Category Archives: On the Land

Ode to a Subaru: 288,923 Miles and Counting

Our Subaru Forester is on hospice. At nearly 300,000 miles, it has bearings in the transmission and the rear differential that are too expensive to fix.

I am not sentimental about cars. I named only one car, in high school (Fifi the Fiesta), and I loved only one car, an Isuzu Trooper that I bought in 1993 with my own money. I put a bumper sticker on the back that read: “This is what a radical feminist looks like.” I sanded and repainted the rusting bumpers myself. I learned how to replace the oil and change a tire. I drove the Trooper around proudly, like it was an extension of myself.

A year later, a driver blew through a red light in front of me. The Trooper was totaled. I was unhurt but devastated.

After that, cars became tools. Sentimentality for a car is doomed.

In 2001, Mike and I were in the market for a new vehicle. Not new-new, of course—who buys a car new? They lose half their value when you drive off the lot; everyone knows that. But something a little bigger than our Volkswagen Cabriolet and not quite as janky as our Toyota LE van (which had been broken into and/or stolen so many times that you had to start it with a screwdriver). Five-grand-ish.

Lacking enough savings, we went to our credit union only to find that financial institutions had essentially stopped lending money for used cars. We could have put a car on our credit card, but the interest would be ridiculous. Our best option was … a car dealer. We found a salesman who was experimenting with an “Internet special.”

The Subaru Forester we ended up with was absolutely luxurious compared with what we were used to. Six-CD changer! Power sunroof! Power locks! Power windows! (We actually asked for crank windows; which we couldn’t get if we wanted the sunroof, which we very much did.) You could drive on the highway and have a conversation, rather than listen to the roar of the leaky window seals.

My dad was leery; he and my mom bought a four-wheel-drive Subaru wagon in 1978 that was a “total lemon” (this is a cleaned-up version of my dad’s description of the car). I grew up believing Subarus sucked, but my high school friends who had ventured west after graduation, to rustic places like Colorado and Alaska, all swore by them. By 2001 Mike and I had been in Oregon for six years, long enough to have ridden in dozens of friends’ Subarus, and realized it was the right car to balance road trips with gravel logging roads.

When we moved to the Columbia River Gorge in 2003, our neighbors asked, “Do you have a four-wheel-drive?” When we moved up Alder Slope last fall, our neighbors asked, “Do you have a four-wheel-drive?” Yes, we do.

Since 2001, this Forester has been in every Oregon county except Lake; back and forth to Minnesota; down to San Francisco; up to Seattle. It busted us out of our snowy driveway in the Columbia River Gorge a hundred times. One of its first road trips was to Hat Point in Wallowa County, 21 miles from the remote town of Imnaha, on a one-lane dirt Forest Road with 1,000-foot drop-offs. It has never broken down on us once.

Now, I used to do community outreach for a hospice, so I can’t pass up this teachable moment to clear up a common misperception: Hospice is about quality of life, not crisis management. Being on hospice means there is something wrong that can’t be fixed; it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean imminent death. If it’s done right, comfort care can make the last few months of life comfortable, less stressful, and even enjoyable.

Okay, back to the program. So the Forester probably won’t last the rest of the year. It’s fitting for its life to end in Wallowa County. We’re still gunning for 300K. The engine has some leaky gaskets but otherwise is fine. We’ll keep putting oil in. Living up a rocky dirt road certainly isn’t doing the bearings any good. We’ll see. Whenever the time comes, I will have nothing but respect for this tool that has served us well.

Living up a dirt road=perpetually dirty car!

Living up a dirt road=perpetually dirty car!


I ❤ Wallowa County

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Can Tiny Gardens Feed the World?

Note: This is the second time I’m taking advantage of my status as a student in Marylhurst University’s Food Systems and Society master’s program to use some of my writing from last quarter.

I am fascinated by the obsession some of my cohort members have with local community gardens. It seems that many of them actually feel that community gardens might save the world. Have they not seen community gardens? Do they not recognize the theft that occurs? Do they not realize their seasonal limitations? Their limitations of scale?

