An entry in Encounters
I already wrote about the abundance of life here on the farm. It’s evident everywhere you look: the plants tall, bushy and vigorous, the crops yielding fruit and leaves, flowers and roots, the earth crawling with tiny creatures, winged friends singing and flying all over the place and the sun presiding over it all. Yet, while the macro is impressive, the micro yields still more to see. In fact, it presents the details–a face that in some ways is perhaps more true than the broad view of the beautiful fields and towering trees. That broad expanse is a picturesque one, fitting into a societal standard of beauty, suitable for framing and for the common oohs and ahhs. On the small scale, though, amongst the cracks and crevices, the more intriguing realities come to the forefront and the reality of just how rich and diverse the life is here becomes apparent.
A moment ago, I heard a commotion in the seedling house attached to the western wall of the main house. Inside this small greenhouse we have seed trays of fall starts sitting on shelves and raised beds on the ground, currently filled with our eggplant. There are three raised beds, one in the middle and then one on each side, with a few inches of space between the raised bed and the greenhouse’s wall. The motion that attracted my attention came from the bed to the left of the entrance and I could immediately tell it was a bird flying amongst the eggplant.
Curious, I stepped inside and knelt down to peer into the plants in search of the bird. I couldn’t see it at first and thought it had found its way out of the eggplants and into a corner, but then it revealed itself within the plants, clamoring away from me, back toward the front of the greenhouse, its movements erratic as if the bird’s body was broken. As I found its position and was able to focus on the small creature, I could tell that this was indeed the case. It lay on the ground, close to the edge of the raised bed and near the greenhouse’s western glass wall, breathing fast, faced away from me but its head turned so that it could keep an eye on me. Its legs spread out flat behind it, seemingly broken. I spoke to the bird for a moment and then–and I don’t know if this is defensible–took my camera out of my pocket and took a picture of the bird. It continued to watch me, wary. I spoke again and thought about the cats, that one of them likely had done this to the bird.
Unsure what to do, I stood and moved toward the bird. I would have to pass it to exit the greenhouse anyway, and I thought perhaps I could pick it up and take it outside. Upon my movement, though, the bird attempted to fly forward again and fell into the couple inch space between the raised bed and glass wall. It was now out of my reach. The bird’s fate was its own–which seemed appropriate, anyway.
Still curious, however, I moved up to the front entrance and peered into the space between the raised bed and the southern wall, to see if the bird had moved far enough forward in its space to be seen from that angle. For a split second, I thought it had, but then I realized it was not a bird I was seeing, but a chipmunk. It crouched silently in that space, facing forward, about a foot in from where I stood, staring at me while very still. I watched it for a few moments, meeting its eyes through the tangle of cobwebs dotted with dirt and small bits of plant debris, the emptied husks of caught insects. The dry body of a familiar caterpillar dangled right at the edge of the space. A few inches further in, a spider waited, curled up into a ball and pressed against its egg sac. In this small space, the chipmunk–normally such a small animal when seen in our more familiar open spaces–was a hulk, a strangely-large beast hunkered down but still filling an inordinate amount of its limited area. From this perspective, as well, I could feel myself as a giant. I ceased to be the below-average, five foot five inch human being and became instead something massive. Peering into that space, I actually entered it and became–for a moment–that chipmunk, peering back out at me through the crisscrossing cobwebs, this strangely-thin insulation. I became a mass, giant and threatening, my head alone far bigger than the chipmunk. I lost myself in that moment. My change in perspective–with the orientation of my view so much closer to the ground than normal and my up-close view of the cobwebs growing them to a size far greater than I would normally perceive them–and my discovery of a new place far more complicated and full of mystery than I had anticipated transported me into the body of another creature, into a view of the world not my own.
There was a magic in that moment spoken of by David Abram in an interview I had just read earlier this morning. In the interview, conducted by Derrick Jensen and published in How Shall I Live My Life?, Abram spoke of the importance of using magic to alter our perspective and jolt us into a renewed awareness of our interplay and interconnectedness with the living world. A sleight-of-hand magician, Abram said that “magic is an experience. It’s the experience of finding oneself alive inside a world that is itself alive. It is the experience of contact and communication between oneself and something that is profoundly different from oneself: a swallow, a frog, a spider weaving its web. . . . Magic is that astonishing experience of contact and conviviality between myself and another shape of existence, whether that be a person or a gust of wind. It’s that sense of wonderment that arises from the encounter with that which I cannot fathom, with something that I cannot ever fully exhaust with my thoughts or understanding.”
The surprise of seeing that chipmunk–what is she doing there?–shocked me as a sleight-of-hand trick might, causing me to question the world around me and my knowledge and awareness of it. I went looking for a bird and found, instead, a chipmunk–and a spider, and cobwebs, dirt and debris, drained insects, and more. I discovered an entire other world and–left unbalanced by the surprise of an unsuspected presence, my perception altered so that small things seemed bigger and a tiny space that could not fit me filled the entirety of my vision–I entered that world. Through a co-authored magic born of contact, I fell into the chipmunk, the primary focus of my attention, and entered into an otherworldly alteration, discovering my place anew and seeing myself as the other, as something astonishing.
It was not only an experience of wonder, but a subversive moment, as well. As humans, we spend so much time in a human-centered world. We tend to live in human-built buildings, exist in human-built environment, transport ourselves in human-built devices. We speak with other humans but rarely speak with nonhumans. We see, constantly, as humans, and rarely take the time to attempt to see as nonhumans. But this is not an impossibility. An alteration of perspective, a sudden surprise, the magic of the unexpected–these experiences can transport us better than any car, subverting our human experience, opening a door into the nonhuman world and reminding us that not only does that world exist, but that it is the world and we are simply of it, within it, not separated from or above it.
Today I was transported in just such a manner. I discovered a bird and ended up becoming a chipmunk. It was an astonishing trip, brought about by a special kind of magic and grounded within the sudden contact between human and nonhuman, between myself and the other, between two manifestations of life–both of them unique, authentic and valuable, both of them with their own perspectives of the world. I’m grateful that today I was able to experience both those perspectives, rather than just my own. I’m grateful that today I peered into a small, forgotten space and discovered magic.
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.
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.