Solarity Farm

Published in The New Quarterly 160, Fall 2021

Soon after our offer is accepted, Imre and I go for a hike near our rental house. We have just bought eight acres in Winlaw, BC, sight unseen, unless you count a somewhat wobbly walkthrough of the house’s interior with the owner’s iPhone. She also sent photographs, and some text that describes the passive solar house, the gardens, and the outbuildings. I had to google some of the plants—haskup berries, sea buckthorn—that she proudly included in her long list of food that they grow. My son, Sebastian, and his partner, Kiah, told us everything they know about permaculture farming, pointing out that we were ridiculously lucky to have found land with nutrient-rich soil and mature fruit trees. Trained by them to know what to look for, we grinned at each other over the images of the stone walls, the raised beds, and the yurt.

We didn’t go check out the property because we’re ten hours away on Salt Spring Island, where we’re renting a house and teaching online. After spending the first six months of the pandemic cooped up in our Toronto condo, we realized that our universities didn’t need us to be in the city. In late August, we began the long drive out West, stopping for a month in Nelson to spend time with Sebastian and Kiah, who had just quit their exploitative WWOOF gig on a farm there. We rented a gloomy and mouldering ski lodge in disrepair, in which the four of us spent long hours hunched at our computers. To make matters worse, we were trapped indoors for a week because of the dangerously high emissions from the Oregon and California fires.

Regardless, I think back on that month as the highlight of the pandemic year. Much of it had to do with getting to spend time together after many months apart. Fresh out of university, Seb and Kiah were working hard on various jobs, but they still found time to cook us delicious meals and take long hikes. We explored different valleys, stopping at small mining towns with rushing rivers, lakes that felt just a little too cold for swimming, and high alpine passes. The forested mountains, greens turning to blue on the horizon, studded with craggy peaks; the lush meadows—they enveloped us in the way that a soft coat glides over your arms and back, lightly molding itself to your body. I had never before felt such a connection to a landscape. As I gazed around the valley and breathed in the scent of fir and fresh water, I thought, “This is the place for me.”

I know prairie dwellers whose eyes yearn for the wide horizon. Or people who grow up on the ocean and don’t feel settled unless they hear the sound of waves. So many of us, though, were not raised in tune with the land and with the seasons. Perhaps a manicured backyard, or a city playground, could make us reminisce about our childhood, but it’s probably not going to make our hearts sing in recognition. For subsequent generations, much of their connection to nature may come, as Robin Wall Kimmerer says, from television shows. I used to worry, when my younger son spent so many hours on the computer, that his ideal place would, forevermore, be the colour-saturated tones of World of Warcraft. What real landscape could compare to the beauty of those rolling hills, filled with mythological creatures and cute bunnies?

I have a conviction, based on nothing more than a desire for it to be true, that each of us has the potential to find a place that feels like home. Even if we were raised in soulless suburbs, we are not fated to them. We can stumble upon some place—a desert, a wind-swept coast—that speaks to us. I don’t know why. Perhaps it originates from some book or movie whose topography burnt itself into our imaginations. Or a certain scent on the breeze that entranced us when we were children. Maybe it is just that we are ready, in that particular moment, to attach ourselves to somewhere. We find a landscape that will, we intuit, reciprocate our love for it. We want to grow roots in its soil.

The Kootenays are this for me. It may not seem, at first glance, to make sense. I grew up, after all, very far away from them, in two very distinct landscapes and ecosystems. During the school year, I lived in humid temperate Washington, DC, in a lush green suburb that was prone to creek floods and itchy-eye ragweed seasons. My summers were spent in the arid coastal mountains of northeast Spain, in a house that sat between the rocky coast and dark green serrated mountains. Perhaps I’m drawn to the Kootenays because their multiple ecosystems combine the two. The deciduous forests and meadows remind me of the east coast of the United States. The crunch under my feet of dry pine zones and sandy soil takes me back to the woods around my family’s finca in Spain.

