Archives for posts with tag: work

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.

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.

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.