Sunday, December 23, 2018


i probably should be embarrassed, but i’m not

Copyright 2018 by Lori-Ann Willey

Due to living off the grid in the Maine wilderness, during Paul’s monthly IVIG treatments is a good time for me to “hit” Walmart.  I am one of these people who take a deep breath before I exit the truck and while slowly exhaling with a bit of a grumble, I make my way to the entrance.  Part of me is anxious to just get shopping done and over with as quickly as possible, while the other part of me finds any excuse to delay the task.  Such delays are, walking more slowly when I see someone emptying their shopping cart, so I can return their cart to the store for them, walking around a water or ice puddle, making sure I walk in the striped walking spots, and if nearing the door, slow further to allow others to enter before I do. 

Once inside, after making my bladdah-gladdah, I’m ready to relay race the aisles.  I reach into my back pocket for my cell phone and navigate to the “Color Note” application titled:  Walmart – Home – Town.  That is where all list of needs and to-do’s get plopped …all on the same “sheet”, so to speak.   A bit chaotic, I suppose, but despite living off the grid, my mind and body live in a fast-paced world -always on the go- so a single list is easier for me.  That is, until I’m in the store where I don’t want to be, and then, have to scroll and scroll and scroll some more to see to the bottom of the damned list.  My own fault.  I know better.  In some ways, Ima Lazy Woman.

On this day, despite the many miles I put upon my feet trying to find each item while keeping in mind Christmas shopping, too, as my list became shorter and shorter I enjoyed deleting items upon it. Of course, there are times when I must pause to understand my own list, too.  For instance, Rake doesn’t mean buy a rake, it means to bring it home.  Bamboo means to buy a plant pot, so I can sow some seeds.   Activated Charcoal means to look at filler ingredients for a clay project.  Paul doesn’t even bother to look at the list when he adds something.  He gets confused at my thought processes.  I can understand why and don’t hold it against him …or myself, for that matter.

Like the sinister Grinch at the thought of stealing Christmas, my grin crept bigly as my list grew shorter.  My cart was nearly filled, as was the little toddler seat section in the front.  In order to buy groceries, I had stashed two rolled up sleeping bags underneath the cart. (see 1.)  Each encased in their own nylon bag with a cinch pull string, so if they rolled free, the sleeping bag inside would stay clean.  That was my hope, anyway.

Toward the end of my shopping “spree”, I needed to navigate to the hardware section for some wood staples.  Only then, could I “hit” the food section. At this point, my phone battery was nearing the shutdown point, which is about 68% since I dropped it. So, I tried to speed my pace a bit faster without running over a few Grammy and Grampy’s along the way.  I keep a charger and “cord” in my bag, but it is a pain in the patoot toting those along and impossible to carry in my back pocket, so I try to avoid that as much as possible.

When I turned the corner into the stapler aisle, my front tire decided to drag and balk for me.  Assuming my wheel ran over something on the floor, I pulled my cart back and turned it at a sharper angle.  Nope, the wheel still dragged.  Still, I pushed far enough into the aisle so to be out of the way of anyone who may or may not be “riding my patoot”.  To further park out of the way of others, I kindah did the lifting of the cart via handlebar and plopped the cart close to the shelf next to me. 

When I was all parked neat and clean-like, I stepped to the front of my cart to see what caused the wheel to drag.  I saw nothing.  I squatted, and I still saw nothing. “What the hell?”  I pulled my Grammy glasses down and took a better look around the wheel caster. (see 2.) Yep!  Found the problem.

One of the sleeping bag drawstrings had dragged and coiled around the wheel.  Slowly, I started to unwind to free it.  “Nope, not that direction”, so I reversed the motion.  “Nope, not that direction either.  What the hell?”  Meanwhile, my Grammy glasses would not stop my long, silky hair from sliding into my face, which further blocked my view.  Toss after each toss, the hair would not behave and would quickly slide and obscure my view every few seconds.  Once, my glasses even slid from my face and onto the floor! 

After a couple minutes of untangling without success, I looked around to see if there was a clerk that could help me, because I assumed, wrongfully, that I’d have to lift that corner of the cart off the floor and spin the wheel in hopes to dislodge the string that way.  I saw no one.  “Really”?  I had no choice, I’d have to plop upon the floor and hope that would stop the gravitational pull of my slippery hair with a different angle. 

Again, I leaned close and spun the wheel.  Nothing.  I lifted that corner of the cart and tried once again to unwind the string in both directions.  Nothing!  Just then, my Grammy glasses slid from my nose and my hair once again went plop in front of me.  Figuring my face was close enough to go glasses-less, I attempted the unwinding process once again.  Then, it happened.  I realized rather quickly that my head was being pulled closer and closer to the floor and it wasn’t because I was trying to solve a string puzzle!  Now, my hair had spun around the wheel, too!  “REALLY?”

I was to the point of thinking, “Frig it!  Lemme just cut the string and my hair as close to the wheel as I can and just get it over with.” With that thought, I quickly realized that thought was easier than the follow-through of it.   My “bag” was strapped into the toddler seat at the other end of the cart …at an unreachable elevation from where I was bound, but thankfully not gagged.  Again, I looked around the best I could in hopes to see a clerk pass by.  None, of course.  Where are they when you need one?
By this time, I was already in this predicament by several minutes, and couldn’t help but wonder who in the security booth was watching from afar and justah-gigglin’ at me.  I almost wanted to wave just in case.  Without a knife and with the sleeping bag drawstring knot being far too tight to untie, I didn’t know what else to do except for maybe I’d try to friction cut the string against the edge of the wheel caster. (see 3.) 

First, somehow, I had to figure out how to unwind my hair.  Thankfully, that didn’t take much time …or cost me too many roots!  I had to laugh.  Though free of one situation, I still faced another.  At least I was mobile, and I could appreciate that wholly for sure.

With my hair unraveled and mostly intact, I figured I hadn’t much more to lose.  Without hesitation, while I was already down there and without anyone in sight, would there be too much harm in trying to work the knot free with my teeth, so I could simply just pull the drawstring free?   While I ran that scenario through my head, my fingers continued working the knot.  Thankfully, my fingernails found a little wiggle room.  From there, I could work the knot until it existed no more.

With the loop untied, the tangled issue became clearer.  Furthermore, I learned that my hair was wrapped around the wheel “axle” in the opposite direction as the drawstring had been.  So, no matter which way I spun the wheel or tried to unravel, while I made one issue better, I made the other worse!  It was clearly one of those, “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situations.  Thankfully, my hair was slippery that day, as I most often don’t use a conditioner. That day I did!  PHEW!

