Monday, December 5, 2011

Wintering In

For the last five months, we have been insulating, burying water lines, sealing windows, building a masonry heater, chopping firewood, clearing the driveway of obstacles, and sorting our storage into 'do not freeze' and 'who cares'.

Now that the snow is here, and we are snug inside, it's time for other things.

Today I've been working on sewing, gift-type items mostly. Yesterday I made an egg basket.

Our chickens have, contrary to the usual practice of chickens, increased the eggs they are laying now that it is cold. (Well, really my in-laws' chickens, but I feed them often enough that they recognize me as part of the Hive Mom.) I think it's mostly the fact that the spring chickens have finally matured enough to start laying. It doesn't hurt that we feed them the fatty scraps from our winter-weight diet of bacon, pot roast, or cheesy pasta. I took them some leftover bird-suet, too. Ron tells me that their feathers are mostly protein, so if they don't get enough meat (bugs being scarce under snow) they stop laying in winter. Vegetarian chickens are rarely the happiest or healthiest chickens; Ron and Janine even gave them the turkey carcass after Thanksgiving (though we do make a point not to feed them their own eggs). If you doubt, check out the Youtube video of 'a hen and her mouse'.

The basket is sized to hold an egg carton (I used a dozen-egg carton to measure it, but it should hold two of these, or the 18-egg carton, pretty easily). It also has flattened bulges in the bottom, to keep the eggs apart in case you don't bring the carton out with you. I'm thinking it needs some more detail, maybe a cloth liner, or some cording along the rim, to coordinate with the detail on the handle.

Tonight, I think I'll do a little more of the sewing, then make a smaller sewing work-basket for my current projects.

It's very satisfying having this much 'free' time. I try to keep the creative projects to the evenings, and save the business day for keeping up with email, finances, and the ongoing logistics of setting up workshops and teaching classes. I'll be in Portland working with Trackers for winter break, for example, and if I don't want to drive a Geo Metro through ten-plus hours of snow, I'd better get some train tickets tomorrow.

Ernie has been doing his version of 'sedentary puttering,' which includes setting up his dad's computer to run boat-design software, and keeping in touch with the Internet providers after a mix-up with our service. We went down to the elder Wisners' house yesterday for a couple of games of cards, contract Rummy, which has many more rules than anyone could remember until I broke them one by one. And there are plots and plans afoot for Christmas gifts. Apple butter, peach preserves, and Ron is stocking his pantry for a winter storm of fresh-baked bread and other treats...

Hope the longer nights are affording you a similar abundance of time for peaceful productivity,
Ernie and Erica

Friday, November 25, 2011

Oysturkey and the Tea Stump

Thanksgiving was very creative this year.
Ernie can't eat poultry, so we did a wild-rice and oyster 'stuffing' with oyster mushrooms and lots of other yummy stuff in it. I got silly and made it look like a turkey, complete with oyster 'wattle'. We shared it, and lots of other good food, at the Campbell family thanksgiving dinner. There were only 15 people for dinner this year, plus another 5 who stopped by after dessert - down from 30+ people when I was growing up.
In between seeing family and helping with the Trackers Thanksgiving Break camps, we got excited about making a tea-stove for a local preschool teacher. Turns out the pre-school (and kindergarten) is located in the basement of the same church where the Campbells went as kids - talk about a small world, or at least a small Beaverton.

The program has the kids outdoors every day, sometimes all day, and so they wanted a way to make hot tea or snacks, without risking the kids getting hurt. We've done tea stoves for outdoor kitchens before, but this site had a special challenge: since it's a shared space, the stove has to be able to move to a storage shed when not in use.

So we went looking for light-weight, weather-resistant, insulative materials that could handle internal temperatures over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. And be safe on the outside for little fingers. We found Western Industrial Ceramics, who cater to glassblowers and other small-scale artists and businesses, as well as large-scale foundries and high-temperature furnace installers. Nice to meet people who are equally happy to help you on a tiny project, while telling you about orders from the aerospace industry!

We used their ceramic-fiber insulative board, and a cool-looking tube they happened to have in overstock, to make a lightweight stove that works beautifully. It boils a gallon of water in under 10 minutes (a liter takes less than 5), on a tiny handful of kindling. (You can see the amount in the fuel feed; it's literally the split pieces of one or two sticks, and a couple of 'big' pieces of 1x2" scrap. After the water boiled with this amount of wood, we added one stick at a time, and kept it boiling for another 20 minutes on two more sticks, just because we could.)

