Originally published in: The New Quarterly

The first notes of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord soundtrack emanate from the hifi. My uncle plays it loud, when the heat has diminished and a cool breeze sweeps through the house, carrying with it the salt of the Mediterranean and the pine of the mountains. The sound echoes in the cavernous high ceilings, spreading out through the arched windows and into the garden, where my mother is deadheading geraniums, inhaling the pungent scent of the broken stalks. As soon as we hear the music, my cousins and I leap into motion. I grab little Alicia, who giggles with giddiness as we glide across the tiled floors, other kids jumping and skipping and shimmying past us. Uncle Tony grabs Leonora by the waist and spins her around as she bats at him with a dish towel. My grandmother, who will be dead in two years, sits in her armchair, Mickey, the fat dachshund farting at her feet, which tap slightly under her long blue gown. Pepi and Joaquín come to the doorway and laugh, which makes me theatrically dip Alicia backwards and give her a swooping Rodolfo Valentino kiss.

Years later, I watch Fellini’s film, and see the images that danced through the minds of my family members as we children danced to the music that summer of 1979. Set in a village that could be the one near our finca property, Amarcord affectionately portrays its inhabitants through the seasonal variations of a year in the 1930s, mixing fascist realities with adolescent daydreams, sexual initiations with death and departure. Remembering my teenage brother’s overt fascination with his godmother’s cleavage, Leonora and Tony’s screaming fights when they both got drunk and threw plates at each other, and the sickening smell of incense mixed with cologne and body odour that permeated our local church as the priest droned his litany in Catalan, I now understand why my mother would say, “Our lives are like something out of a Fellini movie.”

We are not, however, a family in a Fellini film. We never have been. We only lived the fantasy version of it through Tony’s curation of us. He, a British art dealer who moved to the Costa Brava in the 1960s, saw us through his ex-pat eyes, fetishizing the grand old mansion, the passionate anger, the simmering discontent, as components of a Spanish life that he wanted to live. So he made us paella and invited bohemian artists and scattered large stone and iron sculptures on the grounds of the estate. We liked this version of ourselves: a charming degenerate bourgeois family who summers in the decaying splendour of a villa decorated with taxidermied animals, larger-than-life oil studies of flamenco dancers, dark carved furniture, and Andalusian coloured tiles. Merchant Ivory meets Salvador Dalí, with Nino Rota music animating it all.

Take away the framing device, however, and we turn out to be a lot less flamboyant than we seemed that afternoon. Housewives scrutinizing Princess Stephanie of Monaco in Hola magazine, men reading the right-wing newspaper, kids watching too much badly-dubbed Little House on the Prairie—much of the time spent in that house did not live up to its grandeur. See the chubby girl, her rainbow-striped jeans and her uneven pony tails, arguing with bratty Marcos about whose turn it is on the bike? That’s me. I’m doing a pretty good job of cussing in Spanish.

But really, I am just the American kid who lived her entire suburban fall, winter, and spring longing for the light and colour and beauty of another finca summer. Fluent in Spanish, I am not from a Spanish-speaking country. My mother tongue is very directly learned from my mother, who has not lived in Spain since 1956. I grew up immersed in a language that was private and intimate, that was connected to my mother’s birthplace through the only location I knew: that mansion outside Barcelona.

My Spanish is not only geographically unrooted, it is also temporally anachronistic. Since it came from a woman who was not living her language in the present, it is marked by the lingo of another era. The turns of phrase that I learned at home in Maryland were hilarious to my Spanish cousins, who said I sounded like someone out of a Franco-era radio novel. I spent my summers trying to take on intonations and slang that were more current. The most shameful thing to me was to be an American, known for being loud-mouthed, badly-dressed, and uncouth tourists abroad. The second most shameful was to be old-fashioned, to say the equivalent, in Spanish, of “gee whiz” when all the cool kids were saying “gnarly.” I never fully managed to pass. In Madrid, people thought I was from Barcelona, but in Barcelona, people could never quite place me. My inability to speak Catalan, which was so politically urgent in the post-Franco years, marked me as an outsider, or, worse, as a Spanish nationalist.

