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A Farm to Call Home

A Farm to Call Home

Sunday
Aug142016

Farm Life

We lost five chickens this year. Back in May, when the light of early evening was stretching long and golden across the farm I entered the coop to discover a lifeless feathered carcass on the ground. The initial surprise of finding Pawtucket, our lone Rhode Island Red laid out on the earth so consumed my attention that I didn’t even notice the second bird until my husband joined me on the scene and pointed it out. A soft pool of grey and white feathers circled what had been a large, fluffy chicken with comically feathered feet, which reminded us enough of fringed boots from the 80s rock era to earn her the name 'Boots'. Boots lay motionless and headless on the dusty earth. I swallowed hard. We exchanged glances and quietly set to work securing gloves in order to examine the lifeless remains like detectives at the scene of a crime, cleaning up evidence before our kids were there to witness. We were about to leave and did not have time to bury the bodies, so we gathered the two hens securing them for a send off later than night.

These were the third and fourth chickens we had lost since becoming new chicken farmers two and a half years ago. Later in the summer our lone, rouge over-the-fence flyer 'Bella' went missing, tallying the loss to five, the entire run of our first fledgling flock. Only the second year hens are still alive. Amidst all the loss this year, I surprised myself by noticing I had begrudlingly found acceptance... like one might do the dishes, water the garden and then dig a chicken grave. Just a normal day checking chores off the list. It is not that we have encountered this so very many times but it turned out to be enough that the process becomes more palatable and certianly proves undeniable. Death is part of life. We can’t celebrate the irresistible cuteness of baby chicks without acknowledging they will grow and eventually perish.

Another early Spring morning, when the world was still cool and damp we discovered a lone chicken casualty, this time oddly seeming to happen without attack or struggle. I found myself in work boots and yoga pants digging a grave for a departed feathered friend in the emerging day light, chopping through invasive groundcover perennials and shoveling mounds of clay-heavy earth well before my first cup of coffee and before packing the kids off to school. This is farm life I remember thinking to myself. This is the dirty work, literally, the less glamourous part of farm life that doesn’t show up on the Instagram feeds or Pinterest boards with DIY projects made of distressed barn wood. Digging graves and laying bodies to rest, doing it early in the morning and late in the evening so children don’t yet witness and selecting words carefully when explaining to them where Cascade, Midnight, Pawtucket, Bella and Boots have gone is part of the job that at times feels thankless, behind the scenes. Chores like endless hand weeding, weed whacking, shoveling dirt, compost, mulch, rock, chain sawing, dragging trees, burning, tilling, etc. never seem to be fully accomplished and always leave one wishing for more hours in the day. But there is beauty in this too, if you look for it.

There is a beauty in sharing the truth about the cycle of life with children. There is beauty in hard work, physical efforts and the fruits of labor reaped. And perhaps the greatest beauty is the intimacy with which we may be lucky enough to know, really know a piece of land, a special spot on the earth that we can plant roots and call home. Coming to knowing the cycles of the seasons, when the irises bloom, the berries ripen and the dandelions will inevitably dry and turn to seed. Being able to mark the passing of time from the angles of the sun and the shift of the landscape is a gift that farm life keeps giving us each day that we choose to receive it. It is this gift of inspiration that I strive to capture and convey, that it may help keep the passion for farming ignited in this modern world.

After reading bedtime stories, I walk downstairs and step into my boots ready to help set the ladies to rest. In the fading light of dusk I see my husband’s strong, handsome figure emerging from the deep shadows of the darkest woods of the farm. He comes toward me wearing a black hoodie, a somber look and carrying a dirty shovel in hand. He has already finished the task. My love and appreciation swell. I ask if he is alright, he nods. In this instance we don't need to speak. I know he too accepts the challenges and joys of this farm life.

Sunday
Nov222015

A Dress of Leaves

If I were a season, I would be fall. Born two weeks before equinox the celebration of my own orbit around the sun in early September is when it all begins for me. In the Pacific Northwest, the colors haven’t changed quite yet as almost always a number of long, golden days are still to come but the daydreaming of autumn is fully underway. September is my beautiful fall before the fall. Unlike the distaste of seeing Christmas commerce gaudily displayed too early, the sighting of decorative gourds, ornamental cabbages, cozy sweaters, scarves and boots spread a familiar smile like the anticipation of a good friend visiting soon.