Community gardens are wonderful things; don’t get me wrong. They provide a place for people who live in “un-landed” domiciles (i.e. apartments or homes on small lots) to be able to experience the joy of working a plot of earth and raising a bit of food. And they create mini-communities of gardeners.

Rebecca persevered and enjoyed many salads!

Beautiful plot grown by my friend Rebecca

But by “a bit of food,” I mean a bit. My friend Rebecca has a plot in the P-Patch in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood (which has appeared in this blog before). We went to see it when I was visiting. I noted the 3-foot-by-6-foot raised bed and thought, “Oh dear, what a tiny area to work with.” And then I realized she only had half of it.

Granted, at the time I was coming from managing a garden that was 100 feet across. But even that was not enough. There is no way I could have grown enough food to sustain my family of two off of that plot. It was something I did for pleasure. And it’s a good thing I enjoy gardening, for it basically commandeered my every weekend from May to September, and certainly didn’t save me any money if I factored in my time.

I don’t think people understand what is involved in growing food. Community gardens are more of a community-building activity than an arrow in the quiver of food security. Additionally, they are usually places of privilege—the P-Patch of which my friend Rebecca is a member has a waiting list, which means anyone who would like to garden there must have a fairly stable life, phone number, address, etc. As Allen notes, “[Community] is defined differently by different people as mediated by income, wealth, property ownership, occupation, gender, ethnicity, age, and many other personal characteristics” (Allen, 2004, p. 179).

So, how can we feed everyone without destroying the environment with toxic chemicals and excessive petroleum-based fertilizers, and exploiting thousands of farm workers? I propose a tiered system of personal (backyard chickens, tomatoes in buckets), local (CSAs and small farms supporting local markets), regional (grow food where it grows best in a sustainable manner), and global (disaster relief, staples, global trade of responsibly grown specialty items) food-growing efforts.

Feeding the world can be done; but it will take more than a few beautiful backyard garden plots.


Allen, P. (2004). Together at the table: Sustainability and sustenance in the American agrifood system. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

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Water Event

Mike’s birthday was two weeks ago; we celebrated in front of a roaring blaze in the backyard fire pit. As we wrapped it up around 10 (it was a school night and, moreover, we are old), little flakes of snow started to drift down. We basked in the glow of the bonfire and enjoyed the lovely scene.

The next morning, it was still snowing. In fact, it snowed almost nonstop that week, and by last Saturday the fire pit, and the previous icy crust surrounding it, were covered with a foot of new snow. It took nearly all day to clear our 100-foot-long driveway. Snow here falls pretty dry and light, but the longer you wait, the harder it will be to remove it. We got on task fairly early, which saved us from having heart attacks. (I had been told in September by the county plow dude that it was unusual to get more than a couple inches at a time, so we’d limited our snow-removal equipment purchases to a single shovel.)

Monday, I skied the field with the dogs. Tuesday, it was too soft. Wednesday, the new snow had collapsed and was melting into torrents of cold water. Since we live on a slope, everything above us ran toward the house.

Water takes the easiest route available to it. When it got to our house, some of it went around and some of it went through. Through the foundation, that is, and then pooled in the furnace and laundry rooms.

This should be our backyard, not a lake

This should be our backyard, not a lake

This is called a “water event.” Where we live now and where we lived in the Columbia River Gorge are, mostly, different. There was forested and here is cleared. There has Douglas fir and here has tamarack. There has Cascades running north and south, and here has Wallowas running east and west. One thing the properties have in common is slope, and slope means when there’s water, there’s running water.

In Get Your Pitchfork On!, I write about the struggles we had in the Gorge to keep our swales from eroding into deep chasms and collapsing banks. But we’d never had water in the house.

Thursday morning we took turns with the shop vac, hauling 35 gallons of water out of the basement in five-gallon increments. The trouble was, where to put it. Lugging a sloshing pail of meltwater out the basement door, I realized the carport was also flooded.

Putting the "port" in carport ...

Putting the “port” in carport …



Mike initiated a trenching campaign, digging channels in the snow to coax the water across our backyard and around the house, and then draining the carport into the field below it. I made one trench myself: It was fascinating to spade a path through the snow and watch the water take it over. It reminded me of childhood engineering projects in the woods near my house.

