archive, May - July 2005

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The Burden of Survival -- 6 May 05 -- I was loading two 40lb buckets of nitrogen-packed quinoa and red wheat from survival acres into the trunk, to go bury them on the land, when it hit me: What am I getting myself into?

Now I understand why everyone is still driving 60-65 mph when gas is $2.50 a gallon and everyone knows you get better mileage at 55 (or better yet at 45). Now I understand why so many people are still eating American beef and holding cell phones up to their brains and going deeper into debt. They're not stupid. Subconsciously, they know exactly what they're doing. It's like you've fallen out of an airplane with no parachute. Do you spread your limbs out to slow your terminal velocity to 80 mph and hope you hit a tree and barely survive? Or do you go into a nosedive to guarantee a quick death? It's like you've found some poor blood-soaked half-dead creature, and you can either take on the huge and lengthy responsibility of cleaning it up and nursing it back to health, or you can bash its brain in with a rock.

That creature is your future. Even though I've spent most of my life preparing to live through "the apocalypse" and live without industrial technologies, I'm half tempted to just hole up with my favorite computer games and some poison. But now, with ten acres with a spring and good soil and a buried cache of food, if some sudden catastrophe happens, I have the power and the responsibility to go up there and try to survive.

Is survival worth it? Do I really want to live another 50 years hanging out with the same people on the same piece of land, without ever again listening to Hawkwind's PXR5 album or eating chocolate ice cream or watching Brazil or walking down the sidewalk on a warm summer day surrounded by faces I've never seen before and hearing an old Boston song blasting from a passing convertible? Of course, my kids won't miss that stuff, and they'll get even deeper pleasure from immersion in reality, or "nature." But I'll miss that too, because it's alien to what I grew up in. I'll be an immigrant to the future, with one foot in each world, but belonging to neither.

Clay and Crosscut -- 7 May 05 -- When no readers volunteered map dowsing or psychic skills to help me find clay on my land, I did it myself! Last fall, following instructions in the book Supersensonics, I made a pendulum from a wooden spool, and last weekend I got it out, printed a map of my land, and went over it for an hour, visualizing clay and watching the pendulum, up and down for yes, back and forth for no. I got consistent positives in three spots, and May 2nd I went up there and started digging.

One of the spots was likely, a low area in what must have been the path of a stream 200 years ago, before this region was killed down so far. (Deforestation can reduce rainfall hundreds of miles away by taking away the huge amount of atmospheric water that is transpired by trees.) I dug there first, and then the other two spots, and then a fourth spot that had an inconsistent pendulum response but was conveniently located uphill from the planned building site. Also, it was a totally unlikely place to find clay. And there I found... sand! At 3 and 2, I found a dark substance hard enough to be clay, but it was silt. The clay was in the first place I looked, and I kept looking because it's just barely good enough.

The shake jar is sitting up there settling right now, and I don't expect it to be more than 10% clay by dry weight. But the silt is very fine, and the soil as a whole passes or almost passes tests for shininess and stickiness and flexibility, and dries hard as a rock. Also sitting up there is a test brick I made, with one part "clay," one part perfect cob sand, and some of the dried up tough long grass from the almost-stream course. I set it exposed to dry in the sun, gambling there would be more sun than rain this week, and I lost. It probably got half dissolved and I'll have to make another one.

The other thing I did was try out my new antique giant crosscut saw. It's not really any faster than my much smaller and lighter $40 Japanese crosscut saw, but that saw is not made to be sharpened, and is too short for big logs. If anyone is thinking of getting an old one-person crosscut saw, you absolutely must get one with an extra handle sticking out of the top -- or install one yourself. Without it, there's no way I could have put enough weight into the saw to cut effectively.

I spent a lot of time sharpening it with a DMT diamond file. (No idea if that's what I'm supposed to use, but it worked.) Then I sawed through a dense (for softwood) eleven inch log in only about four minutes of sawing -- though I had to take a long break halfway through. I'm a beginner. When I get good, this saw will still be much slower than a chainsaw, but fast enough. I estimate that cutting up every fallen log on the land into 16 inch rounds will take less than 300 hours.

Alone -- 16 May 05 -- This was my longest stay by far on the land, Tuesday to Saturday, four days and four nights. I sawed and split some wood, cleared some muck out of the spring with my bare hands, walked around with pen and paper to draw a better map, worked on clearing a trail between the south and central parts of the land, and picked up more wood scraps. I got very little done.

