A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Monday, May 21, 2018

Sweet Success

Our community's new milking cow, Sugar.  

    This spring has sprung us into such busy-ness that I have fallen way behind on posting! But now a sleeping toddler in the backseat of a car is forcing me to sit still for an hour and write. So what is new at Giving Tree Homestead? Looking around me now I see projects in all directions—some completed, some almost completed, and some long neglected… This must be the essence of homesteading, the never-ending parade of projects. Some are seasonal, like planting a garden. Every spring the soil needs to be prepared, the seeds sown, along with mulching and watering and weeding. This seasonal pulse of activity just happened here in the last month or two, demanding my daily attention and considerable dedication. Some homestead projects are one-timers that yield something enduring, such as the porch we just added to our house’s south side. A satisfying check off the list. Other projects just never seem to go away until one day they quite miraculously do! I am thinking here of a long stone retaining wall that has dragged on for years, half done, until one day a week ago we decided to finally finish it; and along with the help of our neighbor Brian, we did just that in less time than we imagined it would take. There are more projects too. A slow-to-start spring sprung a bunch of activity on us all at once. But let me go back to the garden.

     If you aren’t a gardener, perhaps the allure of rolling up your sleeves and sinking your hands in the dirt is lost on you. I can see how it seems like a total waste of time given how cheap and accessible fruits and vegetables from the store are these days. But little by little it becomes something one just does and can hardly stop from doing. My half dozen neighbors who are moving away this season were saying as much when they found themselves starting seeds and planting gardens even though they may not be around for harvest time. Sometime long ago I think I got the urge, perhaps from years of my mother dedicating small patches of our suburban yards to my sister’s and mine gardening experimentation. She would urge us to go through seed catalogues and pick out what we wanted and even when we would yield only dinky-sized pumpkins and watermelon we would feel the thrill of gardening victory. I guess I got hooked. I can remember going to great effort to construct planter boxes when I was in college and had tests to study for, even though nothing seemed to want to thrive in the grimy semi-shade of a city apartment’s back porch (go figure). I have attempted to garden everywhere I have lived, in all sorts of climates, soils, and odds stacked against me. So to finally have a real garden—a big one with full southern exposure and the time to tend it is a dream come true for me.

     Perhaps if you have followed the seasons of this blog, you know a little about our first few years of gardening. We started small while we spent most energy on building, enjoying something of a salad bed really near our tent site. Then we enlisted help of our Amish neighbors to break ground and properly disc and till the soil of a more substantial plot that we carved into raised beds and paths. We started seedlings in trays and stuck them in the ground and things grew, but not that well. We hadn’t amended our soil or learned the importance of mulching, or what pest pressure there was around here. We hadn’t anticipated a drought year where the clay-rich soil would get hard and crack and then a flood year where our garden paths would be submerged under water. There is a seemingly never-ending learning-curve to gardening, but especially so when the irregularities of climate change and thrown in.

    With a few seasons under my belt here, this year I attempted to apply the knowledge of past experience to this season’s garden. For example, last year our toddler got in the habit of poking around in our indoor seedling trays and pulling up signs of life, so this year I arranged a swap with out Amish neighbor Lena who has a small greenhouse (and the greenest thumb around) to caretake our seedlings. Success! Last year our plants were showing signs of nitrogen deficiency, so this year I made sure every bed got plenty of composted manure. Last year the raccoons and other animals destroyed our corn and tomatoes in our unfenced garden expansion, so this year we put up new fencing around both gardens. Last year cabbage worms attacked our broccoli, and fleabettles destroyed our eggplant, so this year I am trying out floating row covers over both crops. Last year our daughter developed a habit of stomping through the beds, delighting in how she could make her parents leap to their feet yelling, so this year, we have focused her attention on her new, kid-sized watering can and how she can be helpful (and if not, banished her to a sandbox nearby). You get the idea. This year will likely bring its own garden setbacks, but for now, before the full force of the season humbles me once again, I am feeling victorious. I am sure it too will pass…

