Hagia Triada: Bringing in the Sheaves

I’ve started to walk our road a fews days a week; at the end of our gravel road are a pair of lovely horses enjoying a beautiful July morning out on pasture.

One of the most interesting of ancient European artifacts, and perhaps one of the earliest from a Classical civilization, is a black stone vase from Hagia Triada, an ancient Minoan city on the island of Crete. Hagia Triada was one of several cities – really large ancient palace complexes – that arose in Crete and were a part of the civilization that flourished there between 2700-1400 BC. The civilization may or may not have been Greek (the likelihood is that it was), and was certainly considered Greek by the ancient Greeks themselves. Minos was their mythical king, and his capital was Knossos, where today a massive palace complex still stands. It may have controlled several other vassal sites on Crete, including Phaistos, Malia, Gournia, and Hagia Triada itself.

This well-known Minoan vase from Hagia Triada on Crete shows a procession of workers bringing in the harvest; it dates to between 1500-1400 BC. “We shall go rejoicing bringing in the sheaves” may be a Christian hymn, but I’d say the inhabitants of Hagia Triada anticipated them by a few years!

The palaces are without walls or fortifications such as we find on the Greek mainland in the Mycenaean period, or even sites in Asia Minor and Syria that are roughly contemporaneous with Minoan civilization. The artifact, despite its antiquity, is remarkable for its immediacy, its relevance, and its joy. It depicts a group of laborers coming in from the fields with their bundles of hay. As they process with their burdens their faces are raised and their mouths opened in song, as one of them (some conjecture it to be a priest) leads them from the fields to the beat of a musical instrument. One can’t help but wonder what their music sounded like, or to whom their song was sung. My money is on a hymn to some deity like Demeter, goddess of grain, and the hymn perhaps one of thanksgiving for a successful and abundant harvest – although it could have been any number of deities, since the ancients had one for every aspect of every crop one can imagine. For example, the Romans had a god called Robigo, the god that protected wheat and grain from “rust” – i.e., mold and mildew, and they even had a very important festival in this seemingly minor deity’s honor, the Robigalia. Doubtless the destination of these laborers turned chorus was the threshing floor, where the chafe would be separated from the grain.

 This was the scene in all the fields around us a couple of weeks ago, and in some places still is; the hay is arranged in neat lines before being scooped up and baled.

The importance of grain and the harvest of hay meant, for the ancients, security and power. It is why Roman emperors appointed their most trusted advisors as the curator annonae, a curator of the grain supply, in ancient Rome. It is why the grain-rich province of Egypt was governed by the emperor’s most trusted equestrian. Emperors had to feed their capital. Grain influx from Sicily, once Rome conquered it and reduced it to a province in the third century BC, depressed grain prices in Italy, drove small farmers off the land, and created an ominous influx of unemployed in Rome that led directly to the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the dictatorship of the Caesars. Moving forward to modern history, encouragement of farming grain as opposed to ranging cattle led, in no small part, to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s – a phenomenon admirably explicated in Timothy Egan’s moving page-turner, The Worst Hard Times (if you have not read this outstanding bit of environmental history, it is well worth your time). It is remarkable the role grain has played in our history, and in making us who we are.

The field on the east side of the start of our gravel road, just past the creek.

In our region we see fields of wheat, oats, and barley, but above all we see grass: truckloads and truckloads of grass seed have been carted off the fields all around us in the past couple of weeks, and the chafe and stems bundled up into bales for straw and hay. (The difference between the two being that straw is bedding, hay feed – something I would not have know three years ago!) We are the largest grower of grass seed in the world, with much of it being exported to Asia. But it is not entirely about lawns: grass is grown for animal feed (such as orchard grass) and for cover crop. It helps to keep the soil in place particularly well – grass roots can penetrate down three or four feet – it is a first line of defense from letting your most valuable asset, your top soil, blow away.

The fields looking towards the Palmer place next door to us.

Maybe it’s because we have been less harried than the first two summers we were here; maybe it’s that farms around us grew larger amounts than normal; but this year, the hay harvest has seemed to be going on all around us in a way it hasn’t before. The fields are full of enormous stacks of bundled straw and hay just waiting for huge flatbed trucks to come and cart them off. Massive trucks trundle into the fields to be filled with tons of grass seed. Green and yellow Jon Deere combines move in serrated rows as they mow and delineate the harvested grass in neat lines over the fields.

Our neighbors lease much of their land to grass seed and Christmas tree growers; this is their field looking up towards our place, which is behind the oak stand. The large gravel “parking lot” is used by a fleet of trucks at harvest time.

