The mystery man bringing an edible garden to an urban wasteland

A photo of the urban garden (and towering corn crop) from this past summer. 

A photo of the urban garden (and towering corn crop) from this past summer. 

For months now, I've been biking by a tiny triangle of land capping one end of a self-storage facility in my West L.A. neighborhood and wondering about the mysterious master gardener who had taken it into his own hands to transform a blink-if-you-miss-it slice of urban wasteland into a bountiful edible garden. The lot was in the least likely and perhaps most unappetizing of places to grow food: situated under the metro overpass, on a thoroughfare packed with smog-spewing cars and alongside a bike path strewn with trash by a homeless encampment. Oh, and can you see the sign in the photo above for the adjacent strip club? (Not that those employed by strip clubs don't enjoy locally grown veggies. Or gardening, for that matter.)

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Yet, every time I biked by, I could see from the overflowing abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables that the plants couldn't care in the least about their surroundings. Tomatoes, corn, kale, cabbage, strawberry vines and artichokes pushed their way through and even up and over the chain-link fence. And every few months, I would pass by and see that the bulk of the crops had been recently harvested, with seedlings for the next season carefully rotated in and planted in tidy rows. The gardener was never there and the gate was always locked. I started to wonder if this guerrilla permaculturalist was hopping the fence and planting his or her seeds by streetlight. 

But yesterday, the mystery was at long last solved. I biked by and saw a kindly man waving at me through the fence, as though he knew that I had been wondering about him all along. I hit the brakes and cycled around to say hi, and he told me that he worked at the storage facility and that he, indeed, was the gardener.

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I'll call him E, to protect his privacy here, although he welcomed me in to take some photos. He is a recent immigrant from El Salvador, and as we chatted about his plans for the garden this fall, he told me that he had recently suffered a family tragedy back in his home country; that life in America so far had been very hard, that it was not what he had expected. Why did he plant the garden, I asked? He didn't hesitate. "I thought something green should grow here."

More photos from E's garden (and next crop) later this fall. 

Unlatched out in Poland and the loss of ancestral homelands

The very first foreign translation of Unlatched is out (with a notably less "scandalous" cover that I'm guessing Twitter won't censor this time around). That it's in Poland has a lot of meaning for me, which I brought to light in a letter to the Polish media that I was asked to write in advance of the book's publication. I'll share that with you here:

Dear Readers,

You are holding in your hands the very first foreign translation of Unlatched. That you are reading this in Poland is deeply meaningful for me. I am the great-granddaughter of Polish-Russian immigrants. My great-grandmother, Ella Frutkin (neé Stuchinsky), was born in 1888, in the city of Grodno, alternately Polish-Lithuanian and a holding of the Russian Empire (now in Belarus). She left Grodno as a young girl, during the mass migration of Eastern Europeans to the United States and to South America over the turn of the last century -- one of the greatest migrations in all of human history. And she arrived in America in the midst of another dramatic transformation of humankind: the rise of America’s Industrial Age.

I know many of the stories about her remarkable life: her weeks-long voyage packed in steerage on the ship to a new life in America; the loss of her younger sister from influenza; her fortitude as a youth, laboring in a garment sweatshop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to support her mother and disabled brother. Yet I know little about the day-to-day details of her early childhood in Polish/Russian Grodno, or of the family life she left behind, or of the lives of my relatives who came before her. Ella died at the age of 100 when I was nine, and with her died all knowledge of my prior human history.

Ella’s story isn’t in Unlatched. But it was the realization of this and other lost connections to my ancestors, to our collective human history, that led me to write this book. Because at its core, Unlatched isn’t just a book about breastfeeding -- the now embattled nurturing of our young especially in the modernized world, and the resulting impact on our public health crises. Unlatched is the story of how we are at the tipping point of disconnecting from our natural biology, and thus from the life our human ancestors lived for 99.9 percent of their existence on earth.

Yet it doesn’t matter if you are the child of displaced immigrants or can trace your family lineage back for centuries. If you live in the modern, industrialized, increasingly technologized world today, you can feel that this is a world that would have challenged our ancestors’ natural ability to thrive.

