Building An Earthship In Darfield, B.C.

We are a family of five living in Darfield, BC.
Our house is six hundred square feet in total and we are feeling cramped.

We have decided to build an earthship!

So starts the adventure ...

Friday, May 22, 2009

DIY hair removal...

Many of you who follow our blog will recall that during late winter I began cutting the kids' and Chris' hair. I am happy to report that round #2 on the men's hair was entirely satisfactory. I am getting better with the clippers and with layering the top to blend with the buzzed sides and back.

Round #2 on the girls was not too bad, but we are still waiting for Katie's hair to grow out a bit more so I can even up most of it with a chunk I cut too short on one side.

Earlier this week I went to Crysti for a hair cut and colour (just can't quite bring myself to do it myself). Crysti Summers has been cutting and colouring my (and the girls') hair for the last 10 years. She didn't seem too upset when I told her earlier this year that I'd taken on the girls' dos. In fact, she gave me some great tips!

She's also been ripping out my eyebrows for about a decade, too. Brow waxing is something I've had done since beginning my PR career in Toronto in 1990. To me it's like going to the dentist for teeth cleaning; the procedure is bearable but unenjoyable but you feel much sleeker afterwards.

About 12 years ago my sister-in-law bought her own pot of wax and began doing her own eyebrows. I have always wanted to try but wondered if I'd be able to stand it; I'm one of those people who has to give myself a pep talk before peeling off a band-aid. And, I will often convince myself that a slowly removed bandage surely won't hurt as much...

In February we celebrated my birthday (which was actually in January, but with sick kids, sick Sandra...you get the picture). During my dinner out in Kamloops I popped into Chatters, a beauty supply store, to check out hair cutting supplies. Lo and behold, there was a waxing pot and all the paraphernalia to professionally remove ANY unwanted hair. On the spur of the moment, I gifted myself. To the tune of $145 taxes in. I figured at $15 a pop going to Crysti, I could justify the expense in just over a year, if I used the wax once a month. And, with two girls in the house, this might be a really frugal purchase!!

Before anyone accuses me of not supporting my local salon, I am not a big money maker for Crysti. I've watched women go through her salon and they get the whole schmoo done: nails, face, hair (cut and colour) and then pop into the tanner. I tend to get so busy that I forget that my hair is scraggly and that my grey is popping out all over the place. If I see her every two months I'd be surprised... (O.k. I DO feel guilty, but my desire to keep this "mostly retired" scenario possible is overcoming it little by little. I like NOT working right now!)

And, please realize that it's taken me four months to gather up the courage to blog about this very personal topic; I'd be happy if people thought I never had my hair coloured or my brows waxed! I have this fear that everyone I know will now be flicking their eyes up when they talk to me at the kids' ball practice, or at a 4-H meeting to see the state of my brows! Hopefully one day I will get an award for sacrificing my personal life in the name of frugal experimentation!

I digress. Pleased to no end I opened all my new stuff the next evening and carefully read the instructions. Once the kids were in bed, I plugged the unit in and popped it to high and waited. And waited, and waited. After 30 minutes it seemed good to go and I turned it down to medium for awhile (as instructed). After a little longer I decided it was time to go for it!

I took my hair clip and clipped my bangs back. Then I took the little popsicle stick and dipped it into the wax. Cool. The wax was silver (a zinc formulation to go easy on my brows) and it looked quite neat. I never knew wax could stretch like mozzarella cheese, though. After I couldn't bring my hand up any higher, I jumped up on the chair and kept going, twirling the stick like spaghetti. Finally I broke the connection to the pot.

After sitting down, I raised the stick to my face, only to foolishly realize that I had no mirror in the kitchen. Twirling the stick, I raced to the bathroom, where resides our only mirror. After bringing my face REALLY close to the mirror I realized I couldn't see my eyebrows very well. I raced to the bedroom and put on my reading glasses. I raced back to the bathroom and put the stick back to my eyebrow. And pulled out a patch of hair from the middle of my head in the process. Crap. Ouch. It's difficult to keep track of that little stick! I pulled the hair out of the wax and tried again only to realize that my glasses were in the way. I pushed them further down my nose and tried yet again. I managed to get a little round ball of wax on the edge of my left eyebrow and no matter what I did I couldn't spread it.

