Gardening in a blizzard

There is a winter storm warning out for this corner of the state. The temperature is dropping and the radar shows a large band of snow headed our way. The wind is predicted to hit gusts of 45 miles per hour. It is no wonder that the seed catalogs I have found in my mailbox for the last several weeks seem so enticing.

The seed companies know when to send their beautifully colored catalogs of perfect looking fruits and vegetables to my door. Today would be a perfect day to build a fire in the wood stove, make a hot cup of coffee, find the last of the Christmas cookies and dream about Spring.

Will I plant the usual crop of Nantes carrots or should I venture to seed purple and red ones? Maybe a new variety of heirloom tomatoes? How many cabbages? The flowers are so beautiful. I want a few of every kind! Perhaps I should give up trying to grow anything loved by flea beetles. More peppers? Fewer tomatoes? What kind of beans? Should I give okra another try? Then there are the fruit trees and berry bushes tempting me with images of sweet bright fruits. How many years will it take before you can eat a hardy kiwi off the vine?

DSCF0026 1I have forgotten the unfinished tasks covered up by the snow in my garden. There are squash vines waiting to be picked up. What about those nasty slugs that chewed up any tomato that was close to the ground and which crawled their slimy little selves into the lettuce? Will they survive the winter? Maybe another cold snap wouldn’t be such a bad idea! If I plant everything I put on my preliminary list, I would need to dig up another acre or two to accommodate the additional plants. How would I pick and preserve all of the bounty of the fall when everything is ready? Of course, that all seems possible in the middle of a January blizzard.

Gardening, like many of the best parts of life, doesn’t always pencil out economically. Seeds can be expensive unless you save your own. Started plants are even more costly. The cost does, however, keep one closer to the reality of what is possible in one’s garden. If you only compare the price of fresh produce in the grocery store or at the farmers’ market, it would hardly pencil out. Some of the benefits of gardening, however, are harder to quantify.

Planting a few flowers among the carrots and cabbages can attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. The physical exercise needed to hoe, mulch, weed and water is as healthy for you as is the higher nutrition of fresh vegetables. Being outside surrounded by singing birds and buzzing bees is good for one’s mental health as well. Studies show a marked increase in endorphins and other good mood chemicals in our bodies when we are out of our air conditioned, LED lit, super-insulated homes and offices.

Even if I didn’t have piles of year end bookkeeping to complete and unfinished laundry or a dozen or more projects to start and finish, it would not be a good idea for me to send off my seed order today. If the wind picks up and the snow starts blowing, I might get carried away with garden planning in an effort to keep warm.

Gardening fantasies can be very expensive if one acts on them in the middle of a blizzard.

© 2018 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


The real war on Christmas

The war on Christmas has become a reason for controversy again. Many are upset that some retail stores have directed their staff to avoid saying, “Merry Christmas,” and have opted for more inclusive language. Some religious leaders decry the ban on religious music in public schools and nativity scenes on public lawns. The real story of Christmas IS being ignored by the world. This is not new. The story has been changed, twisted and attacked since the beginning. It is a story that the world is not comfortable with…and rightly so.

Unlike the feel-good, sweet, sentimental holiday movies which get replayed and replayed year after year, the real Christmas story is not a very pretty one.
The real Christmas story is not a tale for children. It  takes place in a land ruled by a foreign government, governed by corrupt religious leaders and by edicts enforced by fear. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in the place where their family originated. Was this an attempt to weed out people who were living where they weren’t supposed to be? Was it an attempt to determine  people’s ethnicity or political leanings. Was it simply an exercise in intimidation?

Mary and Joseph, in spite of Mary’s late term and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, travelled a long distance over dusty roads on foot or, at best, on a donkey. When they got to Bethlehem they found themselves homeless and without the help of Mary’s relatives and the family’s midwives when she gave birth to her first baby. As a mother, I can only imagine how frightened this teenage girl must have been. We depict the stable where Jesus was born as a brightly lit, pleasant barn, full of golden straw and freshly groomed animals. Most barns, even well kept ones, are not cozy. Animals smell and are dirty, even if they are well cared for. Who of us would opt for giving birth in a barn and using a feed bunk for a crib? Such accommodations would only be used at the point of desperation. Was it cold and dark?  Did Mary and Joseph have enough to eat in their homelessness? How long did they have to live in the barn? Did Joseph find work?

