One Famous Sea Star

One Famous Sea Star

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

It started on what seemed like a typical autumn day. The weather was calm and Sachi was feeling the pull of crab traps. That feeling, which I feel too, is similar to the feeling of gambling; a rush that comes from the chance to win. Every fisher feels it, I assume, and many know that as long as you’re on the water, there’s no way to lose. 

dungeness crabs in a trap

We boarded Short Story and headed out to Deer Harbor with our supplies in a small bucket, a cooler, and a dry bag. The whole process happens by rote at this point, having gone to check the traps on most days of every week since mid-July. 

This day would be different, but not that remarkable in isolation. As one of the traps came to the surface, I heard Sachi say, “Whoa!” in a tone that was part surprise and part anxiety. It looked as though an alien had entered the trap. It was a bright orange sunflower sea star with 19 arms and we weren’t sure what to do.

sunflower sea star lee lefever

We both were flummoxed for a moment. We knew sea stars are harmless to people, but this 19-armed creature looked like it evolved to be a warning to humans, like a brightly colored spider or snake. Some scientists now believe that our reaction to spiders and snakes is innate and not learned. Perhaps, somewhere in the backs of our minds, an ancient voice was telling us that the bright orange creature in our trap could be dangerous.

In reality, we humans are far more dangerous to it.

Sea stars on the pacific coast of the US have had it rough recently. Starting in 2013, over 90% of them died due to sea star wasting disease. No one is certain what caused it, but many think the culprit was a sudden change in ocean temperatures. Sea stars that used to be incredibly common in our area simply vanished over a few years. Since then, the ocean ecology seems to have been out of balance. 

From this article.

The widespread collapse of sea stars, a top predator and keystone species, has had dire consequences for many of the West Coast’s marine ecosystems. For example, the local extinction of sunflower sea stars, which can live for up to 65 years, has led to an explosion of their primary prey, the Pacific purple sea urchin. On a single reef in Oregon, the population of these animals increased 10,000-fold between 2014 and 2019, to more than 350 million individuals.

Sunflower sea stars, like the one we had in the trap, were recently certified as critically endangered by the IUCN

I was aware of their plight and we brainstormed how to get the sea star out of the trap unharmed and back into the water without touching it. But first, I needed to take some photos. With that out of the way, we dipped the trap back in the water and turned it on its side, and with a little shake, it fell out gently and drifted back down to the shadowy depths. 

sea star in water

My first thought was our friends on the island who work for a non-profit organization funded by UC Davis called SeaDoc Society. Their work focuses on ocean science and the rehabilitation of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants. I looked forward to sharing what I thought was a good sign for sea star recovery. I put the photo on Instagram first.

A week or so passed and an idea struck. I enjoy browsing Reddit and occasionally post photos. One of the communities that seemed perfect and has over 19 million members is called, “Mildly Interesting“. I thought the sea star fit that description, so I shared the photo on Reddit with a short note about it being endangered. This is where things started to hit high gear.

Reddit is designed to be a democratic system. Once something new is posted, the members of the community can each give it one vote: up or down. When something gets traction, the upvotes outnumber the downs, and the post has the potential to ascend to the top of the community page and possibly reach the front page of Reddit itself. 

When I went to bed that night, it was obvious the photo struck a chord. It had thousands of upvotes, with new votes coming by the second. I couldn’t wait to check my phone in the morning to see what developed as I slept. 

To my surprise, the post received over 30k upvotes overnight and reached the Reddit front page at position #10. I was so excited and read almost every comment, including 100+ versions of the question, “how did it taste?” Such is Reddit.  

reddit data
reddit data

That day, I received a succinct message from someone who asked if I was interested in licensing the photo to news organizations. I agreed. He sent over an agreement and questionnaire that gave me a chance to tell the story. I was careful to promote the photo as possible evidence of a sea star comeback and its connection to ocean ecology.

These kinds of relationships are unpredictable. I figured there was no harm in licensing the photo and I might earn a few bucks. More than anything, I expected nothing to happen.

A few days later, a friend on the island shared a link that was a surprise. Fox News had picked up the story and used the photo on their website along with quotes from me, the “fisherman”. I found it hilarious.

fox news story about sea star

Then, the article also appeared on the New York Post website.

new york post sea star

Messages poured in from friends and family calling me, “The Fisherman”. If only they knew that Sachi is the real fisher in the family.  One of my favorite parts of the article is this quote at the end:

“LeFever did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.”

