Painting Charlie Parr’s Guitar, and Who the heck is Dave Hundrieser?

My wife, Shawna Gilmore, just painted the back of Charlie Parr’s guitar. It’s the one you see here, which he has been touring the country with all summer and fall.


I think she did a darn fine job. Here’s the finished product:

guitar 1

Charlie’s instruments are essentially irreplaceable, so it’s amazing that he trusted her with it.

Guitar 2

The experience of watching this happen was fantastic. It totally gels with what we’re trying to accomplish with Cornucopia next Tuesday, where you’ll see Charlie make incredible music with this one-of-a-kind handmade guitar.

First of all, the event is all about promoting local talent and having the audience experience just how much more satisfying it is to orient life around local merchants, food growers, artists, writers, beer brewers, and the full gamut. Rather than drive over the hill to endure retail hell at a big box store, I enjoyed a fine walk in the rain with my dog to Marshall Hardware where I picked up oil-based enamel model paint for use on the stainless steel guitar. Incidentally, this is Charlie’s favorite hardware too:


Gosh I love Marshall’s. A mere half-mile from my house, and they have just about everything. I even bought my first toilet down there when we were new homeowners (special ordered). For whatever reason, I get a lot more satisfaction out of it because of this. EVERY SINGLE DAY. If you look closely, you can see my book on the far right – across from Charlie’s model paints…

Which brings us to collaboration between different artists, art forms, and neighbors. Charlie loves to encourage the artists around him, and delights in seeing them succeed in their craft. The same is true about all the artists that’ll be at this event, and I’m including the two mayors we have coming to participate (present and future mayors). Creatively leading a city is an art form too, I think. Furthermore, I’m getting more and more comfortable with calling myself an artist. While I’m not a painter, I do collect experiences and an appreciation of the talents of others like a weird kind of mixed tape. We all have valuable art work to offer society.

Anyhow, Charlie Parr spurs those around him to do their best work. I don’t even think he knows he’s doing it. His buddy, Dave Hundreiser, is a case in point. Brother Dave, as Charlie calls him, is a tremendous musician masquerading as a railroad man during a day job that consumes most of his time. Here he is in his living room with the only baritone 12-string guitar in the world. Charlie had the guitar built around the strings, the same gauge used by Leadbelly. He passed it along to Brother Dave because the extreme heft of the neck hurt his hand:


Dave wears those prison stripe bib overalls exclusively, and that record collection behind him is very impressive. He’s the guy who brought the house down while opening for Jimmy “Duck” Holmes this past summer. He plays an old-time country blues style. Brother Dave and Charlie are going to team up at the show on some blues numbers.

It was in Dave’s garage that Charlie Parr recorded his album, Jubilee. Here’s a picture of the place, but it’s nothing like it was on that unseasonably warm February day that created a lake inside the garage on the day of the recording from all the melted snow. Dave tried to cancel, but Charlie insisted the show must go on and that the conditions would make it even better…

Dave's garage

By the way, per Dave that’s the number 1 stick-fired smoker in the world. The beast is mounted on an enormous trailer. So, I suppose BBQ and blues sums up Brother Dave pretty well. He’s an extraordinarily kind man, and sitting in the same room while he and Charlie Parr and Kyle Ollah talked about music and great musicians was like sitting in on a rap session between Mozart and Beethoven. Seriously, these folks are musical savants. I love music, but they go so far down the well that I can’t keep up, much less try to articulate it with words. And yet, they make themselves accessible to regular people like you and me.

You’ve got to hear them play to begin to get an appreciation of how much musical wisdom and experience is distilled into their work. They don’t get to play together often, because Dave is constantly driving railroads across much of the continent. However, they have recorded together and plan on doing so again later this month. Seeing them together is a treat you should not miss.

There’s not a lot of money in folk music. Charlie and Dave laughed hysterically while recounting a show they did together several years ago at a well-known bar on the other side of the bridge. The opening act failed to show up, so Charlie and Dave (playing harmonica) played straight through in the smoky pub from 7:00 pm to nearly 2:30 am. This was before Wisconsin banned smoking at these establishments. Charlie didn’t even get up to take a leak. Dave describes Charlie has having played a “ferocious 7 hours,” during which he was absolutely banging on his guitar. At the end of it all, in a bar that was completely jam-packed with raucous people from start to finish, the bartender handed Charlie a $50 bill. Then he said, “If you keep it up you just might make something of yourself.” Ha ha. He had no idea what kind of talent he was hosting, or that Charlie was already getting by as a full-time musician. Amazingly, during the drive home after seven straight hours of playing together, they ruefully thought of several songs they forgot to play. “Awe man, we should’ve played Broke and Hungry, etc…” They draw from a mighty deep well.

