Archive for the ‘Farming’ Tag

Work Made a Farmer   17 comments

— ∞ —

And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.

“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon—and mean it.” So God made a farmer.

— ∞ —

In 1978, Paul Harvey delivered a speech at the Future Farmers of America Convention entitled, “So God Made a Farmer.” It’s a beautiful speech, filled with stirring imagery and capturing a romantic view of the hard working American farmer. Harvey delivers it impeccably, in his distinctive voice and often falling into a poetic torrent of description. I like the speech; even in its romanticization, it speaks to the agrarian I am at heart, and speaks to a number of truths about farmers of all stripes—not just in this country, but across the world.

Yet, Harvey gave that speech one year after Wendell Berry published The Unsettling of America, a collection of essays bemoaning the destruction of rural and farming communities throughout America. Already, the process of centralization, corporatization, destructive industrialism, and overproduction was ripping through America’s farmlands, picking off farms and farmers, literally killing many of those who worked the land. From 1940 to 1970, the farm population in America dropped from an estimated 30.8 million people to 9.7 million. At the same time, the general population of the country increased by 70 million. Farmers made up 18% of the working population in 1940. By 1970, that was down to 4.6%. Two years after Harvey’s speech, in 1980, there were just 3.7 million farmers, and they made up only 3.4% of the work force. The day Harvey gave his speech, most of the American farm community had already been destroyed.

In 2013, just this last Sunday, Chrysler unveiled a television advertisement featuring portions of Harvey’s speech. Chrysler overlaid his eloquent words with gorgeous portraits of farmers and ranchers. For two minutes during America’s annual celebration of consumption and vacuity—now one of its greatest cultural touchstones—Chrysler’s ad stirred the hearts and minds of a nation of people, seducing them with a romanticized picture of American farming and evoking this country’s rich agricultural heritage. At the end of those two minutes, no doubt, the vast majority of those who had felt so stirred by the words and images set forth before them went back to their Doritos and Pepsi, Budweiser and industrially-produced meat, their various repackagings of oil-soaked corn and soy, and they watched the next commercial pimping an unnecessary industrial product rooted in the destruction of the very same land that so many past Americans loved and worked. In other words, they went back to the sort of lives that have destroyed and debased American farmers—not to mention farmers across the world, creatures across the world, the very land and ecosystems that all of us here on Earth consider home.

— ∞ —

God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.

God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.

— ∞ —

Chrysler’s commercial—the first, last, and only purpose of which is to sell trucks and boost their brand, let’s keep in mind—doesn’t present an accurate view of the American food system. The current system is one rooted largely in industrial processes, massive corporate agriculture outfits, degradation of the land, overproduction, commoditization, exploitation of migrant laborers, and the enslavement of farmers via perpetual debt cycles. Farm workers in this country are not primarily white, as the commercial might lead you to believe. They’re primarily brown; a majority of agricultural workers in this country are Hispanic, most of them foreign-born. The majority of children raised on farms don’t “want to do what Dad does.” They leave the farm. They move to urban areas, get “good” jobs, join the industrial economy and never look back.

The hard truth is that most of this country has little interest in getting out there and putting their hands in the dirt and doing the hard work of growing and raising food. We think we’re beyond that. We think we’re too “advanced.” We think that’s something best left to less civilized people. Within the context of the myth of progress—one of the ruling ideas of our time—an agrarian society and economy is seen as less civilized and inherently worse than an industrial society and economy. It’s something best left for the less developed countries. First we stopped dirtying our hands with the growing of food, then we stopped dirtying our hands with the making of actual things, and now—surprise!—we have a dysfunctional economy that no longer even provides the opportunity to keep our hands clean in the magical “information economy” that was supposed to elevate us above all the messy, nasty physical realities of our past lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken such a dim view of the dirt on our hands.

Chrysler and Harvey suggest to us that God makes farmers. I would submit that that’s the wrong message for our time. Harvey’s speech actually reveals the message we most need to hear: that work makes farmers.

— ∞ —

God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.

— ∞ —

The recurrent theme in Harvey’s speech is the hard work involved in farming. While Harvey’s math may occasionally be questionable (how does one complete a 40 hour work week in 36 hours, for instance?) the basic message is correct. Farming is hard work, and it involves quite a bit of busting of one’s own ass. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has so been cushioned by the ghost work force of fossil fuel slaves, that we’ve forgotten the hard work that’s necessary for living well in this world. It’s only been in the last few centuries, with the discovery of massive stores of fossil fuel energy, that we’ve been able to live the myth that we can survive without having to engage in hard, physical, yet rewarding labor, without having to know and intimately understand the land upon which we live, without having to have a distinct and instinctual understanding of our local ecosystems and what keeps them functioning. It’s only through the brute force of massive amounts of applied energy that we’ve been able to escape lives rooted in the earth and our fellow multitudes of creatures. And this has made us soft. The vast majority of us no longer understand the hard work that it normally takes to live in this world. We will know again, as we continue the long and ragged process of running out of fossil fuels over the next couple centuries, but for now we are a population divorced from the hard realities of surviving on this planet.

