Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Garden as Ritual

Wow.  It's been over a year since I've posted.  I have made it through pregnancy, my wedding, and the first seven months of my daughter's life, so it is time to crawl up out of my private hole and share my dirt with the technological world.

There have been many changes in my life over the past year, and I have often felt like I'm just a backseat passenger, rather than an active participant--let alone driver-- of my life.  So I decided to take things back into my own hands and grab this life by the proverbial horns.  And to do it without leaving my property.

For some background, one of the many things I love about my husband is the way in which we balance each other.  He accomplishes so many creative projects--woodworking, playing guitar, art, etc., while I am too distracted by dirty dishes or dirty diapers or the weird dirt in the cracks of the windowsill.  As much as I want to carve out time to create sacred space, to artistically express myself, it doesn't often happen, because I prioritize other, "more practical" things.  Ryan can pick up his guitar and sit in the middle of a chaotic, disorganized room, and be perfectly content.  He teaches me to (dishes be damned) do something that feeds my soul, and I teach him to make the bed and put the clothes away NOW, not later, or tomorrow.

Before Planting

 So I decided to take on a task that is creative, sacred, and fun.  I created a Womens' Medicinal Spiral Garden.  I weeded the area, then built a short retaining wall (since it's on a slope) out of old wooden rails from a bridge that was being replaced in NW Portland.  Then I hauled and stacked rocks from a local quarry in the shape of a spiral.  I added compost, and started gathering medicinal plants.  This relatively simple process took me weeks and weeks, as my primary task is taking care of my daughter, in addition to keeping up on household duties, chasing goats, herding chickens, caring for rabbits, a dog, a cat, and gardens.  

After Planting

I invited some women friends over for a ritualistic planting of the garden.  Ritual is something that has floated in and out of my life, and I have more recently made an effort to become empowered in using ritual to change my life.  There is a comfort in the structure and format of ritual that has been practiced by women for centuries.  Of course, we create our own practices, too, and speak words that feel true to us.  And that's what's so amazing about ritual.  You can create magic anytime, anywhere, however you want.  Friends donated some medicinal plants of their own, and after blessing these plants with out intentions, casting the circle, and calling the directions, we put them in the earth.

Now that my garden is complete, I feel lightness around my duties.  It feels just a little easier to play with my daughter and save the dishes for later.  Of course, your lesson may be a different one.  There is power in ritual.  It is magic, and it is quantum physics.  I encourage you all to bring some intention, some ritual into your lives, to be witnessed by your friends as you share your fears and visions.  Let us all be healed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spring at Alder Eden

"In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt." 
                                 -Margaret Atwood

Spring is bursting at the seams here at Alder Eden. This is the name we have given our land, in honor of Arbor Eden, a community-centered farm run by an amazing couple who used to live on our road.  We also happen to have a lot of alder trees on our property. People are not usually excited by alder trees. They are generally the first tree to pop up after a disturbance, and they grow thickly, often shading out everything else. Alder is used for firewood and furniture-making, but it is not a wood that will last outside in the weather. That is actually one of the things I like about alder: It doesn't last forever; it decomposes and provides nutrients for other plants.  We have a a stand of alders in the center of our pasture, which, while beautiful, will have to come down soon before they start to shade my crops.

There is so much new life, and after the quiet of winter the birds make a stunning entrance. I don't know that I ever really appreciated spring like this before. Of course, I always welcome sun and warmth, but I never before had a connection to a piece of land that I belonged to, that I knew I would nurture and continue to connect with. I feel an almost maternal pride at the new weeds that pop up. And there are a lot of weeds! 

Cold Frame

After decades of hostile blackberry takeover, the reclamation of the land is something beautiful to witness. It's like war survivors rebuilding their shell-shocked city. I appreciate anything that's not a blackberry bramble. First it was yellow dock and borage. Then comfrey and nettle, bed straw, burdock, dandelions, and countless others, whose names I have not yet learned. And so many of these greens are edible. For about a week, my fingers had a constant, dull throb from harvesting stinging nettles to make tea, soup, scrambles, strifries. I added miner's lettuce, oxsalis, and violets to salads, and deep-fried dandelion blossoms to dip in some fresh nettle pesto. I also learned that the curling leaves of yellow dock, as well as the leaves of borage are edible. 

