Sunday, October 31, 2021

Launching into November

I'm working on my next Amish Inspirational book. To get myself jump-started on this project, I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the crazy notion that anyone can write a 50,000-word novel in a month. November is the month this takes place.

I've done NaNoWriMo on and off for many years, and it's always a hoot. Intense, yes; but a hoot.

I had so many magazine articles due this fall that I busted fanny to clear November as much as possible to allow me time to work on NaNoWriMo.

Is anyone else doing this crazy gig?

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Preparing for projects

As fall moves inexorably toward winter, one of the things we're trying to do is anticipate spring projects and acquire the necessary materials to bring those projects to fruition when the time comes. Among the highest-priority projects are livestock and a garden.

I miss having cows. I miss their daily care. I miss milking. I miss the warm camaraderie of the beautiful Jerseys we had at our old place. I miss the lovely manure they produced that enriches everything we grow. I miss making butter, cheese, and yogurt.

Our goal, come spring, is to get two Jerseys and a feeder calf we can raise for beef. We have plenty of neighbors raising beef animals, so getting a feeder calf will be easy. We've done some preliminary searches for Jersey cows and have seen plenty of them on the market, so we don't anticipate problems obtaining two ladies when we have everything ready.

Similarly, I miss gardening. I miss weeding (for some reason, I really enjoy weeding). I miss witnessing the daily growth and production of food plants. And of course, I miss the bounteous harvest that comes with an expansive garden.

In short, we miss having a self-sufficient homestead. We have the bones of one, but we're not there yet.

So what we've been doing is pulling together the materials we'll need to work on these projects in the spring. We're also monitoring alternative sources for things such as the nearest town's Facebook buy-and-sell page, the newspaper ads, etc.

Once in a while we come across what we call "a screamin' good deal." You might remember one such deal in the form of a huge number of 2x6x18s we got last March:

Another screamin' good deal we found last March was a series of horse panels being sold by some wealthy horse breeders who were upgrading to the next best model. We walked away with seventeen 12-foot panels, twelve 10-foot panels, and two 10-foot panels with 6-foot built-in gates – all six feet in height and with a total run of 344 linear feet, for an unbelievably low price. Score!

Every time we come across a screamin' good deal, we snap it up. But those deals are few and far between. For many of the things we need, we simply bite the bullet and buy. Sometimes it's painful (financially), but we're consoled that most things are a one-time cost.

Take the garden, for instance. After some thought, we decided on building raised beds again. One of the biggest advantages of raised beds is ease of weeding. I can sit on a crate and weed for hours without physical discomfort to my knees or back.

We won't, however, build another tire garden. Tractor tires aren't as easily available near our new home, so that resource is harder to come by. However what we do have is a large stack of sheet metal left behind by the previous owners.

These can become the siding for raised beds.

The garden's placement will be a bit odd. Because our property is mostly sloped, we had to look at one of the few flat spots we have available; namely, the driveway/parking area in front of the house. Not only is it beautifully flat, but it's also conveniently covered with heavy weed cloth and fine pea gravel. In short, built-in weed control.

Our property has two driveways (one in front of the house, a second driveway leading directly to the barn in back). We graveled a parking area in the back and so we seldom park in front of the house any more, in part because we're reserving it for a future garden.

The garden beds will be three feet wide and about 12 feet long. We'll build as many as will fit in the driveway. We'll be modeling their construction on these photos from the latest issue of Backwoods Home Magazine:

To this end, we purchased a quantity of pressure-treated 2x4s. Don can rip them in half to create the framing for the metal siding.

After some searching, we also found a source for topsoil and had two dump truck loads delivered. In theory this is all we need to fill about 24 beds, but it wouldn't surprise me if we needed another truck's worth. We'll also be talking to a horse-keeping neighbor and asking for a dump truck of his manure.

Needless to say, however, building a garden would be a futile undertaking if we didn't make sure it was deer-proof. Last spring, after a bit of research, we purchased some heavy-duty plastic netting strong enough to keep deer (and elk) out.