Friday, November 23, 2018


Today is an emotional day for me.  It is not because it is Thanksgiving, and it is not because I am depressed.  It is emotional because I dread telling you that due to Paul’s health, we are unable to spend the winter at camp as we have every year since 2005. 

The decision is an easy one to make, yet it is a difficult one.  Paul’s health comes first.  As of now, we cannot risk spending the winter in the woods …off the grid …snowmobile only.  We have made the decision together with me the one that needed to convince Paul that it is for the best. 

Yes, we love camp and love the winter months, especially.  Though it is a hard life physically, it is such a reward for the heart and soul.  Tranquility in seclusion …what is better?  Where life is so quiet.  Where, through silence, the snowflakes seemingly whispering a hello as they gently drop around your feet.  Smile, always, I do …as when a child gives you a hug.  That inner warmth of love and tenderness of the heart. Where Mother Nature is more so honored and respected, even when she is filled with fury that brings the brutality and the harshness of winter.    I see her other side, she allows us to live with such beauty before us, around us -surrounded.  A smile is easy here (at camp).  There is no looking for it.  It always exists.  I love winter.  I love camp.  And, I love wintering at camp.  So, what can go wrong?  A lot.

It can go wrong, and quickly so when your husband is not a healthy man.  With MS and Stiff Person’s Syndrome, Lupus, Gout, just to name a few chronic and debilitating illnesses, he’s done well living here for as long as we have.  We purchased the camp in 2004, and this is the first winter since 2005 that we cannot be here as we want. 

While the doctors are scratching their heads about Paul’s health and the labels of his medical issues, adjusting medications, treatments, adding more pills, increasing visits and testing, we are patient.  We’ve learned how to be that, at least, just as we’ve learned to live off the grid for so long, despite Paul’s health.  Scenarios are always there.  They must be.  That is the only way I can ever be prepared -always a plan A, B, C, etc.

Though we may wipe away tears and talk with a quivering voice when the topic of no wintering at camp arises between us, we know it is better to be safe than sorry.  Paul has already been rescued from camp during the winter time (Feb. 2013) when his body seized up quickly.  It happened as we prepared for Nor’easter Nemo.  Those were some very, very long, long days for us.  I wrote about that in a book.  Many of you reading this followed along, offered to help, too.  Many of you followed us closely over the following year, especially.  Not to mention all those who asked behind the scenes if everything is REALLY OK because I was late writing a “G’d Mawnin’!” or slow updating throughout the day.

Since then, and it has been five years now if I don’t post my good morning within’ the time frame that others expect, we were flooded with personal messages asking if everything is OK.  I guess you worry about us more than we do.  I understand that concept and thank you for your love.  We get it. You all really have been very good to us.  That just makes writing this a bit harder.  If that makes any sense?

Upon telling our daughter and son that we aren’t wintering at camp this year, both had a long sigh of relief.  We knew they kept close tabs on us, but I did not know how worried they were about us wintering at camp for as long as we have.  Both fully supported and felt confident in our choice to do so, but their relief is evident.  They’ve both seen Paul when his body isn’t being nice, so they knew when online, no one else knew.  They know, too, that anything can happen at any minute and without much warning. 

They almost lost their father (yes, Paul) back in 1998 when his body crashed, and he lost all but 1,000 of his platelets.  Normal is 150,000-450,000.  Doctors like to see 275,000.  Paul was in a critical care unit for a while and received platelet transfusions.  It was a scary time for us.  He was a very sick man for a very long time.  In many ways, he never fully recovered from that.  Just as every setback since, there is never a full bounce-back.  There never will be.  The loss of platelets was called ITTP (Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia Purpura).  Even today, we know how to identify the symptoms as early as possible. In 2001I knew it was time for me to “retire” and stay home to take care of Paul fulltime.  I was 33 or 34.  Paul was 36 or 37.  During that bout with ITTP was when IVIG was given to Paul for the first time.  It worked!

Though, some may think that because we will not be at camp, means that we have time to visit and have visitors.  Time.  Yes, we will have that, but the visiting and visitor part must be limited.  Paul tires very easily.  Many days he is “horizontal” most, if not, all day.  On his better feeling days, he is up more, but when at camp, those few hours are a “catch up game”.  Whereas at our house, it is more rest time for him.  Maybe with more rest, he will be able to visit and be visited by others more.  Only time, his body, and he will know when and for how long.

Lately, at camp, we’ve fallen more and more behind.  His IVIG treatments stopped working, and there is a battle of giving him the type of infusion he needs.  Doesn't seem to matter if his neurologist writes the prescription for a specific kind or not.  The hospital tells us there is a national shortage, yet when a call is made to the company that makes it, there is no shortage of it at all.  So, what gives?  Paul needs the correct treatment.  We don't need him to lose his platelets again because his body decides it can not only wreak havoc as it already does but also to prevent ITTP from happening again.  He's been given the wrong infusion prescription for a few years now.  Time to stop THAT and insist on the proper concoction of antibodies his body needs.  Now, we climb up the chain and if need be, find a new location for his infusions ...a hospital that will ensure the prescribed treatment, not one that is more commonly used for others.  

This fall, we were not able to frame or cover the boat as in past years.  We were not able to fill our wood crib with winter heat either.  We have enough to get us by for a few good weather weeks, but not all winter as we have in the past.  Instead of fighting Mother Nature, we felt it was best to “retreat” for at least part of the winter.  As the doctors tweak their care, we will revisit the idea of camp life the very first second we can do so.  We can always bring in fuel blocks, so we are not concerned with staying warm upon our return.  The fact is -none of that is worth risking Paul’s health and well-being, nor is it worth the risk of constant worry if / when I leave for town by truck or by sled -constant communication, or not. 

So, while I thought long and hard how to write this little piece, I could not come up with pre-set thoughts or format.  Tonight, I figured I’d just start typing and let the words come out as they have so far.

“Retreat” is not an easy thought process for me, but Paul’s health comes first.  It must.  Family and friends will have to understand that just because we are not at camp, does not mean that we can just up and run anywhere, everywhere or on a whim.  It’s just not where we’re at location-wise, it has everything to do with Paul’s well-being.  Remember, I cannot work for a reason.  My “job” is to take care of my husband.  Otherwise, I’d be holding a job, because I believe in being a productive member of society.  Instead, I do what I can in the ways that I can.  No one has to get it, but Paul and I must live it. 

