Our Philosophy

Solvitur ambulando - It is solved by walking

Monday, August 19, 2013

Back From Bivouac

Two young fellas are upstairs laying the new flooring, the last critical task remaining before we move in.  I'd be laying it myself except that the farm owners insisted on third-party culpability in case anything went wrong.  The farm owners, by the way, are new friends of ours.  I met them in the parking lot of the Rich Mountain - Cartacay Tract trailhead outside Ellijay, GA, just before I co-led 22 paying customers on a morel hunt in April.  They just happened to stop by, for the first time, and they caught me peeing in the bushes...

After the zippering and blushing formalities, the conversation turned quickly to wilderness survival, life in our tent, and of course, mushrooms.

"Do you think you could survive out there?" he asked me, waving at the forest.

"I think I could avoid starvation," was my hesitant reply.

Later, when he saw my garden, fairly modest in scale but lush with garlic, raspberries, greens, and herbs, he said, "so you're one of those guys that can cut a hole in the woods and feed his family?"  Highly complementary considering I didn't think I had much of a garden going at that point.  I hope I'm that guy, but better yet would be the ability to feed my family without cutting a hole in the woods at all.  I'm nowhere near being that guy.  But I'm curious about him.

And so it was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that we entered negotiations with these new friends about living in their farmhouse and developing a farm for them.  We learned enough from the last co-farming/-housing experiment in south Georgia to know that this time the deal needed to be clear, concise, and official.  Hi ho.  So we set about the task of describing and assigning responsibility for activity on the farm today and tomorrow.  Considering that both parties in the matter are "preppers" (as they are generally referred to here) to one degree or another - both contemplating issues like currency collapse (which wouldn't take much honestly), declining energy resources, corrupt government in cahoots with unethical corporations, unstable weather, crop failures, water supply redundancy, etc - it was one of the more complex contract processes I've been a part of.

First was the matter of intellectual property.  I've been studying permaculture, agroforestry, mob grazing, natural building, appropriate tech, and so forth for years, after being an ecologist, and these guys were credit brokers and tactical defense enthusiasts.  Very sharp people, very driven people, very wealthy people, but very different from us.  And since it was them wanting to do all these things that I know about on their farm, and us looking for a better piece of land on which to do those things, there was a lot to define.

We're still keeping and developing our land in the direction of a cob cottage in a food forest, just for the record.  The old homestead is only 3.7 miles farther out of town than the farm, as the car drives, closer if you cut through the woods at the base of our property, so it's an easy and pleasant mountain bike ride around the eastern base of Talona Mountain.  Lots of mushrooms to check on, and great plans for the next few years, developing our southeast facing slope with dessert and cider apples, apricots, cherries, figs, peaches, plums, pecans, chestnuts, blueberries, tea, copious amounts of mushrooms, and whatever else comes along for the ride.  Plenty of herbs you can be sure.

We have no idea what shape the future will take for us, where we'll be living in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, but I can say that the tentative plan is to stay here at the farm for a while, maybe till the kids finish school, make this place hum, make a little money, and beef up our own holdings along the way.  So to speak.  We would really love to pick up the 2.5 acres below our land, build a driveway in from there to a lovely cob cottage, on contour of course, around our little dell, and move our mailbox down to the paved road.  Maybe give that privately-"maintained" gravel road along the ridgeline above our land, and the world-class jagoff that lives across the "street," a miss.

But there's a certain attraction to being this much closer to town, right on the main road that takes hundreds (thousands?) of customers out to a popular grass-based farm several miles farther south of town.  People come all the way from Atlanta to buy meat there.  And they don't sell chicken or turkey, which is what we are planning on raising, nor do they mob-graze their beef.  We are definitely planning on doing that; pastured chicken, turkey, eggs, beef, rabbit, berries, figs, nuts, mushrooms, and if all goes well, hard cider down the road.

There's 87 acres here, with a smallish creek running south to north near the front of the farm, gaining a little strength from two spring runs, one from the east under the main road and just south of the farmhouse, and one from the west that originates on the farm way back in the woods.  Both seem to be very high quality.  Around these 3 creek runs, there is 15-20 acres of pasture among 5 distinct plots.  They haven't been maintained for a few years, but the one directly behind the house, across the main creek, has been bush-hogged and has become grass-dominant again in less than a month.  I am extremely excited about the possibilities these pastures and this water hold.

