Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Say Hello To My Little Dragon - Rocket Mass Heater in a Wall Tent

This is the combustion unit in all its temporary glory - standard fire brick J-tube built on a thick 16"X 24" landscape paver base (3 of them laid side-by-side to make a 4' x 2' platform) raised up to create an air space on old clay bricks salvaged from our house in Macon, wide side vertical (~4"), one under each paver joint, both sides, all set on a rigid reflective insulation panel in contact with the wood floor (the thin white strip at the bottom).  For those unfamiliar with rocket mass heaters (RMH) the flue is INSIDE the steel barrel; in this case they call it a heat riser, and ours is an 8" x 8" square clay flue pipe surrounded by a sheet metal jacket with perlite infill between the two for insulation, capped with a little mud to hold the perlite in.  The internal heat riser creates a heat pump that actively moves combustion gases through the unit.  As the gases fall down the perimeter of the barrel, they give up a substantial portion of their heat via radiation to the room before collecting in the bottom of the barrel and exiting through the horizontal flue, actively pumped to the exterior.  The galvalum can closer to you in the photo is the jacket for the feed tube, similarly insulated with perlite, with a tight-fitting lid to kill the fire when we're done with a burn.  The whole shootin' match is enshrouded in concrete we poured into a form (we were in a bit of a hurry or we would have cobbed it - more on that in another post).  The combustion unit weighs approximately half a ton, is supported by extra reinforcement under the tent deck, and cost roughly $200.  She's not going to win any beauty contests, but when you feel the heat it produces on next to no wood, an undeniable fondness for her begins to creep in.

Wet, wet, wettest year I've ever lived through, and abandoned for most of 4 months, there was (and still is) plenty of rehab to do on the old tent and deck floor.  On the left side you can see the mildew and floor wear we're dealing with; to the right where we're headed.  We're painting over the mildewed canvas with an oil-based primer to lock out the fungal unpleasantness (any better ideas?), and you can see where I've sanded and oiled the pine floor.
Not without its own shortcomings, one of the major advantages of a RMH in a tent is that a vertical flue jack through the tent roof isn't necessary, since the flue can exit the tent horizontally.  This nasty mess was caused by leaves and moisture falling in around the flue pipe and getting stuck between the canvas and poly rain fly.  Like any good composting process, it's completely digested the canvas at the pressure point against the internal framework.  Without a vertical flue stack this weakness is never introduced and the integrity of the rain fly remains uncompromised.   This mess has since been stitched, painted, and fully covered from above.

Turn around, view to the south during renovation.  The floor is done now and the painting getting there.  We will also be adding more of the 4' x 8' rigid reflective insulating panels, like we used under the combustion unit, around the walls to help hold heat in, and probably painting over them to match the wall.  Since this photo a screen door has been stripped down, fitted with 4 mil clear plastic sheeting for "panes," and hung in place of the old zippered flaps on a 2x6 frame anchored to the deck.  Makes coming and going so much easier; I wish we'd done that at the beginning.  The RMH combustion unit is built roughly on the old wear shadow spot (lower right of the photo) where the box stove lived last winter. 

This is where the real magic of a RMH comes into play.  With an active heat pumping action and a horizontal flue, we can run a long length of flue pipe through a thermal mass to absorb the remaining heat and store it to dissipate into the room over time.  Unwilling to cart 2 tons of our sandy, clayey, gravely subsoil in by bucket to fill this bench until the trouble-shooting is complete, this is about all you get for now.  There is about a quarter ton of thermal mass under the children's bed to help hold a little extra heat and the flue pipe in place now, and we will be doing our side under the bed soon since it will remain in that form once we build the wood cabin on this platform in the spring.  We're filling the bench only up to near the top of the flue pipe with the subsoil and then topping it off with pea gravel for better heat movement up through the mass and into the bed, and a cleaner finish.  The near section will change forms in the next phase, so we may not be filling it at all.  This bench is 16' long, and the back 10' will be our bedroom in the cabin; the front 6', plus the bend and the combustion unit will, once approved by the county, be cobbed into a permanent couch the shape of a dragon, complete with scales made from old favorite broken pottery we've been carting around with us, emerging from the fairy tale section of the floor-to-ceiling bookcase that will become the wall between the living and sleeping areas.  Safety-wise, the floor of this mass bench is raised up on a 2x6 riser to create an air space underneath, though closed off to keep any wandering mice out.  Once you get around the 90 degree elbow, the flue pipe isn't very hot, so I'm not worried about the mass bench causing any problems with the wood floor, especially with the air space separating the two.  More reinforcement is being added underneath the mass bench as it gains weight.  More details in the future.

Did I mention the trouble-shooting?  RMHs are not for laissez faire fire tenders.  They require attention, and at least a rudimentary knowledge of fire physics and fluid dynamics.  And it helps if you're a bit of a pyro, too.  The 90-degree elbow in this shot has been replaced by an 8-8-8 T-section and cap to provide cleaning access to both the short stretch from the combustion unit and to run my 20' flue brush through the long length of the mass bench and out the far end.  Apparently these dragons like to have their intestines cleaned regularly.  At the far end, the outdoor bit, I replaced the original 90-degree elbow there with a T-section and cap as well.  Besides flue brush access, when the weather is wonky I can go out and light a primer fire in the T-section under the outdoor vertical stack, or slip a battery-powered fan in, to help encourage the draw to move in the right direction until the combustion unit warms up.  Smoke-back into the tent, bad; smoke out the far end vertical flue, good.  Once the system is hot it rockets beautifully and cleanly, with only an occasional tiny belch that usually gets sucked back down the feed tube.  The exit gases move so slowly and are at such a cool temperature when they exit that you can lick the flue pipe (if you really want to) - it's hardly ever above 100 degrees F, even when the rocket is roaring.

So this is the idea for this particular design.  Beds ride on top of thermal mass bench to help keep sweeties warm at night.  Even without the thermal mass in the bench the extra warmth is noticeable.  I built simple plywood platforms, left over from our bath house project, to hold the beds up level with the bench, and, since there's no box spring, give us a bunch of storage space underneath.

Now the kids' bed is added, although I think that's a big pink bunny benefitting from the design, and not Ella.  Theirs is the warmest spot, near the combustion unit, which doles out a considerable amount of heat through the night, too.

You don't burn this kind of stove through the night, though.  You burn it hot and fast, for a few hours before bed, and in the case of a tent, when you wake up in the morning.  Then you cap the feed tube, kill the fire, and bask in the stove's warmth between burns.  This is one of the shortcomings of a RMH in a tent: there's not much insulation in the shell of the structure to hold onto the heat you produce.  We actually use a propane space heater during the night so we can get some good sleep, not be up all night tending a wood stove, but we certainly benefit from the slow-release warmth of a system like this under and around our beds.  And we really built it for the future cabin, when it will function more like it's supposed to.  Most RMH users claim to only burn once a day, for 2-3 hours before bed, and get plenty of heat through the night and the next day from that one burn, sometimes burning only every other day! The savings in firewood (money or processing time) is immense.  Even in a tent, with almost no insulation, we never burn more than 2 cubic feet of firewood a day, and generally less than one.  Last winter we burned ~600 cubic feet in our box stove (our stove season is about 5 months).  Yes, there is a little propane cost to be considered, but only so long as our house is a tent.  The fuel you see in the photo above is kiln-dry hardwood off-cuts I get for free by the trunk-load from a local cabinet shop.
Hard to see through the lunch break, but I've borrowed a trick from Ernie and Erica Wisner's playbook for our stove.  When buying the steel drum for our heat exchanger I got one with a removable lid and lid clamp, so I could open it from the top for inspection and cleaning.  A little stove insulating cord in the lip of the lid keeps it air tight.  Here you see Ella demonstrating the proper use of the stove once it's been shut down after a burn.  The little black and silver fan at the back of the stove top, driven only by a heat differential between its solid base resting on the stove and cooler aerial radiator, is a must-have for tent dwelling.  They are a a bit pricey, but so worth it.  We got ours from Lehman's.

I can't really explain the sense of self-satisfaction I got, and continue to get, from building an inexpensive wood stove from scratch that actually works and keeps my family warm.  I didn't come to the project with any particular skill in this department, and no more experience than one (long) winter with ANY sort of wood stove.  Rocket mass heaters burn very little wood - generally less than a quarter of what a typical box stove burns, and some claim as little as a tenth.  The fuel feeds into the unit vertically, (the fire rocketing sideways through the burn chamber and up the heat riser) and has to be processed down to fairly slim pieces (mine doesn't want to burn anything larger than 3" across, and even that seems to be a chore), but overall the labor input seems very minor compared to the endless splitting of heavy, chunky wood of last winter.  And the fuel requirements lend themselves very well to a coppicing woodlot scheme, which produces thin round fuel every few years on rotation, and which I'm currently developing on our land.  The stove does look a bit like a burn barrel in your living room, but can be dressed up in any number of ways.  Like I mentioned above, we plan to do a cob dragon sculpture around ours, which should hide a lot of the industrial look, but you could stack brick or stone around the parts you don't like for sure.  Just keep in mind that you're adding thermal mass, for long term heat storage and release, and covering the quick radiant warmth you get from a lot of exposed steel.  It wouldn't work very well in a tent in other words.  But coupled with a well-insulated house, or a thermally-massive house, like adobe or cob, I can see a stove like this being a major boon to the owner-builder's comfort and work load.  Weird and quirky, yes, but inexpensive and efficient, too, and utterly fantastic.

