Archives for category: Advice

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Most of the country is suffering a serious heat wave. The temperatures are up–though not searing. The issue is this new measure, the “heat index” that combines heat and humidity for a new measure of miserable. This, they say, is the weather of the future.

In addition to gardening, beekeeping and our other regular outdoor duties, Rick and I are working to finish the exterior of the barn. We have a crew (who seem to show up when it’s convenient for them). So, in their frequent absences, we soldier on, on our own.  Right now we are staining the exterior materials. Two coats of Sikkens.

It’s easier to apply the stain before the siding and trim materials are installed. You can do it inside the barn, away from the sun and the bugs. You don’t have to work 30 feet up, on a ladder. And you get a better finish. I’m doing the trim materials downstairs and Rick is doing the siding upstairs. We listen to the radio.

We’re tuned into a station that plays oldies-rock n’ roll. About every twenty minutes they do an update on the weather. Given the high heat index numbers, the weather report comes with health advisories–warnings to keep hydrated and minimize exertion. We just keep going. Our goal is to finish all exterior work by the end of the month so we can be free of the hassle and expense of the crew.

Yesterday, after the umpteenth warning regarding the special dangers of a high heat index number to “vulnerable populations,” I had a flash of insight. These warnings are for folks who work outdoors, or small children… or the elderly. Rick and I are both in our sixties.

“Hell,” I called up to him, “You know, they mean us!”

rose chafer

It’s the same every year. Except this year. The first week of June brings verdant growth in the garden. And, it brings rose chafers. Rose chafers can be the bane of a gardener’s dreams. My crazy neighbor blamed me and my long vacant property for her rose chafer woes. I thought she was nuts.*

In my first years here, I didn’t know what they were. I had to do research to identify and find defenses to these voracious pests. It’s best to know your enemy. Rose chafers, true to their name, love rose plants–their leaves and their tender, delicious petals. I resolved early to avoid planting roses. (The deer love them, too.) Roses were definitely not worth the headache. Unfortunately for us, rose chafers thrive in sandy grassy meadows and their tastes are not limited to roses. The female digs into the sand to lay her eggs, which hatch into larvae and develop, eating roots. They emerge in June, as adults–ready to chow down on your precious leaves, mate, and start the whole cycle over again.

In my case, the garden plants are not too badly targeted–it’s in the orchard where I see the damage. Initially, I convinced myself that ‘handpicking,’ the organic gardener’s first line of defense, would be adequate. I mean, how bad could it be? They’re just bugs, and their entire life cycle happens in a scant three to four weeks. Left unchecked, rose chafers (who are leaf-suckers) can skeletonize a tree’s leaves. Not good. But moderate predation is not a bad thing…over time, a tree will make its leaves more bitter, to fend off the attackers.

Handpicking could be a full time job. These little buggers have wings–and even if you could kill every one in the orchard, new ones will fly right in to replace them. Not that I didn’t try. I’d go out, several times a day and squish every rose chafer I could reach (another limitation on hand picking.) This could easily average 30 to 50 bugs per tree, with the plum trees being most heavily afflicted. They love those plums. Last year, my sister visited. She was horrified that I was squashing the bugs in my bare hands! Gross! But then she returned home and found them eating the flowers in her garden and promptly stepped up to her full potential as a cold-blooded rose chafer killer.

There are some built-in killing efficiencies, tied to the bugs’ short lifespan and behaviors. In their adult form, rose chafers have only two objectives: breeding and eating. More often than not, they do both, simultaneously. That way, I can kill them in ‘the act,’ which adds the satisfaction that you’re eliminating the next generation at the same time. I’m not sure if it speaks to their biological imperative, or to the males’ ineptitude as lovers, but the females don’t even stop munching when mounted. I can almost hear them, “Whatever…just don’t interrupt my meal.” Since it’s the munching that causes the damage, I wish their romantic efforts were more of a distraction.

There are alternatives–everyone is enamored of pheromone traps. They are non-toxic and draw their victims in with floral and sex attractive fragrances. They certainly are effective on yellow jackets and hornets. But, the downside of pheromone traps in an orchard setting is that they may actually bring the pests in droves. (I suppose it’d be good if you could put the traps in the neighbor’s yard, far from your own precious plants.) I read that sometimes the traps would be so effective, that you’d have difficulty disposing of the buckets of insects attracted. Yuck. I’d read that, in some cases, netting could be necessary. I checked the priced on agricultural netting fabric and balked. Those tree nets could run $60.00 per tree! So I reverted to the organic gardener’s second line of defense, soap spray.

