Two Weeks at the Farm
Our first two weeks at the farm have felt like a lifetime.
The version of myself that arrived at the farm was admittedly wonderstruck with naïve plans to ride horses, forage for lavender, bake it into a cake, and post it on my Instagram; the version of me now has been magnificently humbled.
Before arriving at the farm, I thought of myself as quite competent. I’ve settled, made friends, and explored the local cuisine in London, Nice, Boston, Marseille, Yangon, Vienna, and Paris. And growing up in a technically rural area, I’ve more or less mastered small-town life.
But now I know just how little I knew about navigating nature. My view of “wildlife” was limited to backyard bugs and daytime hikes and was thus extremely sheltered. And my approach to figuring things out mainly involved YouTube or Google, and thus, technology has been my crutch. Are all millennials like this? Or have I just been especially blindsided on how to live without power, the Internet, and cell service?
“You’re that desperate for data already?” Daniel asked suspiciously on our first day in the woods.
“What do you mean? I’m just going on a stroll to the barn,” I replied nonchalantly. Of course, the barn was the only place with Wi-Fi our first weekend, but that didn’t mean anything.
“You can’t even go 48 hours without checking Instagram? I’m embracing this life,” he said, not fooled by my excuse.
“But how else am I going to get inspo for our homestead? I started a ‘Farm Chic’ Pinterest board I’m trying to fill,” I replied, half-joking.
“Exactly,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“And I need to look up flowers that grow locally for our garden. When do you want to get supplies?” I said, starry-eyed.
“Let’s just focus on surviving out here first,” he said, eying the rustle in the adjacent leaves.
Our first weekend may have been our honeymoon phase. We lounged in the open feeling of our empty cabin in the woods, and Daniel even learned to chop wood. That Sunday evening, he busied himself with starting a fire in our wood-burning stove.
I suppose Daniel felt the lumberjack look was quite manly because he came inside with his chest puffed, bragging about the size of his arms before he closed the door to continue chopping. Two minutes later, I heard him squeal.
“Wasp!” he cried, running back inside and locking the door. Daniel had already been stung twice while roaming the garden, and we were beginning to suspect there was a nest hiding in the pink flowering bush beneath our deck.
I instinctively reached for my phone to Google “how to get rid of wasp’s nest” before remembering we still had no Wi-Fi. It was shaping up to be a long first weekend indeed.
If it wasn’t wasps to worry about, it was snakes, frogs, bats, and 6-inch slugs, all of which we found in our first week in our yard. Of course, there were also the wild turkeys, flocks of quail, and fields of cattle that roamed outside our immediate vicinity. And then there were the ominous mountain lions who we have not yet seen but whose presence we’ve felt lurking on the edges of the pasture.
At some point on Sunday – either in the two hours Daniel spent chopping wood, the three he spent attempting to set it on fire, or the following hour when we learned we had working electric heaters – Blue escaped into the wild.
I was certain Blue’s fate had been sealed by a hungry mountain lion or coyote. After all, it had merely been a few hours since we were warned of a baby calf’s fatal encounter with one of the hungry animals.
But thankfully, Daniel found Blue in the pasture, playing – and losing – a game of tag with the cows. They were moo-ing wildly at her, seriously unamused, but Blue simply didn’t get the hint to stop her chase. Thankfully, Daniel managed to wrangle the harness onto her panting body and the two came home whole.
The next day, I thought of Blue’s escapade with the cows when I attempted my first run. And I say “attempted” because I didn’t make it very far. From our front door, the first mile is a 500-foot incline that winds out of the woods and into gated pastures, back into the woods, and finally into a clearing of pastures again. But I was barely up the first hill when I encountered cattle crossing the street. Half a mile out at that point, to my delight, I got cell service and used it to call my parents.
“I’m on a run!” I exclaimed giddily. “Just waiting for these cows to cross the street.”
“I thought you were off the grid”, my dad said, referencing my blog post on farm life.
“I am off the grid! There’s no cell service where we live,” I explained.
“But you have electricity?”
“And running water?”
“Then you’re not off the grid,” he responded.
“Who defines the grid anyway?” I asked distractedly as I inched closer to the final cow who had spent 10 minutes now in the middle of the road.
