Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, December 5, 2011

All About the Trend

Joel Salatin once said, in his typical no-holds-barred style, that no one gives birth to a hundred pound baby. Put back into context, he was decrying the suite of USDA regulations which all but guarantee that small producers can’t get into the food game. No room to test an idea, to grow organically, incrementally, to see if it’s a winner before investing the farm in getting that first item to market. Daily bacteria culture tests whose $300 price tag is no problem for a Tyson or Hormel processing facility to absorb would ruin a small local producer processing 50 free range chickens a day; file drawers full of required permits can (and do) employ corporate lawyers full-time. What start-up has the means to meet these obligations from the jump? It would be like giving birth to Salatin’s proverbial hundred pound baby: painful, and risky. The consumer advocacy groups that initiated these regulatory control structures probably meant well with their attempt at oversight for the mega-processors shielded by their federal rubber stamps, but in the end it only managed to keep the little guys out and the industrial mills spinning ever more defiantly, their bland, cookie-cutter products protected by corporate largesse from what would probably prove to be very tasty competition.

This trend toward gigantism worked when the world was expanding, confident in the growth of tomorrow, secure in its ability to repay the debt it was taking out to fund it. It makes sense to centralize, and economize, and push efficiency limits when energy prices are low, supporting the consolidation of national and global economic structures, running supply chains thousands of miles long, because the cost of the energy required to make it happen is virtually negligible.

When former US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz uttered his famous warning to farmers, “Get Big, or Get Out,” he was absolutely right. That’s what the trend of the day demanded. When the United States government set up the Social Security Administration back in the 1930s, the Ponzi scheme required to make it work – the perpetual growth of the work force and its income – seemed like a given. When the United States dropped the gold standard it was right to do so, because economic growth was outpacing the country’s ability to put the necessary physical gold and silver coinage into circulation, and that inability to balance the money supply with the production of goods and services was responsible for deflationary cycle after deflationary cycle in the nineteenth century. During an explosive growth phase, fiat currency that could be printed on demand fixed that problem. What’s that, you say? Economic productivity is a billion dollars higher than the available money supply? Loan the billion necessary to balance it out (and circumvent deflation) into being! That works in an expansionary pattern. Since WWII, the “overdeveloped countries” of the world have, with only sporadic exceptions, consistently enjoyed the sort of energy growth that underwrites these trends. Coupled with the fact that very few people alive today remember anything but the increasingly-affluent post-WWII period of our history, one might sympathize with the general resistance of the population to the novel trends developing in our world today.

But developing they are, nonetheless, with or without the permission of the industrial cadre. Global oil supply peaked in 2005/2006, effectively marking the beginning of a tidal shift in the world’s economic trajectory. Petroleum is the most energy dense and most useful fuel source we’ve ever exploited, and there is no replacement waiting to pick up its slack. When oil peaks it all peaks. Comparing other energy sources to oil is, as John Michael Greer so wryly points out, not so much like comparing apples to oranges as it is like comparing apples to orangutans. It’s that different. At a vastly smaller scale, PV solar and wind might replace some coal use (with enough foresight), but oil is responsible for virtually ALL of the world’s transportation, and the “replacement technologies” on offer, if we should give them even that much credit, are highly dependent on oil to arrive in the market in the first place. Imagine the global economy without transportation fuel, or even with $20/gallon fuel. How long would it take for it all to come to a grinding halt? Minutes? Hours? In his counter-cultural economic masterpiece “Small Is Beautiful,” E.F. Schumacher offered this explanation:

“It is impossible to overemphasize [the energy problem’s] centrality…As long as there is enough primary energy – at tolerable prices – there is no reason to believe that bottlenecks in any other primary materials cannot be either broken or circumvented. On the other hand, a shortage of primary energy would mean that the demand for most other primary products would be so curtailed that a question of shortage with regard to them would be unlikely to arise.”

The industrial mind is predisposed to view alternative energy technologies as the peers of fossil fuels. How else could they offer an “alternative”? But if you have studied Schumacher or Greer at all, it should be easy enough to recognize solar PV panels and wind turbines as “secondary” goods, belonging to the human-created sector of the economy, completely dependent upon the primary goods and services provided by Nature, free of charge, in the primary economy. The energy that powers the industrial economy is a primary good provided by Nature, and not just A primary good, but THE primary good, the keyhole resource, as its availability is the only thing that makes the production of all other primary goods possible. And the very primary energy-dependent harvest and refinement of primary goods is what makes a human-produced secondary economy possible at all. Modern economics doesn’t even recognize the primary economy, but it’s been calculated, conservatively, that Nature is directly responsible for at least 75 cents of every dollar circulating in the global market. So the opening line of Adam Smith’s treatise, “The Wealth of Nations,” the foundation document upon which western economics rests, is at least 75% wrong. When Smith says that the wealth of a nation is comprised of the annual total of its human labor, he completely overlooks the 75% that really matters – the topsoil, forests, hydrologic cycle, benign climate, pollinators, etc. And what’s more, without the 75% provided by Nature, the human-produced 25% couldn’t exist at all. Nor would the humans themselves, for that matter.

Take the primary good aluminum as an example. In its natural form it rests in the Earth’s crust as bauxite ore, completely worthless to humans. In order to make it valuable to the human economy humans must use a measure of primary energy – originally coal or charcoal most likely – to mine, refine, and create a metal tool to help them mine, refine, and create a larger metal tool, and so on. In this case we’re talking about both the mining tools themselves and the refining machinery needed to make them. After several generations, each with an increasing quantity of primary energy and raw materials required to obtain a more useful new product, we arrive at a tool set large enough to mine, refine, and create pure aluminum products at a scale that is economically important. (We also get fluoride as a by-product and scratch our heads wondering what in the world we should do with all of this waste…) So, logically, humans contributed the science and technology, improved upon gradually as the relevant tool set improved, but otherwise the whole shebang was Nature’s doing. Nature created, through geologic processes, the bauxite to be refined, the ferrous ore to purify into iron, for refining and mining machinery, and the immense supply of primary energy required to do all of that. In my opinion claiming a 25% share for humans in the value of the resultant aluminum products is, er, a bit of a stretch. I assure you we will never smelt iron with solar panels.

And so we can see the logic in Schumacher’s argument. Without the primary energy – at tolerable prices – the bauxite would simply remain bauxite, and refined aluminum would, well, simply cease to exist. This is obviously a much bigger problem to those of us who are familiar with the conveniences of aluminum, and poses no real issue for those who don’t. Again, energy descent is primarily an industrial world problem.

With solar and wind power technologies now comfortably categorized as “secondary goods” instead of “primary energy” – and secondary goods that are not merely reliant on actual primary energy (notably oil) and other primary goods like refined indium for their production, but on a variety of other components, each of which are secondary goods in their own right, all necessary for their manufacture as well – it should become considerably easier to understand why peak oil matters as much as it does. And coupling the shrinking global supply of the stuff with a rapidly rising global demand for it should give you the absolute willies. Alt-energy will be a luxury for those with foresight, not the basis of an emerging energy economy. And even then it will only be a transitional nicety. In the end, it’s likely that electricity will once again be a novelty, reserved for clever basement tinkerers, or those who have really valuable goods to trade for it. But then, if nobody is manufacturing food processors or replacement parts for your washing machine, what’s the point really?

So what trends can we adopt in our personal lives to minimize the impact of this inevitability? For my part, now four years into my own energy descent pattern, I can report that the general consumption of goods and services in our household has, mostly by choice, declined radically – roughly in the ballpark of 80%. We still drive our car a good bit, and the truck when necessary, but we do it at the expense of plenty of other activities considered normal in American culture (at least for the time being). Four years ago, when my wife and I both commuted to the office, drove company vehicles, and wore blackberries on our hips, our lives were pretty average for Americans. We had a mortgage, a car payment, a second vehicle, retirement accounts, a small fishing boat, cable television, internet service, HVAC, a clothes dryer, dishwasher, microwave, and a fully-stocked wine cooler and liquor cabinet. Today we have none of those things, except the one we consider most important: a second vehicle, a pickup truck. After all, we do live on a farm, and heat our house with wood! It would be tough to bring in firewood from the remote woodlots on the farm in the Camry, and even harder to bring home loads of compost from the cotton gin. A pickup truck is a very useful thing. Cable television is not.

