Author Interviews/Features

       

Kayann Short

Kayann Short Kayann Short, Ph.D., is a writer, farmer, teacher and activist at Stonebridge Farm, an organic, community supported farm in the Rocky Mountain foothills. A former professor at the University of Colorado, she directs memoir and digital storytelling projects and fosters ecobiography as a bridge between her farming and writing lives.

Read Susan J. Tweit's review of A Bushel's Worth: An Ecobiography for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.

Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 03/27/2014

You write in the chapter Dreams of Plentitude, "One of the lessons we have learned from farmgiving is to make the most of what we have." That could also apply to the material you wove into the story that is A Bushel's Worth. When you began writing, did you know the story would take you back to your childhood, and farther back to your grandparents' lives on their farm?

I started writing A Bushel's Worth as short essays about Stonebridge Farm based on journal entries I'd kept over several years. At a writing retreat near the beginning of that process, I decided to follow our farm year in 12 chapters through the seasons. That first draft was called "Farmgiving: Seasons of Stonebridge" and included both practical advice on farming and stories about my experiences at Stonebridge. The problem was, that version joined two different kinds of books that didn't fully meet a "how-to" or a memoir audience.

Putting the book aside for a while, I started a blog, Pearlmoonplenty, primarily as a place for continual writing practice, like a journal that I could share with friends. PMP is an eclectic blog because I'm not writing for any particular audience; instead, I blend literary criticism, book reviews, farm updates, and more contemplative essays on whatever strikes my mood.

While writing for PMP, I found myself drawn to stories of my childhood visits to my grandparents' farms in North Dakota. Somehow those memories kept slipping into my posts. I'd also produced a couple of digital stories about my grandparents' farms. Finally, I started to pay attention to my family history and realized it wasn't separate from the writing I'd done for Farmgiving. I revised the book, taking out the "nuts and bolts" parts and interspersing my North Dakota memories instead.

In this version, titled "Farmroots: A Memoir of Farms Past and Present," I consciously pursued what I call "ecobiography," or ecology-based memoir, a genre I'd been exploring while teaching lifewriting at the University of Colorado. When Torrey House decided to publish my book, we changed the title to A Bushel's Worth: An Ecobiography, based on a chapter about an attempt to grow wheat on our small farm and the lessons we learned about our ancestors' agricultural practices. The term "a bushel's worth" generally refers to an amount of produce that determines a market price, but in the book, it also conveys the idea that the value or worth of what we produce should be determined by factors other than price—the nourishment gained from our labor, our care for the land, and the gifts of the natural world that never get counted but without which nothing would grow.

A Bushel's Worth is a richer book for all those earlier stories, not just for the personal dimensions they bring, but for the broader historical aspects of farming, including the Dirty Thirties that were so big a part of my ancestry. Including family stories also allowed me to address changes in US agricultural systems. I even brought in classic literature by writers like Meridel LeSueur, Susan Glaspell, and Lois Phillips Hudson to help me explore my grandparents' experiences. The structure came a long way from those first 12 chapters, becoming much more elastic and vital. I'm thankful my memories of my grandparents' farms nudged me their way.

The book's subtitle is An Ecobiography. What is an ecobiography, and where does that genre fit in the classification scheme of literature? Is it more memoir? More nature writing? Or some of both?

I define ecobiography as "ecology based memoir" or "writing the self in nature." I place eco-biography at the juncture of nature writing and memoir where an author explores their own relationship to the natural world. I developed the idea of ecobiography for my literature courses at CU when I noticed writers juxtaposing their individual life stories with childhood memories or adult experiences in nature. In ecobiography, the author turns the lens through which they observe the natural world to the events of their own life. For example, I taught Tempest William's Refuge and Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood for the ways they interposed significant life events with observation of the natural world. I was excited, Susan, to find your own memoir, Walking Nature Home, a wonderful example of ecobiography for its rich and nuanced depiction of relationship to wild places.

In ecobiography, a realization of one's location in the natural world may lead to the discovery of other life lessons and a new vision of life story emerges that contemplates the writer as part of an interdependent ecosystem. In A Bushel's Worth, I trace my relationship with the natural world in wild, urban, and rural ecosystems by connecting pivotal childhood moments in nature—the first Earth Day in 1970, Girl Scout camping trips, visits to my grandparents' farms—with my life today at Stonebridge. I try to portray what Thoreau called "something kindred" between myself and the prairies, mountains, and foothills in which I have lived.

What are the challenges in writing when the land itself is your main character (or one of your main characters)? How do you bring alive what most people think of as mere scenic background?

