A Beginners Guide to Building an Earthship Pt. 2

Building the Gabions

In one long weekend, our little crew built all the gabions we will need for my entire earthship. The gabions in the back of the house, shown in the bird’s eye view of the floorplan below, will be stacked one on top of the other for an 8 ft. tall wall. The two side walls will be made of single gabions 4 feet tall since they will have framing and windows in the top 4 ft above the gabions. So, for an earthship with inside dimensions of 52′ wide and 24′ deep, we will need a total of 56 gabions.

To make this many gabions, I bought 4 rolls of horse fencing, twisted, not welded, with 2″x4″ holes, 4′ tall and 200′ long, for a price of about $1200 total. I also bought 300′ of 2′ tall chicken wire and 100 feet of 22 gauge wire for attaching the chicken wire inside the back gabions for a total of $100. To reduce the labor in collecting rocks to fill the gabions, the back wall will use 2/3 dirt and 1/3 rocks, so the chicken wire will keep the dirt from spilling out between the rocks.

To make a 4ft diameter gabion, you need a 12’8″ length of fencing. It is imperative that the gabions are exactly the same length since many of the gabions will be stacked. You cut the length, removing the last vertical wire so you have long wire tails on both ends of the cut fence. You bring the wire fingers together like below so that each opposing finger goes down and then you can pull it up inside the opposite box of fence.

Once all fingers of wire are pulled straight up, you can stand the cylinder upright and twist the fingers together using an end nipper tool.

Next time, I think we finally get to start digging the hole with the back hoe!

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A Beginner’s Guide to Building an Earthship

Setting the Stage

About 4 years ago I bought land in southwestern Colorado. 40 acres of vacant land on top of a mesa, above the valley’s irrigation ditches in the high desert, a simple landscape of junipers and sagebrush and gorgeous views everywhere you look. Oh yeah, and stars, sooo many it makes you wonder where they have been hiding all this time. No lights, that’s the key. The whole mesa top is “off grid.” No connection to city water or electricity.

At first I was overwhelmed by the prospect of figuring out all the infrastructure that would be needed in order to do more than camp on my land. I want to live there full time in a few years and I will admit I have been pretty spoiled, having had running water, electricity, and garbage pickup my whole life. Not only that, but my sewage magically disappears at the touch of a button. I’ve decided to build an earthship for a few reasons. I can’t get a loan to build a house, I don’t have the cash to pay people to do everything I need and want on the property, but most importantly, I want to do it myself. I want to learn to build. I want to know how all the different systems work and how to fix them. All my life, I’ve felt a little helpless and deflated whenever I had to call in a plumber, an electrician, a chimney sweep, a window specialist, a floor finisher, a garage door “guy,” an HVAC “guy” (it’s always a guy), the list of different “guys” needed to run a modern house is astounding, not what most of us imagined in the initial excitement of home ownership, not to mention the size of the invoices. So at age 50 and on my own, I wanted to finally truly be the mistress of my domain, not dependent on some “guy” to do some simple thing to get my system back on track and hand me a fat bill. But I wondered how the heck I was going to build a house from scratch, figure out a water system, sewage system, electrical system, and what to do with my garbage and recycling. It felt too overwhelming to begin, I got “paralysis by analysis” every time I tried to plan out where to start.

two flat spots and a driveway came with my land
sagebrush and juniper

Some types of learners can read and research and watch youtube videos and then just go and do the thing, but me I am either a different kind of learner or I just don’t have the confidence that comes from experience to start in, I’m too worried I’ll do it wrong and not be able to fix it again. I learn best when someone does it with me the first time, then I try on my own and know I have someone I can consult with if I meet a road block. Once I have a little experiential understanding, watch out! I get excited and whereas many people want to take their time and do a really good job, I rush right in and am quite happy with “good enough.”

Lucky for me, I have a friend who is a man but so not like a lot of guys. Enter Eric Darby, unlike any guy I’ve ever met. Not macho. So not a dude. No “Man ‘Splaining” involved. Humble and sensitive and supportive, sitting back and waiting, never charging in or taking over, not condescending, a coyote teacher who drops clues along the way, tells stories and asks questions instead of lecturing so you are learning without even realizing it. We had been friends for 8 or 9 years, ever since I started bringing my yearly farm camp groups to his property to soak in the different way he lives and thinks. Lucky for me, he loves to support and mentor people who are excited and want to learn and work. I had always admired and felt very warm towards him and I could tell he liked and admired me too. He appreciated the very qualities I usually berate myself for, my tendency to rush in half-cocked, which he saw as can-do. My naivete, which he saw as open-hearted. My simple-minded goofiness, which he saw as innate happiness. I appreciated in him many of the opposite qualities, his careful, safe, slow way of doing things right and thoroughly, his attention to detail, his quiet confidence. His humor. Mind you, I do not advocate for and did not myself set out to find a male mentor or boyfriend to take care of me or help me build a house. When the land next door to his came up for sale, I had a clear and powerful feeling that it was part of my path. I didn’t know the details of how I was going to do it, I just felt it was the right next thing. You never know where you will gain experience and find friendship or love, it could be a male or female of any age. It is wonderful to have friends to do physical work with and to know people who you can ask for advice when you get stuck. It could be anyone, from a relative to someone at the lumber yard or hardware store. Now you could probably even find just the perfect building advisor-friend on a dating app!

