My Three Roommates: Dark

As mentioned in my previous post in this series, I have three roommates who are far from welcome, Cold, Dark, and Lonliness. Last time, I discussed Cold, today, I would like to introduce you to Dark.

We, as humans, tend to try and avoid darkness. It is, most likely, an evolutionary behaviour since our eyes are terrible at seeing in the dark. We prefer daylight. It allows us to avoid unpleasant surprises that may result in death or injury, whether that is a sabre-toothed wolf hunting our early brethren, or simply a hole in the path that we fail to see while dragging a load of wood in a toboggan to our camp… something that has personally happened to me many times. All in all, our preference for light is fairly understandable.

We surround ourselves with light, as much as we can. From a simple campfire or handheld torch, to gas lamps and through to modern electrical light bulbs, we try out very best to overcome the darkness. It is not rare to drive through either a city or a rural area at night, and see a building fully lit, every window beaming the soft yellow glow of electricity, whether somebody is there or not. While I believe this is a massive waste of electricity and a prime example of human folly, I also understand it. We are afraid of the dark.

In our modern cities, light pollution has effectively cut us off from the stars above. Entire generations of children have never seen the night sky, have never learned the constellations, have never celebrated under a full moon, or been awed by shooting stars or the northern lights.

Living in a tent, I do not have to worry too much about light pollution. Russet House is far enough away that even if they were to turn on every light, a fact that is unlikely as they are very frugal about their power usage, it would not impact me in the slightest. Walking to my tent at night, I can see one neighbour’s halogen security light shining through the trees, and I am also aware of a glow in the sky to my south from what I presume to be another neighbour not too far from me. All in all, I am free to enjoy the stars throughout the evening.

And I do enjoy the night. I do enjoy darkness. I have yet to light my pathway going to my camp, even though it has caused me to stumble a few times as mentioned above. As Wendell Berry says, “To know the dark, go dark.” Darkness provides the world with another layer, another way of seeing and experiencing. Trees, snow, buildings, tents, everything is subtly different when lit by a thin crescent moon on a hazy night. And there are few things more wonderful than standing in the middle of an open snowy field, lit by the Full Snow Moon of February, and simply marveling.

But I must also be honest, at times, the Dark makes tent living especially difficult. When one lives in a tent, the Dark disallows much work to be done, even though the body and mind are still fit for doing it. It is difficult to read, to write, or to even see inside the tent. It is unsafe to do much axe-work, though I will admit, I have chopped more than my safe share of firewood by headlamp (I had a rule prior to this year to never cut wood after the sun has gone down. This is a personal rule I am very ashamed to have broken many times in the past two months).

As well, there are times where the Dark can be oppressive. It, like its brethren Cold, is always there in a tent. No matter how much light I have around me, Dark is always there, biding its time until its temporary banishment is over and it can return.

I have assembled, while living in the tent, a number of tools to help me with the banishment of Dark. I have a headlamp that I wear all evening, and an overhead LED light, both of which are more than adequate to light the room while their batteries are strong and fresh. In the cold however, this does not seem to last too long. As this winter has continued longer than most locals expected and has been much colder than anybody has ever remembered it being, batteries have been a bit of a struggle for me.

I tried Kerosene lamps. They give off a nice soft glow and work well with the romantic “pioneer” motif that I have going. Had I spent money on good lamps, they would probably work well too. Sadly, I sprang for the World Famous brand lamps from Canadian Tire. I feel confident giving a review on them. They’re absolutely terrible. I purchased two, thinking I could hang one on each end of the tent, providing me with wonderful light to play my harmonicas and wax poetically by. They both broke through regular use in a matter of weeks days. I should clarify, technically they DO work. They also give off terrible black smoke, flare up (picture having a lantern fully engulfed in fire hanging just a foot or so below the peak of your cotton tent), and leak Kerosene terribly. Living in a tent, I am learning to be content with the risk of fire, but these firebombs were just too much for me. They are now sitting patiently in storage, waiting for me to figure out what to do with them.

Candles are nice. They work well, give off a nice glow, can adapt to my lighting needs (many are lit when I’m entertaining, few are lit when I’m reading by myself) and are quite reliable. That said, they tent to melt quicker than I would like and are a constant expense.

Depending on the evening, I primarily use both candles and my headlamp, though recently, with the warmer summer temperatures, I have also put new batteries in the LED light, making the tent exceptionally bright, at least until the batteries fade out.

