Greetings from the farm 3 – WWOOFing and life in rural America

August 5, 2008

When I first set my heart on WWOOFing nearly two years ago, my life was so busy and cluttered that I yearned for a quieter existence. I wanted to acquaint myself with the rhythm of the seasons and the way they touch our lives, not just in terms of weather (says the native San Franciscan who knows precisely 1.5 seasons) but also in terms of the entire life cycle, as expressed through planting to harvest and fallow each year. What I didn’t realize was that in the bargain I would also spend much time far away from the noise and clutter of city life, and deeply learn about a different way of life that is disappearing from the American landscape.

In the process, I’ve been privy to a brief glimpse into rural America and life on a family farm, where neighbors still offer a helping hand and family histories can be traced back decades, if not centuries. It is a way of life that is disappearing from the cultural landscape of this nation as residents leave small towns to pursue job opportunities, and family farms collapse under the weight of bankruptcy or the pressures of adapting to economies of scale.

Our hosts Carl and Lorna exemplify these contradictions. Situated on 250 acres of land inherited from Lorna’s parents, both have day jobs in nearby cities in order to support a life in the country. Their only daughter lives and works in a major metropolitan area with no plans to move back once her parents grow too old to manage the property. Lorna picks up supplies for an elderly neighbor when she’s in town, Carl does heavy gardening chores; in remote areas where residents are few and services fewer, you still find that sense of “neighbors as extended family to lend a helping hand” that is being squeezed out in the race towards modernity.

And while it is true that there has been a small trickle of residents moving in the opposite direction – ones leaving the overwhelming bustle for a quieter “country existence” – for the most part these are affluent city residents who desire a second home, or otherwise invest little energy in the communities around them. An entire tradition that binds us to the land, whether through growing food or utilizing wild plants for herbal remedies, is fading away. “What I don’t get is, these people come in and buy up property, yet they tell me that my house is an eyesore when they’re the ones who just moved in here. Does that make sense to you?” Although the property is rather eccentric (“We never had any money, but mom and dad were always adding on to the house”), the various nooks and half-level add-ons only add to the charm.

Despite this, Lorna and Carl love the land and their life here. Through the years they’ve had a steady stream of WWOOFers and SERVAS guests come stay for anywhere from a couple days to four years (Lorna informed me that was a special case). People come for all sorts of reasons, from all sorts of backgrounds. In many ways, our enthusiastic (if sporadic) extra sets of hands take on the role once filled by children and hired help: that extra manpower needed to keep the family afloat and operations running smoothly. In fact, the school year – with the 3 month vacation during summer – was initially designed to allow children to help out during the heaviest farm duty months. Thus with WWOOFing, I’ve found the double benefit of glimpsing a way of life while simultaneously helping to preserve it.

Armed with that realization, then, I want to make as great an impact as possible. I want to do everything I can to pay them back for the cost of feeding and housing me – whatever I can do to alleviate the stress on their bottom line, I will gladly do. And so in my time here, I’ve weeded and watered the garden, planted seeds and transplanted seedlings, picked blueberries and pie cherries, applied fertilizer, plucked and dried herbs. I’ve also watered flowers around the house, trimmed bamboo, washed an endless parade of dishes, stacked wood, and spent copious hours weeding and watering the “orphan hedge,” a hodgepodge of trees orphaned by previous owners or the local nursery, planted by Lorna and Carl in a long, dense “L” shape that wraps around their house.

I was more than happy to help out with the former because they all directly contribute to maintaining Lorna and Carl’s way of life, whether it is bringing in additional revenue (through berry sales), growing food for the table and the herbs to spice it. There was so much to learn each day, new techniques and methods for the budding gardener in me, and the satisfaction of a new bed of transplants or a cleared patch in the garden. I admit there were times when I was vaguely resistant to some of the seemingly random tasks assigned me, especially the latter list of chores that seemed a running list of miscellaneous chores. During one particularly hot morning spent bent over the orphan hedge the cynicism took over – were they just passing on the grunt work whenever they found a couple spare hands? Why was this darn clump of trees so darn important that I had to spend endless hours here?

And yet, as I stood there clipping dried flower heads at the table one day last week, I realized that every small bit that I contributed was a vote towards maintaining their way of life. Tedious as it may seem to clip and preserve hundreds of flower heads, Lorna uses them as Christmas presents. A simple gift that brings the beauty of brilliant white and purple flowers, inspires ties to the land, and helps alleviate the cost of maintaining a lifestyle in rural America. The orphan hedge will one day serve as a wall of privacy, as much a response to the disparaging “eye sore” remarks from a handful of neighbors as it reflects their philosophy for taking in living beings from all sorts of backgrounds, whether passing through or there to stay for an extended period of time.

