Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ostara Farm into Musical Interlude

Ostara Farm

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Distant view of Ostara Farm
     Towards the end of May we received a call from our friend Sean in Big Sandy Mush. As it happened, his intended season-long interns had not worked out, and he was wondering if we could give him and his wife Tara a hand on their farm. Having already agreed to volunteer at Bonnaroo, our schedule was restricted, and we were only able to help out for a few days. We left Mountain Gardens on Friday morning, and stopped in Asheville on the way to Sean and Tara’s. We went back to Amazing Savings to stock up on camping food for Bonnaroo, and headed on down Leicester highway.
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Our spacious camper
     We arrived at Ostara Farm and were greeted by Tara. While helping shell peas we were brought up-to-date on the goings-on of the farm. They have a small CSA and a large flock of chickens, and they sell the eggs to the French Broad Co-op in Asheville. Tara pointed out our accommodations and graciously made sure we had everything we needed. We were staying in the 25’ trailer Tara and Sean had lived in for 9 months while the construction of the house was completed. It was by far the best trailer we’ve ever stayed in, and we were surprised to learn it was not up to the previous WWOOFers’ standards. After Sean came home from work and we had settled in, the four of us sat down for a delicious breakfast-for-dinner.
     The next day was their scheduled CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) workday, where CSA members who opted for working-shares, “paid” for their weekly veggies partly with labor. In addition to Tara, Sean and ourselves, Jasmine, Eric, and Elizabeth joined us for a day of cultivation. We weeded, mulched and manured beds, and dug holes for future trellises; a surprising amount of accomplishments for the number of people present. Our farm labor was rewarded by Tara’s yummy lunch of casserole, salad, and millet. Later that day while Randy weeded, Holly and Tara made yogurt and pickled two gallons of garlic scapes (the seed head and stalks harvested from developing garlic). We made fermented pickles by putting the scapes in a whey-based brine, covering it, and letting it sit on the counter for a few weeks.
ostara farm leicester nc
Mulberry pickin'
ostara farm big sandy mush nc
Sean and Holly create a new bed
     Sunday morning we walked up to Kale and Kin, the neighbors’ farm, to borrow their tractor. The walk was delightfully scenic, and we enjoyed picking a few roadside mulberries on the way. Tara and Sean had saved the topsoil from the construction of their home, and Sean used the tractor to mold it into garden beds. Our hours of raking, shoveling, and removing rocks resulted in two gorgeous new garden beds and accompanying landscape fabric-covered paths.
     On our last day Sean and Randy put up trellises in the new beds for cherry tomatoes while Holly harvested garlic and cleared out garden beds. To jazz up weeding, Holly listened to a few bands that were slated to play at Bonnaroo, and deepened and expanded her love of Dispatch. After our farewell dinner, we all played an entertaining round of King’s Breakfast.
     Regretfully our stay at Tara and Sean’s was the shortest of any farm, and too quickly it came to a close. By noon the next day we were on the road to Bonnaroo.