I ran back to the kitchen and grabbed a piece of muslin and pushed it on the wax. Worried now that I wouldn't get the wax off at all, I pulled as hard as I could. I removed three eyebrow hairs...and a patch of skin. Ow!

Chris sat back on the couch looking amused and asked if everything was o.k. Yup, yup, yup. Did I need help with anything? Nope, nope, nope. I surreptitiously pulled a bottle of wine out of the fridge and poured a totful in Helen's Barbie Princess cup. (Covert operations).

I felt the damage. Just a little bleeding. I meandered nonchalantly to the bathroom with Chris' eyes following me (in just 600 square feet you pretty much can feel the pulse of most activities in the house, unfortunately). I surveyed the damage. I ripped the skin WAY below the brow, so I was good to go again.

I went back to the kitchen and dipped the other end of the stick in the pot, too late realizing that I probably wasn't fit (what with the wine and everything) to handle a double ended waxer. I left the stick in the pot, resolving to deal with it when the deed was done. Then a brainwave hit that really should have occurred to me sooner. Move the pot into the bathroom! Right on. I moved the pot, but felt it more prudent to leave the wine in the kitchen.

I felt even smarter when I thought to close the door to the bathroom as the living room has clear access to the bathroom door. O.K. I very carefully applied the wax in a line underneath my left eyebrow, being very careful to miss the bleeding patch. It went on smoothly and looked good. I pressed on the muslin and waited a few seconds. I took a deep breath and pulled. After my eyes stopped watering I took a look, pushing my glasses further up my nose. Not bad. So I did the other eye. I took a deep breath and pulled. Ow! I stomped my foot only to realize just in time that the pot was right underneath it. I managed to hop backwards, but thought it wise to move the pot back to the kitchen.

After several mad dashes between the kitchen and bathroom, I was finished the waxing portion of my ablutions and surveyed the job. Hmmm. A little off kilter. So, with tweezers in hand I started grabbing. It's a lot harder lining up the tweezers to a tiny little hair than you may think. After 20 minutes of tweezing I decided I'd done enough damage and realized if I was lucky at least I wouldn't draw attention to myself with my lopsided brows.

I carefully marked a -$15 on the lid of the box and dated it. I was going to track to see how long it would take me to justify the expense.

March went a whole lot better because I invested in a $5 mirror I could use sitting down. My lines weren't perfect and as my April session came and went I decide the reason it was not up to Crysti's standards was because I wasn't taking ENOUGH off. Like so many things in my life I wasn't COMMITTING.

May rolled around and I set up the pot and the mirror and took a deep breath. I flipped the mirror to the stomach rolling magnification side (reminded me of trying to get into scuba gear in the bottom of the boat, off the shore of Georgian Bay in six foot rolling waves). I start. If you ever want to really know what kind of hell you've put your skin through, examine it on the magnification side of one of these mirrors. Yikes! It's really best not to dwell on it.

The wax flowed freely and I made a very artistic swipe with the stick. Without pausing I press on muslin and pull. Still looking in the magnification side, I do my tweezing finish. Wow, it looked great! Time to flip the mirror and take a look on the other side.

OMG! DO I HAVE AN EYEBROW LEFT? After hyperventilating for a few seconds, I put ice on my brow, hoping that it's not as bad as I feared. And, surprisingly, it's not. After slowing my heart rate, I wax the other side and I am moderately pleased with my progress in aesthetics training.

When I go into Crysti's I feel confident enough to confess to her that I am waxing my own brows. I hadn't told her up until then because if I had to run to her to fix something I thought I'd blame it on some nameless aesthetician in Kamloops...

Crysti laughed at me and gave me great tips for doing my brows that might just dispense with the drama involved in the process.

All of this begs the obvious question. Why bother waxing at all? It costs money, takes time and do I really need to do it? Aren't I happy with how I look? Do I want to be teaching the wrong things to my daughters and son? Hmmm. I am so used to having nice neat eyebrows that I feel very conspicuous when they aren't. I DO have a great self image and don't think I go overboard with the wrong messages. Plus, we don't have TV and this is great entertainment for the kids!!

With another success behind me in the Newton/Burkholder Personal Care Department I am now actively seeking an assistant to colour my hair in two months time. Crysti says to be careful because if I turn it green even she might not be able to fix it!!!

Done Digging!



Before ...






After ...




Finally, after over a month of cutting down trees, pulling stumps, digging, digging ... and digging we are done excavating! We have a leveled site on which to start building the earthship.

