Saturday, April 14, 2012

Finally, To the Mountains!

Myra and Bryan, old friends from Swarthmore, visited this week and were the occasion to finally take a hike. During the summer I was content to leave the mountains and their scattered refuges to the hordes of globetrotters. Weekends on the farm were a chance to walk to a swimming hole or just lounge in the sun. But now the hordes are gone and the crisp fall weather begged for a trip to the mountains. We went with Jeramy, Myra's brother who more or less lives here, on a three-day circuit. Above Jeramy contemplates a giant coihue tree in a lovely grove we encountered on our first day.
 The first day's trail ascended westward up the Río Azul valley, passing a couple of refuges before arriving at Retamal (pictured above). The caretaker of this refuge, Adrian, is a friend. We sipped mates and chatted as the mountain chill descended and the last alpenglow left the mountain of Dedo Gordo. Myra had fun guessing what our conversation in Spanish was about, and did a great job, although false cognates from Greek occasionally got in the way. As night fell the refuge looked cozier and cozier, but we had resolved to camp out (avoiding the steep refuge fee). Half of our group stayed warm for the whole night, including me, my lightweight sleeping bag stuffed inside a heavier one with a broken zipper that I found on the farm.
 The next day we got off to an Argentine Start--the opposite of an Alpine Start. Even so, the first hour an a half of hiking was in chilly shade on a north slope. By midafternoon we gained open ground and sunshine, with a view up the Río Azul canyon to the west-south-west.
 At the foot of Dedo Gordo was the valley pictured below, a graceful arc of lenga forest at the height of its color. These beech-like trees dealt with the thin alpine soil by spreading their roots out wide and growing in a boomerang shape, part of their trunk resting on the ground. Apparently lengas grow well in Scotland, but they made me think of another place I've never been: Korea. Lovely.

 To get over the ridge to our next refuge we had to climb straight up a dry stream bed out of the lengas and onto a high scree slope. The wind picked up, small rocks tumbled down and away, and we felt like real mountaineers for a while before gaining the ridge and eating avocado sandwiches.
 Down the other side, another gorgeous valley of lengas curved down to the Dedo Gordo refuge. Just after we arrived a couple from Buenos Aires showed up. They were taking their new/old VW camper bus out for a test drive in preparation for taking it up to Mexico. Sweet folks. No caretakers around, we were left to our own devices. No chance we were going to get cold on this night, sleeping on cotton yo mats upstairs with a fire going in the woodstove below. Myra and Jeramy, brother and sister, swapped songs each had written since the last time they saw each other, playing them on Jeramy's backpacking guitar.
 Below is the view down into Mallín Ahogado and El Bolsón--our last day's hike down. My knees and my senses were just starting to warm up to the rhythm of the mountains, leaving me with hunger for another outing. Hopefully that will be this coming weekend with Jeramy and Alex--one last autum trek before returning to the northern hemisphere springtime.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Few Snaps from the Farm

By this point in the season frosts are a regular occurrence at night. We've established the big masonry heater's cycle: one or two firings a day distribute heat through its several tons of stone, brick, and plaster. The heat then slowly radiates out over the next twelve or twenty-four hours. I'm now sleeping in the loft above the kitchen, the warmest place on the farm. Sacks of grain and piles of winter squash surround me: my bedroom is made of food. On the chilly, gray days a spittle of rain makes it feel like potato country--the highlands of Ecuador, or Ireland. The sunny days reveal an atmosphere completely clear of haze, dust, or anything but light. These days are our last chance to jump in the river and dry off on a warm rock during siesta.

