Whose Woods These Are

We live in a Subdivision. There I said it. See, at work I am always talking about the “village”-working on a committee for the “Village”, etc. It seems that some people at work had come to believe I lived in a commune of sorts-or at least an EcoVillage-though they know that term only in abstract. One guy actually sad that he was disappointed in me…

And maybe I am disappointed in myself. 3 years ago we had a small 2 acre Farmette picked out-small house that needed some work, but a few outbuildings and enough room for a goat and some chickens. Our Permaculture Paradise. We put money down and sold our house. Then the deal went south in a hurry and we ended up backing out with our house sold with only 6 weeks until closing. In 2 weeks we visited literally every house on more than 1 acre within an hours drive of my job that was even remotely in our price range. They were all terrible. Affordable and nice are mutually exclusive in real estate when you also add “acreage”. In fact the last house literally smelled of sewage due to a failed septic field. Time was short and we ended up in a Spec home with immediate occupancy, .5 acres that was cheap, but also literally on the interstate. My back fence is maintained by the DOT. That was 3 years ago.

Since then we have done wonders with the landscaping, been nominated for 2 Village committees and become very involved in the county. We love the town and I have made good friends with the Movers and Shakers in the Sustainability Circles. We are on the cusp of some Big Changes. But as I write this to the north of my window only 200′ away is I-94. Pollution aside, the noise is fatiguing in the extreme and planting a Permaculture Paradise seems almost ironic. Sometimes I feel it is fitting to build the new society so close to the trappings of the current. But only sometimes.

So I am always looking for a new place. Always. I have been watching this house for a year in the vain hope that they will take $150k off of it. What the ad doesn’t show you is the sloping hillside to the NW, the 2 acres of reseeded prairie, and the additional 7 acre fenced pasture. If anyone wants a kidney for $150k let me know. The home haunts me… why must every home on more than 2 acres have 6 panel oak doors and marble bathrooms?

Then about a month ago this property came up. If it looks plain, that because it is-in every way. The house is nowhere as nice as current one and it faces north with a God-awful solar aspect. But the Ag taxes are uber low, and it has 4 acres and a stream which are also completely undeveloped. It’s only outbuilding is a 10×10 shed and there is literally not a fence on the property. But payments would only be $50/wk more than our Spec Home and I am selling more rainbarrels than that right now. Did I mention there are 5 very mature Maples-syrup anyone? It would take about $70k and/or 10 years to get this where I need it: 800′ of fencing, a barn, a wood lot, etc. But it is 4 acres of tabula rosa, and would also cut my drive in half making a bike commute more of a reality. Which is good as the Insight would need to go, I would probably trade it for a TDI with 200k+ miles on it for $6000 just to get me to work in the rain or an old CRX HX that gets 50mpg.
Is this the one? Neither Mia or I think so, but The One is always going to be the better part of $.5 million which is ridiculous and out of the question. So we either need to hang tight for another 3 years until we pay off the cars, or settle for a house that is immensely better, but not what we truly want. We both want the next move to be the last for a looooong time-so we will probably wait.
Waiting sucks.

Get Busy Living, or Get Busy Dying.

Bart and M.E.O.W. have linked to something we all need to Get Real on. The reality is getting so, um, Real that even CNBC is catching on!

I have come to think of Peak Oil and Climate Change as one issue which I loosely call “unsustainability”, the answer to which is Sustainability. The root problem is the same-we are using energy waaaaaaaay to fast, behaving irresponsibly, and need to course correct in one generation-probably in one half of a generation before we doom our children to a life of poverty and doom the third world to a life of starvation.

Kerry talked about it and now Edwards is too-we need to hit Sustainability with the same National effort that we used to get on the moon. Screw Mars-if we want to keep from looking like Venus we need to get honest with ourselves, scrap the Hummers and make 300 bicycles each from the recovered steel. Silliness aside, we need to use the energy we have to set ourselves up for a sustainable future. It takes alot of energy to make PV cells or even Tulikivi stoves. Time to get busy living.

Be the Change!

Tuesday Vaca, Part Deux: The Organic Bistro

Reading Chomsky, The Union of Concerned Scientists and periodicals about Permaculture and small farming –simultaneously- sparks a weird, fetid brew of thoughts, fears and hopes that takes some time to hash out. Time that I have not given them yet. Despite the incredible restorative attributes of this trip for me, I have not allowed myself much time for reflection. It has been a whirlwind trip of coffee houses, bookshops, and redbuds peppered with fleeting conversations with Chapel Hillites of various flavors running the gamut from Tar Heels to anarchists.