*    *    *

Musical Interlude

     Around 6:30 we arrived at Coffee County Highschool for our volunteer check-in. We received our schedules and ID badges, and proceeded to the campground, looking forward to the volunteer BBQ scheduled for that evening. We did not, however, anticipate the first of many agonizingly slow queues at Bonnaroo. Over the course of almost two hours we slowly made our way to the campground; the cause being thorough vehicle searches for prohibited items.
Our not-so-spacious campsite
Worried that there would be no food left, Holly ran ahead and grabbed plates of BBQ. The staff member in charge of searching our vehicle took one look inside the car at our overstuffed jumble, decided he did not want to open that can of worms, and waved us on to our campsite. After setting up camp, Randy wandered around and caught some live music while Holly tried to sleep through the excited raucous of fellow volunteers.
     The actual music venue (“Centeroo”) didn’t open until Thursday, so we had 36 hours to entertain ourselves. On Wednesday we roamed around the campgrounds watching from afar as crews feverishly did finishing touches. That evening we met some of our neighbors, including the band Applebutter Express who were playing the next day at Bonnaroo, and saw their impromptu performance in front of their campsite.
One of the many Kafkaesque lines of Bonnaroo
     Our second experience with Bonnaroo lines occurred the next morning waiting for Centeroo to open. The line was wicked long, our water bottles were empty, and it was crazy hot. So, Randy selflessly left to go fill them up, but as soon as he left the line started moving pretty quickly, and Holly was swept along into Centeroo before Randy returned. His phone was out of commission, but luckily we found each other at the volunteer tent. We had just enough time before our first volunteer shift started to check out Applebutter Express’ official performance. They have a great, energetic bluegrass feel and did an incredible Eleanor Rigby cover. We enjoyed their music so much we bought their CD before heading off to volunteer. Volunteers agree to work about 18 hours in exchange for a free T-shirt, free showers, 3 meal tickets, and, of course, free entry. After checking in at the volunteer tent we were sent to work at a café, where we bussed tables and poured drinks. The café was next to one of the stages, and we got to hear several bands while we worked, including Rubblebucket, Dub Cartel, and the Dirty Guv’nahs. After our shift ended at 10 pm Randy dragged Holly to the Cinema Tent to see Laurel and Hardy shorts with a live score preformed by Steven Bernstein’s MTO plays SLY. We both really enjoyed seeing the shorts as they were originally presented with a live orchestra accentuating the storyline. Then we walked the 20 minutes back to our campsite and collapsed.
9 am yoga
Bike generator powering a bubble machine
     On Friday we woke up early and went into Centeroo for a yoga workshop. It was nice to start the day by gathering with 100 other people for some relaxing exercise. In a nearby tent a storyteller was captivating his audience, and the snippets of his narrative that drifted over to us created a pleasant dichotomy. In what proved to be a gross miscalculation we returned to our campsite for a brief lunch, intending to head right back and catch the Kooks performance, and a bike generator demonstration. Unfortunately it was time for our third line lesson. It took us an hour and a half to get through the line, and we completely missed the events. However, while standing in line we did make the acquaintance of Allison. In a festival boasting over 80,000 attendees, she happened to be standing right behind us, and happened to overhear we have been WWOOFing. It turns out had also been WWOOFing on a farm outside Knoxville, and in an even more unlikely twist we discovered it was Spring Creek Farm, the very same farm we had been on two months previously! We reminisced about the farm, and she said she had hoed the same corn we had planted. We finally made it into Centeroo, and wandered around a bit before our shift started at 3:30. This time we worked at a different café, Dave’s Mini Doughnuts. The staff was friendly, high-energy, and quirky, though that may have been due to lack of sleep with their 20-hour long festival shifts. They really appreciated our help, and we enjoyed seeing the unseen, often frantic life behind the counter. We also enjoyed the doughnuts. Unfortunately the Avett Brothers and Ludacris played during our shift, but we did get to see a glimpse of Feist while doing an ice run, and a few minutes of Foster the People. After we were done working we headed over to see Radiohead. It was a great show, and sadly one of the last that their drum technician, Scott Johnson, did before a tragic stage collapse in Toronto.