I will continue to post at the camp page …just differently, because life for us as of right now, is different.  For one, I can go barefoot and my feet not get cold.  I can jump into the jacuzzi and turn the jets on high.  I can turn a knob and have water.  I can push a lever and watch my poops and pees spiral into non-existence …out of sight, out of mind …but not forgotten, ‘cause that is great compost stuff!  I compost wherever we go so I will continue to have that duty, here there, everywhere.  Get chilly?  Press a button.  I feel wicked lazy already!   Soon, though, I will adopt an exercise regime, as well as find ways, eh hem, excuses to be outside in the fresh air.  Good news …the snow is stickier at home.  That means more snow sculpting!  WOO HOO!  No mattah where …Ima Big Kid at heart.  Chins up.  Smile upon the face. 

No worries!  We have people checking on the camp while we're not there and have a security system  in place, too. Yes, in the woods.  There are systems that work via live feed.  Gotta love technology!  Though we will be "Yo-Yo's" this winter, we hope our time away when needed is helpful to Paul for a quick return trip while he's doing better.  That is where the "yo-yo" comes into play.  Here, there, back and forth.  We both want to be at camp as much as possible.  Fingers crossed we'll be at camp more so than not.

It is Thanksgiving …and we have a LOT to be thankful for.  We all do.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

"Isn't Her Voice Beautiful?" - CRPS AWARENESS

“Isn’t Her Voice Beautiful?” – CRPS AWARENESS

Copyright 2018 by Lori-Ann Willey

Ever have an experience that warms the heart so much that even after a few weeks, the thought brings a smile to your face? Me, too.  I want to share a personal experience with you …one that is a bit sappy in the emotions, but one I feel is worthy of telling.

We’ve all seen the hats that read, CRS across the front of them.  CRS stands for, “Can’t Remember Shit”, right?  However, if you add another letter to that and make it read, CRPS, how many of you know what that means?  I assure you, it does not mean, “Can’t Remember Poopy Shit”.  I’m almost betting that those who suffer from CRPS would probably rather have the CRS label instead.

CRPS stands for Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.  Otherwise known as, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSD).  Haven’t heard of either of those?  How about, if I tell you that it is also known as, Suicide Disease?  Why?  

“…because so many go without proper diagnosis or their pain is not taken seriously by the medical community that they end up taking their own lives.” Stephanie, a sufferer of CRPS

Before you continue, please take a moment to study the chart on the right. It helps put CRPS / RSD into great perspective.

A couple of years ago, I became Facebook (and then, real life) friends with a woman named Stephanie after I asked if she was interested in becoming an Administrator of a Facebook group I created where Mainer’s help other Mainer’s with road conditions in hopes for safer travels throughout the great State of Maine.  Later, I learned that Stephanie, unfortunately, has CRPS.

Though at the time, I had never met Stephanie in person, she knew who Paul and I were via Facebook.  She knew our daughter who ensured her Dunkin’ Donuts coffee was to perfection, and she knew our oldest granddaughter, as she is the same age and in the same class as her son.  As I grew to know much about Stephanie as a person, it was very evident that she has great compassion, morals, and empathy.  Those qualities weren’t all that impressed me about the woman.  Her attitude and the great outlook on life are one to be admired, especially given the fact that she suffers from CRPS.

Back in the 1990’s, Paul and I had a website that we called, “Without Wheels”, because, thanks to the Internet, anyone can “travel” around the world, so to speak, even if bound to a bed or a wheelchair.  Without Wheels was a place for those with illnesses, diseases, and varying disabilities to share their stories with others …a support group if you will.  On the Internet, who’s to know if someone is disabled unless they make it known?  There are a lot of disabilities that are not seen by the eyes of others.  On the site, Paul shared his story about his Multiple Sclerosis experiences, and I shared the story about the death of our infant daughter due to Trisomy 18.  Through the site, we “met” many wonderful, wonderful people who also shared their stories, and we are still friends with them to this very day.  Unfortunately, some have since passed away.  So, when Stephanie introduced CRPS into my vocabulary, I grew curious.

About a year ago this past September, Stephanie had lost her ability to speak.  We all know how frustrating laryngitis can be, but imagine talking along and suddenly, mid-sentence, even, your voice is gone …and for months at a time.  It wasn’t until last November, while Paul and I were at Walmart, did Stephanie recognize us as we came through the doors.  Without a voice, she, being a pro at the no-voice thing by then, as it is a common occurrence for her, no matter what the doctors say, Stephanie got our attention and introduced herself …in a whisper, of course.  I will admit, my hearing in a room filled with people is not so great, so I struggled to understand some of her words. Several months later -March of the following year- for the second time we “bumped into each other”, her voice was still evasive.  Have you counted the month-span yet?  Yep, September – March …six months, and still no voice. Can you imagine that?

Jumping ahead a year since we first met - last month (mid-October) I happened to meet up with Stephanie at the school parking lot.  With big grins, I jumped out of the truck on a cold, windy day and gave big hugs.  To my surprise, I heard her voice for the first time ever -clear, soft, and beautiful!  Hoping not to make my shock obvious, we stood talking for a couple of minutes before I brought attention to her working voice box.  

How can I relate my surprise and joy?  Have you ever seen a video of a person who could not hear, but then after surgery, hearing their first sounds in life?  Or a blind person, after surgery, seeing colors, shapes, light, and faces for the first time?  If so, do you remember that wave of elation that fluttered through your heart that triggered teary emotions?  That is the best way to describe my amazement when I heard Stephanie speak to me in full, audible voice. A couple of days later, Paul went with me to pick up our granddaughters at school.  Again, Stephanie was there.  I backed into a parking spot beside her.  Paul lowered his window so we could speak through opened spaces.  As we talked, I didn't think Paul remembered the last time he saw her, Stephanie didn't have a voice, so I brought attention to it, "Isn't her voice beautiful?"  Instantly, he remembered and agreed with me.

November is CRPS Awareness Month.  In honor of our friend, I did some research and educated myself on this Syndrome so I could better understand what Stephanie was going through.  That was a year ago.  Together, we discussed our frustrations with medical professionals.  As with Paul and his many ailments, finding a doctor that understands is as much a battle as having the disabilities in the first place.  If one is diagnosed properly, it comes only after months and years of testing, head-scratching, trial medications, and frustration.  Doctor after doctor with little or no diagnosis …treat the symptoms of an unknown, little known, or a less popular belief is usually the result. 

CRPS, like with MS (Multiple Sclerosis), Fibromyalgia, and so many other neurological diseases, syndromes, etc. not all patients have the same symptoms, nor can they be described so they are understood, or relatable even to/by professionals.  The pain travels, it varies, it may “go away” here, but now it is “there”.  To the sufferers, the pain is here, there, or everywhere, if that makes sense.  They live with it …they have to.  There is no “going away”, per se.  If the patient is lucky, they can learn to block most of the pain when it is mild, but what is “mild” to them, could be like a massive bone fracture for the rest of us.  That is their mild …the only way it “goes away”. 

