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A day in the life: further adventures at the mud hut

Sun, May 16, 2010

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People keep asking me what my days are like. How do I spend a typical day?

Now that I’m retired from the academic life — or rather, now that I’ve departed the academy in disgust and despair — I no longer spend time in my swivel chair, dispensing information on the telephone or tending to the tender young psyche of an overwrought twenty-something. But there is no “typical” day, just as no two days were alike before I abandoned the hallowed halls. Nonetheless, in yet another round of egocentric, navel-gazing story-telling, here goes.

After a fitful night filled with five hours of oft-interrupted sleep, I give up the painful prone position for the slightly less painful standing one. The sun is still behind the mountains, the sky gunmetal gray on this 37-degree spring morning. I flex my fingers, marveling at their one-year transformation from thin and nimble to swollen and brittle, bend my back and neck as they compete for loudest and most frequent popping noises, and gobble a handful of aspirin to start the day.

After putting on my cleanest dirty shirt — one never knows when a neighbor might drop by, after all — I fire up the laptop, respond to a half-dozen email messages, and ignore the list of back-stretching and -strengthening exercises on the table. Maybe tomorrow, when I have more time. No, that won’t work: I have visitors tomorrow and the next day, taking a quick tour of the property to view the arrangements we’ve made. The tea has been steeping while I read and respond, and now I drink it while plowing through a breakfast of cold cereal and piece of fresh fruit as I skim the morning’s counterculture news and commentary. I peek over the computer screen as the sky turns pink, then azure, in the span of a few minutes.

Walking slowly to pick up the hay, I am reminded how pathetic was my attempt at construction on my first-ever awning. It keeps the hay dry, for now, but insufficient pitch and long-abused tin cause the roof to leak, thus prematurely rotting the boards. I carry the flake of alfalfa across the gravel driveway in a plastic “Tucson Recycles” bin, a reminder of my home city of twenty years.

I chuckle as I open the door to the goat pen, an old bed frame I found on the property. After placing the hay into the hand-made manger and filling the water buckets, I release Lillian and Ellie from the insulated goat shed I constructed. Lillian bleats anxiously, knowing she is about to get a quart of grain and relief from her full udder. Ellie, the barrel-shaped three-month-old kid, runs between and then jumps onto the straw bales in the small paddock.

Crossing the driveway, I step into the 15-year-old mobile home and check the temperature in the kitchen: 42 F, a few degrees warmer than outside. I arrange the quart jars, durable coffee filter, and funnel for easy pouring when I have a full bucket of milk, then grab the milking pail and wander back to Lillian. The aches and pains are giving way to an easy gait and appreciation for another beautifully verdant day.

I recall last week’s visitors, a gaggle of university students. After talking for hours about economic collapse, including light’s out in the empire and no water coming through the taps, I was extolling the virtues of living in a “third-world” country with rainwater harvesting and hand-dug wells. A very fit, 20-year-old woman asked for clarification about the wells: “They really dig them by hand?”

I explained that I move as much dirt in an average weekend as required to dig a 20-foot well. Tears welled up, and she turned away.

Economic collapse is fun to talk about, until it becomes personal. And for most people, the personal nature of physical labor is no fun at all.

In the goat shed, I marvel at Lillian’s calm disposition and take quick note of her condition. Her toenails need trimmed, so I’ll get Carol to help with that when she comes back from a week-long visit to the northern half of the state. I marvel, too, at my ability and willingness to tend barnyard animals. I’m feeling good about my new skills despite the criticism from beyond the property. When my parents visited a few months ago, my dad — a product of his culture, steeped in societal economic growth and individual financial success — made a point to watch and comment: “I never thought one of my kids would be reduced to milking a goat.”

Two quarts this morning, same as usual. It’s stacking up in the fridge, so I’ll have to make cheese tomorrow or the next day. I’m partial to Parmesan, but I’ll check the inventory of hard cheeses in the root cellar to make sure we have similar amounts of Parmesan, cheddar, and Monterey Jack. Chevre, mozzarella, and ricotta need to be eaten quickly, and I won’t take time to cook a decent meal based on either of the latter two during the next week.

