Monday, December 28, 2009

Deeper is not Better

Over the past couple years Automatic Earth has become one of my favorite economic blogs and Ilgari's Christmas Eve post is a good example of why I venture there daily. Ilgari makes the point that the past year's economic developments were, essentially, about the transfer of private debt to the public. This picture just gets worse and worse:
Many people today feel happy and positive when they look at the stock markets, because they think these reflect the real economy, and since the markets are up, things must have changed for the better in the past year.

But they haven't, not below the surface. It's all veneer and no substance. What actually has happened is that -virtually- no debt has been paid off in our economies, in fact we’ve added trillions of dollars more in debt. What is different from a year ago is that a huge part of the old debt and all of the new debt has been transferred to the public, and away from private business, in particular financial institutions (and, to an extent, carmakers).

So it comes down to the fact that people feel happy for being deeper in debt, and quite a bit deeper. Being the humans we are, we focus on the short term gratification which can be found in the Dow and a whole slew of increasingly fabricated numbers and government reports, while we conveniently ignore the enormous increases in debts, both public and private, that we will have to pay off down the line.

But, you say, it's not as bad as it may look, because when the crisis is over, we will return to growth, and that will take care of the debt. That and shrewd dollar-inflation strategies by the wizards at the Fed and Treasury.

Really? What if the crisis lasts, let's say, ten years? All that needs to happen for that is for home prices to keep falling, or even stagnate. And that seems a near certainty.

The US has no private mortgage market left, or even a viable housing market. Neither do Canada, Britain, Holland and many other countries for that matter. Homes are sold and mortgages approved only because the state takes them off the lenders' hands and books the minute the deals are closed. The loans are then securitized and sold on to, in America's instance, the central bank. In other words, all of the risk for all of the entire loans processed in this fashion lies squarely with the taxpayer.

And that is not a good thing if prices keep dropping. When unemployment won't come down. When governments start raising taxes because sovereign debt goes through the various rooftops.

The main problem's not even paying off the principal of the debt. That won't start happening for years to come, if ever. It’s paying the interest on the debt that will become the most immediate headache.

Read it.

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Copenhagen Aftermath

I'd planned on writing about the recent climate change talks but Asymptotic Life has a great post on the Copenhagen Aftermath to get it started. I may add more later.

The leader of the G-77 group of developing nations said, "It is asking Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dependence of a few countries."
A Greenpeace press release warned that President Obama "now risks being branded as the man who killed Copenhagen."
Yet Amanda Little, in an unexpected post at Treehugger, excuses Obama by noting that "Fully 55 percent of Americans surveyed in a recent Washington Post-ABC poll disagree with the way Obama is handling the climate issue, concerned that he is moving too far too fast."

Personally, I believe that's because corporate intervention has prevented appropriate education-- and the realization that if we burn less energy, we'll spend less money! But the powers that be don't want us to burn less energy: the more we waste, the more money they make.

And again here, rightfully suggesting that since the government can't be counted on it is up to people to do it themselves:

The Copenhagen climate summit has ended. The result: a non-binding agreement that we ought to do something about CO2 emissions, but with no commitments as to who will do what. There's also a generalized statement-- again, nonbinding-- that there will be a fund to provide up to $100 billion per year to developing nations that must cope with climate change, with no indication of who's going to ante up.

In short, the summit was a failure. Some argue that getting nations to agree on anything is itself a success. But the fact is, two nations blocked this process: the United States and China. These just happen to be the world's biggest carbon polluters-- and two of the nations least likely to be affected by early climate changes. Coincidence? I think not.

In essence, my country and its new ally China have thumbed their noses at the world. We Americans have said that we don't care what the cost is to others, we insist on maintaining our current levels of decadence and waste. And no one can stop us: we are the most powerful nation in the world (and China is probably second).

I am yet hopeful that the other industrialized nations will reduce their emissions, despite our refusal to do so. They will be at a significant economic disadvantage, since the U.S. will continue to plunge ahead without the added expense of paying for the cost of its carbon. We may regain hegemony as a result.

I am yet hopeful that the citizens of the United States will defy their leaders and demand change-- the change that then-candidate Barack Obama promised, but has yet to materialize. I am yet hopeful that each of us will cut our own emissions to the extent we can, and elect legislators and executives who will give us the resources to cut further.

It's too late to eliminate all effects of climate change. People will die because of our inaction. The best we can do is to act now to stop climate change from becoming worse than the present and future effects we've already caused.

The Bible (it's Sunday-- you knew I'd bring it back to the Bible) teaches us that we are responsible for the failures of our government. We will pay the price for the inaction of President Obama, and President Bush before him.

Will we stand by as our leaders heap guilt on us? Or will we stand up and demand what should have been done already? Sadly, I think we'll probably let Obama lead us down the road to Hell.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Climate change, the translation

I've FINALLY gotten around to reading through Dimitri Orlov's blog and it is excellent. Some will think he is a bit harsh in his humor but I'm loving it in part for that reason. A recent post on Selling Climate Change is a great example. But not only is it funny, it is right on target.
Climate scientists and environmental activists who support them have been struggling to get their message across: that an increase in average global temperature of 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is likely and would be a catastrophe.

Let's deconstruct this message on behalf of the person you see seated here. Starting at the end, there is this big scary Greek word. Tune that out: 'cat... here, kitty-kitty!' Let's also cross out all the words he doesn't care about: 'scientists,' 'average,' 'global' and 'Celsius.' These are all noise words. What we are left with is 'It will be 6 degrees warmer.' If he were wearing a sweatshirt, he might be prompted to think about taking it off, but as he is already down to just the boxers and the wife-beater, we shouldn't wish him to disrobe any further. If he succeeds in processing 'by the end of the century,' he would translate it as 'not any time soon.' If the word 'likely' makes it through his cognitive filter, it would come out as 'maybe.' The message, as received, thus reads: 'Maybe it will get a bit warmer long after I am dead. Well, whoop-tee-doo! What else is on TV?'

You may ask yourself, What difference does it make what this individual thinks? Well, it does and it doesn't. It doesn't because he has zero political or economic power or influence. It does because those who run the country in which he resides find it convenient to pretend that his opinion matters, to dumb down public discourse so as to frustrate the smart, educated people to the point of not wanting to participate, because dumb people are easier to exploit than smart people. If we want to influence public policy and try to prevent climate catastrophe (to the extent that it is still preventable) we need to have this fellow squarely on our side. This is not impossible by any means, but it is a dead certainty that scientific mumbo-jumbo won't make a convert of him.

The word 'climate' is a bit of a non-starter already. He likes 'climate control,' and what we are telling him is that he might have to get a bigger air conditioner... by the end of the century. That's just great. But the real howler is the persistent use of the word 'average.' Imagine him poking his head out of his double-wide trailer home to surmise the weather, and, turning to his Spandex-clad, morbidly obese wife, exclaiming 'Sweet Jesus, what an AVERAGE day! Take out your teeth, woman! Let's celebrate!' Are you beginning to get the picture?

Here is a mapping I would like to contribute to the question of how to sell climate change to the general public.

Screen shot 2009-12-20.png
Unlike the problem of stopping climate change, I see this communication problem as solvable. The issue, as I see it, is that nobody has really tried to solve it. The reasons for this are many and varied, but none of them is particularly good.

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In Transition 1.0

In Transition 1.0 is Now Available!! » Transition Culture: "‘In Transition’ is the first detailed film about the Transition movement filmed by those that know it best, those who are making it happen on the ground. The Transition movement is about communities around the world responding to peak oil and climate change with creativity, imagination and humour, and setting about rebuilding their local economies and communities. It is positive, solutions focused, viral and fun."

