Archive for ‘southern oregon’

January 29, 2014

American Dream, Human Scale: Announcing Tuula and Hannah’s Tiny House Project!

Tuula and Hannah

Living out of bicycle bags for six months taught us just how little it takes to live comfortably!

Hannah and I have always been people who try to live by our beliefs. We believe in eating fresh, whole foods; we have spent several summers working on farms. We believe that a car-free world is possible; we bicycled across the country last winter to prove it. We believe in love, joy and laughter; every day is a choice between just muddling through or finding positivity and creativity in the most mundane of tasks.

We relocated to Ashland this fall because we knew that Southern Oregon holds a community of people who care about how they live their lives. We immediately found great jobs and our “niche” here – a good sign. I work at the Ashland Food Coop, helping customers solve their grocery conundrums. Hannah bakes at La Baguette, where music — her life blood — flows like flour from the sack.

Spending half of the year 2013 on bicycle saddles, camping or staying with strangers almost the entire time, taught us a lot of things: That there’s nothing we can’t accomplish if we put our heads together, that people everywhere are helpful and extremely generous, and that our basic needs are pretty, well, basic.

We love our country but are chagrined that the standard American home goes beyond the necessary to the point of wastefulness. Not only that, but good housing is no longer affordable to young people with entry-level jobs, even in a small town like Ashland.

When it comes down to it, we want quality over quantity, in our lives and in our living space. We want to inhabit a place that we shaped ourselves, showing others that decreasing their footprint on the planet can also increase their happiness. Lucky for us, the folks who are part of the Tiny House movement already share these ideas.

I don’t like the term “tiny house” because it implies that the living space is less than what might be preferred. “Efficiency house” would be more descriptive, but it sounds a little bleak. If I had started this movement, I would have gone with something like “human-scale homes”, but I didn’t start it. Really, it’s been how most people – excluding the very rich –  lived for eons, until the last few decades in America when floor plans bubbled along with the economy and spread out with the suburbs over our wild and farmlands.

A tiny house is usually under 300 square feet and is often built on wheels or skids. Many incorporate recycled materials, solar panels and composting toilets — these assist the owner in going off-grid and keep the home’s footprint very small. Tiny houses are popping up everywhere, from the Tiny House Hotel in Portland to survival shelters in the Texas desert. They’re not just a counter-culture thing, either. Average, middle-class people are realizing that they can live richly without going into deep debt with a a mortgage or throwing money away toward rent.

For the last couple of months, Hannah and I have been abuzz with ideas for getting this project off the ground. The house we live in now is being foreclosed on and we’ll probably have to move out by the summer, so the timing seems perfect. Hannah has been drawing up plans for our tiny house and pricing out materials. I’m fantasizing about putting in the garden. We’re both scouting for a perfect piece of land. We can’t buy just yet, but our hope is to lease or trade for a year or two on a property near town where we can assemble materials, build, and – eventually – live.

Our human-scale home will be on wheels so that we can eventually move it to our own piece of land. We will build it to run independently of electric or water hookups, and, we hope, it will add to the landscape as a work of functional beauty.

The place to put the house is highest on our priority list right now, and we’re open to creative ideas. Thank you for taking the time to read about our little dream.

Click here to read more about the Tiny House movement. 

