Marlena and her twelve-year-old son Thor live in a 1910 farmhouse only two blocks from the busses, trucks, and traffic of busy McLoughlin Boulevard.
By far, it is the most charming home in the neighborhood.
Hanging on the wall in Marlena’s living room is a 1970s-era aerial photo of her home and surrounding land. The oak tree standing over the house was already huge fifty years ago when the acreage around the tiny house was being farmed. Today the acreage has shrunk to a small suburban lot in the middle of a crowded landscape of homes and apartments.
For years, Marlena worked as a Physical Therapist Assistant in Portland but she recently left her job to concentrate on being a full-time licensed massage therapist in Milwaukie. Now that she’s fully self-employed, her more flexible schedule will make it possible for her to pursue her next goal, a nursing degree.
Marlena is a healer at work and at home.
When she’s not working, she has her own tiny homestead. I don’t know anyone who lives a clean and green philosophy more faithfully and authentically than Marlena. Her small farm is a reminder that living a sustainable clean and green life isn’t hard. It just takes common sense; the kind of common sense that is second nature to Marlena.
“I always wanted to be where there was dirt,” Marlena told me. “When I was a kid, I would lay in the back yard of our Milwaukie house and just imagine myself sinking into the ground. Ever since then I’ve always wanted to be near dirt.”
Charming eccentricities in Marlena’s yard attract the attention and comments of passersby. Most people love it.
When they catch Marlena working in the front yard, people holler over the white picket fence, “It’s a treat to walk by your house, there’s always something interesting going on and I always want to know what you’re doing.”
A woman pushing a stroller says, “It’s such a joy to walk by your house! I wish more yards were like yours!”
In the summer, a profusion of daisies and a large fragrant patch of lavender crowd the sidewalk. Marlena remembers a young couple walking by one day and the young man bent down to pick a daisy for his girl friend. Apparently he didn’t know they have tough woody stems. His girlfriend kept talking and walking down the street while the boy yanked and yanked on the flower. Marlena was tempted to take a pair of scissors out to him.
Passersby are often tempted to grab a piece of lavender, put it to their noses and inhale deeply. Marlena doesn’t mind if they do. Most people ask politely, except for one woman, who dropped by with a large paper bag and her own scissors. She proceeded to fill her bag with the fragrant herb and never bothered to knock on the door with a “please” or a “thank you.”
If you first see Marlena’s garden in the winter you may not realize it’s actually a well-cared-for and loved piece of earth. Don’t worry, Marlena knows exactly what she’s doing. She leaves spent vegetation and flowers through the winter. Those dead-looking materials provide cover for insects and birds in winter, and seeds for the next season of growing.
Her yard has no wasted space. She grows vegetables in hand-made raised beds in the back. She also built a fence to protect the plants from Rollo, their huge Shepherd/Great Pyranese mix, the cats, Twister and Tornado, and the chickens, of course.
Marlena and Thor have had as many as six or seven chickens. Marlena wanted to start out with three chickens and so she asked a farmer’s advise. “If you’re gonna get three chickens,” the farmer said, “you might as well get five, because three and five are the same. Then, if you are gonna get five, you may as well get seven because seven and five is the same.” Marlena calls that Farm Math.
Today she has three chickens: Tini, Gertrude, and Ethel. Three is perfect for the small backyard coop she built to safely lock up the chickens at night. They have a roomy, fenced enclosure but are often out roaming the yard during the day, hunting and pecking. I was surprised to see how Marlena trusts them to stay in the front yard. When they stop laying eggs, the chickens enjoy a pleasant retirement with the flock.
Early in her years of keeping chickens, one hen got sick. Marlena called her grandfather, a life-long rancher in Klamath Falls. She knew he would be able to give her advice on how best to cure the bird.
When she told him Sunflower was sick, he said, “Who is Sunflower?”
“One of the chickens,” Marlena said.
“You named the %&^*)@# chickens!,” he said.
“Well, yeah,” she said, “after all your years of taking care of them, I thought you’d know what to do for Sunflower.”
“Yes, I’ll tell you what you do,” he said.
Marlena found a pen and paper to write down her grandpa’s instructions.
“Get a construction cone,” grandpa said.