Special thanks to Andrew for his help with the materials gathering, layout, and pointers.
Tripp out.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Local > Organic

It takes a while sometimes to become confident enough in our own capacity for broad systems thinking to feel comfortable making such generalizations, but the more time I spend thinking about these two increasingly popular labels the more confident I feel making them.  A simple food chain perspective can be an illuminating place to begin our thought experiment, and it has become an increasingly common mental pattern for me over the last five years.  

One of the more common tropes in sustainability thinking seems to have otherwise heavy energy users dissecting specific topics or products or activities for ways to make themselves feel better about their day-to-day energy use.  To use the current dichotomy under discussion as an example, the thinking often seems to be that "eating organic is good for the planet, period."  The fact that the organic asparagus in question came from Chile, out of season, seems to be a secondary matter.  Not so fast, I say.  In food chain terms, you've got a relatively high-energy market crop to begin with: cutting asparagus is something that generally has to be done by hand, or by very specialized machinery, and the resulting product has to be handled very carefully between field and market.  All of this would be fine if it were being done in a family garden in the back yard, served up fresh on a lunch salad, or grilled for dinner.  But then we wouldn't be eating asparagus in November, and it wouldn't have been shipped thousands of miles in the process.  Here, "organic" simply becomes a way to soothe our conscience about putting richy imperialist tidbits on American tables whenever and wherever we feel like it.  It doesn't require any sacrifice, no discipline, no behavioral innovation.  Even if the production process on the far end was organic, enriching the soil in which it was grown year after year, all that good work is undone in a long-range shipping and distribution system, with all the fossil fuel burned to make it viable.  We have to consider the NET impact of such a food chain, not just the cultural practices that originally produced the food.  Simply eating organic doesn't ameliorate the greater damages wrought by a high-energy long-range supply network.

Another looming example of systems thinking gone awry is the current "Obamacare" debate.  Health care in the United States has its share of problems, to be sure, but a lack of centralized management wasn't one of them.  In essence, we've taken a system already in need of a major overhaul, in need of major behavioral innovation, and added a new level of organization to the top of its food chain.  Any ecologist worth his salt, as well as plenty of non-ecologists, will know that adding another link to the top of a food chain drastically increases the energy contained in that food chain.  I would hesitate to say that it doubles it, but with the increasing metabolic losses that are inherent in all food chains as one moves up the ladder, coupled with a whole new predator at the top feasting on the former, slightly less metabolically-inefficient, top predator, it's significant.

To illustrate this idea, consider a simple oceanic food chain composed of an autotrophic phytoplankton forming the base of the pyramid, eaten by pelagic krill, krill that are in turn eaten by small schooling fish, and those small fish finally eaten by a tuna.  Totally inventing numbers to save time and simply demonstrate a well-known universal pattern, let's say that the phytoplankton are completely (100%) efficient, turning sunlight and dissolved gases, combined with free minerals in the ocean water, into carbohydrates and cellular structure.  No net metabolic losses there, but this is the only producer in the food chain.  Climb up one level to the krill that eat the phytoplankton and we begin to lose metabolic efficiency; let's say the krill convert phytoplankton to more krill at a 67% efficiency.  That is, for every three pounds of phytoplankton consumed, two pounds of krill are made and maintained.  Still pretty good, but then up one more level to the schooling fish dining on the krill, and let's say our conversion efficiency drops to 50%.  That is, for every two pounds of krill consumed we get one pound of the small fish.  Keep in mind that the krill already lost 33% of the original energy represented by the phytoplankton via their metabolic processes, and now the small fish have lost 50% of that already-reduced amount.  Now we come to the tuna.  They bust up the schooling fish violently, spending a fair amount of the energy they acquired from their last meal in the process, chasing down the little fish, and maintaining a warm body in the process.  Yes, tuna are practically warm-blooded, and that carries a considerable metabolic cost of its own.  Let's assume the tuna convert the schooling fish to more tuna at a 33% efficiency.  That is, in order to make and maintain a pound of tuna, three pounds of the small fish must be consumed.  Now remember that the small fish had already used up 50% of the energy represented in the krill they ate to make and maintain themselves, and that those krill had already used up 33% of the energy represented in the phytoplankton to make and maintain themselves.

This is getting fairly pricey in terms of system energy.  A little quick math shows that we're already down to only about 11% of the original energy represented in the phytoplankton remaining in the tuna stocks.  I.E. in just three consumer stages 89% of our original energy base has been lost to metabolic maintenance of the food chain, and it gets a lot worse every time we go up a level.  For the purposes of our healthcare discussion, let's assume that this is analogous to the U.S. healthcare food chain prior to the enactment of Obamacare: fraught with the inefficiencies inherent to and unavoidable in a multi-level food chain, but more or less sustainable within the current resource environment.  And now let's add another top predator to the food chain above the tuna.  Let's say the small school of tuna just got hammered by a pair of mammoth blue marlin, and that these marlin convert tuna to more marlin at a 25% efficiency.  That is, every pound of marlin requires 4 pounds of tuna to make and maintain it, which reduces our system output from 11% to less than 3% .  This is in essence what centralized management of our healthcare system introduces to its own food chain.  Increasing metabolic loss is inherent in all food chains as you move up the pyramid, and fewer and fewer individuals on any given level can be supported by the levels below. 

Which would all be fine if we were living in a system with an increasing energy base!  That, however, is not our reality.  And it requires a gargantuan suspension of disbelief to protest that fact.  For all practical purposes, we've been living on piles of free energy - provided by half a billion years of ancient sunlight and the incomprehensible power of geologic processes - to make and maintain the extremely long and energetic global food chains that bring us Chilean asparagus in November, and increase our population exponentially.  A finite planet with finite resources and a growing population simply doesn't lend itself to lengthening food chains that require significant increases in embodied energy to create and maintain.  Quite the opposite actually.  There's no need to dissect and analyze the minutiae of the Obamacare plan's ins and outs.  Like incorporating 22 federal agencies under the banner of the Department of Homeland Security in late 2002, Obamacare simply adds another even-higher-energy level of organization, complete with its increasing and unavoidable metabolic losses of operation, to an already overstretched healthcare food chain.  It can't happen; not that it shouldn't happen, it just can't.  From a systems perspective, the only way to make this work is to either shred a whole bunch of other federal agencies (or the federal government itself) in the process, or to magically strike it rich again in the energy lottery.  A quick and honest look at EROEIs across our potential energy resource spectrum is all it takes to send the latter packing.  The former is inevitable in time, but I doubt there are many people drawing a paycheck from the agencies in question who will be amenable to the idea.  Especially when all they're getting out of the deal is more expensive healthcare.  There simply isn't enough free energy in the system to support another trophic level riding atop the healthcare pyramid.

No, the landscape before us is a bit more terrainy than that.  A future largely organized around steadily decreasing access to energy, and increasing price volatility, will be one where resilience becomes more strongly emphasized than efficiency.  The perceived efficiencies of large centralized organization will slowly give way to local, dispersed resilience strategies with local management.  Like an airplane pilot who refuses to remove the redundant spark plugs from his plane's engine in order to reduce weight and save fuel, it just won't seem like a good idea anymore.  As John Michael Greer is quick point out, we over-build bridges for very good reasons.  Producing a growing share of our food in our own back yards, less commuting to work, more farmers markets and fewer supermarkets, more bicycles and fewer cars, more garage workshops, more garden medicine, more village breweries, these are the things that inevitably happen as food chains lose their energy support.  And they foster a resilience over efficiency paradigm.  Once "organic" became standardized it became exploitable within the current high-energy long-range food chain.  Organic sells, and it sells big these days, but where organic once meant buying veggies from your neighbor at the farm stand, it now means looking for the little green and white USDA Organic stamp.  An expensive stamp, a stamp which, more than anything else, means another trophic level piled up on top of the already teetering long-range food supply chain, with its inherent and unavoidabe metabolic losses.  Like DHS and Obamacare, that's not where we need to be looking for our answers.  It's part of an imperial system based on cheap abundant energy that becomes less a part of our reality by the day.

