Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Where you find it

A repost from 2007.

I've spent the day hanging around the woodstove, preparing a relatively simple dinner without going with it to the electric range or any of the other "modern conveniences." It's an entertaining exercise, but I'm not about to pretend that it's meaningful in the wider scheme of things: the wood I'm using was sawed with a chainsaw, the manufacture, transportation, sale and use of which was rife with both oil and coal usage, and brought to us in a truck that is much, much more of the same, over roads that are much, much, much more of the same, and so on.

I anticipate hard times when we all figure out our actual planetary energy income and how far ahead of ourselves we've spent. I was ranting to Beloved about all this, as I tend to do over coffee ("Coffee?" says Dear Reader's eyebrow. "Risa -- do you realize --" Yes, I do. Now, hush! This is my blog.) -- ranting to Beloved, or as she experiences it, at her -- and she posed a question.
"So, what does this mean to us? Not the kids, I get all that, but just thee and me?"
"Well ... " I was brought up short. "Umm, not so much. We're both over 55, now, which is a pretty decent life expectancy given the design. So, we could starve, or have our heads bashed in and our stuff shared out by people who then get their heads bashed in, or pick up the latest epidemic, etc. But these are things that have happened to a lot of people and will happen to a lot more. And we've had a whole heck of a lot of things go our way, just the two of us. So, it's like nobody can really take that away. And if either of us were to lose the other tomorrow, thirty-one years together is the history that we had, more than most."

"Right. So what's the beef?"

She has a point.

As recipients of a portion of that lion's share of the world's resources that privileged people have received in this devastatingly "successful" generation, we've come most of our way already.
Looking back over such opportunities as there have been for finding more equitable, more appropriate, more just, and more sustainable ways of comporting ourselves, we see that we -- as a couple, as a family -- could have chosen some actions more wisely, so far as our own ethical record was concerned, but the whirlwind the world may reap will not be much affected, one way or another, by us. The scale of the problems is just too great.

I could offer to share with you a glass of water, or a meal, because you are thirsty or hungry, and I should -- and sometimes I do -- but it will not change the course of the tsunami coming our way, or the distance from here to higher ground that running will not -- now -- cover.
So, given the distance to higher ground and the speed and height of the tsunami, there's little use in my worrying about the tsunami. I might be a little disturbed by the thought that a better warning system could have been installed, or that the powers that be might have decreed that the city must be built elsewhere, etc -- I know the metaphor is getting strained, but bear with me -- since this is where the jobs were, I did not move, myself, to higher ground, because there was not going to be a way for me to live there, or to offer you food or water there, unless the city came with me, so to speak.

That is, libertarian survivalist behavior is -- it's just irrational. When you fall into the ocean off the stern of the ship, sure, you swim -- it's what you do, we're programmed to keep trying to live -- or you don't. It could be a matter of choice, or of individual temperament. But the outcome is not so much in doubt when you are 500 miles from, say, Anchorage, Alaska.

So I don't feel much resentment when someone up and builds a blockhouse in the middle of nowhere, stocked with food and ammunition. That's their swim. Doesn't change the size of the ocean, but maybe they know that. So, I don't bug them about it. In fact, I enjoy practicing some of the same skills.

Nor do I think some environmentalist-activist behavior is really rational either. Given the scale of the problem, as outlined by the author of Life After the Oil Crash (whose math looks pretty irrefutable to me), haranguing someone about not having yet changed out their light bulbs is an exercise in about the same amount of multilevel futility as the survivalist's.

But, Risa," interjects Dear Reader, "you have in fact changed all your light bulbs and I've heard you recommending it, too."


Just because I think something's ultimately futile doesn't mean I can't indulge in it. Especially if I think, rightly or wrongly, that it's good for me, or my soul, or my neighbor's well-being, for me to do so.

By hanging around the woodstove, stirring, tasting, putting in another stick, and preparing to feed company, and also sitting by the window stitching a young friend's name into a Christmas stocking, and by sweeping the house, and by looking up fruit trees in our old Organic Gardening Encyclopedia and thinking of setting them out by the south wall, I'm enjoying myself.

