Archives for category: Farm

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.

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.

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.

Martes, 12.4.11 @ FBU

6:20– First wakening, from the kitten that is now staying in the volunteer house.  I want to name it Pluma since it´s so light and feathery, and it´s face reminds me of a bird sometimes.  The German boys have given it a boy´s name, even though we already know it´s female.  Its whiskers tickle my cheeks as it rouses for the day.

6:30– My alarm finally goes off and I force myself not to fall back into my wild dreams.  I´m signed up to collect milk this morning (and show the new volunteer, Felix, where to do it), so I can´t drift back.  I throw off the four thick wool blankets and follow Pluma to the bathroom.

6:50– After leaving the two liters of fresh, still-warm milk to boil with Felix in the kitchen, I set back out in my rubber boots to feed the chickens and collect any eggs they´ve left over the weekend.  They are the same kind as our old chickens on Bell Avenue, and as I open the door to their run I´m bombarded by memories of leading Camus, Gloria, Rosey and Pollo around the back yard with a stalk of flowering broccoli.  They stare and cluck as I measure out their daily corn ration, chasing me to the feeder past verdant tufts of grass.  Something must be done to make them eat that grass.  The yolks just aren´t orange enough… but they´ll do.  Twenty eggs.

7:05– I retreat to my room for 20 minutes of yoga.  My mind switches back and forth between concentration ont eh stretches and everything there is to do on the farm.  The volunteer coordinator and de facto huerta manager, Fred, is in Guatemala this week doing a training in microbusiness, and he basically put me in charge of the garden while he´s away.  Yesterday I spent all morning flinging myself from bed to bed, feeling almost frantic about what needs doing.  Much of it is already planted, but the thought of manually preparing all the spent beds– hoe, deeply, in clay-mud, wheelbarrow compost and pumice, pitchfork it in, rake it out, shape the bed…– makes my back ache even more.  Ahhh, back to that stretch.  Temporary relief.

7:30– I emerge again for breakfast.  Today, since we´re one egg short of a full cubeta to sell in the afternoon, I go for oatmeal.  Mix water and milk, boil with oats, add salt, sugar, and cinnamon, and top with a couple of those famous ripe oritos.  No coffee for now, though I might buy some when we go to Intag later this week to pick up warm-weather produce from an allied farmer.  They have an association of organic farmers there, and they happen to produce the best quality café in the country.

7:50– Philip, another young German who´s here at FBU for a whole year (the gap year is paid for by the government if they choose social service like this), finally enters the kitchen.  I was about to go wake him up, since today is harvest day and, though I helped last week, he´s needed to direct the show.

8:00– I go out to ¨piddle around¨ until the others are ready.  I find one of the giant pigs with an hours-old litter of nine piglets, all dazzling and fluffy, stirring around her overfull teats.  One is laying, bare and soggy, ont he other side of the concrete pen.   It was stillborn, I learn later.  The rest look healthy and already plump.

8:20– We begin harvest.  Felix, Kirsten (another new German, a bit older and here for just a few weeks), and I set out to collect chard.  A sad crop, but we gather four bunches of ten leaves each, plus a pile of holey or old leaves for the cows.  Kirsten gets pulled out by Esteban, who runs the tree nursery, to help move 5000 saplings.  She wants to practice her Spanish anyway, right?

9:30– As we harvest, I can´t help jumping back to GTF last year.  The smell of lettuce butt as the ugly leaves fall to the ground.  How many times did it take me to make a presentable bunch of chard?  Delicate cauliflower leaves hugging the glistening head– almost coy.  And carrots: how I miss those power hoses on a muddy day.

10:00– Felix, Philip, and I finish the harvest: 4 chard, 2 celery, 10 head lettuce and 6 romaine, 14 beautiful broccoli, 8 cauliflower ranging from golf ball to plate-sized, a few tomate de arbol, 4 nice fennel, several zucchini, and a pile of stout carrots.  Last week we made about $15 selling to various restaurants and conscious individuals in Tabacundo and Cayambe.  Compared to Corvallis prices, our customers are some lucky SOBS.

10:20– I´m zig-zagging plastic string between two not-so-taut wires we´re just rigged for the sweet peas.  Poor things were flopping all over the place.  Despite the mud (and therefore kinda wiggly posts) and hand-tightened wire, I can already see the plants happier.  Two weeks from now the supports will be smothered, I reckon.

10:30– I sign out to make lunch.  Collect 6 or 7 loose heads of broccoli, a couple romaine, some neglected beets, arugula, and the carrots left over from Saturday´s sales on the Panamericana.  So much to do in the garden, but it feels good to walk away for now.

