Assessing The Good Life

July 13, 2018

As my folks were doing a big cleanup of the house I grew up in, an old copy of Living The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing turned up.  I had heard this book mentioned as a venerated bible of the 1970s, but had never actually read it, so I was interested to finally get to the source.  In poking around on the internet after reading it, I came across a related memoir called Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life by Jean Hay Bright, who was invited (together with her husband at the time) by the Nearings to homestead as their neighbors on the Maine coast.  This led me to another memoir, This Life is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman, daughter of Susan and Eliot Coleman, who were likewise invited by the Nearings to farm on their land. Eliot subsequently became a guru to the organic growing community in his own right.

Like Melissa, I grew up on an off-grid homestead in a then-remote corner of the coast of Maine, and soon after I entered into the island’s K-6 elementary school I understood that the way our family lived was unusual.  But I knew that we were not alone in our unconventional habits; many of my parents’ friends also lived in funky home-built shelters, kept livestock, and grew vegetables, and some likewise lived without electricity.  And as I read these books I was struck by the similarity, down to remarkably uncanny details, of their memories to the way I grew up, and I came to more fully understand that in my childhood I was unwittingly part of a significant cultural moment and movement.  As a student of the energy and resource issues that motivated many people in the black-to-the-land generation, I’m interested in questions about the significance of the practices and habits of that era, what can be learned, and what it suggests about the future.

The Nearings were a couple from comfortable urban backgrounds who moved to rural Vermont to homestead in the 1930s, when their radical politics drove them from more conventional occupations.  There they homesteaded, grew food, produced maple syrup and sugar as a cash crop, and cultivated an austere lifestyle and philosophy that they laid out in Living the Good Life, which was published in 1954.  As the rural economy recovered from the Depression and WW2, and the New York City culture encroached on southern Vermont with skiing and vacation homes, the Nearings moved to the remote coast of eastern Maine. There they took up their habits in relative obscurity, until young people searching for alternative ways of life following the cultural upheaval of the 1960s discovered their book and began flocking to their homestead on Cape Rosier for knowledge and inspiration in the early 1970s.  Eliot and Sue Coleman and Jean and her husband Keith were two of these couples whom the Nearings took a particular interest in, and they sold them plots of land to build and farm on.

One of the themes that emerges in Bright’s book is the significant gap between the Nearings’ idealistic prescription for organizing home economic and social life, and the reality of what actually works.  The Nearings claimed that one could live well on four hours a day of ‘bread labor’ to earn or produce basic needs, four hours a day of artistic, cultural, or activist pursuits, and four hours of social engagement.  They claimed to meet their economic and spiritual needs by following this plan, promoted it fervently, and scorned those who fell short in various ways (excessive participation in the cash economy, living on the proceeds from invested capital, eating meat, etc.) But Bright lays out a detailed case that the Nearings were essentially trustafarians – at various key points they received inheritances or other financial boosts that allowed them to buy large tracts of land, hire help, take shortcuts, and generally live much more comfortably would have been possible without that ready source of transfusion.  As a particular example, when the Nearings moved from Vermont to Maine, high-bush blueberries replaced maple syrup as their notional ‘cash crop’, but she shows that the crop never broke even, let alone sustaining their lifestyle and allowing them to build a spacious stone house.

Bright’s book is not a hatchet job; she clearly had and has a lot of regard for the Nearings, but also the scars of a person who has attempted to live by following an idealized prescription, combined with a reporter’s nose for the real story.   And I’m sympathetic to her instinct that it’s important to pay attention to the distinction between what is actually true and possible, and what people are motivated to believe is possible.  Richard Feynman said something along the lines of ‘the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’  The Nearings laid out a path that was attractive and salutary in its broad outlines, but deeply unrealistic in its details, and they had what is surely a natural human tendency to plaster over rather than expose and troubleshoot the places where reality fell short of the ideal. Bright’s book explores how their actions had profound impacts – both for better and for worse – on thousands, perhaps millions of people.

One of the most interesting aspects of both the Bright and Coleman books was the amazing degree of commonality in fine detail with how I grew up, three hours further west along the coast, including:

  • Practical daily use of an antique Glenwood wood cookstove
  • Drinking goat milk, and other people thinking goat milk was nasty
  • Amateur goat obstetrics
  • Trauma of butchering animals in the yard
  • Racoons in the corn at night, wrangling of electric fences, and usually-futile attempts to shoot them in the dark
  • Being the only kid in class with heavy whole-grain sandwiches, while the other kids have Hostess Twinkies
  • Keeping a freezer on the porch of a neighbor in town who has electricity
  • Concerns about a nuclear reactor uncomfortably close to home
  • Newspaper reporters coming to write human interest stories about your family (I was too young to actually remember this, but the aluminum printing plate with a faded image of my mom cooking over a woodstove is still tacked to the wall in the back of the pole barn).
  • The Tomten, and other children’s books that I have not come across elsewhere

These were among the quirkier resonances, but there were broader and more poignant ones as well.  Bright’s conclusion is that it is possible to live a fulfilling life on the land, foregoing many of the conveniences of modern society, but that unless you have a trust fund, it’s not realistic to do it by working only four hours per day, and that it’s all but impossible to do it without materially participating in the cash economy.  And so a related theme is how homesteaders find their craft and their place in that economy –  for Eliot Coleman it was market gardening and related promotions, and for Bright and her husband Keith it was writing and carpentry respectively – exactly the same trades, as it happens, that my parents found for themselves.

