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Feel the Burn ?

Feel the Burn ?

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

Soon after we purchased property on Orcas, our next-door neighbor made sure we understood the risk of wildfire and why he keeps the forested property around his house free of underbrush and branches. He explained that wildfire often travels in two forms: low and high. The low version, at ground level, is more manageable. The high version represents the real risk. If fire is able to jump from the ground up into the canopy of big evergreens, it can spread quickly and cause serious damage. 

One way to prevent that destructive jump is to keep the forest floor relatively cleared of “kindling” and remove branches that fire can use as a ladder to the canopy. It was a good lesson to learn early, as wildfire is one of the real dangers on the island, especially in summer. In fact, a few days ago someone’s legal burn pile got out of hand and burned an acre of forest preserve on the island. 

The forested area by our house was a mess when we arrived on Orcas. No one had cleared the forest of debris in many years and it was almost impenetrable. Weeds 12 feet high, fallen trees, and heavy branches filled the space. In 2018, we chose a weekend and went to work with loppers and a battery-powered chainsaw to whip it into shape. Over a couple of days we had a monster pile of wood and brush that needed to be managed. 

My first thought was to rent a chipper that would turn the wood into ground cover. Our neighbor chuckled when I mentioned this plan to him. “Everyone goes through that phase once. Then, they just burn it because chipping is expensive and a pain.” It’s true. Burning wood piles is common here.

In fact, the county issues burn permits for $20 a year that give you permission to burn wood in a safe burn pile on your property, as long as you obey a few common sense rules like being present, awake, and not burning on a windy day. The permits are only valid from October to May 31st, which is our rainy season. 

That first burn in 2018 was a formative experience. I was worried that we’d start a forest fire and forever be known as those people in the neighborhood. We lit the pile and slowly added more and more fuel until it was taller than us. We watched as ashes ascended to the tree branches above the fire. We sprayed the trees with water from a hose for good measure. 

It ended up working well, but was an unexpected amount of work. It turns out that big fires are extremely hot and working near them feels like a death defying experience for the novice. Of course, my need to make it a BIG fire didn’t help. It burned for nine hours and soon became a pile of biochar that we spread in the forest. Circle of wood, I suppose.

 Since that first burn, the little forest by our house had collected its share of debris again and we realized that this spring’s burn deadline was approaching on May 31st. It was time for another burn, so we purchased a permit and watched the weather. A day of rain was coming, followed by a day of calm winds. Perfect. We got to work scouring the wild side of our property for sticks and branches and piled them up by the driveway. 

I thought again about what else we could do with the debris. We could leave it in the forest, which is not good for wildfire safety. Or, we could chip it, which costs more and involves renting and transporting heavy equipment that burns fuel. That left us with the option of burning it for the cost of a $20 permit. Perhaps this is why burning is encouraged by the county. They want people to clear their properties and burning provides a legal, economical, and natural method that anyone can do safely as long as they follow the rules.

With the click of a lighter button, our second burn pile went up in flames. After learning from the first burn, I approached this one with more confidence. My hope was to spend a relaxing afternoon tending a big productive fire, maybe with a beer in my hand. That was more of a dream. The reality kicked my ass. The fire got hot quickly and I soon became drenched in sweat and felt my cheeks become chapped by exposure. There was no time for relaxing because the wood always needed to be broken into manageable pieces and the inferno always needed tending. 

As the fire became bigger I used a shovel to keep it in check and for a moment, felt like a firefighter. The heat from the fire sucked the moisture directly from my skin and made me thirsty. I wanted cold, fresh water far more than a beer. I thought about the people who fight actual fires and how it must feel to work in that environment for days and weeks. I can’t imagine the toll it would take on the body. Firefighters deserve our support and respect. 

Within a couple of hours, the fire was over and a smoldering pile of char was all that remained. Sachi used a hose to douse the flames as I took photos and videos. The rocks under the fire and remnants of wood created a steamy hellscape for a few moments at a time. 

