keeping our heads above water in the deluge

after the storm

farm, farming, wetland, flooded veggiesflooded veggies, farm, farmingwet carrots, flooded veggies, farm, farmingbattered beetsfield of greenssurvived!This weekend, our little neck of the woods was visited by three storm systems that brought with them some “unseasonable” amounts of rain, pretty high, unfriendly winds, and a quick and somewhat depressing end to my just begun love affair with the new season of autumn. I felt cheated.

Because even though the Pacific Northwest is known for being a wet place and all, our late Septembers and Octobers really are usually quite beautiful, with a fair share of beautiful, sunny, crisp, fall-like days.  Sure, there are rainy days in the mix, too, but we don’t usually feel inundated until much later in this precious season.  And so earlier last week, when I had finished the wild and overloaded part of this year’s tomato harvest, and the shorter day length started to make for shorter work days, I found myself breathing deeply into this sweet time of the year, ready to relax. So much less hectic, but still so abundant.

I was already revelling in these changes of schedule, of harvests. I love the beginning of each new season so equally, I have to call them all my favorite.  My taste buds were singing, happy and excited for the new foods on our plates.  Our meals were a perfect combination of the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.  Arugula, lemon cucumber, and colorful mixed cherry tomato salads with balsamic vinaigrette.  Roasted zucchini and sweet red pepper tossed with turnip green pesto.  Kale, glorious, delicious kale, back from a summer’s hiatus and cooked into stews with beets and the last of the tomatoes, the sweet, paste varieties. I had even gotten to a little fall house cleaning and the kids were all working their way into our homeschooling groove.  It felt perfect.

And all in all, this whole year has been pretty perfect.  Especially on the farm. Busy, yes, and a bit of a scramble on the labor front as I realized about halfway through the year that “the farmer” wasn’t joking when he said I needed to take over the farm business for him while he expanded his woodworking one.  But the weather!  The weather this year was perfect.  If you have followed along with us for long or been part of our farm community in real life, you know that the weather has not been so perfect these last couple of years.  And so, this–this was wonderful.  So wonderful  I even mentioned earlier this year that I thought it was a little gift to us from the universe, a nice, soothing balm for our farming wounds from the year before.

And it really has been.  But as I took notes and made plans for next season, I tried to remind myself that I can’t really expect anything, at all, from the weather or a growing season.  Especially not perfect.

As farmers, we tend to take the most immediate data and apply it first to the coming year.  It is assumed, and generally true, that the issues that have come up in prior years have already been addressed, and so each year we tweak things a little with the added layer of knowledge the previous growing season has given us.  We can’t always plan for things we can’t conceive of, but those we have seen and dealt with, we generally will always plan for, even if they never happen again.  The question that kept coming up for me was how to adjust plans after a great year when you know you can’t plan on another such year again? And I wondered, is that a good way to live, to not count on the perfect year?  Where was my faith, my trust?

The truth is that each year, perhaps besides our very first, has always been as good and bad as it could be, perfect in its own imperfect way. And maybe I cursed us without knowing it, as I thought about all of this, but I don’t think so.  I do tend to go forward, believing.  And I really was sure that this season would end as perfectly as it began, until this weekend’s weather changed that, pretty dramatically.  All that “unseasonable” rain led to part of our growing space that was still in production going under water.  “Surprise, surprise”, the world seemed to say, because even if we know that our lower field, a seasonal wetland, is destined to go under water every fall with crops still in it, and even though we know that no matter when this happens, it never feels good, we also felt like we knew the general time frame to expect this to happen, which was nowhere close to this early!

But it did, and it is kind of terrible, but it is kind of okay too.  Those things we have learned already, from other seasons, had led us to plant our rows in this field in a manner that let the water move away from the vegetables as much as possible, and this meant that at first, especially, the water didn’t pool where crops were planted–a good thing!  And this year, we had a separate field for our fall greens that we had observed would stay dry longer than other spaces, and this field, my field of greens, stayed dry and harvest-able–so, so good!  The crops in the field that did, eventually, get too wet in the end, were summer crops we could say good-bye too, like zucchini and pickling cucumbers, or crops we could store, like carrots and beets and our winter squash planting.  It took more work than I imagined it would to harvest them all at once, but I did, and now they are out of the water and ready to store for the next few months as we finish out our CSA and market harvests for the year.  All good!

Not a perfect, happily ever after ending, but a perfectly okay ending, this storm proved to be.

