Off-grid and loving it

Just back from 17 days off-grid and away from technology. I’m in no rush to get back on it, so this month is a short one…

A life well invested

Big change: I’ve decided to take an indefinite amount of time off work to heal my back, rebalance my life, and experiment with the substitution effect. I came to the decision after several months of deep reflection, feedback from my mentors and brilliant wife, and consultation with the doctors and specialists who’ve been repairing my lower back recently. Because kinesthetic learning is how I best absorb new information, I’ll continue doing physical therapy and FMS work that focuses on progressive mobility exercises and hands-on learning about how to better move.

I’m leaving the studio on a high note with the September 1 launch of an Oprah-fueled film short series called Gratitude Revealed (check it out, it is excellent). My plan is to continue with the healing team rebuilding my back, get my hands back into the soil (and away from technology) via a Permaculture Design Course, and get my mind/body back in balance via a yoga certification plus much deeper meditation work via a non-religious version of Vipassana.

This was inspired in no short part by re-reading some Stoic texts, especially Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s classic “On The Shortness of Life.”

Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!

On the micro-farm, the food forest and hugel beds continue to pump out food – although it’s not always exactly the produce we want at the exact time we want it – with the extras going to feed the chickens. $5 worth of spaghetti squash seed gives us the three squash we’ll actually eat, plus the 30+ squash the chickens will transform into delicious eggs. Alchemy!

We’ve also been enjoying watching two baby Ospreys doing a few weeks of test flights over our pasture, scaring the crap out of the chickens (they hide under the solar panels) and decimating the field mice population. I feel so much gratitude to be able to witness nature as we can.

Happy plants = happy people

I am following the wise words of Maria Popova, who explains how she has decided to “stop measuring my days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence.”

My lower back is coming out of “guard mode” but I’m diligently reminding myself not to overdo it and re-injure myself. Continuing to learn lessons in healthy dependence, humility, and focusing on the long-term Big Picture rather than short-term busyness.

404: Systems breakdown

Solar powered chickens

Solar powered chickens

On a permaculture setup, when one system breaks down, it’s a minor hassle and usually easily remedied. When multiple systems break down concurrently, it becomes a major hassle but still totally fixable. But when one of those “systems” is your own body, we start looking at total system failure.

It’s been a rough month, indicated by a 10-day late blog post and numerous folks’ “Dude, where’s the update?” emails. If you think this blog post is late, you should see the backlog on my micro-farm chore list.

Several weeks ago I injured my lower back *again*, this time with a spasm-induced face plant on the floor and subsequent army crawl to the nearest bedroom where I camped out for two weeks; easily the most debilitating injury I’ve had in several decades. The first few days were spent in mortal fear of figuring out how to do basic items like go pee or breathe deeply without triggering another muscle spasm that curled me into a fetal position. Thank goodness for small town doctors who still make house calls (Julie and Holly, you rock).

Multiple specialists (including my own amazing wife who is a skilled energy healer) are telling me this acute flair up and the past two years of repeated lower back injuries are directly related to how I am managing the stress of my current day job, so I’ve been actively searching for a more permanent fix, one that likely revolves around increased meditation, more frequent hands on treatment by various medical specialists (as opposed to popping pills from Big Pharma), fixing my basic movement patterns and compensations via Functional Movement Screen, and a modified yoga practice (thank you Jen and Joyce).

Despite the injury, this past month *has* had multiple highlights to share – in addition to realizing just how lucky I am to have doctors who are also neighbors – including re-learning a healthy dependence on and sharing of micro-farm responsibilities with the rest of my family. We’re moving at a slower pace now, with harvesting from the hugelculture beds and preparing food for storage in the evenings and weekends. Time is now measured in the number of songs on Pandora it takes to complete a chore like preparing strawberries for the chest freezer.

Together, we are slowly making repairs to the broken systems: finding and mending the irrigation piping broken while trenching electrical conduit for our winter solar panel project, returning the chickens to the pasture and cleaning up the food forest where they spent six months, pruning the fast spring growth on the grapes and kiwis, rebuilding the chicken watering system that harvests rainwater which they managed to mess up during their stay in the food forest, changing on how we handle pallets of chicken food ordered in bulk with other micro-farming families, and so on.

The top highlight for me from this past six weeks has been pondering the wisdom of an eight year old who says she is “Glad you hurt your back so badly so you spend less time working and doing chores and more time playing chess with me.

Hmmm. Pure wisdom.

Millions of reasons to be happy

Two highlights to share this month as the hugelkulture bed becomes more populated with greenhouse transplants and the direct sow seeds begin popping up.

First highlight: the return of the bees. I’ve been checking on our new bees almost daily to see who’s winning a war with ants from the pasture.

Before installing the new colonies in the hives, we did a clean sweep (read: stomp) of the ants that had swarmed the dead hives over the winter and created a careful (will affect the bees as well if they land in it) perimeter barrier with dichotomous earth (DE).

After installing the bees, two of the colonies promptly kicked the remaining ants to the curb and went about their business of bee-ing. But one hive began what’s become an epic battle with the ants, who have them outnumbered by several millions.