As energy descent progresses in your corner of the world, the value you place on different goods and services will be called into question. You may wish to cash in retirement accounts to buy some land and livestock, since you now view such things as more enduring, less vulnerable forms of wealth; sell the second vehicle; maybe move to or build a smaller, more affordable house, or work out some sort of lease agreement in exchange for labor as we have done. You might decide that it’s finally time to give up cigarettes (best decision I ever made), alcohol, cable, or any other mind-numbing addictions in your life. But you should do it slowly. Cosmetic surgery, where everything is changed abruptly, all at once, requires no discipline, and isn’t the best option. It’s set up for failure from the beginning, and requires too many deep-seated behavioral patterns to change simultaneously. The reason we’re doing this now, before we are absolutely forced by reality to make these modifications, is because we understand that big changes are easier to swallow one at a time. It’s like eating an elephant. It can be done, but not all at once. It’s all about the trend. If the world is moving in a contractionary direction, and you have some realistic idea of what that means for industrial culture, you will understand the need to alter your behavior patterns, probably radically.

But radical behavioral innovation usually comes in pieces. Compared to four years ago, my life today is radically different, but at no time in that process did I do anything insane. Living without AC this past summer, in this climate, was probably the most radical thing we’ve attempted, but the fact of the matter is, it wasn’t all that different from how we lived last summer. It was just the next step. We went deep into the heat of summer without AC last year, before finally caving and turning it on. This year we just didn’t cave. And instead of spending $250 on electricity to run the AC, we spent it on a solar-powered attic fan. See the trend? At the expense of one month’s AC, we purchased an appliance that will help keep us tolerably cooler for decades to come and at no further cost to our energy budget.

You can’t go from the world I described for myself four years ago to where we are today all at once without losing it. That’s why people who are way behind you in the trend tend to get upset at your “unreasonableness.” It seems crazy when confronted all at once because it is! Try to envision giving up alcohol, cigarettes, television, the internet, air conditioning, and most of your appliances in the same day. (OMG!) But since we recognize that global energy peak and the subsequent descent now underway will eventually require most of these changes from everyone, the EASY way to do it, in my opinion, is slowly, and by choice. Move toward using less energy every year. It’s not a bad thing at all when done incrementally.

In fact, you might have noticed that the subtitle of my blog includes “the silver lining of energy descent.” This wasn’t haphazard, nor is it empty fluff. At first glance, indulging in fewer goods and services might seem like a buzz kill to a lot of people, but as you get going it becomes more fun, lighter, and more carefree. Each adaptation increases the simple joy of life. It almost becomes a game, seeing how little energy/consumption you can get by on. Everyone wants a smaller power bill, don’t they? Makes you feel proud. It’s the same with other aspects of life. Except that eventually you stop repurposing the money you saved through conservation towards other goods and services (a la Jevon’s paradox), and start accepting your new-found savings in units of free time in your life. Our total monthly bills are now under $250, including repaying a lingering family debt at the tune of $100/month! And we pay our taxes too! Not to mention carrying a million dollar liability policy on the farmhouse and land we’ve bartered for. Imagine the free time we enjoy, and get to spend with our children, with so little obligation to the formal economy.

Life doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it. The unreasonable expectations of our culture have enslaved us all for far too long. Energy descent is as good an excuse to go ahead and set yourself free as there has ever been in human history. (And if you don’t do it slowly by choice you may have to do it quickly against your will instead.) It’s not about how much we don’t make, but rather how much we don’t have to spend. Because we’ve dismissed with most of the rest of society’s obligations, we eat better than just about anyone we know. We have time to read great books, work in the garden, and chase the children around the table before sitting down to lunch together on any given day of the week. It’s true that we accepted unemployment money during the transition from one M.O. to the next, but the important part of this is that we recognized the global energy trend that has now turned against business as usual, redefined our expectations accordingly, moved without hesitation into unfamiliar waters, invested our meager funds in a different model instead of swimming against the current, and found paradise in the process. To the commenter on my last post, it would take something a lot more meaningful than a BMW with heated seats to make me jealous of your situation. Material excess just seems dirty to me these days. In other words, if you could pick me up and stick me back in my comfy little life 4 years ago, when I thought shopping at the farmer’s market, buying grass-fed beef and raw milk was a radical act, it wouldn’t take nearly as long for me to get myself back to where I am today. My soul desperately wants to be here, to continue this journey. We do this slowly because it’s brand new territory, and because it’s natural to be cautious; but now that I know the lay of the land for four years behind me I would sprint full-speed back into the pattern I engaged so tentatively the first time around.

Your children don’t want your money, they want you. And you want them. I don’t want to go to office parties for my retiring cube mates; I want to throw birthday parties for my little ones. I don’t want to go out for lunch; I want to go out to the garden to harvest a bit of whatever is fresh on the planet’s local menu, maybe grab a hunk of local raw milk cheese that smells faintly like my neighborhood. And I don’t see the luxury in importing exotic treats at the expense of clean air and water for my grandchildren. That isn’t love. That’s confusion. And to drive that point home I’ll share a list of the most common dying wishes in American culture:

The top 5 death bed wishes, according to long-time Hospice worker Bronnie Ware, are:

1) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2) I wish I didn’t work so hard.

3) I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5) I wish that I had let myself be happier.
That’s it. Nowhere in this list will you find any mention of money, or investments, or vacations, or big houses, or BMWs with heated seats. It’s all about being personally happy while we’re here on Earth, about sharing quality time with the people we care about. Personally I’m willing to buck a few societal norms to avoid having the same regrets myself. And, at 8:00 on a typical Monday morning, I just let both of my children know as much when they came into the office where I’m typing for hugs, kisses, knee bounces, and pre-breakfast bananas. From my desk I can see the chickens scratching around in the dewey compost of a misty morning, the horses grazing nearby, an amazing assortment of songbirds flitting around the kitchen garden, and a red-shouldered hawk perched on a fencepost eating something he just caught out in the orchard. I can also see that we need to keep eating the broccoli as the last of it finishes ripening over the next few days. There’s work to do - it’s time to breed the white doe rabbit, the next four oyster mushroom buckets need to be packed, and the garlic, onions, and shallots need to be planted – but there is also time to relax and focus, to study, write, and to contemplate the pattern emerging before us.

Where is my trend headed? Away from abstract representations of wealth – cash, gold, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, so-called “good debt” (as if), and BMWs with heated seats – and toward real ecological wealth like land, livestock, desirable seeds and spores, fertility, fruit trees, high-quality hand tools, strong communities and local economies, a comfortable, low-maintenance house, and a debt-free existence. And the more I follow this trend the better I feel. Peak oil or no.

Namaste, y'all.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pink-Washing the Town

I generally try to keep my nose out of this sort of thing, but this Breast Cancer Awareness business has become such a ridiculous juggernaut of backwards thinking that I just can't hold my tongue about it any longer.  For the past few weeks our little town has gotten increasingly smothered in pink banners, pink ribbons, pink car decorations, and pink fund-raising galas.  Pink car decorations.  Really?  I've got a better idea, how 'bout this.  Instead of a pink ribbon magnet, why don't we hang a sign on the bumper, pointing down at the exhaust pipe, with bold-faced type literally screaming "Cancer comes out of here!"  You nimrod.  Want to do something that really helps fix the cancer problem?  Stop driving.  Stop using coal-fired electricity.  Stop eating industrial food.  Hell, for that matter stop eating food that had to be shipped to you period.  Industrial or otherwise.

One of the most common misunderstandings I get from people is their tendency to analyze energy use based exclusively on the power bill and the amount of gas burned in the act of driving.  Both legitimate markers, yes, but what about everything else you do?  Does all that just happen out of thin air?  With no cost to the biosphere?  What about that pink ribbon lapel pin you're wearing to show how socially conscious you are?  Did the Easter Bunny conjure that up for you?  Or did it require that heavy machinery be manufactured out of mined metals, some of them heavy and toxic; that rubber for tires be harvested from large and ecologically-destructive rubber tree monocultures in the tropics; that glass be made out of sand at high energy expense; and that fossil fuel be burned to deliver and operate the machinery?  And that's just the mining equipment needed to get started on that little metal pin.

What about the high-tech electronics used in remote mining operations?  What about the cell phones (and the cellular network infrastructure), the personal vehicles (and everything we're talking about for mining equipment here applied to those vehicles all over again), the corporate expenses, and retirement plans for the mine operators?  What about the obscene amount of freshwater required to mine the metal?  The energy to move that water around?  What about the pink ribbon lapel pin manufacturing facilities?  Their workforce, management, water fountains, lighting, automated machinery and locker rooms (all made of metal that cost everything we're talking about here all over again!), retirement plans and their administrators/brokers, personal vehicles (do I need to say it again)?  All so we can show everyone how concerned we are about breast cancer.

