Berries and early fruit are rolling in heavy this year…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My 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.
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.
This month marks a number of new experiments and the completion of several projects. Thank goodness for longer daylight; there is a ton of stuff to do.
- The fruit trees in the food forest are blossoming just in time for the arrival of our bees. This year I’m hanging rocks on various branches to help guide their shapes for balance and fruit production. Feels quite zen when walking by them.
- The kids and I have been training the chickens to follow us using scratch corn in a shake can so they can weed in the food forest for us. We enclose the area in an extra strand of electronet to keep them out of areas we don’t want them (like the burgeoning garlic patch) and let them do their chicken thing on the soil.
- Finished building a pair of rocket stoves built with a good friend (and our kids). We used perlite and cement inside, so while heavy, they are still luggable for car camping and at-home no-electricity cooking. We’ll rely on our Biolite rocket stove for backpacking. The initial test burns worked well and we quickly learned what type of fuel works best.
- Starting a hugelkultur (“woody beds”) experiment with our potatoes this year. Same soil, same location, same seed potatoes, but will compare the trenching method versus a hugel method of burying wood debris at the core of a bed with straw and soil on top. Hugels retain water well and attract mycelium to make for very rich growing soil. Here’s a 10-second visual description of hugelkultur.
- I somehow messed up the recipe for soil blocks and had one grow light burn out unbeknownst to me while I was gone for a week of work travel. I came back to moldy soil blocks growing mushrooms rather than chili peppers and squash. Oops.
- The Biopod I purchased is not working. At first I failed to attract local Black Soldier Fly, and then when I stocked the unit with purchased BSF, they did not take. I’m sure this is user error rather than a flaw with the Biopod design, but I’ve not yet figured out what I’m doing wrong.
- Our new bees colonies are in, but we lost one immediately to an epic war with ants who showed up overnight en masse. Thankfully our local supplier had an extra package of bees which I installed after assisting the remaining bees in their righteous battle over the ants. Dug out the ants, *carefully* applied dichotomous earth, and left a bomb of boric acid + cat food for them to carry down to their queen. All three hives are now up and running.
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…
- 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.
- 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!).
As our rains and colder weather invade, we button up many of our outside projects and batten down the mini-hoop houses, cloches, and Agribon paper to extend our growing season. The remaining chili peppers – full grown but still green – will be brought in to ripen inside, and the water cisterns will be flushed/cleaned so they can quickly refill for emergency water storage during winter storm power outages.
And so we turn our attention to inside projects like bread-making, cheese-making, and another One Year experiment (our last one was on transportation). A few months ago we began a one year experiment of Buying Nothing New other than food, vitamins, and toilet paper to see how we would fair on 12 months of salvaged, repurposed, or used items. For example, we’ve shifted our apparel purchases to consignment shops (both local and online) for our fast-growing kids and for ourselves as we wear through items working in the garden.
The effect of “buying used” has had an interesting affect on us of actually acquiring *more* stuff in my life. Yikes! We’re actually buying more stuff now than we were before, because our brains were thinking “Oh, I’m saving money because it is used!”
But of course, we’re not. We’re spending cash where we were not before. And we now have more stuff coming into our lives, which is the opposite of the our previous simplification focus. Now that we recognize the behavior change, we’ve corrected it. But for several months, this experiment was clearly a wash (at best) on our finances. I expect we’ll begin making gains now.
- Lessons learned re: our Buy Nothing New experiment. Time to combine a repurpose focus with a simplification focus!
- Cool weather crops coming on strong; warm weather crops still doing well under their cold frames.
- Addition of a Kenyan bee hive (aka Top Bar) that I’m bee-sitting for a friend who is injured. Fun to learn a new style of beekeeping.
- Giving away our honey to friends and family as gifts!
- Renewed interest in finishing my book on Prepared Neighborhoods (citizen-led emergency preparedness at the neighborhood level) and reinvigorating our own town’s preparedness activities.
- The biggest lowlight for our country is seeing the suffering of our East Coast neighbors from the superstorm. So, so, so wish more towns had citizen-led preparedness projects underway. We can’t rely on our government to bail us out; they are going to have their hands full just repairing the core infrastructure.
- The biggest lowlight for me personally is literally the low light. Time to start taking Vitamin D supplements and St. John’s Wort to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder.
- Learning from our failures for the Buy Nothing New experiment that were not always so fun. Example: had to buy a new car tire jack in a hurry (no time to search for a used or salvage option) when I discovered our Nissan Leaf does not ship with a spare tire nor a jack. It was a bit of dumb thinking on Nissan’s part that was not fun to discover as we blew the tire away from home – surprising given the Nissan engineers got so many other details about the Leaf correct.