Odd symptoms that one sufferer may have, others do not, so there is no “constant”.  As a result, obtaining a true diagnosis is frustrating and to some, impossible, not to mention the fatigue of it all.  To such people stricken with uncommon illnesses, diseases, syndromes, etc., to become overtired, injured, catch a cold, or simply become stressed, can, and often does, trigger more symptoms, other ailments.  Avoiding fatigue, stress, and injury are biggies.

Life is a balance for us all, but more so for those with medical issues that often leave even the experts scratching their heads.  “Let’s try this …” is a common phrase by professionals.  “I would like to send you to ….” is another phrase.  All offer hope, while at the same time, offer dread of starting the whole diagnoses process over again …months and years go by with the hope that one day, someone will figure it out.  How many doctors?  Often, too many to count.  Meanwhile, for those who suffer from such ailments often struggle to find ways to live a normal life.  As mentioned above, CRPS is also known as “Suicide Disease”.  With as little as I’ve touched upon so far, you can begin to understand why.

Remember, because someone doesn’t look disabled, doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Just because a disabled person puts on a smile and tries to make the most of every day, does not mean they aren’t struggling inside.  With that said, some people are just naturally upbeat in the first place, even if these words are entered into your medical records: “Mr. Willey is too happy considering the grave nature of his medical condition.”  That quote will be explained another day. 

Why did I write all this?  It has been over 2 ½ weeks since I first heard Stephanie’s true voice for the first time.   Knowing she can lose that ability to speak at any minute on any day and for months on end, possibly for years, or forever makes me all sappy in the emotions department. 

So many of us don’t take the time to realize how lucky we are.  We have a headache?  Take an over the counter pill.  Achy feet?  Change shoes.  Simple solutions to temporary aches and pains are nothing in comparison …yet, I guess, all is relative. 

I think I will always hear Stephanie’s voice inside this head of mine.  It brings a smile to my face …and I admit, it’s made me teary-eyed a few times, too.  Appreciate what abilities you have while you have them because you just never know what the next moment will bring.  Just as Stephanie won’t know if she will have a voice, or the ability to walk from one day to the next, as both abilities have left her before.

When I told Stephanie how much it meant to me hearing her voice for the first time, how it is stuck in my head as a happy-sappy thought, I asked if I could use her name in this piece.  She gave permission and offered more information to help me understand CRPS.  Thankfully, her memory is better than mine, because she helped me piece the time frame together, too. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Joy of Nature and Seclusion

Copyright 2018 by Lori-Ann Willey

Yesterday, Paul and I decided we’d go rock and fossil hunting further into the woods.  I packed my typical tools, which consisted of, a hand rake, rock pick, magnifying glass, rock classifier screen (1/4” mesh), a couple small gold pans (just in case), a small hand trowel, a few paper towels, gloves, goggles, Zip-Lock bags, bug spray and suntan lotion.  After filling our drink bottles with water, juice, cold coffee, and electrolytes, we were ready to head to the truck. 

In the bed of the truck were three, empty 5-gallon pails, three 2-liter bottles of water for rock washing, a long-handle digging shovel, and a hoe.  Before I started the truck, I asked Paul if he had his cell phone and wallet, too.  He did.  I had my cell phone, a charger with cable, and a pocket camera.  All I had to do was put a can of gas into the truck just to top the gas tank off a bit because I knew we would be away from camp for a few hours.

Before we left, Paul researched some probable areas for good fossil hunting.  In case we had no cell phone signal, which is often the case in these parts, Paul marked and saved a few topo map images to his phone.  I messaged our daughter, Alanda, and told her which direction we were headed and what our plans were for the day.  Just in case. 

About an hour later, as I clung for dear life on a slippery and very steep slope, my phone messaged and told me I had a message waiting for me.  In case it was an important message, I allowed myself to slide a few feet down the embankment until one foot rested against a stable-enough rock.  After a few pressure pushes to ensure the rock was solidly in place, I dug my hand rake into the ground before me to ensure I kept upright if the rock below my foot gave way.  With my free hand, I reached into my back pocket for my phone.  Signal was weak, but it allowed a message to squeak through.  It was from our daughter.

Before we left camp, I sent her a photo of a fossil I found.  She asked if I knew how old it was.  I was able to thumb swipe …something that I’m HORRIBLE at, by the way… “Don’t know”.  Then, quickly snapped a photo to let her know I couldn’t type anymore now.  A “placeholder photo”, if you will.  It is something I use as a reply, of sorts, when I’m busy doing something and I cannot stop to type.  Our daughter replied to the photo, “Haha Wow, go you!!”  Then, typed something mushy, “You’re soo pretty!”  To that, I had to laugh.  Love is a wonderful thing. 

A while later, and after Paul kept navigating the base of the steep slope in which I struggled, I decided, “There is nothing to find up this far.  I’m going to work my way down.”  Just then, after I grabbed a protruding root above me, it dislodged a rock that came tumbling down past me.  I yelled for Paul, “Watch out!”  Then, I called down, “I wish you’d tell me when you are directly below, ‘cause these rocks aren’t secure up here.”  With a few small trees between me and him, I heard him mumble, “Ok!” as the rock came to a stop not two feet beside him.

Navigation is not easy for Paul.  Despite that, he was able to get up and walk around a bit with his cane.  He depended on boulders and small trees to prod him along, yes.  He moved nearly as slow as I did upon the unstable slope above, and he did quite well during our excursions.  He even found more keep-able fossils than I did.  It was great to have him with me on such a doing.  I really miss doing such things with him, but when disability strikes, we change our hobbies out of both necessity and want.  Otherwise, I doubt if I would have written books, learned to sketch or paint.  Paul had a good day yesterday, so he was able to go with me.  Even so, after a while, he became fatigued and pain-filled.  Still, he plodded onward.  Literally.  I think he only fell once.  Not to be competitive or anything, but I never fell at all yesterday.    Imagine that! 

Once in the truck again, Paul zoomed in on his phone map to see how to get to the next location of interest.  Meanwhile, I sent our daughter an update on our location.  I thought I’d be funny and snap a picture of the GPS display in the truck.  It showed a small section of the skyline and then a gray screen with an animation of our truck sitting still surrounded by a gray mass.  Even according to the GPS and the rest of the world, we were off the beaten path (aka road).  It did little to let her know our location, but it told her we were still en route, in the middle of nowhere, and the direction our truck was pointed -North-ish.  So, she knew our direction of travel at least.