Want to make an impact on cancer?  Don't buy the pink ribbon lapel pin.  Don't buy the posters, or the banners, or go to that fund-raising gala that everyone drove their personal vehicle to so that they could eat that industrial food with thousands of food miles and suffocated hyper-eutrophic estuaries in its wake, just to sit around acting smug, glad-handing and back-slapping each other for their social awareness.  For that matter, if you want to make a dent in cancer, you could start by getting over the idea that your work is so important that it requires driving and flying all over creation, burning fossil fuels that can't be compensated for with flimsy "carbon credits," and eating food every day that required 5 calories of fossil energy be burned to produce one calorie of so-called nourishment.  Stop leaving lights on all over the house.  Hang your clothes out to dry on a line.  Modify a well-insulated chest freezer into a refrigerator with an external thermostat, which should only use about 10% of the energy required by an upright fridge.  Harvest rainwater and reuse your graywater.  Install a solar batch water heater and get rid of the most wasteful appliance western man has ever devised, after the personal vehicle.  Heat your house with an efficient wood stove.  Live without air conditioning.  We did it this summer, in south Georgia, which is probably one of the most punishing environments in this country. 

But I have to admit, I didn't buy the lapel pin.  Sorry about that.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fungi In the Landscape

A Preparation For the Georgia Master Gardeners Convention

I almost always agree with Fukuoka.  There are real limits to human knowledge, especially regarding what we can truly understand about nature.  I don't think humans can improve nature, and most of our attempts to do so have the opposite effect.  What we can do, however, is learn to imitate nature's design.  If our attempts to understand the subtleties of nature lead us to build food systems more in line with natural ecologies, then I believe we are on the right path.

One of the areas of natural ecologies we have almost entirely overlooked in our food production systems is the role of fungi in the landscape.  At the conference we will spend some time talking about growing mushrooms for the table, because hey, they are delicious and, despite the common American perception, extremely nutritious.  Some of them are world-class medicinals, like reishi and shiitake.  For example, in Japan shiitake mushrooms are not just some wingnut alternative treatment for cancer; they are the go-to medicine for all types of digestive system cancers.  The government has officially held them in such high regard since 1985.  How much more pleasant would a plateful of sauteed shiitakes be than chemotherapy?  We will be discussing more about mushroom medicine at the conference, too.  We'll also talk about the use of fungi in mycoremediation efforts - fungi that filter harmful levels of E. coli from runoff water, fungi that digest diesel fuel spills and jumpstart ecosystem regeneration, and a few other surprising abilities the fungi possess.

For the purposes of this article, though, we will focus on the most pressing myco-issue for gardeners: the role fungi play in the generation of living topsoil.  Would it be an overstatement to claim that incorporating fungi into your garden plan is THE big secret to building healthy, living topsoil?  The answer is an emphatic NO!  I'm going to lay out a strategic circular pathway for significantly increasing the amount of humic substances (more commonly "humus") in your garden soil.  These are the complex and recalcitrant carbon-rich molecules that persist in the soil for decades, even centuries, providing abundant sites for cation exchange, and the characteristic "blackness" of healthy organic soils.

The first question that is probably popping into a lot of heads right now is, isn't that what compost does?  Yes, but not very well.  Only 1-5% of compost is represented by the stable humic substances we're looking for.  That's not all that much.  For the moment think of compost simply as organic fertilizer.  We'll get back to this in a minute, after we jump over to the big tamale.

What creates the bulk of our stable soil humus are the mycorrhizal fungi.  This is one of the three major categories of fungi - along with the parasitic, and saprophytic fungi - and they form mutually-beneficial associations with the roots of living plants.  The filamentous underground body of the mushroom that forms the bulk of its mass is called the mycelium.  Ecto-mycorrhizal fungi grow around the roots of the host plant, while endo-mycorrhizal fungi invade the living tissue of the plant's roots.  From Stamets: "In either case, both organisms benefit from this association.  Plant growth is accelerated.  The resident mushroom mycelium increases the plant's absorption of nutrients, nitrogenous compounds, and essential elements (phosphorus, copper, and zinc).  By growing beyond the immediate root zone, the mycelium channels and concentrates nutrients from afar.  Plants with mycorrhizal fungal partners can also resist diseases far better than those without."

These minerals, these cations, that are made more available by the associated fungi only become bioavailable to the plant if there are sufficient cation exchange sites to host the transactions involved, and those are, most commonly, provided by the molecules of humus that we are trying to build.  The mycorrhizal fungi create these humic substances as a byproduct of carbon induction while mining new mineral fertility from the underlying subsoil and/or bedrock.  And they create a lot of them.  This is what the fungi do for the plants (and the rest of life on Earth in turn), and in exchange, the plants feed the fungi with exudates - sugary carbohydrates, amino acids, fats and lipids - from their roots.  The more of these the plant produces, especially the fats, which are three times more energy dense than carbs and proteins, the more energy the fungi can tap to digest rock and create humic substances. 

That's where the compost comes in.  Compost provides a ready source of rapid-cycling carbon to feed the plants.  The carbon bank in a compost application will mostly be used up within a few years, but it's the kickstart from which an organic system benefits enormously; although it doesn't, by itself, add much to the long-term durability of the topsoil.  The compost makes happy plants, happy plants make happy myccorhizal fungi, and happy mycorrhizal fungi make loads of humus from the subsoil...which makes happy plants, which make...I think you get it.  A positive feedback loop has now been established that will promote ever-happier and healthier plants in perpetuity.  Until it's screwed up again, say, by cultivation and the aerobic acceleration of humic degradation, which is, unfortunately, (drum roll please) the crown jewel of modern agriculture.  It's only a matter of time before food production methodologies that don't respect the fungi and their role in soil building will compromise every last acre of soil on Earth.  This will be agriculture's lasting legacy...if there's anyone around to notice.  Fungi can only dominate the soil, feed the plants, and create stable carbon, if they are left intact.  Tillage destroys fungal networks, accelerates the decay of typically-stable humic substances, and creates the need for prepared fertilizers and pesticides.  Remember, a plant growing in healthy living soil can take care of itself - just look at the nearest wild forest.  Are people fertlizing it and spraying to control pests and disease?  Cultivation is where we really messed up as a culture.  That and generally disrespecting the fungal components of our ecosystem.  Now we know better.

Use your knowledge of this cycle to become an unstoppable master gardener.  People who can do this stuff, who can repair the damage agriculture has wrought upon the landscape, will be tomorrow's leaders.  About that I have no doubt.  The only way that wouldn't be true is if everything just fell apart, and the global population collapsed, leaving many more acres per capita to the remaining human population.  We created our current population by mining our topsoil's capital resources - mined ever-faster on the back of oil - and those resources are dwindling fast.  Even the mainstream agricultural establishment is starting to talk about this problem!  Our charge, as the younger generations alive today, the only task before us really (except perhaps nuclear decommissioning), is the rebuilding of the world's topsoil.  Without it, none of the other peak issues we face today will even matter.  Rebuilding the world's topsoil will automatically restore the dying freshwater cycle.  Both of these dire situations are part of the same systems failure that is becoming more obvious by the week, but, luckily, the repair of one initiates the repair of the other.  In my opinion this is THE task before us in the 21st century.  Renewable energy, social justice, there will never be enough to matter until we get our mineral cycles - the topsoil, atmosphere, and freshwater cycles - back in order.  Praise the people who tend to such items, theirs is a noble endeavor, but the folks who can restore topsoil will rule the contractionary future.  And there is room for all of us in this task.



Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms and Mycelium Running, both by Paul Stamets (Ten Speed Press, 1993 and 2005, respectively) are indispensable resources for all things mycological.

"Changing Dirt Into Soil" by Michael Martin Melendrez, Acres USA, October 2011.

"Carbon Building, Carbon Cycling" by John Kempf, Acres USA, October 2011.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fall's Full Sails

 I have to admit, summers in South Georgia without A/C take some getting used to.  The garden for the last few months has not been particularly photogenic, nor have I felt much like cataloguing our sticky existence through the horse latitudes of the calendar.  There was nothing pleasant about it, no refuge or recovery from the oppressive weather, for three solid months.  On at least 3 different occasions I couldn't fall asleep until well after midnight.  It's the first time we've gone without air conditioning, anywhere we've lived below the 47th parallel.  In a climate like this it takes the wind out of your sails for sure.  But the forecast calls for 49 degrees as a low tonight, 70 for a high tomorrow, and 43 the following night.  I think we've dipped below 60 once since the dog days finally ended, I think, if that gives you some perspective.  This is thermometric territory we haven't seen since about March.  And it's bloody welcomed!  I personally can't wait to bust out the fleece and some long pants!