This story came out when I mentioned a range of between 45 minutes and an hour for their combined set. The duo can keep right on going, and are comfortable while doing without rehearsing, sound checks, or set lists. I get the sense that playing together is very special to them both.

Here’s the link to the Facebook event we created for the big show at The Red Herring Lounge, which is free. I hope to see you there.

With that, I’ll leave you with the fine words Charlie put out on his Facebook page after we first met this past spring. There’s just real value to cross-pollination between different art forms, neighbors, and ideas…

Folks don’t just stop by the house too often, which seems a shame, I can remember my Dad’s friends dropping by out of the blue just because they were in the area and they’d all sit around the kitchen table with the coffee talking about nothing in particular. Sometimes Brother Dave stops over and we throw guitar bits back and forth with the coffee, but other than that it’s usually just Rueben and me bumming around the house or picking up sticks and dog poop in the yard. Eddy Gilmore stopped over the other day, though, out of the blue, and I got so happy to see someone that I talked his ear off and nearly drove him away. Eddy’s a pure soul, though, he wrote a book called “The Emancipation of a Buried Man” which he left me and I thought it was a great read so I returned the favor, dropping out of the grey sky along with the rain into his personal home to share tea and another round of nonstop chatter from me. Years ago it was work for anyone to scrape a sound out of me, or even a look, I was so shy, but nowadays I’ll wear the dog out with endless monologues concerning idle and meaningless things, things that mean the world to me somehow. So it goes, I’m turning into a trapdoor spider, waiting in the house for some innocent soul to stop by so I can weave my web of dog walk incidents and daughter hair snarls and bent tuning machines and bicycle tires and pants that don’t fit because I was too impatient to try them on at the store. Small wonder that no one drops in.


Check out my earlier post about my first impressions of meeting Charlie: Charlie Parr: guitar virtuoso, friend, barefoot prophet

Caffeinated Chickens, Castoffs, and How I Finally Used My Master’s Degree


Coffee chaff in the chicken coop??? This chicken is pondering the same thing, but we’ve determined that it’s completely awesome!

A byproduct of the roasting process, they are light, fluffy, compost much more rapidly than the pine shavings these are replacing, smell fantastic, block odors, and are free! I collect mine from high-end coffee roasters located just a few miles away: Duluth Coffee Company and Alakef Coffee. This week I made the rounds of book deliveries, and instead of returning home with an empty bike trailer, I picked up the wonderfully aromatic burlap sack of chaff you see here:


Lately it seems all I do is collect unwanted castoffs from others in the community and put them to good use. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction I experience from this borders on the ridiculous. Possessing absolutely no regular income, this gleaning plugs me into the community more deeply than the traditional act of consumption. Here are some other recent examples:

Manure obtained from two different horse stables for my hugel bed and to aid in the expansion of a community garden at my church:


We took in between 80 and 100 bags of leaves by setting a sign out in the front yard. I’m always amazed so many people wish to part with them. Chopped, they make a wonderful mulch for the gardens, keep weeds down, and hold moisture in the soil. My kids and their friends had a great time jumping into enormous piles of them as well.

On the same day I arrived home with the large bag of coffee chaff, a large truck loaded with six tons of wood chips just happened to be parked behind my garage. The operator agreed to dump them right there. Six tons is proving to be A LOT more than I realized! It also provides another item for the neighbors to talk about…


We’re using these to DEEPLY cover what otherwise would be a muddy area behind my hugel bed, and lets be honest, this is just another opportunity for me to share another picture of the beauty. The kids are going to use this spot as a play area. We mined the branches (and logs for the hugel) from a nearby wooded area. Sticks are much better playthings than useless plastic objects! Anyhow, now our kids can make a mess in this area without me nagging them to clean up all the time. Old painter drop cloths will ultimately cover the teepee:


My neighbor always seems to be building something useful out of salvaged lumber. I couldn’t resist capturing this photo of his newly built woodshed. Beautiful, isn’t it? The simple act of obtaining the lumber provided him with meaningful interaction with a nearby resident who was grateful to see the wood “re-homed.”


Ironically, and without any disrespect, I found myself using my master’s degree for the first time this week. Requiring a large folder to haul promotional posters for the incredible event I’m organizing, I placed the item into service. Aside from a light dusting of coffee chaff from resting beneath the burlap bag on the ride home, it arrived looking perkier than usual, having actually been found to be useful.


Few people are aware that I have a masters in theology. I don’t speak of it much. Not only do I lack any sense of mastery, I find that the human race tends to treat me differently upon learning of it. I recall one conversation from my grad school days in Boston quite vividly. A middle-aged man and I were enjoying a splendid conversation while connecting over things of common interest. Upon hearing of my coursework he became ashen-faced, blurted out a nonsensical statement about having once supported a poor child in another country through one of those adopt-a-child charities, and then he awkwardly walked away. Strange…. Thus, I prefer to avoid such exchanges.

