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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 10

I’m waiting for rain.  Is that a good thing?
Yes, our Sahara-like lawn needs it.  Excavator Steve finally shoveled, bulldozed and dragged the final water-shedding grade around House the Land Built.  After Linda and I spread grass, oats and fertilizer, we rolled straw-weaved mats to hold the precious seed and prevent (hopefully) the deep gullies from reappearing.     We hurried to beat the rain.  Finally the green and yellow on my phone’s radar became a blanket beneath the stars, yet all it gave was a low growl.  Heavy clouds but no rain.
Lawn aside, it’s our steadily depleting cistern that’s really got me gazing west all the time.  I’m excited to announce that the rainwater harvest system is finally in place!!!  What would we do without Excavator Steve?  He not only trenched in the PVC pipe that will carry the roof-harvested rainwater to the cistern’s underground inlet, but he designed and built an overflow outlet as well.  His 70 foot buried PVC pipe runs gently downhill from the top of the cistern toward our future garden, allowing excess rainwater to escape without digging another gully in our lawn.  According to my calculations, our 5400 gallon concrete cistern should overflow during nearly every summer rain. 
Each inch of rain equals a thousand gallons for us.    So that one inch should last us 33 days at our average household consumption of 30 gallons per day.  Thank you composting toilet for saving us so much water!    An average summer provides 4 inches of rain each month, of which 3 inches (3000 gallons) will need to be diverted down to our garden.    We needed to store 5400 gallons (180 days worth) to get us through the long winter, our desert season here in Minnesota.  Worst case scenario, drought of the century, I pay the milk truck guy $200 to haul us 5000 gallons of water from City of Plainview. 
And thank you in advance to our three newly-installed Clean Rain Downspout Diverters.  Their job is to say  “you shall not pass”  to the dirtiest of water.  They catch the rainwater falling out of the gutter, discard the first 50 gallons (dust, pigeon-poop, whatever collects on the roof) then screens the remaining water before falling into the cistern’s PVC pipe inlet.  While the cistern water would be fine as-is for bathing and dishwashing (certainly far cleaner than any lake we’ve ever swam in), we’ve installed two additional filters to assure perfectly safe drinking water.  The final filter, our Big Berkey, not only eliminates every possible gut-bomb of a creature, but Atrazine as well (heard about frogs changing genders?)  and a host of other nasty chemicals. 
But this is all theory.  I’m still waiting for our cistern’s first raindrops.  Is that a good thing? 
I’m reminded of my dream last night:  an owl tearing the breast feathers out of a small hawk while hawk beat owl’s hungry face with his wings.  Is that a good thing?
I’m not sure.  Yet, like waiting for rain, I am sure its engaging.  And that is exactly what we asked Locus Architect Paul to do for us: design us a house that enables the Connection.  Engage us with the Land.  Our neighbors.  You.  What could be more engaging, more connecting, than watching the sky, the one big sky which embraces us all?    
I gaze out the yoga loft windows.   Today’s grey veil prevents the sun’s rays from heating our solar hot water collector, yet leaks just enough to energize the photovoltaic solar panels, topping off the batteries with electricity.  All so engaging.  Yet now, the rainwater harvest system draws my gaze over the solar panels, over the Ireland-green prairie, over Lonny and Sandy’s fields to the horizon.  There, on that far western rim, live my hopes, my imagination:  a rolling darkness, a sudden violent flash then that blissful sound.  A single splat.  Then the drumming.  The running.  The gushing.  Water!  Water!  Water!  Soon, very soon I hope.
Rainwater harvest:  the last alternative system to be installed.  Yes, it can be annoying and inconvenient.  So too off-grid electric, solar hot water, composting toilet, masonry heater.  Yet I’m beginning to wonder if “convenient” isn’t the opposite of “connecting”.    Seems that the grid---be it electricity, water or waste---has been quietly, conveniently, disconnecting me from so much that really matters.
No more!  I’m waiting for rain.  That’s a good thing.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 8

I kill.  I plant.  I tend.  I harvest.  Am I now farming?
Killing.  I yanked out a few 5 foot tall buckthorns behind the shed.     With the Puller Bear’s steel jaws biting the buckthorn’s neck, I press down on the white handle.   Pop! The lever action pulls the root out of the rain-softened soil.  Sometimes.   I needed a better weapon to take on the 8 foot tall honeysuckles.  Little Blue, our 45hp 4WD New Holland tractor.  One end of towing strap tied around the axle, the other strangling the honeysuckles many necks, I inch forward in low gear.  Snap!  Snap!  Snap!  Out come the roots.  Sometimes.  I needed a better weapon to take on the 12 foot tall boxelders lining the brush pile, the many that survived the burn.  Targeted  burn.  I stacked dry brush and old barnboard under one boxelder and lit it.   Whoosh!  Crackle!  Then finally sizzle, or is a shriek, the sound of steaming wood, followed by the stench of green leaves shriveling in the flame.  Before the flames settle I stoke one end, gradually moving the flame around a semi-circle of the brush pile, igniting one boxelder at a time.    Then maybe, when the thrill of it all settles, I weep.
Planting.  We’ve planted very little.  25 white spruce seedlings.  50 hazelnut seedlings.  One 4 inch long stick of an elderberry.  The rhododendron my mom gave me for house-warming still sits on the porch.   Someday, if the bare ground dries and Excavator Steve shakes himself loose from his other spring rush projects,  we’ll final grade, connect the downspouts to the rainwater harvest cistern (yeah!!!!) and then, finally then, we can garden around our house.  Ah to feel green grass underfoot rather than mud on my boots.
Tending.  Two week ago we performed the only tending our 40 acre prairie needs:  fire.  I call it tending because the flame actually kills very little: a few small trees, a couple million ticks I suppose.  The burn tips the balance away from the European-sourced pasture grass and toward the frequent-fire loving natives.  We tended our spruces and hazelnut, hauling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of woodchip mulch we’d asked the local powerline trimmers to dump.  The enemy of trees is grass.  We hope the mulch shields them.  In another “crazy” experiment, I’m attempting to train a wild grapevine to smother a trellis rather than a black cherry tree.  Speaking of cherries, I’ve torn off dozens of silky tents, writhing with leaf-stripping caterpillars.  OK that’s killing I guess. 
Harvesting.  Nettles!  The perfect cooked green:  fresh, easy, abundant.  Oh yeah, I’ve heard they’re nutritious (look it up, you’ll wonder why we bother with garden greens) as well, though ‘nutritious’ has pretty much fallen out of my vocabulary.  To what extent does a list of percentages describe the intricately vital relationship between nettles and myself?  I’m just beginning that relationship with cattails.  Like harvesting nettles, the first thing I’ve learned is what it’s like to hang out in their home, which for cattail is the outer circle of either pond.  What amazes (and delights) me is how accepted I feel by the nesting red-winged blackbirds.  Normally frantic, even dive-bombing, they just go about their business as I go about mine:  sloshing slowly along the muddy shore, seeking a fat stalk,  yanking, stripping the leaves, stuffing the soft white pith in my netted bag.   Feels great to be part of team pond!  Easy to prepare, just eight minutes of steam and a little butter (or a lot, what the heck!).  I’m still learning how much to peel off.  Too much and I’ve wasted good cattail.  Too little and my teeth need to do the stripping, like eating an artichoke.  Like any farmer, my harvest is also lacking.  I have yet to chance upon a single Morel.
Yet the question remains, am I farming?   In our off-grid, rainwater harvest, composting toilet, rainwater harvest, masonry heated home, perhaps our greatest experiment is how we do or do not Claim the Land. 
I wonder if humanity’s big agricultural innovation was NOT sowing and reaping and all the technology to do it.  After all lots of creatures sow and reap:  squirrels, blue jays, mice even.  What’s unique to humanity is the degree to which we Claim the land.  “It’s all mine and I’ll do what I damn well please with it.”  First kill whatever grows on the land (or depends upon what grows on it, or eats what I grow) then plant and tend only what I will harvest.   We’ve now extended the Claim to all of planet earth.  What does the Claim get us?  Could life be better with a different view of the Claim.  Its hard to know when all earth is included. 
So my novel, a thought experiment where a group dares to discover the benefits and challenges of a different Claim.  Stay tuned.
So the Land.   A living experiment where Linda and I dare to discover the benefits and challenges of a different Claim.  Yes our killing, planting, tending will generate some food and firewood for us.  Maybe some income.  But mostly we see ourselves as Members of the community of the Land.  And to that end we are stewards.  Healers.  Facilitators listening to the Land.  Asking questions.  Engaging.  A friend once asked, “why not let the land go wild?”  I responded, “why not let your teenage son go wild?”  The analogy is about right.  If we did nothing the results would be predictable:  buckthorn, honeysuckle, boxelder, deer, turkeys.  The familiar (and very limited) cast of characters.  Not at all the diverse community which once thrived here:  the ever-changing rainbow of prairie flowers, the drone of a million flower-sipping bees, the grunt of grass-grazing bison.    
So yes we farm but under the guidance of new Claim experiment.  AND.  We Claim the Land AND we don’t Claim the Land.   The Land belongs to us AND the Land belongs to the creatures of the Land: our connecting community, the bees and bison yet to be.  We’ve learned that his experiment requires an underappreciated resource.  Time.  It took a thousand wild years for the former prairie to bloom into its glory.  Our experiment may very well take as long.  Still change happens every day here on the Land.  And you, my dear blog reader, are welcome to come and farm.  Kill.  Plant.  Tend.  Harvest.  Or just watch.  And listen.   There’s a buzz out there.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 7

Walking the Land is like being inside a story, the best of stories:  rich and quirky characters, riveting twisting plot, all the great themes.  Love.  Community.  Hardship, Humor.  Yet the story is sometimes hard to follow, so tangled, like a crushing mass of grapevine twining atop the bramble.  Not yesterday.  Not one week after the burn.
40 acres of ash-black backdrop crunching beneath my booted foot.  Suddenly an image grabs my attention, a single frame of story preserved like a Pompeii juggler at the very instant the ash descended, complete in all its wonder and horror.  Now a good story contains nothing more than a series of baiting questions (implied if not directly posed) embedded within an anecdote.  Who did what to whom and why?  And yesterday each ash-framed scene did indeed pose a question, a question normally muffled beneath waves of grass now granted voice by the miracle of the burn.
What force granted wood betony---so strange in her parasitic beauty---the unique power to spare her flowers from the flames?

So, you little sperm shaped sprouts, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Little bird:  was your nest, one of hundreds upon hundreds I’ve seen today, built last year or did I destroy this spring's labor?

Who---like some wild-armed oil painter---flung shreds of red elm bark so far out onto the canvas of the prairie?

Momma turkey: did you abandon your egg to the choking smoke or did some other creature find it before the flames?

Deer hunter:  did your knife slip your pocket or did you accidentally leave it after gutting your deer?

Oh Savanna the Wonder Dog, I’m walking your namesake trail after a burn again , are you?

The rule of storytelling, what keeps me turning the page, is that each question will eventually be dealt with, if not directly answered.  But yesterday, as I walked away from each ash-framed scene, the question lingered.  Unanswered.  Should I go back out there today, seek the answer?  I think not.  As I gaze out the bank of windows onto the glory of what remains,  the Land says “not yet.” Perhaps this story is like so much great art.  Perhaps the question is the answer.