October 17, 2014 § 15 Comments
Funny thing is, I used to think I didn’t like this time of year. The leaves gone or going. The pasture dormant. The cows’ coats thickening. First ice in the water troughs. Rain on the edge of snow or maybe snow on the edge of rain. No difference, really.
But look at that photo (which is actually from last year, but hey, close enough). Look at the bluegrey of the sky, the white of the birches and the cows gathered among them, bent to their hay. Even the dun-colored pasture. That’s Morgan and Jen’s farm on the ridge across the valley. Just to the right of that, hidden behind the a rise of leafless trees, is the field we hay with Martha and Lynn. This was a good haying summer. Best one anyone can remember.
Around here, people call this “stick season,” that post-foliage, pre-winter period that lasts from mid-October to the first staying snow. You still see the occasional chartered bus of leaf peepers, but they’re too late. Shoulda been here two weeks ago, when it looked like every tree was on a different shade of fire. Yeah, they missed the boat.
Or maybe they didn’t.
October 15, 2014 § 24 Comments
I moved the cows this morning just as the sun was rising, the eastern sky a cloud-striated pink, the breeze eerie-warm against my bare arms. Mid-October and not even cool enough for goosebumps. Halfway down the field, I walked through a feeble shower, brief enough that I glanced up to see if perhaps I’d had the misfortune to pass under a flock of urinating birds, but no.
I’m moving the cows only every few days now. A big part of rotational grazing is getting the animals off a particular piece of ground before the sward begins it cyclical regrowth and the cows have a chance to nip it before it can become reestablished. But in mid-October, there’s no regrowth and thus the impetus for frequent moves is somewhat reduced. I love moving the cows, but having done so twice a day for the past five months, and having multitudinous other ways in which to pass the 20 or so daily minutes those moves require, I don’t mind the break. Soon enough they’ll be off pasture in full, though this year it looks like we’ll get two or more week of grazing than is typical for us. It’s nice to see the efforts we’ve put into improving the pasture – rotations, minerals, fertility, raw milk, and so on – rewarded.
Yesterday Nate began the long drive to Minnesota, where he plans to settle permanently. Or as permanently as is possible for Nate, who, as regular readers will know, lives a somewhat nomadic existence, setting up what most would consider primitive camps at the junctures of seasonal harvests. Wild rice camp. White fish camp. Trapping camp. Sugaring camp. And so on.
He’s hardly gone and already his absence is keenly felt. It would be difficult to overstate the impact Nate has had on our lives in just a couple of years. Indeed I dare say Fin and Rye trust and love him as unquestioningly as they do their devoted parents (and in some regards, perhaps even more so), and part of our sorrow over his departure has to do with the fact that there simply aren’t many people like Nate in this world. There aren’t many people who can model for our sons such undiluted reverence for and connection to the natural world. When Nate traps a beaver, its fur becomes his clothing, its meat becomes his food, and its tail becomes a knife sheath. He does not trap to earn a living; he traps to live, and therein lies a distinction that is rarely acknowledged in modern times. This distinction could be applied to almost all his wilderness pursuits. It is the same distinction we try to apply – in varying degrees of success – to our homestead ecosystem.
So yeah, we’re sad for the boys’ loss, but we’re also sad because Nate is one of those people with whom we felt immediate connection, kinship, and mutual respect. I do not wish to live like Nate (Penny, on the other had, just might), and I know he does not wish to live like me, but I believe we recognize in each other a desire to entwine our lives with the land and that is no longer a common thing.
It’s not so much that I’m inspired by others who share this desire; in fact, I think it’s more powerful than that: I’m comforted. I need that sometimes. Hell, maybe all the time, because the truth is, there aren’t many people left who share this desire and for those of us that do, this world can sometimes feel a lonely place.
I remember after one of my talks recently, someone came up and asked if it bothered me to know I was merely preaching to the choir. “All the people who really need to hear this stuff aren’t here and they probably never will be,” he said. “It’s practically futile.” He was right, of course.
And he was wrong. Because we all deserve that sense of comfort and companionship. We all deserve to feel kinship and mutual respect and the support that evolves from it. Far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing futile about that.
October 14, 2014 § 31 Comments
Following up on yesterday’s post, I figured I’d talk a bit about our energy systems, and furthermore how we live like gilded royalty on a pauper’s energy ration.
So, as you know by now, we lived off-grid for the better part of 15 years, before connecting to the utility grid last year. I should mention at the outset that living off-grid was of enormous benefit regarding our electricity habits, because it’s real hard to use what you don’t have. A decade-and-a-half of restricted electricity tends to cement one’s habits. I suppose there’s still time for all that to be undone, and only time will tell if we suddenly catch a hankerin’ for a widescreen plasma TV and one of those home theater-sized popcorn machines we’ll park next to the massaging leather recliners. But frankly, it seems a bit doubtful.