I was expecting a visitor at 11am on Wednesday, but because of a tactical error, she couldn't make it at all. This led me to notice something valuable: that all the stuff I was really excited about doing with someone else, seemed tedious and pointless to do alone. Alone up there I have no energy, little motivation, I have trouble making decisions, and little things bother me and trip me up. Even in four days, I go a little nutty.

This knowledge has led me to re-plan the whole summer. I will not be making any more long solo stays on the land. If no helpers are coming, it's a much better use of my time to hang out in civilization and update my web site. At most, I'll go up there every couple weeks to water the seedlings and check on my stuff. I'll probably go back to Seattle for a few weeks to gather more supplies and try to find one or two used tents.

I've decided to go with tents because it turns out that making good primitive shelter is a giant chore unless you have the energy and obsessive dedication of someone like Tom Brown. I don't, not for that. I'm tremendously excited about the post-industrial future, seeing the suburbs turn to shaggy fields of grass and dandelions, living in a culture without cars. But a lot of the stuff I have to do to survive that long seems barely tolerable. It's essential that I get with a group where every aspect of what we have to do can be covered by someone who really likes it, and where everything is more enjoyable and meaningful because it's done for other people.

I think I have plenty of time. When time gets short, my problem will not be finding dedicated community members, but turning people away without them hating me. Maybe I won't even build that cob house until 2007. For the first few years, the important tasks are to get some fruit and nut trees established, clean all the logging debris off the land, and begin rebuilding the ground water.

Neighbors -- 16 May 05 -- Actually I did get visitors at 11am on Wednesday -- two of the neighbors walked down to chat with me, an older guy named Henry and a younger guy named Mike. They're totally nice! They live in the nearest big house. If you divide the area into ten acre squares, which would make a square mile exactly like a chessboard, they're one knight move away, on the same road I come in on.

Henry says my piece of land used to be really beautiful before they logged it -- which means it will be that beautiful again, or better, if I can survive on it another 30 years. He asked me if I'd seen any moose yet, and I mentioned the elk tracks and droppings, and thought, "Strange that he can't tell the difference between a moose and an elk." Well, guess who knows better. On my final night, I heard a crashing in the bushes, and out walked, unmistakably, a moose! It was the size of a small horse, with a humped back, a long snout, a dark mottled coat, and I think I saw the beginnings of moose antlers. It didn't occur to me to reach for the camera. There, 30 feet away, was a giant wild animal that didn't seem afraid of me. I reached for the axe! And I avoided making eye contact, and the moose did the same, and calmly walked across the road and up the west hill. Turns out, according to this moose distribution map, they're supposed to be there.

Late Friday afternoon, with my friend still missing, I walked up to Henry's house to ask to borrow his phone to call Spokane and get a ride out. He wasn't there, but I ended up hanging out with another guy, Ron. He looks about 65, and lives in a converted school bus. The back is the bedroom, the middle is the kitchen/dining room, with working sink and refrigerator, and from the front, the thing still drives. "Goes 70 miles an hour, passes everything but a gas station." Ron spends winters in Mexico and summers on a piece of land in the area -- he was just parked at Henry's place until his next social security check comes. He showed me a mushroom he'd picked, which I'm pretty sure was a small king bolete, and told me there are also oyster mushrooms and morels around. Then he fed me a giant meal of wild oyster mushrooms, broccoli, corn, tomato sauce, and American mad cow beef. I ate it all, happy to take the risk to make friends with a neighbor. Later I brought him up half a gallon of my quinoa. We got to talking about politics, and Ron mentioned that Bush and his gang are intentionally trying to force the end of the world because they're Christian fundamentalists. If I can figure out where his land is, I'll go visit him again.

Thimbleberries -- 28 May 05 -- Two days ago I went up for an afternoon, to tie up loose ends before I came back to Seattle to recruit visitors. The highlights:

My crosscut saw is pretty big to always be hauling up and back in the car, but I still haven't figured out a way to keep it dry up there when it rains. This time it didn't get wet, but it got some lingering condensation on it, and that was enough to do more rust damage in a few days than in the last fifty years. The damage wasn't fatal, but if the same thing happens six or eight more times, I'll have to get a new saw. It badly needed oil, and all I had was some fat on the leftover chicken I brought up to eat, so I smeared it all over the blade, and filed off the rust as well as I could.

