Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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NC Cooperative Extension Extends My Education

What I don’t know about living off the land, in all its variations, fills entire libraries.

During my “due diligence” period prior to buying my mountain property, I wanted to know as much as I could about the land on which I intended to live. What was the history of the place, its stories? Would the parcel yield enough water to live on? Was the soil conducive to holding foundations for dwellings firm? What kinds of beneficial plants were already growing there and could be foraged for food or medicine? If I did grow crops, which ones would grow best?

Lee Barnes, the water dowser had answered my questions about a viable well and provided me with soil surveys specific to the area, as well as some of the lore from its former Cherokee inhabitants. But I wanted to know more, not only about what was already growing but about what I might grow in the future. So I reached out and engaged the experts from the County Cooperative Extension.

Invasive Species in My Mountain Paradise

“You’ve got some miscanthus here,” Ross told me, pointing to a tall, ornamental grass I’ve seen growing everywhere, covering the mountain hillsides. “There’s not much, but it spreads fast, so you might want to dig up what’s growing in the sun,” he suggested.

Ross Young and Elizabeth Ayers from the Madison County Cooperative Extension were all I could have hoped for in guides. Not only were they willing to share their extensive knowledge of the area, they were a joy to spend time with — entertaining storytellers who laughed freely. And it didn’t hurt that they delighted in my Bodhi, who frequently interrupted his own exploring to lean on one or the other of them and get his ears scratched.

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Japanese stilt grass was once used as freight packing.

As we walked, I learned that the thorny bushes crowding out the native wild berries is multiflora rose. Introduced to the U.S. from Japan as an easy-to-grow alternative to livestock fence, multiflora rose aggressively spreads from seeds, crowns, and tips of branches touching and taking root in the ground. Another invasive from Japan, stilt grass, grows with fervor along the tractor road. “Long ago, it was used as a packing material for imported goods,” Elizabeth explained.

The list of invasives went on. Bittersweet vine, its shiny black berries loved by crafters who use it to make wreaths, spreads from tree to tree in the forest canopy. Mimosa trees, planted as an ornamental for its fern-like leaves and fluffy, aromatic pink flowers, produce hundreds of tiny seeds which can wait, dormant in the soil, for years before sprouting. I silently wondered how I’d ever win a containment battle, much less an eradication war. (I later learned new perspectives about opportunistic abundance as part of the strategy.)

Tree Diseases Reshaping the Forest

Invasive plants aren’t the only issue plaguing the property. As we walked, Ross taught me about an infestation known as HWA, or hemlock woolly adelgid — an insect which, like many of the invasive plants on the property, came from East Asia. While the tall pines on the parcel struggle with the pine beetle rampantly infesting most of the mountain forests, the eastern hemlocks are dying from HWA.

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Tiny silver-green bits of fluff indicate HWA infection.

“Hemlock trees are shade-tolerant,” Ross explained. “I can tell your trees are sick because they should have needles even on the lowest branches, and these are bare.”

“Here,” Elizabeth said, holding out a twig from a nearby hemlock sapling. “This is what’s killing your hemlocks.” The signs of the deadly insect are beautiful — a silvery, woolly tuft of fluff excreted by the bugs clings like fairy-cotton between the dark, green needles.

There are a few chemical spot-treatments available, varying in expense and difficulty of application. Because I’d like to eliminate the use of chemicals as much as possible, these treatments aren’t appealing to me. However, in a well-contained area of national forest land, a small lady beetle has been experimentally released to eat the woolly adelgid.

“We’re waiting for the results,” Ross told me. “So far, it looks hopeful, but it won’t be available to land owners for a long time.” It wouldn’t be in time to save my mature trees, but seedlings dot the understory. Their future might be more hopeful. In the meantime, Ross kindly provided me with the Hemlock Restoration Initiative’s contact information so I can further educate myself (and others!) about HWA.

Hidden Treasures and Hopeful Signs

“Ohhh…” Elizabeth smiled and gently grasped a nearby tree branch. “Copper beech. These are one of my favorites. You can tell them apart from birch because their simple veins all align with teeth at the edges of the leaves. See?” She pointed to a leaf on the branch she held and, sure enough, all of the veins followed the mid-rib out to the points on the leaf, with no branching. Elizabeth also told me that the smooth bark of the beech invites carving into it, which earned it the nickname of “message tree.”

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Copper beeches hang onto their leaves all winter.

