Monday, December 12, 2011

The Truth About November

Wow, a whole month since I posted last. I feel kind of sheepish about that, to be honest.

November was busy, yes; I had a six-day work week and typically drove to Long Beach to see friends on the seventh. And yeah, I didn't have internet access on the boat. Nonetheless, I could've made time to write and post. The real reason I didn't is that this is the first stop on my trip where I felt like things weren't going very well, and I kept thinking that maybe in a few days they would go better and then I'd be able to write a really upbeat post about boat life.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


We just finished caulking the quarterdeck of the brigantine Irving Johnson.

The first step in this job is cleaning out the old pitch and oakum from the seams. This is called reefing. (I didn't get a photo of the reefing tools, but there are some nice ones here.) Beneath the oakum is a layer of cotton, which you only need to replace if it's wet.

Oakum is a kind of loose fibrous stuff which is hand-tarred and rolled into usable lengths. (Wikipedia notes that "Oakum was at one time recycled from old tarry ropes and cordage, which were painstakingly unraveled and taken apart into fiber; this task of picking and preparation was a common penal occupation in prisons and workhouses.") We've been referring to it as dreadlocks, due to its resemblance to light brown hair that hasn't been washed in several months.

Once you get the hang of it, reefing is all right. When the pitch is out of the way, the oakum tends to pull out in huge long strands, making you feel like you're really getting something done. All right!

Then you put in new oakum, using a mallet and a couple of caulking irons:

One iron has a fine edge (single crease), for tacking the oakum into place, and the other has a broad edge (double crease), for smashing it all down flat. This is the most labor-intensive part of the job. Getting enough oakum pounded down into that seam requires a lot of hammering, and if you've overestimated the amount, it may have to be torn out and redone. This is excruciating because it's already taking for-ev-er aughh whyyyy.

Then you melt down your pitch (well, traditionally it was pitch, and we still called it that, although we used Jeffery's Marine Glue). We did this on the dock, with a fire extinguisher handy.

While you're waiting for it to liquefy, you can blue-tape all the seams. This step isn't traditional, but it sure does make the deck look cleaner immediately after application. (Ultimately, all the pitch that isn't in a seam will get worn away, so it's not absolutely necessary, but it will make you feel better when you slosh pitch all over the place.)

Then you pour the ultra-super-hot pitch into this pyramid-shaped iron device with a spout on the end, and you use it to apply the pitch to the seams.

A diagram on this page tells me it's called a "pitch ladle," although we referred to it as the "pitch gun." Whatever you call it, be sure you're wearing welding gloves, because that thing has no insulation whatsoever.

The blowtorch is useful because the pitch cools very rapidly and must be heated up again every minute or two. Through the entire process, I was curious to know: what on earth did they do in the Age of Sail, when there were no blowtorches? I spoke to a sailor who worked on another deck caulking project, and he said they didn't have a pyramidal applicator like we do; they used a pitch pot, which they heated right on deck and poured directly into the seams. When it started to harden it up, they put it back on the burner. Then they used seaming irons to smooth out the seams. We didn't have seaming irons, but blowtorches were probably more fun anyway.

Before the seams cool completely, you go back over them with chisels and remove the excess pitch. (If the seam is already cool, you can use the blowtorch to heat the chisel or the seam to make it more pliable.)

Then all you have to do is remove the blue tape and scrub down the deck. Here's an old seam and a new seam for comparison. (We left the old seam because it was in perfectly good condition.)

Voila! It sounds so easy, doesn't it? But only if you know what you're doing, which we didn't when we started. And only if it stops raining long enough for you to get the work done. And only if you have enough people show up to make the work go quickly. So, yeah, not really easy. But we did it. Only 2/3 of the deck to go!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

I'm on a Boat

It's been a rollercoaster of a month.  I came to the LA area with the intent of volunteering as crew on the schooner Tole Mour, but (to make a long story short) that didn't pan out. My interactions with Tole Mour's crew, some of whom are old shipmates from my days aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain, led to connections with the crew of the twin brigantines Irving and Exy Johnson and, ultimately, an invitation to come down to those boats in San Pedro and volunteer.

So I commuted to LA Maritime Institute in San Pedro for several days from the place I was staying in Long Beach, and helped out on the Exy Johnson. I let it be known that I'd prefer to be a liveaboard volunteer, and the crew was enthusiastic in their support of this idea. There were four liveaboards on Exy at that time, all coming up on the end of their contracts and all more than ready to have another experienced deckhand aboard to share the work.

But the crew doesn't run the organization, and those who do dragged their feet.  It began to look like the paper-pushing end of LAMI might not make up their minds what to do with me until about the time I was ready to leave the LA area. Whether or not I wound up living aboard in an unofficial capacity in the meantime, dear reader, I leave as an exercise to your imagination.

Ultimately the office gave me the okay, but until that point, I was unsure what I could blog about my current living status that might not be rendered inaccurate within the next 24 hours. Also, life on a tall ship keeps you pretty busy, and also, the boat doesn't have internet access. Thus the radio silence.

In a further plot twist, on October 31, a week before I planned to leave town, the crew coordinator came down to the dock and offered me a contract as a paid deckhand through the end of the year.  This was completely out of the blue.  After some consideration, I decided to sign on through November.  Income, even in eensy quantities, is most welcome, but I promised my family I'd be home for Christmas this year.

The height of sailing season is past now, and the boats are in maintenance mode, only venturing outside the harbor once or twice a week.  Here's the view from the quarterdeck of the Exy on one such day.

We recently hauled out Exy.  My prior experience with haulout has involved weeks of labor and numerous expensive setbacks.  Because this is a newish boat (launched in 2003), and because haulout was done at a boatyard that doesn't let you do any of the work yourself, this was a very different affair.  We were essentially only needed for the Coast Guard inspection (this involved crawling around in bilges, opening and closing stubborn through-hull valves).  And the end date was only extended by a few days.  In the meantime, we joined the crew of the Irving in living aboard their vessel.

This is how the Exy looked immediately after being hauled out of the water:

She is much cleaner and prettier now.

In the meantime, while not on a boat, I've been staying in Long Beach with old friends. One of them was born the day before I was, and we've been friends ever since. Here's a photo of us, Back in the Day. (My mom made the dresses.)

We've mostly had to be long-distance friends, so it's been very satisfying to have time to catch up, get to know each other as adults (or some reasonable facsimile), and discover how much we still have in common (quite a bit).  Last weekend we went for a hot-air balloon ride together.  It was lovely.

I still have a lot more to say about Tassajara, as well as boat stories to tell.  I'm hoping to carve out more time this month for blogging, but I make no guarantees.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Beginner's Mind

My third day (second full day) at Tassajara is the day I finally begin to feel settled. I'm more comfortable physically and clearer mentally, and I'm starting to internalize the schedule, instead of having to run back to the announcement board all the time to check on what I'm supposed to be doing next.

At the morning work meeting we have guests: representatives from Esalen Retreat Center, New Camaldoli Hermitage, and the Esselen Nation. They have gathered here today for the quarterly meeting of the Four Winds Council, the four spiritual centers based in the Ventana Wilderness (Big Sur). An Esselen elder speaks to us about the history of Tassajara. "This is a holy place," he tells us. "Long ago, we used to bring our sick and elderly people here so they could bathe in the healing waters." He welcomes us all to this place and thanks us for taking care of it. This gesture, when taken in context with all that has happened between that long-ago time and now, is breathtaking in its graciousness. He leads us in a joyous call-and-response song of greeting in the Esselen language that brings tears to my eyes. "Ike [ee-KEH]!" he says, in closing, which means "Yes!" or "It is good."

I wish I could lurk in the shadows at the Four Winds Council, but there is work to be done. This morning I am assigned to kitchen duty. I get to crack a whole bunch of eggs in a row, which I enjoy immensely. Then I chop some vegetables. The morning goes quickly; I've never really been into cooking, but I think I could get used to this kind of work.