This stuff is light-weight and flexible, but very strong. It has an added advantage that, once it's in place, it's not visually annoying.

Each roll is 7.5 feet in height. One roll will fence in the entire perimeter of the garden; the second roll will be cut in half to supplement the height of the first roll, for a total fence height of over 10 feet. Nuclear fencing, baby! We're not taking chances of deer invading the garden.

Speaking of fencing, we're also getting the amount of field fence we need to secure our pastures when it comes time to get cows. Currently our property is "fenced" – I use the term loosely – with three strands of barbed wire. We know from experience it may as well not be fenced at all.

But yowza, have you checked the price of field fence lately? Last December, even before we moved, we ordered some farm supplies, including four 330' rolls of 47" field fence, to be delivered to our new place. At the time, those rolls were something like $130/roll.

Earlier this week I called the same local distributor we used before and found field fence had skyrocketed to $260/roll double the price in 10 months!! Yikes!!

After calling every other local distributor, I found it was cheaper (relatively speaking) to drive two hours to the nearest North40 Outfitters, pay $180/roll, and drive two hours home. So I did. We wanted to get the field fence we needed before prices doubled again.

We bought six rolls. Coupled with the four rolls we purchased last December, this should be enough to fence what needs fencing.

While most of the work for these various projects will have to wait until spring, we're feeling a sense of urgency to get all the materials we'll need to implement these projects now. It already cost an arm and a leg to purchase these six rolls of fencing. Would it cost both arms and both legs if we waited until spring to buy them? Or would we be able to buy them at all?

Most of our expenditures this first year in our new home have involved infrastructure improvements and planning for future products. We're getting what we can while we can still afford it.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Cheese chuckle

Your chuckle du jour.

This, of course, references the Eurythmics' famous song, "Sweet Dreams are Made of This."

At any rate, it made me chuckle.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Woodcutting 101

In response to my last post on putting up firewood,  reader Rob sent me some humorous memes from a Backwoods Home Magazine email that are pertinent to the subject at hand. I thought I would intersperse them in a humor piece Don wrote a few years ago called Woodcutting 101.

Without further ado.......


Woodcutting 101

One of the most basic and fundamental skills needed by anyone aspiring to a Country Lifestyle is that of the wood butcher or firewood cutter. Firewood and its timely gathering is of extreme importance; not only in keeping a warm home, but also in showing your neighbors who you are.

Out here in Northern Idaho, most everyone uses wood heat, either as a secondary source, or in many cases as the only means of keeping the house and shop warm during the cold nine months of the year. The correct display of your firewood is also important. A full wood shed, or stack upon stack of cut and split wood, tells your neighbors that you "get it." You understand country living.

Now I can hear you out there, your whiny, smog-roughened voices crying out, "I want to be thought of that way, Don! I want to be a real woodsman!" Of course you do. And who wouldn't? And as usual, I'm here to help. I promise if you will heed the following words of wisdom, you too will be able to hold your head (or some other remaining appendage) up proudly in the presence of real woodsmen with country names like Stumpy, Lefty, or One-Eyed Pete.

First of all, let me dispel a couple of the old saws (get it? saws? Oh I'm good!) that you may have heard in your soon-to-be pre-country life. The most famous of the old sayings is undoubtedly "Heating with wood warms you twice," referring not only to the burning but the cutting as well.

What nonsense. If you do it right, firewood will warm you at least six or seven times. By the time you've hauled your saw to the woods, realized that the chain is still dull from cutting all that roofing tin last year, gone back to the truck for a file, sharpened the saw while balancing it on an old stump, started cutting only to run out of gas (back to the truck for the can), realized that the log you are working on is either too heavy to turn (where's the peavey?) or hollow and full of yellow jackets (a full-tilt run while shucking off all your clothing can be quite warming) … well, you've already got at least three or four good heats without even getting a stick into the truck. My friend and neighbor Percival Hughs claims that one time he got 27 warms out of a single batch of firewood, but he's a professional and seasoned woodsman and therefore should not be trusted.