Elizabeth and Ross identified poplars, hawthorns, oaks, and hollies. Ross expressed surprise about the biodiversity. The land had listed as “young pine forest,” but didn’t hint at the variety of other trees and shrubs growing on the property. After the disappointing reality of pine beetle and HWA plaguing my trees, that variety was a cause for celebration — the forest would continue to thrive, even if its shape and character changed with the growth of healthier species.

Every so often, the pair paused to point out a new treasure. Tiny orchids, rare medicinals, a variety of ferns. The pretty little ground cover with the bright red berries is partridge berry. The tall stalk with the plump seed pods might be a lady slipper. The stripe-leafed plant is, indeed, a wintergreen. Over there, an orchid called “rattlesnake plantain.”

And, of course, the large patches of slow-growing crowsfoot, leaping and splashing like a bubbling green flood over the gentle contours of the forest floor.

Soil Samples: Science to Grow By

As they prepared to go, Ross and Elizabeth handed me a sheet of paper with Ross’ contact information typed onto it and a stack of flat cardboard boxes. “These are for soil samples,” Ross explained. “Just follow instructions on the sheet and on the boxes, and send them in to this address.” He pointed to a couple of lines in the upper left corner on the front of the paper. “Email me when the report comes in,” he continued, “and Elizabeth or I will be happy to go over the report with you. They can be a little hard to follow.”

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Boxes for collecting soil samples.

I was thrilled at the prospect of learning more about my soil. I knew the acidity would be high because of all the pines, and Ross had pointed out a couple of places where blueberries would thrive. But I’d want to grow more than blueberries, and knowing how to amend the soil on different parts of the property would eliminate a lot of guesswork. I couldn’t wait to get started.

“And one more thing,” Ross paused, smiling at me. “Pay attention to the trees they knock down when they grade your road. You have enough different tree species and shade that mushrooms could be your first cash crop.”

WHAT?! A cash crop? I’d been focused on subsistence, on growing my own food, not on selling crops to anyone else.

“Shiitake mushrooms grow well in oak,” he continued. “But oyster mushrooms like poplar,” he said and pointed to a tree by the side of the tractor road. “That’s a poplar, and it’s ready to come down. You want to try get them while they’re dormant, if you can.”

“The Field and Forest catalog sells mushroom spawn,” Elizabeth told me, grinning at my excitement. “We’ll come back and show you how to inoculate logs when you’re ready. It’ll be something to grow while you’re shaping up the rest of the soil for other crops.”

 

With final ear rubs for Bodhi and hearty handshakes all around, the two got into Ross’ truck and drove away, leaving me dizzy with new possibility. This adventure of mine wasn’t going to be easy, but something told me it would be worth the effort.

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Elizabeth and Ross pose with a happy Bodhi after our educational walk around the land. 


Ross Young is Director of Extension Services for the Madison County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Elizabeth Ayers is an Agriculture Extension Agent (Local Foods) for the Madison County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Together with the rest of their team, they work with small farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners to help them better understand and optimize the land they’re working and the crops they grow. 

You can learn more about North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension at https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/.

To learn more about chemical approaches to treating HWA, download this PDF from the Hemlock Restoration Initiative of Western North Carolina. Please note that all resources mentioned in the guide are local to that region. HRI General HWA Treatment Info_Nov2016 (PDF)


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Surprising Perspectives on Invasive Plants

“I can take those out for you when the machines come through,” Sam offered. He was referring to two huge multiflora rose bushes at the mouth of the tractor road he’ll be improving for me. Their long, densely-thorned canes claw at my vehicle every time I turn up the road onto the property. “Multiflora rose is no one’s friend.”

Sam isn’t the first to express this opinion about one of the invasive species growing on the land I affectionately nicknamed The Boot. My guides from Cooperative Extension Services had warned me about them, too, along with several others: bittersweet vine, mimosa trees, miscanthus (Chinese silver grass), and Japanese stilt grass. Whether they were introduced accidentally or for some well-intentioned purpose, they’d all escaped into the wild and often suck up resources native species need to thrive.

My first instinct was to wage full-out war on them, eradicating them as best I could. But as I am learning about sustainable living, other perspectives have edged into my awareness and are shaping how I look at the landscape.

Partners in Permaculture

I was frowning at the mimosa trees and telling Zev, the permaculture design consultant I’d engaged, that I needed to get busy digging them out.

Zev replied with a non sequitur: “Did you know there are types of tea bushes you can grow here in the mountains?”