Fresh Salad

 The other night, I made a stirfry with yellow dock and borage leaves, and burdock root. I am a dedicated gardener, but there must be something so much more nourishing about foraging for wild plants that have come up without the help of my tended garden beds. This is another kind of gardening, practiced by the native peoples here, though it was not always recognized as gardening.  

Dandelion Fritters with Nettle Pesto

This first spring has also brought fresh energy for projects. We actually made it through the winter (with the help of a Mexican vacation)! Both Ryan and I have felt newly inspired, and I can finally look around and feel like we're accomplishing something. We hauled cedar limbs out of the woods from a tree that had fallen during the winter storms, and made rot-resistant garden fence posts.  

Ryan's Gate-Building Skills

The small plot I had been sheet-mulching since last summer, now contains rich soil.  I built a three-chamber compost bin from scrap pallets, where we put both our kitchen scraps and our human waste.  Yes, we save our shit.


We don't yet have indoor plumbing, but even if we did, I would be hesitant to poop into precious clean water. Instead we use a bucket and, instead of flushing, we add a handful of sawdust. When the bucket gets full, we dump it into the compost pile and cover it with straw. I created three sections in the composting area so there will always be one working chamber, and the center chamber contains dry, carbon-rich material, like straw and dead leaves. When one chamber gets full, I'll move to the other one. 

After two years, we will have created humanure, which we can use to mulch our plants and trees, and the cycle continues. The bucket doesn't stink at all, and it's really not that bad to empty the bucket once a week. The sawdust does an amazing job of removing odor. When I worked on a sailboat ten years ago I had to haul twenty buckets of solid and liquid waste (sans sawdust) and dump it into local sewage treatment plant processing tanks. That was gross. This is dreamy.

Enough about poop. We also have animals! This homestead has grown to twenty-eight souls. In addition to our three laying hens, Cricket, Pinchot, and Fraulein, we got ten more chicks, who are quickly outgrowing their box. A month and a half ago I bred my female rabbit, Trillium, to our new stud, Lord Bergamot, and they produced seven healthy baby bunnies. They are the cutest balls of fur to ever fit in your hand, and they are an instant cure for those afternoon blahs. 

 On Ryan's birthday we purchased two weaner pigs from a young couple who raised them on all-organic feed in Hood River. The pigs are a heritage breed called American Guinea Hog, known for their sweet dispositions and propensity to forage. So, Burdock and Borage joined us on the land and have been excellent tillers.

We created a roving paddock system, using a solar panel charger, which sends electric currents through two rings of wire, placed low to the ground, where their more sensitive snouts would hit. This has (mostly) kept them in. The paddock is easy enough to move every few weeks, so they always have access to fresh forage material and never have to stand in their own feces or muck. Joel Salatin calls this the pig savannah.

Most recently, we found a big, beautiful dog named Thelma.  She is 110 pounds of love muffin.  A Great White Pyrenees mix, she is a trained working dog, and her specialty is guarding chickens.  She has also taken a liking to the bunnies...

In two weeks, they cleared a large section of a terrace, where I then easily planted blueberries and raspberries. They really are sweet creatures. I often hang out in their paddock and rub their bellies and let them crawl on my lap. I imagine that it will be difficult to slaughter them in September, but I would rather love them now and honor their lives, rather than trying to protect myself from grief by becoming emotionally detached.  


Many people have been surprised that we have named the pigs that we plan on eating.  It is such an odd logic to allow ourselves to name and love animals for pets, but not the ones that we will actually ingest.  I would rather eat something that has been well cared for, honored in life, and killed with respect.  Even with the movement for more sustainably-produced food, this respect is often still lacking. These are living creatures, and I will not pretend that I will not grieve for their loss. I also do not remove myself from the cycle of life and death, and I plan to wield the knife myself.

New life is what overwhelms right now.  

