Saturday, October 30, 2010

Taking advantage

Winter is icumen in, albeit slowly. We have had only one frost -- October 27 this year -- and it was a very light one. But NOAA has promised us a wet, windy and long winter, due to La NiƱa, and our first serious storm came through, throwing hail and lightning bolts, raising thirty-foot swells on the ocean, dropping snow in the highlands, and knocking out our neighborhood's power for a couple of hours. This was nothing like what people went through in Minnesota recently, but it served as a reminder. Risa moved dinner from the crockpot to the stockpot and set it on the wood stove, and bustled around the house trimming wicks and cleaning lamp chimneys, just in case. She also inventoried the stored water and decided we were down to about half of what we'd need for a longer outage, so when the power was restored, she set about replacing old water and storing more.

We have enough flush water year round, as we installed a pitcher pump on the spare well, and half the year there's a running creek behind the house (still dry this year). But we like to put up drinking water for long outages. Vodka bottles, with just a few drops of the strong stuff left in the bottom, are our favorites, as they seem to last a long time without maintenance. Other bottles have to be changed out and washed from time to time. We store the water in crates in the cold room, and bring them up as needed during the power outages.

This is a dark house in winter and we tend to move into the dining room until spring. The wood stove is there, and next to it is our biggest window. Eighteen years ago, when we moved in, we were dismayed at the amount of heat loss through this single-pane "picture" window, so we rehabilitated it by framing a salvaged sliding glass door, of similar dimensions, into it, which pretty much stopped the cold without stopping the light. This window faces west, and has to be shaded in summer, but in the cold months, it's a delight. We've mounted a shelf outside it, the length of the window, to offer seed for small winter birds, and we sit by the stove nibbling our feed while they nibble theirs.

During outages, the light from this window becomes as important as the stove during the day. Here, and nowhere else, it's light enough to thread a needle and catch up on mending, or pick up a novel or play a board game, without electricity. I think, if you don't have a spot where you can easily cook over wood and do chores by winter sunlight, it can really worth your while to make one.

The rains were incessant enough that Risa brought the laptop over to the dining room table and re-edited one of her books and published it on Lulu, then built a "scenic" calendar and published it the very next day. The calendar, featuring Stony Run photos, is not cheap, but we'll get our copies at cost and they will make nice gifts for our scattered clan.

After three days of wind and rain, we had, yesterday, a surprisingly summery day-long "blue hole." Tee shirt weather! Risa put down the computer and picked up her scythe. The garden had been waiting to be put to bed.
After the squash and bean vines, and the eggplants and tomatoes were felled, eighteen bags of leaves were spread, followed by a cosmetic dusting of straw. The giant collards, kale, broccoli, chard, and beet greens, along with some new favas, have been left standing to see how they do. We'll be on the lookout for more leaves, but the bulk of the work got done in one day! One of the glories of retirement is that when such an opportunity arises, you're like as not there to take advantage of it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What to do

Now for the serious post -- and then back to our regular programming. (I know, I keep saying that).

A lot of bloggers in Risa's circle, and Risa will admit she falls into this category, are like passengers on the Titanic who, having read up on icebergs in the North Atlantic, and learned a little from confidantes among the crew -- concerning rate of travel, turning radius, inertia, and visibility -- and, having some awareness of risk management (as explained to them by the insurance companies who are always raising their rates), send a little note to the Captain: "Shouldn't we -- umm -- slow down a little?"

And we're Pollyanna enough to hope that the Captain might consider this plea. But he has orders from his own 'Captains" -- the Captains of Industry: full speed ahead.

So we see that our own painstakingly acquired risk assessment is not to be taken into account. Risk assessment is supposed to lead to a decision tree, which one consults in order to take some action. If there's no action forthcoming from the authorities, perhaps we creep back to our berths and think about ways to get our hands on a life vest and maybe even a seat on one of the boats?

There are damned few of these boats, though. And if you look at China's spending patterns over the last five years, you realize the seats are being bought up fast.

Why all the interest in lifeboats?

Okay -- and here Risa is mostly cribbing from a left-leaning but usually moderately cautious statistician whom she greatly admires -- let's think about this: there's this index, called the Palmer Index, thought up in the 60s, for studying drought. +4 is very wet conditions. -4 is very dry. Charts of this usually show light yellow and light green as near normal precipitation and soil moisture for the mean climate in any given location -- it's a relative index, not absolute precipitation.

The Palmer picture of the world in the 1950s looks like this:

There were some droughts. Farmers in Nebraska and Ukraine may still remember them.

Now: Stuart Staniford, Risa's statistician, calls attention in his blog to a post by Kevin Drum on a paper by Aiguo Dai (a scientist at NCAR) that reviews all the available peer-reviewed projections of drought given the rise of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere (yes, we're harping on that again).

