Living Sustainably, Living Intentionally

Profile of Jj Starwalker of Dutch Hex Sign and Fussing Duck Farm

by Allison Burden

Beginning gardeners often look for resources to help them develop their skills. In the age of technology there are many new platforms and ways to learn about the different methodologies for establishing, raising, and harvesting a good vegetable garden in all areas of the world. Books and videos abound, but there are many that prefer in-person knowledge dissemination. Many would look to local chapters of gardening groups to glean information and meet like-minded individuals with more experience and know-how to broaden their skills.

Me, well, I went to see a witch.

Jj Starwalker is a close friend of mine, a pagan, and old witch of the northern tradition who has been sustainably gardening and living on her harvest and mad gardening skills for decades. Beginning with her homestead in Western Colorado, she has managed to live off of the land in three areas of this great country (Western Colorado, Eastern Washington state, and currently here in Maine) with varying amounts of successes, and quite a few learning experiences. Jj has always pursued balance in her life. In fact sustainably living and wanting only that which will meet her needs has allowed her to pursue her creative side, and it has shaped her existence.

Growing up, she helped her grandparents harvest and sell the extra strawberries and corn grown on their property to help get extra cash in for the family. When she moved here to Maine she tried to bring this approach to the local farmers markets here. Growing extra lettuces, tomatoes, and beans in her home garden, she attended the markets to sell the excess and bring in a little extra money, but the venture did not bring in the cash expected due to customers wanting supermarket variety and availability (and some competitors being able to meet these demands with home greenhouses).

Jj stopped trying to sell the extra at market and focused more on preserving for her family’s needs and scaling back the planting to reflect what would be consumed at home. Hoeing, weeding, watering, and harvesting the food that will sustain herself and her husband not only gets her out and moving at 73 but has also brought her more in touch with nature and her spiritual side.

Gardens sing to the people who tend them. They sustain the body with the food they provide and also provide nourishment for the spirit with their quiet growth and soothing nature. Jj is calmer when working with the plants (maybe not when she spots a potato beetle or a hornworm) and feels a true connection with the seasons and the earth when elbow deep in plants she tends and raises from seed.

She says that she listens closely to the garden as well because it recently quipped to her “talking with us is great, but just like when you talk to your Gods, y’all need to remember to listen at least as much as you talk.” She is very insistent that her particular garden does use y’all in its vernacular, and encourages everyone to have a chat and a listen to their own plots.

As in everything else with life, gardens sometimes fail. Jj recounts with a chuckle her choice of garden location in Colorado. The flat area and deposits of silt seemed perfect, until a large rainstorm flooded the area and drowned everything growing. She may have lost all of her vegetables and fruits, but she learned a valuable lesson in location, location, location. What seemed like the perfect place to plant her seedlings was made so by the flooding and deposition of silt by the local river (which probably continues to do so to this day).

Because of this Jj stresses that the most important thing that anyone can bring to farming is persistence. Sometimes we make mistakes; sometimes bugs eat the plants, or a dry and hot summer burns them all, or a river overflowing its banks takes out your whole garden in one fell swoop. As long as we learn from what happened and keep trying, success will follow. This is also something to keep in mind if you are more bent towards raising animals.

Jj has had poultry at all three of her homesteads with varying degrees of success. Her proudest moment was when she was able to sustain a small number of turkeys who not only laid some decent eggs but proved to be excellent mothers and were very tasty as well. She advises looking for non-broad breasted turkeys and chickens if you want to establish a breeding flock for even more sustainability and to seek out heritage breeds.

Sadly, many of the turkeys bred and raised today for commercial use simply cannot breed and do not have the instincts to raise young. Jj still has a gleam in her eye when she recounts the three hens she raised and who subsequently went broody. This was the pinnacle of her poultry efforts. She says this balances out the time her chicken coop went flying in a microburst on the fourth of July one year!

She remembers seeing the blue-tarp covered coop lifting off and skipping across the yard, hopping the fence to the neighbors, and finally coming to rest on the far side of his yard. The rebar and clamps used to secure the structure in place had utterly failed. (She does not remember the chickens also being tossed about, but they were all found after the storm had passed, no worse for wear). That same storm stripped all her tomato plants to green stalks and pock-marked all her peas so badly that she had to shell them before bringing them to the market.

When she’s not tending garden and poultry, Jj also has a business aptly named Dutch Hex Sign using the skills for painting and putting intentions into the designs that she learned from her grandmother. It was a very old and traditional way of painting the hexes including both spiritual and meaningful designs and energy work, not like the mass produced versions that are available in stores today, which are broadly silkscreened and mere art.

Jj’s hexes are not just beautiful pieces, but they are also, in fact, a focused intentional visual prayer that directs the energy of the world to the meaning of the painting. For example, there are some designs done to help promote production of a garden or protection of a family or animal, etc. All of Jj’s hexes are done on commission and start with a circular piece of plywood. The center point of the hex is representative of the deity and the circumference of each hex is the reach of the deity, essentially showing a visual representation of the all encompassing. As she adds differing elements to the inner portions of the hex, each represents something that the energy is to be focused on, and she concentrates heavily on the person who will be receiving the hex, thus directing the energy to the person and farm that has ordered the piece.

It is this unique mixture of nature and spirit and body that Jj brings to all her work, which is why I wanted her as my mentor. I talk to the plants around my house as I water and care for them much like Jj does in her large garden (mine are shy and have not spoken up yet).

I love visiting Jj and her garden, walking amongst the huge happy plants that sometimes dwarf even my 5’ 8” frame.  She has scouted my property and approves the location I have chosen for a garden (no rivers nearby), and my coops are heavy enough to survive even the largest microburst (the chickens may roost without being windswept). We talk often about gardening, animals, crafting, and more mundane topics.

Joined in the communion of food and family and knowledge, we now pull out our knitting needles, share our stories, and make plans for next year.