This is my frustration with Chrysler’s ad. It feeds American myths that died when everyone decided it was too much work to live the lives they exalt. It feeds our national complacence by telling us that this reality still exists—even when it largely doesn’t—and provides us a comfort that requires no work, requires no change in our lives, requires no alteration of our behaviors or decisions. By weaving these quiet and comforting tales, by obsessively romanticizing lives that most people no longer bother to live, it insulates us from the hard and necessary work of actually living those lives.

And so I argue instead that we be honest about the American food system and pay attention to the real message of Harvey’s speech. Don’t romanticize the American food system—change it by getting involved in it. Plant a garden, grow some herbs, ditch the pre-processed and pre-packaged crap and buy whole foods, learn to cook, get a CSA, go to the farmer’s market, barter with your neighbors, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt and butter, buy as much of your food as you can from local farmers who do things right. Build your own household economy and then build your local economy. Feed yourself, feed your family, feed your neighbors and help them feed you. Join your local grange. Teach your children what real food is and how to grow it. Learn to live small and within your means, with room to spare.

The food system we have now exists because of our decisions, because of the power we grant to corporations and individuals who have happily corrupted farming for their own gain, destroying farmers, rural communities, and rural economies in the process. Change your actions and decisions. Strip their power. Build a new food system. The government isn’t going to do it, the corporate agricultural outfits aren’t going to do it, even the farmers and farm workers aren’t going to do it if we don’t, through our actions, grant them the power and flexibility to change the way things are done.

It’s up to us, to each of us changing the ways we live. It ain’t gonna get done any other way.

— ∞ —

“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.'” So God made a farmer.

Paul Harvey, 1978

— ∞ —

We’re going to have to question honestly the lives we lead today, and answer honestly about the changes we need to make. A good many of us are going to have to decide to stay put, to not leave for the city, so to speak, to not dive into the temporary luxuries of an industrial economy divorced from good and honest work, to do what dad does, what mom does, what—mostly, today—the migrant workers do. We’re going to have to return to the land, to our connection with it, and to the hard and good work of living right upon it. The fossil fuel slaves and ghost acreage aren’t going to last forever. The longer we ignore that fact, the worse off we’ll all be.

You got a farmer in you, like the ad says? Honor it. Don’t buy a fucking truck—that doesn’t make you a farmer. Work the land. Grow food. Engage the household economy. Learn to live with less, build your community, turn you back on global and corporate systems that destroy the land, destroy local communities, and make us all dependent on a rickety system with an ever-approaching expiration date. Come home and begin the long and hard work of staying in place, of strengthening the land on which you live, rather than tearing it apart for temporary luxuries.

Work makes a farmer. Inspired by farmers? Well, then, get to work.

The Soil’s Gifts   23 comments

There’s a bacteria in soil that has been shown to make humans happy by triggering serotonin production in the brain.

But there must be more to it.

— ∞ —

The garden has made me happy. I’ve spent a good number of hours working out there, on the days I’m not working as a farm hand elsewhere. I don’t work fast in my garden, but the leisure of digging in the soil is invigorating. I string out a bed and start raking it, removing clumps of sod, shaking out the dirt and tossing them aside. Occasionally I wear gloves, but mostly I don’t. The soil is good against my skin, caking itself into my hands’ tiny crevices, bits of the earth settling into my Life Line. As my hands turn black, my spirit becomes light, bolstered by the cultivation of life, the nourishment of future food.

Most of the garden to date has come from friends. Tomato starts and a multitude of seed from Ginger—from the farm I worked on last year—and a mixed tray of starts from Linda, who introduced me to farming. Appropriately, I use a mix of techniques from both farms—the 3-tooth cultivator Ginger relied on so heavily and the digging fork so prized by Linda. The Hori-Hori Linda gave me as a going away present is indispensable and always on my hip, ready for so many tasks.

— ∞ —

I can’t deny this took me partly by surprise. I’ve interned at vegetable CSAs for the last three years, yet every summer eventually brought me to the question of if I really would want this as my life. I loved being outside, the changing seasons and rhythm of the work, the soil, the incredible communities built, the care and love so evident day in and day out. I disliked the stress, the pace that could become so insane, the constant financial pressure obvious even to me, who wasn’t paying the bills.

Did I really want that constant sense of being on the verge? Did I want the stress of just barely getting by, day after day? And the work itself, or at least the pace of the work: it didn’t fit me, or the way I experienced the world when allowed to do so at my own natural rate and rhythm. It too often didn’t make me happy when happiness was the point of farming.

But by the time the season ended and winter rolled around, I always found myself ready to farm again, looking forward to the next season. An odd cycle.

— ∞ —

I wondered, too, if I would even be a successful farmer. Could I actually grow these vegetables if I were left to my own devices? I was relatively good at following direction—at being given tasks to carry out and accomplishing them. But I so often set myself on autopilot and allowed the rote process of finishing a task to take precedence over understanding what was actually being accomplished by that task. Even after three seasons of farming, the idea of being in charge of an operation of my own and successfully producing large amounts of food struck me as daunting, almost impossible. I doubted I had a green thumb and didn’t even trust in my ability to fake it, even after many cumulative months of assisting with the work of others with unquestionable green thumbs.