I’d love to see you at The Red Herring on November 24th if you’re near Duluth, Minnesota. This is going to be a celebration of local, and it’s entirely free. There will, however, be plenty of the finest local brews for purchase, as well as meaningful gifts you may obtain from our incredibly talented array of musicians and authors who are participating. There’s no charge for handshakes and conversation with our current mayor and also with the Mayor-elect. Check out my last post for more information. Here’s a link to the Facebook event page, which’ll help you stay up-to-date:

Other castoffs that I’m loving include Grandma’s old rotary phone, which I prize more than any “smart” phone or digitally enhanced item of any kind, and the 60 gallons of coffee grounds obtained from the local coffeehouse to help enhance soil fertility. Hauled in five-gallon bucket loads by bike, this harvest provided for 12 round-trips to my favorite neighborhood hangout: Amity Coffee. That’s 24 short visits of mutual benefit (collecting and returning the bucket). While I’m definitely romanticizing things a bit, I can’t afford 24 trips of gourmet coffee drinking. I found myself thankful not only for the product, but for renewed friendships within an independent, locally-owned fixture in our community. Last but not least, I helped bring in the very last of the root crops at Food Farm, which were planted around the time of my first visit. Unable to let the rejects rot in the field, I left with several enormous rutabagas that I look forward to inserting into the family’s diet in some creative way.

Lacking the cash required for conspicuous consumption, I’m discovering that it is entirely possible to increase community connections through gleaning. In whatever manner is appropriate for you, I encourage you to do the same.

CORNUCOPIA 2015, A Lavish Feast of Local Talent


In just about the craziest turn of events ever, I’m organizing an event that will feature two mayors (one present and the other future), four well-known bands/musicians/musical savants, and a freaking tap dancer.  It all started when the current Mayor nonchalantly mentioned, “Hey, we should do a book event.”

Since this is much like Cinderella being invited to the ball—perhaps a once in a lifetime experience—I didn’t want it to be boring. Cornucopia is winding up to be rather over-the-top. It’ll be at The Red Herring Lounge, pictured here bursting at the seams per usual:


It’s gotta be the coolest place in town. I’m kind of flabbergasted that this is all coming together, quite frankly. I mean, can you believe that a guy who looks like the schmuck pictured below reveling atop a pile of manure, the smallest portion of which is now fueling his urban farming fantasies, could possibly pull together a high-profile event like this? You’ll find me bolting out the door by around 10 pm just to be sure my transformation back to “village idiot” doesn’t occur in public.

manure man

Only in Duluth…

This will be a feast for all the senses. 100% local, all organic, pure awesomeness. With gratitude and serious love for one another, we’ll celebrate local goodness. We’re just dripping in the stuff. My goal is for everyone to come away with an appreciation for just how much more satisfying life is when we choose “local.”

Everyone participating has poured their hearts and souls into their craft, from local beer brewers to authors to top-notch musicians and my friend the tap artist. Mayor Ness, Teague Alexy, and I will each give short book readings between the various sets. If we’re lucky, we’ll wind up with even more on tap.

It’s kind of ironic, actually. Initially the goal was to sell some books, but now we’ve expanded. While I may personally be the most obscure person in the room, I believe the evening has the potential to be magical. This is better than book sales. I’m excited to be a part of it.

Come on down and simply enjoy yourself. There is no cover charge. You’ll have the opportunity to meet some interesting and very cool people, and the music can’t be beat.

Positive Energy Outdoors NEEDS Your HELP!

Can you imagine spending your honeymoon with 16 sled dogs? Very few individuals, and even fewer couples, would consider toting along such company on their honeymoon. This morning I enjoyed a fabulous visit with Stephanie Love and Blake Cazier, who did just that. Imagine driving to Ouray, Colorado, all the way from Northern Minnesota in December with all those dogs, and calling it relaxing.

Now 11 years into their marriage, this is emblematic of how their work (or mission, if you will) is entwined with their family life. It also displays an unusual level of integration, for this day and age at any rate, between man and animal in pulling a tremendous workload together.

Positive Energy Outdoors, located just 15 miles north of Duluth, is truly a one-of-a-kind gem. The term “youth camp,” does not adequately describe PEO to the world. Frankly, I don’t even have room in this short post to do it adequately, but I think “outdoor education center” comes close.

