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Good evening!

It’s been two months since I transferred my blog to Hammer & Soil, and many of you have started following this WordPress blog in the meantime… so this message is long overdue.
I’ve continued to write a post on my new blog site every day that I’ve worked at the Youth Farm, plus a couple extras thrown to review a book and highlight some herbs I love.  We’ve seen the nursery fill to the brim, be emptied by our spring plant sale, and start to fill back up again.  We’ve harvested most of the overwintered crops, started planting out in the fields, and have welcomed new staff, interns, and volunteers every week this spring.  I’ve had my share of successes and mistakes so far this year, with many more yet to come.  In the digital world, I’ve also made a page about my herbal adventures with Wild Heart Botanicals and started a collection of resources related to farming and food systems.
This weekend, I made the mistake of erasing a complete post before I published it.  As if farming and educating isn’t a big enough learning process, writing a blog and managing a whole website has presented its own set of lessons.  Knowing that other people are interested in the adventure really helps keep me writing, so thank you for signing up to follow The Shape of Milk!  Please help keep the momentum going by visiting and following Hammer & Soil (link to get email updates is on the home page and side bar of the blog), telling your friends, liking and commenting on my entries, and sharing the page on social media (all of which you can do easily with some buttons at the bottom of each entry).
While the entries keep flowing almost daily, I’m no longer synching or updating this WordPress site, so please find me on Hammer and Soil.
With love,
Michaela
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If you’ve been reading this regularly, or just happened upon it, I have some news!

This blog, all my future posts, and extra pages (including my adventures in herbal medicine) can now be found at Hammer & Soil.

Hope to see you there!

Michaela

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.

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.

 

Environmental and Food Justice Blog

This blog posts an astounding amount of articles and news links on a regular basis.  Something for us to stay connected with! 

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.

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.

I said goodbye to the new family I´ve found in the jungle yesterday.  Marco left in the morning to conduct a malicagua ceremony for a visitor, and Maria and I cried into each other´s arms for a few minutes in the living room.  I will carry the best of memories from Quindi Pakcha, the Waterfall of the Hummingbirds: ever-riveting conversation and stories from Marco, heaps of organic home-grown food, sprinkling corn and collecting pasture grass for the birds and guinea pigs, and even hearing the many stories of suffering and challenge from the extended family.  I left feeling enriched.

My last week there, we managed to finish one project that I helped fund with a generous donation from a friend.  We painted the main gate a bright turquoise, sanded several wavy boards of acha caspi wood, and painted them into beautiful, welcoming signs for the entryway.  A taste…

Yes I painted all the black lettering!

Marco and Danny, the other volunteer from Canada that came two weeks ago.

Finished!  (Minus some vines painted on the posts)

Con María.

 

And now, I´ve arrived anew.  Just a couple hours north of Puyo lies the town of Tena, another busy industrial town that´s turned heavily toward tourism in recent years.  Well, in Tena proper the main attraction is rafting, but I´m already overwhelmed by the number of indigenous, community-based tourism projects lie deeper in the jungle nearby.  It´s impressive, and encouraging, to see so many communities taking the future into their own hands.

The place where I´ll stay this week is a bit different, though.  It´s called Saraswati, and it´s a finca run by an English-Colombian couple and two young men that all practice Hari Krishna.  They are vegetarian, make food offerings before each meal, and practice bhakti (devotional) yoga every morning at 5:30, followed by ¨regular¨ yoga that I´m excited to join.  Their property is spectacular, with very well-tended papaya, cacao, sugar cane, banana, and many other typical plants.  I am looking forward to a calm, purposeful week of learning and seeking.

I hope you´re all well!

I`ve started making a lot of my own food because I like to cook and it`s usually a lot cheaper than eating out.  So far my staples are eggs, tomato, garlic, bread, and cheese.  By cheese, I mean an intensely salty, sponge-like, tangy white block that I buy in little plastic bags from the nearest tienda.  Most non-Ecuadorians I´ve met scoff at the stuff, but for reasons I can`t pin down– as with instant coffee and super-processed sugar cookies– I love it.

I also love camarones al ajillo, a dish that`s common even in the hills but that shines on the coast.  It´s a pile of rice, a little ensalada of tomatoes and onions or lettuce, and a steamy helping of baby shrimp swimming in garlic sauce.  Preferably and usually, as with most dishes on the coast, it`s served with several patacones: green plantains fried, smashed into distinct little patties, and fried again.  Con sal, limòn, y un gote de ajì… (Very unfortunately, this computer isn`t letting me upload a photo of said dish.  Màs tarde.)

While I was living at the farm, I had the good fortune to eat dinner with two different Ecuadorian families.  First, our co-worker and manager of the tree nursery, Esteban, invited all twelve volunteers to his home one Thursday evening.  While we toured his parent`s gardens (they make their living from selling whatever produce they don`t use at home– they also cultivate outdoor flowers to sell, rather than the green-housed and chemical-laden roses that the region supplies to the world market), his mother and adorable grandmother prepared a feast of mote (looks like hominy), rice, papas from the garden, and home-raised roasted chicken topped with fresh ajì and tomato salad.  I was worried when Esteban didn`t come to sit with us, instead eating in the doorway, but later found that it`s costumary for the hosts to eat last and constantly attend to guests rather than sitting with them.

Just a couple days later, Edwin, who has been involved with the Fundación for years and continues to help by giving lessons to the volunteers and driving us around to sell produce in the towns nearby, invited us to his daughter Micaela´s nineth birthday party.  Only four of us made it, but it ended up being one of the most fun afternoons I`ve had here.  We sat and chatted with juice for the first hour or so, and then moved into the garage to all sit around a bigger table.  There was Edwin and his wife Maggie, their two young daughters, me and three other volunteers, the volunteer coordinator and his lady friend, three neighbor kids, and Edwin`s sister and her 19-year-old daughter, also Micaela.  After singing Happy Birthday in a few languages and munching down dense slices of banana cake, we went outside to play.  Cat and mouse, musical chairs, a couple of team competitions, egg tossing, and lots of cracking up brought us to dinner time: roasted rabbit from Edwin`s farm with papas.  I hadn`t expected to stay the whole evening, but after dinner we continued to play and hang out, and once night fell we came inside to learn some salsa dancing.  I was exhausted by the time Edwin drove us all back to the farm at 10 pm, full and impressed by such unabashed hospitality.