Sunday, June 25, 2006

"Val, I'm not going to answer my phone when the caller ID says 'Strange Guest'!

(Quotation from Val's sister Sam, during phone conversation today)

Guests and Strangers Catholic Worker Farm
Maloy, Iowa

(Mark and Brian, co-founder of Guests and Strangers CW Farm)

A two-hour morning bus ride from Kansas City plopped us off in the bucolic Iowa border town of Lamoni. The bus stop was the area Livestock Auction center and two Amish buggies were just leaving after seeing off some family traveling the bus. A high of 88 degrees inspired us to ride the 35 miles to Maloy sooner rather than later. Plus, there were no towns between Lamoni and Maloy.

Mark put the bikes together while Val sucked down a cup of farmer java, and noticed all the farmers observing the spectacle of us. We filled up all our water bottles and bought a 1/2 gallon of Gatorade for giggles (and to keep from dehydrating). The roads in rural Iowa are marvelous stretches of extremely quiet paved roads, more like 30-foot wide bike paths. Plus the few random souls driving past wave to us, almost always before we think to raise our hand in gesture.

As the hours piled on, so did the sun's rays. We found a random roadside picnic area and dined on every morsel of food we could gather in our pack. Just as we were running out of water, we found another random site: a large discount grocery store, E & S & B (Esther, Sam & Barbara), in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Of course it's owned by an Amish family that lives next door. The Amish around here are recent emigres, boosting the Ringgold County's population for the first time since the 1910 census. Land is super cheap, or at least it was until the rich summer home jet set from Chicago found out about it. As well, the Amish have unwittingly created a property value spike. Pushed out by higher property costs elsewhere in the Midwest, some Amish come to rural southwest Iowa scooping up 80-acre lots for usually under $750 an acre.

The Amish family at E & S & B didn't mind our delirious dehydrated invasion, sucking down bottles of tap water and buying up a dozen premium, though dated, foofy Luna power bars for 95 cents. That’s 95 cents TOTAL, not each.

Hot, stinky and sweaty we arrived in Maloy and found the Guests and Strangers Catholic Worker Farm amongst giant swaths of feed and ethanol corn (being grown across the street, and across Maloy). Alex, we met first, is a wayfaring stranger like us, vagabonding from community to farm to community. Betsy and Brian we met next, the founders of the community. They treated us to glasses of cool water and homemade hummus and discount crackers from E & S & B. We chatted for a long hour.

(Sunday dinner with community members, "guests and strangers": Veronica, Kathy, Wendell, Squeaky, Betsy, Brian, Alex and Don)

We've been here nearly a week and have found this place both an oasis and fine example of what we're seeking to create. Getting a chance to slow down in a beautiful quiet place, as well as meet people of such genuine integrity, has been a wonderful cool drink amongst our recent busy hot and dusty travels. We often laugh while telling folks whom we meet about our travels this year that all this coming and going is motivating us to make our vision of creating an intentional community happen soon, very soon.

The layout of Guests and Strangers is simple yet diverse. It is housed in a large farmhouse of 4 bedrooms and 1 bath, built in 1911, on four acres. Most of that acreage is for grazing the three momma dairy goats (which are milked twice a day) and five kids. About 1/2 acre of varied gardens along with splotches of berry patches and a mixed orchard provide quite a bit of food for a family of two and guests. A house next door is owned by Betsy's sister (currently residing in Buffalo, planning eventually to retire here), and used primarily for guests.

The town of Maloy was created in 1880 by the train running from Des Moines to Kansas City. Mostly Irish came (names like Warin, O'Connor and Shay fill the cemetery) built up the town that had a peak population of about 1,000. That was back a hundred years ago. Today the population hovers around 30. The passenger train service stopped running in the mid-70s, and the track was yanked out of the ground in the mid-80s. The market closed, along with the bank and barber shop.

About 20 years ago, the economics of the area suffered a further predictable capitalist trauma. While the hilly area around here was used primarily for grazing cattle, today it's almost all corn and giant hog factories. Corporations moved in, enticing small farmers with sweet deals and prophecies of big profits. Many took the bait and most perished. The few survivors gobbled up tons of land, under the auspices of large agribiz, got in debt with giant machines, and planted row after monotonous row of corn, mostly for animal feed. Now the ticket is ethanol, the supposed future savior of the peaking oil industry. It's all a mirage. The hills around here won't sustain monoculture corn plantings, the topsoil eroding away with each rain and wind gust.

Still there are the odd holdouts like Guests and Strangers.

(Solstice party bonfire. God on the right)

Remember we mentioned the super cheap prices of land and property? Twenty years ago Betsy and Brian bought the 4 acres and the large farm house for $12,500. Today it's appraised at $13,000. They pay about $200 a year in property taxes. The house next door that Betsy's sister bought some years ago she got for $3,500. Property has gone up since then. Don and Veronica, two extended members of the Guests & Strangers community, live a couple of hundred yards away, and recently bought 20 acres for $750 an acre.

