Archive for December 2011

Photos: A Cartoonish Mushroom and Pre-Roasted Tomatoes   5 comments

A new essay should be up within the next day or two. In the meantime, here are a couple colorful photos from the farm.

A few days ago, I noticed this cartoonish but beautiful mushroom growing halfway down the driveway. My mushroom identification skills are more or less nonexistent (and need to become existent in the near future) so I have no idea what kind it is. I'm going to go ahead and assume it's non-edible and extremely poisonous, just based on appearances. If I'm wrong, I'd rather it stay anyway as a lovely element of the land rather than a meal.

 

We cleared the tomato plants of their green tomatoes a few weeks back in anticipation of the winter weather. They're now inside and as they ripen up, we've been chopping them, drizzling them with olive oil, sprinkling on some herbs and then roasting them to then be frozen and available throughout the next year for a variety of culinary uses.

 

Posted December 9, 2011 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Photos

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“To Work at Many Jobs”   3 comments

Today, I worked at many jobs. I woke early in the morning, in a freezing cold yurt under a pile of bedding, and allowed the alarm clock on my cell phone to ring multiple times. Eventually–knowing I needed breakfast, and knowing I needed to conduct the day’s business–I eased my way out of the warmth of my bed and into the extreme chill of the morning air, pulling on yesterday’s Carhartts (belt still threaded through its loops) and a fleece and an extra pair of thick socks, then walking–cold, stiff–to the main house both for breakfast and its small, lingering warmth from the previous night’s fire.

I ate a pair of duck eggs from the farm, bacon and toast not from the farm. I made coffee and filled my thermos with it. I attempted to wake up. Before leaving the house, as the sky finally began to lighten, I opened the duck and chicken houses, welcoming them to the cold world. The birds seemed largely unperturbed by the chilly weather: the chickens cautiously wandered outside in typical fashion and the ducks went straight for their pond plastic kiddy pool, though the coating of ice delayed their entry into its waters. Meanwhile, I drove to the farm down the road. There, the farm’s owners and I loaded six lambs into the back of their canopied truck and, shortly thereafter, I drove off with them–and with one of the farm’s owners, Brian, riding shotgun.

We were driving about two hours to a small butcher. Today was to be those lambs’ final day. As it turned out, it could easily have been Brian’s and my final day, as well. About half an hour into our drive, at perhaps 60 mph or a bit less, I lost control of the truck on a patch of ice on Highway 26, the main route between the Oregon coast and Portland. We spun 180 degrees and I have little idea of what I did during that spin. It was fast and slow–a bizarre meditation. I know I hit the brakes at one point and I think I let off them not long after, some small voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t hit the brakes. I don’t know which way I turned the wheel, if any. If I had moved quicker, with more certainty, with greater skill, perhaps I could have avoided the full spin and danger of that moment. But what little I did or did not do ended up not mattering. We simply spun around in a half circle, the tires squealing, the truck out of control and sliding out of our lane, into the lane of oncoming traffic, toward a hill side. I remember thinking, don’t flip over.

We didn’t flip over. No oncoming traffic hit us, either, as we had the good fortune of there being no oncoming traffic. We came to a stop in the left lane of the opposite direction of traffic. Having completed a bit over a half circle, we faced approximately in the right direction. I noted no traffic coming in either direction and I tried to start the car, which had died. It was still in drive and thus didn’t start, though I hadn’t yet recovered my wits enough to realize that. I knew we needed to get out of the road, to make sure we hadn’t lived through this spin only to get plastered seconds later by traffic coming around the bend a short way behind us. I let my foot off the brake and we coasted forward, which happened to be down the hill, and I guided the truck over to the side of the road.

Brian and I caught our breaths. We tried to calm our adrenaline and talked a moment about what had happened. At most, a minute had passed.