I generally love the sound of a babbling brook, but not so much when it is running under my porch. As with the snow, it was in our best interest to address the water right away. The trenching saved us gallons of vacuumed water in the basement.

Now, the worst seems to be past us. The carpet in the basement will need to be cleaned, and then we will put Water Event 2014 behind us.

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The Great Escape

Living in the country means interacting with wild animals on a regular basis. We pull into our driveway at night to find it’s full of deer. Elk pass through our field to get to our neighbor’s hay bales. Quail keep trying to roost in our fantastic straw-lined dog fort. The animals usually vacate once you’ve made your presence known. Sometimes, they need your help.

Our carport is coveted by many in the valley—it’s three-sided, roomy and stable. We own ice scrapers for our windows but haven’t had to use them, and our car and truck started even when the temperature dropped below zero for days on end. The owners of this house very thoroughly covered the interior ceiling and the top third of the walls with bird netting to keep the resident starlings, mourning doves, and magpies from moving in (a flock of pigeons has taken over the nearby old barn, so their concerns are not unfounded). But like any barrier, what keeps out can also keep in.

The other day I passed through the carport to take the garbage out and heard a Steller’s jay carrying on. Such noisy birds! It took a few seconds to realize the bird was only a few feet away, in the rafters. Inside the bird netting.

Center: Little Lost Ms. Steller's Jay

Center: Little Lost Ms. Steller’s Jay

The plastic netting had been painstakingly stapled to the rafters and exposed studs at close intervals, but the bottom wasn’t closed off between the studs. This bird had landed below the netting and then, who knows why, flown straight up and then been unable to retrace her “steps” back out. Her squawks were panicked and frequent, reminding me of the time a scrub jay got into our house in White Salmon, and I had to chase him down wearing leather gloves on so I could carry him outside.

As demonstrated with our eviction of a squirrel in Portland a year ago, one must create an escape route and then usher the frantic creature toward it. Mike was still at work, so I would have to be methodical. I studied the rafters. I wanted to remove as little netting as possible to avoid having to replace it later. I noticed that there were some wasps’ combs near the entrance to the carport—perfect! I could kill two birds with one stone (so to speak; no offense, Ms. Steller’s jay). I carefully peeled back the corner, ripping the netting as little as possible.

Then I had to convince the bird to go over there. There was enough loose material to physically allow it; it was just a matter of ushering her. I had act like two people, and I had to be tall. I grabbed a broom and a stepstool and set up at the back of the carport. I whooshed the broom this way and that, trying to corral her toward the open corner. After a couple of false starts, she darted in the right direction, and was off! She lit into a nearby tree and told her story to anyone who would listen.

I don't mind wasps, but not in the carport

I don’t mind wasps, but not in the carport

Meanwhile, I dragged the stool over to the open corner and pulled the wasp combs out. Just another day in the country.

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Propane 101

When we lived in Portland, our furnace and stove ran on natural gas. They were connected to a network of pipes that brought gas into our house any time we needed it. Out in Enterprise, we’re still running on gas, but this time it’s propane. It’s in a tank in the yard. And we have to monitor it so we don’t run out.

We heated our house in White Salmon with wood, and the stove and hot water were powered by electricity, so propane is a new thing for us. When we started renting this house, part of the deal was buying the existing propane in the tank. It’s a 500-gallon tank, so this was no small bill! But when we leave, the owners will buy whatever is in the tank back from us, so it will all work out.

Propane is actually a by-product of mining natural gas; it has more BTUs than natural gas and, of course, is therefore more expensive because you can use less of it.

I called the propane supplier shortly after we arrived; the man who drove his big tanker up the hill to our house, Archie, was more than happy to take the time to answer my questions. In fact, he was rather pleased that I was asking any.

“Usually, people just want me to fill their tank and get going,” he said.

Archie explains how to read the dial

Archie explains how to read the dial

The lid of our tank is green to signify which company services it. Archie showed me the dial that indicates the amount of gas left. He explained that the gas is liquid under pressure; they leave “expansion room” in the tank (about 50 gallons’ worth) to accommodate hot weather. There is also a relief valve, which he said might pop every once in a while during the summer.



