I’ve always cared about justice and the proper way to live in the world. My specific beliefs around these ideals have changed and morphed over time, but they always have been a concern for me. I remember, as a child, calling McDonald’s to ask them to stop using styrofoam packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents. I remember, upon learning what it meant to be gay, being dumbfounded by why someone would care about, or become angry over, the gender composition of two lovers. As soon as I understood the concept of gay rights, I unabashedly supported them.
At the same time, though, I’ve never cared for conflict. I don’t like arguments. I prefer to get along with people. So while I have many strong beliefs (quite evident throughout this blog) my ability and willingness to rage against the world, and its people, has waxed and waned throughout the years. At my core, I want to get along, even when I disagree.
There have been many times, however, when I felt like I should not get along. I’ve written before about my history with political involvement, and that stretch of my life is one of the key moments when I felt compelled to rage. I immersed myself in a partisan world view that encouraged anger and defiance, that turned concerns about the proper way to live in the world into a blood sport, a war, a desperate struggle with immense consequences. Within that paradigm, I felt the need to challenge my aversion to conflict and instead to embrace conflict as the only effective way to make the world a better place. I came to see hard lines as a necessity and I tried to fit myself into that worldview, hardening and raging, pushing against a world I too often saw as unjust. And as, time and time again, my ideals failed to be implemented, I despaired.
In “A Letter to Wendell Berry,” Wallace Stegner tells Berry that “The lives you write about are not lives that challenge or defy the universe, or despair of it, but lives that accept it and make the best of it and are in sober ways fulfilled.” The line struck me, because it perfectly encapsulates so much of what I enjoy about Berry’s arguments. It’s not that he never rages against the world, or condemns it, but it’s that he accepts it, reminds us that we must ultimately bear it, and that he consistently recognizes and acknowledges his own role in the destruction and improper living. He is thoughtful, first and foremost. He tends not to let rage distort his view. He is considerate—in the archaic sense of engaging in long and constant thought—and iterates unflinching examinations of the world. Granted, they are of his particular view and thus are not truths for all, but they’re always honest and thoughtful, the product of extensive consideration.
I appreciate this approach. At my best and most honest, it’s my approach to the world. I’m not a rager, despite my occasional lapses into it. I have a very hard time hating people or maintaining anger. I want to like people. I want to engage with them, to be considerate, to find common ground. I don’t mean this as some sort of self-flattery; if anything, it often drifts into detrimental territory. But properly harnessed, I think it’s a powerful trait.
In my criticisms of the way we live as a society, I cannot often get away from considering my own role. It feels too dishonest. Yes, I get on my high horse and enjoy—perhaps too often—rousing bits of rhetorical flourish. But I always attempt to bring it back to my own behavior, my own thoughts, my own complicity and engagement. It’s the only way I see to make an honest difference in the world. I can’t help improve a destructive system if I can’t see my own role in it.
But it’s also more selfish than that. I’m not particularly happy raging against the world. When I tried to engage in politics, I consistently found myself worn down by it more often than not. I didn’t like the division. I didn’t like trying to force people’s hands, to push my way into their lives and try to get them to do something they didn’t want to do. I didn’t like making cold calls. I didn’t particularly like get-out-the-vote efforts. The scapegoating corroded me, made me anxious and frustrated, angry and brittle. The dominant politics of this country is not one of building and engaging community, but one of demonization and hatred, of the stoking of division for power, of simplified and binary thought patterns. It’s about identifying and eliminating the enemy, first and foremost, and any engagement of others to make the world better is incidental. A mere byproduct at best.
That’s not a path that sustains me. Nothing about my involvement in politics heartened and sustained me. It was a zero-sum game at best, and far too often a negative. It drained me of energy and constantly felt like a battle. I had to push myself to engage in behavior contradictory to my natural instincts. I did this because I thought it was necessary to make the world better—that this was the way to improve a society I so often found incoherent, painful and cruel. I punished myself with politics, and I told myself it was my duty to do so. It was the cost of being a good citizen.