normally we subsist just on rainwater, but when we have a group coming we fill the water trailer for their cooking, showers and everything.

We decided it would make sense for me to first build a tiny house on a trailer, since Eric had the tools and the solar panels to run them on his property. I could build the tiny house there, learn a whole lot of skills in the process, and then roll it over to my place and stay in it while I built my permanent house, which at the time I thought would be a stick frame cabin. Building the tiny house was so much fun, and slow going because even though I grew up watching my dad build cabins in the wilderness, first one in Virginia and then two in Alaska, I didn’t have experience building myself, so combined with my good-enough attitude, I had some learning to do to make it all come together. Also Eric’s coyote teaching style and the process of us deepening our relationship didn’t speed up the building process. Added to that, I was driving back and forth between the Front Range and the Western Slope to spend the majority of each month with my two teenage boys. After two years my tiny house was finally finished and in place and I was ready to start thinking about my “real” house, which by this point I had decided was going to be an earthship.

the “blimp hangar” Eric built for framing in tiny houses
My first building, the tiny house named “No Biggie.”
two king-sized lofts with light and air
fold out couch for first floor sleepers
tiny house landed

Why an Earthship?

First of all, what even IS an Earthship? It’s a type of “earth sheltered” house, one that is partly buried in dirt. An earthship uses the constant temperature of the earth and heat from the sun to maintain a pretty constant temperature inside year round. Meaning it needs NO heating or cooling systems. Meaning you have NO heating or cooling bills, nothing that can break and force you to call a “guy” to fix it. Meaning you can show up any time of year and not jump around shivering while you are waiting for the fire to heat things up. Meaning you will never be rolling around in bed trying and failing to sleep because it’s too hot or too cold. Inside an earthship it is comfortable and grounded feeling, solid, cozy but surprisingly light and lofty. So, the other super lucky thing besides knowing Eric Darby was that my entire property is on a south-facing hillside, which makes building an earthship way easier. If you have a hill that faces south, you “just” (like it’s easy!) dig into the hillside to create 3 of your earth-sheltered walls, the back and sides, rather than having to pile huge berms on all sides of your house. Facing south, at least in the northern hemisphere (in the southern hemisphere you want a hill facing north), you get the low sun shining into the glass front of your house to heat up the house during the winter, and in the summer, of course, the sun is mostly overhead, so your house doesn’t overheat.

I had seen earthships in Taos, all made of tires filled with earth and then concrete or “cob,” (clay mud, sand, and straw) covering the tires so it ends up looking sort of like an adobe house. The ones in Taos tend to be very organic, lumpy like a giant patch of mushrooms that has emerged from the earth. I thought they seemed impermanent, like a strong rain would erode the earth plaster right off them. They also seemed kind of complicated, with their steamy indoor gardens and no straight lines anywhere, bottles set into the earth walls, too weird, like only extreme people, super hippies, would want to live in the dirt like glorified cave people. But Eric had an earthship as his main house and inside it felt just like a regular house, with stick framing and drywall so you wouldn’t even know it was built out of tires unless you looked behind the walls. I got used to it and came to really like the feel of facing the southern all-glass front wall with the earth at your back and sides. There is something instinctively safe feeling when you can see anyone or anything approaching your dwelling. Maybe I’m more of a cave woman than I thought.

Diagram of a Regular Earthship Design bermed into the hillside, using  Passive Solar and Geo Thermal Principles for he… | Earthship design,  Earthship, Earthship home

Here’s the kicker. An earthship is built mostly with labor, with no need for engineers and architects, so if you like to work outside and have a can-do attitude, some friends who can help on occasion, and you’re good at finding used materials, you can build an earthship without a lot of experience OR a lot of money. I’m talking about ending up with a beautiful comfortable house that doesn’t require paying bills or much maintenance for about a fraction of what it costs to hire a builder to build you a house with new lumber and everything. This depends of course on how much you want to learn to do yourself and if you buy new or used windows, roofing and appliances. And if you have access to an earth-digging machine like a back hoe for digging and moving the dirt around.

Where to Start?