Soon enough, the burn pile was cool and wet enough to be left alone and we went inside, triumphant. We didn’t burn down the house, or any neighboring houses, but did burn a lot of calories and now, the forest was ready for wildfire season. 

In moving to Orcas, I didn’t anticipate the degree to which wood and trees would be a part of our lives. I knew we’d have firewood and construction lumber, but didn’t realize dealing with wood would be a day-to-day concern. In the summer it burns and in the winter it falls and in between it’s always there; constantly moving, growing, shedding, and dying. 

We’ve started to assemble tools of the trade, but haven’t yet invested like our neighbors. They have big gas-powered chainsaws and helmets with shields along with wood splitters for processing their own firewood. This reflects the reality that trees fall every winter and block driveways and roads. They fall on power lines and homes. This should not be surprising, as Orcas is an incredibly wooded place. Our friend RJ is the County Fire Marshal and he told me once that Orcas forests would be healthier with about one-third fewer trees. 

In building the house we did our share of tree removal and at the time, I didn’t like the idea of killing big trees. But now I can see that their beauty comes with risk. Today I’m thankful to have defensible space around our home that serves as a safety perimeter.

gif of tree falling

Many of these are so big that they’ve lived through forest fires and still have the scars. In fact, there is a cedar on our property with visible char from a long-ago fire. 

The best we can do is hope for summer rain and keep our little corner of the island cleared and ready so there’s little fuel for a truly big fire to burn. 

Mindfulness and Just One Thing  ??

Mindfulness and Just One Thing ??

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


A few months ago I read an article about morning rituals that explained the idea of a tea meditation. I’m not Buddhist and know very little about it, but this idea seemed to stick in my mind. The author described his morning:

Admittedly, this is one of my favorite parts of my day. I call this tea meditation, but when you fully engage yourself in what you’re doing with mindfulness everything becomes meditation, so this is really just “drinking tea”, nothing more than that.

After reading this, I started to notice my morning rituals, which often involved a handful of things at once. At the very least, I’m reading the news while sipping hot coffee. I don’t think that’s bad or something I need to change. But the idea that I could just drink the coffee was fascinating. Why don’t I do that?

I don’t do it for the same reason I can’t watch TV without checking my phone. It’s a habit. I have grown used to letting intrusive thoughts into my consciousness and then acting on them without hesitation. It often goes like this: We’ll put on a movie and I’ll start to wonder about an actress. What’s her name? I’ll look her up on IMDB. She’s Australian. Interesting. She does an American accent really well. Oh look, she was in another movie I like. Who directed that I wonder? Meanwhile, the plot of the movie passes me by.

Lately, I’ve tried remediation techniques. Before the movie starts, I will put my phone in another room and promise myself not to get it until the movie finishes. It should be so easy. It’s in this situation that I can see my mind at work. It wants answers and is used to getting them. I will find myself reaching for the phone, only to find it’s not there. I tell myself, “Let it go, let it go” and try to move on. Knowing where a movie was filmed does not matter. “Just watch the damn movie” I say to myself in a scolding tone.

Before we moved to Orcas Island, I had a record player and we enjoyed listening to albums. It’s safely packed away for now, but once we move into the new house, it will be part of lives once again and I expect it to be a tool for doing just one thing. That’s part of the beauty of an album. It has a terminus that works like a timer. I hope to do one thing for at least one side of an album again soon.

Now that I’m thinking in this framework, I notice activities that are perfect for focusing. On our property, we’ve planted a number of trees that will serve as privacy screens and I want to do everything I can to make them grow. This summer, that means watering them often and I love watering those trees. It feels healthy and productive. The other day I was watering and thought to myself, “Watering is a great example of just one thing!” As I moved to the next tree, my mind wandered and I started to think about writing about watering a tree as an example. Then I thought that a photo would really round out the post. So, while watering, I got out my phone and took a photo.

