Water Tower 2.0

You might’ve heard about California’s drought. While the rest of the state is figuring out how to use less water, the challenge I’ve had on Serenity Valley this year is the opposite: how to use all the water I have. The 1000 gallon rain barrel I set up last year was full by early February, and was then topped off again in early July thanks to some unseasonable summer showers. Add the 300 gallons in my other tank, and I’ve got 1300 gallons to play with this year. Granted, it isn’t much water at all, but using it up has turned out to be a greater challenge than I expected.

I’m not there much so most of the water is intended to be used to irrigate my garden, which has turned out to be less than trivial. I initially thought I could hook up my drip irrigation lines to the 1000 gallon tank via a timer, but it turns out the timer all but kills the pressure, so the drip heads don’t work consistently, or at all. Using the 50 gallon tank on the “water tower” solves this problem because I can set up the irrigation timer several feet off the ground, which generates enough pressure through gravity. However, since I need to transfer water from the bigger tank to the water tower myself (using an electric pump), those 50 gallons need to last while I’m gone — which can be as long as a month.

One option was to build an automated system to transfer water from the bigger tanks to the water tower. But, automated things are prone to fail, and if the system failed, the 50 gallon reservoir wouldn’t last very long. Plus, the “water tower” was starting to show some age, being made of untreated 2x4s and having been exposed to the elements since 2010.

So, clearly, what I needed was a bigger, better water tower. I’ll let the pictures tell the story…


My 1000 gallon tank was nearly full by early February. Some off-season summer rain then topped it off again in early July… Need to use more water!


Experimenting with 2 irrigation lines set on separate timers. One was set to go every 7 days, the other every 3 days. Also, Water Tower 1.0 still on active duty!


Garden ’15. This year I have: 2 grape plants, 2 potato bushes, 3 strawberry clusters, one pepper, one cucumber, 2 mystery squashes, 2 kabocha squashes, 2 melons, and 2 tomatoes.


Water Tower 2.0 under construction…


Water Tower 2.0, standing. The posts are 8ft tall, so the top is about 9ft off the ground. This is also probably the sturdiest structure I’ve ever built…


Trash bins make relatively inexpensive exterior-grade water containers. All you need are some bulkhead unions and hose adapters.


Trash bins never looked so good! The irrigation timer is a full 8ft off the ground, which drives plenty of pressure to the drip irrigation heads. Some day I might replace the bins and upgrade to a 200 gallon tank, if I have confidence it’ll support 1600lb of weight.



I can’t believe how quickly time is flying by these days. It seems like 2015 started just the other day, and now it’s almost August…

Where have I been this whole time? Well, let’s see. After my trip to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage last Fall, I returned to California, feeling almost certain that I was going to pack up and move there in the near future. Yet, as I contemplated my next steps, the word that kept rattling around in my head was: sustainability. It was a concept I’d spent weeks thinking about and talking to people about with at Dancing Rabbit. After all, as an ecovillage, environmental sustainability is a fundamental aspect of the community, and is perhaps what they are best known for. But, what I learned in my weeks there is that there are many other facets to sustainability that are critically important. At the end of the day, any endeavor, environmental or otherwise, is only impactful to the extent to which it can sustain itself. This is true of businesses, non-profits, social movements, and of course, individuals.

Having gone through a couple of cycles of working, then burning out, then going off the (literal or proverbial) grid, then going back to work, it was clear that what I lacked in any of the things I did, was sustainability. Living in the woods was emotionally and environmentally sustainable, but not financially sustainable, and to some degree, also not existentially sustainable (living alone in the woods, I often felt a lack of a sense of purpose). Working in the city was financially sustainable, but not emotionally or existentially sustainable.  So, it seemed clear that what I needed was to build a life that was financially, emotionally, and existentially sustainable, and to find a way to make that environmentally sustainable to the extent that I could.

