archive, September - October 2005

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The Tao of Land -- 12 September 05 -- It seemed like an innocent question: Why are you throwing sticks into piles? I answered it, and we went back and forth a few times, and finally it took the form of an accusation: You're wasting time if you clear sticks and then don't do anything with that spot, and there's something wrong with you if you still haven't built anything.

What we have here is a conflict between two ways of being. The best metaphor I've read is that one way is like plowing up a river in a steamship, using great power to go exactly where you want to go. And the other way is like floating down a river in a canoe, and watching the currents, so that by sticking the oar in at just the right moments, you can steer yourself to someplace good.

In the context of living on the land, I call the first way "Calvinist Homesteading." Calvinists think "hard work" is morally virtuous, and they like to always be busy with stuff they're supposed to be doing. When they buy land, they immediately pick a cabin site, pick a garden site, plan their plumbing and composting and whatever, and get to work! To a Calvinist Homesteader, it doesn't make sense to clear a spot except in the context of already having decided what you're going to put on that spot. Everything is calculated backwards from a goal.

I'm calling the other way "the Tao of Land." As a Land Taoist, my goals are vague and mutable: to build a small community with places to live somewhere or other, and lots of food that's easy to grow, so we can all hang out and relax. My vision, and my determination, are in the process. I want to avoid using the industrial system, and I don't want to force anything. I want every step to fall into place after the one before it. What I value most is time when there's nothing I'm supposed to be doing, and I can do what I feel like.

This year, what I feel like doing is clearing the dead wood off the land so I can walk around. I like it, plus it's an investment -- all the human-used areas will eventually have to be cleared of dead wood. Also the slash piles make wildlife habitat.

I don't feel at all like building. It seems extremely difficult to me, and I was assuming that was part of my nature -- that I'm just not a builder. But now I'm thinking it's because I'm drifting in my canoe with a flow that says it's not time yet for building. And when it's time, it might suddenly be easy for me.

I even bought the land with the flow. The Calvinist Homesteader drives around looking at hundreds of properties to find the one that has everything good and no flaws. I formed the intention to buy land, told people about it, put the energy out there, followed up the easy leads, and after about ten years, something fell into my lap that had what I wanted but also some flaws: it has long winters, it's surrounded on two sides by logging companies, and my right to use the road might be by adverse possession, and not on paper anywhere. My friend Adam can't believe I bought land without being sure of that.

He also suggested I might want to get a job for a while so I can afford to own a truck, and many people think I should have this or that hauled in, instead of trying to find it on the land, and that I should use power tools and plastics and cement. What can I say? Going with the flow requires both rational thought and gut instinct. My gut tells me, "Wait, take your time, it will work out," and my rational mind looks it over and says, "Yeah, it could. And right now there's no reason to hurry."

You canít sit around a campfire alone --13 September 05 -- Garrett's post about the first visitors to my land.

Anniversary / Listening to the Land -- 21 September 05 -- It's been one year since I took legal possession of the land. It's a good thing I didn't do much, because if I had planted a big tree or built a cabin, it would certainly have been in the wrong place. Maybe it was lucky that I didn't get any helpers, because alone I had to go slowly.

Every time I go up there and look around, I observe more and change my mind about where to plant stuff. I keep looking at locations and going back to my handwritten info sheet: "This spot is drier than that, so which tree likes dry better, cherry or apple? Which tree can tolerate this wetter spot? Here are two spots 15 feet apart, so what tree is spaced that far?

Peaches are spaced at 15 feet, and I really like peaches, so I'm going to plant two of them where I originally was putting the pecans, and put the pecans uphill, in a place that I first thought was drier but then discovered is wetter. I was going to buy ten blueberries to get a price discount, but the money is trivial compared to the trouble of finding spots for ten, so I'm going to buy six, and put them in between the peaches and pecans. Up the hill above the pecans will go the apples, and off to the side, in the less sunny spots, the more shade tolerant tart cherries.

