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Victory Gardens

Written by Karen Kisslinger in July 2006 for the Poughkeepsie Journal

As a child, the garden path I was first led down was the driveway into my mother’s parents home on Lake Bemidji in Northern Minnesota.  There, it seemed to me, as a child, we grew everything.  Our job as children was to pick as many berries … first strawberries, then raspberries, then blueberries, in the mornings … and fish as many perch as we could out of the lake in the afternoon.  We were in Eden. Food was abundant and the earth provided.

The pit of compost in my grandfather’s shed had a warm and profoundly comforting smell that promised me that  abundance would continue.   Our table scraps  decomposed to a rich, warm, fertile pile that smelled wonderful and dark and moist. It would feed and  grow more of the fresh and vital foods we gathered every day …  and also provide handfuls of  writhing worms for fishing bait.  It was all right there, a complete system.  In poor times this was Home, Land and Security.

Those words are used a lot these days and conjure up threats of various kinds.  One of our biggest threats is the fact that  most “modern” people have only a recreational relationship with the land and ultimately a high level of food insecurity.

In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks I remember being struck by a new awareness of  the heavy reliance of Americans on imported food, particularly vegetables and fruits. Community food security strengthened by sustainable small scale food production is not emphasized enough as an aspect of Homeland Security. The “commons” could fill with fruit trees and fields with community gardens. If we are lucky enough to have some land  where we can plant some seeds, we have a deep kind of independence and victory over food insecurity.

Readers interested in the breadth and depth of this subject can refer to the web site of the American Community Gardening Association  and the many other web sites devoted to “Food Security”  In complex ways many people, particularly in our cities, experience food insecurity  when it comes to obtaining the health promoting fruits and vegetables and naturally grown animal products.  In a media environment  decrying degenerative diseases related to poor diet, the irony of being surrounded by food but not by nutrients is growing in importance, particularly in low socio-economic neighborhoods.

I was lucky to have many lessons in food security as a child. Besides  the Minnesota gardens, my father was a gardener.  His father became a gardener by necessity,  feeding five children through the Great Depression and World War II with a victory garden.  It was ultimately a remarkable form of independence.

During World War II, after the Great Depression, it became a patriotic duty to plant a Victory Garden.   In fact tens of millions of Americans did just that, and, toward the end of the war, they grew a harvest of fruits and vegetables equal in size to the national commercial crop.  They also bought hundreds of thousands of pressure cookers,  the dangerous old fashioned kind to “put up” the huge amounts of food they’d grown. Our modernizing population  rose to the cry of  necessity and proudly produced enormous amounts of food.  The time has come to re-invent the Victory Garden on a global scale….but this time the Victory will not be of one nation over another, but of the forces of sustainability and nurturance over the forces of greed, profit, and depletion which have come to rule in large scale industrial agricultural production.

The urge to plant and grow is universal and in the end will provide a victory over the dead toxicity of an electronically based life style and oil dependent agricultural practices.  There can be  victory over greed.  Victory over hybridized seeds made to terminate their own reproduction. Victory over poison.  Victory over hormone disrupting chemicals seeping into our water and our bodies.  Victory over the enormous and the impersonal.  Victory over borders that create enemies and aliens instead of neighbors and friends. Victory over depletion and disease.  Victory over malnourishment.  Victory over drifting genetics that introduce artificially created life forms into the global pollen pool with unknown results.   Victory of the rights and needs of everyday people over rich and powerful economic interests. Ultimately this victory is about independence.

Every year on the fourth of July, I proclaim my own independence day.  Independence from having to buy vegetables until the following December.  This year, I used my last butternut squash from the 2005 garden on May 15.  Butternuts grow wonderfully around here, store well and are the only winter squash variety I know of that is not subject to vine borer damage…the sudden death of long beautiful squash plants when those grubby white worms destroy the vine at just one spot close to the roots. A package of seeds costs about $1 and can supply winter squash for the whole winter.  So, it’s independence from the high cost of organic vegetables, and independence from driving to pick up veggies when I can pick them instead.

