archive, September - October 2004

Landblog Main
background: I bought land

Second visit -- 22 Sept 04 -- Yesterday I went up and looked around some more, and found mushrooms, Russula integra, Sullius cavipes, and Leucopaxillus albissimus. On the way up I bought some survey tape, and I went along the east and north boundaries putting up extra tape to make them more clear. I discovered the north boundary is farther than I thought it was. I have a ridge! That's good for building an underground house, except there's probably solid granite a few feet down.

Now that my savings is down to only a few thousand, I'm spending more money. Has anyone else noticed that the less money you have, the easier it is to let go of it? Kind of like how the older you get, the more willing you are to wait. A few days ago I figured out that the only underground house book for the non-wealthy amateur builder is Mike Oehler's Fifty Dollar and up Underground House Book, so I bought one for $20. And just now I got on ebay and bought something I never imagined myself buying, a really nice $225 chain saw (a Husqvarna 340), to cut up the wood in the giant slash piles left on the land. Everyone says Husqvarna and Stihl chainsaws are the best.

Researching -- 26 Sept 04 -- I've been sleeping and eating a lot to rebuild my energy, and researching stuff on the internet. I read in this great chainsaw review that pre-mixed alkylate fuel burns much cleaner and is better for your engine than pump gas, but today I discovered that nobody has even heard of it in this country. Americans think we're cool for breathing toxic fumes and later on we think we're courageous for dying of cancer.

Also, on a reader tip, I researched no-battery flashlights, with an LED that runs from a capacitor that you charge by shaking a magnet. The best one seems to be the Nightstar II.

And some good news. Up on the land yesterday I noticed that the soil composition in one area seemed to be a mixture of sand and clay. Sand and clay! That's what you use for cob houses! I brought a sample home and added water, and I believe it's straw-ready, that I can just dig soil from the right spot, mix in straw and water, and build! So now I'm leaning against the underground house, which requires a lot of digging and has waterproofing issues. With cob, the only hard part is the roof. I'm thinking heavy beams (which the land is covered with), plywood or planks (which I might be able to scavenge), two sheets of 6 mil polyethylene (I can buy more than enough for $50), seven inches of dirt, and whatever plants decide to grow up there.

One more thing I forgot to mention. For humanure composting, you need a lot of sawdust. Where was I going to get it? I checked out the little bits of sawdust left on the ground from where the barbarian pillagers cut up the tree for firewood, and it was a lot of sawdust, enough to fill two plastic grocery bags. So as long as it's just one or two people living up there, I'll be able to produce my own sawdust on site.

Fly, my pretties! -- 25 Sept 04 -- Just got back from spending two days and a night up on the land, and I'm exhausted from digging trenches and micro-dams, to slow the water runoff, and clearing trails through the fields of wood scrap left over from logging, and moving 100-pound logs around.

It has occurred to me that, in Lord of the Rings, Sauron and Saruman have headquarters while Gandalf just travels around. Of course he does have a ring that keeps him from ever getting cold. But I'm determined not to become an evil landowner. I hate it when I'm bike camping and I see "No Trespassing" signs everywhere. So I made a sign, hand-painted with scavenged house paint on scavenged plywood-on-a-post, that just says "PRIVATE / No Hunting" but not "No Trespassing."

I put it up yesterday, and then noticed that someone had driven onto the land in the two-day gap since my last visit, cut down a living douglas fir tree, and cut it up for firewood! The tree was actually just over the line, on the property of a lumber company, but I got angry. The land is covered with fallen trees that would have worked just as well for firewood. Also they left litter. So I built a big pile of logs across the driveway, and on one side, in case they try to move them, I rested the logs on a stump that hornets are nesting in! That's a great example of the permaculture principle of using the bad features of land to your advantage.

Orchards -- 28 Sept 04 -- Last night I checked out the Raintree Nursery site. Baby bushes and trees are cheaper than I thought! Some of them can even be planted in the fall. I want to get lots of blueberries/huckleberries/serviceberries, plus walnuts and peaches -- oh, and a ton of tart cherries! But I'm worried that all available tree fruits seem to be grafted on special rootstocks. So one of my long-term projects will be to either learn grafting or learn to grow fruit without it, maybe with lots of berry bushes and crabapple trees. In a hard crash, some people in Seattle and Portland will survive purely because those cities will be overgrown with invasive but edible Himalayan blackberries.

Wood stoves -- 30 Sept 04 -- My land is covered with enough dead wood to heat a cabin for years, so I've been doing research. Here's what I've found out: In the mid-80's, before the collective American death wish turned the EPA into the Enable Pollution Agency, the EPA made strict efficiency requirements for new wood stoves. Manufacturers complained, and then got down to business and met the requirements through some great innovations that made wood stoves much better. The line between good and bad stoves is around 1990.

