Home Again

Shortly after Project 31 ended on the 19th, I headed to the city. Having spent a month alone in the woods, I thought I’d have a good time. I thought I’d appreciate the creature comforts, the infinite electricity supply, the alawys-on (and unlimited) internet connection, the magically appearing clean water, heat at the flick of a switch, places where people cook and serve you food, close proximity to friends…

The first night in the city, I couldn’t sleep. I’d forgotten how loud the city is at night. The constant traffic, the early morning garbage trucks, the beeping car alarms, distant sirens, fog horns, people yelling, dogs barking. It also doesn’t get dark in the city. Streetlight streamed in through the window, casting an unnatural orange glow, penetrating my eyelids. And even the heating was overbearing. On the numerous occasions that my shallow slumber was interrupted, I’d wake up drenched in sweat, feeling clammy and icky.

After a few days, I got homesick. So I came home.

To my own house. My own bed. To silence, darkness, and minimal heating. I switched off my MiFi and left it in the car. I turned off my inverter — my battery array hasn’t fully recovered anyway. And I lit some candles, and settled in with a hot mug of tea and a book.

When I started Project 31, I secretly hoped that I’d be miserable. If I were miserable, I’d know that I should head back to the city. I could give up this crazy life, give myself credit for having tried, and return to a normal life. Have a normal job, live in a normal place, and fill my days doing normal things. I’d be convinced that normal is good. I could be happy with normal, if I could only be convinced that it’s good.

But, it’s not. At least, not for me. So, here I am again. Back on Serenity Valley.

March 11, the day of the earthquake in Japan, was the 2nd anniversary of this blog and also of my quitting Google. At the time, I thought my adventures would last a year, maybe 18 months tops. I didn’t yet know that I’d buy land, but even after I bought land, I’d only initially planned on staying here for a month or two.

Here we are now, two years later. What was once a bare patch of dirt, rocks, shrubs and trees is now my home. And I’m starting to realize that I may never go back to my previous life.

Sometimes I wish I could go back. Living a normal life is so much easier. The story’s practically written for you. You do what you’re told, and everything hums along. If you get confused, there are people who can help you. The people around you are living more or less parallel lives, facing more or less the same problems. The problems you face have solutions, and often well documented ones at that. There are concrete goals, and objective metrics to tell you how you’re doing.

But when you step off the reservation, you’re on your own. There’s no script to follow. Nobody to tell you where to go, what to do, or even what to strive for. All there is, is a vastness stretching out to the horizon. Somewhere out there, beyond the hazy horizon, your future awaits. It waits for no one, but you. You don’t know where it is, nor what’s there. But you approach it, one step at a time. One step. At a time.

People asked what’s next. Here’s the list of possibilities I’ve come up with so far:

  • Volunteer in Japan (mostly, I’m hoping that All Hands will start a project)
  • Start a Garden 2.0
  • Start a beehive
  • Raise chickens
  • Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Alaska (or Mongolia…)
  • Volunteer at a WWOOF farm
  • Volunteer with the local fire station
  • Volunteer with the Forest Service somewhere nearby
  • Get a job
  • Go back to school

I have a couple of other smaller projects in mind too, but those are the major ones I’ve come up with so far. I’ll probably end up doing some combination of the above, though some of them fit better together than others. I’m also planning on finishing the book in the next couple of months as well.

Anyway, welcome to Year 3. Let’s see and find out what this year has in store for us.

Project 31 Debrief

Around noon today, I officially concluded my 31 days of Project 31. I’m still here, though I’m no longer strictly adhering to the rules I’d setup for my month-long challenge. One of the first things I did was to start up my car, just to make sure the battery still had enough juice (I hadn’t bothered charging it during Project 31). It started up just fine, so I know I can get out any time I feel like it. About the only other change is that I’m back to drinking tap water I previously hauled in from town. I’m out of clean snowmelt, and I’m not entirely certain the months-old water I’ve been drinking for the last few days is actually all that clean.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be writing a few posts about Project 31, but in this post, I’ll report on how things ended up in terms of water, food, fuel, etc, etc.

Water
I succeeded in meeting my goal of only using water I’ve harvested on my property. The weather was very cooperative, and despite weeks of completely dry weather leading up to Project 31, I got a nice snow storm on Day 0. All told, I got probably about 24 inches of snow during the first half of Project 31, so I was able to harvest plenty of snowmelt by packing snow into a pot and melting it on my wood stove every night. Most of the snow on the ground had disappeared by last week, but I had enough filtered snowmelt stored to last me up until 2-3 days ago, when I switched to my “backup” source: water from a bin I’ve had out for months. My stomach got a little upset yesterday, and I’m suspicious of the water. While snowmelt is unlikely to harbor biological contaminants, the water in that bin has been exposed to the elements for months, so it’s possible it might’ve picked up some bugs. The water I drank had been filtered previously and placed in an unmarked container, so it wasn’t until after I drank the water that I remember where it’d come from. In the future, I think I should be a little more careful about marking potentially contaminated water so I don’t forget to boil it first.