The milk goes into the freezer for an hour as I let the ducks and chickens out of their respective houses. They’ll range free all day, the ingenious ducks spending most of their time in the irrigation ditch adjacent to the property they discovered after living here only a year. As I gather the eggs, I take note of the trees and gardens on the east end of the property, including the paw paw trees I planted earlier this week. Back in the mobile home, I wash the nine eggs before storing them in the fridge on the shelf below the milk.

I water the seedlings in the garden. The carrots and peas are just emerging, so they need a light shower twice daily. The citrus trees seem to perk up every time I shower their leaves, so I hit them every time I walk past. Continuing to the west end of the property, I give a quick spray of water to the device I constructed for producing compost tea, open the greenhouse and cold frame, check the honeyberry shrubs I planted yesterday, and briefly inspect the three-dozen fruit and nut trees in the orchard. The milk has been in the freezer for its requisite hour, so I hurry back to move the chilled jars into the fridge.

Today’s big task is construction. The still-tender ribs I broke last month working on a similar project remind me to work deliberately as I attach an awning to the cargo container in the northwest corner of the property. We’ll want to store bales of hay and straw and, when we can no longer obtain bales of either, stacks of hay from the peanuts in two large gardens. In time, peanuts will feed us and the goats, as well as improving the soil.

The frame is finished at 1:00 p.m., but only after I pummel my left thumb with a poorly aimed hammer several hundred times, walk back and forth between the stack of lumber and the new awning too many times to count, and nearly fall off the roof. I guess the ribs aren’t a sufficient reminder. I’m thirsty, hot, and tired, and it’s time for lunch and a phone call.

As I eat, I visit on the telephone for ninety minutes with somebody who follows my blog and wants advice about where to live. Earlier this week, it was career advice for a freshly minted Ph.D. and tomorrow’s caller wants to discuss a strategy for telling her parents about peak oil. I harbor no illusions of having answers for any of these callers, and I know the customary caller is wise enough to seek advice beyond mine, but I appreciate any opportunity to discuss reality and how we can respond to it. I suspect my advice is overpriced, even at no charge.

A handful of aspirin later I’m back at the awning, misguided hammer in hand. After a surprisingly smooth afternoon characterized by few bruises and no blood, I complete the awning. I’ve covered the frame with plywood, tarpaper, and tin on an afternoon with temperatures in the mid-80s. Sweating and sore, I barely have time to hand-water the large garden behind the mobile home, trying not to notice how badly the beds need weeded, before my evening encounter with Lillian. Were Carol here today, the goats would have been walked a couple times, with special attention to the abundant weeds on the east end of the property.

Distracting Ellie with a little grain in her own bucket, I close the door to the goat shed and Lillian steps up on the stanchion I built to ease the milking operation. I apply bag balm after I finish milking her, give Ellie a pat on the head, and head to the mobile home to strain the milk into two more quart jars.

Supper is the same as lunch: rice and beans left over from last night’s supper. A quick shower removes the first layer of grime before I put the goats into their lion-proof shed, lock the chickens into their skunk-proof coop, and herd the ducks into their raccoon-proof house. The setting sun sets the sky afire before unleashing the Milky Way.

One more round with the imperial screen of death allows me to catch up with a couple dozen email messages while viewing the latest dire news about the ecological collapse we’re bringing to every corner of the globe. A cup of herbal tea to wash down more aspirin, a few pages of Nietzsche in the silence of the straw-bale house, and I tumble into bed. Sleep comes slowly and poorly, as it has since the summer of 1979 when I last logged six consecutive hours of sleep. Even then, my nagging subconscious was trying to tell me something about the empire wasn’t quite right.

Sadly, it took me decades to figure out the problem. More sadly, most imperial Americans are well behind me on the learning curve.

_________________

This essay is permalinked at Energy Bulletin and Island Breath.