“Breast is best” may be a global mantra, but here is the reality in Poland: While a remarkable 98 percent of Polish mothers now start off breastfeeding, more than half will give it up entirely or start supplementing with formula within a few weeks. Just 4 percent of Polish babies receive the initial six months of exclusive breastfeeding recommended for optimal development and health by the World Health Organization. And yet, scientists now know that breast milk is not just a food, but a mysterious and powerful human tissue -- a constellation of complex nutrients, hormones, immunoactive molecules, microorganisms, and other little-understood compounds uniquely evolved over millions of years, to meet the survival needs of the human infant.

How did we come to surrender eons of human evolution for artificial formula feeding? Growing up, I thought nothing of the fact that I was exclusively formula-fed. But when I became a mother, I began to think about the true impact of surrendering such a profound connection. Unlatched documents my worldwide search for answers about the first, most fundamental experience of newborn life.

I discovered that the issues involved were momentous. To transcend the current-day controversies (“to breastfeed or formula-feed; to do it in public or private; how long is it acceptable to nurse?”) and uncover the full story, I spent three years tracing human history and breastfeeding in other cultures around the world. I examined the feeding of infants and young children in prehistory, in biblical times, up to eighteenth-century France and Industrial Age America, from modern-day Mongolia to inner-city Los Angeles. I explored a highly specialized research laboratory where the foremost lactation scientists in the world are unlocking the secrets of human milk and helping to uncover links to our modern-day epidemic of chronic disease. I interviewed dozens of anthropologists and historians; doctors and public health experts; economists and policymakers; formula and marketing industry insiders. And everywhere along the way, I spoke with mothers and fathers to find out how breastfeeding lost its place as the human norm, and how in the modern world today, obstacles to breastfeeding success can seem insurmountable.

Unlatched sheds light on the astonishing truths at the heart of our contemporary breastfeeding disconnection. But, importantly, it reveals a path to restoring this most fundamental human function -- and thus our collective health and well-being -- by restoring the ancient framework of societal support necessary to make breastfeeding possible in the modern world.

How fortuitous that I should be reconnected to my great-grandmother, to my ancestral homeland, and to you through this book. And how fortunate for us all that, together, we now have the power to forge a healthier and more authentically human future for our children--

Jennifer Grayson

July 1, 2017

Los Angeles

For my Polish-speaking friends or those adept at deciphering Google Translate, there's a fantastic piece by journalist Anna Kowalczyk in Gazeta Wyborcza about the enormity of the situation Polish mothers are facing today. The language may be different, but she could just as easily be writing about America or any other WEIRD society in the world today. 

Link to buy Odstawieni. Ewolucja karmienia piersią. Historia kontrowersji is here.  

Core survival skills weekend at Gould Mesa Trail Camp

Apprentice of the Wild instructor Sean Critchfield scoping out edible (and not edible, see below) plants on our group's leisurely one-mile hike down to camp. The trek back up at the end of the day in 100-plus degree heat was a tad tougher.

Apprentice of the Wild instructor Sean Critchfield scoping out edible (and not edible, see below) plants on our group's leisurely one-mile hike down to camp. The trek back up at the end of the day in 100-plus degree heat was a tad tougher.

Because I've been on social media hiatus for the past few months (more on that in another post!), I wanted to take the opportunity here to share some photos from the amazing core survival skills workshop I attended last weekend at the primordially serene Gould Mesa Trail Camp in the Angeles National Forest. Unbelievably, this slice of wilderness is just a few minutes' drive (and alright, a subsequent two-mile roundtrip hike) into the mountains from the city streets of Northeast Los Angeles. 

The two-day class was taught by outdoorsman Sean Critchfield, lead instructor for the Wisdom Keepers Apprentice of the Wild ancient skills programs for children here in LA. Last spring, my girls started taking one of Sean's after-school classes and since then, we as a family have become thoroughly obsessed with and inspired by all that they're learning (i.e., my husband recently splurged on a Gränsfors Bruk ax and now batons wood in our backyard to relax after a tough work week; see my previous post about foraging for radishes on sidewalk medians). Not surprisingly, many of the parents of the kids taking Sean's Apprentice of the Wild classes have been begging him to offer more classes for us nature-loving but under-skilled adults. Last weekend, he delivered! 

The massively deadly castor bean plant (Ricans communis). It's been reported that just one bean can take out an adult male within minutes. Translation: Do not eat under any circumstances!

The massively deadly castor bean plant (Ricans communis). It's been reported that just one bean can take out an adult male within minutes. Translation: Do not eat under any circumstances!