WHAT?! Tea is one of my favorite beverages. Tea not only warms me but also provides comfort, soothing my often persistent tension. I did a happy little jig and told him I hadn’t heard that before.

“Mimosas make great companion plants for tea bushes,” Zev continued, connecting the dots between my threat of planticide and his odd response. “As the first tea buds come out, the mimosas shade them. Later, when the bushes have fully leafed-out, you cut the mimosas back to give the tea more sun. And mimosas are a high-protein fodder for goats and sheep, if you’re planning on raising livestock.”

I have no plans for livestock, but the companion planting information thrilled me. One of the core principles of permaculture design — and sustainable living, in general — is optimizing opportunities for growing food. Terms like “edible forest” and Hugelkultur have slowly crept into my vocabulary, casting a different lens on how I might live sustainably and harmoniously on the land. I made a mental note to research carefully the impact of any plants I planned to remove before I dug them out, in case there were opportunities for symbiotic pairings.

Opportunistic Abundance

“I’m excited that you have multiflora [rose] on your land!” wrote Sara in a message. “She taught me a lot about having healthy boundaries and what it means to love and nurture myself… I hope that she’s an equal gift to you!”

I’ve been following Sara on Instagram for about a year now. Her sensitivity to the stories that shape and are shaped by landscapes was one of the first things that drew me to her. Following her reading recommendations, I became familiar with the writings of Sharon Blackie and Mary Reynolds, both of whom dive deeply into what it means to be in relationship with the land. More recently, I’ve begun referring to Sara as one of my informal teachers in foraging and herbalism. While watching her recent live Instagram video story, I’d asked Sara if multiflora rose was appropriate for making tinctures and teas. She’d enthusiastically replied, “Yes!” before adding that the benefit of using invasive species was that you couldn’t over-harvest them as you could the dwindling native plant species.

Freely foraging invasives is a theme running through the foraging and herbalism communities, in my online classes and on various social media.

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Rose tea. Photo by Marco Secchi on Unsplash

While no one condones cultivating or propagating invasive species, foragers and herbalists alike encourage opportunistic gathering for food and medicines. Rose, for instance, is an astringent and an anti-inflammatory and can be used both topically — as it often is, in creams and cosmetics — and internally, as a delicious tea. I’ve also found rose tincture to be an effective tonic for soothing grief. Multiflora rose, now naturalized and considered wild, brings a particularly tenacious energy to its gentle healing properties.

Even parts of that pesky mimosa tree I wanted to kill can be used beneficially. It’s good medicine for burn and wound care, soothing coughs, and relieving oral discomfort. It’s also an immune booster, for which the less plentiful, native echinacea (a certain species of coneflower) and golden seal plants are known.

Non-Native Species: Invasion or Evolution?

“Landscapes change,” Zev told me. “You can’t really stop evolution.”

He had a point.

While many non-native species such as kudzu and garlic mustard are reviled, others have been accepted and even cultivated. Many types of fruits and berries — including blackberries and raspberries (both considered invasive in certain regions), along with apples, pears, cherries, and all edible citrus fruits — were transplanted from Europe and Asia but have become vital food sources. And these are just imports from the plant kingdom. Starlings, several species of sparrow, and even a species of grey squirrel were introduced from other continents. In fact, voracious “infestations” of the Eastern grey squirrel have all but decimated native populations of the smaller red squirrel. Yet these species have not only been accepted as residents but, in the case of the fruits and berries, have even become important commercial crops.

So, what is the middle way? I wondered. How do I help contain species that threaten the availability of native plants but still make use of their beneficial aspects? 

I think the balance, for me, will be opportunistically harvesting invaders, while also doing what I can to protect and restore native plants through seed collecting and trading in my tiny corner of the world.

For the moment, I’m sticking to my plan of living as lightly as possible out there — once I actually get out there — and observing the land for a year before doing any planting or clearing, outside of what I need for a home site and access to it.

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The native partridge berry has medicinal properties, but over-foraging has endangered it.


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Useful Off-Grid Skills: Tending Fire

You might be wondering: So, Denise is planning on having this grand off-grid adventure somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina. Does she have the requisite skills to survive out there?

I’m wondering that, too. (I know, I know: Not comforting.)

I accidentally got the opportunity to test one of those skill sets back in November when the furnace in the cabin where I was staying crapped out, leaving me with only a wood stove for heat.

The Setting: 200 Acres of Woodland in Southern Indiana

Shortly after my Bodhi died, dear friends of mine extended the generous offer of their cabin for a couple of weeks so I could process my grief in solitude. Situated by a small lake and wrapped in 200 acres of forest, the cabin provided both comfort and healing hours of walking in nature.