When should you start collecting firewood for the next year? Many of my friends start cutting firewood for the next year before they've even finished burning the current season's supply. Others cut small amounts throughout the year, stacking their cords from youngest to oldest, then burning that wood in the same order, beginning with the oldest cut and therefore the driest wood.

Me? I usually begin cutting my winter's firewood about two or three days after the first snow fall. Wait until your wife starts to complain about frost forming on the house plants or the dogs having to break through a crust of ice on the indoor water bowl. This delay adds a certain immediacy to the job that is quite bracing (see, another chance for a warming!). Unlike my lazy neighbors, I don't mind doing concentrated, some might even say frenzied, labor. After all, while they are all out lolly-gagging around, hunting elk or ice fishing, I can be found (sometimes with the aid of a search party) slogging though two or three feet of snow, trying to guess if the next mound of snow in my path is a downed tree or a hibernating bear.

So far you may have noticed that all we've talked about are logs that are already on the ground. While this is, in my opinion, the preferred state, occasionally dead or dying trees need to be helped to attain the horizontal.

Tree felling has been described as a difficult and dangerous profession requiring great skill and experience. But this is an exaggeration at best. After all, a tree is really nothing more than a vegetable; a multi-ton, 100-foot-high carrot, if you will. Since gravity and power tools are our friends in this endeavor, getting that carrot on the ground is not difficult. The trick is making sure that the tree falls where you want it to.

Old-time tree-fallers (understandably rare) spend years learning to recognize the subtle "tells" of the tree: the asymmetrical growth, prevailing winds, root structure and the like. With this information and years of experience, they can put the tree on the ground within inches of where they will tell you afterwards that they meant for it to fall. If you have the time and no other visible means of support, this is an okay way to determine fall.

But if you're in a hurry for a rosily glowing wood stove (because it's 15 below zero, your hands are numb to the elbow, and the dogs are eyeing your ice-fishing saw), there is a much faster way to determine where your future firewood will fall.

First, eye all possible ways the tree could fall. Then make sure you have a "safe" line of retreat. Make your initial cuts in alignment with the direction you wish the tree to fall. Make your fall, and prepare to start cutting firewood.

This process will be made much easier by the fact that your truck will now be acting (to the best of its ability) as a sawhorse under the newly fallen tree. When I say "your truck," of course I mean "not my truck." My truck was unaccountably un-start-able just before I went to cut firewood, necessitating the borrowing of your truck.

Since most country folk never bother to take their keys out of their vehicles when they park them, the available supply of borrow-able vehicles is only limited by the distance to the next neighbor's house. (Other limitations will present themselves after your first wood-cutting foray, but we will cover those in a later chapter concerning life-threatening wounds and their treatment.)

Now some of you who are "less country savvy" may be thinking, "Isn't that a lot like stealing, Don?"  Ha ha, well of course it would be if you didn't write a note to leave with your neighbor, explaining in suitably vague terms the emergency that necessitated the borrowing of the truck.

Caution: Remember to leave the note in a place where your neighbor can find it. It won't do any good if you just drop it out the window of the truck as you drive away, or leave it stuck in the screen door where a blast of wind might carry it off. I like to leave my notes on the dash board of the borrowed vehicle.

Remember, after getting your firewood in, make sure to return the borrowed vehicle promptly. You might even get it back before your neighbor knows it was borrowed. If this occurs, you can remove the note from the dash board. After all, why confuse the poor fellow? However if your neighbor is waiting for you, possibly with the new shotgun he really wants to demonstrate for you, make sure you are ready to explain to him the many benefits he has gained in loaning you his vehicle, like the lower wind resistance and the decreased insurance costs that the reduced profile of his truck now provides.

This might be a good time to address some of the equipment you will need for firewood gathering.