A lot of Kootenay culture is alien to me, that’s for sure. Historically, miners, gold-diggers, and lumber tycoons transformed much of the landscape in their rapacious extraction of resources. Homesteaders claimed land under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, land for which the Sinixt and Ktunaxa were never recompensed. To have bought a homestead situates me as part of this ongoing dispossession, no matter how much the farm nourishes and cultivates local eco-systems or replenishes damaged habitats.

Homesteading refers to the practice of small-scale food production in order to sustain a household. This idea attracts people from all sides of the political spectrum. From libertarian preppers, evangelical homeschoolers, radical hippies, and pandemic flee-ers, the fantasy of self-sufficiency and isolation can be taken up by many. Where, in that list of stereotypes, would I situate us? Perhaps we resemble Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, the two friends who leave their Paris jobs to live in the countryside, where they implement disastrous agricultural ideas gleaned from the many books they read on the subject. Even the fact that I made this reference to a French satirical unfinished novel positions us—two humanities professors and our educated children—in a very small subsection of society. We are a new stereotype: “city quitters,” the white-collar workers who realize that much of their work can be done online, and for whom the urban centre has become, with its housing crises, food deserts, and stark economic disparities, a symbol of the dysfunction of late capitalism.

On Salt Spring Island, Imre and I reach the outlook. We look out over the deep blue water dotted with islands, the snowy peaks of Vancouver Island across the way. It is picture-perfect, yet neither of us really see it. We’ve got different mountains in our mind’s eye.

“What are we going to name the new property?” I ask. We throw some names out, certain that many of them—Huckleberry Hills, Hummingbird Farm— will already be in use in the area. I will myself to not say what I know I’m going to say, and suggest instead Green Acres, at which point we both start singing the theme song. And then, with deliberate off-handedness, I blurt out, “We could call it Finca something.” I laugh quickly to show that I don’t really mean it, though I sneak a peek at his face to judge his reaction.

Imre shows no hesitation. “God, no. The last thing we want is a repetition of that fiasco.”

I know that he thinks that my extended Spanish family and I are stuck, all yearning for a place and a time that we can’t forget, despite the family feud, the ugliness of its current surroundings, and its economic ruination. That’s not exactly right, I’m not wishing I was there. But I certainly am not “over it” either. I still dream about Finca Casanoble regularly. When I can’t sleep, I don’t count sheep. Instead, I retrace every inch of the house, lingering on the shape of the door handles, the spiral pattern on the tiled floors, the undulations in the window glass. I test my memory of the exact location of the light switches in every bedroom. If I set my mind to it, I can even hear the commotion of birds as they began to settle into the linden tree in late afternoon.

For all of us descendants of the Noble family, the finca is a touchstone, a referent that shapes our predilections and our antipathies. Some of us react against it—my sister hasn’t left America in years, and has no desire to ever go back to Catalonia—while others, including my cousin who lives just a few miles away in Barcelona, would go back in a heartbeat if we could. My 92-year old mother will never again enter its cavernous hall. She says she doesn’t care. But when I tell her about our new homestead, she immediately says, “Oh, you’ll grow vegetables in your huerta, like we did at the finca.”

The finca is where I learned how food grows. In Maryland, our garden was no different from most of the others in our residential neighbourhood: an ornamental space of leisure. Spring exploded with the pinks and reds of rhododendron, azaleas, and dogwood. In front of the house, we had a Southern Magnolia tree, a homage to my father’s Mississippi upbringing, which struggled to survive that far north, but sometimes produced large white flowers. In the back, the grass uniformly covered the slope down to the bamboo and forysthia that separated our house from Rock Creek Park. This was a 1970s garden, maintained through a liberal application of pesticides and herbicides. There was nothing to eat in those gardens, but my friends and I didn’t go hungry, not with 7-Eleven a bike-ride away. We’d suck on sour apple Jolly Rancher lollipops as we climbed the ornamental cherry trees in our back yards.

