This blog contains 1000 posts. Posting to Blogger with such a large archive has become unwieldy. Also, your blogista, who is sewing a kesa, is not writing much at present. She has ceased adding new posts. Still-active links are here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

The shed


This is a good month for clearing the potting shed for action.

Ours is the remnant of a particularly decrepit lean-to, which the previous owner constructed out of whatever was handy, and used mainly to store trash and to indulge, with the use of a perilously derelict woodstove, in melting lead for a lifetime's supply of sinkers and split shot. As I stood looking at this structure, which had helped by its presence to bring down the asking price on the property, the neighbor, a stout and cheery farm woman who had befriended us in our first week with a gift of raspberry starts, fetched up on the other side of the boundary fence.

"You are going to rip down that eyesore, aren't you?" she asked. "First thing?"

So I felt I had an obligation, but once inside, I found that my predecessor had used beams, taken up from the floors of some defunct lumbermill, each eight inches square and sixteen feet long, for framing the roof. I am no longer young, and the prospect of dismantling those massive rafters dismayed me. I immediately began to think of the "eyesore" as the "barn and potting shed," and within days began installing walls, windows, and doors. A coat of red fence stain on the barn boards of the walls, and cheery green trim on the window frames, produced a pleasing enough effect that my neighbor has never called me to account on our unspoken contract. At least, that's my interpretation!

One side of the building, about two-thirds, is given over to Beloved's ducks and her retired show rabbits. We put down straw bedding over the bare earth, and change it periodically; this becomes our favorite mulch and top dressing, as it is rich in duck and rabbit manure but not enough so to burn plants noticeably.

It is pleasant, every morning, to go hunting for eggs in the tiny barn. The ducks, Khaki Campbells, produce almost an egg a day each, which they never look at again, but they do like to build their communal nest in a different spot each night.

The other half of the building is the potting shed, which we also call the greenhouse, but that's stretching things a bit.

To construct this space, so necessary to the garden, I began by removing the south wall and framing in rafters for three sliding glass doors, which had been donated by a friend. These lean against the building and form a kind of large greenhouse window. The east wall, against the duck room, is for tools. Before I did anything else, I gathered the tools, old friends that had gardened with me on four sites in Oregon and one in Pennsylvania, and hung them along the weathered grey boards: two round-point shovels, one square-point, one d-ring spade, a garden fork, a hay fork, two toothed rakes, one mattock, two stirrup hoes, a pry bar, a splitting maul, a bow saw, machete, lopping shears.

A comforting sight, these, lined up, waiting for orders. Even in the dead of winter I sometimes go out to look at them and touch each one.

The floor was a matter of concern. My predecessor had laid out some of the precious beams directly on the soil and covered them with 1/2 inch plywood. Dry rot and carpenter ants had made of this area a serious ankle trap. I asked my oldest boy and his friend if they wanted exercise. With the pry bar and the maul, they made a joyful noise and large chunks of erstwhile flooring flew out the door for about half an hour.

I considered using the bare earth, but as I knew I would be watering plants inside, I looked about for something more suitable. Bricks were what I wanted, but used bricks go for a dollar apiece hereabouts. I mentioned this, in a woebegone manner, to a friend.

"Well, I might have just the thing. There is a dangerous chimney on the house I use for an office building, which would cost me a fortune to have taken down by masons. If you can do the job I'll pay you and you can keep the bricks."

I thought this was a godsend and took our pickup truck and a rented forty foot ladder to the site. This turned out to be, to my horror, a two-story house with a sixty-degree pitch. I'd need the whole length of the ladder to get at the thing -- forty feet doesn't sound like much but just try it sometime -- but the bricks, the bricks!

Greed overcame good sense, and there I was, a million miles above the earth it seemed to me, plucking bricks from midair (the mortar was completely shot) and tossing them at random over my shoulder into space. They made a lovely truckload, though, and with the aid of my nine-year-old daughter, the next day, I laid them in a herringbone pattern, just like the ones pictured in garden books, and they made exactly the length and width of the room.

