LittleField Notes Winter 2022
LittleField Notes Winter 2022

LittleField Notes: Winter 2022

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA


I keep my office in a little room attached to one side of a tool shed. It’s just an ordinary lean-to where I house tools and supplies for the garden. Here I keep the ever-useful Pioneer Homesteader and its attachments; three wheel hoes, each equipped to perform different tasks, all antiques that I’ve restored to usefulness; various other hand tools including stirrup hoes, grape hoes, shovels, digging forks, rakes, broad fork, pruners, and the ever useful foot-powered threshing machine for seed crops and small grains grown at a garden scale. Here also I keep numerous harvest baskets, tubs and bins, fans for winnowing seeds, grains and beans and other garden related odds and ends.

Of baskets and tubs and the like, it seems there are never enough, and I’m sort of always on the hunt for more. I have sworn off buying any new plastic bins (in fact I’m trying to not buy anything plastic at all – a not so simple goal, given the ubiquitous nature of the stuff). I enjoy browsing antique stores where I seek out old bushel baskets, wooden crates, enamel-ware basins and such. Sometimes these items are priced ridiculously high and I pass them up, but often they are quite reasonable, especially when you consider the longevity to be expected from an item of quality, and the pleasure to be had in using something lovely rather than ugly.

I started to tell of my office, but got distracted by tools and harvest baskets… Because I am manager of both the working and the “estate” side of Littlefield Farm, I have a surprising amount of administrative type work to do and this calls for some sort of office space where I can write emails, order seeds and supplies, make up to-do lists, manage and arrange for contractors/services/employees, and of course, write these columns. Sometimes though, I just need a place to work out of the rain, or a place to find some solitude. Littlefield Farm, for all its agrarian charm, can be surprisingly busy at times, with people coming and going and lots of activity. My office is nothing fancy, just a tiny little room off to one side of an ordinary three sided lean-to shed. Windows on three sides look out across the fields to the south, where I can spy on a resident Pacific wren as she flits and flirts in the nearby blackberry bramble, or surreptitiously observe our resident coastal black-tail doe with her twins walk haltingly through the field nibbling tasty morsels. I can look out across the pasture to the east and see when someone comes through the gate down by the mailbox at the end of the lane. On a clear day I am graced with a spectacular mountain view of Mt. Pilchuck. And on the clearest of days, when my eyes are sharp, I can just make out the old fire lookout, perched on the mountain’s highest point. With the exploding real estate market in this prosperous region of western Washington, I enjoy, quite literally, a million dollar view. I am grateful indeed that the farm will not be sold off to ravenous developers who would give up their first-born for a chance to carve up this river valley with mountain views and fill it up with “luxury view homes from the $750’s.”

Despite its rough framing and minuscule size, I have tried to make my garden shed office homey and comfortable. I installed a light fixture, cast off from the house, that gives a nice light, plugged in a small electric heater, stocked some reference books, notebooks, seed catalogs and such. Liz found me a comfortable canvas director’s chair so I can sit up at the workbench (desk). I also have a few meaningful pictures and cards hanging on the walls. One of these is a photocopy of an old black and white photo of George Hjort standing in front of the most impressive corn crop you are ever likely to see. George was of Dutch origin and moved to this farm with his family in 1918. What he really wanted to do was grow roses and practice the horticultural arts, but somehow found himself instead milking the first herd of Holstein cattle in this area. The picture was taken in the early 1920’s. It shows George, standing to the left of a tractor, and in front of the corn. The corn towers above him, dwarfing his human stature by its height. If he was an average size man, then the corn has to be close to 12 feet tall. It’s hard to say whether he’s more proud of the tractor or the corn, but either way, he’s fairly glowing. I often wonder how he managed to grow such an impressive crop. Was it simply the result of extremely good farming practices, with careful attention to soil health, rotations, and fertility? Or was this crop planted into newly cleared virgin ground with 5,000 years of forest duff for fertility? Or yet, was it planted in an old cattle loafing area with years and years of accumulated and decomposing manure? Or did he get his hands on a supply of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and applied it with a liberal hand? From my vantage point a hundred years on, I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect he was a fine farmer and husbandman. He was clearly proud of that crop. In those days photos were generally made only to record special moments, and George clearly thought this crop (and likely the new tractor too) was an accomplishment worth documenting. I find the old photo inspiring. It reminds me that I’m only one in a series of farmers lucky enough to work this particular piece of land in this little river valley with a fine mountain view, and that I must never take that for granted. The old photo reminds me also to strive always to grow crops and raise animals of quality and fullness in increasingly rich and fertile soil – to grow a crop worthy of a photograph.

