Summertime happiness…

Happiness is a warm scytheWhen you live in the Pacific Northwest, you get used to thinking of “summer” based on the calendar alone, as you certainly can’t count on the weather to inform you. But despite overcast skies, colder temperatures, and drizzle, we have some spectacular days/weeks that give you a glimpse of what’s to come each July-August.

These glimpses also offer occasions where I reflect on true happiness, and it reminds me that each day I can choose happiness whether it’s dreary outside or not.

Taking a break from our normal highlights/lowlights update, many of you know that recently I’ve been reflecting on happiness instead.

Happiness is:

  • A sharp scythe
  • Colorful foxglove rising among blueberries
  • Healthy bees
  • A bicycle ride through blossoming cherry trees with your daughter in tow (and not needing rain protection gear!)
  • Early morning sessions at dawn of moving meditation in the pasture, clearing paths
  • Wildflowers spreading along pathways in a food forest
  • Watching your son take 45 minutes to simply collect eggs as he’s carrying on extended conversations with the chickens…in their language
  • A greenhouse full of chili pepper plants
  • Calendula flower petals finding their way into your salad…medicine that tastes good!
  • Finding carefully piled collections of natural materials curated by a six year old, ready to make another fairy house
  • Hugelkultur beds actively producing crops with minimal watering
  • The blessing of viewing Mount Rainier from above the clouds
  • Finding semi-wild elderberry trees with bright red berries…medicine growing on trees!

May showers bring…hey, wait a minute…

Hugelkultur keyhole bedMy wife and I got to escape the relentless rain and take a special trip to Hawaii this past month, where we met some super high quality folks. We were gone for 10 days, but given the amount of Morning Glory that invaded our garden beds while we were gone, you’d have though it was three months.

Highlights from this past month:

  • We enjoyed several deep conversations in Hawaii, including new learnings from the eco-resort’s horticulture team about permaculture and much more. We returned to the overcast Pacific Northwest feeling relaxed, inspired for our future, and full of sunshine!
  • We recovered more space from the useless lawn to create our second small hugelkultur bed (read: core of decomposing wood) in a keyhole design.
  • I’ve been experimenting with aerated compost tea using $10 worth of aquarium parts, finished compost from our worm bins, and these simple instructions. Will report back at the end of the growing season how the beds treated with this tea faired against the control group. There is something about making compost tea that makes me feel like a mad scientist and fascinates my children.
  • I found a sane voice of reason in one of the crowds I interact with…survivalists. I’ve had numerous conversations with these interesting folks over the past 5+ years as I dove deeper into the sustainability movement and then began connecting it to the survivalist movement via the topic of resilience. I recently used permaculturalists + preppers as one of the themes to my Prepared Neighborhoods book (currently undergoing punishment by my editor this summer). This post by Kirsten at Milkwood struck a chord with me as I’ve found my own responses the past year or two reflecting her grounded and positive sentiments:

    So now, when occasionally someone comes up at a course and wants to talk survivalism, I almost want to get specific: “so, like, are we talking about just social upheaval, or economic collapse, or armageddon, or the full thing where people start to eat each other? Because you’ll need a different approach depending on what you’re thinking to protect yourself from…”

    In reality, I don’t go there. If I and my family are going to manifest a thriving future for ourselves and our community, I need to compost those kinds of thoughts and regenerate them into something useful. I focus on what I can do. And make sure I keep up with my planting plan.

    I think for a moment about how, compared to so many millions of people on this planet, we live in paradise. Maybe I should stick to being thankful for that. And building a kick-ass permaculture farm that can feed useful knowledge and nourishing food back into my community, no matter what the future holds.

Chickens weeding our food forest beds

Lowlights (that we’re transforming into highlights):

  • A neighbor’s tree split in half, destroying the deer fence along that section of our land. And giving me another chance to use one of my favorite tools (outside of my hori hori and scythe), my Wilk Putsch one-person crosscut saw. Oh my goodness, I love this saw. It is less expensive, safer, and more enjoyable than my chainsaw. Faster, too, when you account for the time spent donning safety gear and maintaining the chainsaw itself (going to store for gas, oil, parts). And the sound it makes is beautiful.
  • That tree is now cut into slices ready for transforming our classic raised beds into proper hugelkultuer beds late this summer, as we transition between growing cycles.
  • For five nights in a row we had new deer damage, some significant like destroying years of growth on grapes and fruit trees. While I (hope) I finally found their access point, it forced me to complete several other projects related to deer protection.
  • While we’re still spending a fair amount of time weeding, we finally wised up to using our chickens to help us by enclosing them in certain sections of the food forest. Next experiment will be using Ruth Stout levels of straw (read: lots) layered down in thick sections to smother weeds and build soil fertility.
  • We’ve had plenty of dreary weather days in the rainy Pacific Northwest that I’ve spent inside with the kids, sketching our first-ever permanent chicken coop and a gravity-powered run I saw other permaculturalists trying. It takes inputs of straw, feed, and water at the top of our steeply sloped backyard and create outputs of daily eggs in the middle of the slope and piles of compost to remove weekly/monthly at the bottom of the slope, right next to our future vegetable patch area.

