Doing What Needs to be Done

About two years ago I gave up a cush and fairly lucrative job teaching college to experiment with self-sufficient living.  Since then I have struggled with what to say when people ask me what I do.  The conversations are a bit awkward, at least for me.

First, I am not retired.  It is difficult to remember the last time I worked this hard.  Self-sufficiency consists of farming, but not the industrial type.  Self-sufficient farming is physical and limited, but is rewarding and incredibly efficient if done correctly.  But self-sufficient living is not limited to farming; I am not “just” a farmer.

Self-sufficient living relies upon the ability to fix things, to build things, to plan things, to heat and cool and keep alive.  Self-sufficiency by its very nature is the dichotomy of retirement.  It is the realization that retirement is synonymous with inability.

Secondly, I am not a contractor.  While it is true that much of what I do during the day is carpentry-based the job title is not fully described by carpentry.  While it is true that cabinets and counter tops are installed, they are also built often with wood that was milled right at the farm.  But, I do not own a sawmill and I am not a cabinet builder.  I sometimes must repair machinery or bring old machinery back to life, but I am not a mechanic.

Lastly,  I make money and money is necessary, yes, but self-sufficient living is an act that strives to make money much less necessary.  The hours in the week working at Trollcastle Farm is directly deposited into the bank account but does not come in the form of a check.  Rather, it comes by not having to pay someone else; often money does not exchange hands.  Money comes from not having to buy all the material that I use, all the food I eat.

So, what do I do?  I run a business, a sole proprietorship.  I fix and build things; I grow things, I am a caretaker of the little piece of land that I have.  I work.  I am a working man.  I do what needs to be done.  That is what I do.


An Update on the Experiment


This particular post is two things: an apology and and explanation.

First, an apology.  I realize that blogs are particularly important to those who write them, and less so to those who read them.  That being the case, I must still apologize for not being consistent, if only to myself.

Secondly, an explanation.  I have embarked upon an experiment in self-sustainability that involves moving from one side of this country to the other.  Such a move takes time and effort which explains my apology above.  This experiment involves buying a small (22 acre) plot of land with a house, a barn foundation, and a full woodworking shop.  This is the result of several years of contemplation and contrary thinking that has cost comfort and security, I hope, to a good end: to see just how self-sustaining an individual can be.

To this end I would like to invite anyone interested to visit two new sites that will be up and running this fall.  First, I will have a podcast called “The Philosophy of Gardening” and at some point and time a youtube channel called Trollcastle Works.  These endeavors will simply be a video/audio blog of ongoings around the property that will include forestry work, woodworking and of course gardening.

I hope to have several projects going that include: a small fruit orchard, vegetable garden, furniture making and carpentry, hops and grain fields, and brewing beer.  The podcast and videos, I hope, will be of interest to anyone that might consider self-sustainability as a way of life.

I call this an experiment, because I see 100% self-sustainability as being the speed of light, and the experiment’s goal itself being to see how close to this ideal that I can get.  There will be failures and there will be accomplishments, and I hope to share both.

The reason for this experiment is, of course, personal, but it stems from a belief that self-sustainability for individuals and families is the only moral option.  What better way to test this belief than putting it in practice!

I hope that some of you consider following me on this adventure!

The Choices We Make



When I chose to get a dog from the pound about five years ago, little did I know of the ritual that would soon become my life. Every morning up at 5:30 and after the coffee cup hits the coffee table for the final time, a nudge (toy in mouth) and off we go for our morning walk. In the afternoon after work another walk, work in the woodshop or in the garden, and some playing in the yard until it is time to eat. Then, off to the favorite bed she goes watching the house from her favorite perch.

The choice to get a dog from the pound has obvious implications. My life has changed, but so has hers. I made a choice, and that choice has brought me as well as my dog a great deal of happiness. These are the choices we make, and we continually make. Other choices that we make do not always have obvious implications.

When I choose to go to the grocery store (the walk of shame as I call it), or to buy something at the local hardware store the choices we make there also have implications. However, those implications are not always as clear as bringing a dog into your life. There are animals that pay a high price for the choices we make. We make choices for many reasons, but those reasons should always be clear to us as well as the consequences of the choices we make.