“Nail it to the fence small hole down.”
“Put the chicken in head first.”
“Get a sharp knife and a bucket.”
She stopped taking notes at this point, thanked her grandpa and continued to nurse Sunflower.
Marlena is not afraid of the tough responsibilities of keeping farm animals. When Sunflower got much worse and was suffering, she put her down, quickly and humanely.
According to his mom, Thor is most helpful at harvest time, and definitely enjoys eating the vegetables their large garden produces. He’s a growing boy, after all. Living with the cycle of growing and harvesting has taught Thor how things work. He often asks his mom questions such as, “Isn’t it about time the peas should be ready?”
Marlena knows something we bird lovers forget. Birds love bugs. Keep the bugs happy and you have more birds.
“How is it you keep your grass green all year long?” a neighbor asked.
“It’s not grass. I mow it because of people with allergies, but it’s clover and whatever else wants to grow there. There are lots of bugs out there.”
Since it’s not grass, it doesn’t dry up in the heat of August and it’s naturally green. Without Marlena’s common sense, someone would have planted “real” grass, watered it all summer, fed it, killed the weeds, and deprived the bugs and the birds.
Some people might wonder why Marlena doesn’t rake up the few leaves left under the big Oak out front. She has observed crows coming at a certain time each day and turning over every leaf to capture small creatures hiding there. When the crows are gone, the chickadees and other birds come. As always, Marlena knows what she’s doing.
The houses around Marlena’s place have neat lawns and tidy shrubbery, a contrast to her wildly-growing space.
Not everyone understands Marlena’s little farm. Many feel they are entitled to an explanation.
Someone walked by the house one day and said, “When are you going to burn that stack of wood over there?”
“Never,” Marlena said. “That stack of wood is a great hiding place for insects, newts, and other creatures. That’s why it’s there.”
Many of us have hummingbird feeders in the summer, but Marlena’s feeders are scarlet runner beans planted in every available spot on her lot. The hummingbirds love the brilliant red blossoms.
She was lifting a heavy shovel full of gravel in the front yard recently when a man asked, “Why didn’t you put a second coat of paint on this fence?”
Marlena was courteous, but I would have been tempted to point to the gravel and hand him the shovel.
While Marlena was still shoveling gravel, a woman passed and said, “Why not grow something on that trellis?” She was pointing to a decorative metal trellis Marlena had acquired from a friend.
Digging her shovel deeply into the pile of gravel, Marlena said, “Good idea, I should do that.”
“Yes, it would be really nice if you’d grow something on that trellis,” the woman said.
Marlena likes the trellis fine the way it is.
Every year, Marlena and Thor have separate and multiple entries in the Clackamas County Fair. They’ve entered and won prizes for sewing, baking, canning, photography, and more. Thor has entered his own cheesecake and incredible Lego construction projects. Marlena won the People’s Choice award one year with a cookie jar she made out of corn husks and shaped like a chicken. The cookie jar “lays” cookies. The Clackamas Review featured her unique creation in a story about the fair.
Shortly after Marlena moved into her house ten years ago, her dog Grub started jumping up on kitchen counters and stealing food. Grub was an older dog and this new behavior baffled Marlena. She tried erecting barriers to keep him out of the kitchen and scolded him when she caught him in the act. Nothing seemed to help.
Finally, she consulted a pet psychic.
The psychic spent some time “listening” to Grub, and said, “The move has unsettled Grub, he needs a small job, small because his intellect is limited.” Marlena knew that was true and explained to Grub in simple language how she needed him to guard the front door. Grub began guarding the door and the problem was solved.
“Have you ever listened to what chickens have to say?” Marlena asked the psychic.
“Yes, but there’s not much going on there,” the psychic replied.
When Marlena first told me about the pet psychic I was surprised. How could someone so down-to-earth and real consult a pet psychic? Then I realized that a woman like Marlena, a woman so closely connected to the earth and the earth’s creatures, would have an open mind about finding a unique and organic way of getting in touch with what was bothering Grub.
Like the genuine Earth Mother Marlena is, she stays closely attuned to the earth she once dreamed of sinking into. Faithfully, whether at work or at home, she nurtures the earth and all the earth’s creatures.