By contrast, when you buy local you are consciously choosing to cut out the middle man, maybe radically cutting out the middle man, shortening the food chain involved by choice, reducing or eliminating level after level of system metabolic loss and expense, which ultimately creates a healthier, less expensive, more resilient overall system.  We've seen how simply cutting the top level off the food chain can have a monumental impact on the whole system's embodied energy.  3% > 11% > 33.5% > 67% > 100%, as you cut each top trophic level off of our example food chain.  Properly considered, an "organic" but long-range supply chain can have a far more deleterious impact on system fitness than a short, not-quite-organic direct sale from the producer.  If we can get it local AND organic, that's a win-win for sure, but if faced with a local OR organic decision, don't be too quick to jump on the organic bandwagon...

In this light, "local" is actually more organic than "organic" that traveled a long way to involve itself in your decision making process.  Organic means "of, related to, or derived from living matter."  If the food chain in which you choose to participate is local, or is shorter than the next option, that means it uses less energy top to bottom, and it will have less impact on the whole living biosphere.  It therefore promotes living matter, promotes life.  And honestly, I don't think it gets any more organic than that.

Just my .02
Tripp out.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Rabbit-Powered Lawn

Thought I'd throw something different out there this time for the making-a-lawn-useful department.

We've converted well over an acre of lawn adjacent to whatever house we were living in - both front and back yards - into productive gardens over the last half decade, and hopefully nudged a few others out along that (garden) path as well.  And I can't praise such transitions highly enough!  But if anything, permaculture is a flexible bedfellow, and this situation begged for something else.

Meet my lawn crew.  The small cage in the front is the rabbit finishing tractor and has 6 nice fat little 5 week old rabbit kits, freshly weaned, doing their lawn maintenance doody in it.   The two-legged chap with the old-fashioned reel mower is yours truly - bare feet, pleasantly quiet, no smelly gasoline exhaust, and a nice bit of exercise just for good measure.

Both tractors get moved to a new patch of greens once a day.  The larger tractor contains a standard breeding trio of New Zealand meat rabbits - one buck and two does.  Each compartment has a half gallon lick bottle and heavy-duty rubber food dish, making daily maintenance low key.  We can actually leave them completely unattended for at least 3 days; just be absolutely certain that the water bottles are nice and secure.  Both tractors have a floor of poly-coated chicken wire to keep the inhabitants from digging out, and a 5-gallon-bucket-cum-rabbit-hole bolted to the dividing walls in each cell for comfort.  The big tractor here does require some effort to move, so be smarter than I am, and make your version lighter!

New Zealand rabbits come in black, white, red, and "broken" versions, that is, red and white or black and white, like the sweet little doe we got from the Mennonites on Labor Day in the far right slot.

Any breeding stock selection we do from our babies will keep the standard breed colors in mind.  I'm afraid it's freezer camp for the grays and tans.  After a few generations of selection and more attentive importation of fresh genetic stock, we should be able to pedigree, if that's a route we choose to take.  So the albino, the solid black, and the black and white broken may have a future 'round here.  Ella will be glad to hear that; she's pretty enamored with the albino for some reason.  I don't usually like the children playing with their food, but they've done a lot of it this round for some reason.

The lawn is pretty good quality I think for rabbit forage - nitrogen-fixing clovers and medics boosting grass growth, and providing extra protein variety for the maturing kits and lactating does.  I tend to think that animals raised this way turn out healthier and more immuno-competent than animals that are confined and fed a "perfectly engineered" diet.  We should always learn from our weeds, too, and the presence of these nitrogen fixers suggests that we are dealing with soil that is probably compacted and maybe not terribly fertile.  Rabbit pills always help with that.

We've had a couple of soaking rains since the old tractors got moving in the front yard of the new farmhouse.  The area between the tractors and the car is where they've been, heading right to left in this view.  You can almost see the improvement in the lawn already.  Rabbit pills aren't "hot" like chicken manure, so they tend to improve their environment without a delay.  Of course any input of sufficient quantity can be damaging, organic or otherwise, so keep those tractors moving!

When done right, the ecological benefits of raising rabbits on the lawn should be obvious, but the economics of the arrangement are promising, too.  A healthy breeding trio of meat breed rabbits like these can produce 1-2 rabbits for consumption per week, averaged out, without even pushing the does very hard.  A dressed young rabbit weighs about 3 pounds in 8-12 weeks, and costs between 50 cents and $3 per pound to raise, depending on the rabbit's genetics and what you're feeding - lower if you're foraging for them and feeding a little hay, in the middle with a mixed strategy like this, higher on straight pellet off the ground.  At retail prices rabbit runs 6-7 dollars a pound, so immediately you've saved at least half your meat money, even if you go the expensive/lazy way.  And, even on a smallish lawn like mine, our rabbit production could easily be doubled, and maybe tripled, for a little extra income.

Rabbit is one of the least expensive meats you can produce(*), with excellent feed conversion efficiencies, loads of soil benefits that initiate a positive feedback loop for your production system, and low start-up cost.  The small tractor in the last photo (above) was built completely from scrap wood and metal, with only a little chicken wire and a couple of hinges to purchase (unless you have those laying around, too, like I did).  What's more, if you were to lose the ability to buy rabbit pellet (for whatever reason), they can be fed weeds from the garden and leaves from the forest pretty effectively, though they may take a bit longer to reach market weight that way.  But then, if you get to that point any meat will be a real treat, and chicken would be tough to raise without imported feed...or tough to eat by the time you get them there without it!

Rabbit is delicious, tender, low-maintenance, high-protein, low-fat (not necessarily a bonus to me, but...) meat that could easily replace a lot of our higher-energy chicken consumption.  Where feathers become a smelly disposal nightmare sometimes, rabbit pelts can create an additional income stream or useful material resource for making mittens, jackets, hats, slippers, bags, etc.  AND, they are wicked easier to clean than chickens.

Here's a rabbit recipe I really enjoy:

~Stuff the cavity of a whole rabbit with a little fresh marjoram, summer savory, and/or thyme.

~Rub the outside of the rabbit down with olive oil, lard, or melted butter.

~Salt, pepper, and garlic to taste.

~Wrap a couple strips of bacon around the rabbit to close it up and add some more fat, and pin the bacon in place with a toothpick or two.  Use good fatty bacon!  Life's too short for cheap bacon.

~Braise both sides in a hot cast-iron skillet, and then stick the skillet in a 375 degree oven for half an hour or so.  A little liquid in the pan - butter, bacon squeezins, apple juice - keeps the meat quite tender.

~Set the rabbit on a plate to rest and return the remaining liquid to the stovetop.  Add a cup of decent red wine to the rabbit juices et al, and reduce over medium heat until it reaches a good light gravy consistency, then drizzle it over the rabbit (quartered) and serve.

~Absolutely enjoy the hell out of it with good friends and a homebrewed beverage of your choice.  (I'm partial to hard apple cider as a compliment for rabbit, but of course the rest of that red wine you shared with the gravy would be great, too...)

I imagine this recipe would be good for squirrel, guinea pig, ground hog, or whatever else you might have handy, too!

(*) I would say that wild meats are cheaper except that I've seen the real cost of hunting too many times to feel confident about that statement!  Since Sandy Hook, ammunition alone has tripled in price.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Back From Bivouac

Two young fellas are upstairs laying the new flooring, the last critical task remaining before we move in.  I'd be laying it myself except that the farm owners insisted on third-party culpability in case anything went wrong.  The farm owners, by the way, are new friends of ours.  I met them in the parking lot of the Rich Mountain - Cartacay Tract trailhead outside Ellijay, GA, just before I co-led 22 paying customers on a morel hunt in April.  They just happened to stop by, for the first time, and they caught me peeing in the bushes...

After the zippering and blushing formalities, the conversation turned quickly to wilderness survival, life in our tent, and of course, mushrooms.

"Do you think you could survive out there?" he asked me, waving at the forest.

"I think I could avoid starvation," was my hesitant reply.

Later, when he saw my garden, fairly modest in scale but lush with garlic, raspberries, greens, and herbs, he said, "so you're one of those guys that can cut a hole in the woods and feed his family?"  Highly complementary considering I didn't think I had much of a garden going at that point.  I hope I'm that guy, but better yet would be the ability to feed my family without cutting a hole in the woods at all.  I'm nowhere near being that guy.  But I'm curious about him.

And so it was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that we entered negotiations with these new friends about living in their farmhouse and developing a farm for them.  We learned enough from the last co-farming/-housing experiment in south Georgia to know that this time the deal needed to be clear, concise, and official.  Hi ho.  So we set about the task of describing and assigning responsibility for activity on the farm today and tomorrow.  Considering that both parties in the matter are "preppers" (as they are generally referred to here) to one degree or another - both contemplating issues like currency collapse (which wouldn't take much honestly), declining energy resources, corrupt government in cahoots with unethical corporations, unstable weather, crop failures, water supply redundancy, etc - it was one of the more complex contract processes I've been a part of.