Plus we got to decorated it like a magical stump. The brass rim helps keep the heat around the pot, and little fingers away from the danger zone. The outer shell is plaster-of-Paris on canvas, with a non-toxic clay paint. Not super waterproof, but reasonably tough, and easy to repair.
I'm going to post the basic plans on our website soon at; the one alteration will be a slightly taller heat riser (the pre-formed core is a bare 18" tall) so the pot is up above the tip of the flame and doesn't get so sooty. Paul Wheaton of the Permaculture Forums is also interested in working with us on a bigger model that could be used as a turkey-fryer (or, for my own personal preference, an outdoor cookstove for canning when it's hot in the summer, without violating the burn bans on open flame).

We were pretty pleased with ourselves. Hopefully, the teachers will be happy with it - they are planning to coat the outside with some linseed oil so it is a little more waterproof.

Another fine mess at Mom's house, by Ernie and Erica.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tonasket - Like a Heavy Basket

About ten years ago, Ernie's father and stepmother retired from commercial fishing to live on top of Mt Hall.

They found 12 acres of alpine/high-desert woodland with an actual pond, which now supports a small dock and canoe (just in case the water level ever gets high enough to support recreational boating).

Ron plows snow into the pond each winter while clearing the driveway, and grumps that he wouldn't mind the Forest Service helicopters dipping water out to fight wildfires, if they'd just return the same amount afterwards.

Janine waters the garden and a handful of fruit trees from one of their two wells.

They've invited us to join them up here, with the option to build our own home, or boat, or whatever strikes our fancy, on a corner of the property that has its own well, power, and road access.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dancing with the Future

Working with kids is a lot like contact improv dance, or any kind of theatrical improv games. You never know what's going to happen. Excellence comes from having a good general plan and fitness, yet being flexible enough to say 'Yes!' to a better opportunity.

Working with children is like improvisational modern dance, except instead of a troupe of peers with similar skills and training, you are dancing with the future.

I just got done with two really fun training programs, one as a trainee, one as a trainer. Luckily they came in the right order. '-)

TrackersEARTH has doubled in size yet again this year, which means bringing a lot of perrenial staff like me back on full-time for the summer, AND hiring almost the same number of people from outside. And buying a gorgeous chunk of land up in the Marmot area (between Sandy and Mt. Hood). So we all went there together to get to know each other, and practice the skills for handling large numbers of children in multiple sites at once. One new and interesting plan for this summer is Silent Wednesdays. That's right: from the moment the kids walk in with their parents, until they walk out the door again after pick-up, nobody talks. We prep them for this on Monday and Tuesday, and of course emergencies may arise, but we role-played this a little bit (I've done it with adults for cob building, too, and it seems very cool.)

Then I went to teach a training for the Multnomah County Childcare Resource and Referral Center. On paper crafts. Which would be a piece of cake for me, even after a long week... except that I had put IN THE COURSE DESCRIPTION that we would 'Use ordinary paper to create a marvelous world: moving birds and fish, jumping frogs, glittering snowflakes, seasonal
mobiles, memory mosaics. Refresh your creative spirit, get the kids crafting, and recycle your own paper scraps into cards,
placemats, party favors, and gorgeous handmade paper art."

Now I can do each of the things above, and I've taught many of them with good results.
Yet the above list represents a LOT of hands-on skills to learn in 2 hours, especially if I need to coach adults through their creative anxiety or directions that are not written for their learning style. And many of the ways I would make these projects are not suitable for children under age 3.

Fortunately, I had Kiko's mother's excellent book, Making Things, by Anne Sayre Wiseman. Photocopies from this became DIY instruction pages. I got permission from an origami enthusiast from the UK, David Petty, to reproduce some origami diagrams from his website.

I was prepping for this class between training for Trackers summer camps, and taking the CDL trainings and exam. I had to get a new printer, which had a defective part, so I had to go to the 24-hour copy center anyway, but I also needed sleep...

I headed up the hill for the 3-day overnight Trackers training camp, feeling very much exhausted and overburdened. Ernie came along for the first day to advise on their primitive outdoor kitchen. We drove back down that night, I gave a ride to another trainee in the morning, and then settled in for training.

My colleagues are awesome.