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32 Responses to “A day in the life: further adventures at the mud hut”

  1. Jan Steinman Says:

    I hope you have a bunch of willows about. Otherwise, what will you do when aspirin goes away?

  2. matt Says:

    Also, with regards to legacy
    – perhaps peak oil = ‘peak ego’

    “I never thought one of my kids would be reduced to milking a goat.”

    praise the small, the modest, the insufficent, the handmade,
    the ‘goat pen door’ and those non ergonomic seats around the camp fire!

    regards

    matt

  3. Jerry Scovel Says:

    There is a wild flower called yarrow, it is similar to aspirin without thinning the blood. Yarrow grows everywhere, requires little water and few insects attack it.

  4. Privileged Says:

    What a day! Sounds like you need Tylenol PM instead of aspirin.

  5. Guy McPherson Says:

    Jan Steinman, thanks for mentioning willow. There’s plenty on the property. Ditto for yarrow, Jerry Scovel.

  6. Lori Crouch Says:

    I’m curious as to why you do most of the food preparation in the trailer. Is it merely a preference, or is there a specific reason for that?

    Also, your dad’s statement reminds me of the story about the tourist at a Mexican beach resort who encouraged the man owning the fishing boat he hired to buy a fleet and grow his business, and then he could retire to a place like this and fish. Whereupon the man looked at him and simply said, “I already live here and fish.” My point is that you did all the other stuff only to find out that the simple stuff is most rewarding and fulfilling.

    Take care, Guy!

    Your groupie,
    Lori

  7. bubbleboy Says:

    I’ve never met a goat that I didn’t like.

  8. Guy McPherson Says:

    Lori Crouch, thanks for your first-time comment. The mobile home (trailer) houses the common kitchen and therefore the refrigerator and electric range, so that’s why we prepare food there.

    If I only have one groupie, is that still the right word? I suppose it’s a group of one?

  9. Resa Says:

    Guy: I want your life. This living half-in, half-out has about done me in even if it’s by choice based on circumstance.

    On second thoughts, I want the life suggested this past Saturday by a lady in her early-to-mid twenties. I was asked to volunteer a few hours for an educational day at a local (60-mile round trip) State heritage function. Luck of the draw, I ended up on the second floor of a stuffy two-story building (the oldest in the area) that once housed four families. After dealing with a plethora of the usual questions (why are the ceilings so low, why are there no mattresses, where did they put things if they didn’t have closets), this young lady came up to me and asked, “what did women do back then, sit around all day?”

    Yes, that’s the life I want.

    Let’s move this decline along a little quicker.

  10. Jonsi Says:

    Guy, thanks for the overpriced advice the other week. Being referenced on your blog: that is my legacy! Like when I play doctor, when I play peak oil, I play to win.

    I still don’t know what I am going to do. I have no money, no goats, and nothing but the clothes on my back and the PhD now added to the end of my name. While I wish I had taken permaculture and construction classes instead of breakdancing and standup the past few years, at least when a maurading horde shoots at my feet telling me to dance — I’ll be fine!

  11. Randy Says:

    Guy, very nice piece on a day on the homestead. I too left behind what had become a pointless career, expect for me it was not academia but rather the Intelligence Community. I was a senior intelligence officer at the Department of Homeland in-Security for three years, prior to that I worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency. During my time at DIA I looked at a dieing empire (Post Soviet Russia) and never imagined that the same would happen here. As time passed, I was concerned about various things such as how can the world support everyone wanting the “American Dream,” but such concerned were mostly dismissed by those around me. I left government almost three years ago now and started a small dairy making goat and cow cheeses, so I enjoyed your little piece and think your goat gate is just grand! I will admit, that I am a bit of a late comer to peak oil. I discovered it through the Organic Consumers Association that had posted a paper from Counter-currents (I think) called the “End of Electricity.” You probably know about this paper. That led me to Duncan and the Olduvai Theory, then “From the Wilderness” and “Live after the oil crash.” I have spent the last six months rethinking my goals, my retirement and my business plan. Lots of changes are at hand to reduce power usage, more self-sufficiency and better integration within my community. I also bought a forecart at an auction a few weeks ago. (It is used to hitch draft horses to existing farm implements.) I will probably sell one of my tractors later this summer and replace it with horses as I realized that with the end of cheap oil it will be the end of modern farming, so better to get ahead of the curve now rather than waiting until the price hits $5.00 per gallon at the pump and people stop buying tractors. You are right most people just don’t want to hear this story. My wife and son are on board, but most all of my friends have just ignored me when I have talked about peak oil. It is not to different from my days in government. When I was at DHS we (my coworkers and I) spent lots of time looking at the electrical grid (2004 time-frame) and it was not in very good shape then and no one wanted to hear that story or do anything about it. All DHS cared about was terrorism, it never dawned on them that their beloved system could and would some day fall apart due to resource constraints and shortages. I can just imagine what the morning meetings will be like in D.C. when things really start to come unglued, the stress, the unwillingness to come to terms with reality, the blame game, etc. All I can say is that I am glad to be gone and five hours away from that mad house.