Inevitably, I burned out on the process. I suspect the same constitution that made my engagement in politics so draining also guaranteed that I could not keep it up. I prefer to enjoy my life, and I’m not driven or self-disciplined enough to consistently and unendingly engage in behavior I don’t enjoy. But even as I drifted away from the sanctioned political realm, and even as I found farming and the fulfillment and sense of purpose that it provided me, I still could not entirely leave behind the sense of duty toward disruption.
For a brief time, Derrick Jensen’s argument that industrial civilization had to be dismantled—and similar arguments from others—captured my attention and imagination. My tendency to see the pain and destruction in the world opened me to the idea that I had a duty to do whatever I could to bring down industrial civilization and help limit its destruction of the world. I became at least somewhat sympathetic to the idea of sabotage and destruction for a greater good. Yet, again, my constitution wouldn’t allow it. I never seriously considered engaging in any destructive acts (let alone violence, which is utterly anathema to me) but I did briefly consider it a compelling and logical argument. I still consider it a fair argument to consider, even if I have serious problems with it.
The argument eventually lost its draw for me, though. I’m not a warrior. I rarely fight. I have little interest in machismo. I don’t like conflict, have little interest in competition, and I don’t like defeating people—even in approved ways. When I played basketball in my teens, I liked to play point guard. Not because I was short, but because I loved to pass. I far preferred passing over shooting. A good assist was poetry to me, and it still is. It’s one of my favorite aspects of basketball. I like cooperation. I like to make others happy. I want to work with people.
Much of current politics isn’t about working with people, but about defeating them. There may be some incidental cooperation in that process, but abstract victory is the primary goal. Ostensibly, it’s in service of making the world a better place, helping people, improving lives. But honestly, that never seems to happen, and still the thirst for victory continues. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people on the right and left justify something that a politician on their side has done even when it conflicts with their supposed core values. The desire to win is stronger than the desire to govern. It trumps ideals. It lays waste to all other priorities.
I couldn’t last in that environment. And so, I farm. I work to scale back my life. This is the reason I find the concept of voluntary poverty so compelling. It’s rooted in changing my own behavior. It’s rooted in dealing primarily with my own life, not others’. It’s not about competition. It’s not about imposition. It’s about changing and improving my own life, first and foremost, and it’s about then helping to change society via modeling and cooperation. The more I learn, the more I’m successful in scaling back, the more able I am to help others who are interested in my lifestyle do the same. The more I change my own life, the better I’m able to advocate through my writing here on this blog, through conversations with people out in the world, through a willingness to show others what I have learned and to tell them about the ways in which I’ve failed.
This is a model that actually works for me. It makes me happy and works in conjunction, in cooperation, with who I am at my core, with my own personal truth. And so it renews me. So I thrive in this behavior. So, even in its challenges, I seem to find joy and happiness. I’m more at peace and I feel like I actually am, in very small ways, helping to improve the world.
I’ve read and listened to and spoken so much rage in my life. Berry’s writing is a refreshing and rare change in the way that it deals in acceptance. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Berry said that, “to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial,” but that “the situation [we’re] in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.” Somehow, this feels far more possible and rewarding to me than raging against the world. A lot of terrible things are bound to happen and are already happening. I want to help limit those terrible things in whatever way I can. But I can only do that in trying to live well myself, not in fighting tooth and nail against the inevitable aspects of the future. Not in laying the blame for those inevitabilities at the feet of others in favor of myself.
Perhaps this is an escape as much as anything else. Perhaps part of my draw to this attitude is its ability to absolve me of certain hard choices. But it still feels more honest to me, and I know that it’s by far the more sustainable approach for me in particular. Rage doesn’t sustain me, but good work does. Digging in the dirt does. Bearing the future does, in its own strange way. Thus, I more and more these days deal in acceptance and adaptation, and hope that this path will lead me to good living and to poetic—if small—assists. I hope that it will lead me to a helpful patience. I hope that it will open paths of cooperation for me, even as it closes paths of competition and defeat.