Aside from someone else's truck, you'll want a good  chainsaw. Unfortunately, no one has ever created such a thing. Oh, there are lots of great  chainsaws, but they always belong to someone else. Ask any woodsman about his  chainsaw and be prepared for a love story that would make Casanova blush. Their chainsaw starts up first time on a below-zero morning, cuts eight cords of firewood on a single tank of gas, then comes home and wakes their owner gently with a fresh-brewed cup of coffee. My  chainsaw, no matter how new or expensive, won't start unless it is first warmed to room temperature (that's normal room temperature, not my room temperature, because I still haven't cut any firewood).

Simply owning a chainsaw – whether operating or not – is not enough, of course. You will also need chainsaw files for sharpening the saw after you cut into the nails you put into the tree the previous year during that unfortunate episode while constructing the kid's tree house. (Honestly, who thinks about wind resistance when installing a slide?) Anyway, you will need a good selection of files, each of a specific diameter to fit all of the possible chain sizes available, except of course for the chain you currently have on your saw.

Sharpening a chain is an art. The saw must be balanced and braced so that each draw of the file sharpens each tooth at the same angle and to the same depth. Or so the guys down at the saw shop always tell me after they stop laughing. Personally, I think it's just an attempt to get more business.

I happen to be an expert at sharpening a chain. Many professionals are willing to settle for a chain that will cut quickly and straight. But I've raised the "bar," as it were, and all of my saw cuts now form perfect arcs through the wood, with the blade sometimes even coming out again on the same side of the log that it went in. This will come in very handy if I ever get around to building a log cabin.

Another tool that's very handy to have with you is the peavey, a spike-and-hook arrangement on the end of a stout pole, not to be confused with the neighbor whose truck you borrowed. The peavey is very useful for rolling those heavy logs over onto your feet. I don't think that was the original design concept, but that's what it always does to me.

You may be thinking to yourself, "Now why would I want a tool like that?" Shame on you. Wood cutting is not simply about avoiding death by freezing; it's also a lifestyle display. Having a peavey in the back of your truck when you arrive for your Loyal Order of the Grouse Lodge meeting shows the guys that you are one of them.

Well, that's all the time I have for now. In our next lesson on firewood collection, I'll cover other items of interest for the new country-o-phile. Such topics will include: "The Steel-Toed Boot: Essential Safety Apparel or Single Use Shear?", "Small Engine Fires," and the real health benefits of cooler home temperatures.

But before I go, let me leave you with this thought. A dead standing tree is not a diabolical, evil, and malevolent creature bent on your destruction (that's a cow). And nine times out of ten that tree will not try to kill you. So don't worry.

But never fall more than nine trees at a time.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Putting up firewood

One of the things we're still working on here at our new home is finding "sources" for various things. One of the best "sources" we've found is an older widowed woman who lives nearby. She's lived here for decades and knows everyone.

So when the issue of firewood came up, she knew just who to recommend. Based on her suggestion, we got hold of a young man who cuts firewood for a living. She said he was honest and trustworthy. Boy was she right.

Because we didn't need the wood to be split or stacked (something he does for our widowed neighbor) – but were happy to accept it in rounds – we got an excellent deal. We requested four cords.

He brought the first load in early August. We told him we weren't in a hurry, so he said he would bring us a load whenever he had spare time, and he assured us we'd get our money's worth.

He was true to his word and brought a load every week or so.

He brought more and more rounds, tossing them into two ever-increasing mounds (one small, one huge) until we had four cords' worth.

We started splitting in late August. Don towed the log splitter around from the barn to the driveway...

...and I sat down and split the first load.

We also had to figure out how best to stack it. Our idea was to stack it on pallets and then build a frame over it, covered with a tarp. But one of the issues was how to support the sides without having wood spill out? Most people put up T-posts or other side supports.

Then we noticed our widowed neighbor's wood pile, stacked by the same young man who delivered our wood. Well, look at that. He used half-logs to build a "wall" at either side of the stack for support. Clever idea!

