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.