Reluctant Rebels

Over Already

Jack FernardAnyone else seriously bumming these days?

Quiet backyard

I looked out at the backyard this morning and found myself giving a heavy sigh. “It’s awfully quiet out there,” I complained to no one in particular.

Fall has always been my favorite time of the year. The trees change colors, the salmon (or "kings" as the locals know them) start their spawning run upriver, and hunters pull out of their summer withdrawal and head to the woods en masse. Fall is a great time to be outdoors!

But today, I’m kind of bummed. The chicken coop has been vacated, its door locked for the winter, and my gardens have been given their winter blanket of weed barrier — the cover crops so carefully sown now peacefully laid to rest. Am I imagining things, or does my tumbling composter actually look lonely?

Right about now, I am seriously contemplating one of those hoop greenhouses — AGAIN!

But the break from the growing season gives me time to contemplate the successes and the failures of this year’s efforts. My Yukon’s did great — best harvest ever! But my red potatoes did nothing ... as in, not even a single sprout. Frustrated by this, I grabbed the last two red spuds, chucked them out in a field, threw an arm full of straw over them and walked away. Guess what grew just fine? (And here I actually thought I knew what I was doing!) That oddity has me wondering if I shouldn’t try leaving some potatoes above ground next year. Wasn’t a whole lot of work involved. No weeding, no tilling, I didn’t even have to water them.

Oh well, I’ve got another five months or so to think about it!

Fairs, Ponies, & 4 Year Olds

Jack FernardIn the summer of 1953, a little four-year-old boy took his very first pony ride. It was at the local fair, and it was magical!

 

 Pony ride

Fast forward to the summer of 1977 and a little, red-headed, four-year-old girl took her very first pony ride. It was also at the local fair, and it was magical!

Pony ride

Jump ahead yet again, and it’s the summer of 2016, where another four-year-old boy finds himself atop a pony for the very first time. It was at the local fair ... and it was magical!

Pony ride

What do these random spots in time have in common? They were experienced by members of my family.

It’s mind-boggling to me to think of how much the world has changed since 1953, and yet the magic of these humble steeds has remained so strong. Who would believe these gentle creatures could imbue such powerful memories as they slowly carry their precious passengers around and around a simple circle. Even with all of the hype this modern age can produce, it does not hold a candle to the pleasure of a pony ride.

To all of the people who work so hard to make these experiences possible, I offer you my sincerest thanks. And if I can echo the words of my father …

“Happy Trails” to all of you.

The Dangers of a Straight Run

Jack Fernard"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." ~ Mark Twain

 

 

Comb, Bantam

Just before Easter, my family and I brought a box of baby chicks home to raise. We were full of excitement, anticipating raising these little birds to maturity and hopefully seeing them raise baby chicks of their own.

Right around five weeks or so, I began to notice the differences in the birds and enjoyed pointing them out to the family. Some had lighter coloring, some were much bigger and one had a very pronounced comb. Having bought these chicks "straight run" -- or for those who are not familiar with this chicken terminology, not sexed -- I was really hopeful for at least one rooster. And upon seeing the comb, and how it was different from all of the rest, I assumed the best. I just knew it would be a matter of time and there would be a new generation baby chicks running around the yard.

I was wrong.

At right around ten weeks, the birds started fighting...and I mean REALLY fighting. I began to wonder if they weren’t trying to kill each other. As it turns out, they were!

After consulting with other chicken owners, I realized that what I had was one rooster of mixed heritage and seven thoroughbred males. So much for the baby chicks!

It’s actually kind of unbelievable to think that I could reach into a bin of 100+ birds and pick out all males, but that’s exactly what I did. (One more reason you’ll never see me at a casino!)

Lesson learned: If you want hens, then make sure you’re buying hens!

Mutation Vs Miracle

Jack Fernard"Mutation," is the term the experts use to define it. "Improper cell division," they say. To this I reply, "What a horrible way to describe things!"

