Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, April 25, 2011

Life In Energy Descent Land

Just another Monday morning at the office finds me knee-deep in the briar patch, picking the season's first dewberries.  My morning session of hot yoga has me twisting up to the left, pick, pick, pick, then down to the right, pick, pick, pick, then stand up straight and stretch my back.  I slowly fill my colander with the little black jewels, all the while half-watching the commerce of the interstate exit nearby come and go.  Slide the credit card into the gas pump, grab a cup of joe, catch a few winks in the semi before heading on to Tampa.  A few men in pickups slow to watch me pick blackberries.  I like to imagine that they are fielding memories of slower childhood days collecting berries with grandpa.  I certainly have some.

My colander is full now. I grunt disapprovingly as I bump it with my elbow on the way in, clutching a small handful of new berries, spilling several that were already home.  Time to go.  I noticed a loquat tree a couple miles back down US41 last night with loads of ripe fruit dangling under the glossy forest green leaves.  I rinse my hands in fluorine-free well water from my old stainless steel drinking bottle, the former an improvement since this time last year, and ease the Camry out of the all-but-defunct antique store's weedy deserted parking lot, cross I-75 to the west, and head south to the next spot.  The tree is glowing apricot orange when I arrive.  Nobody around to ask permission from, I open a plastic grocery sack and begin plucking handfuls of luscious little fruits.  People hardly notice that I'm there as they race up and down 41, ten or fifteen feet away from me in my navy swimtrunks and kelly green t-shirt.  I might be barefoot except that I just came from the briar patch.  That's standard office attire these days.  It's not hot enough for a wide-brimmed straw hat this morning though, so my buzzed dark blond (and increasingly gray) hair struggles to protect my scalp when the sun peaks through the clouds.  The loquats are juicy and exotic, kind of a plummy, citrusy fruit with a big brown stone.  I snacked on the dewberries on the way to the loquat tree, and now I fill up on the new fruit.

I'm struck by how much there is, how if I was just better at this foraging business a garden might be mostly unnecessary, the most foreign of thoughts for me, and I head down 41 a bit farther to see some friends at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture.  In the parking lot I fashion several "forager's parfaits," little cups with a few loquats, then a handful of dewberries, a few more loquats, and topped off with another round of the berries.  I head in to return some mock vintage clothing my wife and daughter wore for the folk life festival.  It's closed.  No one is there.  I had gotten a call from the lady who tends the apothecary garden beside the 19th century doctor's office onsite there, just this morning.  She wanted me to verify that a plant she had gotten was the old-fashioned wormwood, and not some other "improved" primarily aesthetic Artemisia cultivar.  I guess I just assumed they would be open.  I was wrong.

So I point the Camry east and head to the library where my mom works (it's nice to see Mom whenever I feel like it now that I'm back home), and take the forager's parfaits to her and her workmates.  They love them, and offer me all sorts of things they have that they think will help with our farm.  I wave goodbye but I have two parfaits left, and I know just the pair to receive them, my grandparents (also a treat to visit regularly these days).  I find them working in their orchard and office.  They always appreciate gifts of time, and I leave feeling good about time well spent.  

Back at the farm, over a lunch of leftover Easter ham and homemade focaccia from a close friend, a small bowl of dewberries soaked in our Anna's cream, and a handful of loquats, I recall the items on offer for my wife, like a fancy cream separator that made the journey with its owner from northern Alberta, and we laugh about how life has changed so radically since we became spellbound by the wonders of energy descent.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Most Important Part of Home

I think I've mentioned before that I definitely have no moss gathering anywhere on my person, particularly 'round my feet.  Let's just say that it would take more time than it's worth to think back through all the different places I've lived, both as an adult and as a child with no say in the matter.  My family members long ago started writing my contact information in their address books in pencil.  But it isn't all my doing, the precedent was established early on.  And no, I'm not a military brat.  We just had some things to do.

But a big part of why I'm where I am right now, and hopefully where I'll be for good, is my family.  My tribe.  The reason my post is late this week is that my infant son has been strengthening his immune system via roseola for the last several days, and that extra duty has reined us all in a bit this week.  Seems fitting after my flippant attitude toward crowd diseases last week.  My wife just posted her piece at A Day in Earnest a couple of hours ago, talking about the need for rest, and now it's my turn to catch up with my little corner of the blogosphere.  I worked really hard today.  I felt behind.  I felt personally responsible for the shallow pot of dead dry squash on my grandparents' back steps, because I didn't have the time to get over there earlier to check it while they were away on vacation.  And I will go to bed tonight with more sun than anyone should.  But the reason for that hard work is the last factor in deciding where to hang my hat: family.

