Into the Woods

We were in the grip of a different national crisis when I wrote last month. I know that first one is still running amok and am anticipating that when I next get around to posting we’ll be in the midst of the cross product of the two. Or maybe a third, which worries me, because what happens after that is going to involve tensor math, which I never really got the hang of.

I believe it’s important to recognize and to say this: Black Lives Matter, and for too long our country has acted like they don’t. But other than that, I’m not going to talk about this (or COVID) right now. Because I think my proper role, for now at least, is to listen and try to understand, rather than to talk.

Beyond listening, I’ve been trying to keep all the things going on the farm that can’t actually wait for the rest of the world to get its act together. The farm is verdant, blossoming. The pastures are hip-high in timothy grass, clover, vetch and half a dozen tasty things. Trees are leafed out, cows bulking up, baby goats being equal parts adorable and maddening. The chickens…well, the remaining chickens are no smarter than when I last wrote.

Amid all of this splendor, I spend most of my days indoors, typing away at the glowing box o’ sadness. Trying to map out irrigation sets, scouring Google for distributors who can sell me 2 inch poly quick-connect couplers and hose barb end tees. Trying to figure out why none of the farm budget numbers line up anymore. Straightening out our electrical billing with the PUD, fixing our trash pickup with…I honestly have no idea who those people are, and pleading in vain with our nominal internet provider to give us a connection date. Making repeat calls to the city to see if they can finally tell me who is responsible for replacing the frontage road gate trashed by lumber poachers. Filing payroll and paying bills so everyone has the money to buy their gas and groceries.

Someone once described some or another process to me in terms of a duck swimming: from above the surface, it just cruises along smoothly, but below the waterline, there’s a furious amount of activity. Most of my days spent at the computer end with me feeling like the bottom half of a duck.

Needless to say, spending my daylight hours on farm administrivia is not a recipe for mental health. The world outside is not much of a recipe for mental health either.

What is the right recipe? Getting lost in the woods.

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I’ve written a bit about what we call the “North 20 Woods”: twenty acres of (surprise!) woods located (even greater surprise!) at the north edge of the farm. We bought them a couple of years after the farm itself from a neighbor who was holding the acreage for a group of local investors. They’d bought the acreage in the 1970’s, anticipating a building boom that never came, and had all since sort of drifted away.

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There are a lot of patches of woods out here on the peninsula that look like nothing so much as a forgotten Christmas tree farm, but not our North 20. They’re a crazy hodgepodge of species and mini-biomes: Doug fir, hemlock, willow, native hawthorn, cedar, broadleaf maple, more willow, madrone, wild cherry, rhododendron, and even more willow. We’ve got a lot of willow. At the understory there’s salal, blackberry, ocean spray, gooseberry, snowberry, more blackberry, red flowering currant, elderberry, yes, more blackberry. Wild rose, bracken, sword fern, horsetail and half a million things I’ve not yet learned to identify. There are sunny, butterfly-laden openings, dark quiet groves and impenetrable thickets. There are marshes, hills and gullies. They are filled with a warren of animal tracks and the animals that made them: deer, coyote, bobcat, we’re told, and there’s even been rumor of a bear. The woods, to cop a line from Oscar Wilde, contain multitudes.

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Brendon was the first to start blazing human-level trails through, expanding some of the better-used animal tracks to the point where we could get from east to west along the bottom of them, and as far north as the frontage road that divides the bulk of the parcel from a five acre rectangle at the north end. I kept wandering in, wandering off the trail and finding more paths. I know I’ve written about wandering the woods, either alone or with Blue, but I feel like I ought to write more.

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Whether ambling one of the by-now relatively groomed paths at the edge of the farm or threading a brake of salal along a barely discernible animal track, walking in the woods makes you use different parts of your brain. You need to see and move and – most importantly – think in three dimensions. You’re constantly encountering new puzzles that need to be solved, forced to actively seek new perspectives with which to view them. The trail disappears: where would a coyote go from here? How would she get there?

Most of the time, I still fail to solve those puzzles and end up nearly immobilized in a spiderweb of head-high blackberry while Blue prances around on paths invisible to me wondering why the hulking biped with the hat and stick is taking so long.

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But I am getting better. I’m learning to move in new ways. I’m learning not to rush toward the obvious, to pause and look where there might be choices that I haven’t seen.

I’m also learning to follow Blue – he’s got a brain and a build much better able to think and move like a forest animal than I do. Lots of times I’ll be sure I’ve lost the trail, and Blue will bound right along like he’s cruising Main Street. I drop to one knee, push aside a bit of fern, and sure enough, there it is.

I have one other invaluable tool beside Blue that I take to the woods. I call it my “brush stick,” and find myself both wondering why I’ve never seen anyone use something like this before in my life, and secretly hoping that 100 years from now people will be calling them “Pablo sticks.”

It’s a pretty simple thing: a walking stick with a bit of a hook at the top and a 5″-6″ fork at the bottom. Mine has a second hooked bit about a third of the way down that lets me carry it between thumb and index finger without having to grasp it. Using a brush stick is pretty straightforward. When faced with a branch brush across the path, you catch it with the forked end and deflect it out of your way as you advance. When faced with the inadvisable need of traversing head-high salal or blackberry, you lift the stick, catch the nearest canes in the fork and force them down to foot level. Step on them, raise the stick to catch the next closest canes and repeat as necessary, making your way out of the thicket to safety.

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The brush stick sits right outside my door along with my muck boots and work gloves. If Blue sees me step into the muck boots, he can be counted on to start prancing around with his Are-we-going-into-the-woods?-are-we-going-into-the-woods? happy dance. But if I pick up the brush stick, he knows. I swear, that dog looks like he’s about to do back flips.

We’ve always made a good team, Blue and me. We both have about the same amount of farm sense (approximately none). But as I said above, he’s got a knack for finding paths that I can’t see, and I’ve got a knack for knowing when we’ve both had enough and it’s time to head south. We’ll blunder our way from the “Siamese cedars” to the “bike wheel cutoff” and see if we can find our way north to finally connect to the “coyote skull grove.” We’ll fail, of course, and have to slog through half an acre of wild rose thorns.

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When we emerge from the woods exhausted (usually about a half hour after we’ve realized that we’d already had enough), we emerge to what feels like a different world. It’s akin to the sensation of stepping out from a matinee movie into a sunny afternoon. There’s new room to breathe, and everything that felt so overwhelming before feels like it can be regarded at arm’s length, where you’re able to see past its edges and to what lies beyond.

Yes, it’s a privilege to be able to escape into these woods, one that not many people have these days. But honestly, I don’t know how I’d maintain my sanity to be able to keep helping others if I didn’t have it.

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