The salmonberries are already blooming in Portland’s Forest Park.  I wonder whether they’re blooming in the coast range, and near Opal Creek, and in the nooks and crevices of our urban parks and green spaces.  Their deep pink petals hang lightly in defiance of the torrential rains we’ve been seeing the past few days.  “Yes,” they are declaring.  “Yes, we will create and thrive amidst the chill.”  Somehow, the rain supports them.  The pollen clings to the anthers underneath that halo of pink, a bit safer from being washed away that the elder flowers’, whose tiny flowers cling together in clumps that seem to melt and mash together in the soggy air.  I can’t hide my excitement as I tramp up, up, up the switchbacks and wind my way out and around every ravine and creekside slope of exuberant green mosses.  Trilliums splay out lavishly on the forest floor, and I’m reminded of a time long ago when I knew nearly nothing about this community.  I was drawn to the showy flower as a camp name back in grade school, but I knew nothing of when it emerges, what companions it finds, how it reproduces, or how people could work with it beyond admiring its silky white and pink petals.  A herald.

Now, despite greater knowledge and deeper experience in Cascadian woodlands, I am more humbled than ever by their complexity and beauty.  I have yet to know hundreds of plants that grow here, year after year, in the first flushes of spring or the dry spells of late summer.  I have yet to see native pollinators alight on myriad flowers, and the development of so many precious seed pods and fruits that will fatten over the next several months.  I know nothing of what lives between and beneath the thick humus layer that cushions my step and absorbs, so patiently, the steady drips and rivulets of a spring storm.  When the sunshine trickles past the gray clouds and brings the hundred hues of green back to their full brightness, I wonder how I– already nearly thirty years past and likely no more than twice that to come– could possibly know this forest in my lifetime.  There is so much to observe, to care for, and to love.  What birds are nesting overhead?  When do they sing, and what are their songs?  How many years will it take for that stream bank to crumble and create bare soil for new life to begin, again?  Who else loves this place, and what do they see that I yet overlook?  The minds and hearts that perceive these hillsides extend the realm of my humility that much further.  I know the crevices and crannies of my own self only one short lifetime more than I know the life outside.  There is much work and play of knowing at hand.  Let us continue it.

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It is time to begin, again.  The emergence of spring’s heralds– the crocus, the daffodil, the ornamental cherry blooms in every third yard around Eugene– brings me to anticipate, look up, shake my winter-softened arms out a bit.  It’s been a whole year.  Almost thirteen moons, since I began the last season of watching plants grow and the burst of life run its course.  I revisited my garden journal from 2015 recently and found that I was inventorying seeds, making garden maps for my new beautiful home, purchasing trays and flats and potting soil, and seeding onions at this time in February.  I was re-visiting all my farming practices that I had first learned in this city three years prior, but unlike then, I lacked some of the key elements to start seed this early.

My onions grew ever so slowly, tiny green shoots that lazed by my bedside and reached toward the filtered, too-dim sunlight as it reached past apple tree shadows and spring rainbow storms.  The tiny cabbage sprouts, so eager at first, faced a gradual death as they succumbed to an unknown wilt.  Ah, and the beets!  Direct-seeded outside, they suffered recurrent infestations of life miners, which, I learned by bringing a leaf in to the Master Gardeners next door to my office, were decimating home crops of chard, spinach, and beets all over the county.

Small failures aside, there was a most magnificent burst of life and bounty over the course of our warm spring, dry summer, and even into the golden fall.  I made my first attempt at growing oats, Avena sativa, and fell madly in love with their dancing grains and sea-foam striped stalks.  The birds nearly thwarted them all, but the few that grew from the first and second plantings were well spaced and vibrant, interplanted among four stout Purple Bumblebee cherry tomato plants.

