Pat’s Farm: Doing Well

When your retirement plan is to retire to the other part of your massive property, you know you’re doing well. This is Shelter co-founder Pat Hennin’s farm, 150 acres of hay pastures, barns and a wooded point that overlooks the Kennebec river and marshes. 

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For us city folk, that’s roughly 24 square city blocks. It’s huge. He and his wife bought it in the 70s when they started Shelter Institute. His 1860s farm house sits on the top by the road and looks over the entire rolling plot.

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Pat got his tractor fired up, had a few students line it with hay that he tossed from the hay loft and carted us out to the point where we had a campfire and BBQ overlooking the marshes and river. 

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Over burgers and corn, I rapped a bit with my fellow students like 16 year-old Thor about how we’ve both accidentally killed birds; me with Alkaseltzer in 8th grade, him with a dart soaked in homemade chloroform (he thought it was going to put it to sleep). He and his friends also “found and restored” an old golf cart and now bomb around Guam in it, where he lives. He’s a good kid, an Eagle Scout. 

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Eventually, I had to talk more with the most fascinating dude on earth, Pat Hennin, possibly the hippy equivalent of the Dos Equis man. He has built this empire of sorts up here and created an entire family business and community out of it, doing what it is he loves to do and then teaching others to do the same. 

Family is definitely the center of what goes on here, the farm is host to massive reunions of over a hundred people. There’s tent platforms and little houses tucked in all over the property.

He took a break during the cookout to jump in the water with two of his grandkids and fling mud around. When asked where his bathing suit was he said “I was born in it!” and then jumped in just in his green skivvies. 

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His wife passed away 7 years ago from cancer, a week after his dog died. He told me his dog knew she was sick instantly and refused to leave her side. His son and daughter, both instructors at Shelter live on or near their property with their families and they all seem to be some of the nicest, happiest people on earth.

He’s got stories for days about times with his wife, infiltrating various government boards and committees, suing large corporations for being “hugely dishonest” and as my pal Rob might say “being a general shit disturber.” 

One of his favorite stunts was going to parties at other people’s homes and removing their toilets. This is a great man. There’s a really sweet picture of Pat and his wife hanging in the class bathroom that kind of says it all:

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I walked the winding dirt road all the way across his property back to my car taking in the sounds of the birds and bugs and that sweet smell of hey mixed with tidal flats. If I could do 1/8 as well at life as Pat’s done I’d be a pretty happy dude.

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Learning Electricity and Teaching Lobster

These lectures are unearthing, somewhat unsuccessfully, ancient grade-school knowledge about science and math that I got rid of when the internet came along.

We talked about wiring a house today with Pat. He rolled in wearing an AC/DC shirt and a foam lightning bolt on his head. His opening monologue was a pun filled introduction about “leading the charge” on a “shocking discussion.” 

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It was the kind of topic that mid-way through I thought, yeah, I’m either going to need to read several books on the topic or to just go ahead and call an electrician. But in grade school fashion, when the teacher set out massive bins of electrical wire, fuse boxes, tools, and switches and put 4 “problems” on the board, I got nervous. 

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I paired up with my new pals from New Hampshire, Alan and Candy (he’s and electric engineer, she helped wire their house). Alan was patient with me as he re-taught much of what we’d already covered.

Me: “What the hell would you even do with this crazy looking plug? Install an electric chair?”

Alan: “Well, washer and dryer, or sure, electric chair, you could do that.”

The father and son behind me had a question for the instructor: "We noticed mid-way through wiring the fuse box that the main breaker wasn’t shut off."

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Pat: “Oh, you two are dead!” as he and the class erupted in laughter. 

By the end I was actually feeling pretty confident in my understanding of wiring a house. (I’m buying the books anyway).

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We then build a miniature frame of tiny strips of wood, our task was framing the floor. I got drafted into team Connecticut, my favorite crew here. A high school Spanish teacher named Martin, a school administrator named Bonnie and her wife Danie, a former intelligence officer in the Army. 

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We did reasonably well building our floor, well enough with tiny bits of wood and lots of glue. And damn if it wasn’t impressive when it was done. 

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Then the four of us peaced out to eat some lobster in a classically stunning waterfront lobster joint.

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Finally, a subject I was comfortable with. “Don’t eat that green stuff. Just pull that strip off and clear out the black stuff, dip it and you’ve got a nice piece of meat!”

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"It’s illegal, so do it on a foggy night."

To ensure a solid foundation for learning I cooked up a few biscuits to go with my eggs and coffee, inspected my beard length in a tiny mirror and decided I was ready to learn some more. Good thing I did because I learned all about foundations today. Ayooo!

