October 2013


I made a composter last year that has been working pretty well:

My model for composting comes from my aunt & uncle, who have three fenced-in areas for compost. They use one for a year and then let it sit for two years. It is the epitome of low-maintenance composting: throw in your kitchen scraps and come back in a couple years.

In the desert, you can’t just have a fence. The critters will eat what they can and leave with your compost in their bellies. The rest will eventually either mummify or turn to dust and blow away. In the desert, you need a box with a lid and you need to keep it moist. The plan was to have a box that held a year’s worth of kitchen scraps that we would keep moist by dumping in the rinse water when we needed to rinse out the bucket.

And it worked. The size, 2′ x 2′ x almost 3′, was perfect. Over a year we put in a couple hundred gallons of kitchen scraps, half of a straw bale, a bunch of silage from the garden, and only enough water to keep our compost bucket from stinking, and it’s standing at 3/4 full and dropping. No turning or fussing.

But we needed a new box and I’ve just finished it, with help from my nephew Ollie:

It’s a lot bigger–4’x4’x3′–for a couple reasons. We want it to last longer and we’re expecting to have more to put in it this year. Also, I think the 2’x2’x3′ box is too small to really get cooking. My brother Damian got intensely into compost this year and inspired us to buy a compost thermometer and we found that our compost peaked at 117 degrees and usually hovered around 100, no matter what we did about the carbon/nitrogen ratio. 100 is fine for a low-maintenance composter, but if we can get it really hot just by having a bigger box, why not?

I made one other design change that I’ve never heard anyone else doing. I always wonder about the bottom corners of a rectangular composter. It seems like they will have less composting mass down there and won’t be able to heat up as much. So I dug a hole inside it to make the eventual pile more spherical:

As usual, I have no control group for this experiment, so I’ll never know if it’s helpful.

My second new composter is a little more edgy, so if you’re squeamish about urine, read no further.

In the desert, we are lucky to have two places to pee–into a septic system or onto the ground. Septics are OK, and it’s great to be able to pee inside when it’s cold outside, but there are problems. If you maintain them properly, they ferment your sewage, but it’s basically an underground landfill. The city west of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, for example, has irrevocably poisoned one of their aquifers by letting it touch their underground “septic plume.”

Peeing outside is one of the great pleasures of living in a rural area. The problem is, the pee is still a waste product. As a kid, I figured I was watering the thirsty desert plants that I peed near, often choosing which bush by who looked the most parched. I have since proven to my satisfaction that peeing on desert bushes does not help them. I’ve peed on various bushes for various periods of time and watched how they responded and they don’t. No extra growth, no increase in blooming. If anything, the pee stunts their growth.

Then I came across the idea that urine is great fertilizer, but is too strong to go directly on plants. Usually  these folks say to water it down 7:1 or so, and your plants will shoot up. I have also disproven this idea to my satisfaction.

The healthy greens on the right were watered with pure hose water. The dead greens on the left were watered for less than a week with pee watered down 20:1. Now if you are in the permaculture grapevine, you may be thinking, “Oh, that’s because you didn’t age or ferment the pee first.” OK, maybe, but don’t tell me about it. Show me a photograph of some aged-pee-watered plants next to some regular-watered plants that are not doing as well.

Now there is a rumor going around that you can make compost by peeing on straw. (Root Simple, for example.) The idea is, nitrogen from the pee plus carbon from the straw plus time equals compost. I happen to think that compost is more complicated than that, and that the benefit of compost has more to do with having the right bacterial ecology in your garden soil than just having decomposed organic matter. But the prospect of doing something useful with pee that involves peeing outside was very appealing. So I buried half a straw bale near my trailer:

Sorry about the photo–I may have taken it by headlamp after digging past dusk. Point is, I dug a hole about 2.5′ deep so my just over half a straw bale would fit in on end. I didn’t get a photo of the new finished product. Imagine the end of a straw bale–compact straw–flush with the ground.

