Friday, October 18, 2019

Work is play

Be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play. -- Alan Watts

Strictly speaking, Buddhist samu is communal labor toward the construction and maintenance of the monastery, zen center, or hermitage, or toward some helpful outcome in the wider community, such as building a bridge to help people cross a dangerous river. Samu is also dana, or giving. Working for family is generally held not to count. 

(A separate issue is work that is wage slavery or actual slavery; work that is good work is not compelled.)

In the course of a lay Ango in the midst of modern life, samu is wherever you find it, including working for yourself or family, as the mindfulness is paramount, just as with meditation. 

I was raised on the notion of self-sufficiency: "no work, no eat (this is also a Zen saying)," not merely as a form of selfishness, but by doing my share, or sometimes more than my share, of the things that must be done, benefit society by at least not being a burden to it.

Which is great when you're thirty and bursting with energy, but by seventy, some of us are dead, some of us are immobile, some of us can't remember who we are, and nearly all of us are beginning to produce work that is beginning to be a bit lopsided. Where better for the elderly half-time hermit to do samu than within the family, where the effort can hopefully be appreciated without too much criticism of the outcome? But when called upon to do a thing, one does the best one can.

Raising or preparing food, with the object of feeding family but also producing gift baskets for others, is pretty obvious samu, and very much in line with monastic work. Dogen famously gave detailed instructions for the monastery head cook, but also for the head gardener. Masonry and carpentry are only mentioned by implication in most texts, as in "a monastery was constructed." 

Daughter bought a house in a very walkable section of town not too long ago, with the encouragement of the rest of us, to build her equity but also, as she put it, provide a place for the oldtimers (Beloved and me) to die of old age, and for her alter-abled brother to have somewhere to live if we all predecease him.

Stony Run Farm is an acre with run-down buildings and will certainly be too much for us before very long -- in the best case we have less than ten years left here, and whoever takes it on after us will have their hands full. The house should be razed and replaced for safety's sake. None of the kids plans to undertake this. The acre was sold to us with the understanding that the house was a total loss, and it still is. On our budget, what kept us well and happy here was our somewhat haphazard homesteading skills, the most haphazard of which were carpentry, plumbing, and electrical.

I have been working (haphazardly, of course) at Daughter's to prepare us all for the transition. The little house is sound (for a change) but tiny, with scant storage. The lot, a fifth of an acre, came with grass and blackberries mainly, and this in a neighborhood where all the neighboring homes have beautiful landscapes -- achieved mostly by mounding up earth and planting on the humps -- the water table is right at the surface of the ground, at least in winter and spring.

I have the run of the yard, so I drew up a tiny sketch of what to do and am pretty much on schedule. 

The carport is now gone. Trees planted the first year are shown in green, those planted the third year are shown in red. Future rain barrels are blue. The greenhouse, chicken pen, and garden beds along the back (north) fence have not yet appeared.

So, after getting the blackberries under control, I'm planting fruit and nut trees hither and yon, and preparing to do some raised bed gardening for the first time.

Making tree boxes at Stony Run
Siting tree boxes at La Finca (name of the new place) and planting fruit trees
I'll be in need of a new hermitage, of course, and am converting the old dark, leaky wooden tool shed for the purpose. It's nine by eleven, so actually has more floor space than Gogo-an. But the floor is asphalt. Much to do.

Lumber for my projects is courtesy of the rotten carport that had to come down.
Beds are constructed between tree boxes and are slowly filling up with compost.
Windows that have been lying around for decades are appearing in tool shed walls.
Steel shed in background is beyond repair, we think, and will be replaced with something.
Leftover paint from the house is used to match the house paint scheme. Salvaged door was too tall for the door frame so I simply suspended it from two two-by-fours nailed on.
I found a tiny Guanyin at a thrift for two bucks.
She has some fingers missing, so I have appointed her as shop steward.
The hut will be called Manzoku-an. Nobody likes the name but me, as they find it a tongue twister, but it suits me: Hut of Contentment. Contentment is thought dangerous in Zen, as there is a struggle-ish onward-and-upward aspect to practice, but things are already what they are, yes? When you're seventy, just sitting in the shade watching an apple drop can be pretty damned good practice. So Manzoku-an it is.