In the mornings we have prayer time, followed by the mutual creation of the work list. A leisurely lunch is around Noon; someone usually volunteers to make something. Digesting the food, we also digest whatever is on our minds for a while after eating. We go back to afternoon work and chores and then eat a communal dinner around 6 or 6:30pm. Meanwhile, throughout the day, interspersed with work, folks take breaks, check email, take a nap, do a bit of reading. There's always something to do, but generally no big rush to get it done.

A joke Val heard at the Solstice party Guests and Strangers hosted last night, was a scene of folks at church. The minister preaches that heaven will be everyone's reward for their life on earth. Calling for everyone to raise their hand who wants to go to heaven, the whole parish raised in unison except one man, John. The minister, perplexed, asked John why he doesn't want to go to heaven. John replied, “Iowa is good enough for me.”

There are no mountain ranges here. No big rivers or lakes. For most non-Iowans we suspect Iowa is simply a place in between places. Where we are, it certainly feels rural. Birds are the biggest population we can see. There are lots of mini-forests, inter-mixed with natural prairie grasses and the factory fields of corn. The soil is some of the world's richest; coaxing vegetables to grow is not a problem. Lightening bugs greet us on our evening walks. Storm watching and rain gauging are big pastimes. The sunsets are surreally beautiful. “They’re like that all the time,” Betsy assures us.

We joked the last night, walking down to the town park while the sun was setting, as a low fog moved in, a storm hovered nearby, and the lightening bugs accompanied us as they do, “You’re trying to seduce us, Maloy.”

It’s working. Thirty people, rain, fertile land, and no Starbucks for 100 miles? There’s a reason Farmer John was satisfied.

Did Mark mention berries and cherries? Many of you know that Mark is half-bear, but never before has his inner nature of bearness surfaced so completely, requiring daily quantities of fresh berries. Guests and Strangers has not disappointed. Red and black raspberries, gooseberries, mulberries and Nanking cherries round out the current crop. We eat them raw, or in pies and tarts or the German staple called Rota Grutza, a thin pudding-like consistency made of cherries, berries and cornstarch.

(Solstice Party annual French-inspired bonfire with Alex, Squeaky and Brian playfully admiring)

Bonfire. Everybody loves a big fire, jokingly referred by Val as "White Man Fire". At the annual Solstice party last night, the afternoon of food, games, French peasant dancing, and more food, was capped off by a ritual giant bonfire, built by Brian. He explained that in France, to celebrate the Feast of John the Baptist (the Catholic church's attempt at coopting the pagan celebration of Solstice), folks gather at dark and light a giant carefully stacked pile of sticks. So many of the 75 folks who came out for the earlier festivities gathered around and quietly watched the tower ignite, shooting a massive flame a dozen feet high into the night sky. As the fire climbed lower, an accordion was played, then singing with guitars and shakers, and, alas, still more food and drink.

Politically, there is some really good, heartening, exciting work going on in Iowa. Courtesy of the big annual Solstice party, we got to meet quite the who’s who of Iowa’s activist community last night, including Ed Fallon, who campaign manager Jon Krieg (Val’s former AFSC colleague) introduced to Val as “State Blue Ribbon Accordion Player and Gubernatorial Candidate!” Despite his progressive politics (progressive enough to have a bunch of anarchists registering Democrat just so they can vote in the primaries), Ed managed to secure 26% of the vote. Jon thinks it was really his accordion-playing.

(Jon, Val and Patty at Solstice party in Maloy)

A local youth described his parents by saying “They’re world reknown, just by very few people.” Proving that the activist world really is too small (or that we really are all related), shortly after arriving here, we learned in conversation that Don (of Veronica and Don mentioned above) was Jon’s college roommate. Jon works in the Des Moines AFSC office. He and Val were long-distance colleagues during both her stints with the Denver office. During conversations with him and his partner Patty (who came down for the Solstice party, as did Ann Nafier, also of AFSC), she learned that he and Patty had lived at the Guests and Strangers farm for 3 months, and the Joyful Farm in Indiana for four months. Joyful Farm, home of Brethren activists Cliff and Arlene Kindy, is where we’re going in July!!

Jon and Ann filled our ears with the good tidings of great immigrant rights work going on in Iowa, from Alex and Squeaky (another young man who biked here to the farm) we learn of all the great Catholic Worker activism in Des Moines, and the ongoing fine work of Kathy Kelly and the Organization Formerly Known as Voices in the Wilderness in Chicago, and from Brian and Betsy we learn of the excellent anti-war organizing and civil liberties resistance among the Catholic and other peace communities here in the Midwest. The struggle is excitingly, beautifully alive, out here among the corn and fireflies and deer.


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