Monday, July 29, 2013

Thinking like a mower

One of the Permaculture design principles is: "Use small and slow solutions."  Well, I think I've got the slow part down, at least when it comes to mowing our lawn.

We've always said that when the gas-powered lawn mower we'd bought from a friend a few years back got to the end of its useful life, that was when we'd consider going gas-free on our lawn.  Since we were only keeping gas around for the mower at this point, that would mean no need to keep a full gas can on the premises!  I was eager for that part.  But it was not until I seriously considered not repairing our ailing gas mower on this latest trip to the shop ($200 into a more-than-ten-year-old $500 Toro Super Recycler?  Iffy.) that I truly felt how culturally and emotionally dependent on gasoline I was.  This came to my awareness by way of a sensation of heat at the hairline on my neck and behind my ears (some form of flushing or embarrassment) every time I tried to think about life without a gas mower.  'Do we dare?', I wondered.  'Can we really get away with this?'  There was the thrill of possible escape, the hesitation to leave the known.

It seems silly, typing this now, that this kind of cultural importance can be attached to a form of manufactured hydrocarbon.  But think about what gasoline has meant to us over the major part of a century that it's been commonly available for amplifying our working power.  Think about what the machines designed to make use of it have replaced.  And most to the point right now, think about the way gas-driven tools have altered the patterns of use and maintenance we work out in our environs, what we assume is possible or practical to achieve, and what we think of as beautiful, or a job well done.  All of these are affected to varying degrees by the availability of gasoline and the assumption of people willing to purchase, use, and maintain or replace various common gas-driven machines.

Honestly, though, I must say that the gas machine assumption is quite an assumption, and it's exacted a pretty heavy toll.  I personally experience sensitivity to the byproducts of gasoline combustion every time I use a gas-powered lawnmower, or worse yet weedeater or chainsaw.  And I'm not the only one.  These small engines burn gasoline so dirtily that the polluting emissions from one hour of riding mower use is equivalent to traveling some incredible distance (crossing several states, if memory serves) in a Ford Explorer.  Some cities have times of day when it is illegal to operate a mower because of how much smog-forming gunk is already in the air and the disproportionate contribution small engines make to the problem.  Burning gasoline in our cars and trucks uses far more gas, and so is the greater culprit with regard to emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere, but they tend to burn that gas much more cleanly and completely, so their contribution to classic "air pollution" is far less per gallon burned.  So I'm not just being a Luddite about this (although I am partially, of course).

Also, when it comes down to it, it is an unpleasant system that is at odds with our chosen lifestyle.  We have to drive a smelly gas can to town and back once or twice a year, and have to store an explosive liquid somewhere on our property at all times in order to make this work.  And speaking of smelly, you should smell my clothes when I'm done a few hours of making the yard pretty.  On the evening of mowing day I always feel grimy and compromised, even after my shower; my lungs feel irritated and I feel melancholy and depressed (partly from worrying about lung cancer).

All that is to say:  We had reasons.  To do what we did.  To abandon our trusty mower at the shop.  To try for the escape!  To buy an electric lawn mower.  Sorry about that little anticlimax there.

So we went to Lowe's and we bought a genuine Greenworks electric-powered 21 inch lawn mower.  It works GREAT!  When it's plugged in.  If you don't run over the cord.  Which no one has, yet.

If it wasn't until I'd considered moving away from gas that I felt my connection to it, then it wasn't until I actually tried getting the lawn mowed a different way that the patterns of assumption I'd been working with since I was twelve (and which my community had been working with since probably 1940) started to dawn on me for real.  I'd always known that a rural property like ours with a sizable kid play area, spread-out gardens with access paths, and a long driveway with a grassy middle and margins presented some serious obstacles to the would-be electric convert.  This, combined with my neighbor's reliable good-natured scrutiny and ribbing, was probably part of what was producing the heat at my hairline.