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Roger Ebert reviews Collapse

Not only does Roger Ebert write an excellent review of Collapse, but does a fantastic job of explaining peak oil, the issues surrounding it and what some of the details will look like in real life.
I have no way of assuring you that the bleak version of the future outlined by Michael Ruppert in Chris Smith's 'Collapse' is accurate. I can only tell you I have a pretty good built-in B.S. detector, and its needle never bounced off zero while I watched this film. There is controversy over Ruppert, and he has many critics. But one simple fact at the center of his argument is obviously true, and it terrifies me.

That fact: We have passed the peak of global oil resources. There are only so many known oil reserves. We have used up more than half of them. Remaining reserves are growing smaller, and the demand is growing larger. It took about a century to use up the first half. That usage was much accelerated in the most recent 50 years. Now the oil demands of giant economies like India and China are exploding. They represent more than half the global population, and until recent decades had small energy consumption.

If the supply is finite, and usage is potentially doubling, you do the math. We will face a global oil crisis, not in the distant future, but within the lives of many now alive. They may well see a world without significant oil.

Oh, I grow so impatient with those who prattle about our untapped resources in Alaska, yada yada yada. There seems to be only enough oil in Alaska to power the United States for a matter of months. The world's great oil reserves have been discovered.

Saudi Arabia sits atop the largest oil reservoir ever found. For years, the Saudis have refused to disclose any figures at all about their reserves. If those reserves are vast and easy to tap by drilling straight down through the desert, then ask yourself this question: Why are the Saudis spending billions of dollars to develop offshore drilling platforms?

Ruppert is a man ordinary in appearance, on the downhill slope of middle age, a chain smoker with a mustache. He is not all worked up. He speaks reasonably and very clearly. 'Collapse' involves what he has to say, illustrated with news footage and a few charts, the most striking of which is a bell-shaped curve. It takes a lot of effort to climb a bell-shaped curve, but the descent is steep and dangerous.

He recites facts I knew, vaguely. Many things are made from oil. Everything plastic. Paint. There are eight gallons of oil in every auto tire. Oil supplies the energy to convert itself into those byproducts. No oil, no plastic, no tires, no gas to run cars, no machines to build them. No coal mines, except those operated by men and horses.

Alternative energies and conservation? The problem is the cost of obtaining and using it. Ethanol requires more energy than it produces. Hybrid and battery cars need engines, tires and batteries. Nuclear power plants need to be built with oil. Electricity from wind power is most useful near its source. It is transmitted by grids built and maintained by oil. Wave power is expensive to collect. Solar power is cheap and limitless, but we need a whole hell of a lot more solar panels and other collecting devices.

Like I say, you do the math. Ruppert has done his math, and he concludes that our goose is cooked. He doesn't have any answers. We're passing the point of diminishing returns on the way to our rendezvous with the point of no return. It was nice while it lasted. People lived happily enough in the centuries before oil, electricity and steam, I guess. Of course, there were fewer than 6 billion of us. In this century, Ruppert says, there will be a lot fewer than 6 billion again. It won't be a pretty sight.

This May will mark two years since my move to the homestead and given what I see in the economic sphere I have no doubt it was the right move with fairly good timing. There are alot of folks out there desperately hoping that the economy is recovering. What they don't understand that even if such a recovery was in process (which is not the case) it could only be a short-lived recovery because the economy is based on oil. If we've passed peak (and I believe we have) there will NEVER be a recovery. Call it a collapse or the long emergency, it is here now.

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Reading through the comments in an article at The Automatic Earth I came across this:
As I talk to colleagues who are unable to see our civilization is already dead, it occurs to me their self-absorbed denial comes from a terror of recognizing how badly they've failed their own children, providing so little of essential value.

The above is a common thread about the near and far future of our world and what it is we will be living in that pops up on the AE as well as blogs such as Sharon Astyk's Casaubon's Book, Jim Kunstler's Clusterfuck Nation, John Michael Greer's Arch Druid Report and Orlov's Club Orlov.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Northern CardinalFor some reason last winter, my first as a full time resident, I did not feed the birds. Of course I watched them as I do all year but winter feeding of birds is always a treat because it seems to bring so many in. This year I noticed that they noticed the chicken scratch everywhere and were coming in as though I was purposely feeding them. Since then I've made it a point to put out bit extra and have added black sunflower seeds. The number of birds has been amazing. I'm not used to seeing six male cardinals at once! One or two is not unusual but six is not something I've seen. Pileated WoodpeckerNot as many females. I'm seeing the usual number of other winter birds: Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, Juncos, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Downy Woodpecker. I've not seen any Pileated Woodpeckers here though I have heard them a few times. I've not seen any Gold or Purple Finches recently. One new bird I've seen is the White Throated Sparrow which is a very pretty bird similar in look and behavior to the Fox Sparrow.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
I've not been taking any new bird photos largely because I've already got so many shots of these particular species. It's been awhile since I posted any of my nature images so thought I'd pull a few from my flickr archives. For anyone interested in birds, frogs, insects, flowers, moss, fungi and other nature related photography please visit my flickr archives. Most of my nature images were posted in 2007 and early 2008 so it's easiest to browse them via one of the sets.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

My Climate Change “Action Plan”

I have nothing to add to this... thought it was excellent. Actually, she is somewhat joking but it is no joke. I'd suggest that even her most radical suggestions should be implemented and probably much, much more. The fact is we past the time for moderate measures 10 years ago. We've waited far to long and at this point even drastic measures are not enough.

From the Riot 4 Austerity:
My Climate Change “Action Plan”: "Since it is becoming increasingly obvious that there will be no binding agreement in Copenhagen next month about how to achieve necessary greenhouse gas emission reductions, I thought I would propose my own binding climate change mitigation strategy. Why not, eh? Members of the so-called 'developed' world seem to need a little direction in the matter, a little gentle urging perhaps. So here goes. By the way, I haven't decided if I'm joking or not.

Benign Dictator Theresa's 'My Way or the Fry-way' Climate Change Action Plan

All international and national sporting competitions will cease immediately. That includes the Olympics. All that travel is totally unnecessary and wasteful. Everyone bike/walk to your local sporting venue instead and support your local kids competing out of a sense of fun, rather than a sense of 'when-will-I-get-that-Nike-endorsement' greed.

Politicians, business people, you are heretofore directed to use conference calls and webcams. All your jet-fueled travel is canceled. Your 'leadership' isn't helping anyway.
Tropical and other 'must-have' vacations, same goes: canceled. There's lots do see and do within walking/biking distance of where you live. And if you need that much distraction in your life you have bigger problems anyway.

The Las Vegas strip is closed until further notice. Same goes for all other similar locations worldwide. Way too much electricity used for no good reason. Not to mention setting a really, really bad example on so many levels. (November 27 addendum: Thanks Dubai, for getting right on that.)

Sorry race fans, NASCAR, Formula 1, etc., canceled. Those fossil fuels are needed for other things. Get a pedal bike or a canoe and race that.
Everyone will be vegetarian and like it, so there.

Every household will be required to have and tend a food-bearing vegetable garden. If you have no yard, a community garden plot within walking/biking distance will be found and/or reclaimed for you (i.e., uncovering the soil under now-unneeded parking lots, etc). Seeds and gardening implements will be provided. Gardening/Cooking/Preserving classes will be taught to young and old, in your local community by cool people like Sharon Astyk and her many minions.

Work weeks will heretofore be limited to 4 days out of 7.
Two days a week will be mandatory car-free days. You need to work in your garden, or volunteer, or take a Preserving class, or take a nap, or have some local fun on those days anyway.

Cheap plastic crap will no longer be manufactured or sold. If we're expending resources to manufacture things, those things will be useful and built to last.

