Friday, January 16, 2009

Cutting Cane



I call the little mountain across the river North Hill because it’s exactly north of our house. Laura modestly calls it Solberg Mountain. Those are saltcedar trees immediately behind Laura. At the extreme left edge of the picture are some coyote willows, whose twigs are a vivid orange during the winter.

Our home is only 50 feet from the river, except when the river flows through it. But that’s another story; watch for it on a blog near you.

The Rio Grande in our area is a huge irrigation ditch. The Irrigation Authorities turn it on in the summer and off in the winter. One winter in the early 90s after they turned the river off, there was a sandbar right in front of our house. Some fishermen discovered this sandbar and started fishing there at night, building bonfires and talking loudly until 10 PM or so. This irritated me, so I decided to create some privacy.

Not one for half measures, I planted a row of coyote willows next to the river, planting small branches every four feet, and encircling them with wire cages to keep the beavers at bay. Then, in a flamboyant exercise in overkill, I planted a row of cane roots on the landward side of the willow. This was a lot of trouble, digging the holes, planting the plants, and irrigating them with buckets from the river every few days through the first couple of summers.

Cane is like bermudagrass – it spreads. What I didn’t realize, when I planted it, was that there was nothing to prevent it from spreading indefinitely once the roots tapped into the unlimited groundwater a couple of feet below. And spread it did. I had created a monster. My neat row of cane turned into a tangled thicket of dead and live canes at every crazy angle, ten to fifteen feet wide and expanding a foot or so every year.

When I started building my Ark within 20 feet of the cane, I knew I would have to cut it all down unless I wanted my Ark to burn down in the event of a bosque fire. So, after we got the holidays out of the way, we put a little ad in the American Classifieds – "Laborer wanted for clearing brush, etc. 526-1853." We got about 30 replies, and are still getting them.

I have an unbelievably casual attitude about such things. I figure the Universe will send me whoever, or whatever. So the first guy who called, he offered to come right out to meet us, so we said, "Sure, why not?" Same with the second guy.

The first guy turned out to be two guys, but the second guy turned out to be just one. So I ended up with 3 guys, named – I kid you not – Jesus, Angel, and Francisco. I couldn’t make this up. (Even though, come to think of it, I guess I could.) But these are, in fact, their real names. I have always said that the Universe has a sense of humor, when it’s not eating you for lunch.

Jesus and Francisco (nicknamed Pancho, as is usually the case with Franciscos) started work on Monday, and Angel joined us on Tuesday. Jesus is the standout – reliable, hardworking, outgoing, positive energy... he’s my man, my go-to guy. I’ve already made him foreman of the crew. Angel is stolid and taciturn, not as hard a worker, but digs in there and gets the job done in his slow but relentless way. Pancho doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t like to engage in any way, such as speaking to you or looking at you, but gets the job done, which is really all that matters.

Cutting cane means cutting the live canes off at ground level with loppers, and pulling the dead canes out whenever you encounter them, which is very frequently, like several per square foot. Then the canes are stacked in piles which quickly reach a height of nearly 6 feet, and are as bad a fire hazard as the original vertical configuration, only now they’re even closer to the Ark. The cane is interspersed with coyote willow, which must be cut down with a chainsaw, and stacked as well.

All this cane and willow stacked 8 feet from the Ark made me very nervous, so yesterday morning I had the crew come out at 7 AM and we had ourselves a bonfire. Not right next to the Ark, of course, so he had to drag bundles of cane and willow about 50 feet to a clearing big enough to prevent setting the bosque on fire. It was a perfect day for a fire – not a breath of wind.

First we made a fire with dead limbs from a Russian Olive hedge we were also clearing out, and then we started piling on the cane. Cane is a relative of bamboo, but not as hard. It’s hollow inside, with internal joints every 6 inches or so. When heated, the air inside expands, and pops when the wall of the cane gives way. A bundle of cane thrown onto a bonfire sounds like firecrackers or very loud popcorn. We had several hours of that to listen to.