  12. Jerry Scovel Says:

    Jonsi,

    I can offer you an education in the skills that you will need in exchange for labor. You can live in my motorhome until you get your own home built. After a year you will be able to fix anything and produce whatever you need to survive. Hard physical work in the open will make you tough as nails. When the maurading horde comes it is them that will be in danger.

  13. Cindy Salo Says:

    Guy, I love this! Thanks for sharing your day with us. I’m glad that I visited so that I can picture you moving around the place and working.

    Paw paws? I keep hearing about them but haven’t met them. My friend Sarah Lenz has written about her love affair with them

    http://proseandpotatoes.blogspot.com/

    Search for paw paw; there are 3 posts.

    Honeyberry? Google tells me it’s a Lonicera. Interesting.

    But, -sigh- I thought I was the only one to whom you dispensed sage advice. I hadn’t thought about the possibility that others may be dipping from the same fount of wisdom.

    Cindy

  14. Jeff Says:

    Guy,

    I’m concerned about how much aspirin you are taking and the chronic inflammation that use indicates. Chronic use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) has a lot of issues including an increased risk for a serious bleeding incident. Ironically, chronic use of NSAIDs to manage arthritis symptoms also interferes with the body’s ability to heal and regenerate that very same connective tissue. If there is a naturopathic physician available to you, you should consult with them about anti-inflammatory diet, herbs, nutrients and oils.

  15. matt Says:

    “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

  16. Wendy Says:

    Jerry, thank you for the tip on yarrow. It grows all over my property, and I’ve been pulling it out! Fortunately it comes back easily. I’ll do some research and find out how to use it medicinally – although probably not in time for a needed dose tonight.

  17. Jerry Scovel Says:

    Wendy, you are welcome. I use it for my arthritis, I use 1/8 teaspoon of dried leaves mixed with my coffee.

  18. Wendy Says:

    Guy, what an easy life you have – retired from work early, with nothing to do all day but putter around the house and garden. ;-)

  19. Frank Mezek Says:

    WENDY:

    Where have you been?

    Don’t stay away so long.ProfEmGuy and I need you.

    DoubleD

  20. zubair Says:

    Hey,
    I already have the advantage of living in a third world country,which is trying to catch up with you,without looking back on the consequences who guys are affronted with,any way,perhaps i will go to inspect a property away from every where which matter,hope very soon ishall be able to post photos of pure nature with goats and a cow,

  21. zubair Says:

    Hey,
    I already have the advantage of living in a third world country,which is trying to catch up with you,without looking back on the consequences you guys are affronted with,any way,perhaps i will go to inspect a property away from every where which matter,hope very soon ishall be able to post photos of pure nature with goats and a cow,

  22. Bill Fugagli Says:

    Tell your dad I never thought I’d have a grandson who walked around carrying a chicken.

  23. Frank Mezek Says:

    Since this is Election Day in the US,let me state categorically that I am a Veteran and I have been to Vietnam,although not at the same time.

    I cannot vouch for anyone in Connecticut.