An entry in The Household Economy
I wrote in March about The Long Game—the slow assimilation of knowledge and experience and the increased making of my own living each year. I wrote of my hopes for the summer: my desire to make better use of the wild blackberries, to can my own tuna and perhaps pears, to take better advantage of apple abundance. I hoped to be more relaxed and have a better control over my life and work, for I always have hope in the spring, when the summer lies out idyllic in front of me, devoid of all the eventual mistakes and failures and neglect. It’s a beautiful blank slate in those early days.
Not long after that entry, the blog fell silent. Lacking a computer at home, my only internet access came sporadically via the library, which couldn’t support blogging. Instead I fell fully into the summer, continued to play the long game, and painted the summer’s blank slate with sweat and dirt, blood, work and play, all the inevitable mistakes and failures and, as well, the joys and successes. The steps along the path, in other words, some sturdy and others stumbled.
— ∞ —
I canned so much. I canned tuna with my roommates: 64 half pints altogether, 32 of those for me. That will keep me well-stocked in tuna for the year. I made a couple dozen half pints of pear ginger jam, some honey lemon apple jam, close to three dozen pints of tomato sauce, about a dozen each of salsa, bread and butter pickles, and zucchini pepper relish. A batch of ketchup and caramelized red onion relish. I even made some of my own pectin to experiment with during next year’s jam-making.
Despite my intent to take advantage of the blackberries this year, I made only two batches of jam (one of which failed due to divided attentions and, thus, became blackberry syrup.) In terms of weather, we had a better-than-usual spring out here followed up by an initially gorgeous summer. The blackberries came on early, ripening toward the end of July. So I made the aforementioned initial batches of jam and felt confident I would be making much more as the summer unfolded.
Then it drizzled. The blackberries molded. I had time; I didn’t panic. The sun came back, the berries dried out, the moldy ones dropped off the vines and new ones took their place, slowly ripening. Just as I was about to make more jam . . . it rained again. Just a bit. Just enough to mold the berries. And then, before I knew it, we had a stretch of rain and overcast days in September and then, toward the end of the month, it really rained. Two successive storms featured a perfectly normal level of heavy rain and wind—for November, that is. But it was September, instead, and we set a new rainfall record for the month and by that time any dreams of further blackberry projects—jam, syrup, soda, frozen—were long dashed.
Oh well. That’s how it goes. I couldn’t feel too bad simply because of the abundance of other canned goods. Despite those odd September storms, it’s been a glorious season, and even October has been shockingly sunny and warm, with almost no rain this month. As I type this, the sky is clear and blue, the sun bright, a load of laundry out drying on the clothesline. I wish I had a bit more blackberry jam, sure, but I can’t complain when I’m loaded down with pear ginger jam instead and grew so many tomatoes that I actually felt compelled to make ketchup because I already had more tomato sauce than I would likely eat in a year. And there are still apples to deal with, likely leading to apple butter and more honey lemon apple jam.
It’s fine. I’ll get another shot at the blackberries next year. That’s the way the long game works.
— ∞ —
Canning wasn’t my only success this year. I stumbled into a bit of seed saving, as well. A number of towering kale plants from the fall of 2012 flowered out this spring and went to seed. I kept watching them as the seed pods dried and, finally, one sunny and breezy day in the garden, thought that I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. So I grabbed a stray garbage can and half-assed my way through a slow winnowing process, leaving me with a plastic bag full of seed and chaff. A week or two later, after picking up an old fan of mine at my father’s house, I winnowed the seed again until I had something close to a quart of clean kale seed, derived from Wild Garden’s Ruso-Siberian kale mix. Lord knows what I’ll do with all the seed, considering I don’t have the desire or need to grow a few tens of thousands of kale plants, but I imagine I’ll give what I can away to friends and family.
Emboldened by that experience, I next started clipping seed heads off of bolted dill and tucking them in a paper bag. Then I realized, one afternoon as I was cutting up tomatoes to make some sauce, that I could save some tomato seeds, too. I researched the process and soon was squeezing out seed and gunk from Black Krim, Amish Paste, and Indigo Rose tomatoes into separate mason jars. A few days passed, mold grew, I drained off the gunk and water and washed the seeds and spread them on some coffee filters to dry. Now I have three small mason jars with dried tomato seeds; we’ll see what kind of plants they grow next year.
