Hello world!


This blog is an experiment in niche blogging. I have been writing an all-subject blog called Nathen’s Miraculous Escape in the styles of my friends Jeannie Lee and Ethan Mitchell for several years now. I love that format but imagine it might shed readers who are only interested in only one of the topics I tend to write about. A psychology student, for example, might lose interest after a few posts on my family life, ecology, epistemology, or some other random rant (though they might enjoy my other experiment in niche blogging here). A Joshua Tree local, family friend, or fellow desert-sustainability explorer will almost certainly tire of my deconstructions of the DSM or various essays about theories and practices of psychotherapy. That’s who this blog is for.

I live on 2.5 acres of north Joshua Tree with my wife, Reanna (and very close to much of the rest of my family) in a 24-foot, recently renovated travel trailer. I am a family therapist at Morongo Basin Mental Health’s Military Family Support Program, a songwriter and record producer, a psychology and philosophy enthusiast, staff at Not Back to School Camp, and aspiring family man. Reanna and I are also on a quest to live sustainably here in Joshua Tree, and that is what this blog is about: what we learn, on our own and from our friends and family, as we set ourselves up.

Compost Getting Hotter

Reanna & my compost now holding steady at just below 120. That’s the hottest I’ve seen it & I can definitely feel the heat. Damian says it should ideally be in the 150s. Needs more nitrogen. And maybe my box is too small.

[Originally tumbld on Just Workin’ the Turkey Through, August 17, 2013]

Why It’s Good to Have a Dad When You’re Building a Solar Batch Water Heater

Dads really come in handy. Maybe especially my dad.

I’m building a solar batch water heater for my trailer. Where did I get that idea? My dad. He’s built two:


One for the house


And one for the bathhouse

Where did I get the tank? My dad. He saves stuff that he finds which just might be useful someday. This habit has its pros and cons, of course, but I’d put him just on this side of the line between saver and hoarder. He heard I wanted to build a solar batch water heater and had “just the thing,” pulled out of an old water heater or something.



The design, of course, is mostly my dad’s with a few of my own (primarily the over-engineering) and the internet’s (black, not reflective, box).


The white and grey are just primer. The inside will be black and the outside will be a color of Reanna’s choosing.

The major stumbling block so far has been pulling the square-head plugs out of the tank. My wrenches were just rounding the corners. I’d been scouring the internet for a week for a 15/16″ square offset wrench, my best guess for solving the problem, but apparently which you just can’t get anymore. The solution? Ask my dad. “You need a big pipe wrench. I’ve got one in the bottom drawer of my tool box.” He not only had the wrench, but knew how to use it, and the plug was out in a minute or two.


Dad with pipe wrench

My dad is a commercial photographer, sound engineer, and musician. Where did he learn plumbing? I don’t know, but he did say that he got that pipe wrench from his own dad in the 60s.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, July 21, 2013]

The Sequester Hits Me: Although Eligible, I Cannot Apply for Unemployment Insurance in California

Is California becoming the movie Brazil?

I was laid off from my job as a family therapist in a company-wide lay off when Morongo Basin Mental Health closed their doors on June 30 and now am actively seeking work. I have all the documentation to prove that and to show my income for any number of past quarters. It seems I am the ideal candidate for unemployment insurance.

Except that I have worked at a summer camp in Oregon for a few weeks in the last 18 months. (Each summer for the last 13 years, actually, but the Employment Development Office only wants 18-24 months of information.) That means I have to file for UI by telephone. The EDD website says you can apply online, by mail, or fax but eventually says it’s got to be by phone if there’s any out-of-state income.

The problem is, because of the sequester, you cannot get through by phone. Hours of operation are 8-noon, Monday through Thursday, and with limited staff. Last week, the outgoing message implied that if I called early enough I might be able to talk to someone, but I was not able to get through. This week, the message says they just don’t have the staff to answer my call.

Both weeks, the message kindly encourages me to apply online.