First was the matter of intellectual property.  I've been studying permaculture, agroforestry, mob grazing, natural building, appropriate tech, and so forth for years, after being an ecologist, and these guys were credit brokers and tactical defense enthusiasts.  Very sharp people, very driven people, very wealthy people, but very different from us.  And since it was them wanting to do all these things that I know about on their farm, and us looking for a better piece of land on which to do those things, there was a lot to define.

We're still keeping and developing our land in the direction of a cob cottage in a food forest, just for the record.  The old homestead is only 3.7 miles farther out of town than the farm, as the car drives, closer if you cut through the woods at the base of our property, so it's an easy and pleasant mountain bike ride around the eastern base of Talona Mountain.  Lots of mushrooms to check on, and great plans for the next few years, developing our southeast facing slope with dessert and cider apples, apricots, cherries, figs, peaches, plums, pecans, chestnuts, blueberries, tea, copious amounts of mushrooms, and whatever else comes along for the ride.  Plenty of herbs you can be sure.

We have no idea what shape the future will take for us, where we'll be living in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, but I can say that the tentative plan is to stay here at the farm for a while, maybe till the kids finish school, make this place hum, make a little money, and beef up our own holdings along the way.  So to speak.  We would really love to pick up the 2.5 acres below our land, build a driveway in from there to a lovely cob cottage, on contour of course, around our little dell, and move our mailbox down to the paved road.  Maybe give that privately-"maintained" gravel road along the ridgeline above our land, and the world-class jagoff that lives across the "street," a miss.

But there's a certain attraction to being this much closer to town, right on the main road that takes hundreds (thousands?) of customers out to a popular grass-based farm several miles farther south of town.  People come all the way from Atlanta to buy meat there.  And they don't sell chicken or turkey, which is what we are planning on raising, nor do they mob-graze their beef.  We are definitely planning on doing that; pastured chicken, turkey, eggs, beef, rabbit, berries, figs, nuts, mushrooms, and if all goes well, hard cider down the road.

There's 87 acres here, with a smallish creek running south to north near the front of the farm, gaining a little strength from two spring runs, one from the east under the main road and just south of the farmhouse, and one from the west that originates on the farm way back in the woods.  Both seem to be very high quality.  Around these 3 creek runs, there is 15-20 acres of pasture among 5 distinct plots.  They haven't been maintained for a few years, but the one directly behind the house, across the main creek, has been bush-hogged and has become grass-dominant again in less than a month.  I am extremely excited about the possibilities these pastures and this water hold.

And not just in terms of fertility.  We learned a lot of valuable energy lessons over the past 5 years, and the last 16 months in the tent in particular.  While I now think that electricity is the way to go for lighting, fans, and refrigeration, none of these are the main domestic energy drains, and could very likely run on a decent micro-hydro setup.  Of the four big users, we asked the farm owners to just skip the HVAC system (we'll be heating with wood still), immediately started hanging laundry out to dry again (instead of going to the laundry mat - we had no sun in the woods) like we hadn't missed a beat, and plan to build a passive solar batch water heater from remodeling leftovers and feed it into the house supply, and a solar oven on the upstairs deck rail and cob oven down below somewhere.  So I could see being practically off-grid again within the year, but in a much more comfortable situation.

And speaking of comfortable, boy was that first hot pressurized shower nice after 16 months of bivouac!  And the rest of the running water, too, in 4 different sinks, plus the dish and clothes washers.  And the fridge!  And the internet connection.  Our internet activity during our tent stay usually cost us lunch out, or coffee and a muffin, or a cocktail or two, or at least a visit to the library on the other side of town.  I'm guessing having internet service at home is cheaper all around.  And for some reason I could never remember what it was I wanted to look up when I finally got a connection away from home.  Although the margaritas were usually worth the effort...

My urban farmer/forager friend Chris thinks pockets, and containers in general, were one of humanity's greatest inventions, and I have to agree.  Containers made from big leaves, vines, canes, rushes, clay, cloth, metal, wood, plastic, whatever, had an enormous impact on the way we humans do business.  But fans!  God I love fans.  And chainsaws.  And refrigerators.  And (modest) electric lighting.  [Just because you use CFLs doesn't mean you need to use them all at once!  Mr. Jeavon's Paradox...]  Those four technologies are likely the best ways to use fossil fuel ever.  And if we could govern our energy use to those four, peak oil would become a non-issue.  It's all the other stuff we pile on the back of cheap easy energy that gets us (and unfortunately everyone else on Earth) in trouble.  Fifty-gallon hot water heaters, indoor ovens, air conditioning, clothes dryers, computers, internet (guilty obviously), and the mother-of-all, the happy motoring culture.  No greater abuse of Nature's gifts was ever devised than the personal automobile and its related infrastructure.  And the sad part is, we don't really need it, we just can't get out of it.  We designed our American habitat the way we did intentionally, in order to spread our population out in an effort to avoid being concentrated targets for the Rooskies, or zee Germans, or the A-rabs, or whoever the enemy du jour might be.  Paranoia is expensive, and it might just be our undoing.  Europeans never adopted such short-sighted strategies, and they use 1/3 of the energy per capita that we do (and arguably have a higher standard of living...)

Again, peak oil concerns tend to fizzle out when those sorts of adjustments are made.  Conservation is a real solution, very much unlike ethanol, electric cars, shale oil, or fracking.  Those are rope-a-dope answers to our predicament, sleight-of-hand maneuvering, not strategies, and they all demonstrate a profound lack of systems thinking.  We don't have a problem that needs fixing, we have a predicament that requires paradigm shifting.  Biological and behavioral, not technological, solutions are the order of our time.

Those are the solutions we pursue in permaculture, and what we're doing here on this new farm.  With shifts in land management tactics we will turn derelict pastures into a deep, rich, productive topsoil base that sequesters more carbon from the atmosphere, where it is too dense, into the ground, where it's not dense enough, and produce top-shelf meat in the process.  This is what Nature prefers, and mob-stocking strategies are useful for speeding the process up.  I heard permaculture referred to as "aikido farming" the other day, and I love that term!  Because it's spot on.  We steer Nature's normal momentum, her successional energies and incredible fecundity, to toss that succession forward into a highly productive forested food production system.  Or in the case of this farm, a robust and mature prairie ecosystem maintained by regular mob grazing, surrounded by the prior.  I've been wanting to do this for years.

But there was one other reason we decided to jump ship, er, tent.  2013 has been the wettest year on record in north Georgia, and it has wreaked havoc on our little canvas house.  The mildew is closing in, nearly as black now as it is white, and the canvas is ripping in a few unfortunate areas, making the situation worse.  Everything inside the tent was molding - books, shoes, clothes, furniture - and it has been so wet that even the mice seemed desperate to move inside with us.  The endless rain has checked our business profits to some degree, too, since we mostly work in outdoor markets, and we can't afford another tent to stretch over the framework, and couldn't even string enough sunny days together to try to treat the mildew issue and patch up the old one.  Something had to give. 

It was an amazing experience, one I'll never forget, and I think it changed me for the better, but I'm also glad it's over, glad to be under a hard roof again, glad I can take a hot shower inside, and glad to have the opportunity to participate with this grass-based aspect of permaculture.  And very glad to have some financial backing from nice folks who believe in what we do.

The campstead will be available soon at a modest rent if anyone is interested in a little vacation from civilization, or for someone to live in if they want to help with our projects.  I'd be glad to work out a tenure agreement for someone interested in living onsite and converting the tent to a hard-roofed structure and/or building a little cob cottage on our property.  Just drop me a line here or via email.  My address is trippticket(at)gmail(dot)com.

Cheers, permies et al. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Reply To Steve Carrow About My "Experience"

Did I miss something? Before you turn back to rational permaculture topics, are you going to share what the brush with the world beyond the [veil] was? -Steve Carrow

[This started out as a reply in the comments section of the previous post but, as you can see, quickly became its own post.]

Hey, Steve.  I guess different people have all sorts of different triggers for experiences like mine, but it's the results of that experience that seem to validate it more than the actual trigger - what a born-again might refer to as the "fruit."  I suppose that's why I spent all my time talking about how it changed me instead of talking about what actually happened. 

It's kind of mundane really.  I was watching a YouTube interview with permaculture co-originator (his own terms) David Holmgren, talking about his new book "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability" when it hit me.  David was talking about how aggressive pioneer "weeds" will capture and occupy a disturbed site, forming a monoculture or restricted oligoculture, and remain until the site's energy resources begin to decline.  At that point the stranglehold of the dominant population becomes maladaptive, and increasing biodiversity and cooperative relationships begin to emerge in an effort to more effectively utilize a declining energy base.

The parallels between that weedlot community David was talking about and human cultures on Earth hit me across the head like a 2x4.  All of a sudden I recognized the gravity of global energy peak and what it would mean for our species.  I saw colonial Eurasian farming culture (us) for the aggressive, (to borrow ecological jargon) r-selected, pioneer monoculture that it is, and energy descent as the very beginning of our people's return to a more normal, more reverent, mixed-strategy existence.  And probably the emergence of a new, far more spiritual, far less material, ecological culture.