Double-headed daisy

Sitting on the window ledge just over the kitchen sink is one of the most unique and attractive plants I have ever seen. It's not the most expensive plant and I doubt that it was ever intended to be the grand thing that it has become, but it is a flower that will stay in my mind for some time. Why? Because it has two heads flowering on the same stem. I had never heard of such a thing and promptly set out to research this little miracle.

After twenty minutes of internet consultation, I was thoroughly disgusted. Clearly the science nerds and I weren't on the same page. One article even went so far as to refer readers to Fukushima — the place of the horrible nuclear accident. Surely this living beauty is more deserving than to be associated with a terrible toxic disaster!

Admittedly, an animal with two heads is a little freaky and I realize that the science is probably the same. But I don't have a mutated animal sitting in my kitchen, I have a flower. And this flower didn't grow this way because of some horrific radioactive event, it grew this way simply by chance.

I'm sure the science nerds are right and I credit them for their studies and the contributions they give. But as I stand in front of the sink looking at this double-headed daisy, I am not moved intellectually as much emotionally. For me, it's like reading a poem and appreciating it for the way it moves me and not super-analyzing the structure.

Beautiful imperfection

I'm not sure how many times I will see a flower like this. But being able to witness it growing, even this one time, leaves me marveling at this incredible process we call life!

Bantams: Nature's Neurotic Chicken

Jack FernardHave you ever looked at an animal and thought, "There is something very wrong with you"?

Bantam Chick

I am the proud papa of eight Bantam chicks and after caring for them these last five weeks, I have come to the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong with these birds. They're neurotic. They've got great coloring and mad skills when it comes to catching bugs, but they are a nervous bunch. Even after all this time, they freak out when I reach in to give them fresh food or water. They'll come over and look at me if I talk to them, but I put my hand in the brooder and it's an explosion of feathers.

Unfortunately, any hope of them calming down seems futile at this point as their neurosis seems to be getting worse as they get bigger. This is frustrating, but the salesman warned me that this would happen.

So why did I get them if I knew they could be neurotic? For one simple reason: TICKS!

The snow is barely gone and already my son has come back to the house with a tick on him. I'm not sure why the bugs are so bad out here, but they are some persistent little parasites. And with Lyme disease being a real concern, I really wanted to do something that didn't involve dumping chemicals in the same area that my son plays in.

Lunchtime

Sure, I could have purchased bigger birds for their meat or picked a breed of chicken that produces large bountiful eggs, but that wasn't really my goal. I wanted a free range bird that will follow its innate desire to rid the world of bugs. And given how these Bantams are already snatching flies out of the air, I have no doubt that they will make a dent in the tick population ... provided they don't have heart attacks first!

The Chaotic Caroling for Copulation

Jack FernardSpring is in the air ... I just wish it would wait until after the alarm goes off!

Owl

Photo by Fotolia/mbridger68

Cheerful chirping woke me up this morning. One might think that I would appreciate this as we moved to the out the country in order to be closer to wildlife. But alas, the robins were calling to each other long before the sun or me were even up causing me to, temporarily, miss the snowy days of silence. And can anyone tell me why so early? It's been a little while since I've dated, but last I recall, girls preferred being serenaded before they go to bed, not before they get up.

And it's not just the robins who are piercing the cozy darkness with their jarring calls. A few weeks back, I was woken at 2:00am to the hooting of owls. Now those birds are LOUD. I swear their calls were actually echoing inside of the house. Consequently, nature-boy got sent outside with the mission of chasing off whoever it was that had to be sitting just outside of the window. So there I was dressed in my boots, my coat, my hat and my much-too-thin-for-outside pajama pants wandering around in the snow looking for owls. (And they say nightlife in the city is crazy!) Much to my amazement, it wasn't just one owl, but four that found my backyard the 'place to hang out and meet chicks' (pun intended).