The next time Alanda messaged, we were not within cell range to receive it.  At 5:05pm, as I once again, straddled and slid along another steep embankment many miles away from our last known reception, a weak signal found the phone in my back pocket; a series of beeps vibrated my right patoot cheek.  I was just a few feet away from an uprooted tree, so while walking on all fours, I reached those tree roots after a few short minutes, but not before I stopped to examine a neat fossil find, of course.  Come to find out, Alanda started working on one of her paintings and asked me which colors I use to make the color teal.  I plopped on my knees for better stability, as I did not trust the small, dried root I leaned upon and replied.  “I can’t remember. Will think.”  Then, “Thank blue or green and zinc????”  “Thank” was supposed to be “Thalo”, but thankfully, she didn’t get that far.  She figured it out on her own.  Then, sent her a picture of the just-found fossil.

As I brought the phone around to my back pocket again, another message came in.  Then, another.  A Facebook follower sent me a picture of a plant to identify for her. Another sent me a copy of an article that had to do with one of my art pieces.  A friend had already sent me the article that morning, so no need in reading it twice, especially during the balancing act I was in at the time.  Had I fallen while trying to do so, that would be another article.  Maybe of the obituary type. 

Paul and I stopped to explore different areas throughout the afternoon.  As darkness closed in, the air cooled and the biting flies emerged.  Too busy looking for rocks, I only stopped to call out to Paul occasionally to ask how he was holding up if he needed help, and to let me know if he needed me to carry anything for him.  Like an animal that must leave territorial “markings”, each stop, I, too, had to stop and pee before moving onward.   With a chuckle, I admitted to Paul while I was in mid-squat, “I guess I can stand up and pull my pants up, can’t I?  I finished peeing about two minutes ago and I’m still squatting while I look at rocks around me.  To top it off, the truck is parked in the middle of the road.  I guess there is no fear of someone coming along anyway.  No one to catch me with my pants down.”

At times, we came to spots where we should not have navigated.  To refer as “roads” would leave any outtah-statah scratching their heads.  Tree limbs slapping our bodies inside the truck through opened windows.  I kept mine down most of the time because I needed to part the limbs and stick my head outside to watch my tire placement.  I don’t know how I missed one rock, but I did.  It was a sharp one, and there was no room to do anything except a deep breath and some wishful thinking.

Stepping outside the truck was a must on several occasions.  Sometimes, I needed a head-on view and to visually line the tires up to perfection or risk popping a tire or getting stuck.  Putting the truck in 4-wheel drive was mandatory in a few spots -through road washouts, flooded roadways, and going up steep embankments with rain-washed-out trenches big enough to swallow a tire.  There was one spot where I had to find rocks enough to fill a tire path before we could continue onward. Then, too, we dipped into a gravel pit where I found very soft gravel and sand-like ground.  I didn’t need the shovel but was thankful I grabbed it.  Just in case!   Fun stuff. 

All that is rewarding, but what put me in awe mostly were two things: 

First, with the aid of modern medicine, technology, and a good “Paul Day” on top of that, Paul was able to go rock/fossil hunting with me.  This is something that he hasn’t been able to do for many, many years.  Yes, he was limited where he could walk and search, but just going with me is a huge reward.

Second, how fun is it when you know your eyes are probably the first and only human to see rocks dated millions upon millions ago?  Rocks that are in the woods, hidden and only exposed by the force of gravity, mother nature and her precipitous ways when it comes to weathering / chemical erosion of the landscape, and time.  Great stuff to realize the phrase, “For our eyes only” really does mean just that when in the wilderness, untouched and unseen by man …and many beasts, too.

Ahh!  AND, what’s not to love about being “in the middle of nowhere”?  Where even modern technology can’t find you?  NOTHING!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Reclaiming Cat Litter - Off the Grid Gardening

RECLAIMING CAT LITER -Off the Grid Gardening

Copyright 2018 by Lori-Ann Willey

Where did this CRAZY idea come from?

Living off the grid is challenging in many ways, but what we find exceptionally challenging is trying to reuse, recycle, repurpose as much of our waste (human, animal, and man-made) as possible.  In the past, I’ve gone into a little detail about our composting toilet and the use of humanure in my gardens.  I’ve also mentioned that I collect moose, deer, bunny, and bird poops in nature as well.  Today, I’ll delve into a little different angle.

Because our cat is a high-end Maine Coon complete with size, markings, and long ear tufts that made even veterinarian's seriously questioned if he is a lynx or not, our cat, named, “AhChoo”, is strictly an inside cat for obvious reasons.  As a result, he pees and poops inside, which means he must have a litter box that we humans tend to for him.  His personal poop and pee attendants, if you will.  

Have you become less than enthused yet?  It’s OK to groan.  Feel free to skip to the last five paragraphs for a shorter reading session. I don’t offend easily, and I know reading about pees and poops isn’t for everyone.

For well over a year now, when we scoop the litter box, Ahchoo’s poops go into a closeable container.  When the mood strikes, I empty it outside in one of three compost piles exclusively for his poops.  Occasionally, I’ll “turn” the pile and add a handful of soil, pine needles, leaves/plants (both alive and dead) just to help aid in the breakdown of the poops into soil form at a faster rate.  I have yet to use any in my garden spots for veggie growing, and I may not.  I might use it to help grow milkweed for the monarch butterflies or use it to help grow grass for my compost piles.  I have three small piles going -one for each year- 2016, 2017, and 2018.  Use it in a veggie garden or not, Ima-Compost-aholic.  Also, like human poops, I like to let it age for two years before I consider using it.

Due to allergies of Paul and myself, and two surgeries the cat had to have, we’ve tried several different brands of cat food and cat litter to see if we can find a litter that doesn’t bother us or the cat.  We finally found one about a year ago.  It is one made of silica sand and hydrolyzed herbs. 

Silica Sand is nothing more than quartz broken down into small pieces the size of sand (remember sand can be pea size, too).  Yep, take a magnifying glass to a handful of sand in your area.  You’ll see clear-ish chunks of quartz scattered about that may resemble rock salt or clear-ish crystals.  While you are looking, you’ll see broken shells, and bits and pieces of other rock types, to include granite, too.  Hydrolyzed Herbs is nothing more than plants that are soaked in water for a while. 

Some of you may remember that I make Fish Hydrolysate (fish juice) for my garden.  The process for making herb hydrolyzed stuff is basically the same.  According to the makers of the cat litter product, the hydrolyzed herbs are a scent attractant that lures the cats to the litter box.  

