Resiliency… & Questions.

Resiliency .  I think about it, read about it, and then write about it.  It is the ability of a system, be it an ecosystem or a socioeconomic construct, to bounce back from a shock.  For years now “We” have been saying “It” is coming…. get ready!  But there is a the starkness, an emotion, that reality has that is never –ever– present in the books on Transition or even in those on Peak Oil.  Several years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend and I was advocating $4+ gasoline as a way to reduce consumption. They nodded, and then reminded me that the thousands of working poor in Milwaukee can’t afford hybrids and typically drive gas guzzlers because they are old and cheap.  What about them?  I felt incredibly  bourgeois  then, as I have for the past several months as the very things I had read and written about began to take place around me.  Only this time with names attached to them.  And families.  That I know.

 185,000 people have lost their livelihoods in the past 3 weeks in our country.  185,000 fathers and mothers have had to come home to tell their families that It has Happened.  Each and every one of those statistics has a story, and these stories are heart rending. Just today my corporation announced a 9% layoff at HQ and that we are shutting down an entire distribution plant.    I am a manager in a different distribution plant, so that hits home.  Tomorrow I get to go in and talk through this with  my 30 member team, and somehow telling them to start “reskilling” and building local foodsheds in preparation for Energy Descent  and the end of Indulgence Capitalism will not seem appropriate to quell their fears.

I’ve spent several years now concerned about the very things that I think our country, hell world, is now experiencing: reaping the sowings of our consumer culture.  I’ve learned to grow things, I’ve learned to build things, and I’ve read and written more in the past two years than the last 8 years of my schooling combined.  But the feeling — the fear— is still real when you hear the CEO mouth the words “layoff” or whatever term the PR department allowed him to say.  One is reminded of Sartre’s Nausea, and when has *that* ever been good?

I have insulated myself to some degree given the whole suburban living thing.  But what now?  The next 2-5 years are going to be interesting.  Do you go into debt in preparation for hyperinflation which would make the debts meaningless?  Do you horde cash in preparation for the crash of the banking system?  Do you look your wife in the eye when she thinks your going bonkers?  What if your right?  What if your not?

Or do you cling to the status quo and your day job as long as it will have you, or do you turn to ramping up your part time LLC which has turned a small profit every year and take The Plunge?  If it is going to Get Bad, can you afford to waste any more time In the System?  Is there a middle ground?

I am banking on it.  Like so many of us, watching from the sidelines as we are crossing the tipping points of our economy are catching us unawares with the shear rapidity of the change.  I am not ready to cut the cord, mentally or economically… though fate may have other things in mind.  But I do know that finally earning a Space Race Victory in Civ IV will likely have to wait.  Action is my only answer to despair – I guess I am not very psychologically complex.

On the way home tonight after hearing my CEO utter that most dreaded words – even if it was referring to The Others-  I stopped to wire up the power cords into the 6, .5 hp water pumps for our Biodiesel processor at a friends house.  Then I stopped to pick up the spinach seeds for starting this very evening, and when I got home I started a double batch of bread rising for baking in the morning.  My mortgage seems way too big right now, and my job security too small, but I have 360#’s of seed potatoes inbound, I have built machines that can run gas engines on wood chips and I know how to make fuel from french fries.  I may not be as resilient as I want to be, but I am better off than most.  And all my learnings, hopes, and fears are on this blog for you to learn from too should you want.

As Chris Martenson says in his Crash Course – the next 20 years will likely be nothing like the last.  I still believe that there is a brighter future out there for my children, but getting there will be an interesting ride.  

In the mean time I will quote Ani Difranco… “you gotta live light enough to see some humor, and long enough to see some change.”

If you find the humor, let me know.  But regardless,

Be that Change.


Event Horizons

2006-0110neutron-fullNo, this post is not really about black holes.  Though at times we all feel we are in a point from which no light can escape, and I guess there are times this deep into winter when we can get so wrapped up that events outside our dense little homebound microcosms cease to exist.    But this post is about more concrete things than theories of relativity.  

Today I attended an ad hoc meeting called by one of the “firesouls” of our little CSE group.   He was getting concerned that our vision was becoming diluted by the seemingly infinite possibilities of the gasifier and was looking for us to refocus on the Here and Now.  This is very real problem in our group – we are all visionaries and have the cursed blessing of taking ideas and running with them.  In other words we are *really* good at starting things…. finishing them is not a given.  Ex. we are designing ethanol stills and tilapia water filters when the gasifier hasn’t even run an engine for more than 10 minutes yet.  Oi.

