Berries as Big as the End of Your Thumb

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Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe!  You ought to have seen!

I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
~Robert Frost from “Blueberries”

 

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We live in the middle of a county with bountiful berries this time of year, both wild and farmed.

Just as sweet cherries are disappearing from the orchards and strawberry harvest finished a few weeks ago, now raspberries are going strong for almost three weeks and blueberries are hanging in heavy branch-busting clusters begging for relief.  Domesticated marion blackberries are already in the berry stands, but the wild evergreen and Himalaya wild blackberries are about two weeks from harvesting.  Local currants are shiny and glistening.  There are only a few cranberry bogs left in our area, hampered by marketing issues that favor New England’s crop.

It is truly a miracle to live within a few miles of all this lovely fruit, with many of them growing wild in our own back yards and woodlands.

There are still wild strawberries in close-to-the-ground crawling vines with little roundish-shaped berries with a slightly tart taste, far more savory than the standard sweet juice laden market strawberry.  Thimble berries hang from wild bushes – salmon colored, red and black varieties.  Orange huckleberries grow wild in the low lands, and purple huckleberries are happiest up in the foothills, a great treasure find for hikers.  Most highly prized, however, are the sweet tiny wild blackberries that are ripening on gentle winding vines right now at the edges of the woods and fences, as well as in roadside ditches or around tree stumps.  They command huge prices per pound because it takes such effort to find and pick them.

As a child of the Pacific Northwest, growing up on a farm with both wild and domesticated berry vines and bushes, this was simply part of summer as I knew it.  I watched the blossoms, then the forming fruit, then watched as the color would get just right, waiting to pick until the precise moment of ripeness before the birds would beat me to it.  I also picked in the local fields as a summer job, including wild blackberries from our own woods, for 3 cents a pound.  For the sweet wild blackberries, a yield of 75 cents was an exceptionally great day.

I preferred blueberry picking most of all.  When I now put a blueberry in my mouth, I transport back to those summer days that started at 6 AM, walking down the road to the neighbor’s berry field with pungent smelling peat ground converted from swamp to productive berry farm before the legislation that now prevents messing with wetlands.  The bushes were tall, towering over my head, providing shade in the hot sweaty July  sun.  The berry clusters were easy to find, there were no thorns to shred sleeves and skin, and the berries made a very satisfying *plink* when they hit the empty pail.  They didn’t smush, or bruise, and didn’t harbor many bees, spider webs or ugly bugs.  They were refreshingly sweet and rejuvenating when a quick snack was in order.   I wasn’t even aware, as I am now, that blueberries contain anthocyanins and other antioxidant chemicals believed to be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells.   In short, blueberries were perfect then, and they are perfect now.

There are now so many raspberry and blueberry fields in our county,  the price per pound has dropped and the market is shaky.  A few years ago one farmer put a full page ad in the local newspaper today, begging the public to come pick his ripe blueberries at 99 cents a pound, just to get them off his bushes.  I stopped by another farm’s roadside stand and chatted with the Sikh owner and his three young sons as they measured out my 5 pounds of luscious blueberries.  He was philosophical about the low prices, explaining he was a patient man, and he hoped the bushes would yield blue gold for his family for a very long time, even if some years are low price years.

Some raspberry farmers aren’t feeling so optimistic this year as their primary corporate buyer backed out at the last minute, and the fragile berries are just falling off the bushes for lack of a place to be processed.  Sadly, it is possible some berry fields will be torn out and converted to some other crop with more certain market potential.

As a fellow farmer, I am aware of how one’s carefully tended crops can go to waste, whether it is due to weather or pests or the vagaries of the market.  I hope our berry farmers can persist through the hard times so the exquisite perfection of a local berry bounty can continue in such variety of colors, shapes and sizes, even some as big as the end of your thumb.

 

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So God Made a Farmer

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And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.

“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon — and mean it.” So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.

God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.

God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bails, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.

“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.'” So God made a farmer.
~Paul Harvey (1978)

icyfarm

Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land’s inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.
~Wendell Berry

Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live. If the scale of their farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children.
~Wendell Berry from Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food

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The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
~Masanobu Fukuoka 

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photo by Nate Gibson

It is hard for my husband and I to ignore our genetic destiny to struggle as stewards of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. Our blood runs with DNA of dairy farmers, wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called us from the city and our professional lives to come back home and care for a piece of ground and its animals. So we heeded and here we remain, some 32 years later, children raised and gone.

