Seven Nights in a Strawbale Cabin: Part Two

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 13: STORMY WEATHER

“I’ve come to this idea that food politics is environmental politics – it is economic politics … it’s actually potentially the little common nugget or gem … and everything comes down to that. The whole environmental picture can be addressed from local agriculture.” Lynn Bishop, Project Manager, Everdale

Wednesday brought dark foreboding clouds and the threat of a thunder storm – but from the smile on Lynn’s face as she waltzed into the kitchen with a bowlful of what soon would be delicious goat’s cheese, you’d never say the sun wasn’t shining. Lynn is the farm’s project manager but, as one of the girls described her, she’s really the “heart and soul of Everdale.” She’s been here from the beginning, which is to say about eight years of very tough labour and at times even tougher circumstances, but she loves this life. Most of all, it’s the farm itself and the livestock that does it for her. “It’s heaven getting up in the morning, feeding the animals, milking Allie [the goat],” she cooed, as we sat in her fabulous cottage drinking Roobis tea (excellent for almost everything that ails you), near the end of my visit. There is no question that this is a woman with a deep reverence for all life. She finds the idea of growing one’s own food and buying local to be particularly empowering, and the fact that Hamish, her son, was raised in this atmosphere means a great deal to her. “Hamish grew up eating cucumbers straight out of the field,” she told me, with an almost child-like enthusiasm that belies her experience and wisdom. Even at his young age, Hamish has begun to understand the process that goes in to putting a meal on the table. He knows, when he eats a salad or eggs or cheese or whatever food is given him, that it came from this or that garden, this or that field he is familiar with, from Allie the goat, from the clucking hens, and he knows too that much work is required in order to create food that nourishes him and his family, but most of all, he is learning an invaluable lesson: that the footprints between the land and his table are few, and the path a much healthier one than the norm, and this, says Lynn, is amazing.

Amazing is a very good word for Everdale. Indeed, there’s an expression that has hatched on the farm over time, to describe its special quality: it’s known as “the Everdale Awe.” Not everyone gets it when they come here, I’m told. I can’t imagine who would not get it, especially today, which will also herald in the arrival of a flock of little chickadees – some 200 of them – expected by lunchtime. I couldn’t wait to see them.

Meanwhile, the agenda for the morning was simple – harvest as much carrots and beets as possible before the clouds burst and get off the field at the first rumbling of thunder. It was fascinating to witness the buzz and flow of the interns at dawn, getting ready for the day, preparing breakfast, snacks for the field, clearing away dishes, recycling, composting, gathering what was needed for that day’s harvest.  They have a real rhythm going as they move through their chores – smoothly and playfully but always with an aim. Their confidence, it seems, comes not from a superficial sense of self but from a deeper knowing of who they are and where they are going in this world. My big concern, on the other hand, was how I’d get my coffee in the morning. I was delighted to learn that not only could I have coffee, but that I could roast and grind my own beans, to boot! Kelly, one of the interns and a coffee lover like myself, showed me how to do it: the original roaster was broken, so someone had devised an ingenious alternative – to use a popcorn maker, which you plugged into an outdoors outlet and pop went the beans until they were brown. It became a habit while there to make lattes with freshly roasted beans and steamed organic soy milk, with a dash of cinnamon and honey – Everdale has beehives on the premises and makes its own honey], so given the purity of ingredients the lattes were quite the treat.

Everdale is also partially off the grid, as it draws upon solar and wind power for much of its energy use, including marvelous outdoor solar showers that, I was told, I absolutely MUST try out – especially for how good the pebbles feel beneath your feet and the warm air on your skin.

The term “waste” is a critical word at the farm. All waste (food and otherwise) is dealt with in as efficient and eco-friendly way as possible. Almost everything is recycled, composted or reused in some way. The interns have learned to be extremely thoughtful about the consumption of resources, and have developed clever, practical ways to do things using the least amount of energy (their own and otherwise). All these men and women are here to partake in an experience that has as much to do with their deep convictions about what it means to live responsibility on this earth as it does with learning the ins and outs of organic farming.  For them, it is about living more consciously, thinking more clearly and giving more freely.

****

As we kneel among the rows of carrot beds, I and the five interns (Alexis, Paul, Meagan, Jen and Kelly), the thunder growls and the rain begins to fall. Gavin radios in to the team to high-tail it off the field so we scramble to pluck as many bunches as we can before the big downpour.

