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My experience at the SKIP 2021 event at Wheaton Labs

Posts: 257
Location: SF Bay, California Zone 10b
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Hello Permies! I attended the 2021 SKIP event at Wheaton Labs, and thought I'd do a writeup of the whole experience. It was quite fun, and I learned a lot! I have very little experience with most of the skills that PEP covers, so an event like this where I had access to all the tools and instruction was perfect.

The format was pretty loose, but we had the same rough schedule everyday. First breakfast, then Lara and Paul would announce any relevant infastructure info. Then the instructors (Mike and Fred for the most part) would go over the schedule for the day, and form groups based on who wanted to do what. The schedule was planned in advance, and we didn't always stay in one group - usually there'd be a few different things happening at once.

We did so much, it's hard to keep it all straight. I'll try to remember what I can.

Woodland care happened across several mornings, since it's all quite laborious. I got to use a chainsaw for the first time, and I ended up using it a lot - it's such a useful tool! The BBs that require a handsaw really made me appreciate how much easier it is with the chainsaw. I also learned that cutting down trees is simple and complex at the same time - all the cuts are very straightforward, but if you do them incorrectly it can easily go wrong!

All the woodland care tools require much more finesse than sheer strength. A properly sharpened chainsaw cuts easier if you don't push into it, and splitting logs with a maul is about properly positioning and swinging the axehead more than swinging hard. A nice thing about the event is that I didn't have to seek out help that much - people were often coming and correcting me whenever I'd do things ineffectively.

I also assembled a junkpole fence and attempted to make a rock jack. I started the rock jack by disassembling some old rock jacks that weren't completed, which took a good bit of effort. The materials I salvaged weren't that great, either. The rock jack I was making ultimately failed because the poles I was using were too thin - this was after I had spent a solid few hours puzzling over it and trying to piece together the right pieces. The junkpole fence was a bit easier after learning from my prior failure - I made sure to get thick poles, so that I'd have enough to work with.

I almost achieved my sand badge in woodland care, but I forgot to put my junkpoles off the ground for the junkpole harvesting BB. It was hard to always remember what needed to be done, and the fact that it was before lunch didn't help. I asked a boot if they could do it for me, but they checked and it would be considered cheating. I guess it's like if I forgot to stack wood on some remote property before leaving for a few weeks - the wood would be damaged, unless I went all the way back!

Earthworks was another laborious one, mostly when it came to building the dry stack wall. This was the first BB I did, and I really felt the heat going into the afternoon. My wall is partway up a hugelmound, protecting an apple tree. The part I didn't appreciate before starting is that I would have to haul a bunch of rocks up a mound before beginning construction. That was another common theme of the event - staging materials is often more time consuming and laborious than the actual work itself.

The main BB we focused on for gardening was building a hugelmound. This also incorporated using the excavator, which is INCREDIBLY FUN to drive. The first step was of course staging materials - gathering hunks of wood, and various types of mulch. Then we built it up in layers of wood and dirt, using the excavator to pour the dirt on.

Some BBs were trivial to obtain just by being at Wheaton labs. Reusing water from washing dishes and showering is easy with their waterwise setup. I got my Ruth Stout composting badge just by clearing the compost buckets after a few meals. And of course, there are many growies to give urine to there! I didn't even attempt any rocket BBs, but since they have so many at WL that one was also popular.

Foraging happened in a few different places, with Fred leading. At one point we drove to a forest that had been burned a while back. It was quite beautiful, seeing all the green growth and purple fireweed growing back among blackened trees. I appreciated the change in scenery after so much time at WL. There were some berries, but the only one that was truly bountiful were serviceberries. They were everywhere!

I had a few attempts at woodworking. One thing I tried and failed at was making a split log birdhouse. This involves taking a log, cutting it flat on the long side, and hollowing it out into a birdhouse. My first one was a bit rotten, so it fell apart. I went and harvested a wood section from a super dry log, figuring that would keep it from being rotten. But it was so dry, it split apart! At that point, I gave up on it - after attempting to screw it back together a few times.