This last week we have been tidying up the excavation and laying a six inch bed of gravel down to prepare the site. The gravel helps to level the site and provides a good base for the foundation.

Alvin and I started the week figuring out how to screen gravel. We have access to gravel next to our property (thanks Gary and Gail) so I was not keen to truck gravel in. We ended up borrowing three sections of 2" steel mesh from our neighbor (thanks Linda and Mike) and got to work.

This is what we came up with. Most gravel plants are stand-alone and sit beside the gravel pit. A loader is used to dump unscreened gravel onto the screen and then the loader takes the screened gravel and loads it onto a dump truck. Because we were using the backhoe (which is very slow and makes a terrible loader) we built the 'plant' on top of the dump truck. This way we only had to handle the gravel once and the dump truck could be parked right next to where the backhoe was working. Always thinking!

Our gravel separator worked surprisingly well and over the course of two days we screened 19 loads of gravel and leveled the building site. Unfortunately we were unable to screen for drain rock at the same time so we will have to re-screen the rocks later to get this rock.

The next step is to start laying out tires! This is the moment I have been waiting for...

Progress will be slow over the next couple of weeks due to other commitments, but it is exciting to finally be at this point.



Tires to appear soon ...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Spring and our Food

The last month has seen much warmer weather and the valley has been getting progressively greener.

Spring started for me with the apple trees beside our house. While clearing for the house foundation I took a little time out and aggressively pruned these trees. They are well established trees, but were never cared for and pretty much ran wild. We canned some of the apples last year and have been using them in muffins. The apples are not very good eating apples, and I am hoping that by pruning the trees I can improve their quality (Sandra is skeptical). I took the upper half of the trees off. I am a little concerned by this drastic step, but in the words of one of the neighbors what have I got to lose? The trees are blossoming now (very pretty), and I did see a bee the other day so hopefully we will get apples this year.

Stephen and I built a cold frame on the south side of the shop. The hope is that the frame will stay warm in cooler nights due to the warm shop wall. So far it seems to be working as the plants I put in there a month ago are doing well.

I hit a snag with my cold frame in that I am not actually sure what I ended up planting in it. Helen and I used the compost from the worm bins to start tomato plants and we are pretty sure we only put one or at most two seeds in each of the transplant containers. Two weeks later the containers were loaded with plants ... way more than we expected. I am now guessing that something with seeds (cucumber, pepper, tomato ...) that went into the compost did not get completely composted. Do the seeds just go right through the worms? Anyway, I think the picture at the start of this paragraph is a tomato seedling and I am guessing the one at the end of this paragraph is a pepper. If anybody can clarify this for me I would love to hear from them!








We slaughtered our meat birds a week ago, and our lambs arrived over the long weekend. Having farm animals has really led me to question my food choices and how I view food. I've also been reading on this subject; I read In Defense of Food earlier this spring and am right now reading The Omnivore's Dilemma (both by Michael Pollan). These books strongly condemn existing food practices, and present some alternative options. The subtitle of one of these books, "Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Less of It", is a very simple and effective rule I have been using to evaluate what I am eating. Sandra and I were vegetarians for a number of years and for various reasons (the kids, the business, ...) we started eating meat again. I always felt bad (guilty?) about this decision without really thinking about it.

Raising some of the animals that we eat has been interesting and brought a number of things into focus for me. The lambs and the chickens have made an important contribution to my compost adventures. I am betting that without the sheep's manure and wool my compost pile would not have composted as well or as quickly this last year. After slaughtering the chickens we were left with the innards and feathers. Sandra was not going for my idea of adding any of this except the feathers to the compost pile, so I dug a trench with the backhoe and buried these remains. I put finished compost over this trench and planted my sunflower seedlings. I definitely felt better about slaughtering the chickens after planting these flowers! (I got lots of warnings about how the chickens bodies spasm for a while after decapitating them, but NOBODY warned me that to a lesser extent the head does the same thing!) The sheep grazed on the uncontrolled grass and weeds that make up most of our acreage as will the layer chickens this summer. The point is that in many ways these animals improve the sustainability of our food supply.

This is not to say that there are not issues with raising animals. Both the chickens and the sheep are fed some grain that we are buying. The simple sustainability argument is that it is far more effective to eat the grains directly in terms of resources used. I agree with this argument. However, I can now see the reality of grass fed animals raised on land unsuitable or simply unused for agriculture.

