Photo Tour of the Farm, Part I: Animal Edition

There are a lot of animals here on the farm. I’m usually bad at remembering names of pets, but somehow these guys have all stuck in my mind. Get to know them as well as I have with this helpful photo tour.



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Teddy’s my best bud on the farm. He sleeps outside and always greets me when I come out for the day. He loves playing fetch with a softball, but he tends to tire out after just a couple tosses. We’ve developed a morning routine where I’ll sit on a log in the sunshine and he rests his head on my arm and leg. I give him some good scratching for a few minutes (sometimes Jack tries to get in on the action, too) and then head off to the greenhouse.


BuddyBuddy’s pretty old and mostly blind. He spends most of his time lying next to his food and water bowl reminiscing about old times. A few times a day he’ll come outside and wander the property. If I can give him a few scratches without Teddy trying to butt in and steal them, Buddy seems to appreciate it.





Indoor/Outdoor Cats


Jack Jack is a cat after my own heart. He’s a wanderer by nature, and he’s been known to go on three-day hikes without letting anyone know. A consistent member of our evening hike to watch the sunset, he likes being around people as much as he seems to enjoy his solitude. With his calm nature, he’s also a welcome visitor to the greenhouse. After taking a few sniffs of whatever plants I’m transplanting, he usually falls asleep in the bucket chair by the wood stove.




Antonio (Tony)

TonyEveryone says Tony is the crazy cat. I don’t disagree. He chases the softball when I’m playing fetch. He tries to climb my legs. He is usually seen bolting from one place to another for little to no reason. We love him.







PixelI didn’t meet Pixel until a few days into my stay on the farm. He seems relatively shy, but he’s quickly warmed up to me. I’ve never seen a more innocent and trusting face on a cat. What he lacks in a tail he makes up for in body weight, and he’s the sort of cat that you have to sort of force outside to get some fresh air and run around. Still, he’s joined us on a few evening hikes; maybe he’s just a summer cat.


Patches (L) and Max (R)

Patches and MaxI don’t know much about Patches. He seems pretty young, and he had a date with the neuterist the other day. The main quality I’ve learned about him is that he purrs loudly, sometimes for no reason that I can tell.

Max is interesting. His sad face fascinates me. I can’t tell if he’s actually depressed or just looks that way. We had a good bonding session the other night when he shed his fur all over my computer as I gave him a good scratching. He takes an active role in his petting. He shoves his head into your hands, and every 30 seconds he’ll transition to light biting. There is much more to learn about this guy.


Mr. Bumble

Mr. BumbleBumble also took the trip to be neutered last week. He’s a skittish cat around me, but he likes having his head scratched. His eyes are a beautiful orange that remind me of a harvest moon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cat with eyes like that before.






The Mysterious Outdoor Cats

The Bills (with Patches in the Middle)

The BillsThere are an indeterminate number of outdoor cats. They tend to stay hidden, but I’ve counted four distinct cats so far. The Bills are the two remaining black cats from a litter of about six black cats. Instead of trying to tell them apart, they were all named Bill. Of the outdoor cats, I’ve gotten closest to the two Bills. They like to hang around the front door and sit on the porch with the other cats.




Mystery Cat #1

Mystery CatNow that you’ve seen this picture, you know as much about this cat as I do.





Mystery Cat #2

There’s another outdoor cat, but I haven’t gotten a shot of him yet. He looks like a smaller version of Tony but with a shorter tail.



The Old-Timers

ChickensThis rooster and hen are the holdovers from last year’s flock. The rest of those hens stopped laying eggs and were converted into chicken soup. Such is life. I haven’t really gotten to know these two well yet. This is as close as I’ve gotten to them. I’ve spotted the rooster perched in a conifer, so I believe they roost there in the evenings.


Baby Chicks

ChicksThese are the baby chicks we picked up yesterday. There are 14 in total, and they’re a mix of Barred Rock, Isa Brown, New Hampshire Brown, Rhode Island Red, and Wyandotte breeds. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about them soon.





ducksHere are three of the five ducks. They usually travel together, but they split up whenever I try to photograph them all. They quack and try to mate a lot. There are a few ponds on the property, and their day is spent wandering from one to the other.






ducks 2Here are the other two ducks.






Ok, that should do it for the animals. Tune in again soon for a tour of the more-easily-photographed buildings and general layout.

First Days on the Farm

I’m just about a full week into my first farming experience. It always takes a while to settle into a new place, especially when you are the lone outsider, but my hosts have been incredibly welcoming and helpful. I think all my traveling and visiting friends over the past month primed me to fit in anywhere and with anyone.