Food
My food stores did remarkably well, and most things lasted far longer than I’d expected. I still have some fresh vegetables left (some potatoes, one red cabbage, a butternut squash, about a pound of brussels sprouts) , and ate the last of my fresh meat for dinner tonight. The only losses to spoilage were one zucchini, one sweet potato, and bits of a couple of tomatoes (most of which remained salvageable). So, considering how I didn’t use any refrigeration other than a couple of coolers, that’s not too bad. Of course, average temperatures of around or below freezing certainly helped keep things fresh.

I’m also happy with the variety of food I had. Even though I haven’t eaten out in a month, I’m not really craving anything, which is a bit surprising. I guess cravings, whether we know it or not, may often be triggered externally. For example, next time I go out to the city and see signs for all kinds of restaurants, I might suddenly crave fried chicken, or sushi, or chinese food, or greasy diner food, or…. But, here, away from such temptations, I’m perfectly happy with what I have/had.

In terms of quantity, as I’d initially predicted, I ended up with a surplus. I hardly touched any of the non-perishable foods, I still have a dozen eggs, a loaf of bred, a small stack of tortillas, most of a 2-pound block of cheese, an entire block of salted pork, and the vegetables I mentioned earlier. Overall, though, I’m glad I had an overabundance of fresh ingredients because the threat of spoilage compelled me to cook and eat fresh cooked meals. I wish I’d brought less meat, especially since I had so many eggs, and I think I could’ve done without bread. I was able to bake scones, so I’m pretty sure I would’ve been able to bake other bread-like substances as well, if I had to.

Electricity
I started off with just my 100W solar panel, then setup the 45W panels part way in. For the most part, that was enough power, and my battery array generally stayed well above 12V, usually in the 12.3-12.6 range. That all changed in the last week, when I started spending a lot more time on my laptop to follow the news from Japan and keep in touch with my family. It’s also been mostly overcast this past week, so with those two factors combined, my power deficit skyrocketed. I decided not bother conserving power too much because I knew Project 31 was almost over, and estimated that I had enough reserve power in my battery arrays. My estimation was off by a day, and my battery array got down to 11V last night, at which point my inverter shut down. Mostly, that just meant I had to stop using my laptop, and to some degree, that was a quality of life improvement. I lit candles, switched to battery-powered lights, listened to music on my battery-powered iPod speakers, and read a book instead of obsessing over the news.

At this point, I think there are two ways to think about this power outage on my last day. Most people will probably say that I ran out of power. The other way to think about it is that I used too much power. The solution changes depending on which perspective you take. If I ran out of power, then I need more power (i.e. add more generating capacity). But if I’d used too much power, the solution is to simply use less. I’ve considered getting something like an iPad, which would use less power than a laptop. Ironically, though, for the price of an iPad, I could buy another 200 Watts of solar panels. The third option is to buy neither, continue to use my laptop, but to use it less. So, actually, there are 3 options: increase efficiency (buy an iPad), increase energy supply (buy more PV), reduce consumption (read more books).

Fuel
Gasoline – Didn’t use a drop. Yay!

Propane – Used about 2.5lb, so a little more than my goal of 2lb.

Heating – Only burned wood from my property. I ran out of chopped wood in the last week, but had plenty of wood in 2-3ft lengths stashed under my hut that I had to cut to 6-8″ lengths. It’s been too wet for the last couple of weeks to harvest more wood, though there were a few days in the middle when I was able to shore up my supplies. Using my cordless saw to chop wood became a problem towards the end though, when I started running low on power. I’ll definitely be getting a bow saw, as many readers suggested.

Shelter
Hut 2.1 proved to provide adequate shelter during this very wintery month. During Project 31, there were 3 winter storms, with snow accumulation up to 16 inches, temperatures down to -10F, and winds gusting up to 45mph. Through it all, Hut 2.1 kept me warm, dry and happy, and that’s about all you could ask for from a home.

Improvements made during Project 31 include the raised insulated floor, the kitchen, and a desk. The only major project I didn’t get around to was the kitchen sink. I’d originally planned on putting a bathroom inside Hut 2.1, but decided that I’d rather have more open space in the hut than a bathroom. The outdoor composting toilet suffices for now, though I might put a roof over it so I don’t have to do my business in the snow.

Communications
I was somewhat ambivalent towards having an internet connection for most of Project 31. On the one hand, it allowed me to update my blog and upload pictures. I also occasionally chatted with friends, and I think that was enough to keep me from getting lonely. On the other hand, I ended up spending way more time on my laptop than I would’ve liked. I read far fewer books, and probably spent less time outside than I would’ve otherwise.

