Channeling my Inner Thoreau

I’m in the throes of writing my last few posts before I go dark on this blog. It seems to have run its natural course.

It’s partially that I find myself on a journey to completely unplug myself from all things 21st Century/capitalist/technological. I think we may all get there eventually, I’m just trying to get out ahead of the curve. It’s the way Michelle and I seem to have been over the last 40 years, always a step ahead of the pack.

I read “Walden” many decades ago. I think it was even before we got ready to move out of the city.  I think it was when we first started flirting with environmentalism. It’s just one of those books you should read. I know there are lots of criticisms with what Thoreau did … “well, he still walked to town once a week for food … he was still earning a living writing …” yea, whatever, we’re all blowhards, me especially.

As I get more and more committed to not buying stuff, I am forced to deal with the stuff I have which is all getting older, and therefore needs maintenance.

I have often looked longingly at those car ads that brag about the 14 air bags … front impact, side impact, bottom impact in a case a large reptile tries to burst into your car from below … and thought, boy, it would be awesome to own one of those cars.

Until recently when I had to have my airbag inflator replaced in a recall. Coincidentally this happened at the same time my SRS (supplemental restraint system…i.e. airbag and seatbelt) warning light came on which isn’t covered by the recall, of course. The dealer wanted $100 to read the error code (which takes them about 5 minutes to do) and then quoted that it would be another $200 to $500 to fix the problem. Thanks to the internet and my fantastic neighbor Sandy, I did it myself (with A LOT of his help). So I had this epiphany that everything comes at a cost, and all these wonderful safety thingees are indeed wonderful, until they break, then they are insanely expensive to fix and you have to have a high income to maintain them, or forgo them, or try and figure out how to fix them yourself. With however many lines of code in a new vehicle (1 million? 2 million?) most of us are rapidly losing our ability to fix things ourselves, even if we want to.

Then we had a plumbing issue. Which reminded me that there is PEX and copper and ABS and PVC and Poly B and CPVC and about 1 million adapters for each, and then another million to adapt one standard to the other, which makes about 14 million parts in the hardware store … and never the one you want. And if the house wasn’t plumbed properly with shutoff valves, you have no water while you’re scrambling around trying to fix it.

I am becoming an expert at finding ‘work-arounds.’ “It’s not optimal, but it’ll do” is my new mantra. Well it’s always been my philosophy, I just used to kid myself that I worked to a higher standard. Admitting it is half the battle, right?

So now, like Henry David Thoreau, I basically never, ever want to ever buy anything new, ever again. Because there is a price you pay when you do, and it’s not just that upfront cost, which includes the immense impact that ‘thing’ has had on the planet to get into that box, wrapped in that plastic bag, with all of those Styrofoam inserts and endless other things that just end up in a landfill.

So I have begun the descent to ultimate, hardcore, EXTREME simplification. I kidded myself two decades ago when I moved off grid that this was what I was doing. In actual fact with the necessity of purchasing inverters and charge controllers and phone systems and satellite internet systems and, and, and, …. I was not getting off any bandwagons.

But I’ve finally seen the light and it is me, living in the dark, foraging in the woods, drinking from a pond wearing clothing fashioned from feed bags and sandals made from old tires. Well, with the cost of used clothing at thrift shops I’m not sure I’ll ever have to go that far. And I do enjoy renting a video once in a while, and man, having the solar panels charge the batteries and pump water into our pressure tanks, then turning the tap and having cold, clean, wonderful water pour out … well, that’s pretty awesome. But that’s it though, nothing else new.

Ever meet one of those guys who says “cassettes are awesome!” or ‘do you realize you can get VHS tapes at thrift shops for like 5¢ each now?!” (but you just have trouble seeing what’s happening one the screen because the resolution is so low). Well, that’s going to be me soon. My daughters keep giving me their old iPods as iPhones now are basically iPods, but I just haven’t been able to motivate myself to put my music on them. And I think I’m finally comfortable saying it’s not going to happen for me. When the CD player breaks, I’m just going to sing way more. Poor Michelle.

When I back the manure trailer up at my neighbors’ barn I have to channel my inner trailer ball sense, because I, alas, don’t have a backup camera. My tailgate is beat all to rat crap where I regularly plunge the trailer tongue into it, when I miss the target. And at this stage in my life, I’m pretty okay having a banged in tailgate on my truck. In fact, I would not want to own a truck that didn’t have such a thing.

I know what you’re saying … “Cam is just saying that because he’ll never own one.” Exactly. I accept my lot. I cannot bring myself to participate in an economic system that is destroying the planet, making a lot of people miserable, and forcing everyone to keep buying stuff just to stay in the game.

Living off-grid and growing a pretty large volume of food, this is not a tough transition for me. When you do a little research on the likelihood of a CME in the next decade, or the Cascadia fault letting loose on the west coast, or some fiat currency scenarios in the next economic collapse, I think it’s possible that many people who would rather not be forced to go through a radical simplification, will be joining me.

It’s a tough path to follow, because the other one, the one that bombard us with a billion images a day showing us how awesome all this ‘stuff’ is, well, it is a pretty sexy one. I get it. It’s cool. It’s awesome. Until it’s not. And for me, now, it’s not.

So I’m off to the toolshed … (well, it’s actually a woodshed where I also store tools) to build a proper way to organize all my tools, because every spring it starts out amazingly clean and organized and by December when I have to crawl to the shelf at the back to get the Christmas tree, it’s turned into a death-defying obstacle course of sharp metal points and sticks repeatedly impaling me. I just love hand tools. So low tech. No upgrades. No error codes. No warning lights. Heck, they don’t even come wrapped in any packaging. Make yourself happy. Go use a shovel or a hoe.

Measure Once, Cut Twice … or in my case, Three Times

The Zen and Joy of Successive Approximations

Back in my TV days I liked to watch a show on PBS called “The Yankee Workshop” (or something like that, don’t quote me on this). This was like a drug hit for woodworkers but I found it torture to watch. But watch it I did. In the show the host would take a piece of elaborate woodwork, like an 1823 ornamental dresser, and recreate it. With 11,245 unique little cuts and dowels and flourishes it was just unbelievable what a human can create. I guess it’s like watching sports as you get older, you can only marvel at young people’s abilities.

I am a terrible woodworker.

I make a fair amount of stuff with wood, very poorly. And I accept this.

I tell myself I should do better, but somehow my inner voice which says ‘take your time, do it right’ is usurped by the “just crank it off the way you always have” voice.

My woodworking started with my dumpster diving in the city. Here is a playhouse I built for my daughters when they were young. All the materials including the roof singles were scrounged. I had a customer in an industrial mall with an office furniture outlet next door, so whenever I delivered artwork I drove around to the back and jumped into the dumpster. File cabinets and things like that were shipped protected by wooden crates and I just dove in, pulled the wood out and crammed it all into my Toyota Tercel. Yea, that was me driving down Guelph Line with 1”x 2” s sticking out of my side window.

playhousesmallfile

So most of my efforts went into running my business and scrounging materials. The actual putting together of said materials ended up pretty low on my priority list.

Here at the farm I build tons of stuff with the marvelous off-cuts from my neighbor’s millwork company. I can do sort of reasonable stuff, like these shelves in the guesthouse for overflow books.

bookshelf

The bulk of my woodworking though, is building shelves for storing stuff, like books, food, CSA supplies and that kind of thing, and attention to detail is not my forté.

I believe the woodworker mantra is “Measure Twice, Cut Once” but I’ve always preferred to power through and measure once, and cut once, then cut again if it doesn’t fit, and just keep cutting until it does. And if/when I cut it too much, I just grab another piece of wood and use the last one that didn’t fit as the guide for the next one. If the wood is free and the electricity is generated by the sun, no harm done.

I sometimes refer to this as ‘successive approximations,’ whereby I get closer and closer to my ultimate goal with each cut. It’s not pretty, but it works for me and again, I’m okay with it.

Like so many of the projects I marvel at my ability to not think a job through, or at least not factor in some major component until I am well into the project.

The latest example was my new and improved grow light shelf for my seedlings that I start for the CSA. My first design several years ago allowed two plant trays on each shelf which provided for 6 potential trays. As the CSA has grown and we’ve got a better handle on how to improve our output we have added to the list of vegetables we start early to transplant. Now I have shelves I’ve built for every southern window, and I have shelves crammed into the house wherever they’ll fit.

But the grow light shelf is the main stage and living off grid I have a finite amount of juice to keeping lights on for extended periods of time. Yes, I could heat a greenhouse, but I keep two woodstoves going as it is and I refuse to use propane, a fossil fuel, in an endeavor where I try and do the right thing for the planet.

Last year as the trays of seedlings multiplied, somewhat like the brooms in the Disney movie “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” we began turning them perpendicular in order to fit more on a shelf, but the shelf wasn’t build for this so they were entering the ‘precarious’ zone.

So this year I decided to build a new set of shelves so we can fit 4 trays where previously there were two. As any good woodworker would do I lay down 4 representative trays side by side to figure out how wide the shelves should be. I could probably have made them 44”, but sometimes I put the trays in stronger plastic frames, so 46” or 47” would be safer. Once I finally cut the first shelf piece it was a bit wider than 47” … or thereabouts.

I cut all the shelf pieces to a little less than 48”. Then as I started to sand the wood quickly since it’s rough cut, I remembered that the whole premise of the grow light shelves is that I use grow lights … which are just fluorescent shop lights … commercial shop lights… which come in 24” and 48” widths… and I have three of the 48” ones.

So can you see where this is going. Whoops, I did it again. While the lights are 48” wide and I probably would extend the bracket which holds the shelf in place to accommodate them, the lights have wires that come out of the end to power them… so they’re actually a bit wider than 48”.

And so it goes, I had to recut the shelves wider (with more wood). No harm, no foul. The 47-and-a-bit-inch shelves now have angled cuts at one end and will become garden stakes. The supply of shelf raw material, in this case 16-foot White Poplar off cuts that just about broke my truck hauling them home, seems to be inexhaustible. The new shelves are great and no one will be the wiser (except the hundreds of thousands of readers of this blog).

plant shelves

 

I continue to be in awe of people who work with their hands and are able to incorporate the multiple inputs and factors to just build something right the first time. I believe my brain does allow for multiple inputs to process information. I believe I’ve figured out a lot of the big picture stuff and have made appropriate recommendations for a suitable path for individuals to take personally factoring in these multiple inputs and potential outcomes. The little picture stuff though, like making the shelves wide enough for the lights on the first cut … not so much. Get out the solar powered chop saw… I get to make some noise!

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Thanks to A.R. for her recent generous donation to the Tip Jar!

The Pace of Change is Just Too Much

I read my local ‘day-old’ newspapers the other day and learned about the closing of The Guelph Mercury (in Ontario) and the “Nanaimo” Daily News (in British Columbia). These are newspapers that for more than 100 years provided local residents with independent news and editorial about issues of importance and relevance to them. The Mercury’s readership had dropped from 22,000 to 9,000 and they could no longer afford to print and publish it.

This follows a trend throughout North America of our traditional news organizations laying off staff and reducing service as they struggle to remain profitable. I love reading a local, hard copy, printed newspaper, but I don’t buy them. I just read out of date copies I salvage from friends and family. So apparently I’m not helping the cause. The one thing I’m not doing is getting my ‘news’ on-line. If I can’t find a newspaper I’m just as happy to be on a news blackout. Michelle would prefer a permanent news blackout for me, as it would result in way fewer ‘rants’.

So in the space of what, 10 years, we’re seeing the whole news providing model turned upside down. I know some people have switched to get their news on-line, but in most cases traditional news organizations have had trouble “monetizing” or making money from their on-line efforts. It’s tough to charge for something if there’s the perception that you can get it for ‘free’ somewhere else. Whether it’s as good remains a highly debatable issue.

When you start looking at “disruptive technologies”, things that radically change an existing way of doing things, you have to kind of wonder. Capitalism is ‘creative destruction’, which tears things down and builds new things, and we’ve all benefited from that. But now things seem to be happening at a faster pace than ever before, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

Everything just seems a little out of whack for me right now.

Economies apparently are ‘hanging in there’, but oil is ridiculously cheap. If we hit ‘peak conventional oil’ in 2005 as the IEA said we did in 2005, how is it possible that the very life-blood of the world economy can be so inexpensive? Something’s not right here.

I mentioned in a recent blog about the perception from someone who took our workshop here that most of us didn’t use the internet for banking a decade ago. And now, many of us have shifted everything on-line. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to use a large financial institution and not do everything on-line. Banks seem intent on punishing luddites like me who like to have a ‘passbook’. I say it’s because I like to have an ‘audit trail’ of my transactions, but really it’s just something that started when I had a paper route when I was 10 and got excited every time I made a deposit and my bank book got updated. Man, not only will kids today not be able to get a passbook updated, there probably isn’t a local paper for them to deliver anyway!

Let me be the first to acknowledge that this just sounds like a rant from an old, first world male about how everything ‘was better in my time.’ I DID walk a mile out to the road in my subdivision to get the school bus. I DID ride my bike 12 miles to high school some days, without a helmet, on roads without paved shoulders. The fact that I made it past adolescence seems like a miracle some days. I understand that ‘nostalgia’ can get you longing for the old days. Heck, I long for the days when I could cut firewood in the bush all day a decade ago, and not wake up with my hands clenched in a permanent arthritic curl from the chainsaw and axe handle.

But I believe the pace of change today is unprecedented and unhealthy. I think our basic gravitational grounding is becoming unglued and it’s difficult to stay balanced. There is no one to blame, it’s just how humanity has chosen to evolve. The problem is now that those who want it to slow down, who want more balance have trouble getting there. The system requires 110% focus and devotion, and if you want to get off the train, it seems there aren’t any doors for you to jump out. Oh, and the windows are locked.

As we continue to discuss sources of income here at Sunflower Farm, I just keep coming back to growing food. It just seems to be an amazing, low tech, simple way to eek out a living. Big farmers spend the winter attending shows and training seminars on the latest technology from seeds to planters. They are awesome and I am grateful to them for growing most of our food. I spent the winter cutting firewood and organizing my tool shed, which ends up in a jumbled heap of disorganization by the end of each growing season. At some point I end up stepping on a rake that had been thrown in at an impossible angle, with the resulting blow to my unprotected head, which rapidly declining reflexes don’t allow me to prevent. I mean really, can I be that stupid? I’m just grateful to see what a great NFL color commentator Troy Aiken is, even after his numerous concussions. It gives me hope that I’ll be coherent several years (or months) from now.

If you enjoy this blog you have Michelle to thank. If it had been left to me I’m sure it would have been abandoned long ago. With the number of different platforms we have used, and the number of times each one of those has gone through a major upgrade which has forced a complete relearning of the basics, I just would have walked away. I remember selling computers in 1985 and finding that customers who came into the store inevitably had more expertise than me on their particular product, because I was trying to stay current on the 5,000 products in our line. I started my own electronic publishing business in 1987 and stayed on top of the software that I used for the better part of 3 decades. But I am now advancing towards simplicity in every way I can. Whether society as a whole chooses to follow me voluntarily or otherwise remains to be seen.

Each day I grow closer to unplugging from ‘the matrix’. Shovels and hoes don’t crash. You plant seeds. You water them. You weed them. They nourish you. They don’t need upgrading to the latest version for them to work on your current browser. Then you read books when the sun goes down.

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And now some reminders from Michelle! Don’t forget to sign up for our spring workshop. The date is Saturday, May 7th and we still have some spots left. Or, if you can’t come to our workshop but appreciate the work that goes into this blog and the costs associated with it, feel free to leave a tip in the jar at the top righthand side of this page. Your donations are very much appreciated! And Jasper thanks you too!

face close up

Such Are the Dreams of the Everyday House-Husband

(aka If I Have to Wash Another Dish I’LL SCREAM!)

No really, I am sooo sick of doing dishes it’s unbelievable!

I was never a big Glenn Campbell fan, but I like his music and with so many hits it’s hard not to be aware of them. I watched a documentary about his battle with Alzheimer’s recently which was quite interesting. Lately a lyric keeps running through my head … “Such are the dreams of the everyday housewife, you see anywhere any time of the day… the everyday housewife who gave up the good life for me.” Only I change ‘housewife’ to ‘househusband’… and I haven’t given up the good life, in fact, ‘I’m livin’ it baby!”

Unfortunately, right now that involves the dishes. A lot of dishes. Mountains of dishes! Every day. Constantly. They never stop. How two people can make sooo many dishes is beyond my comprehension. Personally I think Michelle secretly sleepwalks and goes downstairs and takes dishes out of the cabinets and puts them on the counter to be washed. This is just a theory at this time until she’ll let me buy one of the trail cameras to prove it.

During the growing season Michelle does most (almost all) of the dish washing. I manage to avoid them by working outside from sun up to sundown … because … well … exhaustion is way better than washing dishes in my opinion.

Right now though Michelle is working on a contract from home so she’s the breadwinner, and the ground is frozen so I can’t spend as much time outside. So I’m on dish detail. I never actually minded doing the dishes but it’s starting to creep up on me.

As I feminist I always vowed that my daughters would see me doing household tasks. In our house, cleaning the toilet is my job, or ‘men’s work,’ because, well, I’ve been in public washrooms and my experience is that men should be living in caves and therefore are probably responsible for most of the cleaning that needs to be done in the bathroom. Obvious apologies to my sons-in-law for setting this standard.

Anytime the kids are home I do most of the dishes too. Everyone kicks in on most things, but Michelle shoulders the bulk of the cooking and so I do clean up. My attitude is if my grown kids do hours’ worth of driving to get to our place, they should relax while they’re here and I’ll do a few hours’ worth of dishes.

But this winter I’m finding that the dirty dish piles are just endless, and it’s just Michelle and me here. I’m my own worst enemy. We spoil the chickens and that doesn’t help. We had a great harvest of potatoes for the CSA this year, so there was an abundance of ‘chicken grade’ potatoes as I call them, so every couple of days I have a stock pot on the wood stove cooking potatoes, which I then mash and serve warm to the ladies. They seem to love warm mashed potatoes on cold days, so there seems to be an endless supply of new pots and things needing to be washed… constantly. And if I had half a brain I’d soak the potato masher, but I invariably forget so the starchy mess just gets petrified on there requiring soooo much scrubbing to remove.

I know what you’re thinking. “Cam, that’s what they invented dishwashers for, you moron!” I get it. There are labor saving appliances out there. But we live off-grid and I don’t think I can reasonably justify the electricity required to run one of those machines. Some days and most seasons I could, but not this time of year. Secondly, I hate dishwashers. They suck. They leave the dishes with this creepy filmy feeling. Oh, and from an energy perspective, they can only clean dishes by nuking them with hot water … so much scalding hot water that it can blast baked on cheese from the lasagna three nights ago. Think about it. Think about how hard it to wash some stuff off after the dish has sat there for a while. Even scrubbing by hand with steel wool. And that the whole concept of a dishwasher. Let the dishes sit and get the crap really hardened on there ‘until you have a full load’ … i.e. to do the right thing for the planet, then use massive amounts of energy to nuke the stuff off. Come on! They are bad news. Dishwashers should be outlawed.

I will now get hate mail from the ‘Dishwasher Fans of the World” club and be harassed on social media for being a luddite. I am prepared for that. Luckily I’m not on Facebook anymore to avoid all those “Dislike” posts.

Instead I will accept my lot in life. I will accept the endless hours at the sink, hands immersed in zero-carbon hot water heated on my woodstove, manually scraping that baked-on stuff, using my own personal energy rather than some created at a centralized power generating station hundreds of miles away with who knows what environmental impacts.

And I will enjoy every meal on dishes free of the tyranny of the dishwasher oppression that leaves that gross feeling on the dishes and glasses and cups. Every cup of coffee I drink will be in a mug removed from the legacy of some “New and Improved” dishwasher pod created in some lab to substitute what your mother did for you lovingly and with her own elbow grease.

As I do my dishes, the old fashioned way, I will contemplate the fate of the world and solve its problems with my mind free of clutter and focused on the big picture solutions. I will be grateful for so many blessings … to be born at such a great time in human history, in such a great country … and to the have the right to choose to not have to submit to the tyranny of an electrically powered dishwasher, but to be able to savor the satisfaction that comes with looking at a dish rack of drying clean dishes, that I lovingly washed. And I will step back before I put them away and say … “I did that.” That is my blood, sweat and tears in those clean dishes. I did that.

And I will look out the window beside the sink where I can see the garden, under a blanket of snow, where soon I will begin growing the food that will ultimately dirty these plates that I wash. I will think, that once I get out and get my hands in that soil, that dish detail will return to being a shared responsibility at Sunflower Farm … and I will think… spring can’t come soon enough!

Sorry about the rant. Thanks for listening.

(The photo below is not mine but you get the idea….)

By User:Mysid (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Mysid (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shorting the Whole System

I am amazed with the interest in the movie “The Big Short” among people I know. I was in fact amazed that someone thought the book was worth making into a movie. Clearly their hunch paid off because it seems to be doing quite well.

 

I loved the book. I had caught bits and pieces of the story of these traders since 2008 but Michael Lewis put it all together in a digestible form. It is brilliant.

If you’re not familiar with ‘shorting,’ it refers to the practice of betting against a stock or market, or perhaps betting that something will fall in value, as opposed to what most of us do when we buy stocks, which is to hope they go up. The traders in the movie were responsible for other people’s money and well in advance of the crash of 2008 they started to ‘short,’ or bet against the market.

In hindsight this sounds all pretty basic. Well, yea, obviously, why wouldn’t you bet against it … it was obvious it was going to correct in a big way. Well, it was to some people, but not the majority of people, including many of the people who had money invested in their funds, it was not. The years before the crash saw a huge run up in stock markets that looked like it was never going to end. So these traders took a lot of abuse from people who were watching other people make a whack of money in other funds. Or at least this is my recollection since I read the book years ago.

So they were pariahs for a long time, until they weren’t…at least to the people who stuck with them. Then they made a movie about them, after a book.

I was thinking about this concept in preparation for our upcoming workshop.  Many of the things I recommend would appear to go against conventional wisdom. Why would you heat that way, it’s not that convenient? Why would you bother doing that, isn’t that growing and storing food thing you do a whack of work?  Yup, I get it. It’s all a lot of work and a stupid idea … until it’s not. And then it’s going to look quite brilliant that you took these precautions.

I feel like with many of the things we do with a ‘preparation’ mindset, we are really missing the mainstream boat. We are ‘shorting’ the mainstream. A lot of this has to do with us realizing that the constant pursuit of money just leads to spending it, which isn’t the best thing generally for the planet. So from that perspective we feel good about it. From a prepping standpoint though I just think a lot of what we do makes a lot of sense.

I talk about this in my books and it’s the concept that nothing I recommend really has that big a downside. Investing in a solar hot water system is only going to save you money in the long run. Sure, it’s cheaper and easier to just keep using fossil fuels in the short run as you might right now, but having your own independent hot water system removes one more expense from your budget, which is a good thing, and reduces your impact on the planet (if you care), and makes you that much more resilient to a disruption in the extremely complex, capital intensive structure which delivers that fossil fuel to your home.

All the things we talk about are based on participation in the whole capitalist economic model. The types of food you purchase to put away and many of the things we recommend are based on being able to purchase these items now. We live in a time of extreme plenty. But ultimately, you are going to the effort to do these things in a bet that there may be some interruption to that big complex machine that could be fairly disruptive to your well being. You’re shorting the system.

The great thing about my direction … let’s call it ‘the little short’… is that you probably won’t have people yelling at you to change your course and keep on the whole “make money/buy stuff/have to keep working to buy more stuff’ treadmill. Most people would like to remove themselves from that economic model if they could, I just show you some techniques to speed up the process. And to be more resilient should things go a little sideways.

We’ve changed the date of our spring workshop to Saturday, March 23rd. Be sure to register as soon as possible so that we can reserve a spot for you. Come and learn how to short the whole big picture thing!

LINK for information and to register for the workshop here

 

How Heating with Wood Keeps the Darkness Away

How Heating with Wood Keeps the Darkness Away (literally, figuratively, metaphorically…)

I love heating with wood. It’s been a common theme of many of my posts.

the-warmth-of-a-woodstove

I will never forget the conversation I had with a friend before we moved off the grid almost 20 years ago and started heating with wood. She said “You’ll hate it! Oh it seems all romantic and stuff, but it won’t take long before you just hate it.” Almost 20 years later I still love it. Yes, by March I do get tired of starting the woodstove, sometimes several times a day in the swing seasons, but the overall experience is still amazing.

I love wood heat. I have never felt warmer. I love the work involved with getting our firewood. I love that’s it’s almost zero-carbon. And I love that every spring I know exactly where my heat is going to come from next winter. It’s in the piles of cut and stacked firewood that I harvested from our property that is curing and drying in the heat of summer.

I remember a movie from the 1980s called “The Mosquito Coast.” In it the father, played by Harrison Ford, has had enough of the rat race and decides to drop out. But he doesn’t do the hippie thing and just get a place in the woods near a village. Nope, he moves the family lock stock and barrel to a very southern location, in Central America I believe.

I certainly understand his desire to get out of the city. That was me. And I certainly appreciate his distaste for how wasteful our current economic model is. I’m with him. The movie though is a very cautionary tale. I’m sure the character was predisposed to this, but he begins a descent into madness and … spoiler alert … it doesn’t end well. That movie has stayed at the edge of my consciousness since I moved off-grid.

I do believe I was the instigating force in our move, although Michelle quickly came to love where we live and can’t imagine living back in the city again. I’m sure our daughters had misgivings about the whole adventure, but they seem to love visiting here now so I think living in the city they understand the attraction this place held for us.

As my mind chatters on though about how well capitalism is innovating to deal with our climate crisis (i.e. not fast enough) or the floating plastic blobs in the oceans, or the volume of waste each one of us creates each year in this system, it can become very easy to dwell on some dark thoughts about where we’re at.

This is what I love about heating with firewood. I know, it seems completely unrelated, but it’s not. Because I cut my own firewood. I harvest firewood from our 150 acres of forest and I am forced each winter to get out into our woods to do this. And when you are standing in a forest, surrounded by trees, and ponds (frozen right now) and more trees, well, it just seems that everything is alright with the world.

Saturday-in-the-woods

My focus completely changes. My mind just switches into a whole other gear. I am looking up to find dead trees to harvest. I am looking at the lean of these dead or dying trees to figure out how I can get them to fall right to the forest floor, without getting hung up in other trees. I’d like to say I’m such an expert that this rarely happens, but instead I’ll say that our woods are so healthy that I can rarely find a tree standing off on its own enough to not hit any number of obstacles on the way down.

I am also accompanied by “Jasper the Wonder Dog” in the woods and he reminds me of the simple concept of ‘joy.’ In the winter ‘The J-Dog” spends way more time inside the house than he’d like. But once he gets into the woods, all is forgotten. There are just endless smells to chase and paths to sprint down and places to dig and explore. Michelle claims our pets can smile. I’m not sure I see this (although none of them are grumpy cats so I guess I get it a bit).  But I can sense however the different mental states in my dog stuck inside most of the day in front of the fire which in itself is not the end of the world, and the dog in the woods who has unlimited space to run and unlimited smells to pursue. It simply is joy. There’s no question he’s smiling. I’m smiling right along with him.

This week we were cutting in an area with a lot of big beautiful pine trees. The deer love these places to hang out during big snowstorms because less of the snow makes it to the ground underneath. And boy does our dog love the scents they leave after being hunkered down.

Then there’s the repetition of hauling the cut logs from wherever they are (generally in lower area, up a huge descent)… up to the road where I can access them with the truck. And the lifting and the bucking with the electric chainsaw and splitting with the electric log splitter and piling and stacking and.. and … and…

A mind boggling amount of work, and a mind boggling stupid way to heat your house as opposed to having someone deliver a fossil fuel to your house to do it… natural gas, propane, home heating oil… but a mind boggling method to keep your mind uncluttered and unencumbered and joyful.

Ever have one of those nights when your mind if just full of thoughts that keep you from getting to sleep, and you haven’t had enough physical activity to make you tired enough to sleep? Ya…. When I’m cutting firewood I don’t have those.

bliss-in-the-woods

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Up Close and Personal With Jasper the Wonder Dog

The Staff here at “The Sunflower Farm Blog” were thrilled to be able to arrange an interview with that Border Collie everyone is talking about, Jasper T.W.D. We have had a number of requests to the blog for more photos and news about him, so we thought it better to actually feature him in his own blog post. So now, without further adieu, we’re one-on-one with the “J Dog.” (Editor’s Note: We’ve had more snow since this interview was conducted, so muddy paws aren’t so much of a problem anymore!)

SUNFLOWER FARM BLOG (SFB): Thank you Jasper for taking the time to sit down with us today.

JASPER: You’re most welcome. Although I will probably wander a bit during the interview. This concept of ‘sitting down’ is kind of alien to a Border Collie.

SFB: Absolutely, no problem. Won’t bother us a bit.

JASPER: Brilliant.

SFB: So first off, should I call you “Jasper,” or “The Wonder Dog” or as you are often referred to as “J-Dog,” or even “Buddy.”

JASPER: Those all fine Guy. I like them all. More importantly, is it okay if I refer to you as ‘Guy,’ ‘cause that’s kind of how I refer to most of you upright walkers.

SFB (GUY): Guy is perfect. So Jasper, how has your winter been going?

JASPER: Thanks, that’s an excellent question Guy. It’s been an awesome winter. Much milder than last winter which has meant way better conditions for running, chasing, catching Frisbees … that sort of thing. It’s better too for when the upright walkers head out for the day and I’m left here alone outside on my own, allegedly ‘protecting the chickens’ … whatever that means. But I have a pretty thick coat, so I’m not complaining.

watching chickens

GUY: So no complaints about the weather?

JASPER: The only downside to warm weather is that we keep having these thaws so what should be covered in snow gets melted and muddy, and … well … I spend the whole day running through it, so I get pretty mucky. At the end of the day that Guy takes me over to wherever he can find some snow and makes me crawl around. I’m not sure whether you know this, but Border Collies are the only dog that can drag ourselves around on our stomachs … makes it easier to scoot under fences and things when we’re chasing sheep. So essentially I have to do my ‘performing monkey’ crawl-around-on-my-tummy routine until he deems that I’ve cleaned enough of the mud off, then I’m inside for the night. Seems kind of extreme to me. I mean, it’s a farmhouse. It was built in 1888. It’s had farmers (including him) wandering around in it with muddy boots for a hundred years. I track in a little mud, like COME ON.. get over it… pul-lease.

GUY: How do you find the food at Sunflower Farm?

JASPER: The food is awesome! Well, it’s awesome but there could be more of it and it could be served in greater quantities … more often. But apart from that, no complaints.

GUY: Tell us about a typical day in terms of meals.

JASPER: Well, the Guy feeds me after he feeds the chickens. I get breakfast with the ‘good food’ that Michelle has researched, then I get the cheaper stuff for lunch, and then the good stuff for dinner. It’s combined with a good variety of people food… leftover pasta, potatoes, some rice…the other day they had Indian food and there was some left over so I was having my regular food garnished with it every day for a week. I LOVE CURRY. I could eat that stuff for… like… EVER! So yes, there’s no complaints in the food department. I love to eat!

GUY: What about snacks?

JASPER: Well they’re letting me hang around more at breakfast which is a good thing. Michelle makes dog biscuits from whole wheat flour and peanut butter and other stuff. I mean, I love all dog biscuits, but I’m “over the moon” about these things. She’s very demanding about what I have to do to get one … “Shake a paw” … “Sit”… “Speak”… I’m mean, it’s kind of mundane stuff, but I’ll do almost anything for one of those biscuits!

face close up

GUY: Yes, in the photo I can see you eyeing them on the table. You seem to have this ‘tilted head’ thing you do. Can you tell us about that?

eyes on the prize

begging

JASPER: Well I don’t think this is unique to Border Collies, but yes, I harness that for its fullest impact. People love it when they are talking to me and I’m staring at them and then I just tilt my head .. what … 15 degrees? It’s like, “What are you talking about, I think I kinda get it but I’m not sure?” I mean, I’m a Border Collie, of course I get it, but I use the tilted head thing all of the time for maximum people manipulation effect.

GUY: You mean you can actually influence human behavior?

JASPER: Absolutely! They call it “Jedi Mind Tricks.” I just call it being darn smart. But yes, I have a whole series of ways I manipulate their behavior to further my own needs. Putting my head on their lap is one of the classics. I just flop my head down and start using telepathy to get them to do what ever I want … a head rub… a treat… or to open the darn door so I can go for a run. These people are putty in my hands.

GUY: How’s the whole ‘fetch’ thing going?

JASPER: It’s going awesome Guy. I think it was compounded by the NFL Playoffs. That Guy who throws the Frisbee seemed to spend an awful lot of time working on his throws to just lead me enough to make the catch. I mean, I like this, and I like how he claps when I catch it, but he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time prancing around with his hands up in the air cheering himself on … “Touchdown!”… “Cam Newton has done it again, another NFL record…” I mean really. I do all the work. I should be getting the glory. After we watched that final football game a couple of Sunday nights ago, he has really backed off on the whole “Panthers win the Superbowl” routine. Not sure what happened there.

GUY: And the truck rides? They’re still good?

JASPER: Absolutely Guy, I love the truck rides, I’ll not try and deny that. I prefer the longer ones, when we go and get that trailer of smelly stuff from those horses… even though horses kind of freak me out…as does having that thing ‘trail’ us all the way home… but I overlook that just to be in the truck. I was a ‘driver’ in another life, I’m pretty sure of it. You can see it when we’re pulling on to the road… I mean that guy behind the wheel keeps pushing my head back so he can see around me, like he doesn’t get that I’m looking both ways to make sure the path is clear. I might as well be driving the truck the way I see it.

truck dog

GUY: Jasper, sounds like a pretty good life. Sounds you’re one of the family here at Sunflower Farm. Thanks for the taking the time.

JASPER: Absolutely, no problem Guy. Love it here at Sunflower Farm, life is good. Now where’s that treat you promised me? Come on, cough it up … I won’t leave you alone until you do!

deepsnow

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Time to Evaluate Your Preparedness

First off, thank you to the many thoughtful responses to our healthcare blog. I guess I was hoping to help any of our American readers get a sense that the Canadian universal healthcare system, while awesome, has some pretty big challenges on the horizon.

I’ve had a good haul of ‘day-old’ newspapers and copies of “The Guardian” to plow through of late and I’ve noticed a bit of a trend. An article in The Guardian was titled “Crashing Markets are telling us something.”  Ya think? (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/17/china-economic-crisis-world-economy-global-capitalism)

In a recent Globe and Mail, Carl Mortished’s article “Why Cash is Still King” starts off by asking if the world descends into chaos what would you stuff in your pockets as you bugged out? “Would it be plastic cards or paper bills?” That article doesn’t even get into the reality of how gold and precious metals have started their upward climb with the uncertainty in the markets.

This brought me back to the book “Lights Out” by Ted Koppel. He wrote about the impacts of a widespread blackout should the grid ever get hacked. After 18 years of living off the grid I’m finally getting a handle on how many people don’t ‘get’ what has to be done to prepare. For example, I’ve often had friends tell me about someone they know who has moved off the grid and powers their home entirely by renewable energy. Usually it turns out that ‘powered’ only refers to keeping their lights and appliances on with solar and wind power. They might innocently admit that they heat with propane through hydronic in-floor heating. They probably also heat their hot water with propane. So much for being “off grid.”

Once you realize that 60% of the ‘energy’ you consume in your house is used to heat it, and 20% is used to heat your water, you realize that for these individuals, independent renewable energy is only meeting 20% of their home’s energy requirements (this is obviously tailored towards people who live in colder parts of the country). So if you are off-grid for environmental reasons, using a fossil fuel like propane for 80% of your energy needs doesn’t really cut it. Or if you’re off-grid because you want to be ‘prepared’ for the zombpocalypse (a fancy amalgam of zombie apocalypse), then heating your home with a fuel you have to purchase and have delivered to your house (and that frankly requires a huge amount of very capital intense infrastructure to drill for and refine), then you really haven’t achieved that goal of independence.

I am always amazed at the number of people who feel their preparation for an extended power outage is a gas or diesel or propane generator. That’s great for a few days or a week, or until your fuel runs out, but during an extended outage it’s not a good strategy.

After reading all of this I finally decided to offer a spring workshop here at Sunflower Farm. I think we will ‘go dark’ or really off the grid soon, but for now I think I’ve got another workshop in me. I really do enjoy the energy that comes from a house of people who seem genuinely interested in how we’ve got our home as energy independent and low carbon as we have.

The time is growing short if you’re planning on getting serious about putting a plan together about being prepared for an uncertain future. It only works if you do it while you have access to the tools you’ll need. And most importantly, you need to know the most efficient way of harnessing your limited resources (because most of us have some limit on what we can spend) and putting them to the best use.

I have spent almost 20 years trying to figure this out. Initially it was because I wanted our home to run more efficiently. Then I became more motivated to put as little carbon into the atmosphere as I physically could. Then it became because I wanted to offer the best information I could to the people who read our books. And now it’s because I want to be as logical and ‘sensible’ as I can in making our home independent and prepared for ‘bumps in the road.”

I start out each workshop saying if I didn’t leave my house, and nothing came down my driveway for 6 months, the quality of my life wouldn’t change. I readily admit I will get a caffeine withdrawal headache for several days when the coffee runs out and I am forced to detox, but I know that’s coming and I’m mentally prepared for it.

So this may be our last “Hands-On, Solar-Powered, All-You-Can-Grow, Ready for Rough Times” Workshop. We’ve set aside April 30th for it. We limit participation since we can only sit so many people around our dining room table for lunch, so if you’ve been thinking about this, now’s the time to do it. Or you can send your spouse (or kid, or neighbor) and have them give you the highlights. I would highly recommend you come yourself and see how our place it works. It’s pretty awesome.

I’ll also note that we’ve had a number of Americans come to our place and with the Canadian dollar outrageously low right now, you’ll get way more bang for your U.S. dollar. So don’t delay! Book early! Book often! Extend your American Dollar Value and make the trip the today! It’s always worth the drive to Sunflower Farm!

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from-the-air-Sunflower-farm

 

 

The Great Canadian Universal Healthcare Parking Fee Crisis

Recently one of our American readers (hi S.C.!) asked us to write about our Canadian universal healthcare system. It has sort of been in our news of late so I thought I would use the request to answer her questions and rant about our system.

We have a universal healthcare system whereby every Canadian citizen is covered and no one pays anything personally. It was created in the mid 1960’s after a long and arduous battle between those for it and those against it. It’s just a brilliant concept where, like any insurance program, you spread risk. Everyone contributes and you hope that it’s not your house that burns down (or you who gets sick) but if you do, you are covered. It is funded from general government revenues like income tax.

I remember when I first began working (many long years ago) I paid an OHIP Premium. The OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Program) managed healthcare in my province and it was partially funded by the federal government, partially by the province and individuals contributed a small amount. It was mostly symbolic but eventually some government decided to appeal to voters by eliminating that minimal payment.

I am a huge believer in and supporter of our universal healthcare system, but not having people contribute to it or be aware of the cost of it, is just an inane concept. What it boils to is this; the costliest system that Canadians encounter on a regular basis, IS FREE and so for many people it has no value associated with it. Having a charge affixed to something equates to value for most people.

Healthcare is starting to use up an increasingly large part of our government’s resources. In Ontario it uses 40% of the budget and we spend $50 billion a year on healthcare for a population of 13 million. The percentage of the spending government devotes to healthcare grows each year. The federal government a decade ago signed a health accord and agreed to increase funding to the provinces by 7% each year, for the last decade. Now think about it. Has the economy been growing by 7%? Has your saving’s account been paying you 7% interest? Of course not. I believe the doubling time for a 7% increase is about a decade. So basically Canadians are spending double on healthcare what we spent a decade ago. Really? How do you think that’s going to work out?

Most Canadians have never seen a bill for healthcare or for their share of the cost of the system. If the system wasn’t already so overburdened with bureaucracy, I think that every time you leave the doctor’s office or hospital you should be presented with a statement that itemizes the cost for the treatment you received.

When I ran in the last provincial election as the Green Party candidate, there were several All Candidates Meetings where (mostly) older citizens expressed concern that they couldn’t afford the parking fees at hospitals, which have been rising quickly since it’s one of the few ways that hospitals can generate revenue. This topic is now regularly covered in the media, this crisis of healthcare parking. I can only shake my head. Our system has doubled how much money it requires in about a decade, and we think parking is a problem? TVO’s “The Agenda’ just did a show on healthcare where they demonstrated that 1 percent of the population uses 33% of the healthcare budget, and the next 4% uses a third … so essentially 5 percent of our population uses 2/3 of the healthcare budget.

http://tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/high-care-high-cost-patients

(Just watch the first 2 minutes of this video.)

Half of the population uses only 2% of the healthcare spending. I am unbelievably grateful to be in that 2%. I am also incredibly grateful that the system has been there when members of my family have moved into the upper healthcare consumption percentage.

As our population gets older they use a much higher percentage of the healthcare system.

I know what you’re saying, “So Cam, you are being very negative about the whole enterprise and you’re not offering solutions.” That is correct. In Canada if you say we need to start charging people to use the system it’s anathema (the absolute worst thing you can suggest) to hardcore universal healthcare supporters. Somehow we have to convince Canadians that our healthcare system is a huge privilege, it’s not a right or a given. We have to start using it only when we actually need it. And we have to start being honest about the system. It’s not sustainable and no one will talk about it.

The deductible for my household insurance keeps going up and my agent keeps reminding me that insurance is for a catastrophic event. I believe that Canadians need to stop going to the doctor to get their blood pressure checked when they can buy their own machine for $50 and do it themselves. They need to stay out of the emergency ward when they have a cold.

Any politician who suggests we have to start being honest about the tsunami of a healthcare crisis that is coming will not be elected and this is proof to me of the deficiencies of democracy. When you’re honest with the electorate you don’t win. We aren’t even talking about rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, and it seems to me that would be a good starting point.

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And then the lumber broke my truck in half!

Ever see those ads for new pickup trucks … the ones with big honkin’ pick up trucks doing honkin’ heavy work, like pulling tugboats on trailers, or moving football stadiums on wheels? They talk about the truck being biggest in class, towing capacity, foot lbs of torque. They end with bug hunks of steel dropping from great heights, breaking concrete when they land, or with big hunks of steel turning over to show the trucks motto. You know the ones. Tough. Rugged. Unbreakable.

Ya, I don’t have one of those pickup trucks.

I have a small, older pickup truck. Quite a bit older.

Now, I love my pickup truck, don’t get me wrong. It is awesome. It does amazing things and has pulled some massive trailers full of hay. So from that perspective I have no regrets and only mild ‘big new pickup envy.” I think most of my envy comes with the age of the vehicle. Mine is now more than a decade and half old and its best days are behind it.

Here in my part of Canada we have snow and ice, and people just don’t drive according to the conditions, so we put mountains of salt on our roads. ‘Cuz you know, no one can afford to drive slower, especially in winter. And leaving a little earlier to get somewhere safer in bad weather … come on … don’t even think about it.

So my truck has a lot of rust. There is more rust than steel. I guess some people would refer to it as a rust-bucket. Just before I signed off Facebook and posted the photo of me under the truck working on one of many broken things it wasn’t an understatement. A lot of stuff goes wrong with this much rust. But when I look at the energy and resources that went into building this vehicle, (and my bank balance) I am determined to keep driving it.

Driving my truck is an adventure. I depart each journey with the expectation that I will be walking home. By setting my expectations low, I usually end up delighted. The truck makes a variety of horrifying noises, and as such I tend to listen to the radio fairly loudly so as to reduce my stress. Even “Rage Against the Machine” seems calming and serene in comparison to the magical mystery symphony emanating from The Ranger.

Recently I got a great load of scrap off-cuts from my neighbor. It is poplar that had been cut in 16-foot lengths. I usually take the chainsaw to lop off the longer pieces but forgot it this time. The truck bed is 7 feet. The tailgate adds another foot, so if you do the math, 8 feet of the 16-foot length is in the truck. The rest hangs off the back. As I loaded the wood in it actually teetered and rested on the ground. I suppose I could have ‘dragged’ it home, but it was snowy, therefore there was salt and sand on the road, and since I will probably be building beautifully attractive and high quality furniture which will grace my living room with this wood, the salt stains were to be avoided.

Once I got the wood in I was able to cinch the load down with ratcheted tie downs, so that the back end of the lumber was now off the ground. This looked great in principle until I got on the road. Then the cacophony of deathly noises began.

lumber breaking truck in half

On a new truck, one would assume that the box on the back of the truck was securely fastened to the frame. I’m pretty sure mine still is as well … hopefully it is … maybe it is. But as I drove I began to seriously question how sound this connection was. These new sounds were of a more critical, structural in nature than the usual sounds. Kind of like in a movie where someone is hanging on a steel beam, suspended high above the earth, after the earthquake. Or like the scene in “Castaway” with Tom Hanks in the water after the jet has crashed and the jet is tearing itself apart. In my case all that was missing was for the massive jet engine to come hurtling toward me as it sunk, nearly taking Tom Hanks with it.

I had a fairly good image of being on the cover of “The North Frontenac News” under the headline “Cidiot breaks truck in half by overloading it. No license required for idiots from the city to haul wood … THAT’S TOO BIG FOR THEIR LITTLE TRUCK.” It wouldn’t be the best thing to be known about locally, but at least I’d be known. Clearly running for the Green Party hasn’t been raising my profile.

On the drive home I drive on serpentine, country roads. Each bump created a new horrible, twisting, contorting, heaving, ready-to-snap kind of sound. Stresses were building. I was reaching the critical mass of strain. I drove relatively slowly so that it wouldn’t spread too far across the road when it finally gave way. I’m always conflicted … drive slowly and reduce the footprint when it finally goes, or drive faster and hope I can get home before it blows. So much conflict.

I am always excited when I round the last corner climbing up that last hill towards home. I know Jasper the Wonder Dog was sensing something was amiss with the load. He gave me that “Can you hear that? That doesn’t sound good” look a lot on the drive home. He looks from the front windshield to the back, where he can see the load which he doesn’t like, because he doesn’t like things following the truck, so he was like “Can you see that? There’s something on our tail!” when he wasn’t giving me the “This is gonna end in tears” look. Dogs can sense acts of nature before they hit, so it was only normal I would give Jasper’s looks of concern the respect they deserve.

The turn into the driveway was the worst because it the hardest turn we had taken, and well, obviously the stress had built up to the point where the truck bed was about to shatter into a million little pieces just as we turned in. I had visions of dumping the load across the road just as Greg Storring came around the corner in the honey wagon, with the ensuing sloshing and chaos leaving a lasting effect on our air quality. Call the newspaper!

But then I did it! I got it around the corner and into the driveway. Crisis averted. Disaster put off until the next trip. Never mind…

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Michelle’s Note: Thanks to our wonderful and generous friend LA for her recent donation to the tip jar. It was very much appreciated, especially at this time of year!

As I edited this post for Cam I couldn’t help but remark to him, “You are such a drama queen!” He insists that this is one occasion when he wasn’t overreacting!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their business, Aztext Press. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is a sought after speaker for conferences and keynotes and has motivated thousands to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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