I set out to write about the distinction between a small farm, which is what I like to call our place, and what is simply a home adjacent to acres of landscaping that demand attention, come rain or come shine.
In defense of the designation as farm is the observation that I can look out of any window and see meadows and fields; horses move into the picture on a regular basis, and leave prodigious piles of processed grazing in our meadow. My day often begins with grabbing a pitchfork (see!) and pitching manure into a cart before the dog claim the delicacies for their own. I have a riding mower that I call a tractor, a limb trimmer, and a chain saw, and, if I could call them to testify, our four dogs have stated that they prefer to be called a herd rather than a pack.
Sounds sort of farmish.
But, in all candor, I thought, we don’t actually raise anything, and farms are pretty much all about actually bringing things into being, then seeing to the tending, cultivating, shearing, milking, harvesting and such.
We have done some cultivating, tending, and harvesting, but in a recreational, isn’t-southern Oregon-fabulous kind of way, so not much support for the farm tag there. It’s awkward because I had lovely signs made up before we moved to Oregon featuring the silhouette of a border collie above the property’s presumptive name – Storybook Farm.
Head down, I prepared to order a more restrained version of the original concept; perhaps something like “Storybook Place With A Long Unpaved Driveway” . Depressed, I sank a bit lower and noticed a new scar on my calf (lower leg, not Holstein). It had gone unobserved because both legs, both arms, and most of my clothing have been sliced by blackberry thorns, and the profound and extremely painful slicing has become so common, so expected, in the ordinary course of a day that it no longer registers as an outrage.
I say scar, and the reader imagines a thin line of slightly reddened mark, perhaps the sort of trace left by a fine point pen..
Oregon summers are hot, so I wore shorts to a picnic last week, thinking nothing of the marred flesh I exposed. My host pointed to a leg asking what I had done to myself, fearing, I think, that self-mutilation had accompanied me into retirement. Not understanding his concern, I shrugged uncertainly. He pointed and said, “Looks like you got trapped with a bobcat in a phone booth.”
Blackberry vines grow overnight, while we sleep, curling and coiling, shooting green runners from otherwise innocent trees and shrubs, pushing their way into spaces I had thought unassailable. Left unwatched, they join other tendrils, forming walls of thorn. I had thought the forest of thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty was simply fairy tale exaggeration; not so. If Beauty (that can’t be her name, can it?) stretched out anywhere on this property, she would be thorned in by sunset.
Yeah. It’s impressive.
Ah, but it’s also testimony to the fact that we DO raise a crop here on this farm. Yep, I manage acres of blackberry incursion on a daily basis. Not farm enough for you? Listen, Cows are milked twice a day. Twice a day? Hah! I’m out there hours at a time, cutting back pulsing waves of blackberry vines. Why don’t I just plant them where I want them, you ask. They plant themselves, and their roots descend to the what the agronomists at Oregon State (Go, Beavers!) call the layer below the rigid lithosphere, a zone of asphalt-like consistency called the Asthenosphere.
Asphalt like, and they sink in their botanical fangs so deep that mortal efforts cannot uproot them.
But, and this is the essential point, the blackberries themselves are delicious, decidedly more delicious than berries ordinary folks find at even the most rigorously fresh of fresh fruit stands. We don’t have them for long; when we water the cultivated bushes in a warm summer such as the last few, we can expect the first really tasty berries to emerge in the final weeks of July. By the end of August, we’re making do with berries that are less full and less sweet.
Picking blackberries is not for the faint of heart, although all four of the dogs have developed methods of plucking the low hanging fruit. The youngest dog routinely ends up with a train of thorns caught in his feathery tail. His mother, a more cautious harvester, however, stands on what for a dog must be tip-toe, snipping the fattest berries slowly and with a delicacy she does not exhibit in any other endeavor.
Tastes differ, and Mary often returns from a berry harvest with berries that are smaller, more firm, and likely to be less sweet. I, the more discerning picker, look for the fattest, berries that are not simply black, but a deep ebony, with a slight shine near the stem. In fact, my berries gleam.
Mary loves to see her berries end up in cobblers and tarts, where the zesty tang of the berry compliments the sweetness of the encompassing goop. Goop is a word we farm people use to describe the stuff that ends up in cobblers and tarts, besides the berries, peaches, or apples. I will admit that hers are the superior accompanying berries.
Mine stand by themselves.
I eat the berries singly, holding each one to the light, admiring the sheen, anticipating the burst of flavor I am about to enjoy. The first two go quickly; the rest are savored. From my point of view, the fatter the berry the better, although that preference has cost me more than one white t shirt as a grotesquely bulging berry explodes in my fingers. Tastes pretty good in clean up, but will not come out in the wash.
The days are shortening now, and it’s almost time for my least favorite task of the year. In October, I’ll put on my Hasmat gear, grab the limb trimmer, and try to bring the most aggressively over-grown banks of thorns back from wild sovereignty of our fields. Last year I thought a standard string trimmer would do the job, but the diabolical runners tangle themselves in the head of the trimmer before I can trim the first bush. So this year I’m breaking out the big gun, a twelve pound trimming blade that cuts through tree limbs.
That done, my thoughts turn to the twelve-foot ladder leaning against an apple tree that needs some major surgery, then to the fertilizer, then to the rototiller.
Just another year at Storybook Farm.