It was noon, and we'd sat through our first session of holistic management classes. I was frustrated with all the philosophy and build-up, but somewhere under the words lay the practical application, and I was beginning to see it.
“It's a rhythm,” I spoke my thoughts aloud to Ramona as she dug through the ice chest in the back of the truck, looking for our lunch. She handed me a lamb sandwich and nodded, never questioning what I meant.
“Yeah,” she replied, “It's ironic how much we mess things up. Somehow, the idea of having ‘dominion over the Earth' turned into ‘bully the heck out of everything.'” She opened the bag of carrots and celery and offered it to me.
“We've skipped the rhythm altogether with fencing and dividing up the land,” I said, as I bit off a chunk of carrot, still trying to sum up what I'd learned so far. “We never give the land a chance to mature or rest.”
Ramona unwrapped her sandwich and joined me on the tailgate. The slices of cold lamb between homemade bread made me think of home. I wondered if Roy had shown up at the barn door this morning, looking for me to go for a ride, and if Mom was on the porch in her apron, calling Dad, Jake and Susanna to lunch.
The day was warm and we discarded our jackets to enjoy the sunshine. I felt a little keyed up and realized it was the constant sound of traffic that kept me alert. Or maybe it was the odors. I had to remind myself to breathe here in the city. Unconsciously, I kept holding my breath to shut out the offensive smell of exhaust, waiting for a clean breath of pine and cedar oils. I supposed folks just get used to it. Probably the odor of cow and horse manure would make a city person hold his breath, but to me, at least manure smells natural.
Molly's Honda Civic pulled up next to us on the parking lot. I'd wondered why she hadn't been there all morning. Then I remembered she was still taking classes at the university.
“Hey guys! You brought your lunch? All the way from Gallup!” Molly called as she got out of the car. Today she had her hair twisted behind her head in some kind of bun thing, which made her seem smaller and younger than ever. She wore a white lab coat, and paused by the door of her car to take it off and drape it over the driver's seat.
“Carrot stick?” I offered the open bag as she came around the car. Molly took a handful, returning to lean against the Honda as she ate them and watched us curiously.
“So you guys eat healthy?” she asked. “Organic and non-GMO?”
My mouth was full of sandwich so I just nodded my head affirmatively.
“It's not so hard when you grow all your own food,” Ramona answered, lifting a quart of milk out of the ice chest. “Would you like to taste raw cow's milk?”
Molly's eyes were wide with amazed appreciation as she hurried forward to reverently accept the quart of milk.
“Really? It's really raw cow's milk? Do you have milk cows? Who milks them when you're gone?” She paused in her questioning long enough to drink some of the milk.
“Our brother and sister, Jake and Susanna,” Ramona answered, as we both watched Molly's complete lack of fear to try the raw milk. Ramona glanced at me with an impressed expression as though to say, “are you seeing what I'm seeing?”
“Wow, how many of you are there?” Molly asked, handing the quart of milk back to Ramona. She had a little white mustache and I couldn't help laughing.
“Just five. We have a baby sister named, Anna. She's five years old.”
“Oh, my gosh! Five kids! I wish I had brothers and sisters,” Molly exclaimed, wiping the milk off of her top lip. She added, “Thanks! That was great. It's so sweet and buttery.”
Her enthusiasm kept making me laugh and she finally frowned at me and shook her head.
“Why do you keep laughing?”
“Sorry,” I said, trying to straighten my face. “It's just kind of unexpected—that you're so interested in the way we live. Most people think we're crazy.”
Molly's frown broke into a wide smile, and she threw out her hands expressively, saying, “Oh, it sounds amazing and wonderful! I wish I could see your farm, the cows. . . and the land. I think the way you live is really awesome. But it is different, isn't it? I mean—no one lives like that anymore.”
“How do you live?” Ramona asked, and although her question sounded odd, Molly didn't hesitate to answer.
“Well, I'm a city girl. But, I do buy organic food from the local co-op and health food stores. It's expensive and sometimes I end up having to eat whatever is available at the moment.” She sighed and made a funny face that almost made me laugh again.
