Flexed Arm Hangs

Michelle’s Note: We got 6 mm of rain on Saturday, the day after we posted Cam’s blog about our 8-week-long drought, and another 24 mm on Tuesday. Apparently Cam should have asked our readers for help a lot sooner! Thanks for the rain dances / the prayers / the positive thoughts that you sent our way. They worked!


And now for Cam’s blog post ….

The big news in Canada is that Gord Downie, the lead singer of “The Tragically Hip” has terminal brain cancer. Gord is from Kingston, which is where I grew up and live near now, and I’ve always loved their music so it’s a bit of a bummer. But as they say on the Zero Hedge website “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” For some people, their timeline is just a little more defined than others.

They never got very big in the U.S., but ‘The Hip’ have been filling (hockey) arenas across Canada for decades. I saw them at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto once and then in Hamilton …  back during my concert-attending days. I’ve even written about them here on this blog once or twice. (Check out this post for example.)

Downie has always written great songs about Canadian stuff. “50 Mission Cap” is about a hockey player named Bill Barilko who disappeared on a fishing trip after scoring the goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs the Stanley Cup in 1951. That was back when the Toronto Maple Leafs actually won.

They also have another song called “Wheat Kings “about David Milgaard who was wrongly imprisoned for 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

Their song “Three Pistols” is about the Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson who went missing on Canoe Lake which is where we used to start our canoe trips into Algonquin Park. Another song called “Bobcaygeon” is about a town in cottage country where I used to sell radio advertising for the station I worked for in Peterborough.

“38 Years Old” talks about the 1973 prison break from Millhaven Penitentiary, near where I live. It happened because there had been a riot at “KP” or Kingston Penitentiary, and inmates were moved in before it was ready … so obviously they found a way to get out.

I’m about the same age as Downie so a lot of his lyrics talk about stuff from my youth. In “Fireworks” he talks about watching the Canada/Russia hockey series on a black and white TV at school.  You see, hockey is so important to Canada that it was part of the core curriculum when I grew up. Later in the song he says “Next to your comrades in the National Fitness Program…” This was one of those fitness tests from when I was a kid. You had to do sit-ups and stuff. “Comrades” is a great word because it sounds very socialistic … you can just see the old black and white movies of skinny kids doing jumping jacks and stuff …for the good of the country … of the mother country.

The next lyric is “… caught in a perpetual flexed arm hang …” The flexed arm hang meant doing a chin-up, usually on the pipe that held up the basket ball net, and seeing how long you could hang there in the upper chin-up position. The longer you hung on, the more points you got. I know I only got the “Bronze” crest, which I’m pretty sure was one of the first ‘participation’ type awards ever. In other words, ‘Hey kid, you’re weak and useless, but you showed up, so here, sew this Bronze crest on your jean jacket (or don’t unless you want to get picked on!) The great thing was that the Bronze Crest was basically the same color as the Gold crest, you couldn’t really tell which is was. Bonus for me. Downer for kids who got gold.

I was never a strong kid so I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do the flexed arm hang, or maybe the gym teacher, Mr. Pool,  gave me a boost to get me into the chin-up stance, whereby I immediately began my descent to just hanging by my arms. “Get down Mather!” “Sorry Mr. Pool.” Some of my friends like Teddy King could have hung there all day long. Sigh …

Not being able to do the flexed arm hang always bothered me. And once I was able to do a chin-up… later in life… not sure when that was… I vowed I would always be able to do a chin-up… until they put me in the ground. No really. It’s a little commitment I’ve made to myself. As I kid when I bought a package of gum there were advertisements in the gum package about not being the 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in your face by the big strong guy at the beach. So from then on it was like “Never again.”

When I stop being able to do chin-ups I have asked my family to put me on an ice flow and push me off into the sunset … never to be seen again. This is the Canadian way. You can look it up.

Just to prove that I can finally do the flexed arm hang, I got Michelle to take this photo as proof. And no, she didn’t just knock a chair out of the way. I put this old wagon axle up in the horse barn expressly for the purpose of doing chin-ups years ago.

I debated posting this photo. It reeks of vanity. But how else can I prove that I’m not just full of crap because it’s pretty easy to say “oh yea, I can bench press 450 kgs, but I don’t have my equipment here right now so I can’t show you.”

IMG_0079

No chin-up-ee… it’s the ice flow for you. “Take that Mr. Pool! How do you like me now!”

And with that you must ask yourself, how did a blog about songs from The Tragically Hip turn into Cam doing a ‘flexed arm hang?” If you follow the blog, this shouldn’t surprise you. If you just follow the blog for folksy homesteading off-grid info… well…the horse barn has an old wagon axle in it… how cool is that! Oh, and off-gridders got picked on as kids like everyone else.

And if you’ve ever had one of those experiences when you were young that you always looked back and wished you could change, well, this was mine. Thanks for listening.


Michelle’s Follow-Up: And yes, we’ll be watching (on TV) along with the rest of Canada on Saturday night when The Tragically Hip performs their last concert, in Kingston!

Heat + Drought + Pests = Exhaustion

Note from Michelle: It’s been a while since our last post. Even at his busiest, Cam usually finds the time to unwind in front of the computer screen and type out a post. As many of our readers know, we run a CSA (community supported/shared agriculture) during the growing season and we grow enough vegetables for about 30 member families. Beginning in late winter/early spring we start seeds, we spend the spring preparing and planting our many gardens and then during the summer months we weed and water and harvest and provide a box of fresh veggies once a week to our members.

This summer has been a bit different. Here’s a note that Cam wrote to our members. He writes an update 4 times over the course of the growing season. This was Week #8 so we are halfway through our CSA.

 

Hey Everyone

Are we having fun with this drought yet? I’m not!

In my last update a month ago I said that I had heard the drought was the worst since 1959, the year I was born. Now Michelle tells me that it’s the worst since 1888, the year our farmhouse was built. (http://www.thewhig.com/2016/08/10/region-in-midst-of-driest-summer-since-1888) I have this funny feeling somehow I’m responsible for the thing. We have had no rain since my last report, including no thunderstorms. They have all missed us, although 10 millimeters of rain when you need 80 would be inconsequential at this point. It just would have been a nice dust suppressant for half a day before it evaporated.

Regardless, things are not going well here. We have 4 things to deal with. Lack of water. Excessive heat. Pests. Exhaustion. Where do you want me to start?

1) THE DROUGHT.

Both our drilled well at the house and dug well by the main garden are the lowest they have ever been. This is restricting how much we can physically water, and believe me, everything needs water, and lots of it right now. Michelle and I brainstormed on how to deal with this. We contemplated buying truckloads of water but we’d need a reservoir they can dump it in fast. We looked into a couple of reasonably priced swimming pools from Canadian Tire, but all the stores in Eastern Ontario were sold out. Can you believe it? Waiting ‘til August on the hottest summer … ever … only to discover they’re sold out. What’s up with that?

We borrowed a neighbor’s gas water pump. (Thank you Sandy!) The pond by our house is a puddle. The next closest pond 300 or 400 feet from the garden, which has always had water in it, is gone. We have a deeper pond we call “the hockey” pond, which still has water in it, but it’s 700 feet from the house. So this is what we’re using. So, it’s walk 700 feet through the bug-infested woods to start the pump. Walk back, fill up totes and rain barrels. Walk back 700 feet through the bush to shut it off. Walk back. Rinse. Repeat. Hence, item number 2…

2) EXHAUSTION

The heat is starting to catch up to me. I can handle a hot July. I can handle some heat in June and some early in August, but things got really hot in May and haven’t let up. I think Michelle said we’ve had double the normal number of days over 30°C. It seems every day is that way to me. Normally, running a CSA is a marathon that I love. This year, we’ve added constant watering to our usual TO DO List. I have a lot of drip irrigation in place, but with our set up it often works best for me to fill up rain barrels throughout the gardens with our dug well pump, and then water specifically with watering cans … and it turns out … again to my surprise, water is heavy! Who knew?

We’ve had the added bonus of our “War with the critters” in the corn patch which means that despite our exhaustion, nights are sleepless. Last year we had no raccoons. This year we’re getting it from the ground, the air and below. Birds and chipmunks are being very aggressive with the corn. Raccoons are back every night, and I think we have groundhogs tunneling in, because a lot of the lower ears are eaten on the stalk which I’ve never seen before. Which ties into our next issue…

3) EXCESSIVE HEAT

Over a certain temperature plants just basically shut down as a defense mechanism, and a lot of our plants are doing that now. This will be our only week for corn. I’ve had to cut our losses with the heat and lack of water and corn uses an enormous amount of water. Plus, much of the corn is showing signs of both heat and water stress, turning brown, and not producing ears. The corn in this week’s basket was irrigated but I can no longer do that. With the number of bean plants I had planted you should have had another week or two of them, but again, they have just packed it in with the heat.

With our limited water we’re having to choose what we think we can keep alive. Some things like potatoes and onions are done growing for the season. Usually they’d still be going strong but they basically have said “OK, so… no water…that’s it for me…I’m done for this year…” The harvest will be greatly reduced, but at least I focus on watering other things. I won’t even get into my inability to rototill because of the dust and hence the number of weeds that are going to seed, which will be problematic next year. The challenges just never end this year.

4) PESTS

Apart from the battle Jasper the Wonder Dog and I have been waging in the corn patch with furry and feathered creatures, insects surprisingly seem to love this weather … who knew that organisms that have been around for .. like …ever… could adapt so easily to an epic drought? The big insects like the grasshoppers and locusts, have always been problematic, but at least they used to have grass and areas around the gardens to feed on when they were chased away screaming in fear for their life by me and my trusty badminton racquet. But alas, there is no grass or much of anything else nearby to eat, so they are pretty determined to eat much of ‘your’ food before I can harvest it for you.

We have a good crop of fall brassicas (broccoli and cauliflower) in the ground and if I can keep the little critters off it and keep the water to it, we might have a shot.

The bottom line is that I’ve been growing food for 40 years and never imagined something like this. I have been very proud of what we’ve been able to provide our members for the last 5 years. This year I am having to live with great disappointment and I will not be able to provide the volume or quality I would like. It is always a challenge when you are working harder and feel like you are not providing an optimal end product, but nature is winning the battle this year. I have gone through all the various stages of grief like denial and anger with the drought and have finally reached acceptance. We’ll do everything we can with the resources we have to salvage what’s left of the season.

It sure would have been a great summer to spend at a cottage by a lake. What was I thinking deciding to grow food instead!

Thanks for listening.

Cam

The photos below show just how hard we’ve been working to keep everything alive!

Progress in the Potato Patch

I thought I’d provide an update on what we’ve been up to for the CSA this year at Sunflower Farm.

This is, of course from the perspective of the “I hate to buy new stuff/hoarder/make due with what I have/reuse/repurpose” person who runs the joint. I am honestly to the point where I experience a negative physical reaction when I am forced to purchase new things, so whenever I can make use of what I have on hand, I’m up for for it.

For instance I have a tote for water storage that I got from a neighbor 4 or 5 years ago and it was probably already 5 years old at least at that time. You can tell it’s one of the older ones because the external metal cage is made of steel rather than aluminum. Over time plastic gets brittle and last fall as I attempted to remove a hose out of this one the whole water delivery extension broke off … and the tote was full of water. As sad I was to see it break, I felt a childlike joy watching the water gush out of that sucker. ‘Come Ma quick!, the dam has bust!”

With the force of the water in a full tote there was no way to repair that section. So I tipped in on its side, and drilled a new hole in the top, screwed a tap into it, and now it’s working fine. Now, I will qualify that I practiced a number of times on the top (near the break) because there is an art to screwing a brass threaded tap into plastic. I have done it before, but if you drill the hole too small … it won’t fit … too big and it leaks. This time I got it just right and the repair bought me another year or two to use this one. Just one less hunk of plastic at a landfill.

practiceholesdrilled

watertoteonside

watertoterunningwater

Two years ago my neighbor Sandy gave me an old portable garage frame that had crumpled under some heavy wet snow that hit unexpectedly a couple of Novembers ago. This was the same heavy wet snowstorm that bent my PVC hoop house like a fine leather horse saddle. Luckily my PVC bounced back, but this metal did not. So I bent some of the steel and asked my other neighbour Ken to weld a few of the places where it had broken.

Then when the grocery store in town was replacing the plastic on their greenhouse that they use to sell plants from in the spring, I of course was first in line for the old plastic. And yes, I could probably scrape together some money to afford a new greenhouse, but why buy a shiny new thing when you can hack together something that looks like crap, but is functional nonetheless?

So last year I threw the plastic over the garage and had a greenhouse. Turns out the plastic was way too long. Plus I had only put one door in the greenhouse which just wasn’t enough during really hot spells to get proper ventilation. So this spring I moved the metal frame, then doubled the size with my own “wooden” supports, fashioned, obviously from scrap from my neighbor Don’s millwork business. If you were thinking that I’m probably getting a reputation as a scrounger in my part of the woods, you would be absolutely correct ….”Who ya gonna call…”

The greenhouse is now twice as big as it was last year and has doors in each end. The new section I built is big enough for the rototiller to fit through so I can actually till inside the greenhouse. Sometimes my brain hurts with my ingenuity. Is there an “Inventors Hall of Fame” I should nominate myself for? A “Scroungers Hall of Fame?”

Regardless, the greenhouse seems huge and every time I walk in I say… “I did this!” I should’ve made the door even wider to fit my inflated head through.

new greenhouse metal frame

newgreenhousewoodenframe

One of the other experiments I’m trying this summer relates to our melons. We are far enough north that I am challenged to have much success with melons, water or musk…i.e. cantaloupes. We just don’t seem to have quite enough heat, or else I keep picking the wrong cultivars.

Our main garden surrounds a huge granite rock outcropping. As I do so often, I saw this a bad thing. I had expanded the gardens close to it, but still had a ‘weed death zone’ where grass and weeds would encroach on the garden. So last fall I got Ken and his tractor to push that expanse of weedy mess into the garden. I hacked and dragged out all the weeds and grass and was left with some good soil. So now the garden goes right to the rock.

On a hot sunny day that granite really absorbs the heat. So I put all the melons in hills around it, hoping they may like that heat, and even get a little latent heat kicked back out on those cool nights we often have. What d’ya say… is this a brilliant concept or what?

And as an even bigger bonus about the whole process, I now have a big rain collection area, so when it rains, all this additional moisture drains down the rock into the surrounding soil, improving its water retention potential, which when you’re growing “water” melons I’m thinking is a pretty big deal. Sometimes my ability to turn a bad situation into a good one is just amazing!

rock for heat

We’ll see how this goes. I planted my first garden in the subsoil clay of a subdivision in Burlington Ontario when I was 16. So I’ve been putting seeds in the ground for 40 years now. Every year I try some new things and every year I get a little bit better. When I plant my last seed at 92 (or 58, we’ll see that goes) I will in fact be the most knowledgeable food grower in this part of the world, in eons. The daughter of our late neighbor Florabelle will dispute this fact I assume. No one will know, except me. But is there a “Food Growers Hall of Fame” I could get nominated for?

If my melons are fabulous this fall, rest assured you, along with our CSA members will be the first to know. If you never hear about this experiment again, I’m sure you figure out the rest. A million other factors will influence how well those melons grow, but at least I feel I’ve given it my best shot to tilt the odds in their favor. Heaven knows with the way our crazy weather is going, the odds seemed to be constantly stacked against those producing food.

Meanwhile, I shall keep my eyes and ears open for the next best thing someone is going to throw out, so that I can incorporate it into our food production system. I am blessed that my amazing wife will just roll her eyes at me, accept the chaos, and not leave lock and stock and barrel back to the comforts and organization of suburbia. I am a lucky man.

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Thanks to T.H. for his recent generous and most welcome donation! I think you can tell from Cam’s various posts that donations are never wasted on new items when something used can be repurposed!

Installed a New Clothes Dryer!

(Cam is busy 24/7 these days getting everything planted for our CSA but luckily he wrote this post a few weeks ago.)

Yup, we installed a new clothes dryer! Nothing to it. Pick up the phone. Have the appliance company deliver it. Set it up. Presto! Keep working until you’re 97 to pay for the energy to power it. Well, you knew that wasn’t going to be the case for us!

We used a clothesline in the city so it wasn’t a leap for us to use one in the country… with the added bonus of a lot less diesel particulate from city buses. You can have a dryer in an off grid house, but it would be powered by propane and I am too cheap to buy that stuff. And the concept of burning fossil fuels and blasting the heat out into the atmosphere, to accomplish a task that the sun and wind will do just as well … albeit somewhat slower… seems ludicrous to me. Anyway, if you’re not a clothesline user now, I’m not going to convince you, so I won’t try.

Our existing clothesline was giving up the ghost and was easily 25 years old. Last year when it was clear it needed to be replaced I just built a support to try and hold up the 3 sagging lines, which kind of worked, but kind of didn’t and was kind of a huge stupid waste of time, which I’m noted for in these situations. Why bite the bullet and just fix it right when you can dick around and do a half ass job a number of times and use 3 times as much mental energy?

I knew it was going to be a big project. We picked a new spot which meant digging a couple of new 4 foot holes by hand. In our sand this is no big deal. Then I had to get the new cedar posts. My goal was to have the job done by mid-April so it wouldn’t interfere with the CSA at all … but the guy that I buy my posts from had eye surgery which held us up, and I got distracted with this job and that … and so I was two months late finishing it.

Gary has tons of cedar on his property and he cuts it in the winter and sleds them out on the snow. Debarking the posts is the responsibility of the purchaser and it was a slow process.

removingbark2

 

removingbark

Then to get them into the holes I lifted each post off the ground about 6 inches at a time while Michelle slid the sawhorse under the log and closer to the hole with each lift. When Michelle described the operation to our daughter she said it sounded like something “Ma” and “Pa” in “Little House On the Prairie” would do. I took that as high praise.

Then I cemented them in place with two bags of ready-mix for each post and topped up what space was left in the hole with our stone.

Then I had to cut the notches in for the cross pieces. Then I had to put in the eye rings and string the clothesline. I found this awesome attachment that allows you to tighten the clothesline by turning this reel around, then clipping a hook over the line to hold it in place. It’s quite brilliant because now I can tighten it any time I want, without having to use tools.

And voila, it’s done! And I have to say, I’m pretty impressed. The posts are so strong they feel like if I drove the truck into them at highway speed, the truck would fall to pieces … which with the age of my truck may not be far from the truth. But they do feel as though they were built to last.

newclothesline2

newclothesline

When I was talking to my neighbor Ken about it and he offered his tractor and post-hole digger (which I declined because by the time I got that attachment on, and drove it here and back, it was just easier to dig the hole with a shovel) he said “If you build it right it should outlast you.”

That kind of freaked me out on many levels. The mortality thing obviously. But then there is the pressure to build it right. But the last cedar posts lasted 25 years and these new ones are even thicker. So I’m 56, add 25 and boom, I’m 80+ and dead. Yup, that makes sense. I would think with my life of smokin’, drinkin’, and late night carousin’ and red meat eatin’, I’ll be lucky to make 60. But my clothesline shall live on. (I actually don’t engage in any of those activities.)

Someday my grandson, as a young man will be at the farm grounding himself in the real world to escape his job of programming apps for the space teleporter he works on, and he’ll hang his towel after a swim in the lake on that clothesline and say “My grandfather built that!”

Of course he won’t, he won’t have any idea who built the darn thing. Since there was barely enough room to get the concrete down the hole, let alone have a level surface area at the top to sign my name I’m thinking I’d better weld up a plate identifying that it was me and “I did that.”

I’ll leave the final word to Michelle who will be the person making the most use out of it, since she says that I am “clothes hanging challenged” which apparently is a real thing and not just a typical male ploy to avoid the drudgery of hanging clothes on a line. Okay, that’s a lie too. I’m not good at it because I hate it.

Michelle’s Review: “The new clothesline is awesome! Thanks Cam! You are not only handsome; you are handy too!” (I always tell Cam when he’s attempting to hang the laundry out, “Hang the bottoms from the top and the tops from the bottom” but for some reason he keeps getting it wrong!)

 

 

 

 

Stumping Around the Property

(A story from the early spring before CSA season began.)

Michelle and I are temporary caretakers of 150 acres and it is an amazing place. It is 140 acres of forest, 5 acres of ponds and about 5 cleared acres. I marvel at where I live. And I marvel even more at the farmers’ fields I see south of here as we drive to the city. They were once all forests like most of our property, and someone cleared them. And they weren’t cleared by bulldozers and backhoes. Nope, they were cleared by human sweat and horse power, the original horse power … horses. And probably oxen and anything else that a person could throw a bridle (or a yoke?) on to and get to pull.

As we’ve expanded the gardens for the CSA I have moved a few stumps. Last year I had a stump from a spruce tree that I had planted. The base of the tree was less than a foot wide, but the root was incredibly stubborn. I dug around it, and whacked it with an axe. What a great way to deal with anger issues by pounding roots with an axe.

One day I whacked it hard enough that I broke a blood vessel in my eye. It was terrifying to look at. I assumed I’d be dead by sundown. But it healed itself within a week.

And I learned a lesson from this. This is no way to remove a stump.

This past winter I cut down another spruce that was close enough to the house that it would have hit us if it fell in a big windstorm. And I’m getting more and more paranoid about climate-change-induced droughts and wild fires, so the less there is to burn near the house, the better.

My usual tactic is to leave a stump for a few years and then try and remove it. What I have discovered is that basically our stumps never rot. They have some magic sap or something that keeps them robust for decades.

So I started digging. And once I got enough of an area dug out, I chain-sawed the exposed part of the root. I used an old blade because every time you hit soil or sand it trashes the blade. And I dug, and I cut, and I tunneled under it, and finally I got it free.

stump1

 

stump2

This inspired me to tackle two more interconnected stumps in the garden that had been there for almost a decade, again, showing very little sign of ever rotting.  And I dug and cut, and dug, and tunneled and cut and finally I got them loose. They were brutes though so I planned to use a come-along to get them out, but I put a rope on the first one and hauled it out with the truck.

I cannot believe the embedded energy in gasoline. It’s quite unbelievable. When I tried to roll the stump when I got it close to where I wanted to leave it at the edge of the paddock, I could barely budge it. But the truck didn’t seem to flinch while dragging it. Or the second one either. What amazing times we live in that we have access to such power.

As I drive around this part of the world I look at the hay fields surrounded by piles of rock. First someone used their horses to cut down the trees and remove the stumps. Then they had to drag out thousands of tons of rock, by hand and back. The fields are relatively small when you think of the prairie vistas, but they really were carved out of the bush.

There is a new trend in the area and that is to remove the hedgerows to make the fields bigger. This allows bigger tractors and equipment like combines longer runs without having to turn around. It’s the natural flow of capitalism, but it’s not a good thing. These hedgerows are great wind breaks, which will become more and more important with extreme weather events. And they are home to an array of birds of animals. In our part of the world a very vocal group screams whenever someone tries to put up large wind turbines (because of the bird deaths) but no one seems to notice massive bird habitat being removed in the name of progress when all of the hedgerows are removed.

Every stump I remove gives me a huge respect for past generations that worked this land. I am in awe of what humans are capable of.

When we lived in the city I listened to an Australian band called “Midnight Oil” and they had lots of great angry young man protest songs. They had one called “Blue Sky Mine” lamenting how capitalism forces us to accept industrial progress, like mines. The song had a lyric “Nothing’s as precious, as a hole in the ground.”

I concur. Especially when the hole is what’s left after you’ve spent two days removing the stump that was there. I could stand and marvel at the hole in the ground for days. But it doesn’t take long for me to want to fill it back in, grab a few loads of soil to replace the volume that was taken up by the stump and get the rototiller through the area.

I believe they refer to politicking as ‘stumping’ or being out on the stump. I’ve done the political thing. I much prefer the real stumping.

Vote for Me!

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Thanks to Neil for a wonderful blog post about us! www.peacockforest.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/cam-mather-saved-my-back-and-lungs/ If you don’t follow Neil’s blog yet, be sure to sign up for updates!

My Grandson … Future Farmer?

My daughter and son-in-law just moved back closer to us and it’s awesome. I love spending time with them. And I also love spending time with my nine-month-old grandson.

The timing is terrible and terrific. It’s prime planting season so it is my absolute busiest time of the year. I would love to spend every day with them but I simply can’t. Luckily my daughter has been bringing Liam up to visit us regularly, and it is wonderful.

I love my daughters very much and they know that. The love of a grandchild is different, and special. While I don’t have all the responsibility of his care he is a huge part of my life and I wish great things for him.

Best of all, he’s happy and healthy and I am infinitely blessed.

I like to give my daughter a bit of a break from him when she visits, especially since he’s just starting to make overtures to walk, but at 24 pounds he’s quite a load to carry. So on a recent visit I took my cue from eons of humans (women) who haven’t had the luxury of ‘daycare’ and I strapped him on my back as I went about my work in the garden.

I have an image of women planting and harvesting with babies in slings in front of them so they can see each other, but after carrying Liam around in my arms I realize that would be harder on my back. With him in a backpack carrier I can distribute a lot of the weight to my waist through the belt. It reminds me of doing portages on canoe trips that we used to take before we moved to where I no longer feel I need them.

I will admit to indulging Liam initially with a tour of the garden and our latest innovations. He seemed to like the greenhouses. We discussed the solar pump and how crucial water is for us, and one of my new watering systems.

Then we carried on with the watering since it’s dry here already. I was watering newly planted rows using a watering can that I fill up from a rain barrel. While the water level was high I made sure he got to spend some time playing with his hands in it.

And then we worked for a long time, and he seemed quite content.

It was perfect.

Liam on Back

 

It reminded me of all those ‘events’ people participate in now, ‘extreme’ type marathons where they carry logs around on their backs and crawl through mud. Every day right now seems like a marathon to me, planting and working all day. Doing it with 24 pounds strapped to your back is well … like … EXTREME!

So far, my impression, from what I can tell from a 9 month old … is that Liam likes the whole food growing thing. Or at least he likes to watch other people do it. I hope he will aspire to do it himself at some point. There will be the lure of modern jobs and ‘writing apps’ and the draw of the city. But there will always be a big garden for him to help out in at Sunflower Farm. A really big garden. And if it’s going to contribute to feeding him, when I see how big he is at 9 months of age, “we’re gonna need a bigger garden!”

Liam Watering

Off-Grid: So Awesome! And So Much Work!

I was reading The Toronto Star recently and was excited to see a documentary by Jonathan Taggart called  “Life Off Grid” and then I became even more excited when I realized that we are in it! … well sort of …

Here’s the link to the article;

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2016/03/24/documentary-shows-canadians-living-off-the-grid.html

Professor Phillip Vannini from Royal Rhodes University in Victoria visited us a few years ago when he was doing a study on why people live off grid. He was accompanied by Jonathan Taggart who was making a film about living off grid.

We saw some “proofs” of it early on a while back and as I told Michelle, I didn’t like it “because I wasn’t in it enough!” So there you have it, life with a narcissist. And now that I’ve been brutally honest, I also was a bit disappointed because there seems to be too much focus and emphasis on people who really fit the ‘off grid’ kind of profile. Long grey pony tail, pop-bottle house, goats in the living room, no communication with the outside world, Bob Marley t-shirts … you know the image. And this is all fine and good, I get it.

Our experience though is that people like Michelle and I are, well, just kind of bland. Our house looks like the little white house with the dark green trim in the Anne of Green Gables books. Inside our regular toilet flushes, the regular fridge keeps food cold, the regular TV watches regular Netflix, I prefer my hair short, don’t find Birkenstocks conducive to our winters and mosquitoes, so we’re, just kind of… too “normal.”

We had a journalist here a few weeks ago and he asked if I could recommend other people living sustainably that he could also interview for the article. And I couldn’t. This is partially my choice to be a bit of a hermit (except for political campaigns) and also because I feel at times like the whole sustainability ship has sailed. There was that blip in the 80’s where people wanted to recycle, and that blip in the mid 2000’s where people wanted to put up solar panels, but there doesn’t seem to have been a huge follow through. It kind of feels sometimes like the big box stores won the war.

And I get it.

At many times of the year, I find myself questioning the whole living sustainably thing. And there is a clear distinction between someone who lives off grid to be sustainable, and someone who just does it because they don’t like paying utility bills. A lot of people move off-grid and on to propane for their thermal or heat loads (home heating and hot water) which make up 80% of your home’s energy requirements in the north. So really, you’re just switching which utility you send the cheque to each month.

Michelle and I continue to try and be as close to ‘zero-carbon’ as we can. Since I haven’t got off my ass and added pumps and a loop through our woodstove, our baths come from water heated in stock pots on the woodstoves. Decidedly low tech but also nothing to break.

The wood we heat with we harvest from the property and cut and buck and split with increasing amounts of solar and wind generated electricity. It’s way easier to use gas, but we take the time and put in the additional effort to keep our ‘carbon neutral’ wood fuel source as close to carbon neutral as we can, with very little gas burned in the process. So this takes extra long.

As the weather has been warming up of late I don’t crank the woodstove in the morning so it takes longer to get it hot enough heat to boil our water and cook our breakfast. Living the way we do just sometimes seems to take an inordinate amount of time. So I understand why people take the easy route and use fossil fuel derived energy. It’s so easy! It’s like powering your house with heroin… so easy and it just feels great to have so  much time to do other stuff.

But something keeps us at it. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and move back to suburbia and a natural gas/nuclear powered existence just yet.

I checked the weather network one morning to see how much of next winter’s wood I could cut and split with the solar powered chainsaw and wood splitter that day. The Weather Network had a little information note beside the forecast along the lines of “Brutally warm winter has arctic sea ice at lowest level on record .. read more here …” Ya, like that sounds like a great way to start your day before you jump in your car and start your hour long commute to your job selling stuff.

The reality is that the arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet. We’re to blame. I’m to blame. I used to commute back to the GTA for years after moving here to visit customers. I took the kids to Disney World when they were little, twice! I used to run my generator … a lot … before I cashed out retirement money and put up more solar panels and a proper wind turbine. So I’ve done my part.

But I have the information now and know there is an alternative. If governments would just show a little resolve and put a price on carbon most people would also seek out these alternatives.

The other day I was starting the fire so we could have a bath and I was thinking to myself, what an inordinate amount of work. Why am I doing this? I have a hot water tank. If I wanted to, I could just run the hot water out of the tank and let propane do the work. Most days right now we have enough sun that our solar domestic hot water system will actually have heated up the in-line hot water tank so that by the time it gets to the propane it doesn’t have to come on. But on dark days, so the choice is zero-carbon firewood or propane.

As I get down on my knees for the 11, 560’th time this winter to start the woodstove (there may be some exaggeration there) I think to myself ‘why AM I doing this again?’

Then I think about the people in the Maldives islands in the Pacific who are rapidly losing their homes with the rising seas. And then I say “Hey Cam, shut up and stop your whining and do the right thing.”

And then I do indeed stop whining and become extremely grateful that I have the opportunity and ability to do it the old fashioned way and try and impact other people as little as I possibly can. If I had a therapist she would say “… and how did that make you feel?” and I would say…

You can find Jonathan Taggart’s website; http://jonathantaggart.com/projects/life-off-grid/

And here is the trailer for the movie.

‘Life Off Grid’ trailer from Jonathan Taggart on Vimeo.

Orange is the New Black Comes to Sunflower Farm

“What we have here … is a failure to communicate.” Name that movie.

Have you ever noticed that you often don’t like characteristics that you possess, when you see them in other people … or chickens? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We now have about 30 chickens. The last 10 we bought last summer are prettier than the Red Sex Links which we had been buying previously. Red Sex Links have been bred to begin laying eggs early in their lives, lay eggs consistently and then, they tend to not last too long after that. They live out a lovely retirement here, but they don’t seem to last too long after they’re done laying.

photo-1

Michelle reads lots of stuff about chickens and wanted to try some new varieties. We decided on this set from our local feed mill. They are called the “variety pack.” They are pretty. More like the kind you usually see in ubiquitous photos of living the high life in the country. Joe at the mill kept saying “they don’t lay as well” but we thought “Ya, but they’re pretty.” And they look more like the chicken cliché, so let’s try some. For someone who thinks I’ve overpaid when I spent $3 on a pair of jeans at a thrift shop, which I then wear every day for 2 years before they disintegrate, I just can’t figure out where this desire for chickens that look good came from.

I think we also thought we should try some diversity and have some that didn’t seem so overbred and all that stuff. Okay, but mostly is was how they looked.

So turns out, one of the characteristics that Red Sex Links have had bred out of them, is attitude. These new ladies are just downright belligerent. They won’t do anything you want them to, and they spend their whole day doing stuff they want to do, that you don’t want them to. They are incorrigible. They just don’t seem to want to play by the rules. They are independent thinkers, which coming from a homeschooling, off-grid living, plant-based-diet-eating Greenie like me, seems kind of hypocritical. But I have to deal with them all day and it can get tiresome.

Once they started spending more time out of their winter enclosure and in their main pen, several of the new ladies were constantly escaping. Michelle says “We should bite the bullet and buy new fence and do the pen properly.” To which I reply, “Yes Darling, I’m with you, that’s an awesome idea!” and then promptly prioritize 147 other jobs ahead of it now that I’m gearing up for the CSA. And besides, cobbled together and patched chicken wire is more my style.

photo-2

Originally I just caught the escapee and put her back into the pen, but eventually I realized it was a couple of the new ones each time. One I call “Shawshank” and the other one I call “Cool Hand Lucy” in homage to movies about time in the slammer, which apparently these ladies view their pen as, except that their “pen” has ample room, tons of food and water, straw bales to play on, etc. etc. etc. …

Michelle has clipped the wings on these two, but they were constantly escaping. I was having a heckuva time figuring out their secret escape route. I started disciplining the escapee by putting her in a bird cage I rescued from someone’s trash, but I was afraid I’d have PETA down on me, although they had way more room than those poor hens in battery cages.

SO one morning I built “The SHU” (pronounced ‘Shoe’). It stands for “Special Handling Unit” and I can honestly say I did not learn this from either “Oz” or “Orange is the New Black.”

Nope, I live in a part of the part of the country with lots of penitentiaries and it’s hard to not know someone who works in one. And “The SHU” is where they send the really problematic prisoners. So it’s appropriate in this situation.

The trouble was, once I got the little mini-pen built to contain the ones with escapism in their DNA, all the other ladies wanted in. It was like, “Hey, why does she get her own space, and own food and water dishes … no way man, I want a piece of that.” And so they started tunneling in as Shawshank and Cool Hand Lucy were tunneling out. Eventually I got more wire on the outside to keep them out of the Shu, and I dug a few holes elsewhere in the pen which distracted the ones on the outside.

After a while I let the two in solitary out so they could lay eggs … if they wanted to … and sure enough half an hour later Cool Hand Lucy was back on the lam. It was interesting though that Shawshank didn’t break out again after a couple of hours in “The Hole,” if I can keep using prison movie slang. Actually, hole is a good description since once the frost was out of the ground, the pen began to start looking like a moonscape as they all dig holes to their heart’s content.

I keep doing my prison warden from Cool Hand Luke impression to the ladies. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” At which time the new ladies all head for the fence and start looking for ways out. It’s not a failure on my part, they just have way too much attitude to think anyone’s going to tell them where to spend their day. If I was better on the sewing machine all the new ladies would be in little orange jumpsuits, to make it easier to spot them as they sprint from the fence.

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Note from Michelle: Thanks to S.S. and M.R. for their very kind donations! As Cam indicated in his last blog post, he has been contemplating winding down this blog, partially because it is difficult to justify spending time and money on something that doesn’t generate any revenue. We appreciate donations as they not only help us to pay for hosting and our yearly URL renewal, they are a tangible indication that our readers appreciate the time and effort that we both put into writing, editing and posting this blog. As Cam spends more and more time in the gardens preparing for another CSA season, his posts will become less frequent, but he loves sharing his thoughts and experiences through the blog and every time I am able to tell him that we have received a donation, he is inspired to keep writing!

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!

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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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