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Where to start?

The garden, this morning

It’s been over a month since I posted. The abbey has been caught in a whirlwind of spring projects, spring farm work, and community organizing. I really appreciate the emails from those of you who have written to make sure everything is OK. Retirement is not supposed to be like this.

I think I’ll try to catch up with a bulleted list of items, stealing a bit from the way the late Herb Caen used to do things in the San Francisco Chronicle.

  • By far the biggest time sink in the past month has been getting involved with the group of people in Stokes County who are organizing to resist fracking in Stokes County and in North Carolina. Fracking is now illegal in North Carolina, but right-wing members of the North Carolina legislature are working hard to fast-track legislation to permit fracking. I was aware of what the legislature was up to. But I did not know until Ken and I went to a county commissioners’ meeting (to speak against a county resolution supporting North Carolina’s marriage amendment) that there is a potential fracking area here in Stokes County. There were people who came to the meeting to speak against fracking, and Ken and I immediately got involved with that group. Ken started a Facebook group (No Fracking in Stokes County), and I started a web site for the group ( We helped set up a community meeting at the Walnut Cove Public Library, which almost 100 people attended. This isn’t over, because the legislature just reconvened in Raleigh, with right-wingers in the majority and ready to continue with all sorts of corporation-coddling, the-people-be-damned evils. The abbey — normally quiet and peaceful — has been noisy and busy, which leads me to the next bullet item.
  • The abbey does not have a land line telephone. Rather, we have two Verizon cellular phones with oversize antennas and 750 shared minutes a month. Normally we come nowhere close to using all those minutes, but this month we’re having to check to see how our minutes are holding up and budgeting the minutes out according to our needs. Yesterday Ken and I were on the phone at the same time. I was in a conference call with a consortium of North Carolina anti-fracking organizers, and Ken was doing interviewing for an article he’s writing. He also has calls to his literary agent in New York, his publisher, and his publicist. How did this happen? It’s temporary, but I told Ken yesterday that I feel like we’ve both been yanked out of the abbey and cast kicking and screaming back into the corporate world.
  • I finished with my book project. I did the editing, typography, and prepress work for People Skills Handbook: Action Tips for Improving Your Emotional Intelligence. The book is now being printed and should soon be for sale. It’s a corporate training manual, and it brought in some extra money that has been very nice for getting some projects done (which I’ll mention in later bullet items).
  • Ken sent the manuscript for his book to his publisher. He had edited it through eight drafts, and of course the book got better with each draft. He has worked like a dog. The book will be published in May 2013. Now that Ken is no longer tied down with writing and editing work, he’ll be leaving soon to work on his next projects (later bullet items).
  • The irrigation project ended up taking way more time than we expected. It also cost a great deal more than expected. Ken spent many days wearing waders, building a dam in the small stream below the house. At last the dam is holding and is impounding a generous amount of water. The first pump I bought was underpowered; the second pump is working great. Now we just open a couple of valves, and branch water flows into a drip system down each row of the garden. This has made a tremendous difference in the garden’s yield. The garden is picture perfect. We have eaten so much lettuce that it’s a wonder we haven’t turned green. The broccoli is starting to come in. There will be cabbages — and possibly spring sauerkraut. There are two rows of very fine beets coming along, and two rows of sweet Georgia onions. Ken planted the first round of corn and my family-heirloom green beans on Sunday. The tomatoes and such are still in the greenhouse but should be ready to transplant soon (Michael Hylton of Beautiful Earth Garden Shop at Lawsonville is starting our plants for us this year).
  • The trees in the orchard are three and four years old, but they’re going to bear fruit this year. The orchard has never looked so good. We have observed that, if the orchard grass looks good, the trees look good. My theory is that all those organic soil amendments that we’ve spread on the grass is getting down to the tree roots. And credit for that, no doubt, has something to do with our rising population of earthworms.
  • Using the nice money from putting that book together, we’ve gotten two other important projects done in addition to the irrigation system. We poured the basement floor, and we had the attic floored. Both were jobs that I didn’t have the budget to do when the house was first built. There’s a good-size basement down there, but the floor was dirt, with all the dampness, cellar crickets, and ickiness that that implies. Now the basement is dry and snug with a concrete floor as smooth as marble. There’s shelving for tools and canned goods. Upstairs, the attic floor has opened up a tremendous amount of new storage space. It’s amazing that a house so small contains so much space. It’s on five levels — basement, first floor, second floor and two levels of attic. There actually have to be steps in the attic to get from the lower level to the upper level. The roof is so steep that there is standing room even on the upper level. Both these projects created a lot of fuss and disorder, and each ruined a week of peace and quiet at the abbey.
  • I’m going to learn to can this summer. I got an All American pressure canner. My first effort probably will be pickled beets. And later this summer I want to can as many tomatoes and green beans as possible. I’m really counting on that irrigation system to not only maximize our yields but also to make yields more predictable.
  • Now I have to buck up and prepare for Ken’s departure. I often marvel at how absurdly optimistic I was with my dreams for this place. I bit off more than I could chew. One person working alone can’t start a tiny farm, no matter how tiny. One person can maintain, barely, but there is no way that one person could manage all the start-up projects. Without help, I would have gone under. But not only did help magically appear, the magic was powerful enough to bring Ken Ilgunas. Ken Ilgunas! I sometimes find myself writing little Visa commercials on my morning walks. They go something like this: “Garden and orchard, with fence and hawk net: $2,208. Chicken house and chicken infrastructure: $1,422. Irrigation system: $1,088. Stone and sand for stone walkways: $792. Five hundred dinners with Ken Ilgunas: Priceless.” Ken is brilliant. Ken is modest. He is polite. He is quiet. He is tireless. His self-awareness, and the Socrates-level refinement of his character, often make me feel like a crank and a curmudgeon. Ken is a born writer.

    But in the important ways, I don’t think I have ever misunderstood Ken or the deal we have: Acorn Abbey is about leveraging his freedom, not about tying him down. It’s a place to write, a place to winter over, even a place to be needed — but not needed so much that leaving feels like shirking a responsibility. Ken is an adventurer. I have always understood that. I believe his next project will take several months and stretch into the fall. I’m sure he’ll talk about that on his blog when the time comes. But I do hope he’ll be back and that Acorn Abbey will be his home base as he starts the publicity tours for his book after Thanksgiving.

    Chioggia beets, red beets, lettuce

    The first broccoli

    The spring chickens



    Patience starts her morning stroll. Note the lushness of the orchard grass. It’s all about feeding the earthworms.

    New rose trellis (built from scratch by Ken and David)

    The first day lily stalks. They’ll start blooming soon.

    The water tank, which contains branch water for irrigation

    The basement project

    Two spring chickens

    At the anti-fracking meeting

    The virgin pressure cooker, waiting for beets


    1. chenda wrote:

      Good to hear from you again, good luck with the anti-fracking!

      Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
    2. Quetal wrote:

      Glad to have you back. Wonderful catch up news.

      Thursday, May 17, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
    3. DanCDaves wrote:

      I really appreciate what you and Ken do. Very inspiring!

      Monday, May 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

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