Get ready for it: Oil sands operations will be reduced by 50% immediately. We will use natural gas as a primary fuel, rather than using it as part of the tarsands extraction process. No new coal-fired electricity plants and 50% of existing ones will be shut down. All nuclear plants will be shut down, effective immediately. The precautionary principle will be the guiding principle from now on, period. All subsidies to fossil fuel industries will be entirely re-directed to renewables, effective immediately. All buildings will be retrofitted with these cool solar panel shingles.

Carbon/Greenhouse gas emissions will be capped on a per capita basis, to ensure that the 350 ppm goal is reached in the next 10 years, or maybe 5 years, I haven't decided. The cap will be the same for everybody, regardless of geographical location, income, celebrity status, or political office. If this means you have to reduce your consumption down to 10% of what it is now, get used to it. Fair is fair. Compliance will be enforced by whatever nefarious means I deem suitable.

Oh, and no one has any more kids until all the kids around the world in orphanages or on the streets have been adopted. 'Something' has been 'put in the water' already.

Really, compared to that, would it be so difficult to get something together at Copenhagen? I am being generally facetious and sarcastic with (some) of these points, but come on! It doesn't take that much planning and it is not a hardship to cut down electricity consumption by half, and in our household we've managed to cut back to 35% of the North American average. I realize that is just a drop in the bucket, but instead of working to increase the number of drops in the bucket, my Canadian government is just throwing out excuses and downplaying expectations before the Copenhagen meeting. It's sickening. What passes for leadership these days is absolutely sickening.

Ok, time to make some ginger tea to reduce my nausea.

Does anyone have any 'dream clauses' you would like to add to this 'action plan'?

November 20th: Friendly Amendments. The following amendments have been suggested by commenters, and are hereby incorporated into the Action Plan . I am a benign dictator after all....

Hadv's amendment: The status quo is not good enough anymore. The time for change has come. Get used to it.

Sensible Vermonter's amendment: Renewable power retrofits will be fully subsidized up front. Power generated by these renewable sources will be sold back to the 'grid' up until the subsidy is paid back, after which it will become a source of income for the homeowner.

Amber's amendment: Household composting is mandatory. A suitably sized composter will be provided to each household free of charge. Compost can be used by the homeowner or sold back to local compost exchange stations. Barter among neighbors is encouraged. Courses on regular and humanure composting will be offered alongside the Gardening/Cooking/Preserving courses noted above.

Theresa's afterthought amendment: In the spirit of re-localizing sporting and business events, all national and international travel for concerts, book tours, etc., will also be cancelled. Wherever you are, there are lots of talented local artists, authors, musicians and crafters who deserve your patronage.
Additional amendments and clauses remain welcome!"

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Loretta Missing

I've not seen her since Friday night. This is only the second time she has not returned. The first time she did not show up for a day. Given that it's been three days I'm guessing she has flown away or gotten hurt, hopefully the first. I don't know much about their habits other than what I've seen. The only thing that has changed is that the lake was frozen for a couple days. Perhaps that would be enough for her to leave? I had not expected that though.

I'm really bummed about it. I suppose I knew this day would come sooner or later but that doesn't really make it any easier. I find myself looking down at the lake constantly hoping I'll see her. Ugh.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Wood Stove Thermal Mass Update

Thermal MassFirst, a bit of background for those not familiar with the construction details of my cabin. It is standard 2x4 walls with R-13 insulation, R-19 in the ceiling and inside walls finished with plywood beadboard. While the floor is not properly insulated I did very carefully stuff MANY layers of bubble wrap in this fall with rolled wrap tightly stuffed into each end to block the wind. It's not real insulation but I'm certain that there is FAR less wind and air movement under the space that had previously been open. The bubble wrap was not purchased but re-used from Greg's shutter business. I've also got stacked rock along the base of the cabin from ground up a couple inches past the outer 2x8 rafter.

For this winter I stacked concrete blocks around my wood stove with excellent results thus far. I've got a total of 24 solid blocks (3.5" x 7.5" x 15.5"). They're stacked on the the two long sides and behind the stove and up about 2.5 feet on the back side of the stove pipe. On the sides I've got them stacked two thick (about 7"). On top I've got a big enamel canning pot full of water which leaves just enough room on the stove top to put my coffee pot. I also reinforced the floor deck under this corner of the cabin using a couple concrete blocks placed snuggly under the floor rafters.

I'm finding that I can do two very distinct fires, morning and late evening. Thus far each fire is 3-5 logs for a fairly hot burn of 1.5 to 2.5 hours. The result is that the concrete blocks moderate the hottest peak of the burn because they are of course absorbing lots of heat. About an hour after the fire has burned out the heat finally really makes it's way to the outer edges of the concrete. They are hot to the touch but by no means hot enough to burn anything. I type this at 3:15pm and the blocks and pot of water are still noticeably warm. My morning fire was over at 8:15am -that's seven hours of steady, slow warmth. I expect that they'll radiate heat for another hour, maybe two before diminishing. A huge improvement. Rather than peaking at 85 (or higher!) and fairly quickly dropping to 60 I'm peaking at about 80 and VERY slowly dropping. In fact, there is a moderation of temps even past the time that the blocks feel warm. I'm going out this evening and won't be back till 9pm to rekindle the fire but if the past week is any indication the cabin will still be at 60 or above at that time... 12 hours past the morning fire. Outside temps today: 30 at sunrise, 40 at 3:30pm. Inside temps today: 60 at sunrise, 68 at 3:30pm. I've just started keeping track 9 days ago and in that time I'm seeing an average difference of about 22 degrees at sunrise and sunset before the morning or evening fire is built.

My guess is that in the colder part of winter when nights regularly dip to 20 or less and highs only in the lower 30s that I'll be burning my morning and evening fires longer with more logs but I'm hoping that each fire will still be fewer than 10 logs. Based on what I've seen thus far I don't think it is unrealistic to estimate that I'll burn about 40-50% less wood than last year. I wish I'd thought to keep track last year with no blocks so that I could compare by numbers rather than memory of numbers. I routinely heated myself out of the cabin. It would warm very quickly but also cool fairly quickly, especially at night. Each day I'd try to get the fire up then let it go to very low coals and re-ignite. At night I'd try to keep the fire going till bed at midnight when I'd stock it up as much as I could without getting it too hot to sleep. If I failed to wake up at 2 or 3 am to get it going again I regularly woke to 40 degrees, sometimes less on really cold nights. Constantly up and down.

Regardless of how much wood I save I know for certain that the less extreme temperatures and warmer mornings will greatly increase my comfort level as well as the time I spend tending the fire. Well worth the $52 spent on concrete blocks! This is not even close to an original idea. There are many variations on the concept. Masonry stoves, cob.... the important thing is to have as much thermal mass around your stove as you can afford and safely place on the floor. If I had planned better I would have built this section of floor much stronger and would have 40 or 50 blocks rather than 24. In that case I'd often be able to get by with just one fire a day, burning it a bit hotter and longer and coasting for longer. The more mass the better the moderating of temps. The greenest choice would be a cob covered rocket stove. If I'd known of those when we started I probably would have gone that route.

Update: Last night got cold! Outside temp at 7am was 18 which I consider the first real test. Inside the bricks and water were still quite warm and it was 62 in the cabin. The fire did go late though as I got in late. Fire from 10pm with a big bed of coals at 1am, 7 logs burned. I'm VERY happy with this. I know from last year that a fire ending at 1am, with 18 degrees outside would have meant a morning just above 40 with NO residual heat from the stove. On a typical night though I'll probably start my evening fire 2-3 hours earlier which will likely mean that the fire dies down at 11pm and the morning temp will be closer to 58ish. Still, a fantastic improvement!

