Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Speaking of Idiots

Check out this douche. Oh wait, that's me 5 years ago before I grew a soul. My wife says that I killed that 4' Eastern Diamondback rattler out of mercy, since it had been run over repeatedly on our dirt road by some hostile Homo sapiens passing by. But I think I was still just retarded enough at that point to think that this was OK. These guys are beautiful. And rare. And they indicate a healthy ecosystem, one they play a starring role in.

I ate that snake out of pure guilt. Floured it, fried it, and ate it, one 4" chunk at a time. That smarmy look on my face was all show. I was really reeling inside for not trying harder to save that magnificent creature. A little bloody patch on its side, and OFF WITH ITS HEAD! Why not, I have kittens to protect! Of all the absurdities, killing an old diamondback to protect a couple of resource-guzzling kittens. I should've fed them to this lord of the sandhills just as tribute. What a beautiful snake! Or was.

Well, joy of joys, this particular usurpation visited me again this weekend. We were up north looking at some family mountain property, and on our way out the neighbor we had just met decided he needed to pop a couple of 9mm rounds into a "copperhead" laying on the wooden bridge that is the only way out by car. He managed to wound the poor thing, knocking a little bit of its face off, but couldn't quite manage to put it out of its misery in a timely manner.

Here I intervened. I parked the car and walked up to our champion copperhead to see what condition his condition was in. A robust 24" inch snake writhed in pain before me - not a copperhead, not even a cottonmouth - down there by the creek; water moccasins don't live that far north. What we had here was cutural breakdown. This great big, smart, hairy fella had blown a couple of splinters out of the bridge, but despite his far superior technology, was coming up short against this mighty Northern water snake. Non-poisonous of course, just catching some morning sun in a bright spot of the forest's gloom before slithering off to catch a crawdad for lunch.

You'd think that every snake out there can fly, and has jaws big enough to swallow a linebacker. Which couldn't be farther from the truth. I don't want to over-emphasize how important snakes are to their ecosystems, but killing them willy-nilly is both ignorant AND stupid, and eventually leads to local food web collapses. Just what we need at this junction in history is for Nature to further withdraw her support for our cause. Imagine if we didn't have black kingsnakes out there, munching on their usual diet of rattlers, copperheads, and water moccasins!

Blam! rings the artillery fired around the world at our own rear ends.

I put that poor water snake out of its misery with my soil probe. One swift shot to separate its head from its body. It felt even more disgusting this time than the last, but this guy left me no choice. Some way to begin a friendship.

We have to stop killing everything we meet. Intentionally, collaterally, ignorantly, it won't matter why when our life support system collapses around us. Educate yourselves in the direction of cooperating with nature, as fast as you can. Plant food, make your garden comfortable for wild animals, but mostly just take some heat off of the industrial food chain so farmland can be left fallow, and wild food webs have a chance to recover. Energy descent will guarantee this result in the long run, but will it be fast enough to help us through the mess we've made?

I don't really want to say which way I think it will go. But I very much understand why people believe in god.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Big Debate About Climate

I'm afraid if you're looking for a chicken little article you've come to the wrong site. Like any other reasonable human being I can look at the fossil climate record and see for myself that weather on this planet has traditionally been anything but consistent. Sometimes it goes through periods of stability, no doubt we've been witnessing one of those for our collective retrievable memory, and sometimes really incredible things happen abruptly. The so-called "Snowball Earth" must've been a pretty weird time in our planet's history! Surely the Permian extinction, when about 95% of life on Earth was wiped out, was not a pleasant place to be either.

