Rick and Molly's Moat Creek Adventure #3

Date: Tue, 30 Nov 2004
From: Molly Morgan <morganm@sdsc.edu>
Subject: #3: Rick and Molly's Moat Creek Adventure

Hello, All -

Happy Thanksgiving! Rick and Molly just enjoyed the week on our land in Point Arena, and we are overdue sending another newsletter, so here it finally is.

Website update

Rick has now installed the previous newsletters on the website, so if you'd like to re-read them or share them with anyone else, you can now do that. The website is http://www.amazingpossibilities.org/moatcreek. For this newsletter, new pictures start with #116

Infrastructure updates

We had two "infant mortality" problems with our solar power system. Both were repaired under warranty by Outback Power Systems, who make great stuff, and by Mendocino Solar Systems, our installation guys who have really provided extraordinary service. One smelly problem was when we were recharging the batteries with the generator and a power transistor "fried" -- as in burnt up! The other was a mystery charging problem where the batteries were getting only a trickle of the energy from the solar panels. We have learned a lot from daily logging of percent full charge in the batteries, amphere-hours used, voltage, kilowatts of solar power, DC voltage in the trailer, high and low voltages over the past day, and so on. We have changed the way to use power in the trailer, charge its batteries, run the fan in the composting toilet, etc. The system has been running smoothly for the fall months and we are looking forward to seeing how much solar power we get in the rainy season, when it can be cloudy for days at a time. In fact, this trip was the first week since summer where the batteries have dropped below 100% full -- it was 82% after three days of heavy use and no solar charging due to cloudy weather.

One of Rick's projects was to put gutters on the shed. As you can see from the picture, the shed is on a slightly raised mesa of bare dirt, and one winter of rain off the eaves would probably cause some serious erosion. Rick has calculated that 40 inches of rain from a 120 square-foot roof would collect more than 3,000 gallons of water! So we are very interested in a water catchment system in the future to have water for gardens during the dry summer. For now, though, we're just directing the water away from the dirt.

Our latest project was just completed last week. We desperately needed a mudroom immediately outside the trailer door so we can take off rain gear and muddy boots before going inside. Our neighbor and friend, John Luna, worked with another builder, Fred, to design and build us a 6x10 foot, three-sided structure. It has to stand alone because it can't attach to the trailer, but it also needs to be right next to it. At John's recommendation, we designed it so it can be used for something else later. Since it's open on one side, we can build a mirror image of it and have a 10x12 foot greenhouse. We elected to put see-through corrugated plastic on the sides and roof not only to accommodate this future purpose, but also to let light in through the window and door of the trailer while it's serving its function as a mudroom.

Oh, sh--!!

Some people have wondered just how the composting toilet works, and why do we have one anyway? (We know some of the rest of you also want to know but haven't said anything because your mothers taught you not to ask those kinds of questions!)

We have a toilet in the trailer, but with only a 50-gallon holding tank, you have to hire a septic truck to pump it out every few months. This not only costs $75 each time, but it also transfers our waste to somewhere else where it is expensively and chemically processed instead of us sustainably dealing with it ourselves. The composting toilet allows us to convert our body waste into fertilizer. The toilet is a self-contained unit; everything goes into a chamber below the seat and a little fan dries out all the body waste that goes into it. We add 1/2 cup of peat moss every day, which helps create the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio for composting, and every two weeks we add an accelerator that increases the capacity of the bacteria to break down the waste. After a year, we can take out the tray at the bottom of the toilet and we'll have compost that can be added to non-food garden areas. (Stay tuned to see if it really works out this way!)

The toilet is vented through the roof of the shed, and when the wind is blowing the vent cap spins around and contributes to the drying process. Amazingly enough, the toilet does not smell at all! We have been pleasantly surprised (and relieved). We did, however, have an unpleasant adventure in July. The fan is key to all this, and it needs a source of electricity. According to the manufacturer, we should be able to hook it up to a car-type battery and run for 17 days. The generator has such a battery for starting, and so we originally had the toilet hooked to that. But it ran the battery dead after just three days. This is a recoverable problem since we could jump-start the generator battery with the truck, but it clearly was not a long-term solution. So then we hooked it to the batteries we have for the trailer, but the problem was the same -- it was draining our batteries. We now recharge the trailer batteries with solar power, but as mentioned above, it took awhile to get this working reliably. So while we were waiting to get the problems solved with the solar power, we just unplugged the fan and counted on the wind to dry out the contents of the toilet through the vent cap. Big mistake!