Currently, I'm enclosing the back "porch," at least the part where the concrete slab is, for increased storage and activity space. It's not really a room, as there's plenty of airflow at top and bottom, but more a hey-burglars-you-don't-see-what's-in here space. 

Plywood is up, scrap window installed, exterior primer applied (just ahead of a storm).

Room is ell-shaped, wrapped around an entryway, to permit access for the meter reader.

Bright and airy, suitable for storage, shop work, and maybe cider making. It certainly helps that there was already a roof!
 After all this, maybe a greenhouse/shadehouse behind Manzoku-an. Yah? Because, as some say, work is play.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

In my case, anyway

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
-- Shitou (tr. Leighton and Tanahashi)

Why it's relatively quiet around here is I'm doing my first Ango. It's a three month retreat, ninety or one hundred days traditionally, dating back to the rainy season retreat of Buddha and the arhats 2500 years ago. I suspect I'm not physically up to doing such a thing in a monastery, and anyway most of those are in other countries, and I have travel and stay concerns, some relating to my identity as female.

Also the part-time hermit life was excellent preparation for Ango, because nearly all of what one commits to was already on my docket. But there's always that last bit -- to escape from between the millstones of one's preferences. If you love solitude and your little hut too much you will find that you're really just hiding.

Fortunately for the likes of me, there are alternatives.

One is Treeleaf, an online zendo based in Tsukuba, Japan, with adherents all over the planet. I can sit with sangha members from Ukraine, Mexico, Canada, Thailand, Brazil, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and North Carolina. My teacher here in Oregon suggested I look into it, and this has gone well. Treeleaf's "summer rains retreat" is in the fall, ninety days leading up to Rohatsu in December.

Treeleaf is well suited to persons somewhat isolated (check), differently abled (check), socially challenged (check), and best of all for me, the very nearly deaf (check) (headphones). It's a match.

In their Ango one undertakes to intensify practice, sitting longer and more frequently, reporting one's activities to one's Ango partner (mine lives in the Midwest, so the time zones are not too much of a stretch) and attending online meetings about practice, the precepts, zazen, and how it's going. It's useful to have the online forum to go to with frustrations and concerns, and to be encouraged by so many others. So much for hermit life!

Time is divided between zazen, Ango meetings, sewing (which is certainly part of a Treeleaf Ango)

and Samu (work time) -- much of which is whatever I was doing on the farm anyway. Today it was chimney repair and roof sealing. The rest has been house interior painting, harvesting, and putting foods by.

What has been different about the work is that I've learned to pause just before setting to, putting my hands in gassho, and repeating a "work gatha:"

May this work be done in a spirit of generosity,
Not driven by ego, greed, or delusion.
May kindness sustain us and prevail,
And compassion guide us and lead us to understanding.
May we rejoice in the success of others.
And remain unmoved by praise or blame. 

Doesn't, so far as I can tell, hurt to do this. Seems to help. In my case, anyway. _()_

Monday, August 26, 2019

Reach for a cold switchel

I’d be happy with this summer if it’s all we ever had. ― Maggie Stiefvater, Shiver

Today it will be 85F -- not bad for around here -- tomorrow 100, the next day 95, and then, I think, fall comes.

We have gotten away with a lot this summer, here in western Oregon, compared to so many other places. The breezes came almost entirely off the ocean, with moisture that tempered the temporary drought we always have. For the last three or four years we had more than temporary; the earth cracked, many trees died, gardens were nearly impossible. I suspect there will be more of that, so this summer, with so many days peaking at 80, may become a treasured memory.

We here at Stony Run have worked hard over the years, as the June through September sunlight seemed to be intensifying, to mitigate the heat without air conditioning. Our first move, in the 90s, was to paint the blue house white, inside and out.

We planted shade trees right away. These incidentally get to be part of the orchard as well.