But to say that burning 85 million barrels of oil a day is having no affect on life around us is potentially one of the most selfish, myopic opinions ever known to our greedy species. I'm not sure who exactly is promoting this junk, but I'm glad I'm not that naive. It's having a big time affect on life around us. Many of the indicator species have gone extinct, amphibians in particular. Water and air quality have been severely compromised, despite such pleasant sounding progams as "Clear Skies." We walk a taut line on the freshwater supply, having already dropped fossil aquifers (i.e. aquifers that don't recharge) by hundreds of feet in some regions of the world. Saltwater intrusions, into the freshwater aquifer nearby, are common in coastal areas. Six years ago the regulatory agency I worked for was already developing de-sal plants, and buying water rights from privately owned reservoirs on Mormon lands in east-central Florida.

And still we drop off our waste several times each day in a couple gallons of drinking quality water, and sprinkle 1000s more on useless lawns. Why? Well, having a lawn was a sign of prestige in England, where the practice comes from. It meant that you were wealthy enough to set aside a portion of your land for something useless. Needless to say, it's become quite the pissing contest, with 50,000 square miles of the stuff cultivated intensively in the United States alone. 50,000 square miles of some of the most toxically-maintained real estate in the world. More poisons and oil are dumped on ridiculous lawngrass, per acre, than any other landuse in the world, short of toxic waste dumps. And I'm certain we have way too many of those as well.

Are humans impacting the climate? Probably. Are we slowly killing the biosphere? Definitely. And I'm being nice by putting in the word 'slowly.' A lowly swamp darter might not mean much to you, certainly not as much as a farmer. But this is just another false dichotomy really. We can have farmers and swamp darters. We just have to change the way we farm. We have to drop the hubris a notch, and stop acting like we're the only animals on the planet that matter. Even if it's just to keep US alive. Something that selfish still depends on the presence of biodiversity. When we kill the swamp darters we start digging our own graves.

Just how dug those graves are already is debatable for sure, but if we continue doing what we're doing, knocking down forests for new strip malls, dumping our sewage in estuaries - in short, converting natural ecosystems into more humans - there will be a threshold that trips and makes life pretty ugly for us first world humans. And by "ugly" I mean potentially a lot less of us first world humans. Count on that. The laws of physics dictate it. When you create an island economy and an island ecosystem out of a planetary population, which we basically have with our numbers and trade, you face island ecology consequences. Coal, and particularly oil, have given us the energy necessary to overshoot our planet's carrying capacity, and overshoot is only ever followed by one thing in nature: collapse. So something has to give, and since I am ever the optimist;) I'd rather it was our impact on the place than the bulk of people that I love. If we went back to pre-Columbian carrying capacity, pre-fossil fuel carrying capacity, we're talking maybe 50 million in the present United States? US population is 300 million now, and I guarantee you none of us are as qualified to live off the land as your garden variety native* was. Imagine, IF we all got real good at this real fast, "only" 5 out of 6 people you know starving to death. And I can't even imagine the learning curve from Wal-Mart and Little League to subsistence farming and foraging.

Maybe the planet's carrying capacity is up for debate, but I can almost assure you it's under 6billion. At least 6 car-driving, suburban house-owning billion. And according to pre-industrial age history, it's more like 1 billion. Maybe. And that's when we were using a LOT less energy per capita. We have other things to worry about besides climate change.

So instead of a hissy fit about global warming what you'll find instead on my blog is discussion of resilience measures. Resilience being the property of an ecosystem which characterises its behavior in response to perturbation or disturbance. A resilient system can "bounce back" in one way or another. What if climate did change abruptly? What if it was 5 degrees F hotter than "normal" for the next decade? If you're pushing your self-reliance limits every season, and let's say you're looking for sources of fat for your diet, could you be growing olives in preparation for a drier, hotter climate? Maybe they don't fruit now, but they don't take up too much space either as young trees. They grow quite slowly, and are kind of lanky, so just pretend they're not there taking up room in your garden. (I mean besides planting them with friends.) If they get to a point where they are taking up too much sun, and not doing you any good, you can always take them out, one at a time preferably, just to hedge the bet a bit longer. And the wood is beautiful! Use it to turn a new set of cups, and make some cooking utensils out of the branches. Celebrate those trees that contribute to your site's resilience in whatever way presents itself.