Supernatural beings showed up, telling the shepherds about the baby. The scruffy, unkempt companions of sheep ran to visit this new king-baby. No shower. No change of clothes. I know what they smelled and looked like. They were not the kind of visitors a mother would be excited to have breathing on her brand new baby.

The story of the wise men is one of international intrigue.They were lied to by the authorities when they asked for directions. They were encouraged to report back to Herod when they found the new King. When an informant (an angel) told them that Herod meant to harm the new king and they slipped away by another direction after visiting baby Jesus.

Then the story gets really nasty. This part of the story is often ignored or skipped in the telling. Herod, afraid he was about to be deposed, launched a campaign of infanticide, killing all baby boys under the age of 2. I can hardly imagine the horror which would result from such an edict. To save the life of their baby son, Mary and Joseph fled their homeland to become refugees in the land of Egypt. They didn’t return to their home for years.

This is not a pretty story. It is not at all similar to the tales of “Christmas magic” that flood our airwaves. It has nothing to do with the generic, feel good script of holiday movie. It is a story of fear, poverty, homelessness, deceit, terror and murder.

The rest of the story of Jesus’s life is just as difficult. His cousin and friend John the Baptist was beheaded for preaching about him. Jesus was harassed, discredited and eventually executed. He preached passive resistance against domination and persecution. He hung out with women, tax collectors and other undesirables. He advocated for the poor and the powerless. He called into question the entitlement of the rich and powerful. He made the people in power uncomfortable. His life should make us uncomfortable as well.

We wage our own war on Christmas if we make the stable, the animals, the shepherds and the wise men too pretty. We miss the point if we ignore the poverty of Jesus’s parents or if we skip the acts of the murderous king who forced them to become refugees in a foreign country. Making the story magical and sweet ignores the importance of the Christmas story. It trivializes the sacrifice and lessons of Jesus’s birth, life and death. One cannot appreciate Christmas without Easter.

I don’t spend energy worrying about the “war on Christmas” or if Starbucks’ disposable coffee cups have “Merry Christmas” printed on them. I struggle with my own understanding of the Christmas story. I reread the tale and struggle with it’s messiness, violence and discomfort. Only then can I begin to understand the good news of the rest of the story. “For God so loved the world…”





The business of education

North Dakota’s Governor Burgum recently launched a task forces to study the state’s systems of K-12 and higher education. He was elected because of his experience in corporate management and ran on the promise to reinvent state government and to move the state’s educational system into the 21st Century. It will be interesting to see the recommendations which come from these studies.

The call for education and government to be run more like businesses is not new. Proponents of government’s and public institutions’ being run with the management and financial model of a corporation have argued against deficit spending and in favor of competition and market share at least since the 1980s. Private, for-profit colleges and investor owned charter school proliferated in the last couple of decades. The schools promised better education, more job readiness all while returning a profit on investors’ shares. In the past five years there has been a mass exodus from the privately owned, for profit educational enterprises. Many students who enrolled in for-profit colleges found themselves with massive debts and without a degree when these schools folded.

Some business principles do apply to public institutions and governmental bodies. Modern management as used by successful corporations may have application in the public sector. The basic purpose and mission of public institutions, however, is different than that of investor owned corporations.

Governor Burgum has said that he wants to treat the state’s voters as the “customers” we are. I would argue that we are not “customers” of state government. We are the owners of government. A corporation sells their products to customers by advertising, market manipulation and by creating a perceived need for their wares. Government, on the other hand, is charged with providing goods and services required for the common good.

The purpose of a corporation is to provide a return on investment to shareholders. Many corporations do this by keeping salaries low, hiring minimally trained employees for many positions, pressuring suppliers for always lower input costs and sometimes cutting corners on safety in the name of efficiency. If a corporation doesn’t make profits, it can be sold or shut down.

Public schools and universities and governments cannot simply go out of business. The return on investment by taxpayers and citizens is not financial, but something more nebulous. Educational outcomes have been proven to be difficult to quantify. Are the returns measured in graduation rates, skill levels, beginning salaries of graduates? Isn’t a better quality of life also a reason for learning?

