archive, March - April 2005

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Support and Logistics -- 24 March 05 -- A lot of people interested in homesteading are loners. They have little interest in building a network of friends or living cooperatively with a group, they imagine cities as pits of irritating filthy people, and they fantasize about living alone, or in a tiny family, in a place made safe by isolation -- that is, by lack of relations. I can resonate with that energy, and I'm able to live alone for months at a time, but I prefer not to. I love cities, and I want to live in a 20-100 person rural community with plenty of external relations to nature and the wider human world.

Not only don't I mind being dependent on friends -- as long as I'm poor, I have to be! If any of you are thinking of doing this, and you're not a lot richer than me, you'll need a strong social network. I need friends and family to let me stay with them, let me get online, let me store stuff with them, and sometimes drive me and my stuff around. It's awkward, but it's the only way I can do this, and I expect to be in a position where I can turn around and help other people in the future.

It's also logistically difficult. I've just started a six week housesit in Spokane, which means I have a car to get to the land, but I have to mostly stay in the city to guard the house. When the housesit ends, I can stay up there, but I'll have no car, phone, or internet. Also, I know people who want to come visit and help, but many of them are even poorer than me, so they could bus or train to Spokane, but they can't get up to the land unless I have a car to drive them.

If I had an extra $50,000, I'd buy a tiny crappy house in Spokane to serve as a base camp, with internet, storage, and guest beds, and I'd set up a fund to pay the continuing costs of a pickup truck, and everything would get easier.

Spring Roundup -- 27 March 05 -- I'm in Spokane, but I can't get up to the land yet. Judy tells me some people tried to drive in to look at the plot south of me, and their car got stuck in mud up to the axle. I could drive within a few miles and walk in, but I don't know of any place I can park the car. One more reason I hope to find some friendly neighbors.

Washington state is having a drought. Snowpacks are around 25% of normal and the governor has declared an emergency. If this turns out to be the beginning of a drought that gets worse year after year, I'll just have to back up a chapter in my permaculture book, from "humid cool" to "dryland." There are plenty of ways to build and hold water even if the spring dries up.

Also the winter was unusually warm, so they're saying there will be a lot of bugs. I'm wondering how all the yellow jackets on my land fit into the food chain. I know they eat smaller insects and carrion, so if I find a dead deer up there I'll have to bury it to keep them from turning it into more yellow jackets. ... OK, I've just done research to find out what eats them: dragonflies, praying mantises, toads, and some birds. And bears, possums and especially skunks will dig up and eat their nests! I read that if you pour honey on the ground by the nest, a skunk will come dig it up looking for more.

Warm and dry also means fire. Sooner or later -- sooner if this drought continues -- my area is going to burn. I'm not worried. It's just a lot of extra fun going around clearing dead stuff to pre-empt the burning. I'll do it around the perimeter and then, if I have time, work inward, and then work outward into the surrounding land. I bought a cheap Japanese sickle at Hardwick's in Seattle for cutting dead grass -- which I can then use for roofs and mattresses.

I also bought a nice $40 Japanese hand saw, and a cheap pruning saw for green wood, and a Hori Hori, which everyone says is the best hand digging tool. For food, I bought two gallons of real maple syrup, three quarts of good olive oil, six pounds of butter, 50 pounds of organic whole wheat pastry flour, 25 pounds of organic winter wheat, and I've found a local source of organic quinoa. I don't have a sense yet of how long all that will feed me.

People are always giving me suggestions and sometimes I hear one that I like. Thanks Brandon for suggesting a springhouse, a small stone building around the spot where the spring comes out of the hill, with several stone cisterns inside, to store water, or to put perishable food in to keep it cool in the summer. I like the idea so much that I may break my vow not to use any cement -- it's super-toxic to manufacture, but I know of nothing else that seals stones together underwater. I still don't know if my land even has that many stones -- I'll have to dig a lot of holes.

And I've read enough about primitive shelter-making that I'm no longer worried. I feel like I understand the fundamentals and I can just improvise something from whatever's up there. I'm actually looking forward to the housesit being over so I can be up there full time, but I'll still have to come back to civilization in June to arrange visitors.