As far as I can tell my only options are to lie about my out-of-state income or to give up. Or maybe drive eight hours to Sacramento to make a stink at the Employment Development Office. (No, they do not process claims in person.)


[Originally published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, July 8, 2013.]

Goodbye, Morongo Basin Mental Health

I had a tearful farewell today with my team at the Military Family Support Program–the Twentynine Palms office of the now-defunct Morongo Basin Mental Health. These folks have been great to work with. When I was hired six months ago the office was like a graveyard, and by the time we got the word that MBMH was shutting down, we were so busy we needed a second clinician.


Jackie, Heather, Laura, me, Jennifer

I’m just as sad to leave our clients, but of course I can’t post pictures of them here. Our office had come to feel like a little community center, with people of all ages coming and going all day.

I am assured by those in charge at the county that there will be a military family support program up and running again soon–probably in about a month. I believe them. They all seem enthusiastic about the project and on the ball. When that happens I will definitely apply for the job again. It has been good work.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, June 27, 2013.]

Another Gardener Joins the Fray, Plus a Short Tour of Desert Fortress Gardens

May 18, 2013: Something has been eating my new garden for a while now. It couldn’t be rabbits. I’ve already done rabbit-proofing. That leaves lizards, squirrels, birds, and insects. Neither Reanna or I had ever seen any of those in there, which makes me think nocturnal, but rabbits are the nocturnals on the list, and it’s not rabbits.


Tomato, top leaves & part of a fruit eaten

Pepper plant, topped off

Pepper plant, topped off

Nub of cantaloup stem

Nub of cantaloup stem

This barren ground used to have cilantro growing in it.

This barren ground used to have cilantro growing in it.

I spent some time today, sitting quietly, watching for the perpetrator. Nothing came by except a hummingbird. I had a nice time. As I sat I remembered the story of the homesteading Keys family, up in what would become the Joshua Tree National Park, staking out their garden with shotguns every day. They grew all of their own food except for sugar and flour. I can drive a few minutes and buy groceries, but they had to go to Beaumont for supplies, two days away. Still, the basic principle is the same. People have been doing this as long as people have been growing food.

My stakeout spot, in the old pigeon pen

My stakeout spot, in the old pigeon pen

My view of the garden for the day

My view of the garden for the day

Maya came by later and said it was probably birds. She’s been gardening around here for years, with great success, so she’s probably right. Reanna had already bought some bird netting–technology that could have saved the Keys a lot of time and bullets.

May 19, 2013: We put up the bird netting:

I pounded a pole into the ground and mounted an old hub on the top.

I pounded a pole into the ground and mounted an old hub on the top.

Attaching rope and bird netting to the hub and the fence

Attached rope and bird netting to the hub and the fence

Reanna in completed garden fortress

Reanna in completed garden fortress (the plywood and corrugated metal are wind-breaks against our crazy south-west winds.

I didn’t particularly want a fortress garden. So many desert gardeners end up with them. I like it, though–I guess it’s my fortress, and that makes the difference.

Aaron & Ronda's fortress garden

Aaron & Ronda’s fortress garden: lumber, rebar, mesh, bird netting, and shade cloth

Karen’s fortress garden: lumber, wire mesh, corrugated fiberglass

Tee & Eric's garden fortress

Tee & Eric’s garden fortress: lumber with 1/4″ wire mesh on 5 sides, apricot tree inside.

May 24, 2013: Reanna caught a rabbit in the garden today. Way back in the rabbit-proofing stage, I’d missed a spot under the ephedra that grows through the fence under the hose bib. Hopefully that does it, because the garden is still getting eaten!

New rabbit proofing, by Reanna

New chicken-wire rabbit proofing, by Reanna

May 27, 2013: The garden continues to be eaten. Today we caught a lizard in there. We didn’t see it eating anything, so no smoking gun. I’ve only ever seen lizards eating bugs around here. If it’s gotten a taste for pepper plant leaves, we’re in trouble. It crawls through chicken wire no problem. Covering the whole garden in wire mesh would be a big job.