One night, in my thirties, in Argentina, giddy on wine after having spent an evening gossiping with my friend Daniela, I took a taxi home and I finally managed to do it, I passed as a porteña as I talked to the driver. I felt like I was channeling the Argentine accent, the almost Italian lilt, the vos form of address. For that finite time of the cab ride, I played my role to perfection. In Spain, however, my long intimacy and history with my family make it so I can’t just perform a part. I want to speak like they do so that my roots will be as deep as theirs in the soil of the arid mountains that surround the finca, so that I belonged to a place that, to this day, fills my dreams with its graceful arches, with its cool marble staircase. Dreams which, I’ve been told by roommates and lovers who hear me talk in my sleep, are always in Spanish.

With the Covid-19 crisis, my family in Spain and I are in touch daily. Much of the WhatsApp chats are taken up with memes and jokes. But the other day, there was a video that my cousin sent of my Aunt Chichi. I visited her last year in the Canary Islands, where she now lives in an advanced state of dementia, and she was only able to say a word or two, seemingly incapable of verbal interaction. In this video, however, Chichi chatters as she sips her tea. I watch it over and over, mesmerized by the language. The way that she punctuates her short bursts with a brusque sí, sí makes me think of the staccato diction of war-time news announcers. Chichi speaks the Spanish now that I spoke as a child, full of dated mannerisms and sayings.

In the eight-minute video, she answers questions posed to her by a neighbour, whose thick Canary Island accent contrasts with Chichi’s crisp continental tones. When asked if she wants to go visit the finca (a cruelly ironic question, since our family is embroiled in a lawsuit over the property and none of us will ever see it again), Chichi says dismissively, “sí, sí, we can go,” but she’s not interested in planning for the future. What she wants is to dwell in the past, the deep past of her own childhood, in which she and my mother would play hopscotch in the garden. In her mind, the masover’s daughters, crowded into the 16th-century farmhouse, are waiting for the little señoritas who come every weekend to fill the big house with houseguests and lap dogs and maids in uniforms. The masover and his family have not lived there since he was imprisoned by Franco’s troops, but in her mind there is no interruption of the civil war. The finca waits, unchanging, for her weekend visit.

Chichi’s nostalgia is uncanny to me, because it so closely resembles my own. Until I listened to her reminisce, I had not known how much the finca pulled at us all, the heavy house a repository of history and memory into which we poured our different fantasies and yearnings. I had thought it was just me, on the other side of the Atlantic, who missed it, who had what we now call FOMO (fear of missing out). When I arrived in the summers, it felt like everyone else had always already been there, living their exotic Latin lives and speaking their ever-evolving and shifting language. In reality, they had just gotten there a little before me, enough to take the white sheets off the furniture, and inspect the damage to the electrical wires made by the wintering mice. Enough to make the finca feel timelessly present, which is how we all liked it best.

It is, of course, not timeless, but very rooted in a geopolitical context of resource extraction and stark social inequality that spans the centuries of its existence. Even in the brief moment of the Second Republic, when it seemed that another political order was possible, the finca still imposed hierarchies. According to my mother, the only reason that the finca was passed over in the anarchist attacks that swept the area after the civil war erupted, was because people in the village respected my British grandfather. She says that, after they went into exile, her uncle arranged for a “Communist top official” to live in the finca, knowing that this would protect it from “vandals and wartime thieves.” The life of leisure that we all got to live every summer was predicated on a class privilege that was brutally asserted throughout Franco’s 40-year dictatorial regimen.