A sample tiny house on wheels

A sample tiny house on wheels

December 6, 2013

Christmas in the Chicken Coop

Molting chicken

The Ashland Food Cooperative (or “the Coop”, either as two syllables or one) is just about the most wonderful place a person could spend their working day. My co-workers are intelligent, caring human beings who take pride in their work. Our customers are kind, gracious and possess some degree of knowledge about where their food really comes from. Sure, there’s the occasional roll-your-eyes moment – like the mom who video conferences with her toddler to ask him which brand of gummy fruits he prefers, or the bearded woman who talked to me for thirty minutes, first about ghee and finally about why sex should wait until marriage, gay or straight – but I really appreciate how most people take the time to think about their options when it comes to things like pizza sauce, coconut oil, or yogurt.
Or eggs. Anytime it’s my turn to stock the egg cooler, I prepare myself for a deluge of first-world problems. Do brown and white eggs taste different? Which is better, cage-free or humanely raised? If it says they’re soy-free, does that mean they’re non-GMO? Then there’s my favorite: Where are all the local eggs?
With my farming background, I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken eggs, but I was wrong. Curious customers had me on Google every night with ovum-related quandaries. Turns out cage-free is not as idyllic as we would imagine, and organic is the only way to know with certainty that GMOs have not made their way inside those fragile shells.
But I did know this before I got the job: All eggs taste the same, no matter the color. Also, under natural circumstances, chickens take a few weeks off in the fall to molt, or grow in a new set of feathers. Like most living things – from apple trees to human beings – they don’t see it necessary to work 365 days out of the year. Responding to changes in daylight and temperature in the late fall to early winter, they take a break. Egg production drops or disappears for two to four months.
In the old days, when farmers kept chickens outdoors, people simply didn’t eat many eggs during molting season. They became a luxury item that only the rich could afford. Mixed with plenty of rum and milk, eggs became the ultimate special holiday beverage – eggnog. In spring, we ate lots of eggs to celebrate the fact that they were once again abundant.
Today, of course, we have technological “solutions” to the egg supply “problem”. Kept indoors in huge poultry barns, chickens’ natural clocks are confused by artificial lights. Farmers can force the molt to happen whenever it’s convenient for them, so they stagger molting to ensure that the entire flock doesn’t stop producing at the same time. They also keep the molting period short – a month or two at the max.
So that’s why “Where are the local eggs?” is my favorite question of the season. We do carry local eggs, from “Poe”tential Farms, located in the Poe Valley near Klamath Falls, Oregon. They keep their chickens outdoors on pasture, and they don’t force molts. Their eggs are fresh, organic and reasonably priced. They’re also a seasonal product – like pumpkins, watermelons, and eggnog-flavored ice cream. When the Christmas music starts playing softly over the Coop speakers, the local eggs take a hike.
Nobody wants to hear my long-winded explanation at the store, so I just say “Sorry, we’re out of stock right now.” Usually, that’s enough to satisfy a customer, but last week a woman huffed and asked, “What, are the chickens just not laying eggs?”
Um, yep. Your natural, happy-to-be-chickens are doing what natural, happy chickens do this time of year. Sorry, that means that you either have to buy the not-so-natural eggs we have available, or go without.

Chickens may be directly related to the dinosaur, but I’m starting to believe they’re more evolved than us. Sure, we have vacation days and sick leave, but taking a break isn’t actually built into our biological cycles. A chicken’s job is to lay an egg every day, sure. (Amazing fact: A hen is actually born with every egg she will ever lay already lined up inside her reproductive tract, ready to grow, calcify, and make its way toward an omelet or a meringue cookie.) But their bodies, somewhere along the evolutionary line, said – you know, I’m not going to commit to this incredibly physically demanding act every day out of the year. Human ladies, imagine if WE dropped an egg every twenty four hours. The world would be madness.
But at the Co-op, the evidence shows that most of the women – and men, but let’s face it, women do a lot more grocery shopping – are already teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. Maybe we should take a cue from chickens and spend a good quarter of the year changing our wardrobe and preparing for what’s ahead. Then when we encounter a situation where we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we could just scratch our nails in the dirt, shake our feathers, and strut away.

December 1, 2013

Buying the Farm

My windowsill garden

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve wanted to have my own farm since I was a little girl. I planted a peach pit in our back yard near a big Doug fir and dug it up nearly every day to see if it was turning into a tree yet. I baked my own bread and painted my face with blackberry juice.
I didn’t really know about farms then, or where my food came from, really, but eventually I would figure it out. Where I started was with an insatiable love of the outdoors, of things that grow. Although I had no idea what was actually edible out there – and neither did my city-born parents – I pretended it all was anyway. When I grew up to learn that humans were expected to spend most of their lives indoors, I followed along with the plan briefly but soon found myself joyously yanking weeds in the mud of the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm.

I’m 27 years old now. Recently, I received an email from a young woman named Erin. She’s about to graduate from engineering school and was seeking advice on entering the field of sustainable agriculture. She felt that she could make a positive contribution.
I sent a couple of links to apprenticeship programs but she pressed for more information: What path had I taken, she wanted to know. What mistakes had I made, and what experiences were invaluable?
I think what she really wanted to know was, is this really possible? Can an idealistic young person really go into the crusty world of tractors, almanacs, fruit fly breeding cycles, pressure canning, agricultural zoning rules and Carharts and make it as sexy as designing green buildings or a more fuel-efficient car?
There is a huge chasm in agriculture today, but maybe it’s always been there. It’s the difference between our romantic view of cuddling baby lambs, and hosting potlucks in our rustic farmhouses and the reality of growing enough food for the planet’s 7.5 billion people and making it as cheap as possible. Today, the romantic view of farm life has grown to include an expectation that changing the way we grow, distribute and consume food can actually save the planet. So, can it?

