Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The land bank

We only know a few of our neighbors, after eighteen years; it's a very conservative community and we're a "non-traditional" couple. Yet the folks we've actually met, we like. Get-togethers are rare; if you aren't going to the local church (ours is in town) you aren't going to be invited to the parties. We have friends over regularly but they are mostly from the urban center, twenty minutes away via gasoline.

One way to get to know people is to join the Neighborhood Watch and attend meetings. We plan to do that but, uhhh, we've not yet discovered when and where those are. But it's a potential starting point. I have heard that our local one was started because many of the young people being raised around here have reached the age where it's cool to raid your buddies' parents' house for stuff. A phase; they'll grow out of it, we hope. Stony Run doesn't seem to be part of that loop at present, thank goodness.

Meanwhile, it's fun to speculate on what might happen around here if neighbors were suddenly forced to rely on those in their immediate surroundings for survival.

It's an exercise we can recommend. Do a walk tour or a bike tour (Cowboy did his on horseback, which he discovered opens up conversations) and see what's out there. Where's the water? The timber? Stone, gravel? Good soil? What kinds of buildings are there? Who's advertising their skills as home businesses? What's growing? What could be grown? How adaptable are the various properties? Here's a three-mile bike loop with a few notes on what's to be seen.

This place, on a street corner with a strategic Neighborhood Watch sign, is the edge of a built-up section. It was forty acres once, but was subdivided into five acre plots, still with one owner, though. The first time Risa saw it, it was all in wheat. For the last 35 years, it's had hay taken off it and one rental house, a double-wide, installed. It's much better land than Stony Run's and would easily support a wide variety of agricultural activities, and would be a good site for a farm stand as well. Except for the hay going away, it has essentially fallowed all this time. This is very typical for the area. The Mighty River flows by in the middle distance, at the foot of the mountains -- about a mile away. Some farmers have irrigation rights from there, but not all do. Much would depend on the availability of wells. Drought has been known to affect these.

Much of the open land one sees while pedaling through here is in pasture, and much of that is for horses. The grass is plentiful and nutritious but dries up in late summer and also becomes relatively non-nutritious in the ubiquitous winter rains; much hay and feed is bought in. The horses tend to be play-pretties. Some get ridden; most don't. None locally are doing any plowing or carting, though one supposes they could be re-trained in a pinch. Most transportation is by massive V-8s.

Exotics are popular; llamas, alpacas and emus abound. People buy them for a lot of money, feed them for a few years, then sell at a loss. Not sure what that's about. One farmer keeps a regular mid-sized flock of sheep with one llama for coyote protection and that does seem to work well.

A number of residents keep beef cattle, from a handful to fifty or so. Word is that there are some free-range pigs and goat-cheese operations around, but none show up in the bike tour. There are no CAFOs, apparently; which is a blessing. The mountain in the distance is all Federal lands -- about half Bureau of Land Management and half National Forest. Logging (by clearcut), though much reduced over the last couple of decades, is the principal economic activity in this rural area.

The light green stripe near the mountain is feed corn -- about 100 acres. This is bottom land, near the river. Corn, like other summer crops, is a bit of a risk, though, as the growing season in this valley is shorter so close to the mountain range. Not shown here are the many tractors and attachments left out in the long winter rains -- here, as elsewhere, Americans are notable for their unwillingness to maintain equipment they will wish they still had, someday. The whole mountain is a park, by the way -- frequented by hordes of hikers from the nearby urban center.

There are a number of nurseries; most of them seem to specialize in shrubs and small trees for landscaping, with some focus on things like blueberries and fruit trees. Orcharding was tried a couple of generations ago, and there was extensive dairying and truck farming as well. None of these pays at present. The vegetables and fruits all come from California and dairying is over-regulated and under-paid. The area is zoned agricultural and everyone is happy with that; but with so few actually farming, the impression one has is that folks are waiting out the strange economy, hoping to get back into farming "someday."

Horses are one of the few true industries; some owners breed, others board and train. There are quite a few stables and paddocks around.

