Simple Living Today Blog

The Simple Living Today: A New American Dream blog is the place where we share news, ideas, and resources we hope will be useful to you. The simple living movement is constantly growing, adding new voices every day. We invite you to add your voice to building the New American Dream of simple living by posting a comment at the bottom of this page.

Sep 14, 2016

Winn Falls Hike

This year's monsoonal rains have been wonderful for our corner of the Arizona desert.

With the exception of one gulley washer that generated some backhoe repair of our berms, all of our rain has been gentle and soaking.

As a consequence, our homestead resembles the green hills of Ireland more than the stereotypical "kitty litter" landscape of the Chiricahuan desert.

Barbara and Waterfall

These wonderful rains have our washes and stream beds running full.

A few days ago, we drove across the valley to the eastern Chiricahua mountains to hike. Our destination was a trail with a good view of a 400' waterfall, Winn Falls.

Our hike brought back memories of the horrific forest fire of 2010 that covered much of the mountain range and caused incredible flash floods when the rains did finally come.

There was evidence of both the fire and the flooding as we drove to the trailhead of the Basin Trail, a comparatively short trail with some elevation gain. We found it difficult to find the trail due to the recurring flash flooding over the past years.

Winn Falls

With some luck and perseverance we did find our way on a trail paralleling the river created by Winn Falls. While still some distance from the falls, the roar of the falling water was evident and the spray from the falls hung like a perpetual mist in the air.

The trail had been used very lightly over the past years, at least by human traffic. We did see deer and discovered plentiful evidence of the passing, literally, of local bears. So, the answer to the time-honored question "Does a bear poop in the woods?" is a resounding "Yes".

Chiricahua Crest

At the conclusion of the hike, we continued our circumnavigation of this large Sky Island and drove south to Douglas, situated on the border with Mexico, for some excellent carne asada tacos. Then turned north to finish our day long looping adventure in time for dinner at our little homestead.

Sep 14, 2016

DIY Plaster Repair

When we began our experiment in DIY homestead building, we had no experience in natural building. Books became our mentors.

In our case, we were drawn to the Straw Bale House by Bill and Athena Steen, pioneers in natural building. In our early edition of their book, the techniques described to secure the bale walls meant fastening bamboo rods to the walls, inside and out.

Bamboo Brace

Sadly, we found that plastering over these bamboo uprights led to serious cracking in the plaster wall and a compromised exterior. Over time, chunks of plaster flaked off during every storm.

Over the last few years, as we watched the deterioration of our work, we tried different "fixes", all essentially patching with different formulas of plaster and protection, including mixing a percentage of Portland cement in the adobe mix. None proved satisfactory.

On the other hand, the plaster on our main dwelling was and is holding up beautifully. Some differences in the two include pinning the bales inside. We drove steel rebar "pins" into the bales carefully to avoid cutting bale strings and created a secure wall without impediments to plaster longevity.

In addition, we built a higher stem wall and a wrap-around overhang/porch. Big hat and high boots!To mend our ailing wall, we ripped off any loose chunks of plaster and them began from scratch, using the techniques we found useful in our main house. First spraying a coat of aliz on the straw and the old plaster that remained.

Hand Trowel

Then we applied the first heavy coat of plaster by hand. When that set up, we troweled on a coat with a flexible pool trowel to level out the wall. This provided a secure base of plaster and an even wall.

Brushing Aliz

Finally, using a floppy sloppy old wall paper paste brush, we painted on a final coat of aliz. The plaster/paint sealed any "spider cracks" and provided texture for the wall. The last step was two heavy coats of linseed oil.

This year's heavy monsoonal rains have not caused any wall erosion. Happy plasterers here.

Restored Wall

We know there are many natural builders who use external pinning successfully. Our problem may be in our particular adobe clay or our plastering capability. We are only sharing one way to approach this issue, not intending it to be THE way for everyone.

It did work well for us, though.

Feb 19, 2016

Stem Walls: From Adobe to ICFs

In the course of building the three buildings on our property, we tried different methods of stem wall construction.

Bear Cave Footing

For our adobe cottage, the Bear Cave, we built a 14" wide stem wall of concrete with reinforcing steel formed up from a wider concrete footing, also reinforced with steel rebar. As the walls of adobe are very heavy, we used more steel in the stem wall and footing than otherwise might have been needed. Now more than ten years have passed and we have no settling or cracking either in the walls or the stem wall.

Annex Stem Wall
Our second effort was our first straw bale building, a small structure housing storage plus bathroom and shower.

As this building did not have nearly the psi pressure on the foundation, we made our own block using hand mixed adobe with ten percent asphalt emulsion in the mix.

After the twenty-six inch wide stem wall was complete, we applied a thick coat of asphalt emulsion to the outside of the blocks to preclude erosion. The stem wall was built up on wider footings similar to the Bear Cave. Again, no cracking or settling noticed.

Block Stem Wall

For our residence, we again laid down a strong footing under two rows of concrete block with rebar in the cores. While strong and efficient, we would probably do this differently should we be able to move back in time.