Ryan & Fraulein

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Finding Home

This is my life: I live in a barn with my sweet, hardworking, handsome fiance, four chickens, two rabbits, a disappearing cat, a shy mouse, and quite a few curious, yet respectful spiders.   I daydream about a Vita-mix and electricity to run it.   I also imagine bathtubs and hot, running water with which to fill them. Though these are good fodder for thought, I am content; more content, in fact, than I can ever remember being.
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I am awake before five this morning, laying in bed and listening to the rain pound on the metal roof of the barn. I pull on clothes from the day before, plus a wool jacket to defend against morning temperatures, even in August. I heave open one of the sliding barn doors to let in some light. Pale pink clouds make wispy streaks above the massive cedar trees. The chickens, hearing me rustle around, call out. I put the coffee percolator on the propane stove before going to let them out of their coop. Cricket-Cricket, Pincho, Fraulein, and Red hop-slide down the ladder directly to their food. Trillium, the doe rabbit, starts running back and forth in her hutch excitedly, while old-man Jackson sits in the bathroom corner of his hutch and stares with his huge, bunny eyes. The rain has stopped, though overhead trees drip an omnipresent reminder of the night's precipitation. By now the sky is clearing to light blue, and mauve clouds are drifting away to
Green manures sprouting.
make room for what looks like another hot day. Hopefully there was enough rain that I don't have to water the slope that is planted with green manure seeds, which need daily watering during this time. Of course, the area underneath the biggest cedar tree is bone dry. I did not have much hope for cultivation there, anyway. It also looks like the chickens are having a second breakfast of my seeds in that area. With all the blackberry removal that's been done, I am trying to protect the slope from erosion, while improving the quality of the soil after years of the invasive Himalayan blackberry, since the property has been abandoned for over ten years.
 I'm hoping the mix of winter grasses I planted take root before the fall rains come. Watering has been a task. The old water line is leaky, so we mostly leave it shut off at the meter, located a quarter mile up the road. When I want to water, I hook up a hose and sprinkler head to the outdoor spigot, open the attached valve, then head up the road to switch on the main line at the meter. This, however, is a luxury after hauling water up from the creek.
Kitchen before
Kitchen after
Because everything takes so long, each minor improvement feels monumental. A few amateur stairs that I created on the path are a source of pride. I never knew that a few hours spent with the weed-whacker (a recent purchase!) could so dramatically improve the landscape and my mood.

How many years have I been daydreaming about my homesteading future? How I would tend the garden, milk the goat, and put the finishing earthen plasters on my beautiful home? What a strange realization to awaken and find that I am, in fact, living what had always been in the future, and that none of it is as I had imagined. I knew it would be hard work—I looked forward to it, but I also did not realize just how hard it would be. And not just in the physical sense. This is the part of homesteading that was not a part of my fantasies: hauling years' worth of abandoned junk out of the woods, trying to determine the best way to...get water, power, make a floor, keep warm for the winter.  I find myself waiting for clear direction from an "expert," like the water company, for instance, but it seems like it's all up to us.
Sheet mulching
Ryan with coffee.
Bunny hutches

The first homesteaders, of course, did everything from scratch, similarly to what we are faced with, minus all of our modern tools. We are encumbered, instead, with county regulations and bureaucracies.  These are burdens that are borne under the pretext of safety. Moreover, early homesteaders were all in the same proverbial boat.  All MY neighbors have electricity, running water, and often pity, admire, or both, that we live in a barn with our chickens.   I really don't mind this lifestyle, except when I measure myself against my friends and neighbors, and I fall short according to some image of who I should be/what I should have by the time I turn thirty (in less than two months).   I enjoy waking up and going to bed, more or less, with the sun. I love that my chickens follow me around. I am very conscious of how much water I use, and carefully pour soapy water from one dish to the next to prevent waste. I limit the amount of food I buy and harvest because of the minimal space in the cooler. I enjoy the slow pace of this life, except when I need to work in town and be there at a specific time, smelling clean, and looking presentable. Much of this life is reminiscent of living in Paraguay. The difference is that, in Paraguay, everyone lived in this way.   Here it takes me much longer to simply live than anyone else I know.