One more thing: I bought a PDF download of William Kötke's new book, Garden Planet, in which I read the following: "Say we have already placed ourselves in our ideal situation at the top of a watershed in low hills." Woo-hoo! I'm in the ideal situation!

Euros you can chop wood with. -- 4 April 05 -- I'm an ordinary "guy" in that I really get into well-made tools, and I've spent the last week obsessively researching and buying some. I ordered a Nightstar II, an almost unbreakable flashlight that you power by shaking, so that a magnet goes through a coil of wire and charges a capacitor that drives a white LED. They say the light lasts 20 minutes, but it dims so gradually that any number is arbitrary -- they could as easily say one minute or one hour. It doesn't matter, because you just shake it and it gets bright again!

Also I bought a thermos (Stanley 32oz) for thermos cooking. The idea is, if you're cooking something that needs to simmer for a couple hours, and you don't want to burn propane all that time, you just put the stuff in a thermos where it stays near boiling temperature for long enough to cook it. I'm already enjoying the thermos to drink body-temperature water (which I greatly prefer over cold water) at four in the morning.

Now the big story: I got a nice Fiskars axe as a gift, but still needed a small hatchet, and when I started doing research, I discovered this axe thread... Warning tool geeks! Reading those guys talk about Gransfors Bruks axes will make you want to buy a bunch. Originally I was just going to get the Wildlife Hatchet, but the more I thought about it...

These are the best axes you can buy. They're made in Sweden, so as expensive as they are now, it's going to get ridiculous as the dollar collapses. And when I think about using axes to chop up trees, instead of a chainsaw, I feel really good about it! I've been dreading buying all the chainsaw accessories -- engine oil, bar oil, gas can, sharpeners, helmet, protective pants. Axes are a lot slower, but feel much better to me, the same way a bike feels better than a car. I want my neighbors to hear the sound of chopping from my land, not the sound of an engine. And when I'm 60 years old, I'm going to be using axes anyway, so I can damn well do it when I'm 37 and start getting practice.

Last fall I came within one mouse click of putting $2000 into Euros. What stopped me was, whether they're numbers in an account or pieces of paper in a drawer, they're no good in a hard crash. Now I've stumbled on what I think is a much better dollar shelter: really high-quality foreign-made tools. Gransfors Bruks axes are like Euros you can chop wood with. It took me about five days to work up the courage to buy a Mini, a Small Forest, a Scandinavian Forest, a Large Splitter, and a Froe.

Biking In! -- 4 April 05 -- Last week I noticed that a lot of stuff was selling out at Burnt Ridge nursery, and I got nervous and made my order, expecting the seedlings to come in 7-10 days. They came in four days! In hindsight, I should have asked them to delay shipping. Now I've got $160 of seedlings on the back porch with bare roots wrapped in damp newspapers, and they cannot wait for the roads to dry up. I've decided to not even wait for my deer repellent to come. I've put my bike on the car rack, stuffed the roots of the seedlings in my bike bags (branches sticking out of the top), gathered a bunch of food, and early tomorrow (Tuesday) morning, I'm going to drive up there, park, bike/walk in on the muddy dirt roads, and hopefully get all 29 plants in the ground and get back to the car before dark.

First Visit 2005 -- 11 April 05 -- On Tuesday April 5th I parked the car where the dirt started and biked in. It was indeed too muddy to have made it in a 2wd car without great skill and luck. On the final approach to the land, good news! A tree has fallen across the access road, making the place effectively more remote, though only a couple hundred feet farther to walk.

I thought I might find the land half covered in water and snow, but it's about the same as it was in the fall. There's no sign that anyone cut down trees or tampered with the stuff I left there. I did find a couple new pieces of litter...

When I walked around and looked at the actual places where I had drawn plans on paper to plant seedlings, I had to change everything. I can only wonder how much worse it must be, in a war for example, when you're making plans for a place you haven't even seen, and when you get there, the people at ground level don't even have the authority to change plans. On the south line, a place I remembered as shady was sunny, and vice versa. The lowest place, where I had figured on planting deep-shade-tolerant oregon grape, I ended up planting serviceberry and blue elder.