Oh, the tomatoes!  It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to place tiny flat seeds in a few planting trays and, nearly a year later, be relishing bag after bag of frozen garden tomatoes.  This year I grew five varieties: the Purple Bumblebee, which produced few but stunningly flavorful, purple-smeared bitefuls of juicy summertime.  The Woodle Orange won out for flavor, though.  They turned from soft yellow to bright gold when ripe, and I watched the process on our two plants with delight and anticipation of adding thick slices to freshly rinsed salad greens.  For preserving, my favorite was the Jersey Devil, whose seeds I saved carefully for this year.  The tomatoes are long and pointy like peppers, and their uniform ripening and detachable skins won me over as I boiled and peeled gallons and gallons of saucers.  Unfortunately, the majority of my paste tomatoes were of another variety called Sheboygan, which was delicious fresh but is not well suited for processing.  Process aside, I’m grateful for their stamina into the fall and their weight and sweetness in my chest freezer.  Bread and Salt was the last variety: a pink, heart-shaped tomato that was certainly enjoyable, but not memorable enough to save seed.

I jumped ahead; the story of the tomatoes begins months before I had any idea about the fruits.  They sprouted to March’s full moon, folded and skinny, curving up daintily from their cozy potting mix into the dim light behind my sliding glass door.  There is so much hope this time of year: that each plant will thrive, that dreams will coalesce into tangible life, that warmer days will bring freedom and clarity to the fogginess of winter’s routine.  Whatever will grow this year is already germinating in last year’s compost, on the bright surface, deep in the shadows, searching for the light and warmth of another springtime.

 

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I finally, finally spent a few minutes taking photos on the farm today.

The rhubarb is alive again, popping forth crinkled leaves from buxom pink buds on the soil surface.  The biggest leaves are the size of my palm, and I find myself wondering how many 2-inch stalks it would take to make a rhubarb pie.  But no, it deserves to grow.

Just downhill from the herb garden, the garlic’s standing proudly.  It came up a while back, after months of wondering and waiting if I’d done something terribly wrong.  It’s a tidy crop, keeping to linear geometry for the most part, for now.  The one love of elephant garlic is the exception, trouncing out at a 75 degree curve from its straw bed.

(The Elephant)

And, to my joy, the plum trees’ buds are swelling greenish white, readying themselves to break.  They’ve had a hard time at life, being alternately pruned, not pruned, watered, not watered, weeded or smothered by lawn.  On some branches, their shoots are so short it’s hard to tell one year’s growth from the next.  We’ve done our best to send them off well this season, at least.  I did my best to encourage some fresh growth this week, snipping and thinning and separating skyward branches with chunks of wood chips.  What will, in twenty and a half years, be arm-sized scaffolds supporting truckloads of sweet ripe fruit.  Please?

There is so much more, waiting.  Just waiting.

Tossed to the compost.

From Monday, February 6.
A nearly full moon, already, again. I can’t quite recall what I was doing during the last full moon– I guess it was just after the new year, just as I was beginning again. This evening she came up bursting and wailing, a beacon in an already shimmering landscape. We’ve seen so much sun this winter. It doesn’t feel like winter, really, except the chill. Frost laces each morning, diamonds sparkling my path to the farm, and as I turn the bend around Hendrick’s Park–that shadow looming resolutely across the Laurel Valley– the sunrise is fuller, more golden and promising, day by day. The light is returning! Just today I seeded half of our onion crop for the year, ever so gingerly tucking dozens of deep black seed-cups under our home-made potting mix. Eight parts soil, four parts compost, four parts sand and vermiculite, and a couple cups of fish meal, lime, and kelp. I keep finding critters in it. I hope they aren’t onion seed-eating critters.
Such momentous occasions as seeding a whole year’s crop on one little table happen so often in my life there that I fail to celebrate them, usually. What to do at the first spotting of crocus shoots under a dim eave in the drizzle of January? How can one possibly commemorate such a joyous act of courage? To trust– to know– that her leaves will grow fully and be cradled by broadening days and milder nights, even in the midst of frosts and torrential storms– that she is exactly as she should be… Who taught the crocus such bravery and poise?
Perhaps the moon, murmuring silver wisps of support into the ground below our feet. Perhaps the frost is just an echo.