Water, food, shelter, medicine, all extremely important, but are even they as important to a social primate as tribe?  My mom is here.  My dad's father and stepmom (who has been my grandmother since I was 4).  My sister and her two children.  My paternal uncle, and occasionally the rest of his family of four.  And I'm making high quality friends to list among my tribe very quickly.  Most of them due to the connection with family.  I love these people, and I want to provide for them in whatever way I can.  Giving of my time to help my son and wife this week, and setting my blog on the back burner, is how this should work.  Blood is thicker than water, right?  And definitely thicker than the interweb...with its system of tubes...and flashy light...things...

But back to it.  I've seen evidence recently that we Americans are in deeper doo-doo than I'm usually willing to admit.  What's left of the global economy seems to be moving away from the US dollar as a standard trading currency.  If that happens the dollar will be all but worthless.  And really it's just a matter of time; dominant powers don't last forever.  God-blessed or otherwise.  Actually I'm having a hard time thinking of a global superpower that wasn't god-blessed.  They all were.  That's what being a superpower means.  That you are chosen by your very own god to be better than everyone else.  Obviously.

What happens to US religion will be fascinating to watch as we grind our way down the great energy mountain.  I tend to think people will at first turn TO god - oh, dear lord, please help us (and my reputation); please save my 401(k), which you have so graciously provided.  No?  To hell with you then.  I never really believed in you anyway.  No real god would allow me to lose my job, then my savings, then my wife, then my self-respect!  A real god would've kept the gas cheap and the beer cheaper.  Or something like that.  A classic church attendance boom-n-bust.

Problem is, energy descent hits people individually, and over a long period of contraction. There's very little group therapy.  When you start suggesting things like what I've outlined above, people will disown you.  Except for close family.  Maybe.  Everyone will get this eventually.  One way or another.  It may take decades to come to grips with it, but eventually we will all get it.  Unconditional family love, the Greek "agape," might be the only thing that makes it through.  I'm sure there is a relative of mine reading this now, wondering where, oh where, did I go wrong with this kid?  Nowhere.  You're just not there yet.  And that's OK.  And the potential for them to never really understand why this is happening will always be there.  Despite our best efforts to explain it in clear, concise scientific terms.  We may always be that wingnut.  And that's OK too.  Better a prepared wingnut than Mr. Cool on life support.

But the desire to be near family, to build a tribe in these times, is strong, and really two-fold.  One, they will be there for us when we need them, for whatever purpose - emotional or financial support, political or military strength, or even just a ready market for our crazy, often more expensive, self-reliant goods and services.  And two, as things become different, as the way things work changes, due to energy descent, we will become the rock in the storm.  We will have foreseen the changes, prepared for them (that's really why we're here right?), and we will represent a working model for an emerging new world.  Consciously grasped or not.  Or at least a place to buy good eggs and butter.

After spending everything we had tucked away to move to Washington in 2008, my wife's mother informed us that she wasn't going to be "that kind of grandmother."  And by "that kind of grandmother" I mean one that helps with the children now and then.  Not raises them for you, just helps a little now and then.  Self-reliance is great, but it's a whole lot easier with a just a smidgeon of grandparent-facilitated sanity now and then.  Which is just the sort of thing we've been enjoying since we decided to move back home.  My home.  Where a whole bunch of us will always be there for each other, wingnuts or not.  If you have that opportunity I highly recommend moving it up your list of things to consider.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Where Should I Live?

This is the topic left hanging in my Skype interview with Jason Kasumovic of The Northern Homestead on Monday.  Click the hyperlink above to access both segments of that interview, which are on his home page for the moment, or click on the podcast link in the right column of my blog page to access the interview directly, once it has moved off his front page.  At one point in the interview we were talking about harvesting precipitation, and kind of what the permaculture cadre, the Yodas to this padawan, consider a minimum amount to live on without needing to tap the groundwater resources.  Which, by the way, is 35 inches, so if you live in a region that gets significantly less than 35 inches of harvestable precipitation, you can get a little worried now.  This search criterion could be a big deal in a future with uncertain access to uncertain natural resources, and I took it seriously enough that it was a top 5 factor in our move from semi-arid eastern Washington with maybe 17" of precipitation, mostly in the form of snow, to wet, muggy south Georgia where we get about 50 inches of actual rain.  With some planning and the use of appropriate technology, access to the aquifer, and the energy required to bring that water to the surface, shouldn't be necessary.

But the aquifer beneath my desk is a robust, healthy one, as far as aquifers go, that recharges quickly and regularly, so I can't help but feel that we have the water factor under control.  Check mark in the first and most important box.  If water is your Liebig factor you're starting with a potentially deadly handicap.  And if a major move is in the cards, move "ample water" up your list of desires in a new home.

