Archives for posts with tag: Building

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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!”

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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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Waiting on Color

A.V. Walters

Color is late this year. Not just here, I’m hearing it everywhere. Back home, where normally it would be finishing up by now, most of the trees are still green. Here we’re a couple of weeks behind–and we’re only seeing the occasional branch, or isolated tree, that has bolted into spectacular. I keep telling myself I’ll blog when I can post great color shots. And then I wait.

It’s not like the weather hasn’t changed. It’s autumn here. Night time temps are dropping into the 40s. I have to harvest the last of my basil and tomatoes, before the first hard frost. I’m staining the cabin–and some days it’s too chilly to stain. Though staining is akin to paint–and should be an improvement–Rick and I have grown attached to the look of cedar logs. They must be stained, to protect from rot and UV damage. Still, we like the natural look and cringe that the work I’m doing makes the cabin look like Lincoln Logs. I’m sure I’ll get enough warm days to get the first coat on–the cooler days I use for prep. Rainy days, I work on the computer. Rick is busy putting in the septic. Those cool power tools, the Kubota and the backhoe, are seeing good use. We’ll get it in, and inspected, just in time for the weather to really turn.

Some folks plan their vacations around color. It’s a risky venture–trying to guess when nature will accommodate. Is it a failure if you head off to the boonies–and have only green to reward you? I suppose an early winter would be worse–or a dry year with only shriveled, brown leaves. Our neck of the woods has recently been voted the best color-drive in the country. I don’t know how such things are judged. (I’ll bet folks back in the Keweenaw, or at the Porcupine Mountains, will think the jig is rigged.) I only know that it will extend our tourist season–which can’t be all bad for the local economy. The wine-tasting vineyards and orchard stands will be happy.

In the meantime, we keep working. It’s a year late, but we have our winter-defendable shell in place. The doors and windows went in last week. Once we get the chimney in, we’ll actually be able to heat it, making for a cozy place to work until it’s ready for us to move in. All things in due time. Next time, color shots!

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.

Up to Our Eyebrows

A.V. Walters

A Roof!

A Roof!

The past month or so has been a whirlwind of work and changes. First, we finally have a roof! We’re working on the gable ends, and the doors and windows aren’t in, but we no longer wrestle with tarps every time the wind is up, or rain threatens. Rain was a real trial during the roof installation. After a record dry May, our crew was finally ready in June. And then the rains came. It was on again, off again, and every transition was a tarp wrangling event.

It’s a steep roof, a 12/12 pitch, on the main section. We’re thankful to the Flanagin Brothers, whose daring and determination made it go up. Rick and I would have been hard-pressed to pull it off by ourselves. (We’re talking about fifty, twenty-foot long, 2”x12”s, here.) Too high, too hard, too scary. They were undaunted by the challenge. Crazy characters, they’re twin brothers whose laughter ( and, on a rare occasion, bickering like an old married couple) rings out from the work site and who, in almost eerie symmetry, work together like interlocking puzzle pieces, finishing each other’s sentences and solving problems near wordlessly–as though building were some kind of secret dance routine. It’s been a pleasure to have them around. Soon, their work will be finished and it’ll be back to Rick and I to finish. We’ll miss their levity, skills, and their cool confidence.

They’d be gone already, but for a last minute idea. They were about to enclose the gable ends when one of them (I can’t remember which one) mentioned that the log to gable-wall transition could really use an “eyebrow” roof. (This would be a roof line that sticks out about two feet, separating the log walls and the A-line gable-end walls.) The other twin completed the idea, “Yeah, it’d give you sun protection in the summer and keep the rain and snow off the log walls.” Rick and I looked at each other and the decision was made. Why didn’t we think of that?

With eyebrows!

With eyebrows!

It’s an old-fashioned design element–a sensible way of using an extra layer of roof overhang to protect the walls and to give relief from the heat of the summer sun, while still making the most of the low-angled winter light. The Flanagins keep trying to sell it to us on aesthetic grounds–but we’re already sold on function. Besides, it doesn’t win us over to tell us it’ll have that “cute cottage look.” We’re not big fans of cute. So, the Flanagins are still with us, and we’re literally up to our eyebrows in the project.