You simply mix a couple of teaspoons of liquid dish detergent and water into a standard hand pump sprayer. To be effective, you need to get the bug pretty drenched. I’ve become an expert marksman with the sprayer. I can blast the little bastards right out of the air, as they try to land on my trees. This method has some of the same disadvantages as handpicking–you have to stay on top of it, several times a day. But it’s much faster, so, in an average situation, you can keep ahead of the chafer damage.

This is not an average year. In desperation, I started checking online to see if others were experiencing similar plights. Rose chafers are also pests to grape farmers. Here in Leelanau County, we have a growing wine industry. The MSU (Michigan’s Ag University)    site indicated that one or two rose chafers per branch was a tolerable level. But this year, Leelanau grape growers have reported up to 200 insects per branch! Not surprisingly, many are reaching for toxic pesticides. Not me.  My poor plum trees are not that infested, but I’m not keeping up with the damage. I’ve already given up on getting an actual crop–at this point my objective is to save the plum trees. (The rose chafers have only a passing interest in the apple trees–and no interest whatsoever in the pears.) There I am, up to four times a day, blasting away with my soap spray.

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It won’t go on forever. Just until the end of the season (three or four weeks), or until the nets arrive…whichever comes first.

 

*Well, she is nuts. But there’s some minimal truth to what she says. Were we to cultivate the entire field, it would disturb the sand–and the eggs and larvae. So, by leaving it natural as habitat, we are contributing to the rose chafer’s success.

 

Long Live the Queen…Part 2

(What Were We Thinking?)

A.V. Walters–

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And, finally home in their hives.

We know better. There is no shortcut to proper procedure.

This pulls together a number of wayward thoughts, please bear with me.

 

Some months ago, one of the leaders of our bee group reported that she had a “hot hive” and had been stung over forty times when she tried to work it. “Forty Times!” I thought, “I’d quit bees in a heartbeat.” Shortly after that, I was visiting Garth, a bee-buddy of mine and I was stung. No big deal, it’s a part of beekeeping. Knowing that I react to stings, Garth grabbed my arm and sprayed it with his homemade “aphid spray.” He’d discovered that it helped to lessen the impact of a bee sting. Surprisingly, it worked—though I still swelled up, the large local reaction was half of what I usually suffer. We debated what the active ingredient might be—was it the mint? (peppermint and spearmint) The dish soap? The garlic oil? Garth wasn’t willing to experiment. After all, when it works, why bother?

Many years ago, my then-husband came up a mysterious rash—related to his new fitness plan of regular swimming. We thought it might be the pool chemicals. He ended up seeing a dermatologist. The doctor was intrigued. He did an “ice cube test” and determined that the problem was a relatively rare condition called cold urticaria. My husband was allergic to the cold, and the rash was simply hives. “Not a problem, then… we surmised. The Doc was quick to correct, “Not if it’s just a few patches, but if you get those raised welts over large swaths, it puts you at risk for heart failure.”

Now, the prospect of heart failure steps things up a notch. The Doc advised to seek immediate medical attention if the rash spread to more than a quarter of a body’s surface. He suggested considering another form of exercise. My husband opted to continue swimming, and over time, the rash abated.

 

Back to our bee story… we were in a hurry to get our two queenless hives re-queened. I drove half-way across the state to collect our new royals, so the first thing the next morning, we were up for the task of installing them. A new queen isn’t just dumped into the waiting hive. She must be kept in a queen cage for several days, so her pheromones can work her magic on the hive. Otherwise, she risks rejection by the colony, and murder. Generally, one makes the effort to install the queen at or near the bottom level of the hive. This is especially true, late in the season, so that the brood and ball of bees will be below the honey storage. That way, during the winter the bees can travel up, through the column of warmth generated by the huddled bees, to their food supply. If they have to travel down, or sideways, they risk “cold starvation.” An entire colony can starve, within inches of their food stores, if it’s too cold to make that short trip.