OK, so we've all seen "The Day After Tomorrow," and as unlikely as something like that is to happen, there is plenty of evidence in the fossil record of rapid climate shifts following some sort of threshold breach. In fact, it's not uncommon for ice ages to start in a matter of a couple of years, not a couple of centuries, as previously thought when catastrophism was out of vogue. So are we nearing a breach point? Maybe. We already know by the laws of physics that the human population on Earth will be much lower in the future. And according to human history and pre-history we number about 7 times the typical population. We also know that, compared to pre-industrial humans, we use several times more energy per capita. The signs of the biosphere collapsing are all around us (if you look for yourself instead of being told what to believe). We've covered the fact that freshwater is looming large as a limiting factor for continued human expansion, (this I tell you first hand), yet we still poop in it every day, and dump it on the grass by the trainload.

But the only way to convince people that this behavior is killing us rapidly and absolutely has to be abandoned at our earliest convenience, is to set the standard. There are many people out there that I admire for bringing me up to speed by their example. You can only write about it if you know it, and I'm just getting to know it, so I'm very much standing on the shoulders of giants here. My deepest hope in relating all this is that I can inspire someone else to make some radical changes in the way they inhabit the landscape.

So I don't want people coming here to pick fights about details. I want to hear from intelligent people who want to talk about answers to the problems we should all be familiar with by now. To still be fighting about whether or not we are actually compromising our ability to persist on Earth is to be very far behind in the only conversation that really matters. I won't waste much time with deniers. Too many important things need to be sorted out. I don't think "low-fat" is something we'll be eating by choice for too much longer.

Hope to see you around.

*The term "native" has a loaded meaning in our culture today. I'll argue in a later post that our concept of native should be re-evaluated.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's Easier When You Listen

When I was growing up with my strict Southern Baptist family, we got spanked a lot. And each spanking continued until there was an audible "breaking of our will," some enigmatic signal in our crying. Needless to say, all of us experimented and practiced these changes in tone to get the spanking over with sooner (but not too soon or they'd know it was fake!), but I can't remember one single time that getting spanked ever changed my worldview.

The day that the gravity of permaculture hit me I finally had such a worldview shift. Since then I've had several smaller, but very important adaptations to the world that permaculture had informed me of originally, and yesterday I had another one of those.

The key player in this revelation was the 8 mature sugarberry trees surrounding the back of our lot. You see, sugarberry leaf fall is allelopathic to other plants, much as the juglone secreted from the roots of walnut trees inhibits the growth of competitors. (Sugarberry leaf fall can actually neutralize this juglone to allow greater biodiversity to flower around walnuts! But that's later in the story...) So, when I first started designing our site I just knew I needed to have those massive trees removed, at great expense, in order for our system to be productive. I fenced the goat paddock at the back of our lot to allow a 10 foot open stretch down each side where I could plant more fruit trees along the property lines with the understanding that the sugarberries would have to be removed by a tree service before I could plant the new stuff.

Yesterday I cleared out a couple of tons of dropped trees and branches that I had fed the goat since we got here, and once cleared out, I sat around in the now-wide open paddock to admire my work for a while while everyone else took a nap. I had become increasingly concerned that the paddock was going to be really hot without that dappled canopy shade once the sugarberries were gone, but I figured we'd just deal with it until the fruit trees got big enough to remedy that. But what I noticed was that our goat spent a good portion of her time cruising around munching on sugarberry leaves, and that the leaves had been falling steadily all summer. Surely converting allelopathic leaf fall to goat manure was neutralizing the toxins that stunt grass growth! And here was this super abundant food source, free of charge, raining down on the goat paddock constantly. Why on earth would I want to pay someone big bucks to remove free food? So I could pay even more to import offsite feed? So I could make the paddock sweltering hot during the summer, stressing the livestock, and causing a need to use more water? So I could force the system to grow fruit instead of goat? There's room elsewhere for fruit. And sugarberries do grow with other plants, plants we could probably find close cousins of that might also produce something for the humans in the system.