What's next on the survival list after the water is covered?  Food?  Well, if you put a check in the first box, food will be easier to produce realiably.  If you were unable to mark that box then producing food consistently will be harder, but not impossible, as Jason and I discussed in the interview.  One thing is for certain though, if you can feed yourself with less than 35" of rain per year, and no access to aquiferian water, permaculture will be involved, regardless of what you're calling it.

But what are some other factors influencing that food production need?  Soil type?  I would say to look for the most fertile soil you can afford, despite the permaculture principle of valuing the marginal.  I've just heard too many complaints from otherwise deft permaculturalists about infertile and marginal soils.  You can indeed improve your soil dramatically, given time, but how much farther ahead you'll be if you start with some fertility and soil tilth!  Moving on, length of growing season is a big factor to me, and again a major factor in choosing our current location.  Jason nailed it when he surmised that we have about 3 days of unproductive weather down here.  But there are drawbacks as well.  It's bloody hot for months every summer, and AC is an enormous energy use.  It's 79 degrees right now, but it won't be another month before 90-something daily highs will be common.  My wife and I have gotten OK with 90 degrees in the house, but it gets worse, and so far we've resorted to a little AC when it does.  However, when it comes to growing season, we've got it in spades.  We can eat fresh greens straight through the winter here, and it rarely gets cold enough to screw up the laying hens.  With dairy becoming a more regular and important part of our production, milking through winter is certainly more pleasant when it's 40 degrees outside than it would be for half the year in Alberta.  Not at all pleasant when it's 100, but at least my hands still work, sweaty or not.

Another thing I might suggest is setting up shop on a soil type that you are familiar with.  When I think ideal climate, I automatically go north from here, perhaps southern Appalachia, but I have zero experience gardening in clay.  I can't imagine being very good at it for the first few years.  I'm used to friable salt and pepper soils that drain and grow great sage and rosemary, and figs.  I know what to do with sandy soil, and I feel comfortable with it.  Heavy soils are foreign to me, and stir up the (very normal) feelings of distrust that come with unfamiliar things.  Matter of fact, I just transplanted some flowers from my grandmother's garden in Atlanta, and they came with some dark red heavy soil that just screamed ROOT ROT!! to me, even though I know she has a beautiful, mostly organic garden, teeming with beneficial microbial life.  I overcame the distrust and dumped the extra soil into the holes, knowing that it contained the critters that were contributing to the health of these new plants.  Welcome home, little fellas!  But seriously, familiarity breeds success in the garden.  I would encourage people to choose accordingly.

With water and food under control I head to shelter.  Building a house comsumes a ton of time and energy, and you wouldn't want to have to do it while establishing a new garden.  Unless you're one of those freaks with limitless energy and no children at home, like our tenant in the Macon house.  I seriously wonder if the old Dane ever sleeps.  For the other 99.9% of us, try not to bite off more than you can chew.  The world's not coming to an end tomorrow; things will go far more smoothly if you take the time to do it right.  That said, it's amazing what can pass for a home when push comes to shove.  And while admittedly there are folks out there who would prefer to drag everyone else around them under before taking responsibility for themselves, I have a feeling that most of the people reading a blog like mine would do whatever is necessary.

If you are one of those even rarer individuals who have both the desire and the means to build something extremely efficient AND have the foresight to be reading something like this, by all means study your land and situate your carefully-designed passive solar home in such a way that you will hardly ever need any sort of mechanical heating or cooling.  The most likely scenario, however, is that you have a retrofit on your hands.  That's our situation, and there are some really worthwhile things that can be done to improve the funtion of older homes.  This topic goes way beyond the scope of this article, however, and if I may I'd like to take this opportunity to direct my readers to John Michael Greer's blog, http://www.thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/, where the author is engaged in a lengthy series of posts about domestic energy efficiency.  We're here today to talk about choosing a place to hang our hat, not to talk about what kind of hat requires the least amount of energy to produce, or how to hang it in such a way that it reduces solar gain through the window behind it in the summer.  There will be time later for such nonsense, once the beans are planted.

