1. Truth is for Cowards

My “green noir” mystery novel, Wasted, takes place in October 1998, as Berkeley experiences an unusually hot and prolonged Indian Summer.

Every day this October, I am posting a chapter of Wasted. You can read it like a serial novel, a chapter a day for a month. The day’s chapter will be here, the already posted chapters at johnbyrnebarry.com/wasted. My goal is to publish Wasted by December 1 and I am seeking readers and feedback.

If you’d like to read the book without waiting a day between chapters, please contact me — I have advance readers copies available now as e-books and, within a couple weeks, as trade paperbacks. All I ask is that you write an honest review.

(If you haven’t read my other novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, which I wrote after Wasted, you can read the first three chapters here, and buy it here. It’s fun and fast-paced. Read reviews here.)

Here’s the first chapter.

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1. Truth is for Cowards

“For years, the big garbage companies worked overtime to discredit and stop the recycling bandwagon,” says longtime activist Doug Spaulding of Recycle Berkeley, a.k.a. Re-Be. “Now they don’t just want to get on the bandwagon. They want to buy the whole thing and kick the rest of us off.”

—Brian Hunter, “The Garbage Shortage,” East Bay Beat, September 30, 1998

[Sunday. October 11. 9 a.m.]

I see Doug before he sees me, and I pause in the shadow of the Re-Be gate to watch him. He’s driving a dusty yellow John Deere forklift, precariously balancing five bales of cardboard and drumming his hands on the steering wheel. He’s wearing headphones and singing, but I can’t hear him above the groan of the engine.

His frayed jumpsuit, dotted with oil stains and holes, looks like it will disintegrate in the next wash, and his graying ponytail pokes out the back of his orange and black Giants baseball cap. It’s his carefully cultivated Joe Working Class Hippie look, but he grew up in the high-hat suburbs of San Diego and has a Ph.D. in Biology.

I take a breath—dealing with Doug takes an extra shot of oxygen—and stroll into the yard. Doug drops the bales onto a flatbed truck, zips away in reverse, and skids to a halt. He leans into a turn with his shoulder, and grimaces as if his shoulder is bearing the weight. When he sees me, there’s a flicker of embarrassment, then he jerks the headphones off and hops down from the cab.

“I want to show you what we’re up against,” he says. “I will not be fucking intimidated.” Doug, have you heard of hello?

An hour ago, he woke me with a phone call, growling, “You want evidence? Bring a shopping cart. And your camera.”

Doug leads me to his boxy white 1950s bread truck, with the faded Langendorf Bakery logo still visible on one side.

“Front tire punctured. And they leave the fucking screwdriver on my front seat. And the gloves. They want me to know.”

“And who, specifically, is they?” I ask, as innocently as possible. “Tom Herman? Julian?”

“Of course not. Some grunt they hired. I already told you about that whacked-out poacher who tried to kill me. I mean, my life is in danger.”

Doug’s a modern guy—he surfs the Web, follows aluminum prices on the commodities market, listens to Beck and Dave Matthews, and uses sunscreen. But his contempt for “yuppie scum,” his characterization of landlords as “parasites and extortionists,” his sneering about rich people this and rich people that pigeonhole him as a ’60s relic. He’s practically a caricature.

Yet I admire his unflinching passion, wish I had more of it myself. Of course, Doug is a coward in his own way, rarely turning his critical and perceptive eye on himself.

“So what did the police say about all this?” I frame the front tire and passenger door of the truck in my viewfinder.

He hesitates.

“You didn’t call them.”

“Why bother? They’re in on it.”

I put down my camera and give him a skeptical look. “‘Paranoia strikes deep,’” I say, “’‘Into your life it will creep.’ Stephen Stills.”

He stops me with a pointed finger, flashes a phony grin. “Hey, ‘A paranoid is a man who has all the facts.’ Williams S. Burroughs.”

“Yeah, and he was a junkie who shot his wife,” I answer.

“Oh, there’s more. Stay tuned.” He grabs my arm. I shake free. He strides across the pavement, crunching broken glass and tin can lids under his work boots. I stuff my notebook in my back pocket and grab my camera. Rabbit, the old spaniel mutt that Re-Be has adopted, is sleeping in the sun next to the buyback scale. He wiggles his tail in a weak imitation of a wag, then buries his nose in his paws and closes his eyes. I pat him on the head. Not much time left for him. Doug weaves past two huge blue bins overflowing with glass bottles, then stops at the base of the cinder block wall that encloses the yard.