An easy choice is not always the right choice, and those choices that we deem as difficult should not always be difficult. We can choose to do the right thing, but to simply do the right thing takes time, it is a habit that we must acquire. I believe that most of us know what the right choice is but are often tempted by the easy and swayed by the convenient. Our choices become others and not our own.

Perhaps it’s time to take our choices back, but this too is a choice; at least for now.

Simple Pleasures


There’s something beautiful about seeing bees come out on a winter’s day. Walking out to the bee yard I noticed a few girls flying around. Although the sky was grey, it was just warm enough for a few brave hearts to venture outside. It is a simple pleasure, I know, but a pleasure nevertheless.

It is pleasures like this that make life worth living. It does not take money; in fact money alone is void of the kind of pleasure that is available if we just take time to notice. The garden, newly manured, sitting in the snow reminds me that there are worms deep under the soil. My ear up against the beehive and the scratching and buzzing that I hear, reminds me that we all want the same thing: a safe, warm place.

Perhaps it is this realization that warms my heart on cold winter days. When I realize the beauty that is nature I just have to stop and stare in wonderment. I think that it would be a much better world if we all took time to stand and stare in wonderment at the simple and often forgotten corners of our world.

In the back I hear chickens clucking away. I know that they are fussing about the snow, and perhaps feel a bit of cabin fever already. But they too venture out picking around in the snow, hoping to find a morsel, or maybe just doing it out of curiosity.

I like the smell of a kitchen that people cook in. I like the warmth of a home, and the cold against my face on an early morning walk. I like knowing that we all have a place, all animals; all living creatures. I like to think that there are places that are safe, that people want the best and are willing to work for it. I like to think that there is love in the world, and that there are those that are loved.

I know that these are simple pleasures, but as simple as they are, they are also simply priceless. And so I walk out back and stick my hand down in the dirt, I work on winter carpentry projects with the hope of the coming Spring and Summer. I put my ear up against the hive. I do these things and a smile comes to my face; just another simple pleasure to be thankful for.


For Beekeepers Everywhere


For beekeepers, fall is sometimes the time for raider bees: those bees that look for the year’s last source of food, which is sometimes a weak hive.   The raiders make for the entrance en force and then raid food stores of the hive. Once in, the raiders have no problems, as the defense of the hive is limited. The raiders gorge themselves with food and make their way out of the raided hive and to their own.

Raiding is a problem for beekeepers because it often leads to the death of hives during and sometimes before winter but the issue is not that bees raid; that’s what bees do: survive. The issue is how to stop raiding bees. In my battles with raiding bees I noticed that I was approaching the problem as a human being rather than approaching the problem from the perspective of the bee.

As humans we are capable of empathy, but bees are not empathetic. As humans we approach things intellectually, but bees are not and do not respond to intellect. As humans we understand praise and penalties, but bees do not make these correlations.

With this in mind, I fashioned a screen with some scrap wire and fitted it to the entrance of the hive being raided. I did this early in the morning before the raiders showed up. In the afternoon the raiding bees were bunched up on the screen as were my own bees, but in the safety of their own hive.

I felt bad for my bees being locked in. Later in the day, in fact late in the afternoon I noticed that the raiding bees began to thin out. At that time a removed the screen until the next morning giving my bees a few hours outside and the ability to defend the hive against the few remaining raiding bees.

During this time I provided feed for the hive with a top bar feeder. I have found that after a few days, or at worst after the first freeze that the raiding bees ceased and desisted. My problem, then, was only supporting the weak hive over the winter. Some say that supporting a weak hive is not worth the effort, but after all I am only human; my empathy a weakness, my love of lost causes a fortune.

Fall Back, Spring Forward

fall back

It is the middle of October and where I live this typically means cooler weather. The nights are indeed cool, but the days are still warm. I can imagine my bees huddling up in a tight clump in the hive during the night, but during the day they fly around, busy as a bee. Being a matriarchal society winter beehives typically cull the males and downsize in general in order to make it through the winter. They fall back on the bare necessities; while in the spring work towards building populations and searching for food is immediately began; they “spring forward”.