We had trainings on handling mandatory reporting, safety with fire, knives, bows and arrows, and how to make fiery magic tricks. We had trainings on traditional handicrafts like spinning, knitting, and finger-knitting easy enough to teach 4-year-olds. We had meetings of groups who will be coordinating the camps with themes like Middle Earth, Four Elements, Ninja Stealth, Jamey's Magic School Bus Time Machine, Wilderness Survival, and School of Magic. We hung around by the campfire and made music, had a Dr Horrible Sing-Along Blog viewing with 40 people singing along, celebrated a birthday, and slept in tipis or under the stars. Staff from the Bay Area came up and shared little fragments of their lives with us, and returned with a skin-on-frame canoe to use in programming.

The capper was a 2-hour silent hike / stealth game / foam-arrow 'tag' / bear-, elk-, and cougar-tracking adventure. We never did learn the entire shape of the game, just went out in groups with some of the competent team coordinators and practiced silent communication and quiet awareness. Got muddy, hid in ferns, met the traces of large and small creatures, and got yelled at a lot by birds and squirrels. There's something humbling about being among the first people to crush a patch of oxalis and pathfinder, and knowing you will have the chance to share this delicate understorey with hundreds of children over the summer.

I came back to town relaxed and centered, and much more aware of the grittiness of concrete and traffic that surrounds my daily life.

So when the time came to take my prepared printouts, and make the childcare-providers class, I was cheerful and confident.
I invited them to role-play teaching each activity to each other, whether as adults or as children of the ages they supervise. We had a marvelous session, with everyone contributing ideas for fathers-day projects as well as learning plenty of new paper crafts. We even invented a Jumping Tadpole, which is easier to make and jumps farther than the best Jumping Frog that I was able to find online.

It's a pleasure to work with each other cooperatively, instead of trying to guard some kind of superior place! I like being a facilitator much better than a lecturer.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Trees With Wings

We got back from our most recent (and delightful) workshop to discover some tantalizing paperwork from Social Security, suggesting that Ernie's claim is moving forward faster than expected.
Then I checked his account online, and a deposit Monday confirmed it. Still waiting for the official award letter, so we don't know what monthly amount to expect.

From juggling pre-employment costs and part-time jobs, to planning for long-postponed repairs and projects.

We've weathered some tough times these past few years. I hope we can make the transition to relative luxury with equal luck, before we buckle down to fixed-income living again.

So far we're still giddy, and trying not to make any firm decisions until reality sets in. It's weird not to have to choose between printer ink and the electric bill. I have started harping on 'boat part equivalencies' just to keep in the habit. ("Two large pizzas is worth about 3 quarts of epoxy, go ahead and order it, but not too often.") I sound like Erma Bombeck.

He wants to pay to get my teeth fixed. I want to see the official award letter before we spend any of it.

But the basics we've already lined out:
1) Pay off all outstanding debts.
2) Get the car repaired and tuned up, current on all its maintenance.
3) Start planning the big-boat building project that's been Ernie's goal for years.

Trees With Wings is the phrase that we came up with, on a trip to the coast last year.
(This seems to be the only 'trees with wings' currently on the internet, so I'll be looking into business names soon. Cool art, but nothing like the image we plan to use:

Another is "The Lifeboat Project."

The idea: To create a blue-water sailboat, live aboard, and use the boat as a platform for education programs, disaster relief, and small scale cargo or charters. To use the building, outfitting, and operations of the vessel as educational opportunities, and strengthen links between coastal communities for a resilient future.

The boat: a 40+ foot sailing catamaran, capable of transporting cargo, crew, or serving as a 'mothership' for maritime education adventures. Also capable of beaching in remote areas to assist with disaster relief, wild foods harvesting, or serve as a floating field hospital.

Building it ourselves seems necessary to suit Ernie's 2-meter height and special needs (like handholds and fewer steps).
That means we need about a 50' shed, at least 20' wide (the whole thing, assembled, is 25' wide, but we can build the parts indoors and then assemble them outdoors).
And lots of plywood and epoxy.
(Ernie ran the numbers, and it looked to him like traditional wooden boats required too much old-growth wood. Not environmentally sustainable without dedicated forest lands, given the lifetime and maintenance of the boats. With regret, since we love them, we are not likely to build a traditional wooden boat in the near future unless we can salvage most or all of the wood. We salvaged about 90% of the Tari's wood, and are adding higher-grade fiberglass and epoxy before registering her for this year's festivals.)