One of my visitors last week, Adam, is a practicing Buddhist, and he meditated up there and told me... I forget how he worded it but the spirits of the land have stuff to tell me. So I sat at my planned cabin site and spent some time trying really hard to keep my mind blank and create a space for the land to speak. I've been practicing this kind of thing for years and I've never been good at it. So mostly I got total silence, but I did get an image and some words -- not at the same time but they obviously fit together. The image was the leaf pattern of a plant and the words were, "That leaf doesn't grow here."

It didn't look like any fruit trees, but I thought it might be black locust. When I got back and looked it up online, it was a perfect match! Black locust is a weedy invasive tree that also fixes nitrogen and has super-hard rot-resistant wood. I hadn't decided whether to plant it yet, but it would definitely grow up there. So I interpret the words as a strongly-worded request not to grow it, and I won't.

Something incredible -- growing in a dead area, unwatered through the long hot summer that killed two super-drought-tolerant sea buckthorns, I found a tomato! The trick is, it was where I buried a bunch of kitchen waste last fall. Apparently it was damp enough, and held the dampness well enough, that a single volunteer tomato made it up to the surface and bore four decent sized fruits. They'll probably be frost-killed before they ripen, but it's a great example of the value of compost.

I finally got some good photos of a chipmunk. After more research, I think this is a Red-tailed Chipmunk, Tamias ruficaudus. That and the closely related Yellow-pine Chipmunk are the only species whose range is supposed to include my land, and the Red-tailed Chipmunk has a longer tail, like this one, and its habitat more closely fits the trees on my land.

I worked extra hard on this trip to reduce future stress by getting everything ready for winter, even though I still plan to go up a few more times. To keep my firewood dry, I put three logs on the ground, with a bunch of logs on them to make a platform, and the firewood stacked on top of that with a tarp over it. I read somewhere that firewood should not be completely covered, just covered on top with the ends exposed to air.

Holes -- 28 September 05 -- Going up to the land is exhausting. I'm not sure what's worse, the actual work of walking up and down steep hills hauling water and digging holes, or the stress of driving, or the bad sleep I get up there... but I think it's the driving. This time I just took a day trip, and did a solid five hours of watering and digging and measuring. What I'm measuring are distances between spots to dig holes for planting, and when I want it exact, I use the shovel, which I've measured at 4' 9". Otherwise I just count rough three-foot strides. I'm spacing the pecans at 40 feet, where some sources say 50, but I figure they'll grow smaller in my colder climate. Apples on standard rootstock are spaced at 30, so between an apple and a pecan I go 35. I'm squeezing the blueberries, going 4' 4" instead of 5 feet, because it fits the landscape better.

Digging holes is harder than you might imagine, because the soil is often dense and full of roots. Sometimes I step hard on the shovel and it only goes in an inch, so one hole can take 15 minutes of vigorous work requiring a rest afterwards. I should probably use a pick but I don't feel like hauling two heavy tools around. This time I dug holes for all the major plants, and I gathered a bunch of pine needles from one of the slash piles to put in the blueberry holes, because they like acid soil. I hope to have all the holes dug, and then filled loosely with all the stuff that's going to go into them, before I close up for winter, so I can plant everything in a short day next spring.

One spot, where I was going to put a tart cherry, I've discovered is remarkably wet -- which on my land means that the soil still feels damp to the touch after a long dry summer. It would be ideal for pecan or apple except it has only partial sunlight. After some research and a reader tip, I've decided cherry would grow there but the dampness would be wasted on it, so I'll plant European hazel, corylus avellana.

Cordwood Strawberry -- 5 October 05 -- Last weekend I made a quick trip to my land with some visitors who came to interview me for this movie. They were very nice, and being interviewed is fun! I didn't get any work done, but there are only a few things left to do before spring. I did manage to haul all my canned soup back to Spokane, because I don't know if the cans will burst when they freeze. I left two cans up there as a test, and also left a huge jar of honey, after checking online and finding out that honey does not expand when it freezes. [May 2006: nothing broke!] Some critter, probably a deer, ate my tomatoes. I don't mind. With luck (for the tomatoes), the deer will poop in a moist place and they'll make it another generation.