One thing that hasn’t changed lately is the weather. Other than a couple of days here and there, spring seems to be waiting in the wings for a cue that should have arrived a few acts ago. The ground is still covered in snow in many places, and areas under shade can occasionally be knee-deep. There’s even expected to be a little bit of snow tonight and tomorrow.

The Transplant Transplants

The everlasting winter makes it impossible to put anything in the ground outdoors or to get new baby chickens (last years chickens were made into soup when they stopped laying eggs). Instead, I’ve kept busy in the greenhouse with the baby plants. We’re all waiting on warmer weather as we keep the wood stove burning at night. In the meantime I’ve been busy transplanting the growing plants from communal planters to their own individual pods. Transplanting helps the plants stretch their roots for better access to nutrition. This makes them more prepared for the harsh world outside.

Transplanting baby kale | photo by Kathy

I got my first lessons in transplanting on a few varieties of heirloom tomato plants: Principe, Blueberry, and Mortgage Lifter (so named because they’re easy and quick — perfect when you need a little extra cash). From there I moved on to transplanting a densely packed box of Lacinato kale. It took three days to complete, and the end result was two tables full of individual kale plants.

Lacinato Kale(the wobbly nature of these transplants is due to the boxes themselves and not, as you might suspect, the inexperience of the transplanter)

This kale and many of the tomatoes will soon be sent up to Hamtramck, Michigan. One of Kathy’s sons (Kathy is the head of my farm) has purchased a few abandoned plots of land in this enclave of Detroit and is creating an urban farm with his fiancée (they’re getting married next month). Kathy offered to house and care for some of their plants until the ground in Hamtramck is ready for planting.

I’ll be helping to deliver these plants in a few weeks, and it’ll be a great chance to check out the space. I’ve read a lot about the changes happening in Detroit, and Kathy’s son seems to be at the forefront of this movement. If you want to see what they’re up to on that farm, you can visit their blog, Grace and Peas. I’ll be following their adventures — as well as helping them out from time to time — because this is something I often see for myself in the future.

Signs of Spring

Despite the persistent cold, there have been a few signs of spring to keep us saying, “Maybe after this cold snap…”

  • The ducks have laid three eggs in the past week.
  • A few of the trees have started budding, perhaps due to impatience.

Actually, that’s about it. Everything else screams winter. It’s supposed to warm up by the end of next weekend, but I can only be fooled so many times.

Other Projects

Today I moved some rocks from the fire pit into the greenhouse to serve as the edging for a new planting space. Kathy spread composted soil on the bed, and it’ll be ready for some strawberry plants soon.

Tomorrow I’ll create some flyers and promotional cards that can be handed out at the farmer’s market in Howe. It’ll be a great opportunity to learn about the many heirloom varieties of tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, leeks, kale, lettuce, and other vegetables we’re growing here.

I would love to share more photographs of all my activities on the farm, but my phone’s stopped working (again, again, again). I’m forcing the phone company to give me a different model of phone, because I’ve lost any faith in this one functioning at all. How can a barn built by hand out of wood withstand wind, hail, snow, rain, sun, and time for over a hundred years, while a piece of precision computer technology designed by scientists can’t withstand my pressing the power button for more than a week? I blame our capitalist overlords.

If ever I have a working phone (which will likely happen when spring arrives and pigs fly), I’ll give you a full photo tour of the place and what I’m up to.

Until then, I’ll just be farming up a storm, playing with the cats, and trying to rustle up some money for my tax bill (thanks, self employment tax). If there’s something you’re curious to know about the farm or anything else, let me know in the comments or through some other means.

My First Farm: A Numerical Evaluation

I arrived at my first WWOOF farm in Howe, Indiana, yesterday afternoon. I’m planning on being here until the beginning of June, learning as much as I can about whatever work needs to be done. I’ll have a lot more information later, but here’s a quick summary of what I’ve seen and who I’ve met so far:

  • 1 farm
    • two-storey home, heated by coal-burning stove
    • greenhouse, heated by wood-burning stove
    • garage
    • hoop house
    • large vegetable garden
    • chicken house (more of a barn than a coop)
    • wood shed
    • abandoned wigwam
  • 5 people (not counting me, the only non-family member)
  • nearly 20 animals
    • 2 dogs: Teddy and Buddy
    • 5 ducks: not social enough to have names
    • 1 rooster: too proud to have a name
    • 1 hen (she may or may not be a Brahma, but she definitely has feathered feet): no name
    • 6 indoor cats: Max, Jack, Antonio, Patches, Mr. Bumble, Pixel
    • 3? outdoor cats: Bill, Bill (all the outdoor black cats are named Bill), an orange one, and possibly some others

Today, in between rain showers, I helped cut up a dead mulberry tree and carry the logs, by sled, to the wood shed. The greenhouse needs to be kept warm during the still-freezing nights. There are seedlings of all kinds of herbs, tomatoes, kale, and other species that need to be transplanted tomorrow.