— ∞ —

The “garden” I tried to grow in 2010 didn’t help. I put in too little effort, in a poor gardening plot, and allowed budding philosophical beliefs to cloud an important truth in growing vegetables: that most cultivated vegetables are not nearly so hardy as weeds, and thus need some pampering.

I didn’t pamper them. I damn near abused them. And, worse, I at least partly took this as a condemnation of my abilities, when in reality it was just a lesson that I needed to provide more attention to the work I was doing—that I needed to actually take the steps I had learned needed to be taken.

I didn’t obsess over this garden and its failures, but it’s sad specter at times haunted my already-established self doubts.

— ∞ —

Then came this year’s garden plot. The beautiful soil, dark and rich and deep. The promise it held and its small whispers of the future.

It helped to get a small break from vegetable farming. Transitioning into animals and facing my first summer in three years devoid of the promise of the stress of vegetable farming, and all the doubts and insecurities that stress could inspire, left me better able to focus on the intense joys of growing food. The potential fulfillment offered by that plot came with almost no strings attached. It would be for me, no others dependent on this bit of earth (aside from the innumerable critters living in it, of course.) I could do it right, or at least to the best of my ability. And even if it yielded far less than hoped for, I would let it be learned wisdom rather than condemnation.

This was mine; I could do it as I wanted, at the pace I wanted. I owned this.

— ∞ —

It’s amazing the difference ownership makes. Of course, I don’t actually own the land. But I own what’s going to happen in that plot for the foreseeable future. I own whatever successes come of it, whatever failures, whatever lessons learned and joys experienced. I own the surprises and revelations. And my involvement will be intimate and complete.

It’s incredible how often during my three seasons vegetable farming that I would walk by a bed and not know what was planted in it, often times even when it was already up. Now, I know. Everything went in by my hands. I own it. I planned it. I guided and built it, then handed it off to all the creatures and natural processes that will ultimately do the vast majority of work. But I’m the instigator, and thus I know what’s intended to happen.

I’ve already realized how big a piece this is. I always suspected, when I questioned whether I would really want to have my own farm, that actual ownership would change the equation. The early results suggest just that. Doing this on my own—it changes so much.

— ∞ —

But what am I actually talking about here? What have I done on my own? Much of what’s in the ground and growing are starts from two of the farms I interned for. I’ve direct seeded, as well, and some of that is coming up. Some of it remains to be seen.

Also, though, what I’ve done so far is so small, and the pace so slow and leisurely. How could I not be enjoying it? How could I not be invigorated by it? Sure, it’s easy to enjoy it at such a simple pace, when the pressures of feeding other people and making a living aren’t bearing down on me.

Yet, I can’t help but think my happiness is the most important point so far. I find this joyful. I find this invigorating. Digging in the soil has proved a renewal for me, a source of life. Despite three seasons of prior farming and plenty of happiness in it, I didn’t trust that gardening would make me as happy as it’s proving to make me. I didn’t trust that it was the love I hoped it was.

But it is. And that opens up the future.

— ∞ —

The question now is one of possibility. It’s one of pace and scale. It’s whether or not this love can be a bigger part of my life. It’s what it would take, what work would need to be done.

I’ve been scheming the last week. Thinking about possibilities and wondering what kind of situation I might be able to devise. Thinking of how I could make this more of my life, of who I am and what I do. How can I expand this joy without losing it?

I think small, intimate, reasonable—yet even those thoughts are big. What could I do with a small bit of earth, my hands, perhaps one other helper, a steady pace, and little cash? How could I make it a bigger part of my life yet but not depend on it? Not force it to make my entire living? Not morph it into the disquiet of stress and constant worry?

I don’t have the answers to these question, but I have the tentative thoughts of possibilities. Possibilities that may be gone by next week or next month, granted, but possibilities nonetheless. What’s truly amazing to me is that it seems possible at all. It never felt like something potentially imminent before, in the last three years. It always felt necessarily farther away. Yet now it does seem possible, perhaps in the near future, even with the realization that this potential future could disappear at any time.

There’s something shocking and heartening about that.

— ∞ —

The soil gives life and possibility. It invigorates. It’s magic, what it can do.

What it can inspire.

The Farmer Within   22 comments

Tomorrow morning, I’m taking a road trip up to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound to visit the first farm I worked on. I started working there back in the summer of 2009 and have been farming in some capacity or another ever since, though with a couple winter breaks. It’s a bit amazing to think that I’m going into my fourth season of farming, and amazing yet to think of how much I still have left to learn—how very little, to be blunt, that I know. I should have been farming for the last twenty years, not just the last three.

But while I started farming later than I wish, I’m immensely happy to have found such a satisfying way of life. It’s humbling to think of how much farming has changed my life and how different a path I now find myself on. It’s also humbling to think of how happy I am in comparison to a former life lived not farming, lost amid a panoply of questions about how best to live my life. While I’m far from having figured everything out and I still am living a life that’s far from settled, I don’t doubt for a moment that I’m on the right track. I know the general path I need to follow, even if I have no idea the curves that path will take.