Re-balancing pastured poultry paddocks, and prepping for bees!

Bee Hive Comparison: Perone, Kenyan, Langstroth

Bee Hive Comparison: Perone, Kenyan, Langstroth

Highlights for the month:

  • We’re back in balance with a smaller flock of 20 layers after selling 10 birds to local farming friends. The smaller flock means less eggs for my son to sell in his first entrepreneurship venture, but also significantly less work for me hauling extra food/water and less work for our family when rotating the entire poultry paddock setup to fresh pasture.  Now I’m re-thinking how to capture all that great compost that we’re currently leaving in the field through a combination of a permanent coop with movable paddocks.
  • As my friend Laura – purveyor of Modern Victory Garden – says, we’ve returned to the season of the Seedling Shuffle with rapid rollout of seedlings from our grow lights to our greenhouse, and then (for the cold hardy) out into the food forest under mini hoop houses.
  • After spending enough time on Permies.com forums, I finally realized I should be growing my own chicken food. I’m now reseeding our pasture with similar ingredients as what is in our commercial feed that we buy direct from the manufacturer via our homesteading group of friends. By the time the birds return to this same ground a year later, it should have a healthy crop of what they normally eat ready and waiting for them. I also added a Biopod to our vermicomposting setup to convert kitchen scraps into grubs for the chickens.
  • Ready for the 2013 Battle of the Bees, where we’ll be able to directly compare how our Italian bees do in three radically different hives. From left to right you see a new Perone hive (named after the Argentine inventor) I recently built with our local Bee Godfather, a Kenyan (aka Top Bar) hive, and a classic Langstroth hive. When the bees packages arrive later this spring, we’ll install two packages in the large Perone hive and one in each of the others. Will report back later in the year how this direct comparison between the hive styles pans out, at least for our microclimate here in the Pacific Northwest.

Lowlights for the month can be summed up in just this one graphic. Ugh.
Showers, with a chance of rain


Signs of spring

Keep 'em flyingThis past month marked the formation a new work team to work on a crazy big eco-project with Fortune 100 CEOs, as well as the milestone of finishing the first draft of my book on building neighborhood resilience.

Highlights:

  • Snippets of the sun coming back. Some gorgeous days interspersed with gloomy cloud cover.
  • Garlic shoots emerging. Better sign of spring for me than any decorative flower bulbs, although those are gorgeous, too.
  • Ever watchful dog protecting my kids and letting me know when anyone is near when I’m deep in thought about how to fix my latest farming mistake.
  • Found the best Big Picture summary of what actions our country needs to take that I’ve read in a long time.  (note subscription to read is free)
  • Two enjoyable weekend construction projects with trusted friends, building a semi-portable rocket stove and a new Perone style bee hive. Details on implementation of each next month after some testing.

Lowlights:

  • Food crop beds riddled with mice holes, especially under the floating row covers. Time to add a pair of barn cats to the microfarm.
  • Two separate dog attacks on our chickens, each time injuring one bird. Negligent dog owners drive me nuts.
  • Last bee hive died (the Kenyan style one). They left stores and were OK two weekends ago, so I have some investigation to do to determine the cause.
  • Too many laying chickens from our latest batch. They are beautiful healthy birds, but my life is now out of work/farm balance as they require more frequent rotation in the pasture and feed/water refills. Solving by selling off half the flock this week.
  • And finally, a lowlight that will become a highlight. Due to my day jobs, I end up reading a lot of bad news. And I’m burning out on it. Yes, our society is due for a radical overhaul, which will most likely be painful. And our planet is reacting against all the damage we are causing it. Which will definitely be painful for us. But I’m weary of reading and researching the bad news each day. So I’m taking a cue from the permaculture revolutionary Paul Wheaton’s email signature about “making a better world through learning good things rather than being angry at bad guys.” Perhaps I’m not the only one going through this…

Pondering the Big Picture as the year begins

Homemade crackers

Homemade crackers

So an arch druid and an economist walk into a bar…

Being stuck inside due to our weather, I tend to read/plan more in the winter. This fascinating interview by a serious economic mind and the head arch druid leader in North America is one of the more interesting things I’ve read in recent months. It relates to my annual reconsideration of the Big Picture and how we are relating to the world both professionally and personally.