And here it is, an unremarkable monument to my inability to do just one thing:

unremarkable monument

Story: Rolling Out the Roof

You’ve probably seen metal roofs on houses. They usually have “standing seams” like this:

standing seams

The roof on our house will be no different. In fact, it’s one of our only options because the slope of the roof is so flat. For us, it’s exactly what we need. A metal roof can last over 50 years, especially when it is installed with the panels extending the entire length of the roof. This is where we have a challenge. To have panels with no breaks in them, they will be 60 feet long on a large part of the house.

slope of the roof

The question becomes: how? How do you deliver and install metal panels that are 60 feet long?

I recently participated in this process and it’s fascinating. The metal is delivered in large, heavy spools and then formed and cut on-site in a process called “roll forming”. It’s like a giant mechanical tape dispenser. Photos and more below…

One of Three Spools
One of Three Spools
The Machine/Dispenser
A 60 Foot Panel
A 60 Foot Panel
Stacks of Panels, 10 at a Time

Watch the machine in action:

Machine that Forms Roof Panels

Now we just have to get the panels from the ground to on top of the roof. I’ll get to that a little later.

A Walk on Orcas Island ???‍♂️??‍♀️?

A Walk on Orcas Island ???‍♂️??‍♀️?

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


The Walk

From the moment the word “walk” is mentioned, both dogs scurry about as whines become barks. For this reason, we have come to spell the word and ask one another if it’s time for a “w-a-l-k”. I keep expecting them to catch-on, but so far our subterfuge is working. Even without saying a word (or letter), they soon figure it out from our preparations alone.

As the dogs are harnessed and leashed, the humans get prepared with hats and shoes. With everything set, we close the door behind us and enter the realm of deer. From the first step outside, both dogs are on high alert and pull us from the guest house to the car while scanning the horizon. Along the way, we can sometimes hear hammering at our construction site down below, which has become our starting point for walks. We drive to the site, walk the dogs from there, and then return to take a look at the recent work. Two for one.

The short drive has become a trial because the dogs inevitably see deer along the way. Maybe barks incessantly, Piper whines and paws at the windows like it’s a great injustice to be kept from her prey. As we drive by, the deer are like animals in a drive-through wilderness park, unperturbed by the noisy vehicle passing through. You can imagine them coming closer for a treat.

The walk starts from our property’s driveway and proceeds downhill for exactly fifty percent of the steps. After some initial barking and whining when we arrive, the dogs settle into the flow of the walk quickly. Maybe, always the good student, stays by our side and the leash is never taut. Piper, on the other hand, leads the way.

Maybe
Maybe

Our gravel road, which is shared by eight neighbors, is the property of our homeowner’s association, and today, it’s gratifying to see its surface so smooth and packed. Our dues are at work recovering from the winter rain and preparing for the summer dust.

It’s probably a quarter-mile to the end of the road and it’s mostly a walk in the woods. I often find myself appreciating the wildness of it all. Most of the woods we see on the walk would probably look the same if humans never arrived on Orcas Island. It’s possible to see trees of every size and stage of decay: Newly fallen, moss-covered nurse logs, barely noticeable piles of soon-to-be-soil. The same is true for stumps, many of which become food for new trees.

Most of the woods

Our private road ends at the county road. We turn right and continue down it toward the water. Over years of walking this road, the trees have always caught my attention. It’s wooded with tall Douglas firs, western red cedars, big leaf maples, a few alders, and my favorite: madronas. These native trees are the symbol of the San Juan Islands and considered sacred by most islanders. Madrona trees are unique because they are both leafy and evergreen. Their bark peels away to reveal an incredibly smooth, colorful, and strangely cool surface. Kids sometimes call them “refrigerator trees”.

madrona
madrona

Douglas firs dominate our area and seem to have promiscuous relationships with other trees. They sometimes grow together with cedars as if they are conjoined. These days, it’s hard not to see a positive message in the connection.

western red cedar (left) Douglas fir (right)
western red cedar (left) Douglas fir (right)

The madronas are often more prosperous when growing near a fir. In fact, there is growing evidence that Douglas firs and madronas are beneficial to one another via underground communication that’s aided by fungus. I love the idea of trees working together in ways that we don’t completely understand. 