So today we sat for 3 hours in a coffee shop with a bunch of tables pulled together and between way too much caffeine, $5000 in laptops and alot of scratch paper the 3 of us pounded out some actionables for the next 15/30/60 days -our “Event Horizon” for our Gasifier project.  Here are the main issues:

  • 15 Days: Design a small compressor and storage tank system to pre-charge the syngas to allow us a steady flow to the engine that can be metered.  This sounds complicated, but we hope to have a compressed tank of syngas running a small engine and generator in this time frame.
  • 30 days: Design an auger system to begin automating the pellet feed system while simultaneously design/build a simple triggered circut that will regulate that feed system. 
  • 60 days: This is a bit out, so we have little things like the construction of 2-3 more gasifiers in that window.  Our hope is to have a bill of materials and hold some “work party” weekends to spread the labor and get more people skilled up.

Also the Bio Diesel processor got a massive boost today in my securing of a source of Waste Veggie Oil (WVO) here in town.  It is a small supply, only about 10glns/wk but enough to go ahead and finish the processor.  Here are the Event Horizons for the BD Unit:

  • 15 Days: Procure 3 open top steel drums, 600/400/200/100 micron filters, and build a portable 12 volt pump system to move thick WVO around.
  • 30 Days: FAb up a unit to hold a 55 gallon drum over a syngas burner, dry and filter 40 gallons of WVO, Build the processor and hook it up to the gasifier.
  • 60 Days: run a batch of BD through the unit without blowing up, and… drive the Golf with first tank of homebrew!

These are incredibly ambitious goals, but when you surround yourself with retired engineers, super tinkerers with incredibly rich and eclectic knowledge bases and computer technicians that have worked on Antarctic research stations your ideas of “possible” get goofy.  Plus we are motivated both by the possibilities of the new administration and by the growing reality that the next decade will likely get weird in a Big Hurry.  

I am convinced that resiliency can no longer be an esoteric dream from an armchair, but has become a necessity that will take a crap-ton of work if we are to achieve it.   The future we envision will not be given to our children unless  it is first earned by us, their parents.  

Be the Change.


2nd Generation Downdraft Stratified Biomass Gasifier

Here is a descriptive video of our latest gasifier (v 2.0). This one adds fancy cooling towers, augers, and produces significantly higher grade syngas. Please check out the Gasifier pages for more info on wood gasification!

Simple, No Knead Bread

I love baking bread – from scratch and by hand.  I grew up  with an artistic father (30 years in photo journalism in Chicago with half that covering Food and Fashion around the world) who developed a deep love of bread baking when I was young and had the distinct pleasure of watching him create incredible loaves -everything from a rich pungent potato bread (still my favorite) to zesty and fun pizza loaves.  It took a surprising amount of will to actually begin making bread myself several years ago – somehow it was always “Dad’s” thing.  And then there was the real fear of botching it.   Strange how such a simple and ancient thing -something that has been a part of human history since the dawn of agriculture- has become so mysterious and  aloof.  For years I have made bread following either James Beard’s (Beard on Bread) and especially Daniel Leader’s (Bread Alone) advice and have made some incredible creations with their help.  But (the new) “Dad’s” bread is still a luxury, with much of our sandwich bread coming from the store.  Leader’s artisan recipes can take literally days to make -and are worth it!- but with all the irons I have in the fire it is unusual if I make more than a loaf a month.   I believe that the simpler, or whole, the food the higher the food value.  Even organic breads have unpronounceable ingredients, and there are no local bakeries here in rural Jefferson County.  Last year I had experimented with the NY Times No Knead Bread as a means to make bread more expeditiously and was impressed but had fallen out of habit.  With the cost cutting measures as we tighten our belts I started making it again.  All home bread is cheaper (between $1-2/loaf) than store bought organic whole grains ($4-7) and it super fun to make with kids.

Yesterday was my true test.  Could I make a bold, light loaf of “artisan” bread while working a 13 hour day?  Yep!  If you read the recipe you will notice that the first steps take under 5 minutes.  I did it while the coffee brewed.   I wake up at 3:30 to allow me to get to work by 5am and I like to read a bit to settle my mind prior to work (my coworkers think I am insane – which may be true).  That means that I can let the dough rise for over 14 hours by the time I am home again and settled.  Step 3 entails scraping the now incedibly light and risen “sponge” onto a floured counter and kneading it about 30 seconds to deflate it and to form a ball.  My 7 yr old did it last night.  Then let it “proof” for 2 hours and 90 minutes in heat the oven to 450 degrees.  Yes that hot!

Here is the kicker that keeps alot of people from making the No Knead Bread – you need a dutch oven.  You can use a pyrex or cornell caserole pot too, it just needs to be covered and be able to withstand 450 F.  I spent $45 on a Lodge Enamel Cast Iron dutch oven I didn’t get the top of the line which meant I had to take off the plastic lid knob (only good to 400 degrees?!) and make one myself out of some bolts and washers.  It works great and makes a wicked chili too.

