Settling In

At the beginning of October, we moved into our 20 ft Whiteduck Outdoors Avalon canvas bell tent. We had been living in our 6-person Northface Wawona nylon tent, sleeping on the ground on our camping pads. We were in a little clearing sheltered by bamboo, rhododendrons, and chestnut trees. While I didn’t mind sleeping on the ground, waking up to soaked blankets due to condensation got old, fast. The weather was getting colder and wetter, making us look forward to getting set up in the canvas tent and having a shelter that was more durable. We had also received our Camp Chef Alpine woodstove and spent an afternoon seasoning it. We were excited to use it during the increasingly chilly nights.

I didn’t fully realize just how large the tent would be until we laid out the tarp – it was huge! With most of the farm overgrown with Himalayan blackberries, it was difficult to find an area that would be able to properly hold the tent and its guylines.  Even if we had a flat cleared area for the tarp, we needed to have an additional three feet (minimum) on all sides for the guylines. Our only option at the time was to set up in the high fields while we worked on clearing the land down below.

It took us about an hour to set up the tent and get it tensioned properly. Pounding the stakes into the ground was an exercise in frustration as they were cheaply made and would instantly bend. It didn’t help that the mallet was also poorly made and would fly apart after a few whacks. But finally, the tent was up – and it was beautiful. I felt joy seeing our new home standing up, shining in the sun. I still remember the relief and happiness I felt that night, laying under the vaulted canvas panels. We were finally in the canvas tent we had waited so long for – a piece of our dream was now a tangible experience. Even though we were still sleeping on our camping pads it felt different, more secure. We had moved into the bones of our new home and now needed to make it truly ours.

With a rented Uhaul truck, we took a day trip to our storage unit to get furniture and other items we wanted. I was most excited about having our bed set up – the ground was getting extremely cold at night and the bed would help insulate us. The trip took most of the day, since the drive alone was 3+ hours, and by the time we returned to the farm, the light was fading quickly. We had previously emptied the tent so that Pat could shift it slightly to a hopefully flatter area. He also rotated the tent so that the stove pipe would exit on a side that wouldn’t have the wind drag ash or sparks over the canvas material. Though we were heading into the rainy season and the fire danger was low, we were in a grass field and wanted to take every precaution when we used the stove. That night we moved all the furniture into the tent, our hands gong numb as the temperature dropped.  I remember crawling into the bed that night, exhausted and cold but happy.

During the fall, I loved being up in the field. It felt cocooned and safe, held in the bowl of the hills. I loved being able to see out across the whole valley. On clear nights the stars were incredible. During the early morning when we left the tent, we watched the fog swirl around us and shimmer in the valley. On very cold mornings, the fields were covered in glittering frost that cracked under our feet as we walked down the hill. It was beautiful, and peaceful. The only downside to being up in the fields was that we were further away from our systems (kitchen, washroom) and that the tent was more exposed to the weather. The wind coming in off the coast didn’t have a tree break before it hit the tent. This gave us the motivation to continue to work hard at preparing a space for the tent that was down lower and more protected for winter. But, for the time being, we enjoyed our perch up in the rolling hills.

Three weeks after moving into our tent, we built our first fire in the woodstove and experienced our ‘hot tent.’ We had been waiting until the ground seemed saturated enough from rainy days that if a spark escaped from the stove pipe’s spark arrestor, it wouldn’t be able to catch on the grass. The woodstove heated the tent quickly and thoroughly – it must have been 70 degrees in the tent! I loved the smell and feel of a woodstove fire – I lounged in the bed feeling truly warm and dry for the first time in awhile. Living in a hot tent during late fall or winter was a luxury: the dark, cold nights didn’t seem so long now that we had the woodstove.

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 🙂