Listening to Chichi makes me, in the grey Toronto spring of isolation, rewatch Amarcord. Her anachronistic language returns me to Fellini’s cinematic language of nostalgia. What strikes me the most this time around, is that in the year Amarcord depicts, some things change, but many don’t. No one gets visibly wiser, or grows up into adulthood. There is no one central character. Instead, a full cast of characters animates the setting, a village which is, in its nostalgic evocation, the main attraction.

For years, I saw myself as the main character in a drama of seasonal exile. That is how we tell ourselves stories—we place ourselves in the centre and look for the narrative arc. Fellini, at the height of his directorial prowess, knew how to narrate a story that didn’t need to focus on one person, a story that could be a depiction—loving, critical, realist, tinged with nostalgia—of a place and those who inhabit it.

Watching the characters congregate in the central plaza of Amarcord’s village, I see that I was just one member of the cast called family, all of us yearning to be back on the set again so that we could, for the brief months of the summer, be larger-than-life. That set, with its dusty pink stucco and the cool shade of the linden tree, shaped each one of us, from my long-gone grandmother to my 95-year-old aunt to my own sons, who only got to go there once, but who still talk about it. We all dream of the finca, and of who we got to imagine ourselves to be within its gated walls.

Originally published in: Journal of Ecohumanism, Vol. 2, no 1 (2023)

Abstract: When my family started stewarding eight acres in British Columbia, Canada, we encountered a pervasive pioneer species or “weed”—quackgrass—that grows long roots and chokes out other plants. This paper counterposes the behaviour of these competitive and embinding roots with the cooperative mutual interrelation of forest root systems. Using these two roots as metaphors for the pleasures and pitfalls of family, I will make an argument for family farming that both honours and resists the tangle of rootedness that is embodied in the symbiotic relationship of mother and sons. I paint a picture of a political project of regeneration and flourishing that is founded on deep love and affinity for the land and for each other. While I critique the constraints of family, the mother-son relationship emerges in this essay as a historically embedded and potentially generative form of community.

Full text available here

Originally published in: Public Books

It begins with the story of a young boy, in England, some four decades ago, helping his grandfather till a field. As the sun sets over the Lake District, the boy looks back at the clods of dirt, turned over and shiny. He sees the gulls swooping down to gobble up the worms and grubs upturned with the soil his grandfather has just tilled. He senses “that day might be worth remembering.”

It’s a confusing beginning for James Rebanks’s memoir of agriculture’s changes, Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey, since the reader is not told what to make of it. As a permaculture farmer myself, I cringe to hear about tilling, which exposes the topsoil and kills beneficial microorganisms. Is this what Rebanks, an outspoken advocate for wild spaces, wants to signal? Will he, as the book continues, repudiate his grandfather’s traditional way? Or will he do the opposite: nostalgically yearn to return to this bucolic moment?

It is not until a hundred pages later, in the section ironically named “Progress,” that we understand the full meaning of this scene: with the increased industrialization of farms in the Lake District, tractors are no longer followed by gulls—yet another sign that the soil health has been devastated. Whatever his grandfather was doing, it was better for the land than any of the modernizing infrastructure that Rebanks and his father turned to in their desperation to keep the family afloat.

Such questions—the old ways, or the new?—are hardly the exclusive preserve of one particular shepherd in northern England. But Rebanks’s earnest grappling with them is welcome—especially for me.

As new farmers in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia, my son and I read a lot. We also get advice from people of different backgrounds: some tell us tips from “the Old Country” (my Hungarian mother-in-law), some have been on this land for generations (the Doukhobors), and some are younger permaculture farmers or food foresters. The debates are heated, with everyone proclaiming that their way is the only way.

All these competing opinions render us incapable of making decisions about the most basic and urgent tasks that need to be done in order to grow something—anything!—this season. To till or leave the soil unturned? To use layers of cardboard (which decompose into worm food) or plastic landscaping fabric (more effective against stubborn rhizomatic grasses)? To build raised beds or hugelkultur mounds? To wage battles against weeds or reclassify them as volunteer species, and thus appreciate them?

