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Blisters, Beds, and Bourbon ?

Blisters, Beds, and Bourbon ?

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

On Friday of last week, a dump truck arrived at our house and dropped off two loads of dirt, which is about twenty cubic yards, or about the size of a 70s station wagon. In construction, it’s not a lot of dirt, but for two people with shovels and buckets, it’s intimidating.

Large Pile with Dog
Piper Protecting the Pile

The dirt was part of a bigger project that we’d anticipated for a couple of years: building raised beds for the garden. We like the convenience of raised beds, but the reality is that our garden is built on rock, only a foot or two below the surface. For a nice thick layer of garden soil, the only option was to go up. 

Sachi led the design and did research along with talking to friends and neighbors. She learned about “keyhole” beds, which are “U” shaped and have an alley in the middle for easy access. We imagined having two keyhole beds, with the alleys facing one another. She calculated the wood we’d need and last week, we went to the local hardware store to pick it up. 

Island Hardware is an interesting and amusing place. From the employees to the customers, it oozes island culture. The longer you live on Orcas Island, the more likely you are to see people you know. It doesn’t take long to get to know the employees, or for them to know you. We’re not yet on a first-name basis, but we’re getting there. 

To build the beds, we needed 36 boards between 10 and 16 feet long and 8 more at various lengths. All were 8-10” wide. The first challenge was transporting the 44 boards from the store to our house. It turns out that if you have an account at the hardware store, they will let you borrow a truck for moving the wood for $5 (to cover gas). Once we paid for the wood, we became temporary employees of Island Hardware via a W-4 form, which was a bit of formality I didn’t expect. From that point on, we were on our own.

The aging Jeep pickup with metal overhead racks had seen a lot of action, which was obvious the first time I closed the driver’s side door, or tried to close it. It clanked and groaned, but closed enough to make me feel safe with a seatbelt. As an indication of its maturity, the truck sported a sticker for KCMU (90.3) a beloved Seattle radio station that changed names to KEXP in 2001. 

I drove the Jeep down to the lumber yard and we started sorting through the stacks. The poor Jeep stood up to the weight, but we decided not to push it. Two trips were required and Sachi followed along instead of riding with me, just in case the Jeep faltered. Top heavy and with aging suspension, the Jeep wound its way back and forth without issue. We were ready to get to work. 

It felt like the clock was ticking. Sachi ordered a bunch of seeds and the growing season was already underway. If we didn’t get the seeds in the ground soon, it could affect our output in the summer and that’s our real goal: production.

On Friday night, we estimated that we could build one bed per day over the weekend and then fill them with soil and seeds the following week. Then we looked at the weather and our giant pile of soil. Rain on Monday meant heavier dirt on Tuesday if we didn’t find some way to cover it. Our new goal became to do it all over the weekend. Two beds, full of dirt. Deep breath. 

After breakfast and coffee, the long weekend got started with stakes in the ground to place the first bed. From there, we cut and leveled our way to finishing it in a few hours with a chop saw and drill. It came together quicker than expected and per usual, I began to wonder if we’d call it a day, or keep pushing. Sachi, of course, was ready to keep pushing.

Layout of Raised Bed
Layout of Raised Bed
Completed Bed with Maybe
Completed Bed with Maybe

A few hours later, the second bed was complete and we high-fived. The beds looked better than expected and our garden was transformed. 

Both Beds Complete
Both Beds Complete

Feeling exhausted, we showered, snacked, and had a beverage as we reviewed the day. We couldn’t resist going out to the garden just before dark to soak in the new addition. Our production facility was taking shape. Before going back inside, I looked at the volume of empty space inside the beds and then at the pile of dirt while remembering Sachi’s point that beds like these are best if filled to the top. It was a lot of space to fill.

That night I tried a bit of reasoning. Our next-door neighbor has a tractor with a front loader and he would love to let us borrow it or help us move the dirt. Any sane person would look for ways to move it as efficiently as possible. It didn’t work and I wasn’t surprised.

Sachi and I have a long history of doing manual labor ourselves. I used to be surprised at how Sachi could keep pushing long past what I thought was reasonable. In 2014 we ordered a dump truck load (ten yards) of cedar chips for our back yard, which was delivered to our driveway in Seattle. I had no idea how much to expect and shuddered at the idea of the two of us transporting it all ourselves. Couldn’t we hire people to do it?