Turns out that my subsequent research confirmed that what I had planted back there already, and what I was planning on adding, was exactly what I needed! Toby Hemenway's permaculture book suggests that the walnuts I mentioned earlier are a required part of the "guild," necessary for neutralizing the sugarberry's allelopathy, so I'll add a couple of English or black walnuts (haven't decided, maybe both) around the edges soon. But the other plants - mulberry, goji, elderberry, and goumi - are already there, or on the list for adding next season! Occasionally things register in my brain when I read them!;o) The other species he mentions is more marginal, but I might try once the walnuts get established - currants. They need about 1000 chill hours to fruit and we only get 600. Pretty fall color though, fruit or not, and who knows where the climate might be headed. He also says that this poison-squelching assemblage might be a good spot to try tomatoes and peppers!

So the "A-ha moment" for me was really just one more case of listening to what Nature had to say instead of forcing the system to conform to my preconceived notions, as is typically the case with high-energy agricultural systems. As a bonus from that low-energy process I reap goat meat, turkey, chicken, eggs, blackberries, elderberries, goji and goumi, walnuts, mulberries, and potentially currants, tomatoes, and peppers! All on about 3000 square feet!

The more experienced permaculturists say that we should go into our designs with the understanding that our ideas are probably wrong. Of course I don't think I'm going to be wrong any more than anyone else thinks they are, but I saved a LOT of hard physical labor, a LOT of money, kept a LOT of valuable shade, and slashed my future feeding chores, by careful observation and an open mind.

That's rare enough for me to consider this an important breakthough! (And I'm obviously always happy to share such moments, whether they're important to anyone else or not!!)

The Cracked Pot

A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master's house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master's house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfections, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. "I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you." "Why?" asked the bearer. "What are you ashamed of?" I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master's house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work and you don't get full value for your efforts," the pot said. The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot and in his compassion he said, "As we return to the master's house I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path." Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it hadleaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path but not on the other pot's side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master's table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house."

Here's to all the cracked pots out there that make this world such a beautiful place!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Because I'm talkin' about the road...

Those of us in the densely populated (and impossibly muggy) southeast take the condition of our roads for granted. That is, in general, highways in the southeast are in pretty darn good shape. We don’t have the freeze-thaw issue most of the nation’s roads must endure, and what’s left of the (non-California) US tax base seems to be slowly withdrawing its long reach from the frontier and staying at home back east. The southeast could therefore be thought of as a fortuitous cross-road of US demographic information that is faring better than most, and far better than a certain notable Yankee peak oil pundit might purport, in between handfuls of Cheez Doodles and NASCAR rants. Well, at least in the quality of its highways. But that’s not the case everywhere.

The interstate highways out west are falling apart – Washington, Idaho, Montana (except the richy richy stretch between Butte and Bozeman), Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and don’t consistently get to what I would call “smooth” until just outside of Nashville. The notable exception being St. Louis, which has in the past set the standard for crummy roads. Yes, suddenly “out west” isn’t just someone else’s problem. But I can tell you, in a big moving truck, I-90 through the north Idaho panhandle was punishing. And the Idaho legislature has tabled all talk of highway maintenance for the 2010 fiscal year to boot. Idaho is one of those states that survives on the redistribution of federal tax money, and that be dwindling fast here lately. Freeze, thaw, try to catch up.

I heard last year that rural Michigan roads scheduled for maintenance were being decommissioned and returned to gravel. Costs about 1/10 as much to maintain a gravel road apparently. We may all get more familiar with marginal roads soon enough, but here in Georgia, we’re still clearing shoulders to expand I-75. And just in time too. It’ll be so nice when we can drive horse teams 8 abreast through Butts County on the way to a Braves game. The profound pig-headedness of the status quo is mind-boggling sometimes.

(The picture is of a happy discovery in Kellogg, Idaho!)