Monday, January 26, 2009

Winter Business

In these cold and beautiful days of winter I spend most of my time gathering, moving, chopping or burning wood. When I'm not doing that I'm usually reading, cooking or playing ball with Talula. But I do have a few relatively new and unexpected activities that have spiced up life in the winter woods.

I've mentioned here before that a few months back I had wandered into Cowboy Coffee, a coffee shop and restaurant in town. This has turned out to be a great discovery for a number of reasons. I initially made a habit of going in once a week during my usual supply run for food, straw, and chainsaw blades. Not only do they have good coffee but also great brownies and pie. Even better, thanks to the free highspeed internet I could download any large files I needed. Of course I've felt for many years that coffee shops are perhaps the best place to meet and get to know the most interesting folks of any community. This has turned out to be the case.

Thanks to my visits I first discovered the a great little community newspaper, The Madison County Crier which then lead to meeting Karen and David which led to Thursday night craft nights at the coffee shop which meant meeting even more very nice local folk. Even better, thanks to Karen who publishes the above mentioned newspaper, I'm also getting a chance to do bit of writing and page layout, both of which I enjoy. Local newspapers are essential to community culture and democracy so I'm very happy to be involved with this. The Crier reminds me of our short-lived community newspaper effort in Memphis, Mid-South Voices which we published after the FCC shut down our beloved Free Radio Memphis.

Karen and David as well as all of the other very interesting and active folks I'm meeting at the Coffee Shop: Juli, Ruth, Roger, Kyle, Bill, Shannon, and Katie (to name a few) have all been incredibly kind. I left my active community life of Memphis nearly five years ago and have spent most of those years feeling somewhat confused and depressed. Really, that is another very long story, bits of which I've written about before. The real point is that when I moved to the lake to start this homestead I did not expect that I'd be getting involved outside of my own project but that has changed and I'm very happy about it.

As spring approaches I'm also making plans for the garden. Of course there is the usual seed buying frenzy but this year we'll also be adding in chickens and, hopefully, a hive of bees so I've been doing a good bit of reading on bee keeping. I'm very confident about the chickens, less so about the bees but I'm fairly certain I can handle it. Given the serious problem of Colony Collapse Disorder which is affecting bees across North America I'm beginning to think keeping a hive or two of healthy bees might be more of a responsibility than an option.

Two other projects for spring and summer will be the processing of both cultivated and wild plants for our use as food and medicine. While I know the basic ideas and processes I don't know the details.

I've spent a good bit of my past five years in Missouri learning about the native plants that grow here and have gotten fairly good and identification. The past summer I began an informal inventory of the native plants around our homestead with particular attention to medicinals. I'll be putting together a much more detailed inventory this summer and will also begin to harvest, process and store those things which seem most useful. To that end I've ordered Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech. I'll also be planting those essential medicinals that I have not yet discovered here, namely Purple Coneflower and Goldenseal.

In regards to food, the goal is to not just can, but dehydrate, smoke, and ferment. The simplest of them would be dehydrating, canning and fermenting. The more complex is smoking which is more about meat and specifically fish because that's currently the only meat I eat. I'm most interested in fermenting and will likely focus on that first. I've ordered Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Time stands still

Cabin_Lake_Snow2.jpgWe had a very nice surprise a couple days ago: snow. A light but steady snowfall that began midmorning. Not alot, but just enough to cover the paths and the frozen lake. After enjoying it through the window most of the afternoon I stopped resisting the urge and took Talula out for a short walk. I wanted to go half way around the lake so that I could take a picture looking back across the lake at the cabin.

The birds were, of course, very busy as they often are during snow fall. The usual cast of characters could be seen or heard as they went about their business of food gathering. While I love and appreciate them all, it is always the plain and simple Juncos that seem to bring the biggest smile to my face. I'm not sure why. Just a few hundred feet from the cabin we came across five or six deer that were just a few feet into the woods.

At fifteen degrees it is cold enough that my thin work gloves only seem to keep my fingers warm for a brief few minutes so by the time I'd gotten my photos I was starting to really feel the chill in my hands. I was eager to head back to the warmth of the wood warmed cabin and yesterday's leftover vegetable soup that I left heating up on the stove. My pace was quick.

I'm not sure what prompted it, but as I walked back I slowed, then stopped under a cluster of cedar trees. I stood still. I looked into the woods and then up into the sky. Time seemed to slow. I was suddenly very aware of each breath. I had the sense that my vision had both widened and narrowed at the same time. I was aware of the larger sky but also of a field of focus just inches above my face in which the crystal structure of each passing snowflake became unbelievably clear. What came next was an amazing sense of calm and my body relaxed. I was warm. I then became aware of this heightened sense of awareness which was comforting and strange.