As for the five oregon grape seedlings I paid for and hauled up there, somehow between fall and winter I forgot that the land has literally thousands of oregon grape seedlings already growing on it. Well, it was a cheap mistake, and now I can try mulching and sunning some of those plants to get some good berry production in a few years.

Up on the north line, I saw that a windbreak would be silly -- there are plenty of big trees and baby trees there already. And a straight hedge of berry plants near the north line would be unrealistic -- too many rocks, stumps, trees, roots, thick grass, and awkward slopes, too much fighting against nature, and it's a long walk from the bottom of the hill. Walking up a second time, I stopped halfway for a rest and noticed: hey, this spot would be perfect. So I ended up scattering the goumis in four different spots, and planting the sea buckthorns all close together -- they're wind pollinated, so I planted the male upwind from the three females. In every case, I dug a hole or a swale to catch water running down the hill, and put the seedling in the mound of dirt on the downhill side.

Back in Spokane on Thursday, my sixteen additional seedlings came from Raintree. They're more expensive but now I see why: The instructions on the Burnt Ridge seedlings said to plant them right away, but Raintree has better packaging and keeps the plants in dormancy better, so their instructions said they can wait up to a month! Also the roots were much more developed.

Sunday I drove up with the bike on the rack, but I was even more nervous about leaving the car parked somewhere strange, and my intuition told me to try to drive in all the way. I might not have made it if the mud hadn't still been hard from the morning frost. Uh-oh. That means if I go back in the afternoon it will be melted and I could get stuck... So I decided to spend the night and go out the next morning when it was frozen again.

In a good long day, I planted, watered, and protected all the seedlings. For some reason the deer had not nibbled anything, probably because the plants were all either native or sour-smelling. If I had left a sweet cherry seedling up there, I'm sure it would have been munched. Halfway through the day my spray bottle gave out and I had to start smearing the repellent on with my fingers. [I continued to have this problem, because of the oiliness of the deer repellant, and finally went to a pressure-pump bottle.]

I didn't have time to make a debris hut, so I just slept badly in the back of the car, and then... it didn't freeze! At 5:30am it must have been 40 degrees (5 C), and starting to rain. I waited until 6, when it was light enough to get a good view of the road, and drove out, and luckily the clear day before had dried the roads enough that I made it, just before the rain really came down.

Building Sites -- 18 April 05 -- Everybody knows that houses (in mid-to-high northern latitudes) should be south-facing. Since I have a south-facing (north) slope, I hadn't considered putting the main house anywhere else. Then, walking down the east-facing (west) slope, I came upon a giant stump, probably three feet across. (Immediately I thought of the Monty Python line, "You must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest...") It was in a wide clear space that would get full morning light, and perfectly good early afternoon light. I remembered that east-facing is almost as good as south-facing. And there's a bit in a permaculture book, that instead of moving a boulder from your building site, you can build your house around it and use it for something. I could build the house right here, and this stump could be the kitchen table. But was it below the spring? I stumbled through the dead wood that litters the whole property, over to the spring, then walked carefully back to the stump, keeping track of my altitude. Yes! The site is 5-10 feet below the spring, and less than 100 feet away.

...But later in the afternoon, that site was in shade, and the north slope was still in sun. And the early afternoon sun had been good in April, but what about January? I checked out an area near the bottom of the north slope, and again went to estimate the height relative to the spring. It was low enough, it would get better sunlight, and also the soil was dry and sandy -- rainwater from uphill would tend to sink away long before it got to the edge of the house.

There's no reason I can't build on both sites. The west hill would be better in summer and the north hill better in winter. And there will be more people on the land in summer. When they go away, the hard-core people can close up the west house and overwinter in the north house.

This year, I'm only going to prepare the foundations and materials for the "real" houses, and focus on smaller, more primitive short-term buildings, to keep myself and food and tools and visitors out of the rain until fall. My first plan was to follow Tom Brown's Field Guide to Living with the Earth, and make a dome out of a dozen saplings, but I don't feel like killing trees yet, even though there are places they need to be thinned for the long-term health of the forest. I have another plan... Tomorrow I'll to go up there for two days and get started.