[To define the disturbance that lead to the aggressive mental monoculture currently in existence, I would place the initial disturbance on the doorstep of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago, and a much greater disturbance on the shoulders of the fossil fuel era, which encompasses roughly the last 300 years.  Eurasian farming culture simply multiplied its initial agricultural disturbance when it figured out how to harness the awesome power embodied in fossil fuels.]

But suddenly my anger toward our exploitative, extractive (and ultimately suicidal) economic mode subsided, not because I was suddenly OK with it, but because I knew it wasn't going to last forever.  Couldn't last forever.  I knew that our Earth would begin to recover now, and that humans, being part of the Earth, would too.  That's the real silver lining of energy descent!

[Like every other liberal "progressive" I formerly believed in fantasies like "free energy," "weightless economies," and a soon-to-be-generally-affluent-if-we-could-just-get-those-other-idiots-out-of-the-way global culture, but the systems thinker in me subconsciously knew that that wasn't going to turn out well.  It caused me a lot of anguish.  The recognition of peak oil and subsequent energy descent as an inevitability was really a huge sigh of relief...]  

Being an ecologist I had a decent mental grasp of how very differently populations tend to behave in a contracting energy scenario than they do in an expansionary one, and realized suddenly that the behavior of the average Westerner was eventually going to be altered, and probably altered radically, in favor of a more permanent, (to continue the ecology lingo) K-selected culture.  A permanent culture.  Permaculture.

Oil being what it is to us, the industrial world that is, and the U.S. particularly, peak oil meant that humankind's expansionary phase was coming to a close.  It meant that our inertia toward one world order (controlled by us, the aggressive monoculture) was about to make a U-turn.  In other words, peak oil equaled peak exploitation, of the Earth, of other people, and of ourselves.  And that understanding changed me deeply.  I consider my experience to be a full-on mental paradigm shift.  Whether it constitutes a brush with the "sacred" is certainly debatable, but I've never experienced anything like it, nor heard more than a handful of stories that could compare.  Among Westerners in particular they seem vanishingly rare.

Everything I started predicting 5 years ago, based on this new revelation, is coming true.  I predicted that food would get perpetually more expensive as average real wages continued to decline in tandem, and it has, as they have.  I predicted that more and more affluent industrial people would be gardening and keeping small livestock every year from now on, and they have done both, with gusto.  I predicted that specialization would begin to decline and that the return of the generalist was at hand, that herbal medicine would start to regain its former prominence as the desirability and efficacy of allopathic chemical medicine came increasingly into question.  On and on.  All of which is the case today.  Just look at how much energy the dominant culture is investing in maintaining the status quo!  Since then I've read lots of similar opinions and of course tend to gravitate toward them - the writings of John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, Masanobu Fukuoka, Toby Hemenway, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison of course, cyclical historians Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, Colin Campbell, Ianto Evans, etc.

And now Stephen Harrod Buhner's writing on indigenous herbalism is altering my perception profoundly once again.  Maybe we'll have this talk again one day!  I hope that answers your question well enough because a lot of this is fairly hard to articulate, but thanks for that little stroll down good memory lane...cheers.

And now, back to permaculture...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hunting For the Big Antenna

Wow, if my world isn't moving these days.

Maybe it's the never-ending rain, keeping me in the books, keeping me in my head.  Or maybe it's the fact that I haven't been distracted by the "connectivity" of the modern world as much lately.  Apparently it's been two weeks since I even checked my email.  (Sorry, Josh.)

Recently I decided it was time to be a hard-core student once again, so I hung up a couple of distracting habits and decided to learn more about indigenous plant medicine.  The book I turned to had been on the shelf of Mrs. Small Batch Garden for four years since I bought it for her as a birthday present when we were still in Washington.  The title had always been a bit off-putting to my rational Western brain (though intriguing enough to buy obviously!), but, after hearing a few people I really trust and respect speaking highly of the author, I finally decided to dive into Stephen Harrod Buhner's Sacred Plant Medicine

The first chapter blew my mind. 

Like every other intellectual rationalist in the industrial world I had always considered indigenous myth and tradition to be quaint, superstitious, and generally useless to serious and sober people.  I don't think that anymore, although, even in my unusually receptive state, it took some time for me to really wrap my head around the information gathering process he was explaining. 

Buhner leads the book off by pointing out that certain organs in our bodies generate electromagnetic (EM) fields, and that these fields can be detected by sensitive instruments out to about 12 feet away but are strongest within 12-18 inches of the body generating it.  Ever had anyone get inside your "personal space bubble" that wasn't welcome?  Yeah, that's the field I'm talking about.  But the real revelation in this new knowledge was that the field generated by the heart is actually 5000 times stronger than the one generated by the brain.  5000 times stronger.  In other words, our heart is our big antenna, not our brain.

Ask any Westerner where his consciousness lies and he will point to his head, generally right around the temple.  But ask the same question of a man from any indigenous medicine culture and he will very resolutely put his hand on his heart.  And therein lies the mountain of difference between the two.

Because really, even from a rational perspective, what is it that we use to communicate with one another, to exchange information?  One range of electromagnetic wavelengths or another, in fact.  Radio waves, microwaves, ultraviolet, visible light, and so on.  And apparently we've been selling ourselves awfully short in the quest for rationality!  No wonder Mother Theresa quietly commented, when receiving her Nobel Peace Prize, that "it is not we who are poor, but you."  Never mind using only 10% of your brain; how impoverished are the people who only utilize 1/5000th of their faculty to communicate with the world around them?  No wonder we feel so alone.

Could ignorance of that magnitude keep us from any real understanding of the other living organisms that share this planet with us?  I can't imagine it not doing so.  To only command 1/5000th of your capacity to do something is like not having any capacity at all.  I think this may be an area where "born agains" have some advantage over atheistic rationalists: they've likely acquired an ability to communicate, to send and receive information, with at least some of their heart capacity and not just the brain field.  Strong heart-felt emotions seem to be much more normal for believers than they are for scientific rationalists, and a major reason for breakdowns in communication between the two worldviews.  But don't misunderstand me.  I'm not lending any particular credence to their specific doctrines, merely suggesting an explanation for the powerful feelings that are apparently invoked by their "salvation" experience.

So why God?  Why salvation and eternal life when similar experiences lead indigenous people to such different places?  Buhner suggests that this might be due to the fact that we respond to our brushes with the "sacred" (or what my Irish ancestors called the world "beyond the veil") by fitting the experience into the narratives we know best.  For folks weaned on the Bible this is how they explain these experiences and the radically re-energized direction in which their lives head as a result.  You can't deny the deep fervor of a young pastor in the pulpit no matter what your beliefs.

Indigenous people have these same experiences with the world beyond the veil all the time.  Matter of fact a large portion of their day-to-day activity focuses on having them.  And the report from all these unconnected people scattered across the planet comes back surprisingly similar.  For example, indigenous people everywhere believe that non-human life forms have voices of their own, and that we can learn to communicate directly with them if we spend enough time learning their ways.  In every medicine culture that has access to cedar trees the cedar is considered to be not only an agent of benevolent plant medicine, but also a protector of people from evil forces.

My Western understanding (all 1/5000th of it) immediately jumped to "well, cedar is a very common thing to use to protect our possessions from pest damage, things like old special quilts in cedar chests protected from hungry moth larvae, so of course it makes sense that their brains would project this sort of supernatural power upon it."  My wife was quick to point out that, if she wasn't mistaken, their brains weren't even involved.  Wrapping my rationalist head around this sort of knowledge is always going to be tough.  And now I know why.  There isn't much of it to go around.

If you could convince a born-again that he could feel the power of his salvation experience repeatedly through disciplined exploration of his big antenna, the comparatively giant heart field that he's learned to tap into, would there be a single one who wouldn't engage in just such an activity?  I doubt it.  I haven't personally had a "salvation" experience, but in January 2009 I had a brush with that world beyond the veil, and it changed me deeply, and permanently. 

Among other inheritances, the driving forces behind my daily activity moved quickly from the material toward the spiritual aspects of life.  I lost my interest in sports, in drinking and smoking (though I backslid for a while due to a lack of direction), and stopped believing that either Democrats or Republicans had anything meaningful to offer the world.  I went from rational atheistic ecologist to ethical permaculturalist with a deep sense of belonging almost overnight.  My liberal guilt disappeared.  These days I can't get enough of the soil, or the plants, fungi, and other macro- and microorganisms that make it what it is.  I often walk to my various gardens multiple times a day just to spend time with the plants, animals, and mushrooms that live there.  I acquired an unshakable desire to be home and to grow roots where I stood, though I couldn't settle for just anywhere.  Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time probably knows more of that story than they ever wanted to.