On the shoulder of the road, facing the wrong direction, I put the truck in park, engaged the parking brake and then checked on the lambs. They seemed fine–all upright and oddly calm. I can’t imagine they had enjoyed the ride, but who’s to say? I know not the mind of a sheep. Returning to the cab of the truck, Brian and I decompressed a bit more and then I awaited a full clearing of traffic to maneuver my way back out onto the highway. We had survived. We still had work to do. So back on the road we went–this time at a slower speed and with the four wheel drive engaged.

We made it to the butcher almost two hours later, due in part to my slower, steadier pace. There, we unloaded the lambs, picked up some stored cuts of beef, hit a nearby farm supply store to buy poultry feed and then headed into Portland. We met up with a chef and sold him twenty pounds of beef brisket. We ate at Burgerville–a local fast food chain that prides itself on using many local and seasonal ingredients and engaging in sustainability initiatives (see my previous post for related thoughts)–gassed up the truck and headed home.

After the trip back, I used the remaining hour of daylight to feed the awfully hungry ducks and chickens back on my home farm and then went down to the lower field, where I inspected some damage to the hoop house from a previous storm and replaced the blown-off row covering on our overwintering beets and carrots. I returned up top to the main property, closed up the ducks and chickens in the waning daylight, then brought firewood into the main house, fired up the stove, sat down with a beer, and promptly became distracted by the writing of this blog post.

Which brings me to now. So why did I just regal you with tales of my day? First, I wanted to write about the more exciting moment of spinning out of control on the highway. Second, I wanted to note a thought I had earlier this evening, when I was walking down to the lower field, which was that if I had died in the Great December Spin-out, and the six lambs in the back had happened to not only survive the wreck but break free of the back of the truck and escape into the woods, I would like to think that–should I have some form of post-life consciousness enough to note this exciting development–I would be supremely pleased, despite my own death. For all the misery we’ve heaped on the animal world as humans, why shouldn’t they get the last laugh now and again?

Finally, though, I couldn’t help but place my day today in the context of something I read last night. I’m currently reading The Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer, a masterful peak oil writer and Druid. In this book, he writes about the future he foresees for industrial civilization, which is one of contraction and collapse. He believes, as I do, that we are running out of fossil fuels and that, in the last three hundred years or so, we have built an industrial economy that now guides the world but can’t run on anything other than fossil fuels–which means that we’re in for some rough times ahead. There is far more detail to this story and I would recommend the book for anyone interested, even if you’re familiar with peak oil theories and have read other books about the subject. Greer takes an approach that I find unique and only 78 pages into The Ecotechnic Future, I find myself fascinated and extremely engaged by all the possibilities and theories he throws out in the text–many of which I likely will write more about on this blog in the future.

Anyway, Greer believes that in the not-too-distant future, we will all find ourselves living with much less (energy, stuff and stimulation) and scrambling to make our way in a new world. He writes, at the end of one chapter, that “Most of us will learn what it means to go hungry, to work at many jobs, to watch paper wealth become worthless and to see established institutions go to pieces around us.” Today seemed to me to be a small glimpse of that future reality. While I certainly did not go hungry (I ate as a glutton, though not in any way other than normal in this country) and my money still means something, I worked many jobs. I worked here at the farm I live on, I worked at the farm down the road, and all that work was varied and piecemeal–a lamb driven to the butcher here, some frozen meat sold there, a duck fed here, a row of beets covered there. I also simply lived meaningfully–bringing in firewood to provide heat and cooking, burrowing deep under my covers on a very cold morning. I also had small moments of joyful clarity–not just the very long seconds of spinning out of control and wondering if I was about to die, but also the moment when multiple small icicles slipped out of the hose along with icy cold water while I refilled the duck’s water jug. True, I drove far more than will be feasible in the future and ate fast food and drank both homemade and purchased coffee–also unlikely future activities–but I lived today a life that seems to hold something of a framework that will be quite relevant in the future. There will be exposure to the actual local climate, not just controlled environments. There will be close interactions with a variety of animals–many of which will be feeding us in some way. There will be both mundane and enlivening chores. There will be direct engagement in the production of heat, not just the turning of a switch. There will be moments when you will suddenly realize you might die, much sooner than you think, which Greer also notes in the sentence right before the one I quoted. There will be moments of wonder at the world around you and its beauty, both despite and because of its challenges. There will not be air conditioned or over-heated offices, nor will there be many highly-specialized careers. Most of us will again become generalists, and our work will be about providing basic needs.