“Not you,” my dad proclaimed.
The cow turned her body toward Eira’s stroller as if to say, “Silly human, you can’t pass me.”
I needed no more than that gaze to decide to turn back. “Uh, gotta run now,” I told my father.
“Be careful of the mountain lions!” I heard my mom chime in before I disconnected.
Up the adjacent hill, a fenced-in bull looked less amused and more threatened by my oversized jogging stroller. A thin strand of barbed wire separated us from the broad-shouldered, beady-eyed beast. I wasn’t willing to test the strength of the barrier or the width of his comfort zone – at least, not yet.
A few days later and after successfully dodging the cattle to run a mile past our ranch, I felt as though I had conquered our new environment. The Wi-Fi now worked, and I could now confidently clean a chicken coop. I wasn’t riding horses yet, but I felt as though I had made friends with our farm animals.
Our kittens, too, had begun to befriend the great outdoors. They spent a few afternoons basking in the sun on our front porch as I worked on a hammock swing. Our home was still littered with unpacked boxes, but everything would be put in its place with time. I even began to think of our garden again.
From the porch, I traced out with my eyes imaginary red rose bushes, Oregon grapevines, and tall sunflowers patches that would surround the flat land home to a small firepit. But before any of this could be planted, we would need to weed out the poison oak – and find a solution to the wasps. I wondered what else I would find in this plot of land.
The next day, I walked down to the firepit patch with Eira in my arms. I let her toddle around as got a closer look at what was growing. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for but felt like Nancy Drew waving my phone’s camera over plants as if it were a magnifying glass.
A spiky pink weed caught my eye – Bull Thistle, according to my Seek app. There was another pink flower growing in the earth – some type of geranium, Seek said. Then there were lots of dark green leaves, which Seek said to be brambles. And there was a patch of tall, thin-stemmed plants with a circle of white flowers visible from its top. In fact, these ones were all over the firepit area, some growing in clumps, others shooting up seven feet skyward. This, Seek said, was poison hemlock.
My jaw came unhinged, and I lunged for Snowpea. “Let’s go inside now,” I coaxed her as she squirmed in my arms. I didn’t know what poison hemlock was, but I had a feeling we shouldn’t be near it.
Later that day, Eira and I trudged our half-mile up the street to call her grandparents at the cattle crossing.
“Guess what we found in our yard,” I said to my father, the botanist.
“A mountain lion,” he replied.
“No, but close! Poison hemlock,” I said expecting an unenthused answer.
“Poison hemlock! That would be very bad if it is. Are you sure it wasn’t parsley?”
“My app was pretty certain. It said it was in the same family as carrots and parsley, but it was definitely poison hemlock. There were 1700 local sightings recorded, so it must be the real thing,” I reported.
“This is very serious if it is,” he stressed. “Poison hemlock is one of the worst, deadliest invasive species. If Blue or the cats eat it, it can kill them within a few hours. It works on the central nervous system and is extremely toxic. In fact, it was brewed as the tea that killed Socrates.”
“Is that story in your forthcoming forensic botany book?”
“No, I instead decided to write about the family who moved to the woods and died from drinking poison hemlock tea.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed.
“Be careful,” he warned.
When we first arrived at the farm, I judged our property owner, Randy, harshly when he announced, “I hope you don’t mind, I chew tobacco.”
Of course, he was that type of rancher who listens to country and thinks he’s entitled to his 80 acres of land.
“It’s alright,” I replied.
“Hey, what’s your shirt say?” He pointed at the words underneath my new ripped jeans overalls. “ON WEDNESDAYS WE SMASH THE PATRIARCHY,” he continued, pronouncing each syllable. Then, “I don’t get it.”
“It’s a Mean Girls reference,” I said.
Eira made a noise, saving me from explaining more, and we continued sweeping chicken feed onto the dirt.
And when Randy informed us the next day, “I hope you don’t mind, I carry a gun,” I was stupefied.
“It’s for protection out here,” he continued.
Protection from what – the Mexicans who work in your barn?!? I wanted to exclaim, but I held my tongue.
But two weeks into living in the wild, I understand. I, who cried at girl scout camp when my bunkmate killed a daddy long leg. I, who, for a hot minute, was a poster child for veganism and yogic ahimsa. I, who wrote persuasive essays to cease all gun rights as a student of public health. I was now scared for my life.
