Posts Tagged ‘Off-Grid’

Mommy’s Alright, Daddy’s Alright, They Just Seem a Little Weird

When you’re a parent there comes a time when you have to look back and think about your parenting choices and their impacts on your kids. And how did they perceive you as a parent? The song lyric from the title is from the band Cheap Trick. It was on their 1983 Live at Budokan album and the song is called Surrender.

I played it the other day and was taken back to a day when I was pretty young and my parents called a family meeting, which they rarely did. We all sat in the living room, with the so hip deep red shag carpet (it was 1968 or thereabouts). They then proceeded to tell us that they were selling the house and were going to buy a sailboat and we were going to sail around the world. What? No school? Can we leave tomorrow?

I do recall it being brought up that they had never sailed a day in their lives, but we lived near Kingston, Ontario which was swimming with sailors, so really, how hard could that be? I had sailed with my neighbor Paul in his “Laser” which required locking your feet through this seat belt strung down the middle of the hollowed out leg area, then hiking yourself as far out over the water as you could. It was so much fun until the wind gust died and you went into the water head first, although at age I’m pretty that was a blast too.

As it was the world wide adventure never happened. I’m sure inertia eeked back into my parents’ life … the mortgage…the promotion that was probably offered when they heard he or she were leaving … maybe they thought they shouldn’t interrupt the kids from school.

And really what kind of person would do that anyway? Yank their kids out of nice, controlled, suburban lifestyle, with access to good libraries, shopping, activities … well that would be just wrong. That parent would be completely irresponsible. Clearly. No doubt about it.

No wait, that’s me! Back in 1998 we moved from a suburb of Toronto 3 hours away to the woods, with no phone, internet, or electricity cables to the house. We were going from the middle of advanced 20th Century Developed First World Affluence, to the middle of nowhere.

Listening to Cheap Trick the other day was when I finally figured it out, that I was even worse than my parents! I followed up on my threat to drop out. “Daddy’s alright, he just seems really weird!” I had at least become my parents in spirit, and I believe this is many children’s fear. I could do worse I suppose.

My father is still alive, so I would never refer to the “sailboat incident” as a ‘mid-life’ crisis, but come on, what else could you call it? That is so “Mosquito Coast”ish (the movie/book where Harrison Ford drags his family to “Brazil” for his midlife crisis) And why are so many wives tolerating these male mid-life crises?

I have no doubt that I was the prime instigator in us ‘going off-the-grid,’ but Michelle was right along there with me during the whole ride. It took us close to 5 years to find this place. When it came time to pull the trigger and put in an offer she said, “Just do it.” Was that encouragement or an ultimatum?

Regardless, here is where we ended up when our girls were in their early teens. I can’t tell you how many people have said to us, ‘oh we’d have done that if the kids hadn’t been in school. We didn’t want them to have to leave their friends.’ Oh get over it. They’re kids. They’ll adapt. And yes, we were homeschooling so it was easier, but today, why do I get the impression that ‘friends’ for kids today are mostly pixels through text and online chats on smartphones as opposed to hanging out after school and building stuff with Lego … which you should never do once you get to high school … which I might have been doing but would never admit to publicly.

So how many kids think of their parents as stressed out and miserable? How many parents come home from work every night bagged? Pissed off at their boss? Another promotion overlooked. More job cuts and those who manage to hold on to their jobs just get more work dumped on them … blah blah blah. To counteract the stress they say, “Let’s book a trip, I need a change of pace. And we NEED a bigger car.”

For the first little while after our move our daughters still saw me stressed out about earning an income, especially with the challenges we had with phones and communications and therefore fax and early internet stuff. But as we were able to shift more of our income to book publishing and producing information about sustainable living, well that phase was over for me. Plus, the girls did a few years of high school and then went to university, so I suppose they missed most of the really happy dad days.

Today, as long as we don’t talk about last summer’s drought, everything here at Sunflower (aka Cam’s Midlife Crisis) Farm is pretty awesome.

I left a city where I was pretty miserable when I was 39. I have heated with wood, which I love, and grown much of my own food for almost 20 years. I have spent 20 years looking out my windows at nothing but forests and ponds, and often wildlife. When I wanted I chickens, I just got them. There is no by-law against it here. When I want to snow blow at 3:30 am (as I did the other night when I couldn’t sleep) there are no neighbors within earshot to complain.

Michelle has asked our daughters to each contribute a chapter to the book she is just finishing on homeschooling. I hope they discuss their experience with moving from suburbia to the bush. I hope it didn’t impact them too negatively. Me, on the other hand, well listening to and responding to my midlife crisis was the BEST thing I ever did (after marrying Michelle and having kids, obviously). If Sunflower Farm is what a midlife crisis looks like, they can be pretty awesome!