During this past week, though, I’m glad I had an internet connection, even if I used it to follow news a bit more obsessively than was probably necessary. If I were out here without access to information, I probably still would’ve heard about the earthquake and the nuclear disaster, but I wouldn’t have been able to stay up to date, and I know that would’ve driven me nuts. I’m also glad I was able to stay in touch with my family. I can’t think of another time when I exchanged as many emails and Skype calls with my family as I did this past week.

Over all, I think I’ll keep the internet connection, and try to find other ways to moderate/regulate my usage. So, this is an open problem for now.

Sanitation/hygiene
Personal hygiene is overrated. I took a shower once during Project 31, when it got warm and I got a little sweaty. But, other than that, I haven’t really had the desire to bathe. I don’t know of any other animal that bathes obsessively like humans do, and frankly, I don’t think it’s actually healthy. In my experience, there are 3 parts of your body you need to keep clean: your feet, your hands, and your mouth. If left alone, your feet can practically rot away, dirty hands could be a problem if you use them to eat or prepare food, and you’ll lose your teeth if you don’t brush and floss regularly. But just about everything else takes care of itself.

Other thoughts
… will be posted in another post. My laptop is almost out of power, so I’m just going to post this.

Thoughts on the whole nuclear power thing

I’ve been pretty distracted these past few days, closely following developments on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. At first, it was mostly an academic curiosity, but as conditions at the plant deteriorated day after day, it’s become more personal. My parents and my brother are in Tokyo, some 140 miles away from the plant, and while that’s far enough that they’re not in any immediate danger, it’s not far enough for me to feel completely comfortable. My brother may be leaving soon, but my mom’s not willing to abandon her hometown quite yet, which is understandable. So I’ve been keeping a close eye on the news, doing my best to understand what’s going on so that I could advise her should risks increase further.

I’m learning that nuclear disasters are fundamentally different to natural disasters. If you survive a natural disaster, you can rebuild. If your home collapses in an earthquake, as long as you survive the quake, you can rebuild. If a fire burns down your house, you can rebuild. If a tsunami washes away your house, you can rebuild. If a tornado or hurricane blows away your house, you can rebuild.

But when I suggested to my mom that she evacuate and she asked me if she’d be able to return, I couldn’t honestly promise her that she would. As unlikely as it is, if fuel in one of those exposed spent fuel pools melt or even goes critical and radioactive Cesium (or worse, Plutonium from one of the MOX fuel rods) is released, and radioactive materials get blown up high enough, and the wind blows just so, it could reach Tokyo. Cesium has a half-life of 30 years, so radiation levels may not decrease appreciably in my mom’s life time. She may never be allowed to go back again. I know it’s highly unlikely. But not impossible.

Before this particular nuclear crisis, if you asked me what I thought about nuclear power plants, I would’ve said that I had some reservations but was more supportive than not. After all, unlike coal and gas powered plants, nuclear power plants don’t release greenhouse gasses, and by reprocessing and recycling spent fuel, it’s possible to significantly reduce nuclear waste down to manageable quantities. While long-term storage of nuclear waste could be a problem, climate change is a more immediate threat, and anything we could do slow its progress seemed like a reasonable idea to me.

After this week, I think I’m going to have to consider myself a skeptic. I think mankind may possess the scientific and technological capability to build safe nuclear power plants. But, possessing the technology and scientific knowledge is one thing. Actually deploying that knowledge is another.

The disaster at Fukushima should not have come as a surprise to those who knew better. The Mark 1 nuclear reactors such as the ones used at Fukushima were known to have vulnerable containment designs that had a 90% chance of failing in the event of a meltdown. The containment design may, however, prove to be the lesser of flaws. The bigger issue at the moment is the spent fuel pools that store large quantities of fuel –enough to potentially reach critical mass– in pools outside the containment structures. Such a design would not be allowed to be built today, but it was allowed to operate in an earthquake- and tsunami-prone area for almost 40 years. That suggests to me that, perhaps, humans aren’t yet ready for nuclear power.

I certainly expect that this disaster, no matter how it turns out, will help mankind make nuclear energy safer. Hopefully, lessons will be learned. Numerous nuclear plants will likely either be shut down, retired earlier, or reinforced. Hopefully similar (or even dissimilar, for that matter) accidents can be prevented in the future.

But humans don’t always learn. The Fukushima nuclear power station went online in 1971. When vulnerabilities in the Mark 1 containment system were pointed out in 1972, nothing was done. When Three Mile Island happened in 1979, nothing was done. When Chernobyl happened in 1986, nothing was done. So it’s difficult to assume, that even after this incident, everything would be done to ensure the safety of nuclear plants everywhere.

So, the fact still remains: the surest way to avoid future nuclear accidents seems to be to stop using nuclear energy entirely. And I hope we do, because there are alternatives. The alternatives may be more expensive, but I’m willing to pay more if it means we’ll never again risk contaminating someone’s hometown with radioactive fallout.

I had to tell my mom that there was a possibility her hometown may become uninhabitable. Trust me. It’s not something you ever want to have to tell someone.

