Archive for the ‘sun’ Tag

The Reintroduction: Impending Rain   9 comments

This is the first of several reintroduction posts in anticipation of resuming this blog for the fall, winter, and hopefully beyond. I’ve been absent for multiple months now, so I’ll be setting the stage of where I am right now and what’s been happening in my life. That will all lead into my plans for this blog over the next several months, which are going to be tweaked a bit from what I was doing last winter.

It’s good to be back.

— ∞ —

It’s hardly rained since I last posted here.

Some days it feels so dry. The humidity is low. The deep blue September sky has transitioned to the deep blue October sky. The sun is surprisingly harsh. I’ve noticed the last few years—once I began farming—how intense the September sun is. Even though it’s usually cooler than in August, direct sunlight seems somehow merciless, more draining than during the hotter days of July and August. This year has been no exception. September was a month of almost no rain and few clouds or fog, even. Just intense sun.

In fact, July through September was the driest on record in Portland. While I’m not sure if that holds true out here on the coast as well, it’s been one of the driest summers here, too. I’d guess we’ve received maybe an inch of rain in those three months, and there’s been none so far this month. The couple rains we did receive wet things down but did little else. It never penetrated deep into the soil.

The creek we get out water from is low. The creek at the farm just down the road I worked on last year is almost dry, though there’s still enough behind the small dam to supply their water. It shocked me, though, when I walked back there about a week ago and saw the stagnant puddles and mere hint of trickle that now makes up the creek I normally know as a healthy flow. The direct and immediate connection to water out here keeps these dry days ever more present in the mind.

The pastures are brown and thin, yet the cows and sheep still seem to be finding food. We’ve been feeding hay, but not massive amounts. The animals are mostly staying out on the grass—dead as it appears—for the time being, rather than spending most their time in the barn where the hay can be found. Last week, the wind kicked up, though now it’s died back down. It was nice in the sense of variety, but it further dried things out. I could feel it on my irritated skin, my chapped lips, in a strong desire for a good rain storm that continues even now.

Of course, this is nothing like what the Midwest has seen this year. I don’t mean to be wringing my hands so much as describing the reality out here—a reality so different from the one I experienced last summer when we received semi-regular rain even during our dry months. We normally receive 90-100 inches of rain annually and the winter months are dominated by clouds and rain. It’s odd to have gone so long without any good storms, without the occasional dumping of precipitation. It feels so antithetical to this climate. In many ways, of course, it’s been nice and I think a number of vegetable growers are appreciating it, even if they are starting to feel the need for a good rain storm. But working now on the animal side of things, I see these dry pastures and hear about the hay bills, eye the barely-trickling creeks and see this flip side of the coin—the danger of too little water. Luckily, we had a wet spring, so we had a good base from which to deal with this dryness.

Still, it’s been interesting seeing the reactions even of my friends who hate all the rain we get in the Northwest. Most all of us are feeling ready for a storm—even those who aren’t eyeing a low creek or worried about feeding animals. Sure, we love the sun we get—especially with how limited it is in this region—but the reality is that we’re all adapted to a climate that just normally isn’t this dry, even during our natural drought months. The leaves are turning and dropping, and yet it still doesn’t quite seem like fall. The wind and rain is missing. The dark dreariness. That constant wet chill. It’s not the loveliest sensation in the world, lord knows, but it’s what should be. And so it’s missed.

In 1952, after receiving only a half inch of rain from July through September in Portland, it stayed relatively dry all through November. Hopefully that doesn’t happen this year; it’s not appearing that it will. The rain is supposed to start tomorrow and we may be in for as much as five or six inches over the next few days here in the coastal range, though the models seem to be backing off that extensive a scenario. A possible deluge, perhaps. A good rain, almost surely. A reprieve, for sure.

“It’ll make up for it,” one old farmer’s said to me about this dry weather. I suspect that’s true. While the rain beginning tomorrow may be followed up by another dry spell to close out the month, I suspect November’s going to be a soaker. It probably won’t be long before we all forget just how dry this summer has been. It won’t be long before we’ll be dying for a cold, sunny day—anything to remind us that the sun’s still out there, that our little star hasn’t collapsed and disappeared. Anything for a break from the constant dreary drizzle and downpour, the multiple different types of rain, each of which we have names for here, sometimes all of them falling in the same day. But still, I can’t wait for that first heavy rain and wind, to see these falling leaves through a prism of water, to hear the creeks roaring again and watch the mud and muck build, as annoying as it is. It’s not the most glorious of conditions, but it’s ours. I look forward to that (literal) cold comfort.

