Notes from Windward: #69


A Mobile Farmer


     When the light is low, the world becomes magical. The leaves of trees aglow with the light of a setting summer sun slowly recover from the day's heat, the water bugs inspire both the fish and birds to join them in their evening dance. Life abounds, and with it, so does death. The struggle is to maintain the balance. It is at the margins, at the edges, at those times and places of transition, where the complexity and diversity of a system is striking, where a new perspective adds nuance and understanding, where life is continuously evolving and adapting to maintain such a delicate balance of relationships.

Mt. Jefferson and the High Desert

     Since finishing high school, when for the first time I could really experience the abundance and diversity of the world through my own eyes and on my own two feet, I have continuously felt the need to move--to experience new places, different lifestyles. We live a in a big and beautiful world with endless opportunities for celebrating and sharing life. But it only took a little bit of travel for me to realize that I prefer to settle in a little--to sink my hands into the local earth long enough to take part in a harvest I helped to sow, to have a shelf where I can collect oddities and marvels of the region, to become a part of a community as much as a transient resident can be--to have a home to come home to at the end of the day.

     Anthropologists use the term "mobile farmers" to describe the lifestyle of many native peoples from around the world--cultures based on the material existence at a zone of transition between several ecosystems, where the resource base can be maximized (e.g. coast and forest; plains and mountains). These mobile farmers would migrate between two or three permanent settlements with the changing seasonal availability of resources, gaining the benefits from the variety of literal and metaphorical seeds they sowed throughout the year in a variety of ecosystems.

a view of the Three Sisters

     With the way modern agricultural and social systems have changed, few farmers are now able to benefit from this type of lifestyle that can enhance the edge spaces in life. I have been drawn to the mobile farmer lifestyle since before I had a name for it, and in these last several months at Windward, I have begun to transition into a life that brings together the connection to place that comes with farming and the diversity and excitement that comes with mobility and exploration. And in just a short period of time, worlds of wonder have opened to me.

     Since moving to Windward, I have had the joy of living on this high plateau that descends down from Mt. Adams and is carved out by the wild and scenic Klickitat River. And as the days turned into weeks and then into months, I noticed that a love and fascination for the world that is unfolding directly in front of me--the daily shifts and subtle changes--began to replace the urge to travel great distances to experience something new and wonderful. And a depth, strength and complexity of feeling for this plateau began to develop.

the Umpqua National Forest

      Here, I am afforded the space and time to observe, as Annie Dillard explains, to "bear witness" to the natural world, the world that is my home. And as I bear witness, I begin to understand a little better each piece of this plateau, both in its own right, the role it plays in the larger ecosystem and the meaning it has to me. I realize now too that part of the urge I had to move, to change my surroundings, came from a desire to find something better, a type of calmness and contentment that I wasn't able to find in my daily life.

     But now every day there are many moments when I am simply overwhelmed by the beauty and joy of where I live, the people I live with and the lifestyle that we are trying to create, here, together. I often need to stop, take it all in with a deep breath, and remind myself how lucky I am that this is my life.

Wizard Island in Crater Lake

      I am not sure what makes this feeling run so deep and so strong and I imagine it is different for different people. For me, it is in part the gift of time, to simply be able to watch, and observe, and to try to understand, for with these processes come meaning. And with the gift of time comes that of creativity--the ability to wake each morning and decide what needs to be accomplished today. Of course, with such opportunities come responsibilities as well. Only I can make sure that I am indeed following through with what I set out to do and that I am accountable to both myself and those around me.

     This land base, this lifestyle, has allowed me to slow down enough to actually bear witness to the world of which I am a part, gifting me equanimity and overwhelming love for this world that I am able to carry with me beyond the Ponderosa pines and Oregon white oaks of the Windward forest.

     For the majority of this summer, I am living off of the plateau, while I work in the National Forests of Oregon and Washington. I am part of a research crew that is evaluating the long term ecological impacts of alternatives to clear cutting on public forest lands in the Pacific Northwest.

the sort of trees I'm measuring

     Over the course of the summer, we live and work in three different National Forests, and spend our days hiking through mixed conifer forests (strikingly different from Windward's forest given the relatively short distance), and measuring the response of trees to different timber management plans. Living in a National Forest is an amazing way to explore the region's diversity--with Crater Lake, hot springs, lava flows, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Columbia River Gorge, old growth cedar forests all literally just outside my door.

      And perhaps the most rewarding feeling, if not at least a unique one, is that I am now able to simply focus on enjoying that which is around me, to embrace and learn from these new experiences, without a sense of urgency or a deeper seated desire for a home or sense of belonging. Because I have a home to go home to, one that I am co-creating with the sun and the soil and the ever evolving community of people (and creatures) that is Windward.

     This living experiment into this seemingly counterintuitive lifestyle of a mobile farmer is going quite well. Of course it wouldn't be possible without the extra efforts of those still on the plateau making sure the gardens and trees are watered (though hopefully in the future these systems will be better able to take care of themselves); and most certainly there are adjustments that can be made to make the transitions smoother and more rewarding.

     But just the simple joy of being able to work and live in a National Forest while being nourished by food that I grew or preserved (dried fruits from last summer, canned preserves from summers before, greens, herbs, squash and root veggies from the garden) makes manifest that with a certain amount of focused effort, you can reap the benefits of living closely with the land without being too tied to it--creating a combination of flexibility and stability that can be quite rewarding.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69