Once I was able to frame life as this multi-variable sustainability equation, solving it became easier. Though the last several years have been tumultuous in many ways, by throwing myself into a myriad of situations (too many to list here), I was able to learn a lot about what I liked and didn’t like, what worked for me, and what didn’t. I had learned that I need a sense of purpose. I learned that I need to feel like what I’m doing has a positive impact on peoples’ lives in a tangible way. I learned that my work needs to align with my values. I find fulfillment in making things, and want to work with other people. I need a good balance between time to myself and time with people I feel connected to.

Long story short, I feel very fortunate with, and very happy about where I ended up these past several months. In February, I started working for an education startup in San Francisco, where I spend my days helping build a modern primary education system from the ground up. I joined the team after I heard about what they were doing, and thought to myself: “Wow, that’s the school I wish I could’ve gone to.” Coming from someone who hated school, that’s saying something. The one downside is that I don’t get to spend as much time in Serenity Valley, but I’m feeling pretty ok about that. At this point, it feels like a long term project, and I feel fortunate to have such an awesome “hobby” along with a job I love. You can’t ask for much more, really.

But, don’t worry. While the updates may be far and few between, this project is far from over. I still have Hut 3.0 to build, and I still have a dream of someday spending a year homesteading on the property… someday, when I have a family.

(Radically) Re-thinking Water in the West


There was an article recently in the NYTimes about the drought in California, and how in Tulare County, “more than 500 [households] cannot flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands without reaching for a bottle or bucket.” With wells going dry, people are left with no running water, and are living dependent entirely on bottled water or water hauled in from elsewhere. The article describes one family as having spent “hundreds of dollars” on laundromats and disposable dishes. On the other hand, a county emergency services official is quoted as saying “We can’t offer anyone a long-term solution right now. There is a massive gap between need and resources to deal with it.”

As the drought in California continues, and may become worse with climate change, a long-term solution is obviously needed. And, it’s not that there aren’t any solutions. I have neither municipal water nor a well on my property, and even in this drought, I have enough water in my tanks to live off of and even irrigate a small garden.

While there are no silver bullets, here are a few “radical” water conservation techniques I use in my life, that you won’t find in the official suggestions:

  • Rain catchment — Even during a drought, there’s precipitation. Porterville (the town mentioned in the article) receives an average of 11 inches of precipitation from October through May. Let’s say that figure is more like 6 inches in a drought, but if it were collected off of a 1000 sqft roof, that’s 500 cubic-feet or 3740 gallons of water. That may not seem like much, but it’s equivalent to 60 – 100 loads of laundry, or over 2000 toilet flushes (for modern 1.6gpf toilets) or 150 ten-minute showers (with efficient 2.5 gpm heads). Water tanks are somewhat expensive, at $0.60 – $1 per gallon, but it’s a relatively small price to pay to guarantee something you literally can not live without.
  • Be a dirty hippie (or just dirty) — I wash my pants about once a month, I wear the same shirt 2-3 times, I shower about once a week, and I’ve never gotten complaints from friends, girlfriends or coworkers, nor have I suffered any ill effects on my health (there’s even some evidence that exposure to some filth is good for you). Granted, because domestic water use is such a small slice of the overall water pie, this won’t solve the West’s water crisis. But, the less water you can live off of comfortably, the more options you’ll have. If you want to spend 100 gallons per day like most Americans do, rain catchment won’t viably cover your needs. But if you’re happy living off of 5 gallons a day, rain catchment can fulfill your needs, even in many of the driest parts of the country.
  • Composting toilets — According to the EPA, an average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day, with almost 27% of it getting flushed down the toilet. So water-less composting toilets could reduce water consumption by a quarter, reduce waste that needs to be processed in sewage plants, while producing valuable compost. Composting toilets are probably impractical in dense dwellings, but it should be an option in more sparse areas, such as those chronicled in the article. Part of the reason it’s not a popular option right now is partially due to the (misplaced) “ick” factor, but also because its legal status is unclear. To help make homes more drought-tolerant, building departments and health officials should not only embrace composting toilets, but should be encouraging it.
  • Eat less beef (and meat in general) — About 80% of California’s developed water supply goes to agricultural use, and a sizable percentage of that goes towards forage and hay for livestock (mostly cows). A pound of beef takes 1799 gallons of water to produce, and in 2012 we consumed 54 pounds of beef per person. In case you’re wondering, at 1799 gallons/pound, that would’ve required 97,146 gallons of water. While vegetarians and vegans might try to tell you to cut out meat entirely, that could be a hard pill to swallow for some of us. But what if we replaced half of our beef consumption with chicken, without even reducing overall meat consumption? Since chickens require significantly less water per pound (468 gallons/lb) than beef, just replacing a half of our annual beef consumption with chicken would reduce our water usage by 35,937 gallons per person per year. Replace 90% of our beef consumption, and that figure goes up to 64,686 gallons. In comparison, shortening showers by 5 minutes a day would only save 4500 gallons over the course of a year (assuming you shower every day, and have a 2.5 gpm head).
  • Don’t play golf (in the desert) — Golf courses account for a disproportionate amount of water consumption for the number of people it serves. The Palm Springs area alone has 57 golf courses that each use a million gallons of water a day. If you love to play golf, more power to you, but I kindly request that you move to a place where it rains enough that the grass doesn’t need to be irrigated.

