Kathleen Alcalá is a Bainbridge Island writer who has long been one of the Pacific Northwest’s most powerful voices in fiction, essays, and memoir. Her most recent book, The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, combines deep historical research and personal interviews in a rousing narrative that uses her home island as an example for exploring issues around sustainability and society. Alcalá meets Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II, and learns the unique histories of the blended Filipino and Native American community, the fishing practices of the descendants of Croatian immigrants, and the Suquamish elder who shares with her the food legacy of the island itself.
In the spirit of the New Year, this guest post from the author offers steps each of us can take to live more thoughtfully and sustainably, so we can take better care of ourselves and our communities—both now and for the future.
10 Things a Clueless Eater Can Do
1. Keep a garden!
Even if you have no land, or in our case, sun, you can borrow or rent land suitable for gardening. If not, keep potted herbs on your windowsill. Indoor plants also improve the quality of the air.
2. Save seeds.
If your garden grows in abundance, note which plants do especially well in your climate. Let a couple go to seed, and keep some of the seeds to be stored in a cool, dry, dark place for the following year. Be sure and label them with the date, and anything else you know about the plants. This means that the seeds best suited to your micro-climate will be preserved and passed on.
3. Join Community Supported Agriculture.
Subscribe to a local CSA that will provide you with groceries almost year-round. You can pick up your groceries once or twice a week, and many deliver to a location near you. Besides vegetables, many CSAs now offer dairy and meat products.
4. Shop at your local farmers market.
This is the best way to see what is local and fresh each week. It is also the best place to socialize on Bainbridge Island. The farmers market offers you the opportunity to look your farmer in the eye and hear the story of your food. We are also fortunate enough to have a supermarket that is locally owned and goes to great lengths to offer local and ethnic foods along with regional choices.
5. Share your land.
If you own arable land but are unable to farm it, loan it to a farmer. There are farmers who have patched together enough urban properties to make a living and supply the landowners with fresh food. Think about replacing that water-consuming lawn with a food-producing garden. Stop using any chemicals on your property that might disrupt the natural order around you, such as the activity of bees or other pollinators. They are part of your land. Landscape with plants that help these creatures thrive and propagate.
6. Speak up.
Make sure that land use and regulation protects natural and arable land. Developers maximize their profits by pushing at the limits of the law for land use, and make a point of lobbying local and regional governments. Farmers, on the other hand, must be in their fields or selling almost every day, and are often uncomfortable in a legislative setting. We need a balance of interests between developers, farmers and natural land in order to have a viable, livable, food-producing community. Be an advocate for this balance, by voice, by mail, e-mail, or in person. The latter, of course, is the most effective.
If you have knowledge of the land, inherited or passed on to you through books, share it. You might think you don’t know much, but Nancy Rekow’s interview of Minnie Lovgreen, as published in “Minnie Rose Lovgreen’s Recipe for Raising Chickens,” is a wonderful read and an invaluable record of time and place.
7. Protect natural lands.
Trees and wetlands are integral to the health and well-being of farmland. In the northwest, they play a crucial role in the viability of shellfish, as well as the plants and animals on which salmon, our motherload of protein, is dependent. Pay attention to what the land is trying to tell us, note its response to weather events, and be prepared for as many eventualities as possible.
8. Advocate for renewable energy.
Power companies have been given the rights to almost indiscriminately cut down trees and advance across private or municipal properties in order to run and maintain wires. This is old energy, dependent on transporting electricity thousands of miles across the landscape from either hydro or coal plants. Most of the energy is lost along the way. New energy can be generated by windmills and solar panels and by newer, greener building that spends zero energy, or even sends energy back into the system. Many areas offer a free energy assessment to see how you can save or even generate energy with your house.
9. Walk, don’t drive.
Consider every trip you take in a car. Think about sharing errands with a friend, or grouping the things you need to do so that you only need to use a car once or twice a week. Give priority to businesses located as close to your home as possible. If public transportation is available to you, use it. Many municipalities offer senior discounts or punch card systems that save money.
10. Get to know your neighbors.
Americans have long prided themselves on rugged independence. But we forget that early settlers and Native Americans relied on each other over a seasonal cycle to fish, carve canoes, raise roofs, harvest, and preserve. Shared gardens, transportation, and shared tools can greatly reduce the costs of local food, and pass along the sort of knowledge that is revealed through personal and practical application.
A version of this post was previously published on Kathleen Alcalá’s The Clueless Eater blog.