This summer of 2021, we’ve dedicated 2 days per week to come down off the mountain and make the hour drive to Lewiston. There, we’ve been cleaning, clearing, and organizing John’s general contracting shop to prepare for its sale this September. While there last week making my way through a corner of my old office, I came across a jigsaw puzzle in a dusty, tattered cardboard box. It was one of those 1970’s jobs with the picture of a rustic waterwheel in motion, next to its quaint pump house, meant to carry the puzzler away to a simpler place and time.
It occurred to me that this image of the waterwheel is the perfect metaphor for our development of The Coal Burned Spoon Sanctuary. When our site search ended joyously in October 2019 with the purchase of nearly 500 acres adjacent to Mt. Abram here in Greenwood, the water – symbolic of the conditions necessary to generate momentum – flowed, and the waterwheel – symbolic of actual, tangible progress – churned vigorously for about a year.
But with the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 the water flow slowed dramatically. Potential investors became squirrely, and funding prospects started drying up. Meetings with architects, designers and other project partners became more difficult, and progress slowed.
When we learned in January 2021 of John’s misdiagnosis of a “tendon pull” in his calf/ankle that was actually a completely severed achilles tendon, the water flow stopped. Our whole family, right down to the hound, was suddenly sent spinning on a cross country trip to Minnesota to attend the only clinic where a surgeon with enough practice on neglected achilles ruptures could do the surgery. And for the uninitiated, short of total joint replacements or spinal fusion, achilles tendon ruptures generally entail one of the longest surgical recovery timelines there is. Even after his May 3rd surgery, we knew there would be a long road ahead before progress would resume on our beloved project.
I am so very grateful and pleased to update everyone, that our John is quite the resilient man, and a particularly fast healer. His surgeon made no bones about it: to expect a 6 month timeline before walking normally, and a year before being completely back to his old self, running, hiking etc. However, John was at 3-month-mark progress by the 2-month-mark, and now at just over 3 months post-op has been slowly hiking and bushwhacking around the woods with me as we continue our site search to find just the right locations for the treehouses and cabins! He’s followed doctors orders and gone slow and steady, but he is just healing very quickly. I’m very proud of him for taking on the surgery, as all surgeons consulted did suggest that he could choose to forgo the surgery, but would have to settle for operating at 60-70% of his tendon’s full capacity for the rest of his life – which effectively would limit running and hiking, and would mean a lifelong limp. None of that for John! And just like that, we looked up from these past months of drought, and saw the water begin to flow again.
Then, last week I discovered a type of Small Business Administration loan, called an SBA “7(a)”, designed to assist service disabled veterans in starting businesses. Previously I had been so deafened by years of the constant prevailing rhetoric that “no bank will ever lend large amounts of minimally collateralized working capital to a speculative startup”, coming at me from literally all directions, that I had written off all debt instruments and accepted that the only path forward was one of equity financing with sophisticated investors. While that prevailing sentiment is generally true, turns out, there are exceptions! With this loan, essentially the SBA guarantees up to 75% of conventional business loans up to $5M, provided the entrepreneurial veteran can collateralize the rest. When I was honorably discharged from the Army back in 2001, due to significantly increased scoliosis and the resultant chronic back pain associated with it, I was given a 10% disability rating by the VA, which simply means that the VA considers me to be 10% disabled as a direct result of my service to the country. What this means practically speaking is a modest monthly payment to assist towards treating the lifelong pain, but also, I am just now learning, qualification for this special loan, among other sundry benefits. So for the past few weeks I’ve been working with several local banks to try to put together an SBA 7(a) construction loan for Phase 2 of our business development: the first 5 treehouses and cabins, a welcome center, and 5 of our 6 planned amenities! I am beyond thrilled and if all goes as planned, off site construction of treehouse and cabin panels will begin this fall! This smaller bite-sized piece of our ambitious 32-unit project will enable us to prove our concept, and at that point hopefully attract outside equity investment to fund the rest.
So the gods have seen fit to turn the water back on for us, friends, and our waterwheel spins again. As always I will do my best to work with the conditions we’ve been given, co-create new ones, and bring about creative progress in service of mankind and the planet to the best of my ability. What that means right now is, Onward with The Coal Burned Spoon Sanctuary!
As I pull tacks from birch bark chains and coil cranberry strings, de-Christmasing the cabin to clean up for the New Year, I have time to reflect on the stack of cards we received this season. I notice a theme in much of the messaging.
“Thank goodness that’s over!”
“Well THAT was crazy!”
“Hooray, 2021 is here (finally)!”
“Kiss my ass, 2020!”
A repeated refrain. Reference to the run of natural, geographical, biological, and cultural disasters that have plagued this calendar year, as somehow being uniquely linked to 2020. But as I pop fragments of scotch tape from smiling faces, I can’t help but feel the weight of the awareness that these cheerful proclamations are all predicated on an insidious underlying assumption: that this flurry of troubling, taxing, and disruptive events was somehow random or out of order, and that the disappearance of the ‘20’ suffix in our calendar year, will also miraculously make these phenomena disappear from our lives as well. Like 2021 is the new boyfriend that will finally treat us right.
It’s a hopeful sentiment. I get it. A person can only take so much pain before she starts requiring hope to survive – hope of something better, something easier, something more joyous.
