Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A second chance

In December of 2014, Eliana, Renee and I moved from the cold, windy and wet Oregon coast, to the Big Island of Hawaii (the Hilo side) for Renee to take a postdoctoral position with the University of Hawaii Hilo. Although Renee had been to Hawaii in the past, this side of the island was new to her. This is my first exposure as well.

Hilo has the reputation as being a VERY wet place, actually one of the top-whatever cities worldwide in terms of annual precipitation. The numbers don't lie, this place gets phenomenal amounts of rain, the more so the further up you go in elevation. Our houshold landed outside the small town of Mountain View, about 12 miles to the south/southwest of Hilo, and at an elevation of about 1,400', the rainfall maps suggest that this place gets a deluge of somewhere around 258" of rain annually. That's about 20 FEET of rain,hahahahahaha ***insert maniacal laughter***! At least it is warm here.

In the 8 months time that we have been here, we've all learned a lot about some lesser known aspects of living a rather unconventional lifestyle. While much of this knowledge is particular to this area (like living 24/7 outside, but with no real fear of freezing), some other aspects will have broader application that might be interesting and fun, particularly to those of you out there who aspire towards a less energy intensive life.

A long time ago, I lived for two years time completely off-grid, though then it was in the wilds of northwestern Montana state, as well as being in the dark ages of the communication and alternative energy scene. This was back in 1990 about, and the internet thing was just beginning to ramp up. Online shopping was still viewed with extreme suspicion, and the only real companies out there were the already established brick and mortar guys, so prices were the same as what you'd find in a catalog. Solar was the "grail", but was still REALLY expensive, and there just weren't any cheap Chinese alternatives. I was so poor, the point was moot, but I was always dreaming.

I lived way out in the sticks on 20 acres of trees, between the small town of Thompson Falls and the even tinier town of Trout Creek, out on Blue Slide Road with the other white trash. Though I didn't have running water or electricity, while I was there a new phone company opened up and offered to run line in for free, so for part of that time I was in the ironic situation of being able to chat online with people on the other side of the world in new Zealand, yet I didn't have a flush toilet. What little power I did have came from 4 ,6-volt batteries that I charged using an ever rotating series of continually breaking generators.

Years after that adventure, I became enraptured with the idea of sailing around the world, living on a sailboat and just doing whatever it is that I normally do, which is work on stuff. They say that sail cruising is the adventure of constantly working on boats in exotic locations, and in my experience that saying holds true. The perfect life for someone like me! Sailboats are like small, self-sufficient nations, with limited contact with the greater world. ALL people living on cruising sailboats are living an alternative energy lifestyle, and boats run the range from having no power at all, to some boats having all the comforts of home.

All of this blather is to say......I've been there, done that. I'm not totally new to this stuff, I have a clue. I am a MacGuyver, and I can fix most anything. I'm not saying that I'm some alternative living "rockstar" actually, because it has been my far too many mistakes that have taught me so much. I wish that I had been smart enough to write stuff down, so that I didn't need to make the same mistakes over again.

Maybe THAT is why our move to Hawaii, how we've been living for the last 8 months, has been so especially odd. I've done so much the "wrong" way, put my family through such ridiculous levels of deprivation, it defies description. That they still talk to me is a small miracle, and testament to how amazingly wonderful Renee and Ellie are. You both are truly beyond compare, and I can't express how fortunate I feel to be with you both.

Renee is so wonderful in fact, that she is giving me a second chance. An opportunity to do this the "right" way, to design a simple, economical, and beautiful life.

We bought a place. 3 acres on a dead end road,lots of trees. Cash, no loans, ours for the family in perpetuity. Our fingers are still crossed, as we just heard that there might be some difficulty with the title, but hopefully things will work out.

Here it is.

This two-track is Napua street.


Ellie is standing at pole 7.

One of the amazing things about living on the wild side of Hawaii (as opposed to the other, poopy side, with the sun and too many people) is that you can tell people that your address is "the first driveway on the left, after pole #7", and that's OK. Ellie says, to tell you that there is a wood-spirit hiding somewhere in this picture, if you look closely.