A related question that preoccupies me at the interface of ecology, economy, and culture is the question of which back-to-the-land practices represent true advances from a sustainability and social progress perspective, and which are solely cultural badges.  The Nearings were surely serious about ending war, alleviating social ills, and living in harmony with nature, and organizations like MOFGA were explicitly set up to change things.  So it’s fair and important to ask whether they/we were on the right track with their prescriptions, and to what extent they’ve been effective.

Surely a nuanced view is appropriate here.  Some of the cultural practices of that time (such as a whole-grains-based vegetarian diet) are surely improvements from an ecological perspective, a great number are surely neutral (e.g. the colors and patterns one chooses for their clothing), and a few are probably counterproductive (e.g. frequent trips to India in search of enlightenment).  Rather than painting in broad strokes, it seems necessary to look at individual cases, consider realistic alternatives, and actually do the math.  And to be effective, prescriptions must be socially as well as ecologically sustainable.  Another word for subsistence is poverty; sustained, austere, backbreaking labor of the sort the Nearings advocated is not going to catch on broadly in a world where mechanized assistance is cheap and readily available.  The Bright book is chock full of accounts of visitors who tried out the life and then went back to the city, and while some people (e.g. Eliot Coleman) find the hard work of farming viscerally compelling, most others (e.g. Jean Hay Bright) do not. Even those (like my family) who took to the back-to-the-land life gradually reintegrated themselves into the modern economy to a large extent, although many maintained back-to-the-land interests and cultural practices as well.

One thing that has struck me after attending the Commonground Fair off and on for close to 40 years, is how much of it is the same every year – the sheep dog demonstrations, the dry stone demonstrations, the spinning and weaving demonstrations, the draft horse demonstrations, the guy selling high-end Italian walking tractors, and so forth.  The Fair is extremely valuable as a gathering place and a venue to meet old friends and affirm cultural affiliations, but how effective is it as a mechanism to drive real change?  Forty years later, only a vanishingly small fraction of Mainers live off-grid (even though technology has made it quite comfortable), very few grow a meaningful amount of their own food, spinning and weaving are still oddities, virtually everyone still drives everywhere, and very few farmers are using horses for their tillage – and would we want them to?  I’m wary of the tendency to turn sensible-sounding sustainability concepts like Local Food into talismans or cultural badges rather than theories that should be soberly assessed as possible means to a particular set of ends.  As an example, I’ve calculated elsewhere on this blog that even fairly serious amateur gardening has only a marginal quantitative effect (even for the families that practice it), and speculated that it could be fairly easy to overwhelm any positive benefit by e.g. driving a truck repeatedly to a garden center for supplies.  It’s not hard for me to imagine that the greatest quantitative benefit of home gardening might come not from direct effects on the carbon impact of their diets, but rather from capturing the attention of the gardeners and reducing their inclination to take long trips by air during the growing season.

Another resonant theme is the challenge of maintaining relationships through the challenges of hard work, personal discovery, and parenting – particularly among the freewheeling communities of vibrant young people attracted to the Good Life scene.  With the exception of the Nearings, the couples at the center of both books grew apart and split up (perhaps hastened in the case of the Colemans by the tragic drowning death of their middle daughter in a farm pond).   I remember this phenomenon likewise as one of those mysteries of the adult world as seen from kid height – how families that I knew as inseparable social units would suddenly spin apart, with fragments moving to far-flung places, and newly-wise children solemnly explaining custody arrangements. But despite the unconventional mores of the back-to-the land community, I have no reason to believe our families were any less permanent than those in the mainstream, and the question of why certain couples weather these challenges while others do not remains a mystery toward which these books can only offer particularly detailed singular case studies.

There’s a lot more that could be said, but in any case, I heartily recommend this three-generation sequence of books as a thought- and memory-provoking journey for anyone who lived or is interested in the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.

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Spring Planting 2018

May 6, 2018

Despite limited preparation on my part and very soggy ground conditions, a small but powerful crew came together in Five Islands in late April of this year and made significant progress on the orchard.  Thanks to all who participated, the orchard is in good shape, and our fingers are crossed for another good harvest this fall.

We set up about 330′ of permanent woven wire fence defining the western boundary of the orchard, took down the ratty plastic deer netting that had protected the orchard until now, and planted about a dozen new interstem trees with varieties recommended by Holly and David Buchanan, a local professional cidermaker. (David’s Portersfield Cider operation in Pownal is definitely worth checking out, both for the high quality cider and the beautiful reclaimed timberframe barn full of gleaming stainless steel equipment.)

The kids, led by Bodhi and Nola gathered an impressive quantity of rockweed at low tide, and this was spread along with organic fertilizer and lime around the new trees, which were then mulched with cardboard and wood chips.  Hopefully this will keep the weeds and grass at bay for a season and help them get established.  The crew also cleared a bunch of rocks, roots, and old fencing material in preparation for turning over and seeding the rows in the new ground in the northwest corner.  I hope to put this area in buckwheat and clover for the new bees, which hopefully will arrive in time to do the pollination.  We transplanted five of the Cornell high-octane sugar maples that had been temporarily growing between apples trees at the bottom of the orchard, moving them outside the fence and protecting them temporarily with cattle panels rolled into free-standing rings.