As another blessing, tonight is the night to change the clocks ahead. Though this means I will once again be waking up in the darkness, it also means that I will have an extra hour of the day after class with which to chop some wood and do my chores. Or at the very least, it will allow me to see the holes in the path before I fall into them. Hopefully.

I will be blogging little over the next week as Adar will be in town, though I do have a couple of small posts that will be coming out.

Sincerely,

Adam

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Hiatus

I would like to apologize and explain my recent hiatus from this blog.

A couple of weeks ago, I was house- and horse-sitting at Garry Lean’s house. Between working on my classes and working with the horses, I simply was not able to spend any time on the blog. That weekend, I was also house- and farm-sitting at Russet House, leaving me little time to do anything between all the chores that needed to be done.

This past week has been a barrage of school assignments. I’m actually getting somewhat ahead, in preparation for Adar’s visit for the next ten days. Luckily, I now have every assignment that needs to be done during her visit finished, which will allow me to relax a little bit.

So, some of the highlights over the past couple of weeks…

1) I drove tractors! I ploughed the laneway at Russet House farm while Brian and Sylvia were away, and also drove them at Baxter Farms, run by Glenn Baxter who is the local tractor mechanic around here. I know this is a simple thing, but it was really a big accomplishment for me to begin my tractor learning.

2) I’m writing a crop plan. We are taking Market Gardening and Greenhouse Operations with Mark Trealot and the primary assignment in this course is to create a crop plan, which is the key piece of planning that every vegetable farmer goes through every year. It’s a lot of work, but saves a tonne of stress during the actual planting year. It’s nice to be able to look on a sheet of paper in mid-July and have it written out what you need to do, when your mind and body are already exhausted from all the stress of farming.

3) I’m learning about seed genetics. This is a really confusing subject for a number of reasons. First, there is a lot of biology involved which was never my strong suit to begin with. Secondly (and much worse), there is a LOT of misinformation out there. Seed genetics are closely tied to a lot of controversial topics in farming (GMOs, hybrids, etc.) and both sides of the controversy are very guilty of not giving honest information, which makes it very difficult to wade through it to determine how I feel about it all. I went to a Seed Saving course a couple of weekends ago which helped a lot, though admittedly it was talking to one of my instructors, Sue Chan, who was helping organize the event, who really made a difference. She’s AMAZING at explaining tougher topics.

4) It’s getting warmer! The tarp over my tent is a dark green on the side facing up, and with the changing sun, it is really heating up the tent. In fact, when I come home after school, my water, which will typically freeze solid overnight, is usually melted. I’m not sure how warm it gets during the day inside… but it is definitely above 0° C. Beautiful! I’ll have to turn the tarp over in the heat of the summer so the white side is up, but for now, this is perfect.

That’s all for now… I’ll have another post hopefully coming out tomorrow and then one on Wednesday…

Sincerely,

Adam

My Three Roommates: Cold

Note: If you’re enjoying reading about my Camp Life, I would like to suggest you check out my friend Spence’s blog, Rediscover the Wild in Wilderness. He’s also living in a wall tent (see, I’m not the only crazy one!) though he’s doing it up in Thunder Bay!

I was joking with a classmate the other day about my three roommates. Their names are Cold, Dark, and Loneliness.

Though I was joking at the time, I also must admit that these three have very much shaped how my life has been the past month. It seems that I am constantly doing battle with at least one of them, and am frequently struggling with all three at the same time.

I would be lying if I said it was easy or if I always enjoyed it. The fact is, this tent living is difficult. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t exactly realize just how hard it would be. How much work and frankly, how demoralizing it would be at times. Over the course of February, I hope to discuss all three and the affect that they’re having on me. Tonight, I will talk about the most troublesome roommate: Cold.

Those of you who are reading this will probably agree that this winter, thus far, has been one of the coldest winters in recent memory. Wherever you are, most likely, you have had to deal with the cold in some form or another. Perhaps you were caught in the ice storm that wreaked havoc all through the GTA over the Christmas Holidays. Perhaps you are one of the individuals who are attempting to heat your house via propane, and are now enduring a sudden shortage of this valuable fuel. Or perhaps you are simply walking from your house to your car every day. Regardless, you are experiencing the cold.

Living in a tent, the cold is an omnipresent presence. When I am in the tent, I know that the cold is nearby. Canvas walls do little to provide insulation, and I have become used to everything being in a perpetual frozen state. Shampoo. Peanut butter. Cooking oil. Beer (IS THERE NO JUSTICE!). Last night (Tuesday, February 11), even my mattress started off the evening hard as a rock due to  the -25 degree temperature. Needless to say, heating the tent is a constant source of anxiety and work for me.

