a visit to the farm on the mattole river

O, teachers are my lessons done?

I cannot do another one.

They just smiled at me and said:

Well, child, are your lessons done?

Are your lessons done?

–Leonard Cohen

Once or twice a year my husband and I visit the only people we know who live on a farm. The farm lies in California’s North Coast region, 250 miles north of San Francisco, our home.

The area we visit is a hundred miles north of the last tentacles of Bay Area urban and suburban sprawl, which now grasp at the borderline of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Even woody Mendocino has a couple of towns that are bulging in the middle around the vertical axis of Highway 101, like municipal versions of middle-aged spread. But once you reach huge Humboldt, one of this mammoth state’s largest counties, you cross some border less artificial than the sign-posted county line. I think of it as the beginning of the Northwest. As the vistas expand, the population shrinks: California is now home to one out of eight people in the whole country, but almost all of them live south of here.

And you have entered an incomparably beautiful land: of precipitous forested slopes plunging down to stony river beds, sluicing shining green water towards the sea, shreds of mist clinging to dark ravines, gently winding valleys of pasture land spangled with poppies, lupine, and other vivid wildflowers. And of course, the Pacific Ocean: vast, moody, hidden behind the highest coastal mountains in the state—until you are actually upon it, and then it changes everything. This coast lies on the active rim of three tectonic plates; the land is thrusting up, the sea is trying to tear it down, storms, fires, earthquakes are frequent: this is young and wild earth.

And yet human settlement just since the 19th century has had the effect of many earthquakes on the whole area, reshaping the land and disturbing its “young” million year-old patterns. In his book Totem Salmon, author and local resident Freeman House described a community effort (which began in 1980 and continues to this day) to restore the Mattole River’s unique population of wild salmon from near-extinction because of rampant logging in the 1940s and ‘50s. Commercial salmon fishing is now defunct because of unsustainable practices, and logging and ranching are on the ropes, and yet these brief activities may have forever altered the character of hillsides, rivers and streams in the area so that, at best, even if there is no further reckless development, their once-stable ecosystems will be undergoing severe stress for the foreseeable future. They will likely never host the kind of natural abundance and variety they once did. House gives an admirable history of the interactions of people and place in this land, and shows how even apparently oppositional groups like conservative ranchers and hippie pot farmers can form alliances around their affinity for a sustaining home place. Along the way, you get a very clear picture of the exceptional Mattole River watershed itself, really the main character of the story.

Humboldt County is the land of the Redwood Empire, where the timber wars raged in the 1980s and ’90s, fought almost tree by tree in what seems to have been a mostly losing battle to save the last great stands of the world’s tallest living things. Talk about not being able to “see the forest for the…” not even all of its staunchest warriors may have realized that the only meaningful fight was to save the once-immense northern forests as living ecosystems—not sanitized, nature-free, tree museums—and to preserve the watersheds that the local trees, fish and people all depended on.

And of course, many paper- and wood-consuming people living far from large stands of trees of any kind had trouble understanding why they should care. Beyond the tunnel vision of business boosters who said “Try wiping your ass with a spotted owl,” some urban activists I knew dismissed it as a privileged struggle: trees were beautiful things, but shouldn’t we focus our attention on ensuring that people in our own neighborhoods weren’t dying in a hale of police gunfire, or from toxic pollution or preventable diseases? What is a forest to us, who have never been granted even a park or a playground? Now, however, as the effects of the Anthropocene start to gather all people and all ecosystems in their growing chaos, the battle for the trees seems less elitist, if it ever was.

But this is not the story of that debate.

The family we visit has its history with the struggles to preserve the character and quality of the land that sustains them. But we do not visit Ilani and Mel because of their affiliation with conservation battles. Nor do we visit them to “learn” about homesteading or organic farming; we have realized that they have neither the time nor the patience to explain or demonstrate to the two of us, who have little affinity for just about any mechanical work, how a solar panel functions, or a waterwheel generator, or drip irrigation, or the best way to mulch a biodynamic garden. This time we drove up for a barn dance; it was a lot of fun. But no trip to this farm has been simple, or simply pleasurable, to me from the very first. Instead, while I am there, I constantly find myself questioning who and what I am, and how I got to be this way, and wondering if there is any point to my life at all. And yet I always want to go back.