As we reach the bottom of the hill, the water becomes visible and the road veers to the left to follow the coastline. To the right, a short private road dead-ends at a waterfront house that is going through a big renovation. The former owner of the house was the astronaut Bill Anders, who took the famous “Earthrise” photo on the Apollo 8 mission. I’ve never met him, but our neighbors know him well. 

Beside that house, there is a wooded waterfront lot split by a small trail that leads from the road down to stairs that end on a rocky beach. Like our road, this lot is owned by our neighborhood association. In Washington, the beaches are privately owned up to the high tide mark and that makes water access scarce. This private lot provides neighbors access for launching canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards along with tidepool exploration.

banana slug
banana slug

On these walks, I am always attuned to the roadside plants and remind myself that I only see a fraction of what could grow here, if not for the deer. They shape the wilderness we experience by consuming all but the most resistant species. I sometimes wonder how Orcas Island would appear without the deer. If they all disappeared, what would grow? Some say that we’d have many more madrona trees because the deer eat the seedlings as soon as they sprout. 

Thankfully, the low-lying plants that remain are beautiful and give the island a distinctly pacific northwest feel. Native plants like ferns, salal, Oregon grape, and more have the privilege of not being attractive to deer. They are also evergreen, which makes the walk feel green and lush, even in the dead of winter. Like moss, they all look better in their natural state: wet.

salal
salal

As the road winds by the water, we pass multiple waterfront homes, some with dogs behind fences who bark at us and cause our dogs to whine. We pass houses with full-time residents, vacation rentals, and at least one that appears abandoned. Slowly but surely we are meeting people who live on the street who come out to walk dogs or get fresh air. We recently met a neighbor who knows Sachi’s family in Hawaii. Small world.

The road eventually flows into private driveways and we always turn around in the same spot so as not to trespass. It’s at this point that the walk transitions to the fifty percent that is uphill.

The prize at the top of the hill comes when we arrive at the property, put the dogs back in the car, and walk around the construction site. After a few delays this spring, the project is now moving and the progress is visible every day. The framing is complete and soon, we’ll have plumbing and electrical in place. Windows and siding are coming soon as well.

After three years of anticipation and nearly a year of work, it’s hard to believe that we are probably only months away from living in the house. We plan to move in by the end of the year, fingers crossed. It is, after all, a construction project in an unpredictable phase of history.

August, 2019
August, 2019
May, 2020

With each walk and visit to the site, we are reminded of everything that has happened since moving to the island. The property has changed in fundamental ways, and so have we. More than ever, we feel at home on the island and anticipate a life here that we haven’t known up to this point: a lifestyle with less change.

Through it all, the walk will remain a part of our lives for years to come. My hope is that each time it will show us something new about our little slice of Orcas Island.

Removing and Using Big Trees ??

Removing and Using Big Trees ??

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


Trees, Wood, and Fire

The first time I visited Washington State, I became a little disillusioned. My friend, Chris, and I drove north from Portland through the Olympic Peninsula, which is a drive full of natural wonders, especially for a young guy from North Carolina. What I remember most was the trees. Huge stands of evergreens crept right up to the coast, where they met a turbulent ocean full of giant rocks called sea stacks.

Sea Stacks
Sea Stacks

I’d never seen trees that tall, much less on the coast. Looking back, it was a scene that felt like a movie.

less on the coast

The disillusionment came as we drove inland, away from the coast and into logging country. There are few landscapes that look more bleak than a recently cut forest and I came face to face with miles of of it. My first reaction was sadness and disappointment. I wanted the western side of Washington to be the lush and green place from my imagination.

logging country

A few years later, I moved to Seattle and started to understand more about the logging and timber industry. Specifically, I came to see managed forests as large and long-lived crops that are a renewable resource and a significant part of the local economy. What I saw on that trip was part of the harvesting and replanting process.

Over time, I developed a fascination with the trees of the pacific northwest and especially Douglas Firs which are found all over western Washington.