So I want a newer stove, and a small one since I'll only be heating a small cabin, and a non-catalytic one since the catalytic burner requires replacement every few years, and in a serious crash nobody will be making them. But here's the problem: in more than a week of looking, I have yet to see a single post-1990 wood stove for sale used. And I've seen only a few small ones for sale used. So far, all the come-take-it-free ones are inefficient and much too big -- too big for a small cabin and too big for me to move without two strong friends. If I want a good one, I'd have to buy it new for around $1000 after tax and/or shipping. I've got a year before I really need one, so maybe I'll get lucky. If not, I'll probably settle for the smallest free one I can find and burn a lot more wood, but it's not exactly wasting it, since I'd be taking it out of slash piles that are routinely just set on fire to get rid of them.

Hornets and dreams of water -- 3 Oct 04 -- Sunday. Just got back from the land and again I'm tired. I made a little sleeping area under a tree, and for some reason I barely slept, though I've slept fine in similar circumstances on bike trips. Maybe it was the lingering poison from four hornet stings on Saturday, when I stood too close to one of their nests while marking the south boundary. I was not stung a single time in the 1980's or 1990's, and now four times in five seconds!

I haven't mentioned that the whole land is covered with yellow jackets. You can hear them buzzing everywhere like flies. I think it's another effect of the land being logged and out of balance. On a magnifying-glass level, it's a desert full of dying things and the hornets are the vultures. It's frustrating when people call them "bees." Bees are furry, have a higher-pitch buzz, are much less aggressive, and have a different ecological profile. Bees pollinate flowers and make honey, and yellow jackets are carnivores and carrion eaters. But I think it's because of them that the land has no mosquitoes. Hopefully by the time the hornets leave I can attract bats.

For three nights before I went up there, I dreamed that in the future the land will be covered with pools of flowing water. Even without the dreams I still would have done it: dug more little trenches and pools. Eventually I want to do every slope, but for now I'm working only on the steep paths that the loggers used, because they're mostly soft bare dirt, and I can see the little dry gullies where the water runs down in the rain. Here and there, I just dig a shallow hole in the path of the water, use the dirt from the hole to pile up the downhill edges, and then dig a channel to the next little hole. The idea is, instead of a big rain just running off the land, carrying away topsoil, and washing away houses downstream, the water is slowed down, gathers in the pools where deer can drink it, and soaks into the ground where tree roots can get it.

A big issue in any kind of digging is how hard the soil is. In one place there's a huge pile of soft sandy dirt right near the bottom of a long "water slide", so I plan to make a log-and-dirt dam and a five foot diameter pool, but I couldn't do it this trip because of the heat and hornets.

Another way to speed up the recovery of damaged land is to notice nature's first aid crew -- the "weeds" that appear on disturbed land to hold the soil in place and prepare it for the "weeds" that restore mineral balance, that build topsoil, and so on. Plants don't have the means to choose where their seeds go, so they make extra and most are wasted. But you can gather seeds of the recovery plants and intelligently scatter them, or even mix them with compost first or plant them one by one. I just scattered them. I bent the tall mullein stalks over the bowl of my shovel, shook out the tiny brown seeds, ate a few to see how they taste, and scattered the rest wherever it seemed mullein would like to grow. [Oops! Turns out mullein seeds contain rotenone, and on a later trip I ate about a teaspoon full, but didn't get any of the symptoms.]

Wow, the land has a lot of mushrooms. This weekend I found three of the most beautiful ones, Russula rosacea, Amanita pantherina, and Lactarius rubrilacteus, my first milk cap and one of the best, too old to eat but now I know where it lives! A lot of the mushrooms are on an overgrown logging road that cuts across a hill -- because the water stops there as it runs down. When I dig my little dams and trenches I'm looking for the same effect, but on a smaller scale because I have a shovel not a bulldozer.

Sorting -- 10 Oct 04 -- I've found the rhythm: get to the land around noon, work until dusk, sleep in the car, work until 2 or 3 the next afternoon, come back to my housesit, take a hot bath and do laundry, and spend five days resting and healing my cuts and blisters. After three weekends of lifting logs and shoveling, I feel stronger and I've got a new line in my chest muscles -- though it could just be from my body fat getting too low.

This time it was cooler and cloudier, so I could work with more energy and in areas usually full of hornets. Add my increasing physical strength and competence, and I got a lot done! I built four log-and-earth dams enclosing three big water holes, I put up another homemade "PRIVATE - No Hunting" sign, and I cleared a lot of wood.

One of the principles of permaculture -- which also appears in the physics concept of entropy -- is that sorting is good and mixing is bad. For example, when I dig a hole, the first thing I do is skim off the topsoil and put it somewhere special. If the topsoil gets mixed in with the clay that's underneath, both are ruined -- you can still use it to fill a hole, but not to grow anything or make pottery.

Another example: When wood is scattered all over the ground, it makes a fire trap in the dry season, and in the wet season it rots. So I'm slowly picking it up and putting it in piles, where it can't spread fire, and I don't have to keep stepping over it, and only the bottom of the pile rots. [And it makes habitat for critters.]