Ultimately, water is a unique environmental issue in that there is no substitute, and there’s no economically viable way to make more of it. In the coming decades, ensuring water security is probably going to require more than just shorter showers.

Eviscerating a Duck


Today, I learned how to eviscerate a duck. I worked with a duck that was lovingly raised on a farm, and one that I’d likely seen wandering around. When I encountered it today, it had just been killed and plucked, and it was still warm and soft. As I held its legs, I noticed how the bones and sinew moved under the skin, and I was surprised by how life-like it felt. Going in, I was concerned that I’d feel queasy, but it felt more like a cross between preparing a bird for cooking and a science class dissection. I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to actually slaughter a bird, but this was a good introduction to the process.

Anyway, here’s what I learned (or, at least what I think I learned). Starting with a plucked duck with its head removed:

  1. Remove wingtips and feet.
  2. Make a horizontal cut at the base of the neck, loosen the esophagus and trachea, then cut off both as close to (or in) the body cavity as possible.
  3. Continue the cut around the base of the neck, then peal of skin from the neck. Remove glands around the shoulders. Cut off neck at the base, and set aside.
  4. Flip the bird on its back, and make a wide horizontal cut an inch or so above the anus.
  5. Work your hand into the body and tear or otherwise loosen innards from the rib cage. Take particular care not to puncture the gallbladder. Leave intestines connected to the vent. Once loosened, most of the innards (other than the lungs) should just come out of the incision.
  6. Separate and set aside heart, liver (again, taking caution not to puncture the gallbladder) and gizzard.
  7. Take the gizzard and make a cut around the circumference, and slowly spread open. The inside will contain sand, gravel and possibly undigested food. Remove, and rinse off. Then peal off the yellow stomach lining (but leave the white layer underneath).
  8. Cut around the vent, taking care not to puncture the intestines or cloaca, then remove and discard the remaining innards.
  9. Reach into the body cavity and scrape out the lungs. They are soft, on the backside of the cavity close to the vertebra. Parts of the lungs will be between the ribs, so I found that scraping between ribs from the outside in with the back of my nails helped locate the lung tissue.
  10. Flip the bird on its belly, and locate two bulbous bumps (the oil glands) near the butt, and a hole where the oils are secreted. These are the oil glands. Remove the lumps and the opening.

Dancing Rabbit Visit

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Ducks crossing the main street in Dancing Rabbit

Ducks crossing the main street in Dancing Rabbit

I’ve been back at Dancing Rabbit for a full two weeks, and I’ve made numerous attempts to write about it… but hopefully this one will stick. I wish I’d done a better job of keeping a journal or something, because the past two weeks have been so intense, rich, full and fulfilling that I don’t know if I could possibly condense it all into a neat little blog post. In fact, the days have been so full that I don’t know if I’ve really had the time to process and integrate everything I’ve seen, heard and experienced. Perhaps there will be time for that when I leave– if I leave.