11:50– I´m ladling quinoa-broccoli-onion soup into the blender as people trickle in from work.  I want the soup to be cream of broccoli, so I do one more blender-full before carrying out the salad and boiled beets.  The soup is a successful experiment, chunky and creamy with a nice grainy texture thanks to the quinoa.  Lots of veggies for one meal, but I´m happy as a clam and relieved that everyone eats it without a fuss (… well, I´m the only one eating the beet greens…).

1:00– After cleaning the kitchen, taking the compost to the pigs, and collecting three more eggs to fill the cubeta, I need to lie down for a minute.  Nobody´s about to give me a hard time.  And besides, Valentine (the fourth German, here for a year) ends up reading and sleeping all afternoon instead of going to sell with the others.  It´s raining for the moment, though, so…

1:30– I´m back in the garden, somehow getting myself to hoe up a little bed where I want to transplant chard and onion.  After hauling compost and cascajo (the pumice), I´m only half disappointed to be forced under cover by the rain.  I retreat to start a project that´s been calling me since I first got here and spilled a handful of cabbage seeds while trying to find the rosemary packet.

2:00– The seed shed.  It´s a mess.   Filthy, like with rotting potatoes against one wall and a pile of semi-fresh cow shit right in the middle.  (Why, cow, here?!)  I get to work, piling and sorting what I can on the floor (boots, old milk jugs, animal medicines, bunched sheets…) before honing in on the seeds.  Most are in a plastic storage bin, but some are lying out in packets or cans, and even in the bin there´s exactly zero sense of organization.  After a half hour or so of sorting and deciphering hand-written labels, I´m standing in front of a shelf full of plastic cups: the Brassica, the lettuces, the onions, etc.  At the bottom of the bin, I find a big bag of soy beans and couple disintegrating baggies of purple corn.  And sunflower seeds!  I´m excited.

4:00– After a proper inventory with Felix and another six eggs collected from the henhouse, I sit down with a cup of German black tea and try to make sense– for the second time in a week– of what needs to get done in the huerta.  Seeds we have, seeds we need, starts ready to transplant… and to top it all off, what phase of moon we´re in.  Today´s the first quarter, so five days from now ill be perfect for seeding fruits, leaves, and bus crops.  Roots and some leaves are best left for once the moon is waning; the gravity shift pulls all sap and water (and blood, apparently!) downward, so roots develop faster.  Vice versa for fruits (sap and water pulled up by the waxing moon means greater production above ground)– but leaves like lettuce and arugula are a draw since we´d like big leaves but no flowers.  How much of a difference does this practice actually make?  Lots, according to the old volunteer coordinator and most farmers here.  I believe it, but for now I´ll worry more about getting anything to grow at all.

5:10– I´m running down toward Picalqui, the nearest village, and somehow I´ve dodged the rain.  It´s easy flying downhill, long as I don´t slip or trip over bumpy grass or cobblestone.  Once I hit the valley floor and begin to climb, I remember that I´m at almost 10,000 feet.  Huff.  But hey, it´s easier by the day.  To distract myself, I remember my mantra from running with Marco: ¨Fuerza fuerza no se para!¨ I wonder if I have a future in garden planning, and what adventures I´ll get up to with Maria in May.

7:00– As we eat mashed potatoes and frittata prepared by Felix, he and Valentine try to teach me some German.  They´re insisting that you can never write how someone speaks (like, ¨Gimme that¨ or ¨Nothin´to it!¨) in German.  Blasphemy, they say.  One day, perhaps I will understand.  For now, my English has gotten more clear and proper so they understand me, and I can never quite figure out whether I think and dream in Spanish or not.  Almenos un poco.

9:30– After writing all this, I go out to brush my teeth and am pleasantly surprised and amused that the whole house is dark.  We be tired.

… And now, after over a month in the Ecuadorian Amazon– a month of tranquil but intense learning, reflection, and healing– I am suddenly back in the urban jungle of Quito.  It feels a bit strange to say goodbye to the eastern lowlands, as I doubt I´ll return on this visit, but also exciting and invigorating to be moving on.  I feel, finally, ready to approach my travels here with a new attitude: one of flow, optimism, and release.  A beautiful word I learned a while back, suelta, encompasses this attitude (which I am still nurturing and which I will, I imagine, always have to cultivate since I tend to grasp hold of plans and goals).  It means to let go.

So I am letting go of a few things that have been holding me back in various ways, superficially and subconsciously.  First, the desire to ¨learn Spanish¨ has admittedly taken me to wonderful places and people and presented a firm base for my travels, always trying to seek out Spanish speakers and converse with whoever is around.  Fortunately, it´s brought me miles and miles beyond what linguistic skills I arrived with, but it´s also stood as an artificial block between me and other travelers who don´t speak much castillano.  I know I´ve been cold and rather closed to those people in comparison to Spanish speakers, even though they might have enriched my experiences beyond compare.  This goal, then, is settled as it stands.  I will obviously continue to speak mostly Spanish, but I´m letting go of language in favor of people.  Any people who brighten the way.