In the west wall I installed wood-framed windows in a row at table height, then dragged a suitable "bench" from the garage and painted it green ( for good luck? Why do we insist on green potting benches?). Using roofing nails, I covered the top of the bench with linoleum. The bench had been a kitchen cabinet once, but had long since lost its doors and hinges. I installed it along the west wall beneath the windows, and filled its shelves with clay pots, green plastic pots of all sizes, and tomato cans. With the addition of a watering can, two trowels, and a couple of bags of potting soil, the shed was done!

I envisioned opening the door through the years, admiring the herringbone pattern of the bricks, the row of waiting tools, the sun shining in through the greenhouse window on ranks of flats bursting with lettuce, broccoli, chard...ahhh.

"Hello!" said Beloved. "I need to put the duck feed, the rabbit feed, and the geese's cob in here."

Excuse me? Three large-size garbage cans? But there's no arguing with fate. Soon other items, large and small, came marching in, like animals into the ark. Boxes, lengths of hose, "white buckets" (even the green ones are called "white"), old pillows (she uses these to kneel on while working in the earth), you name it....

So now, in midwinter, when it's as dark as an eclipse all day anyway, is the time to clean out. Find out which things can go in the garage instead. Find all the broken plastic pots and move them out. Sort and stack the ones that are left. Take the edged tools, one by one, to the garage to be wire-brushed, filed, oiled, and have their handles linseed-oiled. Slowly the shed will begin to look useful. Even some of the beautiful floor begins to appear. But I don't think I'll ever get rid of those huge trash cans. They have made themselves At Home.

Saturday, January 12, 2002

O Zion

There is another small mountain about two miles from here that is covered with a network of trails, and is the centerpiece of an attractive county park. The mountain's south slope is a steep meadowland, interspersed with copses of black oak, and dotted with wild plum trees; the north slope is forested with second growth Douglas fir and carpeted with an understory of sword ferns, viney maples, and filberts gone wild.

I like to hike to the top, though each year I find the going a little harder, and look about me. Below, two rivers come together after dodging round the mountain toward each other. With binoculars I can find, in season, fishermen seeking steelhead and salmon.

To the north there is considerable urbanization; I can see at one glance the second largest metropolitan area in my state, but it is not unattractive as cities go, and I can forgive its noise and bustle for its not being any worse (yet) than it is.

To the south and east is the valley of one of the rivers, opening out of the foothills of a substantial and still very wild mountain range. In winter the eastern peaks are dusted white with snow, and present a dramatic and lovely scene; but my interest is generally drawn to the near view.

At my feet are a succession of habitats: the eastern ridge of the mountain, with Douglas fir forest to the left and oaks to the right, with perhaps a herd of deer placidly browsing in plain view; the meadowland within the park boundary, with a few pear trees left over from some farm venture in the previous century; the wetlands with its dark patches of sedge and the occasional blue heron.

Beyond are pastures, woodlots, filbert orchards, and fields used mostly for corn, hay, and grass seed farming. Threading among these, I see, are narrow roads along which are some two hundred houses, on properties of anywhere from one to two hundred acres, with their barns, outbuildings, and accumulated belongings left to the winter rains and summer sun: trucks, tractors, harrows, drift boats, and an occasional stove or washing machine. Most of us in this valley are not especially poor, but we are a thrifty people, many only two or three generations descended from pioneers, and we make but few trips to the county dump.

Almost no one here can earn a living from farming now.

We are an amalgam of loggers, retirees, and commuters. The commuters are of two classes: the professionals -- doctors, dentists, and the like -- and the rest. These are mostly school teachers, store clerks, and office workers. I am in this last group.

Regardless of category, almost every one of us has a garden. I can see the gardens from the mountaintop: at every house, a brown patch within easy access of the kitchen door. Some of us have enough pasture for a horse or two, or a few steers; I have room for a flock of ducks and geese; but if there is nothing else, there is a garden. Gardens here have a priority over lawns. This is a thing that I greatly admire in my neighbors.
If, like the people in my valley, you want to grow things, it can be a good idea to try to get an eagle's eye view. If no mountain is handy, try a map. Most gardeners know the dates of frost in their "zone," but there is much more to know. Find out the direction of the prevailing winds, the angle of winter sun, the temperature of June nights. Know the depth of the water table in August.

