archive, July - November 2008

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Crossbow and Hammock -- 5 July 08 -- I was looking forward to trying out my new crossbow. One of the accessories I did not buy was a target, because how hard can it be to make one? It turns out to be a non-trivial task. My first experiment was to just shoot a bolt into the end of a giant chunk of cedar and see how hard it was to pull it out. It only went in a couple inches, but the only way I could get it out was to get a mallet and a wedge and split the wood! Next I rigged up a cardboard box I brought along, 20x20x10 inches, which already had a couple inches of styrofoam and several layers of cardboard I'd stuffed inside. I tried filling the remaining space with sand, but it made it too heavy to move, so I tried bark chips instead. I set it in front of a log, measured a line at ten yards, and shot. The bolt went through the box and stuck so hard in the log that I could barely pull it out. But it went through a gap between the pieces of styrofoam, so I pushed them together with more bark, and tried again. Same result. After three shots, the bolt was already very slightly bent.

Now I've done some research and can't find any commercial targets that get good reviews. For homemade targets, people suggest stuffing a bag with old clothes, densely layering cardboard, filling a box with spray-foam insulation, and my favorite idea, layering a bunch of old carpet pieces, which for most of us are easier to find than straw bales.

This was my first overnight stay on the land, and I brought along a Hennessy Expedition hammock that Nat generously donated, so I could practice using it and see how I like it. A good camping hammock keeps rain off like a tent, and keeps you off the ground like a mattress pad, while being roughly the size and weight of a mattress pad alone, so it's a great thing to have if you need to make an emergency trip without a car in an area with trees. It took me a couple hours to learn how to put it up. I was guessing the trees needed to be 6-9 feet apart, but for this one the range is more like 9-14 feet, the recommended knot is hard to describe, and the tension needs to be tighter than I was thinking.

Some people love sleeping in hammocks. I don't. Because the surface is not flat, and I like to sleep on my side, it's hard for me to find a comfortable position. And the biggest disadvantage is something I never would have guessed. It has to do with the fact that sound drops off by the square of distance, and in any place with trees, there are going to be mosquitos. In a hammock, the mosquitos trying to get in through the mesh are ten times closer to your head than they are in a tent, and therefore, one hundred times louder. Also you have to be careful not to have any part of your body touching the mesh or they'll bite you through it. Halfway through the night there was a freak thunderstorm, and I hadn't put up the rain fly, so I took the hammock down and moved to the leaned-back driver's seat of the car, where I slept much better.

Huckleberries -- 14 July 08 -- I have a lot of wood to saw, but I really couldn't get into it on this trip, especially in the heat. I'm hoping in a year or two I'll be able to get some clean synthetic fuel or biofuel that will make it tolerable for me to bring out the chainsaw. I enjoy hand sawing much more than chainsawing, but thirty minutes of chainsawing would be better than thirty hours of hand sawing.

huckleberries So I did some writing and relaxed, and when it started to cool off, I went up the west hill with the pruner and lopper to re-clear the trail that angles up from the spring to the southwest corner. That sounded like a fun job. And I found this -- a nice patch of black huckleberries! These berries aren't ripe yet, but in previous years there were no berries at all. I think the cold, wet spring was bad for some of the plants -- I'm only going to get one cherry this year -- but good for the huckleberries.

A lot of plants have such unremarkable leaves that you really can't identify them from a picture of a leaf in a book. You either need a flower or fruit, or first hand experience with that plant in that habitat. I had neither, but now that I know this plant is black huck, I'm seeing it all over. There's another big patch right by the outhouse.

This makes a total of six food-grade berries that grow on the land by themselves, the others being wild strawberry and thimbleberry (lots of leaves but few berries), serviceberry (even fewer berries), oregon grape (sour), and blackcap raspberry (thorny and invasive). Huckleberry has the potential to be a big tasty crop, so now I've found a project that's both enjoyable and useful. I spent the rest of Saturday evening and Sunday morning going through both patches and pulling out all competing plants: snowberry, baldhip rose, ocean spray, mallow ninebark, and oregon grape, from which I saved the roots to make medicinal tincture. And at the end I made a soup of water and compost and rock dust and beneficial fungal spores and poured it over the lower patch.

By the way, the two apple trees that looked worst off are looking good now, especially the Ashmead's, which has put up a nice bush from its two foot stump where the snow broke it. I'm seeing this pattern a lot: a tree struggles, and then the whole top either gets broken off or dies, but new sprouts from the bottom thrive. I think the top of a tree has to die sometimes to let the roots catch up.

