archive, June - September 2007

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Ten Days in June -- 30 June 07 -- This was my longest stay yet, and the longest by far since I've had some idea what I was doing. My main project was to build an outhouse, which some readers understood as an old-fashioned ground-water-polluting stinky pit outhouse. I don't know what other word you'd use for a little shed you poop in, but of course I'm setting up a humanure composting system.

This was also the first time I've been able to give my plants a lot of water. I was thinking that water was only necessary to keep them from dying, and that their growth was mostly limited by soil nutrients and sunlight. It turns out that for many of the plants, water was the limiting factor: twice as much water, twice as much growth! So now the apples are doing great. With luck, this winter they'll get their taproots in ground water and next year they'll really take off.

My own limiting factor, back in year one, was that I didn't have a enough of a vision to know what to do. In year two, it was time. This year, with both of those limits solved, I thought I'd get a ton of work done. Instead, a new limiting factor quickly appeared: I just got tired! With a hundred things I wanted to do and hour after hour to do them, I had to spend a lot of time just lying down and resting. One reason was that I jumped straight into heavy physical work after months of mostly sitting in front of the computer. And another reason was that I didn't bring the right food. There's probably nothing more healthful than sprouted organic quinoa, but it's not a good source of calories. My stomach would be full and only give me enough fuel for an hour of physical work. Also, even though I tried mixing the quinoa with a bunch of things, from curry and mushrooms to pasta sauce to maple syrup, I got sick of it. So next time, I'm doubling my sprouted wheat ration, and adding bread, sourdough pancakes, brown rice pasta, plenty of chips, a gallon of kefir, a couple avocados, and a pound of walnuts to dip in honey.

Then there was a mystery with the spring. I had expected it to find an equilibrium between the flow out the pipe and the level in the upper pool. Instead, the pipe would have heavy flow, the upper pool would empty, then strangely the flow would slow down and the upper pool would refill. Finally I figured it out: When the upper pool gets nearly empty, the flow decreases enough to leave room for air to get in the pipe. The air goes up to the collector, and somehow locks the flow at a slower rate, so that it stays slow even when the upper pool is full again and overflowing. Then I can unlock it by blowing through the pipe, but the cycle repeats. For a while I puzzled over how to fix the problem, and finally I decided that it's perfect this way. In the normal mode, I have two full pools and a small flow of super-clean water, about a quart a minute. In an emergency, in seconds, I can switch to fast mode, with more than a gallon a minute of less clean water -- but probably still drinkable, since the upper pool is pretty much a giant biosand filter. Then after about thirty hours it reverts to normal mode again.

So I'm gradually learning woodworking, but my favorite thing is still the orcharding. I used forked sticks and twist ties to prop some leaning trees into better posture, and tied two cherries in the right shape for layering next spring with rooter pots. The apple trees have plenty of leaves, but no fruit yet, and the blueberries have less fruit than last year -- I think it's because they only fruit on one year old wood. But both Montmorency cherry trees have a few fruits, and the Reliance peach has eight peaches forming, only fifteen months after planting. The Veteran peach has some kind of disease, and last year's Veteran died without even putting out leaves -- apparently it's not a good variety for my land. Next I'll try Harken.

The native wild strawberries, which grow everywhere, are fruiting a bit this year. At first I was excited, but I eventually decided they're a vanity fruit: the size of peas, hidden two inches off the ground on steep hillsides, they have fewer calories than a human burns harvesting them, so they should be left for critters, who also spread the seeds with their poop -- which is how they came to cover the land in the first place. Also they don't even taste as good as home garden strawberries, although they do smell a lot better. Thimbleberries are another story. They're also growing everywhere, in plain view three feet off the ground, and they're fruiting heavily this year [later: not enough rain for them to set much fruit, and yellow jackets ate most of it]. There's also an invasive raspberry [Rubus leucodermis] that I'll have to manage to balance food against thorns.

Finally, this year I'm learning birds, and listening to nature's soundtrack, which is better than all but the best songs on the radio. I hear a lot of Swainson's Thrush, with a distinctive call that rises in four steps. They're the last birds to go to sleep at night and also late risers. The first risers are the robins, who start at the first hint of light. Later, within five minutes of the sun clearing the north hill and hitting my tent, I hear a single echoey call of a pileated woodpecker. Around noon I often hear the descending mew of a striking female red-naped sapsucker coming for a visit. And the bird I see the most is the Dark-eyed Junco, which will sometimes land within ten feet of me. Also there are chickadees, ravens, and a bunch more I have yet to identify.

