A Year Later

It’s been a year since we turned the key on the new house in the Pacific Northwest, and as I looked outside to observe how the newest plants are adapting, I thought it might be a good idea to review the photos taken in the last 12 months.

When we arrived, the area was experiencing a record heat wave that had lasted beyond 30 days. The junipers were stressed, the grass was crispy and the fires in eastern Washington were sending so much smoke our way that our blue skies looked more like the ones in Los Angeles tinged with brown. We were barely in the house when we began encountering a number of surprises one isn’t prepared for. That’s why they call them surprises.

I recall our adjustment to slower Internet (though we’ve never quite adjusted to that), lost mail, back-ordered stock, which delayed the new floors and the actual settling in for over a month, and learning about an unusual religious sect in the area, which is home to their largest congregations in the nation. We’ve lived through power outages, downed trees, chopping our own wood, the wettest winter in two decades, Gary’s commute and waging a small war with Bambi and Thumper who, cute as they are, have had me rethinking my stance on hasenpfeffer and venison. I’ve begun to find the photograph of rabbit stew in Nigel Slater’s book Ripe rather enticing.

As the anniversary is upon us, I’m reminded of the sale in California, how we survived that final week in the house with an ice chest, air mattresses and two iPads along with the clothes we’d need for our journey. I recall the final morning in the house before we turned into vagabonds for three weeks.

After stopping in Santa Rosa to see Gary’s aunt and uncle, we received a message on the road, in the middle of nowhere, that the title company needed more documentation in order to close the sale. It’s never fun scrambling through an accordion folder, desperately searching for something that cannot be found until you stop to relax and think about it. Fortunately, I located what we needed, photographed the documents and sent them with a shaky Internet signal. The office was closed by the time I hit send, so I wouldn’t know until the next day if the transmission had been complete and if they were able to proceed.

To cope with the stress, I took the wheel and drove us into Oregon and wound us around darkened roads and invisible bridges until we could find lodging at 2:00 in the morning. We’d started looking around midnight, but there were no vacancies until that last stop, which had only drawn budget travelers and those whose vaccinations were current.

In the bleak early light, I awoke fully dressed on top of the sheets with the comforter tossed in the corner because even in the dark I’d sensed that it wasn’t a good idea to climb into that bed under those covers. The smell of chlorine was so strong that I dreamt I’d gone swimming with my clothes on. At least the sheets were clean. The late-night desk clerk had boasted about their continental breakfast. I still don’t know what continent she had in mind, but we skipped it and got back on the road a few short hours after arriving. Still no word that the closing had gone through and if we would, in fact, get the keys that afternoon—or ever.

Somewhere south of Portland, I received a text from our Realtor, and after a few stops and maneuvering what I would learn is Portland traffic, we walked into the house about 4:30 that evening. There again was the hideous blue carpeting and walls that would start to be painted within 24 hours. Completely empty with our possessions still miles away, we were home, and it felt wonderful. I can still remember the feeling; an awareness of the work to be done, knowing that we’d moved away from our friends, finding a home in the woods that no one we knew had ever seen, and being excited and apprehensive at the same time.

When I look back on it, the adjustments were minor in comparison to the joys we’ve experienced. Setbacks and disappointments simply required our rethinking in order to find workable solutions. We quickly made friends with Frank and Dave who live nearby, and in the course of a year, we’ve celebrated holidays, birthdays and changes of season. We’ve had visitors and/or dinner guests every month since last September.

The deceptively steep slope that was the back yard when we first arrived a year ago.

The deceptively steep slope that was the back yard when we first arrived a year ago.

One thing I tend to hear from guests is “You’ve done so much!” I suppose we have if you’re seeing the place for the first time and comparing the current view to photographs of how things were in the beginning. The goal is to tame a forest, meaning that we have to clear some growth that’s gotten out of hand. My personal first-year goal was to reclaim about two acres by thinning trees to allow better growth of the stronger ones, to eradicate the thorny invasive blackberry, to figure out the best spot for a vegetable garden and find a way to entice bees to Elderberry End.