Also, my apparent need to feel productive, professionally, whatever that means, is purposefully slipping through the cracks.  I came here with motives to gain valuable career experiences, but what I´ve realized after my three volunteer stints is that even an official volunteer program doesn´t guarantee specific skills.  Rather, any volunteering simply provides opportunities to learn, informally for the most part, about myself, my interactions with others, and whatever task is at hand.  Instead of coming home with a particular resumé line, no matter what I do I`ll come refreshed and brimming with new experience.  So, rather than worrying another minute about finding the perfect organization or farm to work for, I´m hoping to just soak it all in, whatever it happens to be, attentively and energetically.

That´s what´s been going on in my head the past week or so.

And what have I been doing?  I found Saraswati through a couple friends near Marco´s farm, and headed up to Tena last Thursday to check it out and volunteer.  The family that owns the farm is an English-Colombian couple with a young son, and since they own an English language institute in Tena they were often absent from the finca itself.  However, the husband Benjamin sleeps there and every morning he and his two helpers, Parsad and Pablo, practice bhakti yoga, which entails chanting Hare Krishna, mantras, reading holy books, playing soft instruments at 5:30.  After an hour of wafting back and forth from sleep, I would awake every morning to practice yoga postures with Pablo.  Early, but if you know me you know I loved it.  As for work, I went to help at the school on Friday and Sunday, playing and saying random English words to the 2 and 3 year-olds that come every morning, and on Tuesday we all planted some trees and made cane juice.  Unfortunately I have to cut this short, but if you´re interested in hearing more about the Hare Krishna culture and traditions, which are all fascinating and rare, I would love to share more.  All my love.

Sideways making cane juice in the hand-crank mill.

I learned how to bleed a chicken before breakfast on Friday.  I was hungry and sleepy when Marco stalked off to the hen-house, his wife Maria shaking her head and smiling, and I quickly slipped my sandals on to follow him when he returned with a half-dead, shaking black chicken.  He´d already broken it´s thin, straggly neck, and we knelt behind the bathroom to let out its blood.  A quick nick under the beak, hold the spastic body tight under a bag until the spurting stops, shake firmly, and we´re ready for breakfast.

No, we didn´t eat the chicken for breakfast.  We had bolón instead, a dish that´s fast becoming a staple in my life: boiled and mashed plátano, papa china, or, this morning, green oritos (those deliciously sweet mini bananas), mixed with onion and tomato and topped with cheese or a fried egg.  Along with a cup of steamy, panela– (raw sugar) and café- infused milk that a woman drops off every couple days on her way back from her cows, any combination of jungle food gets me going in the morning.

Boiled papa china

Fresh oritos, which we´ll cook like plantains until they ripen into mini bananas

Take this morning.  I went for a run as the sun rose over the eastern lowlands, doused myself thoroughly in the chorro (a small stream a few minutes from the house that´s been crafted into a flowing ¨shower¨), and plucked a few tender yuca leaves on my way back from the stream.  Since Marco went to town with his wife for groceries, it was the first breakfast I´ve made alone since I arrived, and oh boy was I pleased with myself.  Steam-fried papa chinas with a few oritos and onion, topped with yuca leaves and cheese, a fried egg, and a steamy cup of sweet coffee.  For lunch I made practically the same, though less gourmet: boiled oritos in their peels (they slip out easily once they´re cooked) with an egg and a healthy dose of ají sauce to spice it up.

If you really are what you eat, I am quickly becoming this finca.  Even the selva is making its way into my bones.

Plato de oja, eating lunch in the forest during our leaf-harvest

On Thursday, we set out with María (Marco´s wife) and a group of gringos staying at a farm near her house to collect more paja (leaves) for the thatch roofs.  We had already brought home 6 bundles (negotiated at $3 each since it´s ¨u-pick¨) on Wednesday, each containing over 100 of these giant tojilla leaves, and we only needed two more.  While Marco and María chopped the leaves down from their lofty stalks, I and the others took them up and with both hands split each leaf down the middle, sorting the sides and keeping a loose, generous count for the new bundles.  It´s fun, sticky work, and I managed to see dozens of new flies, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other bichos of dazzling colors and shapes.  With 12 hands, we finished quickly, left the bundles on the side of the road, and started walking further adentro the forest.