The cabin itself, built in the late 70s, has several bedrooms, a full bath, and a roomy, albeit simple, kitchen. A lovely loft overlooks the spacious living room, where a large wood stove stands on a raised hearth of local stone. I used the stove more for the enjoyment of a crackling fire than for heating the cabin, which task falls to the furnace and heat pump.

And then, just a few nights before my soul-soothing stay ended, the furnace gave out.

Wood Stove Fires vs. Campfires

The temperatures had dropped to levels appropriate to a proper autumn, so I definitely needed heat. I glanced out the front window to the load of wood a neighbor had gone to the trouble of stacking before I’d arrived. Ironically, I’d only built a couple of fires in the stove, and then only because I felt like an ingrate. The logs were hefty — not split — but I had plenty of tinder and kindling, so using the large chunks of wood hadn’t been an issue, and their size meant not having to feed the fire as often. There was plenty of wood. I’d notified my friends, and they’d scheduled furnace repairs for the next day, so I really only needed to keep the fire going for the rest of the afternoon and through the night.

Let me emphasize the challenge here: I really only needed to keep the fire going for the rest of the afternoon and through the night.

Now, I’ve done a fair amount of camping over the decades, and I’ve successfully built a good number of fires, even in wet, rainy weather. Before that week, however, I’d never fired up a wood stove, but even with the large logs I’d done well and soaked up the comfort of the crackling flames with a big cup of hot chocolate as I relaxed in the evening. From my YouTube research (Yep. Did that.), I learned that although laying a stove fire is a little different from laying a campfire, the basic mechanics are pretty similar.

But laying and lighting a fire is only part of the experience. Keeping it going is a whole other story. The rules change when you’re relying on a fire for heat — and, therefore, survival.

When I’m out camping, the specter of potentially starting a forest fire hangs heavily over me. (Anywhere from 60-90% of forest fires are caused by careless humans.) A gust of wind, a fallen branch, or wildlife visitors can stir even a single coal into sparks that will take out thousands of acres of forest, as well as any homes and businesses within range. So any campfire I build is carefully extinguished before I turn in for the night.

In other words, the exact opposite of what I needed to do with the stove.

What I Learned

As it turned out, the overall experience wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be. Yes, I had to get up two nights in a row at about 3:30 a.m. to stoke the fire. (The furnace repair guy was delayed by a day.) But I managed to keep the coals alive, which allowed me to light the next morning’s fire quickly and easily a Good Thing, since two days of rain meant all the branches I needed for kindling were soaked. But I did learn a few important things:

  • I’m completely convinced that the stove I buy will have soapstone inserts. They radiate heat after the fire goes out, which means I won’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to tend the fire.
  • Hot coals are critical if I run out of tinder and kindling, and
  • I need NEVER to run out of tinder and kindling.
  • Dryer lint makes a freakishly effective tinder material. Seriously. (You want a sobering experience? Light some dryer lint in a fire-safe place sometime. You’ll never let lint build up in your lint catcher or dryer vent again.)
  • I really need to practice with wood-chopping tools. Really. REALLY. Because I’ve never had to do it before, except with a small hatchet on small logs. Very. Different. Experience.

And, pursuant to that last bullet point (and for your amusement)…the video.

 

 


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To Yurt or Not to Yurt

(Didn’t think that would be the question.)

Almost all of my concentration was focused on not rolling my eyes.

“OK,” I challenged him, “tell me why you permaculture guys are so against yurts.”

When we’d first spoken, Zev, the permaculture designer I’d engaged as a consultant, had similarly challenged me, asking me why I was so insistent on living in a yurt. “Is it just the cool factor?” he’d asked.

Well, sure, that’s part of it. Although there are plenty of other, equally cool alternative housing options out there, ranging from tiny houses to earthships to tree houses. One is limited only by one’s imagination. And building codes. And covenants and restrictions. And…

Whatever.

Why a Yurt?

In addition to the “coolness” of living in a yurt, I’m also attracted to the idea of living in a dwelling that blurs the line between inside and out. Yurts, with their fabric walls and central, domed skylights through which to view the stars at night, fill the order. My property is tucked just far enough away from the freeway that I should easily be able to hear the songs of birds and the movements of wildlife through the yurt’s sides. I look forward to hearing the sighing of breezes in the pines and the soft footsteps of deer passing through the woods.

