We’ve just passed our four year anniversary of first finding the farm. That first day, and in the subsequent months, the property felt far from a farm, and entirely overwhelming. The thigh-high star thistle we had waded thru in May was shoulder-height by the time escrow closed and we were full-time on the property in mid-summer. The fences that criss-crossed the land, dividing it up into little paddocks for horses were barely visible, and it was hard to gauge distance and space with such dense plant growth blocking the visuals.
In the following months, Simon cut down the thick weeds, using the only tool we had at the time - a weedwacker. Day in and day out, he cut, raked, and removed the mountain of vegetative growth that had barred our way with its woody, thorny thicket. He was on his own doing this, as I was still working full-time in San Francisco and living there until the fall. I’d come and visit and be surprised at what his hard work was revealing on our seven acres - a beautiful trunk of a walnut tree, an old bathtub, a path down to the creek. The house was unfurnished save for a plastic folding table in the kitchen and Simon’s mattress on the floor. He lived a rugged and insanely tiring life those first months before I moved in, working in the hottest part of the summer from morning till he couldn’t see anymore at night. The place was wild and vicious - yellow-jacket’s nests in the tall weeds that would swarm out and sting him over and over, thorns that would scratch, dust and heat. He was strong and brave though, and wrestled the beast made of long-neglected acres till it was manageable, cleared, fire-safe, and farmable.
That first fall, we planted our first beds of saffron, and that winter, we began to plant a native hedgerow, build a chicken house, empty the outbuilding of the piles of items left by the previous owner, and explore every corner of the property. We would walk around and point to things, dreaming of what could be there, what we could create. We would sketch out plans at night, measure and re-measure things, figure out budgets for rebuilds and plantings, and slowly started claiming more and more of the property as “ours,” putting our stamp on it, even if it just meant removing weeds and clutter.
Entering our fourth year, the work, the claiming, and cleaning out and dreaming up of next steps continues. We continue to remove fence lines that we inherited. At first, we had adhered to their boundaries and created within them, but then we had an epiphany - “Someone else put this fence here - created this division. We can erase that line by taking down the fence and use the space in a new way.” Seems common sense, but a fence holds authority and we bowed to that at first. Finally this spring, we are realizing how little of the existing feet and feet of fencing we really want or need. Some of it is useful to hold irrigation pipe, or to create a sense of transition from one part of the farm to another, but we love openness (and not having to go to an opening to get thru).
I noticed something else this spring - something super obvious, but if you see it everyday, one may not be aware - we have created paths. There is a path along the chicken run to the market garden, a path around the house, around the hoop house, down the middle of the market garden, to the saffron field, down the middle of the lavender field, and one back to the Airstream. Some of these paths are straight and direct, but others meander around a tree or shrub that we have planted, or a building we have put up. The earth is compact from our feet and our little electric carts and no weeds grow there. Walking along one of these paths the other day, I was struck by the realization that the farm is now a “place,” partly because of these paths. For the first years, the farm was a project, it was a source of toil and exhaustion and overwhelm. Now, it is a place with destinations within that place. We have put so much into this land and we leave our mark on it every day, with the footprints we leave along the paths, and the gardens and orchards and order we have created from the wild forgotten beast of a property. The farm has become a place, and not just for us. People come from far away to see this place and stay here and enjoy it. It is becoming more and more of a destination for others, and more and more, it is becoming home for us. Our previous homes and existence pre-farming fading away.In 2013, my favorite “place” on earth burnt to the ground in the Rim Fire. It was a family camp in the Sierras, on the banks of the South Fork of the Tuolumne River. The camp was owned and operated by the city of Berkeley, and had been hosting families since 1922. I had grown up spending my entire summers there, as my mom was on staff. We had arrived the day after school ended in the spring and didn’t return home to Stockton on the hot valley floor in the San Joaquin till the day before school started. A simple tent cabin, shaded by Pacific dogwood trees and soaring sugar pines was my home, and the large, Craftsman-style Dining Hall, and circle of wooden Adirondack chairs painted dark green in front of the Hall were the heart of the camp. The truly happiest days of my childhood were at that camp, and all my dreams and schemes as a child through adulthood were of how to re-create the feelings I had there - the life with a focus on community and nature. Losing camp was extremely difficult. I sobbed for years afterwards at the thought that it was gone. Just thinking about the particular sound that the screen doors of the Dining Hall would make as they fwapped closed would make me weep. I couldn’t get through singing the camp theme song without crying. I wonder now how I would feel about camp if it was still standing intact, now that I have this place that is my favorite place. I think I would feel the same - Berkeley Tuolumne Camp was for decades the place I used as the template for what I wanted in my life, and have used to create what we have here at Peace and Plenty. Even if I was too busy here on the farm to go visit, knowing it was there would always be balm. Plus, I would have loved for Simon to see it, smell it, hear it. They are rebuilding the camp, and someday, there will be trees and buildings along the thankfully untouched river. Perhaps I will take my grandchildren there to wade in the chilly waters of the river and teach them about the fairies that live in the woods.
Recently, we purchased a couple of sturdy wooden benches from a venerable old cafe in Berkeley that was sadly closing its doors. The benches reminded me of the Adirondack chairs from camp, so I picked out a green paint, finding the closest shade I could to the ones in the circle in front of the DHall. They now sit on either side of our rose arch that leads from the lavender to the middle field. It will be a spot for people to sit and chat and enjoy the view, just like the Adirondacks at camp. There’s no way to replicate the magic of Berkeley Camp - but I do find that the camaraderie of our interns during harvest, their music playing from the RV on their days off, the screech of the scrub jays in afternoon, the dappled light that filters through the walnut trees, and our little wild riparian area along the creek at the back of the farm all take me there … but here at the same time.
“There’s no place like Camp Tuolumne. There’s no spot that I would rather be” goes the song. Maybe we need to write a song about Peace and Plenty Farm. This is now definitely the place I would like to be.
Dining Hall: Tim Messick
Rose Arch: Ryan Blakenship
Green Chair Circle: Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp
Drone Footage: Dottie Bates