LittleField Notes Winter 2022

Late Night Promenade

The need to shut the chicken coop sends me out into the pitch black of an oddly warm October night. The cloud canopy hangs low, like a down comforter nestled over the farm. For the moment the rain has ceased. The only sound is of the woods dripping, as woods will do, continuing to rain even after the rain itself has stopped. The world feels more still than usual tonight, perhaps because the dogs have stayed behind, not wanting to leave their cozy fireside repose. As I stroll down the hill, rubber boots crunching gravel, my shoulder brushes salmon berry bushes hanging into the lane, heavy with moisture. My mind wanders freely as the mind is want to do while walking, especially at night. I think about tasks completed today, tasks to accomplish tomorrow, and as too often happens, half known, and less understood worries crowd into my mind. I try to push those out. Seneca says worrying creates twice the suffering: once while fretting about an event, and then again when the event actually happens. More often though, the worried-over event arrives and passes without problem anyway, so, he says, why worry in the first place? At the ancient philosopher’s urging, for the moment at least, I reject vague anxieties in favor of the vague pleasantries of an evening promenade. At the bottom of the hill I turn right and pass in front of the barn. The near dutch door is closed at the bottom and open at the top. As I walk by at a distance of not more than a couple of yards, I feel more than see, a presence, something unusual, out of place. I do not slacken my pace or make any sudden moves, but walk quickly the short distance to the chicken coop. I stop and slowly turn around. I remove my mini-mag flashlight from my pocket, which I always pack during the dark times of the year, and shine the beam back toward the barn door, and there, sitting on the top edge of the bottom door is a barn owl. I draw a quick breath of excitement and freeze. I only want to confirm, not startle, so I quickly extinguish the light. I continue to hold stock still. The big bird is sitting – or perching actually – in perfect stillness, watching, observing the dark night. I am sure that he saw me with his perfect owl clarity as I walked down the road; watched as I passed at an arm’s length in front of him, and still he sat, unphased and, unlike me, unworried. And why would he worry? Everyone knows that owls are wise philosophers. Perhaps he was comfortable with my presence because, though this is the first time I have seen him, it is likely far from the first time he has seen me. Perhaps he has watched me for weeks as I make my nightly rounds – from the barn roof, or from the branch of a nearby tree.

Maybe he knows I’ve been secretly hoping for his return. When I first moved to the farm many years ago, a beautiful barn owl resided in the big vaulted hay loft. I saw him often perched at the end of the hay trolley track at the far end of the mow, up on the precariously thin board used for accessing the trolley. He was around for a year or two, and then, quite suddenly, vanished. Since that time the barn has been vacant of owls – and full of rats. I am very happy to finally, after all these years, have one of his (or her) distant relatives return to the good old hunting grounds. And it is good hunting indeed, what with moles, mice and rabbits in addition to the rats.