To celebrate the passage of summer and a return to full, non-fried egg brain function (yeah sure), I feel like posting some pictures of the place.  Ella will be your tour guide today...

I've got the onion now, so no talking unless I ask you a question directly!  OK, here we go.

Daddy picked up a new hobby after receiving a call about a wild swarm of honeybees at the country club west of town.  Can't wait to taste our very own top-bar honey!!

Here's my little brother, Oliver, inspecting the peppers.  He doesn't actually like peppers very much, but he still thinks he's an expert on the subject.  Not sure where he gets that attitude.

There's Mama enjoying a wonderfully pleasant day after such a long, hot summer.  Behind the blanket on the fence is the new rabbit doe condo, recently converted from our old large chicken tractor. 

That's our new breeding trio of Black Copper Marans.  The roosters were being mean to each other so we separated them temporarily, until Uncle Andrew gets here Saturday for a rooster cleaning lesson.  Dad's going to show him how to clean his two by clearing out this guy's competition!

Here's why.  The chocolate egg up front is what the Marans lay.  Isn't that pretty?  I love them!  I've heard that good chefs will pay 20 bucks a dozen for these babies!  They must be made out of really good chocolate.

This was our big doomer moment.  We loaded up on some staples this summer, you know, just in case.

Here's that crazy okra again.  Daddy can barely reach the top these days.  Did I mention that he's 6'3"??  That okra must be pushing nine feet tall by now.

Hey, how did this get in here;)?  There's that cute little Ella again, helping build the arbor at the orchard entry.

Without a goat around that mulberry has sure had a good year!  I miss Briggsy, but I can't wait to taste these Illinois Everbearing berries early next spring!  They are first on the list of seasonal fruit.

The peaches have had a good year too.  Maybe Dad will let them ripen a few fruits for me next season.

The pomegranate is like 7' tall now.  See the two fruits hanging at the bottom?  I think we're going to eat them this weekend while we have family in town!

More figs and loquats looking good.  The three little tea camellias in the background have settled in nicely too.  Can't wait to try fresh tea from our garden!

We make most of our living off of the waste stream in Tift County.  Here Dad is preparing a Stropharia mushroom bed out of free pecan shells he gets by the pickup truck load.  He layers whatever he can get on this bed - pecan shells, cotton seed hulls, peanut shells, peach pits, whatever - since the wine caps like a complex substrate in which to grow.  We'll be inoculating this bed by next weekend.

I've been waiting all summer for this!  The first 4 dozen broccoli starts are in, and making me wish it was November already.  We try our best not to buy produce out of season so it's been a while since we had broccoli.

This is one of our new buck rabbits, Clover.  He's a big boy who will hopefully throw some big kits soon.  I haven't eaten any rabbit since we went to the mountains in July, and I'm missing it.  The breeders do double duty as fertilizing machines.  A new pomegranate variety will go in this spot next spring, and Clover and Yarrow will move to the next spot.

This is Clover's view of the garden.  I wonder if he dreams about asparagus, roselle, lemongrass, and strawberries?  I feed him fresh greens every morning, so he eats pretty well I think.

I (Daddy) grew these sunflowers for my cousin, Monique's wedding this Sunday.  I hope she likes them!

Ooooo, look what Grandma Betty bought for us a couple weeks ago!  Wasn't that nice of her?  I have no idea why, but none of us are complaining!  That MIG beef operation is looking more likely by the day.

We spend so much time in this room that it seems a shame not to include a picture of it.  The garden is wonderful, no doubt, but the kitchen is where my parents really hook it up.
Oliver says thanks for all the good groceries!!
See you next time...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

St Francis Explaining Grass to God

GOD: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now.  But, all see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites! They started calling your flowers 'weeds' and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But, it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It's sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren't going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It's a natural cycle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No!? What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough! I don't want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE: 'Dumb and Dumber', Lord. It's a story about...

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Use Oil, Not Too Much, Mostly To Build Procreative Systems

I have no doubt that my last post left a sour taste in the mouth of some of my readers, and no doubt the more invested the reader in the industrial system the more sour the taste that lingered in that particular mouth. Let me make it clear that I don’t think investing is in any way evil or selfish, just that our current investment-mania is the product of a culture that has been on a collision course with extinction ever since we started accidently selecting favorable traits in wheat 10,000 years ago.

My point was that the western view of economics – that affluence is objectively (and obviously!) measured almost exclusively in terms of consumption – is wholly unsustainable, a physical non-possibility. That investing itself is generally focused on eliminating our need to work, simply because our wild access to energy has given us a warped relationship to work. Any society that wavers none at all from increasing automation, regardless of how many unemployed citizens it creates, is pretty twisted. And that we have a warped sense of value of our extended families, because of our economic theory and access to anomalous amounts of energy. Without a personal vehicle and the economic “freedom” to leave our families behind, I doubt we’d see divorce rates anywhere near current levels, and nursing homes would go out of business in one generation. Not to mention that the industrial medicine culture (notice I didn’t use the term “health” in there anywhere) we’ve created costs far more than it should, both physically and monetarily. A system that enriches and glorifies a care provider (administrator might be a better term) who only becomes rich and glorified if his patients are regularly sick is, well, a profoundly sick system. I don’t know how else to say it. There are distinct alternatives; the Chinese don’t view healthcare this way at all. They pay their doctor at every monthly checkup UNLESS they are sick; if I’m sick my doctor isn’t doing his job, they say. And if this is the basis of our relationship to health, imagine how screwed up our relationship to money is. An elderly family member that can’t physically contribute to life’s day-to-day needs should be valuable enough, in terms of useful knowledge and wisdom, to be supported by the younger, more able-bodied members of the family group. This is assuming of course that we still live in some semblance of a family group, and that that elderly family member actually spent his or her own able-bodied life acquiring useful knowledge and wisdom. Industrial culture has summarily ushered both of those assumptions to the door, so it’s off to geriatric camp for grandpa once he stops earning, and starts spending, my inheritance. How pathetic is that?

But I certainly believe that investments can be made in sustainable ways. For instance, let’s say your young friend with some nice pasture land wants to start a MIG grazing program that returns a legitimate and measurable sequestration of atmospheric carbon, plus a top shelf and very healthy meat for the astute consumer. Grazed properly, that meat represents an actual net gain of energy within the human environment by removing more carbon from the construct than it liberated, which increases the organic matter content of the pasture soils – creating a more robust and nutritious forage composition, a more resilient food production system, and holding more water (100,000 gallons per acre per percentage point of OC!) in the soil for longer periods of time, reducing if not eliminating the need to irrigate, even in drought, as well as eliminating the need to import any feed or hay. Oh, and a world class dietary step in the right direction. The implications of such an innovation should be obvious, as long, energy-intensive supply chains churning out meat of questionable worth come to a grinding halt, power stations start reducing their output, and human health improves, laying the medical problems of industrial culture to rest where they belong: on the doorstep of a system that bases itself on access to truly obscene (and truly cancerous) amounts of energy. To say that grass-based meats are the number one way to clean up our collective act might seem like a stretch at first, but when you consider, for starters, that roughly 70% of the 92 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. (2011 figures from the Chicago Board of Trade) are grown just to feed to cattle – not livestock, just cattle – the implications should begin to come into focus. In fact I believe that eating grass-fed beef instead of grain-fed would almost single-handedly eliminate the need to engage in costly and immoral overseas resource wars. (Which will happen one way or another, eventually, but I sure wish we possessed the chutzpah, as a culture, to make that choice proactively.)

That’s one example of an investment with some real satiety value. Surely there are others. Though not nearly as many as most people imagine.  If man is engaged in a life’s work that truly fills his soul there will be apprentices to pick up where he leaves off, people who care what happens to him when he is too old to work, and who have greatly benefitted from his efforts. The fruits of his labor will envelope him, and if they are worthy he will thrive in their midst. He will have no need for the consolation prize of a gold watch and a pension. Those things are the trimmings of a culture based on what can only be a temporary arrangement. Oil made us, not the other way around. Eons of solar energy wrapped up in a tight little highly-stable, highly-portable package cannot be replaced by the instantaneous energy of the sun striking a PV panel, no matter how efficiently we collect it. Not even plants can harvest that much solar energy, not by several orders of magnitude.  It took entire geologic eras to gather the energy represented by a barrel of oil. Homo sapiens has been around for a mere hundred thousand years, and industrial culture less than two hundred, the modern era less than seventy. We learned how to exploit that petro-energy, and we’ve used it to do some pretty cool things, like land a man on the moon, create a global internet, and build those PV panels. Panels which will serve the very temporary duty of easing spoiled rotten industrial man’s transition from the great energy mountain back down to the constant plains of human existence.