We also moved the last of the apple trees that had been planted in a five-gallon bucket with the sides split and splayed four ways; I came up with this technique after learning to graft, when I didn’t have enough space prepared for all the trees I made.  The usual approach is to dig up the trees bare-root and transplant them, but especially for larger trees it sets them back pretty significantly.  I started using the buckets in hopes of keeping more fine root tissue intact when doing the transplant.  Inevitably as these things go, the trees sit in the nursery for more years than you plan, and in this case the tree (a Wickson) was over 2″ in diameter.  But the roots find their way out between the split sides of the bucket, and the location of the splits gives a good idea where to go looking for them with the shovel.  Emily and I dug out the roots as generously as we could, and between us we could schlep the bucket, tree, and roots onto the platform extension on the front end loader of a tractor.  There was one remaining open spot on the original grid of Seedling rootstock trees (had been thin soil over bedrock, but we piled some extra loam there a few years ago), and we set the tree in this spot, peeling away the bucket at the last moment.

The bucket technique seems to work surprisingly well, and I think it could be the basis of a local small-time nursery business, since the Transfer Station could probably turn up an unlimited supply of used buckets.  But recently I’ve gone over to planting out new benchgrafts directly in their permanent location, resigning myself to replacing the few that don’t make it.

With three sides of the orchard enclosed in permanent fence, and the remaining north side hemmed in by an outcropping of ledge, the natural extent of the orchard is defined.  There is still a bunch of area inside the permanent fenceline that isn’t yet planted; my folks are contemplating adding some berries, and since the peaches seem to be doing well for us, we might plant a block of those in the northwest corner.

On Sunday I put on a hundred gallon tank of dormant oil and copper, with a pound of BT mixed in to knock back the tent caterpillars which were already starting to spin their webs.  There was a light shower as I did the spraying, so I hope it holds on until the first dose of Surround (organic clay protectant) that I will put on when the apples are nickel-sized.  Surround is literally a high-grade kaolin clay product that I sprayed for the first time last year.  It forms a patchy layer of white powder that turns the entire tree a ghostly shade, but apparently the diminished sunlight doesn’t affect the photosynthesis significantly, and I found it to be quite effective against the various curculios and maggots that attack unsprayed fruit.

Speaking of peaches, the peach buds were coming on fast in Five Islands, and when I got back to Stroudwater I was distressed to see that the -25F lows we saw this winter seem to have killed or severely damaged both of the peach trees we have there.  This is an example of where the marine climate on the island is a big help; lows were probably 10F warmer in Five Islands.

The resistance of the Five Islands peaches to a pretty bad winter makes me think I should take peaches a bit more seriously there; to this point I’ve been interplanting them between the apple trees in the rows, which has worked well since the peaches grow significantly faster but die off unpredictably.  But the new block of interstems has a tighter spacing that doesn’t have room for peaches, and the older apple trees are getting bigger, so it will be harder and harder to keep them from getting overspray on them when spraying Surround.  Last year we found that once the peaches get Surround on them, it never comes off.  This is a just a cosmetic issue that doesn’t matter for freezing the fruit, and Surround is nontoxic (I can’t taste the difference eating them out of hand), but if we ever wanted to sell them at Joanna’s farm stand or Heidi’s store, the chalky spots would be a turn-off.

So I’m contemplating doing a block of peaches in the northwest corner, which combined with whatever the folks do with the northeast corner will pretty much finish out the enclosed space.  Our favorite variety so far is Lars Andersen, which is apparently a Local variety that only Fedco offers, but I’ll ask around for other advice before moving ahead.

Thanks again to everyone who pitched in to make the 2018 Orchard Weekend a success!

Back to Back to the Land

January 14, 2018

There was an interesting article in the New York Times today about folks living off the grid in western Washington State.  Some of the images reminded me of photos from when I was a kid – old woodstoves, rough-sawn boards, rough-and-ready privies, outdoor showers:

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The article lacked the Times’ classic farmer-holding-chicken shot (a small dog stands in), but it had the same voyeuristic vibe (literally in one case).  I guess it’s a good thing that the paper exposes it’s striving 21st-century audience to positive images of people trying to live low-impact lives, but as usual I find myself wondering about the practical/energetic aspects – how are folks supporting themselves; do they manage to keep driving/flying to a minimum, what aspects of the economics and culture they’ve developed are scalable?

A fresh-looking 20lb propane tank and a beautifully ripe avocado suggest they haven’t strayed too far from global supply chains.  Beyond rustic settings and soulful portraits, there are elements of rural living of the sort I experienced growing up that are climate-favorable (not eating much meat; heating with sustainably-cut firewood), and others that aren’t (driving 15 miles each way to the grocery store); careful city dwellers can do as well or better on a carbon basis.