The only path back to the house is the one I’ve just come down, which crosses back in front of the dutch door where the hunter/philosopher bird continues to sit. Eager to encourage his presence, I try not to startle him. I quietly shut the chicken coop door, then that of the ducks. I walk back slowly, yet purposefully, keeping as far to the left of the door as possible. I glance at the owl only out of the corner of my eye, not trusting direct eye contact with a wise bird who can see in the dark. He doesn’t move a feather. I make the turn and walk a short way up the road and stop. I hazard a direct look, though with my feeble human night vision all I can make out is a dark form that could pass for anything sitting on the bottom half of a barn door on a dark evening in autumn. Content that I’ve not given him a scare, I walk quickly back to the house. This time my former worries are pushed aside by a fortuitous brush with nature, an encounter with the wild, a realization of shared advantage and mutual gain, and the simple haunting beauty of sharing a brief, unexpected moment with a wild creature. Perhaps the owl was as happy to see me as I was to see him. He knows I shelter and feed my horses and cows in the old barn, and where there are livestock, there are rats, and where there are rats, there should also be owls. I hope it may be so again, and that my new friend will stick around for a long time to come.

LittleField Notes Winter 2022

Fear and Trembling

Now it is a chilly October morning, not long after my encounter with the barn owl. I am standing in the barnyard after turning out the horses, looking up the valley, transfixed by the way the clouds peel and tear off the mountain, the way they wisp and weave around the tree tops and curl up from the river. The vaporous, wispy clouds, are quickly burned off by the rising sun, and forced to retreat from the violence of last night’s thunderstorm. Such a storm is a rare thing on this side of the mountains, the weather being generally moderated by the enormous steadying influence of the Pacific. But occasionally we do get a ripper, a storm that seemingly tries to make up in one strike for months or even years of quietude.

The previous evening, I had been sitting in my favorite chair next to a crackling fire and just settling into Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling when came a flash and a boom, and a genuine trembling of the whole house. On cue, the sky opened up and the rain fell down in sheets, pounding on the roof. The gutters were quickly overwhelmed, and water poured in cascades off the roof, heedless of gutters and downspouts. The thunder and lightning now came like artillery fire, in such fashion as to inspire fear in the hearts of the timid. The storm carried on for some time. I set down my book, content to listen and watch. I reflected on the words of Kierkegaard and his profound commentary on the story of Abraham and his journey to sacrifice his son Isaac. It was an impossibly absurd task with which he had been appointed, and Kierkegaard expends a lot of ink exploring his conundrum: how, when faced with the impossible commandment of God, Abraham chose obedience out of love; chose to perpetrate an absurd act of violence from a place of love; to sacrifice one beloved for another; to enact the cruel irony of the impossible imperative of love. The violence and implacability of the storm outside, plus Kierkegaard’s comments on the story of Abraham and Isaac, set my mind to musing over questions of the nature of sacrifice, of solemn missions of duty, of powers and orders greater than ourselves, of selflessness, of the powerlessness of man in the face of nature; how we refuse to limit ourselves to our limits; how we are reluctant to sacrifice the least bit of speed and comfort for a greater need. (I admit some of these connections are tenuous at best, and I thank you, dear reader, for your patience – these are the sorts of reflections that happen when one reads philosophical books on dark stormy nights by firelight.)

At God’s behest, Abraham was ready with wood and tinder to sacrifice his son Isaac. We ourselves stand before nature, the metaphorical equivalent of God in the story. Nature, this planet Earth that we call home is telling us clearly that we have come too far, that a sacrifice will be necessary to save ourselves from the self inflicted existential threat of a warming planet and a climate gone haywire. We too must make a sacrifice, though nothing so dramatic as giving up our own flesh and blood; it’s no Isaac we’re sacrificing. But we must change the way we inhabit this planet, downscale our extravagance, reduce our gluttonous energy use, reduce our unconscionable consumerism. Yet we race on heedlessly, headlong into the same scintillating but hollow future we’ve been chasing for a hundred years. Yet this path, if left unchanged, holds nothing but our own destruction. “Is it not disturbing that everyone wants to go further?” asks Kierkegaard. “When people nowadays… will not stop with love, where is it they are going?”

Where indeed? To what end are we racing?

To stop with love. That should be enough. And it is, in fact, enough.