At a personal level, this was a fun and exciting event to watch unfold. But it’s also a reminder about how little this kind of media exposure matters. It had nearly zero impact on my career or livelihood. I did earn a $75 licensing fee for the photo, which is nice. 

The real outcome, I hope, is building awareness about the sea stars of the Salish Sea and sea star wasting disease. Every person who learns about it is one more potential advocate for taking care of the ocean.

According to Reddit, my post has been viewed over 3 million times and shared over 1,000 times in the past two weeks. The Fox news article has been widely viewed and shared as well. It was not my intention, but I count the few minutes it took to share the photo as a small part I could play in helping the sea stars get more attention and hopefully rebound. 

reddit stats

Since that first catch, we’ve seen three more sunflower sea stars in our traps, so there is growing evidence, at least from our boat, that they are coming back. Here is one escaping just as we pulled up the trap:

sea star escaping crab trap
sunflower sea star
Free Event: Ten Lessons from BIG ENOUGH

Free Event: Ten Lessons from BIG ENOUGH

big enough book promo
caption for image

I’m hosting an online event to share ten lessons from my book, Big Enough.

Now more than ever, people are reconsidering their careers and looking for options to work from home and lead saner, healthier lives.

Big Enough is full of practical tips and inspiration for building intentionally small businesses that support more than the bottom line.

  • When: Thursday, November 4th at 11am PT (2pm ET)
  • Where: Online

Event Details:

✅ What if you could build a small business that satisfies customers and promotes the lifestyle you want?

✅ What if you could work from home and earn a living without employees?

✅ What if measures of success included happiness, health, and free time, along with income?

In 2007, my wife and I set out to build a business like the one described above. We have achieved that goal and today, I’m sharing how we did it. It’s a decade-long story of hard work, ingenuity, and trusting relationships.

This 30-minute event is based on the lessons in my book, BIG ENOUGH, which tells the story of transforming our two-person company, Common Craft, into a successful business that’s built around the lives we want to lead.

It’s a story of calculated risks, business experiments, and an absolute belief that a business can be designed to promote the long-term health and happiness of its owners.

Join me in this FREE 30-minute event and I’ll walk through ten lessons we learned along the way.

What you’ll get:

  • 30-minute presentation by Lee
  • A free chapter of Big Enough (digital)
  • The chance to win a signed copy of Big Enough, plus 3 stickers, and a pair of Big Enough Socks!
caption for image

Learn more and find other resources at the book page: bigenough.life.

Thanks so much for your interest in the book!

Permanence and Permaculture 🦆

Permanence and Permaculture 🦆

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Saturday was supposed to be rainy, which is the norm for this time of year. I thought we’d do indoor house projects, like organize the garage or get to some painting touch-ups. Then, the weather cleared except for a brisk wind that was perceptibly warmer than it had been in days. 

Sachi decided to head to the grocery store and we loaded up the car with trash and recycling for a trip to the transfer station on the way. I couldn’t help but think of the connection between her trips. Old food containers would become full again. My plan was to walk to a nearby nursery that was having a plant sale and she asked twice about dropping me off. I wanted to walk and she relented.

Not far from home is a wetland area that is often flanked with birders in the summer, who park on the side of the county road and lug long lenses along the shore. The wetland and its views are so commonplace to us that we don’t notice it often. But on this walk, I did. 

Across the road from the wetland, I noticed a little trail leading up the hill that I’d never seen before. Long branches were arranged lengthwise on the sides of the trail, which I took as an invitation. After a short hike, I found a bench overlooking the wetland and a sign that marked it as public property. 

bench overlooking wetland

I stayed on the hill for a while and took in the view. The wetland below has a story. In the 1970s, a neighbor, who was a professor of ornithology, noticed that the area was attracting a variety of birds. He worked with several neighbors, who owned the land, to create a conservation easement with the aim to establish a waterfowl preserve. They flooded the former fields and the fowl came in droves. Today, the preserve is managed by the county and is a permanent part of the island that is open to the public. 

On an island like Orcas, there is always pressure to develop. Over time, much of the island, and especially the properties with shorelines, have been purchased and developed. But there are exceptions. Multiple organizations like the San Juan Preservation Trust work with property owners to preserve wild spaces so that the island can continue to offer access to the public and provide homes to wildlife. The waterfowl preserve is one of those spaces; a permanent slice of wildlife. 