Every day when I walk out my door or look out the window, I face what it means to live on ten acres of farmland along Colorado's Front Range. From our fields, we can see two of the highest peaks in the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains—Long's Peak and Mt. Meeker, called the "Two Guides" by the native Ute people who traversed the mountains along what is now called the Ute Highway. We watch the peaks to gauge how much water will flow down our irrigation ditch, water that translates to vegetables grown and meals eaten.

When the farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings were built on Stonebridge in 1911, the garage lay right at the edge of the dirt road that was the former Ute trail. That road is now a four-lane highway for weekend mountain visitors, commuters from the nearby small town, and trucks that haul cement from the plant south of the farm. In the two decades we have lived and traveled along this highway, we have seen farmland disappear at a remarkable rate. In its place now stand housing developments, a mega-church, and a big box store. An old farm a few miles east of us is now an agricultural museum. Stonebridge's "rural preservation" designation seems almost quaint in the midst of this massive land transfer to urban corridor. These pressures make the land at Stonebridge seem even more remarkable for its persistence, a quality that's become a defining characteristic of our farm.

In A Bushel's Worth, I discuss how farmland is a mediated place between wilderness and urban areas. I call farms "cultivated space" where humans and wilderness converge to form a fertile alliance. That particular sense of place, one in which the land directs our fate, shapes Stonebridge as a character in my book. From morning to night, from season to season, the land is ever-present, even watchful and wise in regard to our efforts. In chapters like "Dreams of Plentitude," "The Lay of the Land" and "Keeping a Farm a Farm," I worked hard to describe what our land looks like, how we interact with it, and how it teaches us "farmgiving," the bountiful generosity created by living alongside the land. Also, Stonebridge is inhabited by many creatures with which we cross paths in my book to show that humans are not the only beings living here. The soil, too, is rich and alive, supporting million of organisms, including those of us who raise our food from its tilth. The land's long beneficence towards of all its inhabitants lends it a kind of subjectivity and autonomy quite separate from our short presence here. John and I are stewards of this land, but we realize—and applaud—that as long as Stonebridge remains farmland, it can never be thoroughly domesticated. Preserving Stonebridge is a goal we're working more toward every year.

I want to add that Thoreau's Walden has certainly influenced my drawing of Stonebridge as a character in A Bushel's Worth. I can't substantiate this claim, but I believe I first read Walden in my junior high Great Books club. When I picked it up again as an adult, it all seemed eerily familiar. I've been re-reading Walden for years now, so surely Thoreau's portrayal of Walden Lake as a character has rubbed off on me.

A Bushel's Worth is roughly arranged according to a farm year, beginning with the winter solstice and proceeding through spring and planting, summer and harvest, and winding down toward winter again. Sprinkled throughout are chapters on the issues involved with farming, food production, and rural communities. How did you decide where those "issue" chapters fit, or did they just fall into place as you wrote?

My writing style has always placed personal stories within a larger historical, social, or political context. Maybe it's because I came of age as a second wave feminist with "The Personal is Political" as my mantra. Even my academic writing attempted to synthesize lots of different threads within literary analysis.

In A Bushel's Worth, that writing voice developed naturally as I connected our farm's experiences to the larger agricultural picture. Whether by viewing family farms of the past or small farms of the present, I wanted readers to see that farming is not inherently synonymous with industrial agriculture and its mechanization, chemical inputs, and export commodity profit motive. I'm an advocate for small-scale, organic agriculture because I believe that local foodsheds offer hope for the future of healthy eating and healthier environments. I'd love readers to be inspired to connect with farms like ours in whatever way they can—as growers, members, consumers, cooks, neighbors, volunteers, or advocates for the preservation of rural land. If each person has some relationship with a small-scale farm, the growth of the local food movement will be tremendous and, in turn, will influence the politics behind the way we grow, eat, and live. (See, even in answering, I can't help but bring in the issues!)

The dimension that took longer to appear in the book was that of my childhood experiences in Colorado. Those chapters were added after the book consciously became an "ecobiography" because I wanted to trace how my environmentalism came from growing up in the West. One of those chapters is called "Mountains to the West" and discusses how indelibly my life has been influenced by living along the Front Range of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Those mountains have formed the backdrop of my life and now shape the way we farm at Stonebridge, from the daylight that determines the growing time of our plants to the weather that provides favorable or unfavorable growing conditions to the amount of water flowing in our ditch from snowmelt every year. Every day, I look at the mountains to determine what that day may bring. When I travel, I take that sense of the West with me and am often lost when I don't have mountains by my side. At the same time that those of us who live along the Front Range are bounded by this topography, we also face wide open spaces where we can move around, be alone when needed, or form communities that help each other in the harsh conditions we face.