It’s not much, this seed saving, and none of it was particularly planned. I simply took advantage of opportunities as I stumbled into them. I don’t know yet how the dill and tomato seeds will sprout—if they’re viable and will grow healthy plants—but I already have a couple healthy kale plants out in the garden planted from the seed I saved early this summer. Next year will likely see more seed saving and even some other experiments, like making my own mustard from home grown mustard seed. And I bought a copy of Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed, so I’ll study that over the winter and see what I can accomplish next summer.
— ∞ —
As for the garden itself, I had my successes but also a majority of this summer’s failures and neglect. I didn’t mow and maintain it well enough in the spring, which ended in a garden full of moles and voles. I suspect the nice spring and summer didn’t help in this regard—there seemed a lot of rodents around in general—but I did myself no favors by not knocking back the weeds and grass around the garden. It was a mess, overgrown, underutilized and somewhat neglected due to its distance from my home. So while I grew an abundance of tomatoes, basil, and peppers in the greenhouse, I lost quite a lot of my outside crops to rodents and a lot of my root crops were stunted by tunneling moles.
I harvested far fewer potatoes this year, partly due to rodents eating them and partly due to using saved seed from last year that hadn’t been saved well enough—it was in poor condition. I seeded quinoa twice and both times lost all the seedlings to slugs despite my best efforts. My carrots were stunted by moles and eaten by voles. I still got some, but not nearly as many as I hoped. My beets also were stunted and never sized up. The kale did quite well; much of my broccoli was decimated by birds. Deer got in on the act, too. Last year, I didn’t have many problems with them despite the fencing around my garden being capable of keeping out sheep but not deer. This year, they showed up more regularly and enjoyed munching on my romanesco just as they were starting to head up. I grew a ton of onions and have bags of them for the winter, so that was nice. They still were limited a bit in size by mole tunnels, but I have plenty for myself regardless.
So more lessons learned. I need to pay more attention, to better maintain, to keep the garden cleaner. I might have to be more proactive with the moles, perhaps experiment with sulfur tablets. I haven’t decided. Luckily, I likely will have a whole new set up next year, lots of gardening space where I live, an opportunity to do quite a bit more than I so far have—assuming I can manage the work load. I’m excited for that and I’ll write more about it as it comes together.
Most important, though, is that I have another summer under my belt, more lessons learned, more skills practiced, more experiments engaged. I have some seeds, I have more canned goods than last year—an abundance, really—and I already have some new dreams for next summer’s blank slate, for that canvas aching for my sweat and blood, promising so many successes and not yet weighed down by mistakes and missteps, by all the tough and valuable lessons each season brings.
I can hardly wait.
I’m well overdue for a real post, I know. Yet I’ve been busy. And I also have been uninspired to write anything of depth. Various ideas go fleeting across my brainscape, but lead to nothing. I’ve been gardening, digging in the dirt, loving it. But I can only write that post so many times and I don’t yet have a new angle. Today I planted carrots and beets and lettuce. Yesterday I up-potted tomatoes and seeded a tray of various brassicas, as well as chard and basil. Last night I placed two seed orders. Have mercy. Seeds are a dangerous and glorious thing, these tiny vessels of life.
I’ve had two days off, the weather’s been nice, life has been mostly fine. A few bigger things hover in the background, uncertain potentialities. They’ll just have to stay there for now.
I hoped to write something of substance tonight, but I think I just need to shut the brain off instead. Reading, or maybe watching a show. That’s all I’m good for at the moment.
So I give you the promised second set of photos of the Utah landscape. Forgive my quiet but restless brain, my lack of complex thought relevant to this blog. Give me a few more days. I’ll come up with something. Enjoy these pictures and then get outside and play in the dirt, commune with the birds, watch carefully the clouds in the sky to see what they do, where they go, what they tell you. Put your ear to the ground and listen to the grass grow. Place your toes in the water, any water, ever so gently, and ask them the temperature, don’t doubt their answer. They’re always being honest, even if they change their mind moment to moment. Find a tree. Say hello. Ask the nearest mountain what it’s seen of late, because it’s seen quite a lot. Listen attentively.