Well, first you need a piece of land that is south facing. Also important is to find land in a county with relaxed or even better, no building codes. Here is information about counties with no building codes: http://sustainablebuildingcodes.blogspot.com/2010/09/no-building-codes.html. I live in two counties that couldn’t be more different in terms of building codes. In Boulder County, the codes are very restrictive and no matter the type of house you build, you will end up spending many thousands of dollars just on permits, inspections, etc. whereas in the county in southwestern Colorado there are no building codes. You can wake up one day, pick a site, and start building. That is a freedom that cannot be underestimated. If you can’t afford to by land on your own, perhaps you could find some like-minded people to share the cost of a property and help each other build. Of course, that can become more complicated. Sometimes you could buy a larger piece with others and then subdivide so each person has their own and if you can subdivide enough, you could even make some money back by selling part of your land.

Once you have land to build on, you want to choose a south facing hillside that has unobstructed sun exposure and views, if possible. Then you’ll need to clear the site of trees brush, cactus, rocks, even rake up sticks because if sticks and rocks and cactus are mixed in, the dirt will be much harder to work with and you’ll spend a lot of time sorting it later. We spent two full days with 4 friends clearing the site, which for my house is about 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The inside of my house will be a bit smaller than that because the walls will be very thick and take up space.

this is what the land looked like before we took down about 15 big junipers, 20 sagebrush, and 10 big patches of cactus, as well as about a thousand rocks from small to giant.
Boy am I glad I have friends who like to work hard!
the cleared land. the dog contributed only joy and relaxation
the piles of branches and firewood we pulled off the site

Building and Relationships

Like I said, I sure am glad I have good friends who like to work hard. My friend Ande, who I’ve known for 23 years, recently called me and said “I know you’ve been wanting to re-do your front landscaping. Let’s do it, I’ll be over tomorrow at 9am.” I had been complaining about being the eye sore of the neighborhood because my 9 year-old landscaping was more weeds than anything and I couldn’t keep up. For some reason, I couldn’t do it myself, but with her energy and inspiration, we worked hard for 4 days and got it done all by ourselves, no “guys” involved (well except for the time she talked her husband into helping for a couple hours). My friend Juliette is a farmer and chef who also loves to do hard physical work. These two skinny women can work harder and longer than I can. They are my inspiration. They are both excited to build a house for themselves too, so we decided to do this one together so that we can all learn. Between the two of them and me and Eric, we are excited to see what kinds of interpersonal dynamics come up between you. We have decided to be as open as we possibly can about our feelings so that we can grow together and hopefully deepen our relationships through this project. In a couple weeks, we finally get to start the part I’ve been eagerly awaiting, digging the hole with a backhoe and skid steer! Stay tuned…

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Adventures in Roadkill

In Boulder we believe in doing good, for the environment, for our bodies, for others. Right? We believe in sustainability, we believe in “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” we believe in eating clean food, food that doesn’t suffer for our benefit. Right?

Lately, life has been providing me many opportunities to put my own beliefs and the credo which I feel surrounds me, to the test.

It was Friday morning, I had just dropped the kids at school and was heading home to catch up with paperwork, clean up the house, and get ready to leave for the weekend. I was driving along Baseline, near 30th, and something caught my eye. A large furry animal lying on the side of the road. I looked closer. Antlers! A male deer had apparently been hit by a car. A landscape crew was starting to gather around the animal.

I continued driving, but immediately my mind started to spin, to nag at me with questions and debate, “what will happen to that deer? probably get dragged off unceremoniously and put in a landfill. it’s so beautiful. i wish my students could see it. what if it just got hit and the meat is still good? at least coyotes should be able to eat it. i hope it didn’t suffer. how can you just leave it there? what would i do with it? it’s right on a main road. is it legal? could i get in trouble? could i get it to a place where it can finish its cycle of life? it’s too heavy. maybe the landscapers could help me. you’re crazy, just go home and do your work. why are you always making things harder than they need to be? what are you trying to prove? what if you got in trouble? front page headlines, fines, embarrassment. how can you let it go to waste? how can you choose mundane house and work tasks over a new life experience and learning?”

By the time I got home, I knew I had to go back. I was nervous and my mind was still nagging at me but my body was moving around, gathering a cooler, tarp, hunting knife, and saw. I texted my husband to get his opinion, since he would also be affected if I got caught. “you could go to jail. who would pick up the kids? who would take over your classes?” By the time his response came back, I was already in it and had forgotten about my phone.

I arrived and surveyed the scene. The landscapers had moved the deer off the road, but they were not nearby, as I could hear blowers and mowers faintly humming in the distance. There was also no one home to help. I looked at the deer and watched the cars driving by. To my surprise, not one driver in ten or so cars, even on the same side of the road, looked over to see me or the deer.

