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Septic System Scams Impose High Fees for Homeowners

I am about 2/3 of the way through the design of what will be my first major book in 3 years (since Home Work). It's called Builders of the Pacific Coast — Creative Carpentry, and it's in an exciting stage for me, putting together photos and interviews generated over the course of a year.
Much as I'm tempted to keep working on it, I'm taking time out to write an article for The Mother Earth News on a rapidly-growing phenomenon in America: engineers and health officials conspiring to force homeowners into high-tech, expensive ($20,000-50,000) septic systems. It's something I see going on and I feel qualified to comment on it because I've written a book on septic systems and in the course of so doing, have interviewed a dozen engineers and studied everything I could find on the subject.
There certainly are septic systems in America that are not working and need repair or replacement. But what's happening right now is pretty much a wholesale rejection of gravity-fed septic systems. Self-serving engineers have written county or state codes that declare that your septic system is — guess what? — failing. Bureaucrats either believe the engineers and/or want the higher fees from costly systems, and force homeowners into the high costs of a new system. Let's consider the two groups, engineers and bureaucrats. In Marin County, where I live, the code for "alternative septic systems" was written by the same local engineers who are hired to design systems. Tighter requirements = bigger fees. Duh! Higher costs for the homeowner mean a concurrent hike in permits and health fees. Health departments are often financed by fees taken in, so the higher costs provide health departments with bigger budgets.
A few years ago, my neighbor, with the same soil profile, had to install a $45,000 mound system when his system failed (in an old house, it had worked for 40 years). My system, just down the road, was a typical gravity-fed tank-and-leachfield setup, and has worked flawlessly (with inspections and periodic pumping) for 36 years. It cost less than $3000. This is going on all over the country and when I ran a letter to the editor of The Mother Earth News, asking for similar situations, I got a flood of input from homeowners all over the country.
It's a hard story to write, maybe partly because people just don't understand how septic systems work. They're underground, invisible, and they generally work so well that people are unaware of their continuing functionality. I think I can explain the modus operandi that is now going on. so in the near future I'm going to force myself to sit down and write the sad story of this multi-billion dollar homeowners' ripoff. Be aware: if you own a home, the septic bandidos are coming, and I hope to help you get prepared. Knowledge is (at least a measure of) power.

Latte, WiFi, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paddleboarding, Mud Baths Au Naturel

The art of the barista.

I've found two super espresso/wi-fi cafes (and I mean free, fast wi-fi) in the last month. One on McDougallStreet near Washington Square in NYC, the other in the Mission district of my hometown San Francisco. I'm sitting here in a window in the morning sun with a great sticky bun and a powerful latte. It's the day after the solstice, maximum daylight, I left home about 5:30, drove along the coast as the sun came up, then across the always-stunning Golden Gate Bridge into the city, listening to a CD my son Evan gave me last week, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadian, an elegant album. These guys can sing!
Going back to Big Sur last week, getting another look at a place where I lived while in my '30s and now looking through my 72-year-old eyes, I was struck by how much richer everything looks now. I saw all kinds of things I'd missed in past years. My perceptions are a lot more honed in search of adventure these days. Speaking of which, practically every week I'm finding Delights in Nature, things that have always been out there, waiting to be discovered. Last night I took my paddleboard down to the nearby (salt water) lagoon. At high tide there are a series of navigable channels that I can glide through like a water skeeter. There's never a soul in sight, just me and the birds. Last night was one of those magic nights, with the 6 PM orange setting-sun light, the water glassy. I decided to get off the board and walk around on the pickleweed-covered mudflats. I saw a muddy pond, maybe 12 feet in diameter and stepped into it and sunk up to my knees in — black mud. Like black shoe polish, the texture of sticky butter. Nature's spa. Well, it was obvious what to do. Stripped down and coated myself head to toe with this amazing (sulfur-smelling) black black mud. On my head, face, neck, my back as far as I could reach. I walked around a while as the sun dried the mud, the abominable mud man. Where's a camera when I need one? Then got in the water and spent about 5 minutes getting it off. I have an outdoor solar-heated shower in the garden and I scrubbed off the residue, my skin feeling alive. Then some of Louie's home-made Zinfandel with fish and fresh corn from the farmer's market. Um-hmm.

Big Sur Homestead Revisited

In 1967 I built a house in Big Sur. It was a rudimentary homestead. I tapped into a spring 600 feet up the mountain for water and cleared and terraced an acre or so of the hillside for farming. The house was built out of large (double-track) railroad ties for posts and recycled 30' long fir 2 x 14's (from Cleveland Wreckers)for beams and floor girders. The roof deck and the floor were 2x8" local tongue-and-groove Monterey Pine; the wall sheathing was lumber from a farm labor camp I tore down in Salinas. I made the wall shakes from a deadfall redwood I found in a nearby canyon. Used windows from chicken coops. It was what would now be called "green building." It took me about a year to build the house. Within 2 years, I left Big Sur for a variety of reasons, and had only been back down there a few times in the ensuing 40 years.
The Big Sur Historical Society invited me down to do a talk on building the house and so last week I went found myself in the deja vu zone. The weather was great and as I rounded a bend just south of Carmel and saw the first massive hills of Big Sur I got a jolt in the solar plexus: I fall in love with places and Big Sur was one of my great loves.