Microbes are blowing my mind.  Well, no: I can accept how active, ubiquitous, and adaptable they are.  I get that.  Okay.  To my rational, scientific mind they make perfect sense.  Give them the right temperature, moisture, and material, and they’ll eat and reproduce like mad until their poop outweighs their food.  Even then, they’ll continue, calling in their cousins to work on the stuff left over.  To my human parts, though– my eyes, ears, and hands, which can never perceive the billions of microorganisms engulfing and supporting me every second– microbes make magic.

Take, for example, the compost piles.  We have a few separate systems at the Laurel Valley Educational Farm, which sit in varying states of care throughout the year.  The classic 3-bin demonstration compost is waiting to be turned this week.  That’s where I killed the baby mouse.  Another is settling down in the lower field, likely to sit cold and solid for months before we muster the strength and time to churn the woody pepper stems and Brassica stalks that would have overwhelmed the top compost.  The top compost.  It is, as of Thursday, my pride and joy.  I spent an entire day forking and raking and wrestling its three piles over on themselves, carefully layering the chunkiest pieces to the middle to ensure even cooking.  The last, almost-ready pile started as a long woody mess when I arrived in August, and it’s now been reduced to a cubic yard of straggling straw and stems now (hopefully) smothered amidst the sweet black of finished compost.  The second pile had been turned a couple weeks ago by a rowdy group of students.  Their style was impressively haphazard, which is generally a fine approach to making compost.  Throw it in a pile, literally, and come back next season.

The problem with that, though, is that you come back to find a pile of debris with a bucket-sized chunk of finished black fertilizer steaming in the middle.  The debris inevitably remains around the borders of any compost, so you have to keep turning the pile to digest every last leaf.  On Thursday, I realized that the key to quick decomposition is simply a matter of habitat.  My task is to create an ideal environment for the host of microbes waiting (who knows where?) to inhabit my piles, settle down, and eat themselves silly.  If they’re happy–lo and behold!– the pile will quite miraculously melt into the ground.  Just look what happened to the freshest pile (on the left) over the weekend:

A job well done, Thursday October 27

 

Steaming and ecstatic, Monday October 31

I feel like a huge nerd for being so into it, but seriously.  This stuff is incredible.  The bottom of the newest pile has been sitting for a few weeks, and it had been fully soaked by rain and then covered by a deluge of spent summer crops.  After raking the top few feet off the top, I finally came to the oven in the middle.  It had become so wet and heavy that anaerobic bacteria took hold, letting off a stench that could shrivel even my wide and open-minded scent palette.  When I stopped to lean on my pitchfork and catch my breath, I heard a dim munching sound from below.  On closer inspection, I saw that the bubbling noise was emanating from a writhing, busy mass of maggots at my feet.  They were insatiable and unstoppable!  After just a few minutes, the population of macroinvertebrates– clearly a gold mine to a serious compost pile builder like myself– had already retreated to darker dinner tables in the sludge.  I spent the rest of the afternoon carefully coating the fresher innards of my new pile with this pre-cooked nursery of decomposers.  My imagination ran wild with the potential in that pile: the maggots would run straight to the middle, where I’d stashed all the toughest new material, and the whole thing would come alive for a precious few weeks with a lively succession of bacteria, fungi, and bugs.  They would all be so happy.

So far, my fantasy seems to be running true.  The pile was steaming furiously when I arrived at work this morning, half the height it was when I left on Friday.  In my microbial imagination, the center of the pile is literally cooking with activity, scorching and digesting the plant material that we humans discard.  I sit and eat tender lettuce leaves and sweet juicy peppers while the real world runs on slime and feces.

Really, it does.  And so, of course, do we.  Whether or not we want to admit it, our lives are utterly dependent on the poop and corpses of a bunch of invisible life forms.  What a way to make us feel truly human: humble, lowly, of the ground.

Tuesday, October 25.  Good a day as any for the first frost of the season.  I had been anticipating it for weeks, trailing off to imagine the frantic covering of rows and harvesting of tomatoes and basil that, in the end, didn’t happen.  We were all– rough yellow basil, split tomatoes, puny zucchinis, worn down hands– ready.  We knew it was coming.  We’d been waiting and wondering and not really sure if a few degrees would really matter.  Yes: everything changed in one night.

Chard before the sun.