“My parents think I'm weird,” she continued. “They grew up in Belfast during the revolution and didn't have enough of any kind of food. They're always telling me I should be thankful for what I've got. It's true, there are so many homeless people now. . .” She waved her right hand in front of her face, as though to shoo the grim thoughts away. “My peers at school think I'm nuts too. I have plenty of enemies, but no real friends. No, that's not true,” she corrected herself, smiling. “I do have one friend.”
“Only one?” Ramona asked, handing me the quart of milk.
“I should bring him to meet you guys. You'd like him a lot. His name is Jeremy, and he's from Nigeria.”
I felt a sense of regret, hearing that she had a boyfriend, while at the same time being glad she wasn't alone. But Molly continued with a story that surprised me.
“He rescued me one night when a bunch of thugs were trying to kidnap me.”
“What!” I exclaimed in dismay. “When was this?”
“A few months ago,” she said. Molly shrugged carelessly, but there was a tightness around her eyes that told me something had scared her pretty badly.
“I don't know who they were,” she went on, looking down at the ground, while scuffing the sole of her tennis shoe on the pavement. “Jeremy came out of nowhere and when it was all over, they were gone and he was helping me to my feet. Ironically, a cop pulled up right then and almost arrested Jeremy. I had to insist repeatedly that he had saved me from the real bad guys!”
“I wasn't hurt—except for a bump on my head. Anyway, Jeremy is a floor manager at the bakery where I work part time, and he's in his junior year at the university. I didn't know him very well, but after that, we became friends. His dad is an important person in Nigeria, and they have a lot of land. Before he came here, he managed thousands of acres and used the holistic management practices to recover the grasslands. His parents sent him here to get an engineering degree.”
“Did they catch those guys?” I asked, feeling stressed at the thought of Molly's enemies still walking around free.
“Oh, no. . . I didn't know who they were. Anyway, Jeremy walks me to and from work to make sure I'm safe.” Molly looked at me with narrowed eyes and I think she was checking to see what my response would be. I met her eyes squarely and nodded.
“You should bring him to the campfire tonight,” I said. “I'd like to meet Jeremy.”
“Okay,” she smiled, and I could see I'd passed some sort of test. “If I can find him, and if he'll agree to come.” I smiled back at her without thinking about what I was doing, and Molly blushed again like she had the day before.
I've got to stop doing that, I told myself. She's not like us, she doesn't have brothers. She might take it wrong.
Molly turned and walked toward the door of the building, saying over her shoulder, “Is there anyone else here?”
When she was out of hearing range, Ramona said quietly, “I think she's hinting that she'd like to visit our farm.”
“You think so? I think she's just being friendly. City girls hate the country—they're scared of everything.”
“Yeah, but she drank the milk,” Ramona pointed out. I had to admit she was right. Molly was different. But I wasn't sure I wanted her out at the farm. That was too close too soon. I wasn't ready for that. By the look on Ramona's face, I guessed she wasn't ready either. Something about Molly seemed to irritate Ramona from time to time.
“So do you have a house on your land?” Molly asked, walking back toward us to lean against her car again.
“No,” I answered, knowing she was talking about my land, not Dad's. “Not yet. I'll start building soon, though.” I broke off, curbing my own desire to sell Molly on my house plans. Why should she care what kind of house I was going to build? I turned away and put the milk back into the ice chest and closed it.
“What kind of house are you going to build?” Molly asked with a little hop-spin that landed her against the side of her car again. She folded her arms and looked at me. Her glance was curious, and I knew it wasn't just a polite question. I took a deep breath, questioning my own eager response and Molly's motives at the same time.
“Straw bale,” I said briefly, cutting myself off and daring her to persist.
“Because. . . ” Molly prompted, with an encouraging smile, making circular motions with her hands as though to unwind the rest of my sentence. I gave up.
“Straw bale is like adobe, in that it is cool in the summer and warm in the winter—but even more so than adobe. It's beautiful too, and lasts forever.” I hesitated again and glanced at her to see if she was still interested.
“So you literally build the walls with straw bales? How do you keep them from falling over?” Molly asked. Ramona laughed at her question, but Molly wasn't offended. She laughed too, adding, “Sorry, I'm pretty ignorant about alternative construction!”
“No,” Ramona said, “I shouldn't laugh. Your question is reasonable, it just made me imagine a straw bale house falling over, and that seemed funny for some reason.”