The general rule in our hemisphere, temperate zone is, deciduous trees on the south, east and west, conifers as a windbreak on the north, but most of our summer winds in this valley are from the north and winter winds from the southeast, so ... whatever. Anyway, shade!

Then we caulked, doubled-paned the windows (with vinyl), and insulated above, all around, and below.

Much of this was done to adapt a sixty-year old house to winter -- which worked, as our wood consumption dropped from almost five cords to more usually three, although some of that was the increase in warm winters. But it also helped us toward that tried-and-true Oregonian habit of opening the windows and doors and running fans at night in the summer, trapping cool marine-flow air, and closing up during the day.

Great, but our night air is warmer than it used to be.

Our next move was to grow hops vines on the house, for yet more shade. These are taken down every winter, allowing sun to reach the siding and air to circulate.

We then painted the roof of the house (as well as of all the outbuildings). This made a startling difference -- ten to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, all by itself. At the time I understood it might help with the earth's albedo, but that turned out to be complicated, as so many things do. There, I may be benefiting myself and harming others, as I would with A/C.

There's a downside to the white roof, especially near tall trees (those shown here have grown), which is that it has to be maintained a lot. I'm about 63 in the photo and 70 now, so ... oh, well. A better solution might be to install solar panels, but this roof won't support them without a rebuild and they are still out of my price range. I wonder, too, about the embodied environmental costs of a solar power system.

We added shades on the outside of windows.

These are coffee sacks, one dollar each from a nice coffee shop in town. I've since basted material from old white sheets onto these, and painted the south and west facing trim white.

Friends offered us a little frame utility building to tear down, and we used the lumber to enclose the front porch. It faces east, not a big problem area, but this was our chance to further insulate the outer living room wall by making it into an interior wall.

So, were we able to prevent buying an A/C unit?


A recent summer went into the 90s and hung there, 92, 95, 97, 94, 90, 93, on and on, and the night temperatures began to climb as well. Trapped air was no longer the golden solution, and the hundreds of square yards of whiteness, while a great help, ultimately could not keep the dark interior of the house from reaching the 80s by evening.

I ran down to the everything store to buy a unit and they were sold out. Other people had walked in, sweating, and were asking the same question as I. A glance toward the entrance told me many more were coming -- a stampede was on.

A/C had been regarded, in our valley, as optional for as long as anyone could remember, and we were all caught flat-footed by the new regime. At my fifth store I found a little window machine (cheaply made overseas), installed it, and ran it, feeling guilty and defeated. But you can only stand in a cold shower for so long.

I don't like having to have the thing here, but there it is. What we would have done without it, I dunno -- maybe go to nearby Fall Creek:

Much of this has vanished along Fall Creek, alas.

But the Jones Fire pretty much burned up the Fall Creek recreation zone (and then there was the record snow, which smashed a lot of the weakened trees) so a lot of it's not open to this day.

Many go to the coast when it gets bad, but we have chickens to take care of.

This machine was rated for one room, not a whole house, so we hung old sheets in all the doorways, making the living room into our summer camp. The dining room, where the wood heat stove lives, is our winter camp, and sometimes we sheet up in there for cold snaps -- down to ten below zero, say.

People of means in our neighborhood have been installing ground-effect heat pumps. We aren't people of means. And what do we all do when the power goes off?

This year Stony Run has been able to get along on windows-and-doors combined with sheets. Who knows what next year will bring? I don't -- but I don't like the odds.

It's 65 in here right now, while outside it's 82 and climbing. While I can, I think I will go cut some willow foliage and layer it over the fall garden. Then come back in and reach for a cold switchel.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Remember to thank your trees and vines

So, everybody, keep calm and drink cider. -- Gabe Cook

"Putting food by" is the title of a good book, of which I have an old hardbound copy. I don't get it down from the shelf much any more, as I'm not doing a wide enough range of food preservation nowadays to need to look things up. But there was a time.

I do still keep a hand in, out of habit. This year I have skipped veg leaf dehydration mostly, as there is so much of the product on hand from previous years.

I am freezing blackberries, though it's not been a good year. Those exposed to the sun have shriveled, so I'm looking in the shade to find plump keepers.

