Under a graceful arc adjacent to the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, Midge Jolly sings mantras while filling long, lined rectangular pans by a hose flowing with nearly 480 gallons of pure seawater. It is patient work ...
... taking up to five hours in temperatures of upwards to one hundred and forty degrees while gravity works its magic, transferring siphoned seawater from food-grade barrels that her husband Tom Weyant has collected from the channel that connects the Gulf and the Atlantic. But the task of tenacity has only begun. They must now wait for the sun and wind to play their parts; invoking the evaporation that helps the alchemy along. Former landscape and irrigation contractors, Midge and Tom have revived an irrigation of an entirely different business as well as one of Key West’s biggest and centuries-old industries: that of making salt.
Salt. This crystalline substance formed from sodium and chlorine ionic compounds proliferates on our planet so vastly, that if extracted it would blanket the world’s total land mass to more than one hundred feet. Found in most everyone’s cupboards across the globe, it flavors our food, refers to one’s worth, and is where we spend the first months of our lives swimming in a sac of its solution.
Common though it may be, it is anything but simple. Consider first its history, firmly imprinted within the human condition since antiquity: Salt has preserved food for the living and the bodies of the dead for afterlife, has been the impetus for wars, taxes, myths and superstitions. Empires were created and destroyed because of it, soldiers were once paid in coins and cakes of its currency, caravan trade routes were formed for its cause. Depending on the product it is made into, salt can nourish, nurture, preserve, protect, destroy, enlighten and illuminate. It is found in everything from cleansers to cosmetics, baked goods and batteries, meats, metals and explosives.
It is truly indispensable, with more than 1,400 recorded uses thus far. But salt is more than a valuable commodity; it is intrinsic to who we are, its chemicals essential to all living things. Most mammalian life begins in a salty soup of sorts, and though the body cannot manufacture sodium or chloride on its own, by the time we reach adulthood, our bodies contain over forty teaspoons of this critical element, helping regulate water content and signal nervous system electrons. With inadequate proportions of it, our muscles won’t contract, our blood won’t circulate, our food won’t digest and our hearts cease to beat. Simply put, without salt, we cannot survive.
In exactly that same sentiment, too much salt can also kill. Studies proliferate in nutritional science and tout the negative effects of its excess, including high blood pressure and fluid retention. Most American’s diets are exploding with an excess of salt, causing a litany of issues mostly derived from poor diets packed with too many preservatives.
Excessive salt changed everything for Midge and Tom. In their case, the culprits were high tides and big winds. When Hurricane Wilma swept through Summerland Key in 2005 with its “unlucky” thirteen feet of sea water across their land, it devastated nearly all the equipment that supported their successful 35 year old landscaping and irrigation business as well as snuffing out their edible gardens and fruit-bearing trees. This, coupled with Tom’s life-altering spinal surgery, brought them to re-evaluate and reconsider their livelihood.
“Wilma turned our world upside down just like a big wave,” said Midge. “Water had picked everything up and covered it in silt.”
Ironically, the very waters that caused so much devastation were what nudged them deeper into the lifestyle and livelihood they currently embrace — founders and operators of Florida Keys Sea Salt — all-natural, artisanal, and solar evaporated right there on their land.
“I’m a person who has long enjoyed growing, cooking and eating my food, and often turned to ethnobotany for inspiration” Midge said.
“One of the things that struck home for me was a show about a chef in Scotland, and how everything he prepared came from within thirty miles from his home. He took a pot to the sea, filled it up and brought it home to his stove. Hmmm, I thought, I’ll try that sometime.
“I also saw a show about harvesting sea salt and marketing it in the United States, which was filed in my memory bank. I watched a lot of things about the mining of salt, New Orleans, the Great Lakes. I kept being attracted to that.”
Master gardeners with a passion for protecting the habitat on which they live and farm, and the interest in living close to the land have always been deeply ingrained in these two. Working with the earth is nothing exceptional or new. The difference, they would learn, was to let go.
By turning inward to their true nature, letting the process unfold naturally and allowing the existing exquisite forces to do what they do mostly on their own accord, they invited the salt in and figured out how to work with it. This bold move towards equanimity turned a natural disaster into something hardly unlucky at all.
“After Wilma, there was a lot of salt. Tom was having his surgery and it was pretty clear we had to think about what to do next. We used an old hurricane shutter, a piece of plywood, covered it with plastic and made an A frame. Bugs got in, nothing happened. Then the wind came in and blew the plastic off.”
Just when it seemed a failure, “salt began to happen.”