This is the pure and simple beauty that comes from a life lived in deliberate connection with nature. I've had many such moments of awareness before and consider them the most beautiful moments of my life. All of them have happened while I was "outside" in the natural world. I've come to believe that these moments can happen every day and with practice that they can become anchor points that deepen our connection, our relation with the living force of the planet all around us.

I suppose such moments are similar to or the same as the daily mindfulness that Buddhists such as Thich Nat Han advocate as a form of moment-to-moment, breath-meditation that leads to an over-all increase in awareness and thus, peacefulness. Based on my own experience I tend to agree with the approach and the result. But a general sense of well being and peacefulness is not the end. It is far more meaningful if combined with the active cultivation of ecologically sustainable human community.

I can't help but think that the deliberate, cultivated sense of being in the moment, of being connected and aware of the life around us when combined with the meaningful and needed work of social ecological activism can only lead to a more realized and evolved humanity.

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An animal walking in the woods


Ha! I wrote that line and almost stopped because I liked the title and the simplicity of that one word in answer. But really, this post is prompted by something Greenpa over at Little Blog in the Big Woods wrote. It is something I have meant to write about for a long, long time but never did: that we have let the conveniences of modern day life come between us and the direct experience of nature. It has softened us and dulled us. I suppose I have written about it in a round about way when I've discussed living without an air conditioner, fridge, or running water but I've not written about it in quite the same way that Greenpa
puts it here:
'You set up your house so you HAVE to walk at least 100 yards to get to your car?! On PURPOSE??! And the worse the weather, the farther you have to walk??!!!?'

Yes I did.


Because I'm lazy.

Seriously. I'd rather not walk that far, particularly in lousy weather. If I could avoid it, I wouldn't do it.

That, however, is something I see as an increasing problem in our world; our ever growing insulation from nature. In my lifetime, we've seen air-conditioning invented; then become an absolute necessity. There are loads of kids out there who cannot conceive of summer in the city without full air-conditioning.

Besides all the energy load of the machines, and the ozone destroying refrigerants; all the heat pumped out into the city so that meteorologists now see them as 'heat islands' on their maps; these kids do not know what it is to be HOT. And to have to deal with it.

Or cold. In winter, we go from our heated houses into our attached garages, get into our pre-warmed cars; drive to the underground parking ramps, scurry to the elevators (heated) and shiver into the offices, complaining about how miserably cold it is, without actually having been outside more than 30 seconds at a time.

As a biologist, I can assure you, we can tolerate a lot of heat; and adapt to a lot of cold, and human skin does not melt in the rain. But more and more, kids are genuinely unaware of that.

I don't think that's a good idea. And I doubt it's good to be so comfortable, all the time, even for folks who DO know it. I really think humans are a part of nature. And I really think we need to stay in touch with the rest of it.

Anyone that knows me or who has read this blog knows what I think about climate change and peak oil. Not only are they very real but they have come to our front door and stepped into our homes. They are here right now.

I've chosen do what I think must be done on a mass scale right now (though I'm certain it won't be) and that is DRASTIC change in how we live our lives. I have chosen to live directly and deliberately with nature as a part of nature. Ultimately I think more and more of us will be forced into this but I'd much rather make the changes by choice. In fact, I relish the intensity and beauty of it. The other night is was sitting in our unheated outhouse at 8 degrees F. Not only did I survive but as I did my business I enjoyed looking out the window at the star filled sky and it was perhaps the most fantastic shit I've ever taken. The very next morning I was out there doing the very same thing only this time I was watching and listening as a variety of birds went about their morning business in the branches just a few feet away. Yes my ass was frozen but thanks to the beauty surrounding me this too was a great start to another day.

The fact is that these are the conditions that many all over this planet still live in every day. As Greenpa says above, humans are much, much more durable than we in the "civilized" world realize. Not only can we survive the greater intensity of a life lived more directly, but the experiences deepen our appreciation of the simple comforts that we do have. In truth, if we truly value the ideas of justice and fairness it seems to me that we really should live in such a way that limits our resource use to a level that will allow our fellow humans to live better. Our very survival depends on it.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Want hands on experience with ecological gardening and permaculture?

Picture 4.pngAre you interested in learning the skills needed to live a more self-sufficient and sustainable life? Concerned about climate change and peak energy? Ready to get your hands dirty?

Come for a visit to our permaculture homestead amongst the woodlands of mid-Missouri. We’re looking for energetic folks interested in a cooperative, hands-on learning experience.

You’ll learn about ecological gardening while you help us expand and maintain our food forest. As we implement the various elements of our permaculture design you’ll also learn about:
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Chickens in the garden
  • Humanure composting

Other activities that we hope to explore and are still learning about ourselves include:

  • Food preservation and storage methods such as drying, fermenting, smoking and canning
  • Bee keeping
  • Wild plant identification, use, and preparation
  • Candle making
  • Woodworking

Perhaps you have a skill to teach? We’re always looking for new self sufficiency skills!