The Plague Comes to Sunflower Farm

“I don’t get sick.”

Ever know one of those people who says this?

Or “I don’t watch TV.”

What? I love TV! I watch as much as I can!

I was one of those ‘I never get sick’ people, but I hope I didn’t brag about it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to avoid a lot of stuff. I think it helps that I still have my tonsils. So many of my peers got them surgically removed as children, Michelle included. Quite often, I would just suffer through just a sore throat, while Michelle got the full blown cold.

But once our kids were grown, and out of the house, we both managed to avoid getting colds and flus. We’ve led a pretty isolated life here in the bush. And when you aren’t and about with other people, well, it’s just easier to avoid a lot of bugs.

Then we had a marvelous, amazing, joyful reason to leave our little piece of paradise enter our lives. If our grandson doesn’t get up to see us we drive to see him, minimum once a week. And you know, when your 18-month-old grandson who spends time at daycare wants to come and hug you and have you pick him up, you just do it. I’m finding it physically impossible to NOT kiss those cheeks, regardless of how snotty that nose is.

Welcome to Germ Land. Let’s just see how good your immune system is ‘Campa’. (Michelle came up with that … a combination of Cam and Grampa!)

Turns out my immune system is not so good.

We both got a cold before Christmas but by the time the “kids” arrived we were feeling better and had a great time with them. Perhaps it hadn’t actually gone away, but we were just too determined to let it spoil the fun.

So after the kids cleared out a couple of days later the cold came back to Michelle with a vengeance. I was starting to think I had licked it in Round One before the holidays, but no such luck. It came back again for me a couple of days after it hit Michelle.

Michelle actually went to see her doctor, which she is loath to do, and the doctor suggested that she had a touch of bronchitis. I think that’s a code word for a wicked evil bug that you just need to shut up and get over because they don’t have a clue to beat a cold bug.

Today is January 19th and we’re both better but still have the occasional cough.

While I was sick I would have a good day and think, well that’s it, I’ve gotta get some fresh air. One night we had a blizzard so while I was feeling fine I snow blowed the driveway and pathways, I did firewood and I shoveled snow away from the greenhouses that are bending in because of the volume of the darn stuff this year. Later that night I lay on the couch shaking with my legs aching, coughing like I had TB, hot one minute, freezing cold 10 minutes later. What the hell was this thing? It wouldn’t leave me alone.

Ever look at a smart phone and marvel that it has way more processing capability than the computers that put a person on the moon? Ever wonder in amazement at what humans are capable of, then realize that these microscopic little viruses are way smarter than us? They can mutate and pass along information to circumvent a body’s immune system, just marvelous, marvelous stuff. And you know, they are going to be “the last man standing.” When we’re gone they’re just going to step back and be giving germo-high-fives all around. I wonder what they’ll do then, when they don’t have humans to torment? And will they really be that happy about wiping us out?

In my book “The Sensible Prepper” (available here) I suggest that people should watch the movie “Contagion”. Not necessarily from the pandemic perspective but from the what happens when lots of people get sick, or jurisdictions starting closing borders to slow down the spread, and economic activity grinds to a halt and how quickly store shelves go bare. After this cold bug I don’t think I can ever watch that movie again.

This bug has reminded me how much physical effort our low-carbon life really takes. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but with this bug wheeling a load of firewood into the house using the hand cart feels like climbing to Camp 2 on Mt. Everest. And that 25 kg (55 lb) bag of chicken feed that needs to be dragged in from the barn, well, it may as well be a small car because it feels just as heavy and I will be just as winded when I’m done. Then I’ll sit and pant and breath like Darth Vader and cough like I’ve got whooping cough, because it sure feels like whooping cough. My stomach and chest muscles will ache from coughing. I’m not sleeping very well, and I’m not that hungry. At what point in our evolution did some trait to take away your hunger, just when you should be eating to stay strong to take on the infection, become dominant. Evolution sucks!

I’m feeling much better. And each day that I am healthy and invigorated I will be grateful for good health. It’s easy to forget to be grateful if you’re just healthy all the time.

Soon I’ll head down to the city to see my grandson. And he will have picked up some new horrible thing my underdeveloped immune system has never seen before, and he will come tearing down the hall squealing with delight, and he’ll make sure to pass along some of that new thing. And for the joy that boy has brought into my life, it is absolutely worth it.

Sorry if I’m droning on about my grandchild, but I’m pretty sure it’s in the contract when you become a grandparent that you have to do this. I’ll try and contain myself in the future.

 

 

My Prime Earning Years

Happy New Year everyone. Time for resolutions about being a better person, making better choices, blah blah blah.

This fall Michelle and I did a lot of soul searching about such big life questions. Mainly about how to earn an income … or whether to earn an income … no, that’s not fair, it’s really about how to earn ‘some’ money.

I had an opportunity to take a job in the city and it was a tough choice. It would mean a real income, and it wasn’t a bad gig. The challenge was the drive, and the inability to live our lives the way we’ve become accustomed, which is to strive to have as little impact as possible and to produce as little carbon as possible. As soon as you turn that key in the car every morning that goes out the window, in a big way. As does the net-zero wood heat, because we’d end up having to burn some propane to heat the house and cook, and as I discuss in an upcoming blog, I’m loath to do that.

So here I am, at 57, in my prime earning years, and not prime earning. Well, now that the CSA is over and we haven’t got other things rolling, not earning at all.

This is supposed to be terrifying, and there is the odd moment of that. Those retirement financial ads do wear you down a bit. But then I think, it seems like a crappy way to live a life, work until you’re 60 or 65 and hope you live long enough to come out ahead of the pension fund or financial instrument that you paid into all your life. Oh, and you most likely didn’t head to work all happy and cheery every morning. Most of us can be pretty miserable with the whole work thing, so you travel during your time off, and flip your cars every 3 years because it’s a huge distraction. I’ve been doing the same thing for almost 20 years and I never tire of it. I just have to leave my front door to get a smile on my face living where I live.

I blame our frugalness for our current dilemma. We got very lucky, bought a small house at a reasonable price in 1987, worked and saved like crazy and paid it off in 1996, then bugged out of the Greater Toronto Area, or “Death Star” as I often refer to it, in 1998.

So for almost 20 years I’ve lived in paradise, grown a ton of food which I love to do, and cut and heated with firewood from our 150 acres. Really, it’s been pretty awesome. We’ve been livin’ the dream. During this summer’s drought we were livin’ the nightmare, but crap like that happens and you have no control over it. I have been getting better every year at accepting those things that I cannot change and trying to see the bright side to every situation. This summer I was forced to invest in several water pumps which I had always meant to do but which human inertia had stopped me from doing.

Last summer when we hinted that we might give up on this blog we heard from a lot of people who still enjoy it and wanted us to continue. We’ve had kind of a spike in people subscribing since then which is nice too.

We’ve also had a number of people tell us how many people would love to live the way we do. The challenge is we have to try and monetize this blog or figure out how to make some money from this.

The challenge with the internet is making money from content and it’s really quite tough. I also know that so many of the places I visit on the web kind of tell the same old story over and over or focus on just one specific topic. If your theme is the coming Zompocaplyse, and it hasn’t happened, for say the last decade, then your blog gets kind of stale. Our blog runs the gamut but basically comes back to life off the electricity grid and our perspective on the mad mad world we live in today. As world events and technology and my perspective changes, so does the blog. With the number of subscribers who’ve stuck with us for a long time, this seems to be a model that people like.

So with this in mind Michelle and I are launching two new businesses. The first is “Simple and Practical Websites”.  https://spwebsites.ca/ For years Michelle has been doing our websites and others for friends and associates using “WordPress” which is a free, online web development tool. Now we’re going to promote it.

The second business is that we’re going to do the whole B&B thing with Sunflower Farm which we kind of started a while ago but then got distracted with running a CSA and stuff. https://sunflowerfarm.ca/ We’ve decided this is a way to take some of the interest the blog nurtures and allow people to come and check out the place. It also lets people get a better perspective on how we really think, since I read Edward Snowden’s book and just watched “Citizen Four,” the documentary about him, I radically self-sensor myself on-line. Sure, I’m a shiny happy guy all the time, but there is the odd moment when I let myself slip.

So the deal for the next little while is this. I’ll keep posting a shiny happy ‘life-off-the-grid, sustainable independence, homesteading is awesome but here’s the reality’ blog early in the week. Then later in the week I’ll post a ‘here’s what we do for a living and if there’s a fit with what you’re looking for … someone to do a basic website … a place to visit and really check out off-grid living … then here’s why to come to Sunflower Farm.’

This way you can ignore the second weekly blog if you don’t want hopeless commercial interruption. I will endeavor to keep this second blog entertaining. In fact I’ve already scoped out some of our “theme” weekends/workshops and they are A) Pretty Funny B) Pretty Awesome C) Pretty Ironical D) All or none of the above. (‘ironical’ is actually a word, even though most people just use ironic)

The thing with the second blog post is this. If you’re following this blog because you have some interest in country living, as I’ve said all along the challenge with ‘livin’ the dream’ is ‘earnin’ an income’. So this way you can follow along as I try to shamelessly promote how we do it and you can see if it makes sense for you.

Worst case scenario when you read the Thursday blog you can write a tirade about why you didn’t subscribe to this blog for an on-going sales pitch and how you are officially cancelling your subscription in outrage (you know, the FREE subscription) then I’ll write a biting/witty response about how we’re not livin’ in some communist republic and how we’re still in a capitalist world and how I’ll pitch my dam wares any time I want. Or not.

So stay tuned. Fun stuff to come!

The Feng Shui of My Wind Turbine

Remember that scene in the first Star Wars where the Death Star blows up that planet and Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “There’s been a disturbance in the force”?

That’s been the theme of my life for the last couple of months since our wind turbine got knocked out by lightning. For the last nine years, I’ve been able to look up and see the wind turbine, from pretty much anywhere I stand near our house. It’s a wonderful, glorious, beautiful thing. It reminds me of the cost of living in an advanced society … that requires electricity … when electricity poles don’t run to your house.

So while it was down, first so that I could diagnose the problem and then to order and wait for the replacement parts, there was a disturbance in the force here. I felt like the “Feng Shui” of the place had been thrown off. Not that I know anything about Feng Shui. I thought it referred to where you put your couch in the living room, but according to Wikipedia it is the Chinese philosophy of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment. With that description it makes sense to me that the Feng Shui of this place has been off kilter.

In so many parts of my province people are vocal in their opposition to large wind turbines, claiming they are a blight on the landscape. They never mention the utility poles that line every roadway and the power lines which crisscross the province, and the enormous electricity towers that dot the landscape. Nope, it’s the wind turbines that are the problem.

And yet I somehow find them so beautiful. And I absolutely love mine. Especially at this time of year! With less and less sunshine, and more and more wind, the wind turbine is a marvel. I’m surrounded by trees and forests and somehow it just feels like it fits in.

This may be because of the literal translation (according to Wikipedia) of Feng Shui which is “wind-water.” You see, after our drought this summer, the pond that the turbine towers above is dry. It’s never been dry before, but this summer’s historic drought did it in and we have yet to see enough fall rain to put any water back in to it. In my silly, rose-colored glasses, idyllic world, wind power represents the potential to reduce how much CO2 we belch into the air to make electricity, and therefore reduce these weather anomalies like droughts. And therefore the wind/water connection is very close.

Do you think about electricity all the time? I do. It’s amazing stuff. And when you make all your own you get a marvelous appreciation for how difficult a process this is. And expensive. Without the wind turbine I had to run our gasoline powered generator several times, which I haven’t had to do at this time of year for, well, 9 years. It was horrible.

It’s not the expense of doing it, it’s the carbon I put into the atmosphere. It feels like defeat. I grew up watching ABC Wide World of Sports, so I have been experiencing “the agony of defeat” every time I turned that generator on, like the ski jumper who goes off the ramp to bad results.

But now the turbine is up and I am living “the thrill of victory” once more. Michelle keeps finding me just standing there gazing at the thing. “You gonna get any work done today?” Nope. Just gonna stand here looking at this marvelous machine. And if I do any work, I will probably use some electricity to help my efforts, and some of that power is coming from that amazing machine up at the top of that tower.

cam-admiring-wind-turbine

Once we got the tower down and my friend/neighbor Sandy, the engineer, spun the blades he noticed there was too much movement in it. He said the bearings should probably be replaced. I was skeptical. But since I was ordering a new rectifier I added bearings too which were not expensive.

When they arrived Sandy helped me remove the old bearings and put in new ones. So much grease! Again, the old bearings looked fine to me, but whatever, if it made Sandy happy, I was fine with that.

Then my other wonderful neighbor Ken and Sandy and I put the tower back up, and I turned off the brake, and it started to spin, and generate electricity, and I said to Sandy “Listen… there’s no noise!” There was noticeably less sound coming from it than previously. The noise was never excessive and because it meant I was making electricity, I loved it, but clearly, Sandy was correct. The bearings weren’t sitting correctly or there was too much play and the new bearings corrected this.

Ken has a saying that he often repeats to me when we work on projects and I say stuff like, “Are you sure that little weld is going to keep this tracker from flying apart in a wind storm?” He says “Oh ye of little faith.” The solar trackers have never flown apart. And once again my skepticism was proved false when Sandy’s diagnosis of wonky bearings proved bang on.

I believe I am becoming, slowly, less skeptical … ‘of greater faith’ in people more knowledgeable than me. I would rather not have taken the turbine down. Lowering and raising the gin pole tower is a stressful job, for me anyway. The forces and stresses seem enormous. And yet somehow down and up it goes.

And if it hadn’t been struck by lightning we wouldn’t have taken the time to replace the bearings. Now it’s not only quieter, but there’s less vibration and new lubrication and things are all working better, I’m potentially getting more electrical potential out of this marvelous machine.

More electricity for cutting wood, and watching Netflix and making toast! I do love toast!

Feng Shui has been restored to Sunflower Farm. It is once again the “Sun- and Wind-Powered Farm” and it features ‘all-you-can-eat toast.’ Well, within reason.

*******

Thanks once again to our wonderful friend and blog reader N.B. for his generous donation to the “Help Fix the Wind Turbine Fund.” Your donation could not have come at a better time and was most appreciated!

 

 

 

Gas Tube Arrestors, Busted Wind Turbines and Spiders from Mars

I’m maturing as a person.

Oh, I still have my fits and tantrums, but I’m getting much better. As one approaches their 60s perhaps this resignation to certain outcomes becomes easier.

Several weeks ago we had a major storm blow through with tornado warnings in our area. I never remember one in the middle of September, but the brutal heat of summer carried on into September so it shouldn’t surprise me.

As I was walking towards the front screen door at one point during the storm, the loudest thunder bolt I’ve ever heard struck simultaneously with the flash of lightning. It was terrifying, like a World War I artillery barrage, and more worrying from an off-grid standpoint.

We have a marvelous 1 kilowatt wind turbine on a 100 ft steel tower that reduces our generator run time significantly. But let’s be honest, it’s just this massive, tall lightning rod screaming “Hit me, hit me, HIT ME!” during a lightning storm.

Sure enough the following morning the turbine was spinning very slowly, even though the wind was still high. Not a good sign. This is when my newfound maturity appeared. Rather than grabbing an axe and chopping down the nearest tree on the “To Be Cut” list to deal with my rage, I just assumed the turbine was toast and shrugged my shoulders with resignation.

The absolutely wonderfully brilliant news was that there was no noticeable damage in the battery room. The last time we got hit by lightning (3 summers ago, a week before my younger daughter’s wedding! Read about it here.)  it took out the inverter and lots of other expensive equipment.

So the other day, my neighbor Sandy and I brought down the turbine, which is on a gin-pole tower. It’s still kind of scary, but pretty gratifying when you finally get it down. The problem last time (3 years ago) was that the DC Rectifier had been blown up. I say “blown up” because you could see where there had been sparking and big chunk of plastic was missing. A rectifier is like the opposite of an ‘inverter.’ It takes AC electricity, that the alternator on the turbine produces, and it converts it to DC to go in to the batteries. All those black ‘bricks,’ the black plastic boxes that you plug into wall outlets to power your computer or charge your cell phones are DC rectifiers, converting AC from the plug to the DC the phone battery wants.

When we replaced these the last time we got hit, Bergey, the manufacturer of my wind turbine, suggested that we add a “Gas Tube Arrestor.” A Gas Tube Arrestor is basically a fuse. And low and behold, as soon as we got the turbine apart we could see that one of these had blown.

view-of-turbine

guts-of-turbine

 

gas-tube-arrestorThe bad news was that I have to replace it and the rectifier. The good news is that it blew up and apparently took the short or surge of electricity down the turbine into the grounding wires to the grounding rods, rather than into the battery room. How cool is that?! Which begs the question … why hadn’t they provided them when I installed the system a decade ago? Continuous quality improvement I suppose.

As we were taking the turbine apart I noticed this little spider hanging around. Let’s call him/her Ziggy. I sort of assumed she had jumped on from the sunflower nearby where the turbine had ended up when we took it down. But then I noticed she didn’t want to leave the area.

ziggy-on-the-edge

ziggy-at-home

So finally I looked down the tower and noticed that she had a web there.

Nature is a funny thing sometimes. We live in the bush and have no shortage of bugs but all the things the bugs want … pollen from flowers, people to bite, etc. are at ground level. How many bugs would want to hang out at 100 feet, the height of the tower when it’s erect?

But there was the spider, and there was the web, so apparently she had a thing going.

And since she was a spider that hung out at high heights I started singing David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” with the lyrics “Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Wierd and Gilly, And The Spiders from Mars.” And I could not get that song out of my head all day, and it was a good thing.

Taking down a wind turbine is kind of a stressful process so there is a great sense of relief and accomplishment when it’s finally down. So you have a natural buzz afterwards. I’d rather not bring it down, but when I factor having to bring it down twice in 10 years, with the huge amount of electricity it has generated to improve the quality of my life, without the carbon I would have produced if I’d run my generator, then it’s a pretty good trade off.

Couple that with a catchy tune from a recently deceased musical icon, and it was a pretty good day all and all. Luckily we haven’t yet hit the grey days of November, so the wind power hasn’t been missed. Every time I bring down the turbine I get better at it and learn more. I finally understand this whole DC rectification thing.

I’m intrigued to see if Ziggy hangs in for a week or two while I order the replacements and install them. Fall is in the air; I’m thinking she’s probably better to find a place to overwinter at ground level.

I just wish Bergey could figure out another improvement that would take the lightning jolt at ground level so I didn’t have to drag the whole thing when it gets trashed. I can dream, can’t I?

 

A couple of notes from Michelle;

  • Thanks to RH for his recent (second!) donation. As you can imagine, it will help pay for these wind turbine repairs! Even though Cam does the repairs himself, the parts and various bits & pieces are not cheap! You’ll find the “TIP JAR” above on the right hand side of this page. Every bit helps and is most appreciated!
  • Many of you probably found this blog through our writing in Mother Earth News magazine. They’ve offered us a small commission for every Mother Earth News subscription that is purchased using our link; https://www.motherearthnews.com/store/Offer/EMEBGGAF. Mother Earth News magazine is one of our favourite magazines!
  • HAPPY THANKSGIVING to our Canadian readers! We’ll be celebrating here at Sunflower Farm with our family and lots of great food from our garden. We have so much to be thankful for!

If I’m Livin’ The Dream, Why Does It Feel Like a Nightmare?

The other day Michelle told me over breakfast about a Facebook post she’d seen. It was one of those canned generic things that people like to repost. It was a photo of a cabin in the woods. I paraphrase but it said something along the lines of  …”Livin’ off the grid … no electricity bills … growing your own food … sounds pretty good to me.”

And we started laughing. Not in a nasty way (I could have used ‘pejorative’ but frankly I overuse that darn word), just a kind of ‘ah yes, the dream vs reality’ view of the world.

This started a number of years ago when we had a friend over and we had just toured the garden during a drought (yes, another one) and he looked around at the garden that did indeed look petty awesome from all of our hard work and said, “You guys are livin’ the dream.”

So anytime anything goes wrong this has become our mantra, said in a very sarcastic tone, of course …” We’re just livin’ the dream!”  On the day that Michelle was describing this Facebook post about how great livin’ off-grid and growing your own food is, we had just had a storm with tornado warnings roll through. We’d experienced an unbelievable lightning storm which had trashed our wind turbine … yes, again! It was at breakfast too…prior to us heading out to the garden for our 237th consecutive day of 100°F heat and no rain dustbowl drought conditions (okay I exaggerated just a bit here, but not that much.)

Which brings me to the point of the blog …yes I do have a point. Michelle and I are ‘focus grouping’ the title of our next book, and by default, by reading this blog, you’re in the focus group. Thanks!

So this is the title for our new book … “If I’m Livin’ the Dream, How Comes It Feels Like a Nightmare?” subtitled something like “Dispatches and observations on two decades spent living off-the-grid, growing our own food, living far from the maddening crowd” … or something along these lines.

So what do you think? Am I correct that it has “BEST-SELLER” written all over it? And film rights with a big pay-day. With Ryan Reynolds playing me … or Ryan Gosling … doesn’t matter, they’re both Canadian eh.

I know what you’re thinking, that it sounds like a pretty negative title. I agree. It’s more to attract attention and bring a huge payday for us … so we can buy some hummers, bling, a private jet … you get my drift. Most of the time our life here has been awesome. But I can’t tell you the number of times I feel like just flopping on the couch in November and vegging in front of the TV and I realize we’ve had some cloudy days, so I have to go out and check the batteries to see how low they are and decide if I should run the generator or not. And then if I do have to run it how I have to get up and check it constantly. I don’t HAVE to check it constantly, but I do, because that’s just how I am.

Turns out there’s more to living this ‘low carbon’ lifestyle than meets the eye.

If anything I think it may be a bit refreshing for people to get some of that perspective. Yes, I have NO Electricity Bills! But I have spent way, WAY more on my solar and wind system in the last 20 years than anyone reading this blog has spent on their electricity bills. FACT: Generating and transmitting electricity is really complicated and expensive. It is in fact not a right, but a privilege, and when you spread all those generation and infrastructure costs across a whole society, your electricity bills are outrageously inexpensive for the value of the electricity you receive and how it improves the quality of your life. If you doubt this, take a second and think about the last extended power outage you had. No lights. No fridge or freezer. Or stove. Or washing machine. Or internet. Or NETFLIX! Yup, it’s pretty amazing stuff.

We published “Little House Off the Grid” more than 5 years ago, so by the time this new book is ready there will have been a reasonable hiatus for us to revisit what it’s like to live the way we do. Things change. Circumstances change. Life happens. Time to revisit the whole little adventure we’re on here in the woods.