I wondered if this silica sand is actually silica gel, which would make more sense simply because silica gel is processed with oxygen and water which yields a very porous product that can absorb moisture.  To use it as cat litter makes sense.  I further wondered if the maker of this cat litter broke down plant material (herbs) in water to create the hydrolysate which the silica sand (gel) was absorbed into the crystals and then allowed to dry, keeping the scent of the herbs trapped in the crystals which further acts as an attractant to the litter box by the felines?  I’m speculating, of course, but that makes sense to me.

So, in changing to this cat litter versus the clay-based stuff, one question I had, in the beginning, was, “Is it biodegradable and not harmful to the environment?”  I started researching.  In the past, all safe, used cat litters were used to help fill depressions in the ground around camp, but I  wanted, and needed, it safe to do so.  That is when I learned that silica sand is indeed safe.  I mean, really, they use silica gel beads in everything to help absorb moisture.  Know those little packets found in some foods, bottles, etc.?  That is silica gel. 

Supposedly, and according to the cat litter box, this litter contains silica sand and not silica gel.  However, this type of silica sand is very porous, and despite what the container says, “Silica Sand”, I believe it is actually silica gel.  I’ll tell you why.  Silica sand (quartz) is very hard.  It is stainable, but it does not absorb water.  Whereas, as mentioned above, silica gel is porous and can absorb 40 times its weight in liquid!  Thus, that is the purpose of using silica “gel” as a cat litter -absorption. So, maybe, the cat litter company processed the silica sand with a smaller amount of oxygen and water, so it still falls into the silica sand category?  I don’t know and I’m kinda confused on that.   Why not just say it is Silica Gel?

I could find no real data to support my theory, so maybe they are protecting “Secrets” of the inventors, maybe?   Maybe, they figured no one would ever have the want or need to do research on the topic? 

For an average single cat, the silica takes about 30 days to absorb the cat urine.  After that, the urine will literally pool in the bottom because the silica cannot absorb any more than its fill.  So, my thought process was, “If it takes up to 30 days to absorb liquid, then, I can dehydrate the silica in the sun, and then, soak it in water to filter out the urine.  Right?”  Basically, I wanted to purify the silica again.

I went straight to work.  After 30 days, I changed the litterbox, pailed the urine saturated silica, and up to my garden I went.  After allowing it to dry out for a couple of weeks, I filled the pail with fresh water (rainwater) and let it soak.  Every few days, I strained off the liquid and filled the pail again with fresh water.  I did this until the silica turned from a very urine yellow color to white-white in color.  I deemed the silica free of cat urine …at least color-wise.  With that part of my theory proven, for the next year, I repeated this process with every litter box change.  My next experiment will repeat this process, but then, bake the litter to help “purify” further, and then, see if I can reuse it as cat litter again.  Stay Tuned.

Last fall, I poured all “cleaned” silica sand cat litter into pails with holes in them.  Some of those holes were drilled for prior using (most likely a worm bin), but I go through plastic pails like crazy here, so any that spring leaks due to cracks, I still use, just not for holding liquids, is all.  Such pails are perfect for this experiment!

I set one pail aside that had a little bit of compost stuck to the bottom and sides of the pail.  This spring, that silica sand had absorbed the compost water mix and turned the silica sand black as wet compost. It was quite beautiful.  I strained the crystals into a garden spot, set them in the sun to dry.  When I deemed dry enough, I set the pail of silica sand under the eaves to “clean” it again.  This morning, I deemed them white enough to be “clean”.

Now, onto my experiment and purpose thereof.  I am attempting to use the silicon sand as a growing medium while keeping in mind the Kratky Gardening Method, which is a form of hydroponics.  A few years ago, I developed a method of gardening for my lettuce using an offshoot idea.  It worked amazingly well, using sphagnum moss that I dug and collected by hand (a tedious undertaking) as a medium, and compost tea for added nutrients. This time, I will use the silica sand as a growing medium.

Using Silica Sand as A Growing Medium

If you skipped the first portion of the blog entry because we want to recycle, repurpose, reuse everything possible here, this morning, I started an experiment using used cat litter (silica sand) as a growing medium.

This spring, after the snow melted, I dried the silica sand cat litter in the sun.  I gathered two old, and no longer used food cooler covers, turned them upside down and filled them both with the cat litter (silica sand).   Then, filled them both with water, sprinkled two types of loose-leaf lettuce upon the surface, and then, gently “scrambled” the seeds shallowly into the silica. 

I chose lettuce because they need light to germinate, but also need moisture.  The silica sand is nothing more than a “holder” for the seeds until they sprout, and then, a way for the roots to work through the sand as they grow.  As the roots grow, they drink the water sitting within the silica sand pieces.  Lettuce, they say, have a shallow root system, but it depends upon the kind of lettuce, too.  Loose-leaf have shorter roots.

As I did with the Kratky Method, I’ll feed the plants a compost tea.  Because the compost tea will be brown or tea-colored, I can expect the silica sand to also turn brown.  If this method works, I’ll be saving all the cat’s litter from here on out and eventually have lots of reclaimed litter for growing at least my leafy greens.  I’m anxious to see how all this plays out …tweaking my methods as I go and as the plants grow, too.  Trial and error. 

I hope for success, but I am a realist and expect failures, too.  It is an experiment I just HAD to try!  This silica sand is something I can Reuse, Recycle, repurpose …Reclaim, over and repeatedly.  I hope next to see if I can reclaim silica sand (or, gel) as a cat litter again …and how many times!

Stay Tuned!

Friday, June 1, 2018


Copyright 2018 by Lori-Ann Willey


Desperate times called for desperate measures!

I’ve been making both keyhole and H├╝gelkultur gardens now for many years.  Due to poor soil and the tremendous amount of tree roots and boulders, I quickly found it much easier to make raised beds than try to work the soil like the “normal” garden methods I had done all my life.  The soil is ground to dust, which not only helps suffocate the seeds in their own way, but it could not maintain moisture either.  When it rained, the water literally ran off the surface.  My seeds failed to germinate and whatever I transplanted shriveled up and died.  As a result, I started putting my brain to use and started problem-solving.  One year of a failed garden was enough.

Being an observer and lover of nature, I started to think, “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection”.  The following year, I planted most of my garden in pots, pails, jugs, hollow logs, etc.  That way, I had a few nibbles here and there, but that wasn’t a garden-garden.  I went to work and collected natural debris from the landscape around us.  I dragged logs, sticks, and branches through the woods for hours a day. I lugged 5-gallon pails and filled them full of rotten tree debris.  I stripped ferns of their fronts, leaves from downed trees, and pulled grass from the sides of the road the whole 8-mile trip to town.

