Seven Nights in a Strawbale Cabin: Part One

A Diary of a City Girl on an Organic Farm

I told you about those Wolves. You must talk with them, meeting them someplace, mountain, trail, desert, at your campfire, and call them Uncle or Brother but never Cousin or In-law.
From “They Come Around, The Wolves – and Coyote and Crow, Too,” by the great Native American Acoma poet Simon Ortiz, in Woven Stone

Tuesday, September 12, 2006: The road to Everdale and a greener way of life

Once you fork off the paved route from Hillsburgh and on to the Sixth Line in Wellington County, you’re on the way to Everdale Organic Farm. The hilly stretch of gravel and pebbled road ahead carves a neat passage into the landscape of well-tended meadows where a bevy of brown cows graze and shiny dark horses lounge gracefully in the fields. A mix of lush evergreens and deciduous dot the horizon and line the roadside as far as the eye can see, forming a canopy of tree-shapes in the distance – a creative fusion of natural and manmade beauty.

We are in the heart of farm territory, about an hour northwest from Toronto (TO), and it’s a sight for sore city eyes. Jen, a bright-faced girl in her twenties, with expressive blue eyes, is driving us back to the farm where she’s been an intern for almost six months now – and where I’ll be trying my hand at volunteering for the next week. Full of energy and easy chit-chat, she exudes wholesomeness and inner confidence.

“Did they tell you you’ll be staying in a straw-bale cabin?” she asks, casting a slightly impish glance in my direction.  Feeling the first real tingle of excitement about my new adventure in the countryside, I answer that I had some idea but I wasn’t sure what to expect. If truth be known, I was so sick, literally, of smog and honking horns I was ready to sleep on a bale of hay, as long as it was far away from the noise, grime and crime of Toronto the Not-So-Good after all. “Oh, you’ll love it,” she beams back, “It’s great.”

Before coming to the farm, Jen was enrolled in a program at Ryerson in T.O., which she will return to once her stint on the farm is over. One day she hopes to unite her two passions: working with disabled youths and living the outdoors life. She has a patch of land in Nova Scotia that she bought with money she could easily have blown on a fancy trip or car or other possessions – common among girls her age. One of her dreams is to build a cabin on her land and grow a garden there.  I’ve only known Jen a couple of hours but you can tell a lot about a person in a short time, and I’ve a strong hunch that before long her land will be blessed with both cabin and garden.

*****

Everdale is a 55-acre non-profit organic farm that came on the scene in 1997. The land was originally acquired in 1965, by Everdale Place and became Canada’s first free school. When the present occupiers took over, the buildings were in a state of disrepair – but not for long. With an environmental mandate, backed by organizations such as the Trillium Foundation, they got to work and transformed the structures and surrounding fields to their present glory. Today, the farm doubles as an outdoor and indoor classroom for school children and adults alike, while training interns in the basics of organic farming. It does things that other organic farms do, such as supply fresh food to local area members, including Toronto members. What makes it unique, though, is its strong focus on education in sustainable living. Everdale offers 6-month internships for “future farmers” and teaches many different environmentally-based skills to kids and adults alike, through school programs, farm tours, workshops, volunteer stints and other means. In addition to the certified organic food it grows on more than 100 acres of land (Everdale also rents land), which includes vegetables, grain, hay, and cover crops, it also raises pigs, goats, sheep, hens and other animals. Last year, the farm welcomed more than 4,000 visitors and held over 20 workshops on such exciting topics as building your own straw-bale structure, making your own biodiesel and creating alternative solar and wind energy. As well, Everdale Farm protects some 50 acres of uncultivated forest, wetland and meadows and the diverse plant- and wild-life therein.