My own  moments of primal excitement about growing food are unforgettable. In the fall of 1975 we moved from urban New York to an old dairy farm in Ancramdale and set up house, and one of the first things we did when our first winter there was over was  to start planting things.   Cramming crumpled seed packets into all of my pockets, I had an irrepressible excitement that all I had to do was stick the seeds in the ground at the right time and harvests of wonderful herbs and vegetables would follow.  I couldn’t believe the feeling of opportunity and possibility that filled me as I planted.   I worked to remove rocks from the soil in the gardening space we had chosen behind our new pottery studio. Looking back, we were part of the back-to-the-land movement, and now 30 years later, the absolute necessity of going back to back-to-the-land in a sustainable way is being widely recognized.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a current project and goal to create at least 1 million “Millenium Gardens” nationally, including community, school and home gardens. The project is reminiscent of the Victory Garden effort during World War II.  Alice Waters, the well-known chef from California has started a movement of edible classroom projects, calling gardening and food education the “road to peace.”

The USDA is placing special emphasis on community gardens because of their multiple social benefits. Community gardens add to the beauty of a community and also bring people together to improve their neighborhoods, create positive social interactions that could reduce crime and help increase community food security.

Community Supported Agriculture  projects often involve an element of cooperative work among members.  If you are a home gardener, the USDA is encouraging you too to “plant a row for the hungry.”

It is July 2006, and Victory and Independence are rooted in the Earth, where we find it, in our own back yards, right under our feet or the farms in our own region.    In my own backyard,  for many years, I have had the opportunity to grow all the vegetables my family can eat for   3 ½ seasons of the year. Whether you have a big back yard, a roof top raised bed, or paint buckets filled with soil on the stairs of your apartment, you can begin.   Victory over boredom (really!) . Victory over restlessness and even impatience.  Victory over egotism..for we only collaborate with nature..the greatest creator of exquisite form and real food.

Victory and independence in the garden are gentle satisfactions, the satisfactions of understanding  “home”, “land” and ” security” in new ways   Even with a tiny yard,  much food and flowers can be grown. Any one of us could take initiative for a Millenium Garden or just grow a row extra and donate it to a local food bank, buy a share from a Community Supported Agriculture  project or find some other way to deepen our commitment to sustainable gardening,  to food security, to seed sharing and seed saving and non toxic gardening and to  sharing our wisdom locally and globally.  We can all “pay it forward” together.

Happy Independence Day…and here’s  hoping  that all enjoy the many sweet and sustaining independence of going back to back-to-the-land…even  if it’s just that little bit of Earth  right outside your back door.

Do You Have Time to Heal?

Do You Have Time to Heal??

Written by Karen in Spring 2009

Basic to all my teaching and writing is the idea of balancing tendencies toward “degenerative disease”  with the renewing effects of “regenerative ease.”  When my children were young we used to go to stay in cottages on Cape Cod that were owned in the 19th century by a large corporation which kept the cottages for the rest and renewal of its employees.  Has your employer sent you on a rest and renewal retreat lately?

I’m guessing that the answer is no.  Especially with the economy so tight and people often working more than one job….if they’re lucky enough to be working at all..in order to pay their bills,  the trend is that we have to wear out and fall apart before we are stopped in our tracks and have to take some kind of better care for ourselves.  Then the problem is…do we have time to be sick?  Do we have time to take the time that it would really take to renew our health…or do we take a treatment that may improve our immediate symptoms…but not replenish the underlying problem or need that led to the serious condition. The second option would comprise what I call “healing”.  It involves getting at underlying causes such as stress, dietary deficiencies or excesses, lack of exercise, toxic indoor or outdoor environment, and many other factors that tend to make us sick. In work place and home we are almost always under pressure to be “on” all the time.  Imagine if we were able to regularly hang out a “do not disturb” sign, literally and figuratively… and be silent, calm and even meditative for periods of time.  This is not a irrelevant fantasy…it is basic to the maintenance of well being.  Now that times are particularly stressful, it is even more important that we make some time to take better care of ourselves.