We’ve assisted by tracing the ants back to their nest – not difficult given it is 4’ wide and 3’ tall – and bombed it to give the ants something else to focus on besides raiding the honey stores of our new colonies. The bombs made of DE + boric acid + cat food are designed to give the queen indigestion, and they seem to have helped.

We *do* want the ants around for their beneficial nature, but just need to distract them away from the hives while the bees build up their strength in numbers. It seems to be working as the reduced hive entrances now feature multiple bee guards and ants being challenged at every step as they try to regain access.

I’m thankful for the returning sound of thousands of bees over my head as I walk underneath our Japanese maples in early bloom. I can only imagine the sound of millions of these new life forms as they spread out on farms and backyards throughout the west coast of America and beyond. It’s the sound of life, the sound of balance, the sound of happiness, perhaps?

Second highlight: through work I met an interesting fellow with an amazing private collection of 100+ giant crystals and fossils, some of which have been dated to 500M years in age. Since they are in a private collection and not a museum (yet), you can interact with and lay hands directly on them. Something about touching an enormous 5’ crystal unearthed from three miles below the earth’s crust where it grew for 1/2 billion years puts your local problems into perspective. Amazing.

Only three lowlights, all relatively minor:

Turning on my fancy lawn irrigation controller that’s been repurposed to be a fancy food forest irrigation controller revealed multiple water line and electrical cable breaks caused by our solar installation this past winter. Bummer. And the detective work to find and make the repairs is always 24″ down, which means lots of shovel work (and guessing). Double bummer, but now fixed.

Second lowlight was the vigor with which bindweed surged forth from its hidden base in our rock retaining walls. I’ve recruited my elder child into helping me battle this back several times per week with a spray mixture of white vinegar + salt + dishwashing soap. If you pull it, the roots send out shoots, spreading it even faster.

The third lowlight involved most of the family. Imagine the loudest primal scream you’ve ever heard, an equal mix of rage, sadness, and surprise. Now imagine it’s originating from the vocal cords of a very strong, very motivated eight year old child. That sound brought me running to the back pasture, where I found my little girl and German Shepard tearing down the hill at full speed after a beautiful eagle which (unfortunately) had one of our chickens in its clutches.

After chasing it over an acre of pasture, screaming at the top of her lungs, the eagle had enough of this weirdness and dropped the chicken from a height of 40′. Amazingly, the chicken is alive and will fully heal. And we got a great up-close view of the eagle for ten minutes, as he watched me dig the chicken out from under a mess of stinging nettle and blackberry thorns. Gorgeous bird, but I imagine he was pretty frustrated with us.

A tale of two trees

A tale of two trees

A tale of two trees

We’ve been loving the early spring and welcoming its cheerful colors popping out of each fruit tree’s guild of flowers.

As you can see in the nearby image, we’re inadvertently conducting an experiment in the food forest, seeing how well the fruit trees handle the chickens’ extended presence while their pasture regrows from the solar array installation.

The closer tree still covered in blooms is what the further tree looked like just a few weeks ago. The further tree has been a favorite of the chickens, who hop around it, plucking off flower buds with abandon. Oops. We’ll see how that affects the fruit yield.

On the remaining fruit trees, the tent caterpillars were sent to their next life by the tens of thousands this month. Better luck next time, little dudes.

Lots of transplants of the hardier veggies like kale and chard made their way from the greenhouse to the newly compost-topped hugelkultur bed, while we were rebuilding trellises in the food forest and the nearby supporting beds. You read that right, the veggie starts made their own way out there; it was like Fantasia!

Speaking of mice, in the greenhouse this year we’ve been battling the (expected) slugs and the (unexpected) invasion of mice into the greenhouse, who are feasting on our seedlings. Oh well, we’ll just make more to share.

Banking on the sun

BlogHighlight this month was the final day we got to throw the big red switch (literally) to turn on our new 9.9 kW bank of solar photovoltaic panels (36 Iteks made here in Washington state).

In the photos below, you can see a new, level terrace built on our hillside, followed by the concrete-based (2400 lbs per hole!) scaffolding erected to hold the panels themselves. This is a grid-tied system, meaning we still can buy electricity from our regional utility company when there is no sun, and sell that same company our excess solar-generated electricity (when we have it). This system does not help when there is a power outage (frequent in our windy winters with above-ground utilities)…but we’ll be able to solve that in the next few years. And for our last remaining friends who wonder if solar panels are worth it, even in the dark Pacific Northwest…read this.

Lowlight of the month is the significantly increased amount of stress in my day job, which I have mistakenly translated into less time with my hands in soil…exactly opposite of what I need. I need to remedy this fast as I threw out my back (that’s where I hold my stress), which of course makes it that much harder to get out in the food forest. I’m reminded of the formula proposed by one of my mentors – the Happo Dammo ratio – which I need to include in my new search for stress mastery, balance and grounding.

Given the new PV panels location, my wife and I plugged up the hives and moved the bees to a new home where they would once again be in full sun and allow my children to observe their behavior from the treehouse. Eventually the gardens beds will expand down in that direction, so the bees will be in the center of the garden. As we moved the hives we discovered the Perone colony had not survived the winter and harvested the remainder of their honey after checking on the supplies of the other two hives (still alive and kicking with plenty of stores). Delicious!

And here’s the time lapse-ish prep and install of the PV panels…


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