It is an ancient annual ritual. Demeter works her miracle, and we harvest it. Whether on ancient Crete or in western Oregon, the goddess’ power has a long reach, both geographically and temporally. But in our hubris, we no longer acknowledge the goddess; the songs of celebration have given way to the roar of the machine. The steward’s timbrel has been drowned out by the combine. The joyous dance on the threshing floor has been cancelled by cold steel and automation. The sense of the miraculous has been devastated by the certainty of botany, chemistry, and micro-biology. The offerings of first fruits to the gods have been appropriated by the inescapable demands of profit margins and spread sheets. Yes, we can feed the world; but what kind of world do we feed? And will the gods tolerate such dishonor forever in a sullen, mute resignation?

Our neighbors’ field down the road a piece from us; two weeks ago that field was full of baled hay that we purchased, loaded, and stored at our place – you can barely see a lonely half bale that we left out on the field.

With much gain can come much loss – of wonder, of gods, of gratitude. Yes, working the land before mechanization was difficult and harsh. But somehow the singers on the vase do not reflect this. They appear simultaneously happy, celebratory, maybe even a bit raucous. And why not – they now have grain: perhaps for their livestock, for bread, even for beer (perhaps that is why they are so happy – perhaps we have the wrong deity here and it is Bacchus to whom they are singing; but no – these are likely Greeks, and they drink wine, not beer, like some savage Egyptian or Thracian). They have food for another day. In a simpler world that remains reason enough to sing.

The view from my walk, over-looking the valley and over to the coastal foothills of the northwest. Much of the land in the Willamette Valley, to my understanding, used to consist of prairie and native oak stands. The giant evergreen forests were a phenomenon of the coast and its mountain ranges.

And You May Find Yourself in a Different Part of the World

Since repatriating back to the Left Coast I have had time to ponder the differences between the East Coast and the West. Honestly, we may live in the same country, but we live in very different parts of the world. Climate, geology, they are both reverse: the West goes into drought in summer, the East in winter, and vice versa. The West has a maritime or Mediterranean climate – mild winters, long springs and falls, and hot dry summers; the East has a continental climate – harsh winters, short springs and falls, and oppressive, humid summers that are wet and stormy. The continent drifts from east to west – hence the mountains in the west as they collide with Pacific rim shelves, while the east is flat as it is dragged ever to the Occident.

We are deeply blessed in this region with majestic mountains, verdant valleys, stately ancient rainforests, abundant snow fed rivers, prairie, native oak stands, all of which makes for a constant sensorial feast. Deeply etched in the ecosystem and the cultural psyche – the DNA of the region – is the salmon. Their eggs feed steelhead and other fish; their fingerlings feed birds; as adults they feed people; their weakened bodies as they spawn feed bears and assorted forest scavengers; and their carcasses as they die in the streams of their ancient spawning beds feed the forest.

Full confession: when I started coming out here again for the summers in 2007, I had to get a great deal of pent up love of angling out of my system. Seeing me river fish or lake fish is not pretty. I tried casting for trout or salmon on the Necanicum, the Nehalem, the Wilson: in the fall of 09 while on sabbatical out here I spent my days in October being mocked on the Necanicum by salmon that would leap right and left but never bite – and I tried everything: rooster tails, eggs, squid, and all manner of lures. Then there was the 6:00 AM debacle on the Necanicum when I started to reel in my line – suddenly there was an enormous splash – I thought for sure a salmon was on the end, but there was NO resistance. What the hell? Finally I saw it – a huge black Chinook chasing the eggs on my hook as I reeled in the line, but it never struck, gave an angry slap with its tail and descended into the black waters of a gloomy fall morning.

Deep sea fishing was much more successful for me. I would go out of Ilwaco in Washington on the mouth of the Columbia. There are few experiences more frightening or moving. I recall my first time on the monstrous waves of the great rive when I was 12. I clung for dear life wide-eyed as swells two, three, four stories high heaved towards our forty foot boat. I was too scared to be sick; fortunately that day the captain deemed it too rough to continue to the ocean (yes, we had four story swells in the river), and turned back, much to my relief. That was the day I learned to respect grey Neptune. I went out between a half dozen and ten times while we were living at the coast, but I eventually gave it up. The final straw for me was the day I went out with my brother-in-law; the boat was full of young guys who were hung-over and they soon found that nothing is worse than a hangover combined with sea-sickness. There lines were on my side of the boat, which meant that I was now in charge of several trolling lines. In the course of the day I hauled in 20 fish, half of which were keepers. The others were native fish coho with unclipped fins – this means they are native fish and need to be returned to their native habitat. The problem is that they will die regardless: they are exhausted from their struggle, they are often bleeding at the gills due to injury, and they will simply sink to the bottom and be food for the crabs. You are not allowed to keep native coho. The policy is beyond stupid and I did not want to contribute to it. That ended it for me then and there.

