One Month Down…

We’re one month into 2017. Dani and I have been diligent in our work, although we have also made sure to get enough fun in to keep ourselves from going crazy. It’s all been book work, online research, copious note taking and working with software. But the real, physical side of things are beginning to manifest.

The seeds have all arrived and Dani has painstakingly sorted, cataloged, and stored them. Dani continues to do the heavy lifting in the garden planning including bed plans, rotations and the schedules for seed starting/transplanting as well as the direct-sow plans. Details are still falling into place but it’s likely seed starting will begin in one week or so.  As we build the seedling nursery in our living room – because there is no other place for it! – it underscores the proper utilization of our space; in 1-2 months we will also have a brooder with baby chicks in the same place!

Our 700 sq ft place is not actually 700 sq ft in the winter because a large portion of it is the “front room” which only stays a few degrees above ambient, outdoor temperatures. We have one spare bedroom, but it is always closed off to save heating energy. Consequently that room is always about 50 degrees. So neither of those two spaces are anywhere near warm enough for either seeds or chicks. The remaining space is about 500 sq ft and is comprised of a minuscule bathroom, our bedroom (which has about 18 inches of clearance on three sides of our bed), the small kitchen and our living room. Hence our living room gets to be the nursery and the brooding area. It’s exciting to think we’ll get baby chicks keeping us company for several weeks! But the reality of keeping a brooder clean enough to be housed in the center of our living space is not lost on us.

And that leads to my tasks. What have I been up to in the past four weeks? I’ve read four building/carpentry books. My notes so far are about 11,000 words. I still have a 5-6 hour building video course to work through, too. Once that’s done I will consider myself ready to at least ask intelligent questions. This Spring we will build a chicken coop, many raised beds, a garden shed and attendant fencing. As soon as we have the means to buy building materials then will follow building a solar thermal greenhouse, repairing two sections of our house’s post foundation, and designing/building a big garage/shop. There is a lot of building work to do.

I’m only 1,100 words into my chicken notes so far, but that has been the most recent study activity and I’m not that far along.  I still have yet to finish re-reading two general chicken books that I read last year, then read two more books on coop design, then read about a dozen articles on chicken nutrition and growing your own feed. Yes, I’m going to try growing and storing as much feed as I can.  I didn’t buy a scythe last year for no reason!

But growing implies soil that can grow something. Our land was all forest at one point. Once it was clear-cut nothing ever was done with it. Most of the organic material in forest soils is in the top layers that the trees protect from the weather and renew annually. With untold decades of no trees and no soil husbandry we have two acres of weathered, compacted silt loam. Dense as hell and chock full of stones, our soil has almost no activity below the first half inch. Japanese beetles and Asiatic garden beetles love it, however, because they have all the shelter they need and no competition (apart from the crows and skunks that love our yard and forage for white grubs frequently).

I’m hoping to change all that through sustainable soil management processes. The most amazing soil book I’ve read (granted my experience is very limited) on the matter is Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es through the University of Vermont.  This amazing book was loaned to me by my friend and mentor in all-things-woodsman-and-blacksmithing, Rob, the Troy Tree Guy. I’ve since bought my own copy because this is invaluable reference material for any prospective farmer (micro or otherwise) that is concerned about sustainability and ecology. The other book helping through this process is another amazing and rare find, the Northeast Cover Crop Handbook by Marianne Sarrantonio. I had the pleasure of getting a little one hour presentation about green manures and cover crops from Marianne at the Common Ground Fair last year.

I’m only halfway through the first book and have merely thumbed through the second. Yet I have compiled 23,000 words so far in notes and prospective plans for our “Favorite Day Farm” (or whatever we end up deciding to call it). So reading these books, all the chicken books, the remaining build courses, and all subsequent note taking are all to be completed in February. We’ll also finish our high-level “build out” of the farmlet including goats, barns, fencing, power, irrigation, and crop fields for feed, bedding and green manures.

2017 will see my first efforts into growing feed and bedding as well as all the green manures needed to adequately maintain all our raised beds (nine 100 sq ft beds, intensively-planted). The raised beds will not be cover cropped in the off season; we will do a lasagna bed treatment on them overwinter. In order to minimize organic fertilizer needs for the raised beds I have to grow the right amounts of the right kinds of green manures at the right times. That means developing cover crop and rotation plans for the fields supplying the green manures for the raised beds. Planning that all needs to happen in February as well – at least a good first stab at it. Such a herculean task will take years to refine. But I must at least start this season; I must try to build soil on the property that can grow something other than dandelions and can be manipulated with tools more subtle than a mattock.

Tremendous compaction and tremendous deprivation of organic matter are not trivial soil problems. But our silty loam has very good “bones” for agriculture. I have a plan continually deepening that not only gives me hope but out-and-out optimism. Like in brewing or cultivating sourdough, nature does the heavy lifting – all humans have to do is some timely, strategic guiding.

One month down in 2017 and one month to go with all the “book learning” and planning yet to finish. Things have gone very well so far. I’m feeling good; March will descend with us as ready as we can be. One year ago we were wrapping up our Ambling Full Tilt journey. One year ago we had no idea where we would live. One year ago we had no home.

Now we are home. Now the real work begins.

A Look Back, a Look Forward

2016 opened with Dani and me quite a ways apart from each other. On January 1st I said goodbye to Green Gulch Farm of the San Francisco Zen Center. I had spent five days there as a rogue (unnofficial) volunteer in the kitchen, clandestinely sleeping in a very frigid Charley where I wasn’t even supposed to park overnight. I had performed a pilgrimage to  one of the two burial sites for the ashes of Alan Watts. As I left Green Gulch behind that day I headed to the other burial site: Druid Heights. I was the guest of the last original residents of Druid Heights, the sublime Ed and Marilyn Stiles.

As Ed made me coffee and regaled me with  stories of the light and the dark side of Alan Watts my thoughts drifted to Dani who was still at her meditation retreat. Dani never had the joy of meeting Ed and Marilyn, which is a tremendous shame. We now live on opposite coasts of the country and they have had many health challenges. Our hearts go out to them and we hope 2017 will be wonderful to them in spite of the challenges.

