Archive for the ‘Musings on life’ Category

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

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!]

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