I walked back down the hill and by the preserve and eventually arrived at my destination: the nursery. Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead and Nursery is no typical nursery. It’s a destination that’s known around the world for expertise in the field of permaculture. They have been developing the property for over 35 years to be an example of a permaculture system at work. People arrive from all over to attend their design courses, become farm interns, and experience the homestead. 

Bullocks Sign

If you’re like me, you’re asking: perma-what? It’s a good question and one that seems more difficult to answer the more you learn about it. Any attempt to explain it is a risk and I’m sure some may take exception.

Permaculture is an approach to agriculture and lifestyle that is focused on sustainability, self-reliance and working within natural systems. In part, this means designing farms and gardens to work as a system that includes livestock, water, waste, energy, and vegetables. A common example is a chicken, which not only produces meat and eggs but consumes plant waste and produces manure that serves to fertilize the ground. Reduce, reuse, recycle. 

Visiting the nursery is a cultural experience. A number of people live and work on the homestead, which is a maze of houses, gardens, greenhouses, and farming equipment. The people who work there are amazingly knowledgeable and very friendly. They all seem to adhere to what seems like a standard style: dirt-encrusted farmer, and proud of it. 

I browsed one of the nurseries by the entry and considered a couple of trees that were priced at 50% off, but I was walking. Trees are popular among permaculturists, as they represent a permanent part of the garden that can produce fruit and shade, and be enjoyed by both humans and livestock. That’s part of the idea. Instead of constantly pulling plants in and out of the soil, it’s better to plant something permanent.   

At the side of the nursery, there was a tent where a couple was managing the transactions. I approached and asked about garden design services. A friendly worker said I should talk to Doug, who was further back in the property. She said, “He looks like a crusty permaculture dude.” Message sent. 

I wandered into the maze to potentially find Doug, but also see what was there. Permaculture gardens are rarely the manicured gardens you might expect at a normal nursery. Instead it feels more laissez-faire and unkempt. Weeds mingle with plants, grass grows everywhere, and the property is dotted with pile after pile of decomposing plants. This is all intentional and part of the idea. Nature is messy and unkempt and that’s how the plants like it.

compost bin
trailer on dirt trail

I finally saw Doug who was deep in conversation among the rows, so I kept walking. I could have stayed at Bullock’s much longer, but the rain was coming back, so I made my way home.  It is a fascinating place.  

That evening the rain arrived on time and I heard the now-familiar pitter-patter of it on our skylights and metal roof. I had been anticipating it all summer and wondered how the rain would sound, especially at night when it’s time to sleep. Listening that night, I thought about permanence and entropy. Try as we might to establish wetlands, gardens, and homes to be permanent, the universe eventually has its way with human projects.

But I didn’t want to think too deeply about that while sitting in a new house. To me, Flattop is permanent. It will be here longer than me and in between, all the things that we see, hear, and do, are permanent parts of our lives. The sound of rain on the roof was one of them; a bit of gentle percussion on a permanent drum that’s perfect for sleeping.

Bonus:

My friend Justin Cox is a talented musician that performs under the name Routine Layup. He lives on Orcas and wrote a song that might just get stuck in your head. Not Everyone Has to be a Permaculture Gardener. Listen below:

We’ve Got Worms 🪱 – How to Subpod

We’ve Got Worms 🪱 – How to Subpod

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

You’ve probably heard, but worm poop is worth its weight in gold. At least that’s how it seems. The “castings”, as they are called, make for amazing garden fertilizer that you can buy. As we’ve discovered recently, you can also make it yourself, or run your own little worm farm/production facility.

When we lived in Seattle, the city encouraged composting on a city-wide scale. Along with garbage and mixed recycling, we had a yard waste container that was picked up every two weeks. We were supposed to put compostable food in the container with plants and leaves. In fact, we could be fined for not doing so. 

We kept a little bucket under the kitchen sink with a compostable bag. When making dinner, food scraps went into the bucket and eventually into the yard waste container. When we first started composting, it seemed like a time-consuming extra step, but over time it made sense. Along with helping the city turn food waste into compost instead of it going to the landfill, our normal trash stayed relatively clean and less odorous.

