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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 15

Wednesday was, as the saying goes, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.    “Oh…L Too many adventures at once,” came the reply from my dear friend Bob after I’d texted “Rain harvest ceased.  Masonry heater chimney leaked. Garage door opener broke.  Even the sturdy euonymus took ill”.    He’d sent as much digital comfort as he could, still I all could do is gaze out from the yoga loft porch and listen longingly for the sound of the Prius coming down the driveway.  Linda always works two days a week in Minneapolis, but now I really needed to see her again.   Sometimes Home the Land Built---or better put all the change we’ve brought upon ourselves---feels so heavy and close, like a stifling June afternoon.   
Yet Bob promised that tomorrow would be a better day.  And it was.  Much, much better!  Yes Linda and I began moving forward on the “adventures”, but one thing in particular really lifted my cloud of anxiety:  raspberries. 
Whether you believe it or not, it was wild raspberries that saved me.   By the time I could no longer see the round bottom of my plastic container, I wore a new attitude.  A raspberry attitude.  Hot didn’t matter.  Gnats didn’t matter.  Poked, prodded and pricked didn’t matter.  I was 100% engaged.  And that’s all that mattered. 
And what really, really engaged me was the thrill of learning.  Oh to be so humbled, so blissfully ignorant.  I knew nothing about picking raspberries.  Not at the start.  But each alcove in the hedgerow, each arching cane, each off-balance reach taught me something, the best kind of something, the kind of something that deep inside I already knew.  I just needed my teacher, wild raspberry, to coax it out of me.  And now, like any good student, I summarize my learnings.
How to gather the most, the plumpest, the juiciest of life’s desires, whoops I mean raspberries.
Get into the mess.  It’s a jungle, isn’t it?  Well no, I found after I brushed past the grasping thorns, crunched over broken brush, ducked under fallen limb right into the pulsing thick of it:  the intoxicating smell of elderberry flowers, the drone of pollinators, air so thick I felt underwater.  Then I felt it.  No fear.  I’m part of this.   Suddenly I could go anywhere.  Try anything.  It had only been a jungle because my little mind (who ‘s out to kill me sometimes) said it was. 

Change my perspective.    Singular vision yielded a single raspberry.   Frustrated, I turned back and lo!  There they are by the dozens.  I’d walked right past them.   I began forcing my eyes elsewhere.  Look near then far away.  Look at the whole then zero in.  Look right then left.  Look up then down.  Look on top then underneath.  Look ahead then behind.    How humbling to discover that everything I desired was already there.

Know the neighbors.   Nettles, yikes, move on!  But wait.   Look-ee there.  I soon discovered that raspberries arch behind nearly every patch of these head high stingers.  Arms up.  Wind my way through.  “E-ow-w-w”.   Is that catbird?  Raspberries can’t be far away.   Look, way up there on the hill, the white cloud of elderberry blooms.  Check it out!    And you grape, I know you love to ramble on top of my raspberries.  You don’t mind if I pick you up do you.  By the way, I’ll be back.  For elderberries.  For grapes.  Even for the greener than green nettles next spring.  And all to the endless song of catbird.

Become the object of my desire.  At first I could hardly find a single raspberry.  They’re hiding, I thought.  But finally, after stumbling upon a few where I least expected, I slapped my forehead.  “Of course I want to be found,” I head raspberry whispering inside my head.  “Why would I divert so much solar energy to wrap my seed in syrupy sweetness, only to have it rot on the vine and fall to the ground?  My genes are looking for transportation.  And you’re it (so I put a few right in front of your face).  But so is catbird (who’s looking down from the branch).  And fox (who looking up from the ground).”    
So now you can see why, after returning to the house with quarter after quart of raspberries, I got drunk on learning, this thrilling, participative knowledge of abundance that lives, it seems, right at the edge of the world.  And now I’d finally dared approach it.
What you may not know about me is that I’m an expert in control.  Really.  Wielding my staff of statistical wizardry, I’ve been handsomely paid to determine the best knob to turn and exactly how far to turn it, from a Seagate hard drive to a Medtronic pacemaker.  And in my golden years of corporate teaching, bearing the title of Master Black Belt if you can believe it, I passed this staff to thousands---engineers, accountants, even managers---creating a legion of corporate control experts.  And I’m proud of them, my legacy.
Yet I came to the Land because, somehow, I knew something more awaited me.  Something so much more.  I just wasn’t sure what it was.  So House the Land Built.  So too many adventures in one day.  So wild raspberries.
I’ve always imagined that one day, I’ll teach again.  I do love teaching.  What I’ve finally learned is that my only role as a teacher is to find something, anything really,  that engages and encourages students to learn on their own.  So if ever I were to offer a field course in life skills---for kids or executives---I might just send them out picking raspberries.   Perhaps they too will thrill to discover a new life-engaging attitude.  A wild raspberry attitude.  Maybe even a Landitude. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 14

In 15 minutes—poking in and out of the riot of a hedgerow below the shed, Architect Paul’s dog Luna panting at my side---I picked enough wild raspberries for dinner, supper and breakfast tomorrow morning.  Then. as I look up the hill toward Home the Land Built, I ponder our newly planted Meteor Cherry, browsed nearly to the ground by deer.  The sad Como Park Rose, one red bud daring to bloom after all the others were hungrily chewed.  And then there’s the salvia in the entry pot, one withered leaf clings to its wind-shredded stem.  Such an irony!   We purchase, dig, plant and water, only to yield naked stems.  I do nothing, except follow a dog out onto the Land, and an abundance is returned.   
I know, I could increase my level of control.  I could fence out the deer (9 feet high is what Lonny and Sandy Dietz, my vegetable farming neighbors, are considering).   And if the fence were made of slatted wood, it might slow the wind as well.   This is what I’ve done my whole life:  solve problems by turning levers and pushing buttons.  I came to the Land in hopes of learning another way.
And the Land whispers another idea, a wild idea:  belong to the community, engage the Connection.  Seems the wild raspberries belong to their hedgerow community.  The overarching trees shade out the encroaching grass, giving the raspberry roots room to run.   The tree-nesting birds gorge on the berries and spread the seeds up and down the hedgerow in their droppings.   The bramble of arching raspberry canes, well-armed with stabbing thorns,  say “you shall not pass” to the deer, allowing tree saplings---even a cherry---to rise safely in their midst, creating ever more hedgerow.    So to engage the Connection, what if I just encouraged raspberries---and their spiny cousin the gooseberry---to grow where we wish to plant trees?  Then, while we wait for the cherries and plums and pears, we eat raspberries.  Seems too simple.  And I’m sure it is.  Fortunately, if I try it, the Land will quickly teach me what’s wrong with the idea and suggest improvements.  And Home the Land Built---designed by Architect Paul to enable the Connection---agrees with the Land.
Consider, as I often do, our composting toilet.   While many are surprised at its polished-cherry beauty, no few are loathe to actually use it.  “I don’t want Mike to have to haul out my stuff,” proclaimed one such first-time visitor.   Indeed, hauling two buckets of pooh each week (plus one bucket for the cat) can be a chore.  Yet, the composting toilet belongs to the community of Home the Land Built.
Suppose I ignore Home the Land Built and replace the composting toilet with a good old flush toilet.  We actually plumbed for a flush toilet, so we need not rip up the floor to install one.  But then we’d need a lot more water, thousands of gallons more, possibly exceeding the capacity of our 5400 gallon rainwater harvest cistern.  So, at considerable expense, we add another cistern.  To pump the additional water into our house requires more electricity, possibly exceeding our off-grid capacity.  So we burn gas to run the noisy generator or buy more solar panels and batteries.  Worse yet, what if we can’t collect enough rainwater to fill two cisterns?   Then we install a well.  After spending $30,000 to drill 700 feet, we tap two huge problems:  the considerable electricity required to pump water that high and the possibility of offering you a chemical-laden cup of water.  The karst geology of southeast Minnesota allows some surface contaminants to cascade between rocks and drip unfiltered into the aquifer.    So, in the end,  a good old flush toilet could cost us $40,000 and ruin the quality of our water in the process.    A regular toilet does not belong to the community of Home the Land Built.
So when I tire of hauling buckets of pooh, I remember how our butt-simple composting toilet belongs to Home the Land Built:  low cost, clean water, off-grid compatible.  And one day, perhaps in two years or so, I’ll feed the compost to the raspberries. 
I don’t why I did it---perhaps to nudge its odor away from the house---but I built the compost bin in the hedgerow below the shed.     I’ve often wondered if it was out of place.  No more!  By feeding the raspberries, the compost begins to belong to community of the hedgerow.  So what about me?  I haul the buckets.  And, like the birds, I gorge on the berries and spread the seeds.  Do I belong to the community of the hedgerow?  I don’t know, but this afternoon I’m donning my double-thick pants, covering my head with a gnat-proof kitchen towel and venturing in.    I can’t resist the whisper of the raspberry. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 13

A-burstin’ and a-gushin’!
That’s the prairie, right now.  And some would say that’s me at times.  Unfortunately it was also, and quite literally, Home the Land Built.
Returning home from a wonderful Minneapolis overnight, we opened the door and r-r-r-r-ow-oh-oh-oh! Kirby cat is howling.  Then, above his screams of terror, we hear another noise.  Ph-sh-sh-sh-sh.  “Its coming from the cellar,” Linda yells.  Down we go.  And in the 5 seconds it takes me to descend, my overly active mind races to imagine every conceivable horror.  Our cellar, after all, is like main engineering on Starship Enterprise.  Except I’m no Geordi La Forge.    I reach the cellar and what do I see?
A-burstin’ and a-gushin’!  Water spewing like a geyser from the foot of the hot water tank.    In a split second I deduce that the spewing water is not dangerously hot (the solar heated water in the tank is often a scalding 150F this time of year); no steam.  A hose had burst.  I reach my hand through the geyser and turn off the valve.   Thank my lucky stars, it stopped.   I fume.  “It’s that damned work-around.”  We’d installed a tankless water heater as backup to the solar and it’s been the bane of the project.  It refuses to heat any water that’s been pre-heated by the solar.  So the plumber installed a hose, bypassing the hot water tank which we use whenever the hot water tank is too cool (100F or less).   And that hose had now burst.
There’s water all over the cellar floor, soaking into the wood framing, the sheet rock.  I hate leaks.  Always have.  Yet before even I react to this thunderbolt, a second---and far more terrifying sequence of realizations---sears my mind.  How long has this been going on?  How long has the pump been running?  How much electricity has it consumed?  Have our batteries been depleted so low (less than 50%) that they’re permanently damaged?  How much water remains in our cistern?  I start channeling Geordi La Forge. 
I rush to the invertor, to its Mate3 display unit, the next best thing to a holo-deck.  “We’re all right!”, I yell to Linda.  The battery is still at 91% charge.   Then a few button presses and voila: a graph of power consumption over the last day.  “The hose burst at 2:00,  4 hours ago.”  This I surmised since the power jumped to 1000 watts, the combined draw of the cistern pump and septic pump. 
But what about the cistern?  How much water do we have left?  I run upstairs and outside to the rainwater harvest cistern.  Last weekend’s torrent had filled it to its 5400 gallon capacity.  But what now?  The concrete manhole cover screeches as I strain to slide it up and off.   Dark as it is down that hole, I can see the shining surface of water.   I sigh in relief.  “We lost about a third, 1500 gallons.  We’ve still got maybe 4000 gallons.”    We’re alright, a little mopping, a drying fan, a glass of wine on the porch, perhaps a second.   
Wow!  Architect Paul, you’ve certainly succeeded.  We asked you to design us a house that enables the Connection---to the Land, to our friends and family, to the Divine---and you did it.  For a brief minute we experienced the terror of finite resources.  Finite electricity.  Finite water.  Not that electricity and water aren’t always finite, but Home the Land Built makes it very obvious.   Transparent.  And tonight---for that one brief and amazingly Connecting minute---it felt painfully transparent.  Lightning out of a clear blue sky.
“I’ll call Electrician John.  Maybe he can rig us a failsafe that shuts off the pump if it runs too long.  20 minutes maybe?”  I needed to get practical, bring the problem down to something bitesize.  The magnitude of what we’d done here---this whole new Land-Connecting system---overwhelmed me.  There was only one thing to do:  wine walk. 
We strolled up to the high spot and out into the prairie, where the first of the pale purple coneflowers had just begun twirling their pink skirts.  Here they were, these most gorgeous of earthly creations---born of the finiteness of water and sun---and yet they dance, seemingly.    I listened for their advice.  How should I move forward?
A-burstin’ and a-gushin’!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 12