Another article I saw recently in Vox pointed to data that suggests that the largest factor by far is wealth.  Here is a key graph:

carbon inequality

Americans in the top 10% bracket of income emit about 3X more household carbon than the average American, and about 6X more than the bottom 50%.  I suspect a huge chunk of the difference is frequent air travel – per that article, one weekend getaway to Europe blows more carbon into the atmosphere than you can save in a year of driving an electric car, and nearly as much as going car-free entirely.  The average German or Japanese person manages to live a very nice life on half the carbon as the average American, and the top 10% in China use less energy than the bottom 40% in the US…

Another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat – 2017

November 26, 2017

As is our recent custom we gathered at Stroudwater on Thursday for a feast representing the combined culinary forces of five families:

2017 thanksgiving

The disadvantage of this approach is that even if you only take a couple bites of each dish, you end up stuffed to the gills, but complaints were of a good-natured variety, and we took a nice walk along the river and through the woods before dessert (not shown), consisting of 12″ pies (apple, pumpkin/squash, and chocolate cream) and some sinful variety of chocolate coconut caramel bars.

Local content included Stroudwater potatoes (mashed, and also in gnocchi), butternut squash (for the pie, far superior to actual pumpkins) beets, and pesto, and Five Islands apples (plus sweet and hard cider, naturally).  I hadn’t yet retrieved the pedal grinder for the winter, or we could have done virtually all the baking with Five Islands grain (we have rye and corn from this year, and wheat from last).  It would be fun to try to grow the brussels sprouts next year, using Bt to keep the worms at bay.  My folks were given a hoophouse by a neighbor, which should open up possibilities for a greater variety of homegrown greenstuff at Thanksgiving next year.

Given that we have close to a bushel of corn left from the patch I planted in the newground by the upper cabin, it would be tempting to figure out how to make tortillas or something for next year (Joanna made a very nice dish of enchiladas). The relative ease with which we produced this amount of corn even on a first attempt in indifferent soil brings makes me think it wouldn’t be overly difficult to produce enough to feed a flock of hens (though we would also need to grow some soybeans or other protein source).

 

 

 

Holly’s Cider Year 13 writeup

November 9, 2017

Holly did a super nice writeup of the recent Cider Weekend at his blog – see here:

http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2017/11/cider-13-2017.html

Cider Weekend 2017: The Fruit Of Our Labor

October 30, 2017

2017 cider corn shellerLast weekend we gathered with friends and family for the thirteenth year running to make cider using bicycle-powered equipment, and for the first time, the majority of the apples came from our orchard – a major milestone in a project that began in 2006, with the first trees planted out in the orchard in the spring of 2008.  It’s been a long time coming, and in the years since the Cider weekend has evolved and grown significantly.

The weather was amazing, sunny and mild, and we had a good crew to help.  In total we pressed 275 gallons on Saturday, with a yield of approximately 69%.  100 gallons went into glass between our root cellar and Holly’s basement, and the balance went into freezers and refrigerators across New England and beyond.  The equipment behaved fairly well, and we also made significant advances in both growing and processing grain.

2017 cider pressing

Friday night we gathered as usual by the cove for a picnic and campfire, then Alexis, Holly, Steven, Eerik, and I worked for a few hours in the barn on last-minute details.  By prior arrangement Eerik brought some linear guide assemblies made from rollerblade parts and T-slot extrusion to significantly improve the action of the dual counterpressure bottle-filling apparatus, and while he was assembling it I improvised a foot-pedal-operated mechanism out of scrap wood.  Previously the filling head assembly was supported on janky linear guides made from copper pipe with wooden bearings, and a hand-operated screw was needed to clamp the head in position so the pressure of the CO2 wouldn’t blow it out of the bottle in a volcano of carbonated cider.  Now the filling heads moved smoothly up and down, and a heavy counterweight reacted the pressure until it was released by stepping on the pedal, and it all worked brilliantly.  We contemplated how it could be further improved by automation driven by bicycle-compressed air; we’ll see if we get anywhere with that next year.

Meanwhile, Holly fit an antique cast-iron corn sheller to the bike-powered stand that also ran the cider press and the high-quality grain mill we added last year.  As usual he did an amazing job of cleaning up and restoring the cast iron, and he fit a crummy aluminum pulley to the shaft by manually matching the square taper of the handle.  The sheller worked amazingly well on the wheelbarrow-load of corn we had previously harvested from the patch of newground by the Upper Cabin.  It has an amazingly clever and hilarious mechanism whereby the spent cob is ejected upward diagonally so that it doesn’t fall into the bin of shelled grain.  The only issue was that kernels went everywhere; we solved that problem by sacrificing a plastic storage bin to confine the flying grain.

With the equipment in good order, we turned in, returning at dawn to get things spun up.  No matter the preparation, it always seems to take a couple of hours to get everything ready to go (and a pause for Kelsey and Beth’s delicious breakfast burritos), but by shortly after nine we were in operation.  As usual, the first stage of the process is washing the apples; we resurrected the pedal-powered, astroturf-lined rotary wash drum from last year, with the addition of a couple of finely-balanced soft-bristle brushes that may or may not have actually made much difference.  The crew sorted apples on the way into the drum washer, composting the bad apples and cutting out bad spots; this attention to detail is probably a big part of why our cider tastes so good.

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Tubs of washed apples were hand-carried to the grinder, where two folks pedaled while one more fed apples in, two at a time, and a fourth forced them into the grinding drum with a wooden plunger.  With vigorous pedaling the chains and forks popped off now and then; a more rigid assembly with less wood in the compressive path would probably eliminate these issues, but in any case the freewheels on the driveshaft prevented injury or damage.  I did get the sense that when the process was running smoothly, the grinder did seem to be the bottleneck, indicating that a third pedaler might be in order (or perhaps Eerik will come through with a rowing machine as promised for next year).

