Tuesday, August 30, 2016

WWOOFing It Up: A Too-Short Stint on a Farm in Maine

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a network of national organizations that facilitate placement of volunteers on organic farms. In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.
Me? Volunteer to work on a farm? Yeah, I know what you're thinking: City girl voluntarily gives up air conditioning and dishwasher. Ha. Vegetarian espouses non-violence but squishes mosquitoes and Japanese beetles. Hypocrite. How could I possibly distinguish fleabane and cheatgrass from fledgling seedlings, or choose the proper tool?
Well, guess what: I joined Pope on this adventure anyway. One week doing general farm and garden duties, in return for room and board. No money changes hands.

We arrived at Sandy Oliver's rambling and historic farmstead, on an island off the coast of Maine, last week via a complicated network of transportation options. Having sweated through plane, taxi, bus and ferry in blazing sun and humidity (who knew that global warming has reached the coast of Maine?), I was tired, discouraged and wary of being outdoors where I would be vulnerable to sunburn, grass and hay (I'm allergic) and the legendary giant Maine mosquitoes.

I was surprised. From weeding to planting to feasting on the abundant harvest, the week has been delightful, and I am amazed--even appalled!--at how fast it has flown by. And how much I learned.
 Gently transplanting fragile little babies (lettuce seedlings)

Staking out tomatoes in a "hoop house" shelter
 How do you like your onions: white, yellow, red, or green? All varieties are ready!

Our first WWOOFing experience was in March 2015 on an olive-and-fruit farm in southern Spain, where we fed chickens, shoveled manure, picked and shelled hundreds of broad beans. Pope stayed two weeks. Despite the delicious diet of fresh grapefruits, avocados, and lemons and our lenient hosts, I lasted 6 days, then fled to a riad in Morocco where I feasted on couscous and sumptuous tagine.

In Maine, I have already made it to Day 6--with only three serious insect bites and few complaints. The growing season is short, and the harvest is condensed into a few weeks in August-September. So each day here has been a whirlwind of relatively easy activity: picking (greens, beans, tomatoes, and peaches); planting (fall crops such as lettuce); watering; canning (green beans, pickles, peaches, and peach chutney); and, of course, implementing the obligatory daily weed-reduction program.
We canned 8 quarts of green beans in addition to eating them every day
Harvesting the raw ingredients of dill and bread-and-butter pickles and homemade tomato sauce
Throwback to my childhood: canning cucumbers in brine over a hot stove

How many ripe peaches must one grown woman eat to reach satiation? I don't know, because I am up to four or five a day and still drooling for more. I have eaten them on granola, as a snack, in salads, as dessert, while canning them, and whenever the urge overtakes me. Peaches are an important cash crop on this farm, and the key to keeping this WWOOFer smiling.

The aroma of peach chutney simmering on the stove, in my opinion, is second only to that of eggplant parmesan baking in the oven.
 For peach chutney, mix peaches, raisins, onion, garlic, ginger, and sugar, simmer for an hour 

The rest of the food was eminently suitable for this vegetarian--and perhaps enough to induce an omnivore to switch? We ate green beans by the dozen; leafy greens and lettuce by the half-bushel; cucumbers and tomatoes diced, sliced, dressed, and cooked; and squash, potatoes, onions, garlic, and eggs laid daily by a brood of hens. After 5 days, however, Pope begged for meat, and Sandy found some chili in the freezer for him.
My favorite: zucchini and onion pie with cracker crust; green beans and tomatoes on the side

In addition to gardening, three times a day we fed and watered the hungry young chicks that are, sadly, destined for the meat market. For this phase of their short life, they were tenderly and affectionately cared for.

As we all know, all work and no play would make Pope and Amber crabby campers. With limited transportation, on a lightly populated island that largely shuts down at the end of August, options for time off were greatly simplified: meditation and blogging for Amber, reading and playing with the chickens for Pope.

Walking is an option, though there's no place to go except up and down the road or through the woods.

Rambling down the road: the houses on Islesboro range from ramshackle to magnificent

In the woods, you might stumble across a patch of ripe blackberries. Reminder to self: bring container.
Another throwback to childhood: finding white birch trees in the northern woods

It's a simpler life, far from the congestion, commercialism, and cosmopolitanism of Washington, DC. Here, occasional deliveries from the mainland--boards for repairing the porch, and a new ladder--induce a dance of joy in farmer Sandy.
Even this city gal has adapted to the natural air conditioning (open window), washing seemingly endless dishes (by hand), bathing in a claw-foot tub, and dashing out to get last-minute ingredients with garden clippers instead of a credit card. It helps that the Maine mosquitoes, though their bites are as wicked as reputed, are almost as scarce in late August as the island's summer population. And it helps that every meal is fresh, farm-to-table, delicious, and included in the price: zero. Rose's Luxury, move over.

I agree, WWOOFing it up on a farm may seem like an unusual vacation choice for a big-city American girl. This girl found it to be endurable, even pleasurable. Oh, what the heck, I admit it: I actually enjoyed myself!