Life and death are never as clear as when a first frost hits.  True, life is slowing every day, growth stunted, turning almost static as the day lengths shorten and the temperature drops.  The carrots that happily sprung forth from their row in mid September appear the same size as they were weeks ago, and a pepper that would ripen in a week of August sun is now hanging green.  Can plants feel some version of disheartened?  This morning when I unlocked the gate, some were already flopped over.  Others, tips lined with ice crystals, took it in stride and stood their ground.  The summer crops that we’d neglected to cover looked fine until the sun rose, at which point the ice that had formed in their leaves and fruit melted and ruptured their tissues.  Their leaves turned a deeper, drabber shade of green as their bodies steadily slumped.  Flaccid.  It was their time.

Rotting tomato time.

Though, barring a few rows of torpid vegetables in a sloped garden in east Eugene, not much is different about the world.  The fatalities on the farm won’t go noticed by folks reading upstairs at the public library, or my roommate slammed with midterms, or even some of the people charged with educating our high school students.  In their world, a frost means windshield scrapers and thermostats.  A mound of wilted basil plants might seem a bit sad, but certainly nothing to get hung up about.  Of course, like I said, it was their time.  But I think this day, and that wilted basil, may be the heaviest mark of fall we will see: truly, Fall.  Fall from growth, from security, from sunlight.  No more pretending that the season will float along without end.  At least some things can truly by decided.  Among the ceaseless tide of days and nights, dreams and awakenings, simple ice crystals have embedded in my memory.  It’s a brand new world.

Brussel sprouts.

Fennel

Leek.

  • Kohlrabi.

Carrots.

It felt like I was tucking in little sentries, white tips pointed south to watch the winter sun laze onward.  In the morning, after tilling the bed whose eggplants Hanni had torn free and spreading handfuls of lime over the ready beds, I set out to plant garlic for the first time in my life.  We had a little patch on Bell Street, which I weeded and thinned here and there (and feasted on come harvest time), but I was never part of the sowing.  I’d asked Stu–last year’s garden coordinator who is still around for another program– for his methods, and I read Solomon’s blurb about the task in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, but when it came time to actually plant, I was alone.

I gathered a few stakes and lines to mark the rows, a sledgehammer, a triangular hoe, and the boxes of hardnecks we’d graded earlier this week.  I also measured the width of my hand.  Exactly four inches: perfect.  Wrestling with the stakes and lines proved successful but completely unnecessary in the end.  I dragged the hoe four times across the wide bed, and then a second time to make sure the cloves could sit deep enough to be protected from frosts and, perhaps in this mild valley, snow.  Well, if I stuck a clove so just its tip poked up from the trench, then covered it so the surface was flush again, it lay deep as somewhere between my first and second knuckles.  That’s about an inch, right?

Waiting to be tucked in

The Italian Late Hardneck only got me through a third of the row.  It’s got the biggest cloves I’ve ever seen apart from Elephant Garlic, so I went inside to glean more seed from the last piddly pile of heads.  That got us half a row, which, by some combination of nutrient exchange, alchemy, and good luck, will become almost 250 heads of garlic early next summer.  Then count the Chesnook (another hardneck variety with magenta skin and slimmer cloves), Nootka Rose (a warm softneck that I swear has been contaminated with other varieties), Italian Early Softneck (yet to be planted once we bid adieu to a tomato row), and a whole row of “generic softneck” we’ve lost track of, I’m hoping for a solid 2000 heads next July.

But wait, how much control do I really have over what this land does and does not produce?  A handful of lime?  A sturdy pat over the surface of those unassuming, deceivingly brown garlic beds?  The ground could freeze solid for a week or two and wipe out almost everything that’s planted outside.  Would the garlic survive?  Well, based on my talks with mid-westerners who see the first shoots of their garlic poke out from a coat of fresh snow, I’d guess it’s safe.  Until it’s time to make another decision– When To Harvest The Garlic– I’m ready to watch those beds in wonder.