And I'm not out frantically shopping, which means a lot to me right now ... on several levels ...
I'm experiencing the quietness of spirit that comes with relatively low-impact living.

Somehow I think that will pay small dividends between now and the apocalypse. Big dividends may never come of this. But quality of life is where you find it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Apple surprise

We all know, from a glance at my icon, that I'm kind of about apples. I think every house and apartment block in the area (city) (state) (nation) (world) should be surrounded by apple trees, with chickens and ducks running around underneath them, dodging the drops and then cleaning them up, and people coming indoors with bushel baskets of the things.

Apples and many other tree fruits can be hard to raise organically, and I often remember that my dad took a little sapling with him from our place here in Oregon in his camper truck, en route to Florida, only to get in a ruckus with border guards in Arizona because they didn't want him to cross their state with it (he won, kicking his case up through three layers of supervisors).

We bring in apples by the wheelbarrow load around here, and have done so since our thirty-somethings were five-somethings.

(By the way, buy your wheelbarrow in the 70s and it will last forty years ... )

We dry apples,

freeze bags of slices, make applesauce and apple butter,

juice and vinegar and cider,

and do just about everything except store them the way we store potatoes. Well, we do that too, but we don't count on it, because we don't spray, and we're not far enough from the neighbors to have returned to a balanced ecology on site, the way Greenpa has.

So this year I only kept a half-bushel of "keepers," more than half expecting, as usual, that worms would hatch in the cores and spread throughout, and the whole mess, an apple at a time, would be tossed to the chickens for a protein-rich winter snack.

But this year, not a worm.

Not one.

Zip, zilch, nada.

What's up with that?

Risa builds a fresh December apple taco

Saturday, December 10, 2011

About austerity

The target audience for this post is that downwardly mobile demographic formerly known as "middle class Americans." Many people in other places or circumstances already know how to live, and might wonder what the fuss is about.

I have written over 700 posts here, mostly about the joys of a simple life in the country. Occasionally I get preachy with my ruralism, largely because I strongly suspect that a complex civilization running on nonrenewables with a "just-in-time" approach to inventory puts its urban population at risk in the event of disruption.

Long, tough sentence. Okay, put it this way: live in town? Might run out of stuff to live on at the same time as everybody else. Live lightly, and you can escape much more easily if it comes to that.

So, although I know the arguments in favor of urban life as per-capita more efficient (given our present modes of distribution), those arguments always leave me asking, "what if?" And "if" does happen. There were twelve $1,000,000,000 disasters in the contiguous United States this year; a record. And we're still not over Katrina. Also, we're, I don't know if you've noticed, becoming something of a disaster ourselves. I'd say there are connections here, but that's become a hot political football, and I want to talk about something else.

This is also not about economic inequity. I'm in agreement that there's a lot of injustice on the docket right now. But one aspect of the attack of the rich on the well-being of the poor is the attack on the commons. With a strong commons, you don't need nearly so much money or possessions as you do in a world where everything is for sale, from the rich to you, in cheap quality and of dubious utility. Whether you are in the city or the country, protect your commons and your commons will protect you.

Now, on to our post.

I recognize there are compelling reasons why nine out of ten of us are still in town and that's not likely to change much ("Lord knows, I tried," weeps the inner blogista), so let's talk about urban simplicity.

Let's assume that you have work. Big assumption right now, I know. If you're running out of unemployment, it might be time to think about making some work. Grab a copy of Small Time Operator and start selling something you can make or do. Because rule one in spending less than your income is have an income. Even if you're a vegetarian selling hot dogs.

Aside from disasters (and you've done your minimum preps for those, right?), debt is likely to be your big issue. It's what's holding you back from heading for the country, if that's what you wanted, or from living the "American Dream," whatever that is. A shortage of disposable income and freedom because of, you know, the student loan, the car loan, the mortgage, and the credit cards. And you're not as happy as you thought you were going to be.

There are lots of strategies for debt reduction. Seek and ye shall find. We've used doubled mortgage payments ourselves, effectively. To make such things work, though, the first thing to do is bring outgo below income. Bring frivolous outgo to a halt and you are on your way.