Don’t miss a word.
I think I mentioned already that I have a thing for trees against the sky. This one spoke to me, whispered its secrets. Sadly, I’ve forgotten them all. But they were momentous.
These hoodoos, peeking out from behind the trees, lording it over you. It’s just erosion, at the end of the day. They’re not so special. We’ll all erode in time.
Craggy and broken, unnamed. I can’t remember the name of this arch. It said nothing, but still it impresses.
If you were a nearby bird, would you spend all day zipping through these arches? The sky resides there, content to be holed.
Dr. Seuss or phallus? What does it say that those are the two options that come to mind? And does it say it about me or about Theodore Geisel?
So stark a cliff, in such relief, white and light. This is how the sun will bleach your bones, with barely an evocative warning.
An entry in The Household Economy
Last year, I started on the garden late. Aside from sneaking in a small potato patch in April, I didn’t really get going until late May and early June. I had some decent reasons—the terrible spring weather, the need to break new ground, having to clean years of junk out of the hoop house. (It’s terribly sad to see an abused and mistreated hoop house here on the Oregon coast. They’re so precious!) I waited on a friend’s tractor work. But really, I had some opportunities to get an earlier start and simply didn’t get myself in enough order to take advantage of them. I put it off.
This year, I aim to get an earlier start. Of course, the danger with such a notion is that March can be tricky. A few sunny days arrive, a rush of warm weather, the daffodils bloom out and suddenly you’re thinking that garden abundance is just around the corner. Unfortunately, what’s really around the corner is—more likely than not—a wet, cold, miserable, hail-filled April. To plant in optimism in March is a dangerous game indeed out here. Therefore, I’m attempting to temper my enthusiasm while also getting some good work done and a head start on the planting. I don’t want to fall into frustration, but I have no interest in not really getting going until late May again, either.
It is thus that I found myself in the hoop house on Monday, untying the old and dead tomato plants from their baling-twine trellises, ripping them from the ground and piling them outside. I cleared a multitude of weeds, clumps of grass, and plenty of other dead plants I never cleaned out from the previous season. Black, bare and woody eggplants and peppers and basil, all plucked from the soil and tossed on the pile, ready for composting. Old, brittle, but still-clinging cucumber vines excavated. The beds slowly reemerged as I worked, their outlines and contours ragged, piece meal, shrunk from last summer, the paths having slowly widened with each walk down the rows. They’ll need to be reworked, re-dug, amended before the new round of crops go in. After about four hours of work, I stood back and looked at the results of my work, of those exposed beds ready to be worked up and planted. Thick, green grass still ringed the inside edges of the hoop house, but not in the beds. I can get that out later.
It was a dusty job, the inside dry. Coming home from the job, it took me a while to get the dirt out of my nose, to dig out that blackness. I remembered it from the year before, whenever I would spend a time under the plastic, digging up a bed or weeding, tromping around and puffing the small dust clouds. I put on the sprinkler inside, just to get some extra moisture into the soil before I worked it up. Tomorrow I’ll dig in there more, fluffing and shaping the beds, adding in some amendments, and hopefully will have some beds seeded by the end of the day—salad mix, perhaps, spinach, mustards, maybe some head lettuce. Greens. My body has been craving greens of late. I always eat so heavy in the winter, meat and potatoes and squash, cheese and bread, dairy. I eat that always, granted, but more so in the winter.
— ∞ —
I’m excited for the garden, for another year of growing. Earlier today, I had a piece of toast with blackberry jam, canned last summer. A couple nights ago, polenta topped with a tomato sauce from last year’s garden, tucked away in the freezer. A few days ago, oatmeal for breakfast, with butter and milk, honey, and apple butter that I cooked and canned in October. And last Wednesday, I took a jar of salsa and pickles to share at the Grange potluck. The next day, mixed some salsa with mashed avocados and some minced onion and garlic. Instant guacamole.