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At a beekeeping conference a few weeks ago I was talking to the owner of an agriculture supply store. He was telling me how his son, an engineering student, is creating a chicken coop with a timed device to feed, water, and close the coop at night.   I was excited about the idea, since I have had to shorten my nights out and forgo weekend trips, due to the responsibility of caring for animals. The old-timer farmer who was also sitting at the table chastised me for being a “bad farmer.” I was hurt and defensive about his comment.   I never claimed to be a farmer, but his words stuck with me.   I should be home every night, tucking my animals to bed, but the reality is that I am still caught in a few different worlds . Is it possible to be a part-time farmer or part-time homesteader? I knew that the gift of having land would mean relinquishing some of my previous activities. My time and financial commitments have to be here. I made that choice. But that doesn't mean I do not feel called to go out late with my friends or go to festivals and forget about everything else for a while.  So, perhaps I am a bad farmer, but I'm not sure how much I'm willing to give up to be a good one.
Coop by Emily & Ryan

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I think that life could be divided according to our relationship to things: times of acquisition and times of letting go. With the exception of a few minor phases of purchasing and salvaging during college or while living in Paraguay, most of my adult life I have been constantly getting rid of things to make room for what I need, or at least with what I can easily move. Never before have I been in a position to just acquire stuff.  I am still using the same doddering, garage sale kitchen supplies from college, I own no furniture, and, besides the few boxes in storage, I have been able to carry what I own in the back of my truck, letting go of and acquiring new items here and there. Now I find myself hording irrigation line, old beekeeping equipment, unwanted sinks, and scraps of wood, just because they might have a use sometime.
Our backyard jungle.

Many of the items we have been collecting recently are coming from our neighbors who have sold their farm and are getting rid of two massive barns full of almost twenty years worth of country living.  Our neighbors, in general, have been extremely...well, neighborly, offering ripe pears, showers, and outlets to plug in our phones. Many of our neighbors come walking through our property, since we are butted up against hundreds of acres of forest, and there is a trail that can be accessed from our place. At first I was a little put off by having people just show up and walk by the barn. There was a part of me that felt possessive of my space and my privacy. Then I took a step back and realized that those were not my feelings, but feelings I thought I should have.   Actually, I realized, now that I know my neighbors, I love that I have something to offer them. It feels like community.
Southern View

Living in community is a blessing and a curse. Mostly it has been one blessing after another; we have been able to borrow tools, labor, and generally clean others' unwanted items. We have, however, been getting lots of unsolicited advice from our community, which, while sometimes helpful, also instills a strange resentment. We were talking to some friends, both psychologists, about it a few weeks ago, and they immediately understood what we were talking about. Having moved onto a sailboat for the first time, learned to sail, and then traveled around the glove, they encountered many people in the maritime world who each knew a different “right” way of doing anything. They call this catch-22 the “cost of collaboration.” It feels inherently good to work with others, to problem-solve as a whole, and become strong, as diverse minds and bodies can.  But it comes at a cost: loss of autonomy. Getting too many perspectives makes it hard to see the right choice. It is also plain annoying to have so many people in our business. Ultimately I know that I am blessed to live in a community where so many people want to see me succeed enough to offer advice. Collaboration is a beautiful thing. A trying, nail-biting thing that, of course, will make me a richer person...I hope, one day.
Again, bringing things back to living in Paraguay, one aspect of life down there which frustrated me most was my lack of privacy. Neighbors were always over to borrow something, offer something, check up on me. There was no escape, and I resented Paraguayans for wanting to hang out with me, for wanting my help, and for needing theirs. I did need their help. They all needed each other in a very unpretentious, straightforward way. That's where I realized what community really means. It was not about the “intention” people heave,but about allowing themselves (by choice or not) to rely on each other, without condoning dependence upon others. While my lack of privacy drove me crazy, from it blossomed the sense of community that became my fondest memories.