I’ll talk about electricity first, then other mediums of energy consumption.
Our primary electrical loads are:
A) the five chest freezers in our basement. We endeavor to keep them full as possible, and we occasionally hit the bottom of one and are able to shut it down for a period. But for the most part, we run those 5 freezers year ’round. I’ve never actually measured their consumption, but given our total consumption, I figure they’re hitting us for about a half-kilowatt hour per day each.
B) the fridge in our “summer kitchen” on the porch. This runs from approximately April 1 to about mid-November, and sucks down about a kilowatt hour per day.
C) the well pump, which is 1/3hp and draws a lot of juice. But it runs for only a few minutes per day, so it doesn’t add up to much
D) Lighting. We’ve slowly converted to LEDs, which draw about 8 watts each and deliver really nice, warm light. They also cost $10/each, which is why we’ve been replacing our compact fluorescents at a rate of about 5 per year, instead of all at once.
E) Computers. We have a desktop downstairs that’s in use maybe an average of an hour or two per day. Maybe a bit more. But most of that is listening to music, during which the screen is in sleep mode. So it’s not drawing much. My work computer is a 13″ laptop that draws 12 watts.
F) Power tools. This is really intermittent, according to whatever projects are on our plate at the time. Like the well pump, these are big loads that don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things.
G) Washing machine. We have a pretty efficient front load washer. We also don’t wash our clothes very often. Sorry, but it’s true.
We don’t have air conditioning, and we don’t have an electric hot water heater. We don’t have a dryer and if we lived someplace where we couldn’t hang our laundry for all to see, I’d freak right the f**k out. That’s some insane policy, right there, and way more control than I’d be comfortable with.
In general, the biggest household electrical loads happen when you attempt to affect temperature change, so whenever possible, we try to make the ambient temperature work for us. The best examples of this are our passive winter fridge, and our root cellar, both of which are vented to the outdoors. Just for a second, think about the fact that the vast majority of people in northern climates are burning coal (primary means of electricity generation) to power a fridge that’s replicating the conditions on the other side of their kitchen wall. Whoa. That’s some kind of crazy-making.
Ok, so what else? To heat water, we rely on two solar collectors and a loop in our cook stove. This combination ensures we have all the hot water we can use about 60% of the time. Another 20% of the time or so, we have limited hot or warm water. The remaining 20-ish% of the time, it’s a cold shower or no shower. When there’s a wood fire going, there are always pots of water heating on the stove top. Occasionally, we’ll get desperate enough to heat a little water atop the gas stove, but we really try to avoid this. It’s not very efficient and sort of antithetical to what we’re trying to accomplish overall.
We heat exclusively with wood. Because we also cook on wood, we burn a good bit more than we would if it were only for heating. Last year, we incinerated nearly 7 cords, but that was a hard winter. Usually, it’s in the 5 to 6 range. If we weren’t cooking on wood, I suspect we could heat this place on about 4. Maybe a little more. BTW, we love cooking on wood. It’s way more fun than cooking on electric or gas. Well, maybe not in summer. But you get the point.
We harvest all of our own wood. I’ve never kept track, but I bet we burn less than 10-gallons of gas and diesel (chainsaw and tractor, respectively) in the process. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I bet not by much. Chainsaws are amazingly efficient tools. Tractors, too.
The achilles heel of our energy consumption is the same as it is for most Americans: Transportation. We drive a fair bit; generally about 20k miles annual in our Subaru (approx 25mpg) and another 1,500 or maybe 2k miles in our truck (12 mpg). We talk a lot about driving less, but never seem to get there.
There’s so much to say about all this; it feels like I could go on forever, which I won’t. I will say that generally speaking, we don’t conserve energy so we can burnish our sustainability cred or feel good about being green. Rather, energy is conserved primarily as a byproduct of pursuing the life that feels most meaningful to us. Also, there is a real sense of liberation and empowerment that comes from knowing you can live well on relatively little. In the immortal words of Henry David Thoreau “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
All I can really add to that is damn straight, Hank.
October 13, 2014 § 35 Comments
It’s been more than a year since we grid-connected, and after a recent email exchange with my friend Ben Falk about electricity consumption, I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about the experience of living with essentially unlimited cheap power after a decade-and-a-half of being off grid.