We knew that to even be able to mow the remote areas at all without owning a gas mower, we'd either have to borrow a gas mower every time or own a robust-enough portable electric mower (they exist if you can afford enough batteries to accomplish your job), unless we were willing to bite the really wacky bullet:  Portable Generator.  I know.  This is nuts.  I scrupulously turn up my nose at the gas-powered mower, going the virtuous if somewhat annoying electric route only to power the thing half the time with a hydrocarbon-sucker/spewer of another sort.  There is a catch, though:  I noticed a while back that Lowes carries a propane-powered generator.  OoooOOOOoooo!  With this item, I could operate power tools (including electric chainsaw and mower) ANYWHERE!  And if you don't use the fuel for a while, it doesn't go bad, it just sits there in the tank and waits for your command!  This is a bit of a sidestep to the face-off between the horde of gasoline-driven opportunities and my stubborn inner Luddite.  I admit that.  But it is what we decided to do.

In support of this option, we employed another Permaculture principle, namely that of multiple functions.  This one solution is not a solution to just one thing.  It would permit performance of a variety of tasks required for the kind of property use and maintenance we choose, it would allow for the performance of these tasks without the need for gasoline to be kept on hand, it would provide back-up power to our large freezers (holding precious victuals!) in the event of power failure, and it would do all this while burning way, way cleaner than any gas engine can.

So how's it going?  In a word:  Slow.  Mowing within range of the power outlets is not noticeably slower than the gas mower, or won't be once I fully get the hang of it.  But there is no denying that lugging that generator to a new position every two hundred feet or so is a cumbersome process.  I think there is no chance I can achieve the same mowing speed as the gas mower can enable.  Hoo boy.  I guess we're going to have to change our thinking (and THIS is where I think it gets interesting!)

It turns out that this choice to move away from gasoline (aside from the car) is going to, in itself, function in multiple ways.  I have now completed one whole mowing (in several sessions) with the electric mower; partly plugged into receptacles, partly with the generator.  Aside from the obvious and kind of mortifying slowness, there is a shift in assumptions already starting to take place, and I am provided with an opportunity to examine the old ones.  Why, for example, is the pull towards the traditional gas-powered mowing pattern so strong?  I'm so accustomed to making one pass around the perimeter of the yard and then making further concentric passes until there is a little patch of raggediness left and then's all the same!  Aaaaaah: tranquility!  Whence this tranquility, and how deeply has describing and executing this ordinary task so regularly affected my thinking?  Has it been more of a help or a hindrance in the making of my life?  All I know right now is that even though that pattern clearly makes no sense when you're tethered by a cord, it requires a bit of steely willpower to prevent myself from attempting it or to reverse course when habit has led me that way.

The whole way I'm used to seeing the surroundings of our house is threatened by this!  I can no longer zip around the perimeter of what I've delineated as "Our Yard" and then zero in on the middle, skirting around obstructions large and small and rendering everything within that loop a part of the same, evenly trimmed whole.  It's not that the electric cuts cuts exactly the same way as a gas mower.  It's that with being tethered to outlets or the generator, I am obliged to think about the places we've chosen to cut lawn as a series of nodes, with our managerial influence radiating from them, and connecting in some places, not in others.  Also, obstructions that are a mere annoyance with a gas mower become motion-altering obstacles (who can fathom--pun intended!--throwing the cord over a six foot shrub at every pass?) and so the yard gets divided into amoeboid lobes that sometimes converge behind the object and engulf it and sometimes don't.

Why does this matter?  Because the effect on my mind has already been that in a more real way than ever, "our property" seems to me a location that is spreading its influence out into the real world in nodes and patches, and that is also accepting in a similar way the presence and influence of the real world within its own region of dwelling.  It's as if this switch of mowing technique may be a major step towards the recognition of this place as an uncontained and open system, a system not so much described by a border or boundary, but rather by the magnetism and energy of home.

P.S. My sister's neighbor in Keezletown proper likes fixing up mowers for fun, so he went and picked up our old one at the shop.  He likes it so much he's making it his main mower!  Love it.

P.P.S.  After mowing today, I felt tired, but not beat.  I'm breathing peacefully, and I feel alert and cheerful.  My clothes didn't stink and my shower refreshed me.  Exactly how much inconvenience is that worth?