Then, we moved to an island. In our location, trash trucks do not arrive to cart away trash, recycling, or yard/food waste. Like so many other things, we must do it ourselves and feel motivated to make it as easy as possible. Trash and recycling are easy and much more affordable than in the city. Every six weeks or so, we load up a vehicle and go to the transfer station. 

Food waste is another matter. The island waste company is in the planning stages for a facility that processes compost where residents can drop off food and yard waste along with the trash. As always, the goal is to keep materials on the island instead of having to pay to remove it by ferry. 

In moving into the new house, we needed to develop a system for our food waste. We consistently cook at home and produce a good bit of the stuff. Sachi started looking into what we could do and learned about vermiculture or vermicomposting, which means using worms to process food waste and turn it into fertilizer.

The idea is pretty simple: You put thousands of earthworms, like red wigglers, into an outdoor container with food waste. The worms eat the food and turn it into gold in the form of castings. That’s the beauty of this system. It converts waste into fertilizer for the next round of crops. Win-win!

Sachi researched how to make it easier and discovered a system called Subpod. This is a milk crate type of box with two bays for the food waste and walls with worm-sized holes.

You place the box in a raised bed with the majority of the box under the surface.

Then, you add worms, shredded paper, and food waste to the box, which becomes a buffet for the worms. The rest of the bed can be used to grow food.

Back when we built raised beds, we built one specifically for composting and sized it for two Subpods, just in case. Then, we ordered the Subpod and the worms. A few days later 2,000 red wiggler worms arrived in a bag from the perfectly named Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. We were in business.

They can come and go as they please in the surrounding soil and are likely to reproduce. Over time, the food waste turns into rich soil that can be transferred into a vegetable garden.

A lot of people build their own compost bins and they usually work great, but come with some issues. The food waste can attract pests and rodents, there can be unsavory odors and overall messiness. The Subpod mitigates the issues because it’s sitting in soil, with a cover.  

Now that the system is rolling, we collect food waste in a small bucket under the sink, grab the coffee grounds and tear up some carbon-filled egg cartons or paper, and take them to the Subpod every couple of days. The composting process required aeration, so Subpod gave us a giant screw to mix it up and an insulating blanket to keep the compost covered so it keeps temperature and doesn’t dry out. Other than that, we just wait. 

The instructions/rules for using the Subpod are handily placed on the underside of the bin:

When we give people a tour of our property, I often ask if they want to see our worm farm. And we are growing worms, but really, it’s a processing plant that processes plants. 

Livability and Laundry 🏡 🧺

Livability and Laundry 🏡 🧺

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The idea of helping homeowners understand the construction process has been on my mind for about a year. As I wrote chapter after chapter, I was looking for some kind of unifying theme. While the explanations, tips, and advice are enough, I wanted to give homeowners a perspective or even a philosophy that helped them see the big picture. I imagined finding a name that was memorable, descriptive, interesting, and hopefully available as a domain name.

Sachi’s early input was to be very direct and focus on the problem it solves or the main value it provides. I agreed and started to look at options involving phrases like “how to build a custom home”, “understand the construction process” and “learn how custom homes are built”. It was at this moment that the challenge became clear. 

Home construction is a huge industry with well-established keywords and naming conventions. Virtually anything on the web involving “home construction” seemed to be dominated by much bigger, well-established brands that spend a lot of money to remain visible. Were we going to compete with them? No.

Even at a smaller scale, there are a wide variety of companies and individuals focused on modular homes, tiny homes, DIY cabins, campervan build-outs, etc. It was daunting to consider throwing something new into the mix.

We need to reach people who are planning to build a home or getting started. I know the feeling. The scale of the project and all the decisions that need to be made can feel overwhelming. Many of them are looking for tips and advice, but are unsure where to look. These are the people we need to reach.

I went back to the drawing board and we brainstormed ways to position this new resource. What could we call it? We asked: what is our philosophy? What do we believe about building a home? What’s unique about our perspective? 

These questions led us into familiar territory. Big Enough, at heart, is about lifestyle. I wrote it to help business-oriented people see a different perspective about building a business that supports their lifestyle. Whether it’s businesses or buildings, lifestyle is a big part of our perspective and something we value deeply. 

One of the amazing things about building a custom home is that it can be built to support the owner’s lifestyle. With a bit of planning, the owner can ensure that the house supports their day-to-day lives. A very simple example is laundry. It happens in virtually every house and a custom home is an opportunity to think about making it easy. This means thinking about where dirty clothes will collect and designing the house so that laundry is near the clothes. 