There were several considerations. We knew the hives were hot. We knew that the installation should be as brief as possible. They’d been pretty well-behaved during the split, so we weren’t too concerned. Because we expected this to be quick, we just wore our bee jackets, instead of fully suiting up. That was our first mistake. To speed up the process, we also decided to lift up all the top boxes at once, so we could place the queen cage directly into the bottom deep box, supposedly minimizing disruption. That was our second mistake.

Together, the top, inner cover and two medium boxes of honey, were a little heavier than we expected. As a result, our entry into the hive was not as measured and smooth as usual. And, perhaps because we were opening directly into the bees’ home (and not just the honey storage) we may have alarmed them…

Nothing in our beekeeping experience could have prepared us for what happened next.

Instantly, the usual background hive hum raised to a fever pitch and bees poured out in a tsunami of bee defense. No warning. No raised abdomens or threatening thunks. It was a full-scale attack. They got me first, covering me with stinging bees. The bee jacket mostly worked—only a few stingers got past its tight weave. But one layer of denim is no defense against determined bees and my jeans were covered with the angry, stinging mob. Even as the words, “We’re in trouble,” left my lips, I heard Rick’s cursing reaction as the bees found his ankles. Somehow, he still managed to shove that queen cage into the maw, before we jammed that hive shut. And then I abandoned him.

From the hips down, every part of me was on fire. When a bee stings, it gives up its life in defense of the hive. It also releases an alarm pheromone that tells other bees, “Sting here!” They did. I was a cloud of alarmed bees. Nothing I could do dissuaded them. I ran. They followed. I tried rolling in the dirt; still, they came. I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed down my legs and the bee cloud around me. It didn’t slow them down at all. (Though the cool water was a bit of relief.) And then I ran again, to get as far away from the hive as I could. Peripherally, I was aware that Rick was in a similar dance. I don’t remember screaming, but he says I was. I distinctly remember his cursing.

Finally free of advancing bees, I started scraping away the bees that were sticking to my jeans and socks. I saw Rick flicking them away with his leather gloves and followed his lead. As soon as we were clear of bees, we ran for the apartment and peeled out of our clothing at the door. Even then, there were some bees stuck to our jeans and bee jackets.

Once inside, near naked, Rick said, “Now what?” There was no time to debate. I’d always thought that Garth’s “active ingredient” was the garlic. It was a gamble, but it was all we had. “Garlic!” I yelled, and Rick started peeling cloves as I ran for the anti-histamines. I pulled out my epi-pen and laid it on the table, just in case.

Rick’s ankles were beginning to balloon. For some reason, that was his most targeted zone. Everything below my hips was mine. The rising welts were beginning to merge—I counted 47 stings on the front of my left thigh, before giving up on the count. It was more important to rub in the garlic. I figure I was stung over a hundred times. Many of those stings were “minor,” such that they did not go deep or leave a stinger—in that, our jeans saved us.

Garlic. We grated it, cloves and cloves of it. And then rubbed it into our tortured skin. It stung a little—but in the wake of what we’d been through, we hardly noticed. I was well aware that one, or both of us, would likely end up in the ER. In the back of my mind, I was remembering the admonition—if over twenty-five percent of a body welts up, it’s time to seek medical attention! For nearly an hour we grated and spread the garlic. The kitchen smelled like an Italian restaurant. If we had to go to the hospital, there was going to be some explaining to do.

Finally, it began to work. The welts began to dissipate.

Then, Rick did the unthinkable. He suited up again to retrieve the second queen (left out in the bee yard) to insert her into the other queenless hive. Granted, he just put her in the top—but at that moment, nothing could have convinced me to go anywhere near the bees. He was the hero of the day.

Not that we weren’t still uncomfortable. The stings continued to itch. For me it took two days for the welts to completely disappear—but normally, on me, a sting can remain inflamed for up to a week. This was a phenomenal recovery.

And the bees recovered, too. Both hives have accepted their new queens and they are merrily back to work, in their orderly bee way. Would I quit beekeeping? Not on your life. We’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, though… Garlic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow the Money–

A.V. Walters–

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That’s my rule of thumb, whenever there is a whiff of scandal. I remember California’s Energy Crisis—the one that ushered in billions in debt as the state struggled to meet energy needs. Why the sudden scarcity of electricity? I believed then, that the crisis was manipulated. California couldn’t get any traction with FERC—the federal agency charged with regulating the energy exchanges. After all, George W. was the new Sheriff in town, and California didn’t vote for him. Years later, litigation in Washington State revealed the graft and market manipulation that gave us the “crisis.” By then, George W.’s friend, Enron was already gone, and California spent the next decade digging out from the debt of that fraud. Follow the Money.