The kitchen at Tassajara is a well-oiled machine, which comes as no surprise. The place is famous for its food, has inspired several popular cookbooks, and in the summer months feeds hundreds of wealthy guests. Even an influx of volunteers who are unfamiliar with Tassajara ways doesn't seem to faze the kitchen staff. The hierarchy reminds me of my time working on tall ships: the tenzo, or head cook, is responsible for meal planning, much as the captain selects the course a ship will take; the fukuten, or kitchen manager, supervises the kitchen staff and makes sure the tenzo's plans become reality, in the same way that a first mate directs a ship's crew. Today's fukuten delegates the instruction of new folks to other kitchen staff, and before I commence chopping, I am trained in the proper way to use, carry, and clean a Tassajara kitchen knife.

Though it doesn't come up today, later I will learn that work in Tassajara's kitchens is supposed to be conducted in "functional silence" -- speech is only to be used as necessary. I struggle with this; the screened food prep area outside the kitchen seems to me an ideal setting for casual conversation, and I get restless when left to do monotonous work with nothing but my own thoughts to entertain me. I understand that it's a lot easier not to cut yourself when you're fully focused on what you're doing, and I also understand that being present in the task at hand is just as much a part of the spiritual practice at Tassajara as formal meditation. I understand the rule, and I respect it, but I still don't like it. Some fukutens are more strict in their reinforcement of the rule than others, and I find I enjoy kitchen work significantly more when it is more loosely applied.

After lunch I rejoin a couple of my fellow workers from yesterday to deep-clean the Lower Shack, a tiny pantry containing what the work leader describes as "all our controlled substances:" tea, coffee, and sugar. There are also tubs of beans, cleaning supplies, and, alas, ample evidence of Tassajara's mouse population. (As Buddhists have reverence for all forms of life, there are no lethal traps here; however, a couple of monastery cats roam the premises.) The three of us wipe down shelves, tidy up their contents, and move stuff around in the small room as though we're playing that old sliding-tile game. We eschew functional silence in favor of continuing and building upon yesterday's conversations. One of my companions doesn't call herself a Buddhist, but regularly meets with San Francisco Zen Center and has been volunteering for Tassajara work periods for years; the other is a mostly-retired filmmaker who still does occasional work for the National Museum of the American Indian. Both are full of good stories.

At dinner I chat with Allen, another volunteer who practices at San Francisco Zen Center. (SFZC and Tassajara are part of the same organization, as is a third location, Green Gulch Farm; all are residential centers of Zen study, and members frequently circulate between them.) When he learns that I came here knowing next to nothing about Zen, he is eager to answer any questions I may have. Alas, I tell him, I still know too little to even know what questions to ask. He beams. In Zen, he tells me, the quality of beginner's mind is something every expert strives for. Later, in a book by Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of SFZC, I will find the quote he refers to: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
In the beginner's mind there is no thought, "I have attained something." All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.
Allen tells me not to be intimidated by the formality of Zen practice; the formality in itself has no value. Its purpose is to focus your intention and your presence of mind. A lot of people think that the purpose of zazen (meditation) is to empty your mind, he says, but that's not really what it's about. Zazen is about studying yourself in order to know yourself so that, finally, you can forget yourself. If you don't know yourself, you are always going to be getting in your own way. This is the most practical and appealing explanation of zazen I've yet heard. He adds the reassurance that it's more than okay to make mistakes here: "This is the least judgmental place you'll find anywhere."

I appreciate Allen's down-to-earth Zen 101. If I needed any reassurance that what I learn here will be useful to my pursuit of spiritual growth in a Christian context, he has given me plenty. But Zen is kind of a slippery fish. Everyone here I speak to about it will tell me something a little different, giving me a new piece of a complex, multi-dimensional, and often paradoxical puzzle.

This evening, instead of zazen, we meet in the dining hall for a "dharma talk" from Abbot Steve, who has come from SFZC to attend the Four Winds Council earlier today. His address gently rambles between topics, all loosely interconnected. He says that our lives are not separate from the forms of life around us, that our bodies, the body of the earth, the bodies of the crickets we hear in the background, are all one with the body of Buddha. This phrasing is interesting to me because Christians also often refer to the "body of Christ" -- but when we do so, we mean "all the Christians." This "Buddha body" is a much more expansive categorization.

Another contrast appears when he touches on the subject of the afterlife. "Paradise is now," he says, "because there is only the present moment: there is only now... now... now....  To wish for something else, for some other paradise, is kind of disrespectful of this body." I believe in an afterlife, but I have to admire the humble contentedness implied by this statement. I agree that, for me, this life is enough and more; whatever comes after will be... well, I was going to say icing on the cake, but if what I believe is true, it's more the other way round. Still, I live in good health and reasonable prosperity in a wealthy nation, and so, I presume, does Abbot Steve. For us to say that this life is enough is, perhaps, not all that much of a stretch. It seems to me that the promise of comfort beyond this life, or the disavowal of such, holds a very different weight for those who are less comfortable here.

He repeats a story a friend of his told him, about a time when she became frustrated with her carpool buddy's persistent silence. Her irritation built and built until she asked herself, "What if I stop this story in my head about what should be happening? What if I just sit here and be comfortable with my own breath?" And then, she told him, everything seemed to be perfect.

...Until she started overthinking it. But Abbot Steve reminds his listeners: "Being compassionate with one's own tendencies is important, because if you're not compassionate, you won't even know your own tendencies."

"The work of [Zen] practice," he continues, "is to carefully investigate your tendencies, your preferences. Not just your preferences but your obsessions, what drives you. When you notice a 'should', what if you bring in [a spirit of] inquiry and curiosity, rather than one of judgment?... [That feeling] can just be heard and invited to relax. What's the fear behind it? What's driving it?"

After taking a couple of questions from his listeners, he closes by serenading us with a song from the great blues musician Lead Belly, called "Relax Your Mind." Soon we are all joining in on the chorus:

Relax your mind,
Relax your mind
Will help you live
A great long time
Sometime you just got to
Relax your mind.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Day Two at Tassajara

I don't sleep well my first night at Tassajara, and though I hoped for better, I'm not really surprised. As delicious as that dinner was, it's a pretty dramatic shift to go from the diet at the Little Farm (lots of meat, dairy, and cultured foods) to the all-vegetarian, grain-heavy menu of the monastery. I know that wheat is one food that consistently challenges my digestive system, so I resolve to avoid it until I can sleep through the night again. This fast shouldn't be too hard, I figure; the menu for each meal is written out on a whiteboard, with common allergens (dairy, nuts, sugar, garlic) clearly marked.

At 5:30 I hear the wakeup bell: it's a monk or a student running past, ringing a bell, from the student sleeping quarters all the way down to the farthest guest quarters and back again. The two passes have a nice snooze-alarm interval inbetween, but I still have no intention of getting up for this morning's meditation. I rise groggily in time for breakfast at 7:30.

Every breakfast and lunch here begins with what I can't help but think of as a prayer, which we recite together in robot-voice. (Dinner happens immediately after evening service, so presumably the food-blessing is covered in there somehow.) There are laminated copies for those of us who don't know it by heart.

(If you can't read it, click to see it bigger.)
I like this verse, the mindfulness and humble gratitude it communicates, even though I have no idea what some of it means. About a week in, another volunteer explains about the Three Treasures: they are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the teacher (of the truth), and the Dharma is the teaching (the truth that is taught). The Sangha is the community (of truth-seekers).

After breakfast we gather for the first work meeting of the day. The work meetings, after breakfast and lunch, bring the community together for announcements and work assignments. They follow a predictable pattern: bowing to the shrine and to one another, introductions from new arrivals, farewells from those who are leaving, announcements from senior staff, general announcements, lost-and-found announcements, and work assignments.  Everyone stands in a big circle (after lunch, most of us wincing in the bright sun), and the proceedings are guided by that day's work leader.

