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Reluctant Rebels


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.

Shadows In The Fog

Jack Fernard"Could life possibly get any busier?"

We all know what it's like this time of year. There are countless things that need to be accomplished, social obligations to be met (some fun ... others not so much), cards to be mailed, gifts to be bought — you name it! And time is always ticking down.

Doe standing in the fog

Being gluttons for punishment, my family and I found ourselves moving this month into a new home. With our very first bath in the upstairs tub, my wife discovered a stream of water pouring out of the living room (downstairs) light switch. Yep, it's going to be that kind of month! Just add sagging drywall to the list of unpleasantries like wood stain spilled on the brand new carpet or a kitchen stove that makes frightening noises when the convection fan tries to turn.

Personally, I would like to think that the planets have aligned themselves against me and that my bad luck exceeds all others, but I know that's not the case. We ALL have stories that defy the limits of belief. And they call this the most wonderful time of the year?!

I was pacing through the kitchen anxiously eyeing the fog that was keeping the solar panels of my off-grid home in 'sleep' mode, and musing on the futility of this festive season, when I noticed movement in the backyard. A doe was grazing, just a stone's throw from the window I was looking through.

Being this soon after deer season, I was shocked to see her so close to the house. Excited, I called out to my three year old son who quickly came to investigate. Pressing his face against the glass, he immediately saw her hiding in the fog ... as well as the buck moving like a shadow behind her.

A doe and a buck

This is why we moved here. The rat race was readily available, but my wife and I chose the road less traveled. Yes, being homesteaders comes with its challenges, but it also comes with some real blessings; blessings that can be described, but not truly understood until experienced.

And the same thing goes for the holidays. Seeing that look of surprise or even simple satisfied smile on the face of a loved one inspires a feeling that can be written about, but not truly understood until experienced. Unfortunately, these precious moments that warm our hearts can be easily missed if we're focused too much on the 'fog' that, admittedly, seems intent to bury us.

So stay sharp this holiday season and try not to be overwhelmed by the weight of 'obligations' or 'expectations'. I suspect that there is something truly beautiful waiting to be experienced, a moment hidden ... like a shadow in the fog.

From my family to yours ...

Merry Christmas!

Buried Bottles

Jack Fernard

Ever dig somewhere and discover a little glass bottle? Those things are everywhere! Most of the ones I find are shorter than a smart phone. Occasionally, I'll find a clear one, but a lot of them are brown — why brown? Stout and heavy, they lay hidden in the ground for who knows how long; a message bottle lost in the sea of time.

Buried Bottles

Where do they come from and why do I find them so often? Every now and then I'll find one that stirs my curiosity. It'll be oddly shaped or in pristine condition; unique in some fashion so that I have to show it off. People ask me what it is, to which I usually reply, "I don't know!"

After soaking it in the sink for a good clean, I'll swing by my trusty old-timer with my new treasure. It's fun to see the recognition in their eyes. "That's an old ink bottle," or "that's an old medicine bottle," they'll inform me, usually accompanied with a fond tale of a grandmother or grandfather long past.

I confess, I've spent far too much time looking at these translucent treasures, wondering about their story. If it was a medicine bottle, then did whoever take the medicine get better? What was the name of the company that manufactured it and who was the soul that worked to make it exist?

They really are amazing, these remnants of trash long discarded. Disposed by people who knew nothing of massive landfills or the term 'biodegradable', these little lost treasures are a reminder of who we were and where we came from.

I Need Backup

Jack Fernard

While the sun may be a never ending source of energy, I'm not always able to see it. About this time of year it goes away and randomly teases me for the next few months. The solar array sitting in my backyard does a surprisingly good job of producing energy in this cloudy weather, but what am I going to do when it gets a foot of snow on it? For this reason, I decided to purchase a backup generator.

Backup power

There are many different kinds of generators available and on the surface they are pretty much the same. But if you're living off-grid and relying completely on yourself, then there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Fuel

The fuel you use to run your generator is going to depend a lot on your particular situation. I've read of people using diesel and this fuel does have its advantages. If you live on a farm and have a tractor or two in the barn, then chances are you have diesel easily available. Another fuel would be propane. If you live a ways back off of the beaten path, then chances are, you're using propane for cooking or heat. And while propane may be more expensive than diesel, it stores a whole lot better. The last thing you want to do is come home after being away for six months and find out the fuel for your generator has gone bad.

Size

Generator capacity is usually measured by the electricity produced. This is measurement is called 'kilowatts'. Smaller generators consume less fuel hourly and can be mobile, but the bigger generators get more done. When shopping for a backup generator, ask yourself what you want the generator to do. Do you want it to just keep the lights on or do you want it to run the whole house? Do you want to be able to bring it with you or do you want it more permanent? Do you want it to charge your batteries when there isn't enough sun available to keep up with your demands?

Output Quality

This is something I found to be extremely important but rarely mentioned. The quality of the AC (Alternating Current) power output is crucial for certain electronics. To better understand this, imagine a generator that is pedal powered. If this generator was connected to a lightbulb and you started pedaling, you would see the lightbulb brighten as you pedaled faster and then slowly go out as you slowed your pedaling. This varying output works for the light bulb as the light bulb does not require a clean or consistent AC output to operate. Switch the lightbulb with a laptop computer and the results will not be so positive. The electronics associated with your off-grid system may have the same need as the laptop mentioned above. Don't be the person who spent several thousand dollars on a generator only to find out that your off-grid batteries won't charge because of a sloppy AC output.

Generator

For me and my family as we live off-grid, the backup generator is a seamless and vital part of our power system. Should the electrical demand in our home exceed the energy stored in the batteries, the generator will kick in automatically and instantaneously supply what we need — without us ever knowing. Should there be a malfunction in the PV electronics, then the generator can act independently to power our home.

Having the right backup generator will provide you with real sense of security as you will know that no matter what, your family won't be in the dark.

Check the website for more photos.







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