Lots of green stuff.




Thankfully there is one area right by the road, that should be fairly easy to clear. Perfect for a parking area, maybe a little workshop.

That might be wishful thinking, as it seems like the only reason that there wouldn't be any trees right here would be because underneath all of that lovely Uluhe fern (Scientific Name: Dicranopteris linearis)......that's probably solid lava there.


It's funny, looking for property in these undeveloped areas. The photos of the places are often just walls of greenery. There's just not a good way to photograph this stuff, and because the area closest to the road gets such good sunlight, the growth is typically extra dense.


Once you bust through the green wall, the land has a little more room to breathe.

Walking in this is still VERY challenging, as the guava trees can easily form impenetrable thickets. This day, Ellie and I grabbed the tablet with built-in GPS and tried to map out the property boundaries. Not the best, but better than nothing.



Much to Ellie delight, there is a significant population of wild pigs that live in the area. They have a bad rep, for digging up yards looking for anything edible. Here is what is referred to as, "pig damaged forest".

The pigs (wild pheasants,too) are one of the principal culprits in the spread of the Guava trees, eating the fallen fruit then planting the seeds, pre-fertilized. If you have pigs in the area, you've got guava too.


So much of life is about how you deal with your perception of "undesirable aspects. People hate the pigs because they dig up their gardens, foul their lawns, wreck our carefully planned landscaping. It will be one of our challenges, to find ways to plant that will guide the pigs around and elsewhere.


Ellie is happy that there are pigs, because it is one of her greatest wishes to hunt wild pigs.....dreams of killing the largest boar, using only a spear. WTF? We aren't hunters, don't have guns or walls covered with animal heads, but as soon as Ellie learned that there was just the slightest possibility of us moving to Hawaii, she began researching hunting upportunities. Strange creature that she is, she has been a hunter since she hit the ground. Go figure.




It's not all Guava trees. There are many of the large and extremely slow growing native 'Ohi'a Lehua (Scientific Name: Metrosideros polymorphism).

Back in here, I see a lovely big tree, but I've no idea what it is.


Very interesting and distinctive bark, but I haven't found a match yet. 30' main stem, then lateral branching. At a guess, 60-70' tall, and the overstory is too thick for me to see which leaves belong to which plant.


Doesn't really matter, because the GPS says it's probably on the neighbors property anyways. I was having a REALLY hard time staying on track. The jungle is seriously thick.




There are a number of areas where the lava is fissures, creating wonderful places for trolls to hide.





Hapu'u fern (Scientific Name: Cibotium spp.)

This tree fern is well over 12' tall, but the base is obscured by the Uluhe.



By now I've been in here for over an hour. The property dimensions are very long and skinny, a so-called "spaghetti lot", 125'x 1045'. Of the 1045' depth, I've MAYBE seen 300' of it, and I doubt that anyone else has either. These trees are upwards of 400 years old, some of them, and this area has never been logged/farmed/developed in any way. The current owner has never even seen the place.



It's going to take a machete at the least, before I can see more, as I've gotten as far in as I can. Stopped dead by the thickness of the ferns, and the Uluhe are growing taller than I can see over, at least 6' tall.


I hold the camera over my head, point it in the likely direction, and take a few photos.


Now you know as much as I do about the property. Seriously, these pictures are all we have, haha. What's back there? There's still about 800' we haven't seen.



On my way back to the car.....it's a good thing I've got the GPS, as I was getting completely disoriented, absolutely turned around.


I find a couple of small pools of standing water.

Now we know why there are so many mosquitos here, haha. Ellie's psyched, hoping for bullfrogs, researching aquaculture.....she's now planning on raising Tilapia fish.


So many fun things to do!






I screwed up the first time, planned for the right things, just not at the right times. I can do better. This time....we hit the ground running.


  1. mmmh wild bacon... Maybe Gabe wants to contribute to cause with a bow for Ellie.

