December 5, 2016

Winterizing the Quick Hoop

I woke this morning to a delightful snowfall here in central Connecticut; a quick dusting that delayed the school opening and gave a taste of winter.  I peeked at the garden and noticed that the quick hoop low tunnel covering my beds of winter greens was sagging under the weight of very little snow. The tunnel, constructed of 1/2" PVC electrical conduit hoops draped with agricultural row cover, needed an upgrade to survive heavier snows to come.
Ag row cover quick hoops sagging under the weight of wet snow. The sagging material between the hoops illustrates the need for ridge support. This photo is from spring 2016.

A trip to the hardware store fetched me a 100' coil of 1/4" poly clothes line and a 100' roll of 10' wide, 6 mil thick polyethylene sheeting. I removed the row cover and stored it for next season. I then ripped a scrap of pressure-treated 2x4 stud into two sturdy stakes with the table saw. I pounded these in on both ends of the low tunnel, then proceeded to string the clothes line across the tops of the PVC hoops to create a ridge beam, so to speak.  The clothes line instantly frays at the cut ends so I found it easiest to pre-melt the area to be cut with a lighter, then cut in the center of the melted area. I then sealed the ends with an additional torching.

Cutting the clothes line in the middle of a pre-torched section to limit fraying. The cutting tasks went super quick with my new $10 razor sharp Mora sheath knife!
Finished rope end.

I tied the line to the first stake with a bowline, then fastened it to each PVC conduit using a clove hitch. 
Bowline attachment to the first stake.
Adjustable clove hitch on top of each PVC hoop.

I adjusted all the clove hitches so there was no rope slack between the conduits and then tied the line to the second stake using a trucker's hitch for quick tightening. The idea with this design is to structurally integrate the stakes, conduit, and rope to form a continuous support for the cover so that the weight of snow will not pull down the cover and bend the hoops towards each other.  
Trucker's hitch connection to the second stake
The low tunnel with clothes line "ridge beam". The rope appears slack because of the uneven heights of the hoops, but it is actually quite taught between the hoops and stakes.

I rolled out and cut the poly sheeting to length; leaving it a few feet longer on each end of the tunnel to follow the rope to the stake.  I weighed down the edges with rocks and called it a day.  The whole project took about 30 minutes and that included some time to harvest arugula, spinach, and radishes before covering them up! On a whim, I also seeded a few rows with the last of the spinach seed.  They'll either rot over the winter or sprout into super early spring greens. 

The finished product sheltering the winter greens. To the left is the garlic bed mulched with leaves and to the right is a stand of oat and pea cover crop that will winter kill leaving a mulched bed for spring planting.

The quick hoop seems fairly sturdy though I will still have to be diligent in brushing off snow; no sense in pushing my luck. I'll harvest greens periodically throughout the winter and hopefully there will be an early spring flush of growth.  Until then, time for wood stoves, Nordic skiing, and planning for next year.  Only another couple of months before it's time to sow onions indoors and start grafting apples!

February 25, 2016

Musings on Education

Fixin' tractors with firewood and milk cartons.
I recently acquired a used BCS two-wheeled tractor and discovered some significant mechanical gremlins that went unreported by the seller (caveat emptor, eh?). I took a stab at the job rather than paying big bucks and waiting weeks for a small engine repair shop to perform the work and I am happy to report a successful outcome. The major work included repairing the power take-off transmission to address some worn gears and a fuel system overhaul (including a carburetor rebuild) to address a fuel starvation problem. Other work included general control cable adjustment and lubrication, repair of an electrical short circuit, engine valve adjustment, and replacing spark plugs and the air filter. All told, the project was fun, vastly informative, and very attainable with the help of online tutorials and a willingness to tinker.
What does small equipment repair have to do with education?

I have absolutely no formal training in small engine repair. I also have no formal training in any number of trades that are commonly employed around the home such as plumbing, carpentry, wiring, and painting. Heck, let’s even throw sewing in there for good measure. A homeowner faced with a need for these skills typically has two options - learn the skills or hire them out. I, being of frugal stock, typically (but not always) chose the former. I am fortunate to have a father who showed me how to change oil as a youngster, thus imparting the first lessons of mechanical literacy. The rest has been trial and error.

Again, what does this have to do with education?

Aside from one semester each of shop and home economics in middle school, my public education was completely bereft of trades topics. The trades are almost completely absent from the American curriculum even though they are essential to our daily lives. Grade schools focus nearly exclusively on math, history, science, writing, and reading and the obvious path preferred by society is for students to graduate high school on a college track to prepare them for a white collar career. This was my path and it has suited me relatively well but I feel that I missed a whole lot. Yes, I have a broad liberal arts training and can hold conversations on diverse topics in mixed company. But I get a bit anxious when I am faced with an ostensibly simple task such as replacing a water heater. I mean hell, I cloned my own DNA in biology lab, how hard can replacing a water heater be? Umm..yeah...screw up that 240 volt wiring and you can kill yourself pretty quick. Or flood the basement if the pipes aren’t soldered correctly.