One day the toilet overflowed. Not through the top, like a flush toilet, but through a little overflow tube near the bottom. This was not watered-down stuff, because no water goes into this toilet -- just dark-brown, very smelly liquid. YUCK!!! We had to move the toilet out of the shed, which took both of us and required disconnecting the toilet from the vent. Then we had to go to the hardware store and buy a bottle of bleach to kill what had spilled on the shed floor (thankfully, it's just plywood). We collected the liquid into an old can and poured it out in the forest. When the toilet finally stopped draining and the floor of the shed was dry enough, we moved the toilet back into the shed. AND WE NEVER LEAVE THE FAN OFF NOW!!! Once the problems with the solar power were solved, we could leave the composting toilet running off the trailer batteries without fear of it running them down.

That's one learning experience we certainly don't want to duplicate!

How long has it been since you've seen the Milky Way?

We came to Point Arena for the Labor Day weekend and were blessed with clear and warm weather. On our first night there we realized that when it's dark (no moon) and clear (no fog or clouds) we have a panoramic view of the Milky Way. It takes 10 to 15 minutes for our eyes to adjust, and as we watched the sky more and more stars became visible. It was spectacular! We both remember seeing the Milky Way on a regular basis when we were kids, but in the last 40 years the rapid increase in the amount of light pollution has made this a rare experience for most people, who now live in cities. September turned out to be Milky Way month; almost every night we were in Point Arena, the weather cooperated. Since we have a window immediately above our bed, we could also fall asleep with that visual connection to our universe right over our heads.

Wildlife sightings

We've seen deer and rabbits on the road, but until recently hadn't seen any animals on our land. This is likely because when the land was logged, a lot of critter habitat was destroyed. One day in September, though, Molly saw a flock of wild turkeys (hens and half-grown chicks) strolling through the area right in front of the trailer. When she went outside to try to take a picture, she got too close and they flew away. (Did you know that turkeys can fly?) On another day, three deer (a buck and two does) wandered through the same area. None of them seemed to find anything tasty to eat, however. We have our own flock of California quail who are sometimes gathered along our driveway when we drive out. It's a sight to see about 20 small birds take to flight right in front of us! In October Molly was taking a little hike on one of the logging roads and saw a barred owl, which is really good news since owls hunt mice, and we'd like to keep their population down since they occasionally visit the trailer (a natural predator beats a mousetrap any day). Other birds we've seen include woodpeckers, hawks, turkey vultures, crows, jays, robins, and fly-catchers at dusk. Last month, although it was only a glimpse, Molly saw a bobcat disappearing at the side of the road when she was driving up to the gate. Friends have seen bear, mountain lions, and wild pigs, but so far we haven't sighted any of those animals on our land -- or at all!

Slash Piles

As with any new project, the first task for cleaning up the slash piles was figuring out exactly what the nature of the work is. We've been chipping and chainsawing for months, but eventually we came to realize that this key to all this is a sorting process. The slash pile is a big jumble because the bulldozers just push everything into one heap (or, in our case, three heaps). So as we pull stuff out we sort into four piles: (1) everything that's four inches in diameter or smaller goes into a pile for chipping, (2) tree trunks and large branches get cut into lengths that can later be split into firewood, (3) straight trunks that are about 12-15 inches in diameter, are not too decomposed, and are at least a couple of yards long are saved to form the edges of raised garden beds, (4) everything that doesn't fit one of those categories goes into a miscellaneous pile because it's a weird shape (like the roots of a big tree), too hard to chip, or we just don't know what to do with it yet.

As we get closer to the bottom of the slash piles, we're also discovering that that's where all our topsoil went. So we're rethinking the location of the gardens -- once we get all the wood out of the slash piles, we'll try planting there. This would also make the gardens much closer to our current water source. Ferns, rhododendrons, and other plants have enthusiastically been growing on the slash piles, so clearly the rotting wood and dirt are fertile (compared to the garden spot we were previously considering, which remains sandy, bare ground after at least eight years).

