My mentor was a sunburned, 6o-year-old, 300-pound Jehovah's Witness in dark glasses. Tim Posey didn't look like a tree-hugger. He didn't talk about loving nature or saving the environment. But he was, in many ways, the truest and best conservationist I've ever known.
I grew up in an enclave of surplus army barracks and mobile homes on the Mexican border a few miles from El Paso, Texas. Technically we lived in the village of Anapra, in southern New Mexico. But our community—and our culture—didn't really belong in any either state, or either country. In many ways, the border is its own nation. It's a country that attracts self-reliant misfits, independent thinkers and many people who are simply stranded on the margins of the North American economy.
Mr. Posey bought 10 acres in that economic—and literal—desert in the 1950s. He drilled a well and buried a network of shallow water lines, dividing the land into a grid of lots where renters could park their trailers (which have since come to be called mobile homes). He dug simple septic tanks with standpipes rising out of the sand. He planted poles and strung power lines. If you rented a lot in the Posey Trailer Park you could pull your trailer in, hook up the sewer, electricity and water and within an hour or so be ready to settle in and watch Gunsmoke on TV.
The great thing about owning a trailer park, Mr. Posey would tell me, was that once you had the water, sewer and power set up, you could pretty much "set back and collect the rent." But Mr. Posey didn't rest on his laurels. Once the trailer park was operational, Tim Posey built himself an oasis.
The Posey homestead probably wouldn't strike most Americans as a vision of paradise. We lived on dunes dotted with creosote and mesquite bushes, cactus and yucca. Mostly, the land was bare sand. We had seven or eight inches of total precipitation a year, which as my Dad liked to say didn't seem like much unless you were there the day it rained seven inches—usually in a single deluge in late June or early July.
The Miracles Created by Nature (and Goats)
Tim Posey had a half-acre vegetable garden irrigated with well water; a collection of sheds and barns built from scavenged poles and plywood; pens for his goats, chickens, geese and ducks; two long rows of rabbit hutches; and a few paddocks and stalls he rented to horse owners.
I started hanging around when I was about 8 years old because I loved animals. By the time I was 9 Tim Posey had hired me to milk the goats, and to take them out to the desert to browse. He said he figured he couldn't get rid of me so he might as well put me to work. I was paid in eggs and milk.
The desert is a goat's natural habitat. Where we see a wasteland of scrubby plants they see a smorgasbord. I would open the gate and watch Tim's little herd of half a dozen dairy goats charge into the scrubland, greedily seeking out their favorites—bunch grass, mesquite beans and purslane. They seemed to enjoy variety. They moved from one species to the next: Seed pods for breakfast, grass for brunch, a big meal of flowering purslane and then maybe a leisurely hour or two munching on mesquite leaves.
In the evening we went back to the barn and I witnessed the daily miracle. From the desert's sparse, coarse, resinous plants the goats made sweet, frothy milk loaded with butterfat.
Mr. Posey's Garden Miracle
Mr. Posey performed a similar miracle in his garden.
We mixed manure from the pens in a 55-gallon drum with well water, and then poured the slurry into the stream of irrigation water, which carried nourishment to every corner of the plot. Because Mr. Posey had a bad back, it was my job to stir the slurry. If you've ever stuck your head in a barrel full of liquefied chicken manure on a 95-degree afternoon you can confirm that the sensation is less a smell than it is a state of being, like snorkeling in a pond that is equal parts feces and ammonia. Still, it was our magic potion.
There in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert surrounded by sand dunes, Tim Posey cultivated squash and cucumbers, fat watermelons and tall stands of corn. He grew spices and beans, okra and peas.
The desert summer days were long and sunny. The sand was clean and well drained. We added water and fertilizer and, voila, the desert made food. It struck me then, and still seems to me now, a sort of miracle, or at least evidence of a sort of earthy magic, the transubstantiation of sand into watermelons.
The Jehovah's Witnesses encourage their members to create their own food and to protect the planet by using organic methods. But I didn't know, then, that the Posey homestead was inspired by a religion. I only knew that it amazed me and that I felt closer to God there, among the plants and animals that provided our food, than I ever had in a church. I never considered joining the Witnesses, but I guess I became a sort of lower-case witness myself, a witness to the wonder and satisfaction of growing food on a personal scale. And my goat herding evolved, in a roundabout way, into my career.
Conservation in All Its Universal Values
Mr. Posey's personal values embraced all the definitions of conservation. His home was a surplus building bought on the cheap from the US Army and moved to Anapra from Fort Bliss. Nearly every structure and every machine, every board and every wire on the Posey homestead was reclaimed, refurbished or repurposed.
I'm sure that penchant for recycling was born of economic necessity. But part of what I learned from Tim Posey—and others like him—was that ingenious frugality could be the source of every bit as much intellectual satisfaction as any other form of invention. And a large part of that satisfaction, then as now, comes from the awareness that every power pole scavenged from a decommissioned railroad telegraph line saved a 30-year-old living tree from being cut down.
