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Op-Ed: It’s autumn on my farm: Learning to do chores in the dark and keeping up a sense of wonder

Illustration of a farmer with giant chickens, sunflowers and vegetables around him.
(Allison Vu / For The Times)

Muck the chicken coop. Prune the young plum. Harvest potatoes from the stiffening ground. Gather the last sunflower seeds before the goldfinches pick clean the tired stalks.

It is autumn here at Poverty Flats, and we are racing the winter. The days are short. The to-do list is long.

I climb on an unsteady ladder to the cabin’s roof to try sweeping the chimney. The cabin is small, its roof low, but even from here I can see what the mortgage papers tell me is now in my care — coop, garden, half-dozen skinny fruit trees, a few acres of rocky pasture that are good mostly for growing sagebrush. But also, a view over the fence to mountains on three sides that hold the valley as gently as water in a cupped palm.

The landlord sold me the spread one year ago, charging not what she could have, saying it suited me. (I wonder sometimes if she did not mean the weeds.) Her generosity meant I could stay in the valley, having arrived after decades of weekend trips, but always a visitor, always a tourist. Not so unlike many others nationwide who, when contagion struck, soon fled cities and suburbs in search of a feeling that a rural place had given them once, too.

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For this accidental pandemic hobby farmer, the past year has been a steep education. To work even the smallest patch of ground in a place you care about, and no longer simply to pass through on holiday, is to move beyond the simple electric thrill of infatuation to a more complicated relationship with that place.

The days, and the work, strip the gloss from the tourist brochure. What remains either agrees with you, or does not.

Spring was full of eggshell promise, and frenetic. In May I tilled the wet earth, planted the squash and tomatoes in the garden. Six chicks arrived in a packing box, gift of a friend’s daughters. For weeks they lived under a heat lamp beside the front door, unnamed until their survival seemed assured, like pioneer children.

Out in the pasture there was trouble. Winter had squatted on the ancient irrigation system. Rubber gaskets had eroded. Sprinklers were jammed with pebble and bits of mouse. Where the water entered the field at the ditch, the pump made a sickly noise.

“What does it sound like?” asked my friend Daren, who ranches up the road.

“It sounds expensive,” I said.

Before I bought the place, spring had been the most carefree time in the valley. Coming here, I was at ease — to run, bike, camp, or simply to read under the red-skinned ponderosas, and to let my mind wander. Now I spent my free time dressed in crabbing gear beneath the fields’ geysering water lines. Money I’d once saved for fly rods, or to take a class on native plants, I handed over at the pipe store, where I stood before bins of parts — clamp lock rings, riser plungers — and rubbed my jaw thoughtfully beside the real ranchers, hoping their calloused wisdom might rub off. Strange hardware multiplied in the tool shed: chain wrenches, foul glues, an air compressor as bulbous and blaring as an opera impresario.

Summer arrived. In the past, the promise of a quiet morning on the river to fish was mine. Now I dragged hand lines back and forth through the fields, growing grass for someone else’s sheep in order to keep my water rights. The irrigation broke. Then it broke, again. The vegetable garden rioted, angered by inattention. The flowerbed blossomed extravagantly with weeds. Pestilence descended; dawn found me vacuuming potato bugs in a bathrobe. Friends dubbed the garden Spiteful Organics and printed sweatshirts of a vole eating a malformed carrot. Life was a daily war against entropy.

Now comes autumn. I remember when the cold nights were a last summons to play among the hills’ yellow larch. Today I see the snow on the peaks and hear a call to button up the place while there’s still time: Drain the pump. Blow out the irrigation lines before the hard frost. Lay in the firewood. Yank the old sagebrush that rasps against the shed, before next fire season. Each day I scratch one chore off the list, only to add another. Each day the sun drops behind the mountain a little sooner, and leaves me bumping into things in the dark.

There is honesty to this labor, a satisfaction in learning how to sweep one’s own chimney that is different from hours spent hunched at a computer. There are moments of beauty, too — standing in the fields in evening’s pilsner light as the geese fly overhead, arguing about where to sleep tonight. My chickens are laying, now. Their eggs are good.

Still, if you are the type whose eye tends to wander to the horizon when you step outside, then you miss the days of lazily walking the river and noticing the changes in the leaves for what they are, and not for what the change demands of you back at home.

What I mean, I suppose, is that this long infatuation is now a marriage — as demanding and exasperating at times as any marriage, and with long caesuras of drudgery. The marriage isn’t the problem, though. I would not trade being here. The trick of any union is learning how to brush against what we treasure, every day, without going blind to its wonder.

The people I admire here most, like Daren and his wife, Sarah, know how to do this. They return from bucking hay to show an osprey feather they found in the field. They pause in their ranch chores to watch the family of otters that have taken up in their creek or the salmon now running in the creek, too, huge and intent on sex and death. The couple work much harder than I do, but they keep their heads up. They haven’t lost their wonder. They are noticers despite the days of horizonless work.

I have more to learn than how to sweep a chimney.

Christopher Solomon is a writer living in north-central Washington and a contributing editor at Outside magazine.


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