Archie carries a notebook in which he tracks all his customers’ usage records. From this, he could estimate that we might use 30 to 40 gallons a year for cooking, but 80 gallons a month from October to April because of the furnace. This year, propane cost $1.79 a gallon, but Archie said the price went up to $2.76 last year. At that price, propane is kind of an expensive way to heat a house!

Some people fill only a couple times a year; some have Archie come by once a month for a “top-off,” so it’s a more manageable and predictable expense.

Siting a tank is important: Near-but-not-too the house, near the road, not somewhere that a visitor will accidentally back into it with their truck.

This willow cleaved in a recent storm—luckily it was this half

This willow cleaved in a recent storm—luckily it was the far side

I wax in Get Your Pitchfork On! about the joys of heating with wood. If I had my druthers, this house would also have a wood stove. But, it doesn’t, so in the meantime I will enjoy not ever having a cold house because the fire went out!

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Winter Gardening

Most gardeners spend the autumn months putting everything “to bed”—pulling any remaining dead plants; mulching; maybe planting some garlic bulbs for the following spring. Not Niki Jabbour! For her, winter is just another gardening season.

Niki is the author of Year-Round Vegetable Gardener from Storey Press. We exchanged books a couple of months ago, and I’m glad we did! Niki has worked out an impressive system of cold frames, row covers and hoop houses that keeps her in fresh food all year ‘round. The clincher? She lives in Nova Scotia. First-frost-in-October-and-last-frost-in-May Nova Scotia.

Year Round Veg Gardener CoverYear-Round Vegetable Gardener is organized by season and then by crop (vegetables and herbs), making it an easy reference. She covers all the usual suspects, and also some cold-hardy greens I’d never heard of, like mibuna, claytonia, and mâche. Well, I’d heard of claytonia, but only as miner’s lettuce, and I’d only seen it wild on our land in Washington.

Jabbour spent the time to get photos from all seasons to demonstrate what she’s talking about. She also includes the gardens of a few neighbors to present the widest variety of strategies possible. Photographs explain how to build some of the coverings shown.

The book has an engaging layout and a friendly, encouraging tone. Pull-outs and sidebars provide her favorite seed varieties, when to plant in relation to first and last frost, and other hints and tidbits.

Now, the rest of us have no excuse not to grow fresh food all year.

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Doggone Happy

It’s been a long time coming. When my husband’s and my dog, Phynn, was killed on the highway by our house in White Salmon, we were devastated. We decided to wait a year before replacing her, and then I lost my job and we could no longer afford a dog. When we sold our farm, we lacked a secure home, and then when we rented in Portland the man who owned our house wouldn’t let us have a dog.

The long and short of it is … we haven’t had a dog in seven years. It’s been a long seven years. So, when we found a house to rent in Enterprise that allows pets, we figured we should make up for lost time. Without further ado, I give you Cap’n and Pendleton!

Cap'n on the left; Pendleton on the right. Very happy me in the middle

Cap’n on the left; Pendleton on the right. Very happy me in the middle

The link below will take you to a video I uploaded to YouTube:

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Post Haste

I’ve always been a mail addict. As soon I learned to write, my mom encouraged me to send letters to my cousins and thank-you notes to my grandparents. There was a show on Saturday morning television in the mid-1970s called Big Blue Marble—a magazine-style show that profiled kids from all over the world and offered a pen-pal matchmaking service. I exchanged letters with kids from Iowa, California, Germany, and even Sri Lanka well into high school. When my husband proposed marriage, he incorporated our mailbox in a series of scavenger-hunt clues that led me to him.

When we moved to the Columbia River Gorge, I thought my dreams were finally coming true—I’d always wanted to walk down the driveway to a mailbox on the road. I was disappointed when we ended up having to get a post office box in town. Driving six miles to get my mail was not part of my country fantasy.

Our new house finally fits the bill! The mailbox is not at the end of the driveway but at a collection point not far from the house, where our box and those of our nearest neighbors are lined up.

