Harvest time!

Berries and early fruit are rolling in heavy this year…


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.


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.


Reflections

So, so, so appreciate my wife

So, so, so appreciate my wife

I use this time of year to reflect on what went well this past calendar year, what didn’t, and what I can do about it for the coming years. As the accompanying graphic from the always-brilliant artist behind The Oatmeal explains, greatness for any given project (or just life in general) is the oh-so-lucky intersection of at least four major influences.

Upon reflection, my day job of the last two years (where I have that excellent colleague as indicted in the graphic) is increasingly taking me away from food production duties, and yet that has only decreased our production by 10-20%, mostly due to not prioritizing the daily/weekly management of season extending devices like grow tunnels and Agribon paper.

This year I’ve continued to experience the benefits of a two decade-long buildout of a personal Board of Mentors. They’re like a Board of Advisors for a company, but at a personal level. I’ve found one gaping hole, however, with the lack of a mentor in permaculture. I’ll remedy that this year by carving out time this year to pursue a PDC certificate (permaculture design course) through which I can recruit a mentor specific to my bioregion.

Looking forward to this next year, our first major project will be installation of a ground mount solar PV system we just purchased (will pursue adding wind harvesting when the tech improves as our measurements are currently too low). The solar will be a ground mount system since our roof has way too many angles and not enough continuous space for PV panels.


Spring fixes

There must be something about March that calls for stuff to break, wear out, or just simply come due for some upkeep. This last month we’ve been in constant fix-it mode…while taking the all important breaks to see that elusive winter sun here in the Pacific Northwest.

Some of the projects weren’t much fun, like fixing basement foundation cracks due to flooding. While I sympathize for my fellow gardeners down in the severe California drought, up here we are experiencing way too much water. Other projects I’m not quite sure how to fix yet, like a rain garden swale that does a great job of capturing runoff water but drains so slowly that the plants have to survive in deep standing water for days on end. To be fair, we *have* had a significant amount of rain.

But most projects this past month have been enjoyable, especially working on them with my children. Whether it was building a chick brooder from scrap with my six-year-old, or scything the rye cover crop on the hugelkultur bed with my 11-year old, I am a lucky man with great kids like these (true wealth!). Other projects, like pruning fruit trees or re-sinking all the bamboo guides we use to train our raspberry rows, I did solo, often in the rain. With good rain weather gear, you forget about getting wet and slip into a meditative state out there; a great way to detox from the stress of work.

And speaking of true wealth (relationships), this spring finds me bartering with my neighbors again, helping to kick start their veggie and herb seedlings under our grow lights and greenhouse so the entire neighborhood gets a jump on food production. Love it.


Things I like about winter

EDC 2014

EDC 2014

Now that winter is almost behind us again and I’m balanced on daily tinctures of vitamin D and St. John’s Wort, I can actually reflect on things I enjoy about this season:

  • Wearing flannel-lined Dickies work pants every day
  • Catching up on semi-indoor projects like new workbenches and grow light setups in the greenhouse
  • Flushing our rainwater harvesting cisterns of their 5000 gallons, just to see them full again in a couple of weeks (!)
  • Appreciating my bullet-proof Carhartt jacket that seems to just get better with age
  • Obsessing over indoor projects I have no time for in the other seasons, like my never-ending quest for the ultimate EDC (Every Day Carry) and CERT bag.

    My most recent EDC is pictured here and includes an X-band minimalist wallet, Leatherman Skeletool (primary blade), Streamlight PT2L (primary torch), titanium pocket dangler holding a paracord lanyard, keys, and Streamlight’s Nano Light (backup torch), James Avery wedding ring, stock Apple headset, and a knife belt buckle (backup blade) mounted on my grandfather’s belt. I changed from my perennial favorite Leatherman Expanse blade to the Skeletool to have ready access to the pliers/wire cutters in addition to the screwdrivers, which have been handy recently for wire work with berries in the food forest and tweaks to The Chunnel. The belt buckle knife that I added as a backup blade this year is kinda dorky and at the same time, completely cool. Not pictured is the iPhone 4S that took the photo itself.

New pea trellises, ready for sunshine!

New pea trellises, ready for sunshine!

This month unfortunately included a few lowlights:

  • After painstakingly raising 2′ high broccoli from seed and successfully transplanting them into our new hugelkultur bed, I made the mistake of covering them with Agribon paper for a snowstorm. It may have kept them warmer, but the combined weight of the snow accumulated across the paper snapped 80%+ of the stalks. We probably lost a year’s worth of broccoli with that one mistake. Bummer.
  • Almost to the day from one year ago, we had another dog attack by a pair of sweet but untrained dogs that ran across three acres of pasture, barreled though our electronet fence, and killed two chickens. Negligent and naive dog owners who don’t have their dogs under voice control drive me nuts. My dog is under voice control…why the hell can’t theirs also be?
  • The final lowlight for me this month is a case study of what stupid humans who live in my area do when faced with a super-positive event like winning the SuperBowl. If widespread jubilation leads to rioting and violence, just think what widespread panic would lead to…

To end on a positive note, as we begin to appreciate the signs of spring, I’m most excited by the huge growth our fruit trees put on this year. They are moving from fledgeling trees to recognizable fruit-bearing wonders comprising a proper orchard. I love seeing a full bed of garlic shoots popping up, and early flower bulbs in the fruit tree guilds emerging. And I love the occasional sunny weekend day that allows us to absorb real vitamin D while preparing the garden with new sugar snap pea trellises and repairs to the deer fencing.


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.