My first assignment is to work with three other women to deep-clean the Upper Shack, a kind of pantry which will see less use in the winter months. It's pleasant work, with no rush or stress attached to it, and I enjoy getting to know my fellow workers as we scrub and sweep. I'm grateful to be doing something low-key today, because I'm not in great shape after last night. We continue this job after lunch, wrap up and go find the work leader for another assignment, and are sent to clean the bathroom attached to the zendo. As this three-seat bathroom is cleaned daily, it's hardly grueling work either, and we finish up with a little time to spare. Thus ends my first seven-hour work day at Tassajara.

We have a new roommate, Karen, filling the empty third bed in Cabin 10. Elaine (my existing roommate) has news: she's leaving. This morning, while working, the thought came to her: "This is not where I need to be right now." She let the idea linger for a while without latching onto it, and finally concluded it was, indeed, time to go. She speaks with the work leader and one of the priests and gets their approval (reluctantly, I suspect); she'll be leaving in the morning. It strikes me as ironic, how settled she seemed last night, and yet how certain she is today that it's time to go. I respect her ability to listen to her intuition -- this is something I'm trying to be better at, myself -- but at the same time I'm sorry to see her leave. There has been something very familiar about the easy way we latched onto each other from the get-go, something that reminds me of summer camp cabin-buddies and the way little girls can form instant friendships based on proximity.

As dusk begins to fall, the sound of mallet striking board rings out over the grounds, and I shuffle over to the zendo for evening zazen, or meditation. You remove your shoes and place them on a shelf, then walk down the engawa (the exterior walkway, worn smooth by many bare feet) to the zendo's front entrance. You enter with your left foot first, bow, and fold your hands properly before proceeding to the other side of the zendo, where someone with a clipboard will assign you a seat. (The clipboard is only necessary in seasons when there are visitors, such as now; the regulars have regularly assigned seating.) Then you bow before entering the row you've been assigned, and bow to your seat before arranging the cushions, parking your bum on them, and rotating clockwise to face the plain white wall. You arrange your legs as close to the lotus position as you can manage, and maybe stretch a little, and then you stop moving for 40 minutes. Or at least, that's the idea.

The first ten or fifteen minutes of this are wonderful. It's been quite a while since I took time to just be still, to stop overthinking everything and just rest my mind. And here in this quiet place it is easy to be conscious of the Divine, of how beyond close and how beyond vast is God. This awareness is deeply joyous for me, and I silently revel in it.

Then, alas, my body catches up with me. My thigh is sore, my shoulder hurts, my neck is stiff, my ear itches. I can temporarily resolve many of these discomforts with a few moments' focus, concentrating on sending warmth and light to that painful joint or stretched muscle, but it's a short-term fix, and I end up spending the rest of the time chasing discomfort around my body and hoping it's over soon so I can lie down. I'm no meditation expert, but I'm pretty sure that's not the way this is supposed to work.

The session closes with a slow pattern of drumbeats and bells, and a small amount of singing/chanting words I do not understand. I return to my room feeling stiff, but stilled, and sleep much more soundly.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Settling In (or Not)

People carrying trays of food walk back and forth between kitchen and dining hall, and the rest of us loiter in the courtyard between, waiting for dinner. Many of us are drinking tea from the self-serve tea/coffee bar, with which I am utterly delighted.

Just look at all those tea options in the white jars!

Finally, everyone forms two lines facing each other, and at the signal of two sticks of wood clacking, all bow with hands pressed together. We proceed casually into the dining hall, each bowing once more before picking up a plate and silverware. Again this nudge toward mindfulness; it's like saying grace without words.

Dinner is some kind of amazingly delicious kale/garlic/cheese glop over rice, chips with salsa and guacamole, a tasty salad with grapefruit and jicama, and chocolate pecan pie with giant bowls of real whipped cream. Wow. I load my plate up and find an empty seat.

Tassajara's year cycles from the busy summer months, when it opens to vacationers as a hot springs resort, to the austere winter season of study and meditation. Inbetween are the spring and fall work periods, when volunteers are invited in to help with cleaning, repairs, and preparation for the season to come. Just now, when everyone is dressed casually, it's impossible to guess who is a volunteer and who is a resident, let alone what sort of hierarchy exists within the monastery itself. My dinner companions turn out to be volunteers who have been here many times before. They are full of helpful information and interesting stories.

One tells about the great forest fire of 2008, when the entire facility was evacuated except for five monks, who chose to stay and protect the monastery from fiery doom. The story of how they successfully did so was published this year in a book called Fire Monks, which proves easily the most-talked-about book of this two-week session. It was written by "a friend of Tassajara," as one resident describes her, and during my time here I will discuss it with many people, all of whom seem to think it was quite well done. I'll acquire a copy from the bookstore at 10% off on my last day here, thinking, I'd like to write this kind of thing someday, and eventually even get around to reading it (though at the time of this writing, that last bit hasn't happened yet).

After dinner, I do a bit of exploring with my new roommate. We wander quietly through a lovely garden full of flowers and herbs.

Elaine has heard mention of a free box somewhere around here. We both like free stuff (and I have some stuff to give away), so we are determined to find it. It turns out we were misinformed, though; in the student quarters, we locate an entire wall of well-organized shelves of free things. This is good resource management; I like it!

Soon enough, the bell is ringing from the zendo. Tonight, instead of the regularly scheduled meditation, there will be a special full moon ceremony. I figure this will be a great introduction to Zen Buddhism.

In retrospect, I think it may not have been the best way to begin. I've been feeling an underlying resistance against this place since I arrived, specifically the Buddhist aspects of it, or rather, how I imagine them to be. I imagine Buddhists are supposed to be very serene and impassive, quiet and restrained. I mean, that's what Zen means, right?* But I don't feel like a serene person. I feel like I have to fake calmness to fit in, which makes me feel cramped.

*(No. But we'll get to that later.)

And there's a further complication here: I'm a Christian. Though I'm genuinely interested in learning about Buddhism, and strongly suspect there is a lot to be learned here that will complement my own faith, I'm expecting not to be wholly on board with this whole Buddha-program. So all of this underlying resistance kind of comes to a head during this ceremony.

There is a lot of standing, bowing and kneeling, a lot of bells and drums and chimes with a lot of silences inbetween. I have no idea what's going on, but it does go on... and on. There is ceremonial lighting of incense (Tassajara uses the good stuff, which, unlike most incense, doesn't irritate my throat) and lots of chanting in various languages. (Here is the text of the ceremony in PDF.) The English-language chanting is done in the same way as the traditional Japanese: monotone, without the normal inflections of speech. It sounds like everyone is pretending to be a robot. The priest leading the chanting has some odd nasal intonations which give him an extra robot-y voice. I like this aspect of the ceremony, and I enjoy chanting along with some of the stuff I can understand and agree with. But this evening, the things I don't agree with hold my focus. I don't claim to take refuge in Buddha; Buddha is just all right with me. I'm not nonviolent; in fact, I can think of a number of situations in which violence sounds like a fairly good idea. I'm not interested in forswearing intoxicants, and while I agree it's bad to speak ill of others, I'm pretty sure I haven't done that for the last time.

Another part of my discomfort is that I'm forced to rely on the guidance of others to direct me through this ceremony, and it makes me uncomfortable not to know what I'm supposed to do next. And another part is that I'm really, really tired. All of this adds up to me being good and sick of the ceremony by the time it finally ends (it's probably been all of about 40 minutes, but it feels like forever) and I can go to bed. Lying down feels very, very good.

