You can plant beauty
You can create beauty
Your life is a unique expression of energy
Your expressions are powerful
How do you choose to move?
This American Life recently aired an episode in which college boys talk about how they learned about sex and what women like (from other boys and porn, not from actually listening to women).
All over the news are stories of drilling, fracturing, contaminating, spilling, plowing, spraying, of people doing what we will to the earth in the name of economics and power.
The way we treat the land and the way we treat women and their bodies are inextricably connected.
Society’s history is built on stories of men in power, of women and land as property.
There are other histories to be re-learned. As my eighth-grade history teacher taught us, there are herstories and ourstories, too.
It’s time to reconcile the record.
The wind is whipping, howling, pushing, crashing
It holds steady around 20 mph, then throws a big gust, shakes the whole yurt, pulls me from my chair to go sit by the dogs and tell them, “it’s really windy out there,” just to hear my own voice, to be sure I’m still firm inside this circle of made of saplings and canvas.
Just yesterday I wrote how important it is to be gentle with ourselves. That’s not to say the world won’t shake us awake at times. Lessons and change come in many forms. Sometimes the wind will weave gently through your hair; sometimes it will blow you from your feet, upend your whole world; sometimes this is exactly what we need to learn how to open our eyes.
I feel my heart a little more with each gust that rumbles my home. My body’s awareness piques, and suddenly I am more animal than I was yesterday, attuned to the rhythm of my breath, the strength of the wind, the pulse of my veins.
It’s all practice–I’m learning that stillness isn’t static, but rather flexible, steady, and constant. The lesson is rushing across the landscape outside, perhaps it is the land outside: how to be still and open to the changing winds at once.
There is a wild section in our pasture where the grasses reach above our heads. Their long stems topped with seeds seem to breathe with the wind; a long breeze exhales and a thick wave of grass washes to the east.
I stood in the middle of it last night, Waylon on my back, and we listened to the air brushing through the leaves and stems of grass.
There is always so much waiting to flood my days and fill my time. And last night—the list was still long as the sun touched the ridgeline.
But we stood there, quiet, breathing like the wind in the grass, learning how to bend with ease.
Some days I dream of a house. It’s not that I don’t love the yurt–I do. This round womb of a home has kept us warm and dry for over three years, its simplicity let us move to our land quickly, and it held us inside the circle of its arms as Waylon was born into the world. For all of that, I love the yurt. But there are reasons I dream of a house…insulation, for one. Windows, for another. To have morning light stream into the kitchen–to have a proper kitchen. I won’t get into too many “to haves,” though. Those kinds of statements always end up sounding whiny, impatient. Instead, I will share my actions.
I just started reading A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams by Michael Pollan, a book about his journey to build a writing cabin behind his house. At the end of the first chapter, when he shares the idea with his Architect friend, Charlie, Charlie asks:“So where do you want to put this building?” Aside from someplace in the landscape framed by that window, I had no idea. Much as I’d been daydreaming about the buildng, I’d neglected to settle on a spot for it. I hadn’t even ventured out those three hundred feet to walk the land yet, at least not on foot. I realized I’d flunked my first test in Concrete Reality. “Look, there’s no point talking about this or any other building in the abstract,” Charlie explained, “because the site is going to dictate so much about it. This thing is one kind of guy if we perch him on the edge of the meadow looking back toward the house, and something completely different if he’s sitting off in the woods all by himself. So that’s the first thing you need to do…” Charlie was trying, gently, to bring me and my daydreamy notion down to the ground. First this, then that. The time had come for me to site my building, to fix this dream of mine to the earth.
I myself have spent countless hours dreaming of a house, searching the internet for timber frame house plans, sketching out the open floor plan and bedrooms and attached glass greenhouse. Edge and I do have a general idea of where we want to put the house: just past the Northern edge of the pasture, where a red pine plantation had been harvested before we bought the land. We’ve paid attention to how long it takes the winter sun to spread up each inch of the slope. We’ve visited the area on snowshoes, in the afternoon, in the spring, slightly less in the summer (all that farm work, and my pregnancy last year). But for me, this house has remained mostly in the wispy dream world of my mind.
So yesterday, with Waylon on my back, I walked to the Northern corridor, stepped over the threshold where pasture turns to brush, and began moving debris. Layers of branches is all that’s left of the pine plantation, and who knows just how thick they lay. Wild brambles have begun to poke through in some places, and hardwoods–birch and maple–create a dotted border line between the debris and the pasture. There is a sizable break in this border line, a window into the cleared strip, where you can stand and look into the pasture, and out beyond it to the southwest, into the valley and the soft hills that rise to the Worcester range. The slope here almost levels out before heading down again to the northwestern corner of the field. To the north, hemlocks anchor in a steep hill leading down to the brook, and beyond that is forest. This is the spot.
I started with an armful, taking the dry pine to the edge of the field. And I continued like that, carrying a load of smaller branches, dragging larger ones along the ground, piling them higher and higher for a future bonfire or the creation of wood chips. It didn’t take long to see a site begin to appear, and as I worked I envisioned different layouts: the entrance into a mudroom, the south-west windows into the living room, the porch off the down-hill and western end of the house.