Unlike the last visit to Dancing Rabbit, this time I’m here for the official visitor program, which runs for 3 weeks. The program started off being more structured, and has become progressively less structured, though there never seems to be a shortage of things to do. About half of our scheduled time so far has been in workshops, which covered everything from the history of Dancing Rabbit, its organizational structures and governance models, land use, natural building, the humanure systems, ecological covenants and guidelines, to “softer” topics like communication, conflict resolution, and “inner sustainability” (which covered subjects like emotional self-care, personal growth, etc).

The other half of the time has been spent doing work of all sorts. We’ve had organized “work parties” where we’d help a specific Rabbit (as members and residents are called) do whatever they needed help with. So far, most of the organized work parties have had us working in gardens, but there’s plenty of other work to be found too. On one afternoon, a few of us escaped the official program and headed to Sandhill Farms on rickety bikes to help with the sorghum harvest. On another afternoon, I found myself smearing manure-based aliz onto someone’s home. The other day, I got an in-depth look of Strawtron, a beautiful straw bale and timber-frame house built by Ziggy and April (of The Year of Mud blog). Other than that, I’ve also helped stomp cob, sift sand, haul dirt up onto a living roof, helped replace EPDM on another roof, chopped or cut wood, and later this week, I’m hoping to help slaughter and process some birds. There are also some chores we help with, like hauling humanure buckets, cleaning the Common House once a week, or taking turns to help cook dinner.

Our evenings have also been quite full. There was a talent show a few nights ago, and the night before that, a few people organized a dance, and the night before that, a folk singer gave us a small private concert when he stopped over in his tour. On Sunday nights, I’ve gone to the incredible men’s group they have here, which is something I’d been meaning to do in the city and never got around to. Tuesday night is the community potluck, and Thursday night is pizza night at the Milkweed Mercantile, where they serve delicious homemade pizzas topped with mozzarella cheese made here. On Wednesday night, a few of us visitors organized a little support group for ourselves. And if nothing else is scheduled, there are usually a bunch of people around to play board games with, or have interesting conversations with.


In short, it’s been pretty amazing. I haven’t felt a single moment of boredom, and if things get too chaotic, I could always go for a walk on Dancing Rabbit’s 280 acres of land (of which less than 20 acres is developed), or go sit by the pond. I’ve also been able to find the right amount and right kinds of human contact, just about whenever I felt the need. What’s more, it feels great to be among people who see the world similarly. In the city, I’ve always struggled with feelings of alienation, like being the one person at a roaring party who wasn’t having fun and was worrying about the fire on the roof that nobody seemed to be paying attention to. Here, I don’t have to explain to people everything that’s wrong with mainstream society — they know pretty damn well. I also don’t have to tell them another lifestyle is possible; they’re already living it.

So, I’m happy here. I’m happier than I’ve been in quite some time, and that’s also unsettling. I guess I’m not really used to happiness being sustainable. I’ve found periods of happiness, but they were also in unsustainable circumstances, such as solitary stints on my property or at time-bounded places like Burning Man. And, I also find myself trying to anticipate ways in which I may not be happy should I stay longer. The visitor program is full of information and experiences, but living here would be a different experience. Maybe different in a good way, but also maybe different in an undesirable way. Maybe I’ll feel differently when the autumnal sunshine is replaced by cold, dark, and damp winter clouds. I also somewhat unwittingly fell into a quasi-relationship with a woman I met here, and that could be clouding my judgment. Yet, there’s also a part of me that’s trying to just savor what is, and not worry too much about the future.

I’m sure I’ll write more soon, but I’ll leave this post here.


Thoughts on the “Death” (or Avoidance) of Adulthood

I recently read a lengthy (and somewhat meandering) treatise titled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” by the film critic A. O. Scott over in the New York Times Magazine, which sparked some thoughts, since the topic of adulthood is something that’s been on my mind.

