September passed in a blaze of heat, sunlight, and smoke. The days were meltingly hot as the summer faded– I remember sitting in the shade, midday, with full-body sweats due to the intense heat and humidity. Poor tiny Pendulum (our kitten) endured the heat in his fur suit! We gave him ice cubes to play with and rubbed him down with water.

Early in September, some friends of ours arrived after completing their quarantine. We had hopes of completing some farm projects, fishing for salmon, and practicing wilderness skills together. Like many of our planning efforts, things changed suddenly and viciously. The night of September 7, severe winds, ash and choking smoke swept into our little valley, forcing us to evacuate.

That night, we abandoned the tents and slept in our car, intermittently turning on the fan/internal car filter to try to clear out some of the smoke that was creeping in. What a strange, scary, and surreal experience – it was incredibly hot, with the car reading over 80 degrees at midnight. The winds howled and moaned through the trees, with huge gusts depositing ash that coated the trees, cars, and tents. No one was able to sleep much at all.

I was worried that a nearby fire was coming over the ridge. The past week had been smoky, ever since an arsonist set fire to old growth forest less than 15 miles away from the farm. That fire ended up consuming 500 acres of land and forced a series of evacuations. However, the smoke and ash that we experienced on the night of September 7th were from much larger fires raging across Oregon and California. Without cell service to drip feed us information, we had no idea the scope and magnitude of what we were facing. We would later learn tragic news, these fires consumed whole towns and were responsible for many fatalities.

The next morning the weather was the same, though the smoke was worse. It was like a solid entity, obscuring any view and burning the lungs with every breath. The air quality rose above 1000 PPM, which was well beyond double the ‘hazardous’ air quality rating. It felt apocalyptic – the sun was a flaming red orb in a soupy, mustard-yellow sky. We drove into town to try to figure out the situation and hopefully get some respite from the smoke. However, the Verizon cell towers were down, and we could not access the internet, make calls or text. Our friends decided to head south down the coast to see if they find a pocket of clean air. Another friend who lived in town invited us to stay in his spare room while we figured out a plan, which was a huge relief.

After spending a few days at our friend’s house, we packed up and left early in the morning to drive to Pat’s parent’s house in Washington, where we would stay until it was safe for us to return to the farm. The drive was horrible – we wore double masks because the smoke was so pervasive. Even with multiple masks and an agreement to run the air purification setting every 10-15 minutes, we spent most of the drive nauseous from smoke inhalation. The visibility was low, and sections of the highway were closed off further south and east because of the rapid spread of the wildfires. Finally, we made it to Longview. Since we had not been able to quarantine before arriving, we were careful in limiting our interactions. However, Penny was still able to meet a new cat (his first time meeting a cat since he left his litter). He was pining to be friends, but the other cat was older and uninterested in sharing her territory. Penny was undeterred! It was also Penny’s first experience with a bed and with carpet – both things he now deeply enjoys.

We were emotionally and physically exhausted by the time we reached Longview, and it felt good to hibernate in a house, safe from smoke. While it was nice to have internet, our lives quickly returned to gross amounts of television and anxiety over air quality reports. After a few days we began to feel restless to be back outside. I realized how much I missed the farm: being outside every day, watching the various wildlife, and working the land. Finally, 12 days after evacuating, we were able to return. It felt good to come home! There was plenty of clean-up to do – between the smoke, the wind damage, and the rodents and other critters that had gone wild while we were gone – but it did not faze us. After learning of the extent of the fire damage elsewhere, and the many lives forever altered, we were fortunate to be safe and back on the land that we love.

The end of my journal entry for when we returned reads:

[…] When we finally were able to come back to the farm because the air had improved, I realized how excited I was. It feels good to be back. I have already done a bunch of tasks/chores and it felt nice. I know moving forward there will be times when I don’t want to do chores, or I will wish that we had Internet access. But for the time being, I am going to lean into this feeling of joy at being back on the land.

Right now, Pen and I are in the tent while Pat is at Sean’s, and we can hear the water drops falling off the surrounding trees and plants. The air feels exceptionally clean and it is a beautiful relief to be able to breathe again.

The days that followed were rainy, with sweet, clean air. The fog that I love so much billowed up through the valley, floating through the trees and obscuring the far ridges. We returned to our schedule, rising early in the morning, wandering down to the makeshift kitchen in the garage to begin the day. These mornings were peaceful – they felt like a blessing, a devotion. I began to understand the peace that was available here. Easily we fell back into our jobs – Pat working on removing blackberries while I clipped my way into the snarl of roses in the garden. Penny played and wandered, jumping around in the trees, and excavating holes while we worked. At night, we listened to the elk herd bugle to each other on the high valley ridges, and heard three different species of owl – Bard, Screech and Great Horned – vocalize during their nighttime hunts. All the while, the shift of the seasons became apparent – the wet earth smell, the changing leaves, the way the sun looked filtering through the trees. 