I have to admit that I lied a bit in my responses to Erin. I didn’t tell her that no farmer I’ve ever met has actually recommended that I follow in their footsteps, go into debt for a large piece of land, and spend the rest of my life tied down to it. I didn’t tell her that most of the early 20-somethings I met just out of college who, like me, worked a variety of low-paying but highly satisfying farm-related jobs, are now settling down to earn real money and buy their food from the grocery store like everyone else. I failed to mention how incredibly thankless it is to be a farmer, that no matter how much people in your community seem to embrace the idea of buying locally and building regional food security, you will still meet people at the farmer’s market who will fail to understand why your apples are more expensive than those at Safeway. That’s when you smile and try to be nice, and you don’t try to explain that the old expression “he bought the farm” means he died, because when you try to live off the land that’s the only way you do live.

I left these things out because I still believe that the baby goats are worth it, and that, as Alice Waters said, we really do vote for the kind of world we want every time we choose what we eat. Maybe this is why there are still farmers in the world, why there continue to be young farmers even though the average age of a farmer in America is now upwards of 60 years old. The trend of college grads going back to the land may have hit its peak at the height of the recession in 2009, when I graduated from college, but there are still Erins out there, and there are still people like me and Hannah, who just can’t seem to settle for a nine-to-five job under the protective roof of a building in town. There’s a smidgen of boldness and a bit of stupidity there, too – no matter how many farmers we’ve met who barely scrape by, we seem to think we can do better. Maybe, just maybe, we can have it all.

Now that we’ve settled in Southern Oregon, we’re taking a look around, feeling the soil and watching the weather. We have friends who want to invest here, too, noting the influx of Californians and the popularity of local vineyards. Land isn’t cheap, but it is only getting more expensive. The farmer’s market is a busy place here. Perhaps there’s room for one more pair of crazy young people with a table full of the ripened labors of their love. Once we get it going, I fantasize, we’ll let the local college know that we’re seeking interns. We won’t pay much, but they’ll never be the same once they go for a walk through the fields in the early morning, taste the first ripe tomato of summer, and see a baby goat take its first shaky steps into life.

November 20, 2013

Happy Birthday, Now Toughen Up

The Half-Moon Cabin

The day couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d planned it, and I’d planned almost none of it.

The irony of this was not lost on me as we stumbled through the woods in the darkness, looking for the cozy cabin I’d booked as a surprise for Hannah’s birthday. Please, I thought, don’t let my luck run out here, after a day of spontaneous enjoyment, foiled by the one thing I’d actually thought of doing in advance.

In the splendidly diverse river valleys surrounding Ashland, it would be easy to create – or just happen upon – a fun-filled day for nearly anyone. Hannah’s birthday falls just after the closing of the area’s big natural attractions at the end of October, so Crater Lake and the Oregon Caves were out of the picture. So, like snowbirds, I decided we would go south on Highway 199, which wanders along the Illinois River valley out of Grants Pass, then through the California redwoods to end up at the Pacific Ocean.

Hannah, lover of surprises above all else, had no idea where we would be heading that morning, but did make one request: That we start at La Baguette in Ashland for a meltingly delicious cheese-and-onion stuffed bagel.

Satiated, we packed up our little Toyota, Apollo, and hit the I5 toward Grants Pass. I encouraged Hannah to speak up if she spotted an attraction that tickled her fancy. Although the mini-golf courses and strip malls of the greater Medford area held no appeal, something about the exit sign for the tiny village of Rogue River caused her to crave a second cup of coffee. I veered into the exit at the last minute and then, there we were.

It was a rewarding stop. Things Hannah loves: Trains – check, gorgeous mural complete with a real train headlight on the side of the first building downtown. Pumpkin spice lattes – check, adorable coffee stand in a caboose. Antiques – check, a just-opened retro revival shop on main street.

By the time we got out of there, it was after noon. I took Highway 99 the rest of the way to Grants Pass; on the way we stopped for some fresh strawberries at a farm stand and to buy old postcards at a junk shop.

Not that we didn’t have enough stuff packed with us – food, a change of shoes, Hannah’s mandolin, extra sleeping bag, jugs of water, camera, candles, wine, books, birthday cake, and an unopened present from Hannah’s mom.

I’m not usually the one to handle logistics on these little trips, and so I’d overcompensated by packing a breadth of useful things. Hannah, who prides herself on being prepared for anything, had also brought along a variety of essentials. Turns out, we had prepared for just about everything except the obvious.

As we broke free of Grants Pass’ creeping sprawl on Highway 199, it would have been easy for Hannah to piece together my plans by reading the green signs that announce the upcoming cities, with mileage. However, I’d underestimated the lengths through which she was willing to go in order to preserve the quality of a good surprise. Whenever she spotted a green sign in the distance, she would avert her eyes until I let her know we’d safely passed.

