Firewood Confessions: Wood Elves and Seed Bombs

Above: Back when I didn't know anything about weight limits, shock capacity, safe loads, or the utility of working brakes. Disclosure: before Mary. 

Back in graduate school, I spent one winter living in a remote cabin not far from the Blackfoot River.  I choose the location in order to focus and finish up my masters thesis, but like many new-to-Montanans, I became distracted with a rather serious addiciction.  From a used tool dealer, a mechanic working out of his shipping-container shop, I purchased a rebuilt Stihl chainsaw.  It was my first, and it was expensive.  To pay off the debt, I figured I'd sell some firewood. This began a descent into a rather unfortunate pattern. I'd drive up to the Potomac bar with large rented dump truck filled to the brim with freshly cut rounds; rather than make it back to the cabin (and back to that thesis), I'd wind up selling firewood right away, either while catching up with the locals at the gas pump or fueling up on free peanuts at the Highway 200 Bar. And before I knew it, I had a business with about 30 customers all demanding firewood during a harsh winter.  I didn't finish my thesis that winter (or even the next), but in the deliveries to home after home, I had a chance to see how an entire cross-section of people lived. While I certainly delivered to many well-equipped homes, I prided myself on giving good deals to those in need: people, well, like us: without enough insulation, some inadequate housing, and those in need. There was a time or two that I got more than I bargained for, for instance, when an elderly woman told me I had to stack all the three cords of wood; that was apparenetly what we agreed. On those nights I didn't even make the gas station, let alone last call at the bar. And, in driving around one valley, slowly, in a large truck, you hear things. You get to know how people are really doing. People whisper to you at the bar, or at the town pump, or when you are invited in, to warm up in someone's space, on a minus twenty degree day when either your bar oil won't flow or your dog (that's right, I had a husky then too) dug into your lunchbox and ate all the food in the truck.  

Above: The lure of a ponderosa pine firewood forest, as a young transplant to Montana looking for a distraction, was pretty strong.

It started out as an innocent question, a business proposition, really. How does your neighbor get his firewood?, I'd ask.

That's when I'd start hearing of the people who just couldn't afford firewood. It shook me. These were people who I'd met. They'd hunt, fish, or eek out of a living doing logging or guiding, or welding, or building, or a combination of all of it. These were the people who taught me how to process food, sharpen a chainsaw just right, put on tire chains, and get out of any kind of jamb that rural living could offer up: how to put out an electrical fire on quick notice, how to jumpstart any vehicle, what glowplugs were, how to dismantle a building in short order, how to stack hay.  These were people who let me listen to them, hear their stories, and photograph them.

So, I did what anyone would do. I became a firewood elf of sorts, delivering a few rounds, a Suburu trunkfull of firewood here and there, quitely, well after dark when I needed a break from my thesis, or I just needed to get out.

Above: Sanoma, my previous husky, and that old Subaru, before the business scaled up.

This cold winter, when Mary and I got the farm truck stuck four or five times in one day when trying to get wood up the West Fork, and then down Highway 43, somewhere over the pass between here and Wisdom, I thought of those jambs we've all been in, and those we got out of.  As any enterprising farmer may do, I got on facebook, and proceeded to make deals to trade my wood saw cutting time, to cut off other people's log decks, in return for some firewood. We had a hard run at this, cutting about 11 cords of firewood to get about 3 cords. Mary single-handedly stacked six cords of someone else's wood in one day. With our cold winter, and working in the shop, and keeping the barn warm, we are now again, a bit low.  We'll figure something out, as we always seem to. 

But let me be honest. During these darkest times of the year both Mary and I were in a bit of a funk. While we always fielded farm calls, and the egg hotline (as we call it), the voicemails from friends got harder to return. It's not just because we were probably fixing something, working on tractor wires or puzzling over projects. It's really because answering that question, 'How are you doing?' seemed harder and more complicated than it should be. And at times, when we were scared, or frustrated by our own living, thawing the pipes, or other projects, we didn't want to face the truth. We didn't have a good answer.

Above: Sometimes gathering firewood with others, as in this case with friends in Borneo, is easier than answering the tough questions.

