Applegate Valley, Oregon
Fourth Annual Nonfiction Contest Finalist
Culture: This used to be the place that settled into a deep silence with cows who quaked in the dead grass at the hush of snow, the world around them dormant, sleeping, at rest. Now, at the close of summer, my husband rejoices for this—for the trembling, for the snow. As a farmer, autumn brings a rush of joy, the hope of winter a consolation; he’s made it through the heave and draw of relentless work—the tractor turns quiet, the hum of summer finishes. He pulls on heavy boots and drives his truck slower with less push, less fill. Or more, he sits in the driver’s seat with engine idling, warming his hands, hesitating in the seconds before he climbs out and runs the crusted grass where there is a layer of ice, a shut gate, and no more light for the day. He drinks two mugs of coffee instead of one, lingering next to the wood stove, scratching his dark beard, considering the year and all that has occurred. He hopes his endeavors have been for something, anything at all. With this comfort of change, then too his heart sinks low into questions as he counts the dollars in his mind and peers at his children in play on the floor. He worries what winter has in store. He senses the cold before it arrives, his awareness grown from the earth itself. He knows relief in the kill of his fields and the freezing ground.
History: This farm, this place, used to be where roads ended, broke off, wandered, where travelers took quick rest before pushing over the mountain into California. The way was hard up the slotted pines. The terrain steeped upward into bumpy hills, no less than smooth, swinging back and shoulders all the way, each man and woman rougher than the one before. This used to be the place for horses to lick up cold water, graze grass, mellow in the shade. They used to cut wood here and sell it to the wagons that hauled it away for dance halls, barns, cabins. I find evidence of this in the field when I dig, so I hang the relics on our fence as a story—rusty brackets, blades, locks, and horseshoe. This farm—I mold it with my tools, take the history and create a new place. What once was—hay, cows, horses, turkeys, and what now is—heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, basil. And too—herons, ash and oak, lilies and poppy, swallows and skunk.
Day Length: This stretch of season progresses in decay. It is fall and everything falls away. The night settles the day sooner and with stars. All of our work slows with mornings raw. The scent of pine and cold water infuses the air we breathe. It feels like a tonic, so we take time to walk. Everything around is seed heavy—every plant and crop laden with tiny scions of a whole new world, wrapped and hidden in hull and carapace. The fields die back with rot. The bees go. So do the flies. The cold draws out the animals, if only for a moment, temporary, in anticipation of retreat and the blanket of still land. The blue herons appear, harbingers of the coming change, swooping to take their place among the sweep. There are these things too—the fox on the road, blue coat, thin and hungry. Skunk on the pavement. Bear in the pasture. Geese in triangles over the farm. The salmon in spawn. The deer soon bed for gestation. Every animal collects then, stores, and roams. The hawk cries—enough of this heat, enough of the dry air.
Ripeness: Each day, our farm transforms its abundance, everything in line for storage. We windrow the beans to dry, then shake the plants on tarps, loosen the seed from its pod, a surprise of rust and maroon swirls on the casing, finished in a luster and shine—the Tiger’s Eye. Our son picks up the beans, turns them around in his small hands. He asks me, ‘Aren’t they gorgeous?’ as he grasps the seed and slips the hardened shell of legume into his pocket. He moves on down the dirt, the sway of his arms like a monkey.
Harvest and Storage: Next to the beans, the flour corn begins to fall sideways, bent over and split in the middle, at the halfway point like a broken and leafy suggestion of surrender. Not total or complete. Like a question mark—as in all that we do on the farm. It is the Painted Mountain kind—multi-hued of burgundy, gold, lavender, rose—the stalks saddled with bran and seed, yellowed leaves. Where I stoop to dig purple potatoes, the birds create a ruckus, take aim at the ears and peck at the seeds, chatter down the corn. It is time to take it home.
Cache: Drying and pungent garlic dangles from old nails in the barn, clusters of twenty pulled from their chancy place in the soil, the dirt caked onto the bulbs, the papery skin flaking off in filmy layers. Soon we will clip the fat cloves from the withering shoot, clean and ruffle the clay, cut for soup, tuck away for winter. At sunset, my daughter and I go to the barn and choose garlic for cooking. I hear the orange tabby mew from another stall. He perches on a tumble of plastic containers, his weight light enough to keep the stack from collapsing. My daughter points to the cat, then the garlic, ‘That, Mommy. That.’ I reach over my head to pull a bulb from the bundle and put it in her small hands—she takes it to her nose, inhaling, closing her eyes, smiling in that secret way she does. We leave the barn and walk to the house beyond the wounded grass with the concrete sky above us. She takes my hand, warm palm and tiny fingers to light my heart. She clutches the garlic in her other hand. The cat follows us, paws padding along the gravelly road behind us. When we arrive at the house, she hands the bulb to her father and smiles up at him. He smiles too and I see the creases of his eyes lift up and wrinkle. He takes the garlic, bends to her proud face and for a moment, rests in that place of love.