I won’t get into too much detail regarding our decision to hook-up; suffice it to say that after much debate and soul searching, we determined that given the relatively short life span of the expensive storage batteries off-grid living demands, connecting to the utility grid wasn’t about giving up our electricity “independence”: It was about trading one type of dependence (on batteries and the industrial processes required to make those batteries) for another (the grid). The other aspect of off-grid living we were keen to liberate ourselves from is the need for backup production, in the form of a highly inefficient (not to mention noisy and prone to breakdown) gasoline generator.
A lot of people seemed to think that once we grid-connected, our consumption would inevitably rise. In truth it did, but that’s only because we retrieved the three chest freezers we had installed in neighbors’ basements. But overall, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how little electricity we consume. Over the past year, we’ve averaged 5 kWh/day, and that’s with 5 chest freezers residing in the basement. Our consumption varies according to season; in winter, when we press our passive ice box fridge into action, and when the ambient temperature of our basement drops (this means the freezers don’t have to work as hard), our consumption averages 4 kWh/day. In summer, with the plug-in fridge humming and the increased use of power tools, it averages 6. For comparison’s sake, the average American household uses 30-ish kWh daily, and it’s a safe bet they don’t have 5 chest freezers.
Since our solar production feeds back into the grid to offset our consumption, our actual daily net consumption is generally in the 1 or 2 kWh range. Obviously, our electricity bill isn’t much to speak off. A few bucks per month at most, though there’s a baseline connection fee that’s adds about a tenner.
Thus far, I see no downsides in our decision to grid connect, other than the upfront cost, which was not inconsequential. Fortunately, we hired ourselves to do the bulk of the labor, and were able to connect for about half what the utility originally quoted. But it was nonetheless north of $10k. Still, the batteries we so desperately needed would’ve run us about $6k. So in that sense, we were already half way there.
If anything, being connected has motivated us to be even thriftier. What’s amazing to me is how easy it truly is to live well on so little electricity. As I remarked to Ben F, I can’t fathom how most families even manage to burn through 30 kWh/day. I assume there’s a lot of screen time involved, and maybe a hair dryer or two. AC. An electric hot water heater. Basically, things we just don’t have, proving that the best path toward conservation isn’t always efficiency. It’s simply doing without.
The thing is, not having these things doesn’t diminish the quality of our lives. Indeed, if anything it makes our lives richer.
Funny how that works, eh?
October 9, 2014 § 22 Comments
The other day Penny ran into a friend, someone who’s been tracking the flurry of media coverage pertaining to my Outside article and the release of Home Grown. “Well,” said her friend, “at least now you’ll be able to buy a new truck.” And Penny laughed, because that’s not actually how it works. At all.
For nearly 20 years, the financial support for my family and myself has come via my writing. For most of those 20 years, I wrote for magazines, primarily as a freelancer, although in a couple of instances as a contracted contributor. For instance, I served as eastern editor at SKIING magazine for a half-dozen or so years until the big bad recession made everyone’s palms go sweaty and caused them to dump about half their staff, including yours truly. Let me tell you, that was a pretty swell gig while it lasted. I skied a lot and I got to write about skiing a lot, and I got paid for both. It was ridiculous, really, and even though I’m no longer drawn to lift-service skiing (too crowded, too mechanized, too much driving), I sort of miss the job.
For about the first 15 years of my so-called career, I never imagined writing a book. But one of my favorite things about life is the way things you never could have imagined happening happen. Now, I’m pretty much a book author, though I make some money speaking. We make a little money off the land. Lately, I’ve made a little scratch via the generosity enabler icon, located in the right hand margin of this screen for your utmost convenience. And since I put up the consulting page, I’ve done four consultations, running the gamut from immersion learning, to the business of writing, to homestead design and implementation. Tell you the truth, I liked having those conversations more than I thought I might.
The funny thing about writing books is that while a book immediately grants you a certain degree of credibility, the money’s not nearly as good as what I made when I was magazine writing. During the apex of my freelance magazine years, I actually made a respectable middle class income. But it took me about a dozen years to get there, and it really only lasted two or three years before I realized I’d rather write the books I’d only recently never imagined myself writing.
The central difference between magazine writing and book authorship is that when you write for magazines, you get paid according to what the magazine pays. You’re essentially a hired gun. Most of the magazines I wrote for (and occasionally still write for) paid between $1 and $2 per word, which of course is why I tend toward run-on sentences and a lot, and I mean a whole bunch, a real awful lot, a tremendous amount, really, of repetition in my writing, the written word I put to paper, or more accurately to the screen, but in either case, I’m talking about getting paid by the word, which I’m not now, so I’ll end this sentence here. But when you write books, you’re much more subject to market forces determining your actual value. Apparently, my actual value as an author works out to about $2 per hour. I’m hardly exaggerating. Actually, if anything that’s on the high side, and it occurs to me that on an hourly basis, I could make more money milking cows for Jimmy or Melvin. Of course, there’s the thorny issue of the indisputable fact that I’m far too soft to milk cows for a living. But you get the point.
