Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thoughts for today

Risa is in Southern California assisting in yet another family emergency. The farm is in good hands. Here is a little repost for y'all. Yes, it's all reposts right now ...

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 sitting, armed, on the backs of Toyota pickups. 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.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

In the dead of winter

A repost.

The rare sunshine at this time of year always sends Beloved tearing out to the garden to put in peas. We have two gardens, actually: mine is the big one in heavy clay down in the cold gloomy bottoms north of the kitchen window; hers is the small one in sandy loam on the high sunny south side of the house, next to the duck barn. Peas planted in her garden in February will not rot, as they will in "my" garden. (Or maybe it's just that she can grow things I can't.) She climbs into her overalls, ties a bandana over her hair, grabs a "retired" pillow from the greenhouse, plunks it on the ground in front of the row, and goes to work.

The neighbor, a tidy retired man who gardens from June to August religiously, finds this behavior distinctly odd. So he comes out to investigate. Not wanting to be obvious about this, he begins on the far side of the pasture, and inspects his fence around into the apple orchard, then, after what he deems to be a decent interval, stops right by the little garden.

"What the devil are you at in the dead of winter?" he asks politely.

"Peas! Aren't they lovely?" she extends a grubby palm, with a dozen wrinkled seeds.

"You don't expect them to come up, do you?" He peers down at the strange-looking, to him, thick straw mulch that has been pulled back to reveal the brown earth.

"No, I never expect them to come up, but I always hope they will; and I get some nice surprises. Sometimes." She grins, and picks up her trowel.

"Huh! well, good luck to you! I see Mary; I better get inside or she'll think I'm out here courting'!" He ambles off, shaking his head at the improvidence of the Bear clan.

We buy a lot of our seeds at the end of summer, from racks of remaindered packets that are made available by our local hardware stores for five to ten cents a packet. A dime is not too much to spend on enjoying a brief spell of winter sun. Some of these year-old seeds, especially of flowers, seem to lose a bit of vitality and planting them can be like doing your thinning in advance; but regardless of what she says, Beloved's peas seem to always come up.

Peas are legumes. We much prefer them to beans, as the whole family has a sweet tooth. We like the climbing varieties more than bush, and prefer sugar snap to the shell-'em-out varieties.

When the season is at its height, relatively little food preparation goes on hereabouts, as we are all to be found at all hours simply sitting by the pea vines stuffing ourselves.

Those that we pick and bring in are not as good after about two hours, though we use them in salads and stir fries, and freeze the rest. If it does threaten to rain too much on the rows or beds soon after planting, cover with a plastic tarp for two days, then pull it off for a day, etc. as needed. As soon as the plants are up, pull the mulch up around them close, and renew it throughout the life of the plants, to keep the roots cool. I stake them out by making tripods of cuttings from ash, willow, and hazel. They hate to be planted in the same spot two years in a row, so think rotation.

After the crop is gone, I feed the vines to the ducks, geese, and rabbits, who think highly of them.

I see in garden magazines much talk of varieties: endless list-making and discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of all the latest hybrids or oldest heirlooms. I know that by going to the hardware store I'm taking whatever they have to offer, and missing a shot at the "best" of this or the "best" of that; and I greatly admire the work of seed-saver exchanges and heirloom nurseries. One of the country's finest seedsmen is just down the road about twenty miles, too, and we in the valley are very proud of their product.

But Beloved and I both work full time, and we have a strict budget to meet. The garden must pay for its share; we can put a little work into it but not much money.

We plant whatever comes to hand, and some years we say, "Well, this is not as good as what we had last year," or "Whoa! Now this is better than what we had last time!"

There is an element of surprise.

And it's all relative. This is organically grown, home-grown, fresh produce; all of it is better than anything we can get in the stores. That's why, even though our lives are busier than Broadway, we make time to get out there and plant, even in February. These seeds, if no one will buy them, will be thrown away. I can relate; I'm middle-aged and trying to build a second career. I have hope that, with a little care, I'll bear fruit yet. A lot to think about while putting a few peas in the ground.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

On a warm February day

The sheet compost has been pulled back from the paths onto the beds. To many eyes it may appear we use paths that are too wide; very likely, but to us it's a way of spreading compost over a wider area and then concentrating it for the crops.

Looks like this in summer:

Meanwhile the ducks and hens are going gangbusters.

 If you go out to lunch with me in the next week or two, you are doomed to take home a dozen eggs, as we have no customers at present and the pileup is on.

Collards, kale, spinach, peas, broadbeans, beets, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choi, cabbages, onions, parsley. So far.

Add a little sunshine. Things to do on a "warm" February day. It's about 50F on the outside thermometer, 60F on the one inside the potting shed.

Adaptability and the second law

It seems we are ready for the next round of wrangling over what is or is not an overly privileged way of addressing the simple fact of overshoot.