I feel like I glimpsed all that today, and I must say that I enjoyed it. Of course, the future will be harder, but there is an undeniable joy in the immediacy of such a life–and that joyful immediacy will be more common even as the discomfort and challenge is more present. I enjoyed the variety of my day, the direct engagement of it, and the sense at the end that I had lived honestly, had even almost died, but had not just trudged and–other than at a certain literal moment–had not just drifted.

Today I worked at many jobs. Today I lived a future life.

City of Contradiction   7 comments

Yesterday, I ate an organic, frozen pizza, bought from a grocery store owned by Krogers. I walked to this grocery store and, after purchasing the pizza, I placed it in my reusable, cloth bag to carry it back to the house where I’m staying. I also, yesterday, picked up some books I had ordered from a local used bookstore, then perused them at a locally-owned coffee shop, where I drank a mocha made with coffee and chocolate from across the world. I drank organic tea, also from across the world, at another small, locally-owned business later that evening, chatting with a friend. I did this after getting there on the bus and I returned home on the bus. I walked over five miles yesterday, all total. I ate two sandwiches–one of them a simple turkey sandwich, made with left-over, factory-farmed turkey from a family Thanksgiving, some Best Foods mayonnaise, and bread from a local bakery that uses sustainably grown wheat. The other sandwich was for breakfast, using the same bread, bacon from a local, Portland-based grocery store chain that focuses on local and organic foods, Tillamook cheese (sort of local, sort of not) and duck eggs from the farm I live on, still covered in duck shit. I made that sandwich using a cheap, non-stick pan.

While using that non-stick pan, I experienced a small moment of disquiet. As a non-Christian, I wondered if this was what blasphemy is to Christians: that enveloping sense of not right. I wanted to and should have been using a cast iron pan and, frankly, wanted to be using it on a wood stove, rather than a natural gas-burning oven. But I was not at the farm I call home. I was in Portland, in a house not my own–one without a cast iron pan or a wood stove.

Portland, for me, is conflict and contradiction. Sometimes–as that first paragraph may make clear–it’s practically schizophrenia. Yet it’s a city I love, and in some ways it’s able to at least partially satisfy my ideals. It’s brimming with small businesses, many of which proclaim goals of sustainability. Local and organic food is available almost everywhere (in the inner core) and many of the city’s restaurants and bars aspire to provide that same sort of local and organic food (to varying degrees of success.) The city has fine public transit available and is immensely walkable. It is, in fact, a joy to walk around Portland. The streets are quaint and typically tree-lined, the houses are adorable and often unique, there are other people out walking, the drivers are mostly courteous, and there are plenty of places to walk to. It is a beautiful city and people here are nice. It’s tied enough to the local landscape that you can be in the city without feeling disconnected from nature and it is, similarly, close enough to natural and rural areas that you can easily escape out to these areas for a more complete nature fix, should you need it. It also is a city that strives at every turn to make people who want to live more sustainably feel very comfortable spending their money and consuming a variety of goods and services, all under a veneer of sustainability. It is, as such, a contradiction.

I’m reminded of this whenever I come here. My trips into Portland are typically to see family and friends, to consume alcohol and good food, to socialize, perhaps to engage in a protest, and to spend some time walking around a city I love. Yet it takes me away from a current life on the farm that has reached a somewhat satisfying level of minimalism, coherency and simplicity. On the farm, I live off the grid, heat and cook using locally-harvested wood, eat lots of food grown and raised on the same land I live on or a nearby farm, and I stay much more connected to the land base. It’s not any kind of perfectly sustainable life–there are still plenty of inputs, imported foods, gasoline-powered drives, electronics, plastics of all kinds, and so on–but it’s pretty damn good and a hell of a lot farther down the road of low-impact than I’ve ever been before. It’s also incredibly satisfying, engaging and connecting, which leaves me happier.