On a side note: I bludgeoned a blind baby mouse to death today.  There was a long build-up during which one of its siblings crawled out of the bottom of the compost pile I was turning, frantically pawing the hot soil, dodging pill bugs and red worms in its lost wanderings.  I paused for a few minutes to consider the gravity of the situation.  Home destroyed, mama missing in action, blind and in shock, its tiny eyelids exposed to light for the first time.  It was so cute, and hopelessly pathetic.  I picked it up by the tail and placed it gingerly in the corner, hoping its home was really just behind the 3-bin system and it would crawl off happy and no worse for wear.  I continued digging, greedy for the richest, blackest earth that sat low in the pile.  After a few more pitchfork loads, though, another mouse emerged from the center of the pile, followed by another… and another!  I picked them up by the tails, one by one, and toppled them in the corner to lay stunned atop one another.  As I was about to dive in for another load (oh how the plants will love this stuff!), my chest sank.  Another baby crawled to the surface, its scalp partially ripped off, glistening pink under an eerie overcast sky.  I had considered killing the others, but felt relieved to avoid any god-like decisions.  Just put them off to the side and let nature take its course, right?  Well, this last mouse’s head was glaring back at me: You’ve already ruined me.  I think about five seconds passed between its emergence and first contact with my pitchfork tine.  Was it the first or fourth hit that killed it?

My mind immediately sailed away to a day in summer when I was about ten.  I was at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Ohio, and my grandpa was talking about a skunk that was shacking up in one of the basement window holes.  He said he was going to kill it with a shovel, and I remember feeling outraged and sick at the thought of such an act.  To bludgeon a poor helpless little animal with a shovel?!?  I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  It seemed cruel and unusual, perhaps even bordering on malicious.  I fussed and cried and stormed off to feel sorry and confused, and decidedly appalled at my grandfather.

The ideals of young girls are difficult, if not even unwise, to uphold.  I’m in no place to judge my grandpa’s prudence, and I’ve no claim to Right or Wrong.  But there’s something awfully poignant about the decisions he and I made.  We are not in control of the animals that choose to make their homes near us, nor do we have claim to their lives.  We may love them, and see their beauty and fragility, and wish to God they’d landed in another neighborhood, but at a certain point their lives and our goals clash irreconcilably.  We create environments that are unsuitable for them and then “put them out of their misery” when they choose to inhabit those environments, for better or worse.  I can’t say.  And I can’t say whether or not those other tiny mice will survive.  I left them huddling in the corner, catching their breath under rotting grass blades.  I won’t know if they ever grow up to scurry through the cucumber patch.  The older I get, the easier it is to sit with that, not knowing.

Funny, isn’t it?  How years will pass under our noses while all the while the daylight is shifting and the air is drifting, and there’s still so much work to be done.  There is clearly too much to catch up on since I said farewell to Ecuador and this blog (raspberries bigger than my knuckles, kid-hands on goat-teats, folk songs with beautifully simple harmonies…), so I’ll just skip it.  Today was only slightly unusual, which makes it rather usual.  The perfect day to begin again.

I found myself planting true strawberry runners for the first time today, inventing my own way to make their new home stable and secure.  I tore off most of the runner so that just a couple inches poked out from each side of the fresh spurt of leaves, then used the rigid runner to stake the floating strawberry to the ground.  They look like they’re just emerging, ready to huddle and fend off frost and wind with a steady glare and serrated edge.  Or they’ll be dead when I make my rounds in the morning.  I really don’t know, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how quickly I’ve become comfortable with not knowing.  Anything.  Really, I didn’t know when to harvest winter squash, or how to cure onions, or how blossom end-rot on tomatoes might be saved with fertilizer.  I still don’t know how to prune raspberries or identify a single weed, nor did I ever anticipate using my intuition to prescribe the correct space between parsnips.  But I’m learning.  The strange thing about it is that I have no single teacher, no reference books, and no defined schedule; I’m discovering how to access the circuitous and jumbled mass of knowledge that’s stored somewhere in my brain, and to navigate its truths and assumptions amid a daily barrage of decisions on the farm.