Who knows, maybe I would even consider doing it again.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Whirlwind Week: If It's Friday It Must Be the Farm

We caught the ferry with two minutes to spare.
Headed to an island in the middle of Penobscot Bay, halfway up the coast of Maine.
On board were residents, renters, recreationalists (with bikes, canoes and handmade wooden kayaks), and lunatics like me who agreed to join their partners for a sailing trip in rocky and foggy Maine, preceded by work on a farm.
Huh???? Yup. You heard me correctly. Work on a farm. Whew, what a whirlwind schedule! So much to do and learn. Why settle for ordinary, boring vacations?
You see, the ferry was merely the third leg in a complicated journey from Capitol Hill to Bucks' Harbor Marina where we will board the sailboat. The fourth leg: exploring and exploiting the abbreviated growing season on an island in the Maine woods.
Islesboro boasts some elegant mansions: classic New England "summer cottages," mostly deserted now that Labor Day is nigh. Flowers and bay windows. Wraparound porches with comfortable rocking chairs. Acres of manicured lawns.
We drove right on by. Stopped instead at an ancient wooden farmhouse with barn, woodshed, greenhouse, chicken coops, threadbare carpets and peeling wallpaper. Here, there are no gardeners or greenskeepers, and the work continues in every season. 
August is time for bringing n the summer harvest before autumn ushers in New England frost. Our itinerary this week includes picking, planting winter crops, canning and cooking, alongside farmer Sandy and her companion Toby.
Also endless weeding, hoeing, cutting--and washing lots and lots of dishes.
Yesterday I sliced cucumbers and canned dill pickles while Pope weeded the garden, fed the chickens, and cut down overgrowth.
Today I picked beans, spinach, and squash; whipped up scrambled eggs; and served a salad of freshly picked lettuce, spinach, arugula, nasturtiums, and peaches, with a dressing made from lemon and leftover pickle brine. Hostess Sandy completed the repast with stuffed, baked pattypan squash.
Hungry, you say? Sorry, too late. In the midst of an abundant and demanding harvest, the meals are filling, delicious, and over in a flash. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


It started at 7:52 am: the slog down the front stairs with five bags; the rush to Metro; transfer at L'Enfant; airport security. Finally, Portland, Maine--home of Lenny, the world's only life-size chocolate moose.
But this is only the beginning. Right now we are on a long-distance coach headed for Lincolnville. Haven't heard if it? Why, I'm so surprised! It's a thriving coastal metropolis of 1,264.
From there it's a long night slouching in the corner of the bus station waiting for tomorrow's ferry to the island of Islesboro. Unless by some amazingly fortuitous circumstance we make it across town and onto the last ferry tonight, scheduled to depart 15 minutes after the bus is scheduled to arrive. (NO ONE here has encouraged us to think positively about making it. There's a hand gesture that three times, from three different people, has accompanied their ambivalence--roughly comparable to the French gesture for "comme ci, comme ca.")

Three years ago, same season, Pope and I sailed around Vancouver Island with Dave, Joanne and Mark of Denver, Colorado (3 1/2 weeks). We didn't get drowned, depressed, or  disabled. So a short time later, we boarded Echo II in Chesapeake Bay and sailed to the Bahamas (8 weeks). 
Those of you who followed my blog back then know it wasn't all peachy keen. The company was excellent on both trips. But there were also tides, currents, fog, logjams, freezing cold, and later shoals, coral heads, and breakdowns.

In fact, for me, there were moments of extreme distress interspersed with weeks of mild-to-moderate anxiety. For Pope, there were only minor hiccups. We agreed on one thing, though: next time, stay home and watch the travel channel!

One would think that one would not only learn one's lessons, but act smartly on that enhanced knowledge. But no, we are wired as human machines (of the un-thinking variety, much of the time) to repeat long-ingrained patterns of forgetting the past and continuing to make comparable decisions of questionable intelligence.

So when Dave, Joanne, and Mark asked,  "Do you want to sail around some islands in Maine?" we smiled and said "Of course." And when Pope asked, "Do you want to sail to the Bahamas again?" I looked at him, frowned, and responded only with "Are you out of your f**king mind?" before I said "yes."

So here we are, side by side on the bus-- Pope reading calmly and quietly, nodding off, and me fretting and frowning, wringing my hands, over the tight connection. Just a momentary blip in a lifetime of self-induced travel stress.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

On the Fulcrum Between Adventure and Insanity

Pope and I are gearing up to go sailing again. Yes. We're off to Maine this week on a bareboat charter. Just a few days after our return, we'll load up Echo II and cast off for southern shores.

Is it fun? Is it fulfilling? Or is it ... just plain nuts? How well I remember--from three years ago--the immense satisfaction of waking to a slice of pink cloud. Home-baked bread on Staniel Cay. Swimming with dolphins.

And then there were....the ocean crossings. Dozens of drawbridges. Shallow water on the ICW and the Bahamas Bank. A leaky cabin roof. Worst of all, perhaps, the mosquitos, no-see-ums, and biting green flies.

Are we REALLY ready for this again? How can I keep my endorphins pumping without Barre Fusion and Power Toning at Sport & Health? How long will it take Pope to miss the indentation in the sofa while he inhales blood, guts and tears on the Sons of Anarchy and Hell on Wheels?
Echo II awaits passenger boarding, happily bobbing in Whitemarsh Creek in anticipation of adventure in bigger water. Five tons of fiberglass, dacron, diesel, and moldy cushions, ready to deploy--as soon as we load another half ton of spare parts and supplies.

I am not bobbing. I am slogging. Through cleaning, packing, organizing, provisioning.

Stay tuned. The countdown to insanity has begun.