How much damage we could avoid if we would just skip it!

Instead of using up the oil as fast as we can and using the last of it to attempt a transition to whatever phantasm of free energy most occupies our collective wishful thought at that time, we could instead just try to grasp that there is no energy like it to be had – not even coal and gas are as energy dense as oil – and properly respect the working potential it embodies. Radical and concerted conservation of this most precious resource would carry our species far into the future, keeping chest freezers online, chainsaws running, and low-energy short-wave radios broadcasting signals to other humans no longer reachable by personal vehicle or global information systems. If someone in Jacksonville, FL, could tell me that a hurricane was headed toward our farm that would be a useful bit of information! And coming in over the short-wave it would cost a tiny fraction of what the internet requires to operate. We could trade in our condos and cars for urban workshops and suburban farmlets linked by light rail to local trade networks. We could cut our energy use by 80% without even seriously compromising our lifestyle, just by adopting a more realistic perspective of the energy situation and altering some very bad habits. These things would keep us in business for a long time to come.

But that’s not what humans do, is it? If it was then perhaps we could think of ourselves as truly special, above the other biological populations on Earth. A reality of radical conservation might be able to hold court with the religious ideas of human exceptionalism. But that isn’t our reality, is it? We’re more like a bunch of rednecks that just won the lottery, and can’t figure out how to spend stupid sums of money on stupid shit fast enough. “Look, Ma! I got a NASCAR team garage attached to my brand new triple wide!” The speed at which we are spending our inheritance seems only to be limited by the number of ways we can come up with to spend it. And the whole of industrial culture seems to be bent to the task of justifying that spending, or loudly proclaiming how and why our hand-wringing about energy is unjustified. Meanwhile, at least a few of us are getting on with the task of reducing our activities steadily down toward a level that the planet can actually support. One without airplanes, hedge funds, or Facebook.

There is nothing in the world wrong with redirecting our use of non-renewable energy, creatively using the oil we're mostly wasting now, toward creating a support system that can function without it – say, using a tractor and diesel fuel to build a small organic market farm that can be managed by human power in perpetuity – but to pretend that our current access to energy is normal, and can be perpetuated by whatever brand of magical thinking is in vogue at the time, to continue living off of our planetary capital instead of our planetary income, is a recipe for large-scale catastrophe. Saying these things doesn’t make one a monster; ignoring them does.

To modify Michael Pollan’s famous phrase:
Use oil, not too much, mostly to build procreative systems.

(And do it quickly, please!)
Tripp out.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Problem Is, I'm Uneconomic

See, the problem is, I'm unecomomic.  I don't like money.  I don't care if I make one red cent beyond the very modest expenses in my life.  And I will ultimately learn to do without even that meager requirment.  I don't have a "business plan."  I don't have a "marketing strategy."  I don't have any advice for anyone about ways to make money.  Nor do I want any of those things.  Which, to the western mind, means I'm useless. 

Not that that's a universal opinion, it's just the way the industrial consumer culture views things.  What I'm aiming to do is productive, in the realest sense of the word, but it's probably not profitable.  That's the bummer to the western capitalist.  He views worth through how busy he is, how much money he makes, how many projects he's got in the works, how full his calendar is.  More importantly, the western economic mind sees the greatest merit represented by the most money made for the least physical effort.  In fact, the ideal scenario for the western employee is to get paid without having to work.  "Investments" we usually call them, or every now and then, "lottery winnings."  Which meshes wonderfully, for a while, with the western employer's ideal of productivity without labor costs.  If it saves human labor, it's a good thing, right?  Sure, again, for a while.

Until the tool becomes the machine, the craftsman becomes the mechanic, the slave to the machine that has taken his skilled craft away from him, and reduced him to an unskilled cog in the process, someone who can be replaced more easily than he could have been before.  A rat that simply punches the bar for labor kibble.  There is no more pride in his work.  The human spirit is crushed, work becomes drudgery, something to be avoided, or at best, a sacrifice barely worth making in exchange for a paycheck.  Automation maximizes profits, minimizes human worth, and churns out more "product" to be consumed.  Not that those products inspire any admiration, or respect, far from it.  I mean, it's not as if an actual person made them.  There's no one to be offended if you don't keep it in good shape.  Matter of fact, according to western consumer philosophy, mistreating the "product" would be the most desirable outcome of all, since that means you'll be buying anther one soon.  So the production wheel keeps spinning, the mountain of trash keeps growing, and the work of industrial man grows more dysfunctional.  That's the western way.

Affluence in America is determined by how much you consume.  How much you spend.  How much you travel.  How full your calendar is.  And it isn't offset by flimsy "carbon credits," no matter how warm and fuzzy that would make us feel if it were true.  (Read my article on carbon crediting if you want to know why.)

So if not a consumer, who could you compare me to that might be a real producer instead?  What do we mean by "producer"?  A farmer perhaps?  Surely they produce things, right?  They produce enough to feed the U.S. and then some, don't they!  Sure they do, but, to make my trifecta of this point complete, industrial food production creates a net drain on global resources.  It's not a procreative process but a destructive one.  We're spending our capital, not our income.  Like I mentioned in the last post, and can't seem to say enough, even at our best every calorie of food that hits the American table required 5 calories of energy to get there.  That's a five-fold loss on our investement.  At best.  It's like spending $500 to make $100.  And that works, for a while, when there's lots and lots of cheap energy to burn, and so many places to hide the trash.  Sometimes that behavior is even praised in the most esteemed halls of academia on Earth.  For a while.

Somehow that's considered "economic," and if by economic you mean it makes lots of money for a few people for a short period of human history, you'd be right.  But if by "economic" you mean that these are the important transactions for long-term human well-being, you'd be dead wrong.  Turning trees into paper currency is a losing arrangement; toxifying oceans and smothering estuaries to create digital wealth is myopic; laying waste to continents' worth of topsoil in the name of economic progress is nothing short of suicidal. 

I don't want to call myself a "farmer".  An industrial era farmer is the epitome of efficiency, but the antithesis of resilience.  Every day, whether he knows it or not, he trades his bedrock for a matchstick tower.  He depends on cheap abundant energy to fuel his tractors, to fertilize his crops, to kill the weeds in the fields, and even more so to harvest, process, and ship his ingredients to the industrial value-adders in far away cities, who spend an enormous amount of energy themselves to get those products to the consuming public.  A five hundred percent energy loss is being pretty generous, all told.  I have no aspirations to be that guy.  I'm not a farmer.  I'm not a usurper.  I have no more interest in spending my children's natural capital than I do in acquring the money it's converted into.  I'm a gardener, a horticulturalist, and potentially I represent a net reduction of carbon within the system.  That's how I would define a "producer".  An actual producer, by definition, like an autotroph, a plant.  Although I know a few humans who are doing it.  Heroes.  People who should be winning major awards, people we should all be aspiring to emulate.  That's the ideal for me.  But farming, agriculture, as it is practiced today, is spending Earth's natural capital faster than any other industry.

And it's, almost by definition, a temporary arrangement.  Anyone who assumes that this equation can continue to function indefinitely is nuts.  But what about "green" energy, or "renewables"?  Sorry, no.  Solar panels have an enormous environmental price tag.  And although they do have the potential to ease the pain of transition from industrial culture to some low-energy sustainable future, the economic buoyancy to perpetuate that technology just wouldn't be around any more, after the first generation or two.  I use them, but I do so with the full understanding that I am in a privileged position, with the foresight to cash in on that option while it exists.  Even if we did master a "free," "too-cheap-to-meter," energy source, like nuclear or cold fusion, it would only do two things for us: 1) create more humans (all with very real, not-at-all-free, too-cheap-to-meter needs), and 2) increase consumption.  That's Jevon's Paradox.  Education is often invoked as the antidote to overpopulation, but educated masses are consuming masses.  Apparently you either have lots of children, or you have lots of "needs."  (Although you can have both!)  Jevon's Paradox is a real bitch, ain't it?  And it proves our animal nature.  We aren't enlightened above the other animals.  Clever, yes, extremely, but enlightened would indicate that we have the means to perpetuate our species' existense come what may.  Which we probably don't.  I have a feeling we're already way out into borrowed time, thanks to cheap oil. 