There is also the issue of eventually killing these animals and keeping them in captivity while they are alive. I cannot say this bothers me. We have been raising animals for food for millenia ... I do think that many of our current practices are unhealthy and unsustainable and need to be changed.

This last weekend Sandra and I planted most of the garden. We have expanded it a little and hope to can more of what we grow this year. We planted potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, beets, radishes, turnips, herbs, lettuce and peas. We will plant a few more things later this week when it is supposed to be warmer. We bought most of our compost last year, but this year we are using our own (hopefully all goes well)! We are growing the potatoes in tire stacks this year. I have read that one tire stack can yield in excess of fifty pounds of potatoes (I'll keep you posted). All in all we are farther ahead with our garden this year compared to last.

It has been busy getting all of this done. Hopefully in a few days I am going to eat the first radishes out of the garden ...

Interview with CBC radio's All points West program

Tune in to http://www.cbc.ca/listen/streams/r1_victoria.html on Friday, May 22nd at 5:50 pm PST. I'll be talking to All Points West host, Dave King (filling in for Joanne Roberts), about our earthship construction project.

For our fellow BCers, I believe that All Points West is carried by regional CBC stations, too! I know we listen to it through the Kelowna station.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A trip down memory lane...to Costco!

Today while in Kamloops, I found myself with 40 minutes to kill before an 11:00 am appointment. I found myself flashing my expired card at the smiley door greeter and entered the world of Costco.

We let our Costco membership lapse several years ago because a Real Canadian Superstore opened in Kamloops and we found that the prices were much better.

In fact, our initial decision to let the membership lapse was financial but over the subsequent two years, we remained committed to this decision because of the extreme "big box" mentality we felt Costco represented. There was no bulk buying opportunity and at the time, a smaller produce section. I always felt overwhelmed there because there was so much variety, I ended up spending more than I wanted or should. Every time I went in I found something I didn't know I "needed"!

Before anyone points out the obvious, I realize the Superstore is a big box, but at about the same time as we shunned Costco, we were buying differently at the Superstore. More bulk foods, less packaged goods, and more whole foods. We tend to do a "big" shop every few weeks and frequent our local grocery store in between. The owners of our local AG Foods store in Barriere are well aware that this is the shopping pattern of their customers. I had a conversation with one of them many years ago about it. Barriere is just close enough to Kamloops to make a grocery shopping trip (coupled with dentist appointments, etc.) worthwhile, but far enough away that shoppers aren't going to zoom into Kamloops for a jug of milk or loaf of bread.

As I entered the enormous doors of Costco the smiley door greeter tried to give me the weekly coupons. I've become very good at turning coupons and flyers down with a simple, "I won't take that today, thanks." I didn't need to discover I couldn't do without a five-in-one foot massager today, thanks very much!!!

As I hit the laptop, camcorder and ipod section at the entrance of the door, I inexplicably felt the old "pull". I immediately headed for the laptops to figure out how much a new one would cost once mine died (still using an external USB keyboard on mine; works great so far!)

After convincing myself that the $900 unit had to be better than the $500 one, I woke up and started putting one foot in front of the other. I walked up and down the aisles and, except for a magnetic dry erase board (perfect for a quote of the week or inspirational snippet from a poem or book, $32.99) I managed to make it down one length of the building without touching anything. Through the bakery where I saw they are still selling the ciabetta rolls I use to buy in packages in 24...

Then I hit the laundry detergent. Holy crap. There were brands I'd never heard of and it went on for rows and rows. Now, I've been experimenting with laundry detergent. Because we haven't hooked up our new washer to hot water, I'm trying to find which detergent works in cold water the best for the least amount of money. I yearned for my calculator until I realized the price per mL was posted with each price. After walking down the first aisle with my eyes raised to the prices and my mouth hanging open I reached the farthest corner of the building.

With every ounce of resolve, I turned left and kept walking away from the detergent. I decided to pass on the freezer section as it was mostly processed foods. I did notice that Alcan aluminum foil was being sold in ENORMOUS boxes but realized that at the rate I used foil (three or four times a year), it would be decades before I'd go through a box as big as the one on the shelf.

I peaked down the aisle sporting cereals (we gave up packaged cereal several years ago) and stepped into one aisle where a skid of maple syrup was positioned. Beyond this and into the next aisle I could see the Chipits chocolate chips and quickly backtracked and zipped down that aisle. I spent a good 30 seconds fondling the plastic bag (ziploc closure) and reluctantly set it down. I can dream but as chocolate is my downfall, it is never a good idea in the quantities that Costco sports.

