I’ve been sleeping in my half-constructed cabin every night for the past eight months. The trials and hardships of life on the frontier echo from every cardinal corner, but with them bring experience, insight, and inspiration.
I made the decision last December. The house was “finished enough,” and it was time to move in. At the time, I think my biggest concern was leaking around the front door, which I still haven’t totally solved, but it’s been mitigated now. I was scraping together wood from wherever I could to stay warm at night, and still doing a bit of traveling.
With spring came planting. My first year of REALLY planting and growing a large garden. The tiny seedling in the above picture is still alive and growing comfortably on my windowsill, despite the rest of those early trays completely dying. Now I grow thousands of plants every week from seed as microgreens. I’d say my skill has improved a bit in that area.
My goal for the outside gardens was to produce food from one plant, and I planted a couple of thousand to ensure it would happen. I ended up with loads of green beans, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and my garlic planting made a crop. Also had some of the best potatoes I’ve ever tasted. Mission accomplished, I suppose, though I continue to strive to do better.
It’s hard to remember what was finished and what wasn’t when I started the year, though I do know that the porch and the solar panels didn’t yet exist. The whole year, including those items, has been a terrific balancing act. With my initial nest-egg spent over the prior years since leaving the oilfield, budgeting became a serious concern. I’m now finally starting to build up funds again slowly, but after the tax hit from clearing out the 401k, I basically started with zero this year.
That means every decision is calculated, measured and weighed carefully before a purchase is made. There simply isn’t any room for error. This has been a pain in the ass, but it’s also made me super thrifty, using some very basic bush-craft skills in place of purchasing. And I get better at making my own stuff every day. I finally carved my first real tool, basically a club used for mallet duty while chopping wood, from an oak log. I’m in the process of writing off the lawnmower thing in favor of sickles and scythes. I built a pizza oven from scrap plywood, leftover cement (from construction), and vermiculite (a supply I keep for the microgreens).
I’m in the process now of planning a few kilns made from clay, and possibly more ovens. I love burning shit. But burning for a helpful purpose makes for a return on investment. I dumped about four tons of rock in and around the foundation of my house. The excess can be culled and burned to make lime, which will get me started on smelting ores of all kinds. There’s a bunch of red rocks in the mountain, so iron might even be a possibility, or lead ores, or who knows what else. Kilns also give way to pottery, which would be a huge money saver for amazing and unique planting fixtures, buckets, tubs, or other things. I plan on melting aluminum cans and casting some basic items with them, as aluminum is nearly infinitely reusable. The possibilities are endless.
In this year’s chopping season, I’m expanding my woodcutting skills with a small hatchet, learning to make straight staves from large logs (the bow project is still ongoing), and seasoning the wood to make timbers, planks, and other useful stuff. It’s incredible the freedom that comes from knowing not only that these things are doable with simple tools, but how easy the process is for rough-cut materials that I can actually use to build things.
I might even be making my own wooden boxes for the farmers market in due time. There are some deliciously straight pine trees growing on the hillside. Getting a 15 inch truck out of the woods is near impossible for me, but hauling rough-cut boards out of the woods is much easier. Not to mention that busting a trunk up in that way really doesn’t take as long as I once thought. I smashed two small logs into quarter staves last night in about half an hour. Don’t know what I’ll make with them, but I have them.
Of course, this must be weighed against putting up firewood. This picture doesn’t show the whole pile, but I have about 2 cords put up, and my house stove doesn’t use a ton of the stuff. I will still need to set more aside, but if I calculate the total time investment, this is only about a week or two worth of actual work:
Yes, there are chores. I wash my clothes in a bucket, I decompose solid waste into peat in a compost bin, I chop with an axe, I must constantly monitor my rainwater supply and electrical capacity from the solar array, I grow microgreens and other plants, I mow, I rake, I sow, I dig, I build, etc.
But after over 240 days out here, I’m perfectly at ease. Sometimes I go out in the night to squeeze in just a little more work, even though working in the dark isn’t generally a good idea. I spend each night researching something woodsy to learn about. I always feel like I’m building toward something, needing fewer items from the store, creating less waste, repurposing more “junk” that would have been tossed a year ago, and best of all, spending less money. And when I spend money, it’s more often on a tool that will last years rather than some snack or random toy.
Even with the tools there are trade-offs. I decided on a cheaper hatchet when I made the decision to buy. I sharpened it up with a file, and I know that if the handle busts, I can simply make another one and keep using it, versus a more expensive choice that would probably last longer, but have limited reusability (I’d have to mount it much like a stone axe). Lately, I’m on the lookout for older tools being sold as junk that I can turn into something useful. Making my first axe handle will be quite an adventure, but I think it’s one I’m prepared for.
So. Life in the woods is hard. Like, really hard. But I don’t think about that part very often. I’m always focused on my next task. The next microgreen that I’d like to grow. When to approach another chef and acquire more restaurant customers. Planning next year’s garden, and which crops to overwinter this year (I have some hard-neck garlics in-bound).
Right now, of course, with fall looming and winter on its way, firewood is the daily talk around the campfire for those of us heating with wood. I will probably be cutting all winter, and ensuring that I make room for the smaller trees to continue thriving while harvesting the light-hogging giant canopy trees. I’m sorting by species, health, and straightness of growth, and thus cultivating the woods as one would cultivate a garden, ensuring an endless supply of fuel and building materials for the future, as well as a habitat for all sorts of critters.
Critters are my friends 😛 Except those doves, I don’t like the doves so much, haha.
So, here’s hoping for another winter survived, legging out my first year off the grid, living more sustainably, and endlessly learning the ways of the wild.