What does visiting the farm tell me about myself? I am an urbanite descended from at least six generations of middlemen—traders, brokers, bureaucrats—who had little affinity for any land except as real estate, and made nothing with their hands, except possibly as a pastime. This is not an excuse for anything. Ilani and Mel both come from urban backgrounds in the Bay Area; no one took them by the hand from childhood, and taught them how to live on the land, as they are now teaching their son, Arun. Nor is it an explanation—or an apology; I note with curiosity when I am in the area how few of the current homesteaders’ children, especially the teenagers, for all their early exposure to this magnificent countryside, seem to have any interest in continuing to live on it. And I wonder if the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s—with which our friends coincided, even if they did not really consider themselves a part of it—will be another of those one-generational experiments so common in the history of alternative social movements, here and elsewhere.

The whole question of attachment to this land is complicated by the fact that Ilani and Mel are probably among the few homesteaders in the infamous “Emerald Triangle” who do not use their land for marijuana growing. I, who since adulthood have found myself living in all sorts of situations not pointed to by my sheltered small town beginnings, from a Brooklyn ghetto brownstone to a Moroccan souk to a war zone in Central America, like to imagine I am pretty worldly by now. But I had to chuckle at my pretensions, when it belatedly began to dawn on me why I had gotten so many circumspect answers as I tried small-talking to folks at the barn dance about what they did for a living. “Well, we own land, so of course we don’t have the same expenses as you do in the city,” was my favorite. When I had looked into purchasing land in that area I realized that my lifestyle of surviving on about $15,000 a year in a rent-controlled apartment without a car would be completely impossible up there—the taxes and interest payments on the land alone would have forced me to find a much larger source of income than the activist support work I had been eking by on for years. There is only one crop in Humboldt County now that provides the necessary financial security to live comfortably on the land. Legal complications aside, maybe I was actually living more “sustainably” by living cheap in the city!

And maybe one day the homesteaders’ kids will come back to the “farm,” after a little messing around in town, trying to live on taxable wages and do that dreary commute to the financial district or the office park. Much depends on the status of the dwindling war on drugs in the next ten or twenty years, the overall economy, the effects of global warming, and a lot of other imponderables, but that is not really the story I’m telling here either.

What challenges me continually to examine my own choices when I am on Ilani and Mel’s farm is not just spending time with people who work very hard and very skillfully (though they would demur at this), all day, with their hands, and finally sit down to rest about nine o’clock at night, while my husband and I wake late, scrounge coffee (which they don’t drink), opportunistically partake of the wholesome, all-organic breakfast our hostess always prepares for her husband and son, and then spend the day lazily lying on the river bank below their property, or taking winding drives along the picturesque back roads through the surrounding farm and forest land.

It has more to do with the particular character of these people, which is very pronounced. They are not what I would describe as easy people. While they are always glad to see us, they don’t go out of their way, for example, to make us feel that we are special to them—they don’t give us any of the usual cues, like asking us leading questions about our life, or our thoughts on a given subject, or praising any accomplishments in which we may venture to express our own pride. They love to tell stories of their exploits, and somehow these are always more dramatic, more important-seeming—even when they are being funny and self-deprecating, or grim and unromantic, which they often are—than our tales. And I think this has to do with the fact that they long ago became convinced that the only really admirable thing anyone can do is to live as they have lived, on a piece of land in a given place which they honor and care for above all else, forever.

And you see, I think perhaps they are right; that is why I find myself so troubled by the life I have led. I, who have traveled obsessively, prizing mobility above all things, and have no idea how to bargain responsibly with nature for my life. Instead, I am sustained by the vast web of a complex civilization that many say has no future, because it is undermining the conditions it depends upon to survive (“the very definition of unsustainable,” according to author Michael Pollan). But it is the only world I’ve ever known.

When we drive away from the farm, I often find myself defensively reviewing the things I have done in my life, the things I am proud of, or at least, the things I did that make the best stories, though many (most) remain untold. Why didn’t I tell these rural folks about working for a week on that dairy farm in southern France, I think, or picking tomatoes and olives in the Greek islands? Well, those experiences would seem dilettantish to them, I suppose. They have no interest in travel, one of the main passions in my life; it takes them away from their land. And besides, what’s funny about those stories is how bad I was at farm work; much happened to me in my travels, but my acquiring any useful skill for living on or with the land was not part of it.