The Toilet Job -- 20 July 07 -- The outhouse is pretty much finished. I'm still not an experienced builder, but it occurs to me that I have skills that much better builders lack, if they're only working with milled lumber. Compared to working with raw wood, working with wood that's all straight lines and 90 degree angles must be like putting together legos.

The first thing I did, after sketching plans, was pick out the wood for the four posts, four floor supports, and two roof beams. Even with all the scrap wood on my land, it was hard to find wood straight enough and fresh enough. I mostly used the upper parts of the two cedars I cut down last summer. Then I measured and cut them, and with a drawknife shaved down two sides of each post, for the siding to go on. When I hit a knot too hard for easy drawknifing, I had to take it out with an axe. Finally, I charred the bottoms of the posts in a fire, to delay their eventual rotting.

At the same time, I was digging the post holes, which had to be in a perfect square with the outside edges 48 inches apart. This took a lot of adjustment both before and after putting the posts in. In this photo you can see the posts and the floor supports, each end of which I shaved to a square with a chisel and then chiseled holes in the posts to fit them into. I ended up making a square hole for one end and then a long descending slot for the other end, so they can be put in and taken out without moving the posts. Also at this stage I used a level to get the posts exactly upright.

Then I nailed on the lower back wall. It was moderately difficult and expensive just to get three sheets of plywood up to the land, and then I coated it all with linseed oil and sawed it by hand. Sawing a straight line in plywood by hand is a fun challenge that takes a lot of attention. For the floor, I just had to measure and cut out the corner holes to go around the posts, and slide it in on top of the supports. And those pieces of wood you see on either side of the floor are planks that I split off with a froe, to stabilize the distance between the front and back posts. At this stage, the roof beams are just resting on the posts.

Next I evened out the tops of the posts and carved shallow depressions for the beams to fit into, and then drilled holes and attached them with five inch long, quarter inch thick, hex head screws. I had to work around the splits in the posts. Putting the plywood on top was a tricky job to do alone. I had to position it carefully and then nail it, but I couldn't just rest it up there because it was heavy and would slide right off. I ended up measuring the distance between the beams, putting a few nails in the roof with the tips just poking through, and using those to hold the plywood in place while I positioned it for final nailing. I had to use two sections of plywood because it comes 4x8 feet, and the roof needed to be 5x5½ to have overhang on all four sides. Then I nailed in the upper back wall piece, and split more planks to go up the side.

And here it is finished, with the roof covered with some pieces of a donated tent and the west wall fully planked. The planks were fun! I was using a Gransfors Bruks froe and a Wood Is Good urethane mallet, on logs from the trees I cut down last summer, debarked and cut to 48 inches. Some of the planks were very difficult to split off, because of knots, and some were super-easy. Another problem was that all of them had some spiral -- so if one end fit the post, the other didn't. I had to junk the ones with the worst spiral, and the others I just had the lower part of the right end (in the photo) sticking out a bit. This made the right ends effectively narrower, so I had to shave some wood off the left ends of almost all the planks to keep them roughly horizontal. Also I had to shape the tops and bottoms so water would stay mostly on the outside of the wall. The perfect tool for shaping planks turned out to be my Gransfors Bruks mini hatchet. It would have been possible to make the back wall with planks too, but the plywood gives diagonal bracing.

Here's the inside of the outhouse with the toilet, a bin of the very last of the sawdust, a bin of the new cover material, half-composted conifer needles, and some dry grass that I later moved outside when Matt pointed out that mice would nest in it. I'm also going to try shredded paper. Everyone says raw sawdust is best, but I don't have a source, and I'll happily pay ten cents a pound if anyone wants to bring me a load. You might notice that I added a second layer of plywood to the floor, because one was a little weak. Also you might have noticed that one of the roof pieces is bigger. That's because I was using leftover pieces for the toilet, and the lid needed to be 18x18 inches, so I cut one piece of roof at 30 inches to have 18 left over, and the other one at 36, with 12 inches left over for the sides.

My toilet was based on this toilet design. For the legs, I used four sections of a rejected roof beam. I never imagined the project would take so much attention to detail. I often found myself shaving off fractions of millimeters to make all the pieces fit. The Jenkins design has three swiveling parts: the box lid, the seat, and the seat lid. For complicated reasons involving the design of the donated seat-lid assembly I was using, it was easiest for me to throw out the seat lid and glue the seat directly to the box lid. Then I coated the exposed part of the seat bottom with grand fir sap.