What if there doesn’t seem to be any money? Then, look to who benefits.

And that brings us to Flint. We are told that the poisoning of 100,000 Flint residents was the unfortunate result of managerial ineptitude. Clearly, at least that is true. But, we need to look a little harder. Following the money doesn’t help, because the very fact that the parties in question were already under Michigan’s draconian and, unconstitutional, Emergency Manager Act, means that the lack of money had already been established. However, we’ve seen enough of the results of Michigan’s Emergency Managers to know that the appointment of a Manager, combined with the stripping of democratic representation, generally means that the troubled, usually minority, community in question, has something, some asset, that the Governor’s cronies want.

It’s too early to know whether the Flint crisis was steeped in some other, darker motivation. But there are early, and troubling, indications that saving money for Flint wasn’t the primary objective. Follow the money—look to who gains. As always, governmental transparency is essential to maintaining the integrity and trust of the citizens. Recently, the State of Michigan dropped to last place in the fifty states, in its score for government ethics. We have a long way to go to rebuilding citizen trust, so I suggest the Governor step forward with ALL the relevant records.

Governor Snyder did release two year’s worth of “relevant” emails on the issue. Unfortunately, those records were not complete, were heavily redacted and did not go back nearly far enough. When someone makes the effort to hide their actions—they are hiding their motives. Then, we need to look even harder at the facts. Let’s face it, it is unlikely that the citizens of Flint voted for this administration—they are not his constituency.

I don’t have the answers. I only have a healthy sense of curiosity and a deep sense of outrage at what has happened to the citizens of Flint, and especially to the children, whose futures have been diminished. To say the least, I have questions.

Emails released by Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) reveal that Flint was offered a very sweet deal for continuing with Detroit water. The price offered was lower than any savings offered by switching to the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, both in the short and long term. Why then, the rush to change Flint’s water supply?

This is not Michigan’s first Emergency Manager water crisis. Long before Flint, the City of Detroit (and DWSD) were placed under the Governor’s Emergency Manager’s powers. Go back a couple of years, to the days when, under the Emergency Manager, DWSD was cutting off water service to delinquent homeowners—while carrying delinquent corporations with far more egregious non-payment histories. It was an international embarrassment. DWSD was caught failing to accurately credit payments made and returning individual customer’s checks—because payments had to be in cash. In short, under the Emergency Manager’s powers, DWSD was making customer payments and accounting more difficult and then, based on the very problems they were creating, suggesting that the only solution was to split up and privatize Detroit’s water assets. Nestle, everyone’s favorite purveyor of necessities, was discussed as the “obvious” choice for privatizing Detroit’s significant water assets. You know, the same company that denies that water is a human right, and advocates that municipal water supplies be turned over to for-profit corporations. What connections did the Governor or the Emergency Manager have with Nestle, or any other private water interests? (Besides the fact that Deb Muchmore, the wife of the Governor’s then-Chief of Staff, is a Nestle spokesperson.)

I question whether the seeds of the Flint crisis don’t start with the Emergency Manager’s efforts, in Detroit, to ‘starve the beast’ of DWSD. After all, the long-term viability of DWSD was enhanced by Flint’s water supply contracts. Only a full release of all documents will tell. Why the rush to a new water source if DWSD was offering a good deal? Why sign on to a new, as yet un-built, pipeline, if it wasn’t the best economic deal? Who was paying for the new pipeline? Whose interests, other than the City of Flint, were to be served by the new pipeline? (It’s been suggested that the pipeline was also to serve Eastern Michigan’s fracking industry.) Is there any truth to this? Even if the new, Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline was a viable water solution for Flint, why the rush to use the Flint River in the interim, especially since it had previously been determined to be unsafe? Experts had warned that the Flint River was badly contaminated. Experts also advised that the Flint River water was corrosive and would damage the city’s water infrastructure unless properly treated. Why wasn’t this done? Surely, minor savings couldn’t justify trashing the existing water system, and risking the release of toxic lead into the city’s drinking water. Whose interests were served by starving DWSD? I have questions, and the citizens of Michigan and the City of Flint deserve answers.