Though I haven’t really done the calculations, I estimate that, over the course of the year, wood, and the processes of ordering, transporting, stacking, splitting and lighting it, have taken me an average of an hour’s work a day, and that’s ignoring all the problems that I’ve encountered (I’ll get to them soon). Think about that, an hour a day spent merely getting yourself warm. Then realize that without this warmth, you won’t be able to cook, have water (it’s all frozen) or do much of anything else. Try concentrating on any task, whether that be reading, talking on the phone or working on schoolwork, when all you can think about is how cold you are.

Of course, no tent living experience would be complete without near-constant problems arising. Uncured firewood (despite the seller’s promises); massive creosote buildup in the chimney; smoke filled lungs and eyes; accidently shearing the chimney elbows in half while cleaning it out; broken axe handle… I have learned and experienced quite a bit in the last month. There have been a few mornings where, rather than dealing with a fire, I just fled to the car as quickly as possible, and even one or two nights where I just curled up in my blankets and fell asleep in a very cold room.

That being said, there have been blessings as well. For example, I found a stash of beautifully dry old softwood in the field where I’m staying. It burns quick and hot, which is enough for me to get a fire going and throw some smaller pieces of damp wood on top. My girlfriend’s uncle donated a propane heater to the cause which provides a nice (usually quick) boost of heat, and when working in conjunction with the stove, can actually make it too hot (blessing of blessings! joy of joys!) inside the tent regardless of the outside temperature. And finally, there is my bed. With my mattress off the floor, a number of sleeping bags and blankets, and some lovely fleece sheets given by my wonderful girlfriend (perhaps in preparation for her March visit), I have yet to spend a cold, sleepless night. In fact, most evenings, even in -25, I wake up sweating due to being too warm.

Ironically, the few nights that I have slept inside (three nights during the Guelph Organic Conference and one night while visiting some friends in Peterborough last weekend), have, by far, been my worst nights of sleep. I have become not only used to sleeping in a cold room… I have become adverse to sleeping in anything else.

But still, last night (Tuesday, February 11), as I was struggling to get a fire going in a very cold stove, I couldn’t help but think how nice it will be when the temperature decides to go above the freezing point. I understand, now more than ever, the beautiful promise of springtime.

Sincerely,

Adam

P.S. I didn’t announce it, but February 7 marked my one-month stay in the tent. At that point, I had spent a total of 28 nights in the tent. To celebrate, I partied in Peterborough. I will hopefully be more on top of my anniversaries… maybe you can come and party with me the next time?

Ed. Last Saturday, Brian and I (and Brian’s friend Steve) each picked up one more bushcord of mixed wood from an Amish neighbour who advertised it in the paper on Thursday. While it was more expensive than my last load by $75, it is wonderfully, beautifully dry and lights up almost immediately. This is well worth the extra $75 to me. Also, for full disclosure, it got up to PLUS 4 degrees today, which is pretty much summer to me at this point (I was doing chores in a t-shirt). This new weather kind of makes me feel whiny for writing this post… but I also do not believe that we have seen the last of the cold this year.

Staying Warm

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Up until last night, I was sleeping on a mattress on the ground. While this worked, and while the mattress was thick enough to provide me with enough insulation, there was always a big draught along the first foot or so above the floor.

Last night, I finally purchased some lumber and constructed my bed “platform.” I use the term platform rather than frame because quite simply, this is more than a frame. It is a solid two feet above the floor, not counting the mattress. This allows me to stay above the draught, but also to easily store Rubbermaid containers underneath of it. Last night I was lying in bed, and even though the wind howled fiercely (even worse than here, but this time, no harpoon came through the tent!) I was untouched by it!

Open for Visits

I have yet to figure out the correct way to tell new acquaintances that I am living in a tent. I don’t blurt it out, though if it comes up naturally, I won’t go out of my way to hide it. It’s a strange subject to broach. I know that upon stating that I am currently living in a tent, that this will become the conversation. I suppose that this is to be expected. Very few people know somebody who has done it, at least as a long-term living option,  and it is certainly a new conversation for them to have. I don’t dislike this conversation actually, it is simply that I enjoy having a full range of conversations.

Furthermore, upon revealing that I am living in a tent, I become known as “The Tent Guy.” My entire identity is quickly condensed into that one simple aspect. I am Tent Guy. I suppose that this is preferable to being known as “That Guy Who Messed His Pants” or “That Guy Who Talks to Himself” or “That Guy…. you know… That Guy.” But still I am hesitant to become a single definition too early on in the conversation.

