Saturday, 22 October 2011

WWOOFing at East Cider Farm

Right now I'm on Denman Island, the larger and less isolated of the two main Northern Gulf islands. Here the ferry seems to be more like a road addition and many of the residents flit back and forth from Vancouver Island since the ferry across doesn't stop at 6pm as the one from Denman to Hornby does. Just like Hornby though, it feels a bit like the British countryside. Like Hornby it has its fair share of hippys, but it's also got quite a few right wing Albertans who apparently started coming to the island once there were flights direct from Calgary to nearby Courtenay. There seems to be quite a bit of community spirit here too, with lots going on in the village such as drumming circles, concerts, yoga and Chinese medicine classes.

I'm almost at the end of the second week of my fifth WWOOFing session. I'm at East Cider Farm/Orchard with Larry and Anne, their crazy stick obsessed dog Ringa, the scratchy cat Screech, some chickens and four Muscovy ducks, as well as at the moment their youngest of three sons, Sebo. My abode is a small (what they call) trailer just outside the house. Larry is now retired to farm work after working 25 years, or more, for BC ferries and Anne works a few days a week as a mediator trying to resolve parent-teenage conflicts.

When Larry and Anne moved to the farm in the early 1980s there was a falling down shack of a house, a few apple trees and some fields. They built their own wooden house, planted about 1000 apple rootstocks, grafting on approximately 80 different varieties of apples and surrounded the orchard with a high fence to stop the deer getting in. The trees are semi-dwarf trees, which apparently only give a steady yield for thirty years, after which productivity starts to dwindle. Their size is very convenient and there are only a few trees that I can't reach the top branches of, and I haven't had to climb any ladders yet. Varieties include gala, blenheim orange, bramley, asian apple-pear (shinjuku), dabinett, liberty, jonagold, prima, james grieve, tompkin's king, chisel jersey and new orleans renette.There are also some pear trees. There are no coxes, russets or kidd's orange redds. Almost all taste pretty good, apart from some of the cider apples and a variety from New York that doesn't even have a proper name, but just numbers (and now I understand why..). The Tompkin's King, which I was picking yesterday, is a yellow-red apple, with pink markings, pretty juicy, susceptible to being worm eaten (almost half of the apples I picked had worms in them) and is really tasty. It is thought to have originated from New Jersey and is quite popular in North America (I've been reading the apple books). The dabinetts (cider apples) are delicious and the galas rather good too. I'm also fond of the apple-pears, although theirs are much smaller than those we had in China and South Korea. I've been thinking of planting one at home for a while, so it's good to see that they can grow in this damp almost Devonshire-like environment. It's hard not to eat a lot of the small apples when I'm picking, I think the blueberry picking has made me think I need to eat while I'm picking fruit!

Back when the trees first started fruiting it wasn't hard for Larry and Anne to sell the apples on the island, but now that everyone seems to have planted their own there's not such a demand. They did used to take some to sell at farmers' markets in Vancouver, but it is rather far to go and sell your apples. In Vancouver you can sell organic apples for about $1.80 a pound. You are lucky to find any apples in downtown Vancouver below 99 cents a pound. All the apples sold here at the little self-service shop in the apple barn are 75 cents a pound. Although not as bad as our apples at home, East Cider Farm's apples have some scab. Larry used to apply some limewash, which is permitted when you're growing organically, but now he can't be bothered. So the low value of the apples and the scab has led them to using most of their apples in juice, or apple cider as they call it in these lands. They separate the apples into good quality apples for sale and juicing on Vancouver Island, second quality (the scabby or wormy ones) for cutting up and juicing on Denman Island and third quality (too small, too scabby, too rotten, too wormy), which they wheel to the edge of the wood for the deer to eat. The man who juices for them in Courtenay wants to retire and appears to be a bit of a fussy grump. He has stopped pasturising the juice for them this year and is threatening to stop pressing at the end of the month, despite it having been a late season.
So Anne and Larry are now pasturising the raw juice themselves by boiling it to 180F and filling it into sterilised glass bottles. They have installed a propane heater beneath the sink to keep the water the bottles are in hot and put a spout and some improvised insulation on a very large pan to boil the juice in. Aside from apples and juice they also sell some jams, dried apple, pear and plum bags and in the summer organic fruit from the Okanagan (and Similkameen) from Hornby's veg. stall man (who came to buy some vegetables from Mariposa Organic Farm while I was there.)

Despite growing up surrounded by about 70 apple trees I have to shamefully admit that I've never really picked apples before. There is a little bit of an art to picking apples, because you mustn't pick the fruit spur (just above the apple stem), otherwise there wont be any fruit on that particular branch next year. Usually when the apples are ripe enough you just need to move them up or down or from side to side and they will come off. When they don't come off so easily you have to use your thumb or other hand to hold the branch to stop the fruit spur coming off. It is much easier to pick the windfalls, but it's wetter on the ground and the apples are more often host to woodlice (or woodbugs...), worms, maggots and in my first week here wasps.

