Archive for January, 2016

The Company Store

I just started watching a show that takes place in a turn-of-the-century coal mining town in Canada. It’s a Hallmark show that’s clearly shaping up to be a romance, so it’s rather saccharin, but it’s pretty cute nonetheless.

The show is about a silver-spoon sort of city girl who takes a position as a teacher out in this coal mining town. The mothers of the town had hired her to give their children the sort of education that would keep them from having to go into the mines themselves when they grew up. As if that weren’t challenge enough- three months before the teacher arrived, there had been an explosion in the mine, leaving a large chunk of her students suddenly without fathers. They only found the last of the bodies when she got there. This, of course, left a lot of widows in company housing without husbands to work in the mines to pay for the company housing.

This is a Hallmark show, so it does its best to gloss over much of the reality of working and living in a company town. However, by episode two, the notices had gone out to evict the widows and children from the company housing to make room for the miners the boss was looking to bring in. The teacher is working with the widows to try and figure out how they can stay in their own homes. She comes up with a solution that has a legal precedent and goes about setting it in motion. It’s thwarted because the supplies she needs would be from the company store and are suddenly unavailable for her to purchase.

If you aren’t familiar with what a company store was, they were a brilliant (devious, terrible) way for the boss to keep both the profits and the workers within the company. Mining towns were notorious for them. I believe railroad towns also frequently used them. It was an option for basically any business model that took their workers and isolated them away from any other store options. If the company store is the only place that you can buy your food, clothes, and other necessities, then that’s what you did. You paid the outrageous prices, you took on debt if you couldn’t pay cash, and, as the song says, you owe your soul to the company store. It wasn’t uncommon to work for the company until you died, trying to pay the debts you couldn’t avoid racking up.

What does this long-winded report on a slightly silly tv show have to do with anything? After all, we don’t have company stores anymore. There’s almost no way to isolate workers away from any and all forms of purchasing power. We all drive past Walmarts, Targets, and malls and have the right to stop in and spend our money in any or all of them as we see fit (or can afford). Sure we have debt, but it’s not to our employer. It’s to a bank or a credit card company. Totally different than that coal mining town.

Or is it? Look at America. The bulk of us work for anything from lousy to crap wages. Maybe an iPhone isn’t quite the necessity that a ribbed wash-board was in the coal town, but the advertising that we are immersed in sure wants us to think it is. So we pay out all of our cash for things that we need. Then we take on debt for things that we need but can’t afford. Then how do we pay this debt? We keep going to the soulless job with the crap wages because we don’t have/can’t see any other options. But between the things we still need and the money we aren’t making, our debt only gets worse.

Maybe we think company stores don’t exist because we have nothing to compare them to. Can’t see the forest for the trees and all that. I have been trying to think of companies that I know that are, say, 80% free from the corporate world. I think I came up with a small handful, but most of them are tiny, struggling, and unlikely to be noticed outside of niche communities in their town. There are few to no viable options outside of what has become normal. Normal, of course, being items that we are told we need produced in massive amounts with the absolute minimal inputs and created to be worn out in no time flat.

I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy, here. I’ve gotten over that. What I am saying is that the bosses are still more than able to keep the profits and the workers exactly where they want them. Has America become the company town for the wealthy elite? Have we all become workers in a coal town with no prospects and no future away from what is right in front of us? I don’t want to be right about this, but I’m also having a hard time seeing where this logic train could have gone wrong.

So . . . now what?

Ash Trees For Firewood

IMG_6137One of the first things I did when I arrived in Maine was to help Dad fill up the rest of the pallets with wood to be burned to heat the house this winter. November is getting very late in the year to be cutting down trees for firewood, so we were only after one species.

The ash tree.

Ash trees are quite popular as landscape trees because they are fast-growing and can be found almost everywhere in the United States. Of course, with the current prevalence of the ash borer, it’s possible that they may go the way of the American chestnut.