The Limits of Self-Sufficiency -- 2 August 08 -- Sometimes you read about super-homesteaders, like Sylvan Hart or Dick Proenneke, who go alone into primitive land and build a cabin and thrive. Those people are the equivalent of NBA all-stars or Olympic sprinters. The difference is, it's cheap to play basketball or run, and learn first hand how much your ability falls short of your imagination, while a good piece of land is so expensive and hard to find that we can all believe that if we only had land, we'd be spending joyful 16 hour days cutting wood and growing food and tracking deer and building heaven on Earth. About one in a million of us are right.

The rest of us need to be a member of a group -- either a very large group like industrial civilization, or a smaller group like a 100 person community or a ten person household. One advantage of being with a group is that people motivate each other. Everything is easier if you're doing it to help other people than if you're doing it just for yourself. Also you can specialize in what you enjoy doing. One fatal flaw of self-sufficiency is that if you do everything yourself, sooner or later you're going to run into stuff that you're either really bad at or just hate doing.

I've reached the limit of what I can do alone up there. I go once a week and tend the bushes and trees I've planted, and if I have some spare energy, I go through the woods pruning the dead lower branches. I've lost interest in building, the isolation isn't fun anymore, and I no longer believe that we'll get such a hard crash that I'll need the land to survive.

[Update, January 2009: Originally this post went on to ask for squatters to tend my trees so I could spend the summer doing other stuff. Now, four months into the economic collapse, after meeting a bunch of people who want to visit, and seeing what other "homesteaders" are doing, I've become re-motivated, and I've decided to greatly escalate my use of money and energy while I can still get them.]

Cinnamon Bear -- 4 August 08 -- Yesterday my neighbor told me that the bears in the area are Cinnamon Bears, a red-furred subspecies of black bear. So they're black bears but not black bears! It's a good thing someone told me that before I saw one and mistook it for a young grizzly. That makes five "red" animals up there, the others being red squirrel, red-tailed chipmunk, red-tailed hawk, and red-naped sapsucker.

Flexland -- 1 September 08 -- Being in nature is like other needs -- food, water, sleep, sex, human company: if you're deprived of it, it seems like the most wonderful thing in the world, and you imagine you could never have too much of it. But then when you get it, it turns out there's a short distance between not enough and too much.

In industrial society, most people have never experienced too much nature. They can't even get time off their jobs for a two week camping trip. The system allows no middle ground. So they sit in their cubicles looking at pictures of mountains and forests, and a very small number of us save up enough money to quit our jobs and go "back to the land", all the way to the other extreme.

Then when we crash and burn and go back to the city, or when we stick it out and get depressed or slightly insane, the onlookers say: "Look at that fool who romanticized nature and then found out what it's really like," or "What an annoying loser. If I were in their place, I'd be thriving." But starving people are not romanticizing food, and just as only a few people in the world can eat 20 hamburgers without getting sick, only a few people are cut out to thrive as full-time homesteaders.

Part of the problem is that we go "back to the land" alone or in small groups, in fixed locations, when our ancestors did it in nomadic tribes. Also we've been raised with the wrong skills and habits, and it's even possible that we've changed on a biological level in the few thousand years since we started living in permanent settlements.

But the fact remains that there is a healthy dose of nature for each of us, and our society blocks it, forcing us to either have too much or not enough. What we need is something like the Flexcar, or time-share condos, but with small farms and primitive cabins. And that's the direction I'm trying to go with my own land. But before that will work on a large scale, we need a deep transformation of the wage labor system, so we work 20-40 weeks a year, instead of either 50 or zero. Happy Labor Day!

Seedballs -- 20 September 08 -- This is something I've been planning to do since I bought the land four years ago, and just now got around to. The idea is that you mix clay, compost, seeds, and water, roll them into balls, and scatter them on disturbed land. The clay holds everything together and the compost feeds the seeds, and whichever ones fit the environment will grow. You do it on disturbed land because in a climax ecosystem the seeds will not have a niche, unless they're invasives, and on tended land they'll be killed, unless it's your own land.