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Dumbed Down and Out

I was getting caught up on a couple of my regular web reads and came across this comment by voxpop to a recent blog post by Jim Kunstler.

...I would like to believe that Americans, when pushed to their limits, would rise up en mass against the corporate greed that holds them in check. But it seems this would have happened before now.

When I survey the rape of the American psyche that transpired over the past nine years, I wonder: have We, the People, become the victims of domestic violence? Just as a battered wife stays in her place, does not question her husband, does not try to protect herself or flee the abusive situation, have we become so accustomed to the abuse of our perceived authority figures that we are unable to entertain notions of standing up for ourselves? We must remember that we pay the salaries of the people who abuse us. We can choose to cut off our financial support, thus rendering the batterers impotent. But this sort of revolution is even harder to imagine than the sort with arms. The people who would most benefit from a revolution are too busy feeding their families to start one. Those who can afford to fight don't care enough about the cause to do so. They are comfortable and complacent - as long as they have their numbing substances of choice on hand.

I have become disheartened. 'What then must we do?'

I disagree with the idea that this is a problem which has developed over the past nine years but I agree with the general idea. I think we've gotten ourselves into a cultural, behavioral rut so deep that we have no idea how to get out. We're terrified of what it might mean for our comfortable but degraded lives. Our political system was stolen several decades ago and has since been controlled by corporate capitalism. Whether the party in control is Democrat or Republican is irrelevant, the two party facade is just a distraction, a news-network soap opera.

Sadly, we've become twisted perversions of the citizenry we one were striving to be. We've allow ourselves to be remade into hyper consumers obsessed with the latest gadgets and the lives of celebrities or ranking of sports teams. We traded away meaningful lives lived in the context of community, seeking our to develop our better selves. Instead of helping one another develop to our fullest potential we accepted a bribe of cheap thrills and trinkets from China.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Taking of Life

Deer hunting is in full swing these days. Last weekend my brother and uncle both shot deer. The taking of life is something I've been thinking about lately. A month ago I wrote about the two dogs I had to kill. I've thought about them off and on since that day and last weekend went to see their decaying bodies where I put them under a couple of trees. They are returning to nature and in that I find a bit of comfort. Nothing in nature is wasted. I don't have a problem with death. It is inevitable and beautiful in its own way. We all return.

I suppose what I have a problem with is the unnecessary taking of life. When we butchered three of the roosters back in September I was okay with that because it really needed to be done. I've been catching and eating fish out of the lake over the past year and I'm okay with that because I know there are GOBS of fish in the lake. Harvesting fish and chickens when necessary for management I can deal with. Harvesting deer I can deal with because I know there are lots of them and they are an excellent source of local protein. I've been thinking that I might hunt a few rabbits or squirrels this winter because there are lots of them here. LOTS. I'm not sure I'll do it though it fits into my plan of more local protein via very select harvesting of a variety of animals.

I have a block in my brain. I imagine a deer, rabbit, or squirrel going about its business of living. I imagine in vivid detail that rabbit in all it's fuzzy adorableness and then I imagine its life coming to a sudden and violent end not by owl or fox but by a bullet. I know, rationally that death is a part of nature and as I said above, I embrace that cycle of life. Nature is organisms consuming one another, the constant movement of energy through consumption and digestion. I also know that local protein from a rabbit or squirrel is a healthy way for me to obtain protein. The alternative is to continue importing it from offsite in the form of a variety of beans, rice and other vegetable sources. I'm fairly certain that the most ecologically sustainable protein would be the local meat especially when it is actually on site.

I think I know that the most natural, energy efficient way for me to sustain my body is to strive for local food which means gardening and hunting. Because vegetable protein is so easily available at the grocery store I've allowed myself to view hunting as optional, unnecessary. I don't NEED to hunt to survive. But the truth is that if I don't make an effort to get food by hunting (and gardening) I'll continue relying on imported energy from the grocery store which means thousands of food miles from who knows where. Of course, there is the looming economic depression which IS coming regardless of any can kicking by the Obama folks. Of course here is also peak oil and crazy weather, both of which will impact food production in the short and long terms. My point is that right now conditions permit that I can think and debate this with myself but the time may not be far off where I am forced to hunt by disruptions in the food supply. And I do believe that day is coming, sooner rather than later.

A part of my problem is a constant sense of guilt. I've gotten into the pattern of trying to offset what I deem to be the "bad" behavior of other people. Whether it is climate change or industrial agriculture's method of meat production, the more I see others around me showing a lack of concern the more determined I am. The result is that I am very sensitive to the possibility that I might drive a car unnecessarily which is a direct response to seeing so many others show no care at all in their use of oil or coal. Quite honestly, I went through a couple years of pretty intense depression. I was so frustrated, angry, sad at my perception that most people don't care about the impact of their lives that I wanted to end my own. I just shut down. Stopped going out in public. Stopped visiting family. Not only did I not want to get in a car but I often did not even want to eat. I wanted to crawl into the crook of big tree and fade away. When I moved to the cabin I had not planned on connecting to people again. I figured I'd find what little happiness I could alone in a garden and little cabin by the lake.

Back to my point, I think my reluctance to eat meat is a direct response to living in a country/culture where eating meat is just an accepted part of life. Most people I've ever known don't really care about the welfare of the animals they eat and any kind of cruelty those animals may have endured before being butchered is simply a non-issue to them. You can see where this is going. My response has been to develop a very deep emotional connection to the animals around me. Whether it is a tufted titmouse, canada goose, white-tail deer, swallowtail butterfly or any of the critters around me, I respect their existence. How can I not? I'm struggling to reconcile this respect for the individuals with my understanding that in a healthy, natural ecosystem some animals eat other animals. Humans are animals after all. We are a part of it all. True as that is it is also true that we've allowed ourselves to become completely disconnected from what sustains us and with this alienation comes a dangerous ability to disrespect. I think we've forgotten that we are, in fact, animals and that we share this planet with many other species. We are just one. We like to think that we're special because of our "intelligence" and yet I see what we've done with it and I can do is shake my head.

We humans, in our grand intelligence, have made war upon one another and upon the planet our way of life. Given this context I've made a habit of trying very hard to do no harm. I know that I've failed, I've done plenty of harm. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't try. In any case, I've been thinking about what it means for me to survive and whether or not I'll start hunting.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Recycled kitchen table and other projects

New Table, Old WoodWhen I first moved into the cabin in May of 2008 I was loaned/given a little kitchen table which, while very functional, didn't really fit. It was in great shape, like new really, but was an 80's style particle board deal that just didn't feel right. I finally got around to making the table that I thought would fit better and I'm pretty happy with it. It is very simple, made of weathered wood from free pallets we picked up this past spring. The old wood and cedar branch legs are a much better fit for the cabin. I had enough wood left over to build a rustic end cabinet between the door and sink as well as a few wall shelves. I've still got a few details to finish but they are mostly done and very functional. I've still got gobs of wood left so I'm thinking about how I might put it to use.
New from old
I've always been fond of weathered wood and the more I really look at it the more I appreciate it. The texture and color of it seems so much more natural to me as it so closely matches the coloring and texture of the outer bark of most trees. While I like the warmer red tones of new, untreated wood these are not the colors you see when you look out at trees in the forest. You only see these colors when you cut into a tree.
New Shelves, Old Wood
The last big project for my cabin will be a covered porch which I hope to get to in the spring. I've still got a few bits of trim that I never put up that I am going to take care of very soon. Eventually I would like to cover the vinyl flooring with some sort of wood flooring but for that I'll wait till I find something I can salvage and re-use.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Adding Thermal Mass for the Wood Stove

Wood Burning Stove Thermal MassI've added 30 concrete blocks around my wood burning stove to add thermal mass for heat storage. Once I've decided on the exact configuration and gotten all the blocks in that I want I'll probably cover it with cob or mortar on some rocks. Does cob adhere well on top of concrete? My only concern with such a covering would be access to the stove should I need to do any maintenance. Still thinking on that. I can report that after burning a couple fires this thermal mass makes all the difference. Granted it has mostly been in the 40s I'm seeing a big difference. I can burn a 3-5 log fire once a day at these temps and the mass stores and releases the heat till the next day. NICE.