Journal: March13, 2011

Project 31 ends on the 19th, so I guess I have less than a week left. I haven’t really been keeping track. Life just has fallen into a kind of steady rhythm, and time definitely has taken on a new feel. Or, perhaps, its presence seems to have somehow become diluted. It feels less linear, less like a progression, less defined, more… natural, from lack of a better word. Time feels less significant, less meaningful, not in the sense that it is less valuable, but more in the sense that it seems to have shed more baggage to become more it, and less artificial. I don’t keep track of the date, or day of week anymore. In my world, there’s today, yesterday, the day before that. There’s “about a week ago.” There’s tomorrow. Words like “Sunday” or artificial constructs like “March 13, 2011” still register somewhere (namely on my electronic devices), yet mean little to me, possibly because those words only hold meaning in the context of a larger society, of which I am not entirely a part of. Being physically isolated from the rest of mankind, I might as well be an alien lurking in the woods, observing the human species through a looking glass that is the internet…

Since finishing my kitchen, I haven’t really had any major construction projects. As some of you may have already seen on my Flickr stream, I’ve been putting the new kitchen to good use with new culinary adventures. One night, I made some tonkatsu, or Japanese fried cutlets, which turned out quite nicely — crispy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside. I used the wood stove to warm up a pan of oil, but used the gas stove to do the actual frying. I’ve also made a couple of batches of cranberry and chocolate chip scones on my wood stove, and those have turned out quite nicely too. In lieu of an oven, I simply placed my flat 11″ cast iron skillet on the stovetop, then covered it with another cast iron 11″ deep dish pan to trap the heat in. Other than taking a little extra time to “bake”, it’s worked out nicely both times I used this method. I might try baking some cookies, biscuits and bread rolls this way too.

My food supply is holding up nicely, though my vegetable selection has narrowed significantly. Just in the past week, I’ve finished the last of the mixed greens, mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, and avocados. I lost one zucchini to mold (it was in a box in Hut 2.1), and parts of my tomatoes had started to go moldy, but I just cut those bits off and used the rest. Still remaining in my stockpile are potatoes, onions, red and green cabbage, butternut squash, kabocha squash, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and possibly a carrot or two. I’ve used most of my fresh meat, though I still have a pound of pork tenderloin left, as well as most of the cured/salted meats and more than a dozen eggs. In the grains department, I still have a loaf and a half of bread, one bagel, 15-20 tortillas, and tons of rice, so no shortages there either. All in all, I probably have enough food to last me a few more weeks, and if anything, I may need to start pigging out more before things go bad…

Despite the rain, water flow in the seasonal creek that I wrote about last week has slowed considerably. Upstream where the creek enters my property, there’s probably still a fifth of a gallon per second or so of water, but downstream, that seems to slow to a trickle, possibly because the ground’s soaking up the water as it flows. I suspect the stream really only runs when there’s a large amount of snowmelt, but anything short of sustained torrential rains probably simply get soaked up in the ground instead.

I’ve also started writing a book. It’s not the next Great American Novel, nor is it Walden 2.0, but rather a practical book that bundles all the knowledge I’ve acquired in my land-dwelling adventures so far. The hope is to produce a guidebook for those who want to do something similar to what I’m doing. Since my knowledge is wider than it is deep, it’s not meant to be the ultimate source of truth in any one narrow topic area, but covers a wide range of topics, from buying land, to different approaches to securing food, water, electricity, as well as a survey of various building options. So, the general positioning is, “If you want to live in the woods, here are things you need to think about, and here are some possible solutions.” I’m guessing it’ll be a fairly short book, maybe 100 pages or so, and my current plan is to sell it on Kindle (and possibly Apple iBooks) for $3-5, though there also may be a limited print run, and possibly a free web-based version as well. My knowledge is still admittedly limited, but I figure I know enough to share, and that I could learn more in the process of organizing everything into a book. With an eBook format, I could easily make iterative improvements as I learn more or receive feedback, and try to create a virtuous cycle of sharing, gaining, and re-sharing knowledge.

As I head into the last several days of Project 31, I’m also considering my next steps. I was tentatively considering applying for jobs again, but since the earthquake, I’ve also been strongly considering going to Japan to volunteer in the disaster. To be completely honest, I wish I could be there now. After all, being self-sufficient where there’s no infrastructure is kind of a specialty of mine, so I’m pretty sure I could help without getting in the way. With all those international teams on the ground, I’m sure they could use someone who speaks English and Japanese fluently, especially since the elderly populations in the worst hit rural areas won’t be able to speak even a fragment of English, and I doubt many of the foreign rescuers would speak any Japanese either. On the other hand, it seems logistically difficult to get to the disaster zone with sufficient supplies and without official support (or funding). So I’m telling myself that the recovery effort would be long, and that there’d be plenty to do even if I waited until after the initial rescue and relief phases. That doesn’t make it any easier to sit here idly, though…

Be Prepared

I’ve been obsessively following the latest news from the devastating earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan a few days ago, listening to internet streams of NHK radio, the public broadcasting service there, which has been covering the aftermath non-stop. My family in Tokyo were shaken but otherwise perfectly ok, though early reports of wounded literally blocks from my parents’ condo did have me somewhat concerned.