New construction, though rare of late, is mostly of the McMansion style; the ideas seems to be to come up with a play room suitable for installing the largest possible screen for watching 24-hour agitprop and football channels. That said, the homes are better built than in many other areas and would, in a pinch, make good communes. In fact, with the ailing economy, a number of extended families have pulled together at "the old home place" in the manner noted by Sharon Astyk. The only difference is that most of these don't seem to have started gardens yet.

The biggest farmer in the area uses large (for here) acreages and gigantic machinery to turn over an important local cash crop annually: grass seed. The combines actually would be overkill for this size acreage, but they are hired and come into the area once a year, lumbering along the narrow roads. When this recently-sprouted field reaches a certain level of maturity, hundreds of sheep will be run on it over the winter to produce lambs, then the seed and straw will be taken off next summer. Yes, it's a very chemical-intensive rotation; we buy our lamb from an organic-farmer friend.

You may have noticed the high-tension wires in various shots; they are from a hydroelectric project nearby (where Risa does most of her paddling and trout-gathering). In TEOTWAWKI these would undoubtedly fall into disuse; meanwhile, we're pleased to know that locally most of the electricity doesn't come from coal.

Last stop, another of the grass seed fields. The little rise in the distance, by the power towers, is another farm, and this past year they had wheat there. Wheat has its own problems, but it's food, so it's kind of nice to see it making a comeback.

So, what did we learn? a) It's really beautiful around here. b) There's somewhat of a culture gap between Stony Run and its surroundings, but everyone is kindly towards those around them, skilled, and sensible. c) We're not ruining or developing the land as much as one might see elsewhere, and it should retain its tilth for some time to come. This is kind of surprising given the incentive to develop -- four acres, a double-wide house and horse barn are on offer around the corner for over $250,000. d) Potential for sustainable community subsistence is immense -- given the means to assure water supply to all these acreages in the long rainless summers -- but almost completely untapped and likely to remain so.

What this neighborhood really is, is a kind of privately held land bank.

While it's sad (and ultimately dangerous) that the county we live in gets 95% of its food from elsewhere, and there are one billion underfed people in the world, and economics leads this neighborhood into pretty much ignoring the short-term situation, the upside is that future generations may be glad all this soil around here remained intact.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Risa's Chicken Moat Pattern

Click image to see better. Still ugly, I know ... but hopefully a pattern worth applying to the suburban farms to come. Not original at all; it's just our take on an idea we think should spread farther.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mother-Daughter time

Risa took a day off. Got up late!! Got fed breakfast by Daughter (and dinner the night before). And then we went down to th' river.

Daughter wanted to see the Rock Islands, which are only a very few miles from her place, and so it was "Come up here! and bring th' BOATS!"

So we put in and went. Otters! Herons!

Solitude. Leaning on each other, watching the Mighty River slide down to the wide Pacific.

Mother/Daughter time. Do it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Every garden offers wonders

While waiting for the seeded grapes to reach sufficient sugar content to make good wine (something they might well fail to do this year), Risa decided to try to use some of them with the faster-maturing seedless grapes for canning up some grape juice.

She's learning, as an empty-nester, to work with smaller batches of things. Once upon a time, we would only have done this in the giant stock pot, which will burn fruity things if not faithfully attended. This time she ran the grapes through the blender, poured them off into the crockpots, and let them simmer. This will stop enzymes and yeast and also shove out the air bubbles introduced by the blender, which could be fatal to Mason jars -- take it from the one who, not being very good at canning, has been there...

...and without burning the juice at the bottom of the pot. When she feels the crock pots have done their business, everything goes through the strainer into a pitcher and from there to the pint jars. This is a pretty strong grape juice, not being peak-of-season, and will be mixed with a little honey and water before serving.

The three crockpots made nine pints of strained juice. They're funny little things -- two are in "avocado," that magnificently hideous 70s color. Five bucks each at Goodwill and worth a good deal more, we think.

