Story by Christine James
Photographs by Lauren Lipscomb
A story of Healing through small-scale farming with Christine James
Wide and white,
Tacky but tight,
Cozy but calm,
Garden paradise for my mom
Rhododendrons pink and red,
Half-an-acre garden bed.
To the front apples, pears, and cherries
To the side are blueberries
The back yard isn't as clean,
Sticks litter our trampoline;
And boy I wish you could have seen
The mammoth sunflowers escape from the ground
So very loud
Without a sound.
-Ayla the Poet
A woman of Sauvie Island, Oregon she is. A mother, friend, gardener turned farmer, photographer, art director, canning enthusiast, wine maker, flower lover, chicken and duck wrangler, veggie cultivator, and more. Christine James is a force. Not in a loud or boisterous way we often associate with that description but by the depth of her passion and the sincerity of her heart. This is Christine's story of her journey in finding solace on a tiny island in Oregon from a yearning to reconnect with the quiet depth of the country. To cultivate life through the land. To provide her children with a place of love, simplicity, and community. To heal the heart from shadows of the past.To learn a new way of being. To allow the earth to cleanse and rebuild her body and spirit.
I grew up in rural north Idaho, running through hay fields, shimmying through barbed wire fences to play at "neighbor's" houses acres and acres away. Hours would be spent alone in the hayloft above the horse's stall reading, singing to myself, talking to the horses and barn cats, and making buttercup bouquets at the creek that acted as the northern border of my parents acreage off of Bunco Road. My father was mentally ill and at a young age the beauty and solace of my surroundings made for a very spiritual existence directly tied to the land. Watching the sunset from the barn, hanging laundry on the clothesline, turning over rocks, searching for salamanders, holding grasshoppers and baby birds. I would lay my ratty baby blanket at the front oat field, hiding under my rainbow umbrella for entire afternoons watching the way the oats would sway back and forth. My parents worked blue collar jobs and did not farm our land themselves but leased out the front of the property for oats and barley, the back portion for our horses. I did not grow up growing much of anything. But I was surrounded by it, romanced by it even as a child, and a constant witness to the beautiful, humbling, hard work of the farmer.
In 2002, my family moved from northern Idaho to Portland Oregon. I was intrigued by city life. I remember feeling like I had moved to LA or New York City. Portland felt huge. It only took a year or two before I started making regular trips out to Sauvie Island to escape. I needed to tap into that feeling again of being in the quiet, surrounded by farms, animals out to pasture, tractors bumping down the road, and wide open spaces. I knew this was where I wanted to end up eventually. Little did I know it would end up being several years of moving through a long, intense journey, both physically and mentally, before my dream of living on this island would be actualized.
After nearly fifteen years of living in the city, while shooting photos for a magazine I worked for at the time, I found myself at a friend's private beach on the island. When the shoot was done, I shared the hopes of my heart to one day call this island home. They looked at me and smiled, then said they actually might have a house I might be interested in. They wrote the address down on an envelope. It’s been two years now, filled by a series of life changing events, but at the end of the day, I call this beautiful, enchanting little island my home.
I always had a large city garden in my adulthood. It would ebb and flow in size and tidiness depending on whether I was pregnant or not and what season I was in as a mother having had three babies before the age of thirty. When my home life seemed out of my control and in a near constant state of heaviness, sinking my hands and knees into the dirt, following the process and cycle from seed germination, to sprout, to flowering plant, to food on the table was something I felt literally and figuratively grounded me; something that heard my very small voice, welcoming my heart in its very insecure state.
When I had the opportunity to expand this endeavor on the island, I was nearing the end of a seventeen year long marriage. I needed the earth to anchor me (along with my children), feed me, and remind me that I posses more courage, strength and worth than I ever thought possible. My garden held me close, the blueberry patch offered my only private space away from all the negative energy, allowing me to notice, put something sweet in my mouth, and to think just like I did when I was a child in the oat field.
This spring, after becoming a single mother last summer, I decided (along with two other women whom I love dearly and who also help tend the acre of berries, vegetables and flowers) to expand the garden and raise baby chicks and ducks. I would also learn farming practices first hand, rising before sunrise while the kids were still asleep in their beds, at an all women run farm down the road. The women at Vibrant Valley Farm welcomed me with open arms. Some of the best, most peaceful memories of my life have been made while harvesting flowers on that soil.
Farming, even on a very, very, small scale, has brought me solace and peace like nothing else ever has. I am accepted just as I am, unconditionally, in the quiet morning hours or the under soft the evening light. My loss, grief, tears, unanswered questions, imperfect body, hopes, and process is received without criticism. I am constantly in awe and am deeply humbled by my small plot of earth's unwavering patience with me. It is restoring my heart and guiding me towards a new found resilience after years of personal struggle.
My greatest challenge with farming thus far has been staying on top of weed control and succession planting. I have spent hours and hours this season prepping the soil after my neighbor Kelly (my idol whom is still farming at sixty) came over with her tractor to till. Another set of friends popped over with their backhoe to churn a few tons of compost to then be spread over the vegetable and flower beds which took days and days. It has been difficult to stay on top of weeding. After I would spent hours weeding one section and move on to the next section, the rows that had been weeded just five days before are already starting to be full of weeds again. It is kind of like cleaning a house full of children, or like chasing your tail. In many ways this is good for me as my life is all about lessons on letting go while remaining grateful as earnestly and as humbly as I can. In the end, as the summer winds down, my field of vegetables, berries, and flowers is it's own ecosystem; full of sunflowers, tomatoes, beans, squash, melons, zinnias, cosmos, lupine, honeybees, hummingbirds, finches, monarchs, and… tons of weeds. And this is just OK. It has to be.
As for what the future holds, I am not certain. I am in transition and am trying to be at peace with the work each day holds for me, looking at my hopes with a gentle fondness without clinging and with a flexible heart. This is not always easy, but I am getting better and better at it with practice. While I currently rent the three acres of land that I farm, my plan for the future is to someday own my own farm to share with other farmers, restaurant owners, chefs, artists, schools. I dream of actualizing some kind of farm collaboration and to utilize my background as an avid gardener, photographer and art director to help create cookbooks, documentary film around agricultural practices, and marketing materials to promote the slow food movement. But for now, I am content. I feel so very, very lucky to have the luxury to work this land, even if my name is not on the title.
The past few years on this island have changed me entirely. I have never had a stronger body, a clearer mind, or a heart cracked wide open as I do now. I sincerely hope to share this experience and how small scale farming has played such a vital role in helping to heal my heart and to process different kinds of trauma. I feel as though this work brings people's hearts together in this path as well. We all have experienced tough things in our lives. Offering our attention to the land can be the beginning of a new way of living a more devoted life. In turn, this can illuminate our interconnectedness and a deeper, kinder understanding for each other while cultivating a real reverence for the earth around us.
You can find more stories of Christine's journey in farming and life on Sauvie Island over on Instagram at @Christine_noeljames