We have a right to know. Those in charge—all the way to the Governor’s office—have to account for what has been done. It needs to go on their permanent record. The legacy of this Governor’s administration, and its appointments, is a generation of poisoned children. If this is mere negligence, those responsible must be identified and removed from any decision-making authority or power. There may be cause to seek criminal prosecutions for decisions that were, at best, reckless. I’m not so sure they were even well-meaning. But answers to these questions may reveal something even more hideous.

If there’s any connection between the crony-capitalist friends of this administration and the results in Flint, we owe it to the children to leave no stone unturned in our investigation. If reckless decisions were made, in order to provide profit opportunities for friends of the administration, then these actions go well beyond negligence. We need to determine whether there was a criminal conspiracy to benefit private interests at the expense of public obligations. We’ll need to look to any and all documents related to Emergency Manager control of or involvement with ANY water assets in Michigan. We’ll need to look to any campaign contributions, or other “considerations,” from companies that could have benefitted.

This isn’t just a question of integrity. (Michigan’s current government is already at the bottom of that list.) It’s a question of intent. If it turns out that this imbroglio was the result of a conspiracy to funnel public assets into private coffers—then ALL conspirators are liable for the damage resulting from the furtherance of the conspiracy. In Michigan we have wondered, how will we afford to remedy this situation—care for the poisoned populace and fix the damaged infrastructure. If this was done for profit, then all those who participated in the scheme will share the culpability and liability. And if individuals knowingly participated in a scheme that poisoned Flint, they must be charged and tried. People have died because of this. This goes beyond reckless disregard, if this was done for profit, it is a crime against humanity.

Like I said, we have to follow the money. We have questions and we need the answers, for the sake of the children.

 

 

 

 

In Time for Ladybugs

A.V. Walters

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Two years ago, this week, Rick and I arrived in Leelanau. We’d loaded our truck at my brother’s on a clear, crisp autumn day. Not bothering to cover the load in such stellar weather, we then drove through three hours of mixed rain and snow, all the way to Empire. When we arrived at our little cottage rental, it was full of Ladybugs.

When autumn gives you mixed weather—a clear warning of winter to come—she delivers it with a garnish of Ladybugs. On warmer days, they descend, lighting on any surface warmed by the sun. The air is full of them. They get into the house. If they’re pests, they’re cheerful pests. It’s difficult to work up any insect-phobic reaction to excessive Ladybugs.

We’re rushing to complete some of the outdoor work before the weather turns. The air is full of Ladybugs, so we know well what’s on the way.

Our work is not specifically gender determined. We each take on those tasks for which we have experience. Gender typing does ultimately play a factor—because our respective lives and experiences have formed us along such lines. Generally Rick does the heavy lifting. I have become the expert on surfaces, sanding and architectural coatings. Rick is stronger than me, and has more experience with heavy equipment. I am not afraid of heights.

Rick is just finishing up the installation of the septic tank and field. That’s grueling work—digging, moving stone and sand. It would be impossible without the Kubota, but even with, there’s plenty of shovel work to leave you worn and sore by the end of each day. It looks wonderful, neat and crisp. He does good work (even the inspector said so.) It’s funny to put so much care into something that you immediately bury (and with any luck, you’ll never see again!) But a good septic system is imperative if you want to do your part in keeping surface waters clean. All water flows somewhere, and in this region, everything ultimately flows into our Great Lakes. Proper rural sewage treatment is not rocket science—but it is too often overlooked as a source of contamination. Rick is seeing to it that we are on the “part of the solution” side of the equation.

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Everyone likes the idea of clean water. However, whenever the state legislature, or local code authorities try to strengthen standards or enforce compliance with septic rules, the individual liberties and property rights folks go crazy. As though it were their personal right to pollute our collective drinking water.

When you think of it, sewage treatment is a sort of litmus test for civilization. If you cannot figure out how to deal with your wastes—you’ll poison yourself in your own fetid soup. Not meeting that threshold, means you don’t merit the other percs of civilization. As a culture, we should reflect further on that starting point.

