February 10, 2009

Lessons of the Land

Lessons of the Land – 2 Years In.

DJ Farnabyover at GNN asked me if I could write a series like Guerrilla Camping explaining the lessons I have learned so far in my homesteading adventure. The reason I have put this off is that I had been hiking and packing for 23 years when I started the guerrilla camping series. I now have two years experience in clearing land and repairing an old saggy cabin. While I see our current work as the culmination of many years of related projects in various places, I cannot help but feel like a babe in the woods. Nevertheless, I will try to share some of the things I have learned over the last two years.


It is okay to learn as you go, but have a trained eye come in FIRST and make sure what you want to do is possible, affordable, or even desirable. In our case, I took a look at a 20 year old redwood cabin, originally used only in the summer, and figured that while it would be a long and hard process, I could rebuild parts and finish it. I was not wrong exactly, but as I get further into the process, I have realized a few things about the cabin and it’s foundation that, had I realized the problems to begin with, would have encouraged me to take down the cabin and use the wood to build a new structure. A trained eye in the original evaluation, not just enthusiastic and half-experienced friends, would have shown me these problems at the onset.

Now it is far too late. Too much work and love have gone into the cabin, and it is going to be home.


Fog harvesters are a pipe dream for the small homesteader, but it was fun to try. But at the same time, wells are expensive. We sit at 2900 feet, with a clear view to the ocean. It’s amazing. But our high altitude and location on such a high ridge required quite a deep well. Our 300 foot deep well with 160 feet of head will likely never go dry but it was $13,700 to drill the well, and another $5000 for the pump, casings, wire, etc.

If at all possible, ALWAYS store your water uphill. Our tanks are half way up the mountain behind us, and the 100 foot drop over 470 feet of 1-1/2 inch pipe gives us better water pressure than we have ever had in the city. With a full tank, a high pressure nozzle gives me a 35 foot range with a garden hose.

When it comes time to put in your plumbing and irrigation, put valves at low points in the lines. The ability to cut water to an area, then drain all the water from the lines is essential in an area prone to freezes. Likewise, the weekend rental of a Ditch Witch allowing you to get your lines 2 feet deep is much easier than doing it by hand.

It can cost about 50-60 dollars to have your water tested. And you will likely need to do a few tests. But the joy of hearing that your water is impure with non-ecoli coliforms is priceless. In the words of the lab tech, “That’s the good stuff, the organic matter, that we should have in water but are filtered and chlorinated out of tap water. Most people call this sweet water.”


It is immensely worthwhile to get some regional books on wild edibles, as well as a good guide to trees and shrubs (birds too, if you are into them). But don’t bother getting a mushroom book. Be sure to check your public library too. I found seven books on JUST our county at the library, published by small local presses over the years and many of which are long out of print. By working with newer books with better pictures, I have been able to identify a number of wild foods on our property, and when I need to get away from it all, I’ll grab the book and go walking until I find something new. Its fun, but I will admit that my favorite is the mushrooms.

Do not bother with a book on mushrooms. If you live in an area with lots of them, find a group or a knowledgeable neighbor to take you out hunting. Here we have hundreds of different mushrooms. I can spot and identify Chanterelles, Black Trumpets, Matsutake, Oysters, Boletes and Jack o Lanterns. I have yet to determine the best method of differentiating a certain species of edible amanita, so I am waiting on it until I get a more educated guide up here. I’m not saying it is impossible to learn to identify mushrooms with only a book, merely that the possibility of a fatal mistake is too high to risk recommending it.

If you are planning on hunting for your food and have not hunted before, start small. I culled a bit of two of our quail flocks earlier this year. It took me two trips, as my scope was slightly off, and I was doing this from 40 yards with a pellet rifle. The process of field dressing the quail is simple compared to a deer or even a turkey, and can be easily learned by reading, unlike deer which are best to learn to clean from an experienced hunter.

I was forced to wonder how many people I know would not have been able to finish the task of gutting something that had been chirping along on the ground only a few minutes before, even though it is cleaner than gutting fish in my opinion. Now that the rabbits are starting to come out in force, I’ve loaded my .22 with cc caps, special low noise bullets, and am planning on a rabbit roast and my first go at preserving pelts by the end of March.

Our garden is immature, as we try to build soil and raised beds. However, my employers have a huge organic garden on top of the hill that I am tasked to care for. Although the harsh wind and wild temperature fluctuations of being on a mountain top severely limit what can grow there, the garden is awash in medicinal herbs, cultivated wild berries, grapes and currants. All is planted biointensively, with a preference towards perennials, both for the ease they lend to yearly spring tasks and their ability to cast deep roots. We also have a 25×15 foot green house up there which produced a few hundred tomatoes last year, but will be adapted to a pesto garden this year.

We are currently waiting for our seed to arrive for the planting down here at the homestead, and we have four raised beds in place, two of which are already planted with garlic and onions which are currently confused as hell by a recent Indian summer that threw most of our plants into a frenzy. We are focusing on open pollinated heirloom varieties, with a goal of seed saving and eventually having enough resources to trade seed and select from our own seed library.