I suddenly felt very sad, looking at the beautiful young buck in the prime of his life, imagining his confusion as he started across the street and was struck by this giant flying hunk of metal. I got down close to his face and noticed his perfect black nose, still moist, his long lashes and still shiny big brown eyes, his giant soft ears with their perfect shading for camouflage and seashell-pink insides. In his mouth, his tongue was slightly curled around a leaf he had just plucked but hadn’t had time to eat.

All I could think of was, “I’m sorry.” Even as the feeling overtook me, I felt overwhelmed by its inadequacy and all the things I was actually apologizing for. The taking of land and building of fences that have blocked animals movements in search of food and safety, the roads that now spider web across even the most wild places, and the deadly cars that no amount of experience can prepare animals that have evolved to survive very different predators.

I didn’t want this animal’s life and death to be in vain. At the very least I could make sure the deer’s body benefitted other wildlife. I could use the deer’s head to teach students about how muscles, tendons, ligaments and bone are joined, how the lens and optic nerve are like a camera that sends images to the brain, and how all of the sense organs, from the ears and eyes to the nose, tongue and whiskers,  are beautifully adapted for survival.

While I was thinking these thoughts and feeling strongly about what I should do, I also realized that others might not see it the same way, as they drove by and saw me bending over the deer’s body. I didn’t think I could lift the whole deer, but I could hardly cut it up right there on the main road. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of intentional effort to become comfortable with raising and killing the few animals I have for food, and I still have feelings of guilt and nausea at ending a life and turning it into meat.  When I started raising animals for food a few years ago, I thought I’d be eating lots of delicious meat and wouldn’t feel guilty because the animals had a good life and a quick death. The reality is, I eat a lot less meat now.

If it’s so hard to see the death or blood of an animal that’s lived a good life and had a relatively quick death, why do we subject ourselves to so much graphic gore and death in movies, video games and on the news? In Boulder, it’s so great that so many people want to know that the animals they eat had good living conditions. I’m not saying everyone needs to raise or hunt their own meat, but why do so many people who eat meat find it so distasteful?  I find that even today, even in Boulder, with so much awareness around what and how we eat, that people are still often shocked at the thought that I would be willing to kill and butcher an animal myself rather than subject it to the confusing and potentially painful trip to a processing plant. 

I decided to heft the body to see if perhaps I could manage it. Ugh. Heavy. I tried to drag it by the antlers and managed to move it a few feet. Somehow, I decided to just go for it and that’s when my adrenaline kicked in.  I backed the car right up to the deer, ran around the back, heaved the body upright by the antlers, leaned it against the bumper, then picked up the rear and with all my might, heaved the whole body into the back and slammed the rear door closed. Before I knew it, I was back in the driver’s seat. I couldn’t believe how fast it all happened, probably 7 or 8 minutes total.

Driving away, the smell of deer poop and gas hit me and I started feeling surreal and guilty, like something out of the movie Fargo. “what did you just do? you have a  potentially illegal dead body in your car! this does not look good. you’re going to jail.” Then I got a red light. I looked in my rearview mirror and realized one hoofed leg had sprung up and was sticking up in the rear window, like a kidnapped person trying to signal for help. A middle-aged couple in a Subaru pulled up right behind me and started staring right at the leg. “oh no, don’t talk about it, don’t point. why aren’t you saying anything, don’t you see that deer leg? maybe they’ll think it’s a Christmas yard sculpture or something. c’mon light!” Finally the light changed and I drove on slowly, carefully, not wanting to attract any attention. I looked down at my speedometer and realized I was going 30 in a 50 and cars were bunching up behind me. “so this is how criminals get caught,” I thought. I turned onto my street and was relieved that the Subaru kept going.

I got home and must have still been running on adrenaline, because in a flash I had that deer out of the car and in the far back of the yard by the creek and then had the head and meat off and had dragged the rest of the still incredibly heavy body across the freezing, waist-high creek to leave for the coyotes. Once I had everything (including myself) cleaned up and put away, meat wrapped and tucked into the garage freezer along with the head (to dissect with my older students), I sat down and took a deep breath. I suddenly remembered texting my husband and looked at my phone, where I found 5 texts of increasing urgency. “You’re crazy. Don’t do it. You could get in serious trouble. It’s not worth it. Don’t be that crazy woman people will be talking about. Imagine what this could do to your family. DON’T DO IT!” I sent him a text apologizing that I’d been away from my phone and attached a picture of the deer’s head in the cooler.