There are plants with large maple-like leaves growing all over the west hill, and now that a few of them have flowers, I've identified them 100% as thimbleberries. That's great news! I almost bought ten or twenty thimbleberry seedlings to haul up and dig holes and plant, and it turns out I have hundreds of plants without doing anything. Thimbleberries are my favorite of the raspberry/blackberry family -- they're not that productive, but they have the most interesting flavor and no thorns.

My viking aronia seedlings are kicking ass! Less than two months ago the roots and stems were bare sticks, and now they're covered with leaves and even flowers. The black currants are doing even better, with small green berries already forming. The random unnamed aronia, which had looked dead, is getting some leaves, and two of the six cheap blue elder seedlings are thriving, but the cheap serviceberry seedlings still look like they're not going to make it. After a rainy May, the weather has cleared up. If it doesn't rain in the next two weeks, I'll have to go back from Seattle just to go up and water the seedlings.

The main thing I did this time was bring a rake up (a good Fiskars model that I bought a few days before), and spend an hour standing in the spring raking out all the organic matter I could find. Next time, I'll try drinking straight from the spring pool and see how I feel. The rake also turned out to be a huge time-saver in clearing small sticks from trails.

Wildlife! Here's a photo of a young wild turkey walking past my camp. And up on the north hill, with its web built against one of my seedlings, was an unmistakable black widow spider. I had no idea they lived so far north!

Weeklong Stay -- 14 July 05

July 5, Day 1: Troubles. I could see on the approach that something was wrong -- something bright red next to the upright freezer that wasn't supposed to be there. It was my sleeping bag, pulled out of the freezer along with the tarp, two of the door shelf bars, and some food I had left in plastic bags. It might have been a raccoon. Nothing valuable was missing or destroyed -- the biggest loss was that the shelves will be hard to repair.

The sun was intolerable, so I moved my camp to a shady spot near where my staples are stored. Then I got ready to light the camp stove and discovered I had nothing to light it with. Both my lighter and my emergency spark maker were in one of my bags, which I had decided not to bring, and then forgotten to check thoroughly for stuff I needed to move to the other bags. And in a huge oversight, I didn't have any matches or lighters stored up there.

I tried smashing together different combinations of rocks and metal to make a spark. I tried focusing the sun through my binoculars on a candle wick, but the collection lenses are not big enough. I got out my firemaking bow, and quickly made a drill and fireboard and socket, and set the notch directly over a tea candle, so that if I got a coal it would light the candle. I almost got one, but my arm wore out, and on the next try the drill got to squeaking (I need to research why that happens) and I couldn't get it half as hot. Then my bow string broke. I tried some twine but it broke in about 20 seconds. I considered making a new string out of a seat belt from one of the junked cars, but it was getting late.

I was in no danger -- almost all my food could be eaten raw. It would just taste like crap, and no pancakes. Then I got one more idea -- to make a spark by shorting out the lithium battery in the digital camera. First I did a test -- and I got a spark! Then I set it up so the spark would be right where the propane was coming out of the burner and... apparently, that kind of battery is only good for one spark, and when I tried it in the camera it was totally dead. Finally I just walked a quarter mile to the neighbor's house and bummed a lighter. I feel bad about it because I'm not in a position yet to do them any favors.

The neighbor told me she didn't expect any more rain, and the sky was clear, so I slept in the open, but the mosquitos were super-aggressive. If I left any opening in the sleeping bag they would get me, and if I left no opening it was too hot to sleep. Finally, around midnight, I went back to the old campsite, where I had cleared a big flat spot, and put the tent up, holding my bike flashlight in my mouth. Turns out the mosquitos did me a favor -- a few hours later it started to rain.

Day 2-3: Trailmaking. I don't believe in "getting motivated." It feels dishonest to me. Either do something you already feel like doing, or do what needs to be done, whether you feel like it or not. But too much of the latter will drain your will to live. That's a big reason I want to have a group up there, so whatever there is to be done, someone will feel like doing it.

I really don't feel like building. I could have brought some nails and tacks up and made a wood-framed tarp-covered shelter for firewood and tools, but I'm hoping someone will come along later who wants to take charge of building. What I felt like doing was clearing the land. Because it was just logged, almost all of it is covered with fallen wood, all sizes from big cedar logs down to twigs, a lot of dead saplings still rooted in the ground, some of the fallen trees still living. Clearing trails through this is satisfying, because it looks like it will take longer than it actually does. I just throw the wood, one big stick at a time, into a pile, and when I find one that's too big I use the saw, and when I get down to the smaller ones I use the rake. The Most Valuable Tools, this time, were the Fiskars rake and a Hishi Z model 333 hand saw ($30).