Our power system is a nightmare. We got a good deal on 6v surrette batteries, and they had sulfated while sitting. This collection of sulfer on the lead plates of the battery reduces efficiency, and requires a long process of equalization and discharge to alleviate. While we use much less than the 1kwh a day our solar panels generate, we had to run the generator from 1-3 hours a day to keep the batteries conditioned. This has finally been fixed, and things are much better, and I now use about 5 gallons a week to “touch up” the batteries.

I have also been working on decentralized power systems. Our outhouse, my shop and our campers are all equipped with modified solar lighting. I bought a bunch of the cheap solar lights, and unwired the LEDs. I then attached some 18ga wire to the leads and ran the LED to wherever I needed light. I used aluminum flashing and a rivet gun to make simple lamp shades, and used small madrone branches as mounts. These cost me about $1.50 each to make and they are all still going strong. They can be placed anywhere I need light and require no maintenance.

I am also working on a small inverter-less solar system for our guest house, a 23 foot Komfort travel trailer. It will consist of a 12v automotive solar charger, and two deep cycle marine batteries. This should provide enough power to run the furnace at night, and provide a few hours of light.


We have to drive to the dump about once every six weeks. This is five trash cans. One each for aluminum, glass, plastic and tin, paper and then trash. We generally make about $10 from the recycling after paying the dump fee for our one box of un-recyclable rubbish.

We use a small grey water system for wash water, and use a composting bucket toilet for now. The details of this really easy toilet system are laid out in the humanure handbook, available free online.


When you first arrive on your new land, it is imperative that you become overtly friendly and humble. Good relations with your neighbors can make or break your stay. Although many neighbors were skeptical two years ago when two “city kids” moved onto the hill, we have come to become great friends with many of them. We have worked together on the road, and the use of their tools, such as backhoes and mill saws has been a tremendous boon for us. While we all have various political and social ideals, we stay friendly when discussing them, or avoid the topics if disagreements are too much. I recognize that they moved here to get their own space, and the recognize the same thing. A little Saturday gunfire, or the roar of a distant dirtbike or chainsaw is nothing to worry or complain about. There are families on the road who have ostracized themselves through a long series of confrontations with neighbors, and seeing how they must go it alone is almost painful. I wouldn’t call neighborly friendship work, per se, but I do work to maintain great relations with all my neighbors.

The Original Inhabitants

I made no mistake when I moved up here that my property was occupied. Packrats, grey foxes, bobcats, quail, rattlesnakes, deer, ticks, two black bears and a mountain lion frequent our property. Thus far, I have seen all of them, but the only truly hazardous moment was when I thought a fox was trying to get into our food locker. I threw on my slippers and ran naked out the front door. As soon as I jumped down the steps I realized that I was not hearing something small outside our window, but something large across the driveway. I shouted, and what I got in return sounded like a 300lb man rolling down the hill behind our trashcans.

After that we got a lot smarter about cleaning everything that goes into the trash, and while the bears return NIGHTLY all summer long, they have not returned to the trashcans. They do occasionally raid our compost bin, and I have changed from trying to make the bin bear proof to making it easy for the bear to pop open the side. They don’t make much of a mess, and tend to turn the compost for us. This will probably be problematic when the garden area is fenced and the bear has to rip down our fencing to get at the compost.

The mountain lion is another matter. Probably 12-14 feet long including the tail, it’s 200 lbs of pure sleek muscle. I managed to catch a glimpse of it at the end of our property line about a year ago while driving off the hill. Since then, it has only made it presence known by scat and occasional prints and screams. My best friend was alone on our hilltop about six months ago and just as he began to sit down, he heard the unmistakable scream of the mountain lion behind him. I have been stalked down our driveway in the early evening, and found a killed deer in one of the remote clearings here. From dusk til dawn, I do not leave the main clearing without a spot light and a sharp stick.


I’m not a gun nut, but I am comfortable with them. In fact, I sleep with a loaded 30.06 under the bed. A few years back a particularly clever bear figured out how to break in doors with propane cans and raided a neighbor’s kitchen at midnight. If this were to happen in our camper, we would have a full sized black bear between us and the door, in a space too small for it to turn around. Yes, we have bear mace, and it is close to the bed as well, but if the bear is IN the camper, I’m changing his name to rug.

Aside from defense, I own guns to hunt. My collection is sometimes referred to as the rancher’s trinity. A .22, a 30.06 and a 20ga shotgun. Ironically enough, the .06 and the 20ga were my grandfather’s ranch guns which my mother still remembers shooting when she was a little girl. It is an ideal collection for everything from small game to bears, and I have a selection of ammo for different tasks from quiet rabbit hunting to trying to knock a bear out a window.

We also have an air rifle, which I originally got to familiarize my wife with rifles, but which quickly became the only thing she would shoot, and a fairly nice way to pass an afternoon, plinking little metal ducks I have set out in a makeshift range below our garden.