After all, I had a wonderful time on their farm. The fresh air, beautiful scenery, long walks and moments of introspection. Most of all, I am grateful to Lorna and Carl for opening their home and the hearts to so many travelers through the years. They have been beyond generous. In return, I can only hope that any small contribution that these two hands can provide will help maintain this lifestyle they love so much.

Greetings from the farm 2 – thoughts on annual retreats

August 2, 2008

“Would you think about coming back here?” Kristine asked me as we bent under some blueberry bushes.

“I don’t know.” Pause. “Would you?”

“Maybe. There’s something about returning to the same place, year after year.” We continue down the row. Hills rise above us on both sides, endless sky streaked with clouds, berries blushing faint purple clustered on drooping tree branches.

Hm. There’s something to that – an annual getaway, a regular detox from the stress and chronic busyness of daily life. A time for reflection and rejuvenation; your relationship to land and place more intimate and rich with each passing year. For working the land with your hands – weeding, planting, watering, harvesting – is both meditative and calming, an act of self-reliance for the body and self-preservation for the soul.

Funny how it often takes me a week of vacation just to realize how much I needed the time off. Luckily this time around I have the blessing of two weeks on the farm: one to actually unwind, and the second to enjoy feeling relaxed. It wasn’t until Thursday or Friday that I actually felt my muscles loosen and the breaths come more deeply and naturally, as though I’d been unconsciously holding my breath this entire time, day in and day out.

Once this happens, I find it much easier to examine myself with greater clarity and perspective. To question. Reorient. Start asking some of the bigger questions -where would I like to dedicate my energy and attention, what paths to explore, how I can improve myself as a friend, daughter, sister, lover, community member, creator, student, dreamer. All those Someday Thoughts and Important Things that hover invisibly on our to do lists, implied but never stated, and often crowded out of our consciousness by the chronic anxieties of other obligations. When daily concerns blare like trumpets, it is difficult to hear the child within whispering her questions or suggestions.

I strive for a mindful life. I’m far from perfect, but over the past few years I’ve started to sort through my priorities and goals in life. I’ve pared down some hobbies and picked up new ones that are closer to my values, I try to do things that are meaningful and enjoyable and bow out of time commitments that detract from the quality of life. But still I find myself dragged down by the insistent noise of obligation, expectation, and all those Coulds Shoulds Wants Needs that crowd in despite my efforts. The clutter wears me out. Out here among vast fields or shadowy woodlands, it is easier to hear myself think.

And so, my dear Kristine, perhaps you are right – perhaps we should embrace annual retreats. It need not be to rural America as we did this time, nor necessarily to organic farms to commune with nature. But to remove ourselves from physical, emotional and even temporal routine in a quiet and reflective way, even for a week or two – why, it may just make the other 50 or so in the year that much more worthwhile.

Photography Friday: Just Desserts

August 1, 2008

Overcoming inertia: tackling TV time

July 27, 2008

My friends used to think it was quirky but “very Jessica” that I didn’t own a TV in my apartment. I never had one in my dorm room in college, and couldn’t squeeze one into my small city apartment later on, so I’d grown accustomed to life without sitcoms and evening dramas [I suppose if I was really determined I could watch shows on the internet, but by now I've completely lost track of the new shows].   I suppose I could also have used YouTube as a handy substitute, but I’ll admit that I didn’t even have internet in my apartment until almost a year into my lease, and that concession came about from the necessity of internet access in the grad school application process.

Now that I’ve moved home with my parents TV has started to become part of my nighttime routine, especially since my parents are both addicted to a nightly Chinese-language soap opera.  This in turn has increased my appreciation for the amount of time TV can potentially consume. Before my days fell into the rhythm of:

7-9:30 run or craft, breakfast, shower, miscellaneous chores

10-6 work

7-10:30 dinner, call boyfriend, craft, catch up with friends household chores, miscellaneous things that need to be taken care of

With the reappearance of television in the landscape I accomplish much less in the evenings. Not that accomplishment for the sake of productivity was ever the ultimate goal, but I enjoy my hobbies. I love making things or writing to friends or reading a good book. And while television would seem a sad excuse not to do the things I enjoy, it is true that actively overcoming the inertia of constant, passive entertainment can take far longer than I’d care to admit. I know I’m not alone in this.  Again, this pervasive theme of overcoming inertia for your ultimate benefit.

