Cottonwood, California

Posted on August 9, 2010


My friend V. and I made a pilgrimage to Wolfgang Rougle’s Twining Tree Farm in mid-July, the hottest day of the year. It’s about four hours north of the Bay Area, in a small town called Cottonwood, right where the blond pale grassland of the Sacramento Valley starts to give way to oak savannah. Wolfgang bought up a few acres of oak woodland and made an organic farm there five years ago, right after graduating from the ag program at UC Davis. Ever since then, she’s made a living by selling vegetables at farmer’s markets and through a CSA (with dropoffs at a Redding organic food store). She has an intimate knowledge, not only of organic farming, but of land and life in general; she knows her trees, her mushrooms, her edible weeds, and increasingly, even her lichens. Besides the farming, she’s taught classes on foraging for wild greens and put out a book on Sacramento Valley foraging, which is notable both for its whimsical drawings of trees and weeds and its knowledgeable, self-assured and irreverent style of writing.

1. The Yome

Wolfgang’s farm was along a dirt road, not too far from the Red Bluff I-5 exit, in an area almost entirely populated by blue oak (and the occasional semi-abandoned trailer). To my amateur-botanist-eyes, blue oaks seemed like the humble cousins of the oak family, homely but lovable. Their branches did not reach as far or spread as wide as those of other Quercii, and their trunks were relatively slender. Their leaves, however, had a sort of wax on them that helped them hold up well in the blistering summer sun, retaining their bluey-green sheen at times when just about everything else was dead or taking a breather.

On our arrival, Wolfgang was sorting garlic stalks outside her Yome, a fun new-age blend of a yurt and geodesic dome. To the casual observer, it looked just like a yurt, but upon inspection consisted of neatly sized triangular panels, wide enough to make the place seem almost circular. The panels were made out of white canvas, which means that they don’t have that new-plastic scent you get with vinyl yomes (Wolfgang’s observation), and there was a hole up at the top, just like in a yurt, to allow cooking smoke to escape. The thing only cost about $8,000, or pretty damn cheap for a place to live in (IMO).

Of course, Wolfgang’d pimped out her Yome by putting it on a wooden platform, which makes the ground nice and level. She also built a stone fireplace, made of red and gray stones gathered from the creek and set in cement; a desk; and some bookshelves. The woodwork wasn’t fancy, but served its purpose, and on parts of it were little decorations and curlicues that reminded me of her drawings. There was also a proper kitchen, with a sink, stove and oven. Furniture- and equipment-wise, it was almost like a one-bedroom studio in the City, except for the lack of a toilet, the boxes of garlic, and the many boxes of blackberry jam. The lack of air-conditioning was also hard to adapt to; fortunately, Wolfgang had a spray bottle full of water, and V. and I misted one another liberally with it.

Wolfgang’s toilet was in the middle of a duck blind. There were two blue sheets to shield it from view, but even they weren’t enough to prevent the occasional awkward meeting, as I realized upon encountering a pale green river frog in the toilet bowl.

2. The Peculiar Habits of Goats

En route to the neighborhood pond, we stopped in at the goat pen. The goats regularly ate blue-oak branches, which Wolfgang had put at the side of the pen, but they lived up to their reputation in eating pretty much anything. It was then that I discovered that goats can only eat sideways, as V. and I spent several minutes mastering the art of inserting carrots at the corners of their mouths, dropping several in the process. “Zeke’s always hungry,” Wolfgang said. “But this one – Elijah – isn’t so motivated by food. He’d rather be petted instead.” And indeed, we noticed that Zeke seemed to have a fuller belly than Elijah, and that Elijah responded with delight to our caresses.

“Shall we take them to the pond with us?” Wolfgang said.

Goats have a crest on their backs, a fine ridge of hair that sticks straight up whenever they are upset. Zeke had decided that V. and I were menacing Wolfgang, and his crest was absolutely rigid. I could not move forward without Zeke getting in my way. Meanwhile, Elijah was in culinary heaven; the bushes and weeds along the path were a nice change from the blue oak he got every day, and he lavished particular attention on the manzanita bushes. According to Wolfgang, some people use goats as pack animals while camping. Even though Zeke and Elijah appeared unruly, she had heard that goats usually worked well when yoked together. I decided not to voice my scepticism, even as Zeke leveled his (fortunately cropped) horns at my waist for a head-butt.

“You can either hold him by the chin and turn his head aside,” Wolfgang suggested,”Or you can just punch him in the nose. That’s what goats do to each other all the time, hit each other in the nose.”

The pond proved a delightful and mysterious swirl of sun-warmed surface water and cold little currents from unseen depths. It was surrounded by blue oak, the ghostly Douglas fir with its wispy needles, and the eponymous cottonwood, which is a water-guzzler. Meanwhile, the goats fed on the cattails and the dock. The sound of their chewing was unexpectedly calming.

3. The Granary Tree

After spending a night at the farm, I woke up to the sound of persistent tapping noises. At first I assumed it was Wolfgang working, but then I realized it had to be something different. “Are these woodpeckers?” I asked Wolfgang, shortly after we had greeted each other. “Acorn woodpeckers,” she said. “Why do they make holes in trees?” I asked. “Do they eat the wood?” Then she got very enthusiastic. “They don’t eat the wood, but they store acorns in it. They usually fight with the squirrels over the acorns. And recently, someone told me something that I hadn’t realized before; woodpeckers don’t necessarily eat the acorns, but the grubs that grow in the acorns after they rot. So when you think about it, woodpeckers are a whole lot like farmers.”After breakfast, Wolfgang took us across the road to a woodpecker granary tree. It was the biggest creature in that scorched-out savannah, a half-dead Douglas fir that was almost three stories high. Its growing tip had gone, and it had developed instead two large unwieldy arms at the top, looking almost Gumby-ish. The bark was as thick as my thumb and scored with evenly spaced acorn-sized holes, many plugged up with acorns. It was an impressive sight, almost worth the entire visit.