Granted, these canned and frozen foods from last year aren’t the bulk of my diet, of my calories, but they’re quite nice to have on hand. At Christmas time, jars went out as gifts, too, and for some birthdays, as well. Still there are roasted tomatoes stuffed in the freezer, canned tomato sauce on the shelf. I almost never buy tomatoes from the store—it just seems an offense to me. The ones in the freezer keep me in sauce, in spaghetti and pizza, marinara for whatever.
I realized after working in the hoop house that I’m playing the long game. I’ve been doing it for years now, at least since 2009. I didn’t always recognize I was playing the long game, but that’s indeed what I’m doing. Each year, I build on my knowledge and skill, I better figure the next steps, I improve on the old and attempt the new. I expand the repertoire. Last year, I started the garden late. This year I’ll start it earlier, soon, get those first seeds in the ground in the next couple days. Greens in the hoop house and peas outside, covered up with a bit of torn row cover that Ginger is going to generously let me have. Just in case of hail, which is almost a certainty. With luck, I’ll have fresh greens and peas this year before I even had the garden started last year. And right now, too, last fall’s kale is coming back, fresh leaves emerging. That’s a remnant, a legacy from last year. The ground is already broken. Weedy and grassy, yes, but the beds are there, even if they’re vague. They’re ready to be worked, far more than they were last year. I just have to get the timing right, to get out there during a stretch of sun and dry, when the soil can be worked without clumping and hardening it. But it’s so much more ready than last year, and so am I.
It builds. Three years ago, I planted a ragged and broken garden, a small bit of nonsense that I did all wrong, discarding the knowledge I had for a misguided ideology and attempted shortcuts. Last year, I grew a real garden, late and also ragged and not as ambitious as I originally planned, sometimes a bit neglected, managed a bit haphazardly but still quite productive. I got veggies out of that. I got broccoli and kale and peas, potatoes and summer squash, winter squash and salad mix and peppers and eggplants, basil and parsley, romanesco and beans and mustard greens, head lettuce. Still out there is the legacy—the husks of winter-killed plants—various brassicas, amaranth from the salad mix that grew giant, dead and spindly bush bean skeletons—two rows of parsnips I have yet to eat, and carrots sweetened by the winter cold and putting out new growth, in need of harvesting before they become woody and bitter, their tops nibbled and chewed by rodents. And still I have potatoes in the ground! What am I doing? Got to get those out, set those aside for eating and use the ones already harvested and sprouting as this year’s seed. At least some of them—don’t need as much seed as I have sprouting potatoes. How nice, though, my own potato seed this year, not from a catalogue.
— ∞ —
These early spring days, warm and sunny, they just make me want to get in the dirt. They make me itchy. I want a couple days of good, hard, tiring work. I want to be dirty, sweaty, to smell of soil and plants, chlorophyll, and to have my fingers turn black with tomato tar—even though that’s still a ways off, the tomatoes. (Acyl sugars, for those who want to get more technical than “tomato tar,” is what turns your hands green when you handle tomato plants.) I want to get out the push-pull and the digging fork, to work the soil, mingle in my blood and sweat, get the heart rate up. I want that sense of life and importance. Of necessary work. I want to get back out that farmer within.
It’s nice, too. This year will be less overwhelming. That’s what I tell myself anyway—maybe I’m being too optimistic. But there’s not so much to do to get started. Don’t have to break the ground. Know somewhat what I’m doing, even if I plan to do some things different this year. I have a raft of mistakes made last year that I get to learn from this year, to try to correct. New mistakes will inevitably arise, but I won’t have to correct those until next year. This year, I just have to weather them. I can do that. I’m not so desperate that they’ll break me. That’s why it’s so good to make those mistakes now, to learn the lessons when there’s luxury, when there’s a cushion. I have flexibility. I have margins for errors.
This year, I’ll be more on the blackberries. Last year, I picked late, during the final and less abundant waves. Still made a lot of blackberry jam and a bit of syrup, but this year I’m going to be better on it. More jam, more syrup, but also soda. Lots of blackberry soda, absolutely. And maybe I’ll freeze fresh ones, have them for the winter. I don’t know if there’s room or not, but I bet I can find some. There are freezers around.