One of those curves has taken place over the last few months. As I transferred from a focus on vegetable farming to animal husbandry, I started to wonder if perhaps animals were more where my farming passion lay. While I always enjoyed vegetable farming, the pace of it, to be perfectly honest, never seemed to fit me quite right. The pace of animal husbandry—at least in my experience so far, which is admittedly limited—seemed to be a better match. My initial intimidation at working with animals lessened considerably and now navigating my way around sheep, cows, pigs, chickens and other animals feels almost like second nature. There are still moments of surprise, moments of disquiet, moments of disgust, moments of uncertain consideration, but there are still more moments of joy, amusement, beauty, contemplation and connection. I like working with animals.

Something happened about a week ago, however, that suddenly pushed me back into the realm of growing vegetables. A 90′ by 40′ plot of sod was tilled up for me to make a large garden out of. It happened unexpectedly, while I was futzing around in the hoop house in which I had planted a bed of tomatoes a little over a week ago. A family member of the owners of the farm I’m living at showed up with his tractor to plow a plot that he has there and then offered to till up the area I was looking to put in a garden. I happily accepted his offer, being not too eager to try to rip up all that sod by hand—which I had actually just started to do so I could get some potatoes in the ground. With his tractor, a very long job happened very fast, and it wasn’t long before I had a glorious rectangle of fresh dirt staring back at me.

Looking at that soil, the last three years of vegetable farming came roaring back and my inner farmer decided to reassert himself with a vengeance. I stared at that fresh plot, knowing that while the land was not mine, this plot was mine to use as I please, as I saw fit. I imagined rows of veggies growing, of the abundance of late summer and early fall harvests, and of the sweat and labor of working up beds and weeding and harvesting. I imagined the ownership of it, the physical labor of it, the payoff of fresh vegetables, the magic of watching plants grow at my personal, humble bequest. (Though on the plants’ terms—always.) I felt a surge of joy and excitement and possibility that simply overwhelmed me.

I hadn’t expected that, to say the least. I’ve been excited about gardening, but I didn’t expect anything so powerful.

In that moment, I understood the beauty of the Homestead Act. I understood the importance of ownership. And I realized that, damn, I was a farmer. I’m not saying I’m destined to grow vegetables for the rest of my life, though that’s certainly one of the possible paths I could take. I’m not saying I don’t want to raise animals, because I think I do, at least on a small and personal scale if nothing else. I’m not saying I’ll have my own farm, as I have no idea if I ever will own land. But what I realized while staring at that fresh soil and the possibilities it evoked was that farming, over the last three years, had crept under my skin and burrowed deep into my being, had laid down its roots and overtaken me. I was lost to it, even if I hadn’t fully realized. The joy in me spoke to that reality.

Looking at that plot, putting my hands in the dirt, flipping through possibilities in my mind and imagining the glorious results, anticipating putting rakes in that dirt, incorporating fertilizer, working up a sweat—I longed for all of it. I wanted to do it all, right then, at that very moment, even though it was impossible. Even though it was already evening and I had other tasks to get done, I wanted nothing more than to lose myself in that plot of earth. And that instantly rejuvenated me. It lifted me back to a place I had tumbled away from.

There’s a reason this blog has been mostly dead the last three weeks. I fell into a funk of my own making, spurred on by bad habits. I’m going to write about that soon, and I originally meant to write about it today. But I still am figuring out that post. For the moment, though, just know that I had slipped into a state of bad habits, lack of motivation and distraction, and as such I was failing to accomplish some of my goals. But seeing that tilled earth somehow brought me out of that funk. The soil rebirthed me. It brought me back to the life I need to be living.

I’ve since planted sixty row feet of potatoes, some lettuce and chard and kale, and another row of tomatoes in the hoop house. It’s not much, and far more will come, but I’m still getting together seed and supplies, not having really been prepared to garden. My road trip up to Whidbey will take me through Portland on the way back this weekend, where I’ll pick up more supplies. And when I get back, the gardening will continue. But also, this blog will be back on track. Granted, June is going to be the start of what is looking like a very busy season for me. I’ll be working two or three farmers markets, plus doing farm work and taking care of my own garden. Throw in socializing and outdoor activities in the nice summer weather and there may be limited time for blogging. But I intend to keep this site going through the season and am feeling reinvigorated as to what I’ll be writing. The How To Be Poor series of posts fell off, but it’s about to come back. Encounters and The Household Economy will continue, as well, along with stand alone posts. I have plenty to say.

Expect a new How To Be Poor post soon. I’ll write about the distractions and bad habits that took hold of me, explaining my absence, and then explore how that dovetails with voluntary poverty and living a life within constrained resources. As has been the case of late, I’ll be talking also about patterns and cycles, with further words on the plot of earth that helped bring me back into my life and push me full bore into the summer season.

It’s going to be a busy couple of months, but with dirt under my finger nails, the emergence of the farmer within, new experiences, fresh vegetables and the ever-entertaining animals, I think this will be a fantastic summer. With luck—not to mention focus and discipline—I’ll be able to share a good amount of it with you guys.