Like all the lecture topics here, it falls into the category of I had no idea how complicated this shit was and everyone should know this. We spent hours discussing all the variations, materials and techniques of the very thing that holds up every building around us. You still awake punk?! 

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Today Pat was wearing a green t-shirt: “Getting old is mandatory, growing up is optional.” Before he got into his topic of the day he had one bonus tip: If necessary, you can pump your water from a lake, “but it’s illegal, so do it on a foggy night.” He was kidding, I think.

We busted out formulas to determine the WEIGHT OF YOUR HOUSE. Can you imagine how heavy yours must be? Imagine three cement trucks piled up, filled with Boston Cream. With a simple equation, you can find out the real answer. And why should you care? Because your foundation needs to support it you dummy. 

The end of the day was for pizza and making cardboard houses. I was paired up with a mom from Guam named Lisa who used to be a fashion designer. She had skills with the ruler and I can cut stuff, so before too long we had our place built. 

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In a miniature version of what could happen on a large, catastrophic scale we discovered our walls were too short, roof pitch too steep, and all of it based on my very careful drawings from the other day. Huh. 

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Turns out the drawing was right, we were just too busy stuffing pizza in our faces to mind the details. While I suggested making the roof out of pizza (pepperoni shingles) it wound up looking less like a traditional pizza house and more like a quaint chapel. We named it Our Lady of UPS. 

Thinly Sliced

While grabbing another growler of beer at the local market my iPhone was still giving me driving directions from my pocket as I walked down the quiet aisles. Classic tourist move. Then I got 1/4 lb of roast beef from the deli, which is enough for say… one sandwich. Good planning bro. I better get back to my yurt before something goes really wrong. 

Mostly in the Soup

I woke up at 5am today to the sound of rain on the roof, the best sound on earth when you’re in a comfortable bed with a good view. I took a shower in the rain (it’s outside) and washed the dishes while I did, cause hey, hot water and no sink. It was weird and awesome and I felt like a good earth citizen for doing it. Do I sound like a hippy yet?

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Then I made coffee with this setup while I listened to Lewiston NPR, way more chill than WNYC. 

Today’s weather report: 
"We’re still mostly in the soup, but not everyone, it’s a big state." Manic Monday played ironically in the background. The most manic my Monday got was pulling over to make room for a pickup truck driving the other way on a back road.

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Day one of class was spent in a huge timber-frame classroom with Shelter Institute’s gray-haired co-founder Pat Hennin who grinned all day as he dropped knowledge from behind an overhead projector. He was sporting loafers, tall black socks, and khaki shorts embroidered with lobsters. His narrow glasses slid back and forth between his forehead and nose all day. Being near a guy like this makes you smarter, even if only a smarter dresser.

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He had a lot of strong opinions, mostly about the size and centralization of our government but also how computers were the enemy of good design and that Facebook was actually dividing us. He said it all with a casual, sharp, New England enthusiasm that made it impossible not to like, whether or not you agreed.  

He had some other advice: “In terms of states to live in, there are 50 options. Don’t live in one that doesn’t match your personal beliefs. If you don’t like abortion, don’t live in Mississippi. We should be celebrating the diversity of our culture not trying to homogenize everything.” 

He recommended picking a community to match your personality and building a house in it designed just for your needs. Be a part of that community and help build it into a great place for your family. And like a good personal relationship, your relationship with your home should feel solid at its core and be built in such a way that it requires little maintenance. This was heavy stuff, “Purpose of Life” was written on the chalk board. 

His strongest recommendation was not so profound: “Buy an old backhoe. You’ll find it has lots of uses.” To someone up here, he’s the most interesting, awesome neighbor.

Despite the loftiness of her name, Pat’s super sharp daughter Blueberry brought us back to earth with the very basics of drafting building plans with pencils, erasers, t-squares, and tracing paper. Apparently, before you can change society you need very detailed plans. 

She rattled off standard measurements for doors, windows, stairs, and answered every question thrown at her without a trace of hesitation. In that same friendly, smart style of her father she made possible this alternate reality where you could actually build a house yourself.

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It was tedious and awesome, no undo, just eraser. With one dash, I spec’d a three-inch-wide door where a three-foot wide one belonged. Counting microscopic marks on a three-sided architectural ruler, making tiny notations, and continually erasing bad measurements for hours made my brain hurt.

Before 1960 or whenever the iPhone was invented, this was how everything was designed and  built. Jet engines, nuclear weapons, huge dams and every single manmade thing around us came from pencils and t-squares. No wonder it took so long to get cars to park themselves. 