So, yeah, the recent flurry of media coverage did exactly nothing to impact our immediate financial situation. Well, maybe not nothing: I’ve gotten a few speaking requests, and no doubt the consults I’ve done are at least in part a result of this coverage. But a new truck? Hardly. Maybe a few tanks of diesel, though, and by gum, I’m grateful for that. Maybe even a pair of Truck Nutz, if only Penny would allow.
One of the things I’m slowly learning is to be a bit less shy about promoting myself and my work. It took an awful lot for me to put up that consulting page, let me tell you. A whole awful lot. Clearly, I’m not shy in general, but I am pretty self-conscious about claiming expertise. This is probably because I’m generally pretty leery of those who hold themselves up as experts. It’s not that I never seek council from those who know more about a particular field than I do. Actually, this happens all the time, given the many gaps in my knowledge. But I’ve observed that the most experienced and knowledgeable people generally don’t go around telling everyone how experienced and knowledgeable they are. I’ve observed that the people who are actually the most capable of helping others don’t go around telling everyone how much they can help. No doubt there are exceptions to this rule.
Anyway. This is gone on long enough and besides, I really have to go. There’s a knock at the door and I’m pretty sure it’s our daily lobster and caviar delivery. Oh, and if you’re interested in a consultation, know this: I probably can’t help you in the least.
October 8, 2014 § 27 Comments
The boys slaughtered a half-dozen or so ducks over the weekend and this was good because I had been craving duck fat potatoes like nobody’s business. If you’ve ever had duck fat potatoes, you know exactly what I’m talking about, because there is no potato equal to that which has been diced into fine strips and immersed in the sizzling essence of quack. It’s like going to heaven without even leaving your kitchen. Who knew heaven was so easy?
Recently someone asked me about how we’ve dealt with slaughter in regards to our children, and it sort of caught me off guard. Frankly, it’s been so long since we’ve thought about it that I sort of forgot that once upon a time, we did think about it. That our thoughts led us to a place of including Fin and Rye in all aspects of animal life and death might by now be obvious, but that doesn’t exactly explain how we got from there to here.
I’m reaching deep into the hazy recesses of my too-frail memory, but I do recall Penny and me debating whether or not to include the fellas in one of our early chicken slaughters. This would’ve been when Fin was maybe three and Rye a spit-up crusted infant, which is to say, nearly a full decade ago. I wish I could remember exactly how that debate unfolded, but I cannot. I only remember that it happened and that it didn’t take us long to decide. I can only remember that the result included Fin carrying live chickens from pen to slaughtering cones, while Rye sat in the shade, propped up in his “boppy pillow” drooling and snotting all over himself (clearly, he was emulating his dear father).
I’m not really sure what to suggest to other parents who are struggling with how to include their children in livestock slaughter. I guess the short version of all this is that I don’t really see why children should be treated any differently than adults when it comes to their awareness of where their food comes from and what it means to take another’s life so that you might live. Penny and I are at a place in our lives where we can not fathom not killing our own animals. This does not mean that every animal on this land dies by our hands (though many do); it only means that we are capable of slaughtering every animal that dies on this land. We know the process intimately, both the physical and emotional. I think that perhaps we are still struggling to fully understand the spiritual implications of it all, but that’s ok. It’s a journey, not a destination.
Generally speaking, I think we tend to underestimate our children and I think most if not all of our collective discomfort around the idea of our children being involved with the death of their food is rooted in our collective discomfort with the idea of us being involved in the death of our food. I’ve written plenty about that, and I see no reason to repeat myself here. Suffice to say I think we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we refuse to face that discomfort.
Today the boys are capable killers. Ducks and chickens require no assistance from Penny or me. Each has shot and helped dress at least a half-dozen hogs. I suspect they’re only a year or two away from being capable of slaughtering pigs with essentially zero oversight. I am fascinated by their capacity to distinguish between those animals we consider pets and those that are destined for the table. Toward the former, they are fiercely protective. Toward the latter, they are willing and even eager to wield the blade.
I used to puzzle over this dichotomy until I realized the depth of its historical precedence, because until recently we all lived this dichotomy. Until recently, animals had not been reduced to the role of pets and pre-packaged meats. Until recently, the majority of the animals under our care were living, breathing beings who would die by our hands so that we might live. Until recently, we all – including our children – washed blood from under our fingernails.
I’m not sure why it should be any different now.