A Day in the Chamomile Fields ~ Finding Gratitude and Meaning

Visiting a working farm, I gained a new perspective on my family’s favorite winter drink–chamomile tea.

There they were–little dots of yellow and white in the garden. Like an out of focus picture, I couldn’t see each flower, or even each plant–just a blur of the blossoms in the garden patch. That’s okay. I already know what chamomile is. I’ve seen it growing wild, I’ve had it in tea, used it in herb sachets, potpourri, and other fun things.

My children and I are at Glencolton Farms in Canada with Michael Schmidt and Elisa VanderHout for the week and determined to do everything we can to be useful, to be a part of this working farm—connected to the food we depend on.

I asked what I could do to help. “Go pick the chamomile,” was the response. The flowers were ready, and we were expecting rain.

“This will be fun,” I thought cheerfully striding out to the garden, children behind me, as the bit of morning drizzle picked up. I was confident we would fill up the large bowls quickly and move on to the next piece of farm work that needed doing.

After 2 minutes of picking the tiny flowers–flowers only, no stems–I felt that soreness in my lower back that comes from stooping over–that feeling of tightness and numbness after a long hour of doing dishes or bending down to help a baby walk or a toddler ride a bike. I looked at the few scattered flowers on the bottom of the bowl. “That’s it?” I thought. “I should have more to show than this.”

The repetitive action and the ache led my mind to wander. It took me to the blistering cotton fields where slaves spent hours every day stooping to pick the same thing over and over endlessly in the hot southern sun. A few more flowers landed in my bowl. My kiddos whined a bit. They were tired. “Can we be done now?”

I thought about the neatly wrapped tea bags we buy packed in uniform boxes so we can enjoy a hot cup of tea on winter days. Chamomile, the kids always ask for. I had never thought too much about it and now I was curious and wanted to satisfy my curiosity.

“No, pick longer.”

The soft drizzle became heavier.

“You will appreciate the tea more if you know what goes into it,” I told them, knowing that it was, at least, a self-reflective statement.

I thought about farm families who came before us, how if they wanted tea in the wintertime, they had to pick it when it was ready. There is no waiting until you feel like it. You either pick when the flowers are ready or you don’t have chamomile that year. And that led me to apply that to everything. If you didn’t harvest in those few days when something was ready, you didn’t get it that year.

We proceeded picking the tiny flowers, fingers pinching them off where the flower met the stem, dropping them softly in bowls that now had a couple of layers of flowers.

I thought about the cotton mill and any other machinery that alleviates the burden of large-scale, repetitive farm work. It is one thing to harvest enough for a family, even for a year, but it is a whole different system to harvest enough for a village, a city, or beyond. I could understand the relief these inventions brought to all whose bodies ached and suffered from the relentless bending and picking. I watch as farm communities embrace new technology–robotics, drones, apps–to lighten the work.

“Would I choose the technology…” I thought, “if this was my job?”

The gardens at Michael Schmidt and Elisa VanderHout's Glencolton Farms

The gardens at Michael Schmidt and Elisa VanderHout’s Glencolton Farms

There is a connection, a meditative quality to the work—even with all the aches and pains. There is a built-in respect for the human element involved in a small-scale, connected food system.

I knew I would not choose the technology in this instance, however, I now better understand the attraction to technological advancements.

The rain came down a little stronger, the ache in my back more pronounced. The back of my shirt, soaked through, gave me a little chill in the cool Canadian air.

Even with the children around, picking is still solitary work. In a way, hypnotizing me to the moment, to the unspoken (perhaps innate?) challenge of it. How many could I pick? How fast could I go? Could I get all that was needed before I injured myself? Sometimes, I picked as many as I could into my hand and then dropped them all in the bowl. Other times, I would pick each one, using my fingernails to snip it right off the stem, dropping each one to nestle next to its white and gold companions.