The M9.0 earthquake, possibly the 5th largest earthquake in recorded history, wreaked havoc across a wide swath of Japan’s north-eastern coast when it triggered massive tsunamis, some reportedly over 30ft high and reaching the 4th floor of buildings. This veritable wall of water traveled at speeds exceeding 20ft/second, and reached 10km (6 miles) in-land in places, sweeping away with it houses, cars, trains and people and pretty much anything not made of reinforced concrete. In addition to the sheer size of the waves, they also struck a mere 10 minutes after the initial quake (which itself lasted 5 minutes), leaving people with little time to evacuate in those affected areas. There are beaches where hundreds of bodies have washed up, and cities where over half the residents are unaccounted for. One prefecture alone is expecting a death toll in excess of 10,000.

However, help is on the way. One of the largest relief efforts, possibly in the history of the developed world, is converging on north-eastern Japan. Half a dozen countries, including New Zealand, Britain, Germany, France, Singapore, and China have rescue workers and medical teams en route. In addition to the 50,000 Japanese Self Defense Forces troops activated previously, another 50,000 were called up today for a total of 100,000 soldiers. Off the coast, an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, and a couple of destroyers of the US Navy have arrived to assist in rescue and relief operations, and I’ve read reports that the Marines may use amphibious landing vessels to deliver aid.

I think this particular disaster is worth following for those of us in the developed world, because there are already lessons we could learn. Japan is a wealthy and technologically advanced nation, and one which has spent considerable time, effort and resources in preparing for earthquakes. For instance, the high-rise condo my parents live in in Tokyo has elevators equipped with P-wave sensors that stop elevators at the nearest floor before the main quakes strike (P-waves travel at the speed of sound, and therefore move ahead of the actual earth-moving waves). Japan’s high speed rail service which travels at speeds exceeding 180mph are also similarly equipped, and suffered no casualties in this quake. Emergency broadcasts on TV can also warn viewers of incoming earthquakes, often before they actually can be felt. These are just a few examples of technologies available in Japan that I haven’t even seen in California — an equally quake-prone region.

Yet, as we watched the devastation spreading, it also became clear that there are limits to what technology can do. There are also limits to what the government can do. No doubt, this earthquake and the resulting tsunami was a hellish scenario that would’ve been difficult to prepare for or defend against. For many, escape simply was not an option. Sometimes, Nature wins.

But, as the country enters its 3rd night, a new kind of tragedy is unfolding. At one point, the radio announcer interviewed someone at an evacuation center, who painted a desperate picture: people huddled on rooftops with few blankets, no drinking water, no food, dwindling supply of medicine for the sick. The man ended with a desperate plea for supplies. From other reports, it seemed that many other isolated evacuation centers faced similar conditions. The suffering I heard about from survivors is a different kind of tragedy to the original disaster; one that might’ve been prevented, or at least eased significantly, with a little preparation.

If there’s one obvious lesson we could learn, it’s that the best preparation happens locally, starting with the individual on out. Every household should have a stockpile of food and water to last at least a week. In the event that evacuation is necessary, there should be a go-bag, equipped with essentials like food and water, emergency blankets, flashlights, a radio, spare batteries and cash. I’m hearing that flashlights are selling out in Tokyo, and if people don’t have flashlights, it seems even less likely that they have go-bags. Failing that (or to augment that), designated evacuation centers should be stocked with enough food, water, emergency blankets and other basic supplies to last at least a few days. While communication networks appear largely operational even in the worst hit areas, without power, people are unable to use their cell phones once their batteries run out (pay phones have become free, though long queues have been reported). This is a problem that could easily be solved by a few hundred dollars worth of solar panels mounted at each evacuation center, which could provide more than enough power to keep dozens of phones charged (or, at the individual level, a cheap $30 kit).

We’ve seen disaster victims suffer unnecessarily in a developed nation before, with Katrina. Even though the Superdome was designated as an evacuation center, it wasn’t stocked with necessary supplies. Prevailing emergency plans seem to be:

Step 1 – Get people to evacuation centers.
Step 2 – Wing it.

While I would not fault the Japanese government’s response by any means (which, if anything has been extraordinary, especially compared to FEMA during Katrina), the reality seems to be that Step 2 is challenging, even with the best of intentions. The reality is, getting supplies to masses after a catastrophic and unpredictable disaster is so much harder than prepositioning those same supplies when roads, airfields, and ports are accessible.