Ash trees are not just fast-growing and prone to fantastic fall color. It turns out, they’re also edible. The roots, anyway. It’s kind of amazing where one can find food sources.

The reason we were after ash trees in particular is because of their water content. Good, cured firewood should be around 10% water. Oak, which is a great fuel, but takes ages to cure, starts at around 60% water. Obviously, that simply won’t burn just after it has been cut down. In fact, it usually takes a couple of years to get to the point of being worth using. Ash, on the other hand, is around 20% water. While it’s not ideal to burn something that wet, you can. In our case, though, we will be holding those pallets of wood until the end of winter in hopes that they will cure at least a little between now and then.

While we were taking down the trees, I came to two conclusions. The first is that dry-built stone walls are an ingenious invention. Not only are they built from existing and plentiful resources, but when you drop a tree on them, there’s no permanent damage. All you need to do is reshuffle a few rocks to smooth out the dent. The second is that anyone harvesting wood off of their own properties would be well-served to have a hugelkultur bed constantly in progress. Having a brush pile or two around for habitat is good, but returning the bulk of the twiggy scrap wood directly back into the earth will be better, in the long run.

A hugelkultur bed made up of small-diameter branches probably won’t do the sponge thing as long or as well as one that includes large-diameter trunks. However, it will drive the nutrients, and more importantly, the carbon from the branches right back into the soil far more quickly than would happen if they were left to rot on the surface. At this point in human history, I think that doing whatever we can to sequester carbon on any scale is a good idea. You’re also building lush chunks of ground that you may not need for a garden, but you can certainly use to cultivate the seedlings of the trees that your children and their children will cut down to heat the home in the future.

It felt very good to be doing something both physical and useful upon arrival. Almost a week traveling in the car was a bit too much for me. It also felt very good to be able to look at a landscape and know that I would be able to think about and put into play at least some of the things that I have been learning. This piece of land isn’t my ultimate home, but it is a home, and that’s close enough, for now.


Ash logs waiting to be split.

Regaining My Power: To Begin


Physical manifestation of my mental and emotional state. Life isn’t giving either of us what we need.

I haven’t been blogging much because life has been . . . challenging. One of the things these challenges have pointed out to me is that I have lost my own power. The loss was gradual. Some of it was let go, some forgotten about, and some stolen. What I lost and how isn’t important. What’s important is that no one will hand it back to me. If I don’t take it, I don’t get to have it. I think that’s a very important realization. After all, if I’m not willing to fight for it, what on earth makes me think I would fight with it, which is the only reason to have it.

This reboot of my life has been happening for a couple of months, now, but today seems to be the logical time to share it. The sun is coming back, the calendar has turned, and we’re closer to planting new seeds than cleaning up after the last harvest. I really don’t do “New Year’s Resolutions,” but many people do. We haven’t written in this calendar, yet, so maybe we can write different things than we did last year.

I landed at my parent’s house in early November. It wasn’t the very beginning of the tale, but I’m calling it the beginning. I arrived with a stuffed 4X5X8′ trailer of stuff, enough debt that it will take me a year to pay it off, if that’s all I spend my money on, and weighing 273#. What all of those amounts have in common is that they are getting in my way and getting them cut down to something reasonable feels rather overwhelming. You may be looking at one or all of those numbers and thinking, “Child’s play.” But bear in mind that the absolute number is far less important than whether or not I believe I can tackle it. We all have different tolerances, and those are approaching the limits of mine.

I am feeling the need to share this story not because it’s unusual, but precisely because I don’t believe it is. I’m broke, I’m unhealthy, I can’t even tell you anymore what’s in the boxes I’ve been schlepping from apartment to rented room, and I don’t know how to make my dreams into my reality. Perhaps by sharing my story, it will help me to keep taking the steps I need to take to figure this mess out. Maybe, as I figure each step out, it will help you with your journey, too.

Here’s to a new year and another chance to make each of our worlds into one that will give us a fulfilling life.


My jade plant and I- repotted, heavily pruned, and taking another crack at this thing called life.