My mind went on ahead of me–surrounded by the flowering plants, I saw opportunities everywhere. I would spin in a circle, picking from as many different plants as I could reach in my arm’s arc. Then slow down and focus back on one plant.

Have we only been out here a half hour?

I thought about the pain of migrant farm workers–how bent and broken many of their bodies are from the repetitive work–berries, tomatoes, cucumbers. I got angry with the unthinking shoppers who pluck full plastic containers from the grocery store shelves as though they are grown that way. I felt myself indignant by the inherent wastefulness of that system and the disrespect for the humans involved in it. We don’t throw away or abuse what we truly appreciate.

That was what it was about–that was why we were there right now. Despite the rain and the whines, I realized that we were doing this because I wanted to give my children the gift of appreciation–appreciating what goes into even a small cup of tea. In the process, I had given that gift to myself. Out in the field in the rain, watching the bowl slowly gain a few more flowers, a few more, feeling the ache in my back and noticing my mind wonder, it was I who gained a new appreciation for something I had taken completely for granted–something that I plucked, neatly boxed, off the grocery store shelves. Food is never just food. It has a story, it has a history. It has life. It gives life or it takes life. I knew that, but, like the chamomile patch, sometimes it is far away and out of focus.

Author Liz Reitzig at Glencolton Farms among the chamomile

Author Liz Reitzig at Glencolton Farms among the chamomile

Later, job done, and the rain pounding on the roof, I offered my oldest a cup of tea. “Yes,” she said. “What kind?” I asked her. “Chamomile,” she responded. Of course that’s what she wanted.

I pulled out a full jar of dried chamomile from last year’s harvest and for the first time, the fuzzy blur of chamomile from the garden was in sharp focus–the tiny dried buds, yellow flowers ringed by faded white petals, lingering bits of stem that didn’t get quite pinched off, even the bits of dust. I opened the lid to the sweet, musty greeting of chamomile tea. Now, I knew, I would savor every sip of chamomile tea with a depth I never had before. I would think of the love and work that went into growing, picking and drying the delightful flowers. I would appreciate.

As I sipped my mug of chamomile tea, I looked back out to the garden where I saw, in perfect focus, a beautiful patch of chamomile.

*****

Liz Reitzig has spent nearly a decade working on the politics of food access in support of small farmers and those who wish to obtain food directly from them. She believes that everyone has the right to peacefully access the foods of their choice from the producer of their choice.

In 2007 Liz founded Grassfed On The Hill, a local GMO-free food buying club that serves the greater Washington DC metro area. Liz still owns and operates her club which serves Washingtonians with GMO-free meats and raw dairy from local farms.

In 2011 Farm Food Freedom was created. As the co-founder and spokesperson, her work on several key cases along with her proactive approach to policy and activism has helped keep farmers out of jail while shaping national and state level food and farming policies.

In 2013, Liz launched her website, NourishingLiberty.com, to chronicle news and events in the food freedom movement and to cover examples of farmers who are blazing new trails.

In 2016 she founded the Real Food Consumer Coalition (RFCC) which is a watch dog for farm-to-consumer procurement of real foods. In early 2017 Liz and RFCC were instrumental in helping an Pennsylvania Amish farmer get released from contempt of court charges and, most recently, she helped spearhead the filing of a citizen petition with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that if accepted, would eliminate an important layer of FDA regulatory enforcement against raw milk farmers—the agency’s ban on interstate transportation or sale of raw milk. Farmers would be exempt from enforcement of this regulation if they provide warning labels and a recipe for pasteurization on raw milk products.

Liz is an event speaker, has appeared as a raw milk spokesperson on several national radio and television shows, has been subject matter in national newspapers and has been featured in the documentary Farmageddon. Her most recent appearance, a few weeks ago, was as a guest with Dr. Ron Paul on his Liberty Report show.

Most importantly, Liz is a Mother of five children raising the next generation on GMO free foods and healthy portion of food awareness.