I started on this “project” the second week we were here because the floors remained in limbo and I had gone as far as I could inside. I didn’t even have our better tools at that point, since much of what we had was still in boxes stacked in the garage. I had a new pruning saw and some loppers along with some quickly dulling garden shears. I started cutting back and taking care of neglected lilacs, Japanese magnolia, cypress and a number of other species I couldn’t identify. A few days into the work, I realized this is no small undertaking with quick fixes.

Very young plants, the asparagus bed to be surrounded by purple flowering plants, the short wall and the view after removing low branches and struggling trees. The sauna is visible on the left, and the "Yellow Garden" surrounds the bench. Those plants will eventually grow to screen the hot tub in the background.

Very young plants, the asparagus bed to be surrounded by purple flowering plants, the short wall and the view after removing low branches and struggling trees. The sauna is barely visible in the shadows on the left, and the “Yellow Garden” surrounds the bench. Those plants will eventually grow to screen the hot tub in the background.

We’ve had help from Dave, Frank, Brad and Ronald, and other visitors have gifted us with plants and money for plants like my parents, my sister and my cousin Gwen. Our friend Ginger brought us frames for the window boxes and Paula has brought us some culinary necessities. Gary’s sister provided gift cards that were turned into necessary tools, and all of these combined have helped us come a long way. However, there is still so much to be done, but I love every minute of the work, which will prevent boredom for decades. I haven’t quite finished my two-acre goal, but I’m pleased with the amount of work we’ve gotten done.

Elderberry End is certainly the most organic place I’ve ever lived, and we intend to honor the ecosystem that’s been in place for the longest time. Everything has a role to play from the tiniest spider to the coyotes that sing in the night. There’s probably a cougar to mention, but since we haven’t heard one or seen any tracks, I’ll simply acknowledge the coyotes and leave it at that.

Last week, I managed to get the last of the yellow garden planted, at least how it will be for the rest of this growing season. A couple of weeks ago I noticed the honeybees were darting here and there, and thanks again to my cousin, we have two mason bee houses to improve pollination. I’ll close this segment to take a walk outside. It’s been a great year.

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Knowledge is Power

“Knowledge is power.” While many people assume Auntie Mame said it, the quote comes from Francis Bacon. Whether the statement has been applied to opinions on sacred texts or the proper mixing of martinis, this is a quote I’ve used as a personal motto for over 30 years.

The summer I turned 20, I lamented the fact that I knew absolutely nothing. I had no original thoughts, and I felt completely incompetent about everything. I was not well read, knew only the arts and literature from what had been assigned in class, and I was terrible at math, secretly hoping I’d never have to solve an equation without a calculator.

I mentioned my incompetence to a few people, and they responded by pointing out my musical ability, though I was surrounded daily by people who were far more knowledgeable and capable than I. Those people were also more passionate about their art. Others attempted to point out my, uh, well, they couldn’t find a thing I was good at. It was at that point I decided to learn as much as possible. The speaker at my sixth-grade graduation said we never stop learning. “We learn something every single day of our lives.” Good. That meant there was still time.

I started out by working with what I had: a good eye and a willingness to absorb. From then on, I surrounded myself with people I enjoy who can also stimulate my brain. I’ve read books, taken classes, watched video, heard opinions, observed live demonstrations, and had my broad general statements challenged in order to hone raw sentiments into solid philosophies about a vast array of topics.

I also set out to be more practical. With my dad, I’d taken the old car I drove to college and sanded it down and painted it one summer. I did that before I was 20, but had forgotten this was solid practical knowledge. I’d eventually take that love of transformation by gathering castoff furniture and making it nice for my first apartment. Then I learned there was more to cooking than opening the freezer and pouring from a can. I could bake bread from the age of 10, but at 21 I really started challenging myself to grow as a cook.