Really what is haunting me most of all is that little gnome, Noam. His portrayal of power politics over the past centuries, and the last few decades in particular, is strikingly disturbing, to the point that I find him difficult to read comfortably- like sitting through a 20 hour scolding by the principal where detention is a totalitarian hell that we allowed to happen. This is due almost entirely to my belief that it is not some dissident liberal intellectual screaming from the rooftops, but a clear voice of reason that is falling on deaf, or more horrifying, numb and therefore powerless ears. I can’t even rightly blame the Bush Administration, though they have taken the power plays to their “logical” and terrifying conclusions. The fruits of the past 6 years are coming to bear from the seeds planting and cared for willingly over the past 50 years by 3 generations of Americans. We have allowed the norm of state sponsored killings to be made in our name. To allow wars of aggression to be engaged on our behalf-to save the unthinkable deaths of several thousand Americans in a terrorist attack we have sanctioned the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani civilians who are far more innocent than we.

And it is that collective guilt that is finally so disturbing for me. I knew the war was wrong, I know we are sacrificing our civil rights on the altar of our fear. But I continue with my daily life to protect myself, my mortgage, my comfort while I assuage the guilt thru telling myself its ok because we won the midterms and it will all be over soon.
Bullshit. Where is the outrage? Where is my outrage? I am paying attention, but I tell myself that working at the local level is more impactful, or that my efforts for sustainability are the greater good. What good is sustainability when Permaculture can lawfully be deemed a subversive, terrorist ideology. Reactionary? ADM owns most of the seeds and is willing to lock people up for using them. I had to sign a consent form that I wouldn’t propagate my raspberries-if they sucker am I legally liable? Paranoid? Watch the Future of Food and see the ruin of our traditional Family Farmers at the hand of corporate greed.

So that is the fear, the fetid brew comes in when you reap the hope of the Permaculturists and Ecovillagers. But even there Peak Oil is beginning to seep in as well. Permaculture may be enough to save me, but is it enough to save us. No individual can live sustainably as an island. I can not realistically make all that I need to survive. Thoreau still made trips to town for lumber at Walden, and his base level of artisan know how dwarfs mine by a factor of ten. Even if I learn enough to feed and clothe my own family if I have not brought my neighbors with me I only breed resentment, jealousy and put myself in a precarious position if the bottom drops out.

So how do I bring others with me and also fight to keep our civil rights civil? Hell if I know, but I have some working hypothesis. The Natural Step (TNS) and Permaculture are my biggest bets so far. Becoming a TNS study group facilitator was a Big Step for me. Taking groups of a dozen or so citizens through the process ever 2.5 months is a quantitative step to making our county more sustainable. I have said time and time again that the hardest part to Being Green is learning to Think Green. My first group has some incredibly well connected and highly trained members. Getting them to work together and network can increase their results significantly-and that is just my group. Our county wide organization has a half dozen groups going at any time-and in a rural community of or size several hundred citizens, growing annually, is a statistically significant block that will accomplish Real Change.

Permaculture is more nebulous, but potentially more powerful. At the last meeting of our fledgling countywide group, Sustain Jefferson, I was asked to teach a course on Sustainable Living at a local Technical College. I politely refused due to being completely overcommitted right now-but how powerful a force could that be? The thought of a continuing education course on Sustainability keeps running through my head and I can honestly see it happening come this fall. The kicker will be to inspire honest, real action on the ground. In the current issue of Permaculture, one of the authors laments that after instructing several hundred students in a semester long Permaculture Course over the years, there are still only 2 other Food Gardens in his entire hamlet.

Is the hope of a Permaculture enough to combat the power politik reality that Chomsky relates? Only in so far as the thinking can permeate society quickly enough while there is still enough power left in the populace to effect change in the Executive branch-be it Democratic or Republican. We live in an age where I am both deeply proud and powerfully ashamed to call myself an American. The political heritage of Adams, Jackson, Wilson, Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes is in sway right now to my great shame. However, our political and philosophical heritage is unmatched for boldness and truth and I believe that as the most powerful Nation we must be the force of change by drawing on that heritage and fulfill our philosophical destiny as framed by Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, William James, Martin Luther King and Carter. The choice will be on our generation to save or condemn our world.

Be the Change.

Beo’s Vaca… Carrboro Edition

High expected to top north of 85 today, but at present it is an extraordinarily pleasant 68 with a slight breeze. After ushering Mia off to another day in the trenches, I packed up my kit ($18, laptop, periodicals [Economist, Permaculture, Small Farm Today]; Chomsky) and hit the road. Today I had a mission. The anarchists at International books had referred me to a mythical “open air market” in the next town “up the road” that, as legend had it, served fantastic eggs starting at 7:30. Never one to pass up a good quest for mythical eggs, I hit the road.