Links to Liz’ websites:

Real Food Consumer Coalition – https://realfoodcc.com

Nourishing Liberty – http://nourishingliberty.com

Art News – Focus on Renowned Local Photographer Nina Tisara

Jordan Wright
Special to The Alexandria Times
June 6, 2017 

Nature-inspired mosaic by Nina Tisara - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Nature-inspired mosaic by Nina Tisara – Photo credit Jordan Wright

When interviewed for her 2015 Living Legends of Alexandria profile, Artist-Photographer Nina Tisara quipped, “I had a life before Living Legends and I expect to have a life after.”  As founder of the organization that selects and celebrates annually the inspiring accomplishments and contributions of our finest citizens, Tisara will retire from her ten-year commitment leading the organization to pursue her art.

Her photography journey began in the 70’s at Air Force official photo library job when she took first photography class writing picture captions. While attending NOVA night classes in photography to reward herself for earning George Mason BA degree in economics in the mid-80’s and working full-time for a national association, she got hooked, and started part-time freelance photojournalist journey.  More study followed and her work began to get noticed.  Eventually the single mother of four went pro with portrait and wedding commissions, moving her business from Fairlington in 1990 to the townhouse on King Street where Tisara Photography continues to thrive under her son, Steven Halperson.

Currently Tisara has two very different shows in our area. Both are worthy of study. Her powerful black and white photographs of worshippers of all faiths allow us a window to the faithful in intimate and revealing moments of worship. In her nature-related mosaics show she interprets her own photographs in a more classic form – revealing the intricate details of nature through tiny pieces of tile.

Gospel Song, Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church - Photo credit - Nina Tisara

Gospel Song, Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church – Photo credit – Nina Tisara

The show at Convergence, Witnessing Worship – Connecting Through the Lens of Faith, brings together for the first time two of Tisara’s photo documentary studies of worship in Alexandria – Converging Paths (1984-85) and United in the Spirit (1995).  The exhibition invites Alexandrians to share photographs of current worship online.

Convergence believes Tisara’s work fits their universal philosophy. “The ambitious spiritual/cultural objective of this undertaking was the creation of a space where viewers were comfortable in considering the idea that agreement is not a requirement for relationship but an invitation to each of us to expand our capacity for generous listening and observation,” said Reverend Lisa Smith of Covergence.

The closing reception for Witnessing Worship is Friday, June 16, 7-9pm at Convergence, 1801 N. Quaker Lane. For details about the online project contact DabABH@ourconvergence.org.  The reception is free and open to the public.

Nina Tisara talks with fellow artist Marian Van Landingham at the opening reception at Huntley Meadows Visitors Center - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Nina Tisara talks with fellow artist Marian Van Landingham at the opening reception at Huntley Meadows Visitors Center – Photo credit Jordan Wright

In 2005 when photography went predominantly digital, Tisara laid her camera aside and started creating mosaic designs studying under Gene Sterud, a retired archeologist. “The medium provides the opportunity to combine my early training in painting and sculpture and my later work in photography. I often use the double-reverse process taught by Gene which, like sculpting in clay, allows the image the freedom to evolve,” she explains.   Each piece is signed with a tiny silver gecko.  “Geckos represent transition and transformation, death and rebirth, and letting go of old things for new,” she adds.

Alexandria residents Judy and Carl Lohmann admire details of Tisara's mosaics - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Alexandria residents Judy and Carl Lohmann admire details of Tisara’s mosaics – Photo credit Jordan Wright

Currently on exhibit at Huntley Meadow Park Visitors Center through August 31st, we see her work inspired by her photographs of a particular stand of trees at the park where she had envisioned “dancers” in the twisted grapevines that gird these trees.  Some of the mosaics are hung alongside the photographs that inspired them.  Tisara has been visiting the park and observing and photographing nature there since 2000 and first exhibit in 2003.

Huntley Meadows is located at 3701 Lockheed Boulevard, in nearby Fairfax County. For Visitor Center hours, see http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/huntley-meadows-park/