The shots below are from many weeks ago, when we were deep into the rye harvest. The machine Alex is working with is the steampunk thresher I mentioned in a previous post. I used it to thresh and winnow all the buckwheat and some random grains left over from last season: wheat, oats, and Austrian field peas.
On Alex's birthday (March 6th) we had an asado (barbecue), the default format for any Patagonian get-together. On the grill were chorizo and local lamb, but the real star was in the barrel oven inside: one of our own geese. At one point a visitor called our five geese "the nuns of the farm" because they totter around from here to there with their heads held erect and their wings folded properly. But they are really the hooligans of the farm. The geese find any opportunity to hinchar las pelotas (literally, "swell the balls"): they ate half the wheat, a bunch of the corn, and they regularly attack chickens, tearing out their feathers. So Alex had been looking forward to diminishing their numbers. The goose was delicious, thanks, perhaps, to all the wheat it ate in its lifetime.
Below are some of the many ferments to be found on the farm at any one time: sauerkraut, sourdough starter, and juice kefir (which we flavor with whatever fruit we have around; some flavors have been blackberry, lemon, apple, elderberry, rosehip, peach, and raisin). We also made a killer batch of kimchee at one point. A couple of meads are getting started, and we're trying to drink a dry rosehip wine that's been sitting around for a year or so. Alex also recently shared a special ferment on the occasion of an herbal meadmaking workshop we held at the farm: a four-year-old mead fermented with the whole hive, angry bees and all. It was intense and delicious.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


We are planting and transplanting fall crops right now, as the full-on harvest of late summer starts to tail off. The squash and pumpkin leaves are withering and dropping away, revealing the hulking fruits that rest beneath them. The tri-colored bush tomatoes have given up their fruit, except for a few tardy green monsters. The cucumbers are done--not a good year for them. The broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts are almost done, but new seedlings of all three are thriving. We've harvested three of nine beds of carrots; each week they're better. There are tons of green onions, which we're harvesting while we wait for the bulb onions to mature fully--those we'll preserve for winter. A beautiful, deep green, wrinkled new crop of kale has just matured. The bright green leaves of the young buckwheat we sowed as a cover crop after harvesting the garlic beds covers the earth in the back corner of the garden. Three peach trees are producing a bumper crop of delicious, white-fleshed fruits. One variety of corn is in, husked, and the other is still maturing on the stalks.

Harvesting and threshing rye and buckwheat has been the big job in the fields during the last couple weeks. We harvest with Japanese sickles, bent double, intimate with the stalks. The threshing we do with a machine borrowed from a friend, an enthusiast of Masanobu Fukuoka's natural farming methods. He invented and built the machine. It's about the size of a kitchen island and has four rubber tires on which we trundle it around the field, from one stack of grain to another. It's powered by a lawnmower engine which spins parts that mash, shake, blow, thrum, whir, rattle; very steampunk, it looks like a piece of Howl's moving castle. Shutting it off and allowing the comparative silence of bird calls and the river to reassert itself is a pleasure, as is plunging my hands into the full hopper of cool, heavy grain.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More Valle Pintado Collage

Now it's harvest day again. The sun is breaking through the fog and it feels great to be in the greenhouse as it warms up after four days of rain and chill. The tomato plants are laden. It's a great way to wake up my body, stretching, bending, twisting between them to get at their fruits. There are way too many for the harvest boxes, at least for eating fresh. Should we process some into sauces to store? No, we have no time for that today; we have to prepare for tonight's triple birthday party: Patrick on Leap Day, Jeramy on the first, and Alex on the sixth. The rest of the week is also full. The members are just going to have to figure out what to do with all these tomatoes on their own.