Our respite in the shade, where Sean started off the day going over a plan of action should you ever find yourself truly lost in the wild (fight the urge to run off in random directions screaming for help like a crazy maniac by sitting down and emptying your pockets to see what useful tools you may already have, and note any nearby water sources like this one -- just be sure to boil the water before drinking). 

Our respite in the shade, where Sean started off the day going over a plan of action should you ever find yourself truly lost in the wild (fight the urge to run off in random directions screaming for help like a crazy maniac by sitting down and emptying your pockets to see what useful tools you may already have, and note any nearby water sources like this one -- just be sure to boil the water before drinking). 

Learning to make cordage out of yucca, an essential plant for indigenous peoples that is still ubiquitous throughout Southern California. Filled with natural saponins, the leaves can also easily be transformed into a very lathery (and very bright green!) biodegradable soap.

Learning to make cordage out of yucca, an essential plant for indigenous peoples that is still ubiquitous throughout Southern California. Filled with natural saponins, the leaves can also easily be transformed into a very lathery (and very bright green!) biodegradable soap.

My Hohokam-style knife, crafted from a batoned stick, (crudely) flint-knapped obsidian and my yucca cordage. The Hohokam were a prehistoric Native American people who inhabited what is now known as the American Southwest.

My Hohokam-style knife, crafted from a batoned stick, (crudely) flint-knapped obsidian and my yucca cordage. The Hohokam were a prehistoric Native American people who inhabited what is now known as the American Southwest.

Sadly, I missed out on the second day of the class due to a sudden onset sore throat (nothing like being snapped back to the reality of the continuous exposure to elementary schoolincubated infectious illness that has become the hallmark of city-dwelling motherhood), but Sean managed to cover much of the core four (water, food, fire, shelter) in that immersive and totally fun first day. My elusive first bow-drill coal will just have to wait until next time. 

Stay tuned, though: I'm excited to report that Sean will be appearing on one of the very first episodes of the Uncivilize Podcast this fall!

Urban foraging as an emotional survival strategy

Last week, I was out running errands around the neighborhood on my bike. As I came to the sidewalk portion of the Expo Line Bike Path and waited amidst the honking and sirens to cross one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles, I heard a plane fly overhead. I looked up, just in time to also catch the Expo Line train roaring by on the elevated track above me, and suddenly realized that I was simultaneously in the shadow of the metro platform, the 405 freeway overpass and the flight path of Santa Monica airport. Sigh. Just a typical day in LA. Which leads me to how I maintain any semblance of humanity in the midst of it all...

One respite for me as of late has been urban foraging. (Not dumpster diving, though it sounds like that in the context of the previous paragraph. I'm talking about the harvesting of real, wild edible plants. The abutment of urban decay and abundant nature is one of the marvelous paradoxes of LA.)

Many of the foraging finds in our neighborhood aren't actually wild species, but simply domesticated plants growing in public spaces like sidewalk medians. True, my family is a far way from surviving off the calories we find. But the simple act of learning to discover-identify-harvest-gobble up free fruits and veggies and herbs has been empowering; a reminder that the choice to opt out of the system is there.

Is anything better than wild blackberries? More on the incredible place we found these in a later post...

Is anything better than wild blackberries? More on the incredible place we found these in a later post...

For my girls, though, it's just a fun game, and it's been amazing to watch them spy a cluster of wild radishes off the sidewalk or a bounty of loquats in the alley and then be able to lead me to that location again and again -- even if the spot is a mile away and we haven't visited for over a month. It is a remarkable reminder of how we as human beings are biologically hardwired to zero in on and catalog the location of food in our natural environment.  

Right now, our favorite fig trees are back producing delicious ripe fruit after going on hiatus for the past two months. Their broad fingered leaves are really easy to spot in the urban landscape; once you learn how to identify them, you start to notice them everywhere. (Note I shouldn't have to add but will anyway: Never eat a plant unless you're 100 percent sure of what it is. Just ask my mom to tell you about the time I was 12 and plopped a random berry off a tree into my mouth to be "funny" while we were on a walk together, two miles from the nearest town or phone or car.)

Figs are ubiquitous, in fact, because they're considered invasive -- all the more reason to eat them freely. (Check out: Eattheinvaders.org.) I like them for breakfast, halved and topped with crumbled cotija and a drizzle of honey. 