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This is just another homesteading blog, written by another wanderer, searching for some peace and meaning in this life. There are many others doing the same or similarly. The vast amount of literary works popping up all over about getting back to the land are increasing. The public is taking note. I do not claim to be doing something new, only something that feels right. The more convenient our lives become, the further we get from discerning what makes us truly happy from what we think will make us happy in the distant future if we only just get that job, or buy that thing, or live in that house.   Viveka is the Sanskrit word for “discernment.” In yogic philosophy we are taught to discern between the real (unchanging) and the unreal (changing) in order to stay on our paths. It is a constant practice to find the parts of me that are unchanging, that cultivate contentment. Electricity and running water will come, and I will appreciate their convenience. I will also know that I do not need them, because sitting in the dark, drinking mate with my love is the closest thing to real I have.

With my Paraguayan hoe.

Volunteer sunflower.


View from commode.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oh, Holy Waters

Health fads come and go, but one wellness tradition that I am grateful has endured since ancient civilizations is good old-fashioned hot water. One of our last stops in Ecuador was Banos de Aguas Santos. This Holy Water Bath town sits peacefully in the shadow of the “Black Giant,” Ecuador's largest active volcano, Tungurahua.

Banos has been a holy Catholic site and is presided over by a mountaintop statue of the Virgin of the Holy Waters. Banos is blessed by huge, green hills, usually cased in fog, cascading falls, and... hydro-thermal hot springs. Public pools were first established in 1928, though Ecuadorians have been flocking to these holy waters before then to alleviate pains and cure diseases.

Virgin of the Sacred Waters' view of Banos
In following the theme of health and relaxation, spas and health centers have popped up on every block. Our hostel even had their own steam room and Banos de Cajon (Box Baths), my new favorite thing. The steam boxes are made of wood with a simple bench inside and a spout that spews vapor through fresh eucalyptus leaves.

One sits in the box and is enclosed entirely except for the head. The intensity of the steam can be adjusted by a lever on the inside of the box. Ryan and I experienced the boxes three mornings in a row, with the assistance of a friendly bathing attendant...

He would close us into the box for five-minute sessions, interspersed with a lymph-stimulating cold towel slapping technique, a cold plunge with intestinal massage, and, finally, a rather painful hose down. The process is said to alleviate body pains, reduce blood pressure, control weight, reduce stress, increase blood circulation, remove toxins, and provide overall rejuvenation. While it was not the most relaxing forty minutes I have ever spent, I did indeed feel rejuvenated, albeit slightly disappointed that I lost much of my hard-earned tan from all the exfoliation. Moral of the story: sacred, steamy waters live on in our generations-long search for vitality!

View from the Cajon

Friday, February 1, 2013

Festival de Alasitas

After a few days of catching our breath (literally) in La Paz, Bolivia, we made our way to Copacabana, a 12,533-foot-high town on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca. At nearly two-and-a-half miles above sea level, we found ourselves wearing out our alpaca sweaters, yet lathering sunblock on our exposed hands and faces, as the sun marks its territory on all uncovered skin.
Copacabana has for centuries, and continues to be, the spot for religious pilgrimage and parties. We encountered some of both during the Festival de Alasitas. This is a festival of abundance, fertility, happiness, and prosperity. Ironically, Alasitas is an indigenous Aymara word meaning "buy me," which actually makes sense when you understand the custom.
On January 24th, the streets of Copacabana are laden with vendors selling miniature items: mini money, mini houses, mini cars, etc. The traditions is to buy for yourself or a loved one whatever it is you would like to manifest in life. As part of the celebration, vendors also sell miniature cakes and breads.
I was surprised to see an abundance of mini plastic poultry (there didn't seem to be a shortage of the real thing), until I found out that chickens, roosters, and chicks are used to represent relationships, family, and children. Who knew?
The festival is presided over by Ekeko, the Aymara god of abundance himself, or at least his doll-sized representation, a chubby little cigar-chewing figurine. After people have chosen their items, which include mini diplomas and divorce certificates, they have them blessed by one of the many Yatiris (priest/medicine man)lined up in the middle of the market who passes them over a smoking pot of palo santo.
This day is also a popular time to climb the old stone steps and pray for good fortune at the stations of the cross, which lead to the summit of Cerro Calvario, overlooking the lake. The climb is about 150 meters up from the town, which is serious business at altitude.
As we watched the sun set behind the mountains towards Peru, abundance was definitely in the air.