Years ago I worked with a woman who kept what she called a “tickler file.” For those of you who don’t know, this is a record-keeping system that is intended to trigger time or calendar-based reminders of what you need to do and when. I think there are fancier ways to do this, but my memory is that she simply kept a file for each month, and she’d keep important documents and notes related to what she knew she’d need to pay attention to in those months. That way, as she approached those seasons, she could be sure she was remembering the work she needed to be doing.
I thought this was a pretty neat system, and I’m a person who loves planning and organizing (I even wrote a newsletter last year about how I think our son has inherited this love and applied it to his planning of Dungeons & Dragons games). When we first started the farm, I imagined that we’d slowly build up lots of notebooks and files and records of our seasonal happenings, much like my former co-worker.
It hasn’t happened.
At least, not in the way I imagined at all. Instead of building a lot of paper or computer files with that information, Casey and I have found that we store the lists inside us. Well, in a combination of inside ourselves but also everywhere around us on the farm.
You see, unlike in an administrative setting, where the work might have some relation to the calendar but few external reminders, our work is led by the natural world itself. Field walks are our “tickler file,” as we observe the turnings and are reminded of what the next step is for us. For example, seeing mature winter squash in a field with senescing leaves is a clear marker that it’s time to harvest squash for storage. We do keep ongoing notebooks for building our to do lists, so that item gets written down for the upcoming week.
Between our stored experience and these markers in the natural world, we’ve built quite the multi-dimensional inner map of time and space. If that sounds far-out, that’s intentional.
A few years ago, I read two books almost simultaneously that together profoundly changed the way I understand how we as humans interact with the world: The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram and Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. I should say that neither of these books on its own was life-changing for me, but the combined conclusions were revelatory. Both talked from different angles and purposes about how humans have an incredibly strong ability to retain information related to place and journeys and stories. Abrams uses this angle to talk about indigenous spiritual ways of knowing and story-telling, and Foer uses it for the more prosaic purpose of memorizing large volumes of random facts for memory contests (by building a so-called ‘memory palace’ in his head).
Human memory is rarely valued or used intentionally in a highly literature society with information carried in our pockets. But their books have heightened my awareness of my own natural ability to remember things extremely well based on place and time. Every mushroom-hunter and forager will appreciate the ease with which a good patch is remembered — it is almost effortless compared to some tasks we ask ourselves to do in this modern technological world.
Long ago, before things like foraging and farming were part of my experience, I pictured hunters and gatherers randomly roaming landscapes, hoping to find food. My understanding is more sophisticated now, as I’ve come to understand that most peoples probably had individual or shared mental maps of what foods were available where and when. Elephants have this skill as well, and the oldest matriarch elephants are especially important because they often even retain information about food patches and water sources only needed in the driest years — the kind of extremes that might only happen twice in a lifetime. But those elephants will remember, decades later, where their family found water when they were young. In those conditions, that kind of inner mapping knowledge is priceless to an elephant or human alike.
Many years ago in Casey and my own life, we spent our first week ever gardening or farming at our friends Jeff and Josette’s homestead in Chelan. It was a truly awesome immersion into what it means to really know a place, and I remember being so impressed at how Jeff would launch into stories inspired by seemingly random features in the landscape. For example, Jeff told us that a burnt log that didn’t even catch my attention as we went on a walk was hit by lightning just at the moment that his wife Josette passed the placenta after the birth of their daughter. I looked at this log and was truly blown away. That was an important story — a remarkable story about the timing of two natural events in their life — and Jeff carried the story in his person, easily triggered by the sight of the otherwise dull log. I knew then that I wanted to have that kind of relationship with a place, where it’s small details would be woven into the fabric of my own life stories, ready to come to the surface on an afternoon walk through familiar places.
In Abrams’s book he talks at length about the stories told by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and how those stories were directly connected to the vast landscapes they would walk over the course of a year and its seasons. Much like the elephants, water and food could become scarce in certain years and seasons, and those stories would weave life-saving knowledge for the community with the spiritual stories of generations. These stories were passed over hundreds and hundreds of years, as there is evidence that the indigenous Australian people have one of the oldest intact cultures in the world.
Abrams, and others, have mourned the loss of the landscapes and the connections to the land of indigenous peoples around the world. As modern western humans who employ paper and writing and computers to store our most important stories and information, it is hard to begin to comprehend the critical role landscapes played in memory for our ancestors. Our written stories are portable, and we modern humans easily migrate, bringing our stories with us. But for people who find their stories in rocks and trees and rivers, the losses of those places is more than just a loss of resources (as we might see it) — it can be a disconnection from a different kind of history, from the past, from ancestors.
Casey and my time on our farm and the land around it is so insignificant compared to what indigenous peoples might have experienced here. For example, before it was destroyed by dams, Celilo Falls here in Oregon was one of the world’s longest continuously inhabited places. What stories were tied to that place for the people whose ancestors had developed the system of fishing there over centuries? Who had known the vibrant back-and-forth of the trading routes that came through the area seeking the rich protein source of the salmon?
Nonetheless, we’ve had a taste of that experience. We’ve built our own stories and inner maps, almost effortless, just by living here, working here, paying attention. In many ways, our maps and seasonal reminders are more prosaic and practical, like Foer’s use of the memory palace or my co-worker’s tickler files. We recognize when it’s time to harvest each variety of apple by the changing in the skin texture and memories from year’s past. We recognize when it’s time to sow the last of the fall greens, and so on. But we have the deeper knowledge too that serves only us — the stories of our family’s life here. We know where our cat is buried and where our children played in mud puddles when they were little and where we found a beaver dying in our orchard. Those places and the stories are part of us now.
Depending on the calendar you look at, today is either Columbus Day — a federal holiday to remember the first European man to document sailing to the Americas — or Indigenous Peoples Day — a day to remember the people who lived here before that man came and to recognize the unimaginable losses resulting from colonization.
There is so much that we modern Western humans, immersed in our own way of being, can’t understand. There are things that our language literally can’t articulate because we don’t have the words or syntax. This is especially true when it comes to language of place and the natural world, which in English (and many modern European languages) almost always turns non-humans into objects in our grammatical syntax. Much understanding has been lost, and its loss affects the way we see everything.
I have only had such a small taste of other ways of knowing and being. I wish I could know more, wish that I could connect to my pre-literate ancestors or to the people who lived here before me. Today, I want to honor those deep ways of knowing, that understanding that truly exceeds our modern limits. We move so fast as a global society. We use resources quickly; we drive fast; we make decisions as speedily as possible. What if we paused? What if we listened to the quieter voices? What if we paid attention to the sentient, living world around us? What could we learn? How might we live more fully?
Quiet attention feels scarce right now, even in my own intentional life. Thank you to everyone who offered kind sympathetic words after last week’s newsletter — it’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling frustrated and tired in this intense year. If I were to give myself (and you) a prescription for the week, it would be to s l o w d o w n, pay attention … and VOTE! Ballots are coming out soon here in Oregon. This is one thing we can do.
Enjoy this week’s vegetables!
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
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Meet this week’s vegetables: