Sunday, September 29, 2013

2013 Mother Earth News Fair - Sunday Workshops

I was back to a full day of workshops on Sunday. When looking over my schedule, there was only one that I was particularly excited about. Fortunately, though, I found myself enjoying everything I attended that day. My favorite workshop of the entire fair ended up being one I took on Sunday, that wasn't even initially on my schedule.

Small Farm, Big Exposure: Inexpensive Marketing Solutions - Ryan Walker of The Livestock Conservancy

Now that we've started some preliminary planning for a farm-based business, I felt like it was important to start learning a bit about marketing, and other business-related topics. This workshop seemed like a good opportunity for an intro. There were only 60 people or so in attendance, though, which seems to indicate that this isn't a topic that most people at the fair were interested in.

The presenter made a few suggestions that I think we definitely need to consider. The first was to develop a story, and communicate to your customers and potential customers. This seems like good advice, as it provides a way to stand out from the competition, and gives customers something to relate to. Another suggestion was to develop a logo, and be consistent with its use. I wouldn't have considered the importance of using labels and packages that use the same color scheme as the logo, but he made a good argument for this.

How to Walk Away From Civilization - Mike Olson, author

This was one of the workshop which was on my list of possibilities, but I didn't decide to take until the day before. Andrea suggested that it sounded like something I would enjoy, so I decided to check it out. I'm glad I did, because it was, by far, my favorite workshop of the weekend. A lot of others were also interested, as was apparent from the fact that more than 100 people were standing or sitting on the ground around the edge of the stage to listen to the presentation.

This workshop was a narrative about the presenter's experience with living alone in the wilderness for a summer. While I am typically not a fan of this type of presentation, I found this one to be very interesting, so much so that I immediately ordered his book, Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive, when I got home.

There were several inspirational comments from the presentation. The one that sticks in my mind the most is the idea that even if we change the world in which we live, we must also change ourselves for the changes to be complete, as we have to change the fundamental factor that shaped the world in the first place. This reminds me of the well known quote by Mahatma Gandhi, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world.", which I admit I never really got until attending this workshop.

Heat Your Home with Solar Energy - Dan Chiras of The Evergreen Institute

I have actually taken this same workshop in the past, but felt like it would be useful to take it again. I've learned more about passive solar design since initially taking it, and am starting to think about a home design, so thought a refresher would be helpful.

The presenter gave many examples of passive solar design, including several from homes he has lived in. His passive solar home in the Colorado Rockies, at an elevation of 8,000 feet provides a good example of the benefits of utilizing these design principles, and also gives him a great deal of legitimacy when speaking on the topic.

Earth, Straw, and Wood: Build a Mortgage-Free Natural Cottage - Chris McClellan of The Natural Cottage Project

This was another popular workshop, with approximately 30 people standing just to hear the presentation. My interest in the topic is due to my desire to use natural, and when possible local, materials for building a home. I suspect that many, if not most, in the crowd, however, were primarily interested in the possibility of constructing a low-cost home, which might require no mortgage.

The presenter used Henry David Thoreau's well known cabin to illustrate the cost effectiveness of building with natural materials. While Thoreau's cabin only cost the equivalent of $850 (some sources I have found suggest closer to $3,000), it was stated than an earthen shelter of similar dimensions would have cost roughly half of that amount. Most people in the crowd seemed to agree that such a small cabin, which was 10' x 15', would be much to small. While I do agree that it is on the small side, I believe that learning to live in smaller homes is something that would be beneficial for us all.

The primary method of construction being discussed in the workshop was cob, but a couple of other methods were mentioned as well. Several books were recommended, which I plan to check out. These include ShelterHome Work: Handbuilt Shelter, and Tiny Home: Simple Shelter by Lloyd Kahn, The Cob Builder's Handbook by Becky Bee, The Hand-Sculpted House by Ianto Evans (which I already own), and Building a Low Impact Roundhouse by Tony Wrench.

He also talked about the workshops offered by his organization, which I'd like to check out sometime. They offer two-week workshops approximately four times a year, and several weekend long workshops, which I'm more likely to attend, at least at first.

Conduct a Home Energy Audit - Kale Roberts of Mother Earth News

I was interested in attending this workshop because I know that we need to perform a home energy audit, but I'm not sure that I want to pay a professional at this point. I figured it would be nice to learn to do some of this myself, even if ends up not being as thorough and accurate as a professional audit.
There were very few people attending this workshop, I'm not sure if this is an indication of a lack of interest in the topic, or if it was primarily because it was the last workshop of the weekend.

Several tools were discussed that can help perform a home energy audit, including the Kill a Watt , which I own and use and The Energy Detective (aka TED) which I'd like to buy at some point. Unfortunately the workshop was sidetracked by a gentleman who had had a negative experience with compact fluorescent light bulbs, and wanted to use the workshop as an opportunity to make his displeasure with them known. The instructor handled it well, and explained that the issues he described had been known to occur with cheap Chinese imports that had, at one point, flooded the US market, and that those issues were not expected with quality bulbs, of which he gave some recommendations. He also went on to explain that CFLs had always been intended as a transition technology, until something better could be developed, but the use of CFLs grew quickly, and government policies were enacted that seem to push them, even though LEDs have now became more readily available and affordable.

Due to the distraction, the presenter didn't get though all of the material he had planned. He did manage to rush though much of it, but clearly not in detail as he had hoped. I still came away from a few useful pieces of information that should be helpful down the road.

2013 Mother Earth News Fair - Saturday Workshops

Saturday got off to a good start, with workshops on topics that I was very interested in attending. As mentioned before, however, there was really nothing I was interested in attending during one period, so I volunteered at the Earthineer booth during this time slot instead. I ended up skipping the last two workshops of the day as well, both of which were on the schedule more as filler than anything else.

Top Bar Hives: It's All About the Wax - Christy Hemenway of Gold Star Honeybees

Andrea had taken this workshop in the past, and felt that it would be beneficial for me to also take it. I'm very glad that I did, as I found it to be the most informative of the workshops I attended this year.

After hearing the instructor's explanation, and being shown a sample, of the differences between wax made by bees in the wild and that made in 'traditional' foundation based hives, I'm sold on the idea of foundation-less beekeeping. We were already leaning towards top bar hives, but now I have no doubt that this is the best approach for us.

I was especially surprised to learn that in nature bees make different sized cells, for different gender of bees, and will adjust this based on the needs of the hive. In a hive that uses artificial foundation, however, the cells are forced to be the same size, which is clearly not natural. I was also very interested to learn that bees that are allowed to build out natural foundation are slightly smaller than those forced to use artificial foundation.

In addition to her own website and book, The Thinking Beekeeper: A Guide to Natural Beekeeping in Top Bar Hives, she also suggested sources by others, including Phil Chandler's website The Barefoot Beekeeper and Michael Bush's website and book, The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally. I find that I am more likely to trust someone who recommends works by others in addition to his/her own books and website.

I also learned, just prior to the fair, that the instructor is a member of Earthineer. I promptly looked her up and sent a friend request, since I enjoyed the workshop so much.

Foam- and Fossil Fuel-Free Building - Jacob Deva Racusin of New Frameworks Natural Building

I attended a workshop led by this presenter, and his partner Ace McArelton at the 2012 Mother Earth News Fair. Because I enjoyed that one, I made it a point to attend this one to see what additional information I might gain.

As the name suggests, the primary focus of this workshop was on finding ways to minimize the use of foams when building, due to the environmental impacts of using them. The discussion of fossil fuels was limited to the fact that foam is petroleum based, so even though it's production isn't a direct cause for oil extraction, it is part of the overall process that we need to be reducing the demand for.

The presenter did indicate, however, that they do use foam in their designs in certain situations, such as when needing below grade insulation. He also talked about situations in which a limited budget can sometimes dictate the use of foams, due to their low (financial) cost.

Near the end of the workshop the presenter made a comment which really stood out to me. He pointed out that a home built to code minimum is the lowest quality home that can be legally built. Even though in some situations building code may be overkill, it was good to be reminded that building to code minimum results in a home that is no better than, or possibly inferior to, other homes being built in the area.

Forest Diagnosis - Dave Scamardella, consulting forester

This workshop was well attended, even though it was held outside, and it had started raining in the time leading up to the workshop beginning. Most of the chairs near the edge were wet, but I would guess that approximately 90% of the seats were full.

I attended a workshop led by this presenter at the 2012 Mother Earth News Fair. He was clearly knowledgeable, so I thought it was worth attending another of his workshops. I was interested in this one specifically as it dealt with invasive species, and I hoped that, due to the venue, it would focus on chemical-free methods of dealing with them. Unfortunately, however, like other presentations I've seen on the topic, the focus was almost entirely on the use of chemical pesticides for removing invasive plants.

The rain picked up during the workshop, and by the mid-point I was getting wet from blowing rain, even though I was sitting near the center of the tent. By the time the workshop ended water was running throughout the tent. I lt the workshop a feefw minutes early, when the rain slacked down, but still became drenched during the walk to the exhibit hall, forcing me to go to the room and change close before continuing my day.

2013 Mother Earth News Fair - Friday Workshops

There were four workshop sessions offered on Friday, and I attended something during each. Only one of the workshops I attended on Friday was one that was on my have to do list. While I enjoyed the workshops of the day, I found that I wasn't as excited and energized for the rest of the fair at the end of the day as I have been in the past after the first day.

The Homeowner's Energy Handbook: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Sources - Paul Scheckel, author and energy consultant

The focus of this workshop was improving energy efficiency in ones home, and the benefits of doing so. The gentleman leading the workshop was also promoting his book, The Homeowner's Energy Handbook: Your Guide to Getting Off Grid, which I might end up buying, after it was recommended by others.

There were a couple of things from this workshop that stood out to me. First was the discussion of the inefficiencies of our national electric systems, aka the grid. It was stated that for those living in an area in which electricity is generated primarily by burning coal, the overall efficiency of an incandescent light bulb could be as little as 3%, due to the inefficiency of coal fired plants, transmission of electricity over large distances, and the inefficiency of incandescent bulbs themselves. Thinking in these terms makes it clear that improving efficiency has much more impact that might be readily apparent.

The second thing that stood out was a thought-provoking statement about butter, of all things. While I can't repeat the exact quote, the basic idea of the statement was that because it requires so much work, if you had to make  your own butter every day, you'd eat much less of it. When compared to energy use, especially when thinking in terms of off-grid living, this is a simple, yet profound statement.

Certified Naturally Grown - Joe Bozzelli of Five Elements Farm

Attending this workshop was one of my top priorities, since we are starting to plan for a future farming venture. Apparently it wasn't a very popular topic at the fair, though, since there were only 60-70 people attending, as opposed to the renewable energy workshops, for example, which typically draw 200 people or more.

The focus of this workshop was the Certified Naturally Grown program, and how it compares to the USDA Organic certification. I was only vaguely aware of CNG prior to the workshop, so learned a great deal about it. CNG seems like a good alternative for small or new farms not wanting to go through the expense of becoming certified organic, which can easily cost $1,000 or more. We do need to look into the cost for Kentucky, however, as an organic farmer in the next county over indicated to us recently that it wasn't very expensive, which makes me think that maybe Kentucky has a program to help cover the costs.

After the fair, while browsing the Certified Naturally Grown website, I was pleasantly surprised to find Salamander Springs Farm, of Berea listed. Salamander Springs is operated by  Susana Lein, whom I've taken workshops from at the past, at both the 2011 and 2012 Field to Fork Festival. I also saw that Salt River Garlic, of Taylorsville was listed, which is whom I recently ordered a couple of new varieties of garlic from. I was surprised to find that their CNG status isn't promoted on the main page of their website, although is discussed, briefly, on the About Us page. This makes me wonder if being Certified Naturally Grown is as valuable from a marketing perspective as USDA Organic certification.

Small Stories, Big Changes - Lyle Estill, author

This workshop didn't have a primary focus, but turned out to be very enjoyable and informative. The gentleman leading it spent the first fifteen minutes talking about his experience with Biodiesel, use of a local currency in the community in which he lives, and a few other things from his life. The remainder of the time was spent answering questions from the audience, of which there were many.

I was most interested in learning more about the Piedmont Local Economy Tender, also known as the PLENTY, which is the alternative currency used in the community in which he lives. I was under the, incorrect, belief that alternative currencies were not legal, so was thrilled to learn that this is not the case. While I'm sure it is difficult to successfully integrate an alternative currency into a community, it seems to have some real advantages, including promoting the use of local businesses, since shopping out of town requires exchanging the local currency for US Reserve Notes.

The author has a book about local economies, Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy, which I would like to pick up sometime.

What If: Homesteading as a Way of Life - Gloria Varney of Nezinscot Farm

This turned out to be more of a narrative than an instructional workshop. The speaker, along with her husband, was the winner of a Mother Earth News Homesteader of the Year Award, which I assume is one of the reasons she was asked to speak at the fair.

I'm typically not very interested in 'workshops' in which the speaker is just talking about his/her life or farm, as I'm there to learn new skills. However, there were a couple of things from this talk that I was interested in. The first was learning that the speaker practices biodynamics on her farm. I know only a little about the subject, but it is something I would like to hear more about.

The other thing that interested me was her unique way of treating illnesses with herbs. She has a medicinal garden, which has resulted in many visitors asking for her to treat their ailments. Due to time restrictions, she has began asking these visitors to take a walk through the medicinal garden, and bring her the herbs that speak to them. While some people may view this as dangerous, I find it to be an interesting approach and wonder about its effectiveness. She reported positive results, and gave some examples of solutions that she likely would not have found otherwise. Once we arrived home, I decided to look up the medicinal uses of sage, since I seem to be drawn to it when visiting the herb garden. I found that it is used for a couple of purposes that could benefit me, so I'm trying to begin using it more regularly.

2013 Mother Earth News Fair - Workshops

Like most festivals that we attend, the workshops were my primary focus at the 2013 Mother Earth News Fair. I started planning my schedule weeks in advance, as soon as the schedule was made available online. Unfortunately, though, the schedule changed several times, which caused me to waste a lot of time. It seems that, until the program guide is finalized, it is probably not wise to spend very much time trying to plan a schedule.

The workshops were offered in fifteen different time slots, spread out over the three days, with four on Sunday, six on Saturday, and five on Sunday. There were fourteen different stages to choose from, many of which were themed, such as the Renewable Energy Stage or Organic Gardening Stage. I learned my lesson in the past, and so tried to attend workshops that were fairly close to one another, or at the very least, didn't require constantly traversing the grounds, or moving from inside to outside, then back inside every hour.

My initial schedule included attending fourteen workshops, with the only "down time" occurring while I was volunteering at the Earthineer booth. I ended up, however, skipping the two workshops after that one as well. The first of these was the Herbal Soap Making workshop, which was led by Rusty Orner of Quiet Creek Herb Farm & School. Andrea had taken the workshop in the past, and thought it would be good for me to take as well. By the time I got to the stage, however, the seats will filled and several people were sitting on the floor or standing around the edges. I decided to go back to the Earthineer booth to help them out instead of attending the workshop. I planned to attend the Ecothrifty Living workshop by Deborah Niemann as the last workshop on that day, but I really was just taking it as a filler. Andrea decided to skip her last workshop, so I did the same, so we could look at the exhibitor booths together, and then call it a day.

I had initially planned to do a single post in which I summarized all of the workshops I attended. However, after writing up the summaries, I decided that the resulting post would be too long for a single post, so am splitting it into separate posts. Workshop summaries will be posted by day, with one post each for the Friday Workshops, Saturday Workshops, and Sunday Workshops.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


It seems like we've been on the go ever since returning from the Mother Earth News Fair.

I had taken Tuesday off from work, in case we decided to spend an extra day on the road. Even though we came back on Monday I decided to go ahead and take Tuesday off since it was planned. We spent the first part of the day resting, although did take a bit of time to go check on the garden and pick a few tomatoes. After this we finished unpacking the rental car and getting it cleaned out, so we could return it. We had our final Gardening 101 class in London that evening, so left early enough to return the car, even though it wasn't due back until Wednesday.

Wednesday was my first day back to work, and I went ahead and went into the office. Andrea also spent much of the day out, as she had her Farm Start class in Richmond. We didn't really do anything once we made it home that evening.

On Thursday I worked from home like normal. We had to go back to London as soon as I got off of work, though, for another class. This one was on herbs. The class lasted until nearly 8:30, and we had to run to the home improvement store to pick something up afterwards, so was fairly late getting home.

On Friday my parents came down, so they could work on tearing down the old house where they plan to build a cabin. We all went over once I finished with work, and spent a couple of hours over there. We didn't get a whole lot done, but it was a good start.

We spent most of today working over there, and did accomplish a lot. We started a fire first thing, so that the lumber that wasn't worth saving could be burned. My mom took care of adding stuff to the fire, while my Dad and I work on demolition. We managed to pull several good boards off of a couple of walls, then hooked a cable to the tractor and pulled that side of the house down. We managed to get several more good boards from the roof of that section. There is still a lot to do, but we certainly made some real progress. Hopefully after several more productive weekends we'll get it done.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

2013 Mother Earth News Fair - Seven Springs

This was our fourth year attending the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA. The fair itself hasn't changed much since last year, so I will not repeat what I said about the event before in the 2012 Mother Earth News Fair - Seven Springs post.

Like last year the fair was a three day event. The organizers kept a couple of the key improvements from last year, which I feel improve the overall experience. These changes include expanding the exhibitor hours beyond the times that workshops are in session as well as allowing thirty minutes between workshops. This does make for long days, especially on Saturday, but I prefer the longer days to trying to pack it into a shorter period and constantly feeling rushed.


There were fourteen different "stages" this year, most of which hosted workshops during each of the fifteen time slots, for a total of more than 200 workshops. Unfortunately, or possibly fortunately, depending on your view, some of the workshops were offered multiple times, resulting in far fewer than 200 different options to choose from. It looks like there were close to 160 different workshops, with four of them being two parters.

I expect that for most people having 160 different workshops to choose from was plenty. However, I found that many of the workshops had been offered previously, and I had already attended several of them at past fairs. I was able to put together a fairly full schedule, although only a few of them were ones I was particularly excited about.

I initially planned to attend fourteen workshops, but only ended up going to twelve of them, four on Friday, three on Saturday, and five on Sunday. Andrea also attended twelve workshops.

Workshops that I attended:

  • The Homeowner's Energy Handbook: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Sources
  • Certified Natural Grown
  • Small Stories, Big Changes
  • What If: Homesteading as a Way of Life
  • Top Bar Hives: It's All About the Wax
  • Foam- and Fossil Fuel-Free Building
  • Forest Diagnosis
  • Small Farm, Big Exposure
  • How to Walk Away from Civilization
  • Heat Your Home with Solar Energy
  • Earth, Straw, and Wood: Build a Mortgage-Free Natural Cottage
  • Conduct a Home Energy Audit
Workshops that Andrea attended:
  • Hands-On Healing Remedies
  • Building a Natural First-Aid Kit
  • Herbal Balance
  • Herbs for Longevity and Well-Being
  • Six Inches of Soil in Six Months
  • Primary Poultry Healthcare
  • Put 'em Up: Fruits
  • Planting by the Moon
  • Herbal Medicine Making 101
  • Growing and Grinding Grains
  • Employing the Family Flock
  • Choosing Herbal Remedies for Sustainability
I will be posting summaries of the workshops I attended in the near future, so be on the lookout for that if you'd like to hear more about any of them.

Much like the workshops, I found that there were a lot of exhibitors that had been at the fair in previous years. While I did stop by a couple of those booths, if I had something specific to look for or to as about, I skipped many that I had visited before. The result was that I didn't spend as much time at the exhibitor booths as I have in the past.

The only exhibitor that I purchased anything from was Enon Valley Garlic, which I made it a point to visit first thing, before they sold out of Stull, which is a variety of garlic I missed out on last year by dropping by their booth too late. Andrea did purchase several items, including a few books, some soaps for a friend, and some seeds. Other exhibitors that I talked with include:
  • Bee Thinking - I stopped by to ask them about Warre hives and how they compare to top bar hives.
  • CobraHead - I stopped by to look at the broadfork they had on display.
  • Gardener's Workshop Farm - This booth had several items that we looked at, including Atlas Nitrile Gardening Gloves, a heat mat, and a trake.
  • Natural Cottage Project - I wasn't able to catch one of their demonstrations, but did chat with someone at the booth for a few minutes about cob building, and local workshops.
  • Kunz Engineering - I was very excited to see Kunz Engineering at the fair, as I have been wanting to look at their AcrEase mowers for some time. I was very impressed, and if I were buying a new mower today would most likely buy one of their products.
  • DR Power - I stopped by the DR booth to ask them about their 3-Point trimmer for mowing fence lines. I was able to get some info, but neither of the salesmen working the book seemed all that interested in talking with me.
  • Yurts of America - I mostly stopped by this booth just to be able to see the inside of a yurt. I have a friend who would like to buy one, so I glanced at the literature, but since no prices were included I didn't bother picking any up.
Of course I also dropped by the Earthineer booth a couple of times. Unlike previous events, I was able to make time in my schedule this year to stick around the booth for a couple of hours and help out, while Dan and Don were presenting the DIY Solar Panel workshop. It was great meeting people interested in the site, and answering their questions. It was also nice getting to talk with Leah a bit, although we stayed too busy for much chatting. I am hopeful that I'll be able to help out at the booth at future events.

While the fair was overall very enjoyable, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows this year. In fact, Saturday was just the opposite. I knew the forecast was calling for rain, so I went prepared with a jacket that sheds rain, and a wide brimmed hat. On the way to my third workshop, I found Andrea and left her the jacket, since I was planning to go back inside after that workshop. Of course this is when it really started to rain. Fortunately I had a good seat near the center of the tent, but even that wasn't enough to keep me dry once the wind picked up. Not only that, but by the time the workshop ended there was a steady flow of water running between the seats, and puddles on the outside that were deep enough that my socks got wet while walking through one. Even though the rain had slacked down a bit by the time I left the workshop, it was raining still hard enough that I was drenched by the time I made it back inside. I had to go to the room and change clothes before doing anything else. Andrea managed to stick it out, and make it to the rest of her scheduled workshops, all of which were outside. Of course the organizers of the fair had no way of anticipating such heavy rains, so the blame can't be placed on them. However, I do hope that they do a better job in the future of locating outdoor tents, so that, in the event of rain, water isn't literally being funneled into them.

The other complaint that I have is that there seemed to be more disturbance of the workshops from nearby booths this year. I'm guessing that some exhibitors were given instructions regarding "quiet times" because the Wood-Mizer folks did not interrupt any of the workshops I attended at the Renewable Energy stage, even though they had multiple portable sawmills set up around the tent, and ran them frequently between workshops. The tents near the Kunz Engineering booth weren't so lucky, however. One of the workshops I attended was interrupted by a demo of one of the mowers, which thankfully didn't last very long. There were also several stages that were close enough to booths that people shopping at those booths were, at times, loud enough to be heard over the speakers. The worst of these was the Mother Earth Living stage, which was located in the middle of the exhibit hall. Andrea attended several workshops on this stage the first day, but then started avoiding it due to the distractions. 

It is very likely that we will not go back to this event again next year. This is partly because of the lack of new workshops that we are interested in. Mostly, though, this is because it has been announced that a new event is being added to the 2014 schedule in Asheville, NC. Not only is Asheville a much shorter drive for us, but it has several other advantages as well. We expect the trip to be less expensive, due to a wider range of lodging and dining options. I'm also hopeful that there will be several new workshops to choose from, led by locals from the area. Lastly, the Asheville event is schedule for April, which is early enough in the year that we could still do another event in late summer or the fall.

If you have never attended a Mother Earth News Fair event, I highly recommend doing so. It seems that the Seven Springs event is the largest, which I suppose makes sense because it is also the oldest. While I have no experience with the events at the other locations, I am confident that either would be worth attending.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Andrea and I just got back from the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA. We had a great time, but are glad to be back home.

We were gone for five days, which is a big reason I haven't posted anything lately. We drove up on Thursday, so we could get settled before the fair started on Friday. After three days of workshops we left PA on Sunday evening and drove to St Clairsville, OH, where we spent the night. After making a trip to the local Rural King the following morning we then drove to Charleston, WV to meet friends for lunch, then headed home.

A couple of friends house-sat for us a couple of days while we were gone, and cared for the animals, which was a big help since we didn't have to worry about them while we were gone. This is yet another situation where I recognize the benefits of living in a close community, rather than attempting to make it on ones own.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Our First Lost Animal

Ever since Kitty came to live with us I've known that eventually we'd have to deal with death much sooner than if it was only the two of us living here. As we've opened our home to more animals, the likelihood of this happening soon increased. Unfortunately that first experience happened on Friday, when I found one of the kittens, Mari, dead.

My biggest worry was telling Andrea, because she was gone when I found him. She took it ok, though, and while we are obviously sad to have lost one of them, we came to terms with it quickly. I'm sure the fact that neither of us has been able to really develop a relationship with him played a major role in this. At least now we know that, as long as we don't get too close to them, we should be able to handle the loss of a chicken or two once we get them without it being a major ordeal.

Any loss of life is reason for sadness, but its part of the natural order. As we try to live more in tune with nature, we must also learn to accept death and recognize the vital role it plays in the cycle of life.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


I had fairly productive weekend, although maybe not in the traditional sense.

On Friday my parents came down to visit. Andrea and my Mom went to Lexington to do some shopping, and my Dad stayed here. I assumed he'd just hang around and watch tv while I worked, but he spent most of the time outside. He spent a couple of hours checking out the area where they plan to build their cabin. Then, after lunch, he decided to try out the tractor and spent a couple of hours on it, learning the controls and trying to smooth out the driveway a bit, since I hadn't been able to do so after spreading the last of the gravel.

After work my Dad and I explored more of the old house where they plan to build, as well as the area above it which contains a large cistern that needs to be torn down. We then came back over here and worked on the trim on the trailer I had damaged earlier in the week. We finished tearing it out, and then  managed to reuse a piece of the metal to cover the area so it would not be exposed to the elements. Its only a temporary solution, but I actually think it looks better than the way it was originally.

It was while finishing up that project that I discovered the body of the kitten which I mentioned in a previous post. I secured the body in the shed, where nothing could get to it until I was able to talk with Andrea. Once she got home I told her what happened and she agreed to let me take it offsite to dispose of it.

We all got up early Saturday morning and drove out to town for breakfast at the locally owned restaurant that Andrea and I like to frequent. After breakfast we returned here and went back out to future cabin site, so that my Mom could see it. After that we came back here and my Dad helped me reinstall the light fixture in the bathroom that we had taken down the last time they were in town. After this they loaded their car and left, since we were expecting other visitors.

That afternoon a couple of our friends came by to meet the animals and get a tour of the place. They are going to be house sitting for us this weekend while we attend the Mother Earth News Fair, so we wanted to be sure they knew their way around, and that the dogs knew them. We didn't have a lot of time to visit, but they met all of the animals and I was able to show them around the property a bit. It was nice getting to see them, and I enjoyed showing someone around the place.

I spent a couple of hours this morning working on my schedule for the MEN Fair. We then drove to London, because I needed to pick up a couple of things for reinstalling the gutter downspout on the corner of the trailer where we had removed that piece of trim.

Andrea helped me with the downspout this evening. We went ahead and cut it the length it needs to be for when I install a rain barrel. I hope to get another barrel finished and installed before we leave for the fair. In the meantime I have a piece of rain pipe attached to direct the water away from the trailer.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Movie Review - Into the Wild

I had not planned to do movie reviews on the blog, but I've realized that there are some movies, and even tv shows, that fit into the theme of the blog and deserve to be mentioned. The first of those movies, which I recently watched for the first time, is Into the Wild, starring Emile Hirsch and directed by Sean Penn. Please note that this review does contain spoilers, so if you've not seen it yet, and plan to do so, you might not want to continue reading.

The film is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book, also called Into the Wild, which details the real-life wanderings of Chris McCandless and his eventual demise in the Alaskan Wilderness. I have yet to read the book, so don't know if the film is true to it or not. After having seen the movie, though, I have every intention of also reading the book.

It is likely that many are already familiar with the story of Chris McCandless, but for those, like myself before seeing the movie, who are not, I will provide a brief summary, as portrayed in the film. After becoming unhappy with the society in which he lived, including the materialist mindset of his parents, McCandless decided to take a journey to find himself. After graduating from college he donated the remainder of his college fund, which he was suppose to use for law school, to charity, and hit the road. Knowing that his parents would try to stop him, he told no one of his plans, including his sister, who narrates parts the movie that focus on how his family deals with his absence.

Along the way, McCandless abandons his car, after it was caught in a flash flood. He continues his journey by hitchhiking and train-hopping his way across the country. Deciding that it is unwise to use his real name, he eventually adopts the alias of Alexander Supertramp. Along the way he meets several people whom he forms connections with, sometimes temporary, sometimes longer term. Throughout his travels, Alex, as he is now calling himself, tells those he meets about his plans for a grand Alaskan adventure. After two years of this lifestyle, he eventually makes his way to Alaska, and journeys, with meager supplies, into the wilderness.

Shortly after hiking into the wilderness he finds an abandoned bus, where he sets up camp. He lives here for the next four months, living off the land and a small amount of food he packed in with him. As food more and more scarce, he becomes increasingly frustrated with this situation. This leads him to mistakenly eat a toxic plant, which leaves him in a weakened state, and eventually leads to his demise. The film ends with a shot of McCandless' body lying in the bus.

There is much debate as to what actually caused McCandless death. The author of the book made some assumptions, based on the journals that were left behind. Many people question those assumptions. There is also a lot of controversy regarding the positive portrayal of McCandless in general. It seems that many, especially those experienced with living in the Alaskan bush, feel that his lack of preparation was foolhardy, irresponsible, and some even claim suicidal.

Personally, I feel a strong connection to McCandless,  at least as portrayed in the movie. His sense of unhappiness with the focus of society on unimportant things, such as material possessions, is something that I feel myself. I could never, however, leave my family behind and live such a spontaneous life. I have a great deal of admiration, though, for those who can, especially when doing so in search of themselves.

This film also makes me think about the how we have become so reliant on technology, that people have questioned McCandless' sanity for daring to go into the wilderness without a compass or map. There was a time when humans roamed North America with nothing more than primitive tools and instincts. As those primitive tools have been replaced by more technologically advanced ones, the instincts have been replaced with, well I'm not quite sure what. I believe that McCandless set out to prove, to himself, that he could make it without the luxuries of modern society. I feel that the negative reactions to his attempt may have proved as much or more than his death. I suppose those questions about his sanity are similar to the questions that arise anytime someone voluntarily gives up modern conveniences, whether off-grid homesteaders or minimalists living in an apartment in the city.

I believe that Chris McCandless was far from insane. In fact, I think he was one of the few people able to see through the curtain of modern society, and focus on what is really authentic and true. I like to think of these people as visionaries, who are able to see a better future in which humans begin to regain our connection with nature, and ability to live cooperatively within it, rather than fighting against it as we do now. I have to wonder if the life that McCandless lived during time on the road and in the wilderness might not have been a better life than many of us live over a period of decades.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


As you can probably guess, most of my free time this week has been spent spreading gravel. I've managed to get them all spread, but still need to do a bit of work with smoothing out a few places. Eventually I will need to get a few more hauled because there was one section of the driveway that didn't get any because I ran out.

Andrea helped me for a while Tuesday evening by running the RTV. I was using the tractor to load the RTV bed with gravel, then we'd take it to the end of the driveway and dump them. Eventually I decided it might be just as quick to carry them in the bucket of the tractor, though, so switched to that approach. I worked until after dark, using the headlights of the tractor on the last couple of loads.

I didn't go to the office on Wednesday, so hoped to make a lot of progress on spreading the gravel after work. Unfortunately, though, we had some storms move through in the late afternoon, with some spotty rain throughout the rest of the evening. I suppose I could have worked in the rain, so chose not to.

I was afraid that today was going to be a repeat of Wednesday, when it began raining around 3:00 pm. Luckily, though, by the time I was ready to go out it had stopped raining. Even though it was wet out, I wanted to work, so went out anyway. About an hour in, it started raining. I tried to keep working, but the rain picked up quickly, so I gave in and went into the house. It quit raining fairly quickly, though, and I was back outside maybe 30 minutes later. As the gravel pile grew smaller I decided to try to finish the job, since we're having visitors both tomorrow and Saturday. I worked until after dark again, but managed to finish. Unfortunately by the time I finished I couldn't see well enough to know how good of a job I did in a few spots, but I'm sure it'll do until I can work on it again.

Monday, September 9, 2013


As expected, the gravel were delivered this morning. They got here at just past 8:00 AM, and now there is a bit more than 26 ton of gravel in a pile in the driveway. Technically they aren't all piled up, since I did spread some this evening, but I'll get to that.

In preparation for spreading the gravel I went out at lunch and fueled up the tractor and hooked it to the box blade. I had a bit of extra time before lunch was ready, so decided to go ahead and spread a few to work out how high I wanted the box blade set, etc.

I headed out immediately after work and began spreading gravel. My initial focus was the area where we park, and the area between where we turn at the trailer, which we've decided to go ahead and gravel. Unfortunately, while doing this I had a bit of an accident. Our trailer has some trim on the end that sticks out about a foot, and is about a foot wide. It was damaged when we bought the trailer, and I had been considering removing it entirely. I got a headstart on that today, when a was too close to the trailer when turning and the bucket hit the trim and partially tore it off.

At first I thought I might go ahead and take it on down, but it was just an hour until dark, so I decided to wait on that. The downspout had been attached to the trim, and it was torn loose and partially pulled down the butter on that end, so I reattached the gutter, and while I was up there, cleaned it out a bit. Hopefully that will be enough until this weekend, when my Dad will be visiting and I can get him to help me tear the trim on out.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


I had a very productive weekend, probably the most productive one I've had in quite some time. I did run into some problems on Sunday, and wasn't feeling well due to allergies, but overall it was good.

On Friday Andrea called the local quarry and ordered a load of gravel. They should be delivered tomorrow morning, which is much quicker than I expected. After work I hooked to the mower and mowed around the garden. This included clearing the area I want to prep for drying logs as I cut trees this fall, as well as the area around the one tree I cut earlier in the week.

Nearly all day Saturday was spent mowing. I mowed across the road, adjusting the mower to its lowest setting, which I had never done before over there, so I would have more clippings to collect. I then mowed the yard. While mowing the yard I discovered a yellow jackets nest, but unfortunately was not stung. After that was done I decided to drag the mower over to the old house and mow around it. I don't mow there often because it requires moving the mower to the front of the RTV so I can better maneuver it, which takes longer. My parents have decided to build a cabin out there, though, which means we'll be tearing down the old house finally. They are coming down next weekend, and I know they'll want to go out there and look around, so I wanted to get it mowed ahead of time. I barely finished before dark, although this was partly because I ran the RTV out gas and had to ask Andrea to bring me some.

I wasn't feeling well when I got up on Sunday, so it took a while for me to get motivated to get out. I needed to wait for the grass to dry anyway, so it didn't really put me behind. I used the lawn sweeper to collect the grass clippings from the yard. There weren't as many as the previous time I had mowed, but the grass was nearly as tall, so that is to be expected. After finishing the yard I drug the lawn sweeper across the road to the area I had cut short for clippings. I gathered quite a few, but in the process damaged the sweeper. I had to literally drag it back home, because the wheels would not turn. Once I got it home I spent thirty minutes untangling weeds and vines from around the axle, then parked it.

By this point I was hot, tired, not feeling well, and frustrated, so I went in. I spent most of the afternoon being unproductive, until finally going back out once the sun started going down. I collected the clippings from the yard and hauled to the garden where I applied them to the previously mulched area which was starting to have a few weeds sprout. Andrea rode over with me during one of the trips and picked a few tomatoes. While she was picking tomatoes I fixed the long-handled tool carrier on the RTV, which had come loose a few days before when Andrea pulled under the shed with a rake in the carrier. Fortunately the zip tie I used to mount it are the weak point, so they broke, leaving nothing else damaged. I had picked up a new pack of zip ties when in London on Wednesday, and it only took a few moments to re-secure everything. Afterwards I moved some things that were stacked at the end of the trailer, in preparation for receiving the gravel tomorrow.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Composting Motivation from the Field to Fork Festival

When I signed up for the Urban Composting workshop at the 2013 Field to Fork Festival I knew that the focus would be primarily for those in situations unlike mine. Clearly I'm not in an urban environment, but I reasoned that composting is the same regardless of location, and as long as the focus was on the act of composting, and not how to disguise backyard bins, etc, then I should learn something. I'm glad that I chose to attend, as I not only learned some useful tips, but more importantly, was motivated by the workshop leader to step up my composting routine.

The gentleman leading the workshop explained that he included things normally on the 'do not compost' list, with no ill effects, such as meat, dairy, and oils. In addition to this he talked about the lengths he goes to in search of material to add to his compost, including collecting material from around his office which he takes home daily. Surely, I thought, I could do the same.

Over the past month and a half I've found myself more active in seeking out item to compost. I've noticed small things which were being trashed before, which I'm now adding, such as oil soaked paper towels used to oil the grate of the grill. We also bought a bucket for collecting liquids from the kitchen, which is now being regularly added to the compost. This includes water used for boiling foods such as pasta or corn, as well as water used for washing vegetables, etc. While the compost may not always need the additional liquid, there are bits of organic material in this water, along with starches, etc that are beneficial to the pile.

I've also started bringing home things like boxes and paper bags from fast food restaurants, including pizza boxes, to tear up and add to the compost. Clearly it would be better, for other reasons, including health and finances, if I wasn't accumulating such items, but when I do, I figure I might as well put them to good use rather than let them end up in the landfill.

While the things I've mentioned are just small steps, they are also the type of changes that are easy to implement and keep going. Whether its energy conservation or composting, small steps add up over time, making them well worth the effort. I'm thankful for the motivation received from the workshop to undertake these changes.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


I was more productive today, so thought it was worth writing an update to celebrate the fact. I went over to the garden immediately after work to tackle a couple of projects. First was to drag a grape vine out of a tree that has been getting in my way. I had tried doing it by hand a couple of times, with no luck. This time I hooked the brush grubber to it, and then to the RTV and it was a simple matter to pull it down. I should probably go around one day and drag out any others that are giving me problems.