Douglas Firs Lit by Afternoon Sun
Douglas Firs Lit by Afternoon Sun
Douglas Firs Lit by Afternoon Sun 1

Once you become familiar with their shape, they appear everywhere, including countless tattoos, the license plate of Oregon and the flag of Cascadia. Sachi has picked on me for years about always wanting trees on my shirts, hats and walls. It’s kind of a thing for me.

plate of Oregon and the flag of Cascadia

In moving to Orcas Island, we found ourselves in a place covered in firs that are both beautiful and an essential element of self-sufficiency. Over our first winter, we noticed that nearly every house we visited featured a wood burning stove or fireplace, along with a carefully built stack of wood.

Before long we had our own stack of wood and fired up our Blaze King wood stove on winter nights. I was the fire master and loved the process of building and tending the fire. I loved the warmth, which felt different from the hot air that flowed through the vents from a heat pump. It was like my skin evolved to respond to that kind of warmth and there was nothing else like it.

stack of wood and fired up

When spring rolled around, I missed having the fire and realized something about our plans for the new house. We had a gas fireplace in the city which ignited with the push of a button, and planned to have a similar model in the new house. It was so clean and easy.

Having burned wood for the winter, gas just didn’t seem right. I started to feel the new house needed a wood burning fireplace instead. Sure, it would be more maintenance and take time to manage, but that was part of the experience. Dealing with wood and building fires, in my view, seemed like a great use of time. Besides, the other option was to use expensive propane from a tank on the property. I preferred the wood.

Seeing smoke rising from chimneys made me wonder if burning wood is friendly to the environment. I worried that we’d build a fireplace and then, ten years later, regret it when wood seemed irresponsible. A bit of research soothed my worry.

In terms of efficiency, it’s true that fireplaces are not the best heat sources. They produce warmth, but are mostly for aesthetics. A room with a roaring fire feels and smells like home and that’s what we wanted. Our house will be heated on a day-to-day basis through more efficient means.

The reality of burning wood in terms of carbon dioxide is fascinating. As a tree grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and carbon from the soil. When the tree dies naturally and decays in the forest, the carbon it absorbed is released. In burning wood, that same carbon is also released, so it’s similar to what would naturally happen in the forest. Burning wood doesn’t create new CO2 and is considered by many to be carbon neutral [source]. Burning wood can cause air quality issues, but the population in our area is low enough for it not to be a problem.

Long story short, I won’t feel irresponsible for burning wood in our fireplace. And that’s fortuitous, because it’s becoming clear that wood is something we’re likely to have for years to come.

The area surrounding the Yurt is home to a couple of large Douglas Firs and I fell in love the first time I saw them. It made me happy to think about these big trees being my trees. I imagined lighting them at night and making them part of the experience of the new house.

big trees being my trees

As the layout and position of the house became clearer, the trees started to become an issue. I was adamant, for a while, that the trees had to stay. But the reality was they needed to be taken down. They were too close to the house and represented a hazard. A single branch could do serious damage, which we saw firsthand after one windy winter night at the Yurt.

We asked an arborist to take a look and he said the trees were a risk and that building so close to them could slowly kill them and make removal even more expensive and difficult. He and others also said the trees were “gnarly” and not good candidates for lumber.

Over time, I came to terms with the idea that the trees, my favorite Douglas Firs, had to go. Thankfully, they were a small part of a forest on the property.

After the Yurt was removed, there was room for the trees to fall and I was excited to learn how it all worked. Basically, the excavator holds the tree while another person cuts through it. When it’s ready, the excavator simply pushes it over.

excavator holds the tree

Of course, I had to get footage from the drone.

get footage from the drone

Then, a person walked down each trunk, cut off all the branches and cut each tree into sections that were moved into a pile by the excavator, which is where they are today.

walked down each trunk

Before the wood can be used, it needs to cure for a year or so. Then, we can save some for projects and turn much of it into firewood.

Before the wood can be used

I like the idea of the trees from our property keeping us and fellow islanders warm for winters to come. I dream of cold rainy nights with the fire roaring. I look forward to stepping outside and hearing the sound of wind breezing through the evergreens by the house and feeling like I finally live amongst them. My trees.

Tree Removal Highlight Reel

Tree Removal Highlights (and a drone crash)