Salt is no new player in the realm of fantastical phenomena and tremendous metamorphoses. Conquered cities were once ritualized with a spread of salt, symbolizing a curse on re-inhabitation. Lot’s wife disobeyed the angels in Genesis 19 and looked back on her own defeated city, only to become a pillar of salt herself. The accidental spilling of this seemingly harmless compound is considered an evil omen, inspiring even the non-believer to throw a pinch of it over their left shoulder into the eye of the devil that might be lingering there.
But such grim outlooks are countered with more illuminating scientific and historical episodes. Consider purple salt as old as the solar system (one specimen was 4.56 billion years old!) that hurtles itself through space, arriving in meteorites for scientists to marvel and theorize over. Or the benevolent Mahatma Gandhi, who lead 100,000 people on the Salt Satyagraha, a non-violent protest against British Salt tax laws that eventually brought India to claim its independence. This Satyagraha — or “truth force” as it is translated — was a true agent of change, acknowledging civil injustices and bringing power to the people — with salt as its predecessor.
Though NaCl it may be named, it is more than the sum of its chemical parts, flitting the distance from scientific to sacred in milli-moments. The Roman Catholic Church still uses it as a sacrament, making holy water with it, sprinkling it across thresholds as an invocation, or dabbing it on a newborn’s tongue for the promise of everlasting spiritual life. Our species as a whole gravitates towards this small rock’s magnetic pull, eager for a piece of earth and sea that makes more than our taste buds sing. Its potential is so powerful that these two people are willing to take all that they have lost and dedicate their days to this humble compound, investing in it with the very salt of their own labor.
“Salt draws,” says Midge, after contemplating her part in her personal picture. “That’s one of its jobs. It is hygroscopic, it wants to pull moisture from everything. That’s its job in the world. It is not a gentle curative. It’s a potentially purging curative, it gets under the skin, it irritates. That little grain irritates.”
Uncomfortable as it can be, its ability to nourish and nurture through its cleansing, restorative and curative properties has helped it play an instrumental role in both the traditional and alternative modalities of healing.
Hospitals regularly use intravenous saline solutions to combat a slew of medical issues, and everything from nasal washes to throat gargles to facial scrubs and body soaks have had proven positive results for those ailing with various complaints. Viruses and bacterias cannot exist in pure salt, creating a rise in the interest and popularity of healing salt caves and retreats.
The high count of trace minerals in sea salt alone errs it to the side of health. Many will attest to the effectiveness of a sea-salt detox, which involves drinking salt mixed with warm water upon awakening. Drink up and let go, so to speak. It would make sense, then, that the natural mix of the Florida Keys’ humid heat with the sea salts would have deeply curative, detoxifying effects, soaking into the skin and system, working on you whether you’ve invited it to or not.
“We have noticed that people can get cranky when they get here to share the land,” says Midge. “Friendly people with great references, even. If they’ve got stuff that needs working out, the salt has the tendency to help them along. It nudges it out.”
Still, they come, and the salt works on them much the same as those who came before and will come after them. After six years of creating prototypes, waiting for the salt to form then testing it, and waiting for the saltdrenched soil to leach itself clean, the couple is finally beginning to reap the rewards of what they’ve sown. Florida Keys Sea Salt is also now able to plant, grow, and harvest organic edibles as well as host interns through the World Wide Opportunities on
Organic Farms program. Through it all, Midge and Tom reflect and resume their place among it.
“There are so many things to learn,” says Midge. “Ultimately they all boil down to simply being rather than doing, and allowing rather than making. Which is not to be confused with the relative reality that there is a lot of hard work to farming.”
The day begins at seven in the morning and continues well on, with both the land and with various outreach programs they’ve developed or converged with. There is water to be skimmed; hammocks to be pruned and harvested; hurricane-downed trees to be cleaned; salt to be packaged, smoked, or shipped; signs to be dated and painted; marketing and promoting to be done; and the newer-growing organic permaculture crops to be attended to.
After a succession of seasons where the soil had lain dormant, and storms had set them back, their land is finally beginning to burgeon with twenty foot papaya trees, edible hibiscus, seasons of hosted honey bees and most recently, Moringa, the “tree of life” native to the Himalayas and the tropics and valued for its leaves and seeds which are rich in vitamins, proteins, minerals and antioxidants.
Through trial and error, they grow and create in alignment with the natural world and the benefit of all involved, carrying forward the notion that “there are no absolutes on the edge of the remains of wilderness. Everything is changing.”
“For so many, livelihood has devolved into how you pay the bills,” Midge said.
“But I think what’s intended at its heart is that which brings us joy: meaningful work. And that’s what this, so much, is.”