I’ve just finished the exterior sealing of the log walls. First there was the inevitable prep—the critical step in any good home protection system. When paint or stain jobs fail, it’s almost always a failure in the prep process. If your prep doesn’t take twice as long as your actual application, you’re probably doing it wrong. Then, two coats of stain. This has been a stinky, messy, oil-based operation. I cringe at it, but it is necessary for the long term care of our home. I’ve painted several homes in my life, but this is my first initial staining of a raw wood exterior. Before I started, I did research.

After two days of day-end skin cleaning, with solvents and abrasives, I figured out that I could start the day with my face and hands liberally slathered with a cheap, greasy lotion—to simplify clean-up and avoid the day-end toxic ritual. I must have looked a fright. I have “paint clothes” that I’ve used repeatedly over the years. They are more paint than fabric. To this I added a neckerchief over my hair, and one around my neck (daubed in herbal bug repellant.) And then I slicked that greasy layer over the skin of my face and hands. I was unrecognizable. By the end of each day, stain speckles on my glasses made me even weirder looking—and nearly blind.

You can only apply paint or stain within a limited temperature range. Some days, it was just too cold for the materials. I really wanted to get the double coat onto the logs, so I could rest assured that the house was protected for the winter—and for winters to come. Make no mistake, winter is coming—the meaning behind the profusion of Ladybugs wasn’t lost on me. I found a good rock’n roll radio station (or, as good as it gets, in Northern Michigan) and, pumped up with oldies from my youth, powered on through.

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On logs, they recommend (especially for the first coat) that you apply the stain log-by-log, the full length of any given log, before moving on to the next log. Raw logs are so thirsty that if you don’t constantly work “from a wet edge” you’ll have forever-lap-marks on the logs. And, they told me to work from bottom to top. So that any drips can be brushed out. A stain drip on a naked log becomes a permanent feature.

I didn’t argue. Even though this method maximizes the number of ladder moves, I stuck with it. And, I grew muscled with the wrestling of the ladders. My work on the last side, the north side, was confounded by the trenches Rick had dug for the septic—further complicating the ladder dance. (And, it would be the north face—the highest side of the house!) I was chugging along in my usual rhythm until I hit the north side. Then, maneuvering my ladders around the trenches I lost my nerve.

I looked for it, high and low, but I could not get my nerve back. Maybe I was tired. Maybe stiff and sore legs wouldn’t respond as they should, and it made me feel awkward and uncomfortable on high. Maybe someone snuck kryptonite into my breakfast and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was a mere mortal when working aloft. The farther up the ladder I went, the more cravenly rigid and jerky I became on the ladder. I was petrified. Only the sin of pride forced me back up there to finish that first coat (and then I vowed that I would not go back up until spring, or at least until the trenches were all filled.) I was firm in my fearful resolve, that is, until I saw the results of a second coat.

The first coat soaks into the wood. It looks flat and mottled. The second coat is the juicy, outer, protective coating. It intensifies and evens the pigment. It not only protects, it makes the house look great. And it goes on much faster. My second-coat practice on the east, south and west sides built up my confidence. Though some fear remained, I was able to grit my teeth and return to my usual ladder mobility. (It’s funny that I’m good on ladders and in climbing trees, because I’m an absolute clutz on the ground level.)

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With my last brushstroke I called out to Rick (setting pipe in the rock of the septic field) and did a victory dance in front of the house. That’s one ugly job behind me. I triumphed over fear, and got the job done. Next, I need to start insulating the roof and upstairs ceiling. I hear that if you rub copious quantities of corn starch into your skin at the beginning of each insulating day, you can escape the usual “insulator’s itch. “ It’s at least worth a try (and, it couldn’t be any worse than slathering yourself with hand lotion.)

Winter is coming. I have recovered my nerve. We have Ladybugs everywhere, and my hands have never been so soft.

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Cursed and Blessed, Both

A.V. Walters

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Oh, this project has tested us. It has been beset with delays, but I can’t complain. Each delay has brought hidden gifts. When last year we didn’t have time to put in a garden, we learned through the season that our initial garden spot was not a good place—not the best light and a bit too steep. That delay led to our current (now fenced) garden, which has great light and a gentle southern exposure, which will give us a little edge on spring. Likewise, our delays led to a reassessment on the best location for the septic system.

Some of our delays have had an even longer fuse—and, perhaps, an even better payoff.

