Anyone who plans a six-week summer solo road-trip to the Pacific Northwest, with a loose plan to climb on lots of rocks/boulders, study for a mathematics examination, breathe deep, and connect with as much of the gorgeous environment as possible, has to be a bit open minded for the numerous unknown experiences about to come onto their path. As I jetted west from Chicago, in the wake of two exuberant young women headed for a summer internship on a Permaculture just outside Seattle, WA, my thoughts raced around what was to come; ‘Do I go to Squamish, British Columbia, first to climb or somewhere in Washington?’ ‘What is the probability that it will rain a lot?’ ‘Did I remember to pack enough underwear?’ and the like, bounced around my spinning mind from Iowa to Idaho. But after hitting the Washington state line, on June 6th, I decided that after a stop in Seattle to visit with my friends Laura and Caroline, before they headed to their internship, I would venture North to Squamish. It would be the start to my trip, at a climbing mecca that I had been making my hands sweat for years.
Within about a week of being in the picturesque sea-to-sky country of British Columbia, and getting schooled on the rocks by morning, and some math problems by evening, with no surprise, I had shredded the skin off most of my callused fingertips. All the after effects of the expansive and coarse granite boulders, located at the base of the Stawamus Chief. It had been stiff but perfect, and was now definitely time for a couple of rest days. So I had decided that a trip back to the good ol’ U.S.A, to meet up with Laura and Caroline, for their days off, would rejuvenate my weathered body and mind. To my surprise, that stopping to meet with the ladies at Songaia Cohousing Community would inspire me to alter my tentative summer climbing plans to include learning and experiencing some Permaculture life.
From the moment I stepped out of my truck at the Songaia garden I new that what was in front of me was not my mother’s ordinary vegetable plot. With a nice brief walking around tour from Caroline, and a stop by some ripe strawberries, I started to unravel some of the initial ‘wildness’ that encompassed my thoughts and views. Slowly, while walking the paths from bed to bed and lots of questions, I began to trust that everything did have its place and the seemingly erratic layout was actually quite well planned out; this was a very complex system indeed.
I had always wanted a chance to be able to lend a hand in a serious farm/garden setting, so seeing the growing and thriving environment that was laying in front of me, and starting to comprehend how amazing the opportunity my two friends had, excited my thoughts and raised some questions. At the same time, I still realized how important it was to me to be able to experience as much of the outdoor and climbing life that Pacific Northwest had to offer.
Although my educational background had been primarily in Aerospace engineering, and was currently transitioning to Applied Mathematics, I had always been intrigued by the complex systems that are created in nature and ecology. As a child, I can definitely recall spending many moments ‘helping’ my mother in her lush, compact gardens; as a bonus, my eldest sister is fairly passionate and vocal about organic farming in her summer months, allowing me to have briefly been introduced to some small-farm life, and during the previous semester, I had started to browse and read some of the principles of Permaculture.
Work started on Tuesday mornings around 9, beginning with a brief meeting, where all the day’s garden workers convened, caffeinated, and grouped up to discuss the various projects to work on. With my first task assigned to run mulch, by truck and wheelbarrow with Brent, we were instructed to fill and line various garden beds across the property, after they had been covered with used coffee bags by another group. During the mulch runs, I was able to ask several questions and listen to what Brent or Patricia would answer. Everything seemed intriguing and led to further questions. From topics on worm biology and maintenance, importance and methods of composting, all the different species growing around, and not to mention all the magnificent scents lofting in the passing breeze, I felt a deep smile and connection beginning to grow, and, in part because of the enthusiasm felt from the community members. By the end of work on the first day, I knew that I would have to return to Songaia for some enjoyable work and learning. It was perfect that in between four and five day climbing sessions, I needed a ‘rest’ day in Bothell.
During the following five weeks, I was able to spend much of my time, and brisk mornings, exploring and climbing in the quiet, pristine, and most breathtaking forested boulder fields the Cascades had to offer. Most afternoons were spent in a hammock along the rushing Skykomish River, reading and practicing some probability problems. But early Tuesday mornings, I was always geared and ready to head to Songaia, for some hands-on learning, good Earth-work, friendly faces, and dirty clothes.
Projects would vary from time to time and there was always something to be done. I can recall with Brian and Laura, I was able to learn how to plant certain Tomato varieties in a hoop-house, as well as setting up the watering system for some extra tomato pots; all while singing special songs to help the plants grow strong. While with Patricia and Doug, I was able to get some proper experience building, maintaining, and mixing compost. From manure, garden clippings, and food-waste, the different bins of material were all mindfully crafted and monitored to allow for proper temperature and consistency of the compost.
This idea fascinated me, and I began to ponder on the idea of a plant guild. My simple understanding was that a guild could be formed when certain plants, in a specific soil, are found to work well with one another. The appendices of the research books would describe the settings and types of plant species that could work in harmony with the soil-plant web. As I drew up questions in my head, I wondered how to create a group/system that thrives more, than when compared with results with growing the individual plants, the mathematician in me began rustle on. Could there be some kind of a connection between certain plant species through and with the soil, which would allow for growing of certain species more efficiently in combination? Is there some kind of periodic and stable nutrient transfer, between the species and soil/environment that could be investigated? I definitely felt like a big nerd in my head, but that happens from time to time so I just rolled with it; and it seemed that I wasn’t the only one this topic excited. Although I had not anticipated being invigorated by mathematical ecology, who knows, maybe I’ll find a way to understand that stochastic process better through my own research, some day.
As July carried on, I continued to make my weekly visits to Songaia to work and learn as much as I could. By the end, I was finally understanding how to properly thin carrots, harvest and use Sea-Buckthorn Berries, set up garden beds, compost, understand the starting processes of creating a worm farm, and how to smang-it with Caroline, Laura, and Maddy. Soon I began to notice that the mornings spent bouldering were growing warmer and buggier, signaling the coming of August and the conclusion of my Northwest adventure.
Dang, what an exciting and fast-flowing six weeks it had been! With countless forests and rocks explored in the best summer weather and conditions anyone could ask for, balanced by a wonderful experience of organic learning with hands on work, in a community filled with amazing energy, knowledge, and love, I could barely comprehend that I was about to leave my friends and change scenes abruptly to drive 2200 miles back East.
As I attempt to recall the experiences, lessons, and meals that I was able to have this summer, along with the personal connections strengthened and created, I noticed how the road has always been a place for personal reflection, growth, and understanding for me. So sitting familiarly back in the driver’s seat of my truck I couldn’t help but let my mind stew on some themes of what had just occurred. The summer had taught me many different things, and I had much to thankful for. I was able to practice being open to many experiences in the garden, with friends, and otherwise; trying to find the beauty in all outcomes. How to be persistent in climbing and falling off rocks, studying and struggling with mathematics, and regularly volunteering to find that hard work usually has positive effects. As well as how to be humble and learn from every situation with the excitement of a beginner. And not to mention seeing the power of community in the overall garden, systematic plant and soil beds, and human cooperation. But these are just the after thoughts and words taken from the actual experiences. I would probably need another 2200 miles of driving to succinctly jot down the details of all my interactions, adventures, and emotions. Though my time with Songaia was brief, I feel that a lasting impact has been made, and I have found a true interest in the garden/farm life. Possibly, in the future, I’ll be able to research, pass on, and hopefully someday practice similar ethics and styles.