And not just in terms of fertility.  We learned a lot of valuable energy lessons over the past 5 years, and the last 16 months in the tent in particular.  While I now think that electricity is the way to go for lighting, fans, and refrigeration, none of these are the main domestic energy drains, and could very likely run on a decent micro-hydro setup.  Of the four big users, we asked the farm owners to just skip the HVAC system (we'll be heating with wood still), immediately started hanging laundry out to dry again (instead of going to the laundry mat - we had no sun in the woods) like we hadn't missed a beat, and plan to build a passive solar batch water heater from remodeling leftovers and feed it into the house supply, and a solar oven on the upstairs deck rail and cob oven down below somewhere.  So I could see being practically off-grid again within the year, but in a much more comfortable situation.

And speaking of comfortable, boy was that first hot pressurized shower nice after 16 months of bivouac!  And the rest of the running water, too, in 4 different sinks, plus the dish and clothes washers.  And the fridge!  And the internet connection.  Our internet activity during our tent stay usually cost us lunch out, or coffee and a muffin, or a cocktail or two, or at least a visit to the library on the other side of town.  I'm guessing having internet service at home is cheaper all around.  And for some reason I could never remember what it was I wanted to look up when I finally got a connection away from home.  Although the margaritas were usually worth the effort...

My urban farmer/forager friend Chris thinks pockets, and containers in general, were one of humanity's greatest inventions, and I have to agree.  Containers made from big leaves, vines, canes, rushes, clay, cloth, metal, wood, plastic, whatever, had an enormous impact on the way we humans do business.  But fans!  God I love fans.  And chainsaws.  And refrigerators.  And (modest) electric lighting.  [Just because you use CFLs doesn't mean you need to use them all at once!  Mr. Jeavon's Paradox...]  Those four technologies are likely the best ways to use fossil fuel ever.  And if we could govern our energy use to those four, peak oil would become a non-issue.  It's all the other stuff we pile on the back of cheap easy energy that gets us (and unfortunately everyone else on Earth) in trouble.  Fifty-gallon hot water heaters, indoor ovens, air conditioning, clothes dryers, computers, internet (guilty obviously), and the mother-of-all, the happy motoring culture.  No greater abuse of Nature's gifts was ever devised than the personal automobile and its related infrastructure.  And the sad part is, we don't really need it, we just can't get out of it.  We designed our American habitat the way we did intentionally, in order to spread our population out in an effort to avoid being concentrated targets for the Rooskies, or zee Germans, or the A-rabs, or whoever the enemy du jour might be.  Paranoia is expensive, and it might just be our undoing.  Europeans never adopted such short-sighted strategies, and they use 1/3 of the energy per capita that we do (and arguably have a higher standard of living...)

Again, peak oil concerns tend to fizzle out when those sorts of adjustments are made.  Conservation is a real solution, very much unlike ethanol, electric cars, shale oil, or fracking.  Those are rope-a-dope answers to our predicament, sleight-of-hand maneuvering, not strategies, and they all demonstrate a profound lack of systems thinking.  We don't have a problem that needs fixing, we have a predicament that requires paradigm shifting.  Biological and behavioral, not technological, solutions are the order of our time.

Those are the solutions we pursue in permaculture, and what we're doing here on this new farm.  With shifts in land management tactics we will turn derelict pastures into a deep, rich, productive topsoil base that sequesters more carbon from the atmosphere, where it is too dense, into the ground, where it's not dense enough, and produce top-shelf meat in the process.  This is what Nature prefers, and mob-stocking strategies are useful for speeding the process up.  I heard permaculture referred to as "aikido farming" the other day, and I love that term!  Because it's spot on.  We steer Nature's normal momentum, her successional energies and incredible fecundity, to toss that succession forward into a highly productive forested food production system.  Or in the case of this farm, a robust and mature prairie ecosystem maintained by regular mob grazing, surrounded by the prior.  I've been wanting to do this for years.