Once we’ve gathered all we can for the morning, we buddy up to lug the heavier bins to Charlie (the truck) and prepare to head back to the farm. Wet and muddy from head to toe, with brown earth embedded deep in my fingernails, I nevertheless feel exhilarated. Out in the wide open fields, working hard, breathing fresh air, with a view of hills and trees and sky, I feel more alive than I’ve felt in a long time.

One of the many daily rituals at Everdale is the communal lunch, which everyone takes turns preparing. Today it’s leek and potato soup and casserole a la Meagan, with flat bread and other yummy treats. Meagan is a no-frills no-nonsense girl with Irish roots, who understands the beauty in simplicity. The food she prepared is indeed very tasty all on its own, without any fancy footwork.

Afterwards, we carry on with the chores, mainly indoors during the rainstorm – starting with washing the carrots and beets in giant white tubs, bunching them and loading them neatly in bins where they’ll be stored in the walk-in cooler, to be further prepared for sale to members. The process of preparing the harvest, while organized, lack the mundanity of other repetitive tasks that often involve machines and working in poorly ventilated buildings – which can eventually make you sick.  Someone flicks on the radio and everyone gets into a groove and again, just like out in the field, there’s a rhythm happening that I can’t help feeling is rooted in something long ago.

Before dinner, we venture out to visit the newest members of the farm. A cacophony of tiny chirps resonate from the back of the barn, and as we approach the source of the music a light can be seen emanating from the corner, as if it were the site of some spiritual sanctuary. Little bundles of chicks – black and white, golden and brown – are huddled together in one huge round circle of fur snuggling to keep cozy. Lights are beaming down on them behind a wire-mesh fence, to provide additional warmth. A few adventurous fellows waddle over to the fence and we get to pick them up. Rosemary (one of Gavin’s and Karen’s two daughters) is eager to cuddle one. As she cocoons the chick in her hands, her expression is one of awe mingled with sheer delight – a beautiful little face full of wonder looking at another beautiful little face. There’s something almost sacred about holding a golden ball of breathing fuzz in the palm of your hand; its body seems so delicate and yet the sweet but persistent sounds it makes tell another story. One is struck by this small life full of song and newness, reminding us of how precious every living thing is.

***
Charming friends you’ve got there, Otto.
Thanks, I made ’em myself. 

(dialogue between Otto and Leila in The Repo Man)

Later that evening, Paul, the “digital” master and the only male in the group, besides Gavin, had secured a copy of the 1980s cult-classic movie The Repo Man. For those of you who have never seen this movie, it’s difficult to explain what it’s about. A little bit sci-fi spoof, a lot social satire, and plenty of plain old-fashioned weirdness, it is in a class all its own. Few people get it on the first take. Some never get it at all. It’s one of those movies you can see many times, partly because the director shuns the cheap tricks of Hollywood cinema and relies on more subtle techniques and ingenuities to get his message across – which means you have to pay attention and actually think while you are watching it. For instance, all the food in the movie is simply labeled “Food” – with one exception: “Beer” and some of the characters have names of beer, which you might not catch on to immediately because there’s so much more detail mixed into the fray. For those who are interested in a little background information about the film, the director didn’t deliberately come up with the idea to label edibles generically. He couldn’t get the rights to show certain brand names, which forced him to be creative. It turned out to be one of the more brilliant comic quirks in the film as well as an apt commentary on mindless modern-day consumerism.

Mindfulness is a word that came to me many times while on the farm – the idea of being acutely aware in the moment, observing ones surroundings more keenly so as to make socially responsible choices, and experiencing things on a deeper level than what appears on the surface. In this sense, The Repo Man was the perfect choice, as it touches on a myriad of social issues from the Napon bomb to questions like: what are we really feeding our bodies and minds anyway?

Speaking of food – a very cool part of the environmental educational program at Everdale, which Karen Campbell (Gavin’s partner) runs – teaches kids all about healthy food systems through their extremely popular Farmer for a Day workshop, like making fresh butter, grinding grain into flour, collecting eggs, taking care of the animals, planting seeds, and many other things. It is very hands on, so the kids literally get their hands dirty (which, let’s face it, kid’s love to do) as they explore the alternative methods of food production. The aim, Karen tells me, is to develop ethics in kids, to get them thinking about where food comes from, about their own “food prints” and how the decisions they make about the food they eat can radically affect the environment and their lives for better or for worse. Instilling this valuable knowledge into children in a creative non-didactic way, as Everdale does, is extremely beneficial to society. It is, in a way, like planting seeds for future generations, to help ensure a healthier existence for all living things.