Our project is less than a year old so our accommodations are a bit rough at the moment. While we can provide a beautiful campsite in the woods or near our lake you will need to provide your own tent and other camping gear. You’ll also have easy access to our well for water and solar showers. We also have an outhouse.

While you will have access to produce from the gardens and surrounding woodland we cannot provide other meals. We can provide you with a weekly ride into town for food shopping as well as a lake full of fish.

While we hope and expect to work hard we also take plenty of time off for rest and relaxation. With over one hundred acres we have more than enough land for a long walk or nestle in the shaded nook of a cedar tree and read a good book or nap!

We currently have three openings for stays of 2 to 6 weeks, possibly longer. If you are interested in learning more or would like to sign-up please get in touch: geekinthegarden at gmail

You can also download a pdf of the fancy flier I conjured up!

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Climate change and the need for drastic action

Rob Hopkins of the Transition Town movement has an excellent post: about the need for fairly drastic 9% cuts in carbon emissions that we need to avert climate change. His post reminds me of something I wrote nearly a year ago, namely that we need a global recession. Humans have thus far proven incapable of dealing with this issue in any meaningful way. A recession or depression, though very difficult, will force the solution.

From Hopkins' post:

Last week a friend sent me a stunning, thinking-shifting powerpoint by Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre’s Energy Programme entitled Reframing Climate Change: from long-term targets to emission pathways. If you want a sobering and, frankly, deeply depressing, update on the implications of the latest climate science, this is as good a place to start as any. It looks at the scale of the year-on-year emissions that we need to make, and it is quite something. Given that we need to aim to stay below 450ppm in order to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change (and even that, as the Climate Safety report, issued last week, and the recent testimony from Tim Helwig-Larsen and James Hansen at the House of Commons set out, is almost certainly not enough), what does that actually mean in terms of emissions cuts?

If , Anderson argues, we were to aim for 650ppm with global emissions peaking in 2020, we would need 3% annual cuts starting today. A huge task in itself. If we want to aim for 550ppm with emissions peaking in 2020, we would need 6% annual reductions (which means 9% reductions in emissions from energy generation). If we go for the 450ppm target, which is, realistically, the one that has any chance of preserving a stable climate, we need 9% reductions, every year, for the foreseeable future, starting now. 9%.

9% is just a number though, and as one wades through the climate change literature one is bombared with numbers… but having studied this presentation, 9% is clearly an important one, perhaps as important as Bill McKibben’s 350.  What might it actually mean in practice?   Anderson goes on to look at the rare occasions in the past when reductions have actually been achieved by ‘developed’ nations. Annual reductions of greater than 1% p.a. have, he argues, quoting the Stern Report, only ‘been associated with economic recession or upheaval’. Interesting.

I have little doubt that we have entered a greater depression or what James Kunstler calls the Long Emergency. The landscape of the United States is changing by the day and by the end of 2009 it will be very different place. We can waste resources fighting this inevitability or we can embrace it. I have chosen to embrace it by shifting to a greatly simplified life based on permaculture. I'll do my best to become self sufficient and to share my surpluses.

What does a simple life like this look like? In the first 8 months of living at my homestead I've happily lived on 2-3 kWh a day (the U.S. average is around 31 a day) with no refrigerator, microwave, or other major appliances. I use a couple of compact fluorescent lights, a laptop, and, on occasion, a television. I haul water from a well and use 3-5 gallons a day. I cook with propane or wood stove which is also my heat in the winter. All humanure is composted for use on fruit trees after 2 years. I drive to town once a week. Next years expanded garden should produce much of my year's food. If I can preserve it properly maybe most of my food. When the food forest has matured I'm hoping to be able to produce all my food for the year except for the rice and wheat.

Having lived a similar life at the deCleyre co-op in Memphis, TN I have little doubt that a great deal can be done on any suburban or city lot. Striving for a smaller carbon footprint and greater self reliance can happen anywhere though certainly those with more land can grow more. Washing clothes by hand and hanging to dry can happen practically anywhere as can food preparation from scratch.

The key is to take a hard look at what we use and assume as the normal, needed appliances. We often don't need them, but have gotten used to them. The 9% reduction discussed in the article above is a very large cut from what we currently use. It will require that we all garden, reduce driving to only essential or emergency trips, and drastically reduce our consumption. In other word,s 9% is not accomplished by the easy stuff like changing light bulbs. It means little or no air conditioning, heating in the winter to 55 or 60 rather than 72. Imagine cutting your electrical use by half and then cut that in half again. Now cut it in half one more time. Anyone can do these things but it will not be easy and it will require commitment to drastic change. It really is that simple.

One last thought. For those that want to believe that we can solve this problem with technology. It is NOT going to happen that way. Sure, we can build out solar and wind power capacity and we should. But that is only part of the answer, probably the smallest part. The largest part will be the drastic conservation that we can all do RIGHT NOW without any government legislation or infrastructure change.

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