A small portion of this week's harvest:
Now I'm over at the yurt with Spencer, visiting John, Hannah, and Julia. We sit at John's funky improvised picnic table and snack on polenta. All four of them were at the farm last year and they swap stories of some characters they all knew. The sun comes out, glinting off the blackberries. A good moment for cutting my hair, which Spencer and I have been meaning to do. This will be his first haircut and I'm unsure that it was a good idea to think that simply because he's dated multiple hairdressers, he'll have any idea what to do. But it comes out pretty well. Anything but conventional, but something I can sport for a little while. It draws comparisons to a mullet, a mohawk, a military cut, a businessman's cut, and an anarchist cut. I take the diversity of interpretations as a good thing--if I'm going to have a weird haircut I don't want it to be pigeonholed as anything in particular.
Now I'm sitting around the table with Alex and members of the El Bolsón Christian Community. Their priestess has come to visit from Neuquén to baptize Loretta's baby, and she wanted to see the farm. They've brought empanadas, facturas, and tartas for a sumptuous tea time snack. I'm serving mates--my first time taking on this important Argentine social function. I've learned how much to fill the mate with yerba, shake the dust out of it, test the water temperature in the kettle with my "fingermometer" (it should be around 82 degrees C), pour so that a portion of the yerba on top remains dry, cover the bombilla (metal straw) with my thumb as I insert it so that it doesn't get plugged up, drink the first mate myself, serve them the same way around the circle, remember who doesn't want any or says gracias to indicate they've drunk their last one, and judge when the yerba needs to be replaced. It's quite a task. I'm worried that my fingermometer hasn't had enough practice yet, but people seem to be enjoying their mates. The priestess is a warm, locquacious woman. Alex prompts her with a question about an astrological phenomenon, the Return of Saturn, and she takes the opportunity to give an impromptu sermon on guardian angels, life transitions, and faith.

Now I'm shucking Abenaki corn, a white corn good for polenta, on a rainy afternoon with Alex, Anna, Gustavo, and Andy. The pile of husks grows in a corner of the kitchen as we recount last night's adventure to the Festival of Hops, El Bolsón's biggest annual event. One lone ear of Abenaki comes out blood red, a genetic cross. It's beautiful.

Now I'm in my bed in the cabin at six in the morning, drifting into wakefulness. I have a clutch of eggs, carefully wrapped in towels, in bed with me. We started incubating them yesterday because the hen had left her nest with a couple of chicks. Last night one of the eggs was peeping. Taking them to bed with me seemed preferable to waking up every two hours to heat water to pour in the jars in our homemade incubator box. I'm a calm sleeper; sometimes I talk, but I don't move very much. I woke up once in the night to turn myself over and switch sides with the eggs. Now the one that was peeping is peeping again, and tic! a tiny beak snaps against my chest. This guy is ready to come out.

Now I'm on my motorcycle, towing Alex, on his motorcycle, into town. I never would have thought this setup would work, but when Alex's chain broke and he was trying to figure out how to get his moto into the shop in town, someone suggested it. So we took the calf's rope and tied our motos together and it seemed to work fine. The steep uphills were dicey, and we had to disconnect and walk his machine a couple of times, but overall, if I use a delicate hand on the accelerator and Alex is attentive with his braking, it works fine. We pull up in front of the shop in town, a little high on adrenaline from this ridiculous adventure, and give each other a congratulatory hug.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Valle Pintado Collage

There must be a time warp in the Río Azul valley. Time forges ahead like water through a mill wheel. Breakfast slips into working slips into lunch slips into belly-full conversing slips into washing up slips into siesta, which, despite being four hours long, immediately disappears back into working. Moments in themselves are full and long: I look up from weeding around a fruit tree and take in the mountainside textured by pointy fir trees. I breathe deeply. But they move from one to another so quickly that time on the farm often feels like a collage of self-contained experiences.

Now I'm pulling rich orange carrots from the earth. It's early morning; on harvest day we get all the veggies inside before the sun hits the garden. It was a cold night, and clear. The Southern Cross bid me good night from above the mountain to the southeast. Now the dew is thick on the clover that covers the paths between garden beds, soaking my shoes. Each carrot I pull is a surprise. This one is long and fat. The next has two points. Ah! These two twisted around each other! And this tiny one, why did it produce such luscious leaves? I think of Peter Rabbit and Mr. MacGregor as I appreciate the soft pop of a carrot relinquishing its hold on the earth. Miserly Mr. MacGregor would have had ears tuned to that subtle sound. A Pavlovian pop eliciting instant rage. In the thieving Peter Rabbit I'm sure that sound produced delight and dread in equal measure. As for me, it sounds like a little kiss; just as lips releasing each other make a sound, so does the earth releasing its bounty.