But my perspective has always been a big-picture one, looking at everything in life within its context of the greater cosmos. When I look at the events of 2020, what I see is not a one-off jerk causing pain to an otherwise perfect, wholesome partner (us). I see the exact resulting asshole that tends to come into your life when you have not yet unearthed enough of the hidden dysfunction within yourself to stop seeking and attracting him. I see a world that is, in a most direct and causal way, simply experiencing the culmination of a series of bad choices.
The murder of George Floyd illuminating the routine senseless murders of black Americans. The emergence of a novel coronavirus plaguing global public health. The continent of Australia on fire. Nine thousand earthquakes in Puerto Rico over twelve months. The arrival of non-native Murder hornets in the US. Sex predators being found in every corner of power and privilege. Wildfires ravaging the US state of California. Thirteen consecutive severe tropical storms and seven feet of rain leading to unprecedented flooding and landslides in Cambodia and Vietnam. Deep political, emotional, and cultural division over the US president and his approach to leadership. Face masks, political parties, and vaccines all polarizing us further against each other into opposing camps.
Is this really just random ‘bad luck’ in 2020?
My friends, I’m afraid it is not. The truth is that we have been seeing such natural and cultural disasters in increasing frequency and severity for decades now, because it is the reality we have wittingly or unwittingly created. We are a rapidly-evolving species, and we are altering the face of the planet we inhabit equally as rapid.
Did you know that climate change, in and of itself, is not an inherently evil word or evil thing? Nor is the emission of carbon dioxide and the creation of a carbon footprint. The climate has always changed over time in accordance with the tens-of-thousands-of-years-long cycles called ice ages, and the burning of carbonaceous matter has always emitted carbon dioxide (a ‘greenhouse gas’). Did you know that even if there was a complete absence of any climate change caused by human beings, planet earth will likely naturally become completely uninhabitable to our species as we now exist in about 10,000 years? Let that sink in – kinda scary actually, right? But that’s an entirely different existential panic attack. What we’re talking about is anthropogenic climate change, the kind of accelerated change caused by us. Anthropogenic climate change has given the phrase ‘climate change’ the negative implications it currently, and rightly, carries, because of the *rapidity* with which we are causing these changes to happen. So yes, these things would happen anyway, but in a long-term, diluted way. Hyper-simplified, it goes like this: burning of fossil fuels and other human activity creates greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. Heat in the atmosphere melts polar ice caps. Increased water in the hydrological cycle, combined with the changes in global temperature pockets, create aggressively increasing precipitation and winds that manifest as tropical storms, tsunamis, floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc. We’ve triggered a fast and furious reaction we lack the resilience to absorb. Our actions have created consequences, and those consequences will soon be unmanageable.
But these are just the environmental and hydrometeorological consequences we’ve sown. We’ve also engaged the animal kingdom in a fundamentally exploitative way which could only ever have eventually ended in the awakening of the various zoonotic diseases we are currently experiencing in the form of a novel coronavirus changing life as we know it. And friends, viruses adapt. COVID-19 is already adapting in the UK and a few cases of the variant have been found in the US as of the writing of this blog post. Don’t expect the existence and spread of perpetually mutating viruses to end anytime soon. Much as with climate change and carbon emissions, they’ve been with us since the beginning of time – we are just awakening and engaging them in such a *rapid fashion* due to our lifestyles and population densities that it is making it difficult for us to cope with their implications. Culturally, we are broken. We have failed to realize that we are all in this together. We have failed to see beyond our own views of how the world ‘should’ be, and have largely forgotten to use to our advantage, and for the betterment of the planet, the one tool that only our unique species possesses: reasoned, civil discourse.
Is there hope to be found? Absolutely. But it’s not in 2021 being a fresh new number on the calendar page. It is in our own ability to choose and to change. It is in the good work that is done when we consciously lend our talents and passions and inclinations in service of the planet and humankind. It is in consistency and self-critique and hard work. Our Mr. Right will come, but only when we’ve done the inner work and faced our demons, chosen to make things better, and deployed all of our amazing unique talents toward realizing the solutions.
Want a suggestion for the best way to contribute? Learn how to deploy your unique calling in service of the problems in the world, or, how to live in your Dharma. Author Jay Shetty has a great primer on this called How to Think Like a Monk, but there is tons of literature out there on the concept of Dharma whereby we create purpose and joy in our lives in the pursuit of our calling as we serve the world. If we all did this, I truly believe the possibilities to save the planet are endless.
Jay has a great quote in the above-referenced book. He says many of us are told at least one of two main lies as we grow up. Either: You’ll never amount to anything, or, You can be anything that you want! The truth, he says, is actually: You can’t be anything you want, but you can *be everything you are.* This is the essence of living in your dharma – capturing the amazing spark that has always been with you, always been part of you, and nurturing it into its fullest potential to address a genuine need in the world. 2021 may not be a magical new boyfriend who solves all our problems, but it CAN absolutely be the beginning of a new journey toward healing the planet. We must each choose.
Yesterday afternoon, after poring over what we thought was a final total of 10 offers for South Auburn Organic Farm, John and I prepared to call our broker and let him know we’d made our choice. Though many offers were well over our asking price, one offer really had our attention: While “only” full asking, it was both a cash offer with almost no contingencies, and, came with a letter from the buyers. The letter explained that they were homesteaders and craftspeople that had moved to Maine 2 years ago from AZ with their young daughter and fell in love with it, It explained their goal to stay in Maine, find land to work and homestead on, and continue practicing their crafts of herb-growing, herbalism, ceramics, and metal-smithing. They detailed formal training and education in environmental science, and understanding of land stewardship and sustainable practices. Just like on the Penguins of Madagascar, after reading their letter, John and I and the kids all looked around at each other and nodded, lol! We knew we’d found our family and we teared up with joy.