"Voluntary simplicity" is touted as a proper response to modern malaise, but John Michael Greer's analysis suggests this is what people talk about when they're afraid to take the real plunge and go for the gold: voluntary poverty. Maybe it's anything but voluntary, letting that word "poverty" slip in there, but if your goal is to rise up from slavery (and debt is exactly that), it can be necessary to redirect our pride.

In the reality we've been brought up to, validated not by our own good sense but by a lifetime barrage of television and other advertising, we're supposed to aspire to "more" -- a shinier house, a shinier car, bigger and brassier parties, endless gadgets, and smarter and smarter phones, all of which which we're dumber and dumber to get in hock for. The trick is to voluntarily take pride in, not these ultimately empty and unsatisfactory acquisitions, but the opposite: de-acquisition.

If there are more than one of you, it might take a very, very serious "family meeting" to all get on the same page, but it can be very focusing to open the meeting with, "here's one thousand dollars a month we can count on for the time being; how do we get by on nine hundred?"

Sounds unrealistic, I know. Maybe your line in the sand is three times that, or more. Goodness knows, a buck is not a buck anymore. But that's going to get worse, so ... well, here's a story.

When I had my mid-life crisis awhile back, I moved (with family permission) temporarily to town for over a year. They depended on my income, so I got a budget of four hundred a month (in 1998 dollars). Here's how it was done.

First, we did research on rent. The best deal (cheapest housing) was, as it happened, two blocks from my university library job. It was what is known as a quad: a room with a vanity sink corner, sharing, from a tiny common hallway, a bathroom and kitchen with three other such rooms. They are intended for students who can't afford an apartment but don't want to live in the dorms. With heat, electric and dumpster fees, a set of shelves, a bed, two chairs, and a table, it was under three hundred a month. So I moved in.

I took with me about ten changes of clothes (good ones in which to do library reference work, mostly), a coat, a box of bathroom-y/personal hygeine-y things, a bedside clock-radio, two boxes of good books, a lamp, a couple of bowls and mugs, utensils, a good kitchen knife, a sharpening stone, and a rice steamer. You can get all these at a thrift store. Some of them I did.

I also took along a bicycle with a rear rack and pannier baskets. I had found the bike, a decent old ten-speed that still knew where six of its speeds were, leaning against a driveway fence with a sign taped to it: "Free. Take me." Best bike I ever had. With it I brought along my bike helmet, cable, padlock, and key, which I put on a keyring with my quad key.

On the bike I rode to the discount grocery store, stopping to top up the air pressure in the tires at a filling station along the way.

Inside the store I grabbed a shopping cart and sought out a twenty-five pound sack of white beans, another sack, same size, of long-grain rice, a ten pound sack of yellow onions, a ten pound bag of russety Idaho potatoes, a pound can of salt, and a family-sized jar of Italian seasoning. I also splurged for some rolled oats and a head of bok choi.

You might think all this would not go home on the bike in one trip, but it can.

I now had more than a month's food, purchased for under fifty dollars, rolling home beside me as I gripped the handlebars.

Sure, people looked at me funny. So? In most places, it's how you roll.

Back at the apartment I set up the steamer on the "dining room" table, near the wall, and loaded it with water. This was a little Sunbeam with a forty-five minute timer -- much better ones are available, but as Goodwill steamers go, it was not bad. Its plastic rice dish was long gone, but I could put a cup of rice or beans or diced potatoes in one of the bowls, add the appropriate amount of water and some salt and Italian spices, set the timer, and, by and by, take out the bowl and there was dinner -- or breakfast, or lunch.

Waitaminnit! says the careful reader. Surely not rice for breakfast!

Why not? And without coffee or tea, usually. Didn't miss them at all.

Reader: But -- but --

Or beans. Or potatoes. Usually with onions. And a glass of tap water.

Reader: But you couldn't --

Yes, I could. For months on end. I lost a little weight, but in my case, that was a good thing. None of this required refrigerating, if managed carefully, and though I was charged for it, I never haunted the communal kitchen, which was a howling disaster area non-maintained by my three unmet student roomies. There was no need.