Before making plans to come to Everdale, I’d been feeling increasingly unwell and knew I needed a jolt to get me back on track to a saner lifestyle. I had developed a number of ailments over the course of a few months, including tendonitis in my right arm, poor circulation that had been creeping up on me slowly but was now screaming at me from my ankles to my armpits, and a general sluggishness and low spirits – partly due to lack of regular exercise and in part because I’d fallen off the good-food wagon. What better place to revive myself than on an organic farm? I’ve always had the notion that I would one day possess a little plot of land and grow my own modest veggie and herb garden. Here was an opportunity to get a glimpse of what tending for that land might entail. I was also very curious about the alternative energy methods practiced on the farm and what the daily routine on such a farm encompasses. What is it like to live in a house made of straw, drink freshly “squeezed” goat’s milk free of growth hormones, and get up at dawn to harvest crops?

I already knew it wasn’t as idyllic as it might sound. I grew up next door to my uncle’s farm in Newfoundland and saw firsthand how hard the work could be and the toll it can take on even the toughest farmers. I also knew that, for children, it is a world full of magic and mystery, a place where imaginations run wild. As it turned out, my experience at Everdale was both magical and eye-opening – one that yielded not just some pretty good-looking crops but a heightened awareness about what it really means to live a truly healthy existence. Eating good food and getting fresh air and exercise through harvesting and other farm work is but a fraction of the picture that would unfold over the coming days – as well as an epiphany or two about my own life that had been bubbling just beneath the surface.

*****

As we pull into the gates of Everdale and wind our way down the gravel rode that leads to the main grounds, I am immediately struck by its sweet, simplistic beauty. Spread out before me is a pastoral-like setting – quaint little cottage-houses are tucked away in the wooded area just off the main path (I later learn it is where the permanent staff dwell) and from our vantage point, I’m afforded a splendid panoramic view of rolling green hills graced with plush elegant trees, encircling the farm proper. Perched atop slightly elevated ground is the community center, the main gathering place. Behind the center, further up the incline, are several other structures (one is a model eco-home, as Jen tells me; another is a building in progress, which will be a unique combo of barn, office, kitchen and dorm; then there’s a residence for special guests, and of course a greenhouse, where the interns prepared seeds for spring planting).Right outside the center is a small sunflower and eco-garden and farther down, a larger more varied wildflower garden. All around is rich green meadow that smells of red clover, where the farm animals are moving about freely, doing their own particular thing. When we come around the back, I’m jolted by the electrifying colors of a peacock strutting about the backyard – its iridescent plumage of emerald green, blue, silvery-grey and among other hues that seem to elude with the blink of an eye, a rich earth-brown. Fanned out in all its glory, it is the ultimate welcoming host.

We have shown up at the just in time for quick introductions and to grab some lunch before heading out to the field. A group of fresh smiling faces greet me and I’m immediately put at ease by their friendliness.

Gavin Dandy, Everdale’s farm manager, is giving the gang a rundown of what needs to be done for the rest of the day and it is soon obvious that wasting time is not on the agenda here – ever. Since I’ve arrived on the cusp of the annual Harvest celebrations, the big task of the afternoon, aside from harvesting, is erecting a massive old tent for the upcoming festival. When I see the gargantuan spread of stiff thick canvas unfold on the ground, and figure its weight to be in the hundreds of pounds, I am doubtful it will ever be anything, let alone a tent. It was the first of not a few lessons I would learn as a volunteer at Everdale – an experience that later came to symbolize for me the essence of these women and men who have spent many months (and in the case of the staff, many years) learning what it means to not just run an organic farm but to be a true team with a clear goal and belief system.

Suffice it to say, after a couple of hours of huffing and puffing, strategizing and brainstorming, and nearly having the tent fall on our heads a couple of times, up it went – but not without some serious human muscle and the aid of a great big green tractor. Rarely have I witnessed such willpower and positive-mindedness harnessed by a group of people faced with what seemed at first glance to be a rather dubious, even fruitless endeavor. It reminded me of the movie Witness, where Harrison Ford winds up on an Amish farm where he takes part in a traditional barn-raising and helps the community build an entire barn in a day. Indeed, this true-grit, can-do mentality served the core team well in 2004 when, in the wee hours of the morning of December 11, a devastating fire broke out, burning their century-old barn to the ground; with it went all the computers, critical files and documents. By pulling together – staff, volunteers, interns and other Everdale friends – and by reaching out to the community for support, they managed not only to overcome the enormous challenge and rebuild, but to broaden their vision to create a new multi-purpose straw-bale structure that includes barn, office and living space, a “living” roof, natural ventilation and other environmentally friendly features.