On January 2nd I picked up Dani from her retreat. We don’t like being apart from each other for very long, so the ten days we were separated were not easy. But joyously reunited, the Ambling Full Tilt journey continued with trips through the redwoods and a return to our Mecca: Yachats, Oregon. The remainder of the AFT journey was spent half expecting to find a parcel of land for our micro farm. We drove over most of Western Oregon in that search with a major base of operations at Ecolodge Gardens with our friend and benefactor Marcel (whom Ed had introduced us to remotely).

With a lot of work we managed to fail in finding anything that we could see through. It was with feelings of disappointment that we wrapped up the AFT journey in an anti-climatic fashion – nothing went according to plan the last few days.  In early February we re-adjusted to our new lives not-on-the-road back in Boise.

Through April we continued our search for our future home in earnest, including two trips to Nevada County, California, where we made offers on two different pieces of property. The deals each fell through for various reasons, all the more painful because of the time and energy we put into the process. As a consolation exercise we started searching for land in Maine with zero expectations of finding anything. How wrong we were…

There were enough promising leads and contingency options that we decided to move.  I drove Charley back to Nevada County, CA to pickup a trailer we had purchased as a tiny house foundation and left there thinking we would find land nearby before too long. We were wrong. I picked up the trailer and had a harrowing drive to get it over Donner Pass in the Sierras during a blizzard and far enough across Nevada (pitch-dark in pounding rain) in order to rendezvous with Dani and her fully-laden U-Haul in Wyoming the following day. Thus began our sprint across the continental United States.

In early May we landed in Dani’s parents sun room where we lived for another two months as we searched for land. And searched. And searched… But, as you all know, it happened: we found our future home. At the beginning of July we moved in and began the word of setting up a homestead and micro farm.

Even working ourselves to exhaustion I think we finished only half of the things we had hoped for in 2016. Progress is slow when you have to learn everything from the ground up! Once the snow started flying we both enjoyed an excuse to have “couch” days; to spend time just reading, writing, and pursuing individual leisure activities. We were both surprised at how quickly late November and December flew by!

Yet the winter was always going to be our planning time for the future farm. As the snow gently buried us on the last evening of 2016 we knew we could have one last day of fun and quiet celebration on new year’s day; but then it would be high time to get back to work.

So on this second day of 2017 we have both been diligent in our work pursuits. The to-do list is tremendous. We need to complete our full build-out plan for the farm, develop budgets for each phase of construction, then decide what infrastructure projects can be funded and executed this year. The house’s post foundation has two bad spots that need to be repaired, which will be a very big project. We need a garage and shop. We need to decide on the extent of raised bed construction for this season and develop our crop rotation plan. We then need to start the seeds, which will require growing infrastructure indoors. We have to finalize the plan for chickens, coop, run, paddock and chicken garden. We have to devise a comprehensive fencing plan. We hope to do all the major earthworks this season even if we don’t have the farm built out for several years. I want to start growing hay, feed and green manure crops outside raised beds. That means hay and feed storage must be figured out even though I have no idea how any of that works beyond “there’s a reason haystacks were a thing.” We need to devise a plan for growing season extension and expand our food storage program. We also hope to develop cottage industries like a farm stand and value-added culinary products like spice blends. I’m rather smitten with blacksmithing and we want to build an outdoor kitchen. Therefore I’m devising a plan for making my own charcoal out of hardwood I harvest on the property. Further I’d like to build at least one solar oven. Our two day power outage has convinced me that some kind of wood heat solution needs to be implemented before next winter – a huge undertaking.  And, of course, more winterization work needs to be done on the house; the cold and the snow prevent it from being done now. And all construction work needs to be funded so we’re looking at ways to raise money for that. Cottage industry will help, I hope to self publish a couple of small books soon, and I’m putting the word out that I’m available as an unskilled worker…

So there is a lot to do! But we’ve got our living expense budget figured and it should be funded soon, we’ve got almost all of our reference materials assembled, we are reading through our reference materials, creating the high-level plan, and formulating strategies for the specific tasks. And today we managed to work on all that as well as doing the laundry (line-drying is interesting in below-freezing temperatures!), we shoveled all the snow that needed shoveling, and got the generator buttoned up and back in storage mode.

I hope all your dreams for 2017 come true! But dreams don’t come true without a lot of hard work. C’est la vie. At least it’s a labor of love.

Happy new year!!

Simple Solutions to Zeno’s Paradoxes?

This post is a celebration of nerdery; it’s a sign that our hard labors are nearing their end for the season. I need mental exercise to keep my soul content much like Dani needs physical exercise to keep her body content.

I got plenty of exercise in my tasks of our divide-and-conquer homesteading efforts this season, so I’m beginning to revel in sitting my butt on the couch, reading, and thinking. I charged up my ancient Kindle (for other geek reasons, which I will not get into here) and found on it somehow Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I’ve listened to him lecturing and speaking countless times. But I had never read any of his books so I thought I’d give it a try.

I quite enjoyed it. With clarity and wit he tackles the ponderous subject, making it approachable and digestible. Definitely worth a read if that sort of thing interests you. Dawkins mentioned Zeno’s Paradoxes at one point and I had to pause my reading to go off on a Zeno’s Paradoxes rabbit trail. To date the only person I’ve heard discuss them was Alan Watts (who focused on the race between Achilles and the tortoise). These puzzling word-pictures have stimulated minds for millennia. At first blush they seem like they must be wrong. But it can be a bit of a challenge to say in what manner specifically they are wrong. Continue reading

Time Marches On. Strap On Your Boots.

It’s a little hard to keep in mind all the aspects of what has been transpiring here for the past three or so weeks. It’s also hard to keep up on writing with everything else that’s going on – to say nothing of the things that still need to happen before winter!

Since we last posted, we attended Common Ground Fair and got a stack of homework that seems appropriate for a semester in college. Even though the fair was two weekends ago, I only just now received my snath in the mail that I ordered at the fair. A snath is the shaft upon which you mount a (“European” style) scythe blade. I’ve spent the past two weeks reading books and studying everything I could in order to get ready to have it. And today it arrived! I couldn’t wait to try it out:

Lance learning his scythe. #mowah #nocupholderthough #simplify

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My first attempt at mowing was pretty lousy. But there were a lot of things not in my favor. I’m still very optimistic and it was enjoyable enough that I want to keep trying rather than capitulate and buy a weed whacker.  My hope is to not only trim the field and roadside with this, but to actually grow hay and feed for goats and chickens and use this tool to harvest all of it. No moving parts. Almost silent. And it costs far less than a professional grade string trimmer (which couldn’t harvest shit).

