A Brief Anatomy of Zena Farm
By Sarah Spring
Willamette University '11
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Amidst the rolling Eola-Amity hills a resolute red mailbox marks Zena farm. As I pull into the gravel drive I am greeted by a smart house of pale green tucked into a sloping lawn and hugged tightly by an eastern facing porch. A wooden rocking chair waits on the porch, somehow already knowing the shape of my bones as I take a seat. From my spot I watch low hanging clouds trace the tops of second-growth forest, leaving a kiss of moisture at the edge of my vision somewhere between trees and air. Farm smells awaken as the breeze picks up, shaking loose the scent of grass and soil. Rain follows the wind, sprinkling a patch of weeds that only slightly resembles a kitchen garden. I have just started my stay at Zena farm and already the senses are shifting away from the gas and hum of urban life. Soon I will help hoe the kitchen garden chaos into crumbly brown order. Soon I will learn that the earthy scent on the breeze actually comes from geosmine producing microbes, beckoning me to dig in the soil. Soon my nails will have a comfortable cake of dirt that only comes off within the sticky folds of homemade bread. Within the illusory visions of the forest, hills and farmland I will learn the names of native plants and invasive weeds. I will also have the pleasure of learning the new names of my fellow field and classmates, creating new correlations between cultivation and camaraderie. Most stunningly, I will soon come to find myself sitting on the shoulder of a living, breathing organism called Zena.
Zena is alive in every sense of the word. Her blood is tasted in the loamy clay clinging to a fresh beet or heard in the pulsing whir of the windmill. Zena is a mother, generous enough to bestow upon us soft leaves of spinach and bouquets of spicy radishes before scolding us with a close layer of bedrock or a parade of sugar ants. Zena displays distinctly feminine curves in her every hill and vale, echoing the unabashed reclining nudes favored by European painters. When a breeze comes Zena shakes out her hair through the waves of native grass that are beginning to cover her hillsides. Her perfume falls somewhere between sticky sweet pollen and a sweaty pile of horse manure. When these attributes combine they create a resolutely female creature, whose heart may be found in the furrows of “Big Field.”
Without this ragged rectangle of bare Earth known simply as “Big Field” there would appear to be little claim to life behind Zena’s designation as a “farm.” As the wet winter months begin to fade on Big Field, the land swells into a vibrant pulse of red and a cover crop of crimson clover comes to flower. With sharp instruments my field mates and I peel away the clover, eventually brought to our hands and knees tossing the remnants into pools of green and red. The annual resuscitation process does not end here, as an eclectic parade of lawnmowers, tractors and walk-behinds are used to electrify the earth, churning up the sleepy black crumbs to the light of day. We plant potatoes, anticipating their harvest during the murmuring autumn months. To protect these seedlings and the trees that surround them we construct a fence – a wire ribcage. The wire itself is old and second hand but still strong, and the rust rubs off on hands until the coppery smell of metal seeps into our skin. We finish, the heart now safe, our own chests swelling with pride of accomplishment and collapsing with an exhalation of relief. We have done our part and now we wait, watch the ground and make sure the black veins of irrigation tape are not withholding water. With the attentiveness and loyalty of a lover we care for the heart of Zena, and as the summer continues we find the fruits of passion returned to us in the folds of leafy green love letters.
Though our afternoons are spent in the heart of Big Field, we spend morning and night within the cozy consciousness of our farmhouse. Constructed in the days before our grandfathers, the Zena farmhouse possesses generations of knowledge that may only be found in the creaky hardwood floorboards or in a musty waft of centennial dust. As the central nervous system of the farm, the door remains perpetually “unhinged” as farmhands and visitors alike pass through in boots caked with mud, manure and the odd chicken feather. Classroom and dining room table are one as a lesson on the dangers of poison hemlock is swiftly followed by a lunch of hand cut pasta. We play at making jams and cheeses, skills that were employed in our farmhouse kitchen just a few generations earlier for the sake of survival and for delight during dreary Oregon winters. When viewed from a distance at night, the farmhouse is a beacon of life, a glowing yellow idea on the hillside that reminds me of the many inspired souls first willing to till this land. Whether learning how to make granola or identifying predatory insects, the farmhouse gives us shelter for deep thoughts that we will plant later in the afternoon.
All of this thinking and toiling does not get uncompensated. On Zena, we eat. To fill our own gullets we gather and haggle with the many stomachs of our farm. We tear away entire families of kale from the kitchen garden for our dinner side dish. We snack without mercy or pattern on the peas that dared to outgrow our greenhouse. Our Ladies, a collection of six laying hens, are daily denied the pleasure of brooding upon their eggs of varying cream and taupe. Not too far away are 26 Buff Orpington roosters who turned from heart-melting chicks into butter-melting teenagers before I could say “rotisserie.” Indeed we will say “sayonara” before they can “cock-a-doodle.” Like any good gut, both chickens and garden take all of our food scraps and sort it back into energy for egg and beet alike. In this delicious cycle we find our plates full and waistlines kept in check through constant competition with weeds that are just as eager to share our bounty.
After eating a hearty meal from our surrounding garden and feathered friends, I often need a walk deeper into the belly of the beast to aid digestion. By twilight the woods surrounding Zena invite me into a network of green entrails that wind and twist through the hearty grove of oak that have only recently found relief through restoration. Visions of a land before time filled with dinosaurs or more numinous beings soon invade my imagination as the path collapses into a sloping blanket of ferns. Indeed at times it feels as though the woods do not want me around, sticking out a red tongue whenever I brush past the shiny three-leaved plant that will lick my ankles with red welts if I am not more diligent. The oak loop eventually heaves itself up again, perhaps even revealing the shadow of a deer or a rainbow caught in a light evening rain. It is then that I feel Zena thanking me for the stubborn row I hoed that morning and the cooling manure spread out in the hot afternoon. Having once again made it through the insides of the oak forest, I often find both meal and thoughts now properly digested.
Zena is undoubtedly and cohesively alive. As students, we are necessarily a part of this life. But I wonder if this symbiotic relationship between human and land has grown parasitic. Will we ultimately leave Zena better than we found it? Has she not always been alive? Imagine this very same plot of land before agriculture: the undisturbed sprawl of forest, savanna or prairie. Before the farm Zena was no less alive, but perhaps more like the blank slab of marble, waiting for an artisan farmer to arrive and carve out the shapes that can only be found with a trained eye. Much like a sculpture, there is no opportunity to return this land to its original state; no true return to truly “natural” existence that has never known the plow. Though she has always been a creature in her own right, Zena is now more like the bear in a zoo, a living organism occupying a perpetually limited, yet liminal space. One moment she may feel the scratch of rampant blackberry running along her spine, the next she must grit her teeth against the purifying forces of a human controlled burn. Whether we leave Zena better than we found her is a difficult question- one that is unlikely to be answered within the blink of a summer. I will continue to return to the Eola-Amity hills, keeping an eye out for the rooster red mailbox that continually announces Zena as she waits, without bias, for the return of creeping vines or the calloused hands of Willamette students.
- "Into the Woods" - Kristin Light
- "Farming, eh" - Amanda McCLelland
- "Thinking of Sustainability and the Future" - Yoshio Nakayama
- "Journal Entries for the Zena Farm Program" - Yoshio Nakayama
- "A Brief Anatomy of Zena Farm" - Sarah Spring
- "Real Food: My Lifelong Quest for True Flavor" - Michelle Tynan