A beautiful farm in Hawaii and the community behind it.
At Ginger Hill, farmers wake before dawn for meditation, do yoga between tasks, barter for goods, pray for peace in the living world prior to every shared meal, and its founder makes art of female goddesses. Those facts are recited up front before snap judgments can be made.
Sounds too Marxist, hippy, feminist, and cultish, right? It isn’t. If proponents of equitable food production win in the next generation, Ginger Hill is the sort of place many ambitious, creative, equitable minds will grow what we eat.
Like over a dozen organic farms located on the “green belt” of Hawai‘i Island’s Kona coast, Ginger Hill farm is part of a global movement to change the way farming has become increasingly more corporate and environmentally unsustainable since the Second World War.
The problems with mechanized modern farming, the overuse of chemical fertilizers, monoculture growing, and pesticide runoff have become widely known in recent years. Organic farms, which comprise the small minority of farms in the western world, present a model for sustainability and are making the term “farmer” a viable option for young people.
Ginger Hill is down the road of a side street near the sleepy town of Captain Cook on Hawai‘i Island. The properties descending to the farm show what the place looked like before Mayumi Oda and her peaceful army repurposed the land: several untended tableaus of discarded vehicles and a few unbothered goats and cows rustling through American grasses high as a man’s head, punctuated by kiawe and monkeypod trees.
The five-acre lot that serves as a training center and retreat was created, imagined really, by painter and printmaker Mayumi Oda and is a family affair. Oda was born during the war, and moved to America where she created art with some of the most influential artists of the late 20th century.
She spent decades as an international peace advocate as the leader of Plutonium-Free Future, an organization dedicated to safe energy and the elimination of nuclear weapons, all while her art became part of the permanent collections at the New York Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Library of Congress. A screen print in a communal hallway reads, “To Mayumi, from William DeKooning.”
Her solo shows in the major galleries in Hawai’i over the last two decades have made her locally famous. Instead of “retiring” at the age of 60, she bought the farm, where she has made art and hosted hundreds of visiting farmers and retreaters over the last 12 years.
When I arrive at Ginger Hill, Mayumi’s youngest son Jeremiah has been lost at sea for 34 days. He had come to the farm from California to recover from personal issues. When he failed to make a flight home to reunite with his family, his truck was found at his favorite diving site.
Crews from the Coast Guard, fire department, and a variety of friends covered 900 square miles off the west coast of the Big Island with divers, boats, and aircraft over the course of four days in search of him. “I don’t know what to say,” I tell Mayumi, “besides, I’m sorry for your loss.”
“No need to say anything,” she says.
She shows me a picture of him on the cover of Hawaii Skin Diver magazine from a few years ago: a hapa guy peeling out of a blue camouflage wetsuit, barely holding on to a monstrous half-ton marlin as waves crash around him.
“I had just done a painting of a conch diver the week before he disappeared,” Mayumi says. “They went to look for him, but they could not find him.”
She tells me of the ceremonies held in his honor in California and at Ginger Hill. “His diving friend found a conch shell just like the one I painted the day after he disappeared. I feel like a God took him, he moved into the spirit world.”
She smiles with the sort of contentment that many of us so richly desire. The painting she shows me is of the subject matter that has made her internationally famous: goddess women in waves and clouds, and the occasional vegetable.
The protagonists in her work represent whatever is on the opposite end of the male gaze. In the flat files and on the walls are goddess women having all sorts of adventures; hips and boobs and hair free as the wind, holding weapons, zen’d out on a flock of flying cranes, throwing bolts from the air, diving for shells, turning into lava in hues of purple and pink and psychedelic orange—all rendered with the deft hand of a master draughtswoman.
Mayumi, the artist, activist, farmer, and creator, is preparing to head off for another adventure. She is handing the farm to her son, Zachary Nathan, who shares the name of his father John Nathan, the celebrated writer and American translator of Japanese literature.
“I have been given the opportunity to work on a small island named Nushima in Hyougo prefecture,” Mayumi says.
At the island near Kobe, she will join the Nushima Aloha Project with other international peace activists.
“I hope to be a part in the new birth of Japan. I knew that I needed to get back to Japan after all these years,” she says. “Zach is the one who rejuvenated this place. I’m happy to give it to him. I can just come back for good food.”
“We want to make farming cool again,” says Zach as he delivers a tour of the place. That mission in mind, one wonders if cool people still want to become farmers.
Before Zach came to Ginger Hill, he was a fireman in San Francisco at the beginning of the war on terror, a job that did not suit him. “He wasn’t like the other firefighters,” says Mayumi. It is easy to see what she is getting at. He’s handsome and witty, and smiles out the side of his mouth with a healthy skepticism of authority, as if Capt. John Yossarian from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 had wound up growing vegetables after the war.
