Archives for category: outdoors

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.

 

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.

Every morning, I wake to the sounds of dozens of birds and bugs and breezes, frantic and excited for another day of sun and rain.  I lift the mosquito net over my head, just enough to peer out the window into Armando’s plot of land, bursting with greens and changing every second as the early light grows and shifts.  There’s one tree back there whose trunk is covered in a creeper with round, neon little leaves.  The other day I was up to grab my book and spotted a Motmot in that tree, relatively still and silent with its brilliant blue tail hanging nonchalantly toward me.  I could hardly contain myself, searching for the binoculars without taking my eyes of that tail, sure that it would fly away just as I opened the case… but it stayed, just hopping up a few branches as I gawked from the open-air bathroom.

Why does nature express itself so creatively, so exuberantly, here in this particular place?  Sure, it could simply be a matter of humidity and heat, of eons of evolution and careful conservation efforts in recent years.  Who knows, it could even be that some divine being decided to bless these hills and valleys with its most inspired designs.  These days, though, I can’t shake the idea from my mind that there’s some sort of magic in the mix.  The glitter and flap of iridescent blue butterflies sweeps me into a world where magia becomes possible–even necessary.

This morning we dragged ourselves out into the sunrise, high above Mindo and past where the canopy tours run, to search for some of the thousands of bird species that grace this forest.  I had been out once before, alone, and saw dozens of gorgeous species, few of which I could identify.  Though everything is enthralling with or without a name, I was happy to have Armando pointing out bird calls and differences between males and females and subspecies along the way.  Of course the small lemon tanager males are more brilliant than the females, with blindingly yellow streaks under their jet-black wings; songbird sexes are always relatively easy to tell apart.  The toucans are harder.  There are not only males and females, but also at least three species that we saw– one with a distinct, red-spotted chest and two that look the same to my untrained eyes.  They were chatting and singing to one another across the gravel road, high in the trees but easy to spot, cocking their heads and preening their feathers.  Occasionally one would stretch its black wings out, feather tips silhouetted neatly against the sky, and glide silently to another branch.  Whether they were chasing each other, joking or teasing or crying longingly for a mate, I am left wondering.  How do they choose whom to love?  I find it hard to believe it´s simply a matter of the biggest beak or loveliest cackle.

But what do I know about toucan love?

Then there were the quetzals, stunningly sparkling and marine-colored.  They are normally scarce and certainly difficult to see perched in camouflage against the canopy, but today we saw at least three pairs, chasing one another and hunting for insects in the wide-open ravines that lead down to the Rio Mindo.  I surely would have missed them had I been alone, but Armando patiently pointed out each one and we stood in awe as their red tails flashed in and out of sight.  Instead of singing, sometimes they just laugh like hyenas, like they´ve got some secret I´d be a fool to guess at.

¨Qué más quieres ver?¨ asked Armando after we’d marvelled some time over toucans and quetzals, the two most magnificent, ¨exotic¨ birds to my eyes.  A hawk, a woodpecker, an eagle?

And just past the next curve, he shushed me over to look up at a branch hanging over the road, dripping with epiphytes: a hawk, silent and serious, glaring over the valley below.  He (she?) then starting calling, slowly and softly at first, almost gently, then crescendoing steadily into a wild war cry.  As it let out the last deafening pulse, it opened its wings and dropped away around the curve, out of sight.

As the sun finally crept over the canopy and my stomach started growling, I didn’t need to know much more.  That this place is perpetually happening, that its life force cycles in every direction, up and through every [damned] mosquito and [steadfast] hawk, every day of the year, doesn´t require that I know about it.  The fact that I can, just a bit… magic.

-Monday, May 2

It was well past nightfall, raining off and on and freezing.  Hanes, my new friend from the FBU farm and weekend travel companion, turned to me: ¨I think it´s better that we can´t see much,¨ pointing down– down— to some tungsten lights in the valley below where our bus swerved and braked, jolted and rumbled from Latacunga to Zumbahua.  By now, the combination of hair-raising curves and inexact drivers doesn´t make me flinch, too hard.  I laid my head back again, dozing despite the cramped seat and line of locals murmuring in the aisle beside me.

When we arrived at Zumbahua, a small but vibrant community along the windy road to Quevedo in the lowlands, a young man immediately offered a cabinet to Quilotoa.  Gee whiz, we thinking we´d call it a day (early rise and harvest at FBU, Easter lunch of fanesca bean soup, and six hours of transit already), but… might as well catch a ride when it´s handed to you, right?  Unsure of how long we´d be shivering on the little board in the back of the camioneta, Hanes retrieved her sleeping bag and we huddled closer with another young woman at our side, swinging back and forth at every hairpin curve.  Zumbahua´s lights slowly disappeared as I noticed the shadows of the antiplano peaks against faint stars.  It had cleared, finally.  At long last, I was arriving at Laguna Quilotoa, a place I´ve dreamed about for months: high, thin air, chilly breezes, views of Mount Cotopaxi and rolling green fields below… and of course, the lake.  My sleepiness slipped away, and even before I laid eyes on Laguna Quilotoa, I felt more alive, bristling and giddy with anticipation.