Now to be fair “the next town over” is not the 7 mile hike it would be in rural Wisconsin, and turned out to be a pleasant 2 mile stroll on quaint brick-lined walks under canopies of blooming redbuds. My destination proved to be slightly elusive, surprising given the specificity of my anarchist guide’s directions. Never one to shirk some friendly human contact, a few questions had me pointed in the right direction to breakfast nirvana.

The Weaver Street Community Owned Co-Op is the real deal-outdoor seating for easily 100+ served by a small breakfast bar and all the accoutrements of a natural food coop (kickin sourdough, freaky strong coffee, and all the people watching you can handle). The eggs-in several national iterations favoring olives, jalapenos, and cayenne, were easily as good as billed-and their tofu scramble was seasoned to perfection. Regardless of the extreme quality of their scrambles, anytime breakfast to order is served by the pound it is a win for society.

Now that breakfast is done, it is time to return to the reverie-there is a recorder playing somewhere and the magpies and toddlers are getting restless. Perhaps I’ll hit that Organic Bistro on the way back to Chapel Hill.

Damn… this is a good vacation!

Beo’s vaca… the saga continues.

So besides writing an epic primer on Permaculture Guilds off the top of my head this morning from the hotel room, I have been keeping busy here in Chapel Hill, NC. Yesterday I had stumbled upon an interesting looking establishment named 3Cups ferreted away in a quaint little courtyard marred only by the fact that it is completely torn up for construction. The décor was striking-somewhere between African and post modern and the door was partially covered by crates of empty glass milk jugs waiting to be refilled.

So today after wiling away a portion of the afternoon under a tulip tree on campus finishing my 24 hour blitz thru The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices written by the Union of Concerned Scientists I walked up the street to see if 3Cups would live up to my initial impressions.

First off 3Cups specializes in just three things-all of which cry out to my inner elitist: coffee, wine, and chocolate. It’s too early for wine, and not being hungry I hit the coffee bar. The barista directed me to their coffee list (yes they have a coffee list) and I was struck by their pricing, which was closer to what I am used to paying per pound than per cup. Their “select” grades were topping out at over $7.50! My confusion must have been evident enough, as he suggested one of their selects- and pointed me to a display depicting a Central American family standing infront of several large bags of coffee beans. It seems that 3Cups became so enamored with their beans that they have secured their entire crop. Hooked, I proceeded to order a large, only to learn that got me a 64oz French Press worth which I hastily converted to one much smaller.

The coffee is extraordinary, much fruitier than a typical Columbian and I admit that having my own little press at the table with me is fetching.

Chapel Hill is beginning to grow on me!

Permaculture Guilds: A Primer

Permaculture is a world created by merging the words “permanent” and “agriculture” or more correctly “culture”. Looking around, it is very hard to find a more permanent (i.e. sustainable) form of agriculture than, well, Nature; no one has to fertilize a Forest! And that realization is the crux of Permaculture in a nutshell: mimicking Nature’s vast experience in sustainability to make our own crude agriculture more sustainable in turn. In other words we are using Gaia as a mentor, rather than a nemesis. I have not actually attended a Permaculture Design Course, so I am not an official teacher, but I have read most of the major texts and they have literally changed my outlook on everything from our household’s waste stream to my perennial beds and choice of pets.