When I arrived in Spain every summer, I would go out to the huerta, the walled garden that supplied much of the produce that our family ate. It was the domain of my grandmother, tended by the old Catalan gardener, Jaume. He, with his black boina cocked on his wispy grey hair, would pull the stump of a cigarette out from between his few stained teeth, and voice his opinions to anyone who would listen. I remember his dirt-encrusted fingers as he handed me the basket of fresh picked tomatoes, the sharp smell of the leaves mixing with the stale sweat of his rumpled clothes. We kids treated him as if he were to be feared, sneaking towards the low-hanging plums and apricots when he crouched down to dig potatoes. We’d emerge from behind the teepees of long runner beans and green peppers, rubbing the blue chemical powder off on our shirts before biting into the juicy fruit.

Back in the US, my parents didn’t put big emphasis on the need for fresh vegetables even though both had grown up with vegetable gardens in their back yards. I don’t remember any distinction made between cans of green beans versus fresh. The spinach we ate came in frozen cartons. Our salads were made with iceberg lettuce. My mother loved American recipes, and was proficient at making Jello molds, ham glazed with Coca-Cola and ketchup, and white Ambrosia salad with canned mandarin slices. 

On Salt Spring Island, Imre and I reach the outlook. We look out over the deep blue water dotted with islands, the snowy peaks of Vancouver Island across the way. It is picture-perfect, yet neither of us really see it. We’ve got different mountains in our mind’s eye.

“What are we going to name the new property?” I ask. We throw some names out, certain that many of them—Huckleberry Hills, Hummingbird Farm— will already be in use in the area. I will myself to not say what I know I’m going to say, and suggest instead Green Acres, at which point we both start singing the theme song. And then, with deliberate off-handedness, I blurt out, “We could call it Finca something.” I laugh quickly to show that I don’t really mean it, though I sneak a peek at his face to judge his reaction.

Imre shows no hesitation. “God, no. The last thing we want is a repetition of that fiasco.”

I know that he thinks that my extended Spanish family and I are stuck, all yearning for a place and a time that we can’t forget, despite the family feud, the ugliness of its current surroundings, and its economic ruination. That’s not exactly right, I’m not wishing I was there. But I certainly am not “over it” either. I still dream about Finca Casanoble regularly. When I can’t sleep, I don’t count sheep. Instead, I retrace every inch of the house, lingering on the shape of the door handles, the spiral pattern on the tiled floors, the undulations in the window glass. I test my memory of the exact location of the light switches in every bedroom. If I set my mind to it, I can even hear the commotion of birds as they began to settle into the linden tree in late afternoon.

For all of us descendants of the Noble family, the finca is a touchstone, a referent that shapes our predilections and our antipathies. Some of us react against it—my sister hasn’t left America in years, and has no desire to ever go back to Catalonia—while others, including my cousin who lives just a few miles away in Barcelona, would go back in a heartbeat if we could. My 92-year old mother will never again enter its cavernous hall. She says she doesn’t care. But when I tell her about our new homestead, she immediately says, “Oh, you’ll grow vegetables in your huerta, like we did at the finca.”

The finca is where I learned how food grows. In Maryland, our garden was no different from most of the others in our residential neighbourhood: an ornamental space of leisure. Spring exploded with the pinks and reds of rhododendron, azaleas, and dogwood. In front of the house, we had a Southern Magnolia tree, a homage to my father’s Mississippi upbringing, which struggled to survive that far north, but sometimes produced large white flowers. In the back, the grass uniformly covered the slope down to the bamboo and forysthia that separated our house from Rock Creek Park. This was a 1970s garden, maintained through a liberal application of pesticides and herbicides. There was nothing to eat in those gardens, but my friends and I didn’t go hungry, not with 7-Eleven a bike-ride away. We’d suck on sour apple Jolly Rancher lollipops as we climbed the ornamental cherry trees in our back yards.