    Double D

  24. Jerry Scovel Says:

    Frank, that, and $12 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
    Jerry Scovel USN 1965-1977

  25. Frank Mezek Says:

    Thanks Jerry,

    And for the record I’ve never even met Tracy Jackson.

    Does Your Reverend DD have to defend himself against every scurrilous
    slander??

    Now let’s get back to serious discussion here.

    Double D

  26. Jerry Scovel Says:

    Since Jonsi apparently does not need help making the transition to post peak oil I would like to extend the offer to anyone in the group that needs help leaving civilization behind.

  27. Frank Mezek Says:

    ProfEmGuy,

    I know how you feel.I just loaded a case of beer into the fridge.
    Do you know how much a case of beer weighs?

    How is Frankie ??

    Double D

  28. Wendy Says:

    Thanks, Frank. Nice to see you still kicking around here. I do stop in now and again, but for the most part, since I don’t keep up with all the world news, I don’t have anything valuable to add to the discussion. Mostly I just keep on keepin’ on in my own little corner of the world.

    Update from rural Idaho: setting up a mobile home on the family property; delivered a chicken coop to same location in a mad dash to prepare for chicks to arrive this Friday; got my garden put in during the one non-rainy weekend this month; and now have three hives of bees in my orchard. Next on list: order book on making cheese and start studying up for my attempt to emulate the delicious-looking cheese made by our illustrious ProfEmGuy (assuming we acquire the goat on schedule this summer).

  29. Mike Says:

    Guy,

    The idea of peak oil is so very human. Peak oil, by definition, is almost always represented by a timeline, a curve. It’s an academic’s wet dream; an analysis of the past and a projection of the future. Yes, somewhere lost in time, our species stepped out of the present, nature bacame an other, and we began looking over distant horizons both ahead and behind. We began to live less in our bodies and more in our minds. I enjoyed this latest post because it seemed filled with a sense conflict; the past/future thinking acedemic coming to terms with the physical present, reduced to the milking of goats. The phyical work is hard, yes, but for a wide ranging mind like yours, use to living and thinking in timelines and curves, it seems the harder work is letting go, embracing the present, being content, even happy, chopping wood – carrying water. Doing it not out of nessesity, but out of love. Or maybe that’s just me projecting my own feelings, but still, when the work is done do you dangle your feet in the river? Or is it back to the “imperial screen of death”. Why? What opportunity costs there? Oh the many hours have I wasted gazing at the Times interactive map of the oil spill, watching it’s progress? Oh, how many diasters have I spent my one wild and precious life watching unfold? Last week though, when I was overcome with the burdens of seperation, economic and ecological collapse, ignorance and brutality, strangely enough (and Stan will understand) I only found peace, at last, in the Bosque, high up in a cottonwood, in the piercing eyes of a common black hawk sitting on her nest. It was a mystery unfathomable and that made all the difference. Nietzsche was smart but he new nothing of black hawks, he stared always, lidless, at the imperial screen of death. That, I think, was the source of his sorrow, and his greatest mistake. The budda was right about sorrow but Abbey had the better answer: “I believe in sun and rock, the doctrine of sun and the dogma of rock.” Or maybe Thoreau: “…rock, trees, the wind on our cheeks, the solid earth, the actual world. Contact…Contact..” Whoever said it best, the idea is the same and your post is a perfect portrait, in mircocosm, of a species about to reconnect with the present. B. Travens words still scare the shit out of me: “This is the real world, muchachos, and you are in it.”

  30. Stan Moore Says:

    Here is a song that Guy might enjoy listening to while resting from his labors at the mud hut (written by George Harrison) (Google it if this does not like properly)

    That’s The Way It Goes by Joe Brown Play song from Lala.com
    More Of The Truth – 2008 – 3:39
    Listen on: Lala – iLike – Rhapsody

  31. Jason Rivera Says:

    my uncle got stomach ulcers because he took a lot of Aspirin to take care of his high blood pressure.,:~

  32. Jerry Scovel Says:

    A house on the river can produce all the energy you need with water wheels, why live on land?