I also freeze figs, of which there were a bumper crop this year; no one around here tolerates frozen figs but me but I like them with yogurt or hotcakes. My son asked me to dry some for a traditional Christmas pudding he wants to make.

He also wants dried pears, so I have put some on "ripening watch" for this.

Pears ripen after picking typically. I like to prep them on the apple peeler corer slicer, but there is a narrow window between not ripe and too ripe to run, so they need to be checked daily.

I have dried a lot of apples in the past, and most of those, in a number of half gallon bags and gallon jars, are skulking in the cold room. Again, I like them and other family members don't, so with the inventory so high I'm limited to making apple butter and juicing.

For apple butter I introduce the picked apples to the Victorio first.

Then to the crock pot. When it's filled up half way I chuck in a jar lidful of cinnamon powder and a jar lidful of nutmeg powder -- used to include cloves but not as into that any more -- and about half a cup of honey, then top off with apples, mounded high.

For the apple butter, choose one variety so that it will cook down evenly. I always go with Gravenstein because that is our first tree to come in; in July the last few years but August this year.

Mash the apple slices with a potato masher when they begin to soften, then stir. I keep the lid on the mounded apples and as they cook down it eventually lands in its seat on the cooker; but I hang a found-object metal bracket over the side of the cooker to keep the lid ajar, to let steam escape. The more steam escapes, the thicker the apple butter. For apple sauce, leave out the spices and take the product a little thinner; but round here everyone eats the apple butter and leaves the applesauce on the shelf; so now that is all I make.

For pear butter, which has come into the lineup only in recently years due to the late maturing of the pear trees, much the same as above, only with ginger and lemon or lime juice concentrate in place of the cinnamon and nutmeg.

Empty nesters, we used to jar this stuff by the quart but prefer small jars nowadays; a typical batch makes six pints.

After the apple butter comes juicing season. it's good to use a variety of apples to make apple cider, to get that complex flavor. For us that means whatever is left of the Gravensteins along with Cortlands, Egremont Russets, Honeycrisps and Jonagolds. There are others but we've forgotten their names. Our Granny Smiths don't participate, as they come in very late, often November/December.

Over time, we've come to appreciate an even more complex flavor called by us "Medley," which means whatever the heck is ripe. Pears of three kinds to the point where it's almost perry. If blackberries run late, they go into the hopper, along with quinces, plums, and four varieties of grape. We have cherries, goumis, peaches, apricots and nectarines but they run too early in the year and are too popular eaten fresh to hold (frozen, say) for the medley run.

My method (it's always me) is rather crude. I dedicate a leaf shredder to this work, slice everything up as needed and feed it into the hopper, fill a five gallon bucket with the pulp, pour this out into a burlap bag or sheet, hoist this above a clean bin and let gravity do the rest.

There's always more, from about two wheelbarrows full of fruit, than we can drink in a year. I make a very simple cider -- open a jar of medley, throw in a pinch of wine yeast, put on a hole punched lid, let it foam up a bit, and stick it in the fridge. Use within the week before it goes off. We give away more than half the canned juice -- much of which comes back to us as kombucha in exchange for eggs.

Egremont Russets

The assembly line

Strain into jars

Off to the water bath and from there to the shelves

To the feathered go the spoils

Come winter, remember to thank your trees and vines.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Put your feet up

"On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree." ― W.S. Merwin

So, about that one trillion trees. (Not there's any place left to put most of them, but already I digress.)

My dad raised me in the 1950s to think of the woods as my natural habitat. Everything was about knowing species, how to avoid copperheads, find muscadines, using pine pitch, handling axes, building firepits, using map and compass, living in tents, knotting ropes, whittling tent stakes.

At thirteen I spent a week in a self-built wigwam-type structure in a swamp in the dead of winter, chopping ice from a creek frozen to its bed and melting the water. In the 1960s I was for a time a park and cemetery landskeeper, learning to keep lawns, shrubbery and planted saplings happy.