It’s temperature has been between 80 and 100 F, and the level of the straw has dropped a few inches in the last two months. So maybe it’s making compost. If so, I get to pee outside and feel good about making compost, and maybe I’ll plant a tree near there. If not, I’m creating a slightly stinky hole in the ground that I can fill in with sand pretty easily. (And I should note here that it is much less stinky than if I’d just peed on the ground in the same spot for a couple months, which I know because I’ve done it.) Here’s what it looks like now:

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This is a long post, so first the short version. In the last year: I started working full time and am adjusting to that. I’m glad to be working towards my MFT licensure, but uncomfortable about how it pushes my relationships and other projects onto the back burner. My marriage gets better and better, despite this. The company I work for goes out of business so I get part of the summer off, and I get the exact same job (family therapist for US Marines & their families) with a new company.

And for the year ahead: I plan to continue this work, taking good care of myself, dance with Reanna every night, as promised to my friend, Tilke, in her “How to be a Real Artist” workshop, get in best shape in 5 years, and learn how to treat myself and Reanna really really well while working full time.

October: I started my year out at Farm & Wilderness, VT, staffing and teaching a really fun psychology project at Not Back to School Camp. As is traditional, I got really sick, but this time it was from a waitress in Rutland, not someone at NBTSC. I recuperated while visiting Ethan & Susannah, also in Vermont. Back in Joshua Tree, I started working out again (SERIOUS style), planted my first winter garden, fixed some electrical and plumbing problems in my trailer, and started setting up a private practice. In the process of hiring a supervisor, I found out that in California, unlike in Oregon, I cannot do my internship in a private practice. So I started looking for work in a local clinic.

Looking out over Woodward Reservoir from my cabin at Farm & Wilderness

Ethan, cataloging NBTSC lost & found in his library

The famous Quodlibetarian tub

Reanna

Reanna at Playa Del Rey

Ollie, a year ago

Ollie & Pap

Gabe, Damian & Maya on the Hwy 62 Art Tour

Trailer at sunset, looking south

November: I move into a new computer, archive my years of audio journal entries, and learn Sketchup while applying for and getting a job at Morongo Basin Mental Health: providing free, confidential therapy for US Marines, veterans, and their families. In what would become a series of small-town coincidences, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in decades worked there, saw my name on the interview list and sat in on my interview, interjecting stuff like, “Oh, yeah, good answer!” Nice way to interview. The manager of the military program assured me that the our contract was solid for at least two years. That’s about how long I need to get my hours for licensure, so the job sounded good–no chance of having to ditch my clients like I had to in grad school! I spent the rest of the month getting in as much time with Reanna and my family before starting full time work.

Rainbow over the Bartlet Mts

Maya & Ollie in hammock

Ollie helps Nana Honey cook

Me & Reanna

December:  My 93 year old Grandpa Bob gets really sick, and I get really sick taking care of him. I was pretty sure he was going to die. He had pneumonia and had to go on antibiotics for the first time in his life. It took me weeks to fully recover. He eventually recovered, too, but I’m not sure he’ll ever fully recover. He’s been on antibiotics off and on ever since and is progressively less mobile. It’s got me thinking a lot about dying–how I can support the people I love when they start having a hard time taking care of themselves, and how I want to die when my time comes.

I start at MBMH, reading 40 hours a week of protocols. I have Christmas with family in Joshua Tree. My brother Damian starts a weekly evening with family, listening to an integral Christianity lecture and meditation that turns out to be a presentation of integral theory to Christians, rather than Christianity to integral thinkers, but valuable nonetheless.