Before I fall asleep, I flash back to a moment after dinner when Elaine said contentedly, "I feel like I've been here forever." She explained that she feels she's fully arrived in this place, not still thinking back to home and what's behind her. And indeed she seems to have wholly settled in. I don't feel that way at all. When I close my eyes I'm still behind my bug-splattered windshield, lurching white-knuckled over that rocky mountain road, and when I stare at the ceiling I can only hope to feel half as settled before the two weeks of Work Period are up.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Back From, and Arriving at, Tassajara

I'm back from the mountains, from the quiet and the measured pace of Tassajara. I've been holed up in Hanford, CA, in the spacious air-conditioned home of my dear friends Jason & Melonie, college chums and D&D-playing buddies from backinnaday. The house is quiet all day and in the evening, when they bring their sons home from day care, echoes with the sound of small children with big emotions.

The little ones are fun to hang out with about 90% of the time, which is a good percentage for kids of any age. Their parents have been my friends for so long that it really wouldn't matter if they were fun to hang out with, I would want to hang out with them anyway; but they are, and that's a nice bonus.

When it's just me in the house I am sometimes doing productive things, but mostly not. It's not that I need a vacation right now; it's that I'm reacclimating to internet access. (So! Many! Things! To look at!) The internet was one of two things I regularly lusted after at the monastery. The other was meat.

I've been somewhat daunted by writing up the two weeks' worth of journal entries I wrote at Tassajara. Every day was so full of new things, and yet had so much space for new thoughts. My entries got a lot longer and more detailed than they'd been before, and I've been trying to figure out a way to share it all without writing up all 14 entries, because I don't have time for that. 

At least I know where to begin: at the beginning.

* * *

The road to Tassajara is terrible, the monk on the telephone told me. "It's fifteen miles of unpaved, winding single-lane road, and it takes an hour and a half to drive. Do you have a vehicle with four-wheel drive?" No, I replied. "You can do it without," he said, "but you'll need to shift your car into a low gear and pump the brakes, or they'll overheat. Go slowly, five to ten miles per hour. Oh, and make sure you have plenty of gas, and your braking and cooling systems and your tires are all in good shape."  Okay, I said, and thanked him, and proceeded to spend the next couple of weeks dreading the drive.

That road is pretty hairy, no joke. The whole thing is basically one big pothole, with a couple of paved stretches a few yards long, just enough to remind you how much better it could be. Here's a fairly typical stretch (with feet for scale):

And then there are occasional monstrous rocks embedded in the middle of the road, just waiting to tear something off the bottom of your car. And long stretches of the road are dappled with shade, so you can't see the rough spots until you're right on top of them. And there are turns around which an unexpected vehicle may be approaching, which you'll need to pass without swerving off the mountainside. And, also, there might be a longhorn steer which just happens to be hanging out in the road, with horns that could nail you to your seat without even straining a neck muscle. ("Um, hello, cow! Don't mind me, I'm just gonna eeease past you here... Niiice cow....")

And there's also this:

Incredible scenery around every turn, which you dare not give more than a glance because you might damage your car OR MAYBE DIE.

But I don't die, and my car takes it like a trooper. Eventually, I run out of road, and park my car, and stumble out into the gravel parking lot, past the sign that says Tassajara Zen Center, and through a little wooden gate, and I'm there.

I'm ready for my fanfare, for someone to say "Congratulations! You survived the road!" or maybe "Oh, you're Lindsey? Yes, we've been expecting you," or even just, "Are you new here? Can I help steer you in the right direction?" But none of those things happen. I walk around until I find a sign that says Stone Office, and then I go in and ask where to check in, and am told I can find my housing assignment on the front of some cabin over thataway. That's it? Doesn't anyone need to know that I'm here? Apparently not.

I get over it. I rope a passing person (monk? volunteer? priest? who knows? I don't) into showing me where to find my quarters, and he does so very graciously. My cabin isn't much to look at on the outside, but clean and airy within.

No electricity, but kerosene lanterns, clean bed-linens, and a water closet (toilet and sink) shared with a second bedroom on the other side. I've never seen a toilet quite like this one before (you flush by lifting the knob on the top); I later learn it's from Sweden, but never mind. We have a toilet in the same building, and it is the kind you can sit down on. I am thrilled.

I'm kind of at a loss as to what to do next. I go back to my car, bring back an armload of stuff, and only then think to go look at the schedule I saw hanging up by the room assignments. Apparently I just missed the guided tour for new arrivals. Hmm.

I manage to slip in partway through the introduction to the zendo, the building in which meditation and services take place. And by "slip in" I mean "completely throw the instructor off." She recovered, and I managed to pick up some basic points of zendo etiquette:
 - When you enter, cross the threshold with your left foot; when you exit, cross it with your right.
 - Hold your left hand cupped in your right hand, unless you are using your hands for something else.
 - Don't cross in front of the altar (in the center of the room); always cross behind it.
 - Bow with your hands in "praying" position when you enter, when you proceed down an aisle, before taking your seat, after rising from your seat, and whenever everyone else seems to be bowing.
- Sit in lotus position, or half lotus, or with legs loosely crossed, or on your knees or on a chair or whatever you can manage.
- During meditation, try not to move if you can help it.
- During other activities, just follow along the best you can.

All of the more arcane details have a purpose: to help keep you mindful of the significance of what you are doing. The zendo is not a place for casualness or thoughtlessness; it's a place for focus, a place to be very present. As temporary volunteers, our participation in all zendo activities is strictly optional, but I'm eager to see what goes on here.

Here's the outside of the zendo (it seemed irreverent to take photos inside, so I didn't):

The wooden panel, bell, and drum are all instruments that are used daily in ceremonies and in calling people to the zendo for services. The interior is lined with wide benches (tan) on which cushions are placed for meditation, and more cushions are on the floor. Near one of these is another drum and the hugest singing bowl I've ever seen. The altar bears a heavy stone statue of a serene-faced Buddha, with a couple of smaller statues and some other items I don't understand the purpose of.

Our instruction over, I return to my cabin, pausing to look at the schedule along the way. It says "Bath and exercise time." I'm hot and could certainly use a bath, but figuring out where the bathing facilities are and the proper protocol for using them just sounds too exhausting right now. Maybe I'll just flop down on the bed and... "Oh, hello," I say to the woman who has just walked in the door. It's my roommate. Her name is Elaine, this is her first time here too, and she is headed for the baths. Would I like to come along? Well yes, I would, now that I have a guide.

The baths showcase the hot springs which have attracted visitors to Tassajara for centuries. The showers are geothermally heated, as are the hot tubs and saunas. I'm told that the hot tubs on the women's side are kept just a little bit hotter than the men's, to meet popular demand. I've always been the odd one out, I guess; the indoor women's hot tub feels like it's burning me alive, so I hop right back out again. (I once passed out after spending time in a hot tub that felt too hot, so I don't push it.) The outdoor hot tub is a few degrees cooler and feels just right.

I've lost Elaine somewhere along the way, but there is another woman in the outdoor tub. After we have both sat there in silence for a few long minutes, she asks if I've ever heard of a particular artist who makes lifelike, life-sized sculptures of human beings (I think it was this one). "If you went to his exhibit and stood still long enough, eventually people would gather around you and try to figure out whether you were a sculpture or not.... You were sitting so still, it made me think of that." I laugh. I'd like to continue chatting, but thanks to fatigue and the hot soak, I've temporarily lost the ability to make small talk, so I close my eyes and go still again.

[To be continued]

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Big Rock and a Little Baby

Morro Bay is a pretty little town. My friends live very close to the beach, and the last two evenings I have ridden my bike down to the waterfront, to a small stretch of really great bike path that runs by Morro Rock.

Morro Rock is a hard landmark to miss, but it's not the only one. Morro Bay also has a natural gas power plant with three huge towers. My first glimpse of them as I drove into town Thursday night was decidedly eerie: red-lit cylinders hovering over the town in the fog. By day they are much less sci-fi-ominous.

Oh look, there's a shadow of some tourist taking photos in the corner. Oops. And I'm too lazy to crop her out.

Here's my faithful steed:

It's kinda funny-looking (as one friend commented, "It looks like it would be the awkward kid at bike high school"), but it rides really nice, and it folds up and fits in the trunk of my Volvo. I heart it a whole lot.