And the apples, too. This year I’ll be better on the apples. Maybe I’ll get to can pears—there are some pear trees where I moved to, and I bet a canning party might be in order later in the summer. Last year I wanted to buy tuna off the boat local out here and can it, but I never did that. This year I plan to. Buy off the boat, prep it and borrow a pressure canner, or maybe join in with Ginger when she’s doing her tuna.
It’s just a slow improvement coupled with the laying in of new habits and practices. It’s a layering, year over year. You do a little more, lay a bit more groundwork each new season, build up a bit more infrastructure, increase your knowledge and better your habits and make it routine, make it normal. It becomes easier. You know what to do. It’s just the long game, end of the day. I’m playing the long game. It started years ago, and it’ll be going years yet. So many yeas. Tomorrow the hoop house, working the beds, amending, seeding, and the peas planted outside, covered with row cloth. Years from now, who knows? Something more, no doubt—layered, heftier, built year by year, the culmination of much of a life.
An entry in Encounters
One of the challenges of attempting a life in the margins is the sense of alienation it can, at times, produce. Granted, a life lived within the confines of society’s dominant ways and thoughts can be alienating as well—even more so, in many ways. Still, the simple fact is that in divorcing oneself of the myth of progress, spurning a great deal of material wealth in efforts toward voluntary poverty, believing that society is in the beginning throes of contraction, and limiting your intake of the newest and shiniest technologies, you tend to alienate yourself to some degree from a good many people. If, like me, this is a somewhat new project for you, then it’s likely that you’ll find yourself navigating tricky ground with at least some of your friends and family as you try to live your life in accordance with your beliefs while not becoming completely inscrutable to those you’ve known for years.
I’ve struggled with these challenges, though I’m blessed in that most of my friends and family seem to have taken my odd behavior in good stride. I suspect some of this is due to a sympathy toward my core beliefs, even if the expression of them skews somewhat radical, while some is due to the fact that I’ve always been at least a bit odd and contrary. Whatever kick I’m on at any given time is typically suffered with good nature, and for that I’m grateful.
What I do miss in my attempt to live a life of less is a partner. While I’ve done some dating over the past four-ish years that I’ve been farming, I find it a bit of a challenge to find people who understand the sort of lifestyle I’m trying to live and are either interested in pursuing a similar lifestyle or who simply are sympathetic to it, even if it’s not exactly their ideal. It’s not that I can’t find people who believe we live unsustainably as a society, but that it’s more of a challenge to find people who are interested in or are already taking the next steps of living with much less. I can’t help but feel that the term “voluntary poverty” is a bit scary to a number of people out there, though perhaps this is as much my own sense of self-consciousness as anything else.
It’s within this context that, just shy of two years ago, I found myself hiking the trail up Neahkahnie Mountain, not long after moving out here to the coast for my third farming apprenticeship. I hiked alone, climbing the mountain for the first time, shouldering a backpack with some water and food in it. It was a spring day and the sun shone, though I hiked mostly in the cool shadow of trees. I kept a steady pace with matching breath.
Hiking is something of a meditation for me. I’ve written about this before, in The Rhythm of Contemplation, but as I fall into a steady pace of hiking and breathing, my mind tends to wander and explore various corners within itself, tracing out paths much as my body follows the forest path, though not with such a singular focus. Sometimes I find myself thinking out some new bit of philosophy or insight, while other times I fall into a contemplation of lingering personal issues or frustrations. Hiking up Neahkahnie that day, my mind took the latter path. I focused in on a complex and somewhat unresolved relationship from a year ago, allowing the frustrations that had arisen from the relationship to pull me toward depression, even mild despair. Wandering through the trees, engrossed within my own mind, I felt an intense alienation and loneliness, wondering if I would ever find a settled place and a partner, good and meaningful work, a life which felt right.