Better preparation can also save money, in addition to easing suffering of those affected. It costs a lot of money to activate troops and deploy helicopters. Supplies may simply cost more after disasters, since, after all, Econ 101 taught us that prices go up when demand goes up. It also may be harder to negotiate reasonable prices when desperate people are waiting.

Basic preparation such as those I outlined could also save lives. All day today, the radio reported of evacuees being air lifted from evacuation centers that lacked supplies to actually act as short-term emergency shelters. If those evacuation centers had been better stocked, those helicopters might’ve been better employed rescuing those who could really use help, like the 67 year old lady who clung to a tree for 15 hours after being swept away by a tsunami.

It is a pity that human nature seems to be deprived of foresight, and that it takes such tragedy to be reminded of our frailty. Even then, little may be done as a society, or even as a community. It is unlikely that we’ll be able to get politicians to increase funding for disaster preparedness, or that you could get stockpiles set up at the local shelter. But as individuals, we can learn and act. Tomorrow, it may be you and I, and what we do today could make all the difference. Be prepared.

Water!

A couple of days ago, I decided to hop over the fence separating my property from public lands to the west, to go walk to Lassen National Forest, which starts just half a mile down a forest service road. On the way, I planned on checking out a pond that’s located a couple hundred yards from the barbed wire fence. As I approached the fence, though, I heard a whisper. I undid my hood to uncover my ears. There was no mistaking the sound — the sound of trickling water!

I scrambled downhill towards the bottom of the ravine where I knew the sound must emanate from. The whisper turned into the full-on susurration of gushing water.

The seasonal stream was running!

Even though I’d always suspected the presence of a seasonal stream there, the sights and sounds stirred palpable excitement. Water! Gallons and gallons of water, gushing right through my property! The sudden appearance of this body of water made it seem that much more magical.

Though, in reality, the stream’s appearance could hardly be attributed to magic. In fact, the pond that I had been planning on visiting sits upstream from this creek, and is the very reason I suddenly started receiving water. The pond is actually the result of a large earthen berm that blocks that stream. When the water level rises high enough, the dam is flanked, releasing any additional water downstream towards my property.

The timing of its release is also unsurprising. It had snowed almost 2 feet over the past few weeks, but recent warm weather accompanied by rain had caused all that snow to suddenly start melting and rush downhill. When the pond filled up, the overflow started trickling through my property. Once all the snow is gone, probably in the next month or so, the stream will also stop running. But during that short window, snow melt from hundreds of acres of land will rush through that narrow gully on my land.

Exiting my property to the north, the creek eventually joins other tiny streams heading towards Pit River, which meanders west across the mountains to empty into Lake Shasta, to then continue south down the Sacramento River, eventually spilling into the Pacific Ocean where it would evaporate, condense into clouds that get blown back east, and fall as rain and snow on these same mountains to repeat the cycle.

On the way, some of it may be diverted to irrigate the rice fields and orchards in the Central Valley. So the next time you eat California-grown rice, or olives, or almonds, or perhaps fruits, you may be eating a tiny bit of that snow-melt I saw flowing through Serenity Valley.

Living here, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for water. Water is life. People talk about the “gold standard”, but I think there should be a “water standard.” Water is what makes life possible. No water, no life.

And until recently, I mostly thought of Serenity Valley as an inhospitably dry place. Indeed, from late Spring until mid-Autumn, there’s hardly any rain. In the summer, it’s typical for there to be zero precipitation for months. Last year, I had to haul water in to irrigate my tiny garden, and even that wasn’t enough.

But, lo! When I saw all that water gushing through my property, I felt like I’d struck gold. Nay, I felt like I’d struck life. If I can contain even a tiny fraction of the water, life can flourish on Serenity Valley. I can grow a much bigger garden, and even grow fruit trees. I can raise livestock. I may even be able to raise fish! It’s so dry here in the summer that things don’t even compost very well, but water changes that too. The soil isn’t great, but, as long as there’s water, I could build it up.

When I bought this land, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of homesteading here. Now that I’ve been contemplating that option, I was starting to doubt the suitability of this land for sustaining life. That changed the instant I heard that stream. Sure, there are much easier places to homestead, where growing seasons are longer, or summers aren’t so dry, or the soil is better. But with all that water, I think it’s at least theoretically possible to turn this land into a productive little farm. It wouldn’t be easy. It’d be an uphill battle all the way. But it just might be possible, and that’s pretty darn exciting.

As new possibilities blossomed in my imagination, I continued with my walk to Lassen National Forest as planned. I was tempted to spend more time around the new creek, but reasoned that it would still be running for at least a week or two.

***

The next day, having slept off my aquatic euphoria, I turned to more practical considerations. I started by walking the entire length of the creek, following it all the way through my property and out. The goal was to get an idea of the creek’s path, and to gain a better grasp of the terrain surrounding the stream. For the water to be usable during the dry season I would need to collect it, either with a dam of my own, or by diverting the water to a cistern. My hope was to spot potential sites for one or the other.