Despite occasionally playing tourist, I have spent less time looking at scenery and more time looking at this little face:

Two months ago, my friends John and Sarita, shipmates from my days aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain, went and had themselves a really cute kid. So we have, as predicted, talked about tall ships and the baby quite a bit. But we have talked about plenty of other things too. It's been a pretty low-key weekend, with lots of catching up and a few outings to interesting places hereabouts.

Tomorrow morning I embark on the next leg of my journey, and I'm telling you about it in advance because it involves being offline for quite a while.  I'll be volunteering at Tassajara Zen Monastery, in the mountains south of San Francisco, for two weeks.  The webpage for the work period I'll be participating in says, "Personal computers are not allowed."  I'll still have my netbook with me (shh, don't tell) but electrical outlets are few and far between out there, and internet access is out of the question, so I probably won't even switch it on. I'll be journaling, though, and when I'm back in internet-land, I'll tell you what it was like.

See you in two weeks!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On the Road to Morro Bay: Excerpts from a Stream of Consciousness

OH man. I don't wanna leave the Little Farm. Don't wanna donwanna donwanna. Don't wanna leave that delicious food, don't wanna leave my doggie friends, don't wanna leave my people friends. I am sad, sad.

Is this what I'm setting myself up for with this road trip? One continuous series of painful goodbyes?

Actually, if goodbyes are the most painful part of this journey, I'll be lucky. In fact, if I don't visit some places I'm downright eager to leave, I'm probably doing it wrong.

Haha, remember yesterday when I didn't realize Maya let the pigs into the yard before I got the ice cream churn and the milk bucket put away? And then I was like, oh no, pig enthusiasm is threatening the well-being of the ice cream churn again, I cannot allow this to happen? Especially after that amazing bourbon vanilla ice cream we had at lunch? And then I let loose with a war cry and charged them at full speed? And then they didn't even glance up from the spilled milk until I was right on top of them. Pfft, all that hollerin' for nothin'.

Aw, those pigs. I still have mud on the knee of my clean jeans, from where Papa Pig smashed his snout up against it this morning. I like to pretend he was saying goodbye but really, I think he was looking for food and I was in his way.

I am glad I got to see the concrete poured for the new house/barn. I got to help a tiny bit digging out the trenches for it, so I felt kind of invested in it, and also it was interesting to see how that part of the process worked. Lots of people came out to help, and we had a huge delicious triumphant lunch afterward. And hand-churned bourbon vanilla ice cream. It was a good way to spend my last day at the Little Farm.

Why is that old guy honking and yelling at me. What is he yelling at me. Oh no. I bet it's... did I forget the... "Gas cap! GAS CAP!" Oh man. I shift into park, run around the back, crank it back in and slam the little door. "Thank you!" I shout, and point to the Oregon plate by way of explanation. He shrugs. I jump back into the car just as the light turns green, and a couple miles down the road, as he passes me, we exchange a friendly wave. Aw, I like it when people are nice.

But I'm still sad.

Come on, there are going to be plenty of things I won't miss about the Little Farm. Right? Right?
 - Mosquitoes. And flies. Flies and mosquitoes. Although I suppose they have those in other places, too. Hey, is that a fresh bite on my leg? Is there a mosquito in my car? Hey!!
 - Have to admit I'm pretty excited about returning to the land of toilets you can sit on. Toilet seats: I am such a fan. 
 - That stupid rooster.
 - Well actually I might kind of miss that rooster. A little bit. DANG IT

But there are plenty of things to distract me. There's music, because my parents sent me an FM transmitter for my MP3 player, and it works beautifully out here in the middle of nowhere. And there's so many things to look at. The mountains, shaggy with evergreens, fade away into a dryer, flatter landscape studded with oak trees. Then there are olive orchards.

A truck trailer is parked in a field with the words "HIS BLOOD WAS SHED FOR YOU" plastered across the side, which I guess is one way of getting around paying for a billboard permit. It takes me a while to realize that the picture below it is supposed to be a blood-drenched arm with a dripping hand reaching out. I dunno, I'm not entirely sure this is the most effective evangelism technique.

Look, a palm tree! Whoa. Only one, but still: that means something.

A casino billboard says, "YOU'RE ALMOST THERE!" Ha ha, very funny, billboard. You can't fool me.

I think I'll stop in Sacramento for lunch. I'll find myself a grocery store and get some healthy things to eat. Hmm, what do I want to eat for lunch?
 - Cheese. Yes. Cheese.
 - Oo, baby carrots.
 - Maybe some nuts? If they're not covered in weird oils.
 - Kombucha. Oh man, I could really go for some kombucha right now. I might have to find myself kind of a hoity-toity grocery store to get it, though.

The treeless hills in the distance look like crinkled brown paper.

A flock of birds swirls over the roadway, dividing and merging. A flock of birds is a very different sort of thing than you would ever guess based on observing individual birds, or even small groups of birds. Hmm.

Kombucha is maybe the most refreshing road trip drink ever. Even when it's warm. I wish I'd bought two kombucha bottles, instead of picking up this other juice drink at a gas station later on. Bleah, it's terrible.

More palm trees. I'm not even kind of in the Pacific Northwest anymore.

The dry hills are getting closer. Their curves, yellow with dead grass, remind me of... potato chips? Maybe it's time for a snack.

Signs in the fields read: CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL. I don't know what that's about, but I suspect it has something to do with the topic of a book my hosts were reading called Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. They said it was really eye-opening. Apparently the landscape of central California would look quite different if it weren't for how much water has been diverted by dams and irrigation.

Agh. You know what I hate the most about road trips? Not knowing for sure if you've missed your exit. Not knowing whether you should keep going or turn back. This might actually be one of the things I hate the most about life, too. Forging ahead when you don't know if you're doing it right or not is just excruciating. So stressful, all that second-guessing.

Hmm, wow, I never realized that about myself before. It's true. That is a thing I really can't stand in any context.

You know what, why am I even doing this to myself when it's totally avoidable? I'm gonna pull over at the next rest stop and buy an overpriced roadmap. I should've done that a long time ago.

Up close, the barren hills are mesmerizing, undulating, cloaked only in a stubbly layer of dry grass. They go on and on. They remind me of something. I want to say they're like the flank of an enormous beast, maybe a colossal camel or something, but that's not quite right. No, the grass isn't like a real animal's fur. It's too mangy. It's like... oh, I've got it: it's like the fur of a well-loved teddy bear.  "Hills like the hide of a giant, motley stuffed animal, worn with years of affection." Oh yup, better put that one in the blog.

There are a few trees scattered on the hills now. It's kind of exciting after so many miles of no-trees. A couple of trees, and then a few more trees, and then... vineyards! And finally, a sign that says Morro Bay, and a winding, hilly road that demands my full attention for a while. (Whee!)

I suspect this woodsy bit of the drive is the prettiest part, but I can't really see it because it's getting dark.

I wonder if my friends in Morro Bay will have any dinner leftovers they might want to share with me. I wonder how much of a monkey wrench I'm throwing into their lives by crashing at their place for the weekend. I wonder if we'll talk about anything besides tall ships and their new baby.

It's okay if we don't talk about anything besides tall ships and their new baby.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Farm Folks

I'VE written quite a few words about how I came to the Little Farm. Now I want to tell you how everybody else got here.

It's not uncommon for art school dropouts in their mid-twenties to ask themselves what they're doing with their lives. Maya had two advantages when faced with this question: an inheritance, and a creative mind with a strong practical streak. "I always thought I'd like to live in the country someday, maybe when I retired," she says, "but then I said to myself, 'It's going to be a lot easier when you're young and have the physical ability to make it work.'" So she purchased 40 acres in northern California, intending to homestead and farm it as sustainably as possible. Armed with resourcefulness, a can-do attitude, and a very limited amount of farming experience, she arrived three years ago with her cat and her boyfriend, ready to make a go of it. The land had a potable spring, a couple of old buildings -- a large shed, a small shed, and something that might charitably be described as a "tiny house" (or, alternatively, as a "hovel")... and not much else.