So what, hire a contractor, right? What I’m getting at the education system displays an inherent bias that “smart” kids should only pursue academics and that everyone else is predestined for the seemingly less worthy world of trade work. For a high school student with good grades to even express an interest in the trades would bring the immediate scorn of guidance counselors, teachers, and peers. And unfortunately, the kids with less than exceptional grades are made to feel like they are not as worthy and their future successes will be limited. Except, trades are no second fiddle and require as much training and intelligence as academic work plus a whole lot more common sense! Plus, the trades offer the possibility of business ownership that is often absent from the white collar world. Recognizing that tradespeople work long hours in demanding conditions, I think that there is a lot of satisfaction and pride in the problem solving and craftsmanship that accompany these lines of work. And then there is the college educated office worker who shuffles through the workday alternating between boredom, apathy, expediency, and contempt. Sure, the trades have these attitudes too, but I just don’t see as much pride and satisfaction in the white collar folks. Certainly not as much common sense.

I think there may be a sizable percentage of high school and college age students that would be much happier if they were given a chance to explore alternatives paths. Perhaps some core classes such as introduction to trades, entrepreneurialism, basic accounting, and agriculture (one can be optimistic). The school system wants to develop specialists; I say let’s develop well rounded citizens literate in academics, arts, and trades. I once heard the concept that conflict between two people or groups arises from differences in skill sets. Or to quote Mark Twain, “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Expand literacy, bridge the gap between blue and white collar workers, build an educated and capable citizenry, and rebuild this democracy.
Keep tinkering on those tractors!

February 12, 2016

New Adventures

My wife and I recently purchased 6.8 acres of land in northern New Hampshire with the goal of building a home and homestead and moving there full time within five years. Oh, and do it all with cash out of pocket without a mortgage. Ambitious? Unrealistic? Sure, and perhaps, but I’m up for this challenge!

What are my motivations for wanting to leave a comfortable home, good paying job, and established social circle? Well, it’s complicated! First and foremost, I love spending time outdoors. In my twenties, I expressed this love by partaking in backcountry ski tours and backpacking trips into the wilds of New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York and motorcycle trips all over New England and beyond. Over time those adventures grew repetitious and I progressed into more home-centric pursuits of gardening, food preservation and preparation, and simple woodworking. Having children certainly ushered this transition! Now nine years into my garden experiment, my ambitions and space requirements have grown beyond my quarter-acre suburban parcel. I need some space to try things out! My wish list includes: growing most of my family’s annual supply of grain and dry beans, establishing a fruit, nut, and firewood orchard, raising a flock of sheep for meat and pasture mowing, raising chickens for eggs and meat, and expanding the kitchen garden to increase the percentage of fresh home-grown foods consumed by my family. Still being the adventurous outdoorsman at heart, I want to do all this within a short drive of some real mountains with hiking, skiing, hunting, and fishing opportunities. Hence the selection of the property merely minutes from the White Mountain National Forest and less than a 30 minute drive to some of New Hampshire’s most spectacular mountain playgrounds.

I have other motivations as well. I want to provide my children with a foundation of essential life skills, a respect for physical labor, and a reverence for nature. I’ll break down these three concepts a bit further. By essential life skills I mean skills that are universal and transferable such as growing and preparing food, using hand tools, making basic repairs to homes and equipment, and proficiency in social interactions, among others. I recognize that these skills can be taught in any setting, urban and rural alike; however, the nature of a working homestead should be conducive to these lessons. Socials interactions may or may not be more difficult in a rural setting; neighbors are few and far between but schools and community groups such as 4-H can fill that gap. We currently live in a neighborhood with many children but most times they are indoors behind a television set since outdoor play is constrained by busy roads, property boundaries, and ill-defined fears of "danger". As far as the universality and transferability of skills, cooking, building, and fixing are performed in all parts of the world and are the basis for higher skills. If my children want to specialize in something more esoteric like computer programming or high finance, fantastic, but they will at some point have learned how to pluck a chicken. Should the job market for esoteric skills crumble, I hope my children can fall back on basic skills for employment. When it comes to physical labor, my goal is not to make them love labor, but to have done it and therefore respect people that labor for their livelihood. Basically, I want them to know that labor and laborers are not beneath them.  Reverence for nature is a fairly straightforward but deep-reaching concept. It is easy for urban dwellers to champion movements to combat distant environmental degradations because they don’t directly see how their own resource-intensive lifestyles are the root of such degradations. Living in and among nature on a farm adjacent to forest could offer a more direct pathway to see how our actions influence nature. I would like to teach my children how to pursue a lifestyle that regenerates ecosystems.