Perhaps the call of the farmer genes will bring one of them back to the land.  Because farmers are hand-picked for the job by God Himself.

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Get On With Work

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There were two ways to live: get on with work,
redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).
In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
~Rachel Hadas from “The End of Summer”
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I did not grow up in a household that took time off.  Time was redeemed by work, and work was noble and honorable and proved we had a right to exist.
Vacation road trips were rare and almost always associated with my father’s work.  When he came home from his desk job in town, he would immediately change into his farm clothes and put in several hours of work outside, rain or shine, light or dark.  My mother did not work in town while we were children, but worked throughout her day in and outside the house doing what farm wives and mothers need to do: growing, hoeing, harvesting, preserving, washing, cleaning, sewing, and most of all, being there for us.
As kids, we had our share of chores that were simply part of our day as work was never done on a farm. When we turned twelve, we began working for others: babysitting, weeding, barn and house cleaning, berry picking.  I have now done over fifty years of gainful employment – there were times I worked four part-time jobs at once because that was what I could put together to keep things together.
I wish there had been more times I had taken a few moments to be more like the cows I see meandering, tranquil and unconcerned, in the surrounding green pastures. Part of every day now I pull myself away from the work to be done, the work that is always calling and staring me in the face, and try a different way to redeem my time: to notice, to record, to observe, to appreciate beauty that exists in the midst of chaos and cataclysm.
Life isn’t all about non-stop labor, yet we get on with our work because work is about showing up when and where we are needed. Not being cows, we may feel we have no choice in the matter. Just maybe, like cows, we can manage to slow down,  watch what is happening around us, and by chewing our cud, keep contemplating and digesting whatever life feeds us, the sweet and the sour.
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An Ancient Companion

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The cold has the philosophical value of reminding men that the universe does not love us…cold is our ancient companion.   To return back indoors after exposure to the bitter, inimical, implacable cold is to experience gratitude for the shelters of civilization, for the islands of warmth that life creates.
~John Updike from “The Cold”

We’ve had a string of sub-freezing temperature nights and days with crystal clear skies once the frozen fog abates.  There has been no northeaster to send the windchill plummeting.  Everything shimmers with diamonds of frosty glitter all day long.  It is the kind of cold this pacific northwest native can actually enjoy.  It is not the cold of the midwest plains, or the Alaskan frontier.  This is civilized, “kill the bugs and the allergens” cold that helps balance out the ecosystem as well as our internal thermostats.  It is just not seemly to live at 70 degrees year round, toasted by the stove in the winter, soothed by conditioned air in the summer.

We are not always so lucky as this.  The cold that sometimes descends from the Arctic can blast through the strongest Carhartt clothing, sneak through drafty doors and windows, and freeze pipes not left dripping.  It leaves no one untouched and unbitten with universal freezer burn.

A bitter cold snap ensures even independent fair-weather individualists must become companionable when the going gets rugged, mandating shelter with others for survival.  It can even mean forced companionship with those we ordinarily avoid, with whom we have little in common, with whom we disagree and even quarrel, with whom sharing a hug or snuggling for warmth would be unimaginable.

Our nation is in such a cold snap today, terribly and bitterly divided.  If we all together don’t come in out of the deep freeze, we each will perish alone.   It is time to be thankful we have each other, such as we are.  At least we can generate heat, even if we can’t lighten up.

The Farm Dream

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This time of year our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold.  The cherry orchard blossoms yield to fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass.  By mid-June, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM.   So many hours of light to work with!  I yearn for a dark rainy day to hide inside with a book.  Instead the lawnmower and weed whacker call my name, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be weeded.  It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this.  It’s just that nothing we do is enough.  Blackberry brambles have taken over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles spread on the fields in May are growing exponentially again.  The fences always need fixing.  The stall doors are sticking and not closing properly.  Foals have gotten large and strong without having the good halter lessons they needed when they were much smaller and easier to control.   The supply of bedding shavings is non-existent due to the depressed lumber industry, so our shavings shed is bare and old hay is now serving as bedding in the stalls. The weather has become iffy in the last week so no string of days has been available for hay cutting– we are low on the priority list of the local dairy man who cuts and bales our hay,  so we may not have anything but junk hay in the barn this winter in a year when hay will cost a premium.  No one is buying horses in this economy, not even really well bred horses, so we are no longer breeding our stallion and mares, and for the first time in 18 years, have made the painful decision not to be part of our regional fair.

Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.

We have spent many years dreaming about the farm as we hoped it would be.  We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful.  Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe.  We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 25 year old hand me down truck with almost 200,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming as well as a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year.  Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents.  We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup.  The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything.  We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses.   Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.

And our house would always stay clean.

Dream on.  Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes.   I know ours is.  Yet here we be and here we stay.

It’s home.  We’ve raised three wonderful children here.  We’ve bred and grown good horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields.  We breathe clean air and daily hear dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven.  Eagles land in the trees in our front yard. It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm.  I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality.  Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older.   Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.

We have been blessed with one another, with the sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between.  This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.

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Mountain Lions in the Shadows

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Published in Country Magazine 2007

Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.

They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them warming near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…

We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.

But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.

These rascals are two gray tabbies, one black and one gray, perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.

You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasing gray hair.

I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.

I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.

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Pointing in the Right Direction

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Which way will the wind blow tomorrow?

It is a cold wind, whether coming from the south or the north, chilling our bones as various weather fronts meet and clash overhead, with more snow in the forecast.

A cold wind is blowing through America right now as well, not just on our farm.

There is considerable turmoil as Americans adjust to the new reality of  “pay as you go” rather than “borrow for what you desire”.   Our parents were  Great-Depression era children, so Dan and I heard plenty of stories convincing us never to reach beyond our means.  My grandmother, who moved with her three young children 20 miles away from home in order to cook morning, noon and night in a large boarding house, was  grateful for the work that allowed her to feed her family, even if it meant separation from their jobless, depressed and often intoxicated father for weeks at a time.  She told stories of making sandwiches to feed hobos who knocked on the kitchen door, hoping for a hand out, and after sitting briefly on the back steps eating what she could offer from left over scraps, they would be on their way again, walking on down the muddy road, hoping somewhere farther along there may be another handout or perhaps a day’s work.   Even in her time of trouble, my grandmother could find blessing in the fact she and her children had a roof over their heads, beds to sleep in (all in one room) and food to fill their stomachs.  There were always people worse off and she wasn’t one of them.

My grandmother never lived comfortably, by her own choice, after that experience.  She could never trust that tomorrow things would be as plentiful as today, so she rarely rested, never borrowed, always saved even the tiniest scrap of food, of cloth, of wood, as it could always prove useful someday.   My father learned from those uncertain days of his childhood and never borrowed to buy a car or a piece of furniture or an appliance.   It had to be cash, or it was simply not his to purchase, so he never coveted what he did not have money to buy outright.

So we, the next generation, were raised that way.  Even so,  borrowing began with loans for college, and then for the first car, and then for the first house.

But with grandma’s and dad’s stories fresh in our minds, we knew we couldn’t start that slippery slope of borrowing to take vacations or buy  the latest and greatest stuff or build the bigger house.   So we didn’t.

We live simply, drive our vehicles past 200,000 miles, continue to harvest and preserve from the garden, use appliances past the 25 year mark.

Now the chill wind has shifted again, and we wonder where it will blow us.   Now, instead of worrying our Haflinger horses could be stolen from our farm,  I worry I will wake to find neglected horses abandoned in one of our empty stalls, or our fields.   Joblessness is rising quickly, families lose their health benefits,  prospective retirees lose their annuities, and food bank lines are getting longer. What was taken for granted for decades is no longer a given.  Everyone is having to reconsider what their basic needs are for survival day to day.

It isn’t stuff.  It isn’t big houses.  It isn’t brand new cars or the latest gadgets.

It’s being under the same roof as a family, striving together and loving each other.  It is taking care of friends when they need help.  It is reaching out to the stranger in our midst who has less than we have.

The wind is pointing us back to the values we had long forgotten as we got much too comfortable.   It takes a storm to find that true contentment can rest only within our hearts.