I could suddenly feel and communicate with my surroundings, even if it was only subconsciously.  I, at first instinctively and later consciously, knew that life after industrial abundance would be difficult in a place like Spokane, Washington, due to the length of the cold hard winter and lack of rain in that dry semi-arid steppe.  Not that Spokane doesn't have plenty to offer today!  If you live there enjoy it for me, please.  Mentally I love Spokane, and I found my mate there.  Likewise, I knew that our situation in Macon, Georgia, wasn't a long-term solution.  We didn't have much land, the house was not designed well for life without energy-hogging A/C, and we were the only white folks for half a mile.  There were going to be deep cultural issues to deal with, and potentially a lot of anger erupting as the federal government and its multicultural initiatives disintegrated over the coming decades.  In Tifton, Georgia, where I was born, and where we moved after Macon, we found tons of wonderful family and friend support, but also the opposite problem of Spokane: long, hot, gnat- and fire ant-ridden, sultry summers that are mighty testy without air conditioning.  And something wasn't right about the terrain either.  We were looking for home and we didn't feel it there.

But we're home now.  We settled where we used to vacation, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of north Georgia, right along the piedmont/montaine ecotone, where life without modern amenities would be pleasant enough, where apples and blueberries thrive in the schist-derived soils, and where the hills are swarming with some of the greatest plant diversity on Earth, just waiting for the return of humans who are interested in talking with them.

Now that I know where my voice is, I think you can count me in...

Photo at top of post courtesy of Amir Peeri.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Case for Microbial Coexistence

This is the follow-up post to our quick look at the benefits of fermentation as presented by self-proclaimed "fermentation fetishist" Sandor Katz in his book Wild Fermentation.  To my mind this is the more important of the two arguments.  I would, however, recommend reading the previous post, as a primer, before reading this one, although it's certainly not necessary...

Our culture is terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene.  The more we glean about disease-causing viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms, the more we fear exposure to all forms of microscopic life.  Every new sensationalized killer microbe  gives us more reason to defend ourselves with vigilance.  Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the sudden appearance, everywhere in the United States, of antibacterial soap.  Twenty years ago, mass marketing of antibacterial soap was but a glimmer in some pharmaceutical executive's eye.  It has quickly become the standard hand-washing hygiene product.  Are fewer people getting sick as a result?  "There's no evidence that they do any good and there's reason to suspect that they could contribute to a problem by helping to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria," says Dr. Myron Genel, chair of the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs.  Antibacterial soap is just another exploitative and potentially dangerous product being sold by preying on people's fears.

The antibacterial compounds in these soaps, most commonly triclosan, kill the more susceptible bacteria but not the heartier ones.  "These resistant microbes may include bacteria...that were unable to gain a foothold previously and are now able to thrive thanks to the destruction of competing microbes," says Dr. Stuart Levy, director of the Tufts University Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance.  Your skin, your orifices, and the surfaces of your home are all covered with microorganisms that help protect you (and themselves) from potentially harmful organisms that you both encounter.  Constantly assaulting the bacteria on, in, and around you with antibacterial compounds weakens one line of defense your body uses against disease organisms.

Microorganisms not only protect us by competing with potentially dangerous organisms, they teach the immune system how to function.  "The immune system organizes itself through experience, just like the brain," says Dr. Irun R. Cohen of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.  A growing number of researchers are finding evidence to support what is known as "the hygiene hypothesis," which attributes the dramatic rise in prevalence of asthma and other allergies to lack of exposure to diverse microorganisms found in soil and untreated water.  "The cleaner we live...the more likely we'll get asthma and allergies," states Dr. David Rosenstreich, director of Allergy and Immunology at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York.

Paranoia about germs has been magnified by the recent anthrax terror and fears of biological warfare.  According to the December 2001 newsletter of Household and Personal Products on the Internet, "A widespread fear of disease - specifically anthrax bacteria - has caused consumers to take a more serious look at cleansing...Antibacterial cleansers are expected to spike in sales."

Well-informed hygiene is very important, but it is impossible to avoid exposure to microbes.  They are everywhere.  A 1970s made-for-TV movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble dramatized the tragic saga of a young man born with an immune disorder who could only survive in a germ-free environment.  The boy, portrayed by John Travolta en route to superstardom, lived in a hermetically sealed, sterilized room and could only interact with other people through protective barriers.  He periodically ventured out of his room in a spacesuit-like outfit.  He grew so lonely and sad in his sterile cage that he chose to leave it and live normally for the brief time before the inevitable pathogenic organism killed him.  This is a pop culture parable of the impossibility and undesirability of sequestering oneself from the biological risks of being alive.

Much of Western chemical medicine aims to eradicate pathogenic organisms.  In the case of my (Sandor's!) AIDS drugs, the treatment strategy is called "highly active anti-retroviral therapy."  Having benefitted from the miracles of high-tech pharmaceuticals, I'm in no position to argue against the value of this approach.  I firmly believe, however, that microbial warfare is not a sustainable practice.  "Bacteria are not germs but the germinators - and fabric - of all life on Earth," writes Stephen Harrod Buhner in The Lost Language of Plants.  "In declaring war on them we declared war on the underlying living structure of the planet - on all life-forms we can see - on ourselves."

Health and homeostasis require that humans coexist with microorganisms.  Bacteria-counting scientists (which this blog's author used to be!) have quantified this simple fact, estimating that each person's body is host to a bacterial population in excess of 100 trillion, and noting that "the interactions of these colonizing microbes with the host are nothing if not complex."  Humans and all other forms of life evolved from and with these organisms, and we cannot live without them.  "Nature appears to maximize mutual cooperation and mutual coordination of goals," wrote ethnobotanist Terence McKenna.  "To be indispensable to the organisms with which one shares an environment - that is the strategy that ensures successful breeding and continued survival."

The study of symbiogenesis views evolutionary innovation as a consequence of symbiosis, tracing the source of all life to prokaryotes, which are cells distinguished by the absence of nuclear membranes.  Bacteria are prokaryotes.  Their genetic material is free-floating in the cell.  "Genes from the fluid medium, from other bacteria, from viruses, or from elsewhere enter bacterial cells on their own," write biologists Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz.  By incorporating DNA from their environment into themselves, prokaryotes assimilate genetic traits.  They evolved first into eukaryotes (cells with nuclear membranes) and eventually into complex organisms such as ourselves.  But they never left their progeny.  They are with us always.

"Prokaryotes are the master engineers of our complexity," explains my excited scientist friend Joel Kimmons, recent recipient of a PhD in nutrition from the University of California.  Inside our bodies, most dramatically in the gut, prokaryotes absorb genetic information that informs our function as organisms; they are an integral part of our sentient experience.  "We eat and thus we know," says Joel.  Humans are in mutually beneficial and mutually dependent relationships with these and many different microbes.  We are symbiotic, inextricably woven together, in a complex pattern far beyond our capacity to comprehend completely.

And far beyond our ability to manage with any approach outside of cooperation and participatory immunity.

"In declaring war on them we declared war on the underlying living structure of the planet - on all life-forms we can see - on ourselves." 

So many people think I'm a tree-hugger.  I just want to live, man!  We live at the pleasure of those trees, and bacteria, and fungi, and all the myriad living biodiversity around us, both seen and unseen.  People who don't hug trees don't understand what a tree does: don't understand that the rain depends on trees, don't understand the climate moderation trees make possible, both macro and micro; how the water cycle itself depends on robust forests; how our annual crops depend on the trees we cut down to make way for them.  [Tree crops suddenly seem to make a lot more sense, don't they!]  They don't understand what they see right in front of them, much less the countless activities going on in the shade, in the nooks and crannies of the tree's body, and underground, coordinated and orchestrated by that tree.  And if they do understand all that and still don't hug trees, at least metaphorically, then they probably assign the tree's magnificence to someone or something else, robbing the tree of its dignity and proper place in the whole scheme of things.

Treated in this way often enough it's easy to understand why species are going extinct around us at such an alarming rate, and how that loss of biodiversity might not matter within that worldview.  I.E. Disrespect for other life forms is built in to all monotheistic religions, so those approaches should be viewed as suicidal tendencies in the long run.  Unrecognized though they may be.  If the species is just reflective of the brilliance of its designer then the species is dispensable, where the designer is not.  Just once I wish we could run this train of thought to its inevitable destination, (with a return fare of course), so that the people who believe that they are bigger than Nature could get a taste of the crow they are serving up for themselves...you know, if there are any crows around still to eat...

"To be indispensable to the organisms with which one shares an environment - that is the strategy that ensures successful breeding and continued survival." 

Energy descent has thrown the industrial world into a tailspin - if you're not constantly imbibing the smooth and pleasant draught that the powers-that-be are serving up you might have noticed - and on the internet you can find thousands of varying opinions about how to "prep" for the inevitabilities of our new future: anything from end times doomsteads, heavily-armed bunkers, turnip bandits, and Mad Max scenarios, to prayer, theocracy, feudal fascism, and the universal enlightenment of the populace, if only we could just all get our minds on the same page. 