When home-home, I mow grass, wait a day or two and then rake the field out back.  After a day or so, I collected the grass in large trashcans and bags.  What would not fit on the back of the truck, I saved for another two-hour trip another day.    Not only that, I composted everything imaginable from food scraps to magazines, cardboard, and junk mail, too.  I was so desperate that I even raked dead leaves within the woods itself, the camp yard, driveway, and hell, I even raked leaves from the camp road each spring and fall.  We have a composting toilet system, so after letting our poops age for two years, I even used that.  Urine, too, is filled with lots of nutrients and those nutrients help decompose natures debris at a much faster rate, so yes, I started to keep a pee pail near my compost piles.  I still do!  Desperate times called for desperate measures!

My first garden beds were pitiful, to say the least.  If the sun was out, the plants would wilt almost instantly.  When it rained, as mentioned above, the water ran away from my plants and did nothing to help them.  Finally, I decided to plant a few seeds around a few compost piles and that worked!  However, the piles needed to be “turned” frequently, which posed a wicked danger for my plants, but that gave me an idea.  How about if I corralled my compost and made an entryway to access the piles without disturbing my plants?  Little did I know there was a name for that method! In a round-about way, kindah-sortah, it’s called a keyhole garden!

Again, resorting to my knowledge about soil, nature, and how it has its own lifecycle, those dragged logs I mentioned earlier?  Well, I knew how to make them work for me …the decayed wilderness, too!  Dead logs, unless in the sun all day every day are always moist.  So moist, that worms dwell in them, as well as some newts/salamanders.  What they all have in common is that they absorb moisture through their skin to survive.  What do worms do a lot, because they eat a lot?  They poop.  Their poop is some of the best fertilizer in the world …and without chemicals!  So, I brought as many worms back to my gardens as I could, too.

My first thought was to keep the logs rotting near my gardens and as they broke down, I’d add them to my compost piles.  Then, I thought, why not just help them along a bit and lay them out where I want a garden bed, cover them with compost material, a bit of soil here and there, and help speed the decomposition?  Any compost and/or soil brought from home-home, I’d add to a corner and plant a few seeds.  Little did I know that method had a name for it, too.  It is called the Hugelkultur Method!  Upon posting pictures of my idea, a friend commented on my Hugelkultur style.  I had to go look it up.  Tah-Dah!  That was exactly what I had created!  I must admit that my pride bubble had a little hole in it just then, but still, …someone was smarter than me, before me, even!

Below, I’ll explain both the Keyhole Garden Method and the Hugelkultur Method.  Then, I’ll explain why I combine the two systems for successful gardening methods here in the North Maine Woods.

When you read the word “keyhole”, your brain probably visualized a keyhole in a door, and it would not be misleading to do so.  If you can picture an old skeleton key and the slot that it fits into, you’ve pretty much pictured what a keyhole garden looks like.  The basic idea of a keyhole garden is to maintain fertile soil in a small area, usually no larger than six to nine feet in diameter, that also maintains moisture control.

The keyhole garden is basically a raised bed with a three-foot-wide compost pile in the middle of it that extends to the bottom of the “hole”.  The keyhole itself extends upward above the soil level. The entire garden gently slopes away from the keyhole.  Usually, there is a pathway that interrupts your design so you can access the composting keyhole without walking on the garden bed itself.  I have some that do, some that don’t.   I consider it a waste of garden space to have a walkway, but for some, easier walking, and then, dumping is important.

If you can picture a shallow domed cover to one of your pots, then you are visualizing a keyhole garden quite well.  Now, let’s say your cover has a knob instead of a handle to slide your fingers through to lift the pot.  That “knob” is the keyhole compost part of the garden bed -in the center and raised with a gentle downward and away slope that reaches the edges of the bed.

The bottom of the keyhole sits the entire depth of the bed and extends as a hollow “knob” if you will, where your food scraps, brown and green nature debris are placed for decomposition.  Ideally, as you design your keyhole garden, you should start with the center keyhole and work outward.

Once you established the general design, on paper or in the head, lay down a rock layer for your keyhole. The rocks provide drainage.  You need drainage in the bottom and sides of your keyhole, so whatever you choose for the keyhole composting material holder, make sure it can “breathe” and “leech” when it rains.  It can be anything from up righted sticks, to a screen material, uprighted grass clumps, pail with holes, or like I use, a woven basket made of tree roots.

The purpose of the keyhole is to house the compost material in a way so that as it decomposes, the rain will help wash nutrients outward into the soil around and beneath your garden plants.  Thus, it will encourage your plant roots to grow downward in search of moisture and more nutrients for healthier plants. Healthy plants yield more fruits/veggies.

The gentle slope outward encourages moisture to “run” downhill to help spread the nutrients further away from the keyhole.   Too much of a slope and you risk erosion or water runoff instead of seeping into the soil.

A keyhole garden should not be more than nine feet in diameter, but that depends upon the size of your keyhole, too.  The nine feet is a general guideline for me when I design a keyhole garden.  If I make a larger bed, I either make the keyhole itself larger or, I strategically place smaller keyholes to ensure the decomposed nutrients feed all my plants as time passes.

I tend to lay cardboard and paper at the bottom of the bed itself as I go.  The cardboard and paper will break down quickly once covered with soil.  Paper goods help aid in moisture retention, homes for worms, etc.  Because this type of garden maintains moisture very well, it is no wonder it is a preferred method of gardening in the arid regions around the world.  Where NOTHING would grow, can now grow incredible gardens simply by using this keyhole gardening method.  It is quite impressive and works wonderfully, even here in the north Maine wilderness.


The word, “Hugelkultur” took me a long time to remember.  Until I learned that it was the “official” name for the garden style I already used for a few years, I called it a log garden, because, that is just what it was.

As mentioned earlier, I have an eager habit and hobby of collecting natural debris.  It is probably the same habit that my father had as he walked through tall grass that was ready to seed.  He’d always strip the seeds off the grass tips and let them fly away in the wind.  Or, if it was a calm day, he’d slowly let the seeds trickle from his fingers as he walked.  It took me years to figure out just what he was doing.  Instinctively, I guess, I do much of the same thing, except with tree debris …kindah-sortah. Only, I lug, drag, or flip end-over-end logs to an intended garden spot in hopes that one day, I’ll be able to plant vegetable seeds.


