About 10 years ago, Carolyn Mugar got a gift from her “oldest best friend” from childhood, Elsbeth Fairbairn Milmore, now a piano tuner in London.
The gift was a silver necklace, which Milmore had bought at a flower show, with a charm of a small shovel. Mugar wears it every day.
“It’s an invitation to everybody — and to me, too — to dig into life,” she said. “There is always a way to do something. People so often feel they can’t do anything, but sometimes the thing to do is small.”
It might seem Mugar wouldn’t need such a reminder, since digging into life seems to be her natural state. She’s involved in so many causes — labor, environment, literacy, among others — that she had to reflect for a moment when asked how she’d describe herself. “I guess ‘activist’ is the one word, if there has to be one,” the Cambridge resident said.
Closest to her heart are Farm Aid (she’s been executive director for 30 years) and the Armenia Tree Project, which she founded in 1994 with her husband John O’Connor, an activist and environmentalist who died in 2001.
Both projects have a connection to digging in a way that’s more than just metaphoric.
Farm Aid, the nonprofit that advocates for family farmers, started in 1985 as a concert organized by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp. (A fourth, Dave Matthews, joined the board in 2001.)
At the time, Mugar was “poking around” looking for a new challenge, and a mutual friend introduced her to Nelson. She quickly embraced the cause and “hit the road.” Thirty years later, she’s still passionate about Farm Aid’s mission, which includes promoting food grown on family farms, and making it more widely accessible, including in urban neighborhoods.
“It’s all about how we’re going to grow food in this country, what kind of food, and who’s going to control our land,” said Mugar, who grew up in Watertown — “like all good Armenians,” she said — and spent summers in New Hampshire, where her love for the country took hold.
“Farm Aid is a stage and a speaker system for family farmers,” said Mugar, whose concerns include how farmers can get access to land and to credit, and get a good price for their products. “It’s so often that people seek this good food, yet neglect to tackle issues that face the family farmer in term of bringing that food to schools, or to neighborhood farmers’ markets.”
Once a year, Farm Aid, which has no endowment, throws a concert to raise money. “It’s extraordinary that we are the longest-running music cause, or however you want to communicate it, in the country,” Mugar said. “I’m not a good bragger, but I do think that we’ve raised the awareness in terms of looking at farmers in a different way. We’ve had all these chef heroes, and now we have farmer heroes.”
Taking on a cause of this magnitude would be enough for most people, but not Mugar. Her father was an Armenian immigrant, and she’s visited Armenia many times, including in 1988 when she did relief work following the catastrophic earthquake that claimed 25,000 lives.
She saw that Armenia was facing a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe due to the earthquake and a confluence of political factors that had decimated the economy. It had declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and gone to war with Azerbaijan. An energy crisis meant Armenians were desperate for wood for heat and fuel.
“People started burning anything — books, floorboards, cutting down trees randomly,” Mugar said. “The country looked terrible, as though arms and legs were cut off. Armenia was in danger of deforestation.”
She can’t remember how it happened, but at some point, she and her husband agreed that they should do something about it. “What’s your choice? It’s not to do something, and that will bother you forever.”
This was the beginning of the Armenia Tree Project, now an ambitious nonprofit based in Watertown and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It started modestly, with community tree-plantings, and now, more than 20 years later, it has overseen the planting and restoration of more than 4 million trees, providing food, wood, jobs, and erosion control for the country. It operates three nurseries in Armenia and does environmental education.
It all comes back to digging in. “I guess it’s my DNA,” Mugar said. “If you don’t make an attempt to counter a problem, it most certainly will continue in the wrong direction. And it might have an effect.”