IMG_2116One of the first orders of business upon my arrival was to figure out when the mail is delivered, and by whom, at our new home. We are four miles outside of Enterprise, so I figured it wouldn’t be super early. But then again, maybe the mailperson drove out to the edge of town and then worked his or her way back in? The suspense was killing me.

There was a bunch of mail waiting for us the day we drove the big moving truck out to Enterprise—hooray! I was happy to know the forwarding thing was happening. The next day, I checked the mail at about 10. Nothing. I went back at lunch. Nope. Then, I got busy with some projects and didn’t check again until after 5.

My desk is at a window that looks out over the road, so the next day I watched for a mail truck. We’re at the end of said road, so anyone up here is either a neighbor or a utility worker. I knew that few mail carriers use those USPS-issued jeeps anymore; they mostly throw a magnetized decal on the side of their own vehicle. Any time a truck came up my road, I watched. I was fooled a couple times by a truck with a county or utility logo.

Finally, I saw my truck, a gray SUV. I ran to the other side of the house in time to confirm through the window—the driver filled the boxes, turned around and started back down the hill. I haven’t been out there yet to meet her, but I will. Because now I know who I’m looking for!

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Country Weddings

Of all the wedding ceremonies I’ve attended (including my own), I prefer country weddings. Why? They’re outside with beautiful scenery; people wear practical shoes; there’s usually a bonfire at the end of the night. They’re generally more relaxed and, because of that, so am I. Any time I’m in a situation that feels super high-class, I worry about whether my clothes are fitting right, if I laugh too loudly, or if I might spill something.

Last weekend I attended the wedding of friends Dave and Karla. It was held outside, behind the home of friends Milt and Chris, a gorgeous nearly net-zero home nestled between forest and farmland in Beavercreek, a town southeast of Portland. We arrived a little early in order to set up our tent (another feature of a country wedding—sleeping over!).

“Stay close to the house,” warned Chris, only half-joking. “We saw a cougar last week.”

The mountain lion may have been driven over to their property by the neighbors, who clear-cut their entire parcel earlier in the year. It was one of those deals in which the grandfather died and the descendants cashed in. In any case, we weren’t too worried, but acquiesced and just went a short ways down from the buildings.

This looks like a good spot!

This looks like a good spot!

We set up camp and then drove the car back to the front of the property. One of the advantages of having random grass fields is you can mow one at a moment’s notice, et voilá! Parking lot. (Just make sure it’s not your septic drainage field, or the cars may crush your network of pipes.)


Their driveway is gravel but pretty well compacted, so I was able to roll my luggage down to the house to change into my wedding clothes. (You don’t think I put up a tent wearing a party frock, did you?) But it still looks pretty funny. I only had to stop once because I had gravel wedged in my wheel.

From Concourse A to Highway J

From Concourse A to Highway J

For a short while it was pretty hot, but then the sun dipped behind the majestic Douglas firs on the west end of the property, and a breeze came through to sweep away the heat. So much better than being stuck inside with air conditioning!

One risk of country weddings is yellow jackets. I talk about these little buggers quite a bit in Get Your Pitchfork On! In late summer they get cranky—because they’re thirsty! Whenever we had a big party on our land I was sure to set out fresh pheromones in our traps a couple of days in advance, to try to time the slaughter before more moved in.

Milt and Chris happen to have a humanmade water feature running alongside the slope that cradles their house, like a mountain stream. Naturally, this attracted a number of bees and wasps but, surprisingly, no yellow jackets. They were lined up at the edge of the water like miniature, striped cattle. They flew around the heads of those of us standing next to the water. Nary a sting—they were too busy drinking!

It was lovely to spend time with friends among Chris’s garden beds. I poked my fingers in the soil to feel the potatoes that I knew would be resting under the surface. I picked some raspberries and beans, and a juvenile, tender cucumber.

Find the potato! (I covered it back up so it wouldn't get burned)

Find the potato! (I covered it back up so it wouldn’t get burned)

Mazel tov, Dave and Karla! May your union be as lush and fruitful as the garden in which you were married.

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Welcome, Spring!

I have been on vacation this week, so my message is simple: Welcome, Spring! Glad to have you back.

The gate to our beautiful garden in Washington!

The gate to our beautiful garden in Washington!

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