From the mountaintop I can see that the valley runs east and west, and that the river is nestled against the northern hills; among these is Jasper Mountain, which looks much smaller than from here than from my garden.

My own little piece of land is in the middle distance, on the long glide of slope from the south hills to the river. There is a seasonal creek through the property, dry in summer and a raging torrent in winter. This means that I'm in a low-lying spot, subject to the movement of air. In winter the wind comes from the southwest generally, in the form of Pacific storms laden with incessant rain. These winds chill the soil, and the water that drops from them saturates it and renders it clammy. Pools lie on the surface in winter with no place to drain away to, as the water table is even with the surface. Dig a post-hole anywhere and it fills to overflowing. So gardens tend to be planted late, well after the dates recommended on seed packets.

In summer the water table drops to ten, twenty, or even thirty feet, while the winds are continual, shifting daily from north to south. This is because of our mountain ranges. The sun heats the slopes, and air rises, drawing air away from the river bottom. At night, this air cools and sinks back down along draws and creek valleys toward the river.

Gardens in this drainage must be almost continually watered, as the tender plants are subject to drying out. Watering is more frequent than the books recommend; corn begins wilting within a day of its last soaking. At night the wind stops, but heat radiates away quickly among the glitterings of the stars, and temperatures can drop into the forties (fahrenheit) by morning, even if it's been close to a hundred degrees during the day.

All this gives tomato lovers fits. But we persist.

The wiser among us build wooden fences, or hedge their gardens about with shrubbery or even hay bales, to combat the winds and the heat loss. A heavy mulch would help, but the main mulching material is straw. The straw available locally contains a lot of weed seeds, and it invites tremendous armies of slugs and snails of all sizes. No one seems to care for black plastic, which takes a lot of fiddling with in the shifting winds, or newspaper, so most of the gardeners keep their soil bare and cultivated. The majority use herbicide to control grass, which is the primary weed; I have reason to believe herbicide is the greater evil in this case, and use the straw mulch, trying to stay just ahead of the weeds by piling on more.

It's January.

Most of us have not had much chance to think about gardening. We have had record rains, with some manual guages registering 93 (!!) inches. That other river, the one you can see to the southwest from the mountaintop, recently jumped its banks and flooded two hundred homes, making the national news.

The creek on our place, which doesn't even exist half the year, rose to the foundation of the house and flooded the potting shed, which I'd thought of as standing on high ground. Three fences were destroyed, and tons of earth moved in the general direction of the Pacific.

But the garden was spared.

The vetch that I planted last fall for green manure is intact, as are the piles of leaves and the compost bin. The wintered-over red chard is still useable, and our Detroit Red beets are superb. Meanwhile, our first harbingers of spring -- elephant garlic, growing from those tiny cloves that stay in the soil when we pull the crop -- have sprung from the cold, heavy soil, dotting the view from our kitchen window like randomly dibbled irises. And on the rainy nights, between the gusts of Pacific wind, we can hear the first chirruping choruses of the green tree frogs. I found one once in high summer, napping as it were, on the shore of a pond of water in the angle of a sunflower leaf. Their sound is, to me, a promise of sunflowers yet to come. I fall asleep to their frantic cheeping, and dream of green things growing in the sun.

Saturday, January 05, 2002

Jasper mountain

I have a handful of garden chairs stacked in the porch area of my country home, and from time to time lift the topmost from the stack, dust it off, and carry it through dew-spangled grass to a point below the fruit trees and above the garden, where a vista opens across the neighbor's field to a bluff, or ridge, locally called Jasper Mountain, in the distance.

The ridgeline has changed shape a bit over the years, due to human activity. There has been intermittent logging there over the last century and a half, beginning with the harvesting of giant Douglas firs, some over eight feet in diameter, which were cut with long two-man handsaws known as misery whips, and more lately of second-growth or even third-growth timber, efficiently reduced to second-grade lumber and "fiber" by highly capitalized and industrialized systems requiring generous doses of petroleum for their operation.

A few houses have appeared there also, no doubt built with lumber hauled from somewhere far removed from the ridge and its sometime groves. These homes are expansive, two or even three stories in height, with cupolas and dormers, with each a large veranda and no doubt a swimming pool in the back.