P.P.P.S.  We're looking into alternative (speedier!) ways to manage some of the remote mowing, such as a grass whip, more scythe work, etc.  Any ideas anybody has are welcome!  A little raggediness is o.k. so long as the functions are maintained.  We haven't completely ruled out the rechargeable electric mower, but we'd like to avoid it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

It's raining!

The littlest gal is sleeping, Kali is researching the rainiest places on earth, and Jason is reading a chapter (we'll see if he sticks to just one) of the book he got stuck in on our vacation and I recently picked up for him at the library so he could finish it. I just rescued the laundry from the line as thunder rumbled all around and it started dumping as Kali and I were folding it. The new planting of beans and peas should be happy, and I feel a little silly for carrying 8 watering cans of water to them this morning!

It seems a good time to at least introduce the newest Tangly Woods' members. As a bit of a backdrop to this post, I must note that I still have a big knot in the pit of my stomach as I think of trying to catch our blog up to date. I am typing from a new computer and the pictures I feared were lost by my recent computer crash were in fact saved! However, yesterday as I was getting this new computer set up to download pictures, I inadvertently lost 199 of the 200 files I was intending to import from our camera card (complete with the last few days of our Maine trip and seeing family on the way back, getting our goats and recent fun times with visiting family). Jason's perspective on the mishap is much healthier than mine. I realize, with some remorse, that my eldest has a good dose of me in her as I staged a pretty tried and true meltdown (behind closed doors with Jason as my only witness) with some rather fatalistic thinking. I recognized in myself what I see at times in her - a real challenge in letting things go that we really can't do anything about. No amount of crying or stomping or berating myself was going to get those files back. And, no, we were not going to try to recreate any of the situations from which those photos were taken. So I had a good chance to think about my own reactions to the relatively minor unfortunate twists and turns of life (or in this case clicks on a computer) and am clearly still working on it since I still feel grouchy just sitting down to the computer. Surprisingly, Kali wasn't mad at me and didn't even get upset, especially once I clarified that I had not lost ALL our photos (her worry was about pictures from when she first got her ducks). So today still won't be the Maine trip posting - if there ever is one.

It seems important that not too much time pass before Oreo, Cookie Dough and Brownie make a debut on the blog. They are pretty cute and all of us are enjoying having them around. I will admit to being the one that is probably the most "bothered" by them - bothered in a maternal kind of way in that their cries do a similar thing in me to that of a baby - a very strong urge wells up in me to make it stop! So the fact that Brownie in particular lets a cry out about every time we step out the door of the house may get a little old. So far the girls are loving feeding them autumn olive branches and other treats, and they are happy to oblige them by gobbling them up. Alida is getting more and more confident being with them, no longer trembling with an excited nervousness when they approach her and saying, "I'm scared!...are they going to eat me?" Now it is hard to get her to leave after a short visit.

So here they are!  It won't take a rocket scientist to figure out which name goes with who.  We decided to leave them with the names they came with, as it seemed pretty clear that they were already somewhat familiar with them.  There is plenty of bonding going on and so I imagine this blog will include future posts as we all work out the role of goats long term on our homestead! For now they are enjoying doing just what we hoped they would like doing - eating lots of brush!  Just as soon as we get collars, we will be showing them all the tastiest poison ivy spots on the property that we hope they will assist in relegating to history!  It's been very hard to let beautiful handfuls of wineberries go, due to them being surrounded by poison ivy (as good as they are, it just isn't worth it).

And especially not worth it when we enjoyed a family wineberry picking outing yesterday with friends, that made our small patches seem rather puny.  There are 7 quart containers stuffed full in the freezer along, and Alida helped me put away several new batches of wineberry jam on the root cellar shelves this morning. It's that time of year where the shelves start to fill with color and the ratio of empty jars to full ones begin the fun shift! 