Here’s a sampling of what a van load of seven to nine-year-old girls from the local Boys and Girls Club will be experiencing after school this coming Monday (November 2nd, a time of the year when most people confine themselves to the insides of buildings as if quarantined): driving a team of draft horses, learning forest history in an actual working forest, becoming acquainted with a lovely bog and the creatures in and around it, as well as a tour of their kennel comprised of 55 enthusiastic sled dogs. By the way, Positive Energy Outdoors typically collects between five and ten dollars for each participant of such programs. They remain deeply committed to making such experiences accessible to children from low to moderate income homes. Because girls and puppies go together like peas and carrots, here’s a bucket of puppies from a recent litter:


The animals these girls will meet aren’t just pets, however. They’re vital partners in PEO’s mission of encouraging people and animal-powered exploration of the outdoors. Here’s a picture of two champions. Stephanie Love, on the left, has devoted her life to the many children and adults who benefit from their outdoor education, interpretation, and guiding—at great sacrifice, I might add. The pretty gal on the right, Sota, is an 11-year-old lead sled dog. She has led at least two teams to victory in the 103-mile Mid-Distance John Beargrease sled dog marathon. (PEO takes in retired sled dogs.)


I joined Stephanie’s husband, Blake, on a training run with team # 2 this morning. At 8:30 am, they had already finished with team # 1 (another 14 dog team). Though it was incredibly damp and a chilly 39 degrees, I was told it was a touch warm for the dogs this morning. Thus, they get these runs done as early as possible, before the real “heat of the day.”

Here the dogs endure a short break, but really just want to keep running:

a short break

For years I’ve wanted to ride behind a team of dogs, and though there’s no snow yet, the experience reawakened this dream. Judging the excitement of the dogs as they were hitched to the team, this is their entire reason for living. Oh how they love to pull a load through the forest! They are eager to get into shape before the real dogsledding begins after the snow flies, when children and adults alike will thrill in perhaps the most unique form of winter exploration ever conceived.

Today we rode their regular training loop while utilizing both private and public trails. Perhaps more than anything, the availability of public land keeps the sport of dogsledding alive. In fact, the issue threatens the very existence of PEO. Fredenberg Township recently kicked them off 80 acres of “parkland,” which has served as a corridor to beautiful Island Lake and trails that could take them all the way to Canada. Blake has used this land as such since he bought the property in 1997. PEO enjoys the support of most neighbors and of the wider community-at-large.

We all have a stake in this, especially those of us living in St. Louis County. Our county board of commissioners gifted this parcel of 80 acres to the township to manage, with the understanding that everyone currently using the land would continue to have access to it. The township, due to the outsized influence of just three or four families, has gone back on its word by kicking PEO off this land. This land is densely forested, and has always served to provide access for nearby residents to countless recreational opportunities on Island Lake and nearby trails. Access to public land is necessary for dog sledding, kayaking, rock climbing, and many other endeavors that virtually all of us CHERISH.

We need to guard access to public land. This is something worth fighting for. I have lived in areas where there is little to no public land, and I can’t say enough about just how limiting this is to outdoor recreation activities. PLEASE CONSIDER SIGNING THE PETITION ACCESSED THROUGH THIS LINK in order to help ensure the continued existence of this extremely valuable outdoor education center. There simply is nothing else like it this close to Duluth

 County Commissioner Frank Jewell says it well, as quoted in the paper recently:

“This is exactly what the majority of the county board did not want to see happen. They (town officials) seem bent on closing this camp,” Jewell said. “The township said one thing when we were giving them the land and now they are doing something completely different. It’s blatant dishonesty.”

This non-profit outdoor education center means a great deal to our community, and to disadvantaged kids from lower income households in particular. Access to activities like kayaking, rock climbing, stand up paddle boarding, dog sledding, and simply to THE LAND, should not be for the wealthy alone. Reading between the lines, this just might be a case where wealthy elites are attempting to close access to prime forest and lake frontage. I’ll refrain from wading further into the controversy, but it’s hard not to draw this unfortunate conclusion.

I asked what keeps them going. This situation has been beyond stressful, and it’s not like they are making big bucks. Last year Blake drew a small salary for the first time, and PEO was founded back in 2004. Dog feed alone runs about $15k annually. Then there’s vet bills for them and the horses, insurance, equipment, and on and on. Steph does youth development consulting work on the side and some CPR training so they can make a buck. Why keep at it? Her answer came back to me as follows:

I asked Blake what his answer was to your question about what keeps us going, and he and I have the same answer—this is our chosen profession—we have a unique skill set and we love sharing the outdoors with kids and adults. Everyone needs more opportunities to get outside and learn new skills, have opportunities for challenge (both mentally and physically) and experience the adventure experiences we provide with the support and encouragement of the group and the facilitators (Blake, myself, our staff and volunteers). We feel lucky that we are able to do this work because it is rewarding and challenging, and the children and adults we serve, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, need these opportunities. Most kids today spend the equivalent of a full time job just interacting with screens… Who would would provide these programs if we didn’t? Neither of us could imagine doing anything else.