When we planned Flattop, these kinds of decisions were our focus. Our experience with other construction projects helped us think through all the details and work with the pros to build the house around our lives. To me, that’s the best-case scenario for any owner: a house that’s livable.

For example, our primary bathroom shares a wall with the laundry room and we saw an opportunity to add a laundry chute between the rooms. This way, dirty clothes never collect in the bedroom or bathroom. Instead, they can go straight to the laundry room. 

The idea of livability stuck with us. You can depend on builders and architects to make the house strong and beautiful. The pros will take care of building the house. But designing it to be livable is the domain of the homeowner. Only the owner knows their unique lifestyle and daily rituals. Only the owner will live in the house.

This idea had legs. Our brand could reference houses and construction, but carve out a niche around the idea of livability and encouraging homeowners to adopt it as a perspective in the design and building process. This means not only understanding every phase of the construction process, but doing within the theme of livability. 

I started to look for domain names and soon found that thelivablehouse.com was available. The Livable House. I liked the sound of it and so did Sachi. My only concern is that it’s not descriptive. The name does not imply that it’s a guide to the complete construction process, but that’s okay. I think of it like the popular cookbooks called The Joy of Cooking. The books are mostly recipes, but the theme is joy. 

So that’s what the new project is called: The Livable House. It can be found at thelivablehouse.com. I’d love to know what you think about the website. Please feel free to enroll in the mini-course. 

Boat Creep 🛥 🔭

Boat Creep 🛥 🔭

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

A few weeks back, I shared a story called Lee Night that was, in part, about spending an evening watching boats go by our house. I wrote:

As boats float by the house, I can’t help but feel like I’m the creepy guy on the beach watching girls walk by. Every boat is different and interesting in myriad ways.

Now that Labor Day has passed and boating season is winding down, I’m taking an inventory of the interesting boats I’ve seen over the summer. After Lee Night, I admit I became a full-on boat creep, watching from my deck as they float by, unaware of my peering lens. I collected a tiny fraction of what passed, but still captured an interesting group of boats.

Tourist Boats

This summer saw heavy traffic from boats full of tourists, usually going to watch whales. The “whaleboats” as we call them are always noticeable because of their size and speed. Few recreational boaters choose to burn as much fuel.

One that always stands out is Blackfish (which is an old name for killer whales).

Blackfish boat

Another is the Western Explorer.

Western Explorer

Sometimes the whales end up in the water in front of our house and the big whaleboats show up.

whale boats

If you crop a photo just right, you can pretend that a friendly sailboat is the only boat watching the killer whales.

sailboat and whales

Tourists are also ferried around on other boats that are more focused on destinations. This is the Puget Sound Express.

boat on salish sea
san juan safaris boat

Commercial Boats

The Salish Sea is a commercial waterway used by all kinds of boats, both local and international. In the distance, there are almost always huge ships traveling in Canadian waters to Canada.

ship on salish sea

We don’t see these behemoths in US waters our side of Orcas Island, but we see many barges and other large boats used for transporting items to the islands that don’t have ferry service.

barge with truck

You find the strangest things on barges. That’s a two-story house.

house on barge

Lindsey Foss is a fire-fighting vessel.

lindsey Foss

A local service will tow you if your boat has a problem.

Tow US

An sometimes a Canadian Warship goes by.

canadian battleship

Recreational/Private Boats

The vast majority of boats that pass our house are recreational or privately owned. Cabin cruisers are a dime a dozen, but sometimes more impressive boats pass by.

M/V Pelican is a 1930 78ft Classic wooden fisheries research vessel that recently started doing charters.

Pelican Salish Sea

Our friends Mahol and Deb live on this 65′ boat called Salish Song. Yes, that’s a lovely palm tree adorning their rear deck.

Salish Song

New Pacific is a 97′ expedition yacht that was recently refitted to have a 60kwh hybrid energy system that reduces the use of the boat’s generators.

new pacific
boat on salish sea

Other

This caravel style sailboat is one of the biggest we’ve seen.

big sailboat

Like cabin cruisers, sailboats are very common in all shapes and sizes.

sailboat on salish sea

And of course, small crafts like kayaks. Sea kayaking is one of the most popular activities in the San Juans. Jet Skis are prohibited, thankfully.

kayakers

Not a boat. Or is it?

