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2015 Apprentice

Josh Raft

2015 New Agrarian Program apprentice at Tooley's Trees

In Josh's own words...
Josh Photo
My involvement with trees began since before I can remember, wandering in the patch of wild-growth behind my house. When I was nine I climbed to the top of a pine and nailed a bed-sheet in the highest crotch to recline back and read in. Spending time around and in the trees spurred creativity and peace in my being. My name is Joshua Michael Donnelly Raff, I go by Josh, and I grew up in the Crescent Hill area of Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville is an anomaly for the state of Kentucky and that general region of the Midwest. The city has a population of one million, a diverse racial mix with many immigrant groups, a stellar metro park system designed by Frank Law Ohlmsted, and an underground music scene known for a handful of nationally renowned bands and many lesser known and intriguing artists. My teenage growth had its roots in these city parks and that music scene, playing drums in the wake of a declining punk scene. I attended high school at DuPont Manual, a public magnet school and by testing standards, the best in the county. Summers I worked in the kitchens of Palestinian-owned restaurants scattered throughout the city. After graduating I followed the trend for the middle class and white demographic and started in a four-year program at a liberal arts college. The industrial design program I enrolled in introduced me to an urgency within academia to stress upon my generation the concept of sustainability, specifically emphasizing how the systems that provide our energy, including gas, electricity, and food, are provably not sustainable. That was the impulse that eventually guided my path to Quivira and Tooley's Trees.

Through a curriculum-based onslaught of facts and statistics about environmental degradation, greenhouse gas-induced climate instability, natural resource depletion, my own interest in the activist movements of the 70's, time spent with an off-grid spiritualist, many books and conversations pontificating the predicament humanity faces, and years of returning to the woods and places of natural beauty to find solace, I reconciled a very vague understanding to guide where my energy goes as a young person today. In the years I was an undergrad, the ideas of `sustainability' and `green practices' became household phrases introduced as marketing strategies for selling corporate-produced consumer goods and services. The more I learned about what was being done to adjust the impact of industry and what projections there were for the future of climate change, water availability and so on, the more I felt compelled to spend my time outside.

I came to accept a few observations as facts in my hazy understanding of this state of affairs. First is that "progress" as it exists since the industrial revolution began and is maintained at its current rate by non-sustainable uses of natural resources and toxic polluting of the air and water. Changing this on a scale of any significance is a political dilemma. Politics is intertwined with business. The capitalist business market that drives "progress" is a growth-dependent competition that acts without regard to natural limits of the planet. Therefore I figured the honest efforts of change, as I could hope to participate in them, are likely to be those existing in small-scale grassroots organizations, community-driven movements, and pockets of individual people taking what control they can over what resources they have to experiment, develop, and apply them toward a sustainable means of modern living. It took me several years and a lot of trial and error pursuing different schooling, work, and personal interests to picture this. Doing so is what brought me to search out practice-based learning or a modern apprenticeship opportunity of work that is done outdoors. Intuition coupled with logic spurred me to seek work methods that are structured through learning and offer insights into how society and industry could operate and thrive in a paradigm that is not just a means to an end.

The Quivira Coalition's New Agrarian Program grabbed my attention because it offered such apprenticeships. Apprenticing on a holistic tree nursery appealed to me because of two prior work experiences: working on an arborist crew and planting an orchard in Moab, Utah as part of a four-month natural building internship. When I was employed as an arborist the day-to-day often felt the same as being a landscaper at a slightly higher altitude. What was different was a comfort that came from staring into the trees most of the day, pruning and cabling wooden giants to enhance their longevity. No job felt as satisfying as when we planted over three hundred trees in the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood in Louisville. This was an experience unlike most of the work I had done, in which I was directly involved in the support of an organism which will outlive me. I felt that same deep sense of gratification when doing the manual labor involved in planting the fruit trees for the orchard in Moab. Under the guidance of a holistic grower who taught for the sake of bettering the health of the tree as well as the soil food web and the ecosystem it exists in, the whole experience had an eternal quality to it. Like finding your center of balance walking a slack line or spinning a top so that it keeps on going. If focus is maintained it will sustain. In the same way I hope that the mosaic of small sustainable efforts scattered throughout society continue investing time and energy into exploring regenerative methods and depending less on a deplenishing means of production. Larger scale operations may even look to those models for guidance from the smaller successes and those who master an understanding of how to take from the environment without degrading it.

As Gordon and Margaret from Tooley's Trees explain, "Our stock is grown with organic methods and we practice holistic orchard management. These practices are time consuming and labor intensive, but result in healthier plants, soils, water quality and beneficial insect populations." That is why I am here, to participate in one of these smaller efforts, to learn these practices and do the work they require, while following my intrinsic draw to the trees and the inspiration and creativity they stimulate.