My only enemy was the sun. In full sunlight anything but the slowest work was impossible, so I moved with the shade, clearing one spot in the morning and another in the afternoon, Even then, and even though I don't burn easily, I got some sunburn at the base of my neck and the tops of my ears. If only there were some good clouds...

Day 4-6: Rainy season. Friday afternoon the clouds moved in, and in the evening it rained. Good -- I won't have to haul water up the west hill. I'll just wait until this little storm blows over and... It rained all night. Saturday there were some breaks in the rain, and even some sunlight, but I mostly stayed in the tent and read. It rained all Saturday night and finally stopped late Sunday morning. My land is now wetter and greener in the middle of July than it was in early April. I believe it got more rain in June and July than in January and February. Everyone's assuming this is an anomaly, but I'm wondering, if the screwy global weather can do this once, couldn't it also do it as a long-term condition? [It didn't.] If summer is the new rainy season, the whole ecology of the region will change. Already I have a jungle of bracken fern and thimbleberry and St. John's wort and bull thistle and great mullein with leaves the size of plates and six foot tall marsh grass. Even if we go back to dry summers, certain plants have now established deep enough roots that they will survive where they would have died.

Something that never occurred to me before: working indoors, in a good house, both sunlight and rain are good. Sun gives light, and rain is interesting and waters the plants. In the best possible case, you have sunlight and rain at the same time, and you see a rainbow. Working outdoors, both sunlight and rain are bad. The best possible weather is overcast and dry. This is popularly considered bad weather because our culture does almost all its work indoors.

Day 7: Draining the Spring. Another thing slowing me down was a collection of small wounds on my feet. I tried different things and discovered that bandaging doesn't work, because the air can't get to them and they get inflamed and more painful, and wearing my sandals has the same effect because it presses the flesh in an unnatural way. But if I walk around barefoot, and the wounds get encrusted with dirt and even lightly banged up, they feel fine, and they do not get infected. Today I decided to go ahead and clean the spring, even though I would be stomping around for a couple hours in algae-filled water and muck.

One of the slash piles has some hard black plastic tubing, which a previous occupant probably used to pipe water from the spring. It's a bit cracked, but I easily found a piece long enough to siphon the water from the spring pool. I'm glad I thought of that! My original plan was to have two people bailing with buckets, which would have taken a long time -- I estimate the pool at 400 gallons. Then I had another idea: instead of trying to suck the water to start the siphon, I carved a plug out of a stick, put it in the bottom of the tube, filled it with water from the top, found a heavy rock to keep the upper end under the surface, and went to the lower end to pull the plug. The whole thing would have been much easier with two people, but it worked.

I spent a couple hours, plus a long break, cleaning out all the organic matter and stinky muck I could find, and in the process deepening the pool a bit. I soon found the exact spot at the bottom that the water was coming up from, and isolated it and drank from it. Tasted great! But I wonder if it was all a waste of time. Unless I can block all sunlight from the pool (without blocking access for the critters), which is a building job I consider more painful than drinking stinky water and getting diarrhea, the algae will come back. I need a long-term plan, and now I'm leaning against the springhouse. My new idea is to just fill in the pool with sand, a job one person with a wheelbarrow could do in 8 hours, plant reeds on top or let grass grow, and then rig a system to tap water from the side, which was the kind of spring I was hoping for originally. Maybe I could dig out a channel, lay a pipe in, or some rocks, and then fill in the sand over it. Another idea is to put a barrel right over where the water comes up, with the open end down, put a tap near the bottom, and an overflow valve on the top. Then I could pipe water out of it, and also let it overflow into a natural pool.

Seedling news. I'm doing pretty well if my biggest financial loss in the first ten months is a $16 sea buckthorn seedling. I think I killed it by mulching it with bark that was too big, so that the rain couldn't get to the ground. The cheap serviceberry seedlings had about a 50% survival rate. Everything else is doing great. The big winner is black currant. Two Consort plants and one Minaj Smyriou plant have already produced edible berries! In America currants are not sold commercially (the things they call "currants" are actually small raisins) so I'd never tasted one. They're extremely interesting, with a flavor you might call "smoky." Second place is Viking aronia, which also have berries in the first season, but not ripe yet. The goumis have no berries but are also looking great. And some of the native oregon grape plants have berries, which tells me where there's ground water, and where I can plant apple and cherry trees in future years. The native thimbleberries seem to have an average of one berry per 100 plants. Maybe next year...

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