Larder: We peel layers of husk off the Tom Thumb’s popcorn. My children sort the corn by size, discard the matter into bins and buckets. It all piles up on the stone ground. We settle the grain onto drying racks so the birds leave it. Through the greenhouse doors, wide open to the day, I see the maple down by the creek, far away in its gold light and say, ‘This isn’t so bad, right? Shucking corn together?’ A question I hope my husband will answer. He doesn’t. My son continues to sort, shows his sister how. He nods to me and smiles. Affirmation, then. The evening comes on. The wind plays out in the shuffling of stock and chaff.
Heritage: I have to remember this is a forgotten tradition—this saving of crops from one season to the next, for the winter ahead. I must remember what we do to preserve. We are unique and like our ancestors in this practice. The Romans built still houses to dry herbs and fruit by fire instead of sun. Cellars and caves stored food where ice boxes do now. Fermentation of barley and fruit made them desirable in their altered state. Nutrition harnessed. Divine supplements of the diet—beer and wine and all. Seed has always been taken in at the end of summer, the corn dried, ground or planted. The beans too. We do it less now. Some, not at all. We sell our corn to them and that’s how they remember.
Days to Maturity: At night, the harvest moon rises big and yellow and the fields glow underneath it. I open the window so I can hear the crickets. The night is much too cold for an open window—I leave it open anyway. I want to hear the insects, their sustained rhythm. They are all the night, dominant and about the air. They form a chorus and if I listen long enough and with attention, I hear the harmony of a thousand male octaves, for it is only the boys that sing. I am lucky to have the night. And the rubbing of wings, for the female, for the potential of connection, for attraction. Crickets produce sound for their mates in a variety—the calling song, the courtship, and then the celebration. It all happens like this outside our windows, good fortune in our witness of such melody. If I could, I’d draw out my husband’s voice the same, a proclamation or even a ballad that links us together in his quiet rumination—musings that draw a picture of these hills, this place, our direction, our own keeping of the day. A song of praise, or at least, conviction.
Wisdom: Instead, together in these days that shorten and nights that become long, under a shimmering moon, we take time to sit with our children as they fall to sleep. The heavy weight of our love fills the room. I feel it as my husband stretches his legs and lays his head in my lap. A spray of cedar and pine hangs from the children’s window, tied up in twine with firethorn, a token of our farm’s collection of trees and shrubs, something to remind us of the warm season and the world outside our walls. A half-put together telescope—a gift from my husband’s father—sits on the table while the sky bulging with stars is waiting and the cold moon outside is perched and lingering too, hung in the drifting clouds like the evergreen in the window. I take my husband’s hands, feel the strong thumbs, hear the many sounds of our farm home—the clicking of the wood stove as it heats, the yawns and heavy breathing of our children filling the air between me and him, us and them. This is the weight of falling—in love, in farm, in seasons. We must protect and save this substance of surrender, just the same as we fold our farm’s goods into bags, boxes, and jars, stored away until we need them again.
Notes and Guarantee: When we go to the neighborhood winery to celebrate the consequence of our year, the vines heave with lush purple grapes. The fruit is ripe, ready for the harvest and crush. The sun glides over the hills as cars move down the road and send dust into the air, covering the ancient and thick grape wood with grit. The ash and pine push up tall into the mountains that fold over the land before us. The peak of hill so far away—I could get there if I had will and time. I could climb it. I know I could. The light turns golden as our children cartwheel over the grass. Blues music pulses into the evening. The sun disappears behind the mountain and we sip the vintage tempranillo, the black grape smooth and fine in our mouths. We touch the grass with our feet and my husband smiles at me, the sad dark eyes of a man uncertain yet capable of so much. A farmer’s eyes, a farmer’s glance—look away and hide the years.
Seed Specs: Our narrow valley on Thompson Creek has endured, but barely. The same—our family, the farm, our marriage. All worlds in this place still collide with too many splintered philosophies and uncommon ground. The salmon used to run up the wide creek way back when, but they don’t anymore. The stream dries in summer, so everything goes thirsty, even the trees with their deep roots. Our neighbors shoot cougars when they take sheep, kill the bears who steal fruit. Some of us still hold meetings in stuffy barn rooms to stop the clear cuts up the road. Some of us still fight over water. Some of us still graze our cows in the creek. Some of us—me, my husband—we fumble our way along. We try on this land to make it better. At night, when the fires burn in August, the moon comes up orange, its color filtered by the smoke. My son gasps at the sight, tells me, ‘The moon looks like Mars! And it has eyes and a mouth too.’ I see it like he does—ethereal in its altered form. He later takes me down to the lick of creek where he builds a castle of sticks and rocks and leaves. We sit together and listen, the sound of the stream empty now, but soon to be full again at winter’s jog.
Fall, or Falling : Applegate Valley, Oregon
Gallery by Melissa Matthewson, Neil Subhash, and Megan Fehrman
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Header and home page photo by Neil Subhash.