It’s interesting that the sanatoriums of earlier centuries offered “the cure” for serious diseases like tuberculosis..by offering rest, good food, hydrotherapy and other elemental non technological support for peoples’ bodies which gave them a chance to heal themselves. Today’s spas tend to be more trendy and product driven with lots of services offered, but not always operating or affordable at the level of simply offering a place to BE while healing happens.

We all need healing time.  As part of a movement to redefine our health culture we can adopt practices which honor our bodies’ needs for regenerative ease.  We can allow ourselves to be bored and to do NOTHING while we rest and renew. We can free ourselves from the excesses of food practices which fill us with empty calories, refined sugars, heavy animal fats, and allow our bodies to clear out toxins and tiredness.

A really fundamental question to ask yourself is: Do you believe in healing?? Do you believe that most people..given the right circumstances and resources, can have health and well being and live free from sickness, pain and fatigue. This includes serious disease.   I’ve found that many people actually don’t believe that this is possible.  They have been tricked into thinking they have to “live with” relative states of  dis-ease.  Watch TV ads for a few hours and assess the assumptions made there about common health problems.

I know how busy everyone is these days, but I also know how many hours of television the average family watches and how much time is spent on computers, games and other screen entertainment.

As we talk of renewing the economy, we can think of renewing our personal health and time  economy by making time for quiet, relaxation, stretching, silence, meditation, regular time.for real renewal and re-generation of our nervous systems..our immune systems..of all aspects of body and mind.

Please notice the trends in your life that are really about heading toward sickness before you make time for yourself…and then take that time now for healing. This is a matter of faith in a fundamental human capacity for health.

In Memoriam with Love

It is with great sorrow that we share the news of the passing of Karen Kisslinger.

Karen believed that compassion is the only true source of power and was deeply committed to promoting the skills and traits of mindfulness that become part of living ethically, compassionately and healthfullyA fund in her name has been established at Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to support students who show creativity in community health, well-being and/or contemplative practices such as yoga, meditation or organic agriculture. Donations to the fund can be sent to

The Karen Kisslinger Fund
c/o Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation
800 North Main Street
PO Box 400
Sheffield, MA 01257-0400

or online at berkshiretaconic.org.

If you would like to share your thoughts or memories of Karen, please do so below.

The Fierce Urgency of Now: This is the Moment for Sane Health Care Policy

Last week a friend of mine who is a family doctor told me about a patient of his who came in regularly for years for visits, weighing about 320 pounds, which was over 100 pounds over his recommended weight.

This patient was suffering from Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and High Blood Pressure, to name only the most serious of his health concerns.

My friend never pressured the patient, but did advise him about losing weight and making some healthier life decisions. Years went by and the patient didn’t change anything. Any one of the above mentioned diseases is in a category of illness that cost our health economy tens and even hundreds of billions of dollars every year. This patient used all of those resources with no intention or hope of recovery or healing. Nothing in our mainstream health care system told him that he could heal and be a healthy person again.

And then one day, the patient had had enough. He did something no one else could make him do. He took it upon himself to have stomach manipulating surgery and proceeded to lose 150 pounds in one and a half years. It was a spectacularly successful decision in personal health care reform.

Instead of plodding along year after year taking numerous very expensive medications, devices, measurements, scans, screen and other tests, our patient gradually, over the course of the first year, left behind all of his symptoms. His diabetes, his high blood pressure, his coronary heart disease and his rheumatoid arthritis, all of which he had been taught or just assumed he would have to just “live with”, all went away… completely. He had been on 12 medications. Now he is on one medication. That is real health care reform, and talk about saving on prescription drugs!

This is a true story. Rheumatoid Arthritis can go away. High Blood Pressure can go away. Coronary heart disease can go away. We know this thanks to the painstaking long term work of Dean Ornish. Diabetes II can go away. Everybody knows this, and knows even more importantly that it can be prevented in most cases by changes in diet, exercise and other life style practices.