But I do miss the ocean. As a friend in Cannon Beach once put it, how can you see the ocean and not be terribly moved? The experience of catching a salmon entails a great deal of ritual and indelible sensations: the low tones of people gathering in the dark to board the boats; the smell of diesel mixed with coffee as the captains prepare to launch; the feint light that appears when the boats leave their docks; the rocky jetties with their raccoons hunting for shell fish; the sea lions by the hundreds lolling on the rocks; the pelicans scooping up schools of anchovies and sardines in their beaks; the occasional whale, dolphin, or shark; the salt; the press of thumb on wrist as a favorite means to avoid vomiting; the taste of sandwiches and beer on the open water; the constant sensation of cold, of wind, sky, water; of being battered by all of them; of leaving the boat sunburnt and exhilarated by the cache in the cooler of admirable creatures from another world. But above all, on a good day, there are the gentle but vast swells that rhythmically undulate – the ancient Greek for “the waves swell” is “kumata koulindousi”. I have always felt that this alliterative expression best captured the sense of what happens on the ocean, when Neptune is in a generous mood. But more than that, the north Pacific gives one the sensation that they are riding on the back of a vast organism, that the sea is not an environment, but a singularity. It is a huge animal by whose pleasure we harvest its offspring.

Over time I have become a pretty insufferable salmon snob. I don’t care for sockeye at all – it is much too lean a variety. Coho I find tolerable but barely. Chinook (aka King) salmon I love but not out of a river. It needs to be wild caught and out of the ocean, where its cold environment makes the meat oily and rich with fat. In fact, I think ocean caught Chinook one of the finest fish anywhere, and those that hold off the coast here just about the best.

For my friends back East, I must say that the northwest has some of the finest seafood in some of the relatively cleanest, coldest water anywhere. That’s what makes it so good: tiny pink shrimp; Chinook salmon; Willapa Bay oysters; Dungeness crab; razor clams; halibut; any variety of tuna – all of it is absolutely delicious. Pace Maine lobster and Maryland blue crab, they just don’t, for my money, hold a light (though I am never one to turn down a lobster roll or a bowl of crab bisque!) – the crab in particular I find small, too much work, and the flavor since it comes from warm water always seemed vaguely muddy to me (which is one of the reasons I don’t care for steelhead either).

We are pretty lucky at the moment: we’ve found a cheap source of wild caught Chinook for a pretty awesome price, and have been buying up pretty hefty quantities of it. And I’ve gotten brave with it. No, not sushi brave, though I love the stuff and probably could eat it like that. But we have taken the plunge into making gravlax, something I’ve wanted to do for years; I finally found the quality of the fish we have been getting so irresistibly superior that I decided to go ahead and to make this Medieval Scandinavian dish.

I love the aesthetics of gravlax, with the bright orange flesh of the salmon contrasted with the lovely green of the dill and the white of the salt and the sugar – it makes it as fun to assemble and prepare as it does to eat!

It started with about four pounds of super fresh, beautiful Chinook salmon fillet. I cut the fillet in two and placed a bed of dill on one half of it after placing it in a shallow dish. I then mixed a quarter cup each of kosher salt and sugar, plus two tablespoons of so of black pepper, spreading it evenly on the dill. A second fillet goes on top; the dish is wrapped in foil and then weights are placed on it. Every 12 hours for two or three days the fillets are basted with the accruing juices, after which it is sliced very thinly and gently removed from the skin.

All religious views are contingent on their time, place, and culture. Hence in colonial Philadelphia Ben Franklin could assert that beer was proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, while Steve! in 21st century Oregon would substitute beer with gravlax. Plus Pinot Noir.

All it needs is a slice of bread with butter, and maybe a sprig or two of dill. The simplicity, beauty, and intensity of gravlax on bread and butter: it is one of those things that make life worth living.

Owls to Athens (or, Aumsville at Any Rate!)

An unexpected guest overnights on the farm on a summer eve.

 

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -

Only this, and nothing more.’