As Dani documented previously, we had a tree unexpectedly come down on the property. The cleanup required me to finally dig out the chainsaw and get to work.

At the end of that session I still have seven trees to fell and buck. But three are gone with no (significant) incidents. My good friend Rob (the professional woodsman) is coming over tomorrow and I hope he’ll show me how to cut wedges in the field; I definitely need some! And he says there is no reason to buy them. So the tree clearing still remains to be completed but we’re well under way.

After completing research into power outage history at our address I concluded a gasoline-powered backup generator will be sufficient for our first winter. So I bought one new; no small investment, but I managed to do so without breaking the bank. I had it on good authority that current Harbor Freight generators were actually Honda knock-offs. So they are cheap and perform remarkably well. I did a little digging and found the story sound. So, waiting for the right sale/coupon combo to pop up I managed to get a new 7000W (continuous) 240/120VAC generator for about $540.

I thought acquiring it was the end or our problems, but it turned out to be the beginning of the single largest project I’ve tackled on the homestead. Where do you put it? How do you connect it? How do you protect it from the elements? How do you protect it from thieves? How much gasoline do you need to store? Where do you store that? How do you accommodate the airflow, exhaust and noise while it runs? Can it run in inclement weather?

These questions drove me to my plan for a generator “dog house” outside our kitchen. A LOT more will follow, but the short story is I found myself designing and then building the most complicated project attempted to date. For people who are actual builders I’m sure my consternation would be laughable. But for as humble as it looks this was terribly challenging for me:

20161004_1429111

It’s still a work in progress, but I’m getting there. I hope to have it all done in the next 1-2 weeks. I’ve already completed the metal roof, but have lots or doors and hinges to make as well as to build the “power inlet” side of things.

Both this build and the scythe work will become full page write ups as I find more time in the future. In the mean time we marvel as the leaves explode in color and are now beginning to fall in earnest. Dani is officially published by another entity – hooray! The hoop house is covered (with strategic bee vents). We have our first pseudo cold-frame built and the “groundwork” is being laid for passive solar thermal season extension. If that works it will also be the subject of a dedicated page.

Otherwise we’ve seen some garden plants die off, and bees are becoming infrequent visitors. The robins are all gone and the blue jays are setting up their squawky, winter homesteads. We have officially been invaded by lady bugs. The goldbrickers didn’t show up once while the garden was in high gear, but now that it grows cold a couple hundred invaded the house (many more hundreds surround it and crawl into every nook and cranny). We caught and released all the interlopers outside. Yet half the insulation in the attic is the carapace remains of innumerable lady bugs. I don’t know why they come here to die. They would have a lovely summer here if they just came to visit. Regardless, while we turned the “invaders” all loose outside I caulked like a madman on the inside; trying to seal up every inlet they were using. This is pretty fortuitous, actually, because we had a LOT more openings to the outside that I ever could have guessed and this will help us increase our energy efficiency.

With every project I have done outside recently I have been graced by countless friendly, small, red dragonflies. The big, black or green dragon flies earlier this year were awe inspiring in their numbers and relentless hunting each evening. We’d sit on chairs and just watch thousands of them patrol the dusk air over our land darting hither and thither in pursuit of their tiny prey. One got caught in our deer fence. We clipped him out and he was fine. One died trapped while we were not near to notice…

Both the black and green ones kept their distance from humans. But these little red guys really like warmth and are not shy. While I built the dog house one landed on my head twice. They frequently will ride on my shoulders while I do all kinds of tasks around the place. Once they find a good sunning spot they’re reluctant to move. When one picked such a spot on the dog house (the same guy that liked my head, a picture of him is below) I had to apologize as I moved power tools around it; I tried not to knock it off it’s perch as I clambered into and out of the dog house during various tasks of construction. Frankly I thought he would find it much more agreeable to migrate  to one of the countless other sunny perches in a 20 foot sphere that weren’t frequented by jigsaws, drills and impact drivers. Yet he stayed put so I was reluctant to disturb his resolute repose and simply worked around him.

Really? You like the sound of an impact driver? I swear there are a dozen perches in the sun on the shed like twelve feet to your left. No power tools. No Lance leg-lift-over-the-wall hazards. No? You really like it there? Honestly I think you’re crazy, but it’s getting cold and you’re not going to get additional hassle from me…

We also are beginning to dabble in wild crafting. I’ve made hemlock tea (the conifer, not the poison shrub!) which is rich in vitamin C and delicious. I have found wild strawberry in limited quantities and goldenrod in unlimited quantities on our land. I have yet to find lamb’s quarters or sarsaparilla or wintergreen which are all things I’d love to have here. But I know they grow in the region and I hope to transplant next year. We do have wild raspberry and wild blackberry on the property! Limited berry production but tasty as could be hoped for.

We have two apple trees, a large one that’s not in great shape and whose apples are small, hard, green and so out of reach I haven’t had a chance to taste one. My hopes are not high. This tree is pinned under the world’s most leaningest gray birch that threatens to crush the apple tree (half of it has died under the weight of the leany birch).  The birch is garbage and I would have no problem taking it down. Maybe I will. Regardless there is a second apple tree. Scarcely a tree at all. I didn’t know it existed until I was working on the generator dog house and heard a THUNK come from the front of the property line. I stopped working and though to myself: “How can a maple tree make a sound like an apple falling?” Knowing that the answer was:  “It couldn’t” I went back to work.

The next day I walked by the maple and saw an apple in the front yard. I wondered: “What kind of jerk would pick an apple up from the west end of the property (where the big apple tree is), carry it all the way to the east end of the property, then toss it in the yard?” No one. That would be stupid and pointless. When I realized that I looked up. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I realized the giant maple that is by far the dominant feature on that property corner grew up – and through! – the middle of an old apple tree which is VERY close to dying. Close but not yet. And for its diminutive side and having to scrape out an existence adjacent and under the maple, it was surprisingly prolific. Apples dotted every mature branch. Unlike the big apple tree on the west end of the property this one had apples whose green skin started turning red as the nighttime lows dipped to the 40s. I plucked an apple from the branch and bit into it.