Paula at Mythodrome lays it on the line:
"Near as I can tell, “resilience” means exactly the same thing as “transition” within a doomy context: an organic gardening club for rich white people with property, investments, and a comfortable lifestyle to protect. It’s an insular clique that requires everyone be on the same page politically in order to participate. It is based on the European idea of “community,” which is very attractive in theory, but which does’t port well (if at all) to the deeply ingrained American values of individualism and self-reliance. There are perhaps a dozen or two cities in the US where “resilience” efforts might find an audience, an actual geographic community of like-minded people. For many (most?) people, however, “resilience” looks like hardly more than a suburban organic gardening club for people with a high enough credit score to finance a new Prius."
    Guilty, but I have little alternative. Paula prefers the term "adaptable." Well, I was an unusually adaptable person when young, with very little "income." Now that I'm old I have to supplement the wood stove with a space heater, i.e., spend more money to run in place. But I earned tth Social Security to pay for it. We will all eventually lose that, paid for or not. Between now and then, as I am not quite ready to roll over and die, I will go for such individual resiliency as I have earned. It takes a village to do it any other way, and a village that is not too poor to be kind to its seniors. Villages are soon enough going to be excruciatingly poor but can, if they are willing, also be exceptionally responsive to the needs of their constituents. For a time. 

    With so much of the population now in cities we will find that not until we are knocked back to Cuba's level of subsistence, and centralized planning and enforcement has run out of steam, can we find villages in an urban setting. Bud Light and Nascar are not good training for running a tool co-op.

    My family escaped to the country but not everyone can, and of course we are dependent upon goods made by those we left behind. I am hoping my prescience can benefit those I love, but I acknowledge my project is, at bottom, an attack upon the availability of resources to the many for the benefit of the few, just as if I were "the rich" -- which, to billions of people, is just what I am.

While I recognize my own cant, I feel powerless to do much more about it than I already have. 

To reduce my energy consumption and increase my energy efficiency, reduce product consumption and propaganda consumption, to grow and preserve my own food as I am able, to live quietly and simply, to focus on disease prevention over cure, to assist others as I find I am, within pre-existing responsibilities, able, to avoid debt, to recover and practice and pass on pre-industrial and early-industrial skills, finding, re-using, making and mending -- I think these things better than just to say they are the enactment of privilege and leave it at that. I call it A Way to Live, and I have recommended it to those at the collapsing edge of modernity -- as a gentle way down. 

"Resilience" has been consciously promoted as a term for these activities, and I don't think it's such a bad fit. It stems from a post by John Michel Greer in 2007, and he was criticizing "sustainability" by what he was proposing, using much the same aregument(s) as Paula is using against "resilience."But is her alternative, "adaptability," better? "Sustainability has been sullied by "Sustained growth" which can't happen and really means "let's protect consumerism" -- "Resiliency" has been taken up and promoted by much the same crowd largely because they are the ones educated enough to worry about all this in the first place.

Recognizing they (we) are the privileged is such a basic observation, I'm surprised it can be used as an argument about anything. Everyone must begin where they are; you can't stand in two places at once.

Perhaps we will encounter less acrimony if we simply begin to give up suburban hubris once and for all, without calling it anything?

But that will take time. I'm not sure slinging mud at me for not being "over there" will do either of us much good while I am walking from "here" to "there." I already need a walking stick as it is.

If we simply get rid of some of the things and then go sit on the front steps, waving to people as they go by, that's a start, isn't it? Need we call Transition or Resilience failed movements to do that?

If nobody's going to survive this collapse, and I think there is excellent evidence that we will not, how's about we take in a few more sunsets than we've been doing? It's not like any of us will live forever. Or any species. My father was fond of the expression "other things being equal," which meant that the action to be undertaken is the right one given what we know, but some variables are beyond our control. Adaptability is a virtue but the second law of thermodynamics will still apply.

I don't know about you, but I'm off to the potting shed to put some seeds in flats. Then I'm going invite the gratitude bell to say hello to the beautiful day.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The garden year begins

We are now lining off the beds, which are 3X50 feet, and raking the sheet compost/mulch out of the paths. That's about as "raised" as we get. Seems to do the job, especially after almost two decades. Paths will be lined with cardboard and a layer of straw, which along with leaves, poultry bedding and grass clippings added over the year, will be raked onto the beds again next February, if all goes as it should. I'll also cut up prunings into short bits and scatter them round the beds, especially the soft fruit perennial beds. Anything too large for the hand pruner is tossed in the general direction of the woodshed.

Gooey kitchen compost resides in the compost barrel, along with leaves and straw, until done, then waits in a bin for more specialized uses. Comfrey is laid on to the sheet mulch all year, and also added to the barrel.

Flats in the potting shed contain three-inch pots with peas, broadbeans, 2 kinds of lettuce, chard, bok choi, beets, kale, spinach. I'm realizing I will need some collards and Brussel sprouts as well, and am considering a test plot of carrots in the open ground.