From a question of 'will it ever be possible,' it's become a question of, 'Where do we build it?' Do we go up to Ernie's dad's remote mountain cabin, for his invaluable help to speed and smooth the build?
Do we stay between Portland and Seattle, where Erica's family and our current circle of acquaintances would be delighted to be involved (including several very competent boatbuilders)?
Do we lodge ourselves with the friends who have the best available barn or Quonset hut, near the coast, or the other friends with on-site milling of custom Port Orford cedar?

Such pleasant questions to consider.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who wears the apron around here anyway?

“What you have to understand,” Ernie said, “is that I’m basically the wife here.”
“I can’t drive, can’t work in the areas I know. I can sometimes cook, and keep the house warm & tidy. I’m basically here to support you. You can do whatever you want to do, and come home to a nice place. So, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, “I’ve been asking myself that for years.”

‘What if I want to be the wife?’ I thought to myself.
‘What if I want to stay home, raise babies, putter away at hobbies and home-made fixes? ‘What if I get sick, or have a complicated pregnancy, and can’t work?’

I was raised in an era between two worlds. So I have examples for how to be a housewife, an equal partner, or a high-flying career-woman. It’s not the lack of choice that makes it difficult – it’s the plentitude of choices, and the differences between all these examples.

My grandmother or mother might work, and be proud of her work – yet her work would rarely pay as highly as her husband’s uninterrupted career. In my grandmother’s time, the wife rarely worked outside the home after marriage. In my mother’s time (and still), two-income families are the norm.

But to raise a family on one income, in this era, and that income (wince) mine?

My maternal grandmother was widowed while her six children were still in school (the oldest in college, the youngest eight years old). She supported them on a lab tech’s wages, and enjoyed the work. She put all but the youngest through college before becoming ill herself, and succumbing to pancreatic cancer at age 59.

“Body-Talk” medicine lists the pancreas as the seat of worry, of the kind of intellect that is implicated in “thinking too much.”

My paternal grandmother worked from her early school graduation at age 16, until her marriage at … 22? And then had her hands full raising four children in 27 different houses. Her husband kept them constantly on the move, working a series of well-paid but temporary jobs on the big hydropower construction projects then transforming the West. One of my uncles later suggested he could have made more money by staying at one job until the work was almost over and they promoted the last few people to higher ranks, but he was never willing to risk being out of work, so he’d always move on before the jobs got scarce.

My mother worked while I was very young, then stayed home for about ten years. When her youngest entered kindergarten, she trained as a teacher. My father worked this whole time, but got laid off about the time she was finishing her masters. So we lived on her income for a while, while he tried to start a business, then went to work for another employer. The stress of that period contributed to their eventual divorce. She continues to work in the same school years later, taking pride and satisfaction in doing excellent work. Her students return to visit her year after year.

I’ve met farm couples who worked together as a team, to all appearances happy. She “does the books,” fixes meals, he does a bit more of the outdoor work and mechanical repairs, but they both go into the field together to round up the big herd, or into town together to arrange the big sale. But that was in New Zealand. Is it still possible here? Or have earthy farm families been de-stabilized by the combination of corporate farming, women’s lib, and antagonistic intergenerational politics?

There was a time when I would have loved to find a man willing to play the supporting role. I could have a career, and kids too… and perhaps, if I were very lucky, avoid having to do dishes or housework ever again. Or at least until Saturday.

But in the meanwhile, I’ve lost track of my career.
I have no steady income – only part-time and temporary gigs. The idea of supporting us, when I don’t know where I’m going myself, frightens me more than the role reversal.

I’ve worked here and there, summer jobs in construction and architecture, five years as a full-time science educator, résumé filler material includes book credits and R & D work. Under the influence of niggling dissatisfaction (my younger siblings married out from under me, I stopped moving up in the education hierarchy, and work had begun to feel routine), I cut loose. For over a year, I did nothing ordinary: traveled most of the way around the world, made wedding cakes, did migrant farm work in NZ, and travel writing. On returning to Oregon, I investigated sustainable businesses in Portland. I had almost made my mind up to find a for-profit, “practical” business that did sustainable work, when I stepped sideways into a not-for-profit job and a part-time role as my grandmother’s caregiver. I continued working on writing, education, and graphics projects – but my main considerations were family and community, not career.