There cannot be true health care reform until the reality that diseases can be healed become part of mainstream American health culture. High tech. medicine is great for the crisis, life-saving stage, but then comes the healing stage which require different knowledge, priorities, and patience. I was in the hospital last week with high fever and an infection, and the very nice Chinese doctor who was treating me got talking with me about my acupuncture practice. During the conversation she shared how her parents taught her to “read faces” when she was a child..and other aspects of traditional diagnosis. As she whisked away to answer a page she said: “For these emergencies Western medicine is best, but for everything else, Chinese Medicine is better.”

I myself had a patient last summer, who when I started to explain to her one doctor’s very successful cure rate with Rheumatoid Arthirits patients, stopped me and said…in her 75 year old absolute voice: “Rheumatoid arthritis cannot be cured”. She really did not want to know. She had suffered much of her life, her relatives who had died had suffered from it, and it wasn’t in her medical religion to believe that healing of that disease was possible; but it is possible with different resources than those currently comprising the standard of care.

Unless government and the people require and live a new orientation which eradicates some of our most common health problems, insurance care reform does little to truly reform health care; it will just changes how we pay for it and who makes or loses how much money in the process.

Cost containment will be difficult until we prevent those tens of thousands of cases of Type II Diabetes, because otherwise we are going to spend untold billions of currently profit-making dollars treating it. This is the insanity of our system, and it is not going to be fixed until the huge profits are taken out of our private insurance based disease care system.

So, the urgency of now. A majority of the American people want a public option and want predictable, secure access to health care. During the years that we might be re-orienting to make access to health an even more important right than access to health care (they’re not the same thing), we can surely become a more social society by providing for the care of collective bodies and minds in a way which doesn’t force people to lose their homes, their jobs or otherwise ruin their lives.

Until the profit essence is taken off the table and progressive, prevention based health care is understood to be a basic public service, just as our military is, there will be no meaningful health care reform in America. Perhaps the naysayers will be willing to give me a suitable answer to the question of why government sponsored socialism in the form of tax-supported war is OK but government sponsored compassionate and universal care of the health and well-being of citizens is socialist evil. Many seem willing to simply leave outside the system altogether those unfortunate enough to not be able to feed the insurance profit appetite.

Until prevention is stressed and health care is understood as a basic human right, like the right to have firefighters if your house is burning down or teachers if your children need education, there will be no meaningful health care reform in America. This week, President Obama must not back down or away from the demand for a strong and competitive public option finally!

Many have said that it’s better to go for some good changes than risk getting no good change by insisting on too much too fast. Momentum for a public option has been building in this country for decades, at least since the 1940s. That’s not too fast. It may be too slow. Right now let’s just say….as Goldilocks did: “It’s just right”…and seize this moment as the historical one where America, despite extremists on the very ends of the spectrum, leaps into the land of saner health care.

This is it: the Now that is so urgent!

Real Health(y) Care Reform: It’s World Breastfeeding Awareness Week

While ideology and profit politics predominate discussions and inhibit momentum toward any meaningful and sweepingly effective health care reform in America, there are fundamental and effective options on the table for changing the health culture and health of Americans. Toward the top of that list is the subject of this week’s World Breastfeeding Awareness Week.

While Americans still get caught up in discussions of breastfeeding as if it were strictly a life style decision of the mother and a matter of ordering her priorities, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization are adamant that babies are born to be breastfed and that human milk should be the main source of calories for human babies for at least the first year of life, and the exclusive source for the first six months. WHO goes further than AAP and recommends two years or more of access to human milk. Research on brain development and many aspects of health from allergies, to infections and diabetes, supports these recommendations.

The morbidity and mortality related to infant formula use around the world has been documented well for the past 25 or 30 years. Not as well documented is the obliteration of critical natural resources such as wood and water used in preparing formula, or the interruption of natural child spacing caused when long term breastfeeding is not practiced.

In our country, where water sterilization is not so much of a problem, the health issues related to not breastfeeding, for both mother and infant, are myriad and well established by research, but are not as immediately dramatic as the death by diarrhea seen in so-called third world countries. Both formula and human milk have some bio contamination issues that are complex, but despite issues of contamination in human milk, the research is still hands down unanimous in favoring human milk as the optimal nourishment for human babies, and research even shows that human milk helps babies handle wider contamination issues more effectively. It’s astonishing to me that the superiority of human milk over formula should have to be proven to anyone. Human milk is alive, complex, immunologically active and impossible to reproduce commercially.