Now I'm washing onions at the outdoor sink. I hear a four-wheeler vrooming along the path on the other side of the river. The neighbors have been joyriding more often lately. Now there's a big crash and the sound of the engine stops. Two beats and..."help!!" Thiago and I look at each other for another beat, then take off running toward the river. Into the community kitchen: "There's been an accident! Tell Alex to phone for help!" (moments like this make us grateful for the cell service that reaches up the Río Azul valley). Out of breath at the river, Thiago and I clamber into the disused cable car and pull ourselves across, careful not to let our fingers stray into the maws of the heavy pulleys. This rusty old contraption is hard to pull with cold fingers on a cold wet cable, but we make it to the steep, heavily forested bank on the other side. "Where are you?" "Over here!" We gain the trail and shout again, but there's no response this time, which worries me. The precipice to the left side of the trail could be host to a really bad accident. Alex arrives, having run in high rubber boots all the way down to the footbridge and back up on this side of the river. We keep looking and shouting, still with no response, and finally spot a red four-wheeler upended thirty feet straight down from the trail. Above it is a boy clinging to the earth, looking up with a pallid face. He is okay, but scared silent. His father and others arrive, frantic. Thiago, his father, and I climb down to him. He collapses into his father's arms and finally begins to wail. "It's okay, son, just cry, you're okay." We get a harness on him and haul him up the cliff. A tiny scratch on his face is the only injury he received from tumbling thirty feet straight down on a four-wheeler. A miracle. He tells us that the young man who'd been on the vehicle with him had gone for help before we arrived. That man broke collarbone. Another miracle. A policeman arrives. As the situation calms down Alex, Thiago, and I realize that there are still onions to be washed, chard to be bundled, and orders for beer, cheese, and chutney from the CSA members to fill. Sebastian will arrive at noon and all the boxes should be ready to load into his van. We tell the neighbors to call if they need help hauling the four-wheeler up to the trail, and we stroll back for a mate to calm the adrenaline before resuming our tasks.

Now it's four in the afternoon on a sunny day. Spencer, Andy, and I are in the meadow on the other side of the yurt, a lovely spot that the horses and Rosita keep munched down to a nice lawn. We wrap up the threads of a conversation about Noam Chomsky, Adam Smith, and Levon Helm as we swing our arms, limbering up for some yoga. The sun is harsh in Patagonia, but it feels good to us; we're anticipating jumping in the cold cold Río Azul after Andy leads us through a series of asanas.

Now I'm sitting at the dinner table facing a pot of barley and another of steaming eggplant-squash-tomato sauce. Alex cooked, so he will give thanks. We quiet down and wait for his words, expecting some variation of the customary "We give thanks for all the energies that made it possible for this food to come before us. May it nourish us and convert itself into consciousness." Instead, he bursts into song at high volume:
Thank you for this food oh Lord!
Thank you for this food!
Thank you for this food oh Lo-ord!
Thank you for this food!
This healing, this healing, this healing food!
In full-on gospel style Alex bends the notes into gleeful shouts. Then he passes it on to Spencer and we all join in now that we know the song:
Thank you for this earth oh Lord!
...and we thank the earth for a verse, then the sun, the river, the bees, passing the lead around the table. When everyone has chosen something to sing our thanks to we fall into silence, the building still vibrating with our wild chorus. Then, buen provecho, we dig in.