Scott notes that Hollywood has been pushing a “juvenile vision of the world”, presumably because that’s what consumers want (this comes after he cites another piece where it was noted that a third of young-adult fiction buyers were adults 30-44).

In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises […] that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.


What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined.

But he notes that this tendency to idolize adolescence isn’t anything new, and may in fact even be traced all the way back to this nation’s birth:

We Americans have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word. The men who established our political independence — guys who, for the most part, would be considered late adolescents by today’s standards […] — did so partly in revolt against the authority of King George III, a corrupt, unreasonable and abusive father figure. It was not until more than a century later that those rebellious sons became paternal symbols in their own right. They weren’t widely referred to as Founding Fathers until Warren Harding, then a senator, used the phrase around the time of World War I.

… and early literature.

From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler […] broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality: “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’

And this is where I take a deep breath. “Harried into the forest… retreat to nature… infuriatingly ‘boyish'”. If my mom read that, she might be nodding in agreement. And if some women my age were reading this, they also might agree with this perception that men like me “avoid … confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility.”

Is that why I run off to the woods? Am I trying to run away from marriage and responsibilities?

For me, it’s a bit more complicated. I actually do want to get married. Getting married, though, requires a willing partner. And after years of dating, one thing I’ve learned is that women want men to not just have traditional features like financial stability and competence, but to also be happy (on online dating sites, a surprising number of women list “you’re happy” as a requirement for a match). For me, that’s a tricky one. Happiness has always been elusive, but what I’ve figured out so far is that to be sustainably happy: I need to be in nature, I need to have a fulfilling purpose, and I need supportive relationships. And, to be honest, I haven’t figured out how to balance those things (I’m interested in rural ecovillages because at least they combine nature with community, while living in the woods combined nature and purpose).

So, marriage requires happiness, which for me requires purpose. This is another reason I have a tendency to avoid civilization: I have a difficult time finding purpose in civilization. This might have something to do with the basic fact that I think “civilization” (which usually implies a predominantly urban society) as we know it is fundamentally flawed, and I’m more interested in investigating life outside the boundaries of what most people consider to be civilization.

To recap, I want to get married, but marriage requires happiness, happiness requires purpose and nature, both of which can be found outside civilization. And that is why I leave civilization.

Granted, my reason for being escapist is probably unique. But, to some degree, I see a similar conundrum among my peers. Whereas our parents’ generation was (apparently) content to have a stable job and stable life, my generation was raised with higher aspirations. We were raised to strive for self-actualization, to pursue our passions and fulfill our purpose, rather than aiming for mere financial stability. We’re simply not content with financial stability the way our parents apparently were.

What’s more, the economics of our times turned out to be less optimistic. In a response to Scott’s article, over on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir notes that:

We now live in a culture (using the word in its anthropological sense) of diminished expectations and permanent underemployment, where many or most young people will never be as affluent as their parents. Lifetime job security is an antediluvian delusion, and in many metropolitan areas home ownership is out of reach for all but the rich. It’s just as useless to object to those changes as it is to complain about grownups reading Harry Potter books, but certainly those things were the essential underpinnings of classic adulthood, and without them it’s no surprise to see the old order fading away.

So, we now have a generation of people who are trying to pursue their passions on the one hand, without access to stable or well-enough paying jobs to afford things like a house or even kids on the other hand. From a certain perspective, this could appear rather adolescent. Older generations might argue that home ownership and raising children was more important than self-actualization; that’s what they prioritized, after all. But that’s just not the world we live in.

Which isn’t to say that I’m defending the self-indulgent man-child of today. And here, I’m speaking less of the “poor but self-actualizing” types, and more the types who, in Scott’s words, “wallow in his own immaturity, plumbing its depths and reveling in its pleasures”. The world is too fucked up for an entire generation of men (and women) to wallow in immaturity and revel in pleasures.