10 Yards of Cedar Chips

We call it the “Sullivan work ethic” in reference to her family’s approach to projects like this. Over time, I started to expect the work as part of our process. It’s tiring, boring, and time-consuming. But, in the end, there is a prize in the form of satisfaction born of blisters, sweat, and effort. It feels good; better than you expect.  On Saturday night, we both agreed that we looked forward to Sunday being a day of hard manual labor, which implicitly meant looking forward to the feeling of having it complete, just to the two of us. 

Before I could finish my coffee on Sunday, Sachi was walking out the door and ready to roll. Our first task was to build up the bottom of the beds with wood and debris that adds volume and over time, creates rich mulch at the base. We scoured the forest for leftovers from trees that were removed from the property and carted them to the beds. By 10am, we were ready for the big push. I girded my loins. 

Debris in Raised Bed
Debris in Raised Bed

In terms of strategy, I agreed to use the wheelbarrow and two planting containers to get started on the far bed while Sachi used two five-gallon buckets on the closer bed. The first few loads were not inspiring. The dirt from the buckets seemed so puny compared to the beds, especially when considering the work they required. Each load meant shoveling dirt into the buckets, transporting them to the beds, and lifting the buckets into the beds. Sachi eventually switched to using a utility cart to transport buckets after one of her buckets disintegrated into cracked plastic shards.

Dirt Conveyances
Dirt Conveyances

Over dozens and dozens of trips, the pile of dirt became noticeably smaller as the beds became full. The wood debris foundation lulled us into a false sense of achievement that quickly waned as it disappeared and dirt alone did the work, layer by layer.

We took short breaks and stopped for lunch, but mostly we hauled dirt and the process seemed interminable at times. As the hours passed, each bucket got heavier and I couldn’t help but look for a way out. I was reminded of an interview with a winner of the Tour De France bike race who said, “This race is all about your body telling your brain ‘no you can’t, no you can’t’ and your brain telling your body, ‘yes you can, yes you can’. I won’t say that this was my Tour De France, but my body was making a strong case for “no you can’t”. 

By the time one bed was full, it was obvious we had no choice but to keep pushing. I alternated between exhaustion and a strange sense of exuberance. For the last couple of hours, I had to take breaks between filling the buckets and carting them away. My hands burned with blisters, my back ached, and my legs felt unsteady. But to stop would be to fail. I told Sachi near the end that I thought this was our hardest day of work together and she agreed. By 6pm, we called it complete, left the tools, and stumbled to the house for a shower. 

Filled Raised Beds
Filled Raised Beds

I’ve never felt a “runner’s high”, which is a feeling of euphoria after a big run, but I don’t doubt it exists. As we settled in for the evening and licked our wounds, Sachi looked up the calories burned while shoveling dirt: 800 calories per hour. Over 7-8 hours, we may have burned over 7,000 calories each. As such, we could feel good about eating and drinking whatever we wanted. Maybe my version of a runner’s high is a big pour of bourbon after a day spent hauling dirt. My brain told my body, “yes you can” and I was more than happy to oblige.

The next morning, Sachi was back in the garden, adding a bit more dirt, compost, fertilizer, and importantly, seeds. The pile of dirt looked conquered and we both felt pride in seeing it so. I have five blisters and walk with a limp, but it was all worth it to get the garden ready for spring and full scale production.

Sachi Planting
Sachi Planting the First Seeds

Related:

Being One with the Dirt on Orcas Island ?‍? ?

Being One with the Dirt on Orcas Island ?‍? ?

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

Last winter Sachi and I were invited to a small house party to celebrate Chinese New Year. We knew the hosts, Nik and Natalie, but few other people. Eventually, I made my way into the kitchen and met a friendly guy named Mike who had an interesting story, like so many who end up on Orcas. He is a professional potter who trained in China’s porcelain capital. 

Our conversation soon moved to the adjustments we all make in moving and how Orcas differs from other places. Along the way, he mentioned someone he knew who moved up from Seattle and was trying to adapt to island life. 

We talked about transitioning to a more rural, small-town environment and how things are generally slower, farther away, and less convenient. Compared to the city, anonymity isn’t as possible and the scuttlebutt travels quickly. These are common observations. But Mike said something that I’d never heard before and it stuck with me. His friend was having a hard time with the dirtiness of island life. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about that observation. Is it dirtier? What does that mean?

I remember experiencing this feeling before meeting Mike. Just after we moved, we were eating dinner at a cafe with farm-to-table food and cocktails. I asked the server for recommendations and she pointed to the menu with a fingernail stained with dirt. For a moment I was aghast. That doesn’t happen in Seattle. But on Orcas, it’s nothing. The cafe prides itself on growing their own food and it seemed like she came directly from the garden to our table. The food was delicious and dirt-free. 