Faced with these questions, my stomach knots with a distinct anxiety about my own ignorance, an ignorance that makes me so capable of unintentionally harming thousands of living organisms that I had never, before this year, even thought about: mycorrhizal fungi, soil microorganisms, dormant seeds.

This anxiety is familiar to me. I felt it most strongly 25 years ago, when I had my son. The debates about breast-feeding, sleep training, cloth versus disposable diapers, plastic versus glass bottles did not feel like supportive advice. They felt like ideological weapons. I had to choose my side correctly, if I didn’t want to damage my kid irrevocably. In the case of both farming and child-rearing, part of what makes the process so confusing is that it’s often sold to us as natural, as innate, as timeless.

But how we farm or raise children is, in large part, determined by cultural norms—not just natural impulse. To cut down trees in order to plant vegetables or husband animals, to bring children into the world: these are deeply entrenched human activities, whose commonplaceness is undermined by the fierce contentions around how they should best be done.

It is within this realm of heated debate that James Rebanks does his work and writes his books. Rebanks, a Lake District shepherd, became famous first on social media, by posting videos and photographs of his prize-winning sheep and cows, and then with his 2016 publication of The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.

Yet, what gives Rebanks the most legitimacy to write about his subject matter—his place in a long line of shepherds—is also what circumscribes his vision of how much he could and should change. To be a shepherd is not, at least in the opinion of some, to be environmentally aware. The most vocal critic of Britain’s fascination with sheep is George Monbiot, who in his polemical 2013 essay “Sheepwrecked” holds nothing back: “We pay billions to service a national obsession with sheep, in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside. The white plague has done more extensive environmental damage than all the building that has ever taken place here, but to identify it as an agent of destruction is little short of blasphemy.”

Reading such compelling writing in praise of and in opposition to sheep farming makes one feel that one must pick a side. On the one hand, I admire the shepherd who goes out in all kinds of weather to help ewes give birth, and who posts such gorgeous pictures on Twitter of his woolly animals. On the other, it is not clear what these sheep are actually for, given that—according to Rebanks—their wool is no longer worth the work of shearing them and cheaper New Zealand lamb dominates the British market.

Rebanks makes money off his prize-winning Herdwick sheep through breeding them, so that other shepherds can buy them and breed their own sheep. This seems, at least from the outside, to be a self-perpetuating cycle. Rebanks is aware of the environmental impacts of sheep grazing, but also strongly argues for the effective use of sheep in regenerative pasture. He is invested in the tradition that his family has maintained for centuries, and he is trying to make a living in an undervalued and underpaid profession while not destroying the land.

This is not to imply that Rebanks advocates a return to the old ways. He recalls how, as a young man, he looked with envy at the farms around his almost bankrupt family’s rental fields and rundown property. He fought with his father about the latter’s resistance to change, his wariness of new technologies, loans, and perpetual growth. Rebanks and his father did follow suit with some of the new practices, such as the cutting down of hedgerows to expand their fields and make them easier to harvest. However, as he began to experience the detrimental effects of flooding and loss of biodiversity, as well as his family’s increasing debt, Rebanks realized that modernization might not be the way forward—and he began to do things differently.

In this regard, Pastoral Song sits alongside other popular recent agricultural/rewilding nonfiction books, such as Nancy and John Hayden’s Farming on the Wild Side (2019), Brent Preston’s The New Farm (2017), Novella Carpenter’s Farm City (2009), and Isabella Tree’s Wilding (2018). Each of these books follows a similar trajectory, in which land, depleted by industrial practices, is revitalized by a more biodiverse, soil-restoring approach. The horrors of factory farming, urban decay, or monocrops are enumerated through statistics and a hands-on description of the situation the protagonist faces upon embarking on their project. As the land changes, so does the narrator, growing into their role as a regenerative farmer. The narrative arc is satisfying, propelling the reader through the pages with the promise of transformation.