Despite this, she did not miss the signs that pointed toward Deer Creek Winery in Selma, just north of Cave Junction.
“Want to go?” I asked as we approached the intersection, knowing what the answer would be before I asked. Wine tops the list of Things Hannah Loves, right up there with coffee and splitting her own firewood.

We found the tasting room open and Deer Creek’s co-owner, a woman named Catherine, inside and ready to pour. As we sampled award-winning whites and reds, Catherine gave us the lowdown on the area, with two recommendations for the road ahead: Don’t miss the purple water and get your meat at Taylor’s Sausage.

When the tasting was over and it was time to go, I pulled out my wallet but Catherine raised her arms and flopped her hands toward me, the universal symbol for “It’s on the house.”
“Happy birthday,” she said.

Happy birthday, indeed. We wandered down the road a ways to asses the driver’s sobriety, but really to find a bush to squat behind. It was as if we’d been waiting to do this for weeks. This fall, our lives in Ashland have suddenly become so indoor, so civilized. Now, just a few hours and a few samplings of wine later, we were glad to revert to our more primal nature. The schedule, which had never really been formed in the first place, was definitely now discarded.

It's a Burl

After finding the car again, we next found ourselves at It’s a Burl, in downtown (okay, it’s pretty much all of) Kerby, Oregon. At the entrance to the outdoor gallery, a giant waterfall of carved burl wood flowed with violet-tinged water. From here, we wandered into a fairy-tale land of gnarled creatures, magical crystals and tree forts that climb into the blue. Among the strange and wonderful sights, resident artists worked away in their shops, wood chips flying like a golden rain. 

All of this tourism had worked up quite an appetite, so we stopped next at Taylor’s Sausage in Cave Junction. The place is to meat what It’s a Burl is to wood carving. Case after case brimmed with leg of lamb, bacon, steaks, jerky, and of course, sausage, and the clientele was as diverse as the meat selection. Here in the Illinois River Valley, marijuana growers mingle with ranchers, fishermen and new-agers drawn to the Oregon Caves and the paranormal happenings at the Oregon Vortex.

Outside Taylor’s Sausage, the town reflected the diversity of its residents. Next door is a small natural foods store that sells local produce and organic seeds. Next to that, a vintage clothing boutique. Although it was nearly 4 o’clock, Hannah and I had to duck in to try on some leather jackets and bowler hats.

Back in the car, I decided it was time to get serious. Our hosts had given explicit instructions not to arrive after dark. I had dutifully printed out the directions they sent, taking heed that my cell phone service would disappear once I crossed over the California border and entered the coastal range west of Cave Junction.

Once we reached Gasquet, I handed the printed sheet of paper to Hannah and instructed her to navigate. The first thing she told me to do was turn around and head back up the highway – we’d passed the turnoff ten miles earlier.

Near a sign for a roadside inn that reads “Food, Booze, and Snooze” (really, what else do you need?) we turned up a steep gravel road, flanked with towering Douglas fir and golden-leafed maples. Hannah told me when to keep left or keep right, reset the odometer, look for a yellow gate, etc.

We might have arrived a bit sooner had she not kept seeing mushrooms.
“PULL OVER!” the birthday princess would explain, and I would oblige, watching her run twenty feet back to snatch some unsuspecting fungus from the road’s crumbling shoulder. “Look at this thing! Can we eat it?”
I promised we’d pull out the mushroom book and identify all mushrooms once we got there, but please, could we just make it before it’s totally pitch dark?

Finally, we reached the red bridge. The directions stated that if we drove an SUV we could easily ford the stream below. Or, we could take the narrow red bridge.

I swung Apollo’s nose around and attempted to line us up exactly with the bridge’s skinny width. The old tires spun on the slick metal approach, and it didn’t look like the mirrors would clear the rails anyway. Not only is our car not an SUV, but the mirrors don’t fold in for crossing narrow country bridges in poor visibility conditions. Of all things.

“Well,” I say, trying to still sound cheerful and in control, “We’ll just walk up there!” The directions say it’s only three-quarters of a mile to the “village”.
“What is this place?” asks Hannah, for the first time breaking her commitment to the complete and total surprise factor.
“No time for questions,” I say. “It’s getting dark.”

And that’s when it hit me. The one thing I failed to plan for?
This.
The one thing we forgot? Flashlights.
No problem, we keep a flashlight in the car. Hannah digs it out, her hands working a bit frantically, but when she hits the button, nothing happens. Battery’s dead.

Now my sense of urgency is at its height. Fun time is over. As I change into my hiking shoes, Hannah throws her duffel bag over her shoulder, glass-enclosed candles and hardcover books inside. She also grabs her mandolin case and the bag containing our snacks and a bottle of wine.