Chad Stokes everybody, Chad Stokes.
Holly is christened a Balloonicorn
Casey Driessen
     On Saturday we didn’t work until 9:30 pm, so we had most of the day to enjoy the festival. We happened upon the Casey Driessen Singularity, which was a one-man fiddle show. Through the use of live recording he was able to construct musical layers that grew into crazy compositions. Then we took advantage of free scoops of Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Caramel Buzz, before settling down to listen to some artist interviews on social justice at Rock the Earth. First Dennis Casey and Bob Schmidt from Flogging Molly were interviewed, and then Chad Stokes from Dispatch took the stage. It was fun to hear the band members talk about how they work to make the world a better place, and we got to hear some music too. Next we hustled over to a different stage to catch the tail end of Hey! Rosetta and then Trampled by Turtles. After their set ended we rushed over to see the second half of Flogging Molly’s performance. Tuckered out by our music-going, we found a shady spot (a quiet spot was impossible) under some trees and took a nap. Refreshed by our siesta, we decided to explore the carnival-themed game area. While waiting in line (again) we ran into Randy’s friend Toni. We had a fun time hanging out and catching up while swapping Bonnaroo stories.
We tried our luck at “Smack the Uvula,” which we both totally aced, then epically failed at “Balloonicorn,” but redeemed ourselves with “Flunko.”
     Sporting our freshly won tote bags, T-shirts, and bandanna we headed over to see the recently reunited Dispatch. Holly loved the concert, and we were sad when we had to cut out early for our last volunteer shift. Luckily the doughnut shop was close enough to the stage that we got to sneak out and catch one last song. This time we got to help mix coffee drinks and run orders, and had really felt like a part of their crew, joining in their late-night silliness. Everyone thought we would be a good addition to the team, and invited us to work for them at a festival in New York in August. Our shift ended at 4 am, and we stumbled a through a sparsely populated Bonnaroo and were able to exit through the special staff entrance which led us past the artist tents. It was fun to imagine who was being pampered in those swanky trailers.
Ben Folds
     On Sunday, the last day of Bonnaroo, Randy woke up early to catch a show at the Cinema tent while Holly slept. Then we made lunch and went into Centeroo, in time for a wild fermentation workshop at “the Acadamy.” The Academy offered sustainable workshops and demonstrations on such subjects as mushroom inoculation, cobb building, and kombucha. Because we’ve been WWOOFing, we already were familiar with many of the topics. After the workshop we headed over to see Group Love, then caught a bit of the Beach Boys (long enough to hear “I Get Around”), and then snagged a spot up front for Ben Folds 5. Ben Folds kept pausing the performance to take pictures of and videotape the audience. Following Ben Folds was the Shins, so we held our ground in the second row. The Shins played a great concert, but by the end of it we were pretty beat from another day of nonstop music. We had a few meal tokens left, so we wandered around trying to find the most bang for our buck. We enjoyed our gyro, sandwich, and beans and rice for a theoretical $24, thankful that we made it through the 4 days without spending a single penny.
Iconic Bonnaroo clock
    Monday morning we woke up to pounding rain, which conveniently soaked everything we were about to pack up. We jammed our soaking wet tent and sleeping bag into the car, and waited for the long snaking line of exiting traffic to dissipate. While waiting we realized that many people had simply abandoned their wet campsites, leaving useful articles behind, and we started walking around “groundscoring.” We found a yoga mat, sleeping pad, two perfectly good folding camp chairs, three tarps (but we could’ve gotten 30), a flashlight, and some oranges and unopened Clif bars to tide us over while we hunted. We had to restrain ourselves because of our limited space, but were quite content with our new treasures. 
Desolate post-revelry wasteland

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mountain Gardens

Bus behind a church down the road
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One of the many gorgeous views
     Upon arrival at Joe Hollis’ Mountain Gardens, we were astounded by the sheer quantity, diversity, and resulting beauty of the mountainside Eden. It was an intentional jungle of exotic and familiar plants. Delicious mulberry vines wound around trellises among roving bellflowers and six-foot-high poppies, while tromboncino squash spread around the bases. A mountain spring flowed through the terraced garden, providing habitat for water-loving plants such as wasabi, water lilies, and iris, as well as a healthy population of frogs. Every niche was filled with deliberate flora, some planted and some useful native “weeds.” This philosophy of designing a balanced ecosystem from the ground up with the needs of humans in mind is called “paradise gardening.” Joe Hollis has been perfecting his methods for forty years on his mountain land. When he started it was a steep, rocky, wooded hillside. Over time he gradually managed to carve out a patch of sunlight in the forest canopy where he has crammed an unbelievable amount of plants.
Cobb rocket stove
This space continues to grow and evolve in harmony with the surrounding forest. The goal of paradise gardening "is to 'naturalize' ourselves in the environment. This will involve changing ourselves and changing the environment: convergence toward 'fit.'" (from "Paradise Gardening" by Joe Hollis).
Tincture library
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Our yurt
     Sprinkled amidst the winding paths and
surrounding national forest were a variety of naturally constructed dwellings, including yurts and cabins made of locally harvested timber, as well as a cobb dwelling with a living roof. We stayed in the open-air yurt, which was perched up in the woods overlooking the gardens. There was also a solar-powered community building consisting of an outdoor kitchen, extensive library, and herb shop. The herb shop was the farm’s main bread and butter, and where tinctures, salves, and formulas are made, from both Chinese and local herbs.
View of the farm from our yurt
     In a place where every plant is important, seemingly simple tasks such as planting and weeding become quite difficult. We couldn’t do anything on our own, because we did not know the extensive plans for all the plants, and invariably would step on something important. In any given planting area there were purposefully planted plants, weeds, Chinese herbs, Chinese herbs that had spread and became weeds that needed to come out, and Chinese herbs that had spread and became weeds that needed to be saved for use.
Picking out seed
One important variety of seed that we helped harvest was wasabi. Joe is the only grower of wasabi seeds in the US. Wasabi seeds are tricky to propagate because they cannot dry out and have to be painstakingly hand-separated from their pods. So, on rainy afternoons, it’s wasabi seed-separating time!
Let it be known that an Italian basketball player does fit into a VW