In discussions about the dirtiness of things, context matters. Dirt, in whatever manifestation, is relative and I saw examples of that in Seattle.

Like many places, Seattle is surrounded by rural farmland. When there are events in the city like concerts or festivals, people arrive from all over. As a city-dweller, it was always easy to tell who had arrived from the small farming towns. They arrived in big trucks and were dressed in a more country fashion, with jeans and work boots. But it wasn’t simply their clothes. Compared to city people, there was a dustiness to their appearance. 

I remember noticing how they stuck out against the shiny urbanites and wondering if it was intentional or not. While I was perhaps smug at the time, I now see the contrast from a different perspective. 

Orcas Island has nicely paved roads, but most people use dirt or gravel roads on a regular basis. Most houses are surrounded by natural surfaces like rocks, grass, ground cover, etc. This is true for us now and will be true for the new house. By simply stepping outside and driving off the property, you can’t help but collect some pine needles or dirt. In the summer, the gravel roads ensure a fine dust coats everything. In the winter, the consistent rain keeps everything muddy or at least splashy. 

The reality of the surface became very real two weeks ago when we visited the construction site. I stepped out of the car and my phone dropped to the ground. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, as most surfaces are flat and a rubbery case protects the back and edges of the phone. But in this case, a rock was perfectly positioned to crack my phone’s screen on impact. Over a decade of having iPhones and this was the first cracked screen, thanks to living around gravel. 

The dirtier experience of Orcas has also had a slow, but obvious impact on how I dress. The first time I noticed it was looking for new shoes. I realized that I may never own another pair of shoes with white soles. They are impossible to keep clean on Orcas. The same is true for pants and shirts. My recent selections tend toward the earthy tones. This is mostly a practical consideration because I can live with dirt as long as it’s not so visible.

The same is true for vehicles. In the summer, the dust is so thick on our back window that we have to use the wiper blade to see. It’s an inescapable element of living on a gravel road and we’ve grown used to it. In fact, we’ve come to see it as a strange badge of honor that differentiates us from the tourists who arrive in pristine cars. If you want to find a tourist in the summer, look for a shiny car. 

This observation also works the other way around. 

At the end of last summer, Sachi and I rode the ferry to the mainland and made some stops at places like Costco. When we returned to the car, I noticed that it stuck out like a powdered doughnut among a dozen glazed. Dust covered every inch of its exterior. Then, I looked down. My shoes were dusty and dirty. My fingernails weren’t clean. I realized I was now the person arriving in the city from a rural location and making a subtle statement. My former self might have wondered: Why is he so dirty looking?  

This made me think back to the country guys in Seattle. They were arriving from an environment I didn’t fully understand. They were wearing what they wear every day and it’s the most practical choice for them. They didn’t need to put on new clothes (or airs) for the city people. The thought may not have even occurred to them. 

When I broach the subject of dirtiness among friends, the discussion usually turns to the definition of “dirty” and “clean” and I think it leads to the right perspective. Orcas Island and other rural places have fewer paved surfaces than cities. More people work with their hands than with computers. There are very different expectations about clothes and general cleanliness. But is it really dirty?

Visibly, the answer is almost certainly yes. But that’s not the whole story. In Seattle, we could walk the dogs for miles and miles and never step off a paved surface. We’d come home wet, but not visibly dirty. Clothes stayed clean more easily and white shoes worked. Yet, the city, like any city, has its problems with cleanliness. There might not be dust and gravel roads, but there is pollution, litter, and detritus. In the winter, the wet muck from traffic is far dirtier, oilier, muckier than you’re likely to find on Orcas. There is pollution in the air from millions of vehicles that drip all sorts of things into the water, eventually. And I can’t help but think of the noise. Planes, sirens, cars, industry, people. It’s another kind of pollution, but not dirt. It’s a city, after all. 

I’ve started to see that Seattle is dirty on a more invisible or microscopic level that’s easy to ignore. It is there, however, and now I am seeing an incontrovertible truth: everything is dirty all the time, everywhere. Sometimes it’s harmful and easy to ignore. Sometimes it’s harmless but visible. But we all live in a dirtier environment than we like to believe. 

So, I think Mike’s friend has a point. Orcas can appear to be a dirtier place compared to the city. But the dirt is different. It’s more visible and washes away after a long day of work. It returns to the ground just as it was before. Being one with the dirt is part of the transition and how you become part of the island itself.