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It was impressive seeing my little fake house unfold in front of me even if I couldn’t figure out where to put the toilet or calculate how much space the staircase should occupy. Minor stuff. The tracing template had a shape for a urinal so I naturally considered putting several in my theoretical kitchen. After all, this house should speak to me and would in some small way, help build a larger community. Everyone will be able to pee in my kitchen, simultaneously! Men mostly, but women are also welcome to try. It’s a free country!

I was feeling extremely humbled by my lack of knowledge but the tool shop alone was motivation to get those skills. They’ve got orange rubber sledgehammers, Japanese pull saws, a stunning array of beautiful hand chisels, and double-bladed Swedish timber axes. Now all I have to do is learn how to use them, both for me, my family, and the larger community of my choosing.

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Hair Full of Sawdust, Brain Full of Ideas

Roughly 30% of what I watch on TV is repeat episodes of This Old House, recorded on three different channels. The other 70% takes place in Alaska. It was really a matter of time before I took a break from my job and my garden to go live in a yurt in Maine and learn all there is to know about housebuilding. I mean really, you should have seen this coming.

I’m taking full advantage of this time away from professional office work off to grow my beard like any real Mainer should. But being a resident of Brooklyn, I downloaded the app first to see what it’d look like.

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Pretty solid right?

I’m taking the two-week Design Build class at the Shelter Institute in Woolwich and I really have no idea what that means. If I did I could explain more about what the hell it is I’m doing up here. Tomorrow I’ll be learning about “criteria for design (use, need, telesis, association, aesthetics, method.” I design for a living and I still can’t tell you what that means.

What I do know is that the class is about learning all there is to know about house construction in two weeks, for the homeowner/builder or the enthusiast looking to develop “personal competence.” Personal competence has a nice ring to it…

I also know they sell extremely dope tools and that I will likely “need” some for class projects. While I’m getting my learn on, I’m living here:

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To call it a yurt wouldn’t be quite accurate, to call it a cabin wouldn’t be doing it justice. It’s perched on a wooded hill, windows all around complete with a wood stove and outdoor shower.

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The owners are maybe the nicest people north of the Union Square Farmer’s Market; they brought me fresh towels with two cold beers wrapped inside. Their dog investigated the yurt thoroughly to be sure no creatures were living in or under it. I gave her a belly scratch in return.

Under their advisement, I picked up some grub and a growler of beer from a guy up the street that brews it. And some cheese curds, because… cheese curds.

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And I maybe lasted another hour before I had a fried clam roll at the Sea Basket. It’s like the horse Sea Biscuit, but more analogous to a seafood restaurant, and they serve seafood, not horse meat.

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After class I’ll likely come back to my circular abode, pour a cool glass of brew, and pen a few notes about what it is I’m doing up here. Put your bug spray on and fire up the CCR for the full experience. I hope to return home with my hair full of sawdust and my brain full of ideas.

Mike Sula: Chicken of the Trees

Aside from a single encounter this spring where I chased a squirrel down the fire escape in my underpants, I have not had a single tomato molestation all summer. My trap sits un-used.

Mike Sula hasn’t been so lucky. Writing for the Chicago Reader, he describes his squirrel jihad and his recommended solution to the problem: eat them. He’s got my full support.

I stood staring at the enemy’s trophy, the familiar impotent rage rising. But the impulse to fall to my knees, gnash my teeth, and howl at the gods was stayed this time by a resolution I’d made earlier that spring. The squirrels may take my tomatoes and spit them back, but they would not go unanswered. The time had come to close the circle of life.”

Read the full article here.

I had to kill a man today.

And by “man” I mean grasshopper. While grasshoppers often play magically hillarious smart asses with tophats in cartoons, in the garden, they are anything but magically hillarious. They will sit in one place for a week at a time until everything around them has been eaten; the insect equivalent of fat guy in supermarket, eating his way out. 

For a few weeks I noticed something was eating tiny, horrible bites out of every other leaf in my garden, so I spent the following hour and a half searching, obsessively, every leaf top, every leaf bottom. Then I found him! And then I lost him. The I found him! I swear if you look away from this picture for a half a second, he will disappear.

I literally had his green dust on my fingertips and nothing more. When I spotted him again, I got nice n close. Steady now… Snap! Mr. Miyagi grab. 

A slight pang of guilt ran through me; one of his tentacles was still wiggling despite his fully visible guts. I put him down to finish the job and his mangled body sprung into action, grotesquely zipping around despite a completely crushed body. One more clap of the gorilla gloves and it was over. The lil’ bastard will be remembered for his dexterity. 

But the cycle of life continues; Panthy’s Garden is still a romantic place for some insects.

That is until they become entangled in a spider web and devoured slowly. Good times.