“You don’t think a mountain lion would ever show up at our home? Or on my running route?” I asked Daniel before falling asleep every night.
“They say they haven’t seen one in 30 years,” Daniel would reassure me. But still, I wasn’t so sure.
And when Daniel tried to sell Randy on the idea of buying a Tesla, I thought it endearing how outdated Randy’s reaction seemed. “If the grid shuts down, you’re in trouble,” he chuckled.
The grid couldn’t just shut down, I thought. But then, not even a week into living in the woods, it did.
Randy called to warn us the power may be out during working hours on Friday, and I abruptly reached my limit. The sound of our landline (which Randy swore would be our lifeline) woke Eira up early from her nap, and she wasn’t a happy camper either.
“What!?! But we just got the Wi-Fi to work on Tuesday!” I exclaimed.
“I’m just passing on the message,” Daniel retorted. “We’ll just go into the city to work.”
I stared at him as if he had suggested chopping off my finger. Eira was crying now, and I began to mirror her tears.
I was acting irrationally, I knew, but this news, on top of everything else, was too much. The cluttered unpacked boxes, the cold morning air inside, the nausea I endured from the backseat each time we drove to the city, the pleas from my mother about the safety risks of using a wood-burning stove, the two jobs I could not work without Wi-Fi, the daycares with months-long waitlists that were not returning our calls, the poison hemlock, the f***ing mountain lions (!!!) – all of these were weighing heavy on me now.
“Where are you going?” Daniel asked as I fumbled with Snowpea’s stroller straps.
“Out!” I exclaimed as if there were anywhere to go.
“I’m at my breaking point,” I moaned through my phone at the cattle crossing.
“But you haven’t even been there a week!” my dad replied.
“I don’t know what’s happening with my time. It’s all being eaten up by trying to keep me and Snowpea alive out here. And the daycares aren’t even calling us back,” I explained, out of breath as I pushed my jogging stroller up the 500-foot incline.
“I remember the days…” my mom began.
“You have no idea!” I said, teary-eyed. “Were you ever hunted by a mountain lion?”
“Were you?” my dad responded.
“Not yet, but you never know what’s out there,” I murmured, looking to the horizon.
“Did you figure out where to recycle yet?” my mom asked, changing the subject.
“Really? Recycling?!? I’m just trying to survive!”
“You should at least be saving the things you can recycle. It’s so easy just to put them in a pile for later.”
“I can’t even think about that right now!” I exclaimed.
“Come on, you have to be responsible. I always save things I can’t recycle here and – ” And I hung up the phone.
As we continued on into the woods, I was startled as a black squirrel shot across the road. A bird cawed overhead. I couldn’t see where he was perched in the trees, but he seemed to be bothered by our presence. Up ahead, a deer pranced down the hill. This was becoming too much nature for me.
“If there’s prey, there are predators,” I remembered my dad’s recent warning.
Suddenly, I sensed I wasn’t alone. I turned the stroller around and began trotting back through the woods. The bird above cawed, angrily this time. My trot became a jog. Then an all-out sprint. I saw Snowpea’s eyes light up with amusement. I heard footsteps. Then, I saw its snout.
“Oh!” I exclaimed.
Blue appeared from around the bend.
“Hi, my loves,” Daniel greeted us, following behind with her leash. “I was just going to give this daycare another call.”
Daniel spoke in Spanish to the woman who I thought had been ignoring my messages.
“Si, esta bien. Esta bien. OK, gracias. Bye.”
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Snowpea’s starting daycare on the 13th,” he replied.
My heart lifted to my lips and I danced with joy. The thirteenth! The syllables replayed jovially in my ears. We had a date! A deadline to be settled that was certainly doable.
Less than two weeks until our boxes would be unpacked, our survival skills would be polished, our weeds would be pulled, and all would be well. Instantly, I felt lighter.
The power outage that was supposed to last an hour lasted five days. For five days, we were truly off the grid. We slept soundly, napped frequently, lingered over mealtime, basked in the sunlight, and whispered in the expansive moonlit darkness. And, for now, everything was okay.
To Be Continued.