As I turned around to head into the Pharmacy I bumped into a pallet jack handled by a Costco employee. "Whoops! Sorry," I said. The gentleman handling the equipment smiled at me and asked "what is the weather like outside?" I had trouble understanding him at first as his speech was slurred, but I realized quickly that he also had a physical disability.

It was raining as I pulled up and I told him so. He pulled a face and made a comment about the coolish spring weather. I assured him that the forecast was for sunshine in the next few days. But ahh, I said, you're probably working. No, he said, he only works until noon, but he has been spending his afternoons in his canoe paddling down the South Thompson river and it had been a cold couple of days for him on the water.

An avid paddler myself I asserted that any day on the water was a good day. He smiled charmingly in agreement and we chatted a while longer. He didn't seem to mind that I had to ask him to repeat himself a few times.

We parted company and I walked towards the exit, weaving my way through the extraordinarily long lineups for the cashiers, reminding me again of why I disliked shopping there.

I felt a lot like my mom today. She was really good at connecting to people. She was never in a hurry and befriended the most unlikely people. I resolved after her death in 2000 that I would try to be more open and friendly and to seek out connections with others. I think I do a lot better but today pointed out to me that I don't do it often enough, and that other people, like my new friend in Costco, are much better at it.

Part of it is that often our shopping experiences are much like trains with schedules. I still do find grocery shopping at the Superstore a chore to get through as quickly as possible, best done when the crowds are small. It occurred to me today that when Chris and I traveled through Europe, we often shopped in little villages where you meandered down the street and popped in and out of stores and saw people and chatted. In Toronto we shopped a lot in Kensington market and it was a similar experience (although very noisy).

Many Canadian towns and cities once had downtowns that encouraged community. In our busy lives we have eagerly embraced big box stores and their conveniences, even if it meant actually driving to them instead of walking. I have read articles that predict that with the end of cheap oil, our communities will return to this kind of shopping experiences. I'm not sure if this is so or not. But it would be nice, wouldn't it?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Finally! Our lambs have arrived!


On May 15th we got our ewe lambs from the Preharas in Knutsford, BC. All of us got a lamb. My lamb is named Whiskers! (This first picture is of Mrs. Prehara and her son trying to catch Stephen's ewe lamb).

When Whiskers was born her mom rejected her. Mrs. Prehara had to bottle feed her and twice she almost died because she got too cold. She was such a favourite lamb, that the other women from Mrs. Prehara's office in Kamloops, came to her farm and helped feed Whiskers.

When it came time to sell lambs, Mrs. Prehara just couldn't sell Whiskers as somebody's freezer lamb. She knew that mom and dad were looking for a ewe lamb of some kind for me, because I am too young to do a ewe lamb project in 4-H.

When we looked at lambs earlier in May, Mrs. Prehara surprised me by saying if I promised not to keep her as a freezer lamb, I could have Whiskers...for free! Mrs. Prehara wrote on my bill of sale, under "price paid": Just love and affection!

Whiskers has a black and brown face that is fluffy. She comes right up to people because she's used to being bottle fed. She loves to eat grain. Mom says she is a cute piggy-wig.

Katie and Stephen have really fiesty lambs. Stephen named his Zoom because she jumped over a four foot fence when we picked her up at the Prehara's. Tonight we couldn't even catch her from the pasture to take her back to the barn, so we had to let her follow Whiskers and Katie's lamb.

Katie's lamb is named Twirl-a-Girl. She is a brown lamb and is also hard to catch. Zoom and Twirl-a-girl are really protective of each other and stick closely together when we are around.

We got market lambs yesterday from Kershaws. Mine is the blackest and her name is Whiplash. Stephen named his Harley and Katie, who has the only male lamb of all of our lambs, named her lamb, Don Juan.

We have a Friesen lamb coming soon. A Friesen is a dairy milking lamb. You can make cheese out of the milk and we will breed her in two years, at the same time as Whiskers, Twirl-a-Girl and Zoom.

That brings our lamb count to seven!

(The last picture is of Dad trying to lure Zoom with some grain, but Whiskers kept jumping up on his legs, trying to get the grain for herself! She is very greedy!)