When Rebanks’s father dies and he fully inherits the land, he finds himself tasked with the imperative to “be honest about the past and the present, and to use some imagination and courage to think about the future.” These temporal markers are more useful, perhaps, than the literary ones he uses to divide his book: “Nostalgia,” “Progress,” and “Utopia.” Into these three parts, Rebanks loosely fits a narrative that traverses his life—but their titles don’t really convey the contents of his book. Rebanks never fully immerses himself in nostalgia, since he is clear-sighted about what was wrong with his grandfather’s ways of doing things; he rejects agriculture’s definitions of progress; and utopia is never achieved, though there are some beautiful natural scenes.

The passing of time is what is so hard to represent in Rebanks’s books, and in farm narratives in general. To reconcile the slow time of farming with the much faster time of telling a story elides all the almost imperceptible changes that happen in the process of land regeneration. Rebanks chooses to convey the passing of time through a series of fragmentary expositions, scenes, arguments, and personal anecdotes. Some are quite detailed descriptions of particular moments of shift—removing the pipes that forced the streams into straight channels; planting saplings along the banks; switching to a hardier breed of cows, more suited to the harsh winters of the Lake District—but then the narrative zooms out to a time two or three years later, when the effects of these changes are becoming visible.

With this technique, the slow slog of farm life is condensed to the highlights: the stunning, transformative achievements of all that hard, incremental work. It makes for exciting reading, in which expectations are fulfilled in a timely manner. But Rebanks does not convey, experientially, how slowly things grow and change.

Pastoral Song’s narrative pace skewed my expectations this season on the farm. Having left my armchair to kneel in the dirt, I had the pacing all wrong, impatiently expecting changes to happen in the time it takes to finish a book. Reading about farming, it turns out, does not prepare you much for the actual work of farming!

Reading does give you a sense of the decisions a farmer needs to make, weighing efficiency, cost, and environmental impact. What makes Pastoral Songdistinct is also what makes it such a compelling book: that Rebanks does not—indeed, cannot—take sides.

It would have been much simpler if I could have picked the good guys and the bad guys and told a morality tale. But the truth is messier and more nuanced that that. Ethically it is complicated. My family and my friends did these things: good people, not fools or vandals. The financial pressures on them were and are immense. The levels of stress and hefty workloads do not provide the right conditions for seeing and valuing nature, or for enlightened thought.

Unlike others who proclaim that their actions are the only correct way forward, Rebanks is immersed in a community that has been forced, due to extreme financial stress, to make choices that negatively impact their natural and social environment. Farmers have torn out hedgerows, expanded production, sprayed herbicides, and switched to industrial feed because of EU incentives and subsidies that made traditional small farms impossible to maintain.

Rebanks’s allegiance is with these people: his neighbours, relatives, and friends. That is why his narrative can seem to undercut itself, moving from impressionistic first-hand accounts of the beauty of reinstated biodiversity on his land, to a compassionate defence of people he knows who have “made the land more efficient and sterile.”

Yet the book ends with a father and daughter watching a barn owl hunting up in the hills. He hopes she will one day remember this moment, wherever she is. “Or, maybe, she will stand in this same place as a farmer, long after I am gone, and remember that I tried my best to look after this land.” The last lines of the book are: “This is my inheritance to my children. This is my love.” Will Rebanks’s children continue to be shepherds, and does he want them to carry on the line? Should tradition or new ecological imperatives win out in this particular generational story?

There are no right answers in Pastoral Song. There are only the muddled and muddied attempts of a parent and a farmer who tries to negotiate different pressures and advice, while living on the land his family has worked for so many generations.

As I write this review, I sweat through record-breaking heat, unable to open a window because of the wildfire smoke that hides the garden from view. My son and I are close to broken. Whether we, through our reading and YouTube watching, now know better than the traditional farmers who insist we must spray and till may be a moot point in the face of drought and fire.

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. 

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.