Hugelkultur gardens can be made in different ways.  For those who follow my postings on our camp page, you know that as I walk through the woods on our property, I often fill depressions with dead trees, limbs, and twigs.  Eventually, all that will break down and become soil, thus fewer ankle-turners as I walk.  I do the same with pine needles as I rake the camp yard -all those go into leveling out the landscape for Paul.

Some people fill low areas with such debris as mentioned above.  When they reached a flat plain, they top with a bit of soil, stuff any gaps with more soil, and then plant their crop.

Some Hugelkultur gardeners mound such debris and make raised beds of them.  The mounds can be as high or shallow as needed or wanted.  Often, though, it depends upon the need of the person creating that style of garden.

Like with Keyhole gardens, the Hugelkultur garden can have any desired outside shape that suits them.  If you are one to keep in mind of a long-term project and landscape ideas, think along those lines as you design this style of garden.

The concept of a Hugelkultur garden is quite simple.  Depending upon your location, “debris”, and the amount of material will probably do more dictating than creative designing.  This is where “thinking outside the box” helps greatly!

This type of garden style is what this camp landscape needs.  It needs a way to maintain moisture and nutrients alike …at the same time, even.  A pile of leaves is just that …a pile of leaves.  A pile of logs is just that, too …a pile of logs.  Without moisture of some sort, the breakdown of those materials will take seemingly forever!  Add a little moisture, such as rain, occasionally and if that moisture is prevented from evaporating, you’d see decomposition at a much faster rate.

Remember, leaves, especially the shiny/waxy kind, oaks, beech, and maple are a few that take longer to decompose. When such leaves are compressed, such as under the weight of snow, they prevent moisture from working its way to the soil.  You need air gaps.  Unless you are considering the anaerobic method of composting, you want air circulation.  Those air gaps allow oxygen that the microbes need for survival.  If oxygen can travel, it brings in moisture with it, thus you have the aerobic mode of composting, which I find is a much faster process.

As woodland debris breaks down, it maintains the moisture levels to perfectness for gardening.  The Hugelkultur method depends on that breakdown, moisture, microbes, and air to enhance the soil-in-the-making.

Due to the numerous rocks and tree root systems here, I make raised garden beds.  I start out with larger logs (dead trees) for the frame.  Often, the size solely depends upon my log length.  I can only drag, carry and flip logs so long and so wide and so heavy.  My goal is a garden bed with logs at least 10 inches diameter.  Any narrower and I stack two high as my garden border.  Within the frame, as I clean up the fallen branches, I cut them to fit inside my frame and stack largest at the bottom and each layer added, I add smaller and smaller diameter pieces until the last layer is twigs.  Where I can, I fill gaps with smaller twigs, a handful of grass and a handful of compost here and there just to add to hasten the decomposition.  Finally, when I have the height a good foot taller than I want the bed in a couple of years, I’ll top with compost and allow the rains to wash it through the stack.  When a gap is revealed, I add some grass or more soil there.  Plant whenever you feel the bed will hold soil around your plant roots, even if the roots grow into the decaying wood underneath or in a cool, moist gap between the logs.

If you want to test the soil for moisture below the surface, find a gap between a couple logs and wiggle your fingers through it to feel the moisture levels.  If you can, grab some decaying wood and give it a squeeze.  Don’t be surprised if you feel water dripping between your fingers.  That’s the moisture retention you want!  The plants will love that stuff!

Some people use large logs and just toss soil on top of them every once in a while, or covers them with a tarp for a few days after each good rain.


Combining the Keyhole and Hugelkultur Methods of gardening have greatly enhanced my garden production.  Not only do I have higher yields, I can fit more plants closer together because I have both nutrients and a constant moisture source.  

Ima-Compost-Lovah!  Making compost from nature's debris may seem tedious, but it is a lifelong hobby for me.  To take "debris" and turn it into "black gold" is such a great reward.  All natural, too.  How can it get any better than that?

No matter the type of garden, your plants need nutrients.  Those who do not make compost often resort to purchasing fertilizers to help replenish their soil.  Sure, that's the easiest and fastest method, but like so many people like to point out, I tend to do thing the "hard" way.  I have patience and I don't mind the work involved.  If a compost is made correctly, there is no smell.  I know what goes into the soil because I make it all by hand by gathering and aging nature's debris ...the lifecycle of the plant world, manipulated by collection and hastened with "turning".  

Many towns have a compost pile for free access.  It is a place where grass clippings and fall leaves are brought, piled and turned by a machine every once in a while.  Though free, I've known of people who have to wear gloves and sift through the compost in such places because glass, nails, pieces of metal, etc. are scattered about the piles.  One woman lost her entire garden of over $100 worth of plants because someone donated some grass or leaves that was tainted with something that killed everything she planted in the free compost.  She was not happy.  I don't blame her.  When such clippings/leaves come from a lawn and set beside the road for pickup, you don't know what else is mixed in.  Maybe they used grass/leaves to sop up oil or some spilled chemical.  Unless you make your own, you never know what could be mixed in ...both good and bad.  That's not a risk I'm willing to take.  But, that could be because I enjoy making my own, too.

Just like when you compost, you only need FOUR ingredients to make soil:

NITROGEN – “Green” (kitchen scraps, green leaves, grass, urine etc.)
CARBON - “Brown” (papers, cardboard, dried leaves, wood)
MOISTURE - (rain, dew, buckets of water, snow)
OXYGEN – (air)

Some will argue that you do not need oxygen, and they are right.  However, I assure you, oxygen speeds up the process greatly.  Some will insist that you use the lasagna layering method of composting, but no, not if you want compost within a year.  The greens must mix with the browns.  It is the combination of the two touching each other, that help them break down faster.  Layering them keeps them separated and only the parts where the greens touch the browns will decompose first, then work their way around from there.  Turning ("mixing") the ingredients mixes the browns and greens, keeps oxygen in the mix and helps spread the heat more evenly.  Think of it this way, you can plop all cake ingredients into a bowl, but if you don't mix ...well, I guess you'll still have a cake in the end, but you get my meaning, I think.

Heat helps speed the process, but do not exceed 160-degrees.  Any warmer inside that compost pile and you’ll kill the microorganisms that are doing the work in there.  When you see worms as you turn your pile, your compost is ready to use.  At that point, I sift to sort from the ready-ready stuff and anything that doesn’t sift through a 1/3” mesh, I toss into another compost pile.  I keep rocks smaller than a golf ball.  You NEED those rocks to help keep air flowing, as rocks are always shifting and when they shift, that means more oxygen.  Like you, the roots need them, too!  That wiggle-room allows them to travel in search of more nutrients.