I remember a day a few years ago when I was feeling pretty down about life at the Genuine Faux Farm. This, in itself, is nothing new. Things don’t always work out and you begin to question what you are doing and how you are doing it. You wonder if your efforts make a difference. And, when it comes to something that can be as all-encompassing as working on a small, diversified farm to grow food for people, the roller-coaster ride can be pretty dramatic and can wear on a person.
On this particular day, I found myself alone on the farm. I was feeling the pressure as we were dealing with pesticides from neighboring farms and heavy rains — and we had limited resources to address these and a myriad of other issues and tasks that the farm required of us.
I will admit that there are times when I talk to myself when I work on the farm. And, I have been heard to mutter, “Why in the world am I doing this?”
This time around, things were really getting to me, so I voiced those words a bit more forcefully than I usually do. And, I will admit that there might even have been some profanity laced in there. I was struggling with the situation THAT much.
Why… in … the … world… am I doing this?!?
At that moment, a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly floated over my shoulder and proceeded to land on the clover that was flowering at my feet. It sat there for a second or two and then flew on.
All I could say at that point was a very quiet, “ah, okay.”
Fast forward to 2023, and we find the farmer is farming a little less and writing a lot more. I am still prone to those moments of asking “why am I doing this?” I suspect the question will always be under the surface, especially when things are not going well. But now, when I ask, I recall the mental image of a Tiger Swallowtail on the clover at my feet.
I recently shared that story with my co-worker, Lorilani, who is PAN’s Organizer for Hawai’i. She informed me this is known as hōailona in Native Hawaiian culture — a sign from the Universe, from the Elements — from something bigger than we are.
The difficulty with omens or signs is that we are always so ready to make them fit what we want instead of really listening and contemplating what they were MEANT to be. And, if they aren’t something we want, we tend to ignore them for what they are.
Is it possible that we are provided with signs on a daily basis that tell us things we often don’t want to hear?
The oak tree leaves throughout Iowa have been showing more damage earlier in the season over the past decade than they have in prior decades. It’s a sign that the environment they reside in is no longer as friendly as it once was. And, we know one of the causes is the amounts and types of pesticides used so freely on our land. But, this is a sign we prefer to ignore, either because it inconveniences us or it reminds us that we are complicit in the destruction of trees many of us cherish.
A drive in the country no longer results in a windshield covered in juicy insects of all sorts. This is another sign that the world around us is becoming less hospitable to life. But, once again, this is easy to discount – especially if you don’t particularly like “bugs” and you aren’t fond of cleaning windshields. Never mind that it tells us a story of diminished diversity and vitality amongst the invertebrates in our world.
We like our signs and omens when they comfort us or when they reassure us – like a Tiger Swallowtail on the clover. “It’s okay, Rob, I know you’re doing your best to do the right thing on your farm to support the natural world and still grow good food.” That’s a beautiful story and a nice sentiment. But, I can’t let my distress that things could go wrong stop me from seeing foreboding images and doing what I can to address the problems they speak of. I don’t want the vision of a swallowtail to become a butterfly’s farewell to someone who meant well. Instead, I want this vision to return and manifest itself every season at the Genuine Faux Farm and everywhere else the clover blooms.
The calendar has turned to a new year. All of us who work at PAN and our partners who join us in the effort to build a better, healthier, and more equitable food and farming system must take a deep breath to prepare for the months to come. We see the signs and omens that foretell a difficult future if we do not make changes. But, we also see the swallowtail on the clover that is the vision we firmly believe we can make a reality.
We just need to walk that way together.