 I should mention our town seems to have a good supply of unattended cherry, apple, pear, plum, and Asian pear trees and no end of blackberries, dandelions, lamb's quarters and such free for the picking, for all of which the bike baskets came in handy. And over time I got to learn how to ask grocers what they were about to throw out. When company came, I felt I was in a position to be generous.

Wind in the Willows. Arthur Rackham. Children's Imaginative Illustrations

Reader: And the rest of your time -- ?

No problem. I slept, or bathed, or ate, or thought, or went for walks or bike rides. Of course, if you are at all like me, it helps immensely to do this sort of thing in a university town. A university town has, in effect, a functional commons. I went to town meetings, galleries, museums, free concerts, free plays, and lectures. I read many books; all of my own several times and all I could carry back from the library. I spent long evenings in that library, which closed at eleven p.m. (it was only two blocks from home, remember). I had access there to not only books but music, videos if I wanted them (I generally didn't, and kept no television at home), magazines, newspapers, and of course the Internet. I worked on my volunteer project, at my own desk after my colleagues had gone home for the day, and produced first drafts of this, this, this, and this. I was also in school (full-time employees could take classes for next to nothing), and when I could I would take the bus and go do a stint of parenting and farm upkeep.

Reader: [Weakly]: On -- on $400 a month?

Yes, with change left over. One family goal was to pay off the country place ASAP. I couldn't spend too much on my mid-life crisis because we were making double payments. It was a twenty year mortgage and the idea was to clear it in less than fifteen. Which we did.

And I want to emphasize that I am telling you this because if you think things through, and have a bit of luck to go with it (I had no major illness during that time), you can live on far, far less than you may currently think you will need, and perhaps even be happy doing so.

A commons in action : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2072383/Eccentric-town-Todmorden-growing-ALL-veg.html

Monday, December 05, 2011

Extra low cost seed starting kit

So, here's an idea I had, don't know if it works.

Tear the lid off an egg carton. As you use eggs, just tear off one end of the shell (the ones shown here are from our ducks) and place it in the carton after the contents have been dumped in the pan or whatever. When the carton is full, take it out to the potting bench.

Add potting medium and seeds.

Water eggs. Place carton in greenhouse, cold frame, whatever makes you happy.

I would not overwater these, as they don't drain, though it would be easy enough to fix that, for example with a dremel. The plan here is to get some seedlings up (these are Forellenschluss lettuce) and then transplant. The method will be to crack the egg as I'm about to put it in the hole, pot, whatever. What say ye?

lettuce in winter

The potting room was a miserable dank
shed, trash-chocked, roofed in plastic, blackberries
ingrown amid bedlam. she dragged it all into
the light, sifting for tools or nails, then
consigning the rest to dump runs. With one son,
the quiet one, she roofed the room with scraps,
tucking, there, or here, oddly-sized old windows.
To the south, a sliding door turned on its side
served for greenhouse glass. A friend's offer
of a chimney to salvage solved the question of how
to floor. With her other son, the tall one, she
rented a long-legged ladder for picking bricks
from the air, frightened at every ragged breath.
They piled them by the plant-room door, and the girl,
last child, brimful of jokes and laughter, brought
bricks to her from the pile, which she set face up
in a herringbone pattern. They swept sand and mortar
into the cracks, and danced in the sunbeans then.
Now for a bench, new-painted green for the color
of wishing, and pots of all sizes, flats too,
with a tall can for watering. She hankered for lettuce
in winter, and sowed the flats in October. After
a month, wild geese and their musical throats gone south,
she noted her seedlings spindly and sad, so taking
her hammer and two-by sixes, built a quick coldframe
with the other half of the always helpful sliding
door. By the sunny south wall in the duck pen she framed it,
and dibbled the seedlings within. They liked that,
but a darkness comes on in December; after a full
day, full week, one comes home exhausted, to eat,

to sleep, not to water gardens. One thing
only has saved the lettuce: the ducks do not like
coming in for the night. She goes into the dark

to disturb them; they rush about complaining;
the madwoman hops and chuckles. She locks them away
from coyotes, and turns, as in afterthought, to visit

her seedlings. By feel she gives them water, her hands
stretching toward summer in the unseen leaves.
From Collected Poems 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The good life

Processing beets to simmer in vinegar and spices on the wood stove

It seems like in all my online communities at once, we are all suddenly asking one another, "what is the good life?" Most of the answers are now necessarily contexted in a simple reality: there are fewer and fewer rural people. The National Geographic, perhaps under the influence of its new TV partner News Corp., has now gone so far as to suggest saving the Earth by dropping whatever we're doing in the boonies and heading for the nearest apartment complex.