As you can see, the garden is pretty but looks much as it did in late June, which is very odd. Corn, tomatoes, eggplants and winter squash have just sat there all summer, doing little if anything. They are just trying to get going as the cold rains set in. The cabbages, kale, and chard, however, are having a banner year. Very little bolting, even when the temperatures neared 100. Never seen nothin' like it. But when we walk there, we walk amidst beauty. Every garden offers wonders, it seems.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Potatoes from nowhere

Risa has been across the creek in the recent dry spell, mowing some green manure and pasture and lifting potatoes.

Mostly we grow potatoes in the garden beds along with everything else, in a hodgepodge "arrangement" often called polyculture. But last year there were lots and lots of potatoes, and Risa did not find them all, so at planting time this year there were too many to plant, both because we didn't manage to eat much more than half of what we'd stored, and volunteers were coming up in the beds. What to do?

Back where she used to work, they got in a hundred new computers, and called her up to come and get the empty boxes. Aha!

Risa flattened and spread the boxes on a disused space in the west "pasture," spread leaves and straw on the boxes, spread chitted potatoes on the straw, and heaped more straw, in humps, over the potatoes. It's a ways away from nearly everything else, so she knew she wouldn't be irrigating much, and said "good luck" to the new spud patch and moved on to the next item on her list.

Come September and the threat of rain, and she remembered the spuds and went to have a look. A few of the chits, perhaps a higher proportion than in the garden, had failed to crop at all. The rest produced a mixed bag of tiny, small, medium and decent-sized potatoes, plus several giants.

It wouldn't be much to write home about, except that, yes, there's more than she started with; besides which this crop represents little more than no labor from a patch of sod, beneath which the soil is very stony. As she raked over the bed with her potato hook, she found much of the cardboard intact, and beneath it, lots of moss not quite dead yet. Very few vegetables could have made so much of such a new and sour spot. It didn't even attract earthworms, something cardboard does almost anywhere you put it.

But the potatoes grew! If  those in the garden do no better than these, we should still have a very decent spud year, with plenty to have over the winter and plenty to plant. If you find yourself with extra sprouted potatoes on hand and a full garden, you can try this. Amaze your friends! Influence people! -- with your mysterious "Potatoes from Nowhere."

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Instant spoon bread"

Even in a relatively poor garden year, early fall in the country can be a time of too many options. There are potatoes in baskets, scattered along countertops, in bags, and still in the ground. Apples are all over the place, the freezer is full of bags of blackberries and containers of lightly blanched zucchini, eggplants and peppers hang forlornly from their branches waiting, like wallflowers, to be noticed, and the arbor groans with grapes. So, even though we've halved the size of the loaves we bake, it's still possible to wind up with a hunk of stale bread that's about to turn blue all along one edge.

At this point, one might decide it's chicken feed or compost. But we like our bread, into which we've put a lot of work, and often try to think of ways to redeem that last bit.

One is to slice it thin and toast it with a little cheese or homemade garlic-and-basil butter. Another is to crumble it up into a bowl of cooked-up cracked wheat or other grain. Yet another is to add it back to the next batch of dough, and still another is to use it in soup, just like crackers.

Risa likes to break down such chunks into bite-size bits, add sliced tomatoes, basil, chard, onion greens, chives or other fresh herbs, add some kale or other greens, shredded, then sprinkle on some grated local cheddar, and stick the bowl in the zapper for one to one-and-a-half minutes. She calls it her "instant spoon bread."

Some of her friends are still leery of zappers, but she observes them chattering away with powerful radiation-emitting cell phones jammed against their heads, and thinks she's chosen the lesser of same evils, so to speak. But if you're one of these friends, consider using the rice steamer for this "recipe." It takes only a little longer, and the results are only a little morewilty. A toaster oven might do. In cooler weather, you can set the bowl on a trivet on top of the woodstove or in a Dutch oven set there. What Risa tries to avoid, most of the time, is relying on the energy black hole that's the oven in her electric range. The broiler works well, but it sets the meter on the outside of the house spinning like a pinwheel in a hurricane.