We selected the log cabin because we thought it would go up quick. In the process, the guy selling it wanted to also push the “upgrades,” cedar logs instead of pine, the rustic railings and fancy split-log staircase. Mostly we were skeptical. Cedar, though, that seemed smart—cedar resists insect damage, much like the old growth redwood in California. Cedar fence posts last forever. So, when Bob told us that, unlike the pine, cedar logs were dimensionally stable, we listened. The railings and stairs were expensive and, well…ugly, falling into that category of over-rustic, or simply rustic for rustic’s sake. On those, we passed.

“Just how stable?” Rick pressed for answers. Rick had never built with logs, and he was concerned about shrinkage. Log home packages are often sold with adjustment jacks—big, cumbersome screw assemblies that allow you to tweak the non-log support members to keep the upper floors level (and to keep the log walls from spreading under weight.) Our pioneer forebears didn’t have such gizmos and their simple homes were notoriously caddywhompus. In response, Bob said that the shrinkage in their cedar logs was virtually “un-measurable!” Ever logical, Rick pressed further, “If the cedar logs are that stable, why do we need the complicated jack assemblies?”

We should have listened closer to Bob’s response. He said, “You don’t have to have them.”

When the kit was delivered, there were no jacks. I asked about it—and Bob told me that Rick didn’t want them. Hmmm. I shrugged. The kit installers (“stackers”—our very own Flanagin Brothers, though we didn’t know it yet) asked about the jacks—and we told them that Bob had told us that we didn’t need them with the cedar. They shrugged and said, “We’ve never done a log kit without them, but okay…”

Our cabin survived the winter, without any appreciable shrinkage. Rick built out the interior walls and the upper decking—then we wrapped and covered the whole thing until spring. The great unveiling revealed what we’d been led to expect—no real shrinkage.

When the Flanagins arrived to do the roof they mentioned the jacks (again) and we showed them our absence of shrinkage. We reiterated what the seller, Bob, had said. They shook their heads and shrugged (again). Then the roof went on.

The combined additional weight (from the roof) and exposure (now that it was unwrapped) resulted in what the Flanagins had expected all along. Accelerated shrinkage. They measured the growing gaps at the exposed ends and predicted a total of 2 to 2 ½ inches of drop. That meant that our center, load-bearing wall (and thus the upstairs floor above) would end up that much higher than the exterior walls and floors—a veritable roller coaster of an upstairs floor, and potential buckled log walls. Not only that, but the extent of this movement endangers many other building systems—doors and windows, plumbing, wiring and ducting. Until this is resolved (either fixed, or until all the shrinkage is finished) one cannot continue the construction without risking future system failures.

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There is always shrinkage and warping in wood construction. We get that. We are not perfectionists. But, even before all the expected shrinkage has occurred, the end result in our kiln-dried cedar logs is not “immeasurable.” The only word that I know to describe what happened here, is fraud.

A retrofit is never as easy as doing something right the first time. It is beyond our abilities. So we’ve hired the Flanagins back again—to save us yet again. We had to wait again, for a window in their schedule, but we are blessed. This week they’ve re-supported our upper floor with temporary piers, cut out parts of the load-bearing walls, and installed the jacks. All of Rick’s interior framing will have to come out, or be cut shorter, to make way for the downward shrinkage. One step forward, two steps back.

As soon as they finish we can really get going on finishing our home. It’s been trying, but our enthusiasm for the finish hasn’t waned. The question that hangs in the air is whether we “do something about it.” We feel that we’ve been saved from a bad outcome by the Flanagins (again). Solution in hand, we’re moving forward. But, are we rewarding bad behavior? Do we need to confront Bob with his misrepresentations? I, of course, am wracking my brain for what advantage was gained, by Bob…the proverbial why of it. I am chronically that third-grade kid, jaw dropped, because people are breaking the rules. What was he thinking?

It’s not that we lack the skills to take Bob to task on this. I can certainly go there, if not for us, maybe to teach him a lesson for others. Rick shakes his head—he doesn’t believe people like that ever learn lessons, “It’s just what they do.” They’ll always push the envelope, even if just for sport. With great relief, the home project moves forward and the past is there on our shoulders. We’re wrestling with it

And, there, the solution nearly done.

And, there, the solution nearly done.