After entering my property from the west, a few hundred yards north of the south-west corner, the creek rushes down the steep ravine that I mentioned before, at a east-northeasterly orientation. The ravine eventually opens up to a bigger valley, the one I think of as actual Serenity Valley, which slopes gently down almost due north. The creek gradually wanders to the east, flowing out my property lines, then continues north parallel to my eastern border, eventually pooling in a flat area near the paved road, before disappearing into a large duct under the road just yards from the peg marking my north-eastern corner.

As I walked the length of the creek, it became obvious that damming a considerable quantity of water would quickly become a monstrous logistical and engineering feat, probably beyond my budget or skills. A more practical and practicable solution seemed to be to set up a small dam, maybe just a foot or two high in a natural bottleneck, to raise the water level just enough to make water collection easier. From there, some of the flow could be diverted by a series of pipes to a cistern located in a reasonably flat and clear area about 100-150 yards away. The terrain would allow the cistern to be located at a slightly lower elevation, and could be fed by gravity.

But, is there enough water?

As I observed the creek, I tried to make a rough estimate of its flow rate. To do so, I found a natural funnel where the stream was constrained between some large boulders, then imagined the jet of water being further narrowed, and pictured the water filling a gallon jug. It seemed like there was enough water flowing to fill a gallon jug in about a second. To be conservative, let’s call it half a gallon a second. That’s 30 gallons per minute, 1800 gallons per hour, or 43,200 gallons per day. If the creek were to run for 20 days, a total 864,000 gallons would flow through. (Incidentally, this method of approximation is called a Fermi estimate and is often employed by scientists and engineers to make ballpark estimates that often yield results in the right order of magnitude.)

So, even if I over-estimated or under-estimated by 100%, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of gallons on the lower end, and well over a million on the high-end. It seems that diverting 10-20,000 gallons would hardly do any harm, yet would provide me with enough water to irrigate a large garden, raise a couple of heads of cattle, with maybe even enough left for a small fish pond.

But, would that be legal?

My natural inclination towards such questions would be to ask, “Does it harm anyone?” If not, who cares? After all, diverting 0.5-5% of a tiny seasonal creek seems pretty harmless. Being a seasonal creek that only exists for a few weeks a year, there’s no native fish or other wildlife I need to worry about. I’m not dumping toxins downstream. So, it seemed like it’d be something so harmless as to not even warrant regulation in the first place.

But then, this is California. And this is water we’re talking about. I decided to begrudgingly research the legal ramifications, half expecting to find that what I wanted to do would be bound tightly in red tape.

As it turns out, California laws regarding Water Rights apparently include an exception for crazy (or reasonable) people like me. On the FAQ page of the California Water Board’s website, I found the following:

There is one exception to the requirement that you have a water right. You do not need a water right if you take and use a small amount of water only for domestic purposes or use a small amount of water for commercial livestock watering purposes. However, you are required to register your use with the Division of Water Rights, notify the California Department of Fish and Game, and agree to follow conditions the Department of Fish and Game may set to protect fish and wildlife. The maximum use allowed under such a registration is 4,500 gallons per day for immediate use or 10 acre-feet per year for storage in a pond or reservoir.

Furthermore, “domestic use” is defined as:

… indoor household uses, watering of non-commercial stock used for the household, and irrigation of one-half acre or less of household land, such as a garden.

So, as it turns out, what I want to do is legal, and only requires registration. Though, the registration form asks for the estimated water usage in acre-feet, and since one acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, 10,000 gallons would be about 0.03 acre-feet, or a mere 0.3% of the 10 acre-feet that is allowed under this provision. To be honest, I feel like making a state worker (and someone from the DFG) process my registration for such a minuscule amount of water would cost the state of California more than it’s really worth…

One remaining open question is the cistern. My first thought was, of course, a DIY approach. A 10,000 gallon cistern could measure 15x15ft filled to a depth of 6ft (7.48 gallons fit in 1 cubic foot), and a 15x15x7ft box with 6″ walls would require about 41 yards of cement at a cost of probably $5000-7000 (though there’s also the question of how I’d get a cement truck out there). Even if reinforced with rebar, 6″ walls may not be sufficient, so that may be a low estimate. After doing some research, it seems above-ground plastic tanks may actually be more cost effective. They seem to be priced around $0.50/gallon (+shipping) or lower, and come in varying shapes and sizes so I could start with a small tank and add more. Being fully enclosed, evaporation wouldn’t be an issue either, and the bigger ones have man-holes for cleaning (the water is pretty murky, so I suspect there’ll be a fair amount of sedimentation).

Another related idea I had was to set up a micro-hydroelectric generator to run a pump, and lift the water to a higher elevation that way. About the only good that would do is to open up more possible locations for the cistern. But using the creek to generate power wouldn’t be practical for much else, since it probably only runs for a few weeks out of the year, and the creek is about 300 yards from my camp. Re-capturing energy when water is released from the cistern might be feasible, though it’s just as likely that water from the cistern would need to eventually be pumped higher since most likely locations for gardens are located higher up on my property.