To get to these homesites, roads several miles long were added to the existing network of what were originally logging access roads, removing still more forest cover from the steep slopes, and adding to the burden of silt in the numerous rivulets working their way down from the ridgeline to the river below, which I cannot see from my seat by the garden, but which makes its presence felt by the line of tall black cottonwoods and Oregon ash that runs along the base of the ridge.

The river is stressed -- not nearly so much so as at Portland, a hundred miles or more downstream, with its three-eyed fish -- but where running water is concerned, such stresses are cumulative over distance. Wherever we find rivers, we regard them with interest.

I can also see changes in the massive promontory that gives the mountain its name.

The rock there is relatively high quality, a greenish basalt that makes good gravel for roads and construction sites. A quarry has been built into the face of the mountain, and a road, discreetly hidden among firs and big-leaf maples, provides access for huge dump trucks and wide-bladed dozers with gigantic diesel engines. These I cannot see or hear from my place, but from time to time an explosion gently rocks the valley, and for a few minutes the mountain resembles a small volcano, as the powdered stone drifts along the ridge and down to the long line of cottonwoods.

The quarry does not much spoil the looks of the promontory, because from this distance -- or even up close -- it looks like nothing so much as a natural scree slope somewhere in the high Cascades just east of here. But this, too, with its road and its heavy equipment, adds to the burden of silt, with trace hydrocarbons and heavy metals as well, in the watershed.

All too true. And as I look closer to home, watching the chromed and painted monsters passing in front of the house, breathing out their noxious fumes, and noting my own such beast reposing in our driveway, and thinking how soon I will be mowing the grass under these fruit trees with yet another poisonous machine -- and from here I can also see our electric meter with its merrily spinning kilowatt-counting disk -- I'm as aware as ever of my part in the curious web of capitalized destruction we have devised and substituted for what might have been Western civilization.

And yet I'm feeling remarkably cheerful.

That cheer, I recognize, is harldy justifiable. I'm the privileged, an American in a not-poor neighborhood, which makes me part of the most massively consumptive minority in history. Nevertheless, the beauty in the scene before me, of sky, clouds, trees, stone, and the neighbor's ewes and lambs, costs nothing; the price of viewing Jasper Mountain, which, with all that has happened to it, is well worth looking at, is zero.

Now, on the one hand, I have "bought" the right to look; the ad said, "country house with view." On the other hand, when I was younger, and had no land, no car, no family to support, and was living out of a backpack and my feet were my transportation, I saw just such views, and they were just as beautiful to me. So I do think that ownership is perhaps the most overrated concept in Westernism.

By sitting here, there are several things that I'm not doing that perhaps I should give myself a little credit for not doing. I'm not, at the moment, driving to the mall, not shopping, not eating a hamburger, or watching a car commercial. I'm certainly not tooling around in an outboard runabout, or on a jet-ski or snowmobile. I'm not attending a football game, auto race, or rock concert in some distant city. I could build quite a list here of "nots," but -- not to worry -- you can think of more of these, and never mind that yes, sometimes I do choose to do some of these things; attend a conference in Portland, say.

But I am actively choosing to do fewer things, and less consumptive things, not as avoidance, as in "oh, mustn't do that," but as seeking out activities that have the inestimable value that viewing Jasper Mountain has -- partaking of the quality of being that, because it has no price in consumerism, barely has a name, but which every person in the "third world" who is habitually freer and happier than I -- and there are many -- would immediately recognize.

Disengaging from the error of capitalized gratification by thinking of it as error, by focusing on the negative, is a project fraught with stresses, pitfalls, failures and depression.

We're too deeply enmeshed, many of us, to take the bravest positive approaches, exemplified, in recent history, by so few: Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Peace Pilgrim, Jane Goodall, Mother Teresa. These challenge us with their total commitment, and it's easy to focus on their commitment, conclude it is somehow unachievable for us, and drift back to our potato chips and our cable news, feeling vaguely depressed, wallowing in a grey fog of discontent with ourselves and our little self-defeating ways.

The good news is that none of them would condemn us for starting small.

A positive approach is not less positive for lasting for only a few years, or days, or even seconds. It is never a matter of scale. Every moment of viewing Jasper Mountain is its own eternity of getting it right, and no one can ever take that away from you.

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