June 1st, 2017
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” – Dorothy Day
Calaveras County is hill country. A person is hard-pressed to find a horizontal surface anywhere. The land starts off with golden hills of grass, and then becomes covered with forests of pine in the higher altitudes. The roads become progressively more interesting as a person drives into the mountains. They require attentive minds and good brakes. Most of them, even Sheep Ranch Road, are paved. Sheep Ranch is all steep grades and switchbacks. It has many gorgeous views and very few shoulders. The road seems challenging, that is, until a person gets on Armstrong Road.
Armstrong Road barely deserves the name. It is ragged, red scar that winds uncertainly through the mountains. We followed its bloody, crooked path toward the Earth Abides Catholic Worker Farm. The GPS told us to keep going, although my gut said to stop. We finally saw a sign indicating that we were, in fact, near the right place. There, up ahead on a hill, was Catherine House, the place where we were going to stay.
I tried to crawl up the hill in 1st gear. This was a blunder. The dirt road had a deep, winding rut in it that I could not avoid. I put a wheel in the rut and bottomed out the Toyota. The car stalled out, and numerous warning lights went on. There was a moment of heartfelt swearing in the car.
I heard a voice cheerfully say, ”We’re not in the city anymore.”
It was Marcus. I had met Marcus in Las Vegas the month before. He was the guy who picked me up when I got released from jail. The jail time was due to some unpleasantness at Creech AFB. Marcus and I had later corresponded, and he was okay with Karin and me visiting the farm for a while.
I opened the car door, and was immediately greeted by a nanny goat. The goat put her head into the car, eager to see the interior of a Corolla.
“Nox, get over here!” Marcus called out.
I asked, “Nox?”
Marcus took her by the scruff of the neck and said, “Yeah, ‘Nox’. She has a sister named ‘Equi’. They were born on the spring equinox.”
We had to move the car. It was blocking a neighbor’s access to Armstrong Road. Karin moved into the driver seat, and Marcus guided her to place of safety. We didn’t attempt to go up the hill again. Actually, I looked at our track, and I was amazed that we had come as far as we had.
We grabbed out possessions out of the car and walked up to the house. Chelsea was there in the kitchen, preparing supper. Chelsea is the wife of Marcus. She has a divinity school degree, and she is getting ready to do pastoral work in a city in the vicinity. Chelsea and Marcus moved to Earth Abides several years ago, and they are its caretakers.
Marcus is a Catholic Worker. For those who do not know what that means, a Catholic Worker is basically a Catholic anarchist, although that definition is woefully inadequate. Catholic Workers are dead serious about the Gospels, especially the Beatitudes. They are all about serving the poor and helping the oppressed. They are usually pacifists, and they are as counter-cultural as people can possibly get. They tend to live in community, and these communities tend to have rather fluid memberships. A Catholic Worker walks that fine line between being holy and just being bat-shit crazy.
Marcus explained to us the difference between urban Catholic Workers and the people on the farms. Urban Catholic Workers run homes for the homeless, the feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and rail against the powers that be. The Catholic Workers on the farms prepare the world for a post-industrial future. They are islands of self-sustaining community in a self-destructive capitalist society. They are also places of peaceful sanctuary. This not to say that the rural folk are not political. They are political. Marcus certainly is.
Both Marcus and Chelsea have small tattoos that look like hearts superimposed upon anarchy symbols. Marcus told us they represent “lovarchy”. The origin of that term seems a bit fuzzy. Marcus doesn’t claim to have invented it. Even if he did, as a Catholic Worker, he certainly wouldn’t have filed to make it a trademark. The word “lovarchy” could mean a combination of love and anarchy. Marcus prefers to think of it as “the rule of love” in the world. That works.
After supper, Chelsea and Marcus took Karin and me down the hill to the hut where they keep the goats. When we got there, Chelsea asked us,
“Do you want to hold a baby goat?”
I had never done that before, but why not? The little goat settled into my arms and rested, warm and soft, against my shoulder. Meanwhile, Marcus milked the mother goat. The babies were not consuming enough milk, so Marcus needed to milk her to relieve the pressure.
Chelsea told us, ”Goat milk is good when it’s fresh. After a while, it gets kind of goaty.”
“Well, it tastes a little gamey.”
Once the goats were settled, Marcus wanted to show the sunset to Karin and me. Up higher on the mountain the sunset is spectacular, and it was getting late already. We hiked up the dirt road past Catherine House, and then further up the mountain.
On the way we heard the sound of dogs barking. Then we saw the dogs, and then we saw their owner. The man was a neighbor of Marcus and Chelsea. He was tall with flaming red hair that he tied into a ponytail. He had a red goatee and a broad, toothy smile. He wore a green shirt over pajama pants and sandals. He had earrings.
The two dogs were part border collie. I think that one of them was named “Charisma”. The dogs became your friends forever if you just tossed them a pine cone. The ground was littered with huge cones that the dogs would retrieve until the cone had completely disintegrated. Then they wanted you to throw another pine cone.
I asked the man’s name. He said, “Fallah.”
“Fallah? Is that Arabic, maybe?”
Fallah smiled and said, “No, it’s just a name that gave to myself. It’s like, you know, balance is very important to me. So, I made up a name using letters in the middle row of the keyboard. Yeah.”