But there was one other reason we decided to jump ship, er, tent.  2013 has been the wettest year on record in north Georgia, and it has wreaked havoc on our little canvas house.  The mildew is closing in, nearly as black now as it is white, and the canvas is ripping in a few unfortunate areas, making the situation worse.  Everything inside the tent was molding - books, shoes, clothes, furniture - and it has been so wet that even the mice seemed desperate to move inside with us.  The endless rain has checked our business profits to some degree, too, since we mostly work in outdoor markets, and we can't afford another tent to stretch over the framework, and couldn't even string enough sunny days together to try to treat the mildew issue and patch up the old one.  Something had to give. 

It was an amazing experience, one I'll never forget, and I think it changed me for the better, but I'm also glad it's over, glad to be under a hard roof again, glad I can take a hot shower inside, and glad to have the opportunity to participate with this grass-based aspect of permaculture.  And very glad to have some financial backing from nice folks who believe in what we do.

The campstead will be available soon at a modest rent if anyone is interested in a little vacation from civilization, or for someone to live in if they want to help with our projects.  I'd be glad to work out a tenure agreement for someone interested in living onsite and converting the tent to a hard-roofed structure and/or building a little cob cottage on our property.  Just drop me a line here or via email.  My address is trippticket(at)gmail(dot)com.

Cheers, permies et al. 




3 comments:

  1. Well. What a surprise. I suppose I could tease you unmercifully about your shift in plans, but I won't. I like my hot showers, too. And, keeping my books dry. All that mold and mildew probably wasn't good for the kids, either.

    I was just as surprised at the recent changes in my best friends lives. They sold the farm here and moved to Idaho, to be closer to their daughter and son-in-law. Now, the place they had here was a stones throw from being self sufficient. I've always viewed them as pretty much preppers. Back up wood heat, animals, lots of canning. All that labor intensive stuff you do to be more self sufficient.

    After looking at a lot of "far out of town" 20 and 40 and 80 acre places, they settled on the model home in a pretty much defunct housing tract. I was surprised. We really haven't talked about their sudden shift in plans, but I think I know some of the reasons.

    A bit younger than me (64), they've worked hard all their lives. There are some minor health issues that could develop into major health issues, later. How often have we heard or read about elderly farmers or ranchers that eventually "move to town."

    Sooner or later I'll probably have to make the same kinds of choices. Probably, about the time my landlord passes on and I lose my great deal. Will I try and find another rural situation, or "move to town." We'll see. In the meantime, the chickens are in molt and it's time to start thinking about buttoning up for winter. And, I don't know what I'm going to do about the bat in the laundry room.

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    1. You know, I kept a pet bat at governor's school for a few days way back when. A young orphan. Fed it from a dropper every time I was in my dorm room. Fell out of a high Greek revival porch roof. Unfortunately I wasn't a very skilled surrogate...

      Not terribly shocking that I moved on to a better situation, is it? I like being back in a real house, I have to admit. Oliver asks every night about when we're going home to the tent. Makes my eyes well up. Maybe because I feel like I'm selling out. But then, he spent the most recent half of his life there, and all of his memory. I just spent the last 16 months of my 40 years there. After living this way for the other 38 and change. Not the same thing at all.

      I hope I'm doing right by my children. (I know I'm doing right by me wife!) And I hope you land in a good situation for the long descent, wherever that happens to be.

      All our best.

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    2. Curiously, it ends up I'm NOT doing right by my wife! In less than 3 months we've begun to ache for the kind of connection we had living in a tent in the forest without electricity. We put our notice in with the farm owners last week and are shooting for being back home by winter solstice. Home with some modifications - this time with a separate bath house, including our nice clawfoot tub by a big window overlooking the forest, a second composting toilet, a propane heater, and solar shower in a front porch stall; and a heavy rocket mass heater in the tent, stretching the full 20' of length, upon which our beds, and the next day's clothes, can stay nice and toasty.

      We'll be focusing more this time on making it functional than making it pretty, but probably only temporarily, since hopefully we'll be converting it to a wood cabin in the spring. I'll keep the blog updated as we go...

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