Guilding is perhaps the coolest detail level aspect of Permaculture theory. In Nature plants are grouped in small, reoccurring but loosely defined communities that are often referred to as guilds.
A full guild will have seven layers-each specifically designed to use one aspect of both the sun and root strata. On top will be the Large Trees, followed by the low trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, groundcovers, and finally “root” plants. But Gaia is subtle, and the coordination goes far deeper than resource use. Each participant in the guild brings a wealth of diversity to the table. The tall tree may house small animals that distribute seeds for them, and the shrub layer may provide feed for birds that use the low trees for nesting habitat and feed on insects that prey on the large trees. Plants in the herb layer may fix nitrogen for all to use, and the “root” plants may seek out pockets of nutrients in the soil that are made available to others in the guild as their foliage decomposes. Some plants will attract pollinators, others predatory insects. Some will act as mulch plants by creating excess biomass that regenerates the soil, while their neighbors may act as fortress plants protecting the entire guild from the encroachment of outside species. The inter-connectivity is how nature works-nice tidy systems that sufficiently supply the community with all of its needs given water and sunlight and a proper climate.
Permaculture takes this knowledge of resource management and biodiversity and attempts to modify nature into agriculture, which is really nothing more than an ecosystem modified by humans for their own ends. Unfortunately we have chosen to do this in a way that favors the monoculture. True Iowa GMA corn can net 240+ bushels of corn/acre, and is the most productive way known to eck corn from that acre (consequences be damned!), but Gaia can produce far more biomass on her own from that same acre without any inputs at all. The trick is to find a way to merge Gaia’s productivity and self sufficiency with plants that produce usable products from humans. “Guilding” a garden is that attempt.
For suburban use, the guilded Food Forest often forgoes the Tall Tree layer. One apex tree of this size would overly dominate a typical lot, but if you are planting a large deciduous tree to shade your home consider a useful tree such as a Standard Pear (fruit), Sugar Maple (syrup), Chestnut (protein!), or Black Locust (nitrogen fixer!). The Low Tree layer is where I focus most of my guilds. All semi dwarf rootstock fruit trees fit nicely and are uber productive on a suburban scale. Things to consider are whether you need a pollinator tree and also the ability of that variety to survive organically in your local-pears, paw-paw, and cherries are all good choices for the midwest with apples and plums good fits with careful pest management.
The fun really starts in the shrub, herb and root layers because of the amazing variety available. Each guild will need to provide for the needs of the group in as many ways as possible. Each needs 5 things: Nitrogen, Nutrients, Mulch, Pollination, Protection-both from competition and pests. When choosing your plants, in addition to a usable product for your family, each should provide a surplus of at least one service to the guild. Comfrey is a personal favorite of mine. The leaves are edible and medicinal, the roots are nutrient hounds, and they produce so much biomass that they can literally be hacked down to the ground 5 times a year. Nitrogen fixers are legion-including many edible varieties of annual beans and peas. Clovers are great n-fixers that also attract benifical insects and act as a mulch. My favorite shrub is the Goumi as it fixes nitrogen, has edible fruit and gives a good thicket habitat for insectary birds. Brambles and hazelnut shrubs are also great choices. Fortress plants can be as common as daylilies (also with edible tubers and buds!) or daffodils, as tasty as garlic, or if you really need to beat something back use an aggressive alleopath like our native Jerusalem Artichoke-but be ready to keep it under control! Luckily the best way to do this is by eating the delicious tubers!
A well designed guild will need little additional water due to less evaporation from the dense plantings and thick mulch, little to no fertilizer as it produces its own, and little to no pest control as the plants will attract their own predators. Sound to good to be true? Take a stroll through an established prairie or savanna and then ask the forester about his fertilizer or water bill…
My guild plans tend to rely on the fruit tree to supply most of the food, with the herb and shrub layers mostly supporting the tree’s needs while also granting some side benefits like edible fruits, landscape beauty, and wildlife habitat. Look for many updates, including plant lists, on my guilds as the season progresses!
If this post whet your appetite, the most accessible book on temperate permaculture is Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and I highly recommend it!

Beo v the TarHeels

So Beo and the Eco Mama are on vacation. Scratch that, Beo is on vacation tagging along with the Eco Mama as she attends marathon 12 hour Conferences. So while she is working on surviving marathon meetings I am touring University Campuses, reading Chomsky, and blogging my heart out. Sprout and Bird are at home in the care of their grandmother. Life is good.

At present I am sitting in a sweet little establishment right off campus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina called the Jack Sprat Cafe which is equi part sports bar, sandwich shop, and coffee house. To my right is a philosophy grad student and on my left is a group of card playing 30 somethings planning a trip to Mexico. In front, just to ground me in reality, is a 72″ screen blaring the Florida/Oregon game.

Chomsky is brilliant, but his Hegemony or Survival is a bit much to take in over a cappuccino and March Madness so I ordered some pasta salad and switched gears. I love college towns-so eclectic-intellectual yet carefree; vibrant while remaining serious. Somehow you are able to seamlessly switch gears from issues of critical importance to complete irrelevance with ease and that adds an amazing degree of life to the entire atmosphere. It is the ability to table a topic, to speak in generalities, that seemingly allows you to discuss virtually anything with anyone. I can’t imagine myself getting nearly as polemic in a debate in this atmosphere as I would at home-it is as if here, in a more intellectually free space the ideas can remain just that-and that their implications to my family, my village, my heirs can be tabled for a bit while the ideas are flushed out.

I guess that is the greatest gift that Mia could give me for our anniversary-the ability to take myself, and my issues, a little less seriously. If only for a time, but hopefully long enough to revitalize my mind and spirit for the tasks ahead. Will that mean I will actually watch a basketball game? Given that I had to Google the correct spelling of TarHeels, probably not. But it will mean that at least for a space dancing through the night at a mediterranean themed club will be more important than the perviousness of my rain gardens or the rockwell rating of my spade.

Gotta run… looks like Florida is pulling ahead.

I think.

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