The fundamental values associated with conservation are virtually universal. Nearly every human being appreciates a living tree, and would like to save it from destruction.
And everyone likes a scavenger hunt. Hunting for a good, cheap used pole is more fun than going out and buying a new pole. When you offer people the chance to make constructive, creative changes in their own lives, most people are receptive.
Fear: The Universal Common Denominator
Everyone wants to preserve clean air and water. Everyone likes a dose of nature now and then, in one form or another. Everyone wants future generations to be at least as prosperous, healthy and gratified as our generation. So why, I ask myself, has concern for the environment remained one of the most divisive topics on the American political agenda all my life?
In a word, fear.
My partners in arms—environmentalists—are afraid of the looming catastrophes. They have accepted their responsibility for humanity's impact on the planet. They know the data, and the data have a compelling story to tell. Earth's habitat is changing rapidly, and we are the cause. We are changing the atmospheric chemistry and the climate, depleting the groundwater, exhausting the topsoil and diminishing the planet's precious diversity of species.
Understandably, this knowledge fosters a sense of urgency. One doesn't have to contemplate our impact on the planet for very long before one starts to feel that we need to change our behavior in a major way—and soon. It's easy to feel a little freaked out.
On the other side of the geo-emotional divide are those who habitually deny that we are degrading the planetary environment. They've heard the murmuring about change, and instinctively recoil from the idea. If you plan to mention major societal change in any context, you can expect to get some recoil.
Both camps are fundamentally afraid of what tomorrow may bring. And both camps are motivated, to a destructive degree, by that fear.
Between these two camps sits a community of busy farmers, gardeners, goat-milkers, trail-builders, engineers, scientists, windmill climbers and solar installers. To a great degree they have led our society's journey toward sustain-ability, and they continue to do so.
They are leaders because their excitement is stronger than their fear.
How to Subdue Fear
Logically, when crisis threatens we need to subdue our fear in order to take constructive action. But taking action also somehow diminishes our fear. It feels natural. Once we get busy we're not as scared any more.
Perhaps we don't control the forces changing our climate when we grow a few vegetables, but we do influence those forces, and I think the activity profoundly changes our perspective. The situation immediately seems more manageable when we begin to manage.
Two Important Habits I Learned From Mr. Posey
I learned two important habits while I was a goat-milker and manure mixer on Tim Posey's homestead. First, Tim taught me how to connect with nature on a personal level. Animals are great models of constructive action. Their initiative is always authentic. They wake up every morning with a passion for living—until they die.
Tim Posey named nearly every animal on his place, even those he intended, eventually, to eat. He treated each of them with humane respect. He taught me how to handle the animals gently, and to let them show me how they wished to be treated.
Tim Posey taught me to respect the plants and animals we lived among and to understand their nutritional, medicinal and psychic values. He taught me to drink the goat's milk warm and to appreciate the companionship of the animals that provided it. Later I found other influences in the books of people like Wendell Berry, Robert Frost, Jane Goodall and Joel Salatin. Tim Posey led me there.
The second good habit I picked up on the Posey homestead was a natural inclination to get to work, and to do my work in a cheerful state of mind. There's an old cliche about busy hands being happy hands. It's a damned good cliche.
I'm sure passersby on Posey Road didn't generally share Tim's vision of paradise in the peeling paint and dry rot of his barns, but I learned to see the place through his eyes. Now I have my own place where the hinges are rusty and the garden overgrown, but I've preserved and developed a knack for seeing its charm and its grand potential. As I walk around the property, year after year, I can feel my tread getting a little slower, a little heavier, a little more in line with Tim's gait. And the habitual smile on my face is, maybe, a little more like Tim's smile.
*subtitles by InnerSelf
©2013 by Lyle Estill. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. http://newsociety.com
Small Stories, Big Changes: Agents of Change on the Frontlines of Sustainability
by Lyle Estill.
About the Author of this excerpt
Bryan Welch and his family raise cattle, sheep, goats and chickens on their 50-acre farm. All their animals range freely, and the grazing animals are strictly grass-fed. When he’s not farming, Bryan runs Ogden Publications, Inc. (www.OgdenPubs.com), a diversified media, consulting and affinity marketing company. His company has grown rapidly over the past few years and now publishes 10 magazines for people interested in self-sufficiency, sustainability, rural lifestyles and farm collectibles, including Mother Earth News, Utne Reader, and Mother Earth Living. Its Web sites attract more than 3 million unique visitors each month.
This article was adapted with permission from a chapter entitled "Mother Earth News" in the book "Small Stories, Big Changes: Agents of Change on the Frontlines of Sustainability"
About the Book's Author
Lyle Estill is the president and co-founder of Piedmont Biofuels, a community scale biodiesel project in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He has been on the vanguard of social change for the past decade, which has placed him at the heart of the sustainability movement. Lyle is a prolific speaker and writer, and the author of Industrial Evolution, Small is Possible and Biodiesel Power. He has won numerous awards for his commitment to sustainability, outreach, community development, and leadership.