Have a question?
Want to visit us on the farm?
Email Anna Alkin,
aka Big Mama,
It may be all the creation stories that I’ve been reading, but I am overtaken with the desire to start planting fruit trees this fall. Perhaps it's because tending vegetables in the garden is so time-consuming compared with caring for and harvesting fruit from trees. Perhaps it's because I’m wanting to put deeper roots down as we enter our third year of living in Eugene. Or perhaps loving fresh apples, cherries, plums, and pears is reason enough. With the coming of each spring, and each fall, an new project bubbles up from within me to try on this patch of earth we call home.
Last fall’s project began with a flock of baby chicks in our bathtub. I’m glad I limited our initial foray into chickens to fifteen. Keeping the girls and our rooster on pasture has been more difficult than I had foreseen, as the past summer burned up all the available grass.
With each new project that we embark on, be it our garden, our pastured chickens, or the strawberry orchard, the demands on our limited water supply grow. Living without a trace of rain for months this summer made me hesitant to use our precious water to irrigate the fields. If only water wells came with the equivalent of a gas gauge, so you could know whether you have water to spare — or not. But the only way to know your well is going dry is that your water starts to become thick and brown with mud. Then, of course, it’s too late. So you play it as safe as you can, choosing what to water and what not to water, hoping that you don’t end up taking baths with bottled water before the rains return again.
Without pasture, and with only chicken feed to eat (organic feed at that), our chickens grew more susceptible to illness. We lost our first chicken, Nieves, last month to intestinal parasites. She taught me a thing or two for the good of our flock, though, like adding apple cider vinegar to their water when we have no grass to help keep their intestinal pH optimal for killing parasites.
A friend of mine is growing fodder for her chickens, basically sprouting seeds or beans to feed as a source of protein and greens when the pastures are dry. Because I don’t want to work that hard to feed my chickens, I’m interested in looking into using gray water from our washing machine to irrigate the chicken pasture. The tiny little problem with this idea is that it will likely require that we venture into do-it-yourself plumbing. So fodder it may be. While I knew there would be some kinks to work out in the care and management of our chickens, I didn’t dream that water would be the primary limiting factor in growing pastured eggs in Oregon.
Now, however, the rains have returned with such intensity that we have set new records for September rainfall. The grass is springing up again, and I have planted cover crops where the chickens laid the earth bare this summer. With the return of the water, I face a new challenge: keeping my young strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry plants from being overwhelmed by a tsunami of grass.
Much as you can lose a car under deep snowfall in the Northeast, here in the Pacific Northwest you can lose hoses, garden tools, and even small plants to grass growth in a matter of weeks. But I’m not complaining -- I love it.
This is my discipline of joy -- playing outside in the elements, joining myself to the fresh air and soil, to the lives of chickens and bees -- though as with any discipline, it can be a challenge to keep going. There's a saying that you should meditate 30 minutes a day, or an hour if you are too busy to meditate. The same goes for maintaining a discipline of joy: spend thirty minutes a day doing the things you love to do, or mindfully doing the things you do for love, unless you're too busy and need a full hour to fill your well.
As far as our bees go, I'm not sure how well our remaining hive is doing after the loss of our first beehive last winter. I decided not to harvest any honey once again this fall, so as to allow the bees to keep their hard-earned stores for winter. Two weeks ago, when I was planning to get into the hive, the rains came, temperatures dropped, and it was no longer an opportune time to open it up and take look inside. Instead, I have been spending my time sitting at the hive entrance. There hasn’t been any traffic coming in or out, and I don’t have a good feeling about the prognosis for my remaining hive.
As I sat meditating on the silent hive earlier this week, though, I did have a bee buzz past my head en route to some other place. Bees manage to find me wherever I am, it seems. This summer, while picking blueberries at a local farm, a seven-year-old girl in my party came up to me to say: “You are a friend of the bees.” At first I thought she must know about our beekeeping, but when I asked her why she thought this, she said “Because I’ve been watching the bees come to visit you since we’ve been here.” The sweet nectar of these words has gone a long way in helping me hang in there with the elusive art of keeping bees in these challenging times.
My forty Gernika pepper plants, grown from seed hailing from the farm where my grandmother was born and raised in Spain, yielded over 10 gallons of peppers. The unseasonably warm, dry summer was perfect for growing peppers, if not chickens. These peppers are so mild and flavorful after they are sautéed in olive oil with a pinch of salt that my 8-year-old, Ian, has been known to eat twenty at a sitting.
Will raised the tomatoes for our family this year, and had much better success than I’ve had in years past. Now, Ian wants a portion of our family garden in which to raise “cube of butter” summer squash and any other crops he thinks are likely to succeed.
Initially, I had hoped to grow more of our own food in the garden than I am managing. The beauty of hitting the limits of what I can do with my available time and energy, however, is that each member of my family now has a chance to plant, nurture, and harvest food that they grew with their own hands. I may not be growing many vegetables, but this life of ours is yielding a family rooted in the seasons, the soil, and in the knowledge of how to nurture new life.
From Black Elk Speaks: "Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. ...And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy."
It is time to plant fruit trees, just as it is time to plant the vision of Black Elk in the soil of this world with each interaction that we have with others. From small seeds, great flowering trees grow.