On we go!  Water, food, and shelter (I tend to lump clothes in with shelter, in a discussion of necessities, and try to avoid meddling in the fashion arena anyway), so what pops up next in my head is medicine.  We have enough clothes lying around in the industrial world to clothe everyone on Earth for the next century, even if the sweat shops closed down this afternoon.  Don't worry about clothing.  But, regarding medicine, very quickly I would want to point out that, once we are taking personal responsibility for our food, water, and shelter, within a very limited energy budget, medicine will largely take care of itself.  I'm a firm believer that excess energy in the system causes the bulk of our health problems in the modern world.  Once you have mastered a system of gardening that doesn't require chemical inputs, you will no doubt have most of the herbal medicines you need all around you.  They will be part of your normal diet, and most likely your tea, and they will assist in building the mineral density in your garden soil that will make your body function better.  A growing interest in herbal medicine has been an inevitable outcropping of our lifestyle changes.  And I think it's only natural to want to learn more about how nature does things as you reintegrate with those patterns.

BUT, smallpox existed before the oil economy, and smallpox will exist after the oil economy comes to an end.  And on this topic I think there are two main things to consider: 1) if your genes co-evolved with the crowd diseases of a given region, or latitude, it's highly unlikely that you are even capable of catching those diseases.  As an example, HIV gains access to a human cell with the same molecular trick that the Black Plague used.  If you descend from a population affected by the Plague, you will likely have at least partial immunity to it, and therefore to AIDS as well.  Black tropical Africans did not, and are understandably susceptible to HIV infections.  I doubt I could get AIDS if I shot myself up with a purified dose of it. 

2) They are called "crowd" diseases for a reason.  There is a minimum population required to perpetuate crowd diseases.  Below a regional population of about 350,000 smallpox would play itself out, killing the genetically unprepared, and innoculating the folks with a favorable genomic disposition.  Then it would go away.  In a  more densely populated region, there are enough people to pass the disease around for it to travel from generation to generation.  The industrial economy and long-range travel have effectively created a planetary population, and tropical hunting and gathering peoples living in low density regions have taken the brunt of the nasties carried by temperate city-dwelling farmers.  Even "New World" tropical diseases, like the ones that killed the Panama Canal laborers, were brought over by tropical peoples of the Old World who lived in dense sedentary agricultural cities.

So, if you are a believer in the power of modern vaccinations, and worry about how things might go if we lose access to that medicine, try to situate yourself somewhere with a regional population well below 350k.  Somewhere like Tifton, GA, where the growing season is about 362 days long, where somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 inches of life-giving water fall from the sky every year, and the cost of living is relatively cheap.  I said somewhere LIKE Tifton, GA; I'll start shooting newcomers if our regional population heads north of a quarter million or so;)

There's a lot more to consider, but I think that will do it for today.  I need to get another round of tomatoes and squash in the ground.  See you next time.

Monday, April 4, 2011

April Fools Photo Update

The Hub - part tool shed, part chicken coop, with a decent view of the four garden "rooms" arranged radially around it. Clockwise from lower left: the tractoring/laundry/play yard, the orchard/milpa, the staple garden, and the kitchen garden.
 I promised myself I would deliver a lot more photo, and a lot less gas, this month, so let's just dive right in, shall we?

Mick and Pepper enjoying a beautiful April day.  You can see the pecans starting to leaf out in the foreground.  'Round here, that means that winter is officially over!

Call this resilience planning.  See the tiny whip of a tree in the foreground?  It's a sweet black cherry called 'Lapins,' and it's supposed to be tolerant of some heat.  On winters like the last two, with 1200+ chill hours, I can keep all the fingers on both hands and all the toes on both feet crossed that we'll see some fruit.  And who knows what the climate might do!?  Best to have a tree of fruit-bearing age just in case things get funky in the colder direction.  We'll have plenty of oranges and olives too...(actually we already have 7 tiny olive trees and hardy citrus root stock going!)

The milpa.  What you see heading out is a production tomato and basil bed, the apples, then another garden bed, then pears, another bed, then peaches, another bed, then plums.  Feels good to have this garden full of fruit trees.  My friend Nathan in Vermont says that little bare-root nursery stockers statistically outperform the big potted fruit trees you get from a local dealer.  My rows alternate sources so I guess we'll see for ourselves.  Trees are planted on 15' centers in both directions.  Annual production around the trees will decrease every year.  The ducks will live out here, and the 15 gal black tubs you see are for them.  They will bathe and poop in there, and then I'll dump them under the young trees and move them to the next row.

Panning left from the other fruit trees there is this row of 4 varieties of figs along the orchard fence.  Very small figs, obviously.  I will plant muscadine grapes on this fence as I come across them.  In this region you shouldn't have to pay for muscadines.  They will serve as turkey, duck, and goose forage, as well as human enjoyment!  Had a damn decent muscadine wine made just down the road recently.  Surprised the hell out of me.

