. I know, I can hear you saying, “That’s taking things a little too far.” And they have big gardening plans for their new nine acre property.

In fact, most of our friends grow some of their vegetables out back. Back yard gardens skipped a generation or two but are now returning. It’s a good trend.

Well, thank you for teaching me how to be a good neighbor. What’s new in your world? I hope you are happy up there in heaven with Jesus, heh heh…

Love, Cookie