Heavenly. Perfectly crisp. Tart, but backed by enough sweetness to keep you munching. I couldn’t stop. The tiny apple was gone in a few bites. And there were a couple dozen hanging in the very few fruiting branches. I’ve eaten many apples from this poor, mangled tree. I would love to graft it on to the much better “place” that the big tree is growing in on the west end of the property. It’s apples have never been in reach and never been anything but bright green. Who knows if they’re edible. There is a LOT to learn about this and this is only with two neglected, misfit apple trees!

I also started cultivating purslane, which is taking nicely to our lousy, rocky soil. It’s DELICIOUS, very high in omega 3 fatty acids and some say it’s as high in nitrogen as chicken manure! I’m still dubious on that last claim, but even without that, the plant deserves FAR more regard than mere “lawn” which it is poisoned out of all too frequently. I also harvested a sumac bob down the road and am hoping to give that a fair shake on the property, too. Many other “weeds” are wonderful plants and I’m hoping we can get more in to medicinal wild crafting next season, but every small step is a bit of progress!

To round things out, lest anyone think we’re bragging, there is far more gunfire here than I’d like. What I’d like is zero. No such luck. As much as I wish all guns could be vanished from the face of the earth (which obviously will never happen), still, being occasionally, rudely awakened by gunfire is preferable to endless days exposed to the incessant sounds of traffic punctuated only by emergency sirens. I just wish the gun nut jackasses would not fire their guns off at dawn. It’s not hunting season yet! Wait till after coffee, you lummox. Yet if that’s the biggest problem we have, we’re doing good.

There is an interesting cross section of “flavors” at our new home. From the irritating to the sublime, each moment of each day reminds us: “You’re here. You chose this.”

We did. And it’s perfect. Challenges happen, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Big Deal(s)…

Winter is a big deal in Maine. Like a boogeyman almost. Many times we’ve mentioned we’re new to Maine only to have people grow a little quieter and ask “Have you spent a winter here?” From some of the looks in their eyes you wonder if they’re thinking “Are these people going to go crazy? Or die? The poor fools!”

We’re trying our best to get ready for winter, but there’s just too much to do and we don’t have the expertise to complete (or even begin) everything that ideally would be done. We will finish the bare minimum, yet the spectre of winter still hangs over everything even as summer transitions to fall. In late August, even though we had highs into the 90s, colors began changing in the leaves as soon as the nighttime lows began to drop. Way to ramp up the pressure, Nature.

We have a hoop house skeleton built on our large bed, but not the two smaller ones (yet). Dani is on her third round of canning. We’re dabbling in seed saving. I’ve been prepping for my first foray into tree felling and chainsaw usage so I can take down and remove the dead trees before the snow does it for us and makes a mess. And every day with each outside task done or errand ran we see the leaves changing more and more. There are now streaks of red like flame in the otherwise green arboreal vistas around our place. There are leaves beginning to fall on our property.

Headed out to water the garden and found the first sign of its ultimate fate. #fall #ithasbegun #itwas91yesterday

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Very late on the night of Monday, September 21, 2015, we arrived in Maine after the hardest push of the whole Ambling Full Tilt journey: from Niagara Falls, Ontario to Dani’s parent’s place in Waldo. Driving through Vermont and New Hampshire that day was the first time I ever laid eyes on the fall colors of New England; I was spellbound.

The Saturday after we arrived Dani’s parents took us to the 39th Annual Common Ground Country Fair. We were among 65,000 visitors that descended on that tiny patch between Thorndike and Unity, Maine (where only 3,000 people live). This fair is a big deal, too.

Now as we close in on the one year anniversary of our AFT (and my first) visit to Maine, we are combing the pages of this year’s Common Ground fair guide making a plan to attend every workshop we can over the three days of the fair.  But this year we are not visitors. As we set up home in this small, out-of-the way rural Maine location, I turned 40. Common Ground is also tuning 40 this weekend. We get to celebrate that as Mainers. As residents.

One year later we have a home and the beginnings of a farm. Even though the home needs work and the beginnings are very humble, Dani recently said:

This year, for the first time, I went from saying “I want to…” to “I am…”

Humbled. Amazed. Profoundly grateful.

Better words could not be spoken.

We spent four weeks here last year. We saw the trees progress through all their autumnal splendor. As we left Maine we were sad to be departing the first place that felt like home since leaving Boise.

Now, one year later, we are entering into that same beloved season in that same beloved place. And it doesn’t just feel like home – it is home.

Humbled. Amazed. Profoundly grateful.

A Change of Age – A Change of Season

It’s been a couple of weeks since we did an actual blog post. That was our anniversary of beginning the Ambling Full Tilt journey. What has happened since has included another anniversary of sorts; an “annibirthary” as Dani calls it.

I’m now 40. From the day before, to the birthday, to the day after I found I felt the same. I have always felt the same. Yet 40 is a big number; I remember as a little kid how I marveled that I would 24 In The Year 2000. How old that seems when you’re seven, ten or 12! But now all of us “bicentennial babies” – and the ’77 stragglers – are staring 40 in the face.

I’m happy! I still feel like I’m 18. But my body doesn’t feel that way. It aches. A lot. Old injuries (right wrist, right knee, lower back) constantly remind me that I’m not a teenager. But I’m having more fun than I ever did as a teenager, even if that means occasionally doing the military crawl in a pitch black crawl space with only inches of clearance, and more (now I know) porcupine droppings than you can shake a cobweb-swaddled yardstick at… Or pickaxing raised garden beds… or carrying endless loads of dirt and rock here and there… I haven’t even started the tree felling and bucking operation! Or the re-insulation of the attic. Or the excavation of the crawlspace – which is simply to prepare the way for re-insulating and re-sealing several floor bays that had water damage. They rotted and dropped the old sheathing like loading ramps so mice and every creepy crawly has direct access to our subfloor… oh and all that needs to get done before the weather turns to its legendary “Maine winter” state. There’s actually a LOT more that needs to happen before the winter than just those things, but they aren’t nearly as physically demanding.