Production garden.  Here is a nice bed of garlic (just artichoke this year, I'll do better next winter), then potatoes, then onions, then...I'm shooting for self-sufficiency in a few staple crops this year - potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and dry beans.  I should be able to wild harvest enough blackberries for the year too, although I have planted 3 thornless varieties that should fruit from April till frost, plus thorny boysenberries and red raspberries.

Didn't show up as well as I had hoped.  The second year grapes I dug up from Small Batch and brought to Tonic with us are covered in little clusters of potential grapes.  Bunch grapes aren't reliable here in the sultry south, according to the locals, but I can't help myself.  I have 5 varieties that "can't" be grown here, and the flower clusters are promising at least.  I'll keep you posted.

This is my blueberry patch.  The light green bands are buckwheat.  The blueberry bushes are all still pretty small, obviously, but we are getting a surprising amount of fruit this season, considering you can't even see the bushes.  Five of 28 bushes didn't make it to leaf out, mostly in the foreground of the photo.  I'll just replace them next winter.  I also have 3 supposedly everbearing blueberries called 'Sharpblue' in the kitchen garden along a main pathway.

Oooh, look, a fig!  The only one on this young Black Mission fig.  This is the first of the "birthday trees."  When you visit my garden on your birthday you get a fruit tree planted in your honor, inscribed on a permanent metal label - this one belongs to my aunt, Beverly Sparks, who is Assistant Dean of Agriculture at the University of Georgia.

It was REALLY windy when I took these pictures.  There's the little Black Mission fig again, to the right, and the little tree by the rabbit tractor is a loquat, another warm climate fruit tree with yellow-orange fruit and a dark stone.

This month's hardscape project, I moved the flat brick floor out of the shed and laid a front porch instead.  The 6-lite half "glass" door is probably the original back door to our house, before the office and second bathroom were added on.  It's now "glazed" in chicken wire.

Strawberries with a green pea backer.  Eventually I'd like to pave the whole kitchen garden with these bricks.  (Ahem, I'll be expanding the beds into the pathways between now and then.  Laying brick pathways is a LOT of work!)

Small berries starting to form, and daughter plants are running.

Green peas sporting their first blooms.

Early spring-planted broccoli forming heads.

This isn't all of my mushroom logs!  Not sure when I'll find enough time to innoculate them all.  We're picking up a soapstone woodstove in Atlanta this weekend, so some of it may become firewood instead.

Again, harder to see than I'd like, but these little guys just arrived this week at our farm - 4 American Buff Geese, 4 Welsh Harlequin ducks, and 3 Blue Runner ducks.  The blues are really cute, especially the way they walk like penguins.  The geese are for keeping the play yard mowed and fertilized around the rabbit tractors that can't keep up, and the ducks are for pest control and egg and meat production.  Waterfowl are expensive!  Hopefully I can sell instead of buy soon.

There was a rain-collecting depression at the garden entry that was begging to become a brick step.  More bricks to lay, and a bat box to hang.  Probably missed my window for attracting bats this year.

Isn't that a beautiful thing?

Little mushrooms and rosemary guarding the entry gate.  You should always plant rosemary by your garden gate.  Why?  It's written!  That's why...

A happy dog, Nightshade, who is also a new addition this month, after losing our tom turkey, is waiting for his human.  Ella is still waking up from her nap.  Haven't lost anything since Nightshade arrived.  The long pile is the beginnings of my ever-present hugelkultur, this time made with lots of half-rotten logs like it should be, instead of twigs and branches.  Although I bet that hugelkultur in Macon is ready to go!

Now Ms. Anna here has been the real boon to our quest for self-reliance this month.  She's a 3 year old Jersey who lost her calf about 6 weeks ago.  We got her two weeks ago from a nice old professor in Alma.  She's giving me a little over a gallon of milk a day right now, but she was only being milked every other day to keep her flowing before she got here.  I think we can get that volume up a little and become self-sufficicent in dairy products too.  There's a bit of a learning curve in the milking department, so don't just assume you can jump right into dairy production!  You'll learn about controlling sucking flies pretty quickly too!

The coming cheese cave.  Just need an external thermostat.

Mon petit chou.

My grandfather's neighbor lost a big pear tree recently in a storm.  I think it will be great for flavor in the cob oven I'm building.  Hopefully soon, it's starting to get warm.  And we need to move cooking operations outdoors.

It says "Pesticide-free Zone."  If you need pesticides you're doing something wrong. 

Ever our message.  And we finally hung a star to advertise to those who know that herbal medicine is available here.  Jess is getting pretty good.  She just devised a fly spray for the cow, made from witchhazel and essential oils, that beats the socks off of permethrin.  Works for me too, and it's gentle enough to spray on my face...so we planted a little witchhazel in a shady corner of the garden...
Till next month!