Just as we were about to make the call, two bohemian-looking, thin young people appeared on our front porch apologizing for the intrusion but saying they had just driven 7 hours to see the place and would we consider letting them look around. We explained the situation and that we had pretty much settled on a buyer, to which they said they were cash buyers and could make an offer immediately. We agreed to let them look around. During the tour I asked them about themselves and what they did for work. The young man deflected entirely stating he had food allergies, and the early-twenties looking girl explained that she’d grown up picking strawberries in Russia, neither really answering the question. While looking at the garden the young man commented that wow, the Rhubarb was still going really strong! It was actually Swiss Chard. When we pointed to the pile of 200 yards of organic compost in the upper rotation that comes with the farm, they nodded vacantly, though they were very excited about the kitchen appliances.
We let them know that we had promised an answer to all the other folks with offers on the table by 6pm, and it was 5:10. They plead with us to allow them to submit an offer, saying it was everything they’d been looking for. We said that to be fair to the other buyers, they needed to have their offer submitted within 20 minutes to meet the same deadline we’d given others. Ten minutes later the broker called saying they had a cash offer that was tens of thousands higher than our AZ family! The catch? They were cannabis growers.
While not a user myself, I don’t have anything against marijuana growers or users. I realize the plant has both medical and recreational value to folks. However, I do come at this, as I do everything, with a food system lens. During my time in graduate school I’d learned of substantial challenges with the competition that cannabis applies to the food system. While this doesn’t apply to all cannabis growers, there is among many of the new and emerging growers an overall lack of agroecological and soil health understanding. The industry is generally characterized by high soluble chemical fertilizer usage, and monocultures tend to dominate the cannabis landscape. Soil compaction caused by heavy equipment, gravel, and/or high tunnels is commonplace. Additionally, state land-grant universities and other federally funded institutions are at risk of losing funding if they engage in any education or research activities related to cannabis production, and historically, farmers have relied on Extension research and education to improve their production methods and adopt best management practices. There is therefore a dearth of this best practice information in cannabis growing.
All of this is not to demonize the industry, nor suggest that all growers do not possess agricultural knowledge – I personally know several who do. Rather, simply to point out what many folks don’t realize yet, which is that anytime a new industry emerges, you can expect growing pains and challenges as it finds its place – and many of those challenges relate to the food system. Marijuana cultivation as a legal, widespread practice is still quite young and there is much to do to integrate it effectively into the agricultural landscape. We’re only beginning and I think we need to move sensibly and practically. I encourage cannabis growers to become active in trying to assemble, work with other farmers and agriculturalists, and create mechanisms to establish industry best practice.
We did not get the feeling nor any evidence to substantiate that our surprise visitors yesterday were established agriculturalists who understood land stewardship, soil health, and sustainable practice. Frankly, I would have loved it if I had gotten that feeling, because the extra money could really get me out of a couple of jams right now lol!!! It was fairly painful to walk away from and Johnny didn’t completely share my decisiveness lol! But, we decided together that replacing ourselves with good land stewards was most important, and we made the call to our broker.
We hope the community will join us in welcoming the next inhabitants of 310 Sopers Mill Road, the family originally from AZ but currently residing in Brunswick, Maine, when the time comes in a few brief weeks! For today, time to get my grubbies on and start packing.
When we first moved to our cabin here in Greenwood Maine, our shelter rescue dog Millie, a docile, submissive, full-blood Redtick Coonhound from Alabama, ran free over the nearly 500 acres of mountains we had just acquired – and she was in her glory. This was just as she had done on our 10 acre farm – and in the surrounding rural neighborhood – an hour south in Auburn. On the farm, she protected our laying flock of 100 free-range hens, and we had seen her hound dog instincts send her after possums, foxes, raccoons, porcupines, skunks, and her favorite – groundhogs. Although long time dog owners, we were first time hound owners when we adopted Millie in 2013, and in fascination I had read up on her breed and was amused and pleased to watch her small game treeing instincts in action around the farm – scenting, baying, chasing, and treeing, but best of all keeping our chickens safe, which she took to very naturally and with gusto. Before Millie foxes were a regular menace to our flock, and after her adoption we had only the occasional raptor to worry about.
However, it didn’t take much of Millie’s baying up here in the mountains before we heard from our neighbor Steven, a Greenwood pillar who had been outspoken around the small town about his displeasure with our arrival and plans to close the three peaks to hunting. Steven wasn’t alone – although there had been plenty of local support for our project, we’d also heard from a number of others in Greenwood’s robust hunting community who weren’t particularly excited about our epicurean eco-glamping treehouse plans, not necessarily because they had a problem with the idea itself, but because it represented an end to the hunting they’d been enjoying there for generations prior to our purchase of the property. Now let’s be clear, we’re hunters ourselves, so we’re sympathetic – but firearms discharging is simply incongruent with the business model of a peaceful woodland sanctuary where people will presumably pay a lot of money to, well, not have to dodge bullets. Anyhow, Steven reached out to us directly, and his point was that Millie may be chasing deer or moose, and allowing a hound to chase deer or moose specifically, is illegal in Maine.