The boyfriend part of the plan didn't work out so well; he bailed after only a few months. Determined not to give up on her dream, Maya hunkered down and spent the winter on the Little Farm with only her cat for company. She used a straw/clay mixture and raw sheep's wool to insulate the drafty walls of her tiny house. She parked her truck at the bottom of the long uphill driveway so it wouldn't get stuck in the snow, and snowshoed all her supplies in. She cut all her own firewood with an axe and a hand saw, and hauled all her own water from the spring. "There were many times I questioned my own sanity," Maya says of that winter, shaking her head. But she outlasted it, and the ordeal made her stronger and more self-reliant.

By spring, word had got around to the locals that the crazy homesteader girl was single. Maya began to get inquiries: Have you met Ray? Ray was the region's most eligible bachelor, a tall, sandy-haired divorcée who had the respect of all who knew him. Maya invited him out to see the Little Farm, and he fell for both the lushly forested 40 acres and their bright-eyed, charismatic owner. The attraction was mutual, and before long, she invited him out to stay for good.

Ray's background in construction and rural life meant that he had a lot of suggestions about how life on the Little Farm could be easier and more comfortable. After doing everything by hand for so many months, Maya was ready to hear them: "All I did was cut wood and haul water, and I thought, 'Hey, I want to be doing other things with my time.'" She still has her standards, but, as she puts it, "Ray has done a good job of tempering my idealism."

Two years later, it's obvious the partnership is working out well for them. They both enjoy hard work, and by this time have a lot to show for all they've done. Piping carries water to the central buildings. The tiny house has been re-sided and is plumbed with solar-heated running water. The large shed has been transformed into an airy outdoor kitchen with an antique but fully functional wood stove. Other buildings have sprung up: a spring house to keep bears out of the water source, a concrete cellar for keeping food cool, an earth-insulated pig shelter, a yurt with a rocket mass heater, a solar food dehydrator. The Little Farm is still a rustic homestead, but it's getting more comfortable all the time. Rumor has it the folks in the town have begun to refer to them as the "jet-set Amish."

The most immediately appealing aspect of their lifestyle just might be the food. Maya is a gifted cook and an enthusiastic proponent of healthy eating a la the Weston Price Foundation, which emphasizes cultured and fermented foods, pasture-fed meat, and raw dairy. It seems to be working out pretty well for them. Ray, lean and sinewy, is in the best health of his life; only the lines on his face betray him as past his 30s. Maya is tanned and muscular, with shoulders that remind me of the way I once heard some tall ship sailors describe a woman they fancied: "That girl looks like she could haul some line!" Meals are heavy on the cream, butter, and tallow, and yet visitors have accused Maya of "running a weight-loss camp"; most people who stay a while lose a few pounds. (Those of you who know me well will be relieved to hear I haven't.)

Beau is one of those. He visited a year and a half ago with his girlfriend, Ray's younger sister. She didn't care for farm life, but Beau did; he came back the following summer to stay and work for room, board, and a bit of pay, as part of what Ray refers to as "our nepotism program." In the process he lost several inches off his waistline and gained a bit of muscle and a bit of farming and construction experience. This summer he's back, and his forearms are rock-hard from milking the cow.

The Little Farm's economic model is still evolving. It's tough to make money off of good quality food; Americans aren't used to paying much for what they eat, and thanks to big agriculture lobbies, FDA inspection standards are effectively designed to run small farms out of business. A recent off-the-record cow share effort turned out to be more trouble than it was worth; a few neighbors still get milk, but there are plenty of mouths at the farm eager to devour as much as Mama Cow can produce. There are other ways to turn a profit, though. Maya is an idea-generating machine, Ray has an impressive array of construction skills, and both are in the enviable position of being able to work out the profit problem without the urgency of debt. Few new small farms have such an advantage.

Monday, September 5, 2011

All Creatures Great and Pig

ALL the animals at the Little Farm are surprisingly sweet and gentle, from the Jersey cow (who currently gives us about 5 gallons of milk per day): the cats (here's Spot, the mighty huntress and drier-of-ankles): the... okay, chickens aren't exactly sweet, but these Buff Orpingtons sure have a lot of personality:

...which is more than can be said of the rooster, who starts in well before dawn proclaiming, "I'm a roos-terrrr! I'm a roos-terrrr!"

Yeah, buddy, we know. We know. But back to my point, which was how nice the animals here are.  Here's Cotter, a perfectly lovely mutt when he's not running away:

And Nita, the half-grown Akbash livestock guardian:

But what on earth is that big black beanbag she's sitting on (yes, sitting on, not just standing in front of)?  Oh, that's her best pal and archnemesis, Papa Pig.

Nita competes with Papa Pig for everything -- she'll eat sour apples rather than let him have them -- but especially for attention.  She's kinda got the upper hand on the charisma front, but he is not entirely without charm.  Any time you come within ten yards of him, he begins grunting, just to let you know he's near and available for treat-giving, or scratches-behind-the-ears, or if you happen to want three-hundred-odd pounds of affectionate pigflesh leaning up against your legs, or anything like that.

Pigs aren't supposed to be this gentle and friendly, I'm told.  Pigs are typically kinda mean.  But when he got hold of a half-full ice cream churn the other day, I dragged it away from him and he didn't even do anything but yell a lot.  (To be fair, I yelled a lot too.)

Papa Pig is a hand-raised American Guinea Hog, a breed Wikipedia describes as "reasonably even-tempered."  Indeed.  His sweetheart, Mama Pig, is no less so.  Most mama pigs will tear your arm off if you so much as look cross-eyed at their little ones.  If you pick one up, this Mama Pig will just shriek until you leave them alone.  Look at that sweet face:

Also, baby pigs?  Good candidate for most hilariously adorable baby animal ever.

Just look at that satisfied little milky grin.  Let's have more baby pig-tures, because, d'awww!  Here's your obligatory feeding time photo:

Don't they look orderly?  It's kind of a free-for-all until they get settled in, though.  There are 8 piglets here (originally 9; one didn't make it through early childhood), a pretty typical litter size for this breed.  What's not typical is that every single one of them is female.

They're so unladylike.

Scandalously filthy!  I love it.  But my favorite thing about pigs (besides, well, eating them, shhh) is that mosquitoes adore them.  I am the kind of person whom mosquitoes will seek out in a crowd, and out here I get bit a lot.  Not when I hang out with the pigs, though.  The mosquitoes bypass me and go straight for them.  That's definitely worth a few extra belly-rubs.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Pedaling For Supper

Earlier this summer, I came across a really interesting article about using pedal power for other applications besides just moving yourself (and maybe some cargo) down the road.  The article was really long and had some complex diagrams and the takeaway, for me, was "This is pretty tricky stuff."  That was mostly because I was skimming, and not the fault of the author.  Regardless, I kinda dismissed the concept after reading the article.

These days, I make frequent use of a pedal-powered flour mill.  Here it is, in all its high-tech glory:

Yep. That there is a very old exercise bike which, when you pedal it, turns a wheel which grinds the grain.  Let's take another look at that connection:

See that complex arrangement of gears and belts?  No?  That's because there isn't one.  The bike wheel is butted right up against the wheel of the mill, and that pressure alone (maintained by strategically placed bolts and clamps) is enough to grind the grain when you turn the pedals. I love it when the simplest solution really is the most effective.