A new herb garden in a forest clearing. Easily accessible to the kitchen unlike the vegetable garden.

A new herb garden in a forest clearing. Easily accessible to the kitchen unlike the vegetable garden.

Gardening came later, as did a host of other practical abilities like rewiring old lamps, installing light fixtures and patching cracks in plaster. With certain subjects I knew not only how it was done, but why it is done a certain way. Throughout the decades, I’ve been blessed to know people who’ve shared similar interests in whatever subject I’ve taken on for that period of time. Such has been a springboard for exploration and more opportunities to gain knowledge.

I’ve also taken jobs, which have challenged me and left me more capable. I worked in a wood shop where I learned how to use various tools. I’ve worked in a bakery where I’ve gotten my hands on professional equipment and have made dozens of bread loaves at one time, run an electric “sheeter” (a most horrific device) and have made gallons of cake frosting in a single shift.

At some point I realized I have a reasonable understanding about a lot of subjects, and I feel comfortable in sharing my knowledge whether or not it’s been requested. When we decided to leave the city and move to the woods, I didn’t see such a life change as a major issue. Self-assured in my knowledge to handle every situation, I was ready for any challenges. The property was beautiful, but the grounds had been neglected.

I’ve found that the biggest purchase most people make requires the least amount of inspection. One tries on clothes for hours, walks around in shoes, studies maps and itineraries for trips, test drives several cars and visits multiple college campuses before deciding. But a house? One might walk through a few, spending no more than 20 minutes in each, but the decision to buy that special place occurs in the first few minutes. You know instantly if it’s going to work.

It’s only after you’re in escrow (or under contract) that the realities start to build. We saw the current property in the fullness of springtime, and loved it as soon as we stepped out of the car. The land with its trees was mainly solid walls of green at that point. When we finally moved in, it was during the summer’s drought. The leaves started falling soon after, and I could see where the occasional cluster of branches needed thinning or a place where a tree didn’t need to be.

“I think we remove two out of every six trees in a cluster,” I said as if the work were nothing more strenuous than weeding a garden. “We can use the wood for the stove,” I added, as if I knew how to use such a thing to heat a house.

In order to accomplish the thinning out, we acquired a chainsaw and had to learn the process for cutting down trees. We also learned that trees, when set adrift from their roots, have a special relationship with gravity. The accuracy of the “felling notch,” another new term which has become a regular part of our vocabulary, is crucial when you want to make a tree land in the general vicinity you’ve decided upon. I say “general vicinity” because I’ve yet to master “specific target.” And a note on the wood stove: with minimal fuss, I can now get the great room as hot as a nursing home lobby without burning the wood too rapidly.

Trees and stoves haven’t been the only things to learn. We installed a hot tub, but there’s no such thing as a pool guy to come by each week to do the chemical maintenance. Thanks to the advice of friends and the lady at the spa store, we’re getting better at this.

New geography has meant learning new types of plants and how they grow. While we’re not yet experts on well pumps and French drains, we’ve learned about safely eradicating invasive plants, and keeping gloves in the car in case we happen to encounter a tree that’s fallen across the driveway. Luckily, most have been light enough so one person can clear them away, but there was that big one during the December windstorm. We have a lot more sawing to do!

When we first arrived, each day presented me with a new experience, but I recently mentioned to Gary that we’ve learned much more than we ever thought we would. A year ago, we couldn’t imagine ourselves attempting to remove a single tree, much less the dozens we’ve taken down in the past few months. In the city, we mostly gardened in containers. Nowadays, we look at various clearings and contemplate how they’ll be used in the future. We used to discuss weekend plans thus: “Did you want to grab a bite at Musso & Frank before or after the theatre?” Now our conversation sounds more like this: “Let’s put the new pallets in the wood bin on Saturday so we can start stacking and curing all this firewood. Winter will be here before you know it.”

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1