I’m finding it exhausting to pursue both Lifeboat strategy personally and Powerdown strategy professionally (both useful terms from Richard Heinberg). Since I’m not really sure what the alternative is, I plan to continue this for 2013, but the danger is I don’t do either one really well.

This month’s highlights and lowlights…

  • My wife’s ability to make the most amazing things, like the $50 in crackers you see pictured here from about $3 worth of store-bought flour/oil and our herbs. This combined with her kale butter is amazing. And preparing it as a family is a good reminder of what life can be. Simple conversations. Simple preparations.
  • Toby Hemenway’s latest essay on nomads and the culture of fear we’ve created.
  • Our new flock of Golden Comet chickens are cranking out the eggs. 20+ eggs per day from a flock of 30. In the middle of winter. With no heat nor light supplements. Just happy free-ranging birds on pasture with an open sided chicken tractor to protect them from the elements.
  • Our greenhouse has literally every surface covered in healthy lettuce, but with the lack of heat and sun, the growth is stunted. They’re in excellent soil in 6″ pots. Think I need to thin the trees nearby to get more winter sun.
  • We lost two of our three bee hives yesterday. One to the cold and the other (perhaps) to Nosema. Given that all three hives were literally humming with activity three weeks ago when I last replaced the feeders, I’m going to rethink my strategy of minimal harvesting to help them overwinter. On the plus side, one hive had left plenty of food left, so we get to harvest honey from a full box of frames this week.

CERT finished, book started

As we continue to prep our food beds for the winter and ramp up the greenhouse production of lettuce, I’ve been spending more time on inside projects, particularly a new writing project.

I’m co-creating a Prepared Neighborhoods book with the public (consider yourself invited!). I’m convinced the neighborhood is where the sustainability movement meets emergency preparedness.

And now for our summary of this month’s homesteading experiments…

Highlights:

CERT backpack

CERT backpack: combining minimalism with preparedness

  • Seasonal beers!
  • Discovering wine corks soaked in rubbing alcohol as a nearly-free fire starter
  • Adding RevoLights on my electric bike just in time for the winter darkness. Very clever engineering. [Update: for the dozen or so folks who almost immediately emailed and texted me with glee to point out that I was not supposed to be buying anything new right now, the RevoLights were a Kickstarter campaign I backed months ago, before we started our Buy Nothing New experiment. Whew!  🙂 ]
  • Making my own cayenne pepper from the peppers I finished ripening in paper bags. Never tasted better hot peppers for my eggs each morning.
  • Finding the Insurance Information Institute’s emergency plan mobile app. Awful brand name, excellent app.
  • Completed CERT training after nine months, which gave me an excuse to experiment with combining a desire to lead a simplified life while still being prepared. My CERT backpack is a great example of how to leverage multifunctional items to equip yourself to handle a wide variety of situations while still keeping the pack simple and light enough to lug around all day for several days. Backpack contents listed below.

Lowlights:

Day Ranging Chicken Tractors

Left to right: new pasture, last month’s pasture, previous month’s pasture. The ground recovers in about three weeks.

  • Next batch of Golden Comets not laying yet, but eating as much as full grown birds. High feed cost + frequent rotation schedule in pasture – no eggs = frustration. After the unfortunate timing of our last raccoon attack, my bet to get these birds to laying age before the cold weather and low light set in did not pay off.  [Update: it figures, we got our first maiden egg from the new batch of birds the day after I posted this. Maybe we’ll still get lucky!] 
  • Battling Seasonal Affective Disorder – a fancy way to saying these damn winter clouds make me miserable – but  I’ve found additional remedies that work well, such as a Mustard Flower tincture and doing hot yoga (stretching in a 100 degree room will warm up anybody!).

For the folks who’ve asked what each item is in my CERT backpack:

Top row: bandages, first aid kits, trauma hemorrhaging kit, kneepads, gloves, CERT vest (above), P100 mask, googles (two pair), headlamp, helmet.

Middle row: emergency blanket, hand sanitizer liquid, Ko7 water purification drops, Camelback water bladder, laminated cheat sheet for how to mark doors, glow sticks, large garbage bags, walkie-talkies for team, Icom BC-166 2-way radio to talk to BIFD, large flashlight, bright orange paracord, Figure 9 rope tighteners, two emergency whistles, one with fire steel (below).

Bottom row: duct tape, P100 replacement filters (below), snack bars, bungie cords, microfiber camp towel (above), dry socks, toilet paper (below), large green rubber band to keep doors open behind us, multipurpose camp tool (Emergency Zone brand), lighter, compass with signal mirror, marking crayon, Leatherman tool, pry bar, utility turn-off tool.