Float Plane

I’ll miss boating season and being on the lookout for interesting boats. They’ll be back before we know it.

At a Crossroads ⤲

At a Crossroads ⤲

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

My friend Tony asked, when we had just purchased property on Orcas, “What’s next? You’ll build a house and move in… then what?” Sometimes Tony’s questions seem like challenges, but I think he’s mostly looking for ideas. He was asking about something years into the future and I didn’t have an answer. I suppose I’m in the “then what?” phase now.

There is a common perception that completing a project like a house leads to a period of doldrums. The excitement of the project wanes and leaves a hole in the day-to-day that feels like something is missing. I expected to feel it by now, but it hasn’t arrived. If anything, I’m feeling better than I have in a long time. The excitement of the house project came with a healthy dose of stress and anxiety for us both. The space it left in our lives is one we’re not eager to fill. Plus, there are years of house projects ahead of us, mostly in landscaping. 

Projects on the professional side of life seem equally complete. This week marks the one-year anniversary of Big Enough being published and it no longer demands a lot of attention. Common Craft, the Explainer Academy, and The Art of Explanation book are all stable.

This all begs the answer to Tony’s question: what’s next? 

A few months ago, we had a call with our friend, Dave, who now lives in rural New Hampshire. He’s a regular RFR reader who is planning a significant home remodel. He said something that had been in the back of my mind for a while, but I hadn’t fully considered it. In preparing for his house project, he looked for books and resources for people like him. He wanted to understand the construction process, what to expect, how to overcome the challenges, make decisions, etc. In his experience, there was a dearth of materials along these lines. 

Dave encouraged me to take what we had learned in building Flattop and transform it into a book or something similar for people like him. That chat with Dave lit a fire under me. I’ve always been passionate about home design and the construction process. I have years of real-world experience across multiple projects. I have connections with builders, architects, and multiple homeowners who are in-process now. 

So, I started writing. Through 2021, I’ve written about 70,000 words, all focused on explaining the process of building a custom home, phase by phase. Sachi has been my editor and brainstormer. Through it all, I was never sure where it would lead. 

My initial thought was to make it a book and it’s currently written in that form. But that didn’t feel like the right medium. It’s not a story as much as a reference work or guide. It’s the resource you turn to when a new phase of construction is on the horizon. 

I asked a couple of friends who are currently building homes about the potential they see. Our friend, James, was enthusiastic about the idea and had a suggestion. He said, “This feels more digital than a book. You’d want downloadable documents, videos, and visuals.” Yes. Yes. Yes.

Once again, a friend suggested a direction that helped us see the opportunity more clearly. All the writing could be turned into multimedia content that lives on a website instead of in a book. It could be easily updated and priced like an online course.  People could access it on any device at any time.

For the last couple of months, this has been the dominant idea in my day-to-day life. When the workday is done and I’m ready to relax, this is where my mind wanders. I have to resist not working on it and I take that as a good sign. Passion, is a necessary ingredient, along with time. Best of all, in true Big Enough fashion, we can make this idea happen ourselves.

So, dear reader, this is the next thing. Many of you have been with me through the entire house project and your ideas and input have been invaluable. For this next project, I hope we can continue what we’ve started. More soon!

Designing for Dogs 🦮

Designing for Dogs 🦮

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When building a house, it’s easy to assume that the builder and architect will account for what’s needed. You’ll surely have the desired number of bathrooms and a roof that keeps you dry. There are also things that are unique to you and your lifestyle. Daily rituals and long-standing annoyances could be improved with a bit of forethought, but only if they are communicated to the team. This is an important lesson we learned in building Flattop: Be diligent in accounting for ways the house can be designed to improve your day-to-day life. Communicate what you want and the pros will find ways to make it work.

Once the house was mostly complete, attention turned to the fencing. We shared our ideas for a small fenced area that aligned with the side of our garage. Gates flank it on the short sides of the rectangle. One gate leads to the driveway. The other leads to a larger fenced area that wraps around the house and contains our garden and back deck. 

This system of fences was designed with great intention and not without a bit of confusion. You could see the questions wash over the builders as they tried to understand what we wanted. “So you want a fenced area that leads to a second fenced area? With a gate in between?” Yes. Exactly. But only four feet high.