A wide range of ingredients, almost whatever is on hand, can go into such "spoon breads." But we'll stop here. The truly eclectic country eater can feed herself much more easily than she can feed company, if they're not used to, say, cooked apple slices with eggs ...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Blackberry season is still on

Note happy chickens at lower right. Wire at upper right is not attached to Risa's head; it's a hawk stopper.
Most of our fruit trees, of which there are now almost forty, are still too young to bear: figs, nectarines, persimmons, pears (lots of pears), sweet cherries, pineapple quinces, plums, peaches. The kiwis, goumi, aronia, and blueberries are too young, too, and we didn't keep after the strawberries or, some time ago, now, the raspberries. Of the older trees, the pie cherry and most of the apples and plums skipped this year as well, leaving the three apples down by the road to cover all bases.

Risa has been trying to dehydrate more apples than last year, but has fallen behind due to a longish spell of wet weather, which is only just now breaking up. So she's been madly canning applesauce (freezer being full of other things) -- but we know we only go through so much applesauce in a year, even as gifts -- there's some left from last year.

Part of that is that when you open a quart of applesauce, there you are with 4/5 of a quart open in the fridge. We're suddenly what are called senior citizens, with a reduced appetite, and also, after decades of kids in the house, empty-nesters. We have hundreds of empty quart canning jars, and they are suddenly just "not my size."

So, this year's canning session has been all about wide-mouth pints, of which there aren't yet enough. So far so good, but the apples are getting monotonous-looking, even with all the "pumpkin" spice -- cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, and a hint of ginger (well, hey, that's how we like it) that Risa's putting in.

Earlier, when the Himalaya berries were in full swing, Risa picked many, many pints of these for the freezer. Beloved uses them in her endless parade of bowls of (locally made, organic, famous brand) yogurt.

But the rain has put paid to Himalaya gathering: mold. Just as Risa was gearing up to make blackberry jam in 1/2 pint jars.

All is not lost, however.

There are two kinds of (giant, land-gobbling) runaway commercial blackberries prowling the fence lines and pastures here. The broad-leaved ones are the Himalayas. The thin-leaved ones, the ones with twice the thorns (sharper, too!), whose fruit is not quite as plump and fruity as the Himalayas, are the Evergreens. Both were brought in by pioneer farmers, and both are the bane of landowners ever since -- they're our local equivalent of kudzu -- but they are fabulously productive.

And the Evergreens aren't molding.

A bonus is the fun she can have with the chickens when she's picking in their pasture. Any berry that's not quite quite -- too hard, too mushy, or with a red side -- she can drop at her feet, and the hens are on it in a flash. They've become adept at darting in and stealing one from a compatriot whose beak is just closing round the morsel. One actually went into a classic major-league slide on her fanny, one leg high, to spike the rooster as he craned his neck for a grounder, and steal second base. Endlessly entertaining.

So, blackberry season -- which had begun to look a bit grim --  is still on. This will make up some for the lack of other fruit -- not to mention most of the -- still green -- tomatoes.


We're not, here at SRF, such serious blackberry pickers as we once were -- all over the Northwest, at this time of year, you can see whole families of the underemployed, in fields, along hedgerows, fences, roadsides, and in parks, berrying on contract for yogurt processors and the like. There's a professional look to them. If you want to berry on this scale, carry a pair of pruners to get through the unproductive first-year canes and wear a belt with a cut-away milk jug strung on it by the handle (you need both hands). Also, and this is the main trick, have with you a ten-foot-long two-by-eight for each picker, tricked out with a towing handle (made of thick rope if you can get it) and with a tread nailed on, made of one-by-two, every fourteen inches or so. Pick around the perimeter of your patch, and when you're ready to establish a beachhead, so to speak, grab your surfboard by the handle end and toss the other end into the patch. Walk up the board, picking as you go. Fun and productive! If you get hooked, push, don't pull, to get loose from the thorns. I actually work fastest with bare arms.

If you want to get even more serious, find out who's buying, make a deal, then go and get permission from landowners. The best grounds are already taken, of course, but persistence, as with anything else, pays. Park rangers can be surprisingly cooperative. Happy picking!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Enjoy the sunrises

I'm not, at root, a despairing type. So I plug along with my adaptive seed-saving and homestead projects, and everyone smiles at my "hobbies."