I am a tool nut. If I need a tool that will see repeated use, I can spend months looking into which one I am going to buy, then a month or so trying to find the best deal. I look for tools that I will be able to pass on to my children. When I opted for a Bosch router, I chose it because it has a metal motor casing, while the more popular Porter Cable had switched to plastic motor casings a few years before. I rely on my tools at all times, and have finally gotten to the point that it has been months since I had to stop work and run to town for a saw blade or new box of #2 driver bits. The failure of a tool when it is more than an hour round-trip to the hardware store is too much to deal with. A great quote I heard once was that only a rich man can afford cheap tools.

There are some tools that are indispensable in my eyes.

Pulaski – Recognized as a firemans axe, it is a combination of an axe and a mattock. Used for clearing fire breaks, once you learn how to use it, you can remove a bush as big as you are in less than ten swings. Nothing comes close for getting roots out of the ground, and by splitting the root ball into sections, I have used it to pull out full sized trees. This was our main tool as we cleared the overgrown area around the cabin.

Impact Driver – A cordless impact driver is GREAT, and has saved me hours of pre-drilling holes for screws. The hammering action used to put the screw into the wood cuts the wood fibers rather than simply pushing them apart, avoiding splits in all but the oldest and thinnest wood.

Chainsaws – Yes, plural. Possibly the least elegant tool I have ever used, they do one job, do it well, and break down constantly. I use a husquivarna for real work, and carry a little MAC in the toolbox in my truck. Nothing is worse than coming home to find a tree across the driveway, and having to walk a mile to get the chainsaw, then walk a mile back to clear the road. This only happens in the rain.

Machete – Although I knew that there had to be good machetes in the world, based upon how many cultures rely on them, I had never used one, and thought most machetes you could purchase in America were useful only as props; made of soft metal, prone to bend and dent. For my birthday a couple years ago, a neighbor of mine gave me a machete his brother in Mexico had hand-smithed out of an old truck leaf-spring. A wicked looking curved piece of thin black steel, it holds an edge forever, and while sharp can hack down a two inch thick fir sapling in one swipe. I have been known to sharpen it, and walk down the drive way idly swinging and clearing the drive way in the 30 minutes it takes to walk from one end to the next, something that would take twice as long with a gas powered hedge trimmer.

Post Hole Digger – A compound shovel with two blades and two handles, it is meant to be used for digging the deep, narrow holes needed for placing fence posts. It is also the best tool for digging out sites for transplanting trees, and for digging catholes. I use mine as much as I use a standard shovel.

5lb pick mattock – Most of our top soil is an inch thick, layered on top of sandstone or compressed clay. Any serious digging often requires the use of a pick. This is one of the heaviest picks you can get, and makes quick work of trenching for water lines, driveway sluices and breaking up the ground for raised beds.

Dremel – The leatherman of power tools. While it’s most frequent use is tool sharpening, I also use it to remove broken screws and bolts, etch glass, and even drill locks. I personally use a 10.5v cordless, as I have so many places I need to work with it.

Six foot hardened pry bar – I carry this in my truck all winter long. The hardest lever I own, I have stuck it under tires to unstuck trucks, pried trees off roads, and even stood thousand pound rocks upright with the use of it and a come along.

Gloves, Goggles and Respirator
– Working with composite woods, cutting hardened steel, running a hand planer, or placing fiberglass insulation all place your hands, eyes and lungs in immediate danger. Although I am not the most safety minded person, I have learned my lessons, and now wear safety gear almost half the time I should. 😉

Family and Tribe

I almost forgot to mention this when I first wrote this a few days ago. You will never be self-reliant while alone. It is impossible. Yesterday morning, I wrecked my back jumping down off a stack of hay bales. It was cold, I had been at work about twenty minutes, and landed in such a way that all the force shot right into my lower back, hopefully just pulling a bunch of muscle. I was able to pace around, sweep and run a forklift all day at work, just grinding through the pain but once I got home and laid down for a bit, I lost all my core strength, and was unable to sit up without intense pain and strenuous effort.

At home in the suburbs, this is not a big deal. But suddenly, I couldn’t fuel and start the generator, change out the propane tank I expected to run out in the middle of the night, re cover the corner of the woodpile where the tarp had blown back, or any of the various chores I have when I get home in the evening. So, there went my wife out into the cold, and outside I could hear her cursing having to change the tanks, how hard the generator is to start, how soggy the path back is. And I thought, “good, she’s obviously been watching me do it, she’s doing it perfectly…”

Without her here last night, every support system we had would have been useless, because I was unable to operate them. Flipping a light switch is easy, but not if you have to monitor batteries and then yank start a generator to make sure you have power on rainy days. Imagine trying to carry wood to a woodstove with a broken leg. The lifestyle is great, but it perpetually requires the ability to move yourself and other things around. Once that goes out, even for an evening, difficulties pile up.


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