(I felt solidarity with peasants everywhere who, when clearing their land for crops, are faced with the universal conundrum: what to do with all that damned brush. The solution: utilize the miracle of rapid oxidation, otherwise known as fire, and transform all that pesky solid carbon into an invisible gas. Burn it, and it disappears! It goes away! Except, of course, there is no "away." We’re all riding Spaceship Earth together, and, like it or not, I eat your shit for breakfast, and you eat mine. So I felt a deep sense of oneness with the 10,000 other bonfires burning around the globe that morning, peasants and other humans furiously burning what’s left of the rainforest, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere by the gigaton.)

We still have a lot of cane to cut, but I feel a lot safer now. A side benefit is the opening up of our view, which we haven’t had for nearly 20 years. Our house is more like a cave, half dug into the bank overlooking the river. This is fine by me, since to enjoy the view I have merely to step outside and take a pleasant short walk to wherever the view is visible. If only I had built my house 6 feet higher in 1973. Oh well, live and learn, so they say.

The Ark is more on the beach cabana model, without the surf. The river side of the Ark is literally solid windows, with more windows on the south side, one on the north, and one on the west. We will finally have enough windows to handle all our houseplants, which I’ll repot into bigger pots so they can fulfill their mission of turning our home into a jungle. The Ark will ultimately have a porch 8 feet off the ground overlooking the river, where we plan to spend many evening hours out with the bats and nighthawks when the mosquitoes aren’t too bad.

In the midst of all this cane activity, we put the roof on the Ark this week, with key help from Neil and Jesus. I spent all last week getting the rafters put up, a job best done alone, since it’s so tedious and slow. My left leg muscle, the front thigh muscle that lifts the leg, painfully seized up on me, thanks to climbing up and down ladders literally hundreds of time per day. So I was semi-crippled for a couple of days there until Laura’s healing balms took effect, but fortunately I was able to hobble around well enough on my right leg to get my work done.

Monday, Neil and Jesus hefted the plywood onto the rafters and I nailed it down... a fun job, since I’m hammering straight down and gravity is actually helping the process, which is usually not the case in carpentry. On Tuesday, Jesus and I put on the flashing and drip edge around the perimeter of the roof. Then Neil came out and we put all the metal roofing on in one burst. I was impressed how easy this job was when young immortals were doing all the heavy lifting. By the way, I use only metal roofing these days, because ordinary shingles don’t stand up to hail.

Jesus is a real blessing. Laura and I weren’t relishing caulking and painting while clinging to a wobbly extension ladder 16 feet off the ground, but it turns out (thank you, Universe!) that Jesus is a painter by trade. He’s worked on extension ladders as high as 34 feet off the ground. (If I did that, I fear the bottom of the ladder would slip from all the vomit falling on it.) So I’ve hired him to caulk and paint the entire top half of the Ark (I’ll do the more easily accessible bottom half). My problems are disappearing all over the place if I’m willing to throw enough money at them.

Speaking of money, I’m paying these guys $8.00 per hour, which is a good wage by local standards for this kind of work. And work of any kind is hard to find these days for workmen in the physical realm. This is costing me. Their average workday is 6½ hours, so they’re getting $52 dollars a day each. Times 3 is $156 a day for the crew. Times 5 is $780 a week. I figure it will take a good two weeks to do everything I want done, but this part of my microfarm will be utterly transformed by the time they’re finished. And I plan to hire Jesus one day a week for as long as I can find work for him, since he’s the most cost-effective of the lot.

This concludes my report for today. The windows and glass door (the Cyclists will be pleased) will be delivered Monday, and I hope to get them installed next week. Then the Ark will be a true shelter, invulnerable to wind and horizontal rain.


Anonymous Jacques Conejo said...

Sounds fantastic! Thanks for the "Ark" report...

"The Universe has a great sense of humor, when it's not eating you for lunch". Terrific line... made me laugh.

The great paragraph about "solidarity with peasants everywhere", conveys the combination of necessity and "best efforts" of man, joy, oneness and the tragedy of man. I really liked that.

Thanks... always a pleasure to read your words...


8:07 AM  

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