I believe in a slow descent, beginning in my lifetime. It's already begun. But I'm not running for the hills. (Can't anyway, I'm 61!) The emphasis is on slow. But descent (from the high tide of "civilization") is in the picture for sure.

No, not so much from the global warming. That won't start killing rich white kids until after about 2050, meaning certain countries, mine included, won't feel sufficiently threatened by it to take action (way too late to do any good) until long after my time. And they will have enough troubles by then that they won't be able to take those actions.

No, not so much from peak oil. There's truth in that, too, but at peak we have half the recoverable oil yet to burn (and choke on). It could be awhile before we panic much over that either.

No, it will begin more, I think, with social disintegration. Conservatives have noticed this, and blame liberals (and blacks and browns and Asians and Muslims and gays and even transpeople (that would be little old me) for it, which is essentially false; but liberals blame conservatives for it, too, which is also pretty close to being false. That trouble originates not with people whose values have, or once had, their roots in a functional diversified subsistence agriculture, but with the cynical industrialists and bankers who  have, for a long time now, been playing us all for chumps -- and co-opting conservatives.

I personally lay much of the blame for this on television, radio, print and Internet advertising and corporate sponsorships, including that for public media such as NPR -- and lobbying and campaign spending, all of which is rooted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision, back in the 1800s, to regard corporations as persons with rights -- the megacorporations' ads and commercials and Capital Hill connivings, with their wink-nudge ethos, have sapped the public domain and the will of millions to seek knowledge and judge of it critically. The target of this century-long attack is the commons, and the commons is just about expired.

We, as a world, are slowly going insane from megacorporatism. And there's no cure. At best we can scurry around hoping the rotten apparatus doesn't hit us when it falls.

As government processes driven by any other impulse than service to megacorporations grind to a halt, infrastructure service to the public will fray and ultimately shatter in many places; and as the local public infrastructures are all intimately bound together by what was, briefly in human history, the greatest public infrastructure of all time, the effects are extremely likely to snowball and bring the whole thing crashing down. Like what very nearly happened, on a smaller scale, in the fall of 2008.

And then the conservatives will point to the liberals and the liberals will point to the conservatives and say, almost in unison, see, I told you so! While the industrialists and the bankers, much more at fault, will tiptoe away to their hideouts, which they've been fortifying for at least two generations now. From their point of view, all this is just so much population control, and it will have been successful -- except I don't think as highly of their fortresses' security measures as they do.

Fossil energy will still be around in large quantities, but become difficult to transport or market effectively. This will exacerbate the food shortages, the water shortages, the sporadic attempts to mitigate the warming (which was caused by the transportation and marketing of fossil fuels), the electricity grid failures, all leading to further social disintegration, leading to more failures, and very likely to world resource war. Scarcity in the midst of plenty, brought on by simple greed "at the top."

So social disintegration, for a largely urban (and very large) population within a framework of extreme infrastructure complexity, is the great danger.

Almost anything can now nudge us off our balance beam: floods, storms, droughts, loss of ice cover or groundwater, crop failures, epidemics -- all of these are statistically associated with the warming, as actuaries in the insurance industry can tell you -- including the giant snowstorms. But also earthquakes and volcanoes and solar storms -- because disaster strains infrastructure, and our infrastructure is approaching the point at which it becomes more and more difficult to maintain.

Y'wanna try and fix all this? Say, at the polls? Heh. Here in the U.S., the extra-constitutional 60-vote rule in the Senate will stop you before you start. Similar safeguards are in place elsewhere.

Better start small. You won't fix anything, but you might mitigate the pain, for yourself and others, for awhile. After that, who knows?

I'm fond of the endearing Transition Towns project, which if you are starry-eyed enough to want to sit in a circle thinking up ways, with like-minded nice people, to regain the public domain in your town, may all the gods assist you, and may you succeed. I mean it.

But I don't see much chance of convincing my largely Tea-Partyish neighbors to go that route, personally. TT takes hold most easily in countries that still have a modicum of public discourse.

What's left to try, then, here? In my neighborhood? Starting even smaller, perhaps...