The call to run schools and governments like business is often inconsistent. Deficit spending by public enterprises is decried as bad business, but most businesses operate with borrowed against future income and loans for capital investments. Most corporate executives are paid many times more than the rest of the employees. Yet when schools and governments pay the top people exorbitant wages, we complain. Statistically, more businesses fail every year than succeed.

Schools and government should be run more like a cooperative where the “customers” are the owners and the purpose of the coop is to provide for the common good of all owners or citizens.

Technology will change how information is transferred. But technology and information transfer is not the sole purpose of education. Schools should not simply be focused on job skills and technical training. Futurists predict that the majority of jobs in existence today will disappear in the next several decades. The purpose of education should be to teach children and young people to learn, to think critically, to communicate clearly, to know and understand history. Schools need to teach creativity, the freedom to try new things and how to learn from making mistakes. The “profit” of public schools is not to produce workers but to produce citizens who are involved in their communities, who dare to innovate and who appreciate art and music as well as understand science and math.

The public sector can learn from the management successes and failures of business. Effective schools, public institutions of higher learning and government bodies, however, are not and should not become businesses.

Planet X and the end of the world

By the time you read this, Saturday, September 23…well, you might not be reading this on Saturday if David Meade, a self-proclaimed “Christian numerologist”, is right. The world, according to Meade, will end on Saturday. Or, maybe, it will be just the beginning of the end. According to Meade’s calculations, a huge rogue planet, Nibiru or Planet X or Planet 9, will become visible from earth. It will speed through space on a collision course in a fulfillment of Biblical and ancient Egyptian prophecies and astute number crunching by Meade.

The world’s end has been predicted for centuries. Prophets of the end have included a few Popes, Christopher Columbus, Isaac Newton, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Rasputin, Sun Myung Moon and others. Remember the end of time predicted in 2000? A similar prediction was made for the year 1000 by Pope Sylvester II.

All the predictions, to this point, have ended in disappointment for those who spent their days in passionate preparation.

NASA scientists have repeatedly refuted the existence of a rogue planet headed toward the earth. Still, doomsday believers point to the recent solar eclipse, the earthquake in Mexico, multiple hurricanes and even a “blood moon” as signs of the end.

David Meade, the current prophet of doom, holds out that it is possible to survive the coming apocalypse without a problem. One simply needs to buy his book for about $12 in which he which outlines how to save yourself. One wonders why he is not giving it away as once the planet hits, money will have no value. If he is a good Christian, he should want to save as many of his fellow believers as possible.

I have never been one to stockpile dried foods, firewood, matches and other survival goods in an underground bunker. If the earth is struck by a huge, fiery red planet, why would I want to survive? A quick end might be a good thing. If one is a Christian who believes in heaven and eternal life, it seems illogical to worry about a sudden annihilation of all the earth. The Bible also tells us that no one knows when the end of the world will be. Not even the angels in heaven know. Besides, such a celestial collision would be completely out of our control. If Nibiru is headed towards us, we can’t stop it.

If Meade is right and the world will end either on Saturday or within the next month, what will I do in the meantime? The question is a good one to ponder. The end of this life could be Saturday for some of us. Life can change for each of us in the blink of an eye. How would I live if I knew I wouldn’t be here on Saturday night? What would I do differently?

I would not want to spend the rest of my life in fear of the end. I would go for a walk on this beautiful fall day. I would listen for the great blue heron and the sandhill cranes. I would notice the painted lady butterflies on the last blooms in the garden. I would tell my family members how much I love them. I would be grateful for the abundance of my life and I might give much of my stuff away. I would play my cello and try for one pure, beautiful note. I would eat good food, drink a little good wine, pet my cat. I would be kinder, more generous, more forgiving.

I might try to write something profoundly wise.

I don’t believe David Meade is right. I believe the earth will still be orbiting the sun next week. I have no reason to think I will not be along for the ride.

Even so, living as though Saturday may be the last day and at the same time planting trees for future generations might be a good idea.

© 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


A little distance

More than a hundred years ago a French artist named Georges Seurat developed a technique of painting called “pointillism.” Pointillism is a style of painting in which the paint is not actually mixed on the canvas but is applied in small dots of different colors. A similar principle is used by television screens and digital photography. If you look closely at a tv screen or if you enlarge a digital photo enough you will see individual “pixels” or square of color. The picture at close scrutiny doesn’t look like much. You can’t really see the image. You see only individual dots of color.It is only when you back up and look at the whole image that the painting, television screen or digital image makes sense. From a distance the individual spots of paint can’t be distinguished and the viewer’s eye blends the colors together. Distance allows you to see what the artist or photographer intended.