I made a big compound mallet, which was simple and went very well. Then, I decided to make a stool from greenwood. It had multiple issues - it was on four legs that weren't properly balanced, so that it could only stand on three. The split log I made it with was also not butt width (another BB detail I missed) - at least not for my butt! It was rejected, but my attempt also inspired Mike to revise the instructions to be a bit more clear, so I consider that a victory.

I tried to maintain a "win or learn" mindset throughout the event. Before I went, I was gung ho about trying to get as many BBs as possible. After I arrived, I slowed down a bit and just tried to focus on learning. I'm not in a rush to reach PEP1, and a lot of what it covers are things I have zero experience with. The sheer frustration of having several hours of work amount to nothing is an excellent motivator/teacher.

We became less cohesive as a group as the event went on. For the second week, most of the mornings were woodland care, and then everyone would just do whatever activities or BBs they wanted to accomplish. Most of the people, except myself and one other person, had been at WL for 4 weeks prior to the event starting, so a lot of them left before the 2 weeks of SKIP were finished.

One important aspect was the general safety tips I got while I was there. Since I haven't used a lot of the tools we were working with before, it was helpful to have Mike explain the various ways I could accidentally hurt myself with them. Wearing appropriate footwear and safety gear was also important.

At one point, while cutting sections from a dead log, I accidentally kicked the log such that it started rolling downhill. Mike yelled at a person downhill to watch out for it, and I, thinking I would be helpful, ran after it and jumped in front of the log. At that point, Mike and the individual downhill both exclaimed that was a very unwise thing to do! Apparently it would have just hit a tree and been fine, but by attempting to be helpful I endangered myself. This was a lesson for everyone involved I think - I learned not to jump in front of a log rolling downhill, and Mike learned that that isn't common sense (for me, at least).

For a lot of the activities, I wore a GoPro on my chest that was recording. This was super helpful for getting footage, especially when I forgot to take some photos that were required for BBs. I definitely would've missed a couple had I not worn it. I'm still sorting through the footage to see if I can make a little summary video - there's a lot to sift through!

The formal structure around this event is still being developed, and it seems like a hard balance to strike. Too much structure makes it rigid, but if there's not enough people end up not accomplishing as much. I appreciated having the preplanned schedule, and the group was overall good at discussing what each person wanted and self sorting into smaller activity groups. Homesteading definitely requires self-direction, after all - no one is going to tell you what chores you need to work on.

I also became more self assured as the event went on, and was capable of directing myself more for different BBs. Once I had a good idea of where all the tools were, and had received tutorials in the tools from various people, I was able to think about how I might apply them for the BBs that I wanted to do, that weren't necessarily on the schedule. This led to me making a brush pile, and the mallet I mentioned, plus my attempt at a stool.

Going back now that I've accomplished BB40 would probably require more self direction. This time around, basically everything that was planned was a BB that I hadn't done before. This meant that no matter what I did, it would end up giving me PEP progress. Going further will require more planning and self direction.

Everyone there was very friendly, and I enjoyed meeting all of them. After spending so much time browsing through Permies, it was nice to meet people immersed in off grid living and learn from their experiences. Everyone was invested in everyone else's success, which is a nice energy to be around. I felt like the least knowledgeable person in the room the whole time, which meant that I had the most to learn!

Special shout out to the organizers of the event. Paul was a good host - he attended all the meals to discuss whatever permaculture themed topics people were interested in, and was consistently checking in with everyone throughout the event. The popsicle distributing was a nice touch during the heat wave! Mike and Fred both gave great instruction, and were always willing to help with whatever random BB you might decide you want to work on. The boots were also quite helpful, even though they had their own work to do. Anytime I asked them for help, they'd be more than happy to assist - thanks to all of you!

I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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