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 🙂

Summer Days

Recently a series of storms have slammed into the Pacific Northwest, bringing lots of rain and wind. The wintry weather has me reminiscing of the long, hot days of summer and our first few weeks on the farm.

Summertime and the living is easy…summer in the country is quite idyllic. After living in a noisy (small) city, the silence and spaciousness of the country unfolded around me like a wide, deep river. My happiness.

When we arrived, our first order of business was to set up our shelter, a 6-person Northface Wawona tent. After a lifetime of using small, light backpacking tents, the Wawona felt gigantic with a luxurious amount of space. I affectionately nicknamed it ‘the pumpkin’ since it was orange and rotund.

Next, we needed to set up our kitchen area. The farm had a triple-bay garage with an attached woodshed that was in pretty good condition with working power, but desperately in need of a major clean-out as rats, mice and other critters had 15 years of free reign. After a cursory clean, we set up a temporary kitchen in the garage. Cleaning up the garage ended up being a project that took over a month to complete, but that is a story for another time.

It was the beginning of August, and the sheer amount of Himalayan blackberry bushes everywhere meant that there were a billion ripe berries. Each morning we would pick a cup of blackberries while the coffee brewed, and then make blackberry pancakes with syrup. We pulled our chairs out into the clearing and ate breakfast while watching the birds flit and hop around the bushes and trees. Because of all the plant overgrowth, there were many different types of birds in a concentrated area. I think my favorite was the Wilson’s Warbler, with its tiny yellow puff body and funny black hat.

On our first full day on the farm, we went over and met our neighbor. It turned out that his cat had just had a litter of kittens, and he offered one to us once they were weaned. I was ecstatic! We had been wanting a cat, but never got one since we were planning on doing a through-hike. But our plans had changed and we were experiencing a mice issue on the farm so it felt serendipitous. One week later we went back and picked out our very own kitten – a little stripy black kitten with a bobbed tail. We named him Pendulum, but call him Penny or Pen. I am in love with him.

I brought a journal with us and have tried to make a point of writing an entry every day. For the first month or so, I did a very good job. Lately it has been slipping out of my mind to write in it, but I’d like to get back in the habit as I have really enjoyed flipping back through past pages.

One entry in particular has stuck with me ―

August 13, 2020 – Thursday

Usually I just write one page per day, but I started thinking about all that I had just written and I realized that so much of it is centered on work, completing tasks. I want to take a moment to remember and record some of my favorite things that I am experiencing out here, to hold them in my heart and remember them forever:

  • the sweet grass smell of the fields
  • the way the wind talks in the trees
  • the big Swallow balls feeding at sunset
  • watching the baby cows play rodeo
  • the way the clouds scud over the sky
  • the bats chattering at night and taking off from the woodshed
  • the chipmunks running in the big debris pile
  • the geese migrating overhead in a perfect V
  • the way the rain makes fog in the whole valley
  • walking down the country road to the creek bridge
  • seeing the millions of stars brilliant at night
  • the quiet stillness and solitude
  • the way the sun warms me through and through
  • the fresh smell of hand-washed, sun-dried laundry
  • fresh blackberries in our breakfast
  • living in the big tent with Pat and Pen
  • when Penny nuzzles me and wants to play
  • waking up with Pat every day and living our adventure