Santa Rosa | Grandpa

Here are some thoughts on a visit to my grandfather in Santa Rosa, California, from February 7-13. As mentioned in an earlier post, I had no cell phone during this visit, so there aren’t any pictures. Sorry.

When I visited my grandfather in Santa Rosa, he was on the cusp of turning 90. He seemed to take this information three times harder than my friends who’ve reached 30. Each day during my visit, he would express disbelief at having managed to live that long.

One thing I’ve noticed from visiting him over the years is that death is a frequent topic of conversation. While most of us are reluctant to talk of either our own deaths or those of others, this isn’t the case with many elderly people.

“Everyone in this movie is dead.”

These words were spoken by my grandfather while watching White Christmas on TV about ten years ago. In the middle of the movie, à propos of nothing, he gave a long sigh and lamented the fact that every actor in the film had passed away.

For many of the elderly, death is one of their few remaining companions. Imagine outliving all of your friends, high school classmates, colleagues, and spouses. Add to that all of the politicians you’ve voted for, musicians you’ve enjoyed, and film stars you’ve admired. What else is left to talk about other than stories of the past and the inevitable end of your own life?

Those of us with living friends, family, and lovers struggle to speak of or countenance death. With so much living to do, it’s tough to believe that death can come at any time. For the elderly, who have seen everyone in their lives die before them, the only question is when their own time will come.

Predicting the Future

This lack of a filter when dealing with death also applies to most other subjects, at least where my grandfather is concerned. We went out for lunch and dinner each night of my visit, and every meal was full of life stories. I’d already heard most of them, but I’ve come to expect this when I visit him. My enjoyment comes from detecting the subtle nuances of each retelling, much like listening to a familiar symphony being performed again.

If you know a symphony well enough, you can anticipate the challenging moments in a new performance. With my grandpa, I felt like the parent of a young child waiting for the moment when he would say something horribly offensive in public. That mix of terror and adrenaline is much of the fun of spending time with Grandpa

One story he tells involves eating soup in a San Francisco restaurant in the 1950s. This restaurant wanted to be a men-only joint, so if a woman walked in, the bartender would turn on a red swearing light. This cued the restaurant patrons to be as crude as possible until the woman decided to leave.

As my grandpa told this story, we were sitting in a fish and chips shop right next to a young girl and her parents. My grandpa spoke loud enough that they could hear the whole story, and they laughed when he mentioned the swearing light.

At this point, my grandpa usually goes on to describe the bartender of the restaurant — the same man who operated the swearing light. Whenever my grandpa would eat at the restaurant, he would ask the bartender what kind of soup they were serving that day.

The bartender’s reply was always, “Good fuckin’ soup.”

When my grandpa started in on this part of the story within easy earshot of the child, I panicked. I did everything I could to steer him away from the plot and ask questions of redirection. To my great relief, he diverged at the last second.

There were other instances where he didn’t.

The Great Airport in the Sky

With death being such a frequent subject, I’ve heard a few interesting euphemisms for it. My grandfather worked for United Airlines from 1946 until he retired; he jokes that his career began before they had planes. When referencing his own death, he speaks of going off to the “great airport in the sky.” It’s a way to make dying seem like natural step to take — a continuation of his life on this planet.

A distant Irish relative gave me another euphemism during my trip. A Christmas card she had sent my grandpa had been returned to her; the address she had wasn’t current. While I was in the room, he got a phone call from her wondering if he had “gone on to his great reward.” Especially coming from an Irish relative, this seemed to be a very positive look at what death might be.

Accepting Death

I can only take away the idea that a healthy attitude about death is critical to living well. This seems even more true in agriculture. Death is frequent in farm life. Plants are harvested and die each year. Animals are butchered. Hens are taken by hawks and foxes. When they can no longer lay eggs, they’re turned into soup.

This life cycle is what keeps the world moving forward. Birth leads to aging, which leads to death. To complete the cycle, death must lead to something: rebirth, both physically and spiritually. It’s the energy that produces new life. This is as true in farming as it is in all of nature.

Death is not the only food for new life. Stories, too, can live on and power a new generation. Without new sources of energy, neither life nor stories can sustain. By repeating their stories time and again, the elderly are able to keep their knowledge and memories alive until they can be retold by someone else. If I know all of my grandfather’s stories front to back, then his perspective on life becomes energy for my own. This is the life cycle coming full circle.