The only thing that would change either of those life-threatening problems is a wholesale change in what is considered "economic".  In other words, our view of economics is the most threatening thing to our long-term well-being.  The west would basically have to toss its entire economic theory out on its ears.  We would have to adopt a worldview that most honored the affluence achieved by the least consumption. It would depend on a lifestyle that kept us all a lot closer to home, living in a way that, if not steeped in mutual respect for the other life forms around us, at least understood that humans benefit from robust ecologies.  That dualistic perspective keeps us thinking that humans and broader nature can't both thrive.  That a certain amount of give and take is inevitable.  And foolishness keeps us thinking that we can live an utterly unsustainable lifestyle once we find "the right energy" for the job.  There's nothing wrong with a lower energy way of life.  It's been said that Americans could cut 80% of their energy use and not suffer any real reduction in standard of living.  It doesn't require new technologies, nor expensive rollout or retooling programs, it simply requires behavioral innovation.  It requires us to become a lot more aware of our actions.  It requires us to become genuinely responsible, no matter what others might think about us, or how it impacts our crammed calendars.

Problem is, it's always someone else's fault.  What I do, personally, isn't the real problem.  I'm a hard worker, I'm productive, I help people.  Which is likely all true, in a sense, but in the end, if our activities, however noble, require an unsustainable amount of energy to accomplish, then we are a net drain on the system.  We are compromising our children's future.  Stacks of paper currency don't create rain, nor do they build topsoil very effectively.  iPhones don't have an app for normalizing an unbalanced oceanic pH, nor one for bringing back the bluefin tuna.  When the desert encroaches on our formerly lush countrysides no amount of money will make it verdant again.  Only a radical change in the way we do business, an overhaul of our value system, a wholesale reversal of bad habits, and probably a whole lot fewer humans, will make any difference at all. 

There is no way to do it "economically."  Repairing the Earth isn't a growth industry.  Permaculture represents a radical new paradigm because it flies in the face of convention.  It trades profit for permanence.  It diffuses planetary wealth into a system that benefits all, not just a few, not just for a while.  It grasps the concept that humans benefit from robust ecologies, that Nature's gain is also our own.  Until energy future steering committees start discussing radical conservation measures, I'm not interested.  I'm not interested in how we're going to retool the dirty fossil fuel infrastructure with a clean green version, because there is no such thing.  If we have access to energy we use it.  That's as intractable a fact of Nature as there is.

Not using as much energy is the only pathway to sustainability.  When that concept guides the discussion then I'll participate.  But until then I remain, humbly, "uneconomic."

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Strangest Thing

The strangest thing occurred to me this evening. It was our first day back at the farm after 4 days at the beach – Orange Beach, a literal stone’s throw into Alabama from the western-most tip of the Florida panhandle, 315 miles and 6 hours from home – and we were enjoying some of the spoils of our journey for dinner. The four of us had a couple of fillets each of $85 worth of vermillion and lane snapper on our plates, $85 that was just my third of the friend price we paid for the pleasure.

Now, before we go any farther, I really ought to define the word “pleasure” as it applies to this situation: by “pleasure” I mean 3-5 foot seas driven by 15-20 knot winds, in a 22’ Mako center console, 20 miles from land.

I chucked. I admit it. I’m embarrassed, and I really can’t believe that I’m telling this story, but I definitely chucked. Twice. I was out of commission for three hours actually. The captain asked us both, my younger and very generous uncle Andrew and I, the day before our charter, if we were prone to seasickness.

“No,” we both replied. “I got seasick once, in college, when I was working on an 18’ bay boat in the Suwannee estuary, filtering plankton from seawater, working on the deck with my head hanging between my knees,” I added. That was god-awful, but come on, 18’ bay boat rocking on 5’ waves while I was trying to focus on something tedious below me. We’re fishing this time, eyes on the horizon, what could possibly go wrong?

“Just wondering,” our captain, JT, an old college friend of Andrew’s wife, chimed in, “wind’s supposed to be strong, and seas potentially heavy, according to NOAA.”

“We’ll be OK,” I tossed out quickly. And by OK I meant OK until I had battled a massive imaginary fish that actually turned out to be some structure on the sea floor, darted into by a fairly modest lesser amberjack. Problem was, I could feel the fish take the bait and run. It was strong, as jacks tend to be, and easily the biggest fish of the day. The seas were heaving, the boat was twirling, I actually had my arm wrapped around one of the T-top’s support poles to make sure I stayed IN the vessel. JT strapped a fighting belt around me, and Andrew cheered me on in my stupendous attempt to reel the boat into the salt water and down to the bottom, 110’ below, where my prize “fish” awaited.

“Damn, this thing’s killing me,” I finally admitted. The butt of my Star rod was cracking in the plastic holster of the fighting belt. Veins were no doubt popping out of my neck, and my left arm, the one holding the rod, was screaming for mercy. My muscles were trembling. I wanted to hand this fish off to the next guy, whoever he was, and rest for a minute. All the glory of fighting and landing the trophy fish of the day vanished under the weight of effort such tasks suddenly seemed to require.

“Are you sure you aren’t snagged on the bottom?” JT asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “That would be embarrassing, but the boat is moving around so much, and the seas are so insane I can’t really tell. I gain a little line and then lose it right back. Could be the bottom I guess, but I felt a fish take the bait.”

“Let me see that rod for a minute,” JT finally said to me. Oh thank god! I thought. Yes, please, take this damn thing and see what we’ve got. I handed it over without any protest whatsoever.

“Yeah, you’re on the bottom,” he said, after getting situated. He wandered around a little in the open bow and pulled the line in different directions with a gloved hand. It popped loose somehow, and he reeled it slowly to the surface, fighting something on the other end, but not exactly the Volkswagen I had been wrestling for the last 20 minutes or so. I slumped onto the padded seat in front of the console, feeling a bit silly, and really, really tired. The crushing seas were getting to me, and now I felt like I had spent a day’s worth of energy in 20 minutes of grappling with planet Earth. That’s a battle that humans will never, ever win; I know that as well as anyone. The irony of my ideology, applied to the current situation, settled heavily on my shoulders. I was beat. And Earth never even noticed. Five minutes rolled by. I had already seen the lesser amberjack landed and released, the line repaired, and rod stowed in the gunwale receiver.

I didn’t want another rod just yet, but I got one handed to me anyway. Ten minutes passed. Activity started to return to normal elsewhere on the boat, but I couldn’t move. I felt weak. I tried to drop a pair of small pinfish to the bottom, dragged by a 3 ounce sinker, mentally guiding it away from anything larger than your average bluegill. I figured no matter how tired I was I could handle your average bluegill, especially with the god dang tuna stick the skipper had just handed me, but there were no bluegills here, and we were hunting amberjack. “Reef donkeys,” he called them. Ostensibly because they pull like a stubborn jackass on the unfortunate soul connected to one of them by a length of unbreakable 80 lb test line. I wanted the line to be frail and dry rotted, not unbreakable. Actually, I’ve never wanted to NOT catch a fish so badly in all my life.

Fortunately (I thought at the time), a couple minutes later, the pinfish rig came back to the surface severely twisted. That’ll buy me a few more minutes, I thought, as I went to work untwisting the little baitfish from the egg sinker. But the focus required to untangle that mess had the same effect on me that filtering plankton in that 18’ bay boat in the Suwannee estuary had had. I tried to hold it back, tried to meditate on the horizon and think about the stability of my garden back home, but it came out anyway. The pear I brought with me from my grandfather’s tree, the water I had been drinking, whatever was in there came out. Admittedly it wasn’t much, but my stomach kept looking for things to get rid of, whether they were there or not. And it did it again about an hour later. Damn ice chips. Why would I put something so harsh in my poor stomach!?

And all the while that dragonfly cruised along beside us. I wanted to say something to that dragonfly, maybe ask him if there was anything he could do about the motion of the ocean, but I don’t speak dragonfly. I put my feet up on the cooler and half dozed in misery for the next two hours while the sea beat the stuffing out of our little boat, and the emerging sun scorched my belly and the white parts of my thighs that don’t usually see the light of day. I half remember JT and Andrew wondering aloud if maybe we shouldn’t cash it in, as a favor to me, but I didn’t want to, and I said so through the fog, giving the big thumbs up. No, no, I’m OK. It takes a lot of gas to get 20 miles out to sea in a small boat under those conditions, and I’ll be damned if I was going to be the reason it was wasted. Wretched or not.