ICF Stem Wall

Recently I helped build a straw bale home nearby. The owners opted for a concrete slab on which we laid an ICF (insulated concrete form) stem wall. As this ICF was purchased from a small manufacturer in Tucson, some custom work was possible.

The manufacturer agreed to cut the rows of block in half. This gave us a rise more than enough for the terrain. The block, in four foot lengths, laid down easily and quickly. We mixed our own concrete for the cores and inserted rebar in a the cells at two foot intervals. After filling the cores, we placed anchor bolts for treated lumber plates.

While the ICF wall was more expensive than our first two DIY walls, it proved both easier and cheaper than concrete block. Given room in the budget, I would use ICF in a heartbeat. Much easier on this old body.

Continue reading "Stem Walls: From Adobe to ICFs"

Feb 07, 2016

Our Chicks are Growing Up

Late last summer, we made the decision to move our flock of Buff Orpingtons to their new home. A nearby meditation center welcomed our post-henapausal ladies to provide enjoyment for retreatants and donate the occasional egg.

Rhode Island Red Close Up

To replace our flock of Buffs, we looked through the Meyer's catalog and found that Rhode Island Reds satisfied our needs well. We don't show our chickens so a more mundane breed was totally acceptable. The catalog listed the Reds as "...calm birds that are among the best layers for a heavy breed that lays large brown eggs. Red hens can lay around 200-250 eggs per year and rarely brood." Perfect for us.

Reds First Egg

Earlier, we posted pictures of the new chicks when they arrived last September. Now it's time to show them in their first stage of adulthood.

We are beginning to see some egg production and are appreciative to the "girls". Though small pullet eggs, they are a delightful addition to our breakfast table.

Chicks on Hay Bale

Taking a page from our neighbor's hen raising playbook, we brought a bale of alfalfa hay into the chicken yard to supplement their diet of crumbles. In addition, Barbara saves vegetable and fruit trimmings from garden and orchard to provide both antioxidants and variety.

While we had some problems with thin shells in our Buffs, we will try to avoid that by offering oyster shell as the hens begin to age.

Free Range Reds

We have begun training the little flock to respond to Barbara's voice and a small amount of corn scratch rattled in a plastic pail, actually an old yogurt container.

As a result, we can let the girls out of the orchard chicken yard to roam about the house freely. Because we have a large population of coyotes always about somewhere, we stay outside during their free time.

While we feel like playground monitors at a grade school, the girls seem to thoroughly enjoy their freedom. Poking and probing for bugs and eating some of the fresh leaves of the native shrubs growing close to the yard. Often, they will wander up close to our chairs and just look us over.

Chicken playground monitoring has become one of the most satisfying activities of my day. A happy time.

Nov 05, 2015

Garden in Transition

Autumn is a time of transition in our southern Arizona garden. Despite being only fifty miles north of Mexico, the elevation - a bit under 5,000 feet - of our homestead ensures four seasons.

While certainly not the dramatic temperature swings of my Minnesota birthplace, we do have freezing temperatures from time to time and even occasional snow.

Winter Squash in Autumn

Our vegetable garden reflects the changes of season. By the end of October, our green beans are a distant memory and we've harvested the last of the winter squash, zucchini, peppers and melons .

Tomatoes are the next to go and will be the last of the summer crop. The skeletal remains of the once vibrant plants are all that remain, ready to be dug up and composted to nourish next year's garden.

With the exception of summer squash and melons, we have pickled or frozen much of our summer veggies for our winter use.

Winter Greens

A small number of garden beds provides us with fresh produce all through the winter. Barbara has planted escarole, Napa cabbage, spinach, lettuce, beets, carrots, chard, kale and parsley to provide us with fresh greens during the cold months.

The garlic is in its bed and covered with row cloth to keep the quail and mice from the tender new plants.

We're fortunate to have limited hours of freezing temperatures except for a very few of the coldest days. With row covers, our plants are snug and frost free through the cold nights.

What a pleasure it is to eat greens only minutes from garden to table.

Full Freezer

There is a great feeling of security going into winter with a freezer full of home grown vegetables and jars of pickled beets on the pantry shelf.

The presence of abundant food ready at hand gives me a primal sense of comfort. I know that it isn't necessary to forage for food outside of a cave in bad weather, but the memories of our earliest ancestors still echo in my psyche.

Soon enough, our new flock of growing chickens will be providing us with fresh eggs as well. With the purchase of beans, rice, and other staples including local goat's milk from a neighbor, our use of supermarkets is reduced from need to have to nice to have.

What a happy situation.

Oct 13, 2015

Chicken Middle Schoolers

Our little balls of fluff seemed to change overnight. Within just a couple weeks , they had outgrown the need for paper floor and, even with a chicken wire extension, were threatening to get out of the retaining walls of their snug first home.

So we took up the paper toweling, spread shavings throughout the coop, and expanded their world.

Rhode Island Red at 4 weeks
After just a few weeks, they displayed feathered wings, body feathers enough to foreshadow the lovely plumage of mature hens, and more curiosity than alarm when I came into the coop.