Putting aside the fact that I've never come in contact with a worldview that could even pretend to work for everyone on Earth, (or even for the person espousing it usually), would a universal approach even be desirable?  Not if Nature's methods matter, and I haven't seen a shred of evidence to the contrary.  Consensus is for times of stability, times when the environment and energy supplies are in a steady state, for when the empire is waxing.  We can think of a sanitized, antiseptic personal environment in the same way - as a consensus based on control and the conventional paradigm.  A paradigm that is just flat out wrong about microbial coexistence.

I've been a fan of the band Wilco for quite a while now.   Never really heard it before - I'm notoriously ignorant of the actual words of the songs I "sing" - but there are lyrics in one of their songs that proclaim: "Till I suppose 10 million years from now, we'll all be just alike - same color, same size, and we'll work things out together.  And maybe we'll have all of the fascists out of the way by then...maybe so."  Really?  When we're all the same color, the same size, working things out together because, ostensibly, we all think in the same way, that will be the end of fascism?  No thanks, Wilco.  I think I'll stick with the red pill.  Nonetheless, groovy tunes, and if I'm not mistaken the album in question, Mermaid Avenue, is made up entirely of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs, written late in his life when Huntington's disease was keeping him off of the stage, and collaborated on with Billy Bragg, so I'll try not to be too hard on the boys from Chicago.  But that is one scenario that I'd wager body parts against ever happening...favorite ones.

Control, consensus, conversion, manifest destiny, one world order - whatever you want to call it it's a one-way ticket to the dustbin of history for ol' Homo sapiens, just as a continuation of the war on microbes is.  Dissensus is the order of the day, the raw material from which natural selection chooses its route forward.  The industrial world, sitting at the end of its energy growth curve and therefore heading into unknown and likely chaotic waters, will benefit more from dissensus than from any other "strategy" currently on offer.  There are tons of bad ideas out there, and some pretty good ones, too - I would consider permaculture to be one of the best - but what we need most right now is a ton of different ideas from which to choose.  Our future survival actually depends on it.  How exactly to be "indispensable to the organisms with which one shares an environment" is up for debate of course, but I doubt that turnip bandits or universal enlightenment have much to do with it...

Kill your television; strangely, all of that variety isn't helping.
Tripp out.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cultural Rehabilitation

I'm online so rarely, and have so little access to the electricity that keeps things like camera batteries charged, that getting everything together for a blog post these days is getting tricky.  What IS going extremely well in my life is, well, pretty much everything else!  So I think it's safe to say that this blog definitely has a rather limited shelf life.

After a full year of life in a tent without power we've come to the conclusion that we really don't need electricity.  The only technology we really want to add back in is refrigeration, and perhaps a little electric lighting, but we don't need to reconnect to the grid, or spend a fortune on solar panels to do that.  Propane refrigerators work well, and can be pulled from old RVs if the price tag of a new one is daunting (which it always is!).  Washing clothes by hand, as I've mentioned before, is a royal pain in the arse, but for now we are happy to tend to this chore at the laundry mat, where we can charge up the electronics and pop off a quick blog post.  [Just remembered that I needed to charge up the camera battery!  Thank you, memory jog!  Maybe next time I can have some pictures to go with my ranting.]

I've been reading a book called "Wild Fermentation" by Sandor Katz, and thought I might just share a section from it this time around, because it is very high quality stuff, and very much needed in our "culture" (or lack thereof) these days.  Here goes:

Fermented foods and drinks are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition.  Their flavors tend to be strong and pronounced.  Think of stinky aged cheeses, tangy sauerkraut, rich earthy miso, smooth sulbime wines.  Humans have always appreciated the distinctive flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi. 

One major benefit of fermentation is that is preserves food.  Fermentation organisms produce alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic aced, all "bio-preservatives" that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage.  Vegatables, fruits, milk, fish, and meat are highly perishable, and our ancestors used whatever techniques they could discover to store foods from seasons of plenty for later consumption.  Captain James Cook, the eighteenth-century English explorer who extended the far reaches of the British Empire, was recognized by the Royal Society for having conquered scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) among his crews by sailing with large quantities of sauerkraut.  On his second round-the-world voyage, in the 1770s, sixty barrels of kraut lasted for twenty-seven months, and not a single crew member developed scurvy, which previously had killed huge numbers of the crews of long sea voyages.

Anomg the many lands Cook "discovered" and delivered into the Crown's realm were the Hawaiian Islands (Cook called them the Sandwich Islands in honor of his patron).  I find it an interesting parallel that the Polynesian people who crossed the Pacific Ocean and populated Hawaii more than a thousand years before Captain Cook also sustained themselves through the long voyage with fermented food, in this case poi, a thick starchy taro root porridge still popular in Hawaii and throughout the South Pacific.

Fermentation not only preserves nutrients, it breaks them down into more easily digestible forms.  Soybeans are a good example.  This extraordinarily protein-rich food is largely indigestible without fermentation.  Fermentation breaks down the soybeans' complex protein into redily digestible amino acids, giving us traditional Asian foods such as miso, tempeh, and tamari (soy sauce), which have become staples in contemporary Western vegetarian cuisine.

Milk, too, is difficult for many people to digest.  Lactobacilli (a type of bacteria present in fermented dairy products and many other types of ferments) transform lactose, the milk sugar that so many humans cannot tolerate, into easier-to-digest lactic acid.  Likewise, wheat that has undergone fermentation is easier to digest than unfermented wheat.  A study in the journal Nutritional Health compared unfermented and fermented versions of a mix of barley, lentils, milk powder, and tomato pulp and found that "starch digestibility almost doubled in the fermented mixture."  According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which actively promotes fermentation as a critical source of nutrients worldwide, fermentation improves the bioavailability of minerals present in food.  Bill Mollison, author of the Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition, calls the action of fermenting foods a "a form of pre-digestion."

Fermentation also creates new nutrients.  As they go through their life cycles, microbial cultures create B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin.  (Ferments have often been credited with creating vitamin B12, otherwise absent from plant-source foods; however, this bubble has now been burst by improved assaying techniques that show that what had been identified as B12 in fermented soy and vegetables are actually inactive "analogues."  B12 is only found in foods from animal sources, suggesting that a vegan diet is deficient in B12 without supplementation, the efficacy of which is quite controversial.)

Some ferments have been shown to function as antioxidants, scavenging cancer precursors known as "free radicals" from the cells of your body.  Lactobacilli create omega-3 fatty acids, essential for cell membrane and immune system function.  A marketer of "cultured whole food supplements" boasts that "the culturing process generates copious amounts of naturally occurring ingredients like superoxide dismustase, GTF chromium, detoxifying compounds like glutathione, phospholipids, digestie enzymes, and beta 1,3 glucans.  Frankly, nutritional factoids like this make my eyes glaze over.  You don't really need chemical analysis to tell you what foods are healthy.  Trust your instincts and your taste buds.  The data adds [sic] up to this: Fermentation makes food more nutritious.

Fermentation also removes toxins from foods.  This is vividly illustrated by the case of cassava, an enormous tuber native to the tropical regions of the Americas that has also become a staple food in equatorial regions of Africa and Asia.  Certain varieties of cassava contain high levels of cyanide and are poisonous until they have undergone a soaking fermentation.  The fermentation process eliminates the cyanide, rendering the cassava edible and nutritious.

Not all food toxins are as dramatic as cyanide.  All grains contain a compound called phytic acid, which can block absorption of zinc, calciuim, iron, magnesium, and other minerals and lead to mineral deficiencies.  Fermenting grains by soaking them before cooking neutralizes phytic acid, rendering the grain far more nutritious.  Nitrites, prussic acid, oxalic acid, nitrosamines, and glucosides are some other potentially toxic chemicals found in foods that can be reduced or eliminated by fermentation.

Eating fermented foods live is an incredibly healthy practice, directly supplying your digestive tract with living cultures essential to breaking down food and assimilating nutrients.  Not all fermented foods are still alive when you eat them.  Certain foods, by their nature, cannot contain live cultures.  Breads, for instance, must be baked, thereby killing the organisms present in them.  However, many fermented foods can be consumed live, especially those involving Lactobacilli, and alive is the most nutritious way to eat them.

Read labels and be aware: Many commercially available fermented foods are pasteurized, which means heated to the point at which microorganisms die.  Though yogurt is well known for its live cultures, many yogurt brands are pasteurized after culturing, killing the prized bacteria.  Yogurt that is still alive generally includes in the small print of the label words to the effect that the yogurt "contains live cultures."  Sauerkraut too is usually heat-processed and canned to extend shelf life, at the cost of its healthful live bacteria.  Even miso is often dried and sold in a lifeless powdered form.  If you want live-culture fermented foods in our food-security-obsessed , instant-gratification age, you have to seek them out or make them yourself.