My guess is that when we dip into real winter temps I'll be able to burn a morning and evening fire, each 4-6 logs and coast the rest of the time. If that works out it would be a reduction of about 70% from last year! Not only that but the burn time is short and hot which means much more efficient. No more throttling down the burn to control the temp and lengthen the burn time all of which means more pollution. Much less smoke and much less work chopping wood! Not only that but I'll wake up in the morning to a cabin it 60 or 65 degrees rather than 40 or 45 as was the case many mornings last winter.

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I Shot Two Dogs

This was initially written as an article for the Madison County Crier but we ended up printing it as a letter to the editor. This is the ugly side of homesteading with chickens and other animals.

The title for this article says it all. I won’t be talking at about permaculture this week but, rather, the issue of keeping animals safe from other animals and what that sometimes means. In my 40 years on this planet I’ve tried to live a life of respect. For me that means being respectful of life in a general way. The taking of a life should never be done without good reason and absolute necessity. For example, while most people I know think nothing of squishing a spider in their home I’ll catch them and put them outside first. If they are no threat to me I see no reason to end their existence. Another example, I was a vegetarian from 1989 till 2003 and I’ve only eaten fish on a few occasions since 2003. Since living at my homestead I decided that I would begin eating a small amount of local meat, specifically fish from our lake and the occasional problem rooster from our flock of chickens. Last week I also ate a small serving of deer which my brother hunted last year from this land. I’m mentioning all this to make the point that I’ve thought about my diet a great deal and have tried to be respectful of other living things with which I share this planet. My decision to include small amounts of meat in my diet is based upon the understanding that in terms of climate change and energy consumption it makes more sense to eat local meat than it does to rely on vegetable sources of protein that are shipped in from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Now, about these dogs. On this little homestead I keep chickens, guineas, a goose, a cat and a dog. These are animals that I take care of on a daily basis and I take the responsibility seriously. I feed and water them and keep their housing clean, comfortable and safe from predators. In return they provide me with eggs, manure, and good company. I’ve dreaded the day that free ranging dogs would show up at our place and hoped that when the time came I’d be here to deal with it. Previous to my keeping the chickens we’d had dogs show up but I ran them off with lots of yelling and stick banging. They’d often be back the next day and I’d repeat the process but I was not too worried as my dog stays inside unless I’m out with her. Since getting the birds this past spring I’ve heard many dogs, sometimes nearby but luckily enough they stayed clear of our place. It was not until the past couple weeks that a couple of beagles started coming into the homestead. This week I returned from a morning in town to find the dogs in front of my cabin. The chickens were still in their securely fenced area and I rounded the two dogs up and took them to our gate almost a mile away. I waited a bit and when the dogs did not show I let the critters out. Of course it was not long after that they did show up and were chasing one of the animals. I jumped between them and caught the female and tied her up to a tree. I caught the male a couple minutes later and I tied him up as well.

I spent the following day trying to find someone to take the dogs. After phone calls to two shelters, a vet and a variety of friends and family I had found no one able to take them. Today I loaded the .22 and went out to shoot them. My stomach churned as I put the scope to my eye and the crosshairs on the head of the female. I pulled the trigger and it was finished. Moments later the male was also dead. Killing any animal is difficult for me. Killing a dog was gut wrenching.

What else could I do? I cannot possibly afford to take on another dog, certainly not two. My experience with free range dogs is that they come back over and over. Releasing these two would have likely been a trade for the life of one or more of my animals within a day or two. I fully expect that I will have to do this again. And again. And again. Is there an alternative? Please, if there is I’d like to know about it. I do not want to ever shoot another dog. Ever. That said I have a right and responsibility to defend the animals in my care. One suggestion I’ve received is to take them somewhere else and drop them off but how is that a solution? Then they’ve just become someone else’s problem.

What I cannot grasp is that so many people purposely let their dogs roam the countryside. Americans claim to value freedom but I fear that too many have forgotten that the other side of that coin is responsibility. I wonder if anyone can explain to me how anyone who keeps dogs but lets them run free day after day knowing that they are off to others’ properties is in any way behaving responsibly. My guess is that the people that do this simply don’t care what their dogs are doing. I cannot express how deeply I resent being put into a situation where I have to make this kind of decision and take this kind of action.

These two dogs will never go home and I wonder will they be missed? It disgusts me that I had to take life for no reason other than human stupidity. When we butchered three of our roosters I was okay with that because we needed to do it and I knew that they would be providing healthy meals to our family. There was purpose in it and the meat would be eaten. Whether by training or instinct, these two dogs were simply doing what many dogs do when allowed to run and are guilty of nothing other than being dogs. Quite frankly, people that intentionally let their dogs run loose should not only not be allowed to keep animals they should also be fined or be incarcerated. Letting dogs run loose not only puts them at risk at being run over but also leads to the loss of wildlife and livestock. To put it simply it is criminal behavior and it should not be tolerated.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Sunrise at the Lake

We had a really nice moonset and sunrise the other day. The moon was full and very bright which woke me up as it was shining through my front windows and into my face. While I did get a few shots of the moon that were not too bad it was the sunrise images that turned out the best.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fertility in progress...

Shelf fungi in the food forestThis has been my first summer garden with chickens and those that have followed along know the various issues I've had ranging from the size of the flock being too large as well as issues with free ranging chickens doing a bit too much damage to seedlings. Throughout this summer I've been experimenting, observing and thinking. Things improved greatly when we cut the flock size down from 25 to 15, the latter being much closer to my original plan. As of a month or so ago I started free ranging the smaller flock with just a bit of fencing to encourage them to stay in one area for most of the day. By evening the range down to the rest of the garden and other areas but by now the original forage area has had time to recover and I've also planted white and red clover which is growing nicely. With the expanded forage area they do less damage wherever they are and the positive benefit of the work they do tilling and turning is more of a positive then a negative.

This photo of Irene's detailing protection from chickens using a grill made from chestnuts branches is a perfect example of one improvised method for adapting to free range chickens and funnily enough I started doing something similar using sticks poked into the ground and big chunks of bark that I gather after splitting wood for winter heating. My food forest looks... how shall I put it? More interesting? Below you'll see a recent image of the food forest with yarrow, self heal and little purple coneflowers planted around the paw paws and june berries. Also three rhubarbs and three comfrey are planted and growing well. Last, clover and various greens planted in the berm are all doing well.

Food Forest
I look around and I see so much organic matter: straw, wood chips, sticks, bark as well as growing fertility such as comfrey, chickory, autumn olives and clover. Then there are the many animal contributions: chickens, guineas, a goose and a deer pooping and scratching and leaving nitrogen rich feathers everywhere. I have little doubt that the fertility of the soil all around the homestead is being greatly increased with all of the new ingredients and activities. Mushrooms and shelf fungi are also sprouting up everywhere which is a good indicator.

I've also started the second block in our humanure composting grid. Each block gets one year's worth of humanure and then sits for an additional 2 years (a total of 3 years) for complete composting. Eventually that compost will be used on the blueberries, juneberries and whatever other fruit bushes and trees we've got. My guess is that we could use it sooner but I'm not in any hurry.

