archive, January - April 2009

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Plant Order -- January 2009 -- I made my Raintree nursery order before the new year, so I could pick up a couple more highbush cranberries as a free bonus. They're native to the area and should thrive, but the stuff I paid for is more risky -- a peach and apricot to replace the ones killed by cold in the winter of '07-'08, and five nanking cherry bushes to replace the ones killed by drought in the previous summer.

Also I've decided which apple variety to order from St. Lawrence for my seventh apple tree. I was thinking of getting a Freedom, which is very good all around, but after tasting a Golden Russet at a Seattle farmers' market, I decided I had to get another russet. Where the popular varieties are shiny, crunchy, juicy, and blandly sweet, like cans of soda, russets are rough-skinned, dense, chewy, and intensely flavorful, like food. Most are British, but I picked an American russet of unknown ancestry, Minnesota 1734, which produces a large annual crop of small yellow-fleshed apples.

Truck -- January 2009 -- Last August my interest in the land hit a low point. I wasn't getting any time up there, and every project except the orchard had hit a block that couldn't be broken without a large input of some kind of energy -- human, fuel, or financial. Also, the breakdown of industrial civilization was plodding along so slowly that it looked like my best move was to find squatters for the land and go back to the city.

Then, of course, in September the economic collapse really took off, and in December I started a trip around the country. Now, in the midst of seeing all the big moves other homesteaders are making, I have renewed internal motivation to get into projects up there. Also, a bunch of people have shown interest in coming up this summer and helping out. And I got a nice Christmas bonus from my family that makes it possible for me to pay a couple years of insurance and maintenance on a truck.

Every "back to the land" book this side of Tom Brown takes it for granted that you have easy truck access (and Tom Brown drives a Hummer). It was frustrating reading about straw bales and scrap lumber, or answering emails suggesting I build with pallets or sheet metal, when I had no easy way to get them up there. A couple years ago I paid someone $25 in gas money just to haul up two sheets of plywood so I could make the roof and floor of a tiny shed. If I owned a truck, I could spend this whole spring and summer driving around once or twice a week gathering clay and pallets and roofing and windows and compost and bricks and rocks and plywood and pipes and sinks and tubs and barrels and straw and leaves from Craigslist and Freecycle and building supply stores and salvage stores and alleys and roadcuts and fields.

May 2009 update: My original plan was to get 1989-1995 Toyota, because of their legendary durability. But several readers suggested a Ford Ranger, and in March when I started looking at vehicles, Rangers were roughly five times as plentiful as Toyotas, and half the price for the same year and condition. I ended up getting a 1997 extended cab with 120,000 miles for $2600, from a nice private seller. Here's a photo of me and my truck.

Fuel! -- January 2009 -- When I bought the land more than four years ago, I also bought a Husqvarna 340 chainsaw, but I vowed not to use it until I could get alkylate fuel. It's much less polluting, easier on engines, and keeps much longer in storage. Everyone uses it in Scandinavia, but as far as I could tell, four years later it was still not sold in North America.

Then Darren tracked down this recent press release, in which a Vancouver BC fuel company is now selling Aspen alkylate petrol. If I can get some, I can do enough wood cutting this year to have a good shot at building a practice hut before fall. So I emailed UPP and got some info: 5 liters of Aspen 2t is about $25, and 25 liters is about $120, so there's hardly any savings buying in bulk. Also, there are no restrictions on transporting it across the border in small amounts. My mom and Charlie are going to be in Vancouver later this month, and they've offered to pick some up for me.

How much do I need? I poked around for a long time trying and failing to find a number for chainsaw fuel consumption in gallons or liters per hour. Then I found this Oil Drum analysis that has more useful numbers on gallons of fuel per cord of wood. Holy crap! This is exactly the same page that I've linked to before for its graphs showing that most vehicles get maximum fuel economy at 30-35mph (48-56km/h)! Anyway, it looks like a chainsaw will burn roughly ½ gallon (2 liters) to cut one cord of wood.