I've been forgetting to mention that I totally changed my cabin plan. Adam pointed out that not only don't I have clay on my land, I also don't have many rocks, and you really need rocks for a cob house foundation, to keep water from wicking up and softening the wall. What I have more than enough of is wood, and I'm especially lucky to have Western redcedar, which has exceptional rot resistance. So my new plan is to sink four cedar logs into the ground, build a very strong post-and-beam roof, and fill in the walls with stacks of cordwood with the cracks filled in with weak silt cob, which I can get away with since the walls no longer need to be weight-bearing. Also, with only cedar touching the ground, I can get away with no foundation. If someone's still living there in 100 years they can just replace the rotten wood, and if not, it will all go back into the soil.

I've been looking for a source for alpine strawberry seeds, and I found out that Johnny's carries them. Alpine strawberries are semi-wild, halfway between wild and cultivated strawberries in productivity, with better flavor than either, and one source says they reseed themselves. So I figure I'll just spread some compost and scatter a bunch of seeds. If they don't grow from seed, they would be too much work to maintain and I wouldn't want to grow them anyway.

Prospecting for Dirt -- 12 October 05 -- My "extremely drought tolerant" sea buckthorn plants had a 50% dieoff in two weeks without water, while a tomato, a plant that has never been described as drought tolerant, survived a whole summer without water and bore fruit. This was because the sea buckthorn was rooted in dead sand (which, supposedly, it tolerates) while the tomato was rooted in pure compost. The lesson of the sea buckthorn and the tomato is that soil quality is everything. The main reason my 2005 berry planting did so badly is that I had to rush them into the ground with no preparation -- no observation to know where to put them, and no soil around their roots but what I dug out of the hole.

So for the last two months I've been putting most of my energy into preparing for the major tree crop planting next spring, carefully picking locations, digging generous holes, and on this trip, gathering really good soil to fill the holes. It's not easy to find good dark topsoil, even on land as undeveloped as mine. If the good soil were right out in the open, the sun would oxidize it to bad soil and the rain would break it up and wash it away. I had to look under layers of dead conifer needles and sticks, and under thick plant growth, and sometimes I found only a half inch of real soil and then the ubiquitous pale brown silt and sand. But I found a couple good spots and managed to haul about 25 gallons of soil around to 25 holes, and mix it with the soil I dug out, using more when the original soil was worse. Also, I threw in a few handfuls of chicken manure compost, which is by far the best deal in soil amendments at the local garden store, probably because it smells so bad!

My first plan was to make a pile next to each hole, but I decided to loosely fill the holes back up. Now I have 25 little mounds marked by sticks, and in the spring I can quickly dig the soil out with my hands and slip in the seedlings. Also, last week I went to the edge of the suburb where some people dump their extremely valuable lawn mower clippings and leaves, and filled two big garbage bags. On the way up I was behind a truck that had a bunch of yard waste under a tarp, and I foolishly thought, "Ah, someone else hauling priceless compost up to their land." Of course, they were taking it to the landfill. But now I have a small pile of grass and leaves to mulch my seedlings. Next spring I'll go to one of the warehouse industrial home stores and buy a couple rolls of hardware cloth (wire mesh) and cut them up into a bunch of 13x18" sheets, which I can roll up into four inch diameter cylinders to guard the trunks against mice and rabbits.

One more thing: All summer I've been hauling filtered water from Spokane up to my land, because I didn't quite trust the spring water. But I've been drinking more and more of it with no bad effects, and finally I did a comparison. "Taste test" isn't quite right, since I can't consciously taste any difference, but my body loves the spring water -- it goes down easier and feels more satisfying. So this time I hauled three gallons of spring water back to Spokane! I feel very wealthy to have undisputed title to a piece of land on which good drinking water flows right out of the ground.

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