We planted our first little landscape tree.  A Meteor Cherry.  A memory lane impulse.  We’d planted one at 4140, right outside our window in the narrow space between our old house and Chris and Alby’s kitchen window.  So beautiful, all those red, round cherries, and so very tasty.  Here at the Land, we figured this tree would be safe, from the ever-browsing deer that is.  After all, we’re surrounded by thousands of cherries and I’d never seen a single browsed stem.  Silly me. 
The School of the Land has so much to teach me.
We planted a lawn.  We spread grass and oats and covered the steepest hills with erosion mats.  All we really wanted was something green, something besides bare dirt around our house.  We prayed for rain.  And got it.  Whoosh!  The seed is now stacked in nice piles at the bottom of the hills.  Cowbird food.    
The School of the Land has so much to teach me.
Dawn called to me this morning.  “Come on out.  There’s something special I’ve brought for you to see.”  I stepped out onto the west porch.  It was beautiful indeed.  First light.  And all the bird song.  Yup, another amazing morning on the Land.  Then, just as I was heading back inside, swoosh!  A huge creature falls out of a hedgerow tree.  As I gasped, he spread his wings and arched skyward.  As he disappeared up and over the high spot, I thought, “How could I have missed an eagle perched so near, hungrily eyeing Kirby cat crouched at me feet?” 
The School of the Land has so much to teach me.
I have two full buckets (black Fleet Farm logo buckets) to empty from the composting toilet, but the compost heap looks full.  Dang!  I’ve been meaning to finish our much larger two-bin Humanure Hacienda.  Hmmm.  
The School of the Land has so much to teach me.
I’ve been carefully tending a tree we planted last year, an American Elm seedling Linda had nurtured from our Minneapolis home.     “You sure that’s an American Elm?” a visiting arborist asked.   I stared and stared, and then slapped my forehead.  Thousands of these aggressive invasives plant themselves all over the Land.  I didn’t need to look it up in Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota.  But I did anyway.  Anyone want a Siberian Elm? 
The School of the Land has so much to teach me.
I wrote an article for CERT, Minnesota’s Clean Energy Resource Team, about our off-grid journey, which they published on their website.  Cool!  Then the director published it on Renewal Energy  More cool!  Then I started reading the insightful comments.  Way, way cool!  Then I started to comprehend the passion and knowledge and wisdom of these readers and I thought, “I’m way out of my league here.  What am I doing, posting on a site like this?” 
The School of the Land has so much to teach me.
This week, when I saw Dayna Cruz, my dear former work colleague, she asked the best question ever.  “Don’t you just spend your entire day adjusting to the new system, solving problems, figuring out how to live this entirely new way?”    That’s exactly it!    I keep trying to explain what I do all day, but it’s frustratingly hard.  It all belongs to this whole new world we’ve created.  The School of the Land has so much to teach me.
Oh, boxelder bear, my trusted guardian, show me the way.  At least show me the door to Kindergarten.  May I just curl up at your feet and sleep well.  The School of the Land has so much to teach me.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 11

The alarm clock displays a big red 5:06AM.  I’m lifted from bed by expectancy’s gentle yet compelling hands.  Fog is so thick I can’t see out the big bank of windows.  I rush out onto the porch.  There, boldly silhouetted against the white curtain rising from the Whitewater River Valley, two deer.  No, three.   Wait no, there’s six actually grazing on the Land’s distant prairie ridge.   Suddenly, a spotlight ignites the hilltop behind me, stealing the show away from the deer.  I stride up the gravel road to the high spot just as one white wild indigo bursts into flame.  Then another and another.  Soon hundreds upon hundreds leap into a prairie celebration of dawn’s first light.  All this is enough, perhaps, to help my body forgets its pain.  Actually, it doesn’t forget.  But it does feel rewarded.  This---this achingly beautiful connection---is what it’s all about after all.
Speaking of rewards, I got mine.  It rained.  The cistern is now full.   On Thursday, Linda, her mother and I witnessed the historic first harvest of rainwater.   We watched excitedly as the first flush diverter did its job, allowing the first downspout collected water, rooftop dirty, to pass out onto yard, then after throwing away 50 gallons or so, allowing the rest to pass on down the buried pipes and into the cistern. 
But watch out what you ask for, you just might get it.  And on Saturday, we did.  With our dear friends Pam and Brad here for their first overnight, we were visited by the rains from hell.    A thousand hammers beating the roof at once could not have matched its fury.  And the terrible east winds were pelting the rain straight sideways against our windows.  Water oozed under the window seat onto the concrete floor.  “It’s pouring into the root cellar,” Linda yelled up from the basement.  Either the buried pipe backed up or the first flush diverter just said  “to hell with it, I can’t keep up” as it allowed a fire hydrant of water to gush out the downspout onto the yard.  Our little drainage swale became a swollen, muddy Amazon.  We still don’t know how much grass seed it carried to the bottom of the hill, but flocks of cowbirds have been feasting for days on the flotsam and jetsam.    We pretty much lost any hope of ever walking on anything but a mud moat around our house. 
Yet desperation drives inspiration.   Problems become solutions.  Lemons become lemonade.
Just off the east porch---the very corner where the downspout once gushed onto grass seed---is now a raised bed kitchen garden.  Or will be once Linda plants her herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.  All that downspout water is now captured in a freshly dug hole---15 feet long, 3 feet wide, 6 inches deep---lined with split logs and topped with woodchips to serve as a garden path.
My body still hurts from the two day effort.   And maybe that’s a good thing.  As I type, my stiff fingers remind me of their labor, their creative energies.  So that even now, though I sit in the yoga loft, I’m also out there in the kitchen garden.  The feel of wet dirt.  The smell of rotting wood.  The sound of water, drumming and gushing.  And, perhaps best of all, the feel of the smile on Linda’s face.  All the Connection, the achingly beautiful Connection.