Okay, this really happened. Last night Lori and I were watching South Park (hey, it had been a long day!), when we heard something outside the front door, like someone tapping it. I went to investigate and there, perched on our five gallon compost bucket, was a surprise guest – a young barn owl. I very cheekily ran in to Lori who was sitting in our living room, quietly removed the computer from her lap, and told her urgently to come to the door and to NOT disturb the dogs, who were asleep in from of Butters, Cartman, and Kyle (dogs need to unwind too).

We ran into the laundry room (which constitutes the front entry room of our farm house), shut the door, and peered out the window at it, hoping not to startle it. The owl turned its head and starred at us unflinching. It was a beautiful animal, with yellow and gold feathers with black streaks, and a ghost white face in the shape of a heart, with enormous piercing eyes. It was the bird of Athena, the quintessential owl of the goddess of wisdom. It became clear to us however, very quickly, that all was not right with this bird. It should have bolted once it saw us, but it simply roosted on the bucket for several minutes before it leaped to the rail of our front porch, where it stayed a few more minutes.

Eventually it flew down first into our front garden bed falling into a rosemary bush, then limped, barely making it, to seek refuge under the shrubs in our front yard under a barberry bush – effectively protecting it with a dome of nasty thorns. But we could see through the bush, and something was clearly wrong with its wings. We had no idea what to do, and if the problem with its wings was something more. I called a friend of ours who specializes in birding after raptors and she gave me the names to call for bird rescue in the area while Lori stood sentry.

When I got back outside Lori coaxed it out of the bushes, and as it came out the other side I caught it with a small fishing net we keep for catching stray chickens. We put it in one of our kitty carriers, and then gave it some food and water, and then took it to a quiet place in our barn. After we got back inside we were able to reach the bird rescue who gave us the name of a raptor specialist – she advised us to take away the food and water, put a blanket over the cage and to bring it to her shelter in Aumsville, about an hour from our place, in the morning. So we withdrew the food, put a blanket on it and let it rest for the night.

We dropped the bird off with a woman named Karen Costa, who is a raptor specialist. We were relieved to hear from her that she thought it was just a matter of injured wings; she may, once it’s nursed back to shape, release it back to our area – that is the preferred way to handle rehabilitation of an injured bird. In the process of this we learned a thing or two about barn owls: they are endangered in the eastern part of the US but not here – yet. Their foraging capacity is prodigious – they have ten times the capacity for hunting voles and mice as cats. They drink little water, obtaining it primarily from the bodily fluids of the animals on which they prey. And, best of all, we probably have a family nesting and living in one of our barns: they like the flat areas at the tops of barns where hay is stored. That would explain why our vole population is under control this year – and they evidently live exclusively on voles and mice; they do not, unlike the Great Horned Owl, go after smaller birds, such as chickens.

So we count ourselves fortunate in those who live on our coat-tails, and are glad to have them, and look forward to having him or her back when the time is right.

However the manner of its arrival and rescue both hit us as strange. It’s a shy bird: it should not have come to our door. It should not have stayed and given us its long gazing stare. Did it see us interact with other animals and consider us a safe bet? The owl is, after all, Athena’s bird for a reason: in Greek the word for owl is glaux, and Athena is sometimes referred to as glaukopis which is translated in the standard Liddell-Scott Lexicon as “with gleaming eyes”, but, given the relationship to glaux, why not “owl-eyed” Athena?

It was a peculiar event, because the rescue of this bird suddenly became all-consuming for about 15 hours, and had us driving two hours during a busy and very hot day. Perhaps it was intended as a lesson in aesthetics and empathy – that there are things that are beautiful and wonderful in this world that stand outside of you, that you are not the center but the periphery, and that both center and periphery have important roles to play. And further, that the desire to help, to rescue, to empathize with someone or something in distress and how you respond tells you what it is to be you – to what extent will you go to help that which is helpless with nothing to gain but the fact that you have helped save or tried to save something that is both important from an ecological standpoint, but also extremely unique in its beauty, strength, endurance, and singularity.

These were the qualities celebrated by the Greek hero of Homeric epic; Athena, the patroness of “polutropos” (the word is often translated as “wily” but I prefer “resourceful”) Odysseus, recognized and saw these qualities in her stalwart, long-suffering favorite by virtue of her wisdom expressed in her totem animal, the owl. But Odysseus also required, as did our owl, divine intervention (from time to time). And I can’t help but further wonder: Did the owl see something in us as we saw in it? However it may be, Athena felt these qualities in her beloved hero worthy of helping him to return to his home in Ithaka. We see these same qualities in the owl; and like Athena did for Odysseus, we hope to see it back home soon. In the interim, it remains, gently tapping as a recollection of wonder that arrived, fortuitously, at our door.