I was curious about the law and its intentions, as I felt indignant that after purchasing 500 acres, I was being told I had to leash walk my dog! Wasn’t that a benefit of living somewhere so far in the country – no leashes, dog runs, crates, cages, fences, or doggie bags to fuss with, like the urban folk do? Freedom, right? Even at our farm in more-populated southern Maine, we hadn’t run into this issue before, and Millie was accustomed to running loose. I didn’t believe Millie was chasing deer as I’d only ever seen her tree small game, but I had to admit it was a perspective I hadn’t thought of. But even if she was chasing deer, why was that so bad? Millie wouldn’t kill a deer – she’s bred to tree, not maim. Why would Maine have a law against it, and what exactly did that law say? Regardless, not wanting to earn the immediate hatred of our new neighbors, and lacking the time or enough drive to look into the matter more exhaustively, I reluctantly put up a run for Millie and began leash-walking her twice a day like some damn suburban soccer mom lost in the wilderness, albeit begrudgingly.
But then, July 1st came. And with July 1st comes bear training season for hunting dogs in Maine. And with bear training, came the Massachusetts boys. One morning I was out cutting trails and heard a distinct sound that caught my ear. I put down my loppers and listened again. There it was, sure as shit, a hound dog baying – but not my hound dog! It stopped after a bit and I went back to work, irritated that someone else’s dog may be loose on our property. Later that night, I asked John and Charles (our equipment operator) about it at dinner at the cabin. They casually said it was a couple of hounds running loose. Excuse me?! Seeing the look on my face, Charles said they had talked to the owners and that they were training the dogs on bear, so it was allowed. So other people’s dogs can run loose on my property, but not mine??! Now I was really ugly. Charles kept reiterating that they’re hunting dogs, so they’re really not doing anything wrong, but I was no longer accepting these answers. Hunting dogs indeed – who was training these dogs? And exactly what type of training was it? I didn’t believe anyone was doing any formal training. Those dogs were running wild. My indignance and sensibilities piqued, I set out on a quest for information.
Alas, in the vast expanses of the rural wooded areas of our state where hunting is a way of life, I discovered that for legal purposes, there are really only two categories that dogs fall into – hunting dogs, and nuisance dogs. Which type the dog is, dictates whether it is allowed to roam “at large”. According to 7 MRS §3911, “it is unlawful for any dog, licensed or unlicensed, to be at large, except when used for hunting.” Part 13, Subpart 4, Chapter 921 §12404 states of ‘Nuisance Dogs’: “A game warden may kill a dog outside the enclosure or immediate care of its owner or keeper when the game warden finds that dog…Chasing, killing, wounding or pursuing a moose or deer at any time.” Further, if any person at all has “evidence” of a nuisance dog in violation of this law and has presented that evidence to a game warden, and if the warden then notifies the dog owner in writing of the violation, it is now open season on that dog and “anyone may kill the dog when it is found committing any of those prohibited acts.” In terms of consequences for the nuisance dog owner, the violation is only civil if not repeated, and the fine only $100-$500, but I’m guessing the loss of the dog’s life is meant to act as the main deterrent to violations. Non-hunting dogs essentially have no rights in Maine, except to exist in their owners’ yards.
If, however, the hound is used for hunting, it has rights enumerated in Maine Conservation Law. It may be cut loose in the woods, and allowed to roam at large, to aid the hunter in hunting a specific roster of prey: foxes, bunnies, raccoons, certain birds, coyote and bear, during their respective seasons. Keep in mind, now, that NO dog may be used to hunt or chase deer or moose, ever. But how are dogs trained to know the difference? Who is training these dogs, and how? I thought the law might have specified that there was some type of training standard. Yet, after pouring over the relevant laws, I could find no requirement that the dog be trained at all, nevermind a definition of the standard. So, in theory, a dog with no training and no ability to discern between a fox, moose, or it’s own asshole, is perfectly entrusted to capably hunt specific animals during specific seasons, simply because the owner decided to take it hunting.
I called the Game Warden in early July to state my skepticism about dog training, ask what rights I have as the property owner to keep others hunting dogs off my property, and also finally ask why dogs are never allowed to hunt deer or moose. He was very helpful, and characterized the situation by saying that there are some very well-trained, professional hunting dogs out there, taught on specific animal scents, that he sees more often in southern Maine where the parcels are smaller and owners are touchier about their property boundaries, so hunters themselves have been trained to keep tight reign over their hunting dogs. Often, however, he noted that the further you get from coastal and populated southern Maine, the more often you’ll encounter dogs with “questionable” training, as they run free over thousands of acres of contiguous wooded parcels at will. I was told that while the hunting dogs and their owners indeed have absolutely no right to be on our property if we’ve posted it or otherwise directly informed the hunter, it’s very difficult to enforce because dogs pretty much do what they want (presumably they can’t read Posted signs.)