They built it exactly as we wanted and today, the system of gates and fences is emblematic of our efforts in making the house work specifically for our lifestyle. Builders and architects can work wonders, but they won’t live in the house. They won’t use it every day. They don’t have access to the daily rituals and events that fill the day. That information is the domain of the homeowner, who must explain what is needed, a few times, to make sure the house fits with these routines. 

We have dogs. We wanted Flattop to be a house that minimized the impact of PNW wet dogs and dirty feet on our nice new floors. We imagined waking up on a wet December morning and needing to let the dogs out to do their business. We could let them into the large garden area and watch them return happy and covered in mulchy mud. Or, we could leash them and walk in the rain, careful to avoid muddy areas. Or, we could design the house for this daily routine. We chose design. This meant thinking ahead about how to handle rainy days and wet dogs. 

When we were in the guesthouse, we built a small enclosure that connected to the entry. In the winter rain, the dogs could go out while we stayed dry on the porch. I used a nearby pile of wood chips to cover the surface and the system worked. The dogs still got wet, but their paws remained mostly clean. This was our inspiration. Could we do the same at Flattop? Instead of releasing them into the garden, could we create a clean place for them to use every day?

Soon, a plan came together. On the garage side of the house, a door opens to the exterior. We decided to enclose it and make it a dog run that would be our primary way to let them out. Like the guesthouse, we could stay warm and dry by the door while they take care of business. The cedar chips keep their feet clean and naturally repel pests. The gates in the dog run only swing inward so the dogs can’t push them open. As an added bonus, their waste is contained in a small area for easy pickup.

If the dogs do end up muddy from walks or garden play, we have that covered, too. We added a groomer-style dog shower to the garage that makes cleaning dirty paws a breeze. It also serves as a great washbasin for crabbing gear and garden veggies.

The system is almost perfect, but there is one minor hiccup. Maybe, our oldest dog at seven years, has developed a distaste for rain and wet ground. If she looks outside and sees rain, she’ll resist going out at all. When she does venture out, she carefully steps along the wall where the overhang keeps the ground dry. As much as I want to think of our dogs as PNW rain dogs, Maybe is still too civilized. We won’t tell the other dogs on the island.

Another Man’s Treasure 🏴‍☠️

Another Man’s Treasure 🏴‍☠️

I’m sure that my first reaction was a subtle roll of my eyes or at least an imagined one. Two twin-size box springs had sat in our garage for a while and Sachi was formulating a plan. She asked around and no one needed them and she didn’t want to just take them to the dump, so she decided to try converting them into something useful. I fully support this as an idea, but I wasn’t sure a box spring could actually become anything much. With a box cutter and pliers, she got to work. 

When we demolished the yurt-shaped house, we tried to salvage what we could. Anything we could give away or use was something that didn’t end up in the landfill. Being new to island culture, we hadn’t yet developed a strong sense of salvage, but we were able to do a lot. We saved many of the windows and gave away the Blaze King wood stove, cedar roof shingles, ceiling panels and more. In addition, we saved at least fourteen panels of hog wire railing material for some future project or new island owner. We had no idea how handy they would be.

Hog wire railing at the yurt

Once Sachi’s vegetable garden got going, it quickly needed support, both vertically and around the edges, as squash plants spilled out over the side of the raised beds. The hog wire came to the rescue on both counts.

hog wire supporting squash

The hog wire also served as a moveable fence we can use to keep the dogs out of the temporary and dusty pile of dirt. 

Aside from what we could salvage from the yurt, the construction project produced its own scrap and we told the crew to save everything that seemed useful. Today a pile of wood and materials lives under our house and is slowly being put to use. 

A few brackets helped turn leftover trim into shelves in our garage.

Steel concrete form stakes became the weight that keeps our shrimp traps in place on the bottom. The holes are perfect for cable ties to keep the stakes in place. 

When our friend, Jon, moved to Hawaii, he gave us a roll of flexible deer fence that worked perfectly to keep bird beaks out of the beets.

The more we looked around, the more it seemed everything we’d saved would someday become useful. This is the salvage sense that took time to develop. We told our contractor, Drew, about some of what we were doing and he said something that stuck with me… “If you don’t watch it, your garden can start to look like a junkyard.” Point taken. The island has plenty of these “gardens”. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and it can be a slippery slope. 

With the squash supported with hog wire, Sachi turned her attention to tomatoes and peas, which needed support as they grew. The tomato cages we had from Seattle were not enough to do the job. We considered buying more, but our salvage sense started to tingle. 