In those fleeting weeks we work to linger, drink it all in, eat dinner outside, harvest the garden, savor everything grown plump and washed out by the expansive summer that finally gives way… We cut back, stock pile, clean up, clear garden beds and prepare for the outside world to become more separate again. We reminisce on summer. Several streaks of intense heat claimed many of our youngest noble fir trees this year, generously planted by friends and children. This summer season was especially tough for needle blight and twig weevil in the grand firs. While we are grateful to be small scale holiday tree farmers and share that growing tradition with friends and family years like this makes us glad we have been gradually diversifying the farm. With such a fledgling orchard the apple harvest was effortless and the hop trellises didn’t bear much this first year. The seasons march right on. Brilliant pumpkins turn from green to orange on the vine. Tattooed, sun kissed arms hoist final hauls of tomatoes, summer greens and squash. The promise of change is always easy until it actually comes.

The change is of course, at the heart of the wonder. I am wild with love for the shifting colors, brilliant hues that don’t typically dominate our landscape and the endless piles of fallen leaves, which literally drift to the earth. A zealot for squash and cider, I dream of brilliant hair colors that matches the leaves and always remember that Halloween when we were the four queens of the seasons and I, of course was fall. I’d live in a dress of leaves if I could. Under the leaves, more under the surface is how this time of year always expands my heart. Looking up from my yoga mat in the misty and grey early mornings I admire the grand White Oak with its expansive canopy of green, turning canary, crisping to orange, burning to brown and eventually falling away leaving bare, gnarled limbs. Over days and weeks I watch the change. This very visual tracking of time is soothingly rhythmic.

The nights grow longer and darker. Daytime skies are sometimes hung in grey. October dances by. November enters and the season is still magical but the sun has mostly left our faces and we can feel the chill. The world has a more inward focus now and the primal pull towards hibernation tugs. As I clip the first wheelbarrow full of fir trimmings, preparing for wreath making, again I have mostly moved on in my mind. I am enamored with frost. The fir needles smell famailiar like the season ahead. The tiny evergreen forest becomes alive for me and everywhere I look the leaves have already fallen.       

Sunday
Jul052015

Neglectful Gardening

There is a picture on the refrigerator in our kitchen that has been there for several years now. In the frame our daughter is just a baby and I am holding her in one arm and hoisting a friend’s baby in the other. My arms are ridiculously full and the expression is what I make out to be a sort of hilarious terror.

I clearly recall when the picture was taken—we were joking about how wild it would be to juggle not one, but two small children… my face clearly illustrating the evident disbelief. Every time I encounter this image it amuses me, though now for different reasons. It feels great to look back at what seemed impossible and know that it is indeed possible, good to glance at uncertainty and know that you have had the courage to press on and try things that might have made you fearful. Seems to me we are often stronger than we believe.

Much like the organic evolution of parenting, in the midst of babies and busy careers tackling farming happened a bit more haphazardly than may have been envisioned or ideal. A more methodical approach surely would have been employed if the synergy of new farm life had happened at a slightly different time, but it didn’t. The orderly Virgo in me may have mapped out color coded crop rotation charts after devouring literature, but the road simply curved. My time in master gardener class was cut short. Baby number two arrived. Days moved on. The weeds sometimes grow unchecked and starts we may have lovingly seeded in the greenhouse in early spring occasionally shoot up, kiss the sky and bolt. I jokingly call it ‘neglectful gardening’ with a taste of bittersweet. As we have continued to do what we are able each day a big part of the life lesson from farming has being about letting go.

Two years ago there was an incredible patch of garden onions that grew unruly and unkempt until the stalks had set flowers and our crop had sprouted beautiful circular blooms. I was both upset that I had let this go to flower and enchanted by the unexpected beauty. The bees and other pollinators were also drawn to these bright, white orbs and serenaded them with a soft buzzing sound during all of the hours of sunlight. Eventually, I made oversized bouquets with these spicy blooms, which heralded many compliments. In a raised bed, in the back of the garden, just a few days ago I stumbled upon a new crop of these blooms. I had to smile at myself. I harvested some  delcious onions this year and also grew some flowers. The bees apparently blissful in their pollinating softened my gut response. They seemed to be enjoying these plants and I felt glad to indulge them, awed by Mother Nature’s comprehensive grandness.  

I used to think there was a way that I could do it all-- manage the farm, soar high in my career, be a good and attentive mother, life partner, sister, daughter, friend, teacher, and do it all in stride. And while I know I can do any number of things beautifully if I set heart and intention and while I can actually quite skillfully conduct a small orchestra of productive activity I also have learned that help will be needed and that things will get lost along the way. Most importantly I am continually learning that this is okay. Time has humbled some of my ambitions, like the wear of seasons weathering wood. It is a fine tuning of intent as nothing is lost, rather that which remains is the most beautiful and integral.