    The place looks incredible beautiful. Can you use the smoke of the charcoal making to smoke ribs and sausage? Stacking functions I mean.

    I tried to convince Julia to move there but she says don't want to live in the states nor europe. She's agreed to a visit though. I'm really looking forward to how are you going to develop this. It will be what a man can do, the proper life of the human, somehow. Felicitaciones my friend.


    1. Greetings Sebastian!

      There is so much work to do, beginning at square one as it is. We are going to try as much as possible to use no heavy equipment to clear trees, cut road, etc, but that means huge expenditures in terms of human effort. If getting kind of fat living here, so more work will be a good thing for me, haha.

      Bring your saws, and we'll buy some Japanese Masakari broad axes....we can make some beams and lumber!

  2. What an adventure, thanks for sharing. Looking forward to all that comes next, best of luck!

    1. Thanks Siavosh, it will be interesting to say the least! Part of the fun will be the process of writing about the experience. It will be good to actually use more of these tools and knowledge that I've gained in the last 3 years.

      I will be welcoming everyone ideas and inputs here, so always feel free to advise!

  3. As a permaculture practitioner the shape of your property I find very interesting! What is the slope orientation? Lots of opportunity to catch and use through-flows of water and nutrient. The amount of rainfall you get...amazing, its like an alien landscape compared to where I am in Colorado slowly turning to scrub desert.

    Forging a boar hunting spear, sounds interesting doesn't it? Of course you would have to do a couple of spear planes, just as practice like...

    I'm very excited for you, the challenge of your property is tremendous, but the knowledge and experience you have developed to work with should be a goal for all of us seeking to live within natural systems.

    1. Well, before actually getting lost on the property, I would've said that the place had a definite slope towards the southeast, but now......the reality is not so simple. It tends overall towards the southeast, but there are dramatic bumps and hollows that go everywhich way.

      Most places in this entire region have little to no soil, being just a thin skin of very rich detritus over a permeable lava substrate. It is amazing how large, and how quickly everything grows here, but I suppose that it is functionally very similar to hydroponics. I was surprised by the ponds that I found while I was exploring, as water typically disappears immediately. Ellie is seriously researching Tilapia farming (for our personal consumption....this place is already rife with people trying to make a buck through fish farming. Orchid growing too. Hard competition.) Hopefully the fish will eat all of the mosquito larvae!
      I started out trying to forge a laminated yari-ganna, made 1/2 dozen blanks so far, but just didn't "feel" it, you know? I REALLY wish that I had followed through on at least one of them, as I really have the need for one now,haha! I've got a few Twca cam/big-ass hook knives that I have forged, laminated steel and everything, but they aren't quite the tool for the job (peeling convoluted log surfaces, that is ).

      I REALLY wish I had finished a yari-ganna.

    2. It would be nice for peeling logs! I use a draw knife and end up spraying myself with bark chips as I draw it towards me. I smell piney fresh, but sticky.

      Does Hilo have a dry season? I suppose with all that rain you'll be catching it to use in a cistern? That is something I haven't really seen incorporated into the design of the house enough. Can you imagine a house shaped like half of a hexagon, to catch the prevailing winds, with an open rain catch cistern in the middle surrounded by a little banana grove?


    3. I have spent time living in non-square structures. While the tipi and yurt were fine when used as originally intended (no hard furniture, convertible bedding and sitting close to the ground), once you try to turn them into "normal" houses with cabinetry walls and stuff, they quickly lose their organic and basic appeal. I've also worked on geodesic dome houses, and the less said, the better off we'll be. Never never never! I still have nightmares about hanging sheet rock to this day. And they will invariably leak, somewhere down the road. More nightmares.