Off in a far corner of the property was a handful of hog wire strips from building the top part of our fence. These were small and destined for the dump until Sachi had an idea. Over the course of an afternoon, she used the scraps and garden tape to assemble frames for supporting the plants without having to buy new cages. I thought it was brilliant, if not slightly junky. 

The frames needed a bit more to support the plants and that’s when the box springs started to look more useful. Sachi stripped off the fabric and noticed the bent metal springs stapled to the wooden frame. They were not easy to remove, but that was part of the fun.

In an hour or two, the box frames were disassembled and flattened, leaving us with a pile of springs and an idea. If we could attach them to the frames, they could support tomatoes and peas just like a tomato cage. And that’s exactly what happened. The frames have a beauty borne of utility and a reduction of waste. They most likely will not become permanent parts of the garden, but for a season or two while we figure out the long term plan for the garden, they will do just fine.

Before moving to Orcas, I might have questioned the reasoning of putting so much effort into using leftover material. Are tomato cages that expensive? Could time be used more productively? Of course buying cages is logical, but it’s not about that. We can calculate savings and waste reduction all day and still not account for the satisfaction we get from putting scraps to work. It takes time, but it’s fun and useful in a way that can’t be counted in dollars. 

Now that the house is complete and we’re setting up our new lifestyle, we’re both motivated to see what makes sense in terms of reducing waste and reusing what we can. In the past, we had never considered washing and reusing Ziploc bags, but today it’s normal for us. Again, it’s not about the money or even trying to save the planet. If you strip that away, what’s left, I believe, is a smarter, more practical, thoughtful way to live.

The Westward Wind

The Westward Wind

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Back in 2017, when we lived in the yurt-shaped house, we noticed something interesting about warm summer evenings. Just before dusk, a cool and consistent wind blew out toward the water where it created subtle waves as it landed. The wind would last into the night and be gone by morning. When we moved to the guest house during construction, it happened there too. Summer evenings ended with a cool wind whipping to the west.

The Westward Wind Hitting the Water (timelapse)

The wind didn’t seem connected to weather patterns. It was smaller than that; a phenomenon that was too localized to be in a weather report. I asked our neighbors about it and they shrugged their shoulders. It’s just something that happens and always has. The more I watched the westward wind, the more evidence I saw that it was shaping the landscape around us. The tall trees on the south side of our property were bent toward the water. 

Whatever the cause, the wind was reliable enough to influence the design of Flattop. A cool and reliable evening breeze at the end of a warm day should not be wasted, so we looked for ways to use it. The big idea was to use the wind to flush out the warm summer air out of the house and replace it with cool evening air. To make that happen, we added operable windows on the east and west sides. Today, I’m happy to report that the system is working. The westward wind is like an air conditioner that kicks on after sunset. All we have to do is open the windows. 

This is a prime example of why it helps to live in a location before building there. Wind, sun, and rain are free resources that can be put to work. Observing them for a couple of seasons before breaking ground can be helpful in making a design more efficient.

Despite all the watching and planning, we still didn’t know why the westward wind was happening. That all changed a couple of weeks ago when we hosted a small dinner party that included a retired Coast Guard officer. We talked about the wind and he said, “Oh, that’s a land breeze”. I had heard of a sea breeze before, but never a land breeze. I had to learn more.

What I found is a simple idea. The westward wind is caused by a difference in the air temperature over the land and the sea. When the sun goes down in the summer, the air over the ground cools relatively quickly as heat rises upward. The air over the water cools more slowly. This difference in temperature (and pressure) is what causes the wind. Cool air flows out to the water at a low elevation as warm air rises and circulates back to the land.

What I’ve been calling the “westward wind” was not specifically westward at all. I just happen to live in a place with a large body of water to the west. Maybe it’s really the “waterward wind?” That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Still, it’s probably better than “land breeze” which is rather unremarkable sounding. I’m sticking with the “westward wind” for now. 

The sea breeze, which we don’t notice as much, is the opposite. Sea breezes happen during the day and blow from the sea toward the land. This is because the air over the land warms more quickly than the air over the water when the sun is out. It’s also the name of a cranberry, grapefruit, and vodka cocktail that was popular in the 80s. It’s not surprising that there is no “land breeze” cocktail, because who would order that? Does it come with a garnish of dead leaves? 

For now, rest assured that the mystery is solved and we’ve all learned a bit more about the weather.