A Year for Vergil’s Second Georgic

A general view of the garden in high summer. From right to left after the little flower meadow with poppies are beets, beans, tomatoes (interplanted with marigolds) and boxes of more beets and potatoes.

In the second book of Vergil’s Georgics, his famous poem in four books about farming, he sings of vines and fruit trees. In the midst of the second book there is a famous and lengthy passage often referred to as “the praises of Italy”, in which he lauds the gentle and fertile nature of the Italian climate and countryside:

 

Hic ver adsiduum atque alienis mensibus aestas:

bis gravidae pecudes, bis pomis utilis arbos.

 

“Here spring is persistent, and summer in the other months:

Twice are the herds heavy with offspring, twice does the tree bear fruit.”

 

And so it appears to be with us this year. Now I could give you a narrative, but a picture really is worth a thousand words, so I will let the following pictures carry the story of what we have been up to of late . . .

Our potatoes that I planted in late March and early April are kaput, but that’s a good thing – we have lots of potatoes now, and we can plant a whole second crop that will come in by October.

Our sweet potatoes in the lower garden are going gang-busters. Please don’t tell them that they should NOT be growing in the Willamette Valley! The secret? You have to talk to them.

I have no idea how long our lettuce will cling to life in this heat, but it is still tender, buttery, and delicious, and as long as we keep it cool and under shade cloth, it seems to be hanging in there!

We love our hill, but Susan Richmond at Bellemare Farm has a pretty lovely spot in her valley in Willamina; it is a beautiful place to go to buy feed, and we recently did a rooster exchange with Susan, so our big black Cochin is at her place for the summer.

We have a select group of seven hens and two roosters who absolutely refuse to stay in the chicken yard whom we have dubbed “The Renegades”. They are an astute group and know exactly when our bucks are getting their grain in the lower pasture. Here worlds collide as Titus Pollo and Benny exchange different views about the owner of some feed.

We planted three varieties of corn this year, each to come in at different times – it might not look like much, but it represents about 240 row feet of corn that will be used to feed our hogs and chickens. 

Our apple trees are as happy this year as they were miserable last; the fruit shown here is from the tree in the garden – a super productive apple that will produce huge yellow fruit come September.

I like to group cuccurbid crops in one place because the plants are large and generally easy to manage – and if something gets too big you can just throw it over the fence to the chickens! We just ate our first zucchini this week.

We love leeks, and I planted three boxes of them in waves this year. Pretty soon these will be coming out of our ears, but the best part is they can stay in the ground even through the winter and still be good, so no hurry to harvest and/or preserve!

I planted this Red Haven peach tree our first summer here two years ago. As the tree enters its third summer, it is healthy and vigorous, sporting 17 peaches at last count. Please don’t tell the Red Haven that it’s not a variety suited to our region . . . 

Our box of kale resembles a veggie afro; we feed leaves to our goats and put them in mixed braised greens, but nothing really beats Caesar kale slaw. I love it for its endurance, health properties, and hardiness . . . oh and yes, its flavor!

Our once succulent beet greens are still succulent, but they do start to crap out in the heat – all the more reason to plant another wave for the fall! The roots, by the way, are huge, and both our pigs and our chickens love them.

The devastating ruins of a once great snap pea empire – I used to eat them for breakfast while watering first thing in the morning; we also had some awesome stir fry with them. Lately I’ve been tearing them out and . . . 

. . . throwing them to the hens, who not only eat the peas and pods, but love the leaves as well, which I recently found out are good for braising too!

The big guy going for the peas is Susan’s rooster, Brew, who is on exchange with us this summer for breeding purposes. He’s a good rooster, but he did make it his first order of business to run off his rival, our Brown Comb Leghorn named Lucius Vorenus, to the neighboring flock.

Our snoozy pigs, Jesse and Walter (named for the two principles in Breaking Bad). They are a couple of porcine dudes. I hope one day to learn how to post video, because there is no sight quite like a couple of floppy earned hogs charging you as you bring a bucket of their favorite goat milk for dinner. They have also become great fans of belly rubs.

On the whole it has been an annus mirabilis for our garden. It seems impossible to believe that we are now on our third summer here. Why things are doing so well this year is a bit of a puzzle to me: I suspect that the weather has been very favorable this year. But I would also like to think that we are gradually building up the tilth of our soil, that we have learned how to properly feed and tend the fruits and vegetables, that our watering system is a great help. Maybe it’s a bit of everything, but for now we are living Vergil’s second Georgic, and our only complaint is not being able to keep up with our abundance.