Here's a good page about how to make seedballs, and here's a photo of the ingredients I assembled. Dry powdered red clay is not easy to find! Spokane is the metropolitan center of a large region, and I could only find one place that sold dry clay, and I had to go there in person to find out they had red clay, and then the smallest quantity they sold was a 50 pound bag for $27. But it made me very happy because there's not much clay in this area, especially on my land, so it feels like I got a great price on a precious commodity, and now I can make a lot of seedballs.

The main seed I'm using is Melilotus officinalis, called Yellow Blossom Sweet Clover or Melilot. It's drought tolerant, cold tolerant, fixes nitrogen, makes lots of food for bees, and can grow six feet tall. I also threw in some gathered lamb's quarters and arugula, a few packets of mixed wildflowers, and some very expensive alpine strawberry. An eighth of an ounce was $14, which comes out to $1800 a pound, roughly as expensive as saffron, and probably requiring the same kind of manual picking and processing of tiny quantities. But I already have wild strawberries all over my land, so it's a reasonable gamble to get some alpines established, which are much more productive and still able to grow wild. Finally I put in a bunch of dandelion seeds, which I've been gathering from the lawn every spring and fall. It was hard to get the fluff off -- I ended up mixing them with the other seeds with a wooden spoon until gradually the seeds and fluff separated, and then blowing it off.

So I waited until the weather was going to be hot and clear for a few days, and the night before the operation I measured and mixed the dry ingredients: five parts clay, three parts compost, one part seeds. I noticed that the compost was awfully coarse, with bits of wood and even rocks, so I spent some time filtering it through a pottery colander with half centimeter holes, which I was lucky to have.

The next morning I added water and started rolling. It took a lot longer than I expected! The rolling was easy, but the hard part was pinching off just the right amount of stuff. After an hour I started letting go of precision and ended up with some balls twice the size of others, and the rolling still took four hours. This photo shows roughly one fifth of the whole batch, partly dried.

There was a big problem that was not mentioned in any of the how-to pages I looked at. One tray of seedballs totally cracked, and after drying they crumbled to dust under almost no pressure. And it was the first tray, which I was the most careful with. Here's my theory: the seeds expand when they get wet, and in the first tray, I made the balls before the seeds expanded, so when they did, they cracked the balls. The later trays were made with seeds that had been wet for a while and already expanded. So my advice for seedball makers is to mix in the water and then wait an hour before you start rolling.

Another problem is that there must be some species of seeds that will start sprouting with a few hours of being wet, and then when you dry the balls the sprouts will die. So you would either have to scatter the balls on a rainy day immediately after making them, or not use those kinds of seeds. But I don't know which ones they are! Seedballs are a new technology and this is one of many areas that still needs a lot of research.

Anyway, I'll scatter them on the land next April and see what happens.

Coffee Chaff -- 11 October 08 -- I'm back in Spokane for a four week housesit, and luckily they left the car, so now I don't have to ride my bike up there, and I can haul more stuff. Today on Freecycle I snagged five garbage bags full of coffee chaff. That link goes to a good picture of it. It's the outer skin of coffee beans that comes off during roasting, it smells like coffee of course, and it's supposed to be excellent for composting, and also as mulch for acid-loving plants. So my problem of what to use for filler in the composting toilet has been solved. I already have some shredded paper up there. Now I can make a mix of shredded paper, coffee chaff, and topsoil, and be set for a few years unless my land gets crowded -- and if it does, I'm sure someone will come up with more chaff or sawdust.

Also I just ordered a dozen Gamma Seal Lids. The lids that come with five gallon buckets are not designed to be reused, so this is a great product that makes the buckets useful for dry storage. As far as I can find, this is the cheapest source.

Fall -- 1 November 08 -- In these hills there are only a few weeks between the leaves turning and the first snowfall. This photo is the "parking lot" looking north. In September I chatted with my neighbor and found out that before the latest loggers used this spot as a staging area, it was dense forest. If someone else had bought the land, they'd be building a giant house here. I'd like to eventually terrace it and plant more fruit trees. Those yellow trees you see are larches, conifers that shed their needles every year.

On this trip I was hauling up five giant bags of maple leaves I got off craigslist, and nine gamma seal lids for my bucket collection. I used about half the leaves to heavily mulch all my orchard plants, and stored the rest for more mulching next year. With no leaf bearing native trees on the land, leaves from the city are valuable!

Here's the west hill. There should be two apple seedlings in this shot, but they're so small even I can't find them. That giant patch of yellow is reed canarygrass, which I would like to try making a thatch roof with if I'm ever up there for months at a time.

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