Finally, here's the bin I made for the poop compost to go in. Humanure purists insist that you should mix all your compost, excrement and non-excrement, in one pile, but really the only reason to do that is to show off that you can. I prefer to have a separate bin, because it makes it psychologically easier for people new to humanure, and also because it means I only have to really be careful with a small bin, and then I can have a larger compost pile for everything else, which doesn't need a fence, a two year delay, or other safety measures.

Mosquito to Bear -- 22 July 07 -- On the latest trip, it struck me how similar all the different critters are. Chipmunks hang around the campsite looking for food, and no matter how often they fail, they never get discouraged or give up, but just happily keep coming. Ants and yellow jackets are exactly the same, except they aren't as cute as chipmunks, and they're more numerous, so they take more chances and more of them get killed. Ticks and mosquitos, again, just the same, except they're not eating my food but eating me, which is why those are the only animals I intentionally kill.

The mosquitos were the worst critter on this trip, probably because the air was unusually humid. Most of the day I had to give a permanent part of my attention to listening for mosquitos flying around my head and feeling for them on my skin, and I still got bit more than 100 times. At dusk the attention requirement got so high that I couldn't get any work done, and Matt and I both retreated to our tents, where they hummed outside the screens all night. One night there was one in my tent that I just couldn't find, and I barely got any sleep. Later I figured out the best thing to do in that case is to stick a foot out and let the mosquito feed, and it will go up and rest at the top of the tent where I can kill it in the morning. Best of all, I discovered a cure for the itching! Immediately after being bit, rub a bunch of saliva into the bite. It will itch for half an hour and usually never again. This is the first time I've ever come back from the land and not been in agony for days with itching on my shins and ankles.

One thing more annoying than mosquitos is people who don't get bit and think it's because they're spiritually superior, when really they just don't taste good. I've heard from several sources that the best way to not get bit is to go with people who eat a lot more junk food than you do, but usually I'm alone. I've tried tactics all the way from total non-violence to total war, and what works best is to eat any mosquito that comes near. But I'm not sure how safe that is. I heard about a guy who got lyme disease from biting the heads off ticks.

Anyway, at the other extreme, the largest animals tend to be the most cautious. One morning I got up and found my hammer moved 20 feet with chew marks on it, the compost bags torn open, and the lid of a garbage squashed down by something that stood on it to knock stuff off the top of the fridge. At the spring, my glass bottle of fermented apple juice was broken and I found this footprint, unmistakably a black bear.

Math -- 9 August 07 -- Back in March, two big western hemlocks fell across the parking lot. My main project, since finishing the outhouse, has been sawing up and debarking them. I'm almost finished turning the big tree into clean five foot rounds, which I will later saw up into 20 inch rounds and split into cordwood for the walls.

I figured the two trees would easily supply all the wood I needed, but to occupy my brain while operating the crosscut saw and the drawknife, I did some math to estimate the volume of the walls: depending on the design, they'll be anywhere from 400-600 cubic feet. Then I estimated the tree I was cutting up, one of the larger trees on the land, a western hemlock more than 80 feet tall and more than 18 inches thick at the base, and came up with... 60 or 70 cubic feet. So if the wall is half wood, that means I need 3-5 trees of that size! For a hut the size of a parking space!

One solution is to greatly reduce the wood content of the walls and go with mostly cob. But I would still need clay. Several people have suggested earth bags, but at this time they're either made of toxic plastic or fast-decaying burlap, and they're still supposed to have some clay in them. If I need clay, I'd rather do cob. I'll continue to look for it, but I'm thinking my best prospect is to wait until I have a visitor coming in a truck from an area with clayey soil, and ask them to bring me a load.

More Math -- 13 August 07 -- Yesterday I did some more math and made a chart of the wall volume and interior volume for various building sizes. To simplify, I assumed a circle instead of an ellipse. And I discovered, of course, that as you increase the radius, the interior volume rises much faster than the wall volume. With an 80 inch outside radius, the wall volume is 350 cubic feet and the interior volume is 450 cubic feet. With a 120 inch outside radius, the wall volume is only a little higher, 550, and the interior volume is much higher, 1250. And that's not even counting the loft space.