So what have I been doing here on Denman? Workwise I've been picking apples, picking up windfalls, sorting apples (obviously), cutting the bad bits out of the second rate apples (which I do too slowly) watering the tomatoes, picking maize, pulling out the stems of the maize and chopping them into small pieces, picking the tomatoes, pulling out the tomatoes, pulling out the squash plants, clearing out the chicken shed in preparation for two turkeys due to arrive at the weekend, slicing and peeling apple to dry it, preparing the dried fruit bags, making pear compote and trying to stop the school kids who came to visit the farm from picking all the fruit spurs along with their apples. And when I've not been working I've been to a thanksgiving potluck dinner with 17 other people, participating in my first 'thanksgiving round', eating a thanksgiving meal with the family, throwing possibly into the thousands of sticks for Ringa in the garden and on the beach, walking along the beach, seeing an otter and many bald eagles, cycling round the island, visiting Fillongley provincial park, visiting Boyle Point provincial park, eating two meals in Lindsey's (she was a WWOOFer here and now comes and helps once a week) pioneer cabin, meeting up with Dave and Sarah in the 'city centre', watching the end of the Denman v. Courtenay football match, having a look at an art exhibition, getting some wool and felting needles at the felt shop, drinking hot chocolate in the cafe, reading 'Two Caravans' by Marina Lewycka (it's a good story about immigrant workers in the UK), trying to read (because you have to when you come from Lyme Regis) the copy of the 'French Leutenant's woman' that I found in the Northern Studies Centre, taking photos, sorting photos, trying to trip plan (but the internet is slow) and going to a cello concert with Lindsey (we weren't going to go because it was expensive but then Connie who I met exhibiting her art at the art exhibition gave us free tickets). I've also baked brownies (although out of a president's choice packet so I don't think that really counts), a lasagne and steamed lots of vegetables.

I'm dreaming of all the things I can bake when I get home. One day I'll try bottling some fruit and veg., making my own granola and I think I should try drying some pears and plums. I'm currently stealing some recipes from an Italian vegan cookbook written by a Denman Island lady. I'm worried that I've lost the book with all the other recipes I've gathered on this journey (hopefully it's at the blueberry farm), so I've learnt the lesson and am storing these on the computer.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

WWOOFing at the Earth Art and Architecture Society of BC

On Saturday morning I left Hornby Island after two weeks of WWOOFing at the 'Earth Art and Architecture Society of BC', also known as 'Harmony Temple', 'Omtomes healing centre' and 'The Hornby Tea Garden'. In other words at Shahla and Jay's property on Harwood Road.

I'd got there via Santa Clausu's sleigh, greyhound from Qualicum Beach, ferry from Buckley Bay to Denman and then a hitch hike across Denman, on to the ferry to Hornby and to Shahla and Jay's door. It is considered normal for people to hitch hike around the Gulf Islands, but it was still pretty nerve racking going up to the cars and asking if they could give me a ride. In the end I found a lift with Roy (or Ray) a builder from Manchester, who used to be a dyes chemist and now lives on Hornby Island.

Shahla and Jay are originally from Persia. Jay was sent to live with an aunt and go to highschool in the US when he was 14, he had been living in the States ever since, studied business and management, and now works as an accountant. Shahla was a stewardess, then studied fashion at Lucie Clayton College in London before moving to the States and doing further study and helping with evening classes in art and fashion while working as a waitress. Jay is semi-retired and during the summer Shahla has a weekly bakery stall- 'Persian palate' at the Hornby Island Farmer's Market. Sometimes tourists come to eat lunch or have a spot of afternoon tea in the garden. They have grand plans to run music or healing courses.

About eight years ago (while living in California) they purchased this ½ acre piece of land with a cabin on it and self built (along with many helpers) their super adobe house using the technique of Nader Khalili. They used 'Cali Earth' bags of 10% cement with sand and earth, with 30% cement on the outside, and a white clay and sand plaster on the inside. The bags are laid on top of one another and coiled to form a domed house. It is a small house, with a main living area, with very very small rooms coming off of it- a kitchen, a bathroom, a porch area and a bedroom, just large enough to hold a small bed. There is no room for Jay and he was sleeping in a shed in the garden. And since there is not much room in the house for their possessions, most of them are scattered around the garden in makeshift sheds. A carpenter is currently hammering together a self-contained new room in the garden, which they would like to eventually coat the outside with cob or to build it up in 'Normandy style'. This is apparently how you build houses in North America. I stayed in the cabin, which is pretty tidy, spacious and pleasant.