Land, the computer game -- 22 April 05 -- My plan was to make a clay and stick dome, something like cordwood masonry, but with scrap wood from the slash piles instead of cordwood, stacked in a circular wall, so each stick radiates out from the center, held together with clay, the wall curving inward and upward to a dome. That's still my plan, but it's going to be harder than I thought. Most of the material in the slash piles is not suitable -- too curvy, too thin, or too big. And cutting it up is not going to be easy. I've decided to go ahead and break out the chainsaw, and spend the next few months, while gas is still barely affordable, cutting up and sorting some of the dead wood that's covering the land.

So I still needed a temporary shelter, and I decided to build an old-fashioned debris hut. The frame took me half the day, because I injured my foot and had to hobble around slowly. The rest of the day, I added more small horizontal sticks, and gathered material to cover it -- mostly by cutting small branches off small trees that had fallen over and were still alive but doomed. I also gathered last year's long grass for a mattress, and dead ferns for more covering. The covering was not adequate to stop the rain, but I didn't expect it to rain, so I slept in it, and spent the next morning cutting and adding more covering. A debris hut needs a lot of covering. The next time I go up, I'll be able to get it mostly waterproof and warm in a few more hours.

I can't help but compare this whole process to a classic computer strategy game, like the original Warcraft. You eventually want to build the wizard tower, but you have to start by building the smallest cheapest housing, which gives you more workers, so you can build slightly bigger things, and so on. Debris hut, sorted wood pile, cordwood stick dome, clean spring, outhouse, compost pile, tool shed, cob house...

There's a probem with the cob house. Last fall I discovered huge clay deposits, but wasn't sure I had enough sand. Now, after actually looking for sand, I see that I have enough for several houses, and it's perfect sand for cob: coarse, sharp-edged granite. So I dug up some clay, and some clay/sand mix, and took it back to the house to do the water shake test. You shake your soil up in water and let it settle, and the good sand falls in five seconds, and the silt in ten minutes, and the clay over many days or weeks.

It turns out my "clay" is actually fine silt. So now, if I still want to do cob, I have to dig around and see if I can find some real clay. I think I'll find it. I haven't dug deep yet, or dug in the spots where clay is most likely.

One more tidbit: I swear I saw a grey and white rabbit, with both colors very clean and defined. I don't think wild rabbits are colored like that, so I'm guessing that someone's pet/meat rabbits escaped, and have gone wild, possibly many rabbit-generations ago.

What You Pay For -- 24 April 05 -- For starting with less than $20,000 in savings, and having only $2000 a year in income, I've done extremely well. But if you have a lot more money, you can do a lot better. Here's an edited version of an email a friend just sent me:

We have just bought 24 acres of land in Deadwood, Oregon. The land will be the location for our homestead, where we will build our small cabin. Deadwood is a beautiful and funky little town on the border of the Siuslaw National Forest, with population around 600. It's in the middle of the Oregon coast mountain range, and it gets lots of rain. The trees are covered with mosses, lichens, and fungi. It's absolutely magical! When you enter the town, there is a sign that says "Welcome to Deadwood - Where Diversity Lives." The folks living there have a reputation for being environmentally conscious, and are active in groups focused on such things as watershed restoration, conservation easements, and permaculture. There are VW buses in the driveways, a food co-op, a community center (with a composting toilet) where pagan bands sometimes play, rainbow flags on some of the houses, a few new age types, an anarchist-hippie commune, and nary a "Bush/Cheney" bumper sticker in sight.

The Deadwood country market, post office, and gas station are about nine miles from our land. The land is 24+ acres with a creek running through it. We got a pretty good deal, in part because there are several swampy sections, and we will have to work around that. There will also be challenges in terms of access: we will we have to cross the creek on foot to get to the building site, which means we'll have to build a bridge over the creek and carry all our building materials over it without vehicles. (This way we'll be forced to keep our building plans simple!)