Why I don't use plastic produce bags, and a parable

I've been waiting for the inspiration to open this page with the perfect post that encapsulates everything I feel as of late about the disconnectedness of modern life, and how increasingly disconnected I feel from the experience of my fellow modern humans, living here in Los Angeles. It came, strangely enough, during a quick trip to the grocery store this week:

"Your bags," the woman whispered, or at least that's what I thought I heard her say. I was at the fish counter, daydreaming about who-knows-what while waiting for my order to be packed up, and suddenly realized that her secretive hush was directed at me. I looked over my left shoulder to see a thirty-something woman with impeccably blown-out dark brown hair staring at me with a quizzical smile. She was pointing at my cart.

"My bags?" I echoed, gesturing to the array of canvas totes on my arm. I guessed she probably wanted to know where I bought them. Since the plastic bag ban in Los Angeles, I get a lot of compliments on my colorful assortment, along with the smaller cloth bags that I use for veggies and dry goods from the bulk bin. That day, though, I didn't have any of my little cloth produce bags with me because they were in the wash after the farmers market that weekend, so I had done what I always do in that situation: toss my carrots and radishes and other fruits and veggies directly into the cart. 

"No," she tried again, a little louder, this time pointing at my cart. "The bags..." But still, the second half of her sentence trailed off in a barely audible whisper. Did this lady have laryngitis? But her countenance now turned to one of serious concern, and I realized she was whispering so as not to attract the attention of other shoppers. I inched toward her. 

"Sorry, what about my bags?" 

Clearly fed up, she laid it on me: "You don't have bags -- plastic produce bags. You know, you really should use them," she said, glaring at the naked carrot and radish tops splayed across the metal grate of my cart. "These carts are really dirty."

Oh.

Feeling the eyes of my fellow shoppers upon me, I smiled politely and decided to reply with a version of my usual spiel when people are curious about my plastic-free choices (although this admonishment was a first): "Well, you know, we try to cut back on plastic waste in our family," I chirped. "I wash the veggies, and most of them are going to be cooked, anyway. Have a nice day!" I added, making a point to place the paper package of salmon dangerously close to my unclothed veggies. Then I blithely glided away with my cart.

I could have launched into a tirade about how those vegetables were likely touched by dozens of ungloved hands on their journey from farm to supermarket and that a plastic bag would do little but enrobe whatever microbes were extant; how the manufacturing of petrochemical based plastics produces pollution far more worrisome than whatever "dirt" was lingering on my carrots; how I had forgone plastic produce bags precisely this way for a decade now and had yet to get sick; that recent scientific revelations about the human microbiome had advanced awareness of the complex processes of our immune system far beyond the sanitize-all-invaders simplicity of early 20th-century germ theory; that human beings had undoubtedly been placing plastic-free market purchases in their carts/totes/handwoven baskets even well before the Lydians mingled apricots with grape seeds in their amphorae 2,000 years ago in ancient Tripoli; and that plastic produce baggies, ubiquitous as they now are, were, in fact, only introduced to America in 1966. (Plastic grocery bags made their appearance the year of my birth, in 1979.) But I decided to hold my tongue. Since I'm enjoying this rant here, though, I'll add the response of my 6-year-old daughter when I told her the story: "The plastic bag isn't even really 'clean,' Mommy. The chemicals in the plastic will be touching her food."

Dirt. Germs. The illusionary protective power of good, clean, manmade plastic.

To some of you, this will seem like a silly story about a random run-in with a germ freak at the supermarket. But to me, it's come to symbolize nothing short of an act of rebellion in our hyper-santized, hyper-civilized world. Because as I've replayed the encounter again in my head, I realize that what bothers me so much about it isn't that the woman was lacking the knowledge of all I've stated above. It's that the woman truly believed she was trying to be helpful. She not only sees nothing unnatural about a world in which the plants and the soil and the microbes are separated from the realm of humans by human technologies (i.e., a sheet of plastic); she is its willing enabler. She has no awareness of the world that came before.

It reminded me of another story, that the farmer at my favorite stand at my local farmers market told me the other day: A potential customer had asked the farmer why the potatoes at her stand looked dirty. "They're dirty because potatoes are grown in dirt," the farmer replied to a blank stare, no doubt like the one I witnessed in the woman's face in my shopping cart encounter. 

"I had just pulled them from the ground the evening before," my farmer friend told me. "To my mind, seeing a little bit of dirt on the potatoes is a good thing. It tells you that it's a real potato, grown by a real person, who's directly connected to the food, and to the dirt."