And get this: it turns out that in our own search and asking others what they do when they find themsleves in a dire firewood shortage, we found out that there are firewood elves right here, in our own valley. There's at least one community firewood bank, for those in need, and possibly more. There are neighbors who lend us their log splitters, and all you have to do is ask at the gas station about firewood or The Bitterroot Brewery and someone will share their coveted source with you. This makes us feel like deep Bitterrooters, like whatever we burn or what we believe, we are all in this darn melting pot of a valley together. It makes us proud really, to farm here.

Above: This week, on the farm, we built a germination chamber that will enable seeds to sprout in precise temperature and humidly conditions, despite whatever temperature the barn (or greenhouse) may be at. We don't have a name for it yet, but we like to call it The Seed Bomb Machine. 

And lately, as we turn from gathering wood, we are in the shop and at the desk: making, building, designing, creating. From an appliance scrap yard, we purchased a standup freezer and wired in a temperature and hunidity controller to create a germination chamber.  We've organized the shop with oodles of bins, from salvaged plywood, for all kinds of farming hardware and tools. Our crop planning is deep underway, and we are doing germination trials.  We are busily designing the new garden and bed layout, and today, when we sat down with Dan at Bouilla over coffee to go over our growing plan, our varities, and announce another hoophouse build, we were all brimming with excitement. I could barely hold down my coffee. 

You see, we farm because it changes us. Before we knew anything and long before we became Bitterrooters, there was one weekend when we stopped neighbors from burning leaves, and brought the leaves (for mulch) over to our rented plot. That was the fall I knew I really wanted to farm with Mary; and back when we thought it was all much easier, I found myself falling in love with her wide eyed amazement of surprise harvests.

Above: We might bring trucks of leaves to our farm now, but back on our old rented plot outside of Missoula, we convinced families to truck over their leaves rather than burning them. 

Above: A surprise harvest, Painted Mountain corn. We grew it once, in a magical small plot we had with good soil and good luck, and we'll grow it again.

And while firewood, and the way it forces us to connect to the land, and to one another, has a certain magic, it's the realization that we all rely on natural resources that hits home. We all shape this community. This landscape is the real power and mystery. Our best endeavors make us foolish at the worst times, and while we stay young, these hard lessons help us grow, and we believe, help us grow up, better, stronger, to give us hope, heart, if not sore muscles and backbone.

Despite the fact that it's raining, stuff is outside and that our kitchen is literally freezing, there is a lot of innovation, planning and work here. It's a good work, and a good life. Even if it's rough right now, we see ever-increasing possibility of it all getting better, or making a good living, of providing good food, and being part of a community.

A Little Less Broken: Coming Together at Market

Last week at market, rushing to set up as we had been up later than we should picking strawberries (yet again), I was tucked away behind our booth hastily arranging some boquets before I had to make a run back to the farm to feed chickens, cut more flowers, and make sure the sheep had not escaped yet (again).  

Kneeling on the sidewalk behind our booth, I was not in front-customer mode at all, a bit in a flower reverie even as I moved as fast as possible, parceling daisies and bachelor’s buttons between vases.  So I was surprised when a pair of feet advancing toward me from the side of our neighbor Lindsay’s booth were accompanied by a loud, rather gruff voice saying “Hey! Yeah, you, I was talking to you.  THAT’s what I have been looking for!”  As I looked up in surprise, I found the voice matched by a pointed finger on a long-haired grey-bearded man in a black sleeveless t-shirt who was fast approaching my little sidewalk flower workshop.  Trying to compute, I asked “flowers?” to confirm I was understanding correctly.  I know better than to judge what people might buy by their appearances, but this was certainly not the stereotypical bouquet customer.  His equally large and grizzled compatriot smiled amusedly at the scene from the other side of Lindsay’s booth, as the first man confirmed “yeah, I’ve been looking all over for flowers and nobody had ‘em yet.”  I explained I was just getting some ready to set out.  “Are any ready right now?”  “Well, if you can wait just a minute or two, I can finish one up for you right now.  Which do you like?”  I asked, pointing out the foundations of the 5 or 6 arrangements I had started.  “That one.”  He pointed to the sweet peas, and while I was internally noting that he certainly had some good judgement, he became less gruff and began to explain more:  “We come here every saturday, on our way to visit mom.  She has dementia, but she just loves her flowers.  We had to get her some.” 