So what do you think? Sound like something you’d want to read?

Better yet, what do you think of the title? Too negative? Too misleading if we end up writing that it’s awesome more than not? Such an awesome title that it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (thank you Dave Eggers for the best book title ever to slip in).

Please let us know. Feel free to post below or send me an email at cam mather…with no space… at gmail.com. (Hopefully the evil internet robots won’t figure that out.)

Thanks in advance!

Down the Wishing Well and My Coffee Can Solar Tracker

Several years ago, in the month of May, I was talking to one of our off-grid blog readers in California who has become a friend. We were discussing the California drought and she said “Oh we won’t see rain now until probably November.”

May to November without rain. That was my worst nightmare. And in the words of Alice Cooper, this summer at our house it’s been “Welcome to my nightmare.”

I will admit that I wrote this in the middle of August and we were getting the tail end of the rain that caused all the flooding in Louisiana. For us the rain was glorious. Too little, too late, but I welcomed it. (And since then we’ve had a few showers, never amounting to more than 3 or 4 mms. My garden still resembles a giant sandbox.)

Part of my “Embrace the suck, move the ‘heck’ forward” in the mess that was our summer running a CSA in the worst drought for 100 years, is my newfound knowledge of our wells. Mostly the ‘dug’ well near the barn foundation which provides the bulk of the water for irrigation.

The well was ‘dug’ by hand, in 1936. We know this because the builder put his name and date in the concrete and we know his son Ken, a former resident of this wonderful place, who is in his ‘80s ’90s now (see comment below from Ken’s son Lynn!).  The well is about 15 feet deep and how they managed to dig such a deep hole by hand, and then build forms and mix everything up by hand and add a foot of concrete all around boggles my mind.

When we arrived here almost 20 years ago the last vestiges of the shed that was built over the well had just fallen over. I used one of the walls as a cover for a few years, then built a better fitting one about 10 years ago (with scrounged wood of course). It was just spruce and softwood and had started to rot a lot, but like so many of the odd jobs around here I just kept telling myself, “I’ll fix it next year.” Human inertia is a powerful thing.

I use a 12V DC pump, which I just hook up to an 80 Watt 12V solar panel, to pump from this well. I used to move the panel around a frame I made, but it was cumbersome, so this year I built a tracker. I call it my “Coffee Can Solar Tracker”. I just put a cedar post in the ground, and bolted the solar panel to a coffee can that sits on top. It has worked marvellously all summer. Very low tech. No software has failed on it or had to be updated.

Version 2

Version 2

The pump is rated to only suck water from 8 feet below. This is fine early on during most summers, because the water level is high. But over most summers it gets pretty low and the pump basically loses prime constantly. This year with the drought this started happening earlier than ever before.

So I ripped the cover off the well. Then I built a frame, put the pump on the frame, and lowered the frame into the well. This way the pump is now closer to the water level so it doesn’t have to ‘pull’ the water as much. These pumps are great at pushing water once it has reached the pump, just not so good at pulling it up to the pump.

Version 2

It still loses prime sometimes and my trick to get it going is just take the intake pipe and ram it into the water a few times and off it goes. Once the pump was down the well though this technique wasn’t available. So I put an aluminum ladder down the well and so I have to regularly climb down the ladder to prime the pump.

I don’t think I’m claustrophobic, but there is something about being deep down in a well. I think it’s because of all those televised news events where a child falls down a well and has to be rescued.

As the water has gotten lower it’s allowed me to solve the great mystery of what is at the bottom of the well. There is some water-logged wood, and like all things immersed in water, they are pretty creepy. I, of course have been straining to see something shiny … something of a precious metal nature … because I’m pretty sure that’s where people used to put their valuables 80 years ago … down the well. Just makes sense, right?

Version 2

Since we moved here almost 20 years ago, I’ve wondered what was at the bottom of this well. Thanks to our awesome drought, I am now intimately knowledgeable on the well and all its workings. Just another reason the lack of rain has been so awesome. (Please note there is a lot of sarcasm in this blog).

Version 2

Version 2

Version 2

Thanks D. C. for your recent contribution to the TIP JAR. It is very much appreciated!

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!)

 

 

 

 

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

Reflections on the Solstice

We had a marvelous solstice at Sunflower Farm, as we always do. It was filled with great food and great company and much warmth.

I absolutely love this time of year. My daughters and sons-in-law are home. We eat so well. And everything just feels different … and more awesome!

At this point I am usually raving about how great the skating was, or snow shoeing in the bush. But not this year. It was bizarrely warm. Grossly warm. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were T-shirt warm, when we should have been bundled up and skating. I hate to admit how much I equate a great festive season with cold weather, but I do. During the past two years we had great rinks thanks to the effects of the polar vortex, but this year we could have swum in any of the lakes or ponds around here … granted in polar bear swim mode.