Also, circles are sacred in many cultures, representing the cyclical nature of all life, the journey from birth to death and back to birth. My own experiences with round structures have always made me feel as though I’m being held in a soothing embrace. For that reason, I’d long ago decided to forgo erecting a large yurt and subdividing it into rooms. I mean, if I was going to live in a round structure, why in the world would I individuate living spaces within it using linear walls? So, my current thinking was that I’d start with a single, mid-sized yurt of no more than 24 feet and connect it to a smaller one at a later date to make my sleeping quarters and meditation space more private. I was even toying with the idea of eventually adding a third yurt to double as a dining area for when family and friends visit and a craft room where I could lay projects out with plenty of space to work. The three yurts could surround a small courtyard, where I’d have a tiny kitchen garden.

Ambitious yurtage, no?

But the bottom line for me is…well, the bottom line. Yurts are relatively inexpensive and easy to erect. Kits vary wildly in cost, materials, and degrees of completeness. Some are made of synthetic laminates, others of canvas, and still others of wool or wood. Some come with a base and a floor; some without. Some have window and door options, and some are more tent-like, with zippers and screens and acrylic window inserts for the winter. Some have insulating liners; others don’t.

I had two favorite yurt-makers, each with their own drawbacks. The one in Canada would require shipping the kit over long distances, making its carbon footprint a lot larger than I liked. However, their yurts are ecologically responsible and well-insulated, with a built-in floor and the option to buy a kind of foundation kit. The other was a local guy, which was more in keeping with my desire to keep my housing choices as low-impact as possible — not to mention the much-lower price tag. However, his yurts aren’t much more than framed-in tents. And their skylight domes are tiny, which meant star-viewing would be limited at best.

I’d already ruled out the yurt makers whose products are made from petroleum-based fabrics that not only out-gas but also have zero flame resistance. Their yurts also tend to be more permanent installations than the two styles I was considering, which would immediately increase the number of regulations I’d have to follow and permits I’d have to get.

So, back to my question to Zev…

Round Furniture and Other Concerns

Oddly (to me), furnishing the yurt was the first concern Zev — and Andrew, the original designer for the previous owner — raised. Don’t misunderstand me, I know I’ll face challenges trying to fit square couches into a round hole, but I’ve seen a lot of clever solutions to the problem. Modular furniture, several small satellite groupings, even custom islands and cabinets, if need be, could be fun to find or design.

He also raised several, more valid points. For instance, both designers also cited the fact that rectangular buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than round ones. A yurt provides less surface area for the sun exposure in the winter because the curve of the wall bows away to the east and west. I’d be less able to take advantage of passive solar energy, equating to using more wood to heat the structure. Yurts’ poor insulation also means they heat up more slowly and retain less warmth. The cost of wood — either buying it or spending the time to chop and haul it — would likely be higher, as would the environmental impact of burning more wood.

Rain-water collection — another important component of my plan for off-grid living — is also a challenge because it would require either custom gutters or some other less-effective work-around. Now, I’ve read there are folks living in yurts who rely on rain-water catchment to offset their well-water use, but I’m not sure if they’re collecting from the yurt roof, or if they have a barn, garage, or other building supplying non-potable water for showering, toilet flushing, and gardening use. It’s an important question, requiring further research.

Zev provided various and sundry other perspectives — some reflecting his knowledge of sustainable living; others clearly stemming from personal bias — but then he uttered the one word that gave me serious pause:

Mold.

The Realities of a Temperate Rain Forest

“I lived in a yurt near here for a year,” Zev told me. “Mold was a big problem. And not just the yurt,” he continued. “My stuff grew mold in there, too. Yurts don’t have great ventilation.”

Zev went on to explain that, because they’re made of fabric, there are plenty of tiny crevices where mold can take root and grow. Unless I wanted to do some serious cleaning and maintenance — quarterly, at least — I should consider another housing option. My neighbors, with whom I chatted later in the day, confirmed Zev’s prediction: I’d be battling mold, as everyone in the area did. (I later learned from the woman from whom I bought the property that she’d torn down the farm house on the parcel across the street because of an out-of-control mold infestation.)

Dang it.

While I found the idea of more frequent cleaning distasteful, it wasn’t a show-stopper. But my serious mold allergy was another matter. I was already stacking the deck against my health and comfort by living on a wooded plot of land. The idea that I’d have no haven from the threat of mold created doubt.

Is a yurt really right for me?

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Waiting for a yurt. Or…something.