The most accessible adaptive strategy, other than TT, I've seen online has been Mr. Greer's somewhat unfortunately named Green Wizards project. He is a proponent of General Systems Theory, which was the scientific movement, aka "cybernetics," that was the underpinning of, among other things, the Whole Earth Catalog and Coevolution Quarterly, both of which became redundant when the Internet came along.

General Systems Theory was largely an academic movement with a side helping of back-to-the-landers, and its moderate success (Jerry Brown was a proponent) in the "real world," i.e., politics led to its being targeted and shut down by Ronald Reagan, whose administration pulled all the grants out from under everyone involved.

Fritz Schumacher, who wrote Small is Beautiful, was a general systems thinker, and founded the Intermediate Technology Development Group, which was (and still is, under the name Practical Action) an effort to liaison with third world subsistence economies and help resist conversion to industrial/world trade economies -- because subsistence is more resilient. At one time, back in the 70s, they had all of their hard-won knowledge -- over 7,000 how-to documents, or was it 20,000? -- on microfiche in a library smaller than a shoebox, with a reader that did not require electricity, available to anyone for a very reasonable price -- this was before the World Wide Web, of course. I often wished I'd I'd bought one. Now I have the Web. But will my grandkids, when they're grown?

Green Wizards will attempt to collect adaptive literature from that bygone era and make it available (he urges that we print everything out), organized in three Rings: Food, Heat, Crafts. The idea is that when our local communities get desperate, we might find an audience for these strategies, and be useful to them from a subsistence-and-mutual-aid standpoint. It's a form of hoarding public domain subsistence/resilience skills on the public's behalf.

I see Green Wizards as like Practical Action, but aimed at the "first world's" impending poverty as well as that of the "third world." It's somewhere along that continuum. So, I hope, are you and I.

Transition Towns and Green Wizards have been taking swipes at each other lately, and I wish they wouldn't. We will need what they are both doing, very likely. 

I recommend subsistence and resilience, along with getting to know the neighbors, a mixture of Greer and Sharon Astyk, as the sane approach. What might be called the true liberal's calling: pre-industrialist conservatism. But don't ask me if I think it will work ... sigh. S'gonna go down heavy.

But not all that soon. I think.

So, meanwhile, let's enjoy the sunrises.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Best of both worlds.

A granddaughter is here, and the long weekend is like a fabulous staycation, with things to do during the days: reading Moomintroll books aloud, or picking blackberries for the chickens that are too high for them to reach, or unearthing potatoes.

During Beloved's on-duty times with Granddaughter, Risa has added to the woodpile and finished the "white roof." Temperatures and glare had soared while she was up there, and upon coming down the ladder, she headed straight for the shower -- pure survival mode, as Risa much prefers baths.

We had a day when it reached 91F, and this means the apple slices and the veggie leaves in the dehydrators finished up early, so now we are trying some tomato slices. Not many -- but any is a treat.

Risa's procedure with tomatoes is a bit different from that of others who do this -- wax paper has a meltdown in her dehydrator design, and tomato slices have penchant for sticking to screening -- she takes a tomato and makes silver-dollar size slices off all the sides and the top and bottom, and lays them on the substrate (currently opened egg cartons have done fine) skin-side down. Those will be the solar dehydrated tomatoes. Then the "naked" remainders become canned tomatoes, tomato puree, or are simply sliced and added to various recipes fresh -- thus saving the step of getting the acid-y skins off. Best of both worlds.

We then made four loaves of bread, using for stock the liquid from bathing home-grown organic apple slices in sugar-and-cinnamon water. It also has in it wheat, barley, rye, oats, honey, bits of onion greens and apple slices diced small.

In the evening there have been things to drink beneath the strings of lights on the lilacs on the patio. Last agenda item before bed is to count bats in the gathering night, who are swooping low at present to nab winged termites migrating through. The termites head unerringly for the house, so every time a bat hits one, a cheer erupts from the cluster of lawn chairs. If I were a child facing school com Tuesday, this is how I'd want to spend my Labor Day weekend. How was yours?