They reminded me so very much of the awkward middle school students I once taught. Preening and stretching their wings and pretending maturity.

Chicks in Orchard

Now, at five weeks, the coop is too small for them with no relief. At first, Barbara or I would open the coop and let them explore a bit.

For the most part, they stayed within a few feet of the coop door. Watching their supervised exploration was a bit like grade school outdoor recess.

Chicks on new roost

In preparing them for adult roosting, I installed an interim roost about a foot off the coop floor. The chicks seem to enjoy it and spend a fair amount of time perched. Sleeping is still done nestled in the shavings on the floor, however.

With their current vigor, speed, and alert awareness of their surroundings, we have taken to letting them have free access to the orchard as long as we're close, in the house or garden. At the first indication of potential danger such as the shadow of a raven passing over the ground, there is a great flurry of flapping wings and all of the chicks make a dash for the safety of the coop.

Before much more time, we will be saying goodbye to the foster chicks and filling nest boxes in preparation for some great eggs.

The once tiny chicks will have the run of the orchard and their contented clucking will be a welcome addition to the calling of the quail and our constant bird songs.

Oct 05, 2015

New Chicks in the Brooder

About three weeks ago, we welcomed fifteen baby chicks to our little 'homestead'. Eleven Rhode Island Reds and four Golden Buffs.

The Buffs are foster chicks for our friend Anneke. They will join her existing flock when they are big enough to hold their own with the "big girls".

chicks in a box

The Reds are a replacement flock for our Buff Orpingtons now living in a "chicken retirement community" at the meditation center of our friends Culadasa and Nancy Yates.

We loved our flock, but have some expectations of consistent egg production. At the Dharma Treasure meditation and retreat center the girls are only required to look good and roam around eating bugs for the delight of retreatants and guests.

chicks #3

The first home of our mixed flock of chicks was in a round water trough floored with pine shavings and covered with strips of paper toweling to provide footing for the little ones. A lamp was suspended over the portable mini-coop to keep the little ones warm.

Chicks Close Up

It feels great to again have chickens on the place and to look forward to "chicken chores" in the morning. Of course, the management of a little 'backyard' flock, in our case an orchard flock, is easy compared to large income producing flocks.

Filling two little feeders, replenishing vitamin enriched drinking water, and putting down clean paper "flooring" every morning while listening to the excited cheeping of the little ones is more pleasure than work.

Nap Attack

After about a week, Dan and Anneke stopped by and put a chicken wire extension on walls of the brooder.

They chicks began showing wing feathers in a matter of a few days and soon were testing their wings and fluttering toward the top of the tub. In less than a week, we removed the accumulated layers of paper toweling and let the chicks learn to scratch and fuss in the shavings.

We so enjoy spending time with them every day to watch their antics and observe the minute by minute changes in size and feathering. Soon enough, we won't have chicks, but mature hens resplendent in their red plumage.

We'll also start enjoying our own eggs again. YEA!

Aug 23, 2015

Our Changing Workplace

"Precariat - a working class that swings from task to task in order to make ends meet and suffers a loss of labor rights, bargaining rights, and job security." A World Without Work - Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Thompson asks "Is any job truly safe?"

1. U.S. multinationals shifted millions of jobs overseas in the 2000s. Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce showed that “U.S. multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers… cut their work forces in the U.S. by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million.”

Furthermore, a recent Wall Street Journal analysis showed, “Thirty-five big U.S.-based multinational companies added jobs much faster than other U.S. employers in the past two years, but nearly three-fourths of those jobs were overseas.”

2. As overseas outsourcing has expanded, U.S. manufacturing has suffered the brunt of the blow. According to a Working America report “Manufacturing employment collapsed from a high of 19.5 million workers in June 1979 to 11.5 workers in December 2009, a drop of 8 million workers over 30 years.

Between August 2000 and February 2004, manufacturing jobs were lost for a stunning 43 consecutive months—the longest such stretch since the Great Depression.”

Manufacturing plants have also declined sharply in the last decade, shrinking by more than 51,000 plants, or 12.5 percent, between 1998 and 2008. These stable, middle-class jobs have been the driving force of the U.S Economy for decades and theses losses have done considerable damage to communities across the country.- Alex Lach, "The Center for American Progress"

These figures, while startling, can't begin to convey the damage to a growing portion of our people. When a plant closes, a "regional depression" can occur. Youngstown, Baltimore, and Detroit are examples of the shift from the American Dream to the American Nightmare.

Quoting John Russo, Derek Thompson says, "When jobs go away, the cultural cohesion of a place is destroyed. The cultural breakdown matters even more than the economic breakdown. Depression, spousal abuse, and suicide all become much more prevalent."

In a note of optimism, Thompson describes choices being made in the most depressed areas by individuals creating a new type of creative community with a new, simple lifestyle. Their choices rethink the concept of life in America and offer hope for those adrift from the vagaries of corporate profit seeking.

Continue reading "Our Changing Workplace"

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