A shiver ran through me and I froze, briefly, a calendula hanging in mid-air above the vase. Do I say it? Should I share? I snapped out of the freeze, stuffed flowers even more vigorously for a moment, then did quietly, a little shyly, explain that I too have watched dementia erode away parts of someone very close to me, over these last few years.  As I spoke, I choose the flowers even more carefully, though still moving fast.  She loves her flowers, she must need some daisies. Sweet peas for fragrance, old fashioned, that's good. Bachelor’s buttons, something blue, very bright blue, has to go in.  I was no longer building the boquet just for a table display, but for a woman, a mom who loves her flowers, whose days may be hazy now but flowers still are clear.  

I won't tell you who in my life has dementia, because it would become the only thing that most of you know about her.   Of all the traits and skills and experiences and wonderful facets of her life, it is the last one I want you to think of if you hear of her or meet her.  It dominates now, but it is not who she is.  Still, this man’s mother existed for me in only a handful of facts:  she had dementia, she loved flowers, and she had a son visiting her that morning.  I tried to put it all into that mason-jar boquet.  When it seemed full enough, I stood up and held it out to him, “How’s this?” I asked.  “It’s perfect.” he replied, then the question I had already been puzzling over: “How much?” 

I paused.  Given our shared experience, I wanted to give him these flowers.  Because really, I wanted that bouquet to fix it all.  To clear her mind, to ease his sadness, and solve my own.  To fix the thousand broken hurting things in all of us.  But I know that it can’t.  Instead, I mumbled a price half what I usually charge.  He raised his eyebrows, clearly on to me, and handed me a $20, saying, “just 10 back” accurately guessing the normal price.  I thanked him and took it, because of course, it won’t fix everything, and he wanted to help too.  

The flowers don’t fix the broken.  But if anything, the handoff, the interaction, the 4-minute conversation about a common experience, might have made the both of just a little less fallen-apart.  It was one of those moments that makes me so grateful for the market, for being a farmer, for direct sales to real people in my town. There have been a couple of articles circulating lately about how farmers are suffering because people treat the market more as a carnival or social hang-out than a place to buy food.  They lament the hipsters coming for coffee and pastries, wielding camera phones to feed their social media without buying any produce.  And while there can be real issues with that, worth going into another time, I think those articles were missing something good about the modern market atmosphere, too.  

Friday morning as I listened to the news over coffee and planning, a few tears fell onto the harvest sheet. I heard friends and communities mourning brokkennes and violence, crying out for a need to do something.  We have to do better.  We must fix this.  I wondered if I was selfish for just wanting to go out and harvest flowers, tend to carrots, plant more beans.  What am I doing, to help?  What am I doing, at all?  

But also I thought of community, of gathering, of how our market brings a range of ages, backgrounds, and viewpoints all together in a few blocks for a few hours each week.  Our favorite thing is when you talk to each other in our booth.  Sometimes is is old friends greeting each other in a surprise encounter at market, but often it is conversations between strangers, emboldened to talk to someone they have never met because we are all gathered here around the garlic scapes.  Sometimes it is a ringing endorsement of arugula pesto, or a fierce debate about how to best use beets, or whether our egg pice is a scandal or a steal of a deal.  But in any case, you are here, we are all out here together, connecting in some way.  And that makes our community, in the tiniest bits, over and over again a little less broken.  So bring it on: lattes and breakfast burritoes and baguettes and beets.  Whatever it is that brings you out, into your town and next to your neighbors.  Come join the gruff and grizzled dudes in their biker shirts and the sleekly manicured ladies cheek to jowl in the booth; just come on out and just be together.  

It won't fix everything.  It won’t undo anyone’s hurt or heal the families who are mourning someone lost because of the way they looked, the way they loved, or the uniform they wore.  Just like my flowers won’t fix it, the beautiful heads of romaine won’t fix it.  But gathering together, being people together may help keep us all just a little less fallen apart. And sometimes that, just that, is what we can do.  

Everybody eats.  Come on out and join us.