Wednesday, January 4, 2012

To Begin With

To begin with, there was this. Actually, not quite this, since the shot you see here is from 2009. To begin with, there was about a quarter acre with a house, a couple of driveways, and a fenced back yard. 

That was in early 2008, when I moved into this corner of Olympia. Since then, I've been digging, planting, and composting my way toward something a little different. This blog is where I'll try to write what I did before I forget it all. 

There are a lot of blogs like this, with the general theme of "urban homesteading," and I'll admit that this one's title is an oblique nod to that movement. But it's also an uncomfortable sidling away from the word "homestead," which is bandied about with little awareness of its history. In the US, many fine people claimed homesteads, but various homesteading acts were gamed by crooks and robber barons to transfer public lands into corporate hands. Worse yet, homesteading was a primary mechanism by which native people were chased off lands they'd known since time immemorial. In many cases, it was a foregone conclusion that the homestead would fail (you cannot have a viable 160-acre wheat farm), but it was a convenient way to get a piece of earth into the title records and a fenceline. If and when we reverse the polarity and allow citizens to homestead corporate property, then I'm all for it.

But in the meantime, I will greenstead, on a property of my choosing and purchasing. To greenstead is to establish a root-hold for a more environmentally friendly and conscious habitation than what greeted me in 2008. If I have the time and money, the process will include things like solar power and a graywater system, but in the meantime it amounts to simpler and more literally green actions like growing food, planting native species (plus maintaining some habitat for the critters), and tearing out driveway. I'll never end up with a self-sustainable homestead, but I'll leave this place healthier than how I found it.

How I found it to begin with was not all that bad. A typical low-slung late-1970s ranch house. No diesel stench or other contamination indication. No asbestos or lead paint or vinyl siding. A 1600 square foot house adequate for a family or four (and to be honest, a lot more by any other than American standards) with everything powered by electricity. 

Unfortunately, there were also a couple of driveways and a sidewalk. The main drive and the sidewalk were poured concrete, impervious; a good-sized chunk of the property created runoff and could not support crops. The previous owner had exacerbated this by dumping multiple truckloads of crushed gravel along one end of the property, creating a huge driveway for an RV. As I would soon learn, this layer was up to a foot thick and was quite compacted, creating more runoff and dead ground.

In the front yard, which slopes down toward the house from the gravel shoulder of the road, there was weedy grass, which I was glad to see. Maximum sun (other than the shade-zone of the hedge forming the south boundary), a tabula rasa. In back, a half dozen or so alders, a cherry, and a big-leaf maple formed a mature clump of summer shade, beneath which a hastily mulched area was clearly going feral. (Unfortunately, beneath the mulch was plastic sheeting, an ineffective attempt at weed control that has proved to be a pain in the ass.) The entire neighborhood has sandy soil, easy to dig and great for root crops, but also not very rich in organics, and not good at holding moisture. Here and there were scarcely buried fir stumps (and a big maple stump too, now that I think of it), as well as ground that had been stripped of its topsoil, compacted by trucks, and used to dump everything from construction debris to blue aquarium rocks to a Tab can

To begin with, I also had very little knowledge to work with. I've gardened for years, but in tropical and subtropical climes, nothing like the Pacific Northwest. Same goes for my knowledge of the native flora. Fortunately, there are books and websites, and I am used to sniffing out ethnobotanical and gardening info, and I'm willing to experiment and observe. Now, four years later, I may not be an expert, but I've learned a lot. 

So, what began as one of many eclectic directions at Mojourner Truth (whence will come relevant re-postings for readers here) is yet another blogject of its own.


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