The rest of the day was a moving feast in the forest, nibbling here and there on various fruits and seeds.  María has a plot of land on her sister´s property with plantains and bananas, but when we went to collect them we found that they had all, tragically, been eaten by monkeys and wantas.  With empty hands (well, except a couple stalks of sugar cane to gnaw), we moved back to the road, to the strip of land owned by the farm where the other gringos volunteer.  The owner had constructed a hut up further into the forest, so we made our way to it, slowly at first gathering guayaba (what we call guava, I think) and delicious guava (a huge green pod dangling from the trees full of fuzzy white fruit), then quickly as a strong rain shower easily soaked us.  We waited out the last half of the shower in the hut, but restlessly ventured out again once it abated.  Marco wanted to check on the paso trees nearby, which were mostly unripe– the only ripe one we found has a bright orange inner peel and tasted nutty, slightly sweet.  The fog that had rolled in blocked any view we may have found, so we climbed and slipped our way back down toward the road.  And suddenly a crazed squawking and flapping caught us for another stop in that brimming jungle: we´d surprised a pava, a type of small, turkey-like bird that roams the treetops and some days acts as a flawless alarm clock, that was chomping on seeds high up in a tree by our path.  The seeds, called cundshaya (pronounced cunjaya in my mind), look like dark olives and happen to be a favorite treat for people who know them.  Call him fearless or foolhardy, Marco didn´t hesitate to climb the tree trunk (without branches for the first 6 meters) and begin harvesting the seed bunches as María and I scampered about, collecting seeds, fending off angry ants, and dodging the heavy bunches that Marco tossed down.  In the end we almost filled his small backpack, and we´ve been snacking on them, after a quick soak in tepid water, ever since.  The bitter, dark skins are supposed to heal kidney infections.  At the very least, I can tell by their taste and color that they´re full of nutrients and healthful chemicals.

I´m getting hungry with all this talk of comida.  It´s a half-hour bus ride back to the farm, so I might buy an ice cream (what a treat here!) or roll to hold me over until I can cook some real hearty jungle food.  When I leave in two weeks, I can tell that my tissues will sorely miss their daily dose of Amazonian finca.

At five thirty in the morning, I can´t see the dirt on my pants as I pull them on, slowly.  I can´t tell how dark my eyes are, or how rustled my hair is after a night under thick wool blankets.  I hear a pig squeal, dogs bark, and the sky tentatively gives way to the rising sun.  I step gingerly into my rubber boots as the house dogs launch themselves up to my knees, then make my way to the stable, careful to duck under clothes lines and cedar limbs.  Hilario, one of the two foremen who live on the farm with their families (eleven children running wild every afternoon), meets me at the barn with his nine-year-old son, Manolo.  On Thursday, he wears a neon pink scarf above his gray sweater to stave off the early chill.  Very stylish.

Manolo and I trod up to the upper field where the cows are still laying in the dawn.  We circle round each of them, hissing and clapping to rouse their massive bodies until every one but Abuela has risen.  One by one, clunky and stubborn, they make their way down to the low paddock as we whack their bony hips and jump around to keep them from backtracking.  There are about twelve cows in all, but we only let four pass through the barbed wire gate to the milking shed.  It collapses as I pull the first pole out of the ground, hand-cut branches falling amid the curly wire.  Abuela and Fortuna trot ahead of the other two milkers.  They each know where to go and calmly prod their necks through the grates in the feeding line, eager to munch on a loose stack of fresh alfalfa and apathetic toward their captivity once they begin chewing. 

Manolo throws damp, filthy nylon cord around the first cow´s hind feet and tail, pulling it tight so that she can´t kick us as we crouch at her utter.  We splash her teats with water, wipe them with an equally filthy rag, and settle into our haunches on either side of her bulging, pregnant waist.  The first splashes of milk piddle out from my side as Manolo sends loud jets into the balde.  The first few times I milked were like that the whole time, with Manolo finding cups more milk on my side after I had tired.  This morning, though, after a few weak splashes, I begin to find a rhythm.  I knew to hold the teat with my fingers at its center rather than wrapped fully round, and I could feel the steady downward flow of milk under my grasp.  Hilario and Manolo have been doing this twice every day for two years, and their hands move fluidly, fingers waving the milk down the teat and into a strong, thick jet that bounces and froths in the bucket below.  My technique is still amateur, but this dawn I finally feel what they do: the insistent, regenerative pulse of milk under my fingers. 

I quickly pull the bucket aside as the cow stomps her back feet and wails, inevitably freeing herself from the tether.  She´s looking back at me with wide black eyes.  Does this hurt her?  Is it anything like the sucking of her calf?  Manolo ties her legs again and kneels to let out the last of the milk.  His hands tug almost violently over the last spurting milk, and I inhale the scent of cream and shit wafting through the shed.  Hilario flips the light off for the expanding daylight.  Eight liters from the first.  We´ll get twenty-six altogether this morning, giving a liter or two to each family and the volunteers and selling the rest at thirty-five cents a liter. 

I stand, clenching and unclenching my sore fists, looking forward to the moment when I stir instant coffee granules into this milk, boiling and frothy, and watch a spoonful of sugar dissolve into its creamy, shit-laced sabor.