The fall that I was finishing the final revisions, we'd come through a summer of drought and wildfires enflaming the West. I had blogged about our experiences and decided to bring the book up to the present with those issues. As the climate warms, the West—and farms like ours—is especially vulnerable because water resources are becoming increasingly stretched by development pressure. I wanted to show that farming is facing new risks from climate extremes and variability. Farmers could never count on the weather, but we'd go back to those old days when "not counting" wasn't as unpredictable and erratic as it is now.

John, your husband, originally introduced you to Stonebridge, the farm that is both setting and central character in A Bushel's Worth. John is in the story, but as a character, he remains shadowy, a presence who we catch glimpses of but never see fully, "face on" as it were. Was that a conscious choice to protect his privacy, or simply the way the story wrote itself?

A criticism of the book by some in the publishing industry is that it's not intimate or personal enough for a memoir. I have to agree that A Bushel's Worth isn't a memoir centered on personal disclosure in the way that so many are today. There's no big, scandalous secret unveiled about my life or John's. Our lives haven't been dramatic in those ways, so the book I wrote can't be compared to those kinds of memoirs. Instead, I wanted to write about our community here and how it has formed alongside the land. For me, John and I are part of that larger ecosystem, both environmentally and socially, and the book reflects that idea.

I am the storyteller in the book because I'm sharing my experiences of living here, but in the Stonebridge sections, I'm mostly just another character, as is John. I didn't intend for him to be shadowy, but the story isn't told from his perspective. At my publisher's urging, I added some of the challenges we've faced as a couple, especially in those early days when I wasn't sure I belonged at Stonebridge. I also added the story of John's near-miss with the tractor to show how a sense of danger is always a part of farming. Those scenes seem very intimate to me, but are decidedly tame compared to what's published these days. The book's been called "a love story of land," which sounds like a love triangle between John, Stonebridge, and me. That's pretty accurate and, I hope, portrays the profound love we have for each other and the work we're doing together. Without it, I don't think we could make a deep commitment to the land. That said, I am always very conscious about privacy, so I probably erred on that side in some regard. When asked at my first reading what the juiciest part of the book is, I had to think fast but I got it: the apple-pressing!

What surprised you most in writing A Bushel's Worth? Do you have a favorite chapter or portion of the book?

I was surprised at how the book is perceived as just another farming book, of which some agents and publishers believe there are already too many. While it's true many wonderful farm memoirs have been published in the last few years, A Bushel's Worth is not a tale of "leaving city ways behind" in some na´ve, "Green Acres" fashion, but rather a story of reunion with an agricultural past that inspires lessons for farming's future. My life on the land was never an escape from a hectic urban lifestyle but instead a continuation of a farming life I began as a child and never truly left behind. Many people with family histories of farming don't farm themselves because they're not interested in industrialized, corporate agriculture. I'd like the book to communicate that small farms are not only a thing of the past but can be created today through hard work, community, and commitment to a piece of land.

When I do readings and workshops, the two chapters I like most to share are from my North Dakota memories. The first, "Marking Her Days with Grace," is based on my Grandma Smith's diaries. That chapter started as a blog post after reading the diaries one day. I love sharing that chapter as an example of how we can write about our genealogy from the bits and pieces we've inherited. I call this method "assemblage" and teach it as a writing strategy.

The second chapter I like to read is "Silos" because it recreates an indelible childhood memory of walking alone in the rural darkness to find my brother's stuffed bear. To me, it expresses the roots of my farming passion, my connection with the natural world, and my yearning for independence. In my writing, I tried to portray the immediacy of that small moment in time and place, when I too felt small in comparison to the universe around me. I often get asked whether I found the bear or not because the chapter doesn't specifically say, although it hints at the answer. That allows me to address how writers have to consider what readers need to know—or don't need to know—and how meaning can be conveyed by shifting or occluding a story's anticipated resolution.

I think about both my grandmothers every time I gather eggs, put up food for the winter, or sweep the kitchen floor. They worked hard on their farms to make good lives for their families and felt pride and satisfaction in that work. After my book came out, I dreamed that my Grandma Smith left me a house. When I told my cousin about it, she said maybe my grandmother was willing me the blessings of caring for the land, family, and community. I think that's right. I wish I could thank both my grandmothers for everything I learned from them and for sharing their lives with such grace.

In A Bushel's Worth, you write that a friend commented that what Stonebridge Farm is really growing is community. Is that true of all Community Supported Agriculture farms, and if not, what makes Stonebridge unique?