Friday, July 5, 2013

A day in "paradise"

If I was in a position to design a beautiful place and meaningful things to do for a very, very long time, it would include many aspects of our day today!  Reading back over that sentence I realize that that is exactly what we are trying to do here at Tangly Woods and today it felt like just a little taste of heaven on earth.  It felt so wonderful to drive up Fruit Farm Lane at about 12:30 this morning.  Home at last (all except for Kali who is cashing in a very special Christmas present to head to Pittsburgh for a fun-filled weekend with aunts, uncles and cousins)!  Had we been gone much longer we may have had to bush whack our way to the front door - clearly Virginia did not experience a dry spell in our absence.  I could hardly fall asleep last night from my eagerness to see what the new day would bring and what changes the sun would shed light upon for us.  I was not disappointed.  A blog post about the vacation will have to come later and so will pictures to accompany this post (my work-issued computer finally decided to die once and for all on the trip and so I'm without it and our pictures - which they were thankfully able to recover today - until my new one arrives...). In short, we are glad we went, we are glad to be home, there were good times and bad times and wonderful things to see, people to visit, foods to eat AND it rained a lot both here and there.

Tonight at dinner (which was supposed be an early dinner and ended up being around 8:30 or so...), I listed all the fresh foods we had sampled/savored in one form or another  that were picked from the property  today: basil, garlic, red onion, mint tea, yellow squash, zucchini, yellow pole beans, kale, sage, parsley, sugar snap peas, green beans, wineberries, round zucchini, black raspberries, gooseberries, cucumbers, dill and black raspberries.

Let's just say that we are not fully unpacked from our trip because Jason and I could not stay indoors long enough to unload our suitcases. I got a little of that done, some bills paid, and a few of those annoying but necessary phone calls about scheduling repairs or troubleshooting tech challenges, in between all the fun.   Alida was my little side kick and such a fun one - she was clearly glad to be home and this morning said to me as we were talking about our trip: "I yike our house more than Maine."  Me too!

Here is how Alida and I spent most of our day while Jason got reacquainted with the chickens and ducks (and found a good number of new chicks under mama hens) and started hauling produce in (beans, cucumbers, garlic, zucchini and tomorrow will be onion pulling day):

It was one of those days where one thing led to another thing which led to another thing:

The basil needed to be picked as it was wanting to go to seed. That landed us two huge bowls of basil to make pesto out of.  In the process of getting the basil we needed to free it from a peppermint take-over.  So we picked enough peppermint to load up the solar food dryer and weeded out the rest from that bed and the bean bed below it.  On one of our ventures out to the garden, I couldn't stand the weeds growing between the bricks in the front walk any longer so we go distracted weeding the front walk - it looks SO much better.  We took a large bucket of weeds to the chickens in the composting chicken coop and then got back on track...  We pulled some garlic bulbs and proceeded to make three large batches of pesto for the freezer (Alida is a super taste tester when it comes to pesto).  By that time it was already nearing 10 and we hadn't had breakfast so we picked the squash, got some red onions from the garage and whipped up some veggies to go with scrambled eggs and toast. The other food processing in our day included the first batch of dill pickles and the first round of dilly beans, which just came out of the canner. We are also trying some beans that we just can with vinegar and salt to see if we like to use those in some recipes or to just eat cold or heated.  We also just delivered 5 trays of green beans to the freezer.  For supper we savored (Alida devoured) the first cucumber dill salad of the year and I experimented with stuffing the little round zucchinis with veggies, sauteed venison and a little cheese.  I had also made butter from the cream for the week and so had buttermilk and decided to make apricot, craisin, walnut, almond, oat muffins to go with dinner (this was also to increase the caloric content of the meal...otherwise we'd be tired of chewing and give up before we got full).   We enjoyed delivering some veggies to neighbors; it feels so very good to have an abundant harvest to be able to share.  There have been years that the hard work didn't necessarily feel like it matched the pay out.  This year it feels like we are reaping the harvest from years of building the soil and developing the land in a way that hopefully will maximize its productivity over the long haul.

One of our goals as this season goes along is to really enjoy the hard work as much as possible - which means trying to not do too many midnight canning parties.  I knew this day was going to fly by and it did.  Thankfully there are two more at home before I head back to work. Hopefully I'll have my suitcase unpacked by then!

Jason's note:  I can see the squash vine borer taking its percentage, and I can see the bean beetles setting clusters of eggs under the year is free of challenges in the garden!  All the more reason to be grateful for this first summer flush of rather pristine, sweet, and tender garden produce.  And we are!