Re-Be’s had a lot of break-ins over the years. Homeless people sleep in the hut. Others get in somehow, fill bags with aluminum cans, then bring them back the next day to resell them at the buyback center. So a couple years ago, after an errant truck knocked down the old fence, Re-Be built a new ten-foot high wall of cinder blocks topped with broken glass embedded in mortar. The shards of green and brown and clear glass sparkle in the morning sun like jewels.

At the top of the wall a patch of blue denim is speared on a piece of green glass. I pull out my camera and zoom in for a close-up.

“Obviously, it’s our man with the screwdriver,” says Doug.

“Obviously,” I say, overplaying my exasperation. “Look, I get that you want this to be Scavenger sabotage. But I need more than your allegations. You insult me when you give me this flimsy shit and expect me to print it.”

“What, you expect Con to leave incriminating memos sitting around on picnic tables? You don’t have it in fucking triplicate, it didn’t happen? Is that what you’re saying? Textbook rat-fucking, that’s what this is.”

“This is textbook speculation,” I say. “You don’t seem to get this, so let me repeat it slowly. I don’t. Want to publish. Anything. Without. Hard. Evidence. Got it?”

Doug kicks an empty plastic bucket. It rolls along next to the wall, then bangs into it.

“Hunter, what has the truth ever done for you? You told the truth to your bandmates about the money you owed. They bailed. You told the truth to Eileen. She’s gone.”

I open my mouth to respond, but can’t think fast enough.

“We’re living in the post-modern ’90s, man, the truth is what we decide it should be.”

How does Doug know about Eileen, I start to ask, but he rolls right over me.

“Look, my parents are lawyers. Their job is to get their clients off, nail the other guy. Truth is fucking irrelevant. You have the chance to create truth, man, to blast the fucking lid off this takeover plan. Don’t blow it just so you can be fucking pure.”

“Doug, Doug, Doug, I published a laundry list of Scavenger’s criminal fines last Wednesday. I can’t repeat them week after week—”

He thrusts his head towards me, his face inches from mine. I lean back, twisting away from his stare, tightening my grip on the camera hanging from my shoulder.

“Truth is for cowards, man, you gotta take sides,” he says. “The middle of the road is where the roadkill lay twitching. You claim to be a radical, but you don’t have the balls to actually do anything.”

Breathe deep, I tell myself. Don’t let him hook you.

I don’t take well to name-calling. Sometimes I wonder if my marriage failed because I was afraid to fight, my skin was too thin. But there’s safe and there’s afraid. What’s that line from George Jackson? Take patience far enough and it’s cowardice.

I plant my feet, fold my arms in front of my chest, and look him in the eye.

“Doug, attacking me, attacking my integrity is not okay. I thought we were friends. I—”

I leave it at that, take a photo of a nearby stack of aluminum bales. In the breeze, I smell the bleach disinfectant that Re-Be workers scrub the pavement with at the end of each workday. I also catch a whiff of curry from the Indian takeout place up the street that’s always so crowded on weekends.

“Okay, I’m a little out of control.” Doug steps back, holding his palms up, fingers curled, as if carrying two big melons. “But this is huge. These people are criminals, predators. This isn’t just about holding onto our jobs, our twenty worker-controlled, democratic non-hierarchical jobs, by the way. It’s about the fucking chain-ganging of Berkeley. It’s about community control, resisting domination by corporate criminals. It’s about recycling creating six times as many jobs as landfilling. That’s the truth. And look at what Re-Be’s doing: We’re teaching third graders about worm composting. We’ve spun off three salvage yards that are all doing good business. We’re not just picking up the cardboard packaging, we’re getting people to question whether they need to buy the fucking product in the first place. You think Con is going to do that?”

His voice softens. Again he leans towards me, but without the aggressive stare.

“Hunter, what you write matters. The stories you publish make a difference. Con’s expansionist intentions are out there now, seeping into the public consciousness.”

I hesitate, disarmed. This is the Doug I know, even admire. Relentless, yes, but with a hint of graciousness.

“Doug,” I say, measuring my voice, “I know that this is important to you. I do want to tell this story, but I need more than circumstantial evidence.”

“Oh, like this?”

He pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket and casually hands it to me. In the middle of a computer printout are two lines highlighted in yellow marker. “James Wilcox, $500; Lynn Brady, $500.”

“What’s this?”

“Follow the money, just like Deep Throat said. These two jokers don’t even live in Berkeley and here they are making the maximum contribution to Womack’s council campaign.”

“So these are campaign contributions?”