My third motivation for the homestead is rather ambiguous so I’ll just throw out some thoughts in an attempt to define it. I foresee a decline in the American standard of living; in fact, this decline is well underway. Our nation is no longer the king of the heap with regards to manufacturing prosperity and we are moving towards a service economy with severe global competition. Globalization is forcing down wages, benefits, and the quality of goods while shifting wealth to multinational corporations. I foresee the power of sovereign nations diminishing in the face of consolidating corporate influence. Perhaps most significantly, I am concerned that the current growth economy model will falter as we tap out finite natural resources. How will our 401(k) plans fare if the Ponzi scheme that is Wall Street falls apart? Someone will still get rich but it won’t be you and me. We have the illusion of wealth in the form of new McMansion homes and shiny vehicles but I suspect much of this is supported by unending debt. We as a society have decided that convenience is paramount, so we willingly hand over cash to purchase items and services that we could easily produce or perform ourselves. When we hand over cash we relinquish control, and that is precisely how corporations have gained so much influence. So how do we regain control over our finances and government?  DO IT OURSELVES! By “it” I mean as much as possible; build our homes, grow our food, participate in government, so on and so forth. A man unburdened by debt and obligation is not easily manipulated. So to wrap up this thought, my homestead can be thought of an experiment in independence, or perhaps a long-term safety net for my family should the economy really start to slide. Now, I am not a doomsday prepper or anything like that, but I think having a piece of land that produces food, fuel, shelter, and recreation is as valid and diverse of an investment strategy as a mutual fund, if not more so. Trees continue to grow during floods, droughts, wars, bear markets, and the decline of civilizations. So why not invest in trees?

All of this is grand philosophy until I can pull it off!

February 9, 2016

Kindling the Spark

I enjoyed a wonderful parenting moment this weekend. My son Finn and I took advantage of a sunny February afternoon to hike in the woods and spend some time together after a busy work week. We drove to a nearby state-owned conservation land and began our trek at a lesser-frequented section of trail that is bestowed with interesting bedrock formations, stone walls, a relic truck body, and a sugarbush strung with sap collection lines. In other words, an area ripe for exploration by a four-year old, his dad, and their eager dog!
A snow storm two days prior had coated the forest with an inch or two of wet snow that was juxtaposed by temperatures nearing 50 degrees. We hiked with snowboots and light jackets and reveled in the warm sunshine on our cheeks. The first hour found us winding on and off the marked trail, climbing onto rock outcrops, and throwing snowballs for the dog to chase. We walked to the edge of a pond, marveled at the snow-covered beaver lodges, and turned back to retrace our footsteps to the car once the dog had a well deserved pondside drink.
I’ve noticed an interesting behavior with my son. In the presence of my wife, he often defers to her especially when faced with some sort of challenge. I suppose it is his instinct to turn to his mother for nurturing, which she instinctively provides. This is all good stuff, but I (perhaps too dogmatically at times) would like to see him at least attempt to struggle with challenges. Perhaps it is my fatherly instinct to prepare my son for the rigours of life. Anyway, when he and I are alone, on this hike for example, he is much more willing to take on a challenge. He walked nearly the entire 2 or 3 miles and only once asked to be carried over a particularly steep and slippery bit of trail. He never once complained about wet gloves or tiredness, and maintained his youthful inquisitiveness and sense of exploration throughout the hike. Without his safety net, he was far more willing to take risks.
The highlight of the walk occurred minutes from reaching the car when I pointed out a standing dead birch tree that was colonized with mushrooms. I asked Finn if he knew what the mushrooms were doing on the tree. “They’re eating the tree,” he correctly replied, recalling lessons from earlier hikes. (Such are the burdens of having a father with a degrees in biology and environmental hike is safe from an impromptu science lesson). He then inquired why the mushrooms were eating the tree. I explained how all living beings, plants and animals alike, eventually die and the mushrooms eat dead things to return them to the soil. He chewed on this for a few seconds then astutely stated, “So mushrooms make the tree into little pieces of soil so that new trees can grow. And then those trees die and become new trees!” And within this 30-second bit of dialogue, my son intuitively grasped one of the fundamental cycles of life. We walked a few yards past the dead birch and he turned and quietly studied it for quite a bit longer as the revelation resonated in his brain.

As a parent of young children, my biggest hope is that I can at least instill a sense of wonderment, respect, and awareness of the natural world. After yesterday’s hike with Finn, I think I’m on the right track.

February 8, 2016


I need to write more. Not just blog posts, but in general. Writing skills, as with most abilities, develop and hone through repetition. I left an environmental consulting job for a more field-oriented position over a year ago and no longer do much technical writing. Writing was so central to that job that, in retrospect, “writer” would have been a more suitable job title than “senior project geologist”. There were aspects of technical writing that I enjoyed and despised, but one positive point was that the tedium of preparing technical reports pushed me into creative blog writing as an outlet to blow off intellectual steam. The desire to continue this blog, however, waned along with the work-related frustrations when I took the new position. However, I desire the challenges and rewards of creating, so thankfully I have this venue to reinvigorate that body of work. This blog is mostly for my own use; sure, I am satisfied if others read it, but its true purpose is my creative outlet. Writing in the public domain also challenges me to focus and refine my musings, unlike my sometimes rambling and intensely personal handwritten diary entries. So, here goes.