Its easier to sleep with the rain pattering down the roof. Easier still when you are blissfully unaware of the layer of ice forming thicker from every splash. We had thawed for two weeks when I woke this morning to that glisten I have come to know. At first its hard to tell the difference in the wet and the frozen until you charge down the porch stairs with your shoes untied, confident in your choice and the discipline I am doling out to the three dogs standing apprehensive in the driveway. That first slip of my boot wakes up something primal in my soul. Where one instant before I was concerned with my dominance over the canines before me, I am swiftly reminded that the natural hierarchy does not stop at man, but continues onward to the immovable forces of nature above all else. The first slip caught me off guard enough to give me time to contemplate my fate in the air while my feet splayed out, level to my waist in front of me. I came down hard with a cedar stair making a perfect line across my left butt cheek that would blossom from red, to purple, to blue black glory in the days to come. Inertia pulls me bouncing down a half a dozen more steps before this superior animal can grab hold to the stays of the railing and bring my body to a halt. In that moment of stillness that followed I let our a singularly pathetic scream, more guttural than one in the face of terror, but with less commitment than a fit of rage. It was not for any reason than my own appeasement. I was all alone on the farm that day, so no one came to my aid. I did manage to stop the dogs in their tracks. What could have been an hours long search for the furry explorers of Fern Ridge turned to three frozen figures in the driveway, awaiting commands to obey and avoid the frustration they can see building behind my eyes as I fight back tears. They come anyway in a few minutes. Who are you being strong for when you’re alone on the farm?
When it happened I swore I wasn’t going to tell anyone. Its embarrassing to me to not have control of my own body. Hurting myself has always made my shame flare so high the color of cheeks belies my calm assurances of nonchalance. I can’t hide it for long. My body can’t hide the limp or the swelling of a bruise, and I also can’t resist a good chance to over-dramatize my own moments of incompetence. But today the bruise is all but gone. It lingered for longer than the ice and its last remnants survived to this morning and the beginning of the next freeze cycle. If this is the beginning of another cycle. It’s hard to say, this season is not like the other Oregon winters we have lived through. In Portland last year, we had an ice storm. This isn’t the uncommon part. The ice comes every year in some form or another. Not snow, snow is rare, but the ice creeps in year after year. So now as I sit in my cabin on a Friday morning, typing away to the background music of freezing rain and public radio (shout out to KLCC!), I am thankful that at least we will not have the deep freeze that gripped the three beginning weeks of 2017. The snow was beautiful, but the power loss, frozen pipes, and homebound days took a toll on our well being. Now we will just stay put for the morning and hold out for a sunny afternoon. Yesterday paid off in this regard. Although we didn’t exactly hunker down. We took Ru to his favorite dog park as the drops began to fall and one turn around the main field of Zumult Park gave me chills and windburn I didn’t see coming when layering my jackets that morning. But yesterday’s morning malaise melted into a clear, crisp, sunny, 50 degree day. The sun blazed above and Joey and I took advantage of the time to turn up some more beds in the half acre garden plot attached to the chicken coop. To be completely honest, this was my first time helping Joey with this task. He has been working slowly on the days with good weather since I took that campaign job in October to make ends meet. During that time, my days were full of class raps, chasing down new voters, and trying to fly under the radar of campus security as I put up posters where they didn’t belong. He watched the dogs and tended the chickens and churned the earth for our plot this year.
I could have helped on the weekends. This was the first campaign job that didn’t require weekend work (most weeks) and allowed us to leave the office before 10pm on a normal day. But despite those addendum to the “campaign hours” policy I didn’t find the strength to dig the 12’x4′ beds out of the hard clay of our foothill soil on my days off. But yesterday gave me my real chance. I put my shovel to the dirt and turned the big, sticky, triangular hunks of clay into the middle of the proposed bed in an even rectangular outline. I carved the dirt out of the ground, guided by the marker stakes at the corners and by the one shovel blade depth edict set before me by the master of the dig. Joey checked my work as I went to make sure I was living up to the standards set by the others. When I had turned up the entirety of my bed I took a bucket to the back of the garden and filled it once with sand, twice with compost, and once with manure. After completing my trips and spreading the richness on the beds I turned and broke the pyramids of soil I had tossed about to make sure the new nutrients and lightening agents made the clay a habitable and breathable place where a plant could really put down roots. Meanwhile, the ducks had taken notice. In one of the many configurations of fowl freedom we have tried to limit the ill-effects of over grazing, the ducks are currently roaming in the berry patch and the garden. Since it is too early to plant anything (other than the garlic that’s been in the ground since October and is fenced off for good measure) they can roam the garden and eat the grass sprouts…..and all of the cover crop but eh, pick your battles. They also provide some much needed organic matter to try to liven up the soil further.