P.S. Mom helped me type this.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Poultry Harvesting is Complete

Yesterday we harvested our 21 remaining Cornish Giants. As we neared the day, I began using the word "harvesting" instead of "butchering" to offset some of the dread I was beginning to feel. I love the power of words...it helped a bit!

We enlisted the help of experienced poultry harvesters, Mike and Linda Casey. Mike and Linda are Burkholder family friends from way back. They managed to borrow a plucker and a butchering cone from neighbours and showed up with an array of other equipment to make the job easier.

Chris and I decided we would not post photos of our harvesting day; there are plenty of sites on the internet that describe and show the process in graphic detail if anybody wishes to know more.

It wasn't as bad as either one of us thought. I surprised myself by remembering a fair bit from my childhood. Chris managed very well for his first time harvesting his own meat. (He's chopped up a fair bit of his own food in the last year but vegetables don't have the risk of inducing sqeamishness or trauma like having to butcher an animal has!)

The chicken coop has now be completely claimed by the laying hens and we will soon start to build roosts for them.

Our general feeling about our meat raising experiment? Probably not cost effective compared to store bought meat, but we certainly know what we fed them so there is some security there.

We were also unsettled by the way Cornish Giants have been bred and will probably not raise this breed again. They grew so big, so fast, that they experienced leg problems, leading us to isolate four of them for the last month. We had to feed and water them separately which was a real pain. These birds also do not have a sense of self preservation and would simply stand still while a layer hen pecked a hole right through the skin and fat to their bone. That, for me, was most unsettling.

This farming foray DID put us closer to our food and that in itself was a great education. It does make you think very much about all the issues regarding meat production.

For now we are going to enjoy the next year raising layers and harvesting eggs. We will defer the decision about getting meat birds again until next year.

Over the next few days we collect our lambs. I have taken the kids to the credit union and they have filled out their withdrawal slips and have tucked their purchase money away in a safe place!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gotta Love them Fossils

Since Friday of last week Alvin and I have been excavating for the earthship.

This is not a trivial job. We are leveling an area approximately 45'x100'. At one end of the excavation we are building up the ground where one of the retaining walls will sit, and at the other end we are digging down to a depth of approximately 6 feet. I estimate that we are moving approximately 15,300 cubic feet of soil in the process. A standard wheelbarrow can hold 4 cubic feet so this works out to 3825 trips with a wheelbarrow!

Fortunately, we are not using a wheelbarrow. We have access to a 45 horsepower tractor/backhoe and a small dump truck. Both of these pieces of equipment were new in the early seventies, and have been used on our site for odd jobs related to running a wood processing business. I do not know the building contractor who would consider them adequate for any job today. We initially estimated that this job would take us one week and we have revised our estimate to one to two weeks. Newer equipment available locally could have finished this job in a few days ... sadly I do not own newer equipment!

The two of us have been working steadily from about 9 am each morning to 5:30 pm each day. I have been running the dump truck and shooting levels and Alvin has been operating the backhoe. Alvin has been doing this kind of work (building forestry roads and operating heavy equipment) off and on for decades, and it is truly a joy to work with someone with this kind of experience. He can maintain a straight, level line while working over long distances. Sadly, I struggle to draw straight lines without a ruler on a piece of paper!

I spent Sunday performing a long overdue oil/lube/filter of the backhoe. It always amazes me how much abuse these older diesel engines (this one is four cylinder) will take and continue performing. The engine had been sputtering and racing for a few days, and it turns out the fuel line into the filter was almost completely clogged. We had two hydraulic hoses fail today (Friday), but otherwise the backhoe has run smoothly all week.

I have been spending a few hours each day before or after Alvin is around getting ready for the next day. Initially, Sandra and I had to run around clearing the last of the brush and debris. Lately I have been working on an overhead power line to the existing house. The existing underground power line is in the middle of the excavation and so needs to be replaced. We hooked and broke the water line yesterday, leading to a couple of exciting water filled minutes before we got it shut off. Water is now going above ground to the house via a 100' garden hose!

This excavation has rekindled the awe that I first had when coming upon a logging operation as I looked for timber for our business a decade ago. I could not believe that such a small crew could so quickly and efficiently log an area. The mechanized processing equipment completely blew away my preconceptions of lumberjacks with hand axes out in the woods.