There are faster ways of clearing land, I know. But there was nothing else I needed to do. And how else am I to ground my dreams to the earth? I must start somewhere, and this clearing, armful by armful, is a means of discovery.
How long until a house is built? Who knows. A year? Two, three? I hope not four. But I am beginning, in the way I know how, in the way I can with Waylon on my back: with my own two hands.
I have been living in the same place for almost a year now. I have been walking the same trails with the dogs, watching the same trees stand and sway in the western winds, and listening to the same space liven each morning then quiet each evening. A place, though it moves slowly, is never still, and now, after a year, I learn that a place will only open itself as much as I am willing to open myself.
On Friday I follow the sound of croaking to the edge of a cliff overlooking a marshy pond and sit cross-legged on thick moss. Below I see all shades of yellow and green. I see frogs swimming as ripples of water. Their persistent cacophony is so bouncy–CROAK crOAK CRoaK!–I can almost feel the vibrations up on my perch.
Then sudden silence.
A crow’s shadow sweeps across the pond. I hold my breath.
One croak. Another, and then another in response, and soon the air is busy again.
I keep walking and find a campsite tucked between the pasture and rock walls: a faded green picnic table, a handmade square brick oven, a metal lantern with a half-burnt candle inside. It is only minutes away from the yurt, but until today I did not take this trail, I did not look at the precise angle through the trees, until today I did not see it, though I passed so close for a year.
Just beyond the campsite a maple grows out of two boulders, the trunk so old it looks as though it has melted and reformed, becoming a rock itself, and I pause just long enough to distinguish trunk from stone, then continue out to the pasture and trace the edge of forest and field all the way home.
That same day I find maple flowers blooming on fallen trees, such fierce delicacy living without knowing the roots were pulled up in late autumn winds, and I ask how much do we really need to know in order to persist?
Air, water, and the inventions of each season: we can all live with this.
So I move with the land, shedding my sweaters as the ground sheds snow and tying my hair up off my neck as leaves spread and reach up toward the sun. I keep my eyes open for the new and ancient details each season brings, and when the season changes I start all over again, looking for the first time.
Introducing Llama Bean Garden at Applecheek Farm!
When Edge and I moved to the farm, John and Rocio let us take over the “sacrifice field,” where the cows had overwintered, and turn it into a growing space. During the second week of May, on our first walk out there, I looked at the remnants of round bales—spread out circles of hay trampled into the grass and mud—thought of the date, and wondered how are we going to get this ready in time to plant?
We quickly decided to change the name to the “sacred field,” hoping this would help it along, and we changed our planting plans from oats and wheat to dry beans and corn for cornmeal. After a few days of Edge plowing, disking and raking with the tractor, and a few more days of rain, we started seeding on June 1st. Since then, we’ve planted an acre with kidney, black, European soldier, kenearly, and cannellini beans, and nothstine dent and Calais flint corn.
As we worked, we continued to think about an official name for our garden, since we plan to sell some beans and cornmeal through the farm store this winter, and will be growing grains to market in the coming seasons. Inspired by all our beans and the view of the llamas in the paddocks next to the field, we chose to name our sacred field Llama Bean Garden at Applecheek Farm.
Despite the lack of preparation last fall, the beans and corn are growing just fine, and so are many other plants. It’s got me remembering the Thoreau quote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
I’ve written about wildness before—about learning to see wildness not only in the forest, but in the garden, too, and remembering how wildness creates a harmony between order and chaos. Well now I find myself approaching chaos as wild weeds begin their take over of the bean and corn plot! Edge and I have been running over each chance we get to free the rows from the strangling stems and leaves of plants we did not sow, but it will be a while before our crops are tall enough to out-compete the weeds. With a lot of cultivating and under sowing of cover crops, though, eventually we will be able to look back and laugh about the time when Llama Bean looked like this:
We are asking a lot from the land by trying to create a large garden so quickly, so for now we’re working with what we have, and we’re thankful to have a plot to grow in. Edge reminds me that we can work to manage the weeds instead of fight them, and I like this subtle change of words. We are striking a balance between chaos and order, between weeds and crops, and remembering that wildness has its place everywhere, even at Llama Bean.
Somewhere in between milking, setting new pastures, feeding pigs and poultry, working in the garden and waiting out rain storms, I explored Applecheek Farm through my camera lens. Here is what I found:
On a farm it is easy to feel strapped for time, stressed about the endless tasks that continue to pile onto the daily to-do list, but stepping back behind the camera reminds me one important thing: there are moments of almost stillness that can be caught and held–moments that do not stop but allow you to lay down, sink in and be carried like a raft downriver. Sometimes all we need to do is change our focus to catch them.
Today I wake to the sounds of cows mooing for their calves. It is 6:00 am, and soon the heifers will be brought in from the field to be milked and reunited with their babies. I’m not on for chores this morning, so I’ve slept in a bit. Edge left a fresh pot of coffee on the stove and took our dog Nobee for a walk.