A Hiatus   1 comment

I made a mistake.

I started a blog in the midst of summer, while farming, and while perilously close to–at least temporarily–hitting a physical and emotional wall. Surveying my life, I’m now realizing that I can’t keep updating this blog for the moment. Life is a bit busy and stressful at the moment, both with work and personal issues, so this blog will have to wait.

It seems odd to write that only two weeks into the blog’s life, but this is the reality. I do intend to return to Of The Hands, though–likely in a few months, once fall has arrived and the farming life has slowed down a bit.

I apologize for the false start. I will be back, and if you’re curious enough to know when, feel free to sign up for the email list to the left. You’ll receive an email the next time I post.

You can also keep track of me through Twitter and Facebook. I’ll still post occasional updates via those venues during the hiatus.

Posted August 22, 2011 by Joel Caris in Meta

Tagged with , ,

The Abundance of Summer   1 comment

Purple peppers are just cooler.

Yesterday, Brian told me to watch the moon that night. Its track across the night sky would be a preview of the sun’s track during the winter. The moon would show me how little sunlight we would have.

And indeed, the moon’s track was low on the horizon that night, skimming along just below the tops of the trees upon the ridgeline on the southern side of the property. Shafts of moonlight would occasionally flood the farm as the moon slid into an open space between two trees, but it would soon disappear again. The overall message was clear: those trees, while quite effective in shielding the farm from wind during storms, are also effective in shielding the farm from sunlight in the winter. It’s going to be a dark winter.

This understanding serves to make me appreciate the farm’s current abundance even more. As I wrote a few days ago, the sun provides the farm with an incredible amount of wealth: food, energy, warmth, pleasure. It transforms the land and the life upon it, including us. It helps to provide an almost unimaginable abundance.

Garlic hanging to dry.

We have so much food right now. Nearly every meal seems a ridiculous spread, each day a testament to the current bounty. The farm is now pumping out cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, basil, squash, beans, carrots, beets, and potatoes. Not to mention kale, chard, salad greens, arugula, spinach, head lettuce, garlic, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, parsley, blueberries, and I think there may be a few stray strawberries around, too. The chickens are providing their own abundance in the form of multiple eggs a day. Brian, meanwhile, has been catching Chinook salmon, providing us with incredibly delicious fresh fish. Ginger has been trading at the farmers market, using our incredible veggies to bring home cherries, peaches, raspberries, locally-baked breads and pastries, local milk, blue cheese and grass-fed meat. Before long, we’ll have melons, corn, another round of snap peas, duck eggs, wild blackberries, honey from Ginger’s hives, and a few apples from the still-young orchard.

It’s not just the food, either. The farm is blanketed in beautiful flowers and the growth of everything (including the weeds) has exploded. There are birds everywhere, the cats are playful and energetic, the chickens and ducks are ever-busy, and uncountable wild creatures, bugs and critters abound. Thanks to the sun, we usually have abundant electricity and hot water. And, finally, we find ourselves with a never-ending stream of engaging, thoughtful, hardworking Wwoofers.

While farming is a joy year-round–even when the cultivated food has yet to arrive–it’s particularly satisfying this time of the year. When the incredible abundance arrives and you find yourself with an almost embarassing selection of delicious, fresh, healthy foods to choose from every day, the true glory of being a farmer–of this way of life–makes itself clear. This, here, is one of the many rewards of good work. Not only abundant and delicious food, but the forging of community and the fostering of life, health and happiness. While it may prove a dark winter, the memory of such a bright and sustaining summer will no doubt carry us through.

The summer makes kittens playful and keeps them adorable.

Posted August 12, 2011 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Food

Tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Thanking the Sun   4 comments

Today I awoke to blue skies. This may not seem surprising–it is August, after all–but even at this time of year, sun cannot be taken for granted here on the Oregon coast. The last week has been cloudy and a bit cool, with only a few brief stretches of good sun. As such, we’ve been a bit grumpy on the farm. It’s the middle of August and, after an unusually cold and wet spring, it feels as though we’ve earned some sun and warmth. Yet the weather hasn’t obliged of late.

Despite hanging their heads, these sunflowers no doubt appreciate the sun as much as we do.

Then, yesterday evening, the sun broke free from it’s cloudy chains. It shone gloriously over the farm, providing a distinct reprieve from the subdued state we had found ourselves in. Continuing into today, the sun has been providing warmth and Vitamin D, a distinct uplift in mood, and vast amounts of energy to be dispersed throughout the farm. It also has provided a bit of reflective thought for me, as I found myself thinking today about everything the sun provides us–about, in other words, just how momentous its appearance is.

The sun is different here. Or, to be more honest, the sun is the same here, but our attitude toward it and dependence on it is different. In Portland, where I have lived a good portion of my life, the sun’s arrival provides warmth and enjoyment, an improvement in mood, and Vitamin D for those willing to venture out into it. For many people, though, it doesn’t go much beyond that. And for some people, it doesn’t even go that far. The sun being out doesn’t much affect the life of someone who wakes up in his climate-controlled house, goes into his garage, gets in his climate-controlled car, drives to his job in a climate-controlled office, and then returns to his climate-controlled house in the evening. Perhaps he ventures out for a bit at lunch and maybe dares bar-be-que some dinner on the back porch, but he’s just as likely to stay inside and watch TV. And even if he does take those moments to go outside, it leads to limited exposure.

