Tuesday, March 29, 2011

She's willing

Getting any kind of crops in after nine weeks of storms can be challenging, even potatoes. Risa has some experience using "lasagna" beds and patches now, and is willing, in this emergency, to push the envelope a little. The problem here is that she's had black plastic on site for the whole nine weeks, but in pulling it off she's discovered the sod still isn't dead yet. Mostly -- but not enough. And it's now or never for the spuds.

If she'd trusted the floods not to carry everything away, as of last fall, she'd have put on cardboard instead of the plastic -- and by now it would be mushy enough to accept potato roots (and would have encouraged worms as well). What to do?

She's trying this: newspaper, only one sheet thick. The seed spuds are laid out in rows on the leading edge of each row of sheets, which spaces the rows two feet apart. It's windy, so she's dipped the sections of newspaper in a bucket of water, which gives them a certain gravitas. Gusty conditions, as shown here, lead to holding down paper with branches that have blown out of fir trees, until the crop and mulch are in place.

The paper theoretically will insulate the spuds from mold a little bit, give them time to sprout while the sod is wondering what's going on, and dissolve fast enough for the spuds to root down. Potatoes build the tubers upwards from where they are planted (which is why you hill them in traditional agriculture), so it's up to Risa to keep enough nutritious mulch piled on to both discourage sod and encourage spuds. That, she's willing to do.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What a landowner's gotta do

As we have no idea what the next batch of neighbors will be like along our west side, which is across the creek from our house (shown on the right), it seemed the right time to put up a pasture fence. For our purposes it should be dog-proof, sheep-proof, small-goat-proof, duck-proof, and chicken-proof. Risa would love for it to be deer-proof too, but such a fence might seem a bit tall and overbearing to a neighbor whose property line is eight feet from the house, so we went with 48" 2X4 welded wire on lightweight six foot t-posts, with a lattice-top wooden gate by the barn, in case we ever get neighbors who'd enjoy milking goats for us while we gad about in foreign parts.

Such a fence can be built reasonably well without getting too technical about it.

Risa bought twenty-five posts and seven fifty-foot rolls of fence, and distributed them from the back of the pickup truck. She ran string the length of the project from end post to end post, and hammered in a post every fourteen feet along the string, using one of our most appreciated hand tools, a hand-held post driver.

Each roll was spread out along the posts, attached to the preceding roll, and then stre-e-e-e-tched by the simple expedient of a piece of pipe threaded through the mesh and then pulled along the posts with a come-along attached to the next post from the end,at its bottom. Risa's not really strong enough for the clips that you hook the fence onto the post by, so she just uses twisted wire instead, cut from a roll of 18 gauge wire with a pair of side-cutting pliers. Tighten like putting a twisty on a bread bag, with the pliers. Draws the whole fence tight.

At the fence ends, Risa jammed an eight-foot post into the ground, leaned it against the end post four feet above the ground, creating a right triangle. wiring this to the end post and to the fence in three places creates a reasonable strong anchor. To make this into a permanent fence support, she can attach a vertical tube, two feet in diameter, of welded wire and fill it with rocks. Never has got around to that, though. Some of these quick-and-dirty fence projects of hers are still standing after more than thirty years.

This does not result in the world's strongest fence nor the world's prettiest fence, but it does enclose the commons. Sometimes a landowner's gotta do what a landowner's gotta do.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bug-out buckets

Yes, there are things you can't do anything about. Yes, there are things you can. Sharon sorts it out. Her bug-out buckets and bags aren't the kind the testosterone-laced survivalists build, full of .223 ammunition and such. Emphasis on food and a good trashy book.