The beautiful Bixby bridge, built in 1931

Japanese girls at the bridge

I first went to Big Sur to build a large house on a ranch in 1966 (before building my own place), and I went back to look at this place:

The house was built from redwood bridge timbers and pretty complex in the foundation and framing work. It took 3 of us almost a year to get it framed.

This wonderful pool has been in the canyon below my house for some 50 years. There's no chlorine, it's kept fresh by constantly-flowing creek water. Each night after I'd finish working on my house I'd go down there, bow to the redwoods and then the 4 corners, and dive in. On this trip I went swimming in it 4 times. Wonderful with no chlorine.

My house is now owned by Barbara Spring, a well-known sculptor. Barbara, 90 years old and still sculpting her figures (with an electric chain saw), loves the house. Click here to see some of Barbara's sculptures
Her caretaker, Ehren Woyt, keeps the pool and grounds in beautiful condition.

In the 40 years since building the house, I've photographed countless skilled carpenters and builders, making me realize how crude was my workmanship here. But what took me by surprise was the soulfullness of the place, still intact, kept alive by Barbara and her family.

Table I built out of horse stable girders with two chunks of a bridge timber for legs, still in use.

Weathered railroad ties for framing

After going swimming and then dinner on Monday night, I sneaked into nearby Esalen Hot Springs to soak in the baths. It was pitch black and after getting into the grounds I had to rely on memory to make my way to the baths, going down dark paths and crossing creeks. avoiding Esalen officials. I made it and soaked in the magic waters, looking out at Scorpius rising, its long curved tail extending down to the horizon. Oh yeah!
The next day about 40 people showed up at the house and I told them about building it, and what was going on in the counterculture in those days. The next day I headed home, stopping to jump in the ocean in Carmel, then the 17th Avenue cove in Santa Cruz, then finally ducked under "my" waterfall on Mt. Tamalpais on the way over the mountain to home.

Paul Hawken's New Book, Blessed Unrest

Last month Paul Hawken published a stunning book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. In one of Stewart Brand's SALT Seminars, Hawken gave a talk last Friday to a packed house in San Francisco. Hawken started Erewhon Trading Company in the '60s, supplying organic products from sustainable farming (boy, how long did it take for that principle to sink in?), and in the late '70s, Smith and Hawken, purveyors of high-quality English gardening tools. He's written a number of books, been consultant to numerous companies and groups, and been on a lecture circuit non-stop. Wikepedia on Hawken
He says people from environmental and "green" groups started coming up to him after lectures and giving him cards, and after 1000 lectures he had so many cards (7000) he started assembling a data base. What struck him, and what will strike you, was the sheer number of organizations around the world now dedicated to healing and restoring the earth.

"I have come to these conclusions: this is the largest social movement in all of human history. No one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye."

It is under the collective radar, he says, because although it's a movement, there is no leader. And it's not so much a movement gaining power as it is a movement permeating society — from the ground up. He has 105,000 organizations listed and estimates there are over a million such organizations worldwide.
What hit me so strongly about this is how many of the principles that were espoused and embraced in the cultural revolution 40 years ago are now manifesting in these organizations that are springing up organically in response to the current threats to life as we know it on this planet.

In a poetic touch, Hawken likens the proliferation of these groups in response to today's earth-threatening realities to the body's immune system when it mobilizes to fight off life-threatening disease. Wow!

Casa Dulce Casa/More Pix New York City/Caffeine, Wi-Fi/Rapper/Jewish Wedding/Urban Basketball/Otis Redding/Patti Smith/Paris Hilton (not really)

As good as trips are, and this was a good one, I love getting home. The first hit of San Francisco air. The temperature, the humidity, the smell of my part of the world (universe). I went running with the boys last night, all of whom are obsessing with the annual Dipsea race, which happens to be this Sunday. The oldest cross-country race in America, right in our backyard, 7.2 miles from Mill Valley up over a flank of Mt. Tamalpais, down into Muir Woods and up and down to Stinson Beach. It's tough and romantic and joyous and heartbreaking. I'm not in contender shape this year, but it's still a big deal in my life. I got up twice in NYC last week at 6 AM to run in Central Park to avoid getting too far out of shape. (In the park I run on the grass and in fields, never on pavement or paths, it's amazing no one does this, you can criss-cross thru fields, windy paths and up and over granite outcroppings. Central park is actually magnificent.)
Last night I jumped in the creek after running (submerging in California water to tune back into this part of the planet). Picked a bunch of little sweet wild lingonberries on the trail and had them with millet-oat pancakes this morning.
I am so excited to be back. I walked into the office and saw the photos and layouts for my book Builders of the Pacific Coast strewn around on layout tables, and got excited all over again by this unique body of work by coastal builders.
My big problem these days is content — too much of it! I came home with 300 photos, first from the woods in Alleghany county, the work of master builder/woodmeister Bill Castle (and his Amish friends); then dazzling sights + adventures on the streets of Manhattan. What am I gonna do with all this stuff? (Actually after another 3-4 trips to NYC I'll have a book, kind of a west-coast boy's view of the Capital of the Universe.)
On Sunday, after the book expo ended, the clouds came in, the air got refreshingly fresh, and the rain started, light at first and then gust-blowing heavy. I had a great few hours with caffeine (+ killer piece of carrot cake, heh-heh), good music, a great view of the street, rain pouring down, cozy inside, a good wi-fi connection at what has just become my favorite cafe in the world:

The Esperanto Cafe, 114 McDougal St, a few blocks south of Washington Square, Wi-Fi + open 24 hrs.

I almost filled a steno notebook on this trip. Tons of things to do when I get home:

I take one of these on each trip. I keep a small role of Scotch Tape in my backpack and paste in cards that people give me, with notes on what to send, or do. Plus I fill it with ideas, writing, notes, thoughts.

A few photos from Saturday night (warm, sticky temp):

Rap group in Washington Square with a couple of lead rappers surrounded by 15 or so compatriots rocking and gesticulating to the music. It was being filmed. I later saw what I think is a photo of this guy and he's well known, something like Big Boy or Big Joe. This is a fascinating art form to an old guy like me, these guys are lightning fast with extemporaneous lyrics. Amazing.

Jewish wedding party in Washington Square. I mean, I assume this is her Dad.

Hey dude, keep your eye on the ball! — High-quality tough basketball, probably a city league. There was a ref, maybe 100 spectators. These guys were good! In a way, this is the real thing, because you don't have to put up with the TV commercials or dumb personal segments of the NBA. Organic basketball. There were some great handball games going on next door. Once again I'm stunned by the richness of Manhattan.

Music du jour
As I post this am listening to Patti Smith's Trampin'. Earlier today I listened to King and Queen, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, with their classic "Tramp"
You know what Otis, you are country, you straight from the Georgia woods…
and a beautiful version of "Are You Lonely For me Baby," these are duets made in heaven.
All these pix were shot with an Olympus Stylus 800 which I carry in my fanny pack along with wallet, Swiss Army Knife, little notebook, flashlight, pen, glasses, magnifying glass, lighter. Hey, ready for anything!

A Few of Last Night's Hot & Sultry City Night Pix

I left the Convention Center last night and walked across town to Union Square, then down to St Mark's Place, which mostly sucks these days, then over to the West Village and an inspiring number of unique shops and cool restaurants and vibrant street life. As I type this now in the Esperanto Cafe, a 24-hour espresso/food establishment with an easily-working Wi-Fi hookup (a rarity in Manhattan), there are 2 guys and a girl kicking a soccer ball around in the steet and dodging cars. Kids on skateboard slide by gracefully, always skating in the street, not the sidewalks. A great variety of people going by this window, it's like watching a movie. Here are some pics from my wandering last night:

Union Square sidewalk gymnast

Fried chicken take out. About three guys on bikes do deliveries.

Rico Fonseca has been selling paintings (on Masonite, $20 each) for 40 years. This is his rolling shelter prototype for homeless guys.

Randomness is working for me at an all-time high on this trip. In all the publishing business I've done here in 2 days, I'm running across key people in the aisles of the convention center, in unexpected places. Plus I'm having interesting and informative discussions with people all over the city. I just watched a jug band in Washington Square and saw a great washtub bass, except made of wood and a piece of plastic from a suitcase, with a range of an octave and a half AND after discussion, the bass player is either going to make and ship me one or send me the plans. I could go on, it's just been a wonderful few days. My notebook is bulging with things to do at home, books to get, people to contact.

NYC Pix Warm Night

Park Central Hotel on 7th, Babe Mecca

Along 7th Ave, endless windowshop wit and elegance

Coming into town in a cab I saw a young guy with a sweatshirt saying "Lloyd 85" -- cabbie last night was Khan Shaheen.

Here's the village aspect of NYC at work: I asked Cynthia, the bartender at Trattoria Dell'Arte, last night about other good restaurants. She seemed stumped for a minute. The guy next to me, who looked like a retired doctor, was a native. He and his wife were excvited to pass along these tips:
•Beyoglu, Turkish, at 81st and 3rd. They said extraordinary…
•Jack, French food, a real bistro. 11th and University Place
•Best Chinese: Tse Yang, 51st. Peking duck
•Balthazar, a "real Parisienne bistro," for breakfast. Spring Street.
Then the couple sitting farther down the bar said, "And you ought to try…" In my recent travels I've learned to ask, ask, ask where is a good place to eat. Out in the middle of small towns or unknown territory I ask where the best hamburger is. In a good restaurant such as this one, I ask about like-quality places.
Well, off to the book convention and further adventures right now. A California yokel loving the cross-cultural, cross-coastal stimulation.