Jeff and Sean attempting coffee roasting
      There were six other long-term interns there when we arrived, who we enjoyed sharing meals and knowledge with. Everyone was taking advantage of this cultivating environment to pursue their own interests, from roasting coffee to making mushroom tinctures and brewing beer using traditional ground ivy.  
     We were excited to hear that down the street from Mountain Garden was an abandoned camp for mentally disabled children. When the funding was cut in the early ‘80s, the camp dried up and has been sitting vacant ever since. We are always keeping our eyes out for possible “urban” exploration and this fit the bill nicely.   We followed an overgrown path past looming feral topiaries, and came upon a compound comprised of several dilapidated cabins clustered together, and an old broken down school bus in the back. Further investigation revealed that the buildings seemed to have been vacated overnight with little attempt at packing up. The cupboards still had cans and boxes of food, books from the ‘60s and ‘70s were strewn across the bedrooms, and official mail from the ‘80s was stacked haphazardly. Pouring over the cast-aside detritus called forth glimpses into the lives of the inhabitants, almost as if a piece of them was still there.

   Randy was particularly excited to find one of the original agricultural pamphlets extolling the virtues of kudzu, the now prolific "scourge of the south." Mr. J. R. Sams, the County Agricultural Agent at Large of Columbus, NC in the ‘30s, drafted the document to encourage farmers to plant as many acres of kudzu as they could. He points out the erosion control benefits, but also that it is an excellent, attractive hay and pasture plant. Sams secures his place in infamy by declaring that kudzu is “easily eradicated when desirable, but no sane farmer will desire to get rid of it when he learns how to use it,” and that the creeping vine is “the greatest legume that God has given us.”
     We felt that there was much knowledge to be gained here, especially with Joe's years of experience and willingness to share it, but Sean from Sandy Mush called asking if we could help him out for a few days, so we cut our visit short and headed back over the mountain.
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Monday, June 4, 2012

Doubletree Farm

Helping a turtle cross the road
     Doubletree Farm is a horse-powered  operation in Marshall, NC. In the past one of their main products has been sorghum syrup; they have pretty much single-handedly introduced a new generation of Ashevillians to this sweet sugar alternative, while allowing the older folks to reminisce over this tasty syrup and its deep-rooted history in the region. This year, however, the family is in the midst of a significant transition, and does not have as much time to devote to sorghum-making.
WWOOF usa north carolina
Cooking in our cabin
Sorghum is made by squeezing the juice from the sorghum cane and then boiling it down into syrup. We came at a good time, and were able to attend to the little things that might fall by the wayside when time and energy are scarce commodities.
doubletree farm marshall nc WWOOF usa
Cathy harrowing with the horses
Teats in action
     The farm also has two milking goats with a collective trip of five kids, as well as a wether-uncle who babysits the kids while the mamas mow the fields. They had two teams of horses who worked in perfect unison whether they were hauling lumber, plowing a field, or pulling a buggy.
WWOOF usa north carolina
     Every day we milked Lilac and Daffodil, and did a little weeding, splitting firewood for cooking, and potato bug surveillance (which were surprisingly scarce considering the mild winter). We also scythed grass for feed. The snath (handle) of each scythe is made specifically for a person's size and build, as Randy was a bit taller than the scythe's owners his scything strut ended up resembling an ice skating sumo wrestler. Cathy also showed us how to make poplar-bark baskets. Her nine-year-old son went into the woods and cut down a nice poplar for the body of the baskets, as well as a young hickory for the lacing. Poplar bark peels off easiest between May and August, and with a few cuts and scores can be shaped into a beautifully rustic basket. The poplar is held together by the inner bark of a young hickory. The simple process took us a while to master, but then we had it down assembly-line style.
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Randy on one side of the transplanter
WWOOF usa north carolina
All our baby 'baccers
     On Friday, the Bennet's neighbor down the road needed help setting his tobacco plants. He is a conventional tobacco farmer who is still making his living off of a declining industry. Most other tobacco farmers have opted to grow alternative crops, such as tomatoes or Christmas trees, since the government stopped subsidizing tobacco in 2004. It seems the nation's trend toward healthier lungs did not come without a cost. Although not huge fans of the tobacco industry, we were glad to see the process of planting this historically important crop. "Settin' sum 'baccer" consists of one person driving the tractor, two people loading seedlings into the transplanter, and one or two people walking behind catching any planting errors with a "dibble stick". The transplanter has two seats on either side of a rotating belt made up of a dozen chutes that convey the seedlings into the soil. The transplanter also simultaneously furrows, waters, and presses the dirt firmly around the plants' base. The plodding pace of the tractor still produced a rushed rhythm, that, while not frantic, required our full attention. It took six of us six hours to finish a field of about 7,500 plants, which will grow to be over six feet tall. Each plant will produce about 5 cigarettes, for a grand total of 37,500 cigarettes that we helped put in America's lips. Setting tobaccos is a lot of fun, at least for a day.
Cool vehicle merger at the Marshall Junk Shop
     After a hard day's farm work we went into Marshall to relax and enjoy the town. The coffeeshop in town has a weekly bluegrass jam that really brings the community together; the judge/magistrate even did an upright bass solo.
Chicken of the woods
     On Sunday we were looking for a local church to go to, and Cathy suggested the Mars Hill United Methodist Church. We chose the right Sunday to attend this church, because not only was it the monthly potluck, the service also featured the church's bell choir. Neither of us had really ever heard a bell choir before, and we were quite impressed with the group's ability to create such harmonious music with their 54 bells. Following the morning worship was a delicious smorgasbord including everything from a huge salad with steak, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes, to a yummy jello, cool whip, and cheddar cheese dish that defies categorization. The small congregation was extremely welcoming, and we enjoyed chatting with them while we ate lunch.
     Cathy's son is on a little league team, and his last game of the season was on Tuesday, which was held at the old highschool-turned-apartments on a tiny island on the French Broad River. The game was quite exciting and ended in a hard-won tie.
     Our last Saturday on the farm we planned a "relaxing" day in Asheville with every minute accounted for. We left the farm at 7:30, and didn't get back until 11 pm.