When I arrived in Spain every summer, I would go out to the huerta, the walled garden that supplied much of the produce that our family ate. It was the domain of my grandmother, tended by the old Catalan gardener, Jaume. He, with a black boina cocked on his wispy grey hair, would pull the stump of a cigarette out from between his few stained teeth, and voice his opinions to anyone who would listen. I remember his dirt-encrusted fingers as he handed me the basket of fresh picked tomatoes, the sharp smell of the leaves mixing with the stale sweat of his rumpled clothes. We kids treated him as if he were to be feared, sneaking towards the low-hanging plums and apricots when he crouched down to dig potatoes. We’d emerge from behind the teepees of long runner beans and green peppers, rubbing the blue chemical powder off on our shirts before biting into the juicy fruit.

Back in the US, my parents didn’t put big emphasis on the need for fresh vegetables even though both had grown up with vegetable gardens in their back yards. I don’t remember any distinction made between cans of green beans versus fresh. The spinach we ate came in frozen cartons. Our salads were made with iceberg lettuce. My mother loved American recipes, and was proficient at making Jello molds, ham glazed with Coca-Cola and ketchup, and white Ambrosia salad with canned mandarin slices.

My family did not see the Spanish summers as a reprieve from the horrors of processed food. They were, in my mind, more about the challenge of eating animals that were not served in America. Roasted rabbit with aioli. Sea creatures with tentacles and eyeballs that stared out from paella. Once my grandmother served songbirds, but even my father, who prided himself on “clean plate club,” allowed us littlest kids, protesting in horror when we saw the tiny bodies, to excuse ourselves on that one.

It’s on another walk that I, once again, feel silly about telling Imre my newest idea for the name of our farm. This time around, it’s not because it will reveal my attachment to a broken bourgeois legacy. It’s because I fear that I’m too much an academic, that I live in a world of ideas and will not be capable of putting my feet on the ground. Lucy dog runs by with a huge stick in her mouth, her tail wagging. She prances ahead, balancing the stick like a tightrope walker. She gets stuck between two trees, but keeps moving, angling and leaning her body to get the stick, which she will not relinquish, through the obstacle.

“How about Solarity Farm?” I say.

Imre says, “I was thinking that too!”

Imre was one of the organizers of “Solarity”, a workshop in which a group of us got together to puzzle out what a transition to solar power could mean. We knew what “green” entrepreneurs claim: that technology will save us, that renewables can power our vehicles and heat our homes without increasing our carbon emissions. These claims seem to say that life can continue as usual, that nothing in our current economic and political system needs to change in order to save the world from climate disaster. We writers, academics, and activists wanted to do something different: to imagine the potential solar energy has to change who we are and how we live. Whatever energy source a society uses is going to fundamentally shape its structures. We may not think about it much, but right now we are petro-people, since oil determines what we buy in the supermarket, the clothes we wear, the air we breathe, and even the chemicals that course through our bodies. Not to mention the histories that got us here, and the geopolitics that go on around us, shaping our preconceptions about what countries are underdeveloped, dangerous, or economically viable.

It does look like the world is transitioning to renewables, with solar as the primary source. This could be a moment to reshape our society. After all, the liberties afforded to some of us by fossil-fuels—mobility, comfort, security, and freedom— are predicated on stark inequalities. Extraction has caused so much environmental degradation, and violence towards many of the world’s inhabitants. Maybe solar could change some of these injustices, transforming us into non-capitalist egalitarians. But maybe not. It could also just strengthen our current disparities and cement the gap between haves and have-nots.

That’s why we use the term “solarity,” which holds within it the echo of the word “solidarity.” To practice solidarity with all those who have been exploited in the current regime means more than just acknowledging the injustice. It entails accepting their leadership and their knowledge in the development of alternative practices. It means listening to other voices, to other rhythms and ways of being and becoming. It means disagreeing and dissenting, but also treading lightly when needed. Solidarity is also necessary with all the non-human others who have been displaced, poisoned, and exterminated in the quest for greater agricultural yield or mineral and bio resources.