He suggested that the best course of action if this happens again, is to inform the hunters that you will allow them this one time to remove their dogs from your property, but after that you plan to call the warden to remove the dog. Oooooh – scary. I’m sure they’ll really think twice about cutting their dogs loose, when they receive their hand-delivered pooch during midday beer break, and proceed to face precisely no actual consequences whatsoever! Oh, and on that last item, the bit about why no dog is allowed to hunt deer or moose? Well, certainly don’t be so naive to think that Maine has any vested interest in the inherent value of the life of the deer or the moose itself; they’re protected so that we can hunt them in plentiful supply – driving game with dogs is so effective we can only use it as a tool on game populations that are already plentiful – even difficult to ‘suppress’ – in Maine. Well, knowledge is power, I suppose, and for the time being I’ll take whatever tools I can get. I thank the Warden for his time.
The morning of Sunday, August 9, that same not-my-dog baying woke me up at 430am. Armed with my rights, and wearing only my nightie, I hurled myself into the side-by-side and announced to a sleeping John loudly, not caring if I woke the 4 and 5 year olds: “I’m getting that dog.” It took me less than 5 minutes to find the culprit, some kind of hound mix with so many collars tightly ringing his neck I couldn’t count – was it 3 or 4? – and two, foot-long GPS antennas with fancy blinking neon lights popping off the sides of the top collar in opposite directions so that the dog looked like some sort of weird furry oversized ant from outer space. I actually felt bad for the poor guy. He was very complacent and allowed me to leash him and “walk” him back to the cabin while trotting next to the Can-Am in low gear. This dog was lost, in every way something can be – not only physically, but there was a brokenness in his spirit that cut through my terse indignation and I suddenly just felt sad. I tied him to Millie’s run while she slept inside and got him some water. Then I called the number on his collar – a Massachusetts area code.
I did the thing the warden had told me to and gave the guy his warning and told him to come get his dog. It took him nearly 3 hours to show up in his jacked-up white Ford pickup with Mass plates, with a dark jacked-up Maine truck not far behind. Three jackass looking 20- and 30- somethings with bedhead and those muscle shirts that have the big loose armpits got out. Their leader, the oldest and least unkempt of the three, apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again. John asked him what time they cut the dogs loose (there are laws governing that, which they had clearly violated.) They stared at him stupidly. He asked what they were training the dogs on, invoking more blank stares. One of them might as well have been drooling. They left with that lost, pathetic dog, I swallowed my sadness, and we got on with our Sunday morning cereal.
Exactly 6 days later on Saturday August 15, we happened to be at our farm in Auburn doing work to prepare it for sale and got calls from up in Greenwood – both Charles, who was up there working on the driveway, and Steven. (John’s had a chance to get to know Steven a bit better in the year since we bought the property, and with more familiarity he seems to be friendlier to us; it helps that John’s an easy guy to like. Steven himself turns out to be a pretty reasonable fellow and a decent neighbor, actually.) Anyway between Charles and Steven, and the ensuing call with the Warden, we pieced together the story: a mixed crew from both Maine and Mass had released a pack of hunting dogs likely in the Irish Village that morning, who then made their way up onto our ridge, and chased the bull Moose that lives on Elwell down our new driveway into Twitchell pond at the bottom, where, unattended, they proceeded to attack, exhaust, and eventually drown the Moose. It was such a horrific, painful, traumatic, and unusual death for the Moose that even the warden said in decades of his career he had never seen anything like it. Steven apparently came down with his tractor to address the enormous corpse, and ended up taking him up on the ridge where he was lain to attract coyote.
There was a somber cloud cast over our family that day. That night we drank Jaegermeister. A student of the German language, I had long ago translated and adopted the prose adorning the Jaegermeister (Master Hunter) label: “It is the hunter’s honor, that he protects and preserves his game, hunts sportsmanlike, and honors the Creator in His creatures.” As we would have if we had hunted him ourselves legally, humanely, and in season, we included him in our dinner prayer and thanked him for his life. I chastised myself for not being more stern with the Massachusetts boys. When they came I could have done more. I should have sounded more volatile and crazy. I should have threatened to kill their dog if they came back, even if I wouldn’t have. Could I have saved that Moose? It could have fed a family (or two!) for a year. It might have lived out a peaceful life up on the ridge, eating twigs and berries among his harem of cows and calves. He might have provided future Sanctuary guests with the “emotive self-discovery” we claim to foster, which seeing majestic wildlife in context so often does for people. But none of those are possibilities now. He is dead, and I find myself vacantly putting a lead on Millie to take her for her nightly walk, and look at the aching Greenwood sky at dusk this warm summer evening.
Ah, the fresh air! The sunlight! The excitement at the prospect of making real forward progress! We are just now crawling out from under our rock and making baby steps as we come out of this [involuntary] protracted period of total regroup, otherwise known as, the coronavirus global pandemic.
We are in the fortunate, and rare, position of not having our plans affected negatively by this pandemic – at least, not yet, assuming quarantine life doesn’t become permanent. Certainly the timeline and several elements of our launch approach have been affected, but most unexpectedly these changes are generally for the better, as we now see! This is not what most of the hospitality industry is experiencing right now. We are (as for some reason, we always seem to be, no matter what it is!) an exception. Along with the big ol’ pile of lemons that COVID-19 handed us, we also seem to have a really nice quality juicer and pounds upon pounds of bulk sugar already in our cupboard…so we’re just making lemonade!
For starters, one thing we’ve learned to do is read a Gantt Chart. In the beginning, unbeknownst to us, our Gantt chart (which is basically a timeline) contained red flags. Below you can see two images: the one on bottom is our original Gantt, and the one on top is a new version (though it’s constantly evolving/being tweaked, as it is meant to be, to a certain extent.)