“Straw bales are heavy,” I explained. “They're over a hundred pounds each. Plus, we hammer rebar through them and that pins them together. Then the weight of the roof sits on them and presses the bales together. There's no way they could fall over. Straw bale construction is one of the best types of construction for surviving earthquakes.”
“Oh. . . that's interesting!” Molly stood up and moved away from her car as though to prepare herself for an earthquake. “Are the walls really thick?”
“As thick as a three-wire straw bale,” I nodded. “About two feet.”
“What are you going to do for the roof?” she asked, tucking a stray curl behind one ear.
“I hope to do a sod roof,” I answered, seeing a picture of the house clearly in my mind.
“Oh, that will be lovely!” Molly took a step toward me. “With plants growing on it! I'd love to see that. How big will it be?”
“Not very big to start out with,” I answered, thinking about having a family and adding onto the house someday. I decided to leave that thought unsaid, and turned to dig through the ice chest again for something, anything.
“I guess you can add on if you have a family,” Molly commented, and in surprise I turned around and met her eyes. She smiled innocently. This time I was the one who blushed.
Ramona cleared her throat and I shrugged off my discomfort. I slid off the tailgate and turned to look through the ice chest for the unknown item I still hadn't found.
The incorrigible Molly persisted, “How long does it take to build a straw bale house?”
Ramona answered this time, giving me some reprieve. “Not very long,” she said, swinging her legs under the tail gate and leaning on one arm. “It depends on how simply you build. If you build without electricity, then there is just the foundation and plumbing, the walls, and then the roof.”
“Without electricity!” Molly repeated, her eyes wider than ever. “Do you mean that you live without electricity?”
I turned around again, drawn back to the conversation in spite of myself. Here was my salvation: to convince Molly that our life was too hard, too plain, too rugged for her to want to experience.
“Yes,” I answered grimly, leaving the ice chest open behind me, but holding onto the side of it as though I needed support. “There are no electric lights, no dryer or dish washer, and no refrigeration. We have to butcher chickens and cows for meat, and grow everything else we need. We have to get up early to do chores and milk cows, and muck manure out of the stables. It's practically the Dark Ages out where we live.”
I sighed heavily and glanced through lowered brows at Molly, who was standing quite still, watching me with absolute attention. Ramona was staring at me in surprise and I glanced at her briefly, trying not to grin and give myself away. Molly was quiet for only a moment, her mouth formed a small ‘o' in surprise. Then she smiled.
“That is so awesome. I bet you love it,” Molly stated emphatically, doing a little hop-spin again, as though in celebration of the very idea. Ramona laughed, and I knew that she was laughing at me, not Molly.
“It's a lot of work,” I sighed heavily again.
“I love to work,” Molly replied, squaring her shoulders like a little soldier.
“All the time?” I asked, taking a step toward her as though to bring the threatening idea closer. “When it's cold outside? When you have to get up in the middle of the night to go out and check on the animals and shovel a path through the snow to the barn before it gets too deep to shovel?”
Molly stepped toward me as well, her blue eyes flashing with challenge. “With your brother, or your sister? While you laugh and talk about how cold you are; and then go inside and drink hot tea and eat something homemade right out of the oven?”
“And then wash dishes by hand, and carry in wood to keep the fire burning,” I added, frowning for effect.
“Do you ever go for long walks in the forest?” she asked, sincerely questioning now, not challenging. Her hands reached out as though to find the idea she was searching for. “Do you ever see deer, or elk?”
“All the time,” Ramona answered, from behind us.
I realized with surprise that Molly and I were standing only a couple of feet apart, as though we were alone in the parking lot.
“Do you work together in a garden, planting and picking stuff?” Molly looked back and forth from me to Ramona. “Do you wash dishes together and hang out laundry on a clothesline?”
“Yes,” said Ramona, “we do.”
As for me, I had nothing left to say. Ramona and I looked at Molly in silence for a moment, weighing her words and intentions.
“You should come visit the farm,” I said, before I realized what I was saying. Molly and Ramona both glanced at me in surprise.
“Really?” they asked simultaneously.
“Really,” I answered, turning to walk back to the safety of the tailgate, running my fingers through my hair with a loser's sigh. Or maybe a winner's. I leaned against the tailgate and looked at Molly. “I think maybe—maybe you'd like it.”