Yesterday the sky stayed clear and heat settled in, but now thunder is banging overhead again and rain is falling. The sky looks light, though, and I’m hoping it will pass quickly. In the past week we’ve had longer, harder storms than I’ve ever seen. The rivers swell and rise, flooding more towns. Last Wednesday the wind started swirling as I was bringing the cows in for evening milking. I looked to see the northwest sky darken and send down bolts of lighting. Within minutes it was upon us, and just as the cows turned the corner around the barn, the wind whipped dirt into the air and our eyes. Edge, who had been doing skid-steer work near the barn, parked next to the tie-stalls and we ran in to take cover. We spent the next thirty minutes in the milk house waiting for a break in the weather so we could run back to the yurt. The wind kept up, the rain dumped like a waterfall, and the thunder and lightening struck so close together it was as if they had become one entity.
But the break came, and we sprinted back home.
The next morning brought more rain and news of floods and evacuations in near-by towns. A few panels had ripped off the barn roof, a chicken house was blown over, and the hay wagons were on their sides in the road, but all the animals were okay. The rain continued off and on, and until yesterday it felt like it might not let go.
There have been reprieves, though. Through it all calves have been born, chickens have laid eggs, and grass has grown. I’ve stumbled into moments of contentment and delight despite the persistent storms:
Pigs sucking up milk, munching food, and letting me scratch their backs;
Calves running up the sawdust pile and looking up with a sawdust mask on their faces;
A bobolink singing in the field while I moved fences;
Barn swallows flying in and out of the llama paddocks to their nest, which I found tucked in a corner beam inside the barn;
Walking out to the fields and seeing mist rising up to a clear sky;
Baking brownies in the yurt while rain sounded on the roof.
Through it all, our soils have drained well, so we have not been flooded here. I wonder how much more will come, how often we will see the extreme, or if we have even seen the extreme yet. Vermont feels more secure than other parts of the country right now, but still there are farmers who have not been able to plant because of floods, and others who cannot sell produce for 90 days after a flood because of the debris left on fields from the river.
I have thought before how animals seem to spend each day only working to find food and eat. I have thought how repetitious that seems, but as a farmer I am reminded that it’s what we all do. Whether we raise animals, grow vegetables, or work in an office, we eat. We must eat, and we must work for our food. The weather, be it rain, drought, tornado or sun, affects us all because it affects our food. What can we do to work with the weather? For so long we have fought against the environment, molding it into roads and buildings, asking it to support the luxuries of the western world.
I have changed my ideas of luxury.
Now convenience is going to the garden, not the grocery store. It is working with the soil and feeling the grit rub into my skin. It is drinking raw milk from the cows I help tend. It is paying for food in sweat and understanding the worth of money in this way. These luxuries may not seem to make life easier to some, but they do make life more meaningful. When the rain stops, as it just did, I notice the luxuries of beauty and peace that the world offers up for free.
“We’re taking a train to New Jersey, flying to Alaska from there, and then driving back to Vermont,” I told my friends.
Jordan paused for a moment and then asked, “Why?”
We all laughed at the blunt questioning in her voice.
“Well, Edge’s car and most of his stuff is still up there so we’re going to get it and visit everyone, too,” I answered.
But there’s more to it than that. After a winter of renting a house and staying in one town, I am ready for a journey. A week ago, as I was running in the spring afternoon, I thought about movement across the land, about travel and staying in one place. My feet ran forward as fields melted and streams grew, and I remembered my nomadic ancestors–those perceptive, migrating people that we all come from. What trace of them is left in me? Is it their instincts that I feel telling me to walk, run, and to notice the world that keeps me alive?
It is a continual conflict within me: to stay in one place and know it deeply, or to travel and know the world as a great mosaic, all pieces making one place. I like to believe that I can dig into a place even while traveling. I like to feel that I can meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.
Terry Tempest Williams, in a talk she gave at the University of Fairbanks, said, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.” In this world of petroleum power, I believe this. What do I love about staying? Seeing the seasons through. Working the land. Growing my food. The power of canning, freezing, pickling.
And this brings me back to the beginning of it all.
We have learned to celebrate agriculture and storage.
We have learned to reward ourselves with vacations.
There is a tension between these two things.
I am sitting in the Seattle Airport, waiting for a flight to Fairbanks. In less than one day I am shooting across the country, and I will take just over two weeks to drive back. So much oil. And still I go. It is a radical thing to stay home these days. There is a lure to go far away, and since the advent of personal cars and cheap flights, we’ve all got the hook in our mouths. There must have been a lure, too, for the nomads, to cultivate and rest through the seasons. To stay in one place.
So I search for the convergence of these things, and I feel the churning within me as a river does when two tributaries come together. I am going back to Alaska, back to the wild that forces you out of the car, the wild that asks your intention. Is it to pass through, to get to the end? Is it to discover?
I will dig into each place, meet it full on, despite the brevity of time. My intention is to discover.