And that is kind of my favorite secret of being grown up, anyway.  The knowledge that happily ever after isn’t perfect like we may have imagined it would be in our limited, juvenile experiences.  That it isn’t always smooth sailing or just right conditions that will make us happy.  But, rather that it is vastly more perfect for being messy and hard.  That growing, sometimes on our own, sometimes together, but always, growing, is the important part, not any particular outcome or expectation we may have once put our faith in.  And that, truly, in all times, good and bad, it is, life, important and wonderful, for what it is, our life.

This weekend’s deluge was just another interesting part of our story, something to experience with both dread and then gratitude, something to laugh about for its absurdity, to learn from in small and big ways.  My children love having water to splash in and their adventurous, happy take on things reminded me to lighten up.  And as for growth, yesterday, in rain gear and water past my ankles, bringing in those storage crops, I experienced perhaps the hardest day of work I’ve had out there in those fields this year.  And it left me feeling sore and tired, but it also left me feeling wildly alive.

And in that moment yesterday, I felt such a deep connection to that land, deeper than I have even felt from living here on it for seven years and helping Andre run the farm business on it for six years, and even more than I have from seeing it deeply with my writer’s eyes and loving it greatly with my big, old heart.  This year of really working hard with it, this soil and land, has tied me to it even more.  It is powerful stuff.  I felt schooled, in the best possible way.

And so today, even though some of us in this household, including myself, are under the weather after so much weather this weekend, I still feel great.  The sun is shining, I do believe we will still have plenty of lovely autumn days to come. And I do think I may just be able to relax, proper like, beside the first fire of the season, soon. And tonight for dinner, maybe we will dip into our first acorn squash too.  Both have not quite been necessary yet, but both will serve to kind of rekindle the love affair I do still want to have with this time of year after our somewhat stormy start.

And I’ll let this weekend’s deluge drain away down my back, smooth and easy, so that I can move forward without too much weight to carry, while I simultaneously keep it flooded in my veins, as all good parts of our story are, perfectly imperfect as that may be.

finding balance: wild cultivations

backberries, hemlock, weeds, farmthistle blooms, weeds, farm, thistlesamaranth, weeds, farmbindweed, morning glory, weeds, farmdock, weeds, farmlamb's quarter, weeds, edible weeds, farmThis week, in the back of my mushy brain, hot from long hours in warm weather weeding, weeding, weeding, this was my recurring thought, “why not go into the edible/medicinal weed business????”

I mean, seriously, these plants GROW! They clearly are the top in their class and need no help from us to flourish.

And not only are they really the best at growing vigorously, they are the best at harnessing nutrients and making them available to us. That whole thing about the narrowing of our food system to those forty or so vegetables you will find at our market booth or at the supermarket brings with it a two-fold problem, the first being this limited variety of foods we now eat.  But the other, more serious problem is that in the process of really cultivating these certain crops from spindly, wild, weeds into the nice, big, tasty vegetables we eat today, we lost, in comparison, the amount of nutrition we get from doing the right thing and eating all of our veggies.

I, for one, don’t get too hung up on this.  The fact is, we are where we are in history, and we can’t go back, we can only go forward.  That is what we try to do here on the farm.  And I also know from our own experience that not all of the wild edibles we have played around with eating can qualify as much more than survival food.  They just aren’t that exciting.  Still, I appreciate the wisdom of “weeds”, and have come to love and use many of them for both their taste and their nutritive/healing properties.  That strong, earthy taste you get from nettles and lamb’s quarters (bottom photo) is the taste, literally, of earth.  Those plants are just made of minerals.

And much like the vegetables we grow, which I see as both the best tasting foods for our plates and as important elements of our heath and well-being (hello my delicious daily vitamins!), some weeds are like this times one hundred.

Take the weeds I put in a jar of vinegar many weeks ago, to have on hand as a potent calcium supplement.  Most of these things I was weeding out of my landscape beds already, like yellow dock, plantain, red clover, dandelion, and burdock.  Others were from my herb garden, all of them planted last fall, so just itching to be put to use–Japanese mugwort, comfrey, wormwood.  I threw in some raspberry leaf.  I was given the idea by a friend, and it seemed like such a good use for these plentiful plants.

What ended up as a surprise, though, was that this vinegar, which I made to use medicinally ended up tasting amazing.  It is absolutely delicious.   We use it to make all of our salad dressings now.  Who knew, right?!