As I have watched this hole grow daily I wonder how many men would have worked on this job in a pre-industrial society, what the conditions would have been like, and what their tools would have been. In our own business we can turn a pile of timbers into a machined log house package in a matter of one to two weeks. Environmental issues aside ... heavy industrial equipment has reduced previously massive tasks requiring huge amounts of labour to fairly trivial jobs needing one to two equipment operators.

Despite its many advantages this reduction of labour has a heavy price tag attached, and again I am not thinking of the environmental consequences. We are losing the skills associated with performing this kind of labour and its associated tasks.

I love studying the old production planer used for our business because it was built with no electical components and was initially driven by a single huge motor ( built around the 1950's with patents from the early 1900's). The mechanical ingenuity used to convert the horsepower from that single motor to drive six independent cutting heads and move the lumber through the machine constantly amazes me. We retrofitted this planer with multiple motors and a hydraulic drive. The old solution was elegant and relied on intimate experience and knowledge with mechanical systems. Today we rely on the brute force of multiple motors and electro-mechanical devices. Our planer is much more efficient, but it is also much more complex, and the operators using it do not have the knowledge and experience of even two to three decades ago.

The same parallel can be drawn in many industrial activities. I am constantly amazed by the stories Alvin and others tell me of the ways things were done in the 'sixties and 'seventies. The hand loading of lumber onto train freight cars due to the lack of available forklifts, mixing concrete for construction projects by hand or with small portable mixers and then delivering it by the wheelbarrow load. This is exhausting work, but it also teaches valuable lessons.

In my own case it wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I really 'got' the application of the lever as a simple tool. Four years of university training as an engineer had given me a great theoretical appreciation for all sorts of tools. It was not until my dad and I were leveling a portable office trailer and he levered up one corner of it that I got it. That simple lever made a massive task for two men suddenly trivial.

Many will argue that increased specialization means that the majority of us do not need to know how to use all these simple tools, and this is correct. However, the increased complexity of our 'tools' means that fewer people know how they work. By losing the societal knowledge underpinning the tools we use, we risk losing our ability to innovate and solve problems. I read recently that the rest of the world puts up with North Americans due to our ability to get the job done. We are coasting on a reputation built over the last hundred years, and I am not sure we 'know' enough to add to it.

Check out the brute force method for pulling a stump. Maybe knowledge isn't everything ...

Edited to add: Sandra tells me that the title of the post does not make sense. When I started this post I was thinking about the 'boost' from fossil fuels that we tend to take for granted. I guess it was a little vague ...

video video

Friday, May 8, 2009

An exhausting week!

We are 3/4 done our excavation. What a lot of dirt! Chris and Alvin have been moving about 20 dump truckloads of dirt a day. About six inches below the surface is a layer of ash from the mill fire in 1973...the one just before my father bought into the business!

I think Chris is very tired. This last week has been a lot like work! I have been running children back and forth to Kamloops for Heritage Fair commitments and tomorrow Chris and I split up as I take Katie and Helen to Katie's District 4-H Demo event in Ashcroft and Chris takes Stephen to the last day of Heritage Fair activities in Kamloops.

Next weekend we start to get the lambs. We will have seven of them! We now have a family ewe lamb named Whiskers (story to be told in a week's time!) and a Freisen (dairy) lamb that we will raise and breed in 18 months time. I am slowly getting organized for our flock and have been learning about worming medications, best kinds of hay, and organic grain...

Countdown to the fowl deed is -5...emotionally we are steadying ourselves and I think Chris and I have divvied up the jobs for Wednesday when the kids are at school. We will NOT post pictures of our poultry harvesting day. I will post a link later to an excellent blog by an American woman who goes step by step in butchering and eviscerating poultry. (Eviscerating: my new favourite word.) Can't wait for it to be over. We will never get Cornish Giants again. To avoid the sense that we hijacked the Ark and mucked with Noah's chicken selection, we are generally prepared to sacrifice net meat production next time by perhaps selecting a heritage breed...

Chris is already asleep and I will be close behind. I'm enjoying the red tulips and yellow daffodils given to me by Katie's friend Christine. I couldn't find my vase so they ended up in my green Denby water jug, along with some evergreen branches Christine thoughtfully (and artfully, I might add) added to the bunch. They are beautiful. They are sitting right next to my early Mother's day present from Helen: last-forever tissue paper flowers, arranged in a paper macheed pop bottle. Beautiful in all its purple glory!

Happy Mother's Day!