It's been a slow process of fertility building as I never brought in any manure. All of the on site fertility is still in the process of either growing or breaking down from cardboard, newspaper, straw and wood chips. The soil in areas which have had mulch in place since last year are looking greatly improved. As of next spring we will have something like 35 comfrey plants going into their second year which means they'll be producing quite a bit of fertility.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009


You were saying?I'm not sure how to say this. I think I'm in love with a goose. Is that strange?

I kid. Really though, she is quite a sweet goose and I am very fond of her. She started hanging out here in early August and has been here every day since. I started calling her Loretta the second or third day she was here. It somehow seemed to fit. She leaves every night to sleep somewhere else, not sure where but she flies off towards the lake and I lose sight of her so my guess is she's fairly close by. I don't know where geese prefer to sleep. In any case, she is here most of the day and the little darling has stolen my heart. She follows me around when I'm out doing chores. When I bend over towards her and say her name she smiles. I kid you not. Well, not exactly a smile but she opens her mouth sticks out her tongue and squeeks. And no, this is definitely not the defensive hiss that geese use when threatened. This is something else and it is entirely adorable. She also has decided that I am edible and will nibble on my legs, ankles, toes, etc which tickles unless she get's carried away and starts pulling hair or a grabs a bit too hard on a toe or two.

One day during her first week here I was in the outhouse doing my business and up she came. She can't step up so she did this funny little hop up the two stairs and proceeded to come into the outhouse and then sit on my foot. Literally sat down on my foot and remained there. It was all I could do to not burst out laughing.

I have no idea where Loretta came from or how long she'll stay but I hope she stays around for a good long while. With characters like her around the smiles come easily.

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Basil, Basil, Basil

Oodles of basilAh yes, lots of basil these days. I planted several varities including thai, lemon and cinnamon as well as the standard genovese. I've got a bit drying but mostly I've been making gobs of pesto. Mostly I've eaten it as I make it but I've frozen a bit too. Still have lots more to blend up for winter meals. I absolutely love this stuff. Not only are the plants absolutely beautiful with their abundant, lush leaves but they grow so easily.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Welcoming natives and critters into our garden

This is the sixth article in an ongoing series that I've written in our town's alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I've also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town's transition into this new future we have before us.

In my last article I discussed the benefits of using natural forest ecosystems as models for no-till, sheet mulched gardens. This time around I’d like to extend on the idea of learning from nature to help us understand the beneficial roles of native plants and critters in our garden. The critters I’m most interested in seeing in my garden are small and usually very colorful. Birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, and insects are a part of almost any ecosystem in the Midwest and they are welcome in my permaculture garden anytime.

My guess is that some of you might be shaking your heads at the thought of inviting insects into your garden. Today’s gardeners and farmers have been taught that insects are an enemy of any effort to grow food crops and a huge industry has made a great profit from that way of thinking. Over the years corporations such as Monsanto have been very happy to sell gardeners a stew of chemical insecticides intended to eliminate any kind of insect life in the garden or around the home.

Permaculture approaches gardening very differently. In fact, from the perspective of permaculture the annual vegetable garden is just one part of a much larger integrated site design which also preserves and recovers natural biodiversity. In such an ecological landscape annual food crops such as tomatoes, squash, and corn are likely to be interplanted with native perennial wildflowers such as Purple Coneflower, Butterfly Milkweed, Bee Balm, Yarrow, Goldenrod, and Spiderwort. By creating a design using native perennials we ensure a steady supply of food for beneficial insects which perform many duties in the ecosystem including the fullest possible pollination of our crops. Yet another function of many of these native plants is as medicine for us. Purple Coneflower is perhaps one of the better known medicinals, its leaves and roots can be harvested for tea and tinctures for stimulating the immune system.

It is true that insects harmful to our crops do show up but in a well developed, healthy ecosystem the treatment for those insects is, of course, other insects. While ladybugs are perhaps the most well known predator of insects such as aphids there are a great many more beneficial predators that are likely to call our gardens and food forests home. Parasitic insects such as flies and small wasps such as braconids lay their eggs inside of other insects which are then eaten by the hatching larvae. As adults these insects consume pollen and nectar.

Yet another member of our community are spiders which act as a valuable control of the insect population and, as it happens, prefer the dark moist environment of a mulched garden. Round out this eco-community with lizards, frogs and toads which will do their part as well. These critters will also benefit from a thickly mulched garden as well as small piles of rocks placed around the garden. Even better, build a small garden pond in or near the garden which will not only provide habitat for the reptiles and amphibians but will provide a space to grow more food crops for you. An example is Broad-leaved Arrowhead, Saggittaria latifolia which provides us with edible tubers which
can be eaten like potatoes and which have a few medicinal uses. Lizard’s Tail is another easy to grow pond plant which has several medicinal uses.

Our feathered friends, wild and domestic, are another part of the surrounding ecosystem as well as our permaculture design. Many of the native perennials which are beneficial to pollinating insects are also suppliers of seed to a fantastic variety of wild birds. In the summer and fall leave your dead coneflowers standing where they are and watch birds such as the American Gold Finch feast on the seed. Not only do the birds benefit from the nutrition but they’ll help spread the seeds around and you’ll start to notice new plants popping up without any help from you.

Chickens and guineas are fantastic consumers of ticks and insects, turning that source of protein into protein for us: eggs. Use a chicken tractor to move them around different areas and they will till the ground with their constant scratching and leave behind manure which increases the fertility of our garden.

Because permaculture designers take a broader view of the “garden” as just one part in a larger system, the variety of multiple yields is much greater. Once a permaculture system is established it should produce more energy than it consumes which is largely the result of taking an approach that recognizes the possible connections between organisms in our system and which seeks to maximize their output to our benefit.

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Not an orchard, a food forest!

This is the seventh article in an ongoing series that I've written in our town's alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I've also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town's transition into this new future we have before us.

In my previous articles I’ve touched on the idea of learning from natural forest ecosystems to aid us in our gardening. I’ve discussed no-till sheet mulching which emulates the thick layer of decaying materials found on the forest floor as well as the benefits of using native plants to foster a healthy population of pollinating insects and other critters. I’ve also discussed the idea of creating guilds of trees and plants which work well together. I’d like to build on these previous articles to discuss the importance of including fruit trees, fruit bushes, and vines as well as perennial vegetables in the design of a food producing system that goes beyond the standard fruit tree orchard.

Before I really delve into the article let me ask a question that’s been nagging at me for quite awhile: why do we not have fruit trees and fruit bushes planted in every yard and park in America? For a very small investment of time and money fruiting trees and bushes will produce a fantastic amount of fresh, tasty and healthy food for many years. I suppose you could say that money really does grow on trees. Now, let’s get to it.

A food forest is not an orchard. The standard fruit orchard is often planted in neat rows of trees of the same species surrounded by a tidy lawn of grass. There are several problems with this scenario. First, fruit trees do better when they do not have to compete with grass lawns. Such lawns do nothing to support the pollination of the fruit trees nor are they much use to other beneficial insects which can help control the populations of insect pests. Even more, the lawn is a waste of growing area which could be producing even more food for us. The orchard is really a model for large scale agriculture which provides easy access for quick maintenance and harvest of one primary crop.

The food forest is a completely different model with a different goal: a healthy forest-modeled ecosystem with a diverse yield. While food forests can be quite large, anyone with at least a small yard can easily create a highly productive food forest that will yield not just fruit but also herbs and salad greens for medicine and food. The food forest starts with one or two fruit or nut trees. If limited space is an issue these can be semi-dwarf or dwarf trees. The area surrounding these trees should be heavily sheet mulched from the start. As you add to your “forest” you can easily poke through the mulch with a spade or shovel.