“Okay, that’s it,” I say. “No more stuff.”
“Right,” says Hannah, tucking the oversized birthday present from her mom under her arm.
“Leave. The present. Here.” I growl, but to no avail. She’s already set her mushrooms carefully on top of the car and started across the bridge.

As we climb up the steep hill, darkness settling around us like a damp and chilly blanket, I’m amazed at this woman’s total and complete trust in me. The directions I’d handed her in the car were just that – none of the pictures of the charming woodland eco-village I’d checked out online. For all Hannah knew, I was about to pull a tent out of my backpack and pitch it here among the firs. Happy birthday, now toughen up. It’ll be cold cereal for breakfast.

Gradually, we made out a faint glow at the top of the hill, and came upon a small A-frame structure alongside the driveway with a solar lantern stuck out front. Dimly, I remembered this as one of the possible cabins I could have rented through the website. But I’d opted for a different, slightly bigger one, with a wood stove. Also, although I was familiar with the concept of “off the grid”, I had been under the impression that there would be more to this place than just a cabin. People, for example.

As I stood there wondering what to do next, the fearsome sound of barking dogs came thundering down the hillside. Hannah tensed and clutched my arm. Things Hannah doesn’t like: Strange dogs, being lost. And here we were, about to be eaten by Dobermans in the middle of an unknown forest.

At close range the dogs turned out just to be friendly mutts, who sniffed us, wagged their tails, and milled around waiting for us to do something more interesting. I kept waiting for our hosts to come down the hill after the dogs, bearing lanterns, torches, or some other light-bearing device.

They didn’t come. So we went to find them, following the ambient light of dozens more solar lanterns, which allowed us to feel our way through the garden and to the outdoor kitchen. Next to it was another building, which turned out to be the sauna. Each new discovery, instead of being a joyous surprise, was a cruel disappointment. All we wanted to do was find our cabin, set our bags down, start a little fire and turn on a light or two.

We decided that our next best bet for finding the cabin was to continue up the driveway, past the glowing garden area. Ignoring the ominous thumping noises – which turned out to be a pen of miniature goats – we set out into the now-total darkness, brandishing solar lanterns which we’d liberated from the garden.

Sensing that I had no idea what I was doing, Hannah began asking uncomfortable questions. Like, Where are we sleeping tonight? And, Are we going to get murdered?
After a few minutes of this, I decided we were barking up the wrong tree. My new plan: Return to the A-frame, which at least had a propane heater, get cozy and figure it out in the morning.

The A-frame, it turned out, was the answer all along. In it, lying mockingly on the tiny table next to the bed, was a map of the village. A quick glance was all it took to learn that our cabin, the Half-Moon Cabin, was just a couple hundred feet down the path.

Thirty minutes later, we had a roaring fire going. A half dozen candles provided enough light to satisfy our civilization-weakened eyes, as we chuckled over the irony of the birthday gift Hannah had finally unwrapped – an electric coffee grinder.

Then we settled into a comfortable silence, letting the reality of being miles from the nearest human being – or power outlet – settle in. Like many of the things I end up doing with Hannah, it wasn’t the kind of activity I would have chosen for myself, but now that I was here, I appreciated how truly rare and special it was.

Whether we knew it or not at the time, we’d both gotten what we came here for. On the whole, we didn’t have much. Our food was still down in the car nearly a mile away, we had no cell phone service and no convenience store down the road. But after the unsettling idea of not having anything at all, or at least not the minimum expected, the biggest surprise was in discovering – again – how just the very basics of warmth and shelter can be a bounty.

The next morning, Hannah was up at first light. I heard her brushing her teeth and making humming noises outside our tiny cabin. Then she spit and flung open the door, sticking her mint-scented face right up in mine. Her eyes were wide, her smile even wider.
“Sweetie,” she said. “This place is incredible.”

I rolled over and went back to sleep, thanking the powers that be for plans that come to life like wood-carved creatures, turning around to surprise those who attempt to control their fates.

Check out all the photos on Flickr

The merry mycologistFresh Strawberries in NovemberIt's a BurlThe Purple WaterHannah with special birthday friendIt's A Burl
Entrance to treehouseSwinging benchesWacky stuff at It's A BurlTaylor's SausageRetro shop, Cave JunctionEntrance to Maitreya Mountain Village
Little Jones CreekTake the bridge, or ford the creek?The Half-Moon CabinPath from our cabin to the gardenThe goat penMaitreya Hut
Outdoor kitchenMaitreya gardenBaaaaGoat in a fernBaby Goat at MaitreyaGirl on Burl