May 28, 2013: Reanna caught another rabbit in the garden and found another crack in the fortress, behind the compost bin, which she shored up. Does that let the lizard off the hook?

June 1, 2013: Found another lizard in the garden and stayed still enough that it kept going about its business for a couple minutes. It drank water out of our drip system but I didn’t see it eat anything. Something is still at it, though. The peppers are disappearing, and it’s started eating marigolds, too. This could take a while.

Marigold, stem eaten. The leaf lying partly on the blossom is a partly munched pepper leaf. Oh, the carnage!

Marigold, stem eaten. The leaf lying partly on the blossom is a partly munched pepper leaf. Oh, the carnage!

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, June 2, 2013.]

Joshua Tree as the Outskirts of Civilization

In my 9th grade geography class, Mr. Ferguson had several standard rants he liked to visit on us, like how high school freshmen were not yet fully human. We all had the potential of full humanity, and in a few more years we could achieve it, with work. We were halfway between primordial ooze and human.

Another rant was how we lived on the outskirts of civilization, Los Angeles being civilization. “And you can see,” he’d say,”as you go from LA towards the desert, that the people get less and less hip until you get here, right on the edge.”

At the time I thought he was funny and slightly mean, but probably wrong. I was living in Joshua Tree and going to school in Twentynine Palms. Almost three decades later, I’m back living in Joshua Tree and working as a therapist in Twentynine Palms, and I’m thinking he was probably right. I don’t know about people getting less hip as you leave LA–it’s arguably true, but depends a lot on your values and aesthetics–but look at this map of population density and you will see that I do live on the edge of civilization. (Click on it for a clearer view.) Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms are the last two splotches of orange (at least 100 people per square mile, no more than 250) heading east out of LA. Just east of us is all fewer than 10 people per square mile for an hour’s drive, then less than 1 person per square mile for another hour. It’s beautiful country, but desolate.

Southern California Population Density 2000

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape on May 19, 2013.]

Rainharvesting Workshop by Transition Joshua Tree Water Group

I went to my first Transition Joshua Tree event, a rainharvesting workshop on April 28. It was fun and inspiring to meet with a good-sized group (maybe 20?) of neighbors interested in water sustainability in Joshua Tree. It was nice timing, too. Reanna and I just spent the previous day on the Desert-Wise Landscape Tour, looking at how local people are designing for low-water use.

The main topic was how to catch and store rainwater that falls on your roof. Our presenter, Buck, seemed to have quite a bit of experience installing gutters and catchment tanks, and thinking about water in the desert. He had a machine that made seamless gutters of any length out of strips of aluminum:

gutter maker

And showed us some tanks and filtration systems:

catchment tanks

One of the participants reported catching over 2,000 gallons of water in a four-minute “rain event” with one of these systems. While it is very dry here (less than a half inch in 2013 so far, I believe) it can rain really hard. In my 10 years in the rain country of the Pacific northwest, I never saw it rain half as hard as a big rain in Joshua Tree. So you can wait a long time for a rain event but you want a large storage capacity when it does.

We want to catch as much of the water as possible because we are using up our aquifer about 10 times as fast as it is replenishing. (If it is replenishing, that is–there seems to be some controversy about it.) Water that runs off of our roofs flows down washes to the dry lake in Sunfair, where it mostly evaporates, and eventually rains on someone else downwind of us. According to the conservation representative from the Joshua Basin Water District in attendance, we use 151 gallons per person per day and sustainable use is under 15. She talked a bit about two plans to replenish our aquifer using technology: One, under way right now, is piping in northern California water from the Hisperia aquaduct down into our aquifer. Another, under study, is diverting the Quail Springs wash from the surface (and the dry lake) underground. I’m not sure what that will look like–I picture a 600 foot hole in the middle of the wash, with caution tape around it–but at least it would be using our own water.

Living on less that 15 gallons of water a day looks to be tough. Here’s an essay by my sister-in-law, Maya, about going from 420 gallons per day to 50 gallons a day, with a toddler and while continuing to grow food. I’d like to visit each person who came to the workshop and see what systems result in what level of water usage. Because Reanna and I share a water main with my family, I don’t know how much we are currently using. I will figure it out and write a post about it.