The last issue for me is that I do not know exactly how people will react when finding out that I am intentionally living in a tent. In my experience, there are three distinct reactions that people have.

The first is that people think I am a complete idiot. Usually the response is a dropped jaw and a penetrating look of disgust. Living in a tent is not only so far from their own experiences, it is actually beyond what they consider to be in the realm of allowable experiences. They cannot remotely fathom the idea of somebody doing this. There are some days I certainly agree with them.

The second reaction is that people think I am a badass (it should be noted that I use this term in a positive way). This is an interesting reaction because it has both positive and negative ramifications for me. On the positive side, I earn a lot of respect immediately. This builds immense social capital, making all future social interactions much smoother. The negative side of this reaction however, is that I now have a level of badassery to live up to. If I were Apartment Guy, nothing would be expected of me. I could live a completely normal life and that would be okay. Tent Guy however, has to wrestle packs of coyotes, quote Thoreau and eat cattails.

The final reaction is possibly my favourite. “You’re crazy.” It’s usually said or thought with a slight smile and perhaps a small shake of their head as they come to grips with what I said. My favourite part however comes next, in the pregnant pause that arrives just after they pronounce their honest (and at least partially correct) judgement. It comes when I see them look off, losing eye contact with me as their mind turns inward. Because a part of them, maybe a tiny part but a part nonetheless, wants to be able to do this. Maybe not quite this exact experience, but something similar. They, like so many of us, are living good, honest lives that, we are afraid to admit, are perhaps a little bit boring. They like the idea of living “simply,” of being out in it all, of having just a little bit of adventure.

At that point, I am quick to invite them over, perhaps for dinner, perhaps to help stack wood, or perhaps just to see the place. Almost always, I receive an enthusiastic reply. So far, I have had three people over to visit, not including my amazing build crew to whom I am still completely overwhelmed with thanks for. All of my guests have left hoping to come back, and maybe even bring other friends with them.

I love being Tent Guy. I love being able to share with new friends and old this amazing experience, whether it is via this blog, or, better still, through visits in real life, preferably with a nice tent-cooked meal and a bottle of wine. I hope that as the year progresses, I will continue to share this place with many more friends, helping each one of them to grow in their own badassery.

Sincerely,

Tent Guy

A Glorious Learning Opportunity #2

I am tempted, by my own desire to appear impressive, to focus only on the good parts of tent living. Of eating a glorious steak that I once knew when it was still only a bull calf while sitting around a crackling stove listening to an  owl hooting outside.

The reality is that the positive moments have occurred and they far outnumber the negatives. The problem is that the negative moments can be pretty big. When one is living in the tent, something that, in a house would be a mild annoyance at best, can actually be quite destructive and even potentially deadly.

I will now relate one such story… though I should start by saying that you shouldn’t worry too much… I didn’t actually die in it.

As you will know (since I am sure you have poured over every one of my entries and marveled at my photographs), I finished building the tent last Saturday. You will also remember that we guyed out the tent with t-posts.

Guying out the tent is crucial. The tent is a gigantic piece of canvas, which could, in certain situations, be easily confused for a sail. The guying out process helps to ensure that the tent stays in place (more or less), which is, at least from my limited perspective, preferable to letting it cartwheel across frozen fields in the middle of a January night. The thing is, that t-stakes are fairly expensive, almost $10 each, and, I am in the mind to save money as much as possible. My original plan had eight t-stakes, one in each corner, and one in the middle of each side. When looking at my site, I realized that I had a beautifully thick forest on both my Northern and Western sides, which would act as a great windbreak for the most powerful and coldest blasts of winter air. With this in mind, I decided forego extraneous stakes and only put one in each corner, believing that that would be sufficient.

On Sunday, Adar and I returned to the tent and I lay a heavy tarpaulin over the tent, once again tying it only to the four t-stakes. The tarpaulin, it should be noted, can also, in certain situations, be easily confused for a sail.

On Tuesday afternoon, my first day actually living in the tent, the wind was furiously buffeting the South-Western side of my tent, eagerly finding the gap between the tent and the tarpaulin, causing the tarpaulin to rise and fall, crackling with each gust. I should really have been paying more attention. I began to unpack my things, beginning the long process of organizing a tent and making it generally livable. The wind continued to hit. The tarpaulin was flapping more than I would have liked it to. I really should have been paying more attention.