So how many cords of wood do I need? For a round cabin, the wall volume equals the difference between the external and internal radius, squared, times pi times the height. I crunched the numbers and came out with roughly 800 ft³ for the cabin and the practice hut. Now, not all of that volume is going to be wood. There will be gaps filled in with sand/clay/straw and insulation. But the volume of a cord of wood, 128 ft³, also includes the gaps in the stack, and I'm not planning to expand them that much. So I'll say I need 768 ft³, because that's six cords.

At two liters per cord, that's 12 liters of fuel for cabin wall wood. But I'll also want firewood, and the fuel keeps several years, so I'll ask them to get four 5-liter jugs. $100 sounds like an outrageous expense compared to the current price of five gallons of pump gas, but compared to all the other ways you can blow $100, it's a great price for enough clean fuel to saw ten cords of wood.

Developer -- 23 January 09 -- Roger comments:

I've noticed that in the last year or so you've shifted your strategy toward "developing" your land. Earlier you were dedicated to making your hut only from stuff locally available, or stuff you could transport there for free. Now, with the pickup discussion, you are looking at hauling a lot more stuff up. I faced the same question on my land, and in the end I am bringing in outside resources to the extent that I can afford them. On the one hand, I feel that while we have cheap oil and cheap industrial products, now is the time to use them to build a durable infrastructure. On the other hand, I feel kind of hollow and cheap doing something that my great-grandchildren won't be able to enjoy in the future. It makes more sense doing something in a timeless way to share those experiences with generations past and present. I hope you can find some time to think and write about these ideas...

I have no idea how future generations will live. Maybe they'll build cheap fusion plants or tap zero point energy, and go even farther out of balance. Maybe they'll be snuffed by an anoxic event or rogue biotech. My best guess is that they'll live with a combination of old technologies and ones that we have not even imagined yet. More generally, I don't think there's any such thing as a "timeless way" to live. Human technology, human nature, and life on Earth have changed many times and will continue to change as long as they exist. When I look back at my ancestors in medieval Europe, I don't feel sad that they used tools that existed only in their particular time and place -- I think it's cool!

But also, I wish previous generations hadn't killed the Earth down so far. There are ways to live that are more sustainable, better adapted, more ethical toward other life. I've mentioned a style of homesteading that I call being a little developer. People buy beautiful forested land, cut half of it down, plant lawns and soil-depleting annual gardens, build structures that are full of cement and plastic, and drive their cars to a job every day. That's not going "back to the land" -- it's DIY suburbia.

When I bought my land, I didn't have the money to pay insurance and maintenance on a truck, and also, I thought the low-tech path would help motivate me. It's a giant puzzle to find something to drive me, minute by minute, through a thousand hours of labor building a cabin. I draw a lot of motivation from doing things other people are not doing. So I wanted to try building with just materials that were already on the land. That turned out not to work. I enjoyed the orcharding, but everything related to building was still a dreadful chore.

I may yet fail to build anything, but now I'm groping for another path, planning to buy a truck to haul up other materials. Also, now that I can get clean-burning alkylate fuel, I feel a lot better about using a chainsaw. And with the ongoing economic collapse, I might start getting more visitors and helpers. But I'm still trying to find a balance between respecting the land and making it livable. Should I do an expensive metal roof or a labor-intensive thatch roof? Should I cut down that stand of native conifers to plant more fruit and nut trees? Should I run the greywater through plastic pipes, or try to use clay pipes or buried courses of gravel? How do I store water? In plastic barrels? In cement cisterns?

One of my tests is, does this increase or decrease the total aliveness of the land? Another is, what would this look like if it were abandoned for a thousand years? I think cement would be tolerable, especially if they come up with a more ecological way to produce it. But I'm going to try to avoid plastic in any permanent structures, unless wild bacteria evolve that can break it down.

Second Plant Order -- 2 February 09 -- Today I mailed in my annual order to St. Lawrence Nurseries. I should have done it a month ago, because it turns out the very obscure apple variety that I picked out from their long list, Minnesota 1734, is running out. The good news is, they're once again carrying Ashmead's Kernel, one of the very best all-around apples, and damn hard to find on Antonovka rootstock. So I listed that as a substitution. Also I'm getting two more black walnuts, and I decided to go all out on the sea buckthorn, and get four named females and a male for $50.