“Yeah…” I replied.
We watched the sunset. It was worth the trek up the hill. We left before it got completely dark. Marcus went off to do more farm chores. Karin and I went to bed. With no internet, and no phone reception, there wasn’t much point in staying up.
Karin got up and had breakfast on our own. We walked down to the car and figured out how to get it back down the road without ripping off the oil pan. We looked at the landscape. The farm is beautiful. There is a large meadow covered with the purple flowers of vetch, as well as blue lupine, clover, and some yellow blossoms that we couldn’t identify. Roses grow near the house. The whole area is surrounded by towering pine trees. There are also junipers and lots of manzanita. The goats like manzanita.
In the meantime, Marcus had taken care of some computer work with his friend, Tom. Chelsea had left early to go on a church tour of various cities in California.
When Marcus came back, he gave us the nickel tour of the farm. They have alpacas, goats, and chickens. There are several buildings on the property besides Catherine House. The farm itself consists of eighty acres on the mountainside. There are several gardens, all of which are irrigated. For years, ever since the farm started in 1976, these gardens had to be irrigated by hand. Not anymore.
The farm has a large array of solar panels that provide electricity to the farm. The photovoltaic system is what powers the irrigation pumps and allows the gardens to flourish. The solar power also provides electricity to the various buildings. Marcus and the other residents of the farm are very careful about their use of electricity. They are off the grid, so what the sun provides is all they have.
Marcus wanted to cut down some pines. The pine bark beetle has been devastating the stands of trees on the farm. The drought made the tress less resistant to beetle infestation and the resulting fungal infections. Marcus estimates that there are 146 dead or dying pines on the property. Of those, he has been able to cut down about fifty. The farm has a rule that nobody can fell trees without another person within shouting distant. With Karin and myself nearby, Marcus could be a lumberjack.
It is important for him to get the trees down, because in a wildfire, they go up like torches. Wildfires are a constant threat in the area. Recent fires burned down nearly 10% of the trees in Calaveras County. Marcus showed me some twisted strips of melted aluminum. They were once part of a travel trailer that was caught up in one of the fires.
Marcus asked me, “Ever use a chain saw?”
So, I learned how to operate a chain saw. Marcus had two of them, one gas-powered and one electric. Marcus also explained how to fell a tree. He figured out what direction he wanted it to fall. Then he cut a wedge-shaped chunk out of the side in the direction of the fall. Then he started cutting on the other side of the pine.
That didn’t quite work out. The pine leaned in the wrong direction and the blade of the chain saw got caught in the cut. Marcus had me grab a plastic wedge and a sledge hammer from the out building, so that he could get a wider gap in the cut. Then he loosened the saw blade to finish the cut. Eventually, the tree toppled in the right direction as Marcus yelled, “Timber!” Then Marcus went off to the house to make us some lunch, as I cut off branches for the slash pile, and cut the trunk into rounds. The rounds have funky blue streaks in them from the fungal infection. The wood looks kind of cool that way.
While Marcus was teaching me the ways of the forest, Karin was inside the building using the spinning wheel. She spent her time spinning alpaca fiber. Karin is an old hand at this sort of thing. I bought her a spinning wheel when we got engaged to be married, many years ago. Spinning fiber was like being home again. Later in the day, Karin taught Marcus how to spin.
Our meals at Earth Abides demonstrated the self-sufficiency of the farm. We ate salad from the garden, cooked fresh eggs, and drank goat milk. Earth Abides is not totally able to stand alone, but gets pretty close. In a way, it’s a bit like the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It’s in the world, but not of the world.
Marcus explained how he and Chelsea offered HIV/AIDS retreats for sick people in the San Francisco Bay area. They would bring HIV positive folks to Earth Abides for three-day retreats, just to get them away from the madness of the city. Catherine House is a good place to do that. It’s homey place. I like the artwork inside. On one wall they have an enormous, blown up photograph of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion. There are also icons, and a photograph of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Workers.
At lunch we met Tom, another person living on the farm. Tom is an environmentalist/spiritualist kind of guy. He is making a presentation in the near future about ecology. He came to California from Minnesota years ago with his wife. His wife went back home. He didn’t.
Tom took Karin and me for a walk down by a dry creek bed. He showed the old grinding stones of the Miwok Indians. Back before the Gold Rush, the Miwoks lived in the area. They ground acorns into meal on the stones, and then soaked the acorn meal in the stream (when it flowed in the spring) to get out the tannic acid. When the whites came, the Miwoks were decimated. All that’s left of their culture are these stones, all of them with bored with deep holes from ages of grinding. The stones somehow reminded me of Original Sin. The story here seems to start with violence and death.
After lunch I went with Marcus to cut more trees. He cut one that managed to get snagged in the branches of another pine. He then cut down that pine, but not until doing some careful planning. It’s obvious to me that felling trees is more of an art than a science. There is guesswork involved, and it is important to guess right. Later, I folded some laundry that was hanging on the line. Marcus started shoveling compost that too close to the house (the bears were getting into it). I helped him get the nasty pile over to the garden.
Karin and I had supper in the house. Marcus talked with us later. We slept. In the morning we packed up our belongings. Marcus helped us to get the car turned around on the road, and going in the correct direction. We said our goodbyes. We all hugged.
It was good.