I get that it takes six times as much copper for me to discuss this with you than if I lived in town, and all that. But I think that if the plug gets pulled (fun link), as well as more likely scenarios I can think of when reviewing the situation we're all now in, I am and would be happier where I am and feel somewhat justified, despite the Tolkien quote concerning advice, in recommending this life.

Beloved and I read books in the Seventies that had a lasting impact on our thinking about how to live, among them this one, this one, this onethis one, and this one. They influenced everything that we have done since.

But the one that impacted my personal outlook the most, despite some criticisms of the authors that have surfaced since, was this one. Helen and Scott Nearing pared down, pared down, and pared down. They bought land as cheaply as they could, avoided debt, dug, sowed, composted, built with native materials, found items and salvaged objects, made implements, bartered, ate simply, and entertained themselves and their guests at home with acoustic instruments and with reading, talking, debate, and contemplation.  Their regimen of strenuous effort for a short part of the day and rest and relaxation thereafter, with an extremely simple and low-cost diet, appears to have added many disease-free and senility-free years to their lives.

I would not or could not be the Nearings; I'm not as social or socialist as they were, and I remain mildly omnivorous. But I do believe in paring down, and I do believe in subsistence. My own book about this, written about ten years ago, does not really do these thoughts justice, though it tries: it recommends watching the nearest mountain (if you have one nearby) and having a cup of tea -- as opposed to busying ourselves with running to big box stores for huge television sets.

You can do this in an urban setting. I have. But access to land matters; no one can exist without food, and as farmers disappear and corporations take over, almost everyone's food is fast diminishing in quality and becoming downright dangerous. And as the climate, abetted by greed in general and the climate obtuseness of the American establishment in particular, destabilizes, access will become an issue. If we know this, and we are independent-minded enough not to wish to become a burden on others, might we not seek a way to produce, and not merely consume?

Work, as defined by the industrialists, the bankers and the politicians, has come to mean, more and more, a cubicle existence in exchange for chits which we may exchange for toys which are made of poisions. But especially for food -- which has also been poisoned, with our water and our air. Henry Kissinger said, "Control food and you control the people."

Do you wish to be controlled?

Apples and garlic in the kitchen; the empty bucket at left held beets until today

A way out of the present difficulties, though perhaps it will not do for all, is to reverse the trend of urbanization, at least family by family, as way opens. As we pare down and refocus and become more productive -- not productive of poisonous toys and needless services, but of our own necessaries and subsistence -- I submit that we will be happier.

Not to mention revolutionary.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Here it is December already

The ducks and their adoptive mother, Susannah the goose, along with the chickens, have now spent two weeks snootling through the garden beds, with the result that the whole garden has been knocked flat, and you can't tell by looking where the beds are supposed to be. But we know, and we'll be raking everything back into place before spring. This is sheet composting at its best.

The hens have rolled out a number of potatoes we missed, and I've plodded around, once every few days, and scooped them up. These typically have had more solar exposure than we like, and are a bit bitter, but they make fine seed potatoes. We're moving potato production away from the garden to a bed across the creek, and so I really appreciate spud discovery by the flocks.

En route with the spuds to the washing faucet on the south side of the house, I notice the herb bed is still in pretty good shape.

We moved the basil indoors two weeks ago, but the sage, marjoram, oregano, and of course rosemary are hanging in. We've only had about four actual frosts, and here it is December already.

The washed spuds from today's gather pose here with a fava.

Foliage on favas makes a decent winter green, even in salad, but once the seed pods set, it turns bitter. A few of the spuds are not sunburned, so I will probably make a colcannon with them and some leaves from the favas. Add in some winter squash from the ever-present stock pot on the wood stove, with diced dandelions and spring onions (they winter over or start early here) and you have a nice winter soup.