Our source of electricity: two solar photovoltaic panels that keep us powered through the summer.

Here on the farm, we of course work outside. That’s a difference. Your relationship with the sun is significantly changed by a constant or near-constant exposure to it. I rarely wear sun screen (I hate the feel of it, I hate how it makes me sweat and, to be honest, I think it’s about as likely to give me cancer as the sun) and so I get some maximum Vitamin D action out of the sunlight. (I’m lucky in that I’m a quarter Portugese, and after a few spring days of sunshine, my arms darken nicely and start taking the sun quite well.) Similarly, as much as the sun invigorates those of us working out in it, it invigorates our crops even more. The revealing of the sun means growth and ripening fruit. We need sun if we want sweet, ripe tomatoes. And we most definitely want sweet, ripe tomatoes.

So when the sun comes out, we notice it here. It makes all the difference in the world. We feel its warmth because we’re out working in it. We get the Vitamin D boost. We get the general invigoration and the mood elevation. Furthermore, we know our crops are growing, our fruit is ripening, our flowers are blooming, that the sunlight streaming down on the land is being converted into food and livelihood–into our very sustenance. And when the sun is out, I find I don’t need so much. I’m less likely to drink afternoon coffee. I often eat less. I know this isn’t the same for everyone, but it’s how it works for me. When the sun is shining, it’s almost as if I’m able to convert a bit of that sunlight into energy just as a plant does. It just feels easier.

These two solar hot water panels are old, inefficient beasts from the 70s, yet they still provide something like half of the farm's hot water for the year. All this despite the fact that we live in one of the least sunny areas in the country. Makes you wonder why every house doesn't have solar hot water panels on its roof.

Still, there’s more. The growing plants and ripening fruit and Vitamin D and elated moods isn’t everything. There’s also the beauty. The Oregon coast in summer is perhaps one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s astounding out here. On the farm, we have the surrounding peaks and mountains, the forest, the creek and river, the farm’s abundant crops and flowers, and they all contain an almost incomprehensible vibrancy when the sun is out. They are beautiful always, but they become almost heartbreaking in the full spotlight of the sun’s rays. The beauty is only enhanced by the fact that sunny days on the coast tend to be near-perfect climate-wise: in the 70s with low humidity and perhaps a light breeze. The air is clear, the temperature comfortable, the warmth encompassing. It’s glorious.

And yet, there’s even more. There’s so much more that the sun gives us. Here on the farm, we’re off the grid. We are not tied into the electricity infrastructure in any way. Which means that we have to generate all our electricity, our hot water, our heat, everything right here from off the land. We do that in large part with the sun. The farm has two solar photovoltaic panels that generate electricity, as well as two solar water panels that provide us with hot water. So when the sun comes out, it’s not just that it’s boosting our mood and providing us with income and growing our crops–literally feeding us–but it also is providing us with our energy. When the sun comes out, we have abundant electricity to use. We don’t need it all, but there’s plenty there for us. We also have hot water for showers. On cloudy days, we may not have that unless we fire up the wood stove (which is set up to also heat our water via the waste heat escaping out of the flue.) That’s more work, it burns our wood, and on cloudy but otherwise warm summer days, it can be annoying to fire the wood stove and introduce that unnecessary heat into the house. When the sun’s out, we don’t need to worry about that. All we need to do is go take a luxurious shower.

The farm version of a solar array: not just solar PV panels, but a soon-to-be solar bathhouse that will use multiple solar hot water panels and recycled hot water tanks to keep us in muscle-soothing hot tubs all summer long.

The sun is everything to us. And really, that’s how it should be. It’s appropriate to live on a particular piece of land, gaining your sustenance through the proper use of that land, and gaining your energy through the harnessing of the sunlight falling upon that land. That can happen in multiple ways: in its passive heat, in the conversion of sunlight into electricity via photovoltaic panels (though even PV panels are not truly sustainable and they’re terribly inefficient when you break it down), and in the growing of food and fuel. We do all of that here and it provides a very high percentage of our energy needs. Since we live within that system and are aware of it, we have an immense appreciate for the sun and experience it on a multi-faceted level when it finally emerges from behind the clouds. It’s giving us so much–how could we ever appreciate it enough? On the other hand, living in an apartment with an electric water heater and electric wall heaters does not inspire the same kind of appreciation for the sun because the sun is not seen as providing your food, your warmth, your hot water–it’s something separate that may provide some nice weather and a bit of extra physical energy, or may just provide a sun burn and the need to turn on the air conditioner. Either way, it tends to be more peripheral. And to make the sun peripheral is a special sort of insanity.