After a hot, smoky summer, I embraced the coming autumn.  

Making Space

Time seems to move so quickly. As we approach our 5th month living on the farm, it still feels like just yesterday we were rolling up the wild, overgrown driveway with a hundred project plans, dreams and wishes.

It is a special feeling to look out across the farm and see the subtle handprint of our work, the ways the land has changed since we arrived. It is satisfying to see the land rise up new again, after the blanket of invasive overgrowth has been stripped away.

There are 15 acres of land for us to restore – 15 acres of fields, gardens, orchards, woods, and riparian zones. While we could have taken our tools and chopped down everything overgrown or inconvenient, we knew that we did not want to do that. Part of our objective in environmental restoration of the farm is to consider the landscape beyond ourselves – many critters and other plant species have found home here with the absence of people. Our plan is to be intentional in how we interact with the landscape – we are working the land in segments to minimize impact to wildlife and trying to remove invasive species so that native plants can proliferate.

When we arrived on the farm, our first big project was to open up a space for general living. Blackberries and bamboo had encroached all the way onto the road, and it was difficult to find a suitable space for a tent, much less a few chairs.

Blackberries had gone wild, growing up onto the outbuildings and completely consuming the garden. Bamboo, so pretty in the wind, had grown into the road and in front of the triple-bay garage. We knew that the project of the clearing out this area was going to be a big job – not just because of the sheer amount of overgrowth, but also because of how tenacious these two species are. The only way to truly remove them from an area was to dig out the root crowns – a project that at times felt backbreaking under the hot summer sun.

As a side note, the farm has its own well. However, during our first few weeks the well was broken – it had not worked for many years. At this point, we were waiting on a well technician to come out and assess/fix the well, but it was still going to be several weeks before the water situation was fixed. Since we did not have any potable water on the farm, every few days we drove to a nearby lake’s recreation area to fill up plastic gallon jugs. Taking anything remotely like shower was basically not possible, as campgrounds were closed due to COVID. I am sure you can imagine how stinky we were, working in the summer heat.

The first step in the project was to take out the weedwhacker and cut down the overgrowth. We checked to make sure that the bird species on the land were not still nesting, and then Pat strapped on the chaps, ear protection and goggles and got to work. Since it was high summer, the blackberry bushes were fruiting and as the blade of the weedwhacker bit into them, the berries sprayed purple-black juice all over Pat. By the end of the day, he looked like he had been dipped into a dye pot.

To protect ourselves from ticks and blackberry thorns, we completely covered up with long pants, long sleeves, boots and with our hair tucked away. All of our clothes were treated with permethrin. Though it was a bit brutal with summer temperatures between 80-100 degrees, it was worth it to be protected.

Cutting down the overgrowth in front of the outbuildings took about a few days. It was the easy part of the project! Now all of the cut plant material was tangled on the ground. We had to rake it up and haul it into a gigantic pile for temporary containment. As it was midsummer, it was very dry and there were the usual burn bans. The pile was going to have to wait until we could either get it hauled out or burned in the fall.

Finally, we began to clear out the area by hand – digging out each individual blackberry root crown and following each root through the earth. Pulling them up became almost meditative. At first we used a pitchfork to loosen them and then just our hands, but Pat found the perfect tool via research – a Mattock. This tool has a pick on one end and a long rectangular wedge on the other, making it the perfect tool for prying up deep roots. It weighs 5 lbs, making it easy to swing down into the soil.

Pat also worked on removing the overgrown Bamboo. The roots of this plant are very intense and heavy – I was not strong enough to pull them up out of the soil. The root that Pat is holding in the above photo was easily 30+ lbs.

Clearing out this area took many, many weeks. After the initial clear-out, we then had to root up the next round of small blackberries – the growth of roots still in the soil. Blackberries are a pretty incredible plant species in how tenacious they are.

Finally, it was a clear space – down to the soil. We then seeded it with grass to help hold the soil during the Fall and winter.

Watching (and waiting for) the grass to grow was so exciting – I was completely surprised! I always thought that lawns were silly. But checking each morning to see if there was new grass was intrinsically exciting to me, I guess. I think it was because we got to watch a space be completely transformed from massive overgrowth to an area that now has potential for native plants. Larger wildlife can also move through this area now – lately most mornings there have been deer cruising through the grass.

It’s also a great place to play with Penny now 🙂