Doug nods. “Five hundred for a council race? This is from the city clerk’s office. It’s not their money, it’s Con’s. Wilcox is the floor chief at the transfer station. He can’t be pulling in more than about forty large. And Brady, that’s his wife, home with the kids. They live in Emeryville, in a shithole handyman special. Old beater up on blocks in front. These people are fronts. Womack and council buddies wants to shut us down, let Con swoop in.”

I study the printout. Doug bites his thumbnail, spits it on the ground, then turns and strides back across the yard towards the cavernous football-field sized warehouse, open on one side, where the sorting and baling take place. He doesn’t ask me to follow him, but I do.

Against the center wall of the warehouse, bales of cardboard are stacked ten high, two dozen wide. Paper swirls on the concrete floor. Doug climbs up three steps into the cockpit of the baler, and sits in front of the silver control panel, with its dozens of switches and buttons and levers. In the center a big red circular button says “EMERGENCY STOP.”

He flips a switch and the cans that were sitting in a pit start their ascent up a sloped conveyer belt. At the top, they drop fifteen feet into a hopper and a steel ram squeezes them into a block about four foot by four foot by three, like a wide file cabinet on its side.

I stand on the concrete slab the baler is mounted on, my head at Doug’s knees, and look again at the folded paper. Re-Be’s two-year, $2 million contract with the city to collect recyclables is up for renewal in May. I know Doug is afraid the council will open it up to competitive bidding and Consolidated Scavenger will lowball the bid and pluck it away. Con has done that elsewhere. I wrote about that in my last story.

“Talk to them,” barks Doug, jabbing his forefinger at the highlighted names. “Grill them. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Barb take over what we built here.”

“Barb?” I say, with surprise in my voice. “She couldn’t have anything to do with this, you know that. She just started.”

Barb had been Doug’s lover for ten years. She and he had been the matriarch and patriarch of Re-Be, then over the summer, with the quickness of a kitten, Barb broke up with Doug, quit Re-Be, and took a job as recycling director in Consolidated Scavenger’s Oakland office.

Doug scowls at me, his eyes narrow. “You think they couldn’t have found dozens of people to run that program? No, you don’t know her. She’ll fuck us over, they’ll promote her, and then she’ll blush and trot out her ‘oh, little old me, I’m just trying to make the world a better place’ bullshit. I’ll kill her before I let that bitch sell us out again.”

Pause.

“That’s off the record.”

I watch the cans roll uphill. “Sounds like the whole breakup hit you pretty hard.” I’m careful to sound as neutral as possible.

He snorts. “She was just a crack I fell into. It was understood from the beginning that she would bail.” He shrugs. It’s a common gesture of his, but this one is so quick, it’s more like a twitch. “But taking the Scavenger job. That was hateful, man. Poison. She did it to spite me. Not only do I not want to be with you anymore, she’s saying, I want to destroy what we built together.”

A compressed bale of aluminum clatters out the baler’s side door, then the chute at the top of the conveyer belt opens and a new batch of cans fall into the hopper.

A gull glides to a ledge below the metal ceiling and squawks.

“Doug, you’re wrong. Barb had changes she had to make. She didn’t do these things to spite you. And she was not just some crack you fell into. That’s mean.”

“You’ve got the hots for her, don’t you?” he says, jabbing his finger into my face. “That’s it, you’re hot for her.”

“Hot for Barb?” I say, pretending to be confused. Then I decide not to be. “What if I were, you got a problem with that?” Truth is, I’ve lusted after Barb since the moment I met her.

I fold my arms, lock my eyes on his.

“Fucking right I do. You stay away from her. I’m not finished with her yet.”

“She apparently is finished with you.”

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

“Yeah, right,” I say.

He jumps out of the cockpit and lands on the ledge a foot in front of me.

“You shit,” he says. “You weasel. It’s people like you that keep those assholes in control. You believe her bullshit? You’re pussy-whipped. That’s why you’re scared to expose Con. You’re afraid you might piss off Barb.”

“Okay, Spaulding,” I say, “I’ve had enough of your shit. Barb leaves, you can’t deal with it, so you vent your spleen at her and the company she works for. That’s a lot easier than looking inside, because you know you drove her away—”

“Hunter with a left jab,” Doug sneers, but I won’t let him talk. I get in his face.

“This witch hunt you’re on.” I keep my voice low and controlled. “You’re tearing Re-Be apart, calling people cowards, ripping into Barb in front of her friends, accusing hard-working board members of being bought off. Re-Be’s an embattled place, mostly because of you. You can’t blame that on Scavenger.” I take a breath. Downshift. “Look, I’m talking to you as a friend. Barb leaving must, you know, mean quite an adjustment. People understand that, they do, but you’ve turned their sympathy into animosity. If you’d apologize and tell people you’re hurting, they’d come around.”