Imagine the structure of a natural forest. Large canopy trees are surrounded by a lower layer of smaller trees which are in turn surrounded by a layer of lower shrubs which are surrounded by a layer of plants which are often surrounded by ground covers. Interspersed in these layers are vines which often grow up the largest of the trees in search of sunlight. In our food forest we will create these layers and by doing so more efficiently use the vertical space around our fruit trees. We can surround our full size fruit trees with semi-dwarf or dwarf trees and around these we can plant a fantastic variety of berries: currants, gooseberries, blueberries, juneberries, and black elderberries are a few to choose from. The next layer would be comprised of perennial herbs, vegetables, flowers as well as self-seeding annuals: comfrey, fava beans, borage, loveage, good king henry, chives, dill and cilantro. This layer provides us with food and medicine as well as insect habitat which will increase pollination and control of insect pests. The next layer would be the lowest growing plants such as strawberries, nasturtiums, lingonberries, and thyme. The vine layer might include hardy kiwis, grapes, clematis, wisteria, cucumbers, peas and beans.

In designing such a food forest we want to think about the best use of vertical space as well as light and the evolution of our system through time. In the early years of our food forest our fruit trees and bushes are smaller and offer little shade. During this time we can take advantage of the sunlight by planting a variety of large leaf annuals such as squashes which will not only offer us a high yield of vegetables but also provide ground cover. At the end of the growing season the plants can be chopped and dropped for an excellent fall mulch. Four or five years into the system and we’ll begin to see far less sunlight as the system matures and any sun loving annuals will have to be planted along the southern edges.

Of particular note when planning a food forest (or any garden really) is a very special plant: comfrey (which probably deserves an entire article do discuss the many benefits). Easy to grow from seed, after it is established for a couple of years this fast growing perennial will develop a fantastic root system which draws up minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil and accumulates them in its thick, fleshy leaves. Three to four times in a growing season you can chop it down to the ground and use all of those leaves as mulch around your fruit trees. In four to six days they will turn into a goopy brown sludge that delivers all those minerals and nutrients to the top levels of the soil providing a great benefit to your trees, bushes and other plants. You can also dump the comfrey leaves into buckets of water at let them stew for a couple of weeks into a tea which can be strained into a sprayer and used as a foliar spray which can be directly applied to any plants in your garden for a quick boost. The high protein leaves can also be fed in small amounts to chickens though there is some debate about feeding them large amounts over long periods of time as it may be toxic to the liver.

Other considerations in choosing our trees, shrubs and plants might be soil conditions and use of plants which might be invasive. If soil is poor a bit more time might be required as a succession of species can be planted that will help improve the soil for the fruit trees. In addition to comfrey, nitrogen fixing plants such as alfalfa, clover, peas, blue false indigo or shrubs such as siberian pea shrub and autumn olive or tree legumes such as black locust will all improve the soil. When choosing soil improvement species special care should be taken with non-native species which may be invasive such as autumn olive which can quickly get out of control and spread to other properties. Our permaculture homestead has well established and large population of autumn olives and they do produce an abundance of very tasty berries but I will be gradually cutting them back as the majority of them are replaced with less aggressive fruit bushes. Other strategies for soil improvement include heavy mulching and rainwater harvesting with swales.

In the early years of a food forest a bit of care is required, mostly pruning and mulching but this work is made easier by planting mulch materials nearby for quick chop and drop. Once established a food forest is, for the most part, self maintaining thanks to the increasing shade and leaf litter of the trees and bushes that contribute to the mulch layer. All that is required is a bit of pruning, harvesting and cut back of plants of established plants. If left alone the system might become crowded but will still continue to produce an amazing amount of food with absolutely no energy or time input from us.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Rooted in a place

Several weeks ago I finally made the short journey down to see Roger's place. I'd met Roger this past fall through Ruth Ann and the Cowboy Coffee. It's funny actually, the first or second time I'd gone into the coffee shop Roger was at the far end with Ruth and Juli and they were dancing and goofing off and it was at that moment that I knew that the coffee shop was going to be my favorite reason to drive into town.

Since then I've had some great conversations with Roger and he occasionally mentioned his farm south of town in the foothills of the Ozarks. It was obvious the very first time he told me some of the story of his family and this farm that this was a connection to the land far deeper than the norm. Of course, really, that's not saying much is it? We live in a time when the norm seems to be constant migration with little to no connection to the land. Family farms and land based living has declined steadily for many decades. The norm today is the suburban subdivision or a place in the city. There are rarely any kind of long term connections formed to these places as they are simply meant for relatively short term occupancy by any one family, often 15 years or less.

Roger and his family have woven a different kind of story which is based on an intimacy with a landscape that is hard to really understand. His family first began living there in the mid 1800s and have been there ever since. Roger grew up there and continues to live in a house he built in the 1980s. The house he grew up in, built around the turn of the last century, is a stone's throw away and is his son's home today.

On the day of our trip my time was a bit limited so I got the "short" tour. I think we were there for maybe 1.5 hours and having seen what I saw in that time I know that it was the short tour. One could easily spend a day there. Or a lifetime. This is no ordinary place. As we walked and drove around Roger narrated with fantastic detail the various stories of the generations of his family.

The farm is deep down in a valley and feels protected, cradled by the hills. It stays cooler down here. The soil is pretty rocky too though there are quite a few areas which have been cultivated over the years.

We started with the beautiful white two story turn of the century home that he grew up in and then slowly moved further into the landscape and as we went the stories he told went further back in time. There are three springs on the property which, over the years, served as the family's primary water source. In fact, the proximity to the springs was a primary reason for the location of the homestead. At one of these I bent down and for the first time in my life cupped my hands to drink the sweet water from a cold, natural spring. It flowed from under a tree into the rocky creek gravel. Fantastic.

From there we worked our way down the creek to the original family house which had been cut into three sections and moved from the original location further back which we also saw towards the end of our tour. This was an old, old house. Roger's grandfather's bedroom was left as it was when he died many years ago and given the state of the house and lack of windows seemed surprisingly intact. Roger told me of another spring that had been directed to the house using a pipe and showed me the buried tub that had been used to keep fish after they had been caught and before being eaten. In the cold flowing creek just outside the house a very nice bit of water cress was growing and I enjoyed several bites. I'm going to have to see if I can get some of that growing here because it was very tasty!!

Something else that Roger was sure to point out were the trees. So many wonderful trees were growing here! There was a nice mix of very old and young trees as well and the diversity of species was really fantastic. I'd imagine that it would be very interesting to explore the evolution of the land here in much greater detail. Roger knows trees and he knows the trees growing on the farm with great intimacy. In fact, he seems to know every inch of the land which brings me to the heart of this post. While I was in awe of the beauty of this landscape I think it was Roger's connection to it that really struck me.

To spend an entire lifetime in one place seems very rare these days. That it is such a beautiful place and one that has served as a home for so many generations of a family only deepens an already profound relationship. I cannot really fathom such intimacy with the land. Those of you that know me or that read this blog you know my current adventure trying to co-create this permaculture homestead. I've barely been here a year and I already feel more at home. This is a place I spent many of my childhood summers and so there is that connection too. But my childhood memories and my knowledge of my ancestors includes several states and cities and many different yards and homes. There is no long term base for our family.

From the old family house we passed the remains of an old wagon worked our way down and through various pastures and to the creek where there were many beautiful pawpaws growing. Roger relayed the story of the all-day trip to pick-up the wagon from Farmington which, like another story about his grandfather walking to Mine La Motte (20+ miles each way), really gives perspective to life without the combustion engine. It also serves as a reminder of what the automobile has done to change our relationship to the natural world around us. You don't see many details, smell any honeysuckle, or hear the song of birds when you travel in an air conditioned bubble at 60 mph.