    Our garden isn’t the only thing looking Martha Stewart-worthy this year—our fruit trees are also looking quite proper! Last fall each gangly teenage-sized tree put forth a meager apple or two or three, which was riches to us. So this year, to discover them loaded with blossoms was super exciting. If even half those blossoms become fruit, it would be amazing. After years of planting, and mulching, and caging, and pruning each spring, we had almost forgotten that fruit would eventually be our reward. It has just become what we do. The same goes with strawberries, and blackberries…. After years of pinching off and replanting little strawberry suckers from our paltry little patch (started with some gifted suckers from our neighbor Dana’s patch), I somehow felt totally shocked when I noticed them loaded with little green strawberries this year. And this year we finally got to feast on fresh—like 15 minutes old fresh—asparagus from our own garden… Wow. I am not sure money could buy something that good!

     And in other exciting spring news, it seems like for the first time we are going to have a hive of bees to do the work of spreading pollen around in the garden and orchard! Mike and I took a class on natural beekeeping this winter and got inspired to put up a “bait box” in a tree to see if we could catch a wild swarm of honeybees. Success almost instantly! Fortunately we had just acquired some hive boxes to transfer the swarm to, but a proper bee suit and mask is still on the way so we borrowed a neighbor’s. The transfer went well and we now have a hive of bees on our land, zipping about between pond and orchard and garden. We started them off with some honey and hope to have much more to harvest this fall. And the bait box is back in position, so who knows, we may add a few more hives (for free!) before too long.

     Okay, I should stop raving about our momentary successes and get back to monitoring for flea battles and cabbage worms and tomato horn worms. And bigger projects too. This year, we are ambitiously installing a solar system on our house and embracing a little more electricity into our lives. I am sure to most people, the system we have ordered is quite tiny in size, but to us and relative to our luddite neighbors, it is large… 6 panels (or modules if you want to sound like you are a solar insider!) This process too has brought its own learning curve, which—though interesting—has left me understanding why there is an industry of engineers and installers dedicated to it. I can definitely say this is not a project for every DIYer, but the cost savings and the fact that our neighbors DIYed their system lured us in to the challenge. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about our (hopefully) successful solar installation, coming soon!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Contemplation and Action

     The past month of our life can pretty much be summed up as follows: making maple-walnut syrup, sitting in community meetings, and potty-training our daughter. These have been fairly tedious tasks, it must be admitted, and February (and March) are good times to slog through them. There have been a few other little projects or events here and there, but those are the major themes, most demanding of our attention.

     Maple-walnut syrup has been Mike’s project. This is the first year he has enthusiastically plunged into slinging sap buckets and commandeering surface space on our wood stove (yes, we boiled it down indoors, with no fires to report!) The walnut part of the syrup is something few people know about—walnut tree sap also has a high sugar content, as well as a slightly different flavor. We tapped about 15 trees of both varieties and made a blend. The sap runs during the window of time in the year when there are freezing nights and above freezing days. This year with its yo-yoing weird weather has had quite a few of those days, and subsequently we have ended up with over two gallons of syrup--yay! The ratio of syrup to water in the sap is something like 1:60, so you can imagine how toasty our house has been with the stove going full blast over the last month, plus a delicious syrup scent wafting in the air constantly. As you might imagine, we have been eating a lot of pancakes…

    As for potty training—well, we have taken the plunge. With the sage advice of Jamie Glowacki, author of Oh Crap! A Potty Training Guide, encouraging us, we are trying for an intensive all-hands-on-deck approach to training with some pretty good results so far. Not to say we don’t still encounter the sight of a mysterious puddle on the floor (or worse) but for the most part Caris has grokked the major concept—poop and pee go in the potty. Diapers are beginning to seem like a memory, hallelujah! Just in time for her second birthday, and the beginning of little girl-dom.

    In meetings with our neighbors, one big question defines our conversations as we think about moving forward—what makes our current and future community life any different than the world around us? How do we tell the story of who we are, put it out into the world, and invite newcomers in? For me, the answer hinges somewhat on the foundational story of civilization around us—the one we all take for granted because quite simply we have been born into it. I have been reading and ruminating with that question in mind (Charles Eisenstein has been especially helpful), and it seems to be something along the lines of—we are in The Great Age of Progress, making life more prosperous and efficient for each generation of humans on this Earth.  But increasingly, it seems like disparate events are punching holes in that narrative, or perhaps exposing themselves as symptoms of an unraveling at the very least: another school shooting, another failed cease-fire, another drug epidemic, another police officer acquitted of killing a young black life, another political/sexual scandal, another whistle blown, another round of schools/cities/programs stamped “failed” and turned over to the private sector, another country claiming to have nuclear technology, another round of cataclysmic natural disasters, another wave of refugees… It sort of seems like the new normal, right? And yet to continue forward justifying and rationalizing each event within the narrative of “The Age of Progress” seems increasingly like patching up holes in a sinking ship and continuing on course. At what point do we stop believing that things are getting better, or that technology will save us, or that the right leader will sort things out, or that surely someone is going to do something now that we all know about it?

     Maybe I have this wrong. Perhaps the tide of increasing indebtedness/ obesity/ depression/ gun violence/ corruption really will turn soon and we can resume with progress. That would be nice, and certainly easier. But more what I suspect will happen is that there will be increasing catastrophes as our old worldview dies, that jolt individuals out of complacency and “business as usual” and into a new and confusing worldview. I can’t yet really imagine what that will look and feel like, but perhaps the best microcosm of it is what is currently happening in our most “failed” cities, like Detroit. The old political and economic behemoths have run their course to the point of collapse, leaving behind something almost post-apocalyptic in appearance. But now among the rubble there are seeds of new life regrowing. That new life is very grassroots, scrappy, hopeful, and determined. Our community feels like it is a small part of that new life growing, though at times I am not always sure how we fit into the bigger picture around us.

Canning--a heck of a lot of work! 

    The truth is that the way forward—what makes for a good and noble life amidst such destruction—is not all that much more clear for us. The phrase “it feels like we are walking uphill with bowling balls tied to our ankles” has been independently generated by several in our community, a sense that perhaps we are doing the arduous work of reinventing the wheel when there is no-one benefiting from our labors, not even us. Is it a mis-use of energy to try to do so much by hand (in an attempt to decrease our carbon footprint and all the ecological destruction and human suffering that accompany fossil fuel use)? Are we just distracting ourselves from using our energy in a more purposeful and efficient direction? These are perhaps only my questions and misgivings, and it may only be I who longs for a sense of greater ease and efficacy in transforming our world into something more beautiful and just.

Our friends Joanna, Thomas, Chris, Ethan and many others in a peaceful protest occupation of the NC Govenor's office--drawing attention to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline's environmental destruction and unfair targeting of minority communities.

     Adding to the complexity of our deliberations have been feedback and perspectives from a few former community members/friends. One friend has since gone on to devote himself entirely to solidarity work with Indigenous People, volunteering with resisting Navaho elders living in Black Mesa (a traditionally native-held area that has been seized by Peabody Coal for mining, forcing relocation for indigenous people) and also with Winona LaDuke at Honor the Earth in Minnesota (honorearth.org) as they struggle to block further pipelines coming across the Canada border. He delivered something of a critique to our community from his perspective—suggesting perhaps that we were re-enacting history by being a group of white settlers on stolen land, and that this wasn’t addressing injustices. His critique started some important conversations amongst us about what reparations could look like, and what sensitivities and relationships we should build moving forward. Another perspective is from some other community members who just returned from participating in a direct action—in this case, working with a citizen’s coalition in Robeson county in North Carolina, protesting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Their action went incredibly well, with a peaceful day-long occupation of the Govenor’s office, including an interfaith prayer, an impromptu pizza party with police, tearful meetings with Chief of Staff and others, and lots of press coverage.) Is it a better use of one’s life energy to go to the struggles where help is most needed, being willing to lay down and risk arrest to serve justice (especially when it is historically marginalized communities of color being targeted and one has a white body?) We have been focusing so much on decreasing our consumption, that participation in movement work has fallen down the list of priorities. Can we prioritize both? These feel like important questions if we hope to move into a more just future and be at all part of the transformation.

Some of our friends were in this encounter with police at Standing Rock--they are about to be sprayed with tear gas which apparently didn't register because of the freezing water... not until later when warming up by a fire did they feel it.

Are you ready? What is your footprint?

      With all of these shifting perspectives and not really being sure what our small efforts have been worth (aside from the ankle exercise from those bowling balls), it was a little breath of fresh air to come across ONE metric that firmly and concretely handed me an exact measurement of exactly that—my footprint. More precisely, the measurement of how many Earths it would take to sustain a person with my consumption habits. I was searching for some tool that could help us in our sustainability efforts, and this is what I stumbled across on the web—The Global Footprint Network (www.footprintcalculator.org). They offer an online tool that guides you through a series of questions gaging your energy use in various realms. How much packaged food do you eat vs. local or homegrown food? What size is your house, number of occupants, and how do you heat and power it? How often do you drive, or fly, or take public transportation? It got more detailed from there. I found it fascinating as I could quickly glimpse in the questions how differently (for example) a rural Haitian person’s life might stack up against a typical American person’s. And my life? How many Earths would it take to sustain everyone if they lived like me? The answer that the algorithm spit back at me was 1.1. Just over one Earth. That is what all of my efforts in the past few years—giving up flying, growing a bunch of my own food, living in a smallish straw bale house that I heat with wood and illuminate with solar electricity, shopping at thrift stores, etc.—amount to, at least roughly. I am living (almost!) within the limits of the Earth. I feel sort of reassured by this pronouncement, mostly because it seems attainable for anyone if it is attainable by me, even if the variables were quite different (for example, someone living in a small apartment in a city taking public transit might have the same footprint). That being said, I know this alone is not enough. If I just pat myself on the back and go back to minding my own homestead, I am not sure any kind of global transformation is going to happen. We need people at the frontlines too—blocking pipelines and holding signs that say #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter, and Stop Gun Violence, and much, much more. These conversations are a beginning for us all. It will be exciting to see what happens next as more and more people, us included, start taking next steps...

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Fire and Ice

     Winter is such a totally different season in our life on the land. I realize just how much the hours, work and rhythm of our lives shift with the seasons come January, when we return to our Missouri homestead, transformed by a blanket of snow. Our daily activities shift indoors. We find ourselves flipping from “active doing” to “planning and dreaming”. Our cookstove becomes a central element inside our home and freezing temperatures become a central element outside our home, defining what is and isn’t possible. So we tend fires and break ice (mostly in our yet-to-be-fully-buried-cistern). We also read, and reorient ourselves for the year to come. This past month we have spent more time than ever with folks in our community, in conversation about the year of big transitions to come. Twice or three times a week we have had meetings where we work on a vision of how we want to come together as a single community entity. What kind of legal land-holding structure that will take has been a central part of the ongoing conversation, but also the nuances of life together: possible shared structures, decision-making models, processes for joining and departing, co-operatives and income-sharing businesses, etc. The work of creating a life together seems never ending, but then again, this is the season to do it in.

      Perhaps to counteract the often serious gravity that sitting indoors hashing out “bylaws” and such has, we have been embracing the recreational possibilities of the snow and ice with some regularity. Spontaneous sledding parties result from the right combination of hill + snow + kids. Frozen ponds turn into ice skating rinks, capture-the-flag fields, mazes and forts (when snowed on), and vast expanses to be explored together. The way ice forms is so exquisitely beautiful and mysterious—and somewhat fraught with the ever-lurking possibility of breaking through as one glides across it. I don’t think I have ever stopped to consider it very much before this year. Sometimes deep, narrow, fissures will break up thick plates of ice, menacing fault lines running through the pond. Out on a bigger lake, we discovered strange white spots appearing like spilled paint layered into the ice. These were such a fascinating mystery until someone pointed out the possibility that they were caused by hibernating turtles and other creatures buried deep in the lake muck below, emitting the occasional air bubble that trapped itself in the freezing ice. Still, other formations remain unexplainable.

     The snowfall is equally as varied and beautiful, sometimes driving down in forceful slivers with the blustery wind, other times wafting slowly in fat flakes with all the time in the world to land. The air seems so still and quiet then, and standing outside, I could swear that I was the only one stirring in the whole natural world around me. Sounds can transport much longer distances then, unimpeded by tree canopy and such. I can hear the clink clink of our neighbor Brian hammering out steel at his blacksmith forge up the way. Or the voices of our neighbors checking on their sugaring buckets hung on black walnuts and silver maples through the woods to catch sap running on warm days that have freezing nights.

     Mike has taken on tapping our trees this year, an exploratory project to see what potential there might be for making our own syrup. Having tried out this project a decade ago when I lived in Vermont surrounded by sugar maples, I feel less than enthusiastic about it: I almost burned down a cabin in the process of boiling down the sap, so my only stipulation is that we do that part outside this time around. Other projects squeeze into nicer days: burning up brush piles, pulling out an old fence line to make way for a garden expansion, putting in orders for planks of wood at a few mills with future projects in mind, and climbing under the house to fill in cavities with insulation that somehow missed it years ago. Indoors projects include putting up shelves in the kitchen, cleaning and organizing, and a big one—educating ourselves about a larger solar system that we are planning to install this spring. President Trump’s increase in tariffs on imported solar panels has somewhat motivated this, as a group from nearby ecovillage Dancing Rabbit decided to put in a rush bulk order before the deadline. A good friend from that community has kindly offered to help us procure used lithium ion batteries from scrapped electric vehicles that he has a source for, which also is helping bring down the cost (and increase performance) on our future system. It is an exciting development for us, to imagine ways in which we can re-invite some amount of electricity back into our lives all while staying off the grid: at the very least, we will be able to run our chest freezer off of power from the sun instead of Missouri’s default source: coal. Ugh.

     While all of this progress in our community and on our homestead has been encouraging, the last theme we have been grappling this month is somewhat darker and harder to know what to do with. It started with a friendly conversation between Mike and an elderly Amish man who runs a nearby business. When Mike told him where our homestead was located the man nodded with recognition and reported to Mike that he knew of it because he has gone hunting with his dogs out our way… hunting for predators. “Why yes,” he reported with some satisfaction, “we shot quite a few animals just a few weeks ago—18 coyote, 6 fox and a bobcat”. That is to say, he let his hunting dogs sweep through our neighborhood and surrounding woods, chasing out predators and rounding them off toward the road where hunters cruise slowly along with their trucks, taking shots from the road. It isn’t just the Amish who sport-hunt this way, another local man reported he did the same along our road as well. There are few things that quite make my blood boil such as this, as I love these inhabitants of our woods, love hearing their yipping and howling on cool fall nights, love the rare flash glimpses we catch of them. My community members feel the same and are equally livid about the slaughter of such important and rare members of our ecosystem. But the Amish hunting culture and mindset is a hard thing to change—when someone in their community caught sight of a mountain lion a few years ago (an extremely rare and wonderful thing as they begin to repopulate this far east), and reported it to the conservation department (who denied the possibility perhaps in a preservation effort), a group of Amish men hunted it down, delivering its body to the conservation department with a “told you so”. I imagine they quite enjoyed doing it as well. What does one do with this kind of practice, occurring right here, on our road, in our woods? It is part lack of understanding about the important part predators play in the balance of an ecosystem, and part cultural inheritance, something very hard to change….

      At any rate, a few weeks ago one of our neighbors found a frozen Great Horned Owl down by the train tracks, caught by a train perhaps mid-swoop. It is a magnificent bird that I have rarely seen, much less up close—the patterning on its feathers, the long flinty talons, one gold eye still cocked open. It is one of the earliest birds to nest and lay eggs, right around this time of year actually. We all crowded round and admired it for awhile, showing all of the kids so they might understand its specialness and remember. After a little while it was buried down in the woods. With so much death in the air, it is hard to remember that in a few short months, rising up from that grave site will be mayapples and morels, frog song filling the air, all below the great canopy of oaks leafing out again. For now, the stark black and white of winter continues on....
Perhaps coyote tracks in the new snow?