One of the most impressive images of our modern age is the picture of the earth from space. Instead of the limited view of our planet visible from the spot we’re standing on, we see the whole from space. The earth has been called a big blue marble since we first got a glimpse of our home from space more than a half century ago. Some satellites have taken pictures of the earth over many years. This long term, time-lapse photography provides records of amazing changes in our planet. Satellite images can see changes in vegetation and annual snow cover. If we look at the earth from space, we see glaciers disappearing and polar ice caps shrinking. We can see the effects of nutrients running into streams and rivers. The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is quite obvious.

The discussion of global warming and climate change is a little like pointillism. If we look only at the weather in a very small area or for only one or two seasons, we really can’t see the picture. On the Northern Plains in some years we have gone from the coldest summer on record to the warmest winter. We have areas with too much rain and places a few miles away with too little. Many of us can remember colder winters and hotter summers, worse droughts and hundred year floods. It is hard to understand what is going on if we look at the picture too closely either in space or time. It is only when we back up and look at the earth as a whole, from a distance and over a longer period of time can we see what is happening.

It is not easy to see what the effects of our individual actions have on the world around us. If we throw away a single Styrofoam cup it doesn’t create too big an issue. Multiply that act by several million and it is a problem that will be around for a long time. Recycling a single aluminum can or newspaper seems like a small thing. Saving a few gallons of gasoline doesn’t keep a lot of greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. If millions of people make the same smalls gesture, however, the effect is significant.

It is important to not look at the picture too closely. From close up one can only see the individual little dots. Step back and look at the big picture.

© 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

The prophet Micah and fishing

My friends and I were discussing the book of Micah in a recent Bible study. Micah was a Judean prophet of the 8th century BC. Micah warned of the destruction of Jerusalem and accused the leaders of deceit, thievery, and neglect of the poor. The well know verse, Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Our lesson included a discussion of how we advocate for the poor by seeking justice in our present time.

In 2013 a group of us went to Haiti. Haiti is on the west end of the island of Hispaniola, the landing-place of Christopher Columbus in 1492, Often the first statistic cited about the country is that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That is true.

That trip and the two I have taken since, have changed how I understand the prophet Micah and the Bible’s teachings about wealth and our responsibility to the rest of God’s creation. Those trips also changed my first response when asked about Haiti and it’s people.

Coming home from a mission trip is complex. On one hand it is wonderful to be back with my family, to be able to sleep in my own bed, to cook in my own kitchen and to turn on the faucet and know it is safe to drink the water that comes out. It is easy to say, “I am so blessed. I have seen what poverty is and I am grateful for the many blessings I have.” Those are sincere and real feelings. It’s not long, however, until the daily struggles to pay bills, to get on top of my to-do list, and my consumer lifestyle take over and my gratitude disappears.

The other emotion which overwhelms many short-term mission participants is one of guilt that we have so much and our friends in “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” have so little. A sense of ineffectiveness and despair often overwhelms us as we can’t see how our meager efforts can make a difference.

Our recent Bible study challenged us and asked what we are doing to seek justice for the poor in our community, our nation and our world.

Often the proverb (origin unknown) “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” is used to advocate against simply giving the poor a handout and instead giving the “least of these” the skills they need to help themselves. While on the surface this seems like common sense, helping the poor is not this simple.

Feeding someone who is starving is sometimes the right thing to do. As the pastor of the church we work with in Haiti has said, “An empty stomach has no ears.” Sometimes our neighbors just need food, a blanket, and clean water to drink.

The second part of the proverb is simplistic and unintentionally condescending. It assumes the poor do not know how to fish. My experience is that the poor often know how to do many things. They know how to fish, to grow things on plots of ground we wouldn’t think of planting and to survive in places I could not, even with all my “superior” knowledge. The poor are not poor because they know nothing.