The excitement of building progress–even interrupted by rainstorms–has helped to carry me along. I’ve been under the weather, a victim of self-inflicted illness. I have food sensitivities. While I’m usually very careful, in the busyness of full-tilt construction, I misread a food label, and I’ve been paying the price for weeks. My apologies, dear readers, I have not been up to blogging–or much of anything else. It’s a good thing the bees mostly look after themselves. Had they been pets, they’d have perished from neglect. Rick has never witnessed a full-blown celiac episode, and he has a new appreciation for my normal level of kitchen vigilance.

I’m mending now, and picking up the pace on those things I can do on site. I’m sealing the interior of the log walls, and just starting on the exterior. I’ve been using my downtime to source cool building materials on craigslist, recycled or reclaimed timbers that make the project distinctive, and lower its carbon footprint. It helps to us keep out of the big box stores and away from retail prices. And every offbeat purchase has a story, which gets woven into our story of building the house.

Baby Steps

A.V. Walters

Looking deceptively innocent.

Looking deceptively innocent.

The fence is complete. After tonight, the last night on which we expect a frost alert, we can put our garden starts outdoors into their permanent homes. We’ve been hauling them out every day (all seventy or so of them) and then hauling them all back in at night. They’ll join the orchard whips, to be protected from the deer by the new fence. If we had any doubts about whether the fence was needed, in the interim, a few deer stepped in to convince us we’re on the right path. We hope the trees will recover.

The bees arrived today. The same fence protects them from the bears. Today we simply placed their bee transport boxes next to their hives. They were too agitated from the trip to pull the frames and place them into the hive bodies—we’ll do it tomorrow. When we pulled the plug from the boxes, the bees from one of the hives poured out in an angry mob. I was afraid they’d swarm (and I’d fail on my first day of beekeeping!) Within an hour they’d settled down and already some of the bees had found the pin cherry trees, blooming right behind the hives. The autumn olives are in bloom, too; their near-tropical fragrance is the perfect bee balm. The bees wasted no time and got right to work. Tomorrow we’ll do the transfer to their permanent homes.

Home, sweet home.

Home, sweet home.

The roof framing crew showed up, too! Soon we’ll have a roof and we can settle in to the summer’s rhythm of finishing the house, minding the garden and the bees. We’re all on the same trajectory here. Things are looking up.

Timing the Jump–

A.V. Walters

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When I was little, there was no better escapade than when my brother would deign to include me on one of his adventures. Not that I was dull, but usually his idea of fun included trouble, maybe even… danger. The only time I was ever picked up by the cops, was with him. Not that he was a bad kid, he just had the ability to put normal, kid adventures together with opportunity, in his own unique way. He was the one who taught me how to “safely” jump off the roof—to scare my mother. She’d be parked on the couch, or doing dishes, and we’d launch off the roof from just above where she was—with a blood-curdling scream. It usually had the desired affect.

One winter, Lake St. Clair froze over smooth. That is, the chill that froze its surface came when there was no wind, and it looked as though the whole lake was one big skating rink. My brother and I went out skating time after time, even on bitter cold days, to take advantage of that open, clear span of ice. On windy days, we’d sneak out towels, or even bed sheets, and skate like demons, upwind. We’d turn around, after what seemed like miles from our start, just before Pike Creek dumped into the lake and the ice thinned out. Then, we’d unfurl our makeshift sails, gripping tight to the corners, and ride the wind at breakneck speeds on skinny blades and wobbly ankles, all the way back to the public beach where we’d left our boots. Exhilarated, we’d roll up the sheets, tuck them under our coats and do it all again.

After the second run, we noted a small crack in the ice. You couldn’t miss it, though it wasn’t big—only an inch or so wide. From time to time it spurted water as the lake’s smooth cover heaved in the wind. We got down on our knees to explore it, measuring the ice depth with our fingers; it was easily five or six inches thick. More than safe for skaters. But, each time we returned to that spot, we saw the crack had gotten wider. Our skating rink had become a huge slab of lake ice pushed by the increasing winds. My brother shrugged, seeing no need for this to get in the way of our fun.

And fun it was, we skated till our toes were frozen and our cheeks were wind-burned and ruddy. On the returns, our wind filled sheets carried us, flying, bobble-kneed over the ice, as fast as ice-boats, or so my brother claimed. Our eyes streamed from the speed of it, a pace we’d never experienced under our own power. Our fingers would go numb, wrapped tightly around the corners of the sheets. Only the low slanting light of the short winter day convinced us it was time to wrap it up. But when we reached the crack, it wasn’t little anymore. It was now a yawning three-and-a-half-foot gap, with the frigid dark waters of Lake St. Clair lapping up over its edges. My jaw dropped as I turned and realized that our side of the ice was headed out, across the lake.

