I love living in Oregon. I love the land our farm lives on in the beautiful and quirky community of Olney, just outside the equally quirky community of Astoria, which is also very beautiful and full of delightful people, many of whom we are lucky enough to call friends.
There aren’t a whole lot of drawbacks to this place, aside from distance from family and old friends, and the need to mop our kitchen floor on a regular basis to deal with the impressive amount of mud that farmers, cats and the occasional adventurous chicken track in, especially during the rainy season.
But even after almost 11 years of living at latitude 46 degrees north (on 46 North Farm- did you know that’s where our farm’s name came from?), the darkness that closes in around mid-October can still kind of get to us. Not every year–but definitely some years–the short, cold days and long, even colder nights can weigh heavily on our spirits, and we count the days until the winter solstice, when the earth shifts just that tiny bit on it’s axis, and even though you can hardly tell for another month or so, the days do start getting longer.
“Hang in there,” we say to one another on those hard days. “Only another month.” “Only twelve more days.” “Soon- really soon!” Keep breathing. Don’t give up. Spring really will come again, the swallows will come back, the bees will make honey, the seeds will germinate, the plants will grow, the flowers will bloom, the fruit will taste sweet. Things will get better, life can be good.
Several years ago while driving to my off-farm work early one winter morning, I hit a patch of black ice. Fortunately I wasn’t driving fast, but I still couldn’t stop myself from skidding slowly–but inevitably–off the road until our truck landed on it’s side in a ditch. I don’t even know if I tried to correct for the spin, turning into the slide is against every instinct you have, and although time seems to be moving supernaturally slow in those moments, I know it happened in an instant. I was unharmed, and miraculously the truck was essentially unharmed as well. I sat in stunned silence for a moment before climbing out of the door facing upwards to stand on the side of the road, aghast, shaken and shaking, unable to think about anything except that I was late for an important meeting, and that I had no cell phone coverage where I was, and that I hoped Packy wouldn’t be upset about the truck.
Moments later a very kind neighbor stopped, and once he made sure I was ok, gave me a ride into town and dropped me off at the bakery where Packy was working that day. Of course Packy wasn’t upset about the truck, only glad I was all right. He helped me get to the meeting I was late for and then waited for the truck to get towed out of the ditch, and my co-workers at the land trust were understanding and kind, and even though I still flinch when I drive around that corner on an icy day, things turned out ok. It was terrible, and scary, but I survived.
I hit a different kind of black ice early in 2013, on the day in February when my sister Laura told us that her husband, my brother-in-law Leonard, one of the nicest, most admirable men I’ve known, was in the emergency room, that he had a rare cancerous tumor in him, that it was serious, that she was scared.
I know that many, many good things happened this year.
Our farm made it through our first CSA program and got through two farmers markets, thanks mostly to the planning and hard work of our friend and amazingly talented farmer Kelly Huckestein, and the dedicated help of Martha Stephens, one of the most awesome and inspiring people I’ve ever met.
The farm produced more than it ever has, in spite of an unseasonably dry summer, farmers trying to hold down full and part time off-farm work, fungus gnats, flea beetles and exhaustion. The lessons learned, while sometimes hard, helped us grow stronger.
We hosted our first Dinner-On-The-Farm,
a fundraiser for our friends at the Columbian Theatre, and learned that it wasn’t as scary as we thought it would be, and that it might even be fun to do that again.
Good friends showed up to help, weeding, digging, planting, deadheading and harvesting, and somehow enough work got done to get us through.
They helped built a greenhouse. They pitched in at farmers markets when we needed them, setting up tents and tables, selling produce and making bouquets.
Kelly, Martha, Holly, Miki, Jenn, Jane, Melissa, Kristin, Sam, Nate, Renia, Andy, Sarah, Kati and Luke were the glue that held the farm together this year while I was slowly unravelling inside.
Their generosity at being willing to help when help was needed allowed Packy to hold down the fort whenever I travelled down to San Francisco to be with Laura and Leonard and their kids as they faced chemo treatments, surgery, radiation and Leonard’s last, unstoppable slide, which ended on the first day of October. He was just 52 years old.
I hung up the phone early in the morning on October 1st, stunned and sad, shaken much like I had been when the truck finally slid to a halt in a ditch by the side of the road. It was some time before I could muster the energy to move, trying to figure out what to do next, how to be of help to my sister, to my niece and nephews when their world had so irrevocably changed. It was a terrible and scary year, but they had survived. Now what?
I am amazed at the speed at which life can slide sideways, crash into a ditch, and yet still go on. I’ve walked this path before after loosing a loved one, and I know that it takes time and patience to find a sense of balance again, and if there is one lesson farming teaches you, it’s patience. I am grateful for it now, even though I’ve rarely been grateful while the lesson is in progress.
There was a hard freeze here this December–snowfall followed by too many deeply cold nights and clear cold days. The low, weak sunlight couldn’t muster the strength to melt much of anything, leaving the world stark and white, plants frozen, birds shivering and the ground hard with ice.
I don’t know if the dahlias will have survived, nor the garlic, nor the artichokes or rhubarb. We won’t know until spring. I am cautiously hopeful, but prepared for the worst.
Today was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the first day of winter.
Last night we got home late, after dark, to find that the stormy, rainy winds yesterday had blown the door of the chicken coop closed, and the chickens had been trapped outside in the dark. We’ve been lucky up til now, as they go inside when it gets dark and if we get home late we find them in there all roosting for the night, and so far nothing had ever gone in to get them before we came home to close the door.
But trapped outside, something happened. Something attacked them and when we finally gave up searching in the dark and rain and went to bed, we had only 11 of the 12 hens in the coop, one of them so badly injured she would die in the morning, and Neville the rooster was missing. Packy had seen him when he first went down to close up the coop, but Neville ran off in fright as Packy rounded up the nervous hens and had hid himself well and refused to come out.
We went to bed with heavy hearts last night, feeling guilty for coming home late and not being here to protect the flock from whatever got at them, although Neville clearly did his part by the number of his feathers we could see on the ground.
This morning around 5 am, we heard Neville calling. That rooster is loud. It was pitch dark outside, daylight was still hours away, but he was there somewhere, and had made it through the night.
“O light!” wrote Albert Camus in his essay Return to Tipasa. “This is the cry of all the characters of ancient drama brought face to face with their fate. This last resort was ours, too, and I knew it now. In the midst of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”
The sun seemed to take forever to rise this morning, but I had faith that it would. The days start getting longer now, spring really will come again, and summer–or what passes for summer on the Oregon coast–will follow.
The swallows will come back, the bees will make honey, the seeds will germinate, the plants will grow, the flowers will bloom, the fruit will taste sweet. Some things will get better, and some things won’t, and both will teach us more than we probably want to know about life, and how to live it well.