Sitting in San Francisco

On February 13, I had an afternoon in San Francisco to go exploring before I had to catch the train to Portland. I took BART into downtown and sat on the step of Union Square. It was 4:30pm, and the sun had just dipped below the skyline to my right.

I watched a woman in her 60s walk with a woman in her 80s. The older woman held onto the back of her wheelchair for support, and the younger woman held her arm. When the two of them reached one end of the plaza, they turned around and started back. Their slow pace belied the intense focus that went into every single step.

Nearby, a young father walked with his one-year-old son. The boy’s father held him by the arms, and they took their time crossing back and forth across the square. It was easy to see the focus of the young boy as he tried to keep one foot in front of the other.

It struck me that old age is, in many ways, a second childhood. Aging then becomes a process of transition between a child who can make mistakes without consequences into someone whose accumulated wisdom prevents most mistakes. When a young child falls down, nothing bad happens. His extra padding and physical structure are designed to withstand his mistakes. The older you get, the wiser you become — and the less you can afford to make errors.

I’ve watched my friend Andrew as he helps his 18-month-old son put on shoes, get strapped into the car, clean himself, and eat dinner. I spent my week with my grandfather helping him put on his shoes, get into his wheelchair, slide from the wheelchair into the car, and get to the dinner table. It can be hard to tell the difference between the things Andrew and I do for those we love. What differentiates my grandfather from Andrew’s son, however, are the stories I receive from my grandpa. What he’s done in his life can now inform the things that I do in mine.

When your physical and mental skills begin to diminish at a certain age, you might think that you’ve lost all that you’ve gained since you were a child. In many ways, that’s just part of the cycle. You start and end with nothing. With a healthy understanding of death, you can see how your life’s experiences are contained in their own unending life cycle. Even though your body may become food for the planet, your life can become food for those who follow.

New Bike, First Ride

After consulting with Ezra at Green Machine Cycles for months about concepts and parts, I finally purchased my touring bicycle last week. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and it’ll be my primary mode of transportation for the next phase of my life.

Here are a few pictures taken in snowy Chicago by Andrew at Andrew Seaman Photography:

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If you want to see a few more shots (particularly some close-ups of specific parts), check out this post about the new bike on Andrew’s photography blog.

My very first trip was to be a three-day trek from Chicago to Indianapolis to see my family. Last Wednesday I spent 11 hours on my bike, heading from the north side of Chicago to my friend’s house in Valparaiso. According to the Google instructions I wrote down, this trip should have taken only 5.5 hours.

Chicago to Valpo

Although the bike itself ran perfectly and handled all the mini-potholes, mystery puddles, and snow with a stiff upper lip, there were a couple of factors, mostly my fault, that contributed to this first journey being less than a complete success:

  1. I spent the last month traveling out west, which left me with little time for doing any exercise or bike training. It’s also been a long and cold winter, so there hasn’t been too much other exercise to speak of. Like any expert can tell you, it’s not that smart to attempt a strenuous activity without much training. Biking 75 miles in a day (with the plan of repeating that two more times on consecutive days), it turns out, falls into that category. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone else but me.
  2. I had no working phone. While I’ve gotten used to being out of touch, the ability to navigate on the fly is something that can be very helpful when biking in unfamiliar territory. I wrote out directions and got a general sense of where I was heading, but I forgot to consider that some of the bike trails I planned on taking in Indiana had not been plowed. At least 13 of the miles I biked were wasted ones spent improvising and guessing at which roads would take me to Valparaiso without sticking me on a major highway.

The end result of the day was that I arrived to my friend’s place in Valparaiso at 10:45 at night. I was glad I invested in a front generator hub on my bicycle, as I had plenty of light to guide me as I moved through the dark back roads of Northern Indiana. I woke up the next day with my right knee unable to bend without excruciating pain. The left knee was a milder version of the right. It was obvious that it was not going to be a biking day.

One of the greatest things I’ve learned from all of my traveling is that I’m fortunate to have some truly great friends. My Valparaiso contact happened to be heading to Indianapolis the next day, so she drove me and my bicycle right to my parents’ place. I couldn’t be more fortunate. As much as I dislike having my friends compensate for my own poor judgement, I’m very grateful that they’re willing to do so.

So, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about how to handle bicycle touring. Training turns out to be important. So does planning a route and having maps. A cell phone with GPS is helpful. The part of the trip that went the best was the bicycle itself, and that was something I’d spent months preparing for.

There’s more biking in the future, and I can’t wait to get back to riding on some healthy legs. For now, I’ll spend a few days letting my knees recuperate from the biking and my mind recuperate from the whirlwind that was the past month before getting ready to head to the farm.