So building larger is like buying in bulk: more expensive overall, but cheaper per unit. Normally when I'm buying something priced that way, I always get the biggest size available. But in this case I can't afford the biggest size, and even the smallest size is going to take me a couple years of work to "pay off." I'm thinking I'll dig out a little farther and increase the radius by 20 inches, which will add 100 cubic feet to the wall and about 500 cubic feet to the inside.

Wood Everywhere -- 15 August 07 -- Almost every obstacle I've faced on this project, I've solved by lowering my standards. With my latest obstacle, needing so much wood, my high standard was that I wanted to use only fresh wood, and not wood that's been weathering in the slash piles for five years. But now I'm thinking, since I'm aiming for a 50 year building and not a 1000 year building, old wood will be good enough. Also, I don't see any reason not to use smaller pieces of wood, maybe as thin as one inch. Of course I'll reject anything obviously weak and rotting, but that still leaves a large amount of wood I can scavenge from the slash piles, and also clean the land up a bit.

Then this morning I walked around, and in a section of the land surrounded by dense growth, I discovered a fallen cedar almost as big as the western hemlock I've been cutting up. Plus I mentally mapped three other cedars that are recently dead and not yet fallen, and a living one that's leaning more down than up. It's really not hard to come up with 300 cubic feet of wood on ten wooded acres. But sawing and debarking it is going to be a ton of work! I'm thinking I can spend all next year preparing materials, and put the hut up the year after that.

How To Get Stuff Done Without Motivation -- 28 August 07 -- Last weekend I went up to the land, and even though I had a lot to do, I just didn't feel like doing anything. That's normal. I believe the only people who feel motivated all the time are the demonically possessed, and there are ways to navigate this world without warping or cleansing your consciousness.

This time it occurred to me: if I could just start some kind of simple repetitive task, I could get in a groove and it would be easy to keep going. What we call "motivation" is not really the power to act, but the power to start. When you understand this, the best strategy is counter-intuitive: When you're unmotivated, pick the most mindless, repetitive, lengthy task, and just bite the bullet and force yourself to get going. Then you should be able to coast, and go a long way on one start. Conversely, if you're feeling highly motivated, full of energy and excitement, that's the time to take care of all the little things, where you're starting something new every few minutes.

So I sawed another five foot chunk off the big log and debarked it, and then did some thinning of dead lower branches -- which is actually fun! Then I felt good enough to do some smaller jobs: I pushed down a couple of long-dead 20 foot trees, one of which missed a cherry tree by an inch, and from those trees and the slash piles, I cut about a dozen eight foot lengths of decayed six inch logs, to lay down as a platform to keep the good wood off the ground this winter.

Climate Change -- 10 September 07 -- This is not leaves turning brown for the fall. These are evergreen trees, specifically western redcedars, and they're dying, because the last few summers have been too dry for them. The good news is, the spring is still running, the other conifer species are doing fine, and I'll have plenty of good cedar for building.

Not Grizzly Adams -- 26 September 07 -- A reader asks:

I was reading your about me page and noticed that you say that you don't plan on living on your land unless you are forced to. I've been reading your site for a while and I always thought your plan was to move there once it became more habitable. Is this a new plan?

No. But this seems to be a universal misconception. Clearly I underestimated the power of Myth, specifically the American myth of the rugged solo homesteader, the "mountain man." In this culture, if you say you're buying land, everyone fills in the background with that pre-made Grizzly Adams tapestry. Sometimes even I forget that I'm not planning to live that way. The truth is, few or none of my ancestors were independent homesteaders. The vast majority lived close to the land, but they did so as members of tribes or extended families. When I visit people who have gone "back to the land" in the isolated American fashion, almost without exception they are bored or depressed, and most of my city friends are happy.

I'm an introvert: I recharge my energy when I'm alone and drain it when I'm around other people. But I still enjoy being around other people, as long as they're not dumping negativity on me or talking about their latest medical procedure. I love walking down a city street and seeing hundreds of new faces. I veer off into madness if I have no contact with other people at all. Only the most extreme introverts are exceptions to the rule: it's even more important for us to be around other people, than it is for us to be in nature.

So my land is a place to keep a connection to nature, to learn valuable low-tech skills, and to grow fruit trees, something I love that I can't afford space to do in the city. Also it's a source of good drinking water, which may be priceless in a few years. And I'm building a hut that will be cozy in the winter so that if I need to bug out there, or I just want to visit for a few days, I won't be out of luck five months a year.

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