8:37 Arrive at Randall Cove to collect forgotten bag, visited with Mary Adore and Kaitlyn
Randall Cove through the window
9:39 Arrive at Amazing Savings in Asheville to scope out discounted natural food
Bulk section at Amazing Savings
10:14 Arrive at the French Broad Food Co-op, where we stocked up on bulk staples
So many bulk options at the co-op!
10:50 Arrive at Downtown Books and News, and tried to lighten our load of books, but ended up succumbing to the store credit option

11:47 Arrive at the Shogun Buffet, for a scrumptious gorging
12:18 Still gorging

12:58 Leave buffet after loosening our belts
1:40 Arrive at the Wedge Brewing Company for the homebrew beer tasting
1:41 Contemplate participating in the Beer Run preceding the tasting
1:41:08 Decide against it
2:00 Buffet-waddle into the beer tasting
2:12 Enjoyed the first sample with its subtle interplay of citrus upfront blending into a slightly oak finish with hints of caramel and local stone fruits.
middle earth brewing its hobbit forming
"Middle Earth Brewing. It's hobbit forming"

2:46 Grabbed a dark one.
Randy just won at sling-shot beer pong!
5:00 25 beers and several handfuls of boiled peanuts later, meandered around the Wedge
5:52 Left to see the Montford Park Players performing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)
6:20 Got our volunteer assignment of surveying the audience before the show
7:30 After collecting dozens of surveys, we found a seat to enjoy the show

7:38 watched Romeo and Juliet
7:52 observed Richard the III
7:55 laughed at Titus Andronicus
7:59 enjoyed Two Men from Verona
10:00 Handed in our surveys and headed back to Doubletree Farm, relaxing from our day of relaxing

      The next day Cathy was taking the kids out for a picnic at the Carolina Hemlocks State Park, and invited us along. The Toe River goes through the state park, and is apparently the cleanest river east of the Mississippi. The park was located at the base of Mount Mitchell, which is the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. The hemlocks were beautiful and plentiful for the moment, but the wooly adelgid is an invasive insect that is killing hemlocks right and left, and a good solution has yet to be devised. We enjoyed a lovely afternoon of renting tubes and floating down the river, reading, relaxing, and eating a yummy picnic which included Cathy's excellent goat cheese. The river was a bit rough in places, and Randy ended up loosing his shirt and Holly's driver's license while tubing. Once while floating down the river Holly heard someone shout "St. Louis!" and turned to see two people who recognized her and asked if she was from there. The current soon pulled her away, but later she went back and realized that the girl was an old homeschooler who she hadn't seen in at least ten years. Small world.
     The state park also happened to be just miles from our next farm, Mountain Gardens, and the next day we said goodbye to the Bennets, packed up the car, and headed back to the Burnsville area.

WWOOF usa north carolina
Our completed baskets; notice Randy's fancy etching

The doubletree namesake