Reanna & Christina, Xmas

Reanna & Maya, Xmas

Ely, Christina, Pap, Ben, Rebeca, Xmas

Gabe, Ely, Ollie, Christina, Xmas

Reanna, ukulele, heater

Ollie, bundled up

January: I get my first paid vacation ever–one week off, fully paid by MBMH. Weird, pretty nice. I write my first attempt at a comprehensive political statement. Reanna and I start a three-month experiment with a strict “paleo” diet, which mostly means we cut out sugar and grains from our diet. The theory is that human adaptation to grains and refined anything is shallow at best. I also start cooking Mexican food (the paleo-friendly recipes) from Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican. I love it. And Reanna loves eating it. I start learning to play Reanna’s ukulele. I play and sing “Amazing Grace” most nights for a month. Fun!

I’m working full time, which I’ve never done. It’s not my favorite schedule. I had to let go of most of my projects. I started building a solar batch water heater in the fall, for example, that is still not finished. The schedule has simplified my life quite a bit. Work all day, spend the evening with Reanna. I gained more respect for my friends who’ve been working full time for decades and still manage to write some music or read books. I’m ramping into a caseload, though, and am seeing seven clients a week by the end of the month.

My endurance training is going great by this point. Mid month I got my heart rate up to 179 bpm without hurting myself. Very exciting.

Smiley and Gallant visit

Reanna in our clean, cold kitchen

Dinner’s almost ready. (Photo by Reanna.)

Grandpa Bob turns 94

Me in therapist costume, with Ollie. (Photo by Reanna.)

February: Full time work continues. I get trained in the Trauma Resiliency Model, which I find very cool and useful. I re-up the trademark on Abandon Ship. I feel sad that I can’t write music with my brothers right now, but have plenty of optimistic plans to do so… Reanna starts designing our future house, another exciting project that I have to watch from the sidelines. I love watching her get super deep into a topic like this, though. She is now the resident expert in passive-solar-optimized-very-small-house design. We start car shopping, too. We need to be independently mobile in Joshua Tree.

Trench. Hose feeding trailer finally to be buried.

Reanna & treehouse near the Mexican border

Ollie, Damian

March: I’m up to 16 clients at MBMH and I’m fighting for mastery of the intense paperwork load. The clinical work is going great. My supervisor is good, I am fully engaged by my clients, and I get to see a good variety of folks–kids, adults, families, couples. The paperwork is fairly unpleasant, though. Mental health providers that get government funding spend a huge amount of time and energy creating and maintaining a paper trail for their work. These clinics get paid based on the work they claim to have done and then various agencies can audit their files and take that money back if a box wasn’t checked or a T wasn’t crossed. I spend my first very late day at work in March, trying to catch up on paperwork. Reanna is not happy.

Highlights: A great lecture by Bruce Perry, planting my first spring/summer garden, endurance training going great (I work out during my lunches at MBMH), meeting the Transition Joshua Tree folks. And Reanna. Reanna is wonderful.

Lowlights: My truck fails smog and I begin what becomes an expensive debacle trying to get it to pass.  I start having sync problems with my Mac that I am still dealing with as I write. I start working on our taxes on weekends. Reanna is Canadian and that makes our taxes super complicated and somehow even though we hired a professional we ended up owing big fines.

Abandon Ship cover art, for the TM folks. Art by Tilke.

Damian & Ollie in old billy goat pen, future garden

Me, just having sunk the garden beds. (Photo by Reanna)

Reanna planting pepper starts

Ollie

Ollie & Reanna take the trash out

Ollie & Reanna rest in the hammock

April: I find out that Morongo Basin Mental Health has decided to go out of business after more than 40 years, at the end of June. That’s quite a shock and less for me than for the many decade-plus employees I work with. At home, our three months of paleo is up and I feel fine, as I have on just about every diet I’ve tried, but it clearly had not solved any of the problems we’d been tracking for the experiment. And I am sick in bed for a week for a third time this year. Reanna’s parents arrive for a month long visit. I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like, but we get in some fun events (like the Morongo Basin Conservation Association’s “Desertwise Landscape Tour” and Transition Joshua Tree’s Water Catchment Workshop), good talks, good swimming.  I get trained in sand-tray therapy by my supervisor, Richard Gray, which I find quite useful.