After taking care of the grape vine I started up the chainsaw. There was one small tree in particular that I wanted to mow. It was preventing me from mowing an additional 4-6 foot wide section in one area, where I hope to start seasoning some logs that I'll be cutting. Once this was cut, since I had the saw out, I decided to work on a tree at the corner of the garden that I've cut limbs out of before. Once this was cut and drug away I started cutting up the stump, but didn't get finished. I was getting pretty worn out, because for some reason running a chainsaw does this to me, and I was also expecting Andrea to arrive home soon. When I ran out of gas, I decided to just call it a day rather than filling up and trying to finish the job. Apparently I had missed seeing Andrea drive by, because she was waiting at the creek to meet me when I pull up to the crossing.

Book Review - A Way of Life Less Common

I discovered author Anna Hess, and her blog, The Walden Effect, by responding to her search for people to be interviewed for her book Trailersteading. Since then I have read, and reviewed, several of Anna's ebooks, and her lone print book, The Weekend Homesteader. Due to the way in which I discovered Anna, I was very interested to see that she, and partner Mark, had similarly been profiled in A Way of Life Less Common: Modern Day Pioneers Volume One  by Christine Dixon. I eagerly ordered a copy of the book, and put it at the very top of my reading list.

Since finishing the book I've been giving it a lot of thought, in preparation for writing this review. I even went so far as to ask for some feedback on the Homestead Library group on Earthineer, to see if others shared some of my concerns.

The book is uniquely formatted, in that it consists almost entirely of the text from interviews. There is a one page preface, and each couple or individual is introduced with a short summary, of a paragraph or two, but that is the extent to which the author lends her voice to the book. Not only is the rest of book made up entirely of interview questions and answers, but it appears that these were presented as-is, with little or no editing. I say this because there are situations in which the same information will be discussed multiple times in the same interview, because the info was given in the answer to one question, then another question was asked afterwards relating to that already given information. It seems this may be the result of a set of predefined interview questions being given, rather than the questions being adjusted based on the previous responses.

The people interviewed for the book come from a wide range of backgrounds, and are now living in a wide variety of locations and situations. I found that I did not really connect with most of those interviewed, however. Take, for example, the lady who mentioned her Lexus twice during the interview. I think its great that people are able to have nice things if they can afford it, but specifically referring to the car as a Lexus, twice, in a short interview, gives the perception that the car, and the status it provides, is of great importance. That isn't the type of "modern day pioneer" that I am likely to look to for inspiration.

The interview that really bothered me, though, was the one with the couple who finished their cabin on credit. I'm not against the use of credit; we financed both our property and the tractor. However, this couple specifically stated that they weren't worried about their credit score, since they intended to live a cash only lifestyle. Because they weren't concerned about their credit score, they maxed out multiple credit cards with no intention of paying back the loans. In fact, based on their account of the situation, they called the banks and informed them that they were broke and would not be paying them, and then it seems, washed their hands of the situation.

Personally, I find this behavior to be morally questionable, at best. I realize that readers of the book are, for the most part, adults who are free to make their own choices. However, I was very surprised that the author offered no commentary on this. The inclusion of this information in the book, without commentary, could give the impression that the author considers such actions to be acceptable, or even encourages them. I don't know if the author actually feels this way or not, since she doesn't tell us one way or another in the book. I find it to be irresponsible, though, to use this as an example of a successful approach to homesteading.

In the end I found that, for me, there were more negatives than positives with this book. I thought that the idea was a good one, and if the information had of been presented in more of a narrative format, it would have been better. Since the author added no material herself, I think that it would be better to just visit the blogs, websites, etc of those featured in the book, as one could likely learn more about their journeys, without the expense of buying the book.

Edit: After receiving a comment from Linda, of the couple who used credit cards to finish their cabin, I felt compelled to add note to the review. It appears that the circumstances surrounding the decision not to pay off the cards was quite different than it appeared from the quotes in the book, and that it was unforeseen circumstances which caused them to be unable to pay. If the original intent was to pay off the cards, this changes the situation dramatically. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Its been far too long since I last posted, and I have nothing but excuses to explain why. I've had one of my period of sever lack of motivation recently, which has resulted in not only no blog posts, but also little being accomplished around here. I've been trying to pay more attention, in hopes of identifying the root cause(s). I believe it to be a combination of things, including allergies from using the air conditioner more than normal due to the unseasonably warm temperatures, falling back into poor eating habits, and stress from things like an unpleasant incident with a co-worker earlier in the week.

I'm not even going to try to recount everything that i've done since my last update, but can hit the highlights. My parents came down this weekend for a visit, so much of Friday evening was spent cleaning up and getting ready for that. Unfortunately it was both hot and rainy while they were down, so my Dad and I weren't able to work on any outside tasks, but did knock out a few inside ones. We fixed a wobbly ceiling fan, replaced a broken junction box so we could put another ceiling fan back up, and pulled out the kitchen stove so we could patch a hole in the floor that mice were using for entry.

I had originally had big plans for Monday, since I had the day off from work for Labor Day. Unfortunately it either rained, or looked like rain was imminent, all day, so I didn't try to get out. I did make it out for a bit on Tuesday evening, and cleaned up some downed branches around the garden in preparation for mowing over there. I've found that I'm unlikely to stop mowing to move stuff like that once I get started, so its much better for me to do cleanup before hand. Yesterday I went to London to work from the office, so didn't do anything productive once I got home.