The answer, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily to put on a suit and go to the cubicle farms, either (unless that’s what you want). Nor is the solution necessarily marriage and mortgage. Scott reminds us that the “adolescent” men of old, even as they rejected civilization, served a purpose:

they also, at least some of the time, had something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt. The founding brothers in Philadelphia cut loose a king; Huck Finn exposed the dehumanizing lies of America slavery; Lenny Bruce battled censorship. When Marlon Brando’s Wild One was asked what he was rebelling against, his thrilling, nihilistic response was “Whaddaya got?” The modern equivalent would be “. . .”

Although Scott doesn’t say this, the lesson I drew was this: If you don’t want a stable job, a house, or to get married and have kids, then fine. But do something. Leaving civilization and being on the outside gives us the perspective to see what’s wrong with it, and also the ability to attack it without being caught in it. Not being a “grownup” gives us freedom. But freedom is a privilege, and with that privilege comes the responsibility to help those who are less free. At least, this is something I try to remind myself of on a regular basis.

Error: Cabin out of Square

I recently encountered one of the most difficult challenges on Serenity Valley that I can remember in recent years. Things have been pretty ho-hum up here, at least compared to the early days, with very few challenges remaining to keep me comfortable.

So, when I discovered that my cabin had gotten out of square enough to prevent the door from closing and locking, well, it was almost fun and exciting. Well, ok, it would’ve been totally fun and exciting if it weren’t for the fact that I was trying to get out of there in time to get back to the city for a party. But with the time pressure, it was only moderately fun, and I even at one point thought to my self “Huh, I’m not sure I can solve this”, which is a thought I hardly ever encounter in life (except for when it comes to matters of the heart).

IMG_3518-0As it were, it took a few hours and multiple attempts to solve the problem. My first thought was to anchor a piece of 2×6 in the ground, then lean it against the cabin and pull on it to apply a force on the cabin. That didn’t work. I then got the jack from my car, and jacked up one corner of the cabin. I succeeded in lifting up the corner an inch (and could’ve kept going) but that didn’t seem to be making a difference so I abandoned that plan. I then tried to push the cabin using a 4×4 by jacking one end against a tree, but that ended up too unwieldy to set up alone.

IMG_3519-0Then, I got out the come-along, which hadn’t seen any action since 2009 when I used it to winch the trailer up my property. First, I drilled a 1/2-inch hole in a beam inside to tie one end of the rope, then anchored the come-along against the opposite corner on the outside, and tried to winch the cabin back into shape. This might’ve worked, except with the rope coming out the door, I couldn’t get it shut (duh). So, then, I did the same thing, but this time securing the come-along against an interior post (though, by this time, I was starting to get a bit desperate and didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures). That didn’t seem to work.

This was around the time I felt stumped. Not to sound arrogant, but I haven’t encountered very many challenges in life where I hadn’t solved it with my 5th attempt. I thought about calling up some neighbors to help, but I wasn’t sure what they could do that I couldn’t.

As a somewhat desperate measure, I decided to try one more thing. I drilled a hole through one of my 4×4 posts, all the way through the exterior siding, so that I could tie a rope to the post from the outside. I then anchored the come-along against a large juniper tree using some rope I found. I started applying tension, then with a BANG the come-along went flying, smashing through a plastic bin that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I checked my fingers– I still had 11 of them.

After taking a deep breath and making a mental note to make sure I got more trucking rope for occasions like these, I got another length of rope, doubled it up, twisted it, then wrapped it around the hook on the come-along a few times (that’s where it failed the first time) and then around the tree. I then started cranking again, applying enough tension that it became quite difficult to pull the lever. I became paranoid so I got another rope and reinforced the anchoring using a trucker’s hitch to take some of the load off the first rope. At this point, I probably had close to a ton of tension, rendering the entire contraption into a veritable siege weapon… pointed directly at my cabin. I gave it a few more cranks, then ran over to the door to see if it would close.

It did, just barely.