When I arrived a storm was starting to brew, but after a few days calm descended again. There were already five other WWOOFers at the place when I got there (one of them strangely enough had been a volunteer in Churchill a few years ago). Outside it started pouring with rain, almost non-stop for two days. Shahla and Jay seemed disorganised and there was no inside project for us to start on. They suggested we just think about how to approach the projects they had in mind- digging a drainage ditch, tiling the bathroom, making an outdoor shower, building a composting toilet, making an earthbag terrace, helping with the construction of the new room. It felt as though they didn't really want to start some of the projects such as the composting toilet. Shayla kept saying how she had been blessed to have six WWOOFers all at once, the WOOFers on the other hand were not feeling quite so blessed... We had all been expecting to build an earth house- 'an earth art and architecture society building project', but this didn't seem to be the case. As the rain continued to fall, there was a day long power cut with no running water or electricity. All the WOOFers and Jay were cooped up in the living room of the cabin, tensions and frustrations rose. There was a lot of noise and stress, I got a headache and longed to be picking blueberries with Mr. and Mrs. Santa Clausu. Just a few days before they arrived three of the WWOOFers, one with a broken arm, had written to Shayla to ask if they could come and she thought she was doing them a favour and hoped she could do some healing.

When the sun momentarily shone we helped Shahla with a mad blitz of clearing out her laundry room, which was difficult because you don't know what items are important to other people (it's bad enough cleaning out your own mess). In another mad blitz Jaimie decided we were going to clean out the shed where there is a fridge that smells of paint thinner (and subsequently all the food tastes of it too..), some food items, hardware items etc. Meanwhile Chris made a door for the outside shower and Brett and Florianne cut some plastic to go around the outside. One afternoon Brett and Chris began to tile the bathroom. All the same we didn't really feel like we were doing enough work.

To get away from the cabin almost everyone went on an outing to Hornby's freestore, which seems to be the happening place in Hornby on a Saturday and Sunday morning. Half the island is rummaging in the freestore or dropping off their rubbish, recycling and donations. The other WWOOFers seemed to uncover some good finds such as rooibos tea, fairtrade carob tea, old tapes, nice looking clothes, old prunes and a nice selection of unused postage stamps. I didn't find anything of note, but then I wasn't really looking too hard due to that heavy backpack. Outside some kids were delighting in having each found themselves a super soaker water pistol. We also drove around the island and went to Ford's Cove to buy some crisps and chocolate, which was the only shop open since it has its own generator and wind turbine.

The following morning all the other WWOOFers packed their possessions, washed the dishes, swept the floor, said goodbye to Shahla and Jay and went to stay at a farm on the island. The farm seemed like it would have been a nice place to stay and planting garlic would have been more my thing. But I didn't really have the heart to leave too. So suddenly Shahla and Jay only had one WWOOFer, and Shahla couldn't stop thinking about the early morning's events. Consequently I got the day off.

I then dug a drainage ditch around the outside of the earth house, in an attempt to stop the water going towards the house, and after that began to approach the tiling. First we had to agree on a pattern for the 'mosaic', but Shahla couldn't find the design she'd made a few years ago. So there was lots of 'thinking' before I finally started putting the tiles on. I've never done tiling before, so it was a good thing to learn, although I didn't feel like it was something I needed to learn now. Over the next week I slowly tiled some of the curved bathroom, using a plastic fork to make indentations in the thinset and feathers, matches and sticks as spacers. For a perfectionist the task was frustrating, since the curved wall didn't lend itself to tiling that joined together (and Shahla was reluctant for us to cut the tiles)! Now at least I feel confident that I could do a half decent job on tiling a flat surface with the proper equipment.

Shahla's cooking was pretty good. With the beans and tomato from next-door's garden she would make a sauce, which we often ate with saffron rice and tofu. The next day she would fry potato slices, with the mixed sauce and rice on top. She also made a complex soup with beans, fennel, parsley, carrot, courgette and many other things besides. It was tasty too, but I'm just not sure if I would spend so long making a soup. Most of her meals seemed to take a long time to cook, since she likes to fry each vegetable separately as they all require different cooking times. We also had lots of homemade bread, a stew, courgette chocolate cardammon cake, baked apple pear pastries, sweet scones with cardammon and cranberries, jewelled rice (rice with fruits and orange peel), and some good salads. Often eating dinner at nine or ten thirty made me appreciate the food even more!

I had a lot of free time in my first week and since it was raining a lot outside I read the book that Santa Clausu lent me, The Wild Trees, quite a gripping tale about these people who search for and climb the world's tallest trees in California. There was also internet access, so I had some time to try and make some plans and write some emails. I also went to the beach just up the road many times to sit and stare out into the mostly calm Strait of Georgia. I saw loads of gulls, some harlequin ducks, flickers, cormorants, herons, loons and a few sealions. I hoped to see an orca, but didn't. Jay tells me he likes to go to the beach to re-energise when he's feeling depressed. It helped me too.