Posted October 11, 2012 by Joel Caris in Farm Life

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The Desert Tells   12 comments

An entry in the Encounters series

Six weeks ago, I walked amongst the red rocks surrounding Sedona, Arizona. I was in Sedona after having driven my mother there and was able to take a few days to enjoy the local landscape, to sit in the sun and read, to walk in the desert and reconnect to a place I had visited once fifteen years before, when I lived in Arizona for a year. Ever since that year, I’ve felt a connection to the Arizona desert landscape and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the chance to return to the state.

Bell Rock. Taken by Ken Thomas.

Twice while there, I walked the trails looping around Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, winding my way across the red sandstone and between the twisting Junipers, the trail dipping down into washes and scaling rock outcroppings. On February 4th, I skirted around Bell Rock and took Llama Trail, which meandered away from Courthouse Butte. I lost myself in the rhythm of the hike, my breath syncing with my steps, the landscape unfolding around me. A bounty of birds flitted about in the branches of the surrounding Junipers—which were short and squat, hunkered down low to the ground—and I would stop on occasion to watch them for a few minutes, their quick and jerky movements mesmerizing. The day was a bit cool, the temperature in the fifties with clouds passing overhead. The sun peeked out at times but proved hidden more often than not. As I traversed farther along Llama Trial, the passing clouds turned dark and borderline foreboding, kicking up winds that suggested an oncoming storm.

Climbing up and out of a wash, I crested a small hill and came out the other side of a stand of trees, looking upon a wide expanse of red sandstone marked with small cairns. Off to my right, nearby cliffs towered high, as red as all the other rock and dotted with trees. Beyond the cliffs stretched the sky—and a series of heavy clouds promising rain. I carried a rain jacket in my backpack but no other rain gear. I hoped that any rainfall wouldn’t be too heavy.

In the middle of that stretch of sandstone sat a pair of large rocks, one of them perhaps three feet in diameter and the other a bit smaller and higher. A cairn balanced upon the smaller rock. I walked over to those rocks as an increasing wind stirred around me. From the vantage point of the two rocks, I saw a series of shallow pools forming a line in the sandstone, the worn cavities holding stagnant water from the previous rain. I dropped my backpack on the ground, next to the larger rock, and then went to one of the cavities, kneeling to inspect it. A dead scorpion caught my eye at that moment, its dried husk of a body perched on the rock about a foot from me. Just as I focused on the scorpion, a rain drop hit the stone right next to it, creating a sudden and surprising, tiny burst of darkness. It startled me. I glanced up at the dark sky and then over at the cliffs to my right. There, a mist in the distance—a fuzzy opacity in front of the cliffs. Rain falling. Moments later, more rain arrived, increasing in scale and intensity. The rain patterned the rock around the dead scorpion. Ripples spread in the small pool of stagnant water.

What am I to do in places like this, at such moments? I considered this as I retreated back to the pair of large rocks, toward my backpack and rain jacket. The wind grew stronger and the rain continued to fall, insistent but not overpowering, not yet drenching. I wondered how long the storm would last and how strong it would become. I could have retreated at that moment, beating a path as quick as possible back to the parking lot, but even that would have been something of a futile effort. I had no car at the parking lot—only the prospect of a further walk back into Oak Creek and the condo at which I was staying. Furthermore, I didn’t want to retreat. I wanted to experience. What am I to do in this situation? Abandon the desert, taking shelter somewhere inside, in an insulated building in which I can’t even here that it’s raining, in which I can forget what the world is doing and instead exist in my own oblivious comfort? Turn my back on the desert when it doesn’t provide my every comfort, a perfect encapsulation of my desires? Or sit on a large rock and welcome the storm, feel the water against my skin, the wind slipping around me, and smell the wetting of the desert rock and sand? I donned my rain jacket and chose the latter, settling myself upon the larger of the two rocks, crossing my legs and facing away from the nearby cliffs, looking out toward Bell Rock, the red ground, and the twisted Junipers.