The Japan crisis is a reminder that all of us are vulnerable. Disasters like the Tsunami happen, and little can be done about them - but the kind of disaster where you have 10 minutes to grab your kit and run, where you have time to prepare a little happen more often. This is the time to realize....cont'd

Friday, March 11, 2011

Watch the dice

Update, August 11: 

We report on the first measurements of short-lived gaseous fission products detected outside of Japan following the Fukushima nuclear releases, which occurred after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The measurements were conducted at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), (46°16’47″N, 119°16’53″W) located more than 7000 km from the emission point in Fukushima Japan (37°25’17″N, 141°1’57″E). First detections of (133)Xe were made starting early March 16, only four days following the earthquake. Maximum concentrations of (133)Xe were in excess of 40 Bq/m(3), which is more than ×40,000 the average concentration of this isotope is this part of the United States.
2011. Published by Elsevier Ltd.
View north from the roof
Today, for the first time, it's positively pleasant out with some prospect of getting things done. Risa has mowed, moved grass clippings to the beds, planted out some thirty or so Walla Walla onions, and thrown more old-growth collards to the poultry. Underneath the plastic, in Bed Number Four, she's planted peas.
View south from the roof
Across the creek, where she got the clippings, she has black plastic killing sod for potato patches. Last year's patch, which was a moderate success, shows up as a brownish spot by the back fence.

Sorting garden goodies
Risa likes that the birds are singing, the sun is shining, the grass is growing, and she's out working in her shirt sleeves. But her mind is on the leak at the power plant in Japan. Things are horrible enough for the people there without that.

But if the cooling system goes, things could get moderately horrible even here. We're downwind. It's a reminder that we are one world, and there's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide when Big Corporatism has bet their lives and yours. Surely we will finally realize it's not just about the shareholders?

Got food and water? Ready to stay indoors awhile? Will the crops be contaminated? Watch the dice for the next few days. Pray they don't come up snake eyes.


Update: I've been taken to task by conservative readers for that last paragraph. Noted; the plumes currently reported, while hardly benign, don't have a lot of reach. But it's still true that Big Corporatism along with its handmaiden Big Government has been caught lying about spills, leaks, and explosions so many times that it's simply hard to get hold of good science on risk any more. Too much money at stake.

That said, here is a scientist I trust: Jeff Masters. He points out that seven days over water certainly shakes a lot of poison out of the plume (he doesn't say what that does/does not do to the life in that ocean, though). The iodine isotope has a very short half life. But the cesium doesn't. Not to mention the plutonium in Number Three, which has not yet been secured. I ache for what Japan is going through, which was done by an earthquake, not (or not so much, yet) by Tepco. But I'm also not happy about the current state of energy production and management in my world. If one Big Expensive Idea misses killing us off, several others seem lined up right behind it, itching to have a go.

No one lives forever; I'd be a happier camper if I left thinking about these things to Those Wiser than I. But my examination of the record leaves me with the feeling that Those Wiser Than I do not include Monsanto, Tepco, Archer Daniels Midland, Goldman Sachs, or Freddie and Fannie, or the Koch Brothers.

Smarter, maybe. But much of what they call wisdom is simply theft. Sorry if I don't trust them completely when they say, "Move along. Nothing to see here." I have children.


[update] It is a month later, April 9. I am still not amused, and have begun tapping into my pre-bottled 100 gallons of water. Call some of scaremongers if you like; given our experience of official pronouncements as seen in retrospect, perhaps we are simply prudent.
[update May 19]

Japan’s Fukushima Reactor May Have Leaked Radiation Before Tsunami Struck, Bloomberg by Yuji Okada, Tsuyoshi Inajima and Shunichi Ozasa, May 19, 2011 6:21 am EDT:

[...] Japan’s government in April raised the severity rating of the Fukushima crisis to the highest on an international scale, the same level as the Chernobyl disaster. The station, which has experienced hundreds of aftershocks since March 11, may release more radiation than Chernobyl before the crisis is contained, Tepco officials have said.

    Wednesday, March 09, 2011

    And your chicken

    A post by Michael Bomford at Energy Bulletin goes over the issue of food miles as seen by, presumably, the average locavore. As you can see from this chart:

    Where food energy goes chart

    food miles are a vanishingly small part of American energy expenditure. Household storage and processing of foods accounts for more than four times as much energy.

    If we want to impact energy use by our food choices, the author says, we should perhaps look at the processing and packaging costs. This is a chart of the calories of energy expenditure devoted to food categories, regardless of distance traveled:

     Inverted food pyramid diagram

    Cut out the top row, and you'll eat better. And, as it happens, cut out the top row and you'll pump less carbon into the atmosphere. Win-win!

    I think this is true as far as it goes. I also think, though, that the article is harder on locavores than it needs to be. Wheat from my local farmer, goes the thinking, yields little energy savings compared to wheat from a distance; we should really only think of the wheat itself in terms of its advantage over Twinkies and Pepsi.