The emerging sun carried some promise with it, though, and the winds started to ease up. As the winds died down the seas also mellowed out. I awoke to the fellas cranking on snapper at a new spot. At first I didn’t care. I still felt miserable, and those snapper were too small to get excited about. But as number 3, and then number 4, went into the ice, I started feeling like I should marshal my will back toward the task at hand. We had come to catch fish, and I meant to do just that before we called it a trip. The idea that this might be my last run off-shore was settling in. While JT was helping Andrew with a tangle I asked if he minded me taking his heavy Penn spinning outfit for a minute.

“Of course not, but let me put you back on the spot first,” he replied.

He steered back along his GPS route, back to the up-current end of the structure they were working. I steadied myself against the port edge of the captain’s bench and got my baits straightened out to drop when he gave the word. Finally they were sinking straight down into 113’ of blue water.

That dragonfly caught my eye again, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been flitting alongside the boat the whole time I had been out, quietly doing his part to stabilize my perspective.

BAM!! The bite took almost no time, and a minute or two later I was putting the biggest vermillion snapper of the day into the ice chest. I was back. Senses recovering, we added several more snapper and porgies, or “reef candy” as JT called them because they are so delicious and carry no size or bag limit restrictions, to the cooler, fishing steadily until the now-unwelcome “last drift” call came from the helm. Three “trash fish” released; time to go.

Now that you more fully understand the “pleasure” I spoke of earlier, and how small a fraction of the real cost that even that $85 I paid for 6 tiny snapper fillets was, we can return to the strange occurrence at the dinner table tonight. My toddling son, Oliver, hated it. Put a piece of that delicate treasure in his mouth, and promptly spit it right back out, making an ugly face. I ate his share of course; I can think of precious few things that compare to the delight of flaky white saltwater fish like snapper, and there was zero chance I was going to let that $14 fillet go to waste.

“He’s not my son,” I muttered. But then I remembered that this was going to be my last trip off-shore. There would probably be no more snapper on our table. There was no reason to coax the boy into liking it. Fine, more for me. I love it. I know what it took to acquire those little fillets. I understand this delicacy that only easy access to abundant cheap liquid energy can grant. And I understand that access to that abundant cheap liquid energy is fading quickly these days, which made the snapper even more valuable to my mind.

The amount of energy we spent acquiring that tiny bit of protein was obscene. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t take it back, even with the chucking, but the EROI was just stupid low. Blue water fishing has never been a common man’s game, even in the halcyon days of peak economy. I feel fortunate to have good friends who have at times felt inclined to take me off-shore with them. But I think this is it for me. I don’t want to be seasick again. I don’t want to be 20 miles off-shore in a 22’ boat again, with thunderstorms converging all around us. And if we had been in a big enough boat to make that ocean comfortable, we would have spent a lot more energy than we did to get that fish. It was already too much.

We farming humans have spent several thousand years turning our EROI upside down – and we’ve been doing so much faster since the dawn of industrial agriculture. Today, petroleum-based food production methods input upwards of 5 calories of energy into every calorie that reaches the American table. Off-shore fishing hovers around the upper end of the EROI absurdity, without a doubt, costing far more than 5 calories for every one delivered. WAY more. Without a GPS and depth-finder, it’s all just blue ocean with a lot of nondescript bottom. Without advanced weather tracking satellites, and cell phones that are just as advanced to receive that data, more people braving the seas we eventually bested that day would be toast. Without gas-burning engines, and relatively cheap gas to burn in them, day trips to fishing grounds off-shore would be impossible. All of these things, and myriad other unmentioned details, cost a bloody fortune in terms of energy. And in an energy descent context, this game will have fewer players every year from here on out. Good for the snapper; bad for the folks who make their living putting people on these beautiful fish.

So I sit here and enjoy my last bites of vermillion and lane snapper, and delicious little porgies from 113’ below a featureless seascape, impressed by the technology that made it possible, happy to have had the experience, and willing to add it to a growing list of things that just won’t work in a lower energy future. Thank you, Andrew and JT, for showing me one last good time engaged in an activity that has no hope of remaining viable in our energy descent world. As fun as it may be!

Oliver, never mind the snapper. See that cricket hopping through the mulch under the okra over there? Grab it and let’s see if we can catch us a tasty bluegill for dinner!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Manufacturing Descent

On more than one occasion I’ve heard people claim that they aren’t very good at negotiating favorable bartering transactions. Since I’m a pretty mild-mannered guy myself I can say that I’ve had the same issue. I’m just not an A-type, get-every-penny-you-can, hard-nosed trader. Some folks take a lot of pride in being those people, but I feel safe in saying that I will probably never be one of them. Somebody balks at my price and I tend to drop it without any further discussion. Even if I know it’s worth more than I’m asking.

But I’ve found a way around the need to be someone I don’t particularly want to be, and I thought I’d share it with you folks who would prefer to make more friends than money. But first, let’s discuss what trade and production were like for the last few hundred years.

In the rapid growth phase it was actually adaptive to waste energy in order to capture more energy. The energy wasted could always be reacquired because there was so much cheap abundant energy available, and the magnitude of that energy supply made even the handling and export of massive amounts of waste possible, an added cost that didn’t really have to be faced. For example, every calorie of food energy that arrives on the American table today required at least 5 calories of energy to get it there, and sometimes many more than that (about 80 per for off-season Chilean asparagus). And the disposal of the waste that food chain produces, both human waste and industrial, isn’t even accounted for in those numbers. Even without it, that’s a pretty sad return on our investment, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this equation is entirely unsustainable in the long view. But, our energy situation being what it was – which was rather like hitting the lottery in the case of the industrial world – this negative energy return was actually an acceptable way to do business in an era of fossil fuel-based excess, just like dropping fistfuls of hundred dollar bills would be if you had millions to spend before you died of a terminal illness.

In a more realistic future, which is, happily, where we find ourselves headed in August of 2011, this sort of inefficiency will never fly. Oh we’ll try everything we can think of, like GMOs and hydroponics, ethanol and electric vehicles, but in the end we’ll need to realize an actual net gain of energy from our activities, or Mother Nature will see to it that we don’t get another shot at it. This means that far more people will be in smaller scale versions of the food, fiber, and fuel production business – I have my estimation set at 80% within my lifetime (that’s 78% higher than today in roughly the next half century) – and that we will all be travelling a whole, whole lot less. As in, 40 miles with cargo might be a MAJOR hassle. Big claims, I know, but a culture that has arranged every detail of its affairs around optimal conditions at the peak of its energy supply, during a period of the fairest weather in the planet’s history, and then gone on to borrow everything the next 4 or 5 generations had to offer (or could have potentially benefitted from themselves), all the while assuming that cancerous growth rates were the normal mode of human existence, will find the bottom of the overshoot/collapse curve in a hurry, I’m afraid.

Dark tidings aside (and I highly doubt they’ll end up as dark as they sound initially to the industrial mind), in a world of declining energy availability, the key to success in all matters of trade and barter will lie in what I call the “perennialization of the swap.” Always trade for something that will last longer, or more importantly, something that can reproduce itself. In other words, procreative system elements. If you sell a pregnant doe rabbit and her cage for $50, you better darn well make sure that $50 is going into something even more productive than a pregnant mama bunny, and that’s tough to manage. Maybe a large water catchment vessel you found on sale, or a really good scythe. But a piece of unsolicited advice from ol’ Tripp: don’t sell pregnant doe rabbits. Don’t trade soap for bread. Don’t trade a year’s supply of medicinal cream for a month’s supply of honey. DO trade produce with a shelf life for art or freezer beef. Do trade mushroom logs for fruit trees. Or goats. Always aim to capture and store energy with your trade. That way you can relax a little in the “getting your full trade’s worth” department. Barter your bread for chicks, not concerning yourself with getting a favorable dollar value trade, and rest comfortably in the knowledge that the perishable bread you just traded away can now feed you consistently into the foreseeable future. That bread wouldn’t have lasted a week, and would have seriously declined in quality in just a day or two; but the chicks you now have will grow and lay eggs, and produce more chicks down the road. Well-managed you might just have that chicken thing taken care of forever. Not to mention another potential income stream from the sale of chicks and/or eggs. All from a little bread. Talk about multiplying the feast.

The permacultural barterer will always aim to “de-annualize” his holdings, always look to gain perennial structures in exchange for annual ones. (Decaying US dollars fit the “annual” description quite nicely!) Turn candles into pecan trees, and honey into hives, and you will never walk away from a deal feeling like you’ve been had.