I had only recently moved out to the coast, relocating for the third time in two and a half years. I made these moves in service of broader goals: learning to farm, finding meaningful work and a meaningful life. But that didn’t change the fact that each move proved a challenge, further heightening my sense of alienation and divorce from the social world, and further unsettling my life. I wanted desperately to find a place to stay and familiarize myself with, but that place continued to elude me. I wanted a partner, and she also continued to elude me. In that moment, then, out on the trail and surrounded by intense beauty, by an incredible amount of life, I couldn’t help myself from falling into the confines of my own mind, blocking out the abundant world around me and indulging in a great loneliness. I felt I might never have what I wanted. I questioned my decisions, this life I had chosen to lead.
I stared at the ground, at my feet, placing each of my steps carefully but automatically, avoiding rocks and roots and keeping a firm footing. I could see the ground, but not really—I was in my own head, lost in pity and frustration, in the dark paths that the hike’s physical rhythms had opened up to me. I imagined human touch, physical intimacy, and the longing for it clawed at me. I wanted all these things that I didn’t have at the moment, and I couldn’t see all I did have.
At that moment I looked up and ahead, along the shadowed trail beset on each side by high-reaching Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. One of those firs towered on my right, moving in close as I continued to walk along the path, its trunk deep and wide and covered in vibrant green moss. I didn’t think about it, made no conscious decision; I simply reached for the tree. In that moment of intense sadness, I turned and reached and hugged the trunk of that tree, pressing against the rough bark and soft moss, and I felt relief flood me. The tree comforted me as well as any human could have and for a startling moment, it was as real and alive to me as any friend would be. It mattered not that the tree was of a different composition than flesh and bone, a different species, in many ways an alien being.
Trees are alive, of course. They have power and spirit. They are creatures of this world, the same as humans are, the same as any animal. And yet, despite my love of them and despite my joy in their presence, I don’t tend to gain a comfort from them the way I do a friend, or a family member, or a lover. I know there are some people out there who feel that intense a connection to trees on a regular basis, but I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I’ll stop to touch a tree, to feel its bark, to rest or lean against it and I’ve even been known, once or twice, to speak to a tree, though I’ve never heard a response. Hell, I’ve hugged trees more than a few times in my life. But never when I felt the way I did that day, in that dark moment, in desperate need of comfort from another creature. I sought that tree out, not even thinking, and I felt as connected to it as I would anyone. Even as it happened, it shocked me.
I stayed against the tree for a few moments, shifting my head to place my forehead against the cool and damp moss, taking deep breaths, self-conscious enough to glance down the trail to see if anyone else was coming into view, able to see me in my arborous embrace. Thankfully, no one appeared. I was left alone with the tree and its comfort.
After a few minutes, I stepped back, placed my hand against its trunk, thanked the tree. I felt infinitely better. I did not feel nearly so alone, nearly so destitute. My loneliness and self-pity dissipated and the incredible community around me came into focus, reminding me that I wasn’t alone, even if it at times felt that way. I continued my hike, buoyed and thankful. Blessed. I stayed alert and aware of the life around me, even as I continued to think and meditate, to allocate a portion of my attention to the inside of my mind.
Since that day, I’ve stayed here on the Oregon coast. I’ve moved a few times, but each time only down the road, not to some other town or region. I’ve been building a life, integrating into the community, meeting people and making friends, establishing myself. I don’t know that I’ll stay here—it’s very possible, but not assured. I have yet to find a partner. I still find myself lonely at times, and I even occasionally question my decisions, wonder if I’m on the right path. But almost every day I’m surrounded by other life, some of it human and much of it not. That’s always a blessing. It’s always a comfort. It’s always a confirmation that I’m on the right path, wherever it may be leading. Yes, there are still human relationships I yearn for and that I hope to eventually cultivate. But they’re not the only source of comfort and connection. They’re just one amongst many.
I don’t know that I’ll ever feel such a striking and intense connection to a tree again. But I love knowing that it’s possible—that in dark moments, a greater number of species than I might otherwise have imagined can provide me deep and true comfort. I love that sense of connection, of being intertwined, of transcending unnecessary and imposed boundaries. Flesh and bone, bark and pith—it’s all the structure of life, all from the same source. It’s all connected. It just sometimes takes a dark moment to realize it.