In these ways the changes keep rolling; from age to season to activity.

I’m in far better shape at 40 than I was at 20 (and I wasn’t a complete slouch then). If that’s not common, it’s frequent enough. I feel good about that. But I do miss the 20-year-old body’s ability to recover! Yet I’ve met people approaching their mid-50s who make me look like an utter cream puff. I’m hoping I can age half as well. Working on a homestead sure seems to be a good way to achieve that fitness goal, though it’s probably not a very pragmatic choice for many middle-agers.

Excavating and working on the nether regions of our post-foundation home is the highest-priority task in front of me and a huge challenge physically. But it’s needed to secure our home for the long winter season. Mice and bugs have long had easy access to this place. We really try not to kill things, so biosecurity is the best way to prevent the need for lethal corrective measures.

This work for the change of seasons takes place in the midst of something we have mentioned several times, but only just recently came into focus: the squatter living downstairs…

Phil the Mentally Challenged Groundhog was who I blamed for everything that went awry on the property where digging animals are concerned. I saw Phil exactly twice. Midday, he was sneaking snacks from our container garden before we had finished construction of our raised beds. I chased him off our “deck” where the containers lived, but not before he had wreaked havoc on our peppers, eggplants and celery especially.

That first day I noticed he was sheltering under the shed. So I boarded up access to the foundation and have not seen him since. He may have been the digging culprit early on, but we had not seen direct evidence for him; retrospectively I am guessing he actually moved on. Since then we have been frequented by skunks, I’ve found scat that I think is raccoon and the other droppings that were everywhere, especially surrounding the giant den in the crawlspace under the den. Until we had caught the culprit I thought they were groundhog droppings. But no. We had a porcupine living under the house!

So today I begin the grand excavation of that space. Clear all the years of dung out, fill in the old burrow, clear travel space to every section of the crawlspace that needs attention (I estimate I have five yards of dirt and rock to move), and clear the work areas of spiders, construction refuse and debris. I get to do all this with no natural light, working entirely on my belly with just a tiny utility shovel and only a few inches of clearance between the bottom of the floor and the dirt.

It’s a job better suited to a 20 year old. But sometimes crappy jobs just need doing. Here’s to life keeping me from being too sedentary in my old age!

AFT Retrospect – The Oregon Coast and Ecolodge Gardens

[Originally written in January, 2016 as we had just met and ended up staying with our dear friend Marcel located west of Eugene, OR. This was not published in real time because of the vagaries of the Ambling Full Tilt (AFT) journey and the demands of life in the interim. As I find time I will periodically publish excerpts from my copious pile of notes remaining from the trip.]

In Travels with Charley Steinbeck wrote of that moment when you realize the grand trip is over. That’s especially noticeable when it occurs before the physical end  of your trip. It happened to him. It happened to us. I would say it happened in Portland.

With dreams of homesteading in our minds we viewed five properties while we were supposed to be taking time off in Yachats. Yachats has been our haven; our secret hideaway since we first visited there shortly after Dani and I became a couple. But in the search for a future home “vacation be damned!” We trudged through both clear-cut and forested spaces, always rain-soaked. We almost got Charley stuck once. We ended up dredging up more questions than information. So we followed the plan and headed to Portland to stay with my wonderful cousin Alison and her husband Casey.

While staying in Portland we continued our searches diligently for days. We made left Portland only because we’d missed the window where we could cancel our hotel reservations in Manzanita without penalties. It can be tough to predict how travel plans will mesh with the serendipity of the real estate market! That intense search for land was a major shift in focus; and thus it felt like the Ambling Full Tilt journey was ending.

We hit the road and traveled in a very circuitous manner looking at four properties before ending up in Manzanita.

We had been away from the ocean too long. We stood on the beach watching the gargantuan waves whipped by the winter wind crashing on the long shallow sand… it was good – wonderful even – to be back in Manzanita. Our room right over the water was very plain, small but long and narrow. It had no windows apart from the sliding glass door in the front of the unit used as the entrance. Painted white, it felt to me like I imaging a room on an ocean-liner might feel. We left the door open a crack – almost no moonlight could peek through the omnipresent rain clouds, but the sound of the ceaseless winter waves added to the illusion. As sleep came I imagined we were adrift in the ocean as it felt we were adrift in life.

The little free time we had was spent mostly absorbed in real estate searches and conversations with agents and officials. A serendipitous inquiry to a friend in the bay area also put us in touch with Marcel the curator “Ecolodge Gardens”  (homeowner/gardener/arborist are technically correct, but when you see the scope of the place “curator” is more appropriate).  After some e-mail exchanges we decided to stay at Ecolodge with Marcel, our host and benefactor; he gave us – complete strangers! – free reign of the place to take the time we needed to plan and take our next steps.

After only one day “off” in Manzanita, spent as busy as ever, we moved on to Ecolodge Gardens. We pulled off the highway and up the wet, steep driveway. Charley managed to climbed it as it was “paved” only in slick fir needles coated in weeks of rain.  We parked, breathed sighs of relief and instantly Marcel came bustling out of the front door with umbrella in hand to provide shelter for us as we made our way to his front door.  We hurried in but taped to the inside of a window facing us was a homemade sign saying “Welcome home, Dance” – Dance is his portmanteau of Dani and Lance. Marcel really was (and is!) something else.

Thus we were welcomed into Ecolodge Gardens with no idea of what laid in front of us.

[Afterword: We stayed with Marcel for 10 days, I believe it was. We spent the vast majority of our time researching real estate and making forays from Port Orford to Tillamook Bay to look at prospective properties. The quest for our future home took six months, far longer than the mere three days that elapsed between leaving Marcel’s place and reaching Boise; the official end of AFT. Regardless Marcel declared us family, many great meals were shared, many glasses were raised, and many laughs unleashed. And all transpired within the bounds of a living work of art.

Although we now live on the East Coast parts of our hearts remain on the West Coast. With any luck we’ll find a way to return.

But for now, Homesteading Full Tilt it is!

