Summery Summary: Five Weeks WWOOFin’

…in the heat of the summer, no less.  The sun was INTENSE this year, which made the work seem harder than usual.  The farm had planted ten beds of carrots (3 rows per bed) as a fall crop, and our crew spent about three weeks painstakingly weeding them bed by bed under the burning sun.  When we finally finished the very last bed of carrots, we looked back at the first bed we had weeded only to see that the weeds had returned with a vengeance—and we started over again.

What I like about those WWOOFing experiences, though, is that you really bond with the people who are out there in the weeding trenches with you, toiling in the dirt through all kinds of weather.  I worked with the two J’s, a couple of young rappers from New York City who’ve also interned there in previous years, and who taught us all to play Pinese Choker (a.k.a. Chinese Poker).  I made friends with an awesome woman in her 30’s from Holland who had just quit her boring office job, broken up with her unfaithful fiancé of 13 years, and set off to have adventures in foreign countries; and I met another woman in her 30’s, also from NYC, who is on a very interesting and esoteric journey of self-discovery, involving BodyTalk, aura photography, and flower essences, as well as biking from park to park, solo-camping and reconnecting with the land.  There were several others, too, who came for shorter stays, but these folks were the core crew for the five weeks I was there.

Farming with so many women, for once, translated to SO MUCH skinny dipping.  I went to the lake more often than I had during my other stays there, and it was cool to see her changing moods from day to day: different waves, currents, wildlife, plants and debris.  The three of us celebrated the full moon in August with a late-night skinny dip session that was pretty magical.  The frequent swimming was also partially prompted by the drought which caused the well to run dry on a regular basis and encouraged me to curtail my showers.  There were several days when we were unable to wash dishes until the well had time to replenish.  It really made me appreciate the luxury of turning a tap in my apartment in the city and having potable water flow out.

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One among few decent rains.

The drought also meant that the crops were a little sadder-looking and less plentiful than usual.  The irrigation pond completely dried up.  The tractor started a friction fire in a field of rye grass it was mowing.  The Japanese beetles, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, and biting flies were thriving in numbers I’d never seen before—I’m not sure whether as a result of the drought, this past mild winter, or something else entirely.  The weeds, of course, still thrived, and we sold purslane and amaranth at the farmers market.  I remember reading somewhere that a “weed” is just an extremely drought-tolerant plant.  I had to think about the fussy, delicate plants we humans prefer to eat and therefore to painstakingly cultivate, when we could as easily choose to incorporate into our diets those plants that are edible, nutritious, and eager to grow in a wide variety of conditions (particularly purslane, amaranth, and lamb’s quarter).  Working in the extreme heat and humidity all day also got me fantasizing about forest farming.  Why not grow mushrooms and nuts and berries instead?

I had some pretty memorable animal encounters this time around.  The farm dog had passed away this spring, and the rodents were having a field day.  Raccoons and skunks would knock over the compost every night and go through our trash, strewing it around everywhere and even shredding the tinfoil into tiny little bits.  I had to start stacking three pieces of firewood on top of the lids every night to keep them out: any less was ineffective.  Our hangout space was full of adorable tiny mice, which I didn’t mind so much, and we found a rat in the farmhouse.  I met my first tree frog when he took up residence on the roof of our outdoor kitchen.  My first day back at the farm, I spotted a bald eagle overhead while I was swimming in the lake.  I saw some crazy-looking red newts on a hike in the Finger Lakes National Forest, and when I was off-road hiking (a.k.a. trespassing) in the woods on the cliffs by the lake, I found an old white oak tree whose base contained a honeybee hive: a honey tree!  Awesome.

My other major hiking highlights were:
1 – Seeing my very first American chestnut trees in the National Forest.  American chestnuts were pretty much all wiped out by the Japanese fungus Cryphonectria parasitica between 1900 and 1940.  I’d been reading about them per my tree obsession but had yet to encounter one.  The chestnuts in the National Forest were all little saplings, suckers sent up by the root systems of the big old trees killed by the blight, and I was told that the blight would take them all out before they reached reproductive age—but I was still excited to see them at all.
and,
2 – Recovering the skull of a 5-point stag from a gorge where it had fallen to its death.  It’s a privately-owned gorge and a bit of a treacherous hike.  Like Watkins Glen, it consists of a series of waterfalls carved in the shale, all leading down toward the lake.  The hike involves climbing up the waterfalls one by one—there are about 8 total that you can scale, depending on how intense of a hike you’re up for—generally accomplished in flip-flops with no climbing gear.  If you’re careful, you’ll be fine.  If you’re not careful, you could die.  Most visitors to the gorge stick to the first couple of waterfalls, which are not too difficult to reach and have nice swimmin’ holes at the bottom.  I led a couple of the new WWOOFers on the whole gorge hike because it’s a cool thing I think everybody should get to experience, and around waterfall #5, we found this deer carcass.  The skin was caught on a branch laying across the creek, and I found the skull submerged in the water, already almost clean of flesh.  I wasn’t equipped to carry a gross skull with me that day, so I left it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about going back to retrieve it—and a few days later, I did.  I had never done that hike alone before.  I thought I could make it easier by walking higher up on the cliff until I came to the point where the deer was, then descending.  It was not easier.  I carefully clambered down, and then scrambled back up, a super-steep slope covered with layers of leaves and pine needles, with a wet skull in a trash bag in my backpack, the antlers poking out.  No regrets—it really was too cool to just let it decay there.  So I cleaned it up and now it lives in my house.