The rest of that day, I felt a little sick to my stomach and didn’t eat much, especially not meat. I thought, “Maybe I’ll finally become a vegetarian.” But the next day, my curiosity, and love of meat, got the better of me. I pulled out one of the back straps (the long round muscles that run along the spine, the best meat, where filet mignon steaks come from) and cut off a few thin pieces. I put some butter in a cast iron pan, sprinkled some truffle-flavored salt on top and seared the pieces briefly. Fully prepared for the meat to taste bad, I took a tiny taste and then nearly fell on the floor. My mouth came alive and melted all at the same time. The fine-grained, smooth texture contrasted with the rich, dark, lean taste of the venison. I savored about five more pieces, convinced it was the best thing I’d ever eaten and wishing I had my husband and five best friends there to share it with. I have since shared it with a few people and they agree it is beyond delicious.

And so began my adventures in roadkill. I have since found out that it is completely within my legal rights as a citizen to take advantage of meat from roadkill, I just have to call the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Dept. if I find another one and they will give me permission to take it.

I prepped for a lesson with my older students to dissect the eyes, tongue and trachea of the deer. They loved it and I was amazed at how much you can learn by taking something apart and examining all the parts. A few of the highlights were:
1. realizing that the lens of the eye actually magnified the letters on my watch
2. the inside of a deer’s cheek has all these bumpy projections
3. the inside of the sinus was super convoluted and full of blood-infused tissue (for an amazing sense of smell, we guessed), and
4. the students were way more grossed out by the giant engorged tick we found than any of the above-mentioned things!

After a whole lot of work cleaning it, the skull turned out really cool and I think of it as a reminder of the deer’s life and the whole experience during which we felt like we got to know the deer. 

I also put out my wildlife camera and caught multiple coyotes, ravens, magpies, and a couple of neighborhood dogs, eating the remaining deer meat. I’ll admit it, I feel pretty proud of myself.

I’m still not caught up with my paperwork and my house isn’t that clean, but I wouldn’t give up this opportunity for anything. I hope you’ll call me if you see or hear about a deer or elk hit by a car!

PS if you’re wondering how I knew how to even begin to deal with this deer, I have been interested in hunting for quite a few years and had a hunter friend teach me how to gut and skin a deer.

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Don’t Mess with Mama Moose!

I woke up in pitch dark. I didn’t know where I was. Then I heard stomping, snorting, scraping, the sound of hooves. Suddenly I was stone cold sober and acutely aware of everything, the temperature of the air on my skin, the sleeping bag hugging my legs, the dark so black it was like fabric draped over me, and the thin nylon of the tent that was no protection at all against anything (how could I have thought it was?). I was paralyzed, my mind racing but my body and voice unable to move, “OHMYGODAMOOSEAMOOSEISSTOMPINGONMYTENTAMOOSEISSNORTINGANDPAWINGANDSTOMPINGTHISISITIMGOINGTOBE STOMPEDANDSTOMPEDLIKETHOSEVIDEOSYELLDOSOMETHINGANYTHINGOHMYGOD!” My mind was racing, but my body still would not move, I was petrified for minutes that seemed like hours.

Then I imagined the kids, little kids I was responsible for, scattered throughout the forest, vulnerable and unknowing, covered by nothing but sticks and tarps. A big ball of yell started to form deep in my chest, rumbling and gathering letters and noise until a giant garbled word finally burst from my mouth, “MEUOOOOOOSE!” Like breaking a spell, my body came to life and I took action, groped around in the dark for my headlamp, put it on, stuck my head out of the tent door, and scanned the area. Immediately my light shone on a huge furry beast, a giant mama moose standing about 20 feet away on a small hill, facing me with her three tiny babies (bigger than great danes) lined up next to her, 8 glowing eyes in all. She just stood there, facing me, looking weird and dumb like moose do. “Oh boy, she’s going to charge,” I thought. I had had enough experience with moose growing up in Alaska to know that they don’t see that well, don’t seem to think that well, and would rather run willy nilly trampling everything in their path and ask questions later. So I started yelling, whatever came into my mind, which as it turned out, wasn’t very sophisticated or intelligent. “NO!” I yelled about ten times, just “NO!” then, “Go away! Get out of here! Go away!” and that was about the extent of my vocabulary in that moment, just the same few phrases, over and over.

Oddly, in facing the moose, I found myself thinking not about my survival, but criticizing myself! “Really? That’s what you’re yelling? How embarrassing.” It’s totally bizarre to me, looking back, that you can be in a life or death situation and be embarrassed by how you’re responding. Embarrassment aside, I kept yelling and yelling at the top of my lungs, until finally the moose turned and slowly, ever so painfully slowly, started walking away, still staring me down.