I’m not against television per say, but I definitely need to find ways to work around its’ constant draw. I have some projects that require handwork that can be completed in front of the TV so that’s one temporary solution, but I’d like to find a more permanent one that limits the total hours I watch. When I head to school in the fall I won’t be furnishing my place with a TV, but I know that eventually I may get one, so it’s handy to start thinking up solutions now.

Photography Friday: Upcycling

July 25, 2008

Upcycling: (verb) reusing old fabrics in new projects, thereby giving them a new use.

For example, in the photo above I took an ill-fitting duvet cover and transformed part of it into a skirt [with enough leftover for PJ pants, cloth napkins for my mom, and possibly the start of yet another quilt]. The mittens below are another example:

Take a wool sweater accidentally shrunken in the washing machine, trace around your hands, stitch and turn inside out to create mittens.

Given the durability of fabric and recent innovations in synthetic blends most fabrics will not wear out before we tire of them, whether it is clothing, bedding, tablecloths, etc. By upcycling, we keep perfectly usable goods from landfills and stretch our creativity in finding new uses for materials.

Good for the environment, good for stimulating creativity and resourcefulness, good for an evening’s entertainment. A second chance, a new lease on life for something whose time has not physically come, merely that we have grown tired of it and are forever wanting something new [and yes, I'm guilty of that more often than I'd care to admit!]

Greetings from the farm!

July 23, 2008

Just wanted to pop in and say hello from the farm, where I’m WWOOFing for 2 weeks with a friend.  We arrived Saturday and have been weeding, watering, planting, and picking blueberries to our heart’s content.  It’s beautiful out here and our kind hosts have had many travelers through the years, both international and domestic.  Town is a 45 minute drive away, and we’re situated on 250 acres of private property with a beautiful 2 mile loop in “the back” that winds through meadows and tall trees, by a creek and between young firs.

 

I’ve long felt the desire to learn more about farming, to feel a stronger connection to the land and the life that it sustains, and in exchange we are able to provide our kind hosts with some assistance around the property to help maintain a way of life and body of knowledge that is slowly slipping from the cultural landscape and national heritage.  And the quiet – oh, the quiet.  Cars are rarely heard on the main road, birds call out between the blueberry rows [and we bark or meow to try to scare them off, but they just hop a couple feet away from us and laugh at the silly WWOOFers who honestly believe that they could be scared off so easily!].  It’s quite peaceful and beautiful.  More soon!

Getting More Exercise 2: making it happen

July 22, 2008

Part 1 of this series explored ways to make time for exercise. Now that your schedule is set, how can you make sure it happens on a consistent basis?

SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS

-As I mentioned in my previous post, be specific in your plan. It’s a lot easier to wiggle out of “I have to exercise more!” than it is from “Thursday: thirty minutes on the stationery bike while watching the news.” Think through What, When, How Long.

-If you know you have a busy day or week coming up don’t just abandon your exercise plan. Modify it. Get a couple exercise DVDs with 15-minute routines for the days you can’t make it to the gym. Plan fun activities into your vacation that keep you moving. Come up with a Plan A and Plan B, and stick to them!

-Make your exercise environment as comfortable as possible. We need all the encouragement we can get to exercise, so if you stick the elliptical machine in the farthest corner of the coldest room in the house, who would want to wade through the cobwebs and piles of junk to exercise consistently? Clear out the mess, open the blinds, put up a poster or some photos. Make this your sanctuary, and you’ll want to exercise.

INCLUDE OTHERS IN YOUR SUCCESS

Getting others in on your plan increases your motivation, accountability, and makes the process more fun. Let others know about your plans to exercise more frequently, and tell them to check in with you! Or find someone else who wants to bump up their activity levels – you can keep each other motivated, share tips and ideas, or find an activity you both enjoy to keep one another going. Family members, friends, coworkers, online forums or support groups are all excellent places to turn.

TRACK YOUR MILESTONES TOWARDS SUCCESS

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Likewise, keep your expectations reasonable and break your progress down into a series of achievable milestones. If you’d like to exercise five days a week, it’s reasonable to start out at three and work up to five over the course of several months. If you want to lose 50 pounds, don’t let the large number deter you. Focus first on losing five pounds, or set up other, non weight-related milestones along the way.

