The Rev. Chuck Waibel knows he’s dying. After weeks of stomach pain he went in for tests that came back pretty ugly. Stage Four colon cancer. “All that’s left now is handling the pain,” he said, “and going out in style.”
He was given a short calendar. Weeks, perhaps. Months on an outside chance.
“Going out in style” is classic Waibel. Count the eccentric reverend, author, teacher, muse and winter greenhouse instigator as one of the River Valley Liberals. He and his wife, Carol Ford, met via an internet singles site and a match couldn’t be more perfect. She’s a writer and musician. On our second year of the Prairie Fest Chili Cook-off, Carol played with one of her best buddies, Colleen Frye, the bluesy fiddler. Carol is of flowery garb and classic hair ware, Chuck of tropical shirts, suspenders, a full beard and short ponytail.
The two have caught a lot of growing curiosity and notoriety thanks to their passive solar winter greenhouse concept, a brainchild of Chuck’s, called Garden Goddess Greenhouse. Their courses at the home site in Milan, and their co-authored book, “The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual,” have been well received.
Chuck also wrote a most interesting novel called “Phoenix, Minnesota.” A sci-fi story, his book puts us into a future when corporate agriculture has run amok, confining the non-GMO and sustainable folks into forced ghettos. Very little imagination is needed to realize the ghetto is actually Milan, and that his characters are mostly based on people we River Valley Liberals know. Part of the fun is figuring out who is who.
“I know those on both sides,” Chuck said with a characteristic smile. “LOOZers are independent-minded folks,” he said of his protagonists. “They are hard working and self-confident. They are sophisticated, not decadent. They are well-read and thoughtful. They are the epitome of ‘Think Globally, Act Locally.’ Their culture is civic, not corporate, and I thank Ralph Nader for that phrase. They are aware of popular culture, but aren’t impressed by it. They are citizens of the world, but with their feet firmly on the Earth. Their spirituality tells them that we have abused Mother Earth too far.”
After knowing him for years and doing stories on their greenhouses, it was a joy this past winter when the Belle and I attended one of his “courses” at Elk’s Bluff Greenhouse outside of Montevideo. This was the latest of a growing number of passive solar winter greenhouses based on Chuck’s original “but ever-changing” concept.
We were there for a general love of fresh winter greens, although for me in particular, it was from a statement Carol had made shortly after a harrowing trip home from work at the University of Minnesota-Morris: “Afterwards, during the blizzard, I sat in our greenhouse in humid, 80 degree air while the winds and snow blasted the world outside the panels.” If you remember this past winter, and most of us do, you can imagine how this caught the attention of a man raised in the near south.
On this cold, wintry day, Elk’s Bluff was pleasantly warm. Parkas were ditched as we sat in the packaging room adjacent to the greenhouse as the heat drifted in. Joining us were people who had driven from as far north as Duluth, and from St. Cloud and South Dakota. It was typical Chuck — part mad scientist, part engineer and part community organizer while being wholly unorganized. An amazing accomplishment. Yet, he was in his subtle glory as the winds tore across the prairie. But, that was “yesterday.”
On Saturday afternoon he and Carol were at the Mayo Clinic trying to resurface after days of continuing tests. His oncologist, a Dr. Kasi, made a surprise visit after becoming worried about seeing Chuck slumped down in his wheelchair and the negative chart work ... and after doing a bit of online research. Apparently the doctor entered the room while a nurse was attending to Waibel and pronounced, “Do you who this man is? Go on, Chuck, tell her about yourself.”
Here, in Carol’s words, is what happened next: “And so Chuck did, because it doesn’t take much encouragement to get him talking about passive solar greenhouses and sustainable local foods systems. And as he did, I saw the energy build back up in him, telling the nurse about the ideas and hopes that will not let him fall back and let bad luck take him down.
“So the talk turned to his future chemo treatment, about the need for a port to be placed in his chest, about the healing time required before treatments start and about how soon we will return to Mayo (mid-November) to see how things are going and make adjustments to treatment. I think this was the first time we have heard talk about the future since all this began.”
The Rev. Charles Waibel is finding style, thanks to an oncologist who cares.
For more on Charles Waibel, check out:
Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginning graduates profile of Carol and Charles, The Door into Summer by Brian DeVore
The West Central Tribune's May 23,2013 article, New Bush Fellowship recipient to pursue growth of deep winter, local foods economy by Tom Cherveny
Cherveny profiled the greenhouse business in his 2009 article, Garden Goddess Enterprises a growing success.
Photo: Carol Ford and Charles Waibel, via Farm Aid.
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