So as I weeded the seemingly monstrous invasion of some kind of amaranth in a section of one our fields this week, my joke was that the weed business was, truly, the business to be in.  And joke, though it was, we are almost ready to harvest one of the only other wild edibles besides nettles that we bring to market next week, its relative, lamb’s quarters.  It is, right now, a love/hate relationship.

Still, this subject has always fascinated me.  One of our goals on this farm is to nourish our land so that it can produce the most nourishing food possible.  But that the wild edible plants–the weeds–will always have be more nourishing fascinates me.  It also, thankfully, gives me a chance to pause and appreciate that in this somewhat constant glitch in of our system, the weeds, I can see the amazing beauty and design that is the natural world.  It reminds me that we, as land stewards and sustainable farmers, can utilize and mimic it, even if it is something we can’t fully recreate.

Because, in the end, we weeded like crazy this week.  We have our own agenda, and as pretty as those bindweed flowers are, that we have let them bloom is not great.  That they are climbing up our sweet, modern apple trees is not great.  They are not welcome here, on this farm.  At least in our fields.

And the agricultural mind has to feel this way, has to do this, even if we, on this farm, aim more for balance than anything.   The shifting and shaping of things towards our will is a part of farming.  We are amplifying what we what from any given piece of land, in terms of yield, by a lot.  We are doing the dictating.

So, some weeds, yes, we will take and use.  This is an area that I really do want to learn as much as I can about.  But, good lord, some of these weeds, though I appreciate them for their tenacity, their demise is the first thing I think about when I wake up.  There is much weeding to be done, always, at this time of year.  We have to work more than it seems like we have time to right now to get where we need to be.

But soon, the tiny plants we’ve put in the ground will be the vigorously growing ones, blooming.  And then, producing, wildly!  That they need a little help from us now is just part of the bargain we’ve struck with them.  The agreement of cultivation.  Of growing food.  And this has its own sense of beauty and design, even if its one best kept to by some really hard work on our part.  We keep our end of the bargain sewed to the seams of our dirty pants, our well worn, tired, and exhausted bodies, and our scratched and soar hands.  It evens out in the end, and I think this approach is a good balance for our times.  It’s our kind of growing wild.

Like the lichen

teachers

forest floor

gummy fungus

lichen

Yesterday, as is my favorite way to do, we spent the morning out in the woods with a sweet group of kids we share some cooperative homeschooling time with.  The children did a small bit of collecting and identifying, but we also just let them be free in the woods without a lot of heavy handed instruction, because that is pretty important too.  They ran and explored and enjoyed themselves so much.  That kind of joy doesn’t always translate to a fascination with the what and why of lichens or the function of fungus in the forest, but that is okay.  I always try not to push that part of it anyways, I really believe (and constantly experience) that children learn an awful lot by osmosis.

But that doesn’t mean that I personally wasn’t enthralled with just that as we walked yesterday.  Depending on the time of year and the mood of the person, there is always something to learn out there in the wild.  Everywhere I looked yesterday there were so many different kinds of mushroom–from the standard fare to the most teeny tiny things to blobs of orange goo–and so many beautiful and intriguing lichens.  I was caught up with thoughts of all those mushroom so quietly regenerating that space we roamed.  And all that lichen, mysterious works of art each with a story to tell about how fresh the air was that I was breathing or about the medicine I could make from them if instead I was having trouble breathing.  Amazing.

And the whole thing got me thinking about something I was already thinking a lot about–the process of breaking down the old and dead parts of ourselves, the process of personal regeneration.  My forest looks a lot like those winter woods right now.  A lot of what is growing is helping me decompose my own broken branches, providing fodder for new growth.  It feels silly, in many ways, to talk about; but god, it feels good.

Who knew (even though we should know) that we keep going through this process our whole lives?

It only makes sense, looking closely.  In all things, aren’t we mirrors of it all?  Mirrors of nature, mirrors of each other.  Mimesis, that great Greek word, has been argued by some to make for a lesser version of things, a lesser authenticity, but I see it as the parallel expression, over and over again, of all that is in this world, inside of us.

In our art, in our lives as they unfold, in the small ecosystem transpiring on the forest floor, in the large world of our heart.

There is something breath-y about the way lichen hang from trees.  Did you know that each lichen is both fungus and algae?  I didn’t until yesterday, my own exploration of the field guide answered that question.   Two organisms living as one.

We are much the same.  When our lives are balanced just so, we grow.  We re-present, like the lichen in nature, that all is well in this world.