A Gantt shows actions across time. Generally speaking, I am becoming a believer that any project, major or minor, is going to contain steps that are generally proportionate to the overall scope and breadth of the project. If you have one step that takes 9 months, (see that orange block on bottom?) I now see that it is unlikely that steps leading up to that are only going to take a few weeks. I think in a well designed project, weird clunks and plateaus in your Gantt like this are red flags that you have not allowed enough time for your thing to evolve at the pace it needs. All the steps tend to be of proportionate size. Notice how the new Gantt on top smoothly and more continuously descends from right to left – I believe this is the “look” of a more sustainable project. It turns out there are tools you can use to design, tweak, and interpret Gantt charts as well – the Critical Path Method is one, which understands the chart as a function of both causal and resource limitations. Lots to learn! I’m going to be so smart when this is all over !
A second thing we were able to run with in a positive way was a rearranging of our timeline. We realized that a) pitching a hospitality business at a time when many wondered if the hospitality industry was collapsing, perhaps should be delayed; b) we love it up here at our mission headquarters and wish to turn it into our personal residence sooner than later; c) that we need more than a few weeks to choose our sites for the proposed 28 units, and d) we’d like to get some roads improved and infrastructure in. This is a large scale, unique project, where each treehouse or cabin will need to fit into the sanctuary in a dynamic way, with a great view, good land contours, and compelling aesthetics and structural elements such as ledge or old growth trees. It takes time to hike around 500 acres and find those dynamic spots. So we’ve expanded the timeline, made space for those things, and accepted that this is going to be a slightly longer development process than we had hoped. Hey, it takes time to do things right! We’re 2+ years in and looking forward to our extremely well-planned next steps.
For now, we drink the lemonade and hunker down to the good work of site selection! We like this one for a raised cabin! What do you think??
“I got a fever! And it can only be cured by…” More donkey! Yep, it’s official. I’m mad about asses!! John is a perhaps a smidge less enthusiastic than I am, but agreed nonetheless! And why not? They’re adorable, strong, good-natured, and best of all for The Coal Burned Spoon’s purposes, make great pack animals!
We’re excited to announce that we’ll likely be adding somewhere between 4 and 6 donkeys to our Sanctuary come next summer. As John and I researched ways to assist our guests in getting their gear up to their treehouse and cabin units from the check-in building, for those who are unable or choose not to hike in, we looked at ATV’s, electric golf carts, snow cats, mini-trucks, snowmobiles, and just about any all terrain vehicle you can pour gasoline into. In the end, we do plan to have one or two of these buggies on hand for general sanctuary use anyways, but for us, one challenge with all of these options is their noise level and their incongruence with our commitment to the triple bottom line.
Now, don’t get me wrong: over the years we’ve learned there is folly in being a purist when it comes to just about anything – something’s always got to give, and sometimes there will just be no substitute for a torqued-up ATV for twitching out big sticks, or for an electric golf cart for zipping supplies around to units each week efficiently. But we wanted to build in something a bit slower, a bit less dependent on fossil fuels, and a bit more, well, alive, as a daily part of our Sanctuary operations. Packing burros seemed like just the right fit! They love a job, they are very physically affectionate, and they do very well in mountainous and cold climates just so long as they have 3-sided protection from the rain and elements. And although we don’t come from an equine background, the farm background, and in particular the commercial chicken flock experience, has been helpful for understanding things like shelter drainage, rotational paddocks, and manure management. Plus, I’ve been reading like crazy on the side to beef up my donkey know-how!
But donkeys are stubborn, right? Wrong! Common ignorant human misconception, we learned. Of course all animals have a fight, flight, or freeze instinct in the face of perceived danger. Because horses, donkey’s distant equine cousins, have the flight reaction, poor donkeys are frequently compared to them. However they are quite different animals! Donkeys fear reaction is freeze, which makes humans think they are being stubborn asses. But in actuality the donkey is simply stopping to protect itself and process something it perceives to be dangerous – when it’s right about the danger, that’s a good thing, and even when it’s wrong about the danger, it’s a lot easier for a handler or rider to deal with a temporarily frozen animal than a flighty one that unexpectedly darts off in the opposite direction!
I think my favorite thing about donkeys is their accessibility. While we’re busy comparing donkeys to horses, I think there is something truly wonderful about the humble burro: Horses are so beautiful, so majestic, so charismatic, so royal, so…unrelatable for most of us. But isn’t there something about those fuzzy faces, those stubby, practical working legs, those blocky features, and those long, floppy ears that’s just a little bit more accessible to us common folk? Hooray for donkeys! I can’t wait for our trip to Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue in Texas this spring to pick ours out.
When we speak of the construction of homes and institutions today, the modern environmenally-conscious zeitgeist would have us focus on “reducing the carbon footprint” or eking closer to “net-neutral.” Imagine, for a moment, instead that we demanded answers to questions like “Will the carbon footprint on this building be net-*positive* immediately or will it take a few years?”
The building standard called Passivhaus allows for this very shift in how we frame discussions about construction, ushering in a desperately-needed new paradigm: the net-positive paradigm. One where our dwellings and institutions are considered part of the problem if they are not actively contributing toward the solution. Just being “less bad” isn’t good enough anymore, if we accept the reality of climate change and wish to have any hope of mitigating its effects, before they become more disastrous than they already are.