In conversation she also commented that a disadvantaged child’s “whole perception of what’s possible is expanded through such experiences, by being challenged appropriately, and from positive reinforcement from adults.” She also relayed a story of a Native American girl who gives them a lot of credit as a major influence on her life. She not only became the first person in her family to go to college, but she received a full ride from Harvard.


There are many other stories that could be shared. Please consider signing the petition, and even offering financial support to this couple who are pouring their lives into this work. If an amicable solution cannot be reached, they could be facing legal bills in the near future.

Due to grants from the United Way, they are able to offer scholarships for experiences like their day camps. The cost would normally be in the hundreds of dollars. Having twins, this wouldn’t be possible for my family. I am grateful for a scholarship we received a couple years back, which enabled our children to participate in a weeklong day camp. They’ve also received grants from entities like The North Face and Maurices over the years. Individual supporters are also crucial.

Here’s a recent news story if you’d like to learn more.

Rot and Renewal, or “The Happy Hugeler!”

hugel pic

Rotting debris, intentionally piled as if sculpted, is beautiful. What some cast aside as worthless becomes valuable. What had been reviled is renewed. Redeemed, if you will.

Ripe for obsession, I was introduced to hugelkultur through the impressive urban farming efforts being undertaken by The Duluth Grill.

Pronounced “hoogel culture,” it’s a style of gardening that has persisted in Germany and Eastern Europe for hundreds of years. A simple concept, it pretty much amounts to nothing more than a mound of buried wood.

Obsession met opportunity. A neighbor found himself with several piles of apple tree logs and brush. Another neighbor, in an act of utter irresponsibility—the one with a full view of my backyard through their kitchen window—was conveniently away for an entire weekend. They returned from a short vacation to discover a 20-foot-long tangle of logs, branches and brush. (We wound up getting far more logs than is seen here, but I was unable to get any pictures of them. However, the mental picture of creepy crawlies boring into them as they slowly rot away is adequate enough. Josiah and I beat the Prius like a work truck as we filled it with heavy 10-foot-long logs for the effort, after which he proudly exclaimed, “This was the best day of my life!” The statement is either a testament to his love for work, gardening, riding in the front seat of the car for the first time, or a lack of quality time with dear old dad. Probably all four…)

hugel bed

What began as a mess, is transforming into functional beauty.

To help things along, I scoured the forest for several loads of large, rotting logs just teeming with life. Atop the tangle of woody debris, I added leaves, fruit and vegetable waste, as well as numerous buckets of used coffee grounds from my neighborhood coffeehouse: Amity Coffee.

Premium, locally roasted coffee grounds are dumped onto the mound five gallons at a time. In addition to increased fertility, the immediate area smells wonderful.
Rotting wood creates an enormous initial draw from the soil’s nitrogen—the fuel for composting carbon—so it’s crucial to add manure as well.

I got mine from Seeds of Hope Youth Ranch. My need for horse excrement provided a marvelous pretext for working a pitchfork near graceful horses within a lovely setting, and to brush up against their laudable mission of connecting the beautiful animals with at-risk children.

In a display of remarkable salesmanship, I successfully bartered a copy of my book for a load of processed grass. Thus, I’ll spend the rest of my life waiting for the opportunity to win an argument after hearing, “Your book isn’t worth you-know-what.” Now, and I’ll ask the reader to forgive a little bragging here, I can assure you that it’s worth at least 48 cubic feet of pure excrement (and probably twice that).

Barns. Horses. Pasture. The experience of idyllic countryside is reason enough for any urban gardener to import manure. I look forward to a visit to West Amity Stables some time soon for the same purpose.

The site of my friend backing his trailer up to a steaming pile of goodness filled me with happiness and thanksgiving. Friendship and renewal go together like peas and carrots.

Our family’s chickens and an odd duck are pleased to produce a steady supply of waste material as well.

Fall is the perfect time for allowing them to peck and scratch for bugs atop the new mound, whilst I engage in various chores on our small patch of land. Nothing beats listening to the football game on the radio—as opposed to wasting a beautiful Sunday afternoon in front of the teevee—while working in the yard alongside my small flock of genuflecting congregants.

Immense satisfaction has come with this investment into a hugel bed that should pay dividends for 20 years or more. Topsoil will ultimately round out the mound, which will top out at around four feet in height. It’ll be ready for planting in the spring, but like fine wine aged to perfection, the passing of time will only make the garden richer.
These mounds are renowned for conserving water to the point where irrigation is virtually unnecessary. Rotting logs within this mound will swell with moisture like sponges, and give it back to the soil as needed.

The process mimics soil creation on the forest floor. Years of fungal and microbial activity within the deep soil of this raised garden bed will provide rich soil life, nutrients, organic material, air pockets for roots, and more.