Additions not in photo: vice grips to keep doors locked open, sterile eye drops, additional seasonal clothing, fresh batteries for everything including my two EDC (everyday carry) flashlights, backup gloves, ID cards on lanyard, small bills of cash. And I still have room to throw in more food (I get hungry often!).


True Wealth; True Health

True Wealth – Winter Warmth

Our heat (and sun) is leaving us too quickly for my taste. I find myself going outside every chance I get while taking work phone calls to enjoy the last days of our sunshine and mild weather.

Hoping we retain enough heat in the next few weeks for our chili peppers to ripen on the vine but they’re all huge so finishing them off inside would not be so bad.

This month’s learnings to share with both highlights and lowlights…

Beauty Set Into Strength

Highlights:

  • An appreciation of true wealth (2-3 winter’s worth of good Douglas Fir stored) and true health (a year’s worth of garlic in storage).
  • The entrepreneurial spirit I see in my son with his care and responsibility for our chickens and his egg business
  • The joy on my daughter’s face as her toes wiggle out another huge potato. We had several 5 gallon buckets worth of gorgeous red-white-blue volunteer potatoes despite planting no new eyes this past year.
  • New woodsheds were made by a local woodworker father-son crew and purchased via barter. Love barter deals!
  • Steady supply of salad through the heat weeks where normally everything bolts. My wife’s brilliant idea was to create a new bed in the shade, and the lettuce transplants there did wonderfully!

True Health – Garlic and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Lowlights:

  • Almost blowing up myself and my house. Nicked the copper feed line for my generator’s propane tanks when trimming the bamboo surrounding it. One little spark from my shears before I got the tanks shut down would have been a disaster.
  • Another failed corn year (four in a row!) after a promising start. Think my problem this year was lack of water. Will push out drip irrigation to the corn next year and tie into my timer system.
  • Actually, it’s hard to think of many lowlights from this past month. It’s gorgeous and pleasant most every day outside this time of year and we’re not suffering from the droughts plaguing the rest of the country. Sunshine, blue skies, white clouds, gorgeous mountains, and deep healthy forests. It all goes a long way to erase work stress, crop failures, and any other problems. Feeling very grateful at this time of year as we head into Harvest Festivals and the celebration of this season’s bounty.

End of summer summary

Well, our summer here does not really end until late September, but for most of my friends around the country, Back to School means Summer End.

A quick summary of learnings to share with both highlights and lowlights.

Highlights:

  • Successful brooding of next batch of laying chickens. All 25 Golden Comets survived and transferred well to our Andy Lee style of day ranging chicken tractors.
  • Very high production continued for berries as well as many of the vegetables.
  • Learned why our 30+ blueberry bushes were just doing mediocre (surrounding strawberries too healthy and grabbing all the nutrients at the same shallow soil level) and how to fix it (transplant strawberries down to food forest and surround each blueberry bush with aged sawdust, which I can get for free).
  • Fruit trees bore a decent amount of fruit for the first time. That taste on some of these like the cherries and asian pears is amazing compared to store bought (even organic + local). The ability to wait until the exact day of full ripeness makes an enormous difference in the taste.
  • Surprising crop of volunteer potatoes. For planting zero seed potatoes this past year, we’ve got enough of a crop of volunteers to last us several months.
  • A monster amount of tomatillos and tomatoes are coming in, which combined with our cilantro and hot peppers, is making for some awesome salsa.
  • Bumper crop of peppers, both sweet and hot. Not much makes me happier than cayenne and habanero peppers.

Lowlights:

  • Lost another bird to an eagle attack, despite the ceiling. Found the hole that the eagle did after the fact to close it up. Bummer.
  • Forgot to switch from my rainwater harvesting cisterns over to the well water at the beginning of the irrigation season, and promptly drained my backup water in just three weeks. Won’t get to refill them until the rains return in force this fall.
  • Another year of multiple failed carrot plantings. I lose some to wild rabbits, some to potato bugs, and some to I-don’t-know-what. Top of mind to fix for next year. Trying a different type of carrot for overwintering this year.
  • On the alternative transportation front, finally broke down and bought a replacement battery for my electric bike after I toasted my old battery. $450…ouch! But love being back on my bike, especially in these sunny months.

On the anatomy of thrift

From the island just south of ours. Brilliantly done.


Fixing the Big Picture inside ourselves

In the sustainability and social entrepreneurship circles I run in, we discuss almost every one of the macro issues that the world is facing today (overpopulation being the taboo subject few people dare to speak about publicly).

But even as we create “benefit businesses” and nonprofit corporations to build resilience in our systems, we must also look inside ourselves to affect the change required for the long term benefit of the human race and the biosphere in which we live.

I’d encourage you to take 10 minutes right now to put your brain into “full, open” mode and watch Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization video.

Imagine the possibilities, and then go take actions to make it reality in your life.