I felt the need to get out of there fast before the moose came back. I called out to the other adult, a mom of two 7 year-olds who had come up that evening to spend the night with us. “There’s a moose!” I scream-whispered. “I don’t know what to do!” And there it was, the brutal truth, out in the air, irretrievable. I was supposed to be the expert. I was supposed to be the tough chick from Alaska who had seen it all, the adventurer, the person other parents’ kids were safe with, the person who knew what to do. And the truth was, I had no flipping idea what to do in the blackest dark with a giant behemoth of an animal who knew exactly what she had to do to keep her babies safe. Fight and kick and lash out and stare down. She had what it took to survive in the wilderness, and I most definitely did not.

I ran the distance between our tents with my sleeping bag like my tail between my legs, my eyes darting back and forth into the woods. Every nerve was on fire, jangling with the knowledge that I could be attacked from any direction. Inside the other mom’s tent, I felt better, but still on high alert, eyes wide open looking and listening in the darkness. Every pine needle dropping made my head jerk, trying to get a better angle to listen for the moose I imagined running at us. For fifteen minutes that seemed like an eternity, I stayed like this, tense and jerky and giant-eyed. Then from out of the pitch darkness came a real sound, a human sound that woke up my every motherly instinct. “Miss Christina?” the tiny plaintive voice whispered. “Miss Christina? I’m scared.”

I jumped up and rushed to her aid like the hero that  two minutes before I was not. “I’m coming! Again I grabbed up my sleeping bag, this time thinking nothing of the dangers that lay waiting in the darkness. I bundled up my young student and her buddy and hustled them into the safety and security of my tent, the same tent I had felt so vulnerable in just moments before. Once I reassured them nothing would hurt them and got them back to sleep, I sat over them, vigilant as a mother hen, looking out with eyes not scared but strong, daring the she-moose to return.


We all awoke in the morning, some more rested than others, most of whom slept through the whole nightmare. The kids who were part of the drama were full of glee and importance, eager to tell the other kids about their “Big Adventure.” Sleepless as I was, even to me the danger seemed far away in the light of day and I got to laughing and telling the story to the wide-eyed students gathered at the entrance to my tent. I quickly came to think of it as a lark, a great story, an “adventure,” telling myself nothing bad was really going to happen.

Then I walked around the back of my tent and it all came back to me. The entire back side of my tent was smeared with mud, streaked with sharp double hoof marks. The ground below was a series of deep grooves, cuts in the dirt made by the business end of a thousand pound animal whose snorts I could still hear in my mind. We had set up my tent as a bail-out option for any kids who were too cold or too scared to sleep in the shelters they had built the day before. We set up another tent nearby to hold all the gear in case of rain. That tent was also smeared with muddy hoof prints and the backpacks inside were squished flat and kicked apart under the hoof marks. I could only wonder at how differently the night’s “adventure” would have gone if there had been any students in my tent with me.

We had a nice breakfast around the fire, the kids chatty, proud of themselves for sleeping in their survival shelters and still excited about the close call. We spotted the moose and her babies again on the other side of the lake and felt safe knowing she was going about her day a good distance from us. After breakfast, a few of us went back to the tents to get something and without sound or warning, Mama moose was back, looming right above the spot she had been stomping the night before!

How an ungainly 1,000 pound animal sneaks up on you in the light of day I will never know. Again, one of us the product of millions of years of evolution in the wilderness, and the other (me) just a scrawny human, a naked ape for whom evolution has traded fur, teeth, and claws for a big brain. A brain once pivotal to the advancement of our species, but that we now have come to rely on too much, used to invent and technologize and acquire much more than what we need for survival, and at an increasingly faster rate. All at the expense of our natural instincts and our bodies, which have gone soft and slow to react to real threats.  We buy gear guaranteed to protect us and make us tougher, clothes with names like “titanium” and “outlast,” while we walk stylishly by homeless people, the ones actually surviving the elements.

My brain, my main tool of defense, finally kicks into gear, knowing that any animal with new babies willing to get this close to people in broad daylight is not messing around. I look around for something to defend myself with, but where the day before I saw my gear as a proud reflection of my knowledge and preparedness, I suddenly see only a pile of products that can’t help me in the face of this very real threat. While I’m still trying to brain my way out of this, she disappears as fast and silent as she had appeared and I rush the kids to break down camp.

In record time we are packed and ready to hike down. It’s amazing what 7 and 8 year-olds can do when their leader is visibly scared and barking orders. My head is jerking around again, looking left and right and behind me, counting kids, counting kids. I have everyone in a tight line starting down the trail when a woman appears, large and in charge, looking like a wilderness vigilante with impressive biceps, a firefighter t-shirt, and a gun on her hip. I am so relieved to see her and immediately ask if she had seen the moose. We tell her our story and this woman, a REAL tough chick, stares at us with big eyes. “Damnnn!” She says with a southern drawl, right in front of the 7 year-olds. “Shee-it! Do you realize how lucky you are? I can’t believe she didn’t kick your head in!” One of the kids is fascinated by her gun and asks if it’s to shoot bears and moose. “This?” She says looking down at her gun. “Oh no, this is for any jackass men who try to mess with me.”