Reanna preps cholla buds for dinner

Family dinner at Damian & Maya’s (Damian with Bugzooka)

Doug & Kathryn up San Jacinto

May: We get a great little car, a gift from Reanna’s parents. It gets 38 mpg unless we use the AC.  At work, emotions are high and rumors are flying around. I try to avoid it as much as possible. My coworkers are mostly looking for work with great intensity. I decide that I will chill instead, concentrate on my clients, and do what I can to get my job back with whatever company picks up the military contract in the summer.  Meanwhile,  something is eating my garden. My weekends and after work time is often spent critter-proofing.

The highlight of the month by far is meeting my new nephew, Julian.

Julian in sling

Ollie in work gloves

First scorpion of a scorpion-rich year

June: I’m at 21 clients at the beginning of my last month at MBMH. The management has had me continue taking new clients but I’m starting to get nervous about it. It’s starting to look like my clients will have a significant lapse in services, and it pisses me off. I write people in charge at the county and local journalists but no-one can say how long it will take to get the military program back up and running. I know I’m fine. I can look forward to a full season working at NBTSC if things go badly. It sucks, though, that my clients are just getting dumped. It’s screwed up. I just have to set them up as best I can for the lapse and do the tons of paperwork to close their charts. Meanwhile, my co-worker, Jackie, introduces me to Candy Crush, which starts sucking up the cracks in my schedule.

Highlights: Jonathan & Ayako’s wedding in Idaho. Motorcycle safety class with Reanna. And being married to Reanna, of course.

Living room pano: Ely, Christina, Julian, Ben, Rebeca visit

Ben & Julian

North end pano from on top of Reanna’s sewing RV

Ayako & Jonathan, getting married

July: I’m unemployed again, but within two weeks I get interviewed by Pacific Clinics, the company who got the military contract that I’d been working for at MBMH. It looks like I’ll get the job based on the reputation I’d made for myself in that position. That feels good! It means I’ll miss most of NBTSC this year, too, for the first time in 14 years.

Reanna leaves for OR to do prep work for NBTSC and I delete Candy Crush from my phone so I can get some things done: install AC in our trailer, create an outside pantry, build a greywater cistern, make a front step for the trailer, get my motorcycle license, and a few other things. Satisfying. Then I fly up to OR to work the Camp Latgawa session of NBTSC.

Reanna hangs our laundry while I goof off with the camera

Cistern in progress

Julian & me

August: Finish at NBTSC (wonderful, as usual), and spend a few short days in Eugene at an NBTSC leadership summit, then back to Joshua Tree for my last week of unemployment. I completed some last-minute landscaping and plumbing projects, built a dry toilet and installed a weather station, then started training at Pacific Clinics in Arcadia.

At the end of August, Reanna got back from her travels, and we started shutting down all lights and electronics at 8pm and just hanging out until going to bed. This was lovely. We usually laid in the hammock outside, talking and looking at stars. The desert summer evenings are really, really nice. Especially with Reanna.

My advisee group, NBTSC Camp Latgawa

Ely & Julian before dinner

Reanna & Ollie, downtown Joshua Tree

September: I start making contact with clients and by the end of the month I’m back up to 7 clients. This is exciting, and it’s nice to be working with some of my old co-workers from MBMH, and the new crew at Pacific Clinics is an entertaining bunch. Working full time again limits what I can do in terms of projects, but I manage to put a new roof on the old goat pen/the new outside pantry, go visit Quail Springs permaculture farm, and start building a new composter with my 2-year-old nephew, Ollie.

At the end of the month, I have my first birthday at home in many years. Usually I’m at camp. It’s nice. My family threw me a little party and I’m glad to be here, even though I miss my people at Farm & Wilderness.

Yes, Ollie wants to help build the composter!

Rain Event, 29 Palms

With Reanna & ocotillo, on my 42nd birthday.