Ah yes, the farm.  When I first visited the Laurel Valley Educational Farm in July, I considered it a garden.  I’m the Youth Garden Coordinator, after all.  When my co-worker, Hanni, first referred to it as “the farm” I think I may have betrayed a bit of skepticism, blurting out some rubbish about educational gardens.  A real farm, my subconscious protested, stretches the eyes more than this small slope, and it has more than a couple chickens running about, and there’s trucks and tractors and crews in the fields.  A real produces a bunch of food!  Ha.  Well, it may be just an acre, but it’s an acre under heavy, rotating cultivation and it’s enough to keep two people on their feet all season long– not to mention provide mounds of produce for seventeen CSA members, field crews, students, and us.  The matter of scale is more a matter of sincerity; we care enough to call this a farm.  The fact that I approach the autumn transition with little to no experience does not mean that I’m approaching it poorly.  I check in on the rutabagas, thin the tomatoes that will never turn sweet, and listen to what birds choose to alight on the sunken sunflowers.  I notice how the chard leaves glisten when the sun pokes out, and how well the weeds take root again if I don’t haul them away.  Humble and green as I may be, I care enough to consider myself a farmer.

Today is my last day in Ecuador.

…Wait, ¿¿¿Qué???  How did that happen?!  While I have been soaking up sun and wandering markets and letting español plant itself surely in my brain, four and a half months passed.  Right under my nose.  Like my constant ache for home and simultaneous love for this country could continue forever, side by side confounding and delighting me.  I want to cry when I think of how joyous it will be to reunite with my family and friends, and I want to cry when I think of how much I will miss the places and people I´ve known here.  I already miss many of them, more than I imagined was possible.  I will miss being able to get on or off an interprovincial bus at any point along the highway (forget bus stations!), and the whirl of raucous music bumping in time with the curves and jolts in the journey.  I will miss the steep scent of eucalyptus that cuts through the Panamerican highway smog and inundates me, welcoming me back to the Sierra.  The rows of roasting chickens in windows along every street, and the way they stealthily pique my appetite even when out of sight.  The sight of indigenous women in ponchos and felt hats, colorful and daring amidst the hubbub of modern Quito.  A warm sea.  One-dollar golden coins jingling in my pockets.  Machetes and banana trees and being told I´m linda by random passerby.

I will miss making fleeting decisions and acting them without needing to consult anyone.  What I look forward to, though, is having people I love and trust to consult, when needed.  I look forward to reliable hot showers and free, clean public bathrooms.  To not worrying about only having $20 bills that no one can break.  To exercising my precise usage of the English language, and to fresh greens and salads at my disposal.  I look forward to having a cell phone and a computer, and to spinning my gorgeous nieces until we´re dizzy and giggling.  I can´t wait to show you more photographs and try to express all that I´ve been unable to in writing.  It will be good.  It will be, and has been, all very good.

All this time to myself has given me an opportunity to brainstorm– probably far too much– about what to Do With My Life.  The world works in myriad, mysterious, marvelous ways, and I can´t say that I have a much firmer idea about how to continue than when I arrived here.  I might still need to study more (in Academia) to satisfy my tenacious search for understanding.  I will certainly be practicing more agriculture and participating in local food movements– what I see as solutions to un montón de problemas that we face.  No matter what, the fact that I often catch myself thinking in Spanish will serve some good.  De ley voy a seguir con todo que me gusta, y de ley seguir encontrando lo bueno más y más cada año.

I named this blog from a song I wrote late last year: ¨I´m the shape of milk pouring, steady, steady…¨  Funny, now, that the shape of milk has shaped my many paths during my stay here in Ecuador.  Fresh milk first flowed into my life at the FBU farm, every morning at sunrise, and made its place in my heart (and stomach) during my stay with Marco.  It has made instant coffee delicious and ¨boring¨ queso fresco ever-distinct and tasty.  What strikes me now is that it is dearly missing from my homeland.  Even whole fat organic milk can´t compare with that glob of yellowish cream floating atop a pot of boiled milk from a nearby vaca.

Maybe I´ll end up raising cows and providing you all with the sweetness of that daily froth.  In the meantime, as paisajes and avenidas fade to memory and my body adjusts to clean tap water and burritos, I´ll be saying a long, loving adiosGracias.