2017 apple wash and grind

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From the grinder, tubs of fine, soupy pulp were carried or dragged to the other side of the barn, where they were baled into cloth-lined forms, folded into cheeses, and fed into the pedal-hydraulic press.  Holly did buy new press-cloth this year, but it seemed to be too impermeable, leading the stack of cheeses to get squirrelly, to the point where some of the wooden grates suffered damage.  He says it’s the same stuff per the internet fabric site where he ordered it; next year we will need to try some different fabric.  In any case, we reverted to the old cloths, and the press settled down to its work.

2017 cider pressing

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All the while, the same hacked Schwinn exercise bike that ran the hydraulic pump was also grinding corn and rye (both grown in the orchard this year) for dinner; it was relatively simple to pulse the valve on the hydraulic pump to get the desired flowrate of cider while pedaling steadily for the grain grinder.  All in all the new multipurpose pedal hydraulic stand we built was a great success.

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Increasingly in recent years the overnight crew has been reinforced during the day on Saturday by a surge of day-trippers, including lots of locals, family friends, and this year a delegation from the Rand family. Many hands make light work, and despite a leisurely lunchbreak (complete with Nebraska Cream Can Dinner) and a near record supply of apples, we were done in time for dinner; we hoisted the gear into the loft of the barn, set up tables and benches, and served Holly and Becky’s amazing feast of chili, cornbread, and apple crisp, baked in the barn using a used electric range secured from Craigslist.  We also had a temporary sink with hot running water from a Craigslist hot water heater, and even an improvised outdoor shower so folks could rinse off the sticky apple mist.  Folks with kids retired to various cabins and tents after dinner; others hung out by the fire in the mild evening.

Sunday morning another beautiful day; pancakes, homefries from Stroudwater garden potatoes; more cleanup as well as orchard tours, and playing by/on the cove.  Ela even conspired to get Holly and me to break out our fiddles and play in the sun, a reminder of times when somehow there seemed to be time for music.  Leftover lunch, and goodbyes capped a fantastic year, with great people, great food, and delicious cider.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in, and thanks to Eerik and Terran for the photos in this post. Here’s a link to Eerik’s photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/P75i6RIaVTHwCzbt1 if you have others in a world-readable place, please put a link in a comment – thanks again!

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Orchard Update: Summer 2017

August 30, 2017

While this blog may have been dead for quite a while, the orchard has been very much alive.  This spring I grafted around a dozen interstems for a new block of semi-dwarf trees in an area of newground that we prepared north of the original orchard area last year.  And at the end of April a small but dedicated crew put in a great day of fence-building and tree planting to enclose the new area and plant the interstems.

Meanwhile, the oldest of the trees are around ten years old, and had begun to produce fruit in previous years, but being completely unsprayed it was misshapen and quite wormy, requiring a fair amount of cutting around by the cider crew.  So this year began experimenting with an organic spray regimen, starting in the spring with dormant oil, copper hydroxide, and Serenade (a competitive colonizing bacterial culture), and following that with two or three sprays of Surround and BT.  Surround is a refined kaolin clay product that makes the trees and fruit inhospitable to crawling and chewing insects, and BT is a parasitic bacterium that is very effective against tent caterpillars, which had in previous years set back many of our trees by defoliating whole branches.

To apply this stuff, I bought a 100-gallon PTO-mounted Kings sprayer, which fits on the small Kubota tractor (though not by much) and it has worked out quite well – if I’m careful I can do the whole ~1acre orchard with one full tank.  I bought most of the supplies from Seven Springs, which has significantly better prices than Fedco for some reason.  Many of the trees are quite laden with apples at this point, and the spray regimen seems to have all but eliminated the tent caterpillars and significantly set back the Plum Curculios, which otherwise scar the fruit badly with their crescent-shaped bite marks.  It’s too soon to tell how effective it will be on the flies and moths that damage the fruit later in the year; some folks use Spinosad or stronger synthetic stuff to knock them back, but Spinosad is expensive and I’d like to try sticking with organic pest control if it provides sufficient protection.

The Surround spray makes the trees a ghostly white, but it doesn’t seem to block enough light to affect the growth.  I also sprayed the peach trees, which turns out to be a mistake; here at the northern end of their range not many insects seem to bother them, and the clay is impossible to remove from the fuzzy skin of the fruit.  It’s harmless and I don’t mind eating it (after all, what’s in Kaopectate?), but it is impossible to wash off, and it makes the peaches look much less appetizing, so in the future I’ll skip them and work harder to avoid overspray on those trees.

Speaking of peaches, like others in Maine we’ve had a stupendous harvest this year; I took home about 65lb last weekend and it hardly made a dent in the crop still on the trees; I would estimate we’ll get at least 300lb of peaches this year, and my folks are having a hard time figuring out what to do with them.  Some of the apple trees are heavily laden as well, particularly the Honeycrisp, with branches drooping down to the ground.  We’ve also had to prop up some of the branches on some of the peach trees.