By promoting digestive health, live fermented foods can help control digestive disease processes such as diarrhea and dysentery.  Live-culture foods can even improve infant survival rates.  A study conducted in Tanzania compared mortality rates between infants fed different "weaning gruels," some cultured, some not.  The infants eating fermented gruels had half as many "diarrhea episodes" as the infants fed nonfermented gruels.  Lactobacillus fermentation inhibits the growth of diarrhea-related bacteria such as Shigella, Salmonella, and E. coli.  Another study, reported in the journal Nutrition, concludes that thriving microflora prevent disease because Lactobacillus "competes with...potential pathogens for receptor sites at the mucosal cell surfaces" of the intestines and proposes a treatment strategy of "ecoimmunonutrition."

As eighteen-letter words go, I like the word ecoimmunonutrition.  It recognizes that an organism's immune function occurs in the context of an ecology, an ecosystem of different microbial cultures, and that it is possible to build and develop that cultural ecology in oneself through diet...

As soon as I can I'll post the next section of this fascinating tour de microflora, an even better rant, this time making a case against the sterility with which our culture is so obsessed these days.  For our part, we are moving in the live food direction once again, immortalizing Memorial Day 2013 by starting a new sourdough culture, something we haven't done in a few years, and something from which our culture at large would have benefitted a lot more than watching another pro-imperial parade on television.  We're also trying out a "spontaneous cider" - a gallon of apple cider in a glass jug left out with a cloth over the top to keep flies out for a couple of days, then capped with a balloon to act as a one-way air valve.  Katz says it can be "hard and dry," delicious, and ready to drink in as little as 5 days.  For 7 bucks and the cost of a balloon, a gallon of hard cider sounds pretty inviting.  This weekend at the farmers market we are looking for a few heads of fresh organic cabbage with which to start a crock of sauerkraut, and after tasting a test batch of our daughter's famous "Ella Blend Tea" made into a honey mead, we'll be ramping up production of that one, too.  It was mighty fine.

Hey, who knows, we might not need that fridge after all...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Spring Garden Porn

I wonder how many extra hits I'll get with the word "porn" in the title?  Won't they be disappointed!  Unless they just love garden and orchard photos!  Which can be very sensual in their own right - just wait till the apple blossoms at the end...
A little violet liquer, a very dainty and fleeting spring treat (for the eyes mostly) that turns gray if you leave the flowers in for too long.  My advice: get the violet color out of the blossoms and then strain it and store it out of the sun!

This shot is more about WHERE to plant than the actual plants themselves.  This is a big old red oak that's been laying in what is now our backyard for a few years probably.  The soil underneath it is rich and consistently moist.  I should've planted the plum in the foreground closer, but I couldn't see the lay of the land very well when I put it in.  Now I've got 3 peaches/nectarines planted up against it on the downhill side, where they can get their roots into that cool moist fertility.

Foreground: a new sweet kernel apricot just budding out.  One of the best medicines in the world for GI cancers (Laetrile) is derived from the nut inside the stone of this type of 'cot.  I say skip the doctor's office, and the cancer, and just eat the kernels after you finish the flesh of a handful of these little beauties.  Background: a few new Hen-o-the-woods (maitake) inoculations in chestnet oak, and the inoculated stump of the same tree.  I did these, electricity-free, with a chainsaw to test a method Sepp Holzer promotes in "Sepp Holzer's Permaculture."  Sepp is the man... 

In the background you see an ordinary pile of firewood, except that it isn't really all that ordinary.  It's dug into the hillside, on contour of course, and will be left to rot and collect water and nutrients coming down the hill with the prevailing wind.  In time I'll have the entire property swaled in this fashion, terrace after terrace, with fruit and nut trees and shrubs planted on the downhill side.  Of course I can always use the firewood I need off the top and replenish it as it rots into water-harvesting sponginess.  With all this pine lying around we should also have a bumper crop of fireflies this summer, too!  Happy kids...

I hope the upside-down feedsacks in the previous shot piqued some interest as well.  And this is what's underneath.  It's an experimental (for me) stump-totem combo inoculation stuffed full of lion's mane spawn in a pair of good-size maple stumps.  It has already fruited off the spawn, and I think it will make a reliable crop from the wood for at least a decade, as the stumps are converted to topsoil, and the lion's mane increases its presence in our food forest.  YUM!
I vow to never again get caught with my shorts down when it comes to having enough firewood put up for winter.  I grossly underestimated what I was going to need to keep a tent warm from early October through first of April.  (Almost 5 cords!!)  And I don't intend to have to keep a tent warm through winter here again either.  There is no way to justify that kind of energy need when you know better ways to accomplish the same task.  Our primary homesteading objective for this year has become the conversion of the tent to a wood framed structure with plenty of windows on the east and south sides for solar gain.  The cob cottage will just have to wait another year I'm afraid; this structure's half-built already.

A general overview of the joint garden developing steadily as we have time and as the season permits. 

Some of my favorite garlics and shallots - Music and Inchelium garlic, Gray and Red shallots, and elephant garlic (which is really a leek) - at the very top of the garden to help deter nibbling interlopers.

Thrilled to see my little Texas Blue Giant fig budding out after a long and late winter!

This is hardly worth photographing, except that it is a tiny pomegranate from a good friend in south Georgia (thank you, Bret!) that I thought I had killed when I set it out just before a rogue killing frost.  The only bits that made it through that boneheaded move were the bits below the mulch line.  Again, thrilled to see it emerging!

You can't have a post on spring garden porn without an aerial shot of a young developing broccoli head.  Not this one, but I planted one broccoli plant in the fall under my low tunnel, just to see what would happen, and the central head got blitzed by frost.  The secondary shoots are prolific on it, but the central head is still the primary production.  I think I'll refrain from fall-planting broccoli again, even under frost protection.

Dinner after dinner, the Swiss chard and collards have fed us for weeks now.  Delish.

Swiss chard is just one of those plants that deserves its own gratuitous photo.

My post on carbohydrate production with potatoes and sweet potatoes continues to be an all-time favorite at Small Batch.  I didn't have time this spring to get a dedicated bed for potatoes built so I fell back on old methodologies: I laid a pair of potatoes every 16 inches in the bottom of this deep swale between garlic and raspberries and covered them with about a foot of loose wheat straw.  After a week the potato sprouts are slowly moving upward through the straw toward the sun.  As they grow I will add more straw around the plants, and come harvest time, I should be able to just grab the plant and pull out a string of potatoes.  The decaying mulch and new black topsoil underneath are just an added bonus!

Blueberries, god I love blueberries, and there are scads of wild ones all over my property.  This is a rabbit-eye variety out in the proper garden, showing its first dangling blossoms, but I have a feeling blueberries will be a mainstay of our production system in the rest of the forest garden, particularly where I'm taking out dense stands of Virginia pine.

My first apple blossoms ever, and man are they lovely.  This is a Fuji that I brought from south Georgia with me, and is it ever happy to be in the mountains!  It's surrounded by a variety of medicinal herbs - from valerian to rue to self-heal to comfrey of course - but we did lose our Winesap this week to some root-gnawing rodential intruder.  May be time to set out some daffodil bulbs around the base of the others.  A hard lesson I don't want to repeat.

Well, here's a general overview of the yard/orchard area, taken from the north entrance.  It's more open than the roughly-same shot I took last year, but an established ecology like this one should never be altered rapidly.  You can see the open sky south of the yard where I've removed about 30 Virginia pine trees that were in the future driveway (selected for the driveway for this reason).  They did their duty as nurses for the oak sere, and are dying out naturally as the oaks shade them out.  As a respectful permie, I'm gently nudging this trend forward, in a way that's beneficial to as many parts of the system as possible.  From photos up-post you may remember some of the ways in which they are being used to fortify the system that they birthed almost 6 decades ago.  Over the next couple of years, several more strategic trees will be removed to let the sun into the orchard of our future workshop, this time probably oaks, but they will be used respectfully, as lentils, door posts, and mantels in the coming cob cottage, and as top-notch firewood in a less energy-wasting living arrangement.

There is still plenty of Virginia pine on the property, unsightly as it might be.  The goal here is not to exterminate or anihilate any member of the ecosystem, or to alter it into unrecognizable "production" land, but to observe the system and how it is coming of age, and then gently tweak it toward a food production system that behaves like the original ecology - and makes room for all the species that used it in the past - but that is ultimately geared toward human outputs.  In this way we can remove a substantial chunk of our demand on the farmland we never see in far away places like Iowa and California, allowing wild nature to take over a formerly-cultivated acre here along a trout stream or there adjacent to national parkland.  I'm never going to produce wheat or barley in any substantial quantity on my land, but I don't need tomatoes from Mexico or blueberries from California.  I can produce them right here, a few steps from my house and workshop, and man do they taste better that way anyway!

Till next time.
Tripp out.