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Branching Out: Striving and stretching

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Grunting, I doubled into the fence stretcher, pulling barb wire taut again. Mouth full of galvanized staples, I spit one out, both hands occupied. Didn’t know how others did it, so I did it my way and may have looked foolish. Working alone for days on end, I could care less. The work felt purposeful, tangible, fixing fence lines.

I wedged the stretcher against my ribs — bruises to come, no doubt — and hammered that staple home with the coolest tool in the West: fencing pliers.

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I had learned that each notch, facet and curve had purpose. Fencing pliers go way back — to those who traveled light, labored in solitude and needed efficiency. Learning their ways gave me access to a simpler, less ambitious, parallel world.

After two or three days of it — of any physical labor, for that matter — an inner quiet took hold. The days were elemental, sensual. Beneath a windbreak planted the year of my very first breath, buoyant elm limbs waved to and fro, producing surf-like sounds from a million shimmering leaves. How is it that sound evokes time? The shocking beauty of a meadowlark’s song, what could possibly be more relevant in that moment?

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Farm work doesn’t get to cherry pick the weather. Fencing, you’re gonna be in the wind. Throw emotion at it — the anxious claustrophobia of hair, wild; grumbling or cursing the gusting dust and grit.

But, have you ever watched grasshoppers mate?

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Grousing at the wind, I wouldn’t have seen it. I wouldn’t have seen how the sunlight seemed to illuminate their bodies from the inside out. Damn near see-through; pulsing and twitching. Luminous colors at the swelling of their union. Creation.

The bullet’s wake feathered against my right cheek. I felt it rip the air. I felt, or saw, the air part — or was that the actual bullet? I still can’t be sure what I felt or saw, but the delayed “boom” in my ears confirmed it. Down the fence line, toward the county road, I heard beery shouts and laughter. I remember freaking out, bellowing at them, running to the bunkhouse, shaken. I remember calling the sheriff. Mortality.

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Thing of it is, you never know what’s gonna happen, being outside all day. But you’re for sure gonna feel it.

I came to Soldias Farm after college, numb for a number of years, already. It was a survival response to my upbringing; to a national ethos I couldn’t find value in. I escaped into climbing and live music, drugs and alcohol, to find myself. And I didn’t.

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Find myself.

As the resident hand on Dr. George and Nancy Wallace’s 150 acres, I worked off their to-do list at $6 an hour. I worked far beyond the required 20 hours a month in exchange for my housing, the most soulful digs I’ve ever lived in. They’d built it of salvaged boards and beams. Old wooden windows, the west wall a crumbling adobe block that glowed in the changing light. Heat was an oil drum wood stove. I bucked and split firewood, culling Russian olives from a windbreak. At night, my face was inches from a window, inches from the stars and the stories held in constellations. Flickers nested in the ceiling, baby chicks chirped me awake.

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No water, no bathroom, no kitchen. Only an outhouse by the hay barn and a spigot by the front door. I helped grow food and flowers in the garden and I tended the orchard, fed horses and chickens. Could ride whenever I wanted. I mowed their blue grama lawn from time to time, and a strip on each side of the drive, all the way to the section road, with a cold bottle of beer tucked in my job bra. I was always somewhat filthy, but I never once got sick.

It was 1998. At 27, I had strong reservations against my shiny new degree. I felt immense pressure to achieve, to accomplish, to acquire — I didn’t really even know how to be human yet.

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I returned to Soldias a few weeks ago; a pilgrimage of sorts. It meant as much to me seeing Nancy and George again, falling into their welcoming hugs, as to be with their land again.

We humans cooked together, sharing new stories and old memories. I toured the land for hours, visiting projects, old and new. I saw where whitetails had bedded beneath the Arbor Day chokecherries from 1999. Habitat plantings I’d hauled water to were 15, 20 feet tall now!

I revisited my first xeriscape garden ever, my first windbreak ever — still thriving, 20 years in! We flipped through Nancy’s garden records, landing on the plan I’d drawn for their addition: a pollinator garden long before we all started doing them in response to species collapse and global warming.

My work was all around me. It will far outlive me, offering cover and food; cleaning land, air and water. In circling back, I’ve found myself — still, in the purposeful and tangible.

Tags: #agriculture #Branching Out #farming #Soldias Farm #work
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