This amazing woman, as it turns out, is a wildlife expert and conservationist. She has been following the mama moose, studying her, trying to help protect her. Three babies, she says, is  one in a million for moose, and nursing three babies, while trying to protect them from predators, is nearly impossible. Mama moose had brought her babies to this little lake for the protection it afforded, being rimmed by a rock cliff and having water to retreat into if danger approached. But what the lake didn’t have was enough food for a Mama nursing triplets, so she was starving and stressed out. “If she got that close and kicked in your tent,” the woman says, “She was already desperate and attacking. That was no warning, she meant to put you out of business.” I start shaking, realizing how close we had come to a real tragedy.

In the months since the event, I have racked my brain to think what I could have done differently to avoid the situation, or what I could bring with me that would help protect us if anything like this happened again. A gun? No way, too much that could go wrong carrying a gun with a group of little kids. Flares? I envision us escaping a forest fire. Air horn? Maybe. Not go? Many people running a business where they are in charge of other people’s kids might choose to stop going into the wilderness to minimize risk and avoid liability. They’d probably end up in an “improved” campsite with a bunch of RV’s and music blaring and dogs barking. The problem is, I grew up having close-up experiences with wildlife in real wilderness and it’s part of what has shaped who I am, what I believe in, how I feel about nature and conservation and protecting wild species. So, while I do struggle with how to minimize risk for the kids in my care in the wilderness, I won’t stop taking kids out where there’s no cell signal, to feel alive and vulnerable and full of wonder, and yes, maybe a little scared once in awhile. I think it’s important for them to understand we are not always in control and there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t include the Internet and video games and cars. And for that, I am grateful for Mama moose and all the wild species ready to fight tooth and nail for their babies and not giving a damn about the rest of us.

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Stay Wild! Yours, Christina

P.S. Little did I know it, but as I was writing my story, two of my students were writing their own personal stories about the moose experience for writing assignments at school.  I am, as always, surprised and amazed by my students and my kids.

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Kitten Hats, Chicken Nuggets, and the Cycle of Life

IMG_0850Everything would have been fine if I hadn’t told them about my hat. The meeting with my son’s teachers was going great. They like him, he’s working hard, improving, etc. Afterward, someone asked about all the animals he talks about at home, the new adorable kittens, the llama and alpaca, chickens, ducks, bunnies, etc. One of the women asked why we had so many animals, so I talked about the eggs we get from the chickens and ducks, the wool we get from the llama and alpaca, the kittens who are just pure love and entertainment now, but hopefully will hunt mice someday. At this point, the two women were nodding and smiling, probably picturing a cute little farm with cute little animals, like in Charlotte’s Web. For some reason, one of them wanted to know more about the rabbits, “What kind are they?” “Where do they live?” etc.

I heard that little voice in my head saying “Don’t do it.” But for some reason, I didn’t listen. I tested the water. “They are New Zealand MEAT rabbits.” Blank stares. “I run farm camps and my middle schoolers convinced me to raise rabbits.” Blank stares! “My students really wanted to understand the process of raising and harvesting their own meat, so we did.” Still blank stares!

I knew by now this was going to end badly, but I’d already said too much, I was committed.

I was searching for what to say next when my eyes lit on my hunting cap sitting on the table next to me. I picked up my hat, rubbed the soft fur ear flaps and said, “So we recently harvested a couple from our second litter.”

Oh boy, I could not have planned this worse. I have now strung them along in suspense about the rabbits, all along envisioning fur and puffy tails and button eyes and sweet helplessness, and now they feel shocked and misled and betrayed. Maybe they thought we were the perfect little family, and this does not fit in with their image of us.

Both women gasped in unison and put hands over their mouths, faces white, eyes wide as the slaughter took shape in their minds. I set my own mouth in preparation, looked out the window and waited out the long pause. Finally one said, “I don’t even know what to say,” the other said “That’s horrible!” I tried to explain, “OH if you’re vegetarian I totally understand, I respect that.” Silence. They both eat meat. I go into teacher mode, kind but with an agenda. “My students who eat meat really wanted to understand where their food comes from and how to raise it themselves.” One woman’s hand involuntarily raises and waves in front of her, as if to stop traffic, and says, “No no no no no. Oh no.”