      Your thought strikes a different chord, though. I actually like that idea! A very interesting conceptual beginning, and I could imagine there being a house like that, somewhere in Hawaii already. I think that speaks well for the overall "real-ness" of the idea. I can't say that for far too many of the poor designs that are already here. As far as east Hawaii having a dry season, we're in it right now, and it's been raining nonstop for 3 days, haha. My wife says that there is a tropical storm coming our way, so that probably has something to do with it. Rather than have the roof shaped as a shallow funnel, we might choose to break the roof slope 2 directions, with a shorter plane draining into a central banana Grove while the larger plane goes to catchment.

      Catchment water is all there is here, there is no municipal water outside of Hilo town proper. There are a few private development central distribution hubs, but no sewer or treatment plants. Many people use point of use UV sterilization, but far more just haul drinking water from the public taps. You are always driving somewhere anyways, and the water taps/parks are everywhere and convenient. The size of household catchment tanks offers an interesting design element, typically being 16' in diameter and almost 8' tall (I think that makes about 12,000 gallons, a common size). Big, in any event!

      Speaking of drawknifes.....

  4. I just got a book on North American trees! If you manage to find a leaf of the mystery tree, I'd love to be able to break in the book and find it!

    That property is breathtaking! I wish you luck on your endeavours! Maybe you will find the perfect waterstone in Hawai'i, or at least some naguras.

    I suggest you get a good Mora knife for general duties,as well. I use mine for splitting kindling as well as carving, and cutting down small saplings.

    1. Just realized, Hawaii is probably not included in the definition of North America... it's worth a shot, though

    2. Breathtaking.....what an appropriate description. The only way that I could move through that tangle of brush was to get down at "pig" level, put my head down and push, haha! Exhausting!

      The Mora knives ARE good, and are a great value. Laminated blades too, some of them. I tried wearing a belt knife long ago, but it was always in the way, punching holes in the seat of my truck, haha. I ALWAYS carry a small knife in my thigh pocket, usually an embarrassingly cheap plastic utility, breakaway blade thing. No class, but continually used. A Mora would be cool.

  5. Hi Jason- Thank you for your postings. It's nice to hear more about what you guys are up to. I noticed today a reference to the Japanese kamado. Renee's Grandpa Bellinger was a merchant marine and was fascinated by them- at least a portable kind of them. He had several shipped to his home and I remember him once cooking a Thanksgiving turkey in it. He had several sizes. I wonder if Grandma B still has one sitting around somewhere.

    Good luck with all your future building plans.

    1. Hi Joan!

      Actually she does still have it, and we were going to buy it from her, but then the whole Hawaiian thing popped up and it seemed a poor choice at the time. A big, heavy pottery grill/thing......

      TSA already think that we are crazy, bringing all of our strange things as checked baggage. Anvils, boxes of weird steel blades, blocks of wood and rusty old wrought iron.....just about every package gets opened and searched, haha.

      I think we will close on the property this week! Just in time for Renee to head back to Oregon. She would like it if I would have the brush cleared and building sites laid out in time for her return, but she's emphatic about wanting to build her own small house, something all her own. She's super psyched, and has been peeling old Ohia logs like a crazy person!

  6. Hi again Jason- Another thought. Maybe this is too obvious to say, but could you have an open topped water tower that gravity feeds to your home? I saw something like that, but not gravity feeding to a remote spot, with a spigot at the bottom. I imagine you would still need potable water.

    1. Strange that you don't see more of that, as its something that is common worldwide. Must be a seismic hazard thing. We were visiting with Peter in Volcano during the 5.8 (whatever it was) quake last months. We were about 1 mile from the epicenter. That was the first earthquake that I've actually felt. We were in a big solid house, and we were thinking, "What the hell is Ellie doing upstairs...jumping on the bed?!" Being home in our little stilt shack might have been interesting.... Or scary.

      The big tanks sometime burst during quakes, then often damage the house that is right next to it, undermining the foundation. It would be a novel way to clean out the garage!


Like all of us, I am figuring this out as I go, so when you see something that is incorrect or flat out wrong (and you will!), let me know. This is a learning process. Real people and names, please. Constructive comments and questions are very welcome, but hate speak/politics are not! Life (get one!) is too short.

Thanks, Jason