These days, I thank the sun when it comes out because I understand just how much it is providing me. I also thank the fact that I understand that. Much of my life, the sun has been something I appreciated to a certain degree, but that tended to be peripheral. There were plenty of sunny days in which I hardly even went outside and I never, in the past, became excited about newfound electricity and previously-unavailable hot water when the sun came out. Now I do, and I like that. It feels better. It feels more connected. And it feels true, because now I understand the sun in a way I never did before–not as a shadow, but as something brilliant and bright, providing an abundance that I can never appreciate enough, that I can only glory in and hope that it returns the next day.

Living With the Other – An Introduction and Consideration   3 comments

To Begin With

I’m currently living with an evergreen blackberry.

The blackberry in the middle of July.

It’s growing up out of the earth through a very tiny crack between the bottom of the wall and the floor of my yurt. It’s dark green, with jagged leaves, a stalk that thickens by the day and thorns that grow ever more sharp and substantial. It’s growing by the corner of my bed and every day it overhangs that edge–the corner of the head of my bed–a little more.

Luckily, I don’t tend to sleep on that side of the bed. This is good, because I’ve been stabbed in the skull with a blackberry thorn before–while harvesting those ever-alluring berries–and I can’t say it’s an experience I’m particularly eager to relive. Certainly not in the middle of the night.

But To First Backtrack

I’m living in the aforementioned yurt because I’m interning on a small, off-the-grid, organic farm called R-evolution Gardens, located on the Oregon coast. I’ve been here nearly five months and will be here longer yet–at least through Thanksgiving and likely beyond. The yurt’s part of the deal: room and board in exchange for my work on the farm. It comes with a Jøtul wood stove, fantastic (and laden) bookshelves made in part with small alders off the land, a colorful desk, a (futon) bed and, finally, that neighborly evergreen blackberry vine. The vine, of course, wasn’t here in March when I first moved in. It’s a relatively new addition, having been around since the beginning of July.

Now, I’m familiar with blackberry bushes. Back in 2006 and 2007, I did two eleven-month AmeriCorps terms of service, working on a field team doing environmental restoration work. Often times that involved removing invasives, and it was not uncommon for said invasives to be Himalayan and evergreen blackberry. They are beasts, terribly vigorous and not a plant to take your eyes off of for a moment. They spread fast and with little mercy for whatever’s in their path. Trees, shrubs, various native plants, perhaps a particularly still human being–they will happily swallow all, never slowing down to consider whether or not it’s fair for them to be devouring so much land.

A bit like modern humans, no?

In the process of this growth, they’ll create massive tangles of thorny vines that are quite capable of tearing flesh and anything else they come into contact with. They also will create garish, gnarly root balls which can keep them growing and expanding for long periods of time. These root balls turn blackberries into zombies. Kill them all you want, but they’re going to come back. You can chop back those vines time and again, sever them right at the surface, and they’ll still come back. Do it over and over and over again for years, with the right timing, and you may be able to kill them off eventually, but what you really need to do is dig up that root ball. Because if you don’t, the next thing you know, that blackberry’s going to be growing right up into your home.

Enough About Blackberries–For the Moment

This is my third farm internship. Last year, I lived in Portland, Oregon (oh, home!) and farmed at Sauvie Island Organics. The year before that, 2009, I lived my first farming experience at Rosehip Farm and Garden, up on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound (a bit northwest of Seattle, essentially.) Rosehip was a brilliant introduction to farming, showing me the glorious sort of life that can grow from organically farming a small piece of land while living on that land, engaging in a simpler life and feeling far more connected. I lived in a tiny airstream trailer and the first time I strolled out of my trailer and across the field to our onion beds, snagged an onion from the ground, peeled the dirty layers off as I walked back to my trailer, and then chopped and added it, fresh as could be, to my dinner . . . well, let’s say I was a bit hooked on the farming life. It quickly felt as though I would never be able to go back.

Unsurprisingly, I never have.

In actuality, I’ve simply moved farther down the rabbit hole. Along with a love of growing and eating good food, I’ve discovered over the last some-odd years that I love to homestead. I often make the joke that what I really want is simply to be some lovely woman’s housewife, but it’s not really much of a joke. If I could stay home all day and cook and preserve food, make cheese, brew beer, bake a wide variety of breads (from hand-ground flour!), ferment anything I can get my hands on, churn my own butter and make my own sour cream and creme fraiche and buttermilk, brew up kombucha and ginger ale, roast my own coffee, cure my own bacon, and so on and so forth, I would be an extremely happy man. However, I haven’t yet found that lovely woman who will support me financially while I indulge such endeavors, so for the moment I’m left fitting these projects into my free time.

Of course, that means that my farming and homesteading have grown organically (so sorry) over the years, evolving slowly and concurrently with my similarly-evolving philosophy about life, the natural world, and the way we humans live in it. In between farming and homesteading and various other activities, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading the works of a wide variety of authors, many of them environmentally conscious. Wendell Berry, Derrick Jensen, David Ehrenfield, Paul Hawken, Annie Dillard, Richard Louv, Gary Paul Nabhan, Thomas Berry, Bill McKibben, Joanna Macy and others have burrowed into my brain with their words, helping to lead me to a radical reevaluation of what it means to live in this world. These readings, coupled with a few years of reconnection to the land via farming and a significant distancing from the dominant culture and economic system, have brought me to a new way of understanding the world and have left me unable to reengage with business as usual. Further, they’ve altered my ways of thinking and have left me making and noting connections that I could not see before.