There is, of course, the reality of creating income. After all, the word “salary” comes from the Latin word salarium, the term Romans gave to what they paid their soldiers so that they could, in turn buy this all-important element. The salt being shipped out is currently worth more than the money coming in, but the forward movement is progressive and done with a trust in the process, hope for the future garden harvests and plenty of good old fashioned trade exchanges. They bridge the gap between the ideology of optimal, off-the-grid living while embracing a whole-hearted sense of community, wanting to share the information as well as their harvests with anyone interested.
“There’s a long way to go, and though the electric company does not accept salt as payment, we are slowly reducing what we need to pay for... and learning to optimize a sustainable, self-sufficiency.”
Unlike processed or genetically modified products, there is no “rushing” salt or organic foods into being. One must wait, tend, and wait some more, all the while hoping the weather stays partial to your preferences. A former midwife, Midge has acquired the deep life tools of waiting and allowing and knows full well that nature’s true alchemy cannot happen without them. She also learned how difficult the clinical aspects were and decided to step out of it, choosing instead to find other ways to use the skills she learned.
“Catching babies didn’t ring my bell. What did it for me was watching families grow into who they would become.
“I am so grateful for patience,” reflects Midge. “Midwifery gave me that tool, as does Buddhism. We sit and we wait. We don’t really wait for anything. We just wait. It’s all becoming further engrained at a cellular level. Midwifing salt, the land, my own life. Patience with my self, my past ... just being able to be patient with what is.”
As most will agree, what is isn’t always so easy, and Tom and Midge are no exception to the experience. Despite the heat and no-see-ums; the slow-growing halites; the salt-saturated soil that took years to regenerate; the tropical storms and hurricanes that continue to impact and threaten; the larder that isn’t always full: and the sometimes disgruntled WWOOFers who expect greater regularity and ease synonymous with the calm aquamarine Florida Keys seas, there is something that sustains them.
“Even though it’s complex and difficult as it draws from us personally, it opens all sorts of avenues. If Wilma and the salt adventure hadn’t come, we might not be so close to the (current) food adventure. We sit right in the middle of the salt tide rising and the salt drying on the other end of the land. As for us, what are we going to do to hold the balance?”
It is a business as much as it is a lifestyle, after all. The balance comes by doing what feels intrinsic to who they are. Chop wood, carry water. Fill pans, scoop salt. Sing mantras, gift their goods to others, donate their knowledge, and continue to ask questions, knowing the mysteries of how and why may not always have an answer.
“If I’m honest,” she confesses, “there are increasing questions more than there are answers. We are beginning to discover that there is an evolution and ongoing flow, but then it is followed by another question. There seems to always be another inquiry. I never seem to end the stream of new things to learn.”
One constant is the impetus to keep doing what they do and to stay close to the land and shoreline they’ve called home for so long.
“Eating what grows or evaporates near you makes good sense,” says Midge. “Fresh salt, as Tom calls it.”
With a vibrant interest in hand-crafted salts rising around the world, Florida Keys Sea Salt and its farming is broadening, evolving, and circling back to the earth as they experiment with mixing a variety of artisanal blends with what they grow on the land.
“The salt is always changing and different. There are so many literal experiments I want to do with the salt... and the continual experiment of how it fits into our lives... and how we offer the ‘taste’ to others.”
“I feel the energy of the wind, the sun, the many elements present in the sea water and then concentrated in solar evaporated salt.
It’s part of all of us, the brew that grew in our mama’s bellies,” she says, referring to the similarity of the embryonic fluid’s composition to the sea.
“That salty soup of the sea and the embryonic sea that we were gestated in — we arose from that. There is something so much deeper for us to learn about our planet, about our mama’s and ourselves.”
- Story by Cricket Desmarais from SALT: an indigenous journal, Key West.
Both farmers are University of Florida/Monroe County extension service Master Gardeners, passionate advocates and caretakers of the fragile and sensitive endangered habitat on which they farm and which is adjacent to the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. They host a revolving cast of folks who come to visit either as paid guests or land guests to learn about sustainable farming. Tom is a retired arborist and irrigation specialist and Midge is a retired home birth midwife, now providing health advocacy and research services and attending women at the end of life. With much experience working the land, Tom was raised on a dairy farm in PA and had a landscape and irrigation firm for 35 years in the Florida Keys, before Wilma washed away the business and gardens.
Midge was raised on the Chesapeake Bay and has lived most of her life near or on the ocean, calling the Florida Keys home since 1981. Tom was raised in the mountains of Pennsylvania and has called the Keys home since 1975. Both are committed to living close to the land in the most sustainable way possible, growing many vegetables year round on their farm in addition to salt farming.