As I sat there, staring out into the desert, the wind blew hard against my back, driving rain against the back of my head. The wind and rain were cold, but not freezing. Rather than discomfort, I felt exhilaration at the power of the weather—the heaviness of the clouds above me, the force of the wind, the abandon of the rain. The water opened up the sands and the desert plants, bringing forth a familiar and comforting scent. I reveled in the fluctuating sensations the storm provided.

Rain splattered against the stretch of sandstone in front of me, creating intricate patterns on the rock. As the wind blew, it brought the rain in waves. The waves painted the rocks—a visual representation of the wind pattern. Even as I watched it, though, the sun emerged from behind the patchy storm clouds and shone down as the rain continued to fall, alighting each drop on the stone, illuminating the wind’s pattern. As more rain fell, each hit upon the rocks created a short burst of reflected light and before long I saw the wind’s pattern in the waves of light—a rhythmic pulsing of cold wind and water coupled with the sun’s light, the collaborative art of the elements. It was beautiful. It was a magic, far better than any Christmas light display.

I marveled at all this. The visuals, the sensations of the storm against my skin, the sound of the wind flowing across the desert land and through the trees, the push of that wind against my back, the simultaneous chill of the wind and rain on the back of my head and the warmth of the sun on my front. It all came together to create a weaving of contrasts, a heightening of sensation that thrilled me. It awoke and inspired. It lasted long minutes that weren’t long enough.

Eventually the squall passed. The wind calmed and the rain trailed off, the sun-accented patterns on the ground drying and disappearing. I sat on the rock for awhile, holding onto and reviewing the memory. I thought of what it meant to be out in that power and restrained fury—at how much of a presence could arise in so little time, uncontrolled by us humans but capable of so much consequence. I recalled that first surprising moment of the rain drop next to the dead scorpion, its sudden appearance at the exact moment I trained my focus on the scorpion shocking me into the present world. I thought about sitting on the rock in the storm and how it might contrast with sitting under a tree, or under a rock ledge, in a yurt where I could hear but not feel the storm, or in an open field. I breathed deep the smell of the wet desert and for a few moments I stared at the cairn on the rock next to me, wondering about the person who had made it, about their love of this particular place.

Then I slipped off my rain jacket, returned it to my backpack, shouldered the pack and continued on. I continued following the Llama Trail for awhile until I stopped, pulled a small notebook from my back pocket and a pen from my front, and wrote, No machine, no matter how powerful it makes us feel or how much destruction it lets us wreak, can make us gods. Those machines are as dependent on the wide world as we are, and if we continue to degrade our home, they will fall first—followed shortly by us.

No machine is as powerful as that small storm. No human being is as significant. And nothing we’ve ever created is worth disavowing that beauty and power and exhilaration. Sitting on the rock, in that storm, I remembered how small I am as a human on this planet and how big the world is—how huge and daunting and empowering this world is, every day, if only we’ll acknowledge it. Everything we create is a piece of that world. Everything we create is subordinate to it.

We need those kinds of storms to remind us of this. But we need them, also, to remind us that such a reality is a good thing. If we could tame such storms through our creations, the world would be a lesser place. If the world was of our making rather than something far larger than us—far more complex, mysterious, magical and incomprehensible—than it would be a lesser place. I’m happy we’re subordinate to the world and not the other way around. I’m comforted by it, in fact. It means that there will always be those moments when the world takes me over, surprises me, asserts itself in the most unexpected of moments and makes me remember who I am, where I am, and how little I know. It can be just a rain drop, at just the right moment. It can be the art of sun and wind and rain. It can be hot and cold at the same time—front and back, two powers meeting. It can be the world, finding me on a desert afternoon, out on the rocks with nowhere to go. But it’s all beauty, and power, and magic, and appropriate. And I’m thankful that I was there that afternoon, that I saw the world’s beauty in a way I never had before. I’m thankful to have been reminded in that moment of how small I am and how large and unexpected the world is.

I’m thankful for what the desert told.

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

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Thanking the Sun   2 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.

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