Some tips:

-Set up concrete, tangible goals in a clearly defined time period. Just as a specific daily plan for exercise keeps you on track, specific weekly or monthly goals provide an overarching framework to guide your daily efforts.

For example, you wish to exercise 5 days/week by the end of 3 months. The first month you might start out at 3 days/week at the gym, the second month you add in a day of walking, the third month you add in an exercise DVD. Long-term goals focus your efforts despite short-term setbacks.

-Track your progress! Note down your goals and your progress towards them. Some people like notebooks, others prefer the visual encouragement of X’s on the calendar. Once you have a string of X’s on your wall, it creates additional motivation to continue the trend and not break the string.

-If you feel discouraged, look back to where you started. You’ll see more improvement than you realized.

-To kick start your efforts, some people like to create “one week” or “one month” challenges. For example: No snacking after 9PM for the month of April, or do some form of exercise daily for an entire week.

FIND THE WEAK LINK

We all have a part of the exercise plan where we are likely to drop off of a routine. For some it is a constant flow of unexpected lunch meetings, for others it is the temptation to hit snooze that prevents a morning workout. When reviewing your plan for the week, think back on the moments when you were less successful at achieving your exercise goals. Once you identify your “weak link” you can think through how to overcome it. Some common stumbling points:

Weak Link: Not feeling up for exercise when you get home.

Solution: Have your exercise shoes right next to the door; head straight for your exercise room and change there; find a class or facility on the way home from work and store your clothes in the car.

Weak Link: So many nighttime chores that it’s impossible to consistently exercise

Solution: Switch to mornings or daytime exercise; allot a specific time period for exercise; exercise consistently on weekends and once or twice during the week.

Weak Link: Snoozing the alarm in the morning

Solution: Move the alarm across the room so you have to get up and turn it off; shift your bedtime earlier; find a motivating picture of quote and stick it on your alarm clock.

Despite the best intentions it can be difficult to consistently exercise. To make exercise a long-term habit, it is helpful to have an exercise routine in place (see Part 1 for specifics on setting up an exercise routine) and strategies to overcome obstacles that may come up along the way.

Photo Friday: Overcoming Indecision

July 18, 2008

“I’m off for a tramp in the park,” announced Phil, tossing her book aside. “I think when I am eighty I’ll be glad I went for a walk in the park tonight.”

“What do you mean?” asked Anne.

“I had made up my own mind for once and it was real easy, too,” [said Phil].

“Do you suppose you’ll be able to keep it up?”

“Making up my mind, you mean?  I don’t know, but Jo has given me a splendid rule.  He says, when I’m perplexed, just to do what i would wish I had done when I shall be eighty.”

-Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery

Getting More Exercise 1: fitting it into your life

July 18, 2008

If you could make one change to lose weight, lower cholesterol, improve blood pressure, and prevent diabetes, would you do it? After all, heart disease and diabetes are two leading causes of death in America, and millions are on medications to manage these conditions. So what is this cure?

The answer isn’t an expensive drug but exercise.

That’s right. Exercise can accomplish all of the above, plus build muscle and tone your body, increase blood flow to your brain, strengthen your heart, and sometimes improve sleep quality and relieve stress. Despite this, most of us don’t get the recommended 30-60 minutes of low to moderate exercise 5 or more days per week.

If that sounds daunting, don’t feel intimidated. Chances are you already achieve some of that, and incremental increases towards the minimum have a positive cumulative effect. An extra 5 minutes per day adds up to an additional 30 hours of exercise each year. Think of the benefits over your lifetime!

Aim to get as close to the recommendations, and it’s OK to start slow and build up. It may take awhile to adjust to a new program, but you’ll start finding ways to add in ten minutes here or there.

Part 1 of this series focuses on ways to fit exercise into your daily life. Part 2 helps you keep it in your life with tips on making it happen consistently.

MAKE THE TIME

Ideally you’d be able to carve out a daily chunk of time for physical activity. Even if this is not feasible on a daily basis, a couple times a week still brings benefits!

Also, studies have shown that you get equivalent benefits from breaking exercise into smaller chunks – two 15-minute walks are just as effective as one 30-minute walk. Note this means you don’t have to head to the gym for an hour every day to get adequate exercise. In the effort for increased exercise, consistency is key. To find time, ask yourself:

-Where can I find 10-15 minutes daily?

-Do I have more flexibility in the mornings, daytime, or evenings?