[First published May 11, 2013 on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.]

How a Dry City Treats Water Like A Waste Product

I just visited my brother Ely in Glendale and the forecast was calling for rain in the next couple days. He was happy about that. They need the water. Glendale gets an average of 21.09 inches of rain a year (according to Wikipedia) and had only 16.95 inches in the last ten months (according to Weather Underground). Ely just emailed me that a meteorologist on the radio today said they’ve only gotten 5.15 inches so far this year, 9 inches below average).

But what is going to happen to that rain water? Almost all of it will fall on rooftops, sidewalks, parking lots and roads:


For a case study, I looked at Ely’s neighbor’s roof. They have a gutter on the low side, which will catch most of the rain that falls on that roof:

photo (23)

photo (24)

The neighbor’s gutter dumps into a drain pipe that heads towards the street on Ely’s side of the wall, picking up the runoff from another roof along the way.

photo (25)

Back on the neighbor’s side of the wall, the pipe dumps on the ground.

photo (26)

The water runs along the wall, down onto Ely’s yard, and onto the sidewalk.

photo (27)

Down the sidewalk, into the street.

photo (28)

Down the street.

photo (29)

And into 50 feet of storm drains.

photo (31)

Verdugo Wash

The drain dumps into the Verdugo “wash,” a giant concrete culvert a few blocks away.

Los Angeles River

Which is a tributary of another, even bigger concrete culvert, the Los Angeles “river.”

(photo by Ron Reiring

Which dumps into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach Harbor. (photo by Ron Reiring)

The system moves the water that lands on Glendale to the ocean quickly and efficiently. Meanwhile, they wash their cars and water their lawns with water pumped in from the distant Colorado River.

Here’s a totally different way of thinking about rainwater, from another, drier city that also relies on the Colorado River–Tucson, Arizona. Watch for the wow moment, starting around 1:20:

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I Have a New Job

I am now working at Morongo Basin Mental Health, as a therapist for their Military Services and Family Support Program in Twentynine Palms. It’s a cool program, offering free and confidential individual, couple, and family therapy for active duty or recently retired military personnel and their families–basically anyone with a military ID.

I had no idea that this kind of thing was going on. It’s fully funded (by San Bernardino County, I believe) so that cost is no bar to getting help for military families, who can sometimes struggle financially. And it’s fully confidential, unlike the mental health services on base. There is a widespread and not necessarily irrational belief among service members that seeking support is not good for your career.

I’m happy to be part of this program. (And it’s a trip to be working down the street from my alma mater, 29 Palms Jr. High!) The only downside is that MSFSP is severely underused right now. We could be helping several times the number of people we are now. If you are in the Morongo Basin, please spread the word!


Morongo Basin Mental Health Services

Military Services and Family Support Program

5910 Adobe Road, Suite A

Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

(760) 361-7124

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, January 6, 2013.]

A Few Things I’m Thankful For Right Now

Reanna, my wife and best friend. That I got to see her wake up so groggy and mild this morning in our cute little trailer home, and that she liked my curry stir fry for dinner last night.

Joshua Tree and its sunny, warm late Novembers.

That so much of my family live so close to me, so when Maya takes a walk with Ollie, they will probably come by and see the solar water heater I’m building and borrow some eggs.

That Ollie is starting to say my name, which comes out completely different every time, but you can tell he’s saying “Nathen” because he sticks his tongue way out to make a “th” sound.

That I have so many amazing friends and family to miss on a day like this. I’m thinking about the Alders, Pikes & Plowmans, and all my Not Back to School Camp staffers and campers.

That I have the capacity to be so moved, by all this, by my morning media (Radiolab ”Fact of the Matter,” Ashly Miller’s Radicool EP), and to anticipate the company of Lesters and Rizzos this afternoon in Pasadena.

Thank you.


[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, November 22, 2012.]