Ilani and Mel almost never leave their homestead for more than a few days at a time. Their friendships, their financial relationships, their relationship to the world are all contingent on their involvement with one location: the farm, the Mattole River Valley, southern Humboldt County. They may have begun by choosing the place, but for decades now the place has chosen them.

When you are chosen by a place, rather than choosing it, your life is very different. You may still be open to chance and change in other aspects of your life, but you must do whatever the thing that has chosen you requires in order to honor it. The thing that has chosen you takes away your choice, where it is concerned.

I’ve come to believe that people who are not chosen in this way are made uncomfortable by those who are. And possibly feel somewhat threatened by them as well. Perhaps this accounts for my own discomfort when I visit the farm. The chosen people, who are marked by a certain rigidity, by their lack of flexibility, in some sense, also seem to possess access to a fund of knowledge, a depth of understanding that is mysterious, off-limits to me.

This may be something like the differences between the ways indigenous and “modern” peoples act and operate in the world. Those of us who are modern have let our ability to adapt to changing conditions—to a mechanized world, to extreme mobility, to systems of thought that materialize everything and limit it to a very superficial set of characteristics, for example—be our tool for survival. We do this in order to feel that we are part of our surroundings, are actually at home in the hypertrophic world into which we have been born, but have not made.

But there are people who for reasons of culture or psychology have not been able to adapt in this way. Instead, they must alter their context according to a vision of it that permeates their whole being, or else suffer physical or spiritual death.

I wonder if at some level the chosen ones feel that we flexible ones, who are the vast majority now—by our very adaptability (our “weediness,” some biologists call it), by our ability to simply go on about our lives while around us an irreplaceable network of incontrovertible truths about humans and nature is hacked to bits or falls apart in decay—have betrayed our home and our future, and unleashed horrors that will inevitably engulf both them and us. I wonder if a submerged feeling of guilt that this might be so makes us distrust them and justify our own choices by relegating the chosen ones to the level of eccentrics. Or, in the case of indigenous peoples, totems of otherness. Admirable, but not imitable.

During our last stay at the farm, I happened to pull a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance off a bookshelf in the house. I hadn’t read it in two decades, and I remembered it very imperfectly, but I did recall that the author, Robert Pirsig, wrote at great length about his attachment to a type of knowledge that comes only through physical engagement with concrete, material things, while all the time seeing them as the necessary conduit to something beyond the material, or even the rational. Interestingly enough, he also wrote about how his commitment to explore rationalism to its limits had driven him mad.

Ilani comes from, or really has fled from, an urban background of extreme violence, alcoholism, constant fighting—within the family, in school, and with the police. In her rigid adherence to a land-centered lifestyle of health and wholeness, whatever the cost in terms of her own physical effort, and to a pacifist value system, she is also in flight from this. Her dedication to physical work and her obsession with purifying her surroundings of toxins are an attempt to outrun a danger that always threatens to engulf her.

Earlier in our visit I had found her reviewing some papers and asked her what they were. She was investigating something called kiliation, a therapy meant to remove toxic metals from the body. She had had all three of them tested for these metals and discovered that she and Arun both had high levels of a radioactive element, thallium, that is not naturally occurring. She had had lifesaving open-heart surgery as a child, and was wondering if the hospital had been experimenting with the use of thallium to do radiological tracking, as barium is now used. She was worried that she was experiencing memory loss, and at risk of dementia, and that worst of all, her son might be permanently affected, all because of this early life whose consequences still dogged her. I couldn’t help marveling at the extent to which deep happiness had evaded her, for all her adherence to a life-path which I felt should have produced it—I who had become adept at nothing else, probably, than dodging the bullets of unhappiness life fired at me by being able to step quickly, unencumbered by responsibilities or connections, out of the way of everything, including any given place and especially my own past.

Not that I was happy, exactly; the absence of deep unhappiness did not produce its opposite. I had a persistent sense of floating, disconnection, exhaustion, isolation and hopelessness that no arrangement in my own life could rid me of more than intermittently. I suspected its cause, just as Ilani suspected her contaminated past: it was an inability to belong fully to any place, idea, work, or group of people. It was the inability to be chosen by anything. Ilani and Mel had made themselves belong to a place, to their son, and to each other, but they were still, in a way, as isolated as I was: they couldn’t belong to the colonial past that had placed them on this continent, or to the frantic, violent, and toxified consumer society that now dominated it. Or to their own personal pasts, or to a global future that because of the sins of all these, they could only imagine as catastrophe. And neither could I.