One thing that's been true about Community Supported Agriculture from the beginning is that each farm is as unique as the farmers who run it. Every farm has a different personality and different goals. We've been a CSA for 22 years—the first in our county—and have seen many CSAs come and go, often because they tried to be all things to all people. Because John and I are both educators and activists, community has always been at the center of our farm, rather than profit. We worked two "jobs" for years—teaching and farming—so that we could support our vision of community here by building a farmland-based infrastructure rather than marketing off the farm. What makes us unique is that we're joined in our efforts by people who view CSA as more than a consumer product or weekly share of vegetables and have assumed cooperative care of the farm. Many of them have been with us for a decade, some even for two decades. John and I are guided in our decision-making by the barterers and members who have the farm's long-term preservation at heart. Whether it's soil management, crop production, or member satisfaction, we are all stewards of this land and the CSA that has formed around it.

We're encouraged by the rise of small-scale farmers and the support for new farms in our area. When we started in 1992, few people knew what CSA meant. Now, that concept has been applied to lots of different models and products, from wine to art. While I don't begrudge these new forms of CSA, I worry that something has been lost in this consumerist framework from the original agricultural model: farmland. Here on Colorado's Front Range, development is marching across the prairie on land that used to grow food, some ironically named after the farms they've replaced. I think it's important for the public to realize that when you become a CSA member, you're not just getting vegetables in a different way but instead are part of a reciprocal relationship that helps keep a farm a farm.

I hope my book shows readers ways that individuals can join their efforts with others to create a place-based community. I'd like them to think about how food policies impact their food practices and how both those policies and practices will create the world they leave to future generations. I hope the book will inspire young people to get involved in sustainable agricultural and food systems in ways that further the work we've started at Stonebridge.

Did the community of Stonebridge survive the devastation of Colorado's catastrophic flooding? How will the after-effects of that flooding change Stonebridge Farm and the community that supports it?

The flood was a horrendous experience for all of us because our lives were disrupted in so many ways. It's unimaginable to have one's entire town evacuated. Even today, many people have yet to move back into their houses—and some have had to relocate permanently. I write in the book that we'd never had to close down the barn, but we did for the flood because our farm was in the initial restricted access zone so our members couldn't get through the checkpoint to reach us the first Saturday after the flood. Truthfully, people were so displaced, many of them couldn't have picked up their vegetables anyway, but it still felt terrible not to pick for those who could.

We had minimal flood damage to our farmhouse and we had the services we needed most, so we didn't evacuate. We felt like a port in the storm, providing vegetables or shelter or even freezer space when we could. Luckily, we only missed one Saturday's pick-up, and everyone was happy to see each other in the fields and barn the following week. We were also lucky here at the farm not to have floodwater on our fields from the river or ditches, flooding which could have brought long-term contamination. Our annual harvest concert of local musician members, which was to have included a reading from A Bushel's Worth, was scheduled for the Sunday right after the flood. Obviously, we had to cancel that. Even without the checkpoint, we were in the midst of an emergency and a festival was the last thing on our minds.

Those final eight weeks of the season following the flood were rough, especially since many of our members were still evacuated, but the fields provided their fall bounty and we didn't even have to irrigate. Now that the town is in recovery mode, we're paying attention to plans that may impact the farm, like ditch reconstruction and future development along our corridor. The flood taught us that as an agricultural ecosystem we're even more vulnerable to climate-related emergencies than we'd realized. But the flood also brought the community closer together with a greater sense that we are our own best resource.

What are you writing now?

I'm working on a guide to writing ecobiography because I think ecology-based memoirs are important to our environmental future, especially for land and species preservation of all kinds. With climate crisis looming in the face of little substantive action from governmental leaders, we need stories about the natural world that compel both large and small-scale responses. I hope writing about ourselves in nature helps us raise awareness and create solutions for our global climate problems. Ecobiography may also provide a record for a disappearing natural world. But even on a personal level, ecobiography can connect writers and readers with healing aspects of the natural world from which we can draw comfort, inspiration, and strength.

In the book, I'll discuss topics such as characteristics of ecobiography, how an ecology-based memoir differs from other memoirs and from nature writing, and how one might think about their life story and personal development in relationship to the natural world. None of this is meant to be prescriptive or an attempt to define other authors' writings, but rather to give writers another tool in first-person narrative, one that may have a goal of personal or environmental transformation. Sometimes I think of ecobiography texts as natural artifacts like bone, shell, stone, or seed that embody the natural world they portray. I'm trying to describe correspondence between natural objects and writing, not only in the words chosen, but in texture, form, function, and relationship within an ecosystem.

Sounds heavy, I know, but I'm writing the book in a upbeat voice with a flexible structure that offers readers lots of options. As a writer and a writing teacher, I was strongly influenced by Natalie Goldberg's magnificent Writing Down the Bones, and I'm trying to give my readers the kind of "you can do it" encouragement that she imparts so well. I hope aspiring writers will find inspiration in ecobiography to structure their life stories in new ways.

For more information on the author and her books visit Kayann Short's website.

       

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