When wind blows against a house, it is easy to push it out of mind. You may hear a rattling burst of it as it hits the windows or finds a crack underneath a particular draughty door. Perhaps, as you open the front door, the wind will rip it from your hand swinging it wider than you feel comfortable and testing the hinges in a way they were never meant to be tested. Or perhaps it will slam said door behind you, hitting you forcefully on the backside or slamming closed in a perfect mimic of a preteen tantrum.

When wind blows against a tent, you know it is happening. You hear the snap of the tarpaulin against the canvas above you, you feel the canvas walls shaking, perhaps you even see a little puff of smoke shoot out of the air intake on the front of your stove as the flue backdrafts. And you can tell when a particular gust is just a little bit more powerful than the ones before. But, perhaps, you have never really lived in a tent that, let the reader remember, can,  in certain situations, be easily confused for a sail. Perhaps you are used to living in a house, in which a wind storm the likes of this will, at most, make you reconsider going to the mailbox. So you do as you have learned to do and you push it out of mind. I really should have been paying more attention.

When the wind hits, especially a magnificent burst that whole-heartedly outpowers every gust that you have, as of yet, experienced, when it hits after all the previous gusts have caused the tarpaulin to strain the t-posts that they are attached to, gusts that, individually are too weak to loose the post, but collectively can cause enough structural weakness in the soil around the t-post… you can see it. You can see that suddenly, the roof above you is letting in more light than you are used to. You see, not clearly but through the canvas, that it appears, as if, in the North-East corner of the tent, there may not actually be a tarpaulin there anymore. You see this enough to be confused by the sudden change in your environment. But you do not see it enough, at least in the time that you were given to see it, the time that lasts perhaps the half second that a burst of wind takes to blow, to understand what this means.

You do not see the t-stake, still attached to the tarp but now free of its earthly confines, as it launches itself heavenward in a fit of ecstatic passion, thinking perhaps, at least as much as t-stakes are able to think, that perhaps this is what an angel feels like. You do not see the t-stake reaching the maximum height of its trajectory, soaring beautifully through the air, before succumbing to the omnipresent force of gravity coupled with the its still attached earthly tethers and plummeting down from its celestial voyage like a wrought-iron Icarus.

Now picture the final battle of Moby Dick, as Ahab harpoons the great white whale. But picture it from the perspective of  Jonah, who admittedly was not in that particular whale but who, in my retelling of it, was. Unlike Jonah however, you are not repenting of your disobedience to God. You are doing the much more mundane task of organizing your underwear drawer while wondering why exactly it is so suddenly bright in the North-East corner.

And then the harpoon comes through the roof.

There are a lot of things that go through the mind when something completely unexpected happens. It’s always amusing, in hindsight at least, to review the mind attempting to come to grips. Why is there a hole in my roof? Why is there a long piece of metal coming through my roof? Why is the t-stake no longer where we had both seemingly agreed that it should be?

There is the sudden realization that the tarp is now flapping wildly in the breeze, perhaps getting dangerously close to the scalding hot stove pipe.

And then there is the realization that, had I not been organizing my underwear drawer, but instead, had I been organizing my pantry in the North-East corner of the tent, the story of my year in a tent would have had an unexpected twist that not even Shyamalan could have predicted.

After cussing in a way that would perhaps have made Jonah’s sailor friends blush, I ran out, armed with a roll of sisal twine that I had purchased the day before and tied down the flapping Southern edge of the tarpaulin to the grommets in the tent side. I ran up to the barn at Russet House, grabbing the t-post driver and ran back to the tent, hammering the errant t-post back into its home.

The wreckage is fairly big. Three holes are in the tent. Two of them are minor, but the third is over a foot long from tip to tail. Other than a perfect circle where it had melted after connecting with the stove pipe, the tarpaulin was unharmed and covers the holes enough that, temporarily at least, they have not given me too much grief. I will sew them up soon.

The following day, I purchased four more t-posts, hammering them in thoroughly and connecting them with twine to keep the tarpaulin as taut as possible, hopefully preventing future gusts of wind from effectively weakening any one post enough to repeat this episode.

That evening, the evening where I almost met my untimely demise in a way that would have made Meliville proud, I cooked a glorious steak that I once knew when it was still only a bull calf, sat down around a crackling stove and listened to an owl hooting outside.

Living in a tent is a beautiful experience. But, like anything new, there is a lot to learn and many trials to overcome. Like my instructor Gavin Dandy of Everdale said in his first class though, you learn five times more from a mistake than from a success.

Here’s to a year of learning.

Sincerely,

Adam