So we selected the spot where we wanted to make the woodpile...

...and brought over some pallets.

Then we built our own end wall, four feet high.

Thereafter we split whenever time and temperatures permitted. We weren't in a hurry, and split wood whenever we felt like it. Below is a rather messy workstation, but it's productive.

Same with stacking. We stacked whenever we felt like it.

Because Don was busy working on other, more complicated projects (such as installing the wood cookstove), firewood by default became my task. After some effort, I finished splitting the smaller mound of rounds. At one point I stepped back and realized the amount of split wood far exceeded the amount of stacked wood, so on a cool late August day, I spent several hours whittling away at the mound.

In this task, I was greatly aided by one of our better purchases, a gorilla cart. Let me pause while I give this baby a plug. It holds a lot of weight, turns easily on its big wheels, and takes a lot of abuse without complaint.

Look at the size difference between the gorilla cart and our biggest wheelbarrow.

Plus the gorilla cart has a "dump truck" feature.

Anyway, enough product endorsement. Back to work.

Eventually the pile was stacked and we were out of pallets. No more stacking until we could scrounge more pallets.

Meanwhile it was time to tackle splitting the larger mountain of rounds.

For weeks I whittled away at that mountain. It seemed bottomless.

The issue of pallets rose its ugly head when I literally ran out of room to chuck more split wood.

We were finally able to locate some, and I stacked what I'd split so far.

I got into a rhythm and a method of keeping this workstation fairly organized. Split wood was chucked to one side.

Kindling was tossed in another pile.

I threw bark into the wheelbarrow I'd parked right next to the splitter.

I used a hand truck to transport the rounds from the log pile to my splitting station. The distance was only about 20 feet or so, but let me tell you, this hand truck was a lifesaver. I could split for far longer without becoming exhausted if I didn't have to muscle or roll the massive rounds or halves to the splitter. (In years past, you see, this was the girls' job. Without them to do the grunt work, we have to work smarter, not harder.)

Smaller logs of the correct size, I split in half and tossed into the gorilla cart for building the other end wall of the woodpile.

But for all the splitting I did – day after day, week after week – that mountain of rounds never seemed to go down.

Once in a while I came across an interesting sight, such as this quiet toad who hid himself under a piece of bark.

Or this giant (and dead) buprestid beetle, nearly three inches long.

Every so often I stopped and cleaned up my workstation. I raked up the smaller pieces of bark, consolidated the small kindling pieces, and otherwise did a reset.

We saved all the bark and put it in a pile. Eventually we'll spread this out, run over it with the tractor a few times, and make bark mulch. Waste not, want not.

(I should make it clear we don't deliberately remove the bark, but it often just falls off the dry logs in chunks.)


By early October, I was finally near the bottom of that bottomless mountain of logs.

The pile of bark had grown.

The happy day finally came when the end was in sight...

...and I was able to split the last of the logs. (You can see some of the kindling piled in the background.)

We then finished stacking it in the woodpile.

We had some overflow which we'll stack on the deck for convenience. But we did a happy dance! The firewood is finally all split!

One thing became abundantly clear as we completed the woodpile: the young man who brought us the firewood brought us way more than we asked for. We requested four cords. He brought us just about six. We will reimburse him for the extra wood. This is how he makes his living, and we have no interest in cheating him out of his livelihood.

Ironically, we have no idea how much firewood we'll need over a winter. In our last place, we liked to have six cords going into the cold season. We heated almost exclusively with wood, though we supplemented once in a while with a propane wall heater. Here in our new place, we have forced-air heat as a supplement, which is particularly useful on those chilly days when it's not quite cold enough to light the woodstove, but a little temperature boost would be nice.

But as last winter demonstrated (when we lost power and had no means of heating our home), a non-electric heat source is critical in North Idaho. This woodpile and our cookstove gives us enormous peace of mind.

Our next step is to shelter the woodpile for the winter. Look for a future blog post on that.