Grinding flour this way is like riding up a hill, and the more grain you put in the hopper at once, the steeper the hill gets.  I do a lot of standing on the pedals.  Yet this is by far the most rewarding exercise bike I have ever used.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Welcome Back Cotter (Also Nita)

[continued from this post]

Maya has told me quite a bit about The Hippies, the hapless and idealistic residents of a five-year-old intentional community up the road. Some members have become friends of hers, but she speaks of The Hippies as a group with a mixture of amusement, scorn, and chagrin. When I ask for details, she paints me a verbal picture of well-intentioned but exceptionally clueless individuals who have somehow managed to stick with their wreck of a community over a period of perhaps five years. ("Aha!" you may be saying, "You've found an intentional community nearby! Why don't you stay there for a while?" To which I answer, "Noooo thank you.") I hope to be able to present you with a more complete picture of them in a future post, but for now, you'll have to settle for my first impression:

There's a little boy in the weeds. He's naked, with long, wild brown hair; at first glance, he could be Mowgli. "My name's Seth," he says to me, bright-eyed. "What's your name?" Seth was clearly not raised by wolves; in fact, he has a really good start on this whole social interaction thing. He introduces me to his mother, Alita, a slender woman in a dingy skirt with close-cropped hair, and his sister Leila, a golden-haired toddler in Alita's arms. I shake Alita's hand and introduce myself as a WWOOFer. "Cool," says Aletha, smiling and nodding. She seems shy, or maybe tired. "The dogs ran off, and Maya and Beau went to look for them," I tell her. "Ray's over at the sawmill." She nods, and Seth shoves a piece of paper at me. "I made this," he says. The paper is heavily scrawled with pink glitter glue. Beneath the glue, there are lines of adult handwriting in pencil. "That says 'Seth Age Five,'" he explains. It doesn't. The words there make no sense... or more precisely, I wouldn't want to be in the sort of mindset where they would make sense. "Sure enough," I nod. "Seth, Age Five." Reduce, reuse, recycle, right?

I offer Alita and her children some water, which they eagerly accept. Alita doesn't have much to say, and I'm kind of at a loss for entertaining her, but Seth happily fills in the gaps. A tall, sprangly-haired, heavily bearded man appears -- I saw him earlier, over by their truck -- and stands rocking back and forth on his worn hiking boots. He introduces himself as Mojo. Alita hands him her water glass and repeats my story about the dogs to him, and he chuckles. Someone says something about blackberries, and he points out a bunch of fresh scratches on his bare shins for me. "Yikes!" I say. "You're serious about your blackberry picking." Mojo agrees that he is.  He seems less shy, but not very interested in small talk. He says to Alita, "We're an hour late for the potluck." Alita nods, and they turn to go.

"I'll tell Maya you came by," I offer, thinking maybe they have a message to leave her, but no. I still have no idea why they came. My wary city-dweller mindset suggests they may have been scoping the place out, but I quickly rule out this possibility: they made it past the locked gate, which means they have the combo, which means they are friends.

"Are you coming to the potluck?" Seth calls back to me. "Nope," I say. "Are you having a potluck here?" he presses. "No... maybe some other day!" "Okay!" he yells, climbing into the truck.

An old man arrived at the same time as the hippies, and I thought he was with them, but he actually came by bicycle (an impressive feat in these hills). He immediately made a beeline for the sawmill, and is now walking back this way with Ray, talking animatedly the entire time. Let's call him Ivan: a wiry, gray-bearded fellow who talks a mile a minute. Ray introduces me when Ivan stops to take a breath, and I get a firm handshake and a canny grin minus a couple of teeth. I take the opportunity to mention that the dogs have run off and Maya and Beau have gone looking for them. Ray shakes his head. "They won't find them," he says.

Ivan leaves shortly afterward, Ray returns to the sawmill, and soon Maya and Beau return, dogless. It's dinnertime when Cotter and Nita at last come panting home, covered with mud and burrs, to affectionate scoldings. Maya has secured the loose gate with twine; Cotter won't be leading Nita off again anytime soon.

The mosquitoes are fierce today, so we eat our homemade sourdough pizza in the screened yurt. A feeling of contentment pervades. The dogs are home, Ray has finally finished milling the logs, Beau is reading Lord of the Rings for the first time (he thinks he might like it better than "Star Wars"), and I begin my first blog post since leaving home. I have a lot to say.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Let the Dogs Out?

THAT first wakeful night at the Little Farm is made up for by the second night's sleep. I oversleep a bit, too - until about 8 a.m. (gasp!). Beau consistently starts his day at 6 (cooking breakfast, remember), Maya at 7, Ray somewhere inbetween, and I had wanted to get up early enough to get well into weeding and hay-spreading before it got warm. But after breakfast, Maya and Ray lend a hand in the pasture, and the job is done lickety-split. "You guys are a whole lot faster at that than I am," I remark sheepishly. Robert replies, "We've had a lot more practice."

After lunch and more dishes, Maya leads me past the outdoor shower, across a beautiful meadow and a little way into the surrounding woods to show me the spring house. The spring is currently the only water source at the Little Farm, and its uphill location means that all plumbing is entirely gravity-fed (except for when it needs an assist from a gas-fueled pump). Though Ray and Maya would like more water for irrigation, it provides more than enough for household, livestock, and garden needs.

The spring house was built by Ray and his father after repeated bear visits to the spring churned up enough muck to make the water run cloudy, resulting in some intestinal distress for the farm's residents. (Yeah, I'm really glad I missed that episode.) It's a neat little structure, containing a set of pipes that channel the water down toward the fields and buildings, and also allows enough water to spill down the hill that the lush woodland vegetation continues to thrive.

When Maya and I pass through a gate in the fence surrounding most of the farm, Cotter becomes extremely agitated. He hasn't done this when I've gone through any other gates, but now he stands at this one, barking incessantly. "Aw, he's worried about us," I say, and Maya says, "He just does that sometimes." But as she's showing me the spring house, Cotter comes bounding toward us. "How did you get out?" Maya exclaims. Apparently the gate wasn't fastened as securely as we thought. He has brought Nita, the young livestock guarding dog who lives outside the fence, and the two of them are extremely excited. "Stay close by," Maya warns them, and then goes back to telling me about the spring.

Only a minute or so passes before we're ready to head back. Maya calls the dogs, but there is no answering bark, no crackling of underbrush. They're gone. Nita is always free to run out here, but it's only with Cotter's roving influence that she'll stray out of earshot. Beau is recruited to the search; when calling does not work, and waiting a while does not work, he and Maya get in the truck and go to look for them.

Maya leaves me with a bin of dried mustard plants, asking me to remove the seeds from the chaff. It's a soothing and time-consuming activity, and I have to kind of figure it out as I go, which is fun in an undertaking of this scale. I'm sitting in the shade, rubbing the fibers between the palms of my hands, when a truck rumbles up the drive. It has hippies in it.

[To be continued!]

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Shower Time!

THE outdoor shower was one of the first amenities I encountered at the Little Farm. It is a very outdoor shower: no walls or roof of any kind. I expected to be uncomfortable with this, but in fact, this may be my favorite shower ever. Take a look:

What's that? You can't see it? That's right. The shower is not only set waaay across the garden from the other structures, and therefore invisible from them, but it's also screened by a friendly little cedar that doubles as a useful towel rack. I refer to it as the Tree Butler.

You can, however, see the brightly colored hot and cold water pipes. Part of the magic of this shower is its position downhill from a huge solar-powered hot water tank. You will basically never run out of hot water. (You will also basically never run out of water here, period, but that's a topic for another post.)

Closer in, you can see this shower's many fine amenities, including a shower head (modified for low pressure flow), a mirrored medicine cabinet, and... um... a floor? Floors are good, right? I'm kind of a fan of floors.

Hmm, wonder what's in that medicine cabinet? You know you wanna find out.

Oh, right. That's where they keep their frogs, of course.

Sometimes, a very friendly cat will also come and keep you company while you bathe, and help dry your legs when you're done.