The land is mostly forested -- lots of moisture-loving red alder -- with some cleared areas for building. The zoning is F1 and F2 (forest), which means we'll have low property taxes and strict building codes. It backs up to Siuslaw National Forest. In fact, the access road to the property is a forest service road. The forest provides lots of privacy and the site is really remote, which is just what we wanted.

This summer we will be welcoming two new folks. Not only do they have construction experience, they have all sorts of helpful knowledge and skills such as stone tool construction, hide tanning, cooking, homebrewing, handling firearms, and electrical engineering!

The asking price of the land was $120,000, and they got it for $100,000 (which is a great deal). What they're paying for is not the mild climate, or the trees, or the magical atmosphere. You can get all that in Tennessee for peanuts. They're paying a little for the creek, and a lot for the cultural environment. The reason I was able to get ten wooded acres with a spring for under $15,000, is that 60% of the county voted for Bush and the nearest food co-op is a three hour drive, so I have zero competition with urban liberal homesteaders, only with people who want to cut down and sell the trees (and, in the present real estate bubble, speculators).

For the same reason, only people as desperate as me are interested in living on my land or coming to help out for more than a few days. I kind of enjoy the challenge. In a cultural sense, I'm colonizing Mars. But those of you with more money, now you see what's possible. [2006: My friend's land project failed! Usual reasons: logistical problems, everything was harder than they imagined, the people didn't get along, they missed the city. My advice: don't try to move to the country all at once.]

Crosscut Saw -- 25 April 05 -- I'm still going back and forth on whether to use a chainsaw. Have you seen the old pictures of some giant old growth tree that two guys have just cut down with a long two-handled saw? Those are called crosscut saws (technically, so are all saws that cut across the grain), and I wasn't thinking about them because I assumed they were all rusted away and anyway you needed two people. Then a friend told me there are one-man crosscut saws, they're still making them, and it's not hard to find an old one used. I googled it and found a Mother Earth News article, "The Crosscut Saw, with this inspiring quote:

I was trimming logs for a cabin project and the cumbersome chain saw I was using just wasn't getting the job done. The cuts were too rough and unfinished. So I dug out my old crosscut from the tool shed and found that it gave me a much smoother finish. I was so impressed that after I'd finished trimming out the logs I took the crosscut saw out to the wood lot and sawed some firewood just for the fun of it. It went so well that I put away my chain saw and have hardly used it since.

Cool! That's just what I wanted to hear. I did some more research and found out I wanted a "lance tooth," since I'll be cutting all softwoods. The "champion tooth" pattern looks like MIMIMI, and the lance tooth like HHIHHI. Lehmans sells new crosscut saws for $190, but I just snagged an old one on ebay for $50.

Setbacks -- 29 April 05 -- Some bad news this time. First, a lot of my seedlings are doing badly. I see no connection to which nursery they came from, where I planted them, when I planted them, or even what species they are. Only this: with only two exceptions out of 45 plants, the expensive ones are thriving and the cheap ones look dead. My recommendation: buy clones of named cultivars and not random seedlings.

Second, as I spend more time on the south boundary, on which the corners were surveyed but nothing in between, I'm beginning to think I mis-estimated the line. I think I might have to back off as much as 30 feet in some places, and dig up 15 seedlings and replant them elsewhere. Technically I may have a case to take adverse possession, to legally grab some land, since the buyer of the property to the south is presumably consenting to the line I marked by making the purchase. But I don't like to do that. I'd rather back off and keep the line and the legal issue simple. I think I'll wait a few months and see which seedlings die, so I won't have to transplant so many.

Third, I dug holes in all the likely places, on gradual slopes where the wet turns dry, in the low areas, even on a hill at the level of a shocking line of yellow oregon grape flowers. There I at least found some surprising ground water. But no clay! It takes a lot of time and energy to dig a three foot deep hole. It's hard to believe there's no clay on 435,000 square feet with lots of cedar trees, but if I have to dig 30 more holes to find it, it could set back my whole schedule enough to eventually set me back a year.

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