Saturday
Jun062015

How we became Christmas Tree Farmers

Everything on the farm is green now, all but purple lavender. Green grass and green weeds grow vigorously. Green leaves unfold furiously from shrubs, trees and green vines twining sky-high up, into the blue. The June sun has been shining brightly and the lushness of new fir needles begins to fill in all the spaces, until we are awash in a sea of green.

Six years ago, when we first made our home in this landscape, it was also sunny, actually hot and quite green. Day after day of that disbelieving summer, my eyes were drawn to the army of Christmas trees marching ever slowly towards December… their needles gradually changing from a bright, soft, droopy green to a dark, hard, woody green that eventually would need to be sheared. In those early days, the trees looked all the same to us. The now so apparent nuances of their differences were then lost to our untrained eyes.

That first summer the trees felt quite far away, like soldiers stationed at a camp that happen to be on our family farm. We sometimes walked the grounds in the evenings and whenever friends came to visit, awed by the magnitude, paying our respects to the evergreen troops though we did not know them yet. We were still very much newcomers, bystanders, strangers in this land. We could not have known then how this place would grow on us, plant love within us and how we too would grow to shape it.

Of course, our story begins well before that first summer. Like many good tales, the seed of this one was planted in the cool, darker days of the preceding winter. It was an introspective season, largely consumed with the then still secret knowledge of first pregnancy. A time to evaluate what matters in this life, what inspires, what is worth working for. We had visited farm plots, our hearts in our hands and our hands reaching for the pen to sign paperwork on a new chapter but never had all of the stars aligned to bring it together, until the only time it truly did, at the end of the Oregon Trail. 

So quietly with new life growing, the world as we knew it swiftly began to change. It first began to change in much the same way that it does for most new parents. My dance studio was reborn a nursery in our Northeast Portland bungalow, hung with the sweetest and tiniest ruffled clothes. There was a packing away of fragile items that occurred over a period of time and eventually an abrupt curtailing of something which most parents and modern folks seriously lack called personal time.

Anxiously, excitedly we had anticipated becoming new parents, a journey which fairly quickly coincided with becoming new farmers. Milestones and good humor along the pregnancy voyage could at times be marked by cutesy, fruit sized references of how large the baby was— from peppercorn to olive, orange to cantaloupe. Though it seems, new life need only reach the size of a tiny apple seed for change to set in.

When the earth had traveled long enough around the sun that deciduous leaves crisped from green to gold and fell in crunchy drifts, our tiny apple seed had indeed swelled. As she grew well beyond cantaloupe size, almost two weeks past due date, it was a time quite literally ripe with anticipation. On a crisp autumn day in October our daughter was born in the City of Roses. She changed everything in every possible way. She inspired a Westward movement and the grandparents came a long way to be near her and stay.

After muddling through months with a newborn, the strength and vulnerability of new motherhood still fresh, deprived of sleep, uncertain we were doing it right, we haphazardly also became greenhorn farmers. We daydreamed about the possibility before parenthood. The beauty of a life close to the land always calling to us, especially in pur beloved, picturesque Oregon.

When our our daughter was 9 months old, with our baby’s grandparents generously partnering to share their life with ours, the farm dream became real. We sold our improved, well-loved starter home in Portland and took the plunge with the promise of everything possible. And just like that we were Christmas tree farmers. An irony that was not lost on us, neither of us being especially fanatical about Christmas at the start. We had to pinch and laugh at ourselves a lot that first year. A new baby and a farm, really…?! The trees all around kept watch. Six tree seasons, much trial, much error, some learning and another baby later we are truly at home here on the farm.

I’ve shoveled my fair share of dirt with a baby strapped to my back and it feels like hitting the jackpot to do this work, manifesting this dream. It is an effort. We are often way behind. There is more to do than we can make time for or pay to get done at this moment and more that we dream than we have been able to actulatize, yet...  but the sunsets and the mossy place had me so very long ago. Our babies who moved and were born here are young children now. There's no looking back.

We’ve been deepening our roots, changing the landscape, planting apple and pear trees, growing and trellising hop vines. We cultivated a garden, constructed a greenhouse, host seasonal yoga classes, raise a flock of chickens and grow flowers, herbs, beauty and a hopefully a wee bit of inspiration. We learn as we go with a compass that draws on the past to inform and point the furture forward for a new emerging generation of farmers.