What would all of us be like as solar people instead of petro people? It’s impossible to know, because a shift in energy source would affect not only our environment but also our minds, the ways our bodies move in space, and the expectations we have about how we live our lives. Naming our farm “Solarity” is aspirational. It gestures towards that which we cannot know, but for which we can still hope.

“Only 28 days till we get to move in,” Kiah says as we video chat. “I can’t wait to get out of this basement apartment.” Kiah, self-identified as “the only black person in Winlaw,” plans to run workshops for Black and Brown growers, inspired by the work of the amazing Soul Fire Farm in the United States. She shows me the arugula sprouts that she’s growing in order to plant as soon as we get to the farm.

Sebastian pulls the camera towards his hand, which he has just reached into his compost bin. He zooms in on the writhing ball of dirt.

“Aren’t they so cute?” he says, genuine in his love for his composting worms. Our conversations these days are mostly about the permaculture books he’s read, the YouTube videos they’ve watched. He jokes that his plan is to work harder than any of us, so that we’ll all just realize that the farm is his.

But of course, it already is. This beautiful piece of land is for all of us. For this younger generation, whose permaculture techniques and sustainable harvesting will invite more and more creeping, crawling, flying, and burrowing creatures to live amongst us. For the older generation—Imre’s Hungarian mother, raised on a berry farm, who can’t wait to teach us to preserve; Kiah’s Jamaican grandfather, whose advice we need on greenhouse construction; my 100-year old father, who will never be able to make the trip from the United States, but who will reminisce about his Southern Gulf childhood when he hears his grandson’s stories.

And, of course, this land will nourish those of us in the middle generation. Kiah’s mother, who can barely eat because of the cancer that has invaded her stomach and bones. May she spend long days there, surrounded by sunshine and flowers, doing what she most loves— hanging out with friends and family, swapping stories as she knits and laughs and pets adoring Lucy. Our Toronto friends, academics who can’t wait to get out of the city and come to a part of Canada that they didn’t know existed. Vancouverites who groan about how long the drive is, but who will come anyway. Imre and I, who will spend hours on our knees in the garden instead of on our butts in front of the computer.

I know that loving something doesn’t mean that you’re doing the right thing. In their time, my father and grandmother sprayed the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that they believed showed their attentive care. In our time, we are taking possession of land that is not ours to possess. Our stewardship of it continues to dispossess its original inhabitants. If a time comes when we need to stand aside, I hope that we will be giving over land that is flourishing and alive.

For now, though, I’m doing the only thing I can do, and what I do best: writing about an idea that has captured my imagination and my desire. Solarity Farm holds within it a kernel of something else, something that isn’t about escaping the ills of society, but about an alternative and urgently necessary way of being in the world. Its promise is one of plenty, of inclusion, and of vibrant community with human and nonhumans. If that sounds utopian, I’m glad. There’s no point in anticipating harvest fiascos, or interpersonal bickering, or slug infestation. There will be plenty of time for those stories to emerge.

In this interstitial time, I am committed to holding the space of imagination open, to allowing it to be filled with hopes—not just my own, but everyone’s whose joy and curiosity has been sparked by hearing about this Kootenay homestead. In the middle of a pandemic winter, it can be a balm to indulge in a fantasy, to envision the warm light of summer sun, the sweetness of blackberries and the cool air sweeping down the mountain. It can remind us that another world is possible, that other ways of living and being can and should be imagined. If you read this and it gives you a vision of your desired place in the world, then this writing will have done what I set out to do, to give us all a taste of what can be. If you read this and want to come to Solarity Farm, let me know. We’ll be there.

Contributor Bio: Eva-Lynn Jagoe is a University of Toronto professor whose time in the Kootenays has been marked by eating the fruits and vegetables that the bears, deer, birds, snails, and slugs left behind for the human cultivators.