Now I'm crouched on the bare rafters of the seed bank, or as Alex prefers to call it, the seed library. Or, even better, the semilioteca, a portmanteau of the Spanish words for seed and library, a neologism Alex proudly explains to most new visitors to the farm. It's almost lunchtime and it's just starting to drizzle, but we still have one more batch of cob to apply. It's simple work: grab a handful of cob, slap it on, shape it a little, and grab another handful. We're making a bond beam to lock in the lower roof's rafters and to support the beams of the higher roof. The first mix was a little wet, but this one is perfect, a pleasure to work with. We're all hungry though, and someone made the mistake of saying the word "sushi," so we're impatient to get back down the hill to where someone will have cooked something delicious.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Farm Infrastructure

For those readers who are confused about where I am and what I'm doing right now, here are the basics: I have a friend from college. His name is Alex. He moved to Patagonia in 2004 and bought land with a small group of other people. Since then he has established a farm on that land. In 2009 the farm became a CSA, feeding 10 families. This season it's feeding 20. I'm living and working on the farm with Alex and a rotating cast of volunteers and assorted friends. The farm is a community that keeps drawing people back. They share with each other and go back to the parts of the world they came from. Alex is sowing people as well as crops--people who value growing their own food, living self-sufficiently, and investing themselves in a community. It's a beautiful place.

In 2004 there were a couple of run-down cabins on the land. The smaller one housed Alex, his brother, and another friend while they renovated the other into a community kitchen building. Other buildings sprouted up: a humanure toilet, a shed, a chicken coop. Improvisational buildings made using natural building techniques like cob, straw clay, and adobe. After a few years Alex built himself a house. Then the kitchen burned down, so they built a new one in the ashes. A volunteer asked if he could live on the land for a while, and put up a yurt. He has since built a sauna as well, for which we all thank him. A "workshop" was built next to the outhouse, but we really just use it to store firewood and boxes for sending food out to the families. The kitchen got an addition a year or so ago: a root cellar. There's a roofed-in stall for the cow and her calf, and in the middle of the garden is an ongoing little project, the "little plaza of the elemental beings," a space of shade and rest in the middle of the garden's swirling activity. And finally, the building that Alex is most excited about is the seed library ("semilioteca"), in progress on the hillside next to his house. Like any good homestead, continual improvements are being made, things are continually being built.

The community kitchen:
The cabin Alex originally lived in. I sleep here now:

Alex's house:The seed library:

Humanure outhouse:
Shed (with Alex's motorcycle):
The "workshop" has a fresco of Pachamama done in natural plasters:
Cow pen (with new door I made after the growing calf smashed the old one to bits):
And, of course, many volunteers sleep in their own shelter:More soon!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Blackberry Season

When I arrived in the Río Azul valley outside El Bolsón it was midsummer. Nights were cool, but the days heated up as soon as the sun hit. I made a habit of dunking myself in the swift, clear glacier-fed river at least once a day, during siesta, and sometimes before dinner as well. But in the last couple of weeks fogs have stuck longer on the hillsides and days of heavy drizzle have kept us hunched in the community kitchen over our yerba mate. But the clearest sign that late summer has arrived are the blackberries. Their ripening has made apparent their abundance in the valley. We live on a natural blackberry plantation. Walking the 200 yards from the cabin where I sleep to the community kitchen is now often a 15-minute adventure, wending a new path every time through the heavy-laden bushes. And my siesta repertoire--read, write, sit, swim, yoga--has expanded to include a ramble through farther-flung bushes. Pick blackberries often enough and you become a connoisseur: the best bunches, the least thorny access points, the ripest shade of black.
Now, whenever we fire up the barrel oven we make some sort of blackberry dessert. Last week we had an amazing cobbler. This week it was a delicious unsweetened pie (unsweetened because Rachel, who went up the hill to her house to get sugar, ended up taking a nap instead).
A caution, though: too many blackberries leads to silliness.

Thank you, by the way, to all those who checked in with me by email and blog comments. If you haven't yet, please still feel welcome to say hello. And I will get to work on photographing the farm and writing some stories of my rich experiences here.