Looking for spring

Today was so brilliant!  It was decidedly sunny and that sun felt so good.  The kids and I spent nearly all day outside.   We started out there this morning with songs and times tables, and after a quick trip inside to do some writing, we happily returned out of doors for picnics and stories and card games.  And although we didn’t do much in the way of farm work (the kids and I that is…the farmer was harvesting for Saturday market), we did make it out to the fields for an adventure.  After lunch, my daughter announced that we needed to go on a walk and find “spring” stuff to bring inside to decorate with, and it seemed just the thing to do–it felt so spring-like out there!

Of course in reality we are still just making our way out of winter a bit at a time, so we didn’t really find anything that satisfied her quest (no flowers!).  Things look a lot like winter out in the field and around the farm still.  There are a lot of bare trees and brown hues and winter hardy garden plants that always look a little worse for wear at this time of the year.  And so, we decided to refocus our efforts, and began instead to look for signs of spring coming. 

And even though our walk showed only the smallest of these signs, we did find some.  There is new growth on the winter greens and the very teeny tiny beginning of sprouting broccoli florets.  There is more green surrounding those food plants in the garden, too.  The weeds and grass in the path are definitely starting to grow and right now, while they are just at the starting, they are a nice sight, all green and fresh and tender!  The daffodils are popping out of the ground, the cherry buds are forming!

Small things, yes!  But small things emerging from underground, budding, and growing–all signs of good things to come!

When the sun is shining (and when it’s not), we are outside learning.

I love homeschooling for many reasons, but this one is definitely at the top of the list.  I love that on a gorgeous fall day, we have the freedom to spend it all outside.  Everyone agrees, children (and adults alike) need to spend more time in nature.  Books have been written about it (like this one), and curriculums have been built around helping children experience the natural world.  In some ways, I worry how effective these arbitrary nature activities help the cause, but applaud the effort nonetheless.  For our part, I feel extremely lucky to live on this farm and to do work that naturally brings us outside, the whole family.  Without trying too hard, the children learn all kinds of amazing things, and this knowledge settles in not only their minds, but in their bodies as well, while they play out of doors.

And still, because it is what comes naturally to me and because it is hard not to feel the need to “show” this knowledge they are internalizing, I try to turn some of this outside time into school time.  Depending on the child, this works fine.  My daughter loves to play school, so anything I call school is quite alright by her…even though she is still just four and we are not big believers in early academics and in reality, she still just wants to play more than work at learning that big stuff.  The middle boy can really take to a project if his hands are involved, so there are ways that this works for him and ways that it doesn’t.  He was find building letters out of wood scraps and fallen oak leaves for a little while, but it wasn’t long before he really wanted to get back to what he was making in every spare minute he has had for the last few days, his willow basket.

But my oldest, so bright and so keen, can take real issue with something he feels is not connected.  Yesterday, one of the sentences in his nature journal, imposed by the mama, was “Squirrels are NOT cute!”.  This makes him sound like a curmudgeon, but really, he was more than a little upset that we had gone to the park to “study” squirrels.  I had my reasons.  It is autumn, the squirrels are busy.  There are very few mammals that we can observe in nature (it’s mostly birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, right?).  And the act of observing and recording was what I was after, not the act of learning about squirrels.  Because like he said to me, we already know what squirrels looks like, how they are characterized based on their actions, what they spend their time doing, where they live.  This is all information they have gathered from simply reading books with squirrel characters in them and from seeing them while playing at the park.  We have stopped and watched them on the wires while getting in and out of the car in front of the Kung-Fu studio.

Still, this is hard to explain to a nine year old who doesn’t naturally feel a draw to studying things scientifically.  He really tried to put his foot down and claimed he would only draw in his nature journal…because that is how he studies the world.  He has always learned about things by creating with them through drawing or story-telling and imaginary playing, sometimes very elaborately.  So when he was told to write about the squirrels we had spent time “observing”, he expressed in that sentence what power he had at the moment to tell me just what he thought about the work we were doing.

And I understood, and laughed with him about it.  Because he really does have a soft spot for furry creatures, and he really does know how to take a closer look at the world.  And there is a lifetime ahead of him to study the natural world scientifically, if that is how he wants to understand it.  As he gets older, he might just find himself spending hours watching a squirrel in nature, just so he can produce a drawing that is just right.  And because this would have meaning to him, he wouldn’t even think about it as “studying”.  For now, he is quite content to spend hours in the tops of a tree.  And as strange as it may sound, this is the best kind of school time we can spend.