It’s all Wendell Berry’s fault

We had always lived in the city, but after my husband, Bryan, and I brought home two babies to our tiny third-floor condo next to a 7-11—from which we witnessed many dangerous liaisons of both the narcotic and carnal variety, heard delivery trucks arrive next door to unload pallets of Mountain Dew and Doritos at 2 a.m., and attended condo association board meetings that played out like a gathering of Passive-Aggressives Anonymous—we were ready for a change.

We weren’t unhappy, per se, but we certainly weren’t living out the adage, “Bloom where you’re planted.” We had what you might call “interesting” neighbors, but no one with whom we could really connect and befriend. The landscape was uninspiring. It took three flights of stairs and a several block walk to get to any green space. I realize many people around the world live in crippling circumstances, and we were fortunate to have a safe home, but we knew this wasn’t a place for our family to thrive.

I was reading Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land and Home Economics at the time. I find it somewhat odd that I was poring over essays on farming from the ’70s, but his writing about stewardship and nourishment and community made so much sense and is so revolutionary (in the sense of a revolution, or a circle, which comes back to its beginning, or right place) that I found myself fascinated, inspired, and hopeful. We were also spending time with friends in Bellingham on their ten-acre farm and drove home each time dreaming about our own. There was something so wholesomely beautiful about seeing my daughter holding an egg she just plucked from the hen house, about a lichen-barked apple tree growing Eden-like in the middle of a sun-drenched clearing, about dirtied knees and fingers purpled from plucking blueberries from laden branches, about spending the day with people you love eating food that grew from the land around you.

When we were able to start looking for a house to buy, we talked about our dreams for our family: trees to climb, room to roam and play, animals to care for, a big garden. I had no experience with gardening—my only real attempt involved a fruitless tomato bush on the north-facing deck of our condo (do tomatoes really need sun?)—but I yearned for a little patch of Earth to call my own, to trial-and-error my way to a green thumb, to grow something beautiful or delicious (or both). The community garden down the street had a two-year waiting list, and while I lamented the fact that my feet spent most of their hours three stories above the earth, disconnected and cut off from its vitality and potential, people in the city were building houses in the backyards of other houses forever annihilating the private green spaces of the already claustrophobic neighborhoods, all in the name of urban density. I was oddly grieved over the loss of all that food- and flower-producing potential.

In our price range we could afford an itty bitty fixer-upper on a postage-stamp lot on a busy street in an unfashionable neighborhood in the city or a comfortable home on an acre or two on a quiet street in a rural community in the country. We spent our weekends doing drive-bys in Mt. Vernon and Snoqualmie and Camano Island. Once we saw what we could buy if we were willing to live farther out, there was really no contest. We made an offer on (and lost) a 1902 foursquare farmhouse on three-and-a-half acres with mature fruit trees, a territorial view, and a visibly bowed floor in Stanwood, 30 miles north of Seattle. We were serious. Every once in a while we would question our resolve, especially when a cute Craftsman would come available in a walkable neighborhood, but in the end we were irresistibly drawn to a new way of living.

The birch-lined driveway, big front porch, and wainscoting sold me, Bryan was wooed by the 1800-square-foot shop, and the kids went wild for the two-and-a-half acres of grassy lawn and evergreen forest. We moved in December 2013 and spent the winter settling in and exploring our new home in the Snoqualmie Valley, lovingly named The Birch Path after its namesake in Anne of Green Gables. We dubbed our forest The One Acre Wood. It’s thick with evergreens and cedar, thorny blackberry brambles and mushrooms. We wandered the trails listening for birds, admiring the silver spider webs glistening with dew, searching for deer prints. As we unpacked boxes, we planned the garden, the pastures for the goats and sheep and cows we would raise eventually, the orchard. I read everything I could find on gardening and homesteading. I pored over Pinterest. I ordered seeds. I watched the light to find the sunniest spot on our heavily wooded property. I dug up deeply rooted heather bushes to make room for the tidy rows of vegetables I planned to cultivate. Someone told me about the documentary Back to Eden, which advocates for a no-till method of gardening that appealed to me. I contacted local farmers and picked up truckloads of composted manure and wood chips.

winter woods

I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated a season so intensely as I did that spring. I daydreamed about my vegetable garden for weeks, but I was excited to see what was already in the ground, too, what surprises would bloom and blossom: purple heather, hydrangea, roses, a Japanese maple, two enormous regular maples, rhododendron, and of course, my favorite, the six white-paper-barked birch trees lining the driveway. I loved this place in dormancy, I couldn’t even imagine how beautiful it would be in bloom. As winter faded I noticed every little bud and blossom, every new jot of green. Everything was alive and growing.

signs of spring

My vegetable garden was a success. We planted beets, lettuce greens, green beans, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, carrots, peas, as well as herbs, rhubarb, asparagus, potatoes, and flowers. I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and for a moment I panicked at the thought of subsisting only on the fruits of my labor. After that moment passed, I discovered that gardening is the only area in my life where I don’t tend toward a debilitating perfectionism. I have surrendered to the process of trial and error, of accumulating wisdom through experience. It will take years to get this place to homestead status, but we will be learning and tweaking along the way. Growth is not instantaneous. A seed contains all of the information it needs to become its fully realized self, and with the right conditions it will get there.

Comments

  1. Beautiful Rachel! I love your story written out in full. To have cried and yearned with you in the beginning and to now rejoice with you in the end makes my heart so happy! I love you, friend!

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  2. Thank you for Sharing those wonderful Stories and i look forward to reading more Adventures from you & the Clan.
    i also love gardening, the woods and just being in Nature it truly is God’s World for Spirituality and Life ! Thanks

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  3. This is the perfect theme for my life right now. Feeling convicted and encouraged by your words and so looking forward to reading all the other ladies articles.

    Like

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