Herb Order -- 3 April 09 -- This is something I should have done years ago, but didn't see the importance until I started reading Edible Forest Gardens. A good forest garden needs not only trees and bushes but smaller herbs, which can accumulate nutrients, attract beneficial insects, and change the soil to make it more friendly to larger plants.

The first thing I wanted was comfrey, probably the best all-around herb for symbiosis with an orchard. Todd is sending me some roots of non-spreading Russian comfrey, but with ten acres, I also wanted some spreading true comfrey, Symphytum officinale. True comfrey doesn't grow as fast, but it makes seeds and it's better medicinally. I spent a couple weeks trying to find a local source for live plants and failed, and then found an online source of seeds: Richters, a Canadian company with a huge selection of herbs in dried, living plant, and seed form. I got all seeds: a gram of comfrey, two packets of wild indigo, three packets of anise hyssop, and ten grams each of sweet cicely, chickweed, and lemon balm, all for about $50.

First Visit 2009 -- 11 April 09 -- This was the snowiest winter in years. Spokane got five feet in December alone, and I figured the hills got much more. So as I do every year on the first visit, not knowing how the roads are, I parked at the edge of the pavement and walked two miles to the land, carrying my seedlings.

It turned out there was less snow on the ground than last year at the same time, because this year the bulk of it fell earlier. And the bears didn't mess with my stuff, but the snow crushed and broke my trees worse than ever. Four of the six apples appear to be finished, along with the nectarine and apricot. All four cherries are damaged but still standing, the blueberries are fine, and most of the other stuff is still buried under snow. I was able to plant a peach, an apple, an apricot, a walnut, a goumi, a nanking cherry, and two highbush cranberries. I had to leave the second walnut, four more nanking cherries, and five sea buckthorns "heeled in", lying on their sides with their roots covered in dirt, in the shade, with a big piece of cardboard over them to try to keep them dormant, until the snow melts from the holes where I'm going to plant them.

It was frustrating having so much stuff die. I tried to graft the apple trees back together but unfortunately I had neither the skills nor the tools to do it right, and then I slipped with the knife and cut a chunk out of my left index finger, which dripped blood for the next hour over everything I was doing. At times like these I realize that I'm a mediocre homesteader, that I have poor instincts and make a huge number of bad decisions, and maybe I should just trade the land to a permaculturist for a little house in the city where I can actually grow apple trees and not have to own a vehicle, and focus more of my attention on stuff that I'm good at. But later I relax and smell the air and listen to the perfect silence, and think about ways to protect trees in the future. I could tie them to metal poles, or even build snow shelters over them. At the very least, I can still grow tougher plants and keep the land as a summer retreat and eco-forestry project. On the way out I stopped and talked to my neighbor, who told me that my piece of land used to be the densest forest he'd ever seen, and that his 90 year old father-in-law told him the water in those hills was the best he'd ever tasted.

My other project on this trip was to burn the two slash piles that I covered with tarps last fall. It didn't occur to me that it's almost impossible to remove a tarp covered with two feet of snow from a pile of loose branches, so I left one of the piles and burned the other, on which the snow had mostly melted. In this photo from 2006, it's the one in the center background. I shoveled snow off the edges of the tarp, pulled it off, poured some linseed oil and denatured alcohol onto a rag, stuffed it down in the pile, and lit it.

fireThe wood was not that dry, and the fire would have gone out if I hadn't kept feeding it small dry branches, but then in the space of a few seconds it took off, and in a minute it got scary! At the peak, the flames were 15 feet high and I had to stand 30 feet back to not get burned. This picture was taken a few minutes later after it had gone down a bit. Now I have a better sense of how powerful and deadly a summer forest fire would be. To reduce the danger, I'll try to burn as many slash piles as possible before the dry season. For the piles near this one, I can use this burned spot as the base and throw the other wood onto it, so I don't singe other trees and kill other patches of ground. And I can make another burn-base in the "parking lot" for the bigger piles.

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