The concatenation of those projections paints this picture for the 2030s:

This is the wet-areas-will-get-wetter, dry-areas-will-get-dryer scenario climate scientists keep talking about. The red areas are about the same as the Dust Bowl in the U.S. in the 1930s. But see all that purple? That's a Palmer Index of -8 to -20. Worse than the Dust Bowl. In about twenty garden years. Think about how many people live in those areas now.

For those who are young yet, here's the Palmer chart for fifty years out:

Think about how many people live in those areas now.

For those of us still interested in voting for Tea Party-type candidates, remember that nearly every one of those denies there is any truth in any of this whatever -- it's a "scam" by a "conspiracy" that wants your money and to return you to the good old days of Stalin. So to forestall Mr. Stalin they are all about "Full Speed Ahead" on our version of the Titanic.

But that seems to be true no matter who's in charge; as our world comes up against its limits, and our economic well-being is increasingly tied to borrowings that will never be repaid, risk assessment becomes social capital we no longer have -- a luxury. We mostly don't fix the dikes, even after a Katrina, because we don't see how we can afford it.

So everyone's life is now being placed on the line, based on the older risk assessments that were formulated under the conditions that prevailed in the 1950s.

Meditate on the first chart above, then the other two, again.

The projections, remember, are not worst-case.

They are an average of available projections -- the kind real insurance companies use. Iceberg right ahead.

So, uhh, what to do now?

Answer: not so much.

Dmitri Orlov has just posted on what kind of social order is likely to arise under such conditions.

Survivalists start their spiel here, and talk about "bug-out-bags" and "retreats" -- but those aren't really likely to be seats in the lifeboat, long term. Not with that much purple on the Palmer. Ultimately, all the successful testosterone-y survivalists will be on Toyotas. For however long that lasts.

For the rest of us, there will be two options: 1. Go back to the house and say our tearful goodbyes. 2. Go back to the house and Get to know the neighbors.

Risa likes the second one, though she admits she's been shilly-shallying. What she's doing in the meantime is learning how to adapt her water-conserving and food-raising habits to the already changing conditions. If she turns out to be good at it, she might have something to offer the neighborhood.

Oh, come on, the reader might say -- lame.

Well, maybe, but it beats riding the Toyota (she has a bad back) or trying to reach Canada (at her age?) or spending the remainder of her days watching record hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods on Fox News (and listening to the worse-than-inane commentary: "this is all Obama's fault"). When not adapting, she can (while circumstances allow) always play a few board games or pour some mint tea for a friend. Until, maybe, her kidneys blow out. Which, maybe, was next anyway, yes?

You there, in the far back, behind the sleepers snoring in the twelfth row -- you had a question? Louder, please -- very deaf. Oh -- about that adapting?

Okay, assume enough stability that you get to grow some things and harvest them. Kindest thing to do while waiting for a killer drought -- for yourself and others.

There's a read she can recommend so that you can make the fewest mistakes in pursuit of this commendable "adapting" goal: The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.

Carol Deppe, the author, basically makes the case for attention, in most (formerly?) "temperate" climes, to five crops: Potatoes. Ducks. The Three Sisters -- Squash (winter), Beans, and Corn.

Get out of debt. Stay out of debt. Move, if necessary, to where you can do these things. Locate water. Double up, if necessary. It's not just selfish behavior. By doing this you reduce the burden on others elsewhere. Right now, for example, in Risa's county, an agricultural county in one of the richest valleys in the world, we're a quarter of a million producing about five per cent of the food we consume. So everyone who starts a potato patch is helping everyone else -- not just themselves.

Can't move? There's another way to approach this, and it doesn't depend on getting in line for a tiny plot in the community gardens.

Aaron Newton, an "edible landscape" designer who writes books with adaptation maven Sharon Astyk, wrote, back in March, my favorite all-time blog post. In it he talks about his neighborhood, showing first a map with only his own place marked in red.
I started by going across the street and asking my elderly neighbor if I could garden in her backyard. Then I recruited Eric who grows food in his backyard and is transitioning into a career as a farmer. Next I was able to start a garden in the backyard of the rental house next door to my property. It was part of a bartering arrangement whereby the landlord agreed to take down a few dying trees and in return I now grow food on her property. All of these active gardens are shown in dark green.

The green bits expand over time and several iterations of the map. Great, you say -- only not everyone has either a strong back or land they want to turn into a garden.

But! Everyone likes to eat.

Blue is those who would like to buy the produce. Orange is those who would be willing to contribute compost (grass clippings, for example). Perhaps we need purple -- for the Toyota that might just be willing to trade protection for our diligence in farming?