The phrases, “fall back” and “spring forward” are typically used with regard to us setting our clocks differently, but my cutesy way of using these phrases has a bit different motivation. For eons, human beings have acted not too differently than beehives: in the fall and winter we have needed to rely upon what we could ready ourselves with during the spring and summer. This cycle is natural, and I would argue, necessary to the well-being of us as individuals and the societies in which we live. To fall back and spring forward is sustainable.

As I think about these things, looking at bees, I think about how far we have come in separating ourselves from the natural cycles that really define us. What we have historically defined as progress is not necessarily growth, but the decisions to limit ourselves to the natural and ethical laws that will inevitably come into play.

Bees, of course, do not think of such things; they are not limited, but defined by the natural laws that we spend time taking advantage of and often forgetting. But, if bees were able to forget, I’m not sure that they would choose to do so. Even bees seem to fall back upon the “cold and cruel” culling of males during the winter; this is the nature of things.

I suppose, sipping my coffee and pondering upon bees, nature, and the like that I think it is time for us to fall back upon common sense and spring forward into the inevitable future that we face. I can’t say for sure whether this future is good or bad, but like the bees I do think it is time for us to consider if we have any say-so in the matter. The bees have made their decision.


Where There’s Honey, There’s Bees


I have bees and in having bees I believe that I owe them a “common” courtesy. I must supply them with a safe place to live and to food and water. I must consider their needs during different times of the year and I must do my best to assure their health. I’m not sure that many would disagree with these responsibilities, but perhaps with the use of the word “courtesy”.

In the beekeeping world the question of what to do with a weak hive is ubiquitous. Some recommend doing nothing and letting them die out. This method is, after all, the most natural of methods. However, I would consider this to be somewhat discourteous. The Europeans did bring the honeybee to this continent and so we seem to at least partially responsible for their well-being.

Does courtesy, especially to animals such as bees, actually apply? I think it does. I don’t open the hive up unless absolutely necessary. I consider that hive their home and I a guest (when I do open it up). Of course, I want my bees to survive, but my own desires for their well-being aside, the idea of being courteous seems to be a much nicer way of going about keeping animals of any kind. Just think of the changes in attitudes towards pets such as dogs if we were only to be courteous to them.

This brings up an interesting issue: being courteous to one species is not necessarily being courteous to another. A dog needs exercise on a daily basis. To not allow the dog to exercise is in a sense being discourteous.   To expect the dog to be “good” and not allow it the needed exercise is irresponsible. Bees need a certain environment in which they can thrive in the same way that a dog needs a certain environment in order to thrive.

But does this concept apply to all creatures? Again, I think it does; and to the environment as a whole. What if we were all to think of ourselves as guests on this beautiful planet! As a guest, I must be courteous to the host, not overstay my welcome, and respect the boundaries that define…being courteous.

This concept of courteousness seems to be in line with the old analogy of the sandbox: the rules that apply in a sandbox full of children, apply to all adults in the world. I would only broaden that analogy to all creatures and to the earth itself. The old adage rings true not matter: we can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. But to get honey, it would help to consider the bees!

Worry, Worry, Worry


That is, the end of summer and the beginning of cooler nights and the faintest of hints of fall and eventually winter. This is the time to check the hives for health and food. This is the time that the bees begin to make the last push, sometimes swarm (and die), or begin to ready the population for the winter period.

There’s not much one can do as a beekeeper except to watch for swarms, feed if necessary, and ready the hives for winter. I usually wrap mine in black roofing paper and add a layer of insulation under the roof of the hive. I will poke a few small holes in the insulation for venting, and try not to open the hives too much from now on.

This is, I hope, my first winter with bees but I certainly hope it will not be my last. Beekeeping is an adventure and as with all adventures there is a degree of failure. As I have learned, beekeeping is no longer a simple process which (depending upon your attitude) makes the adventure loathsome or more challenging.

These are, after all, my girls and I cannot help but care for the hives that I have. As I am reminded: I have done all that I can. However, it never seems enough. Perhaps it is the human condition that makes us continue to want “more”, to do “more”. We cannot fail; so we tell ourselves. But failure is part of evolution, both the evolution of us as individuals and the evolution of beekeeping as it has become.

In fact, often adventure begins with failure. I know that my short stint in beekeeping began with failure. But the important thing, as the platitude goes, is that we must learn from our mistakes. More importantly, we must continue to learn.