-Are there 1-2 days during the week when my schedule is less full? How busy are my weekends? Can I commit to 30 minutes on these days?

-Are there natural breaks that already occur during the day? Lunch is a perfect example, but get creative! Maybe you have a solid morning routine at work and can build in a 15-minute break between tasks.

Once you’ve established a good time think through how you will fill it. Will you be at the gym, on a walk around the block, using your elliptical machine at home? Do you need special equipment or clothing, or to new carpool arrangements? The more you think through the specifics the better prepared you are to carry out your plan.

It may be that some days you manage half an hour of walking and household chores, punctuated by 1-2 days of focused exercise efforts. Others choose to start off the day with a 30-minute walk. Either way, the key is to just start.

HARNESS THE POWER OF MULTITASKING

Short of setting aside time solely devoted to exercise, some prefer to multitask their exercise. For example:

-Exercise while watching TV. This could mean using the bike while watching the news, or some free weights and crunches during commercials of your favorite show.

-Watching a sporting event? Climb up and down the bleachers a couple times during the course of a game. Stand up every time you cheer. Pace the length of a soccer field while watching your child play.

We all have tight schedules and a long list of obligations. Combining exercise with a regular item on your list increases your success in incorporating it into your life.

GET CREATIVE

We all have multiple demands on us, and sometimes exercise can help you manage those demands. Investigate all areas of your life to see if exercise can be part of the solution.

-Find stress building at work as the morning wears on? Step out for a brisk 10 minute stroll to remove yourself from the stress and clear your head.

-On that note, 5 minutes of stretching mid-afternoon fights off drowsiness and refocuses your efforts. After all, a 10-minute bout of productivity can accomplish more than half an hour of half-hearted attempts.

-To mix up the weekend routine suggest a hike with friends instead of the standard “catch up over a meal,” and save money to boot! Or go out dancing, try out the new ice skating rink, etc.

-If the nighttime munchies hit after dinner, take a 20-minute stroll immediately following the meal. Exercise is a moderate appetite suppressant, and staying busy distracts from cravings.

-If you have problems sleeping try ten minutes of relaxing yoga stretches before you sleep.

Is there another area of your life that you’ve wanted to work on? See if you can’t kill two birds with one stone!

MAKE THE MOST OF THE SMALL THINGS

Make your daily routine less sedentary. Take the stairs, park further away in the parking lot, use the furthest bathroom from your office. Wear a pedometer to track your efforts and experiment with new ways to fit in more steps. Housework and chores count too. Everything from gardening to washing windows gets you moving and active, so schedule that in regularly.

Finally, take a look what you’re already doing. Is there is a way to increase the activity level further? Use a push lawn mower or forego golf carts in favor of walking. Love to play fetch with your dog? Think about all that time you spend standing around – do squats or bench push ups while she chases, or start her off with a jog around the park, she’ll still get to run but you join in on the action.

Making time for exercise is less difficult than you think. Use any combination of the techniques above, and don’t be afraid to experiment to find the solution that works for you!

Recipe: Sun Tea

July 16, 2008

Sun tea harnesses the power of the sun to make a cup of tea. This method is particularly handy if you are not near a stove or want to make iced tea, since the tea will not be as hot as that made with boiling water.  In other words, great for conserving electricity!  And, as I discovered while working in the urban gardens, a handy way to make water more appealing to preteens and teenagers – working outside all day may not convince them to give up their sodas and juices, but if you offer no alternative but sun tea or regular water, you’d be surprised at just how much they’ll drink.

Sun tea can work with regular tea bags, but in this instance we took advantage of the bounty of the garden to furnish the tea.

Water

Sliced lemons

A great heaping variety of herbs.

Combine in a glass jar. Allow to steep in the sun [if you are indoors you may have to move the jar through the day]. Can steep for hours, depending on how thick you like your tea. In our case, we slowly sipped it through the day, but I can see this working beautifully at picnics and outdoor parties as well. As you can see no sugar is necessary, and the youth really did go back for seconds and thirds. Also handy if you grow an herb garden for cooking, and are looking for new ways to use up your herbs.

EDIT:  I’ve since read some reports that warn against letting sun tea “brew” for too long, as the water doesn’t get hot enough to kill off bacteria and can even encourage bacterial growth.  The general guidelines (found at this link) recommend 1) not letting the tea sit out for more than a couple hours (which we didn’t in the gardens, as the program was over by then), 2) refrigerate if you’d like it to last longer, 3) don’t drink if it gets thick and gooey.


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