Originally born from a Scandinavian-German partnership in the 80’s, Passivhaus is an approach to building that requires very little energy to heat and cool the building (generally around 90% less than conventional building- imagine heating with a cord of wood over the winter, instead of nine!), so it seemed natural to John and I that it would be of particular interest in extreme warm or cold climates, like Maine, where energy consumption is such a large part of our carbon footprint. As we have researched our architecture plans over the past few months, we learned of the Passivhaus standard and immediately resonated with its elegant basic principle: hyper-insulate everything, including double walls and triple-glazed windows, such that the building maintains the temperature you set it at. Surprisingly, the extra cost for initial construction as compared to conventional building is generally less than 10%, and the payback is measured in single years due to the energy savings achieved. Clever use of building site features such as trees and site orientation maximizes this energy-conservation benefit. Everything about Passivhaus is intuitive, practical, and sustainable.
Above, a Passivhaus certified “Treehouse” (read: elevated home) in Dursley, Gloucestershire, England, U.K., shows that Passivhauses needn’t shackle themselves to earthly confines!
As you may notice from a few Passivhaus pictures, the design standard does tend to carry with it a certain smart, modern blocky “look” – largely derived from the need to not create many small nooks and pockets that interrupt the thermal envelope. Although we love this look, at first face it is certainly at odds with a more traditional look of vintage rural Maine cabins that we are – at least in part – seeking to invoke. However, rather than seeing this dichotomy as a problem, we see it as an exciting opportunity to create a new blended look, and we look forward to partnering with the right architect to help us merge the best of what worked in Maine’s camps of yesteryear, with new sustainability goals, to create something truly one-of-a-kind!
John and I recently had an awakening at a meeting with a potential architect last month, in which the architect – a fairly philosophical fellow – suggested that our plan of keeping the treehouses as year-round accommodations defeated the point of a treehouse. He asked how we would keep them warm in the winter and I responded that we would simply insulate them and throw in a woodstove. This prompted him to sigh, put his head in his hands, and, careful to articulate with tact, suggest “then what is the point of a treehouse? About the time you board up the windows and close it up tight, what it the point of having the getaway in a tree?” It seemed to him that piping in water, insulating pipes going up a tree, building up high where the winter winds threaten to ‘blow your house down’, and all the other accommodations and efforts we make to get the unit into a tree, were an exercise in futility – if you can’t actually *enjoy the tree*. The breeziness, the green leaves rustling in the wind through an open window, a treetop deck with open french doors. Looking out the windows and seeing the outside world from a bird’s eye view.
Now I fancy myself a woman of the big picture, one to whom this type of introspection would have already occurred. But I was blown away hearing this part insightful, part just plain logical perspective that I had not considered. One of the main points of our accommodation is to help guests acclimate and sensitize themselves to the seasons. How could I have been so blind!? This conversation then sent me spinning immediately and for the next few weeks into a phase of thought where the treehouses could only be seasonal.
I’ve since come back to center a bit. I still agree that an open, airy, high in the sky treehouse is basically antithetical to a Maine winter, but I do think there are ways to build year-round treehouses in Maine that are more suited to our climate. To me, no visual better illustrates that a treehouse can work in a Maine winter than this one by the folks over in Georgetown, Maine at Seguin. I think with all the windows and lights, it is beautiful and magical, still honors the Maine winter, and lets the user experience the “tree-ness” of the unit. I imagine the R factor on all those glass windows is about 1,000,000, and I further imagine this was probably taken during the first gentle snow of a mild early December or something (I’d like to see the picture in a blistering late January) but the point is it can be done. You build lower to the ground, you insulate, you use lots of high R windows, and make the thing a bit more stout and brawny, overall. But the guest still feels that fundamental connection to the outside. Plus, and this is a pretty important consideration for our business, you don’t lose half of the leasable calendar on a unit you just blew $100K building.
So we’re landing somewhere in the middle, we think: mostly year round units, with careful attention to details that keep the user connected to the environment, coupled with a few extravagant, high up, ‘summer luxury’ seasonal units on appropriate sites. These will indulge a bit more of the airiness of a classic treehouse and represent a full summertime exhale. I love to philosophize. But I also need to make this business generate net revenue. I dance this dance daily, called “Building a Social Enterprise”: make money + maintain integrity = make social change. One challenge at a time.
Any fairly large project that is successful, I think, will credit its success to a strong, competent, cohesive team comprised of top notch team members who each do their piece of the puzzle well. So building our eco-glamping sanctuary team carefully and thoughtfully, is something John and I both take seriously.
Before we started this project, neither John nor I had attempted anything like it. Over his years in the construction business, John has done some smaller-scale, more traditional development projects like spec homes and subdivisions and things. I have been with him long enough to have picked up some of that experience along the way. But this very unconventional, medium-large scale project has both of us learning as we go. It’s actually taken a fairly substantial amount of time for us to just pick up from context/learn from scratch/absorb through osmosis, who exactly we need on our development team, and what the hierarchy looks like. As we began meeting with different potential partners, it was not immediately clear who would work for who, how they interact, what order they should be recruited in, and what our role in relation to them would be. For example, with his background in building, is John going to don his belts and swing a hammer? Help build but also supervise? Just wear a suit and point at things? Though the picture is not yet rigidly set, a clearer vision is emerging for us:
DREAM UP PROJECT, PROCURE AND PURCHASE SITE, PROVIDE VISION AND DIRECTION, PLAN, RECRUIT TEAM, FOOT THE BILL, COORDINATE, SCHEDULE, LEAD, ENSURE PROJECT SUCCESS/FRUITION
DEVELOPERS: John & Karen
DESIGN/BUILD SITE & ROADS
DESIGN: ARCHITECT & Architect’s Team (Structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers, landscape architects)
DESIGN: CIVIL ENGINEERS (aka Site Planners, aka Development Consultants) & Team (Soil Scientists, Surveyors, Drafters, etc.)