I met Ernie through non-profit community work. He was handsome and winsome, and mutual friends spoke highly of him. Then he was hit by a car going 40mph. By the time he got out of the hospital we were pretty well attached. When the insurance money ran out, we financed another year or two of his recovery with pot-luck fund-raisers, candy sales, and freelance work with various outdoor and hands-on skills groups.
The drama of this phase of ‘my’ life story has become focused around Ernie: his injury, his frustrated ambitions, his dreams. He wants a boat. He needs to figure out whether he can work enough to get by, or whether he can qualify for Social Security at age 42. And oh, yes, one of his ambitions is to make me happy.

So what would make me happy?

And, incidentally, provide enough income to cover the costs of living, health insurance, and starting a new family?

If I only knew…

If I knew now what I will know later, what would I do?

Stop worrying, and try something.

The first part of this essay was originally written in 2008. Those 'part-time and temporary gigs' have increased to a steady trickle of workshops, hands-on science and craft classes, and project-based work with TrackersNW, PSU, Tualatin Hills Park & Rec, and other local groups. I still sometimes feel like a fool for not putting it all aside for a full-time job – but hey, with the current economy, the jobs I want have hundreds of applicants, and I'm enjoying the work I do already.

Somehow, this spring, it kind of kicked over into “Hey, I'm running a business.” Getting tax advice (from Ernie's retired-accountant stepmother). Learning about SEO (search engine optimization) and promotion, especially word-of-mouth and Internet buzz. (Thanks, Paul.) Getting ready to open an online 'store' for selling plans. Working on freelance curriculum to be published by TOPS, and getting some art commissions as well. People who we respect highly, are referring to us as the best experts in rocket mass heaters – and while the resulting interest is mostly requests for free advice on, it's still flattering, and we are getting calls for actual workshops and consultations from all over North America, and increasingly from Europe, Latin America, and Down Under.

It doesn't quite pay the bills yet, but Ernie has finally started following up on the disability claims he started to file in 2006. So our hope is, that I can continue building this business into something that keeps us productive and happy, while Ernie chips in as he can and takes as much time as he needs to keep his leg up. We had a great conversation with Paul Wheaton a few days ago that turned into this 2 hour rocket mass heater podcast, but then yesterday the weather crashed down and it is all Ernie can do to be civil while seeking distractions from the pain.

He's blown through two pairs of VA-issued aluminum elbow crutches already. They say he's using them too much. So he's looking at building his own, rather than go back every couple of months to face ridicule over needing a third pair. The man has a hard time sitting still! (He literally paces on the phone, which is amusing to watch, with the two arm crutches and juggling a tiny cell in his large paws. So if he drops your call accidentally, now you know.) It's part and parcel of his amazing physical intelligence, and the frustration of this injury that he handles with such good humor.

We're looking forward to our out-of-town trip, and to steadier summer weather that will allow Ernie to better predict his daily energy. That might be a good topic for when I get back – Ernie and Erica on the road.

Monday, April 25, 2011

clean, sustainable wood burning

It's getting into that in-between season where I think I'm gonna get a lot done, and then the weather turns crappy and Ernie gets cranky and I can barely drag myself out of bed.

We're about to go do a site visit for the Rocket Mass Heaters workshop coming up May 13-15, so this might be an excellent time to point y'all toward some tidbits about what a Rocket Mass Heater is and does. The good news is, the new workshop is in a much larger space than This Rocket Mass Heater Workshop so your view should be better.

Or maybe you just would like to see cool videos of burny things.

Our friend Paul has come up with a 'portable rocket mass heater' (which, by the way, we were firmly convinced was a contradiction in terms). He arranged for it to be transported by bicycle, and set up in about an hour, for the Earth Day festival in Missoula. Pretty neat!

This and a bunch of other cool videos, some with us in them, are at:

Search on 'rocket stoves' or 'rocket mass heaters' or better yet, Ernie and Erica.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

... The Adventure Continues ...

New blog, but this feels like the middle of the story.

There was birth, and formative years, and careers.

There was the year when both of us turned our lives upside-down, coincidentally - mine dutifully recorded in the travel journal 'Ecca', Ernie's a retreat to an utterly off-the-record life outside Coquille.

There was when we met, at VBC 2006, and ended up courting in the orthopedic trauma ward. Friends of Ernie Wisner

There was the wedding.

And in conventional formulae, that marks the dramatic conclusion.
Girl gets proposal. Boy gets girl. Happily ever after.

So perhaps this is, in a sense, The Future.

Welcome to the metaphysical time that continues after The End, after the crisis, after the honeymoon.

Welcome to real life with Ernie and Erica.