Meanwhile, the crop of winter rye did very well, and it’s currently drying in the overhead of the red barn – we’ll try to thresh some out at cider and see how it grinds.  I planted about 1/10 acre of buckwheat for a new hive of bees, and they seem to be enjoying it; it’s headed out now and we probably harvest some of that if we liked – or just let it go to seed for next year.  I also planted about 1/20 acre of Waspie Valley field corn from Fedco; it went in a bit late on account of the wet spring and new ground, but it’s way over head-high by now, and I’m hopeful that it gives a good crop before the weather gets too cool for ripening.

All in all a good year so far; despite the recent dry spell things seem to be doing pretty well.  I have noticed that some of the wild apple trees in the woods have gone completely brown; I have never seen anything like it – perhaps it could be a response to two dry summers in a row, though the trees I noticed are not in particularly dry locations – quite the opposite in fact.  I also noticed that many but by no means all of the local red maple trees have very weak-looking growth in the tops; relatively few leaves, and the ones they do have much smaller than normal.  Other maples nearby seem completely unaffected.

A week on the Maine Island Trail: Vinalhaven to Deer Isle

August 30, 2017

This post continues the account of our recent trip from Five Islands to Deer Isle on the Maine Island Trail.  We pick up from the previous post on Hurricane Island, southwest of Vinalhaven, where we spent the night after crossing the western arm of Penobscot Bay. DSCF0375The morning dawned clear and calm, and we broke camp straightaway so as not to miss the tide.  We bid farewell to the island and rowed across the mouth of Hurricane Sound on the last of the ebb, and rounded the lighthouse on Greens Island to open the approaches to Vinalhaven village and Carver’s Harbor.  A breath of wind came up, but there was still a fair amount of rowing involved before we made it to Sheep Island, where both the sea breeze and the flood tide picked up and carried us up the east side of the bay.  DSCF0387

We made a quick pit stop in the lee of Smith Island, then decided that conditions were suitable for the crossing to Isle au Haut, and so set out for the second half of Penobscot Bay.

The front had pushed out the previous day’s southerly haze, so this time we had a crystal clear view all the way across the bay.  As before, Alexis set a course on the chartplotter app so we could keep track of our progress.  The numerous lobster buoys were a bit of a hassle to navigate around, particularly in deep water or popular channels, where two floats are connected by a submerged line of fifty feet or so (presumably so the gear can be recovered if it gets chopped by a passing powerboat). But they were also useful for gauging current, and they provided an important psychological boost when rowing in a calm.DSCF0389DSCF0392DSCF0410By now the flood was at full strength, and the sea breeze was not so strong as the day before, so if it faltered the tide might have carried us right into Stonington (and the psychology would have been a lot different with a strong ebb carrying us out into the Gulf of Maine). But as it happened the wind held, and we reached across the bay at a crab angle to the tide that carried us past Kimball Rock, past the lighthouse, and into Isle au Haut Thoroughfare by mid-afternoon. DSCF0417DSCF0435DSCF0425The wind seemed to strengthen and align with the channel as we sailed into the busy harbor and tied up on the back side of the town float.  DSCF0442DSCF0447

We stretched our legs, got an ice cream and some crackers, and walked a few hundred yards down the road to the Acadia National Park ranger station, where we talked with the ranger on duty about the park and inquired about Duck Harbor campground (booked solid as expected, not to mention upwind against the tide).  So we got back aboard and sailed a very short distance to a lovely MITA campsite with a fine cobble beach and glorious sunset views across the entirety of Penobscot bay – a total of about 16 miles for the day.  DSCF0466

We pulled the boat up the beach above the high-tide mark with on the rollers with the block and tackle, made camp, and enjoyed spectacular sunset views.

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Day seven dawned with a light breeze but a low overcast had set in, with intermittent fog.  We had 3 miles or more of visibility to the south toward Stonington and could see the sun through the mist, so we figured it might burn off, and in any case the islands of Merchant’s Row off Stonington offer numerous campsites.  So we rigged the radar reflector and ran off to the north, amid the lobster boats and the occasional outboard.  DSCF0524DSCF0537DSCF0545We passed west of Merchant Island with a clear view to George Head, but then as we approached George a fogbank rolled in off the bay leaving us with nothing but our compass course and the navigation app.

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Still, the wind was moderate, and the visibility sufficient to make out the lobster boats well away, and soon we could make out Sand Island and the racket of the granite operation on Crotch Island beyond.  At that point the wind faded away, and we took to the oars to make our way past Two Bush Island and into Stonington Harbor and the town dock.  We filled some water bottles, got a snack, and the dogs socialized with others of their kind while we waited for some wind.  DSCF0563DSCF0560The fog lifted, and in time a light southerly sprang up again, so we set off again reaching down the harbor, where we passed a ghostly windjammer in the mist.DSCF0570At this point we had an appointment to make at the end of our trip, so we coasted up the east side of Deer Isle on the tide and what there was of the wind, with the navigation app keeping us clear of ledges and steering us toward our destination in what thickened to become a pea soup fog with mist edging toward drizzle.