The proverb’s assumption that the poor don’t fish because they don’t know how ignores the reality that they may not have access to the tools needed to fish. Do they have a boat or a fishing pole, or a net? Are there actually fish to catch or has the sea’s bounty been over-fished by huge trawlers belonging to foreign corporations exploiting the sea’s resources to supply northerners’ grocery stores? Are there regulations which require licenses and fees for fishing? Is the shore accessible to small boats? Do the poor have fuel to cook the fish once caught? Eating fish alone will not sustain anyone. Do people have access to foods containing adequate vitamins and fats? Do they have clean water?

In order to help the poor we need to learn to be humble and to listen. What do our friends need? What do they want? What tools do they have and what are they missing? How are we standing in their way? Which of our country’s trade policies are like the unfair transactions Micah accused the powerful of Jerusalem of making with the poor and needy? How does our consumerism impact the lives of others in the world? Does the manufacture of the goods we buy provide fair living wages for those who make them? Are the foods we eat grown and harvested by people who themselves have enough to eat?

Do we need that new gadget, expensive pair of shoes, latest fashion? Are our discarded goods dumped on the shores of another country, overwhelming their ability to recycle and reuse them? Is giving away what we don’t need charity or a guilt-free method of disposal?

These are hard questions. I don’t believe that there are easy or painless ways to help the world’s poor. According to the prophet Micah and to the gospel that is the basis of Christian teaching, even if it is difficult, failing to advocate for those without enough is not an option.

A revolutionary tweet

At a North Dakota Farmers Union convention in the 1970s, a group of women submitted a resolution for support of the Equal Rights Amendment to the members. A heated, emotional discussion ended in the defeat of the resolution. Arguments against the proposed amendment to the US Constitution included the demise of the traditional American family, putting housewives at a disadvantage, opening up the possibility of drafting women into the military and loss of special workplace protections for women.

The next year, we submitted the same resolution, but instead of referring to the “Equal Rights Amendment” we used the text of the actual amendment:

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The resolution passed with no discussion and no dissenting votes.

Many opponents of “Obamacare” when asked if they approve of the provisions of the “Affordable Care Act” answer favorably in spite of the fact that they are the same thing. In the ongoing healthcare debate, socialized medicine and a single payer option is often demonized by senior citizens who fight any suggestion that Medicare be cut back.

Our discussion of issues is often governed by our emotions and the sound bites fed to us by one side or another. The emotional responses to the “Equal Rights Amendment” and “Obamacare” were different than the responses to the actual words and provisions.

On the Fourth of July, National Public Radio (NPR) followed its 29 year tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud on Morning Edition. In addition to the reading, the staff published the entire Declaration in a series of posts to the NPR Twitter account. The response to these tweets was disturbing.

If NPR had just posted “Three cheers for the Declaration of Independence” no one would have objected. The response would have been an emotional and patriotic affirmation of all that is American. Instead, many did not recognize the words of one of our most valued documents and thought it was NPR advocating a revolution against our present government. Some thought the references to King George III were references to President Trump. Others accused NPR of tweeting liberal propaganda and having a “Hollywood elitist” agenda.

It is easy to understand how someone might have picked up in the middle of the lengthy series of tweets and missed the more familiar lines of the Declaration. It is obvious that many of those who accused NPR of posting from a “liberal bias” slept through American history class and did not recognize any part of the document. What is more disturbing is that so many people didn’t bother to do any critical thinking before responding. Why would NPR suggest that the government be overthrown? Part of their funding comes from that very government. What is the context of the tweets? Who is writing them? Is the language contemporary English?

A current trend in education strongly emphasizes the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The goal is to enable students to find good jobs in the modern world.  That is a commendable goal, but is an excessive STEM focus shortchanging other disciplines that can teach students how to think for themselves, to be creative and to make good decisions?  In many schools, funds are being cut for history, language, culture, philosophy, ethics, writing, art and music.  To be good workers and good citizens, we need more than just the technical skills for our jobs.  We need to be able to think critically, to make informed value judgments in our everyday work and in political questions.

How can we be good citizens if we don’t even recognize the words of the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution? Are we more likely to support politicians who say the right things, but then, once elected, enact legislation that ignores their campaign promises and harms the common good? Do we know how to check the accuracy of statements made by those we agree with as well as those we disagree with?

The Declaration of Independence is a revolutionary document. Maybe reading it in tweetable segments helps us realize what a courageous and radical thing we celebrate on the Fourth of July…unless of course you mistakenly think it is “liberal propaganda” because it comes from NPR.

© 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains