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I made the CBC nonfiction short list. I was unsure whether to mention it, when the list was announced yesterday. The story is nothing to do with the building or homesteading that remains the focus of this blog. It’s an intensely personal story. Both of these things factored against posting my news here.

Ultimately though: you are all a part of my journey and many have been since the start of this great experiment of ours. You’ve cheered on our victories and encouraged me during times of frustration, and graciously even shared your own triumphs, tribulations, and aspirations. I may not have met everyone face-to-face but you are just as real a community as the one that I live in.

Like all of our adventures, writing is something I’ve embarked on without a clear map or idea of where it’ll take me. This seems a good start though. You can see all five of the finalists for the creative nonfiction prize here, including my own, “Some Distant World.”

Erica and me, Montreal, 1990

Erica and me, Montreal, 1990

One of our last mother-daughter road trips together

One of our last mother-daughter road trips together

Cow Psychology

I feel like a country girl. I hardly identify with my city roots at all anymore. Having said that, there are times when I am rudely reminded of just how “city” I still am.

So- I’m at the gravel pit collecting rocks (don’t ask) and I suddenly get the feeling that I’m being watched. Lo and behold- I am being watched. Several dozen cows have formed a line a few hundred feet away and are staring at me. Well that’s neat, I think to myself, and continue picking rocks. I pick up some movement out of the corner of my eye and look up again. The cows are stock still but they seem closer somehow.

I go back to my rock collecting, tossing ones that I like into piles to be moved into the back of the truck when I’m done. I’m facing the cows now, and even though my head is down, I definitely see them walking towards me so I look up quickly. As soon as I raise my head they all stop moving. Now I’m familiar with this trick. I use it myself when I see someone I don’t want to talk to. Rather than running off or ducking behind something, I stand completely still, tree-like, and wait for them to pass me by.

I’ve been told this tact is crazy, and probably why it works- not that I’ve managed to blend with my surroundings. I get that now. It occurs to me after finding a few more good rocks that I could have some fun with this. I walk a few steps, the cows follow me, I spin around and they stop. And I walk a few more steps, spin around and they stop. This is awesome! I have a cow posse.

I also have a job to do so I force myself to focus and get back to my rock collection. I’m just about to turn around and heave a very large boulder into the pile when a cow snorts right next to my ear. Naturally I scream and leap into the air. This causes a bit of a commotion amongst the cows and that’s when I realize- I’m pretty close to surrounded by giant beasts.

I’m torn- I’ve always wanted to touch a cow and at least one is definitely within petting distance but I’m also suddenly acutely aware of how fucking big these things are. And they’re skittish for such big creatures. I figure if I make one wrong move again, like screaming and leaping into the air for instance, there’s a good chance they’re going to trample me into the dirt. Right?

I don’t know. But now they’re completely blocking the path between me and the truck. There’s no way I can get to the vehicle without climbing over some cows. And I really need to call someone who might know a bit about cow psychology. What are they thinking? Why are they following me and why are they closing in like this? Should I be nervous or is this an opportunity of a lifetime to seriously commune with some cows?

It occurs to me that cows might not be able to run up hills very quickly (I hope) so I take a few deep breaths and then make a break for the hill in front of me. We’re all on top of the hill now and I’m laughing and thinking about the fact that no one knows to look for me and I didn’t see a single vehicle on my way in- and probably won’t for days.

Now that we’re all on higher ground there is a clear path to the truck, though there’s still a dozen cows down there too. “Lazy ones,” I tell myself, “they’ll never get you.” They wouldn’t even try the hill. I race for the truck and jump inside. The cows kind of saunter down the hill and surround the vehicle. Nicely played cows- you don’t really need speed on your side, do you?

Hey- so guess what? There’s no 3G at the gravel pit. I can’t even call out. Which I guess is okay because I still haven’t figured out who I could call who might know enough about cows to explain them to me. Most of my friends insist that I’m lucky to live in the country but qualify the statement with, “I wouldn’t do it.” I don’t think they know cows. Shane knows about moose (“don’t chase them,” good to know) but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know about cows.

“Think, Brandee, think.” Okay- I could probably honk the horn and that might convince them to leave, if they don’t decide to tip the truck. One is rubbing his giant head on the passenger door as I consider this option. Buuuut, what if they don’t mean any harm and I’m perfectly safe and freaking out for nothing? Suddenly that part of me that races for the water as soon as I see the warning flag go up is thinking, “Scary- for sure- but cool, right?” Definitely.

So I get back out of the truck, slowly. I’m going to hang out with these cows for a while and, if they don’t kill me, I’m going to finish getting these rocks. Because- I might want to do this again. I want to at least reserve the option to do the whole Pied Piper thing again without the cows saying, “nah- she’s an asshole, don’t bother with her.”

Turns out- totally safe. You can hang with cows for hours. They get in the way, for sure, and they’ll shit on your rock piles without a second thought. You can’t talk to them at all. Or you can, but you can’t reason with a cow. Like say you want something that the cow is standing over- tough. You’re not getting it. Or I wasn’t anyway and risk getting kicked in the head. I don’t know if they like to be pet because I didn’t want to freak anyone out, but that’s my goal next time. And there absolutely will be a next time.

Waiting for me to get back out of the truck

Waiting for me to get back out of the truck

in front of the truck

in front of the truck

Hadn't loaded many rocks before these guys showed up

Hadn’t loaded many rocks before these guys showed up

Hey baby cow!

Hey baby cow!

Three new (very long) gardens

Three new (very long) gardens

I can hardly believe that it’s July already. I don’t really want to think about how late in the year it is, and with so much left to do. Summer is finally here, late once again. No matter though. I started many of our vegetables indoors in the spring and everything is looking very healthy right now. Some of it is seriously nibbled, thanks to the ridiculous number of grasshoppers in the area but luckily I planted enough to share. And I do mean share, and not spare, because if a leaf is only half eaten I will indeed eat the other half.

 

My three sisters garden is coming along, albeit slowly. The corn is doing well. The squash that survived the very late frost we got is doing alright, as are the beans. The dill that I didn’t plant has spread like mad. All of the vegetables are coming along quite nicely. We’re eating salad every day and I predict that we will be for a while to come. Luckily I planted a variety of greens so it’s never boring. Cassandra butterhead lettuce, an assortment of colorful romaine, strawberry spinach, Swiss chard, two kinds of kale, Bloomsdale spinach, and a couple other types I can’t quite recall mean that every day’s dinner is a little different. The rhubarb is insane. I’ve started freezing batches because I can’t possibly (read “won’t”) make as many crisps as it would take to use it all up.

 

If you haven’t planted greens, just a reminder that it’s not too late. I put in my second planting this past week and it’s already coming up. It doesn’t take long to grow greens. And if you’re one of those who prefers ornamental gardens- at least take a peak at some of the varieties before you rule them out. Butterhead would be a lovely border plant, you can choose between green, red (which is more of a deep wine color), and speckled varieties of romaine, and strawberry spinach actually produces small berry-like fruits that are quite pretty and very tasty. It is possible to have a garden space that is both beautiful and edible.

 

No one will be surprised that I haven’t updated the blog in a while. It’s kind of a theme, especially come spring and lasting straight through until fall. We’re, as usual, spending a lot of time outdoors. Plenty of hours on labour. But in truth, I’ve partly avoided writing because I don’t quite feel like sharing what we’re currently up to. Years ago, when we first got together, I remember asking Shane, “Who exactly is supposed to be the reasonable one in this equation?” We examined each other through narrowed eyes, neither willing to take the bait.

 

Years later, we still haven’t quite concluded that argument. I feel like I probably take on the unwelcome task more than he does, though I’ll admit not on any regular basis. And I’ll concede that I sometimes throw an idea out there with the caveat that, “this might sound crazy but,” and if he takes it on, well- it was his idea to actually do it.

 

Anyway- we’re on one of those right now. And as Shane is fond of pointing out, when we come together on an idea- look out, because we’re coming for it. Mmm… anyhow, I don’t plan on telling any of you quite yet what it is we’re doing. Maybe once I feel it’s been a while since anyone asked, “Are you insane?” Until then, the garden is doing beautifully, landscaping shaping up a bit at a time, the house is holding up nicely. How about you? I’ve neglected touching base. Any wild and wonderful things happening in your part of the world- gardens, buildings, activism or other fabulous events?

Several varieties of romaine lettuce

Several varieties of romaine lettuce

A few of our greens

A few of our greens

Thriving gardens and potted vegs

Thriving gardens and potted vegs

Strawberry spinach "berries" taste a little like beets

Strawberry spinach “berries” taste a little like beets

Shane, still finding buried barbed wire on the property

Shane, still finding buried barbed wire on the property

No matter how long the winter season, and how much I intend to get ahead of my to-do list, spring always sees me rushing to prepare for the building and gardening season. There are a few things I’ve learned over the last few years and this year I may just be ready on time, if not ahead of it.

I have learned that moderation/reason is not really my thing. I could try to work on this but why? I get sh*t done. In the process I will inevitably hurt myself, sometimes quite seriously. This year, in preparation for the back-breaking labour I’ll participate in, the too-heavy loads I’ll carry, and the insanely acrobatic moves I’ll endeavour, I’ve started Jillian Michael’s 30 day Shred to strengthen up my core and (hopefully) prevent some injuries.

I’m past the 30 day mark, and though I could hardly walk the first few days in, I’m now doing it twice daily. I feel like a motherf*ckin’ beast. My neck and shoulders are feeling remarkably solid and I think that- just maybe- I can get away without any serious neck injuries this year. So- my first tip for prepping for a non-stop building season: get in shape. There’s no time off for injuries.

Second thing I have learned to get on top of: food preparation. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been working alongside Shane for twelve hours straight: food falls to me. If we depended on Shane we’d be eating Fudgeo’s and Corn Pops. There are a number of meals that I can make in advance and are easy enough to warm up for lunch and supper. Jamaican patties, biryani, bolognese sauce, and calzones are among some of the easier dinners to make ahead and then simply heat up. Sandwiches are another easy meal so I try to bake and freeze some bread as well. And desserts like cranberry blondies freeze well and are a good treat after a long day.

I also shop in bulk for items I don’t want to make a last minute town-run for, bearing in mind that’s an hour round-trip. Plain tomato sauce, tea, pasta, olives, honey, coffee, a couple kinds of flour, balsamic vinegar- all on hand in bulk. Yogurt made 4 quarts at a time so that I’m never low. Carnation milk (gag) because I can’t drink coffee black and I don’t need to discover we’re out of milk first thing in the morning. Whatever you use frequently, or use when you’re in a rush to knock out a meal- buy it in advance. It’ll save loads of time and frustration.

Seeds have already been started and my garden is plotted. It’ll be weeks before anything can go outside but when they can, my plants will be ready for our super-short growing season. I’m trying out a 10 by 15 foot Three Sisters garden this year (in addition to my regular plots) and I’m putting it in a poor-soil area. Before anything’s ready to go into the ground, I’ll need to have all of my soil amended, paths graveled and waterways plotted. If you’re putting in a garden remember that it may be too early to plant, but it’s probably not too early to start conditioning your soil, building raised beds, putting up fencing- whatever will save time and allow you to focus on tending the garden and not on the myriad other tasks that go along with it.

Building supplies. Oi vey. I couldn’t even hazard a guess how much time I’ve spent at UFA and Home Depot. Suffice to say that I sweep right past the personnel at the front asking if there’s anything they can help with because I know the layouts better than anyone who works there. Building supplies are not something you want to run low on in the middle of a job- especially with the ridiculously short Canadian building season. Now is the time to stock up on those items you know that you’ll need. I buy a little extra, because I will always find a use for any leftover materials but I don’t like to get stuck midstream.

On that note- do you have a date in mind for starting your build? Unless you live in BC, scrap that. Start as soon as weather permits. That might mean you have two days of building only to see it snow again, but that’s two days in. Summer storms, broken ankles, short supplies- all sorts of things can happen to cut into your building time once the build starts. You will not regret starting as early as possible. If you get ahead of the build (hahahahahaha! ha!) great- you will have some time to relax before winter is upon us again. But more than likely, even having started early, you’ll be busy right up until the snow flies again.

Speaking of snow- are you prepared for next winter? If you’re heating and cooking with wood, like we are, you are probably going to need to start on your firewood supply. Wood needs time to dry after it’s been cut. Remember when I said, “a lumberjack I’m not”? I take that back. We went out four weekends in a row, getting up at 4:30 am and home to bed by midnight or so. I am the whiniest lumberjack you may ever meet, but a lumberjack I am. What can I say? Heat and food outweighed my disdain for the task.

We’ll be out several more times this year, the sooner the better. I don’t know exactly how much wood we burned this past season. We bought a cord and a half. But we supplemented that with pallet wood from our now dwindling pallet-supply. It’s hard to say how much that amounted to. On the subject of pallets- if you can get them (free), do. They’re excellent for all sorts of projects, but also for burning. A lot of stores will put off taking them to the dump (can you believe people just toss them out?) so it’s not a bad idea to take a peak behind some of the big box and building supply stores and find out if you can take them away. A lot of businesses are thrilled to have you take them.

Finally- have a plan, a back-up plan, a last-minute plan, a weather plan… Plan, plan, and plan some more. You need an idea of what goals you should be hitting and when. That way if you get to week three and you haven’t hit a goal that was due in week one, you know that you need to kick it into overdrive. Similarly, if you’d planned on building but it’s pouring buckets you should be able to carry on with other work- like weeding (which is ideal in the rain) or prepping more meals to be frozen, or running out for supplies you forgot to stock up on. But don’t make plans off-site. You’re not going anywhere. There’ll be no dinners out, no get togethers with friends, no weekends away- you’re booked. Solid until winter. Sound like fun? Ready, set, go!

Beginning of our wood stack

Beginning of our wood stack

Still to be cut and stacked

Still to be split and stacked

Lumberjack right there baby!

Lumberjack right there baby!

A few of my seedlings

A few of my seedlings

Of the many things that I am not, I can now add lumberjack to the list. I had a feeling that I might be, as is often the case when I try something new. I had romantic visions of heading out to the forest, picking out trees, efficiently cutting them down and then into pieces and hauling them back to the trailer. I brought my camera because I expected there would be plenty of time to wander around taking pictures, and I expected to be in a good mood because I love being out in nature. Well let’s just say it didn’t quite work out how I envisioned it.

It was a beautiful day, warm (+5 C or so) and sunny. Snow was melting, there wasn’t a hint of wind. And then we started the walk into the cutting zone. What appeared to be fairly hard-packed snow wasn’t- at all- but it was deep. Up to my knees deep, which made getting moving again quite the trick. And I had worn my Ropers, the most comfortable little work boots that I own. Work boots that come up to my ankles.

Within about 5 minutes of walking into the forest, my boots and socks were soaked through, and my jogging pants were wet to above the knees. Within about twenty minutes my pants were sopping wet and so heavy that I had to keep pulling them up to keep from losing them in the snow. The backs of my calves were frozen and scraped raw from the ice. Nevertheless, I tried to tell myself that it would get better. And then we started hauling the trees back through the snow to the trailer.

Shane will be the first to tell you that he never makes me do anything. But how am I going to stand there and let him do the work? I can’t do it. But I should have. I’m not sure how many muscles I pulled in my neck and back, trudging through the knee-deep snow and carrying more weight than I ever should have attempted. I think it would be safe to guess “all of them”.

After the first few loads of wood, I stopped by the trailer and looked at our pitiful collection- and that’s when I started to whine. It was either that or cry, and I do not like to cry unless I’m alone, so… I opened with, “I think this was a stupid f*cking idea.” And it went on from there. Shane suggested that I just sit on the back of the truck and relax, but you know that I couldn’t do that. How would he hear me whining from the forest?

So even though this is the same man who chopped just the tops off telephone poles and proceeded to move the heavy ends around the property with a chain slung around his waist, I made the decision that he needed me and went back out to finish what we started. After witnessing Shane wielding a chainsaw with one hand, and using the other to push the tree in the opposite direction of where it wanted to go (refusing to listen to my frantic yelling at him to let it go and get out of the way), I decided it was best not to watch him and to just haul the lighter lengths to the trailer while he was cutting.

I’m glad that I didn’t watch. I don’t know what crazy stunts I missed but I did catch him leaping into the air with a running chainsaw at one point. “You’re too heavy,” I keep telling him. I don’t have the upper body strength to carry him if he seriously injures himself. He listens about as well as his wife though.

Long story short- we did not great but not too badly, all things considered. Just under a cord of birch wood, for five dollars and a tank of gas. The next time we head out should be much easier without the snow. That really impeded our ability to move quickly. And the next time I plan on dressing appropriately and bringing extra footwear. But I think it’s safe to say, a lumberjack I’m not.

wood1

 

 

wood2

Spring has Sprung!

It has been a long and ridiculously cold winter. Last week we were seeing temperatures of -40 C and this week, I’m thrilled to say, we’ve hit +5 C for several days in a row. For my foreign readers, +5 C is t-shirt weather in Canada. Another two degrees and it’ll be time to break out the shorts. Granted, there’re still several feet of snow on the ground- so it’ll most definitely be shorts with boots- but such is spring in Canada.

Like many of my cold compatriots I’ve spent the last several weeks poring over seed catalogues, dreaming of warmer days. Yesterday I finally got my act together and put my orders in. I ordered my seeds through Salt Spring Seeds and The Cottage Gardener, two wonderful Canadian companies with a wide variety of heirloom seeds. That was the exciting part of the day.

Now, I have to say- there are times when I still get comments on the “About” section of this blog and I think the reference I made to us as “city kids” as passé. We are so beyond that. We know what we’re doing now. We are country folk. And then I remember, “oh no you’re not”. The gardens being a good reminder- because I still have no real idea what I’m doing, other than that some of it is working out.

The one brilliant tip that I have put to good use is to mimic nature, mixing my plants instead of planting all clean rows of single species. For the last few years I have happily thrown seeds willy-nilly all over the place and had pretty amazing results. Last year I had such a bumper crop of tomatoes I was eating them like apples throughout the day. Still, I know that I can get even better results if I know a thing or two about the vegetables, herbs and flowers that I’m planting.

As much as I love the seed companies that I deal with they are miserable for providing useful information. Take this as an example, from a Cottage Gardener package of Horehound seeds: This herb takes its name from Horus, Egyptian god of sky and light. Folk legend through the ages attributed it with the power to break magic spells. Syrups and cough drops have been made from it since at least he 16th century. So if I’m Harry Potter or a seed-historian, this is great information. But what about planting and caring for the little f*ckers?

So after ordering the seeds, the next stage involved inputting all of my seeds into an Excel spreadsheet. I have about 65 species to sort and I want to know everything from when I can expect them to mature, sun required, soil preferred, how tall/wide they grow, spacing, whether I should be planting a second crop later in the season, which are good companion plants, which will do best in a hoop house, etc.

That took me all freaking day. I had to google most of the plants one by one, and then a lot of the sites only had partial information so I had to research multiple sites. I am not quite done yet but even if I get no further, I have a ton of useful information. And I know a lot more about my plants that I ever did before.

My next step will be plotting a map, so that I can design my space to get the best results. And then I’ll need to start moving earth again (once the snow melts) and preparing the different soils for planting, building a couple of pathways between gardens, and getting the hoop houses ready. All this with one arm tied behind my back- because spring has finally arrived and though it may not be recognizable as such to my friends from warmer climes, I am Canadian! Full of piss and vinegar and ready to get my game on!☺

Beets from years past

Beets from years past

panels

I received a note from a reader a while ago asking whether we’d hooked up our solar system and was surprised to note that I never did actually write about that part of the project. I suppose if it hadn’t worked I’d have been on top of writing about that but as it turns out it’s been working quite well for us.

I should start by saying that we do not have the massive loads that we did at the older (traditional) house. And there are some things we do without, or will do without for now until the system can be expanded. The best advice that I can give anyone wishing to go off-grid is: figure out what you can do without, and then cut it back just a little bit more.

Some of the things that we don’t use (and couldn’t if we wanted to, without compromising our energy bank) are any electric devices that convert electricity to heat: coffee percolator, electric heater, curling irons (Shane has to go au naturel), hairdryers, microwave, toaster- those sorts of things. We could get away with using some of these devices during peak energy times but they’re such a draw and there are easy alternatives that we don’t bother. We also don’t run a lot that works on a 24 hour cycle, like clock radios. Our router and cell phone booster are the exceptions to the rule. This house is as solid as a fortress- without the booster we’d be SOL for a signal. (It’s worth noting that we did unplug both last night, and saved ~15 amp hours, so we may start doing that regularly.)

We don’t do without very much. We use stovetop espresso makers for our morning coffee, battery operated alarm clocks, LED lanterns provide nice room light, and florescent bulbs provide brighter light for reading or cooking. Shane works from home and requires two monitors, an iPad, and a standard computer, in addition to his personal computers (2) and I have 2 laptops that I use fairly regularly, for online courses, research and writing. We also have a nice speaker system that we’re running regularly. We have a woodstove for heat and a separate woodstove for cooking, and I have an induction cooktop that I’ve yet to use but plan to check for power usage some time in the next while, though I expect it’ll be primarily a summer item. We haven’t used a television in ages now but we watch movies, documentaries and shows on a big screen computer (below).

entertainment

Now… there are some things that I don’t expect everyone would be happy to sacrifice. We don’t have running water yet, and I’m not sure what kind of system I’ll ultimately settle on (powered or gravity fed). I have as much rainwater as I could possibly want to last me into the spring and beyond but I do have to move it by pail, whether into the Berkey for filtering and drinking, or to heat for dishes. We also have to dispose of greywater manually, which makes it easy to direct but a pain in the ass sometimes nonetheless. There’s a photo of the laundry sink and pail underneath it at the end of this article. Old school, but it works for us right now.

dishes

We also don’t have a traditional toilet, but then we’d moved over to the Humanure system long before we moved into the new house. I’m used to it, and a strong proponent of the system having used one for four or so years now, but it will no doubt freak out houseguests. Which is actually not a huge downside to me because I’m not an entirely big houseguest-person.

Other little things that we do- I have a haybox (which is not so much a haybox but a what-can-I-throw-together-in-under-a-minute box) that I put my teapot inside in between uses and overnight. It’s a rough model but it does keep my tea warm for quite some time. And our fridge is a converted freezer, so we don’t waste cold air pouring out of the fridge every time that we open it. It’s a pretty easy conversion (especially if, like me, you just watch someone else do it- thanks babe) and is decent on energy. And we have a gazillion, or at least half a dozen, LED lanterns and flashlights that we use rather than turning on room lights every time we are passing through, or for use in rooms like the water room where we don’t need a lot of bright light.

coffee

We also have a couple of small independent solar powered items. We have a Soulra speaker system that is solar powered. We used to use it as a primary system (with Shane’s iPod) but have since switched to new speakers. Still, it’s good to have. Would I recommend running out and buying it? Meh. I wouldn’t run, but it’s decent- it takes forever to charge by sun but it can be charged electrically as well, and charges quickly that way. And we have a solar JOOS charger- the orange model- and use it to charge everything from iPods to cell phones. Unlike the Soulra it is a very good little machine and I’d highly recommend it.

joos

I think it’s a good sign that I have to rack my brain for things I’ve had to do without, or adjust to. So far, so good. And we’ll see what we decide to do going forward to enhance the system. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly over the years, though I’m fine with a pretty serious off-grid transition I’ve never had any desire to live like a hobbit. Not that I have anything against hobbits, or people who choose to live like hobbits, it’s just not my bag. The longer we live here, the more my fear of that fate lessens. Still, I’m keeping an eye on my hobbit-lovin’ fella…

power

haybox

sink

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