Here in the city, on the other hand, I live on the grid, eat out, drink lots, eat a decent amount of packaged and prepared food, often drive a lot (in getting here and then getting around town on short notice) am much more divorced from the land base, am not around chickens and ducks, typically have no idea where my food came from and certainly didn’t help to grow it. I do this for a few days (or a week and a half, for my current visit) and then return to the farm, where I settle back into my simpler, normal existence and try to get my head back in order. Sometimes this takes awhile.

Mostly, though, what I feel here in Portland is that weird sense of contradiction and conflict. It’s a city striving toward some kind of sustainability, but it still wants to engage in the energy- and resource-intensive, industrial way of life. So everyone still goes out quite a bit and eats and drinks and consumes far more calories than necessary, indulging in deliciously rich food, but it seems okay because the eggs come from cage free chickens and the greens are organic and from a local small farm, the coffee is organic and shade grown and fair trade and micro roasted, and the meat isn’t factory farmed. Hell, it might even be 100% grass fed, depending on where you are. The beer is a microbrew, crafted in Portland or at least the Northwest, and perhaps from local, possibly organic ingredients. The breads are from a small Portland bakery. The businesses are small, and local, and I bet they support the Occupy movement. You can have it all!

Of course, I don’t think we can have it all, and that’s part of what’s driven me away from Portland. I love this city, but it can’t give me exactly what I want. I want a deeper and more immediate connection to the land. I want to live on it and engage with it and I find that extremely hard to do in the city. I want to have non-pet animals living with me. I want to live off the grid and generate my power on site. I want a wood stove! I love wood stoves! And I want to harvest the wood for that stove off the land I live on, or off a neighbor’s land, in some kind of a trade. I want to live slow and cities tend to live fast. I want to take my time getting somewhere and I don’t want distractions at every turn. Maybe most importantly, I want to live simply and be always attempting to bring my consumption down to a more minimal level, and that’s something that becomes almost impossible in a city which is constantly waving consumption-ready delicacies in my face and proclaiming them guilt-free. I am not a man with overwhelming self-restraint, especially in the face of food and drink. And even more especially when facing that food and drink while hungry.

So when I come here to Portland, I tend to give in to the delicacies, the indulgence, the gluttony of the city. I eat and drink and I buy books at local bookstores and I walk around this city and marvel at its beauty and I eye small and adorable houses for sale and wonder what it would be like to move back to Portland, to find some kind of well-paying job, and to just fall into this life of indulgence. It would be a uniquely Portland life, I imagine, conducted on a salary that would seem too small in most places and using less energy at home than your average American and with far more local and organic food being consumed and less TV watched and more small businesses patronized. But it would just be a shifting of the usual, unsustainable order. It would be better, yes, but still a mirage. Too much food and drink, too much outsourcing of the day-to-day of life, too much complexity, too much energy, too much money, too many resources, too little thought and consideration. Therefore, I always end up heading back–and not just because the likelihood of me finding a well-paying job in Portland is almost nonexistent. It’s because, as much as I love the indulgences and the contradictions of this city, I want the simplicity of my life on the farm yet more. I want the thought that I’m moving toward something more real. I want the connection and the coherency. I want the slowness, the sound of the rain on the roof of my yurt, the unique heat that comes from burning wood, the constant use of cast iron cookware, the constant cooking, the connection to my food, the mud and chicken shit and duck shit and all the dirty clothes. I want that life more than I want the food and the drink and the leisure and the indulgence because as much as I love all that, it’s not real.

The most authentic thing in this house, as a matter of fact, may just be the dried duck shit on the eggs in the refrigerator. I love this city of contradictions, but I’ll be glad to go back to the farm where that shit came from.

Posted December 1, 2011 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Homesteading

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