 

Impermanence

Time flies-crawls as we set up our homestead. Each day is so packed it feels like seven. But we’ve been here over a month and it feels like yesterday that we moved in.

It finally feels like the emergencies are taken care of and, while it’s nice not to feel boxed in by panic, one suddenly has the free mental capacity to realize just how large an endeavor we’ve committed to. Sometimes panic might seem preferable…

Each accomplishment, no matter how small, gives way to a plethora of tasks that yet need doing. Long ago on the Ambling Full Tilt journey we both dreamed of how lovely it would be to have our first day when the only thing that needed doing was the day’s chores. We knew that day was a long ways off even back then. Now  we’re much closer to that day but I still can’t predict when it might come with any strong feeling of certainty. Three years? Five years?

As the AFT trip wrapped up and we settled into the arduous six-month search for home. As the drudgery of the land search tested our resolve I’d often say “Imagine the day when all we have to do is face each day’s challenges as we set up the farm.” It sounded heavenly. And now here we are. What an accomplishment to actually reach this point! It’s not disheartening to recognize that by taking these steps the hardest work I’ve ever done is forecast for years into the future. But some days I do wish it could be just a smidge easier.

I’ve had to take it “easy” for almost a couple weeks now by lightly wielding a pick axe and  gingerly putting a death grip on sink drain jam nuts. After digging the compost cover material bin pallets in via the mini pick axe a week or two ago my arms complained – in a big way that they are not wont to do. But I know how my body talks.

When I attempted to hike the JMT with my brother and wife two years ago we only hiked for nine days before having to bail because of altitude sickness. After that my right big toe was numb for three months. The same numbness (and worse) happened to my arms with the work on the homestead…

I woke up in excruciating pain one night and ended up not sleeping because the circulation in my arms was so poor I had to hold everything “just so” to keep the blood flowing. I didn’t sleep well at all for several nights because of this. That’s when I went on “light duty” which was still far more demanding than almost anything I’ve done in the past year or so. I was afraid of developing RMI/RSI and even nerve damage as I’ve come dangerously close to carpal tunnel syndrome before. But things still need to get done around the place!

Thankfully with careful planning, Dani’s constant willingness to jump in, and methodical intention, I’ve staved off two arm fulls of permanent nerve damage and now I’m just trying to manage the wear and tear on my right wrist. My right hand is constantly in pins-and-needles. We’ve had to replace one sink, two faucets, two drains, build a big sieve, dig and pick axe our new 100 sq ft raised garden bed, then build the frame and then move several cubic yards of rock, gravel, dirt and compost using only 1.5 shovels and one wheelbarrow.

The wrist is doing okay, but it could be better. I’m just trying to give it enough downtime to merely prevent carpal tunnel from actually developing. I’m intentionally trying to do everything I can left handed, which is very awkward. Life is constantly on the move and we do our best to move in step.

Our Facebook page has a banner picture of the sunset sky over our land. In the lower left you can see a giant pine in the distance that we call Bonsai and love dearly. He is featured prominently in any picture of our land facing west.

This morning as we were making coffee after having done the morning’s garden chores a work crew showed up at the neighbor’s place and chainsaw began caterwauling it’s unfamiliar note through our usually-quiet neighborhood. After some time we heard the unmistakable crack when a bole folds over itself and both of our eyes shot to the window.

Our mouths fell agape as out of all the trees on our “tree horizon” Mr. Bonsai buckled and fell from view. Both our hearts dropped into the pits of our stomachs. Bonsai was almost the first landmark we named as we moved in. We have a dozen or more very sick or dead trees on our property that we need to drop. Bonsai was a pinnacle above that chaos. A majestic, sagely pine that we fell in love with instantly.

He cracked and tumbled and fell from view.

We were dumbstruck. We were heartbroken.

I turned from the scene and went back to my morning dish washing. It was the only thing I could think to do. I was fairly confident Bonsai was actually on our property, though I knew it bordered with our neighbors (it bordered their driveway, in fact). How could our most beloved tree – and one that was on our property be cut down without our consent? My mind reeled, so I washed the dishes.

Neither Dani or I spoke for some time. When I was done with the dishes she had published a very short commentary on Facebook. I read it and nodded. We both then cried for a bit.

“It’s like watching someone you love getting shot.” Dani offered quietly. I agreed. Yet we had to move on with all the day’s work.

There is a hollow in our woods where Mr. Bonsai once stood. The late afternoon sun casts a very conspicuous golden hue in that nook of the dense, green growth. After breaking our backs building our largest raised bed to date, we called it a day. Dani went in to take a quick shower and launch into dinner prep as I cleaned up outside and put everything away.

When I was done cleaning up the day’s work area, I had to walk over to Bonsai’s remains to try to figure out why this touchstone of our new lives had been removed by powers that – not only did I not have control over – I wasn’t even aware of them operating.

I found that majestic giant dropped and bucked in a most brutish fashion; the portion of the bole dropped over my neighbor’s driveway was hacked out as quickly as possible and rolled off the road. It left the shattered stump on one side of the driveway and the main body smashed through the woods on the other side. His reaching, green limbs were bombs that decimated all the younger growth in the path of his fall from the heavens.

I learned what I wanted to know: Bonsai had apparently started dying at the base of the trunk. The dying  had led to the point of a large amount of rot on the downhill side of the trunk even though his crown was emerald green. No doubt a human-sized chunk of rot at the base of a giant pine (that was probably four feet thick at the base) would be disconcerting. And since the rot was on the lean side, which was the same side that went across the driveway and through the local service power line and the telephone line…

I’m sure Bonsai could have stood for two or three years with no problem, but it would have come down sooner rather than later. So our neighbors  opted to have him dropped.

One of the first things that touched our hearts and told us we were home was this tree. I patted the enormous bucked pieces of trunk now scattered to the sides of the driveway, oozing pints of sap all over the ground… Bonsai was on his way out, but he was still very much alive when then cut him down.

“I’m sorry, friend. We’ll miss you.” was all I could say as I grew misty-eyed and began the long walk back to the house.

Life IS impermanence. We all live. We all die. The self is an illusion. The pattern goes ever onward.

But sometimes it hurts.