In September we rented a gas-powered wood-splitter to start making firewood. Rick has been teaching Molly how to split wood with an axe, but it's slow, hard work. In about five hours with the splitter we created three fireplace cords of firewood. It was amazing! And we have been giving the firewood away to anyone who will take it since. It's not great firewood since these trees are mostly pine, and occasionally fir and redwood cedar, and the logs have been dead and slowly rotting for at least eight years, but some of the pieces are fine and the wood is certainly dry. It is too bad we don't have a wood stove/heater in the trailer because we have such a huge supply of wood here.

During the splitting we encountered wood borers inside some of the pieces of old trees. Check out the picture! It's all part of the life cycle of the decomposing tree, but -- yuck! An insect that only its mother could love, eh?

Lessons in finance and accounting

As you may recall, one of the problems with this land when we bought it is a boundary issue with our neighbor -- his house is on our land. The details get much more complicated than that because his house is also red-tagged, he has no money to fix these problems, and he took on some partners who are partial owners of his land, with whom he has had serious misunderstandings (and no written contract). We are trying to resolve all these problems so that everyone gets a fair deal and the legal boundary lines of both properties are corrected. Rick has been concentrating on figuring out financial strategies to help our neighbors, including facilitating a conversation with all of them in the room together -- which was somewhat productive, but sometimes tense, given that they have not talked to each other for two years! But we're making progress and are looking forward to getting this resolved soon.

Natural building

In September, Molly took a week-long workshop on natural building at Emerald Earth, a nearby intentional community. Nearly all modern building materials have a very high "embodied energy" -- it requires a great deal of fossil fuel to manufacture, transport, and assemble our homes and other buildings. With the peak in global oil production right around the corner, this obviously cannot go on too much longer, and people have been doing wonderful work finding out how to combine modern technology and ancient building techniques so that we have some alternatives.

One basic philosophy of these folks is to build with what you have on your land, to the greatest extent possible. One component of this is passive solar design -- that is, designing and siting your house in such a way that it gets the maximum benefit of natural heating and cooling, which can be minimally augmented, if climate dictates, with something like a wood stove. Another component is using natural materials, such as strawbales (reusing a material that would otherwise be burned in the field) or cob (not corn cobs, but a mixture of clay, sand/gravel, straw, and water that dries into a very sturdy structure). In the last couple of decades people have been using and experimenting with these and other natural materials to learn how to optimize different ones for strength, insulation, thermal mass, beauty, and protection from weather, insects, and animals.

The workshop was a combination of lecture, hands-on experience building actual houses, and cameraderie. We now have lots of ideas that we are pondering if we decide to build a house in Point Arena. Because of the successful intervention of activists and researchers with building and planning departments, some of the materials, such as strawbale, are now acceptable in the building codes for some areas, including Mendocino County. Other materials and techniques are still considered experimental, so if we go this route we might get involved in the time-consuming, but important, political work of educating and changing the minds of county and Coastal Commission officials. For now we're just having fun dreaming about all the possibilities!


When a friend from Wisconsin was visiting last month, we hiked along the dirt road that provides service for the power line and discovered that a turnoff from it makes a loop back onto our land. So now we have a nice little hiking trail near us (most of which is not on our land, but we're not too worried about that).

In October Molly was in Point Arena alone when a powerful storm came through one night -- winds up to 38 mph, and driving rain. It shook the trailer and made so much noise she couldn't sleep! But friends in regular houses couldn't sleep through this noisy storm, either, and they -- unlike us -- lost power. Molly was very grateful for the solar power system the next day.

We were invited to Leon and Mindy's for Thanksgiving dinner. This was especially fun since it was the one-year anniversary of our week-long housesitting for them, at the end of which we decided to make an offer on this land. It was an especially enjoyable Thanksgiving for us, spent with many of our new friends and enjoying great food and conversation. We have a great deal to be thankful for.

One new project we have to work on, now that the rainy season has started, is road maintenance. We do not have a very well made road, and unfortunately it has a tendency to turn into a river bed and erodes badly because of the ruts in the middle where there should be appropriate drainage to the sides. So we have raked the gravel where we have some and started to dig ditches where we need them. What's more, we don't actually have an easement to use the part of the road that goes through a neighbor's land (although we're here much more than they are, and they haven't prevented us from using the road). Until we resolve all the legal issues, we won't be putting serious money into improving the road, but we can do small projects to divert water in the most seriously compromised areas.

That's it for now. We'll write again in 2005, and until then we wish everyone a wonderful holiday season!

hugs to all,
Rick and Molly

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