When I was eighteen I wanted to go to Berry College and go into the Forest Service, but as a fairly severely hearing impaired person, had always found math classes difficult to follow, and the forestry degree had a lot of math, so I studied anthropology instead, at Georgia State, my local school, then did the hippie thing, dropped out, farmed for awhile on a loosely Huttterite-affiliated commune, then headed for Oregon.
That was where trees became the big thing once again. For ten years, about half of every year, I planted 325,000 trees, thinned trees, counted trees, protected trees, and put out fires in trees for a living in the forests of the Northwest -- not as a ranger, as I had long before envisioned, but as a member of a labor cooperative. 325,000 sounds impressive to most, but I was a part-timer. Many of my friends were in the million tree club.

Yes, this was almost all monoculture in the service of industrial extraction but we still felt righteous about it. We thought the money was good, too.

There's potential for permanent lumbar strain in such a lifestyle, and eventually in the late 80s, I went back to school and simultaneously re-careered as a manager in a state university library. I'm now retired from public service, and have been enjoying my twilight years.

Trees still call to me. On the home acre, I've encouraged and coppiced ash, willow, hazel and maple, and planted forty-four fruit and nut trees. At Daughter's new home, which she sees as the place where I'll gently fade away, about half that many.

It's getting harder to keep seedlings and saplings alive through the first two summers, so I'm not doing as much of this as I could have, decades ago when there was something more like a water table. But what is there better to do in any kind of end times? Would you rather be memorialized by a carved rock or a living thing?

Nothing expresses hope in the midst of hopelessness better than limbs and leaves stretching up toward the sun from roots. So, let's have a go, volunteers!

Fruit trees from nurseries are nice and all, and provide food and drink, but at the outset can be prohibitively expensive for some, along with the urban water bill.

If you can set out and maintain bare-root or balled three-to-five year old fruit trees (or ornamental or shade trees) where you are, that's good; lots of information is available on how to do this, or you could join (or start) an organization like Friends of Trees that does this type of planting in public places in cooperation with cities, counties and so on. Some organizations will supply free trees to local groups if there's an assurance the planted trees will receive aftercare.

You might also look into grafting or rooting cuttings; I've not proved good at this but it's certainly a wonderful skill; you could find yourself much in demand and even re-career. (!!)

Or just go find some seedlings that are begging to be relocated, and find some places where it is permitted to put them, or, if you're comfortable with this, just do it.

Be it noted, here in these northern latitudes, this is winter work. Reforesters used to start in November, after the first ten inches of rain, and work through to March (or June in the high Rockies).

Now, sometimes, March is what we get. Nurseries that used to send out bare-root trees to places like BiMart (our local worker-owned retailer) in November now often wait till the last week of February. This creates a short or even practically nonexistent planting window. Dormant trees survive relocation better, and in March many of them have already awakened. But we go with what we can get. If there's no rain, we water the trees until their roots are established (and sometimes after that). While the water table holds out.

Seedlings can be quite small, bare-root, plug-reared, or potted. It seems like you could just dig a hole and pop them in, but a bit of finesse will help.

First, try for rain and clouds. Rain and clouds are good for seedlings; sunshine and wind kill microrootlets, so if I'm out on a sunny winter day I may hold a seedling briefly in my own shadow, on my downwind side, before getting it from my bag into the prepared hole.

In our area, roadsides, vacant lots, fields and ditches that are going to be mowed or sprayed will sprout bigleaf maples, ash, wild cherry, cottonwood, willow, Douglas fir and the like on a regular basis. These tend to survive relocating at a pretty good rate. (Oaks not so much. Where those have come up I have flagged them to protect them from mowing, but that's about it.)

I assume you have a shovel or spade or mattock. If not, they are good and cheap at thrifts. Mine is a leftover from my professional treeplanting days.
This image is about the shovel. You will not need such a large
 hole for a seedling. OTOH a larger hole may be required for a sapling.

With small enough seedlings, or with seeds, a sharpened walkstaff might be enough.

You could even buy a "hoedad," which is a fabulous all-around tool designed for this work. It might be necessary to get the blade, bracket and handle separately; you'll end up with a wonderful thing. Videos are available to show how to use it, as well as your shovel, to best advantage.