And for Our Next Trick…

Finding time to write is very difficult when you work yourself to exhaustion every single day. In my last post I resorted to the last thing a writer wants to resort to: a bulleted list. Yet so much happens every single day that it’s hard to conceive of a better way to communicate that we are, in fact, still here and so busy with setting up the homestead that writing is a very rare luxury.

So again I think in terms of the bulleted list in explaining the dearth of my goal-in-life: writing.

  • We sourced, purchased and received yards of rotted wood fiber for our compost cover material.
  • Built and filled a companion cover material bin next to the compost bin out of pallets – and have done two subsequent rounds of “critter defense” modifications to it to keep the interlopers out of our compost – success!!
  • Moved the trailer that we hauled across the country to our new home and unpacked it.
  • We need to sell that trailer as $7000 of our homesteading budget is tied up in it and we no longer need it. This means copious pictures and documentation and a tremendous amount of time dedicated to creating, maintaining and following up on ads for selling.  Also I had to come up with a tarp cover system to keep the weather and critters out, yet it needs to be modular and easily removable so it can be show to prospective buyers. Done.
  • Bought a chainsaw and safety equipment. Continue online education about tree felling, bucking and chainsaw maintenance.
  • Installed a new deer fence around the elderberry bush
  • Mowed the entire yard with the riding mower that I had never used (and I had never even used one before).
  • Found the last remaining furniture needs to unpack the last room in the house.
  • Finally unpacked ALL the clothing and moved it into the closet. After almost one year we are no longer living out of a suitcase! One of the most amazing feelings…
  • Set up our “office” so we can print, scan and shred. Only remaining items in the “move in” process are shelving our books and finding a home for the musical instruments…
  • Still don’t have a working phone – we researched and did tests; we have ordered a cell signal booster that SHOULD at least let Dani’s phone work reliably. All in the effort to avoid being locked in to an expensive two year contract on a house phone that we really won’t use as our satellite internet costs have already blown our telecommunications budget.
  • Researched, planned, and sourced (most) materials to renovate the kitchen and bathroom faucets, sinks and drains. Actual work always seems to involve one or two more trips to the hardware store than you plan.
  • Replaced the bathroom faucet and drain successfully! But still have the kitchen sink and faucet to replace though…
  • Researched and acquired a portable clothes washer – then did an intensive and successful clothes washing marathon.
  • Installed a new outdoor laundry line.
  • Successfully applied for our Maine drivers licenses, they should arrive in the next week!
  • Registered to vote at our local town office and figured out most of the ins and outs of the waste removal/recycling programs (it’s not your usual municipal curb side thing).
  • Continue to battle with Japanese beetles, Asiatic garden beetles, cucumber beetles and grasshoppers – many young plants in the garden are barely hanging on, we’re R&Ding screen solutions and are planning an Hb nematode treatment soon…

And even though we’re a few (big) steps shy of “Phase 1 complete”,  finally the rewards are showing.

We have our first baby tomatoes and summer squash growing! We’ve harvested basil, kale, mulberries and two strawberries already, too!

We are being frequented by adorable wildlife like frogs, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, flycatchers and wild turkeys. Even a skunk (who I think was the compost raider) and a bat! I don’t resent the compost raider; it’s simply part of finding a new equilibrium. The wildlife was here before we were. We are staking our claim in their territory. It’s quite an experience trying to walk that line with some semblance of equanimity. I could probably write a book about it…

The house’s living conditions are mostly in good order. There is work to be done on the plumbing and mechanical side of things. But we are very comfortable. Finally in a home of our own.

Today I was fatigued to the point where my hands couldn’t grip the PVC pipe I was trying to cut with a pipe cutter. I improvised a solution with wood working clamps. When I finished the task, I packed up the project and declared an afternoon off.

We set up the deck furniture and umbrella, fixed some nice drinks and relaxed by simply doing digital work outside in the bright, breezy summer day. Sometimes we used our bodies as ballast to keep the wind from convincing the umbrella to take the table (and our drinks) for a walk down the road. This was our first time relaxing outdoors in our beloved “deck setup” since we left our Village Lane home in Boise almost one year ago. It’s not that the furniture is amazing – it’s not in the least – but it represents our intent to enjoy time outside in the sun and the air with nothing to do but what we choose to do. Countless cribbage games, talks of dreams and philosophical discourses have happened around that deck setup. It is beyond gratifying to do it again, but on the soil of our new home.

Another Day (or Thirteen) on the “Farm”

Once we finally arrived and entered our abode to actually stay there, I was a little lost amidst the flow. After unloading only a couple items we hit in quick succession: Bug War: Part 3, patching the bedroom back up, deciding on a layout, unloading the mattress and laying the big pieces of the bedroom out. I then headed out to tackle the problem of having no mailbox because a snowplow took it out last winter.

As I did that, Dani completely set up the bedroom, bathroom, removed all the doors from the kitchen cabinets (we hope to use them on the upcoming chicken coop) and began getting a rudimentary working kitchen in order since everything was boxed up and the cabinets were unusable. After that she moved to repotting every one of her some two dozen second-round seedlings. All the while I still worked on my mailbox post.

It was silly, really. Something so basic as a means to keep the mailbox in the air (and hopefully not easily destroyed by a careless or doomed snow plows)… this was nothing but a glorified stick. Yet I felt it a matter worthy of my full attention and my far-too meager skills. After putting the mailbox bits together I noticed a warning on its carton stating most places have standards you should adhere to. They recommended an overall deck height of 41-45″ but said to call your local post office to confirm.

This being Maine, I couldn’t be bothered to do all that, so I wandered down our road (it’s dirt, so it’s not a street), tape measure in hand, and checked out the height of all my neighbors’ mailboxes. They were all between  39″ and 43″ high. So I figured the mailbox carton wasn’t lying to me. I decided 43″ should not attract undue attention. Then began the second wrinkle in my plan.

I had only scrap material I had scrounged around the property. There were three sections of 4×4 none of which were 54″ (the height I needed to sink the post into the designated bucket, which was 9″ deep). So I had to improvise plates to butt two of those sections together. But no two were 54″ total (always longer) and none had clean-cut ends. I had a mediocre circular saw, two saw horses, two quick clamps, a speed square, one pencil, two ham fists and practically zero experience.