For the last mile and a half we had open water, and we set aside the app and steered by dead reckoning, with just the compass and a guestimate of our speed.  We saw our destination loom out of the mist just as I was starting to wonder if we should check the GPS, a dramatic and fitting end to a delightful trip.  We capped the afternoon with a hot shower and a crackling fire in the woodstove to dry off, and the next morning found our way back to civilization. In the end we traveled about 88 (statute) miles over the ground by sail and oars, and our route looked like this:2017 MITA trip map

Given the popularity of both the Appalachian Trail and sea kayaking, I am surprised that the Maine Island Trail doesn’t get more through-trippers.  Membership is reasonable, and the freedom of navigation makes island-hopping more akin to free-form off-trail wandering in the Rockies than the trail-bound hiking and occasional views of backpacking in the east.  Our point-to-point approach left much to explore, including the eastern rivers of the midcoast, upper Muscongus Bay, the Fox Islands Thoroughfare and upper Penobscot Bay, and the east side of Merchant’s Row.  And the trail extends west and east of the section we chose to travel; we both agreed that we would definitely return again to the Maine Island Trail.

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Hearty thanks to everyone who helped make this trip possible, to all the friendly and helpful folks we met along the way, and to the MITA team for enabling this beautiful water trail!

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A week on the Maine Island Trail: Tenant’s Harbor to Vinalhaven

August 30, 2017

This post continues an account of our week on the Maine Island Trail.  The previous post left the story at the end of day 3, when we had sailed into Tenant’s Harbor for a ‘rest night’ after rowing from near Allen Island south of Port Clyde.

We had come far enough to appreciate the inn for its hot showers and soft bed, the front passed in the night, and the morning broke misty with a light easterly wind.  We had a nice breakfast on the porch, then packed up and beat out of the harbor against the wind.

DSCF0136DSCF0143DSCF0151The wind died (a bit more rowing) but the sun burned through the mist, and a light southerly came up which carried us through the narrow slot between Rackliff and Norton islands, a neat little passage of the sort that a small boat can breeze through but a yacht wouldn’t risk.  We got permission to tie up briefly at the Sprucehead lobster co-op, a hopping spot, where we gave the dogs a break and met briefly with a friend of a friend who lives and sails out of Sprucehead island, and he shared his advice about the crossing to Vinalhaven.  DSCF0175DSCF0176The sea breeze out on the bay had picked up to 10 or 12 knots at this point, so we got back on the water and set out across Muscle Ridge Channel for an island that would put us in good shape for the crossing.  DSCF0177DSCF0181DSCF0183

We got a good view of the Camden Hills up the channel to port. The wind carried us across the channel but seemed to be faltering, so we weren’t tempted to set out across the west arm of Penobscot Bay at the late hour.  As we approached the island we passed a ledge with a number of seals sunning themselves; I don’t know seal varieties that well and we didn’t get close enough to take good pictures.DSCF0187DSCF0191We put ashore at a nice half-tide beach, making camp on a beautiful granite ledge so as not to disturb an osprey nest on the northern end, and set the haul-off for the night – a total of about nine miles for the day. DSCF0198DSCF0215DSCF0227At the dawn of Day Five we found that for the first time the southerly seemed to survive through the night, if abated, so we got a relatively early start. DSCF0239We rigged a radar reflector between the forestay and starboard shroud, and carefully threaded our way among the ledges and islands forming the east side of Muscle Ridge Channel.  DSCF0245DSCF0255DSCF0256The wind strengthened and turned comfortingly southwesterly as we headed out into the bay.  We could make out the vague form of Vinalhaven and the three large wind turbines that provide much of the island’s power, but there was enough haze that we couldn’t actually see our destination, Hurricane Island, a high wooded granite form that guards the southwest corner of Vinalhaven.  To this point we’d been navigating by eye using waterproof paper charts, but as we faced the seven-mile open water crossing, for the first time we turned to the free app and fifteen-dollar vector chart I’d loaded on my phone. Alexis used the app to set a coarse past Crescent Island and across the western arm of Penobscot Bay to the northern end of Hurricane Island.

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With a good breeze, the flood tide running hard, and a couple feet of gentle ocean swell, we were happy to have the app to correct our compass course, and soon we were mid-bay, where we could make out the high island and the passage to the north.  DSCF0273There wasn’t much boat traffic for the crossing, but as we came closer, a nice looking yawl motored out into the bay.DSCF0272Once we passed between White and Hurricane islands, the wind went flukey off the high island, the tide was hard against us, and there were ledges to dodge, so it took us several short boards to make the float, where we tied up on the back side and went ashore for lunch.DSCF0276

While most islands on the trail are quasi-wilderness, Hurricane is a veritable city by comparison.  In the late 1800s it hosted a massive granite quarry with a town of up to a thousand people, which dried up in the early 1900s, leaving the island deserted.  More recently it was the sea base of the eponymous Outward Bound school, with a mess hall, workshops, staff barracks, cabin tent encampments, and more.  Some years ago HIOBS abandoned the island, but fortunately a new organization, Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership was formed to revitalize the island and use it for a variety of outdoor programs, and a dozen or more staff members now make it their home for the summer.  The team generously allowed us to fill our water jugs, and we spoke at some length with Sam Hallowell, the on-island Director of Operations, who described the work the new organization has done to stabilize and rebuild the infrastructure and launch new programs that take advantage of the beautiful setting to inspire students, teachers, architects, and the like.