INTERFACE between DESIGN & BUILD
GENERAL CONTRACTOR (John, Role #2)
BUILD: CONSTRUCTION CREW – Carpenters/ Plumbers/ Solar Power Electricians, etc
BUILD: EARTHWORKERS – Excavators, Road Builders, etc.
So the Developers (us) hire two basic teams: one responsible for the structures (treehouses/cabins) and ones responsible for the site and roads. The GC ends up playing the interface between the designers of the site and unit structures, and the guys who build it. That, we have decided, is the second formal role that John will play: GC. Having GC’d some fairly large jobs in the past, and having about 35 years of general construction experience, he is well-suited to it, I believe. John is good at envisioning a construction project through from start to finish. He’s also good at juggling. His expectation management and communication skills can sometimes benefit from a little finesse, but I’ll be there for that 🙂
So we are now actively recruiting our design team – both for the structures and the site and roads. This means, an architect, and a civil engineer team. Structure and site builders can come later. Being clear on this finally is very helpful for us – since we’re supposed to be the ones who know what the hell we’re doing and lead this project!
Meanwhile, back at Mission Headquarters, the floor goes down! Helps keep the chill out from the basement, and also allows John to frame up a basic bathroom, his next step. To celebrate Daddy’s hard work on that front, the kids and I came up with a saw and a sled and enjoyed a little post-Thanksgiving tree-hunting followed by some libations by the fire!
It’s hard for me to believe it’s winter up here on the mountain already, when, down on my flatland farm in Auburn, I was precisely 2 days ago harvesting the last of the beets and carrots out of a moist black cold-but-not-frozen soil bed. But it is. Old man winter sweeps through the mountains first, and I can’t help but feel overwhelmed looking at the spindly bare hardwood twigs everywhere buffering the frost-covered ground from the mountainous horizon and blue skies. There is so much to be done and it is hard for me to see my way to timely start to the 2020 construction season. But, “In our Gannt Chart We Trust.” We can do this, right?? I said right????[crickets…]
Hard as it may be to believe for those unfamiliar with larger development projects, we are already pushing the timeline to begin construction next summer, by not yet having officially submitted our DEP site law application. Maine’s Site Law of Development Act, or ‘SLODA’ as all the civil engineering guys call it, is the heaviest hand of environmental law, and is invoked only for specific reasons. One of those reasons is a project creating more than 3 acres of impervious surface. Did you know that gravel road is considered impervious surface? I didn’t until recently, because I thought of gravel as something water can trickle through. But when compacted into a road it generally does not drain, but rather sheds the water in sheet form off the side of the road, potentially sending emissions residues, small soil particles, and other contaminants with it. If not then rerouted with ditches and culverts properly into vegetative or other buffers to be screened and filtered before ultimately hitting lakes and streams, it is a major source of water pollution. Thus, gravel roads are highly regulated and a general bain of DEP’s existence. Of course, paved roads create most of the very same issues and others as well, but proper gravel road construction and maintenance turns out to be a more insidious enemy of the environment because it looks, sounds, and feels so crunchy and friendly, that people often do not realize the erosion and pollution issues it can pose.
Since we are striving to create a very environmentally green and low-impact project, then, it will need to pay a lot of attention to the roughly 3 miles of gravel roads needed to bring the project into reality. About 80% of the roads we need already exist as [fairly degraded] logging roads. The good news is, any efforts we put into the roads at this point will be an improvement. The way the roads sat when we bought the property last month was pretty bad. We’ll dig drainage ditches, screen gravel, fix culverts, crown and grade the road, and do everything we can to make a high-quality, low-impact road. But the Site Law application is, to say the least, daunting. The process takes about 6 mos. and the permit application itself, alone, is about $10K, never mind the tens of thousands it takes to hire the engineers and development consultants to actually obtain the scientific, soils, wetland, and other information it takes to get it through. Meanwhile, construction can’t begin without that permit.
So we’re working hard to make it happen. We’ve almost finished lining up a development consultant and are generally on track in our timeline for other steps as well. Until then, at least we can remember why we bother with any of this, and enjoy a little time in the snow with the kids on Sundays! We’ve developed a new rhythm to increase efficiency, as the kids and I proved too distracting for Daddy when we all just went up together for the whole weekend. So now Dad works at HQ on Saturdays, while Mom and the munchkins do farm and household chores in Auburn. Then we come up Saturday night with dinner, sleepover, and enjoy a family day together on Sun with no work. Much more efficient and ends with less 4-letter words and frustration. 🙂 We’ve got our season passes to Mount Abram in my email inbox, and have decided this year is the year we teach them to ski and ride. So for now, some practice in the backyard at Mission HQ!