    Well, sure. But the locavores I know aren't really perseverating on food miles; they're thinking of encouraging the local farmers to grow something besides grass seed or hybrid poplars. Even if we succeed in doing this, the available farm land in my local county can feed only about nine percent of us (currently we're running about five per cent); so if the world transportation system were to become disrupted, there would be, to put it mildly, problems. There are going to be many things for us to think through; USDA charts are contexted within a framework that's now in danger of shifting into unknown territory.

    So I would say, yah, eat low on that inverted pyramid. It's good for you and good for the "planet." But continue cultivating your relationship with your local farmer, your neighbors, your woodstove, your candle, your well, your potatoes, your beans, your squash, your apple trees, and your chicken. There may come a time, and it could be soon, when you will be glad you did.

    Sunday, March 06, 2011

    Zero calories

    1. Wear yourself out on five loads of dishes left over, in the morning, from someone's birthday party.
    2. Notice quite a lot of oatmeal still fastening itself to a saucepan.
    3. Put a little grape oil in an iron skillet, preheat it.
    4. Add some spelt flour and sesame seeds to the oatmeal, mix, roll it into a ball.
    5. Drop the ball into the skillet, listen to it sizzle, flatten with spatula.
    6. Take saucepan over to sink. Pour some hot soapy water into saucepan. Turn around, run back to skillet, grab spatula, flip oatmeal cake. Turn off heat, let frying coast.
    7. Wash saucepan and spatula, set in drainer. Back to skillet. Flip oatmeal cake onto plate. Add a spot of butter. Grab fork.
    8. Add a stick to woodstove, sit down, have oatmeal cake.
    9. Enjoy a little Celtic music with your break.
    10. Remember! Leftovers, especially if no one sees you eat them, have zero calories.

    Wednesday, March 02, 2011


    Another rant from your blogista.

    A friend noted recently on her blog that low-tech solutions are often best because, unlike exciting, stylish, sexy, cutting-edge high-tech (and lavishly promoted) solutions, they're accessible. Translate: us poor folks can have 'em too. And in today's world, though we may not have really noticed it yet, "us poor folks" is increasingly a way of saying "nearly everybody." So, yeah, maybe talkin' to you, huh?

    This blog has been, most of the time, about accessible solutions. La Blogista assumes that some others will find themselves, like her, unlikely to ever own a nine kilowatt solar array, or two Chevy Volts in the garage, or a fiberglass two-story composting toilet, or a Kubota tractor with seven attachments. And writes to that readership: what do you do to prep for a possibly chaotic future on a budget? No, not that budget. This one, with the moths fluttering out of the wallet?

    She's aware she's vulnerable to crit here; she's writing from a snug house on an acre of land. Someone in Darfur,  maybe, could not use any of her hypocrisy. Yah. Know it. Guilty. Listen, we all start from somewhere.

    Risa has lived on the road: slept under bridges, lived in cars, raided dumpsters, lived on a head of cabbage for a week. She's here to tell you about it because she was able to a) avoid the drugs; b) not sass the harried policeman; c) not steal (dumpsters excepted); d) find work as a temp and work up; and e) find an incredible life partner, the kind that doesn't just know where the bodies are buried but furnished the shovels.

    Then we saved money, borrowed from family and friends, bought land, went off and did migrant labor, and paid them back. Then we built, pay-as-you-go, using scrap wood, scrap windows, rough-sawn lumber, and awkward but functional home-made furniture. We're keenly aware we could lose it all, we know people who have, and through no fault of their own. But y'know, try everything: trust God and tether your camel. Something might pan out. So, work plus simplicity plus frugality and if it takes debt to get you started, okay, but single-mindedly getting rid of that debt will improve your chances in the sweepstakes of life.

    When it came down to it, the cheap seats in the Titanic's lifeboats were worth just as much as the posh ones.

    We've never (okay, seldom) seen the need to feel ashamed of cutting open a recycled fifty-cent burlap coffee bag, hanging it on two nails and calling it a curtain -- that's the secret to low-tech solutions. Let the function be the style, and with the money you've just saved, pay down the mortgage. Let the so-called "embarrassment" of having such curtains go eff itself. We made it to home ownership, and with any luck, our car will never smell like a diaper station again.