And So a Blog

I am a writer. Sometimes I qualify that statement with an “occasionally” or a joke about being a writer who does not write. But I do write, even if not always, and I intend to write quite a bit on this blog. This website is being started mainly to provide myself a venue for the exploration of these new connections I’ve been making, the new thoughts I am thinking, and for the cataloging of the experiences that give birth to these connections. This will include longer, more formal essays as well as short vignettes and the relating of observations, stories and activities. There will be the cataloging of farming life, homesteading activities, stories of hikes in the woods, encounters with other creatures, and small meditations on what it is to be human, to be in this world, and how one might work, live, play and love well. The thoughts and considerations will come from experience, from my life and the lives of others, both human and nonhuman, from my readings, from my successes and failures and from the challenging words and thoughts of others–including, hopefully, this blog’s readers.

I want to share how I came upon this path and where it leads me. I hope to do this not just for my own better understanding, but also to inspire and challenge others. Because, to be blunt for a moment, our society is extremely screwed up and its going to take a whole lot of us realizing that deep level of corruption and bankruptcy to disengage from the dominant culture and forge a new one. Luckily for those of us who want to do this, this is an extremely rewarding and joyful undertaking. It’s amazing how much more satisfying life can be when you start to find your true place in this world and begin to understand how to live well in it.

The Other

So I return to the evergreen blackberry that has found itself cohabiting with me. It has grown quite tall now and, yet, has begun to blend into the background. This is not so much because it is less visible, but because I have normalized it. Upon first discovering the blackberry, it nearly shocked me. However, there are blackberries all over our farm, which we constantly work to keep in check. They are remnants of its former use as a staging area for logging of the local land. They are the signifiers of previous abuse, a colonizing species brought forth by abuse of the land.  To find one on the farm is not surprising at all. My yurt, however, is a particular place–a circle of human space, walled off from the outside world and supposedly controllable. It is, it seems to me, not a proper place for an evergreen blackberry.

But that is only because I did not introduce the blackberry and because it made its way into my yurt of its own volition. If I had chosen to bring the blackberry into my living space within a pot, I would not look at it strangely. I would in fact care for it, water it, feed and dote upon it, making sure that it received enough light and worrying if it began to look sickly. In other words, if I controlled it, I would find it acceptable. It’s the fact that I don’t control it that makes it odd. It is another creature–the other–and, thus, does not belong in my home.

At least, that was my initial reaction. I quickly questioned that reaction, though, and wondered if I should not leave it to its own devices. I could always change my mind and cut the vine off at the base, reestablishing the previous order and slowly forgetting about that brief appearance of an uncontrolled guest in my home. Why not? I thought. And so I did.

To Return To The Present

The blackberry now, near the beginning of August.

It is taller than that first picture shows, now approaching the roof. At a certain point, it began to hang too far over the bed due to its increasing weight, so I tucked the blackberry up against the wall, latching it enough to the crisscrossing wooden framework of the inside of the yurt so that it would stay there, rather than dropping upon my face in the middle of the night. There is a second vine, almost as tall as the first. At some point, I suspect I’ll have to cut them both down, yet I can’t find much motivation to do that while they still present me no significant problems.

See, this is one of those moments in which–silly as it may seem, to be uncertain as to whether or not to allow this blackberry to continue to grow in my yurt–I feel compelled to play with expectations, both my own and society’s. It would be logical to cut down these blackberry vines. At the same time, though, they present a fantastic learning opportunity. I observe this blackberry much closer now that it’s in my home than I would if it were outside. I notice its growth and change, the color of its leaves, the breadth of its thorns. I examine, curiously, how well it will grow in diffused, nondirect sunlight. The answer, so far, has been, “Quite well.” I suppose this is an unsurprising observation, considering how well blackberries seem able to spread within the shade. Still, it’s an observation born of direct experience and, as such, might better linger.

A Tying of Loose Ends

Upon first seeing the blackberry growing in my yurt, I wanted to remove it. On further consideration, I decided to live with it. The desire to remove it seemed rash. It appears to not be harming the yurt in any appreciable way and there is no one but me to suffer the mild consequences of living with the plant. Therefore, why not hold off on decisions and allow myself time to consider and learn, to observe, and to perhaps come to some new conclusions? Much can be gained by living with someone other than yourself and little would have been gained by immediately removing the blackberry. I would have already forgotten it and any consideration of the intertwining of our lives would have likely ceased upon the blackberry’s removal.

My reaction to the blackberry and my creation of this blog, then, come from similar intent. I want to study, consider and observe in an effort to better understand how to live, work, play and love well in this world. My interaction with the blackberry is one small manifestation of that effort; this blog will serve as a partial written record of that effort. With luck, it will also grow into a community of people engaging in similar efforts, gaining knowledge and inspirations from my posts while simultaneously providing me with their own knowledge and inspiration. That would be a blessing, for we have much good work to do and too few people who know how to do it. The more we teach each other, the better care we will take in our work and the healthier the world will be.

Let’s get started.

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