Watching Repo Man made me think about how we, as a society, have become such a crazy consumer machine that we’ve lost sight of a most basic truth: our resources are not endless and if we don’t take care of the earth, it will not only eventually stop giving, it will start fighting back (as it has done with the recent spate of floods, tsunamis, hurricanes and the like). A man reaps what he sows, so to speak.

Worse still, we’ve pulled an ostrich and buried our heads in the proverbial sand, choosing to believe the lies fed to us about our health, by the powers that be – what’s good for us, what’s bad for us – which of course changes from one day to the next and has more to do with profit-making that healing. As one character in Repo Man says about radiation: “Ra-di-a-tion. Yes, indeed. You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling everybody it’s bad for you. Pernicious nonsense! Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year!”

The best part about the movie, though, was that we watched it on a big projector screen set up in the Round Room (where the school kid’s workshops and other events are held). The gang curled up on the couches, some wrapped in blankets eating popcorn, while others did light chores, like sewing and other crafts – one eye on the screen, the other on their handiwork. Spike the Cat joined us, as he almost always did at evening gatherings and morning meetings, if he wasn’t otherwise occupied, sleeping or chasing birds and mice. The overall effect was a kind of magical nostalgic mood that will stay etched firmly in my memory – everyone gathered in front of the white screen, the night unfolding before us through the windows, with the wind blowing and the trees rustling and the moon rising above the hilltop all at once. It was like going back in time, except it was no time that I’d ever known before.

A bit before the movie ended (I’d seen it twice before), I decided to head on down to my cabin. Jen recommended I take Spike with me for company and he willingly obliged, trotting off ahead and occasionally stopping to wait for me on the path. Spike is like the archetypal wise old man in cat form – there’s an aura about him that speaks of an ancient knowingness. Unfortunately, he also seems to be going a wee bit dotty, as the Irish say, but it only makes him all the more endearing.

As I crawl under the covers, exhausted but content, Spike curls up in a ball beside my shoulder (the one with the tendonitis) and begins purring, which is wonderfully comforting. Apparently, the vibration of a cat’s purring has been shown to heal broken bones, repair torn ligaments and, among a host of other things, lower high blood pressure. It was a grand thought that Spike was not just a cute and cuddly feline but also a furry black healing guru with extraordinary purring powers.

I’d mentioned earlier that I felt more alive that day than I had in a long time – but for one small exception. When I came off the field earlier that day, I noticed my thigh felt a little weird, like it was asleep. I thought it was a temporary thing, from squatting in the field, so I put it out of my mind. Now, as I lay there in the dark, thinking about the day’s events, I figured I should check it out.  I reached down, touched the outer part of my right thigh and my hand automatically recoiled in horror. I couldn’t feel anything. The entire right side of my right thigh was numb – ten hours later!  For a few minutes, I lay there panicked, trying to figure out what would cause such prolonged numbness. Had I been nipped by a mysterious insect? A tick bite? Was it a mild stroke? I’d heard of people who had strokes and didn’t even realize it. Even though I had walked down to the cabin, I nevertheless jumped up out of bed to assure myself I really could walk and was relieved to find that there was no pain and I was able to move my leg normally.

I lay awake for hours, trying to decide if I should abandon my plans to stay on the farm as Spike purred on. Finally, I concluded I may as well wait to see what the morning would bring and eventually drifted off to a restless sleep, plagued with bad dreams and frequent awakenings – one of them included Spike meowing at the door to get out. Dawn eventually came and I opened my eyes to the luscious green leaves on the trees outside my window, waving and fluttering gently. Anxiously, I reached down and touched my leg. There was no change. The skin still felt like rubber, so I got dressed and started walking to the community center. Aside from the numbness, I felt fine. There was no pain, I could walk with relative ease, and it was looking like it would shape up to be a gorgeous day. I really didn’t want to leave unless I absolutely had to, so unless I fell to the ground screaming in agony, I decided I would stick to my volunteer commitment. The mystery of the deadened thigh would have to wait until I returned home.

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