Ok, so maybe we lost some of you there. But the rest ... got it now? This -- small farming, smaller farming, or even smaller farming -- or any neighborhood-based trade to trade for the produce of such farms -- is what to do.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

If the angels smile

I get thoroughly depressed when the darkness and rains really begin, and am not good for much, so here is a repost from a couple of years's of interest to me because it was written right after the crash of '08. The people I was reading then seemed to have the best handle on what had just happened, and they're not optimistic about things getting better now. You might want to see this interview with Nicole Foss, AKA Stoneleigh, of The Automatic Earth.


My son tells me I am a “disaster otaku.” Well, maybe.

I’m in what is supposed to be one of the premier retirement plans on the planet (Oregon PERS) and it has lost a LOT of its value over the past two weeks. A one-day run-up of stocks hasn’t really signalled a stabilization.

Growing and putting by food, adding insulation, finding alternative ways of getting at water and providing heat and lighting, putting away the credit card, paying ahead on and retiring debt, not eating out or going out to the movies or concerts, or paying for cable, or getting my hair done or shopping for style — these are strategies that seem worth while to me right now, along with getting to know neighbors, sharing rides, finding ways to get to and use public transit, and staycationing. I’m not even planning to get the DTV box — who needs it — We have a nice collection of old VHS and some newer DVDs, old vinyl records and a phonograph, some acoustic musical instruments, Scrabble, Monopoly, and books, books, books. And I have someone to read them to me while I shell beans.

I've been experimenting with not riding around in motorboats, not skiing, not watching the Superbowl, and not hanging out in a mosh pit, and, so far, I'm still breathing.

Think about it: home from work, recycled items in hand, via small-town bus, eat a few small Yukon Gold potatoes with sliced Roma tomatoes, change clothes, and go out and pull down bean poles, unwind dying runner bean vines from poles, stack poles, give vines to poultry, check later for de-leaved vines, feed vines to chipper, fork over the compost, come in for tea as the darkness gathers, wash your face and hands with hot water from atop the wood stove, read some more Kingsolver, brush out your hair, put on your nightgown, pull the blanket over you, touch your Beloved's cheek. It's all relatively inexpensive and sustainable.

Avoid complications, and, to some extent, complications will, if the angels smile, avoid you -- for awhile.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A nice kind of conversation

Yesterday was our closest brush with frost so far, with a low of 36F, so Risa's thoughts have turned to chutney. There are zukes, cukes, green tomatoes and apples in varying states of non-storability, and Beloved brought home three boxes of jam pint and half-pint jars for her to play with. So today is play day.

Risa's running the grater over a mixing bowl, grating a zucchini, a cuke, an apple, an elephant garlic clove, an onion, four green tomatoes, and repeat. When there's about a gallon and a half in the pot, with about two quarts of homemade vinegar, a cup of molasses, some brown sugar, a small handful of sea salt, and a handful of dehydrated greens, she cooks it all down a ways, does a taste test, adds cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika until she's satisfied, and cooks off a lot of the moisture, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Another approach, in case she can't hang around to stir, is to cook it down in the crock pot(s).

Sometimes there's stems, such as from broccoli, chard, cabbage or kale leaves, or celery; these Risa dices up very small with her cleaver and precooks them in the zapper before adding them to the chutney. Green tomatoes that moosh too much in the grater may get the cleaver treatment as well. She's never seen the need to use electric gadgets for this sort of thing. In cold enough weather, she does the cooking part on the wood stove instead of an electric burner. That electric stove thingy runs a serious amount of juice.

The densest material today is the green-zuke-skin part. When that reaches palatability, she takes the pot off the burner, puts the canning kettle on, fills the jars, runs them for about 18 minutes at the boil, and sets them aside to seal.

Risa looks through the steamed-up kitchen window. Leaves are drifting down from the cottonwood onto the blueberry patch, which is aflame with our only real fall foliage so far. Camouflaged by the cottonwood and blueberry leaves, California quail are visiting, sifting through the mulch for small bugs and other tidbits.

The jars are sealing. "Tink," one says. Another replies. It's a nice kind of conversation.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Life of Marley

"Fire season" has begun
There was an expression, beginning to fade now from the language: "Life of Riley." Riley was a sitcom character who, my parents told me, always managed to find his way to the hammock; he was used in our family as an example of someone not to emulate. I don't remember the show, though we had television by the time I was four, though pictures of the star, William Bendix, do look familiar to me.

I have noticed that the meaning of the expression as generally used has a different connotation than it did to us; one envisions a certain tone of entitlement. One gets to live the life of Riley if one can afford to, either through money or after a lifetime of hard work. I'm told the usage dates back to nineteenth century Ireland and the O'Reillys, who at one time minted their own coinage.