Irrespective of results, this long-term, no-till garden will be rewarding. My gardening efforts have lacked inspiration for some time. Hugelkultur is so counter-intuitively weird and interesting that I just had to give it a try. In addition to soil building, gardening for the long haul is a soul-building activity.

Following a job-loss and the ongoing stress of redrawing my vocation, working with the land is essential to healthy living.

(FYI, most of the above appeared here this past weekend. Naturally, my column is almost exclusively a chronicle of obsessions.)

Here’s the finished product after tucking it in for the winter under a thick, healthy quilt of chopped leaves. The mound, slope included, will be used for strawberries, vegetables, and even some floral activity. I can’t wait to see lovely nasturtium draped down the side of that rotting, wood barrel…

hugel done

From this angle you can see the remnants of two failed beds (due to too much shade in that area and too little devotion on my part). This is a consolidation from four beds to one, and a reduction to a little more than half the former veggie garden space. In this case I find reduction to be rather expanding…

final hugel

Here’s a short list of hugelkultur’s many benefits. A little hugel google will turn up quite a lot of information for you, but here’s why I did it:

  1. Grow your garden without irrigation or fertilizer. As the logs rot they become impressive sponges as they soak up moisture. This is released back into the soil as needed.
  2. This is a gift to your future self. The garden should last 20 – 30 years as the logs slowly release their nutrients into the soil.
  3. As the wood shrinks down, tiny air pockets are created for roots to sink down into utter goodness.
  4. It’s a self-tilling garden, and it will only get better with age. Apparently results can be muted in the first year as the wood only begins to rot, but much of my material is already pretty well rotted.
  5. The composting process will warm the soil slightly, thus extending the growing season somewhat.
  6. The deep soil will be incredibly rich and loaded with soil life for years to come. I’m excited just to observe this. Nutrients are bound up in the wood, and slowly released to all this microbial activity, as well as your precious crops.
  7. Once again, however, it’s just freaking interesting. Regardless of results, my imagination and passion for gardening has been recaptured. We’re already members of a CSA, so this satisfies the “What’s the point?” question that comes up from time to time. Now it’s all about the process.
  8. What would ordinarily go to waste is being put to good use. The gathering of materials has been most rewarding, and has provided for further interactions with neighbors, local businesses, etc. (I have a sign out front for leaves, collect coffee grounds at the local coffee shop, manure from the ranch, logs and debris from neighbors and well-wishers, etc…) Even the barrel was just moldering away in a new neighbor’s yard. I’m pleased to have it end its useful life in such a beautiful way…

Happy hugeling!

Living as an Author Teetering Among Many Roles


Highs and lows and everything in between. Getting the axe from a comfortable job, navigating a crisis located smack dab in the middle of life, publishing a book, working to gain traction on a second, farming, painting houses, fathering, husbanding (animals, wife, children), book marketing, being the proud spouse/booster of an artist, and striving each and every day not to give in to a feeling of being cast adrift. It can be overwhelming.

I never went into this lifestyle expecting an easy or comfortable existence, but I’ve been surprised to learn that the life of an author (joining the 99% who aren’t famous) entails effectively transitioning between these many roles. Transitioning doesn’t exactly come naturally to me, either. The great task is to be fully engaged in the present, referred to by some as “The Eternal Now,” while cheerfully moving within these various roles.

A writer is an observer. The imperative is to suck the marrow out of all of life, which should be intensely interesting and surprising. There’s so very much to delight in, figure out, and process. The depth of my ignorance in every area of life seems to be bottomless, but on the bright side, this provides a lifelong opportunity for adventure and discovery. I really don’t know how to further my “career.” Farming at minimum wage, for example, makes zero sense/cents, especially when considering that an average roundtrip commute each day is more than two hours long (equal parts bicycle and rideshare by automobile). I return home to my other job as a part-time dishwasher for my family in the dark—bike trail illuminated by a light loaned to me by a good friend—exhausted at the end of a 12-hour-day. It feels good, though. After spending a dozen years in front of computers vocationally, I find that I love to get dirty while doing honest, wholesome work. In the picture above I am enjoying the farm’s impressive rope swing. In the lower-right hand corner you can see a bucket. It contains gleanings from vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise be sold. I love bringing these home to the family.

Here are my cabbage-picking buddies. Aren’t the coveralls great? I’d love to get a pair of my own along with some overalls now that I’m bona fide and all…

cabbage buddies

Book marketing is a mystery. It’s a tough slog, punctuated by unexpected moments  of encouragement. Check out a recent review on Perfect Duluth Day, where my book was one of two featured for Fall reading (alongside our Mayor’s new release). Duluth Superior Living magazine also ran a two-page feature on me, which you can read here (navigate to pages 26-27).

I also got the endorsement of Mayor Don Ness, which was pretty sweet:


Most of my efforts haven’t resulted in flashy success, however. It’s more of a day in and day out slog to market individual copies. Here you can see a recent event I participated in near my house called the Lester River Rendezvous. The organizers allowed me to set up my “wares” at the last minute. My goal was to sell 10 books.


The event was a wild success. I liberated 11 books from their box, and had a great time doing it. However, this required sitting there all day long and hauling books and gear by bike. I sold nothing and hardly spoke to a soul for the first two hours. Hard work, indeed. Nothing comes easy. As with most things, perseverance paid off in the end. That said, the amount of effort expended certainly exceeded the bottom-line profit. However, it’s those first nudges of the snowball that are the most difficult. I hope!

I was proud of this little display. In the background you can see my bright red union suit flapping in the breeze. Nobody asked about this curious sight. It’s a subtle reference to airing out my dirty laundry. The tent, backpack, and bike are all featured prominently in the book. I sat in the chair, had an extra beside me, and invited free conversations. I partook in many, most of which were enjoyable. The goal was to provide a bit of an oasis from all the buying and selling (while hopefully unloading some books at the same time). I was located on the outside edge among numerous booths selling various crafts, toys, clothing, jewelry, and other wares. I was definitely the only author, so nobody else was competing for the attention of the few voracious readers walking by. I even gave away a copy of my audiobook through a drawing, which I have yet to market effectively. Listen to an audio sample here!

Each and every experience adds to our own patch of soil, hopefully growing in fertility with each passing day.

I pulled an agate out of the soil while harvesting carrots one day—soil so soft and rich that I couldn’t resist toiling in bare feet once—and looked up to discover that my fellow farmhand was sporting a shirt that I had previously donated to the same thrift store where she picked it up for herself. One of the broken buttons was unmistakable. What are the odds of that???? Helga and my old green shirt (donated during one of my purges) appear in the lower lefthand corner of this photo:

my shirt

By the way, I dumped and washed all of those carrots (and another load just like it) in the carrot-washer. I kind of feel like Louis Anderson from Coming to America:

I started out harvesting leeks. I moved on to cabbages. Now I’m washing carrots and potatoes. Soon I’ll be driving the tractor!

Glamorous, indeed!

This past weekend, though I have MUCH bigger fish to fry, obsession found  opportunity after a neighbor cut down several large branches from apple trees. Inspired by my friends at The Duluth Grill (see most recent post), I decided to build a hugel bed. Very few things inspire me like rotting organic material! Hugelkultur is so weirdly counterintuitive that I just had to give it a try. It’s a simple concept, and is just a bunch of rotting, buried wood. My raised garden bed will be somewhere between three and five feet high. Logs and brush will slowly rot, inviting beneficial activity in the soil. I’ll post on this when it’s complete, but here’s to sweet beginnings:

hugel bed

hugel 2

Our gardening efforts have been uninspired for a couple years. This provides an opportunity to be inspired again. All this rotting debris is a lot like the stuff of our own lives, which makes us who we are. Rather than casting off memories and hard times like unwanted detritus, we can learn from them as they slowly become incorporated into rich, fertile, soil.

With that, I’ll leave you with these Thanksgiving turkeys, which are entering their last month of life. They have had a good life. Such sights help me to be thankful for so many, small things. High quality meat is less likely to be ungratefully discarded and wasted if it is greeted as a whole, living creature first. Like so many other blessings…


Inefficient, Crazy, and Utterly Delicious

I sell quite a few books at The Duluth Grill. Delivering them by bike requires a significant investment of time as it requires me to haul them across town. Occasionally, the need to replenish the stock comes at an inconvenient time, but always, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the experience is the highlight of my week. This particular visit was particularly satisfying, because it included a 90 minute visit with the owner (completely impromptu and unplanned) that helped me understand why this place brings so much joy. Additionally, I’ve been working at one of the local farms that supplies them with much of their produce. Tomorrow I’ll be helping to harvest some of their future potatoes, in fact. It is extremely rewarding to be somewhat involved, or to at least observe, the full process from farm-to-table. Here’s an expanded version of a column I recently wrote for the Duluth Budgeteer:

admiring the gardens

If Tom Hanson, owner of the Duluth Grill, were the CEO of a large corporation he’d be fired. His chief failure to the suits would be his indifference to the goal of extracting and concentrating wealth at the top.

Tom says, “I prefer to do things the hard way.” This was his response to my quizzical look upon hearing that he is doing his own demolition work inside the building that will become his next restaurant in Lincoln Park (a rough part of town but now showing signs of rebound): OMC Smokehouse. That’s short for Oink, Moo, Cluck.

His path to “success” wasn’t easy. With no college education he cut his teeth by working for the Ground Round prior to launching out on his own with very little cash and lots of debt. He remains approachable, down-to-earth, and is the opposite of what one might expect of the owner of a business grossing over $100K in sales per week.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Hanson exemplifies what Mayor Ness was quoted as saying in Bicycling Magazine at the end of last year:

Most cities put a premium on making life easy; cities like Duluth put a premium on making life interesting. It’s not for everyone; it will never be an American standard. But I think a lot of people are looking for that.

His own profits seem to be an afterthought, almost accidental. He chooses to keep things interesting, sustainable, local, and community-based.

This average-sized diner employs a whopping 120 people. Hanson could easily heap more work on his employees, increase stress and turnover, and keep more of the profits for himself. Worker pay is well above average in the industry. Twelve managers earn healthy salaries while working reasonable hours and having actual lives, and this includes a farm manager. This is unheard of for a restaurant of this size!


Having done time in food service, I spot unhappiness and stress immediately. The atmosphere at the Grill is the complete opposite. Workers are fulfilled, happy, and proud to work there. During a busy lunch rush I encountered employees across the hierarchy. Even the dishwasher had an immense smile. At other establishments they tend to feel overworked, unappreciated, under-paid.

One reason for this is the fact that everybody, regardless of title, pitches in wherever help is needed. Here is an example of servant leadership at it’s best. General manager, Jeff Petcoff, swabs the deck with the best of ’em:

servant leader

Additionally, the owner’s son, Louis, doesn’t walk around like he’s some sort of big shot. Here Tom and I interrupted him in the middle of food prep (observe the fresh, local ingredients):

Father and son

Meanwhile, Tom lives in a small home in Lincoln Park. He could be living high off the hog if he chose to.

Hanson home

His yard—a bona fide urban farm—is ridiculous for the unbelievable productivity coming out of a small city lot AND paradoxically for how little financial sense it makes. Not only did he blast his driveway to smithereens to create space for gardens and a walking path, he has employed multiple gardeners. Indulging and delighting in the obsessions of his extremely talented crew can’t be cheap.

A commercial-sized aquaponics system perhaps 25 feet long graces the inside of the greenhouse. A solar array outside passively heats the water within a complicated circulation system. Soon it will be filled with hundreds of growing pacu fish, which may make it onto the menu eventually.


The remaining space outside is maximized with lush beds of vegetables and even a rabbit hutch. Vegetable scraps from the restaurant and gardens are fed to the bunnies, which convert feed into meat very efficiently. Rabbits reproduce so rapidly that a single pair can produce 50% more meat in a year than an average-sized year-old beef steer. Farm-to-table sustainability is being taken to new heights.

Entering Tom’s backyard (a paradise that enthralled my 10-year-old son):


Full-time gardener, Patrick, was an excellent tour guide. He is one of many happy employees of the restaurant, exclaiming that he’s both a fish and a horticultural nerd. The man is ecstatic to be fortunate enough to be able to indulge in both interests. Here he is beside the rabbit hutch. Once again, this is all within one rather small city lot…


Having dreams larger than available space, Hanson purchased the neighboring home. The prized lawn space is being overhauled for the sake of more crops, which will be cultivated within innovative hugelkultur beds, while his parents have taken up residence within the house.

Most surprising, considering the relatively steep hill, is that the new gardens will be 100% handicapped accessible. The Duluth Grill employs a botanist who works from a wheelchair.

Neighboring yard on the cusp of some serious transformation:

neighboring yard
Due to Tom and company’s passion for fresh and local, they have created a logistical challenge by having over 100 vendors. While we spoke, Tom personally signed a check paying the local farmer that produces their pickles. One delivery from a semi-truck would be so much more efficient!

This is a small array of examples that would serve as an indictment for larger businesses obsessed with efficiency. Not only does he make a profit, these projects inspire an entire city. Mixed lovingly, these ingredients create utter deliciousness.

****Due to space, I was unable to get into the serious challenges Tom has faced over the years: a partnership that went bad and that nearly forced the closure of the restaurant due to large amounts of debt and taxes not paid by the partners that had a 51% stake in the place, the mortgage that almost fell through that enabled him to buy the property but was saved at the last minute by a waitress on his team who loaned him enough for the down payment on the last possible day, credit card loans to get through payroll, and on and on.

Challenges today are taken with a healthy dose of humor, such as when the Grill received 500 extra pounds of green peppers from the university’s sustainable farming program. Rather than get frustrated, Tom treated the experience as an opportunity to get creative. His story is a remarkable example of perseverance, and of the benefits of surrounding yourself with gifted people who have the freedom to flourish. We’ve barely scratched the surface, but this is already too much goodness to take in through only one helping!