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After lunch we took a leisurely walk among the outsize relics of the former quarrying operation, including massive grout piles, stone foundations, cemeteries, and a giant rusting steam engine. We walked through the remains of the quarry and up to an amazing overlook that commands a panoramic view of the surrounding islands and the open Atlantic.DSCF0285DSCF0288DSCF0292DSCF0294We had planned to keep on sailing, either out around the exposed southern end of Vinalhaven, or up Hurricane sound and through Fox Islands Thoroughfare to other Island Trail islands on the east side of the island. But Hurricane was a truly delightful place to visit with much to explore, and as we were studying the charts a small, rainless front blew through, quashed the seabreeze, and replaced it with an indifferent northerly. With the ebb we faced a long beat against the tide to get into the Thoroughfare, where the wind would likely be even lighter, and we didn’t want to risk the outer route at the late hour and with the outgoing tide. And with the spectacularly interesting and beautiful setting, it wasn’t a hard decision to stay the night on Hurricane.  So we took a leisurely walk around the north end of the island and back to the quarry overlook, where we watched as several yachts sailed into the harbor and took up guest moorings. DSCF0298DSCF0311DSCF0324DSCF0341DSCF0352The island seems to get a pretty good traffic of cruisers and day visitors from nearby islands, but fewer MITA through-trippers; Sam said that someone comes through about once a week doing a through-voyage along the trail, and this was consistent with the information in the tupperware trail registers that were provided at some of the islands.DSCF0359The MITA tent platforms are out of the way of the rest of the island activities, and we set the hauloff in a cove between the rocky shore and an old stone pier and made camp. DSCF0363DSCF0368

To be continued…

 

 

A week on the Maine Island Trail: Five Islands to Tenant’s Harbor

August 30, 2017

DSCF0008This post continues the report about our week on the Maine Island Trail.  The first post describes our the idea for the trip, gear, and planning. Subsequent posts will describe the middle and end of the journey.

On the first day of our trip, we launched mid-morning near Five Islands to a light southerly wind, and the photo above shows the view back into our home harbor. The breeze freshened as we got out into the Sheepscot.  Rather than beat out around the Cuckolds lighthouse against wind and tide, we decided to take the inside passage to Boothbay.  Here we are crossing the Sheepscot and entering the passage to Townsend Gut. The dogs took a while to settle down, but soon they were sleeping on either side of the daggerboard trunk.DSCF0012We arrived at the Southport bridge just in time for the 12:30 opening.  DSCF0017The wind was still pretty much southerly, and we made the end of Linekin Neck in a single tack, then bore off for Pemaquid Light.  DSCF0020

The short crossing to Pemaquid Point:DSCF0023

DSCF0026Pemaquid Point is reputed to be rough, but neither the wind nor the seas were excessive, the weather was clear, and we cleared the headland without incident, waving to lighthouse visitors on the shore.  DSCF0028

Looking to stretch our legs we poked into New Harbor, where we got permission to tie up at a commercial dock, and went ashore to exercise the dogs and get some chips and soda to complement our backpacker-style rations.  On toward late afternoon we sailed out of the harbor and a couple miles up Muscongus Bay to a beautiful island on the trail – about 20 (statute) miles on the water for the day.

DSCF0040Still being pretty far out in the bay, there was some surge even on the sheltered side of the island, and the landing was a ‘bar’ of dog-sized granite boulders covered with rockweed, so getting our gear and critters ashore was a bit of a challenge.  We then set the haul-off and pulled the boat out into the cove for the night.  At this point we were quite tired, but there was a nice campsite with great views and a couple of large tent platforms (even a rotting picnic table!), so we had a fine time.

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The morning of day 2 dawned clear and calm, and unfortunately it stayed calm right through noon, when we rigged the boat at the first sign of a breeze and headed east.

DSCF0046DSCF0055All afternoon we ghosted across Muscongus Bay past lovely islands, with rarely enough wind to heel the boat perceptibly.  On towards evening I rowed the last mile or so to our destination, a total of scarcely more than seven miles for the day.  But we had a sand beach landing, a beautiful shell beach campsite, and wonderful views of the surrounding islands.

DSCF0069DSCF0078DSCF0079DSCF0098Day three dawned sunny and the wind remained light. DSCF0113DSCF0126DSCF0128

So we rowed most of the way to Port Clyde, and put in at the general store, where we filled our water jugs at the gas dock and ordered a couple of nice omelettes from the counter to eat on a picnic table at the wharf while we waited for wind.  In general the Maine coast wharfside restaurant paradigm proved pretty dog-friendly over the course of the trip, and here as on several occasions we were one of many tables with dogs leashed to the legs of the table.  A light southerly sprung up, and we tacked out of the harbor in good spirits.DSCF0131

The wind died just as we rounded the lighthouse, and it was back to rowing.  A light southerly reappeared as we approached Mosquito Island, and carried as far as Mosquito Head before dying again, and it was back to the oars.  By now the day was getting on, and we were far from the next island on the trail.  We could probably have asked permission to camp on an off-trail island, but with evening coming on and rain in the forecast, we took the easy, luxurious route, got on the cell phone, and found a room for the night in Tenant’s Harbor.  We tied up at the town dock (a total of about 11 miles for the day, mostly under oars), schlepped our drybags to the inn, and got dinner at a wharfside restaurant, where we met some old friends from New Jersey who were finishing up their own (land-based) Maine vacation.

To be continued…