On the access road, I made three "french drains," which is a channel filled with gravel or small rocks and then covered with dirt. To do this, I had to go around picking up gravel-sized rocks, sorting them out from the dirt. I did the french drains because I needed to channel the water running down the middle of the road to the edge, but I didn't want a rut for cars to hit. Also, the access road isn't on my property, and I wanted to keep it looking nice in case the owner of that plot comes to look.

I've now confirmed that the land has both chipmunks and brown squirrels, and I identified one more fungus, Aleuria aurantia. So far the worst disappointment is in the canine family. I actually hear fewer coyotes, and more angry neurotic domesticated dogs, out in the sticks than I do here in the Spokane suburbs.

Spring/Planting -- 17 October 04 -- I found the spring! One sometimes reads of 200 people searching for a day and failing to find a lost hiker even though they were in the right area, so it's hardly surprising that one person could search for two hours in a wooded area the size of an American football field and fail to find a hot-tub-size pool of water. (The land is bigger than that, but I had the location narrowed down some.)

What threw me was that it's a little farther out than I expected, and there's no trail of green leading to it. The water just dribbles out of the pool, goes down a little slope, and vanishes back underground to seep out again farther down. The pool itself is half full of algae. I did not try to drink from it! Now I have to do some research on how to clean it up. I'm thinking of breaching the side and letting it all flow out, digging a bit to see if I can catch it seeping out of the rock, and whatever I find, running the water over the top of the land through some reed beds (where do I get reeds?) and some little waterfalls to aerate it. That's a big project!

The more I look at the arrangement of stuff on the land, the more pleased I am. It's a fixer-upper for sure, but once it's fixed up, wow, it's a nice piece of land! I've got maybe 500 feet (150m) of horizontal distance between the spring and the low edge of the land, and maybe 50 vertical feet. That's a lot to work with! In between, I've got a patch maybe 20 by 40 feet that's permanently damp and has dark, deep soil. At the low edge, I've got enough space to hold the water in a small pond for ducks. There are good building sites near the "garden," low enough to have gravity-fed water from the spring, but not too close to the ducks. That's where I can put the kitchen and common area. And up on the hills is a nice network of trails with some good spots for cabins. This is all going to take years.

This week I scattered seeds. I've been waiting for the new moon, which is supposed to be the best time to plant. First I scattered a lot of mullein, which is already growing on the land. I knocked maybe a cup of the tiny seeds into a shovel and threw them all over in places with good sun (after observing that mullein only grows in such places). Then I scattered some dandelion seeds that I gathered from the yard here, along with some lamb's quarters that I gathered a year ago, and a little purslane. I tried to keep the lamb's quarters to the wetter places. It's my new favorite garden plant: nice greens all spring and summer, and delicious seeds in the fall, so easy and abundant that people who like things difficult have to call it a "weed."

And cattails! The land might be too high or cold, but I'm going to try. On the drive up there's a pond next to the highway with cattails, so I pulled off and got some of the seeds. Now I know what they mean about cattail down -- you could make a wonderful pillow or mattress if you got enough of it. Up on the land I let seeds drift over all the places where I plan to have standing water.

The mushrooms are getting more obscure and inedible. There's a lot of some Pholiota that doesn't key out in Mushrooms Demystified, and some lovely false morels or elfin saddles, can't tell which. I see so many nameless Cortinariaceae and Tricholomataceae that I don't even bother. I'm excited about the false morels, because real ones like the same spots.

I also dug a few more water catchers, cleared a little more wood, and laid down some mulch on a dead area, a giant bag of grass clippings that I collected from a field at the edge of the suburb where people dump it from their lawn mower bags. They don't know how valuable that stuff is!

The Orcs Return -- 23 October 04 -- What would a Tolkienesque future be without the orcs? Tolkien wrote that they do not represent a race of humans, but a kind of human personality, and I don't expect them to go away. A few weeks ago someone drove onto my land, cut down a tree when there were plenty of good trees already on the ground, cut it up for firewood, and left litter. I responded by building a big log barrier across the driveway, and also putting up two symbolic barriers, first a single log across the road on the property line, and then a heavy log section, about the size and weight of a big TV set, right in the middle of a narrow part ten feet beyond. Several weeks passed and nothing happened.

This time, when I got to the land, the log across had been moved, and the big piece of wood had been knocked down. When I stood it up, I saw that someone had made a cut, with a chainsaw, into the top and out one side. The message is unmistakable: "I don't like your claim on this land and I'm ready to use force." Whether that message is a bluff, I don't know. Maybe they just wanted to leave a "fuck you" before they went to find a new place to kill and steal trees. Or maybe they're going to keep coming back and escalating the conflict. I suppose they'll finally back off when there are people living on the land full time, especially if we have dogs and guns.

This was probably my last visit to the land before spring. The roads are getting washed out, it's getting cold, and I need to spend next Friday and Saturday cleaning the house and car. In fact, it was so cold and rainy up there that I didn't spend the night. I just spent three hours doing this and that and came back to a warm bed.

One nice surprise. Last week, I would sometimes see, in the corner of my eye, a large grey bird-like shape dash across the road. This week, driving there, I caught a whole flock on the road -- wild turkeys!

next archive