A canvas -- if you can find one -- shopping bag from the supermarkets' nod to plastic reduction will do for seedling transport; consider cutting each handle at the opposite end from the other and sewing them together at the ends to make a shoulder strap. In use, keep the canvas moist or consider rolling your babies in wet newspaper. Go out with tiny trees, come back with forage. This can be a great way to hunt mushrooms or nettles, for example.

At your rain-dampened permitted (or guerilla) selected site, with fertile-looking soil and perhaps partial shade, clear away a foot-wide patch of grasses and forbs down to mineral soil, open a hole ten inches deep, yet narrow (avoiding air pockets), slot the little tree in without bending the roots upwards, tamp the hole closed, give the tree's leader a little tug to make sure it's not too loose, find something -- a stick or stone will do -- to shade the vulnerable root collar of your baby tree on the south side (or north in the southern hemisphere), and move on. If you're only doing a few trees or are close to civilization, you may bring some compost, mulch and water along and "garden" your treelets, but if you're out in the boonies in the rain with production on your mind (some of us used to plant a thousand Douglas firs a day), well, the scalp, whack, slot, step, tug and move on will do.

My mom tries out my hoedad, 1977
Look for stumps, slash and the like and "microsite" your babies on the north side of things (in this hemisphere) to take advantage of that shade for better survivals.

It's okay to plant an area "tight-by" such as six or eight feet in each direction. Some trees will not live, and this will widen the spacing somewhat. Any tree that lives will offer shade to the one just north of it, and they seem to like one another's company -- whichever one finds symbiotic mycorrhizae will share them along the rootways. Amazing stuff goes on in the half of the forest that is below ground and you want to promote that.

You could also get into germinating or just planting seeds. Most of my experience with seeds is all about vegetables, but many tree species plant well from seed, either directly or after stratification. Acorns are fairly easy to work with and the earth could certainly use more oak trees.

There, you've done something nice for the world and probably not had partisan or media vitriol poured on you, or worse, for your activism. Go home, make yourself some tea and put your feet up.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Sun and shade or morning mist

There comes ... a longing never to travel again except on foot. ― Wendell Berry

When possible, and other things permitting, I get out and walk. Today will be over 90F, but this morning was nice.

For years I had a walking companion, a cairn terrier named Toto, who once walked seven miles with me. We took a celebratory selfie.

Over the last year we were limited to going about a block and back and then, one day, he could not walk at all. My walks are longer now and I keep an eye out for flowers for his grave.

When the plant is useful, like chicory, I may also gather leaves or seeds. Generally I carry pruners and a bag or pack, and watch out for any kind of seasonal forage (and also pick up trash) wherever I go. In high summer, some folks set up a put-and-take table by the mailbox, and so I stop by the garden and orchard to gather some "put" to leave at the table and then "take."

You might make a bag from a cotton flour sack or old canvas shopping bag. In the case of the flour sack, cut out a "c" shape at one end and put an overcast stitch along the edges. In the case of the shopping bag, the kind with two cloth handles, cut each handle from the bag at opposite ends and stitch the ends to each other, for a shoulder bag.

Around here, roadside or vacant lot forage might include, in season, dandelions, chicory, nettles, deadnettle, blackberries, apples, pears, rose hips, firewood (sometimes dropped from overloaded trucks), St. John's wort, usefully shaped stones, salvageable bottles, willow leaves, maple flowers, plums, clover, fresh soil from gopher diggings, or horsetails.

Locally, we have quite a range of walking opportunities, including underutilized parks,

deep forests,

cobbled riversides,

uncrowded seashores,

and quiet mountaintops.

I'm willing to take advantage of those, but to me, the most fulfilling hikes are the ones that begin from my front door. The hat, stick and bag (with pruners and some water) hang in the mudroom, close to where my shoes or clogs await. What will I see ... what will I carry home? Often the tea that I make and drink, later in the day, has walked home with me from elsewhere in this valley's sun and shade or morning mist.