But with spring comes new life. And it will only be a matter of weeks before the birds which were so intent on being the first to greet the morning, are themselves being harassed by younglings demanding to be fed. To which I say, serves them right! Come to think of it, my youngling is pretty vocal about food too.

Robin

Photo by Fotolia/Steve Byland

'To everything there is a season' and right now that season is for the birds — literally. But if I'm honest, I do wish them all the best. Their chaotic caroling reminds me of how fast time moves and that sunny days are finally upon us. And longer warmer days means that it's time to get it in high gear for the garden. And that's as good a reason as any to get up early.

40 Days Off Grid

Jack FernardSolar panels in the sun

It's been a little over six weeks since my family and I moved into our new off-grid home and I can honestly say that going from unlimited electricity to generating our own hasn't been as painless as I expected.

The were several factors that surprised me. Some of these things I should have foreseen and some I'll just write up as the learning curve. Here's a short list of what was learned.

Hot Water:

Having the ability to take a hot shower in the morning is truly a blessing. If you don't believe me, trying taking lukewarm showers for a week. I don't care how much of a treehugger you want to be, taking a cold shower in December in Michigan is pretty much a crime against nature (at least my nature). I don't even want to think about what life was like before people had hot water to bath in. A propane powered hot water heater was an option, one that might seem obvious for a off-grid home. But I wanted to get away from fossil fuels and 'walk the walk' when it came to living sustainably. For this reason an electric heat-pump water heater was installed.

Heat-pump water heaters are great! They use only a fraction of the electricity an all electric water heater would — 550 watts as compared to 8500 watts — the trade off being how long it takes to heat a full tank. In a normal 70 deg. environment, my water heater will generate about 8 gallons of hot water an hour. Unfortunately, my water heater isn't in a 70 deg. environment. Half the time it's not even 60 deg. Consequently, it can run a lot! So why not put a pellet or wood stove in the basement close to where the water heater is located? Apparently the floor trusses in my home are going the wrong direction. (Surprise# 1)

Lesson learned — I should have spoken with a stove expert much sooner in the build process. It came as a shock to everyone, including the general contractor, to learn that a pellet stove could not go in the basement.

Fully charged

House Heat:

Having grown up on cutting, stacking and splitting wood, I was deliriously excited to learn that wood could be delivered in 40lb bags. And wow does my pellet stove work! I fill the hopper, set the temperature and that little stove does all the rest. I have no problem staying warm ... when it's running. Unfortunately, the little stove takes a fair amount of electricity — between 390 to 520 watts. This might not sound like a lot considering the average microwave oven takes 1000 watts, but then you don't run your microwave 24 hours a day.

I hadn't anticipated the stove using so much electricity. Consequently, I can't run it all night. This is great for sleeping, but horrible for getting out of bed in the mornings. (Surprise #2)

Lesson learned — I should have gotten real world performance numbers from people other than the stove salesman.

Sunlight:

There's a saying here in Michigan. It's, "Say goodbye to the sun in the fall because you won't see it again until spring." I did not realize how true that really was until I needed the sun to power my house. For the entire month of December we had a total of 2 days with clear skies — 2 out of 31! Consequently, we've been burning through generous amounts of propane as our whole house generator runs to compensate. (Surprise #3)

Lesson learned — expect the unexpected. The solar power system that we have works great when there's sun. Evidence for this came last week when we had three days in a row with limited clouds. Even with the days being short, we generated enough energy to completely power the house; including three loads of laundry and running the dishwasher. In short, it was just like being connected to the grid (only without the monthly bill).

Sunset

All in all, the first 40 days of living off-grid weren't as fun as I had hoped. I wish I could say that I'm living the dream, but at the moment, it's been a stressful pain in the butt! That being said, I have no plans on ever going back ... EVER! I like being independent. I'll take the headaches of being a homesteader over the convenience of total reliance anytime. Throw in the knowledge that I'm helping the environment and it's hard to paint this experience as anything less than a good thing.