After leaving the structure of being a fireman, he was in New York City managing nightclubs, and then moved to Brazil to develop a male underwear company. “Brazil is crazy, man,” he says as he shows us how to fix a rock wall. “People in the states have no idea how to party like that. But it’s not the best place to do business. I really lost everything down there.”
Zach did not lose quite everything. He returned to live on Ginger Hill with his wife Iris, who runs the morning yoga lessons. Seeing him walk around the property, gently guiding volunteers and farm newbies in the basics of using a shovel, he exhibits the type of leadership that respects the individuality and self-determination that seems to define him.
“We’re trying to mimic nature,” Zach says as we cut cardboard, used to smother weeds and give the topsoil a chance to rejuvenate. “The way things rot and create a cycle, the climate here is amazing. We also have the advantage of the Internet age. I can see five ways of planting potatoes and figure out what works for me. It’s not as if we have to wait for the spring to come and the frost to clear.”
I lose count of all the types of vegetables popping out at us. Four types of bananas, edible flowers, kalo, kale, a variety of citrus and apples, ghost chilies, cabbages, all in neatly spaced rows.
Below the main house, there are several accommodations of varying levels of comfort for visiting farmers and escapists. Everything smells wonderful. Towards the center of the property is a radiated garden in the form of a mandala, with a bodhi shrub at its center.
“This is a terrible way to plant a garden,” Zach says as he wrestles a hose over a row of perennials. “It was my mom’s idea, and it’s beautiful, but check out how hard it is to water.”
He then hands me a sprig of asparagus that is poking out of the ground. We pop them in our mouths. I feel foolish not knowing that asparagus grows straight out of the ground in edible form. Half of what we are shown could be eaten hands free the way Homer Simpson is force fed doughnuts by Satan in his nightmares, disappointing his torturer with his love of doughnuts. _____________________________________________
There is a rhythm to this sort of life. After a pre-dawn meditation session, Emma Broderick, a recent Stanford graduate who is using a grant to underwrite her farming and peacemaking education, takes the lead in directing the replanting of a row of taro.
Over two hours, we harvest a plastic bucket full of corms, and turn a single row of 20 plants into three evenly spaced rows. While replanting, other farmers use sickles to cut comfrey, a leafy plant that sucks nitrogen out of the soil, and prepare the leaves to be put into jars and create a natural fertilizer that resembles kim chee.
I get a crash course in soil maintenance, using an iron pike to crush charcoal to mix with bone meal, dirt, and the kim chee substance to pour over the newly planted taro.
In the field is Zak Jaques, a 21 year old from Maine. “I heard about this place from a friend of mine. He sent me the link on the WWOOF site,” he says.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an online database that began in Britain in the 1970s as a way to connect organic farms with willing workers. That organization, and the movement towards sustainable and organic farming, has blossomed across the world in recent decades.
“I was studying environmental science and was about to graduate from Colby College,” he says. “My parents were ESL teachers in Japan when I was little, so I still know the language. After this, I’ve been hired to do water testing in the greater Tokyo area through a company called ERM, an environmental NGO consulting company.”
He makes farming sound less like a long list of deplorable chores and more like an actual vocation.
Once the mud was off our hands, a dozen of us convened in the main room for a rigorous yoga session led by Iris. As we set out mats and performed overtly sexual positions in the mid-morning, I wondered what yoga had to do with planting.
But like a neck massage during a haircut, it certainly can’t hurt the process. Best not to question a good thing. After lunch, there were a variety of tasks to get back to, or, in the case of a few of us, not to get back to. Ginger Hill is accepting like that; do what you must do for the day, and then you’re free.
That freedom seems to help the plants grow. Organic farmers eat very well. For dinner, we shared several dishes prepared from the land: kale with garlic sauce, carrot ginger soup, fingerling potatoes, and a bartered tuna from Jeremiah’s diving friend.
As we enjoy each other’s company, I realize that I’ve heard Zach speak English to the young farmers, Portuguese to his wife, Japanese to his mother, and a love song to the vegetables of the field. I am awed by his positive energy in all things farming and peacemaking, a model for those of us who don’t know a damn thing about serenity.
It is difficult to appreciate the quiet stillness of Ginger Hill until getting back to population, how entrancing the rhythms of the lifestyle can be. How after a few weeks of pre-dawn meditation and watching things grow, when your body and mind feel less cluttered by the 21st century and you’ve gotten used your cell phone’s service indicator being out of bars and everyone starts having sex with each other, you may never return.
Over drinks in the city, a friend asked, “Did they bust out the Heaven’s Gate Nikes and start talking about comets? Is it a cult or is it cult-ish?” in the way that Jaime Foxx once insulted Whitney Houston’s behavior as not necessarily indicative of crack cocaine usage, just crack-ish.
“It was neither,” I responded, zen’d out like one of Mayumi’s goddesses flying on a flock of cranes over a psychedelic rainbow. “It was a little bit of heaven.”