“What do we do now?” I asked. After all, he was older; he would know. Though the ice was thick and solid enough, we both knew there’d be hell to pay if we had to be rescued from our floating island by the Coast Guard.

My brother didn’t hesitate for a minute. “We jump.” I stared at the gap. It was nearly as wide as I was tall. “Really, it’s not so bad, we’ll make a run at it, at high speed. We’ll have the wind at our backs.”

I wasn’t so convinced. He unwrapped his scarf from around his neck and wrapped it around his hand, “I’ll go first. You watch me. If I fall in, you pull me up with your scarf. If you fall in, I’ll pull you out with my scarf. Watch me.”

I nodded… without conviction.

He skated back some forty or fifty feet and, curled like a speed-skater, let fly. When he reached the edge he launched himself, horizontal, like a swimmer’s dive, landing on his belly, skidding and sliding on the safe side of the gap.

He rolled over smiling, triumphant. “Piece of cake. Come on, it’s easy.”

I wasn’t so sure. I took several practice runs. I tried some small, test jumps. All the while, the gap was steadily growing.

“Hurry up, it’s getting bigger!” He was standing safely on his side. And, he was right—every minute I waited, the jump would only get harder. I wanted to cry. I skated back to get a good run up to it and skated my fastest, pumping my legs nearly to the very edge before I finally jumped.

But, I wasn’t horizontal enough. I was afraid to dive head first, so I flailed, legs peddling through the air. After what felt like forever, I hit the opposite edge, a little short. Landing on my knees, my lower legs slapped into the water, while the top of me hit the wet ice with a thump. True to his word, he grabbed me and dragged me away from the dark abyss. Without another word we hustled to the beach to change out of our skates and into boots for the walk home. Tying the last of his laces, he looked over, “We probably shouldn’t mention this when we get home.” Right, like he needed to say it.

Rick and I moved to Michigan about eighteen months ago. It was a big jump, fueled by a number of issues. For a start, I already had property here and, I’m originally from here. We’d tried several times to buy in Sonoma, but our offers seemed to always be just behind the curve of the real estate recovery. Some properties we rejected because of water issues. The wells were either marginal, or contaminated. Mostly, though, we left California, because my mother was here. We pulled up stakes with a sigh of relief and we’ve continued on that momentum. My mum is thrilled.

Back in California, there’s news that the state is on its last legs in water supply. A year’s worth left in the reservoirs they say, and the annual snow-pack needed to replenish them, at only 15% of normal. And still, they have yet to enact any serious or mandatory conservation measures. It’s as though Californians still expect the next miraculous rainfall to save them. There have always been droughts in California; they’ve always pulled through before, somehow.

When we first arrived and people would ask why, I’d jokingly say, “Michigan has water.” Some of our friends think we left only for that reason—as though in the months and years before we actually did it, we had some secret knowledge about the worsening drought. Believe me, I’m no oracle. (Though, I didn’t need to be one to see that coming.) But I’m glad to be here. I grew up with Great Lakes and seasons, and it’s good to be home. I’m happy to have found a sense of place that fits me. Easy for me to say, but Rick seems to have settled in nicely, too.

It’s what I wish for everyone—that they find that sense of place and comfort. I worry that, if nothing is done about our climate upheavals, many will be uprooted from the kind of comfort that knowing one’s way in geography brings. Maybe we’ll all suffer, when the place we know changes around us, bringing new challenges. What will Californians do, without water? What will become of the Sonoma county farms and vineyards? California, the state that fed the world–what will come of its desert agriculture? And, what about the emus we left behind?

In my heart, I hope that everyone who loves where they are will stay right where they are. Stay and fight. We need enough of a commitment to place to make people adjust their ways to save it, and hopefully, in the process, save the planet. Some friends have asked me if I think things are really that bad. I’m afraid that the science says yes, and our species refuses to accept that answer. They’ve asked me to tell them when to bail; when to max-out on their California real estate and escape with top dollar in their pockets. As if I knew. And, as if that very attitude isn’t what dooms us to start with—the concept of disposable landscapes. Stay. Fight. Change. Make it better.

This situation isn’t like my brother, leaning over to help me with my frozen laces, and grinning, “See, it’s okay. It’s all about timing the jump.”