In an essential way, that’s part of what Everdale is all about – drawing on the power of the local community and on earlier traditions to find a means to live more wisely and healthier in today’s society.  It is about returning to the basics while blending modern technologies and ideas with age-old practices. It’s a kind of microcosm of a world that could be, if the same measures and methods were applied on a broader scale – a place peopled by individuals who aim to leave behind the tiniest eco-footprint possible for the sake of the earth’s well being and for the survival of future generations.

LEEKS AND ONIONS

I am heading out with the team for the first time to take part in harvesting leeks and onions. It sounded straightforward enough in theory – pulling up veggies from the ground – and it is, except out in the field you learn that there are lots of little tricks and things to pay attention to if you are to bring in a good batch, and these things will vary from crop to crop. Before uprooting anything, you need to consider readiness (indicated by size and color mostly) as well as healthiness (deformities of the crop, discolorations or other signs of destruction due to insects or other causes). However, there’s no time for pondering. You learn to observe quickly and move even more quickly through the rows of neatly laid beds, plucking up what’s good, laying it down and moving on to the next bunch. Once you get the hang of it, you start noticing other things, like the texture and smell of the soil, the insects flitting about on the ground, the sounds of nature alive in the air, subtle changes in the weather – and you realize suddenly that you are a part of a rhythm that is as ancient as the earth itself.

*****

STRAWBALE HEAVEN

I adore my little straw-bale cabin. It’s got to be no more than about 8 ft x 10 ft, if that  – enough space for a bed, chair, night table and dresser – but it’s delightfully rustic. Snuggled in among trees and shrubbery, it has two good-sized windows, both with a view of the woods. The window above my bed overlooks the rooftop of a second cabin, with greenery all above and around; the other window is full of leafy branches and on a clear night, a fat moon will be shining in. The floors are red brick and the walls simple white plaster – behind which are packed the dense straw bales for heat and insulation (hence, strawbale cottage: see pages 18-19 for more on strawbale structures). For shelving books and such, an adorable rounded alcove has been grooved out in the wall beside the door and that’s where my candles are flickering, casting shadows all about the room. I imagine that in the summer time, you could lie in bed gazing out into the woods through the screen door, watching for signs of nocturnal creatures from the nearby swamp or hidden amidst the trees.  I believe I’ve died and gone to heaven!

*****

3:00 am: I am slowly edging my way along a wooded path in the pitch-black night, one intrepid foot after the other. Groping blindly at wet tree branches, air and invisible spider’s webs, I stumble on rocks and stumps along the way, unable to get a clear glimpse of the foot-trail ahead. The howl of what sounds like a coyote echoes in the distance. Despite my makeshift lantern – a mason jar with a stubborn candle at the base that refuses to give flame – I can barely see my hand in front of my face. Even though the open road to the farm is less than a minute away, I could easily wind up in the marsh behind the trees and I have no idea what lurks in the marsh after midnight. It serves me right, I chide myself, for not going to the outhouse before bed. For about three or four minutes, I stand still, feeling like a complete idiot for not bringing a flashlight, for not doing my business before bunkering down, and for standing frozen in the woods like a four-year-old afraid of the boogey-man. After regaining a measure of my commonsense, I came to two conclusions:

1.  You’re not lost in Algonquin. You’re not even lost in a respectable forest, for Pete’s sake. You are temporarily disoriented on a small farm in rural Ontario, seconds from your own and a neighbouring cabin.

2. Get your act together and get back to the cottage, pronto, or you may as well head back to T.O. as soon as the sun comes up.

It’s amazing what a little firm talking to yourself can do. I turned around and, like Frankenstein’s monster in a pair of rubber boots, one arm outstretched, the other hand gripping the lightless lantern, I shuffled along the path until I came to the clearing and could make out the vague outline of my new dwelling. Tucked safely underneath the covers, I could now feel the full impact of my foolishness. Next time, I’ll be sure to come prepared.

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