The creek served as a place to swim, play and get cleaned up and I can't imagine a better place to spend an afternoon. As we crossed the creek on foot to see the steep hillside opposite of the field I was again reminded of the amazing diversity of species in the area. I think if I were to spend much more time there I would begin getting a sense of the patterns and history of the plants and trees but in such a short time it was too much to take in. On the far side of the field away from the creek was a pine covered hill and small pond, an ideal area for blueberries I'd imagine. It was around this time that we circled back and my tour ended.

I look forward to another trip down there when I have more time to take in the details without feeling so overwhelmed. As I come to the end of this post I can't help but feel that I'm missing something. I think when you've had a glimpse of something like this, something special with a history you also leave with questions. History is a story and an old homestead such as this feels like a window or, more accurately, a door that can be stepped through. Having Roger there to tell the history no doubt deepens the appreciation and understanding even as the stories evoke a sense of the unknown. In a strange way it is also a very direct connection to the ongoing flow of history. Roger is a part of it. We all are.

“Time is an enormous, long river and I am standing in it just as you are standing in it. My elders were the tributaries and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, every song they created and every poem they laid down flows down to me and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, take the time to reach out I can build that bridge between my world and theirs, I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.”
--Utah Phillips from the song Bridges

Monday, August 24, 2009

A day's harvest

A day's harvestEven with the troubles I've had with this year's garden I'm still pulling in a nice harvest. I planted at least five varieties of all the following: summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, basil as well as several winter squash and melons. Most are producing at least something, some more than others. If I can continue to keep the rabbits out I should have a decent harvest of greens this fall and will be planting a good bit in the greenhouse.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Permaculture Workshop Series

Are you interested in learning the skills needed to live a more self-sufficient and sustainable life? Concerned about the economy, climate change, and peak oil? Ready to get your hands dirty?

Come for an introductory workshop to our permaculture homestead! The workshop will include a discussion of the basics of permaculture to be followed by a tour of our site for a first hand view of how the principles look when implemented. We’ll see and discuss:

  • Rainwater harvesting with swales and barrels

  • Recognizing and using all the contributions and yields of animals: chickens, guineas and more
  • Creating complex food forest systems: medicine, food, and fiber
  • The design and benefits of a greenhouse-chicken coop

Some of the principles of permaculture design that will be discussed:

  • Integrated Systems

    • cooperation rather than competition

    • each element serves many functions

    • each function supported by many elements

  • Small scale, self replicating systems

    • use of local resources

    • maximum use of minimum resources

  • Energy Storage

    • natural storage in water, soil, and trees

    • storage in buildings and infrastructure

  • Recycling of Materials

Time and space permitting we may also watch a couple of short videos. Bring a sack lunch. If there is an interest in learning more beyond this introduction we may setup a series of workshops.

When: Saturday, September 12th, 10am-3pm

Location: 6 miles north of Fredericktown, we’ll give you directions when you sign up!

Cost: Free!

If you are interested in learning more or would like to reserve a spot leave a comment or email geekinthegarden at gmail dot com

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Learning from Nature with Sheet Mulching

This is the fifth article in an ongoing series that I've written in our town's alternative paper, the Madison County Crier. The series is intended to be an introduction to permaculture, often illustrated by examples taken from our homestead. When possible I've also made it a point to link in to the potential for a permacultural approach to town and community life as well as the prospects for easing our town's transition into this new future we have before us.

In my last article I discussed relationships as they exist in garden guilds and in town communities such as Fredericktown. Much of permaculture is about how we design relationships into a site so that things such as plants, animals and buildings work better together and so require less energy input from us. This week I thought I’d focus on a very practical hands on task that, while seeming very simple to us, enables complex natural processes which increase the health and diversity of our garden soil: sheet mulching.

Walk out into any mature Missouri woodland of diverse trees and dig our hands down into the soil and you will find fantastic fertility. At any moment woodland soil is full of organic matter in the process of decay. Fungi and soil microbes are constantly breaking down leaves, sticks and any other “dead” matter that has fallen to the forest floor. According to Jack Kittredge in the Spring 2002 issue of The Natural Farmer:

... it is hard to overestimate the importance of mushrooms in forest life. Their mycelia form a complex forking network of interwoven strands of cells that grow beyond the immediate tree’s root zone, extending, in extreme cases, over many acres. The mycelial content of topsoil in a Pacific Northwestern Douglas Fir forest has been estimated to be as much as 10% of biomass! Each mycelium gives off
enzymes which unlock organic compounds in the surrounding matrix, releasing carbon, nitrogen, and other elements that are then absorbed and concentrated directly into the network.

Modern agriculture, as it has grown from small family farms to massive acreage industrial farms, has taken an approach which relies on fossil fuel-based chemicals for fertilization and the removal of “pests”. It is an approach which has decimated the natural fertility of complex soil ecosystems. Even small scale vegetable gardening is most often accomplished with tilling which greatly disrupts the natural microbial layers found in the soil. Opening up the bare soil to the direct sun and wind is not only destructive but is an open invitation to weeds and the need for more work or the use of chemicals.

The no-till method of gardening using heavy layers to form a thick sheet mulch creating conditions very similar to a forest floor: carbon rich, shaded, cool and moist. Pull back a section of sheet mulch which has set for six months or more and you will find a great abundance of earthworms, far more than were there before the mulch. A close examination of the newspaper or cardboard will also reveal many patches of intricate white threads, the mycelium of soil fungi which have been busy breaking down the carbon. The soil is so thoroughly tilled by the earthworms and the crumb structure improved that you will usually be able to easily push your fingers deep into the ground with little effort.

Now, let’s get down to the how-to. Sheet mulching is incredibly easy but may require a bit of planning to save or collect the materials needed. You’ll need lots of newspaper, cardboard, or both. Nothing with waxy coatings and bright colors such as many of the advertisement sections of the paper. We want basic newsprint and basic brown cardboard. Ask around the businesses in town and they are often glad to have someone take it away. The amount needed is determined by the size of garden space. The other ingredient is something like straw, leaves or wood chip mulch. Straw works very well because it will last a full year, won’t blow around and looks pretty nice. Wood chip mulch also works well but cedar and pine may increase the acidity of the soil avoid those woods as well as anything which is treated. Leaves tend to blow around and don’t look as nice. If you have lots of leaves use them but top off with straw or wood mulch for a tidier appearance. Aged manure or compost can also be used and will speed the process up a bit but are not essential ingredients.

Step one is to water the area to be mulched. I often plan to do it the day after a rain. Basically, the ground just needs a good watering as you might do if you were watering a garden or lawn. If you have compost or manure spread it over the area to be mulched in a layer three inches or less. Next comes the cardboard or newspaper which should be laid down so that it overlaps a couple inches on each side. Don’t spread too thin. If using newspaper open it at the fold then lay it down. If the layer is too thin it will break down more quickly and may not last a full year which is the goal. Follow the cardboard/newspaper layer with straw, leaves, or wood chip mulch which should be laid down in a layer of about three inches. Give this layer a light watering. Done.

Laying the mulch should be done in spring, summer or fall. I think spring or early summer is best. You can mulch directly over hard compacted grass without mowing or any other preparation but this area won’t be ready for planting right away. In areas which have been mulched for at least 4 to 5 months the soil is often improved enough to plant in fairly easily. This spring I’ve been working in a bed which was mulch last summer and the soil is greatly improved. The cardboard is very well rotted and can be easily pushed through with a small hand shovel for putting in plants and seed potatoes. For direct planting of seeds I can easily clear away a row or area with hoe or hand shovel.

When we sheet mulch not only are we using “waste” materials such as newspaper and cardboard, we will find that the need to water and weed are greatly reduced. Not only are we more efficiently using resources and saving ourselves time but we are greatly improving the stability and health of our soil.

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