Put the Dutch Oven into the real oven while you preheat it to 450.  When the dough is ready just remove the D.Oven (use THICK mits!) and flop the dough in “crease” side up.  Cover the D.Oven again and return it to he oven and finish cooking per the recipe.  My D. Oven is rather large (6 Qts), so I get deeper loaves by doubling the NY recipe and adding 7-10 minutes to the covered cooking time.

Results?  This is what is possible while also working 13 hours or doing whatever:


In the pot:


texture-reseizeThe greatest thing about the No Knead Bread is that you can keep the dough INCREDIBLY light because you do not need to ad too much flour to make it “workable”.  That means that the texture, or “crumb” is very airy.  This is more like a white flour sourdough than the 50% wheat flour mix it really is.  Makes fabulous toast and pairs well with potato soups.  

I am still in disbelief that bread of this quality, flavor, and nutrition (no fat!) is possible while also working long days and making dinners from scratch.  And the kicker is that almost every loaf turns out this well – the typical variables like kneading vigor and having to rigorously follow the timelines of letting various rising stages of traditional bread are not present in this recipe.  It is really this simple.

I was a skeptic years ago, and then I watched this video and became enough of a believer that I bought a $50 pot.  It works.  Its incredily easy.  Its uber cheap (ROI is like 12 loaves).  And oh, the FLAVOR!  Not to mention the nutrition -add some flax meal for Omega’s, throw in some wheat germ for protein, and experiment with whole wheat, rye, amaranth, and quinoa (just reduce the flour = to what you add), dashes of herbs add flavor and depth.  Your family will be better for it!

You can do this.  Start it the night before on a Friday and have fresh bread for an incredible lunch with soup on Saturday.  



Gasifier Data!

Spent a goodly part of today out at the farm playing Energy Hero where we ran our second generation gasifier for about 3 hours.  We have the design of the system to a point now that we felt ready to start tracking some temperatures and taking data on the fuel consumed per hour and such.

 The goal of our second generation gasifier is primarily to produce reliably high grade Syn-Gas, and then to facilitate the removal of heat for storage as hot water for later use as space heating, in aquaculture, or even for BioDiesel or Ethanol production.  Today we tracked surface temps at a variety of points on the unit for over an hour while measuring fuel consumption.  The details are in the linked file below, but here is the skinny: we maintained gas temps under 80 F despite stressing the cooling tower with 100F water.  Also we now know that the gasifier uses about 10.5#’s of pellets per hour with our current fan.  Not bad!  This all took place during the January meeting of my Community Supported Energy Club – we even ate hot dogs and chili cooked on syn gas burners!  My first carbon negative lunch!

Link to my pretty chart of temp readings with a descriptive blurb:

Gasifier v 2.0 Surface Temperature Chart

Unfortunately I do not have any pics of this gasifier on this computer-as soon as I get them transfered I will post them.  We also took good video last week, but it is being edited. 

Super Cool!


Anima Mundi

As posted recently in a comment by commonweeder, January is indeed a time of needed reflection.  In many ways it is also a great gathering of the energies, mental and physical, for the upcoming year’s endevours.  Tonight I sit, making an attempt at stillness.  I am no Yogi – I am far to restless for that!  But at times even I am able to just sit and read.  That is not so different, but now I am reading philosophy rather than a “how to” focused non-fiction on gardening or permaculture or  renewable energy… i.e. a book that isn’t imminently practical.  

 This night is brought to me by the Gifts of the Season: noise canceling headphones by Bose from my sister in law’s (to help me write the book with a 5 and 6 year old in the house) and Stephan Harding’s engrossing tale of our  animate Earth purchased by my sister, some recent music selections from Windham Hill from myself, and a wife who is upstairs preparing the children for bed.

Sitting in a dimly lit room on a blustery cold Wisconsin evening,  the Yule Lights on the crab apple trees out front shining in, a book turning science into poetry in my hands, my  ear phones wrapping me in a soul stirring silence punctuated by the lyrical music of George Winston’s December and my body warmed by a fine red wine, I am achieving a deep stillness that is hopefully recalibrating my inner peace… so desperately needed with all the fret and fray swirling about in the Real World.  This is a truly fine moment -more so because of the full day spent with the family at home (no errands!).

Thanks for letting me share.  And now I will tell the restlessness that moved me to type this to sit still whilst I return to the inner stillness for a bit more.


Permaculture is IT!

Just discovered the old Brit sitcom: The Good Life. Permascience put this up on You Tube and it hit so close to home that I just had to share.


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