There has always been a cat, sometimes two, at Stony Run; we've been here long enough to lose two from old age. We're not especially cat people, but circumstances have led to the presence of these moderately standoffish creatures at "barn and hearth" -- mostly hearth. They freeload a lot, and deem their keep paid for by the rare gift of a mouse at the doorstep.

The current cat, Marley, was hard on us at first. She wasn't raised here as a kitten, and she'd had the run of the counters and tabletops in her former home. Cat food was disdained as beneath her. We would find the butter licked and the chicken despoiled at our every turn, and would snatch her from the pancake batter and chuck her out the front door, only to have her muddy the walls, dismantle the window screens and scratch up the panes in her efforts to return to her chosen avocation. Just entering the house at night was difficult for us; Marley would have no truck with the farm after sundown, and would bowl us over to get inside.

We thought of handing her on -- but to whom? It wouldn't be fair to anyone we knew.

But Marley's middle years have arrived. It's getting harder for her to pursue her former prey -- the forbidden bread, quiches and pies of her misspent youth. Yet, at the same time, she's hunting more -- and more effectively. She avoids the barn itself, perhaps thinking the hens will walk up behind her and commence pecking, but she handles rodent traffic in that general direction reasonably well.

The current crop of window screens are unslashed. We do find her on a table from time to time, but we long ago learned to keep the butter covered; and she seems less inclined to lift and toss aside the lid than formerly. Never a lap cat in her youth, she's beginning to take into consideration the advantages of lap-high radiant heating. Winter is a-comin' in, and as the woodstove routine begins, Marley finds her way to the "hammock" of her choice -- Beloved's lap.

Thus have we learned that even those who get a late start can earn enough points to attain a "life of Marley."

Sunday, October 03, 2010

"I like th' food"

Dawn patrol
We roll into October warmer than expected, and the garden shows no signs of being willing to be put to bed. So we've excluded the poultry for now, as the chickens were pecking at every tomato that showed a hint of pink.

A benefit of all this hen-scratching has been that they aren't very partial to potatoes. Several sacks full have been uncovered for the picking up without our resorting to the potato hook. With backs as old as ours, that is quite a plus.

Risa has continued juicing and would share her grape-apple-blackberry-tomato recipe but it hasn't found favor with anyone but her, so far. That's the way of it with "yard foodie" cuisine. Once you limit yourself, largely, to what's on hand and in season, your palate quickly adjusts, but this leaves behind most, if not all, of "Rabbit's friends and relations," who may view your concoctions with increasing distrust and distance.

Risa's cooking has improved of late, through practice, but, in the eyes of some, it has suffered from her self-imposed limits of trying to work with what she's grown or gathered. She thinks it's good practice for what's down the road; they'd rather wait and cross that bridge when they come to it. But what if the bridge is down when we all get there? Studied your bridge-building yet?

A study of what's being eaten in "remote" (i.e., not hyper-trained to HFCS) portions of the globe will show that, to most, food is food and be damned glad you've got it. This is much the refrain that Risa heard when she was at table in her childhood; her dad grew up in a very destitute sharecropper's family and experienced the worst of the Depression, an experience that still dictates the old man's views today, at 94.

But there is something to it. The crop gains promised by the "green revolution" -- more and  better chemicals toward a better life for all -- have become more and more unreliable as the weaknesses of monoculture become evident. Also, unfavorable weather is increasing in the presence of a troposphere increasingly laden with moisture and energy as solar heat, bouncing back up through the air as infrared radiation, is trapped in more and more carbon dioxide. This is an effect easily demonstrated in any high school science classroom and vehemently denied by corporate flacks and their favored politicians. As a result, "yard foodies" -- and the odd meals that implies -- seem likely to be a wave of the near future, even in nations that have become accustomed to "plenty."

There was a short-lived sitcom, years ago, that featured a new prisoner being shown the ways of a prison by the experienced cons -- how to cheat the system mostly, but also all the best ways of venting. They were showing him how to bitch about the prison food, but a big Georgia boy a ways down the table, chowing down vigorously, opined, "I like th' food."

Risa's dad laughed loud and long, and ever after, at the drop of some bony squirrel stew from someone's spoon, would pass the terrifying bowl to the visitor again, saying: "I like th' food." It became his all-time favorite expression, to the exasperation of missus and daughter. But, then, he'd been a drill instructor in the military. That's said to affect one's outlook.

Years later, as she desperately invents one over-aged-kale recipe after another in her study of yard-only fooding, Risa remembers the saying. She's tempted to try it on her Safeway-trained visitors. But she's learned to keep two kinds of food supplies on hand, and also to rely on Beloved's greater experience when "entertaining." You gotta know when folks are ready for things, if you hope to see them again any time soon!