    Now, where were we? Oh.

    One of the adaptations we were discussing in the comments next door is "more clothing, less thermostat." That's true; but at our house, most of the winter, the place to be is in a glider chair by the wood stove, which is in a corner of the dining room. Elsewhere, such as in the kitchen or the main bedroom, temperatures drop to sixty-five or even fifty-five (F), and maybe in a cold snap, the back rooms, cut off from the stove by sheets hung up in the hallways, down to forty. But out forays are relatively brief: until bedtime, we fetch things we want to use or do and bring them to the stove. It's a lifestyle, if you like, but a familiar one. Something very like it is described in all the (must read) Little House books. So we don't bundle up much, because even though much of the house is wintry, we feel snug.

    This is why Risa keeps harping on wood cooking. You're there; might as well use the thing. At any one moment, you may be drying wet boots or a rain-soaked hoodie. Or softening honey. Heating up dish water. Seasoning a skillet. Slow-brewing a second mug of tea. Dipping candles. Thawing a roast. Roasting a roast. Raising a loaf. Baking a loaf. Stirring black beans. These things take time, so you bring whatever else you're doing: shelling beans, practicing dulcimer, planning the garden, mending a sock, or blogging on th' ol' hand-me-down laptop.

    It occurs to Risa, though, that this is a facet of her privilege; she can do this because she's home, and because Beloved has (wonder of wonders) a job. Well, were always good at this -- someone had to be home a lot anyway; we had a special needs kid. That said, think about this: are there two or more of you, in your domicile? Still both working? Paying on two (or more) cars, dashing out in the morning, running to meetings in the evening, falling into bed practically strangers, at eleven at night, then lying there wondering if your five closets full of career wardrobe will see you through the upcoming conference in Philly?

    Golly gee, sit down together and think how you might be able to do a life on half of that. Without even waiting to be laid off. Fewer cars, less outgo on payments, maintenance, insurance, and fuel. Less expense on clothing, hair, power lunches. Now add in how much it's costing you for cable, "999 channels and there's nothing on" -- uh huh, so why not get rid of it? That's what library books are for. Or, heck, buy a few keepers, like Radical Homemaking.

    One of you at home can (learn to) cook from scratch, repaint the bedroom, make bag lunches, make and mend clothing, fix the leaky toilet or the draft under the door, flip the yard over from lawn to veggies, and tend a few chickens. You'd have time to shop more efficiently, too, but I'd argue that the point of all this is to absent yourselves, to a greater extent than you may have thought possible, from the consumer treadmill entirely.

    Yes, Risa's prejudiced in favor of land ownership or at least land access, but even if the story of your life is bookended by apartment walls, many of the same frugalities will apply. This whole blog post, this whole blog, can be summed up in a four word sentence, and individuals, couples, families, towns, cities, nations and a world will benefit from applying it:

    Live Within Your Means.

    So here we sit by the fire on a rainy day, with the dishes to do. Drudgery? No more than sitting in a cubicle staring into a screen, eight hours of the ten to twelve you've been away from home. And it doesn't mean a loss of status either, unless you've been listening to too much advertising. Trust your blogista about advertising folks, they're not there for you. Their job is to dig a hole in your feelings for you to fall into so you'll pay them for a hand up.

    Once one of you is home, fixing dinner for the other(s), ways to save costs and lower your stress will pop up all over. You're still multitasking, but the dishes, dusting, food prep, and pipe-wrenching get to queue up for your attention in the order of your choosing. In the midst of all this there are books to be read, friends to be visited, and sunsets to be wondered at.

    Risa's just started the rice. So, no, she's not wearing a sweater, 'cuz the stove wants to be hot enough to do rice, which is more than hot enough for her to sit by the window with her tea.

    There are juncos on the windowsill. One of them hops around in a little circle, peering at the bird feeder first from her left eye and then her right, the little grey head tipping, bobbing and tilting. She stretches one wing and preens her primaries a bit, then shakes her head and looks over the smorgasbord again. Choosing one seed, she takes it in her beak and fluffs off to the nearest willow, to crack and eat at her leisure.