But the real reason they came to me in my hour of not-needing-any-help-from-ducks is that me turning over the top foot of soil has exposed the worm population of the Southern Willamette Valley to the light of day. Every glob of clay I pry from the surface flops over to reveal 2-5 wriggling, writhing, worms, some just wisps of flesh in the soil and some like living number 2 pencils, thick and strong enough to conquer a state education assessment with ease or at least try to fight back into the soil before being devoured by a thoroughly un-molded mind. Ducks quack and waddle over my recent progress, plucking unlucky worms from the mud. As they dig deeper to get the “good stuff” the mud on their bills builds up into Bozo the Clown noses, perfectly round, on the end of the bill. All the luckiest and most zealous ducks seem to wear them with honor. Quacking and flapping the other ducks away becomes a part of their muddy mandate of heaven as they pursue the last of their pray into the danger zone. I am still there turning the dirt and making the neccessary shovel and pick strikes to bring the dirt into line. Some ducks, emboldened by their success waddle right into the line of fire, almost getting decapitated by a flying shovel blade in my tired hands. The repetition of the movement makes it easier after a while and the flow of constant dig and turn and dig and turn make the weight of the shovel more bearable. The ducks wander in and I shoo them out between rhythmic shovel strikes. I look to Joey for suggestions on the deluge of small, befeathered souls crowding up my work space and he says “Have you touched one yet?” The simplest solution is often the best it seems. The next time they creep too close I reach out and run my hand along a black duck’s back. It panics immediately and the melee involved in that duck getting as far as it can from my roaming hands sends the others running far and wide around the compost bins and hoses that fill the west end of the garden enclosure. But as I turn the dirt, repeating the duck touch as necessary, I see the soil turn from chunks of heavy clay to the broken down more manageable top soil we need for the season.
As I dig I think about how much time we’ll really have for our plot. I hope that we can get everything going in a timely manner and then only have to do some maintenance and harvest during the height of the season. Joey and I recently accepted a job working on Ambrosia Farm for the growing season. We’ll start soon enough (in March probably depending on weather) and help the farm manager, Brandon, do everything that needs doing. The open ended nature of this feels exciting and worrisome because we will see EVERYTHING that operating a 5-acre, highly diversified, organically grown (not certified yet) takes, which is great if we are realistically going to be doing this ourselves in 3-5 years, but we will be doing EVERYTHING. Brandon has been operating the farm all by his lonesome for the past few years and we are just here to help so I do not fear that it will be overwhelming. If he can do it all on his own then he can show us what needs to be done and we’ll split it over two more people. But the back of my mind is nervous to get what we say we’ve always wanted. Nothing comes without a learning curve or a period of adjustment. Our five year plan could be derailed or set in stone by this summer so I am planning to fully fling my life into it. As we have heard from many people in the ag community in Eugene, farming is a calling, not a job. Like being a priest I guess. But what if the calling we heard was just static from all the NOISE in our lives and we followed it to find out if it was words at all. As I dig the garden bed and think these unclean thoughts I realize it doesn’t matter what I am thinking right now. It only matters what I think after the season. If in November I can say I did all I could and I learned everything offered to me then I will be able to rightly say that this is it, or it is not. And when I find the big it, I can only have faith that I will know. Just like how I am digging really aggressively here now and I can only have faith that I won’t hit the irrigation pipes. I have to believe that my understanding of the pipes pattern under the soil is what I think it is until I find it differently. If I spend all of my time digging slowly and circuitously to avoid a pipe i don’t know is there, it will take twice as long and be half as satisfying. Best to just dig on your beliefs for the future, eh?
And so now as the rain picks up again on the roof, with Ru whining away his inside day at the foot of the bed, I know I’ll know the ice when I see it. At least I hope I see it in time to plant my feet.