Okay, now my personal hangups about privilege and hypocrisy start to boil up and I get kind of pissed. Luckily, I’m married to a wonderful man who knows me so well, sometimes better than I know myself, and before I can say more, he puts a hand on my shoulder and makes a joke, “Wait ’til you see the hats we’re gonna make out of the kittens.” And then there was this pause, wondering if we were serious, then a nervous chirpy laugh, looking at us like they just recognized us as wanted on the evening news. We stand up, smile, and walk out of the room, not looking back until we are out of the building and can finally dissolve into laughter.


My husband chides me for “going there.” He says, “You think that anyone who lives in a house should be able to build one.” It’s true, I know by now that I should not talk about this stuff to people I don’t want to risk offending in Boulder. Still, it never ceases to amaze me that well-educated liberal people who EAT meat AND talk the talk of local organic humane etc. STILL don’t really want to know how their food has actually been raised and killed. And it’s not just that they don’t want to see blood or see an animal being killed. For so many people they don’t even want to think about the connection between the meat on their plate and a living animal that was kept in a pen and killed for them to eat. For so many people, the words “local food,” “farm-raised,” “farmer’s market,” etc. has become just another status symbol or brand that says how cute, progressive, liberal, kind, open-minded and wealthy they are.

Once I told a mom at school that our first rabbit litter was just born and how excited I was to go through the whole process of raising meat with my students, what a great opportunity it was for them, and she looked at me open-mouthed and said with a slight edge of disgust, “Yes, but all those souls you’ll be responsible for!” I thought about that and said, “Yes, I want to teach about that too, the choices we make and the consequences for other living things. Ironically, being with the animals every day has actually made me eat a lot less meat. I can understand being a vegetarian more now than ever. How long have you been vegetarian?” Then she looked at me and said, with no trace of irony, “Oh I eat meat. But I would NEVER kill an animal myself.”

For awhile, I just couldn’t understand this mindset, and it made me mad that people didn’t connect eating animals with causing animals to be killed. Further, not knowing that how the animals are raised or killed is perpetuating their suffering.  People talk a lot about the cycle of life and animals living free and wild in this pretty Disney way, but the real cycle of life is much messier. It includes poop and guts and love and heartbreak and blood.

My younger students, in their simplicity and honesty, have helped me understand. With my younger students, I don’t get graphic or actually do anything but pet and feed the animals, but we do talk about where meat comes from. One day  a second grade girl says, “I love meat, I eat chicken nuggets and hotdogs and hamburgers, meat is sooo good.” I say, “Chickens like ours over there, rabbits like those over there, they are also raised for meat, that’s what chicken nuggets are made of.” She says, “That’s terrible. That’s so mean, to kill chickens or rabbits like them to eat them?”

I said, “Our animals are happy. They’re well cared for, they get to run around and interact with other animals. They eat great food. They have a good life. If we decided to eat them, they wouldn’t suffer, they would be happy and then they would be dead in 30 seconds or less. The animals that are raised to make chicken nuggets and hotdogs do not have a good life. They’re kept in small cages; they can’t move around. They don’t get to stay with their moms when they’re babies. They stand in their poop all day and get sick. They suffer while they are alive and feel fear and pain when they die. Even though it’s hard to kill and eat animals that you know, if you care about animals, it’s better to care for them and make sure they don’t suffer when they die. What do you think?” The little girl says, “I don’t want to eat those animals over there. I like them, I want them to live. I would rather eat chicken nuggets.”


It suddenly occurred to me that this is how most people think. This is how we have been raised, to see food in colorful packages in fun shapes as different from animals. I wish people could see that the choice to keep thinking of your food as separate from real animals is a choice made for people, not for animals, and the choice to raise and kill your own meat is a choice that is much harder for people (at least for me it is) but much better for animals. It is the opposite of being mean to them.

There is an age when kids should not be expected to face some of the harsh realities in life. The Tooth Fairy, Santa, baby farm animals that are just for petting, and magical tasty meat that just appears on their plates all fall into the same category. But there is an age where kids want to know and see and experience what’s real. In most cultures around the world there are rites of passage for kids in their teens to answer the questions and urges that arise in kids at this age. For meat eaters of any age, it’s very hard to find the balance between caring for and loving animals and also eating animals. It’s probably more common to become either callous about killing animals, disconnected from our food source, or abstain completely. To care enough to kill humanely is tough.

I’m not saying everyone should raise and kill their own meat. I’m not saying I have it figured out. I almost threw up before we killed each of the two rabbits we killed, and soon after, I decided maybe it’s not for me. I am still working through it myself. I am so happy that my boys and my students get to work through it with me. They get to see happy healthy animals and start to make the connection between animals and their food. When they are older, if they want to, I will take them to a feed lot and a slaughter house. They may decide to become vegetarians. They may decide to eat meat they know has been raised and killed humanely. They may decide to eat chicken nuggets. At least they will be making a choice.

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