Dani and I had built the saw horses. We also built a plant shelf and a bed frame. But this was my first solo project and my most free-form; and I had to only use what I could find around me. I’m actually pretty proud of it.

mailbox

Even with as little skill and experience I have, I cut the 4×4 pieces reasonably well in spite of an unfamiliar saw that was incredibly clumsy. Also because of inadequate blade depth, I had to cut each 4×4 once, then flip it over and do another cut to finish. I did this free hand as I had borrowed the saw and had neither the time nor materials to make jigs with. It went pretty well, though my binding plates had to be simple blocks as I did not have the skills or the tools to make something that looked like an enclosed ring.

The third wrinkle was the post needed to go in a bucket of cement where the old post holder was: a buried metal milk jug full of rocks, dirt, rust and black widows. It was nether sturdy nor aesthetically pleasing enough to be entrusted with the new mailbox post. Also it was not so decrepit as to just disintegrate when I wanted it removed. As our first evening wound to a close with the sun setting it was obvious I wouldn’t get it all done in one go. So I had to “lay up” and just shove the post in the old milk jug and shore it up with rocks until we could tackle it again with more daylight.

We cleaned things up and went inside. Dani done a great job on the place and I’m glad we didn’t realize just how much work was in front of us at that time. We might have grown a bit feint-hearted.

As the afternoon and evening gave way to night we were treated to twinkling stars and fireflies through our bedroom windows. Coyotes cavorted and the breeze moved through.  The Milky Way wheeled overhead. It was like camping in a tent under the stars. But in your bedroom in your own bed! Could a more amazing thing be imagined?! Oh yes, I suppose that the disintegrating, ant-infested floor under the bed was less than ideal. But no place is ever perfect…

What really blew me away was slowing awakening the next morning to sunlight, a gentle breeze moving through and rustling the leaves on the nearby trees – and birdsong. And that’s it. No noisy vehicles, no loud stereos, no barking dogs, no people yammering (or, god forbid, hollering). And this was our home.

We made coffee and met the day. What ended up happening in the following days cannot be recounted in detail with any economy of words. As I’m trying to finish writing this we have completed thirteen days living in our new place. And what has transpired in that time is mind boggling (at least to us):

  • Installed satellite internet service
  • Removed all existing furnishings from the house
  • Primed and painted all the kitchen cabinets and all the main living area walls
  • Sealed the house with foam sealant and/or silicone caulking
  • Cleaned the place from top to bottom
  • Found a leak and miscalibration in the new well pump and pressure tank system and fixed that
  • Removed everything from the existing shed
  • Created a huge junk pile in the front yard (from cleaning out  the house, the shed and some bits of our “forest”)
  • Eradicated all yellow jackets and wasps from the shed (~20 active nests and dozens of old ones)
  • Cleaned up six old mouse nests (full of excrement and hantavirus concerns) and tons of old poison in the house and the shed
  • Sealed the shed and repaired it in a few places.
  • Took inventory on all existing items on the property; moved junk and figured out a storage solution for the few left-behind items we kept
  • Set up storage systems in the shed and house
  • Unpacked, unpacked and unpacked (…still ongoing…)
  • Got sand delivered and filled in the old well pit
  • Got the raised bed soil mix delivered
  • Collected, relocated and stowed all reclaimed building materials (including for the initial raised beds)
  • Ran hundreds of miles (literally!) of errands for all needed tools, building materials, household items (from storage needs to groceries) and garden materials
  • Preparing meals and doing dishes in spite of having not storage in the kitchen
  • Rebuilt and painted some kitchen shelves and repainted the only remaining kitchen cabinet doors
  • Painted and finished the new mailbox, dug up the old mount and installed the new box in a new bucket and cement – resulting in me puncturing my fingertip with a spade drill bit (don’t ask) and subsequently was very grateful that a nurse forced me to take a tetanus shot last year because of the crash that ended my last (possibly final ?*sniff*) skateboard ride…
  • Reloaded the shed
  • Removed a giant, dilapidated aerial off the roof
  • Found even more plants that we wanted to give a home to; to the point of bungee-cording a young, 8′ tall mulberry tree in suspension in the back of Charley a’ la MST3K: Riding With Death where they have to transport tripolodine. Immortalized on Facebook here.
  • Protected our materials from the sneaky, punctuated, rainy times
  • Made a plan and almost-complete implementation strategy for Phase 1 of Favorite Day Farms: Operation “Holy Shit I Can’t Believe We Even MADE It Here!”
  • Built two 8’x4′ raised garden beds revealing what we would later determine was a white grub infestation on the 2.5 acres
  • Transplanted all vegetation including many that were started from seeds in Boise at the end of February and survived in spite of two trips to northern CA, a cross country trip and far-too-extended dwelling in containers
  • Did two rounds of battle with a groundhog (or muskrat – data is scant) including damage control after the veggies’ first night in the raised bed
  • Installed emergency fencing the next morning
  • Planted our first tree, the mulberry; and planted an elderberry bush and many amaranth plants outside the safety of the fence
  • Faced an invasion of Japanese beetles eating at all our new transplants. Continually, all are now terminated on site with extreme prejudice. How’s that for trying to live in balance with nature?
  • Finished arranging the kitchen, bedroom, living room, bedroom and bathroom
  • Built a “first round” compost bin with reclaimed pallets
  • Gone further rounds with the carpenter ant infestation (the saga is ongoing), but I think we are on the winning side.
  • Empirically Verified it does, in fact, almost always take twice as long and twice as much effort than you thought it would to get anything done.
  • Learned from our mistakes and…
  • Are continuing to go to sleep in a quiet, beautiful, albeit ant-infested home… the fuckers…
  • Aaand… waking up to wind and light; to trees and birds singing sweet songs – of melodies pure and true…
  • [We actually have a mom and pop finch raising two little finches the red prince weigela in front of our main window and right next to the gate of our now-fenced garden. Today the chicks became fledglings!]

Sometimes I wake up feeling like I was in a car wreck. But at least the pain is by us and for us. We spent careers killing ourselves for those respective systems. This is our chance to kill ourselves for ourselves – hooray!

I jestingly and lovingly call it: “Farmer Bootcamp”. Fall in, maggot!