Just look…

Sunrise over Laguna Quilotoa, with the twin Iliniza mountains in the distance.

Early morning, completely blown away by this place.  It looks similar to Oregon´s Crater Lake, but the trail around the rim is only 7.5 miles (compared to 35 miles).

The colors of the water shifted throughout the morning, from deep blue to bright turquoise and pale yellow near the edges.

Me and Hanes above the town, jolly and energized by the views and sun.  She spoke of how badly she wished her relatives could be there with us.  I can´t think of one person I know that wouldn´t love it.

Looking west where the clouds cleared for short glimpses of jagged hills.

The entire rim was llena with wildflowers: purple lupines, yellow columbines, bright pink bells, and even Indian paintbrush.  The alpine plains are livelier and more colorful than you might think.

Giddy after the biggest climb, looking south-east toward Latacunga.  Mind you, the town of Quilotoa is at 3850 meters, so we were huffing it at over 12,000 feet for parts of the hike.  My legs still ached a bit from the Quito-Mindo hike, but my lungs felt great.

About 2/3 around the lake, it started to fog over, rain, and even hail on us.  I hardly minded the frozen fingers and wet feet as we crossed paths with alpacas, lambs, and locals yelling in Kichwa about an impending mudslide we had to cross.  By far, one of the highlights of my time in Ecuador.

I walked more than a marathon yesterday, loaded with a pack, through mud and across streams, to return to Mindo from Quito.  Now every time I move my legs I’m reminded of the journey.  But it feels good.

I went to visit Armando again on Saturday, and after a couple days of hanging out with the beach bunch, we got it together to do the walk he´d mentioned many a time.  It actually runs from a small suburb south of Quito, called Lloa, and follows the Rio Blanco, which then joins with others to become Rio Cinto, past Volcán Pichincha and the thickening cloud forest reserve called Mindo-Nambillo.  Juanita, a friend who lives in Quito and expressed interest last time we talked about it, joined us in the afternoon, and we were walking by 4 pm.  With only two hours of daylight on Monday, we made it perhaps 8 kilometers in before night fell and it started to rain.

My feet were already aching from the rubber boots I´d bought for the trek.  We quickly set up our tents and huddled together to feast on some pork fritada, mote (hominy), papas, and sweet plantains we´d bought in Lloa.  The mosquitos were swarming our flashlight, just a thin netting between us and agony.  Although the rain continued off and on throughout the night and I woke up dozens of times to get more comfortable, we awoke dry and well-rested.  Miraculous.

For breakfast, I had the first bite of peanut butter since I left the states three and a half months ago.  Bread, banana, brown sugar.  Juanita was in love instantly (she lived in Houston for most of her life, though– how could she have missed banana-PB combo?) and was dreaming of those sandwiches for the rest of the day.

So, here´s the math: we started walking at 7:30 am.  Stopped at 9:45 for about a half hour to eat tuna and avocado (and a lot more).  Got slowed down at one point to scale a small, root-entwined cliff where the path had been swept away by the shifting Rio Cinto.  A couple pauses to take photos, gather water from little streams, or pop some toasted fava beans.  Stopped again at about 3:30 to eat, by then brain-dead, wobbly, and slap-happy.  Got picked up, joyous!, by a truck at 5:00 pm, just 4 km from Mindo.  All in all, we walked about 45 km (28ish miles) in 8-9 hours.  Not bad, eh?

Armando helping Juanita across one of the many streams.  She brought hiking shoes instead of rubber boots, but she quickly gave up on trying to stay dry and clean and ended up covered up to her shins.  Tough gal.

What with the distance still to travel, the sharp pains in my toes and feet, and the impossibly mucky, rocky terrain to concentrate on, I surely missed the majority of the scenery– not to mention the record diversity of plants and animals.  That said, I´m walking with some gems: the morning sun gilding epiphyte-covered guava trees, a section in pura selva that felt akin to the Old Growth Trail in Corvallis, gigantic heart-shaped leaves and hordes of yellow-beaked toucans and green parrots squawking over the way north.

Armando and I were cracking up all evening as we tried to hobble our way back to the house.  I went down for a 10-minute nap at 7 pm and ended up eating dinner when I woke, groggy, three hours later.  Even though we´re fit and strong, I guess walking a marathon with an extra 20 pounds requires a wee bit more training.