My main problem at the 'Earth Art and Architecture Society' was feeling detached from nature. Since the beginning of July I've spent a lot of time outside either working, hiking, exploring or admiring the natural world. There I had a bike with flat tyres, so I couldn't really go anywhere, it rained a lot the first week and then I worked a lot the second week, so that the day was almost gone by the time I'd finished.

Halfway through my stay Dave and Sarah from Derby (who were fellow volunteers at Cathedral Lakes Lodge) paid a visit to Hornby Island from the farm they're staying at on Denman. I had been looking forward to it all week. We met at the co-op and shared tales of the Similkameen valley (they had been staying on the farm next to Mariposa, driving the helper car without brake fluid, oil or decent tyres, living amongst flies and picking rocks- they only lasted it a week; apparently the farm I was staying at has burnt down..). After that we attempted to hitch-hike around the island, which is easier said than done. We did see a possum though (albeit flat) and took a daring ride in the back of a truck full of mountain bikes. There really weren't many cars about that were not full up or inhabited my generous people. Our attempt at hiking or hitching to Helliwell provincial park was not really a success and it was just too far to hike all the way. It still felt like a good day, despite the fact that we saw very little and walked quite far.

Finally on my second to last day the bike's tyres were pumped up and on Friday I cycled to Helliwell, stashed the bike behind a large tree in the forest and then walked around the loop. It was a beautifully sunny day and the landscape reminded me of the westcountry. Cycling past all the Hornby dwellings was also very interesting. All the houses are completely different, and most of them self-built. Many of Hornby's residents are artists and have studios in their gardens, some others are retirees or rich second home owners. There is a co-op, a general store, a bakery/pizzeria, a few other shops and cafes that rarely seem to be open, a police station, community centre, health centre, the recycling depot, and a small school. For high school the children have to get the ferry to Denman, bus across Denman, ferry to Buckley Bay and bus to school in Courtney. It seems like a lot of effort.

My stay on Hornby Island reminded me a lot of home- the disorganisation, an element of untidiness, the accumulation of lots of stuff because it might come in useful for a project, the wife who goes to drop rubbish and unwanted possessions off at the recycling depot and comes back with twice as much stuff, the 1001 projects on the go or being thought about and not much happening (my parents are still building the millenium terrace), the husband and wife arguments that seem to escalate because there's an audience, almost missing transport when I leave (we had to dash to the ferry when I left because Shahla had been too busy teaching me how to crochet), the rainfall, the chilliness, the damp, the condensation on the windows, the patches of mildew on the door and on the walls, the mouldy fridge and the slightly unwholesome looking kitchen. This probably gives me a better understanding of Shahla and Jay's lifestyle than most people, but I must admit I can handle my own parent's chaos more easily. At the end I did actually feel quite at home though, and might even have stayed if I hadn't had to tile that bathroom.

A post about Canada Post

Everyone in rural Canada seems to have to go and collect their mail from a postal box at the end or part way along their street. Coming from rural England where I'm used to the postman driving along our lane and into our driveway this is just another odd thing about Canada. In Churchill there's no postman at all and everyone in the town has to walk, and probably more often than not drive (because hardly anyone walks when it's that cold!) to their PO box in the post office. At around 4.30 on a sunny afternoon it was quite the happening event, when everyone was walking with their dogs and children in tow to the post office and bumping into friends. I don't even know if postmen deliver letters directly to your door anywhere in rural Canada, in Fernie, in the desert, among the blueberries, on Hornby and on Denman they all have to get their letters from these mail boxes. On Hornby and Denman the mail boxes are looking somewhat weathered, and just like everything else different from those on the mainland. On Denman they keep their mail boxes closed not just with padlocks, but with spoons and bits of wood. Apparently Canada Post does not like this as it's apparently not legal to leave post in an unlocked mail box.

I can't work out if it's more energy efficient for people to go to the box and collect their mail or for the postman to drive it directly to your door. Most of the time people wont drive just to get their mail, but rather collect it on their way to or from somewhere. So that would clearly be more efficient. One thing's for certain though, Canada Post is saving itself a lot of money (and Royal Mail would have to make a lot of people redundant if we changed our system).

All fingers and just thumbs

In the hostel back in Nelson there was a sign saying 'Do you have a green thumb? Then help us out in the garden..'. And in other places I've heard mention of this green thumb. It appears that the Canadians and the Americans refer to having gardening prowess as having a green thumb. What use though is a green thumb? A thumb is pretty useless in the garden on its own. The inventors of this language have it right again, for there's a lot more you can do with green fingers!