The growth phase of human history was, paradoxically, responsible for creating an atmosphere of scarcity, and extreme competition – the drivers that fostered the emergence of the hard-nosed trader. All of which was totally natural because there was so much to fight over. In the contractionary future, when there is less to fight over every generation, we will slowly return to a life of cyclical abundance within Nature’s background rhythms (following an undoubtedly rocky period in transition), but in my humble opinion, “perennializing the trade” is how we will effectively manufacture descent.

On a separate note: my wife and I have decided we don’t want an internet connection at home any longer. We wish to return the internet to its proper place as a tool in our lives, and find that hard to accomplish when it’s always available to us. We disconnected almost two weeks ago and have already benefitted tremendously from that decision. After taking some wonderful vacation time in July, this is my first blog post broadcast from the local library. Just a warning that my comment responses might be a bit slower coming due to the nature of a shared community resource several miles away from home, but by all means, keep commenting. That’s my favorite part of blogging.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Medicinals and Super Foods

These days the line between food and medicine at our house has grown so blurry that we're not sure which is which anymore.  When we get sick or tired, or have indigestion, the very first thought to enter our minds is, "I wonder what I'm not getting in my diet that I need."  So we brainstorm, hit the herbals, the internet, and then the garden.  And if we don't have it we order some seeds.  And if we can't grow it, because our soil is wrong, or we live in the wrong climate, we look for an alternative that we can grow.  There is no need to order fancy medicinals and super foods from the other side of the world.  That commerce didn't exist when we all naturalized in different areas and climates spanning the globe for tens of thousands of years.  What we need is generally right around us, but we're lucky these days, because we now benefit from the knowledge of various medicine cultures all over the planet, and throughout history, and we can buy those seed stocks, and work them into our food and medicine systems at home.  Several of the herbs in this article are not native to North America, but they grow well here, so we can benefit from them and their healing powers in a future that is reliant on different kinds of medicine and food production systems.  Please allow me to introduce you to some new superstars in our garden.  Some of you will no doubt be growing these already, but if I can turn you on to a great new medicinal food plant or two that'll make my day.

This is a famous plant in the South but today hardly anyone recognizes it.  Hint: the root was ground up and used as a substitute for coffee during the Civil War when Union forces cut off the Confederacy's coffee.  We may have to use it for that purpose again one day, although not for the same reason.  It's chicory (Chicorium intybus), and it has many more uses than stretching coffee.  C. intybus var. sativum is the specific plant grown for that purposes; the one above is grown specifically for its leaf.  It's a close relative of our native dandelion, and serves many of the same soil structuring purposes, which we've discussed in previous posts.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a more mineral dense addition to salads, though you'll want to use it in small doses as it's fairly bitter.  I also chop some up to include in meat pies.  Even without human uses, it's a world-class livestock forage, particularly for rabbits, and an ecological superstar in the garden.

If you can grow lavender I hope you are.  Few plants serve more functions than this one.  There are 39 species of this mint family plant, and one of them is likely to grow in your climate and soil type.  We use it in calming teas, scald it in milk to make wonderful aromatic scones, it's one of the four herbal ingredients in our popular medicinal cream, we sell sprigs of it at the farmers market, scent drawers of clothes with it, it attracts a variety of pollinators, and is absolutely stunning in the garden with its silvery foliage and bright purple blossoms.  I could go on for a while about lavender but I won't.  I shouldn't have to.  This plant is a giant in the botanical world, and a must-have for anyone taking responsibility for their health back from the sick care system that plagues the industrial world.

This is another new crop for us - turmeric, the yellow part of Indian curry.  I planted it because we have a decent Indian population in our town and I thought I could sell it to them at the market along with ginger, and a colorful variety of eggplants for their cuisine.  But as with so many plants, once you start studying its nature it pops out from the crowd as a medicinal superfood extraordinaire.  Reading the Wiki page on turmeric I started wondering if I had accidentally slipped into the page for bamboo, there were so many uses for it!  It needs heat and it needs moisture, but if you have those two things, please grow some.  Physically it pairs well with the strawberries growing in the same bed, but we'll see if there are any cultural conflicts. 

This is a dynamite new shrub in my repertoire.  It's pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) and it is as low maintenance as it is beautiful.  It can reach 20 ft tall, but takes really well to pruning so put it where you want a large shrub with cinnamon bark and silvery leaves, and trim it to fit your ideas.  The flower petals are reported to taste like cinnamon cotton candy.  The fruits are plum shaped and unique - I've even heard someone say they taste like Juicy Fruit gum, and can be used in myriad ways, particularly in tropical-flavored recipes.  The fruit is rich in Vitamin C, good for eyes and heart, skin and hair, and as with most mineral dense foods, useful against cancers of the digestive system like stomach, prostate, and colon cancers.  Migratory birds absolutely love it.

At some point kale has to stop being considered a new food plant, but in the South we're just introducing it to people who cut their teeth (and probably the inside of their mouths) on collard greens.  Vitamin and mineral density galore, both the Tuscan (Dinosaur) and Red Russian varieties I grew this year have done amazingly well.  They can produce their bounty straight through winter in our zone 8b climate with a light row cover, and then keep on trucking right through summer too!  Just mind-boggling!  Here it is Fourth of July weekend and I've just recently added a little composted cow manure and fresh straw to recharge the patch because we've harvested so dang much food from these plants.  I keep expecting them to cash it in in the stifling heat of a south Georgia summer, but noooo, not kale, it just keeps on happily producing handfuls of superfood-quality leaves through triple digit dog days.  And they are beautiful bluish plants too!

Lemongrass is also enjoying its rookie season at Small Batch.  Talk about robust.  Like turmeric, it takes a while to get going, waiting for some summer heat to drive its engine, but it is highly prized in southeast Asian cuisines, particularly Thai.  With a unique lemony flavor that can't really be replicated by limes or lemons, it is thought to be an effective medicinal herb for fighting colds, flus, and even some cancers.  Totally care-free too, as far as I can tell.

There are three herbs in this photo - Blessed thistle at the top, skullcap to the right, and valerian to the left.  I want to focus on valerian.  Valium is derived from valerian, so right away you can see that it is a respected herb in the West for its sedative and anxiolytic properties.  The ancients called it "All-heal"and its specific epithet is officinalis (Valeriana officinalis), so right away we know it was a highly respected "official" or "noble" medicine far back into history.  Unfortunately, and ironically, because of the respect it has garnered from allopathic medicine, many medicinal descriptions of valerian are garbled with reductionist, isolationist thinking.  Botanical sources change course here, and talk about its value as a nurse plant, improving the health of anything it is planted next to, and how its small blue flowers attract plenty of pollinators, which I think might be terribly useful in a future more focused on holistic health of both garden and gardener.  We will definitely be expanding its range in our garden.

The next two species are hibiscus family plants.  This one is Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which I didn't know existed before this spring.  Some gardening friends gave me a start and it seems to be robust and thriving.  It's another long hot season plant, like turmeric and lemongrass, and this one is as multi-functional as any.  It gets about 6' tall, has beautiful dark rosy red flowers with a fleshy calyx that is made into a variety of beverages all over the world's tropical and subtropical regions, both soft and hard, and a unique delicious jelly.  The plants are rich in anthocyanins and flavonoids, and the seeds are a good source of lipid-soluble antioxidants.  As with any hibiscus, roselle flowers attract a suite of specific  pollinators, and the green leaves are main ingredients in some regional curries.  This is a top shelf medicinal food plant that will become a staple in our production system.  (And now I'm going to go have a piece of toast with that delicious roselle jelly...) 

Alright I'm back. Yum!  Glad I got that education in roselle!!  On the left mound in this shot is  roselle's second cousin okra, the staple of the South, and while I'm sure there is much more to learn about okra's potential as a medicinal superfood, this picture has been included solely for the purposes of comparison with the lead photo from my last post.  What a difference two weeks can make!

Here's a good example of running into a need for a plant and going out to get it.  This is a young witch hazel transplant that seems to be settling in just fine.  Life on the farm has demanded a variety of herbal sprays from us at times, like fly spray for the dairy cow and horse, etc, and we typically use witch hazel solutions as a carrier.  So let's grow it!  Lacking a steady supply of confidence in long range, high energy supply chains, we leave nothing up to chance.  Now we just need to build a little still to extract the witch hazel essence.  And we won't use it for any other purpose...I promise;)

Not everything in the garden has a direct human purpose.  The sage-looking bush to the left is Buddleja, a fantastic butterfly attractor (which of course benefits the rest of the garden), and the plant front and center is blue salvia.  Amazing flowers and the ruby-throated hummingbirds around here just love it.  I would be OK with hummingbirds in the garden even if they served no ecological purpose.  But then, that's not how this works, is it?