All in all, preliminary indications are promising. If water-flow I’m seeing now is fairly typical, diverting about 10,000 gallons seems both legal and practicable. Tentatively, I may try to setup a small test this summer, and see how it does next spring. I could start with a cistern or tank in the 1000-2500 gallon range, and scale-up if that works out. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if Serenity Valley is to see a transformation into Serenity Valley Farm –still a big if, mind you– it’s going to take years, if at all.

Journal: March 6th, 2011

I think today is Day 18 or something. Anyway, I would’ve thought that by now I’d be tired of being alone in the woods and be ready to pack up and go back to the city. No such luck. As time goes by, things only seem to get better.

Yesterday was my best day yet. It was all rainy outside so I spent the better part of the afternoon indoors… doing some shooting. Several days ago, I set up a target stand about 50 yards from my cabin. There’s a big match coming up in April, and since I haven’t shot much in the past year, I wanted to get as much practice in as I can. Being able to step outside and shoot significantly lowers the barrier. But it’s indescribable how happy it made me to be able to shoot without even stepping foot outside, from my own home. For me, if this isn’t a dream come true, I don’t know what is.

Then, later in the afternoon, in another burst of motivated productivity, I set up my kitchen in Hut 2.1. Up until last night, my gas stove, most cooking implements, and spices were still in Hut 1.0 where I did much of my cooking. Some meals were cooked entirely on the wood stove, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to run back and forth between the two huts carrying pots and pans. Also, since I only fire up the stove at night, breakfast and mid-day snacks were all prepared in Hut 1.0. It was a bit of a hassle, but given that I’ve been using Hut 1.0 for food storage as well, it wasn’t too bad.

Having cooked two dinners in Hut 2.1 now, it’s unbelievable how convenient it is to have my kitchen all in one place. The Hut 2.1 kitchen also just generally has a nicer layout, with the gas stove against the far wall, a prep counter to the right, and the wood stove right behind me. I can seamlessly switch between the gas stove and wood stove, and even use both at the same time. The Hut 2.1 kitchen also has more “storage shelves” (in reality, semi-structural 2x4s), though I’m also thinking of adding another set of shelves to the left of the gas stove. All that’s left to do is to set up the sink, and I’d have myself one sweet kitchen.

So, shooting and setting up an awesome kitchen were great, but I think part of what made the day particularly joyful for me was that it was a day in which I did all the things I love doing. Shooting was one, and the construction work I did was the other. While doing the construction work, though, I also had loud music playing, to which I’d occasionally sing and dance along (if flailing with a circular saw in hand counts as such), and that turned out to be incredibly uplifting.

The things I did that brought me so much joy are also things I have a hard time doing in the city. I used to have to drive 45 minutes to go shoot. I couldn’t listen to loud music any time I wanted. I couldn’t use a circular saw and hammer nails late into the evening. And being incredibly shy about such things, I don’t generally dance or sing if I know there are humans nearby. So, between prohibitions and inhibitions, when around people, I am unable to do the things I love, and be the person I want to be. No wonder I felt like a caged animal when I lived in the city. But, here, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can step outside (or stay inside) and shoot my rifle. I can play music, music I like, as loud as I want without anyone even hearing. I can use my power tools and hammer nails at 11pm if I want to. I can sing badly and loudly if I want to. Nobody cares. And because nobody cares, I don’t care. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling.

It’s what freedom feels like.

For my “mid-term report”, I’ve been trying to summarize thoughts buzzing around my mind, but unfortunately those thoughts are buzzing too quickly to be captured in any coherent manner. From what I can gather, however, many of the thoughts have to do with my relationship to people. I’ve known for a long time that I’m introverted, but the depth of my introversion is only becoming clear to me, having spent almost 3 weeks in physical isolation. Based on how liberated I feel in my isolation, I am only starting to understand how conflicted my relationship with fellow humans really is.

With ample time on my hands and mind, I also find myself contemplating big questions, like, “What the point of life?” I find that being here and doing what I’m doing renders some previous answers obsolete. If the point of life is for me to realize dreams, I’ve done that (and this isn’t the first). If the point of life is for me to be happy, I’ve done that. So, what’s next? One thing I’m starting realize is that attaining happiness for oneself isn’t a goal; it’s a stepping stone.

An image that comes to mind is of safety briefings on air planes, where they say that if you’re traveling with a child, you should put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before helping your kid. The hidden implication I always saw in that message was: save yourself first, then others. Maybe happiness is like that. There are a lot of people sacrificing their own happiness for others, but that seems contrived. If you can’t be happy yourself, how can you help others attain happiness? Now that I have my secret lair, my fortress, perhaps what’s next is for me to engage the world again. After all, what’s the point of a refuge if I don’t occasionally venture out and find something to retreat from?