Bees are a good teacher because they never seem to worry. They act. And so, perhaps adventure starts with action, with acting within the moment and not thinking about it too much. Thinking too much is a euphemistic way of saying “worrying” too much, which is what I seem to do with my bees. I’ll do what I can, and have done what I could. That must be enough, although it never is and seems to be the one thing I cannot learn. There is always ignorance, and that is enough to keep one worrying all winter long.

It Sure is Hot Out There

climate change

The summer has finally come, after a wet and strange spring. I’m afraid that my foraging plans will be cut short by the late frost this year. The apple, plum and cherry blossoms got hit hard. For some reason the beets that I planted as well as a great deal of the kale seeds did not even make it out of the ground. Bad seeds? I’m not sure. However, the tomatoes look good, the cucumbers and the hops are doing well. Cauliflower, cabbage and the asparagus are going gangbusters. The peppers are slow, but have fruited.

The herbs are going well, especially the established ones. A lot of rain this spring did a lot of good. There are still varroa problems with the bees, but I have hope that I can get them through September, and then through the winter. I’m hoping that they will do well on their own. It’s been pretty “hands off” this year. I planted new peach and cherry trees as well as a few berry bushes. We started mushrooms this year and they have taken to the logs that we inoculated.

The front door is sticking and I am hoping that the wood settles after I fixed the irrigation head that was allowing it to get soaked at night. I built a food dehydrator and installed new poles and wires for the hops. The weeding continues uninterrupted. Again, the cilantro was weak as was the salad. Who knows why as I planted both earlier this year. Maybe too early?

These are issues that most of us do not have to worry about, at least not directly. For most of us in the west we leave these worries to others; to the “industry” and to science. However, these are honest and necessary worries. That broad descriptive, “weather”, contains much of the above but the devil is in the details; most of the details that go unaware.

It seems that these days the details of the farmer, the gardener, the agrarian are making themselves known more and more by making the details of weather more and more known. The crumbs of climate changes are leaving a trail, but what we do with those crumbs is up to us. I’m not sure what I will do…

I will go out and see if there are apples, plums and cherries to be had off the trails. Perhaps the mushrooms in the mountains will be plentiful because of the rains. I’ll can the tomatoes with the great crop of basil, but will need to buy beets from the Farmer’s Market down the street. I hope to get a crop of fall kale and pickle a few cucumbers. I suppose all that we can do is to follow the trail of crumbs and wish for the best. It is only weather, after all.


aristotle quote

Two year old’s ask it all of the time, and we (as adults) often dismiss the question: why? You are asked: “What do you do?” but how many times are you asked: “Why do you do what you do?” To answer that question would take some thought, and would probably open us up to thoughts that we might not want to consider.

For those of us striving to live an environmentally sound life, the question can be uncomfortable. Why do I keep bees, have a large garden, collect water, compost grass and food scraps, save seeds, use no pesticides or herbicides, can and forage food, recycle wood for the projects around the place? Why do I want to do more?

Answers begin to bubble up if we think long enough about what we do. Often when we explain those answers to others, they come across as ideological and sometimes self-righteous, sometimes we just don’t know. We become accustomed to the “glazed” look after a minute, and we realize that the answer has become rambling, incoherent or that the question was only asked out of feigned politeness.

Answers range from philosophical to utilitarian, from selfish and self-righteous to ideological and ambiguous. “It’s just the right thing to do.” Of course, the answers rely upon the question. When people ask: “What do you do?” the simple answer is to tell them you get paid to do it. However, if someone asks: Why do you do it?”

“For the money!” becomes an empty answer; one that reminds us of who we are. Money doesn’t cut it at the end of the day.

And so we are left wondering why. There is only one reason to do anything and it is right under our nose whether that is the compost pile or the wild apple and plum trees that we might pass everyday while walking the dog (rescued from the pound).

Why do I keep bees, have a large garden, collect water, compost, save seeds, and use no poisons? Why do I recycle scrap wood for projects? Because not to do so would take away a quality of happiness that doing such things gives me.

Why do I do what I do? It gives me a higher quality of happiness, and as Aristotle wrote: happiness depends upon ourselves, and the highest quality of happiness depends upon why we do what we do.