As I sat on the porch reading Pirsig’s book again, with the noise of Mel’s band saw in the background whining and growling from the barn, I could suddenly see how skilled manual work that one perceived as integrally related to one’s quality of life created an antidote to anxiety and despair. For Pirsig, being able to fix his motorcycle was like Ilani’s dedication to her garden’s yield; it created connection on many levels at once: to his own rationality, to the primary processes that gave him life and sustained his life, and ultimately to a direct, non-rational understanding of wholeness. It was a way of thinking without abstraction. It was this level of connection, this mysterious knowledge of how things functioned and thus what they were that came only from workingwith them, that was missing for me as I had moved through the world, using my head and my heart to try to understand it, but almost never my hands.

Pirsig didn’t seem interested in the social or environmental consequences of any set of beliefs, and this is where my primary interest lies. I have no faith that people will ever be truly fulfilled without feeling integrally connected to nature and part of a sustaining social group. In fact, socially, whether Pirsig would have expressed it this way or not, he was probably closest to a form of libertarianism that is not at all alien to the dominant culture here in America now, particularly in the West, but that for me offers no answer to the need I feel for connection to people or the natural world. I think Pirsig was also trying to justify an engagement with technology specifically, not just any manual activity, as a way of vindicating the Western (rationalist) tradition of knowledge. The book was written almost 30 years ago, and we have gone so much further down the nightmarish chute towards a technological dystopia since then that I have to wonder what Pirsig is thinking about that now.

But whether it was intended to or not, his book helped me understand why Ilani might have spent so much time in and be so intimately proud of her garden, or why Mel could get up at six a.m. and go into the barn and not spend more than a half an hour back in the house until long after it was full dark. When you are commanded to care for a place and obtain your survival from it, that is, to inhabit it fully, you must use your hands to do so. Your hands create the conduit through which connection flows. And re-establishing and maintaining this connection at every level of our lives is the only way to achieve the sustainability we moderns talk so much about and have never known.

As my husband and I drove away from the farm, we were full as we always are of plans and ideas that somehow seem to evaporate as the trickle of traffic on the sun-spangled lanes of the northern road grows to a stream, then a flood, the closer we come to the sprawling Bay Area, where you can immediately see just how big and broad and totalizing the techno-industrial consumer society that we cannot give our allegiance to has become. The great irony of the thousands who flood in here each year because they feel like outcasts in that society and then find that they haven’t really escaped it—perhaps because they are still isolated, because they still find no way to connect with the world except by consuming things they don’t make—can take your breath away.

During the drive we were listening for a while to the dark, ironic voice of folk-poet Leonard Cohen. He sang about the failure of relationships, the betrayal of hopes and the mystical aspirations that lay beneath layers of habit and tedium in every life, however limited its possibilities seemed on the surface. And he sang about how, beyond exhaustion and hopelessness, there was the inescapable mandate to continue searching, learning, changing, yet seeking the things that persisted, the things that were true.

When we got home to San Francisco’s Corona Heights district, to our little rented cave of life on a breezy hill surrounded by the well-kempt Victorians of our chilly, affluent, unknown neighbors, there was a message in my email box. After two years on a waiting list, I could take over a 6’ by 6’ plot in the community garden a few blocks from my apartment. A few days later I had my hands in the soil for the first time since childhood. I had no idea of whether or not I could grow anything, and I was happy there was no Ilani to watch me in dismay as I discovered just how many mystifying variables are involved in the simple act of placing a plant or a seed in the ground. But as I worked the little plot, having no sense of whether my choices were good ones or whether they would simply mean a waste of money and produce neither beauty nor food, I realized I felt no anxiety, none of my usual agoraphobia, and my sense of floating and disconnection had disappeared. And even as I realized how fragile and contingent my sense of it was, I felt there was a kind of wisdom springing out of the very small place comprised by this plot of earth, and that my hands comprehended it without my mind knowing exactly how. I could only hope that wisdom was now available to me, and that with practice and attention it would take shape in my life.