So, okay: endless hot water, nice. Tree towel rack, nice. Privacy in the open air, nice. Critters, nice I guess, if you're into frogs and cats. Mosquitoes, not so nice, but could be worse. But what's the big deal with this shower, Lindsey? Of all the showers in the world, why would you bestow the word "favorite" upon this rustic specimen?

Oh, I don't know, maybe THIS VIEW:

Beats a shower curtain all hollow, I tell ya.

Friday, August 19, 2011

First Day on the Little Farm

BEAU is learning to cook this summer, starting with breakfast. At this point he has mastered bacon, eggs, and cheesy potatoes, and I mean really mastered them. I fill up and then go to my first assigned task: spreading hay on the bare spots in the pasture in order to mulch, discourage weeds, and plant grass seed. It's not a very big pasture, and the bales are already distributed for me; I just have to use the sort-of-broken pitchfork to spread it around.

The hay comes off the bale in flakes that remind me of shredded wheat. The pitchfork is awkward, and my pitchfork skills are basically nil to begin with, so I eventually resort to Maya's suggestion of spreading it by hand. The other part of the task is pulling up star thistle, which blends in with the other vegetation so that just when you think you've gotten it all, another plant pokes you in the shin.

Here's star thistle:

You can see the problem: it would be pretty painful to eat. So I pull and spread, and pull and spread, and my clothing collects burrs and hayseeds while my nose collects dust, and the shade shrinks as the sun gets hotter. I begin to feel I've been doing this forever (though it's actually been, maybe, an hour and a half). The pasture is small, but the work is slow... or rather, I am slow, and slowing; I think I can get better at this job with time, but I'm pretty sure I'm not going to finish it this morning. On one of my many trips in to refill my water bottle, Maya invites me in to help with lunch. Today, this turns out to mostly mean sitting and talking to her while she prepares lunch.

Over the meal, which is, of course, delicious, Maya begs Ray to go to "the Pipe" for a swim. He's been using the sawmill to cut logs, and is anxious to finish the job today, so he says, "You guys can go without me." Then, with no further pressure, he abruptly relents: "Okay, I'll go. But just for an hour."

The Pipe is so nicknamed for the fat irrigation pipe suspended above the swimming hole, which provides a prime spot for jumping off. The water is incredibly clear and shriek-inducingly cold. Today, though it's a weekday, we're soon joined by ten or so others: sunbathing college kids, twentysomething stoners, a middle-aged guy with a pot belly and beers, two water-wary preschoolers in lifejackets, and a handful of extremely enthusiastic dogs. Feeling oddly timid, and too chilly to spend more than moments at a time in the water, I sit quietly on the shore and watch the genial interactions.

Back at the farm, I help Maya more in the kitchen: for-reals help this time. I've been offering to wash dishes at just about every opportunity, mostly because it's a way to help that involves minimal opportunities to screw things up. Last night, Maya cheerfully informed me that "Being a farm wife is a lot like being a scullery maid," because there are always so many things to wash. So my assistance with the endless task of dishes is making a better impression than I could have hoped. Meanwhile Maya, though busy with other tasks, is overflowing with explanations, instructions, anecdotes, and helpful information on a multitude of topics.

Then there is dinner, and after dinner I'm washing more dishes, because why not; but the topic of who's done dishes lately comes up, and before I know it Ray has been shamed into taking over for me. He's worked a lot harder than I have today, but my weak protestations are overruled, so I hang out until milking is done and we all settle into the screened yurt to watch a movie, Netflix'd of course: "Babe." You know the one, about the pig who learns to herd sheep? None of us have seen it in ages, and I'm curious to see what filmmaking blunders will become apparent now that I'm in the company of people who really know pigs. There isn't much; one rear shot of Babe is, to my hosts, obviously that of a girl piglet, but the only other near-criticism is "That's the slowest-growin' white pig I've ever seen." More attention is given to the phrase "It's the way things are!" as an explanation for why certain farm animals are regarded as food by humans. This line will be quoted over and over again throughout the coming days. The line "Christmas means carnage!" (as recited by the film's Greek chorus of mice) also meets with much merriment.

When at last I tumble into bed, I fall asleep pondering whether I can manage to come back here again next summer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cheating, Confession, and Cows

MANY, many thanks to all of you who have contributed comments, e-mails, and reshared my adventures. I so appreciate all the love, prayers, positive predictions, enthusiasm and well-wishes you have lavished on my efforts thus far. I wish I had time to reply to them all, but please know that I am grateful for every one.

*  *  *
I need to be honest with you about this: according to the description I've given of this trip, the one where I say I'm going to visit a bunch of intentional communities, I'm cheating.

The Little Farm is not an intentional community, not in the formal sense of the phrase. It's a tiny permaculture/organic homestead, about three years old, run by Maya and Ray with help from family, friends, and WWOOFers (organic farming interns). I first heard about it over a year ago, when Maya sent a message to a WWOOF e-mail list calling for volunteer helpers, and I've been daydreaming about it ever since. The place is an intriguing mix of idealism and practicality, of old ways and new: hand tools and wifi, a composting outhouse and a high-tech weather station. But it is not the kind of place I said I was going to be visiting.

But see, the other purpose of this trip, the less-frequently-stated one, is to visit places that sound cool, just because, y'know, I can. And I've always wanted to try WWOOFing. So here I am: sitting in a yurt, netbook on my knee, listening to the multitudinous grunting of a mama pig feeding 8 babies just the other side of the screened wall.

*  *  *

AS dusk falls on that first day, Maya and Ray take me to meet the cows. The current milk supplier, a doe-eyed Jersey, is ready to be milked, and while Maya sets to the task, I ask a million questions. Lucky for me, she and Ray are natural teachers and storytellers, and only too happy to answer.

Milking one cow takes Maya about 40 minutes, I learn, and Beau, who has less experience, can get it done in about 90. My half-hearted interest in learning to milk begins to wane; that's an awfully long time for a hand workout. Maya learned to milk on a goat farm, and agrees it's easier to start with a smaller udder. There are two more cows here, a heifer and a young steer. The latter, the first cow birthed here, is affectionately referred to as Burger Buddy [not a pseudonym, ha!].

Maya and Ray only began acquiring livestock just last summer, and the learning curve has been bumpy. They've read books, taken classes, and hung out on livestock-specific internet message boards, soaking up as much info as they could before (and after) taking the plunge. Even with all their research, they've made mistakes: unethical cow sellers have sold them defective animals, and at one point they almost lost a cow to malnutrition. Some of the non-mistakes have been challenging, too; Ray describes artificially inseminating Mama Cow as easy but extremely unpleasant, and removing Burger Buddy's horns, in gory detail, as "by far the worst part of animal husbandry so far."

Why go to all this trouble, then? The unasked question is answered when we return to the kitchen and drink tall glasses of fresh milk. It's rich, sweet and incredibly satisfying. I've always been a milk fan, but this is a whole other realm of deliciousness. Unlike me, Ray and Maya were not milk drinkers before they had a cow, but this has become a daily treat for them. Ray says his teeth used to be extremely sensitive at the gumline, but that's cleared up completely since he began drinking raw milk. I'm sold; sign me up!

*  *  *

OTHER parts of this lifestyle may take more getting used to. That composting outhouse, for example: no seat, just a hole in the floor. Erg. I'm a city kid and haven't had much squatting practice, but it looks like I'll be getting some now. My bed is one of several mattress/box spring pairs in the open loft of the barn building, accessed by an aluminum ladder leaning casually up against the loft edge. The flooring has been extended forward, but the job is unfinished, and at the top of the ladder I pause to eye the gaps before stepping gingerly across them to the main (completed) area of the floor. Good thing I'm not a sleepwalker.

As with any night in a new place, I spend more of it awake than I would like. You'd think it would be quiet out here in the middle of nowhere, but there are so many new sounds to keep me alert: cows moving around, a boar hronking, dogs bark-bark-barking, and long before dawn, ducks quacking and a rooster crowing. I find myself hoping, for the first time but not the last, that we eat that rooster.