In recent years, when the Department of Health and Human Services tried to launch a big campaign based on the dangers of not breastfeeding, their efforts were effectively squelched by the great political strength of the lobbyist for the formula/pharmaceutical companies.

America’s lack of adequate paid parental leave and its attendant encouragement of a healthy length of time at breast for newborns and older infants is a major part of the scandal of American health culture. I think most Americans would be astonished to find out what goes on in many other “advanced” societies in terms of long term parental leave, often for both parents, leave time which allows the establishment of firm family ties and an biologically appropriate length of access to human milk and consistent, present parenting. Human milk is by my assessment one of the most important seriously threatened natural resources on the planet.

With all the vast amount of media attention to the issue of obesity and its attendant health problems today, far too little attention is given to the fact that it is well known that access to breast milk in infancy and beyond is protective against later childhood and later life obesity.

The slogan of the now defunct Department of Health and Human Services campaign to promote breastfeeding was “Babies are Born to Be Breastfed”. This is a simple human and biological fact. It is not made any less true by ardent discussions of the rights of woman to decide to not breastfeed.

The bottom line is that every woman who has a baby wants a healthy baby with a healthy brain. The best way to get that is good prenatal nutrition in a low stress, non- toxic environment and then long term breastfeeding with adequate workplace support for suckling and pumping. Even a few months at the breast is much better than none at all.

It’s World Breastfeeding Week, and this week the Breastfeeding Bill of Rights, which has been passed by both houses of the New York State legislature is on Governor Patterson’s desk waiting to be signed. Urging the Governor to sign this bill without delay would be one fundamental way that everyone can support one aspect of real health care reform while the politics of insurance goes on front and center.

“Babies are Born to Be Breastfed”!!

Ba(ra)ck to the Word “Stupid”

Now that the beer moment is over, let’s go back just one more time to the controversy over Obama’s use of the word stupid (or a related form of that word) to describe what happened in Cambridge on the night Professor Gates came home from his trip and ended up arrested and removed from his own home. I like the word “stupid” in this context, but it’s important to look at the actual meaning of the word.

One meaning of the word stupid is related to being “stupefied”. By my dictionary definition, to stupefy means to “overwhelm with amazement, astound, astonish”; “to stun, as with strong emotions, to benumb the faculties of as in ‘put in to a stupor’.” By this definition, I think both officer Crowley and Professor Gates were probably both stupefied by the situation that unnecessarily escalated in Professor Gate’s home.

After five years of working for the Cambridge police department, instructing other officers about diffusing inter-racial tensions and confrontation, the officer involved seems to have been so overwhelmed with amazement and astonished by the situation he was actually in that he was stupefied… And therefore, acted stupidly. There’s nothing wrong with saying that this is true, even if you’re the President. Some might call it an ego problem, or having your “buttons pushed” or some other psycho pop, but the reality is that a man responsible for displaying exemplary behavior in such a situation totally blew it, and getting black officers from the Cambridge police department to say he did the right thing, does nothing to establish that he did the right thing. It’s embarrassing.

After many years of teaching about racial interaction and various forms and histories of discrimination, and other racially fraught behavior, Professor Gates may have also been quite stupefied by the actual unfolding of a fairly preposterous situation in his own home, and also acted stupidly, in this true sense of the word.

If I were the police officer whose job it was to train other police officers to handle racially charged confrontations sensitively, I would have done anything and everything I could to be aware that I had become stupefied, overcome my stupefaction, recognize the inherent discrepancy of practical power in the situation, and show model behavior that really walked the walk of diffusing such a situation. Done anything and everything… Which doesn’t seem like it would have taken much, to simply say, “Thanks Professor. Sorry for the inconvenience. Have a wonderful night. Welcome home.”

So I have only one more question: Next time I get stupefied and do something really stupid, can I get invited to the White House?