Doug leans over me until his nose is an inch from mine, and snaps his words as if they’re darts.

“Don’t analyze me. If I want a shrink, I’ll steal $100 and rent one.”

I can’t hold his stare. It’s too vicious. I pull back. I’ve never seen him this unhinged before.

“A therapist wouldn’t be a bad idea,” I say, looking down at a black stain on the concrete.

He pauses, then crinkles his nose and bares his teeth. I lift the camera to my eye and snap the shutter. He flinches, then swipes at the camera.

He misses, but then shoves me into the pit on top of a rickety pile of cans. I land on my back. The camera bangs my cheek. The cans cushion my fall, but a stab of pain rips my right shoulder. My howl echoes off the warehouse roof.

All of a sudden I feel the surface under me moving, and I’m being carried up the slanted conveyor belt that feeds the baler. I try to climb out, but I can’t get a foothold. I sweep the cans off my legs, plant my foot on a ledge and push myself upright, twisting to grab for the side wall. But my feet slip on the slick surface, and I fall face first. I flip myself around and I can see the end of the belt a few feet above me where the cans fall into the hopper.

I catch the wall with my hand and then, summoning some primal gymnast within, I yank my body to it and throw my legs over the side wall. I brace for the impact with the concrete slab, but instead fall on Doug and we tumble with our arms and legs entangled, sliding in a puddle of oil and water.

I leap to my feet.

“You fucking lunatic,” I shriek. “You could have killed me. You’re fucking—“ But I can’t find the words. Doug sprawls on the ground with a pained look on his face, rubbing his elbow. Blood smears his forehead. I look around for a shovel, a two-by-four, something I can swing.

“You know I wasn’t going to hurt you.” Doug winces as he sits up. I hope he’s hurt. “I was just letting off steam.”

A shaft of sunlight reflects off a chair and scorches my eyes. Bile blisters my throat. I have to get out. I don’t trust myself.

Doug gestures to the control panel behind him. “I was about to push the stop button. We’ve got all sorts of safeguards. You know that.”

“You’re sick, you asshole,” I say. “You need help, serious help.” I march out of the warehouse and across the yard. My heart bangs against my ribs like a rock tumbling down a metal stairway. Doug follows me.

“You know I wasn’t going to let anything happen. I wouldn’t. You know me.”

“No, I don’t know you at all.”

Wasted Chapters

Before I wrote Bones in the Wash, I wrote Wasted, a “green noir” murder mystery set in the gritty world of garbage and recycling. I “completed” it for the first time around 2001 and many rewrites later, I contacted seventy agents. Eight nibbled. Two asked for the entire manuscript. One seemed on the verge of saying yes, but didn’t. 

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Somewhere along the way, I began working on my second novel, then called Turquoise Trail, and Wasted was set aside in a banker’s box and floppy disk. (Remember them?)

Now I’m recycling it — re-editing, even a little rewriting — and preparing it for publication on December 1. I have advance reader copies available as e-books on Smashwords right now, and soon I’ll have them in trade paperback as well. Contact me in the comments below if you’re interested. I’ll send you a copy if you promise to write and post an honest review.

I’m designing the inside pages in InDesign instead of Word, which gives me far more control. Here are a six chapter opener pages. Which do you like the best? (You can click on the image to see a higher resolution pdf. And add comments below.)

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Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 9.42.00 PM You can read the first three chapters of Wasted here.

Private Lives

Thanks to my friend Lawson LeGate for his perceptive review of Bones in the Wash. I wish I could say that I consciously set out to do the things he says, but maybe it doesn’t matter.

“It is remarkable how the author so completely understands the characters he develops for this story: the dynamics of Zamara family; the competitive relationship between two young women friends; the distinctly different romances between young Sierra and her boyfriend, between Mayor Zamara and the mysterious Tory, or the strained marriage of Sierra’s parents.

“You feel as if you’re peering into the private lives of real people, all skillfully set against the backdrop of the highly competitive world of presidential politics, with the sinister world of organized crime casting a faint but menacing shadow. It takes a fertile imagination to dream up a flash flood that threatens the lives of the mayor and his lover on an outing in one part of the state, while uncovering the bones of his murdered wife in another. I found myself eagerly turning the page to discover how the various plot lines in this book were going to turn out.

“Highly recommended.”

Everything he says above I did intend to do, but I never spelled it out quite the way he did. Now it’s true that I very deliberately linked the flash flood that the mayor and his lover were caught in with the bones in the wash discovered downstream. I remember mapping that out.

But the contrast between the relationships was not as conscious. The distinct differences were not so much planned as much as they grew out of the distinct characters. After all, what makes relationships similar are the universal things, like sexual attraction and getting each other and common likes. What makes them different are the people who come to them.

It’s been a challenge getting the word out about this novel, which I sweated over for years. But when someone enjoys it and captures so well the reasons I wrote it in the first place, well, that makes all that sweat worth it.

You can read the first three chapters here, and the Making of Bones in the Wash, Parts 1 and 2, here.

Exercising Every Day for 40 Months

Not only was Wednesday the last day of April and the hottest day of the year, it marked the 40th month that I’ve exercised every day.* That’s 1,216 days, but who’s counting?

I hiked of my regular loops — Tennessee Valley-Coastal Trail-Fox Trail. Four miles. An hour and 10 minutes. About 1,000 feet of climbing. Gorgeous views. That photo at the top of the page is from this trail.

I started keeping track on January 1, 2011. My goal at that time was every day for the year. When 2012 arrived, I kept on going. Of course, my reward for reaching this milestone is to keep at it for another 40 months. At least.

So what counts as exercise? Walking, certainly. That’s what I do more than anything. Then, in order of frequency, there’s bicycling, lifting weights, Zumba/aerobics class, and, hardly ever, swimming and running.

How long before it counts? An hour, though I give myself some slack and 45 minutes counts when that’s all I can fit in. (On the stopover from Ecuador three years ago, I walked back and forth in the small San Salvador Airport at least a dozen times, which was about 40 minutes. But we had hiked the Inca Trail ten days earlier so I decided that was good enough.)

I’m not an athlete. When I bicycle to the city, the only cyclists who don’t pass me are tourists on rented bikes. After 15 years of Aerobics or Zumba, I still feel like a beginner. Most of the time, I do these physical activities myself, though I frequently walk with my wife and/or with friends.

One key to making the every-day routine work is, whenever possible, walking or bicycling to where I need to go anyway. For ten years, I commuted to or from work 2-4 times a week, from Mill Valley to downtown San Francisco. I walk to and from grocery stores, cafés, meetings, friends’ houses.

Since it’s so easy to make charts these days, I made one. This is an estimate, of course. (I kept track off and on, but then figured all I needed to know was that I did something, not what it actually was.)

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As you can see, my most common activity, by far, has been a walk or hiking. But when does a walk become a hike. When I wear hiking boots and it’s on a trail? When it’s long and steep? Going to Peets on city sidewalks is a walk. Climbing a 14,000-foot-peak in Colorado is a hike.

Here are some photos of memorable walks and bike rides.

  • Walking from my mom’s apartment in Edgewater to downtown Chicago (about 6 miles). Here’s Lake Michigan on a cold winter morning.

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  • Backpacking in a very different Chicago — the Chicago Basin in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness — with a wonderful group of Sierra Club folks two years ago. My first three (and only three) 14ers.

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  • I took most of my hundreds of rides to or from San Francisco as the sun rose or set. Here’s Richardson Bay on the way in.

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  • And here’s a recent hike with my love Z at Goat Rock Beach on the Sonoma Coast, where the Russian River meets the Pacific.

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Sometimes this daily habit is a chore. I wish I didn’t have to do it. Like bicycling toward the Golden Gate Bridge on a summer evening, directly into the cold fog. Or dragging myself up the last steep hill home.

That’s when I tell myself that I’m grateful I can still do it, that I’ve avoided injuries, pain, and never really been sick. I’d like to believe my habits have something to do with that, but there’s no denying luck and genes.

I know that can’t last forever, but my goal is to keep this going for as long as I can. One day at a time.

*As to that asterisk above, in the first paragraph, no, I’m not taking steroids. But I did miss one week with the flu in June of 2012. I made up for it.

Stone Age Fitness

For Christmas in my family, we pull names out of a hat and give one present to one person. My brother Pat got me back in December, and he suggested maybe he could come out here from Chicago and help with a project.

Yesterday, we started that project — building a rock wall and path for a garden bed on the steep hillside outside my house in Mill Valley. We were stiff and tired last night — maybe the beers contributed to that — but what a great present. Other than the expense of buying the rocks and gravel and stepping stones, I would do this again in a second.

Good thing, because after breakfast, we go at it again. We made excellent progress on our first day, more than I expected, but we’re not done yet. The rock wall is complete (and there are enough rocks left to build another one) and eight of the stepping stones are laid, but we have another dozen or so to go. Plus we had a little mission creep and now we’re also going to redo some of the existing steps down the hillside, which have been an accident waiting to happen.

Here’s what it looks like so far. Not bad for a couple of middle-aged men who sit in front of screens most days.

Here’s the before photo, with a couple sample rocks.

When we selected the rocks, Sonoma fieldstone, the most local and the least expensive, we learned that there are two main sizes, heads and double heads. The double heads were pretty heavy, but we didn’t need many of them. Those were for the bottom row, to create a strong, stable foundation.

It’s Saturday morning. We’re already done. We alloted ourselves three days and finished it in two, even with the mission creep. (Here’s to setting modest goals.) We even did some planting. Here’s a view from above. It already looks good, but will be even better as the plants grow.

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We also came up with a new startup idea: Stone Age Fitness. You pay us to be your personal trainers, and we put you to work carrying rocks down steep hillsides. Here’s Pat posing for our promo.

Here’s how we did it:

Minimal Planning, Mostly Improvisation: My plan had been to sketch out the wall and garden using my rudimentary landscape design skills. I did map out my yard in Berkeley, years ago, but it was a flat rectangle. Easy to measure. This is a curved corner lot on a steep hillside. I took a number of measurements, but never did more than the most cursory sketch. (Enough to show it to José at American Soil Products where we bought the stones, so he could help us estimate how many we needed.) More important than the sketches was reading up on some web sites and landscape design books.

What we built is called a “dry-stone retaining wall,” with no mortar to hold the stones together. The Incas built huge walls and agricultural terraces using these methods 600+ years ago. Similar walls from centuries ago have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Zimbabwe, China, and many other places. To prepare fields for planting, farmers had to remove rocks from the soil, so they were right there at hand, ready to be used for any needed structures.

Please note: This is not a how-to. We’ve never done this before. We don’t know if the rock wall will come tumbling down in a downpour, will fall over when some deer kicks it. I know more than I did a week ago — that’s as much as I can promise.

What I did do that served as a starting point was approximate where the walls and pathway would be with hoses and stakes. After walking around our worksite, we made some adjustments to these boundaries and started digging.

Fortunately, we had some heavy rains in February and the ground was soft and easy to dig. We piled the dirt on a tarp we spread out on the hillside, with an old plastic turtle sandbox on top to serve as a backstop and prevent the dirt from sliding down the hill.

The Flat Earth Society: For the rock wall and steps to be stable, we needed first to create a level surface. We cut into the hillside with picks and shovels and then, using a tamper from the Berkeley Tool Lending Library — Yay Berkeley — created a strip about three to four feet wide. Then we poured gravel on that strip and tamped it again. That was wide enough for both the foundation of the wall and the flagstone steps in front of it.

The original specs were for one rock wall about a foot deep, two feet high, and six to eight feet long, leaning into the hillside, holding a garden bed about four feet deep. Almost as important was a level pathway in front of the garden and connected to the steep steps along the side of the house. The hillside is steep enough that it’s a challenge to find any spot where you can stand with both feet at the same level. On the morning we started the job, we got two pallets delivered to our driveway with 1.5 tons of Sonoma fieldstone, 15 rustic green rectangular flagstones, each 1 foot by 2, and four bags of gravel, nowhere close to how many we needed.

We laid the flagstone steps first, because then we could stand on them while we built the wall, which went up surprisingly fast. We did have to lug a lot of rocks thirty feet or so down these steep treacherous steps from the driveway to the worksite. Below you can see Pat standing on the first three steps we laid and the cut we made into the hillside. The next shot shows the beginning of the wall.

We angled the wall ever so slightly in toward the hillside, and when we reached about a foot high, we filled behind it with lots of gravel (for drainage) and some of the dirt we had dug out earlier. The stacking of the rocks was like putting together a puzzle. At first, I was looking for specific shapes, then I found it made more sense to just pick one or two rocks and then find the best spot for them on the wall. We did our best to overlap one double head on top of two heads, the way a brickmason would overlap bricks.

We completed most of the rock wall and six of the flagstone steps by midday and then we had to go out and buy some more gravel, flagstone steps, and lumber.

Overbuilding: My brother and I have both done a lot of work around our houses for years, but he’s more experienced and skilled at construction, and he suggested we get some pressure treated 4 x 4s and 2 x 8s to create frames for the stepping stones as they descended the hill. (My original thought was to do without, but he argued, correctly, that we wanted this to last through heavy rains, and we should err on the side of overbuilding. So we did.)

You can see below, just to the left of the yellow pick, the way the lumber framing allows us to move down the hills and keep the flagstones level.


As I said, we had more rocks than we needed for one wall, so we built additional ones, to create another planting area, but mostly to give more support on the downhill side of the flagstones. So a hard rain wouldn’t wash out the gravel and dirt underneath them.

Natives, Not Vegetables: My original thought was to grow greens in the bed — chard, kale, lettuce, spinach, and so on. (Not enough sun or heat to grow tomatoes.) I knew that because of the deer, we would need to build some sort of cage to cover the bed. I did more sketches of that than the rock wall itself.

I’m a newcomer to this hillside home. My wife has lived here for more than 20 years, I’ve been here less than one. She likes the natural oak woodland look and I promised that the garden bed project would be in keeping with the natural surroundings. Certainly the rock wall seems very organic. If we dug deep enough, we’d probably find rocks just like the ones we piled into a wall.

But a cage over the bed? That could be ugly. So we decided instead for native perennials that were deer-resistant, and went down Friday afternoon to the native plant nursery at Tam Junction and picked up two coffeeberry bushes, three sages, and several grasses and groundcovers.

Here’s our planted garden from below. Pretty great, huh? While these are native plants, they may take a year or more to get fully established. Especially given the drought. But once they do, well, they’ll act as if they belong here.

(John Byrne Barry is author of Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.)

Starting Small

I’m not truly lazy. I would never garden if I were. I can buy organic produce at any number of nearby grocers and most have flowers too. But there’s something about growing them myself that I can’t shake.

But. After more than twenty years living in the flatlands of Berkeley, where I built garden beds and amended the soil with compost and manure and had sun for most of the day, I’m now living on a steep shady hillside in Mill Valley where deer nibble at everything, even allegedly deer-resistant plants like oleander. Oh, and we’re now officially in a drought.

The good news is that the winter days here have been sunny and gorgeous, with mid-afternoon temps in the high 60s and now and then hitting 70. Downright criminal for January, especially for a kid who grew up in Chicago. But I can wear shorts outside. In January.

The hillside is full of oak and bay trees and there’s a natural beauty to it that i want to keep, but I still have visions of terraced garden beds lush with vegetables and flowers. Here’s a shot of my backyard garden in Berkeley from a few summers ago.

And here’s the hillside this morning.

I know the overgrown Berkeley look is not appropriate for the hills of Marin, especially during a drought. But maybe I can create a little oasis among the oak and chaparral. A neighbor down the hill has just had his backyard landscaped, and that’s given me some ideas. See those curving rock walls and the steps up the hill. It’s much more ambitious than I can even consider right now, Doesn’t stop me from dreaming.

Actually I’ve been imagining rock walls ever since our visit two summers ago to the Inca Trail and Sacred Valley. Here’s one of the many Inca sites we visited, full of mortarless rock walls and irrigation channels that carried water down from the mountains.

(FYI, I tried to identify that photo above, which I took, but didn’t identify. I gave up before I could, but I did find a portfolio of terraced farms, mostly from Vietnam and China. Also a few from Peru.

These visions will have to wait. (There’s lazy and there’s lazy.) I did start a garden this week, however. I started small. With a wheelbarrow, a planter box, and seeds.

I repurposed an old metal wheelbarrow, full of holes from rust, lined it with landscape cloth, filled it with potting soil and compost, and planted mesclun (summer salad mix) and arugula seeds. I know arugula grows easily from seeds. We’ll see about the lettuce mix.

The wheelbarrow is sitting on the deck outside the kitchen window. Once the seeds sprout, I’ll need to protect those baby greens from deer, which have, on occasion, brazenly trotted onto the deck. (We’ve seen evidence of their eating habits too.)

The easiest way is to string a net across the five-foot wide entrance to the deck, but that means hooking and unhooking when we go in and out through the front door. Another option, which I’ve working on, but isn’t finished, is a lightweight hoop/cage that fits over the top of the wheelbarrow.  You can see what I have so far — it’s made from water sprouts pruned from my pluot tree in Berkeley, bent and held together with twine. It’s fallen apart once, but Iwith some patience, I can make it work. Once I get the “skeleton” stable, I’ll attach some a screen over the top and that should keep out the deer.

My other venture was even easier, though I had to pull out my drill. I screwed two metal brackets into the railing posts of the lower deck, high enough above the ground that even a deer on stilts can’t reach it, set an old redwood planter box on them, and planted about 15 ruby red chard seeds. Will thin later. I added a spoonful of 5-20-5 fertilizer I found under the house.

I have no drip irrigation set up here in Mill Valley so for now I will have to hand water, every day until the seeds germinate.

It’s a small step, but it’s a start. Brings to mind that Goethe quote: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

And so I did.

It may be a while before I built the rock terrace walls. But I think I’ll buy a new hose this weekend.

(John Byrne Barry is author of Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.)

The Meek Do Not Inherit the Earth — In Defense of Shameless Self-Promotion

Disclosure #1: There’s no gardening in this post, unless you count nature, which one could call divine gardening, if one were inclined. My intention is that this blog will be primarily about gardening, but it’s January and it feels like it’s never going to rain again in northern California, and it’s a challenge to write about gardening when I’m not doing any.

But gardening can serve as a metaphor for all sorts of things, so I think I’m covered until I get some seeds in the ground. Meanwhile, here’s a blast from the past that does include gardening — Two Top Ten Lists From the Lazy Organic Gardener.


I grew up in the Midwest and my parents were serious, albeit liberal Catholics, with maybe a bit more Calvinism in the mix than some. (I remember my Mom once saying, “You kids are having too much fun.” Now in her defense, usually one of us was crying five minutes later, so it’s not that she didn’t want us to enjoy ourselves. It’s just that pleasure was dangerous.)

Modesty was a big part of this package. How much of that came from being a Midwesterner, how much from being an Irish Catholic, and how much came from my parents is hard to sort out. But bragging was not something we did.

I’ve forgotten much more than I remember of the biblical stories and phrases we learned, but “the meek shall inherit the earth” — that stuck. It’s not that that sentiment was pounded into us as much as it was in the air and water. We were supposed to be patient, not pushy. Good things will come to those who wait.

Now for a child, those imperatives makes some sense. There’s plenty of evidence that children who can delay gratification tend to be more successful. And happier.

But the meek-shall-inherit-the-earth message is arguably about delaying gratification until you’re dead. Which is way too long.

Anyone who has actively worked to make the world a better place knows it’s not going to happen if you wait patiently. We didn’t get the Clean Air Act or the rights of women and blacks to vote or gay marriage by waiting patiently. Every advance had to be fought for. Has to be fought for.

But fighting for things. That can annoy people. Who wants to be a nag?

I bring this up because within the last month, I published Bones in the Wash — Politics is Tough, Family is Tougher, a novel set during the 2008 presidential election in New Mexico, and I left my job at the Sierra Club after 25 years.

Because I do want people to buy and read my book and I do need an income, now I have to become a shameless self-promoter.

(In case you’re wondering what these photos have to do with modesty, well, I took a long hike in Point Reyes to mark the new year and get some inspiration from the natural world — that pretty much never fails — and composed this post as I walked.)

For many years, a major chunk of my job was to promote the activities and visions of others. I was a writer, editor, and designer, and I told stories about the people on the front lines, who were fighting for clean water or endangered turtles or wilderness.

It was a behind the scenes role, and in fact, about seven years ago, I received an award called the Behind the Scenes Award for my work. I remember I gave a little speech, and talked about happiness, sharing the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, who differentiates three kinds of happiness.

The first is pleasure. We enjoyed a good meal. Had an exciting day skiing. The second is absorption, where we are so focused on what we are doing that the rest of the world recedes. Seligman uses the example of an geologist who studies crystals and starts the day looking into his microscope at a crystal and then is startled because he thinks someone has come into his lab and blocked the light when in fact the sun has gone down.

The third kind of happiness is meaning, in which what we are doing is bigger than we are. That’s why I stayed at Sierra Club for 25 years, because of the meaning.

(I don’t recall if I included my favorite Seligman anecdote, which he uses to illustrate optimism, but I can’t resist including it now. A child and her mother are driving, and the daughter says, “Mom, where are all the assholes today?” Whereupon her mother answers, “Oh, they’re only out on the road when your father drives.”)

But meaning, I was talking about meaning. That was how I was able to push past my modesty and promote various causes and people. It wasn’t about me.

Now it is

In my farewell note to my work colleagues, I said a lot of nice things about people I worked with, and I ended with a little blurb about my book and my modesty.

If I were a shameless self-promoter, I would tell you all about my recently published novel, Bones in the Wash, a political thriller + family soap + murder mystery set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico. And available as a trade paperback and e-book. But I was born and bred in the Midwest, so it’s hard to break out of that modesty-is-best mentality.

Oh, did I mention you can read the first three chapters at bonesinthewash.com?

 

That’s one way I’ve managed this self-promotion. By keeping it light. By mocking myself a bit.

Oh, did I also say that I’m a skilled and experienced writer + editor + designer + strategist, occasionally brilliant and always reliable?

I welcome your ideas on self-promotion.