4. The Rodeo

We got to the Cottonwood Auction Grounds and found seats in the stands just in time for “mutton-busting”. In the rodeo stalls normally used by bulls, proud parents lowered their helmet-wearing toddlers onto terrified sheep. One by one, each gate would open, releasing a child-sheep duo; the sheep would buck the child right off, and the child hit the ground sobbing. While the child was raised up by a delighted mother or father, the sheep joined the growing herd of the semi-traumatized freshly ridden, which was moving anxiously back and forth in the ring.

The bull-riders were assembled, and the announcer called for us to sing the national anthem: “Now everyone stand up for the best, the most powerful country in the world, the United States of America. Let us come together and sing the greatest song ever written, whether it’s rock, whether it’s hip-hop…” It was the kind of jingoistic speech that most San Franciscans probably think happens only in movies. I wondered if my companions were going to sit it out, but we all stood up and sang despite Wolfgang’s eye-rolling. The announcer wound up his preamble by calling for a moment of silence for a fallen soldier. It seemed a little exploitative at the time, a way of priming the crowd for the events to come. And indeed, shortly after the silent devotional, the announcer was exhorting us to “put it together for our riders, for our modern day American gladiators!”

We watched close to forty bull-rides that night – the initial twenty-nine men, followed by the top fifteen, and then again with a tie-breaker. In addition to a point system that accounted for technique and style, the men going to the second round had to stay on the bull for at least eight seconds, which is infinitely harder than it sounds. There was a lot of variation in the bulls – some acted like boilers on the verge of bursting, and others seemed to just want to get things over with, with no real desire for vengeance. Physically, too, the bulls were all very different; some had horns pointing up, others had horns pointing downwards, some had weight concentrated in their chest, while others had powerful haunches. (In fact, there seemed to be considerably more genetic variation in the bulls than in our fellow rodeo-goers.) Because of this, bull-riding seemed more like luck than skill. By the end of the night, though, I started to notice certain qualities in the top bull-riders. First of all, they were extraordinarily good at keeping their center of gravity, refusing to lean towards one side or another; by contrast, most cowboys who started tilting in a certain direction often wound up in the dust on that side of the bull. Secondly, the top cowboys had great timing, strategically raising and lowering their arms to aid in their balance, depending on where the bull was in his gyrations. In that sense, riding a bull is a little bit like dancing.

After the cowboy fell off – and they always did, eventually — the bull would tear around the ring for awhile, aiming his shaved-off horns at the ring hands. Once he’d gone three or four times around, he might deign to notice the gates on either side of the rodeo stalls, which had been thrown open for him. More often than not, though, he would have to be roped. Two men came in, on horseback, swinging lassos above their heads while approaching the bull. A coil of rope spun in place for a time, then came down on the bull’s horns, or sometimes on his tail. When it came down on the horns, it usually settled in around the bull’s neck, choking him. At that point, many of the bulls would kneel and lie down, either because it made breathing easier or because it made them into dead weight. A ring hand would then run quickly towards the choking bull and loosen the rope, allowing the cowboy to lead a humbled bull back through the gate. The lassoing was something that Wolfgang had never seen before – apparently the bulls, at the other rodeos she’d been to, had just known to go back through the gate. In any case, while beautiful in its own way, it seemed painful and unnecessary. We saw a cowboy running circles around the bull, looping its ankles together until it tipped over on its side. And several times, the ranch hands got behind the bull and kicked it just to get it through the gate.

There was another layer of complexity to the rodeo, in the form of a clown hiding in a barrel in the middle of the ring. As the bull-riders were preparing to get down onto the bull, he would alternately tell jokes, dodge marshmallows from little boys’ marshmallow guns, and toss free T-shirts into the audience. When the bulls were out and running, he sank back into his barrel. Which did get knocked over, just once, during the event.

The winner of the rodeo was Ken Rockmore, a Cottonwood local, though riders had come from as far away as Tennessee. This made everybody happy.

5. The Farm

Summer is typically not the most productive time at Wolfgang’s, since she generally raises winter crops for her CSA. She tends to concentrate her efforts in the fall and spring, using summers for harvest and maintenance. Still, I was curious to see what she had done with the blue oak grove. While most of the oaks had been cleared, leaving behind the occasional stump, one tree had been allowed to grow and give the garden shade. To the right of that lone tree were neat raised rows with wet hoses snaking between, nourishing close to sixty different varieties of plants, both wild and intentionally cultivated. Wolfgang showed us purslane, an edible crawling weed that stays green and crisp in the summertime; horehound, which helps with digestion; mullein, which makes a soothing tea; and many other medicinal herbs. We nibbled the purslane, bit into plums, plucked blackberries, and had fistfuls of cherry tomatoes, which were sweet, tart and about ready to split their skins. Even in the low season, Wolfgang had more produce than she knew what to do with, and so we drove back to San Francisco with more than enough vegetables to last us the week.

Shaking The Hand That Feeds You has a more detailed, technical review of Twining Tree Farm.

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