The highlight of our holiday was that our grandson was here for much of the festivities. At 4-1/2 months he is not into the commercial side of the season … he just smiles when he’s happy, which usually occurs when he is near his mom or dad, or when his aunts and uncles or his grandparents make embarrassingly silly faces and chatter at him. Our daughter entrusted him to our care while they journeyed to the city to see the new Star Wars movie, so we had some special one-on-one time. When he began to get fussy at nap time we debated trying the ‘put him in the crib and let him cry’ 1950’s style parenting strategy … okay we never even considered it for a minute! Instead I walked around with him in my arms and let him admire the LED Xmas lights which basically occupy every square foot of our off-grid house, lighting up such a dark time of the year. He was asleep in minutes. I would then gently lower myself to the couch and sit there as still as can be to keep him asleep. There is something about sitting on the couch with your sleeping grandson which elicits a profound contemplation of family, and generations, and continuity, and the spiritual side of life we don’t always contemplate, and the reason we continue to try and live as low- carbon a lifestyle as we can.

We had a number of big get togethers with family and friends. When we ordered our dining room table when we bought this place 18 years ago, we had it made from pine by a local family-owned company, and we ordered three leaves. We needed all 3 several times during the holiday season and it was wonderful.

Xmastable

 

There is nothing quite like a table covered in delicious food in a warm cozy dining room. There is no product I could ever own, or place I would rather go, that could beat how much I love this place, especially when it’s crowded with the people I love.

The chickens got spoiled with lots of special treats like warm potato/sweet potato peel mash, or warm apple skin stew after the pies were made. They dive into this stuff with great gusto. They also seemed to really enjoy the straw bale jungle gym we made when we found a great local source for the straw. Happy chickens = amazing eggs.

The deer had a fantastic season in our garden. The warm weather meant that the kale and Brussels sprouts were still plentiful, as were some small brassicas that never matured. They started tentatively nibbling on a few leaves each night, but now they have gone ‘full bore’ and anything green is officially history. Luckily we got lots of kale and Brussels sprouts before the deer went all ‘eat til they’re gone’ on us.

eaten down kale plants

We continue to experiment and learn with our greenhouses. I had transplanted kale, spinach and lettuce to our new greenhouse against the barn foundation. I have two layers of floating row cover fabric on them and they lasted quite well. We had a -8° C (17° F) night in December and we just had a -22°C (-8°F) night last night, and yet we’re going to have a Creamy Cashew Caesar Salad made with kale for dinner tonight (January 5). (Our daughter shared this recipe with us. Find it here; http://itdoesnttastelikechicken.com/2014/05/28/creamy-cashew-caesar-salad-dressing/)  I continue to have spinach in my scrambled eggs each morning. The thermal mass of the barn foundation walls, and the protection provided by the plastic cover and the floating row cover have really maintained these crops well. It’s great to know we can ramp this skill up to really extend the months that we are self-sufficient in food.

kale and spinach in greenhouse

 

We got a light cover of snow a few days ago, and after a few really cold nights you can walk on the surface without falling through. Jasper the Wonder Dog and I have been enjoying how much easier it makes our walks in the woods. I hate to admit that with my 56-year-old knees, I don’t relish those walks where you punch through an icy layer with each step you take. Great if you’re training for a marathon perhaps. I am not training for a marathon.

The great part of this time of year is that I am able to get out and enjoy the property. Most months of the year I am totally focused on the 3 or 4 acres right around the house where we grow, as opposed to the 150 acres I should be exploring. Every time I get out I marvel at this property and that I live in such a quiet, remote, peaceful place. I am infinitely grateful that we bailed on the city and moved here when I was young and strong and ambitious enough to make this whole off-grid/renewable energy/sustainability/earn an income where it’s really hard to/low-carbon project actually work. If I were just retiring from a city-dependent job right now I don’t think I’d have the same motivation.

I also wouldn’t be as intimately aware of and connected to this little piece of paradise that we are the temporary stewards of.

Sarah Harmer has a great song that includes the lyrics, “holidays are for reading.” For me it’s ‘holidays are for peeling potatoes, keeping woodstoves going, doing dishes, cooking hash browns…’ but most of all spending time with people I really really love to spend time with. For me it’s also a time to throttle back to a lower gear for a few days and get out and be in awe of where I live and how fortunate I am.

Our circumstances continue to evolve and change constantly, but this year I made the same statement I make every year… Best Christmas Ever!

* * * * * * *

Special thanks to NB for his recent generous and much-appreciated donation and RH for his monthly contribution 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 CSA. 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 available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people 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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