Yardening and Yarditarianism

I’m an eclectic guy, and my gardening techniques reflect that.  I have permaculture inspired guilds in the orchard, I have bio-intensive organic vegetable gardens that are managed using Coleman’s 4 Season techniques.  I also have native landscaping with prairie plantings in the rain gardens and several island beds.  But take it all together, and its a mix no matter how well it flows.  Last year I settled on a term from my youthI am a Yardener.

Yardening

For better or worse, I am currently entrusted with just shy of .5 acres (.2 ha) and in the 4+ years that I have written this blog I have chronicled the process of taking it from a denuded wasteland to the budding Garden of Eatin that it is today.   This year I will have many plans, but one that I am committed to is to grow as much food as I can in the yard – with a goal of 2000#s (907 kg) in 12 months.  That is gonna take some doing as the fruit trees have years until they hit peak yields, and even with the expanded canning garden total garden space is still under 2000 sq ft (186 sq m) or so.  Expected yield with “good” harvests sketch out to 1200-1400#’s (540-635 kg) which is still awesome.

32'x35' is about 1100 sq ft. Aw, hell yeah!

A big component of this yield will be our newly built (last June) Pimped out Garden.  At 1100 sq ft it gives us the room to grow serious amounts of food for storage and seasonal eating.  I could surely get 2000#’s from this garden alone, but will plan on growing food we eat, rather than cooking the books with huge amounts of cucumbers, roma tomatoes, and potatoes.  This garden will also likely get a 12′ hoop house in it late summer, and will have cold frames on it within 8 weeks of this post for early greens.  The soil is still weak as over half of it was trucked in last June, but I mixed in plenty of compost and vermicompost along with some green manures and deep mulching before fall and laying the ground work for rich soil ecosystems.  Still working through the planting layouts for the year, and need to catalog the seeds remaining from last year and fill holes, but this is all very exciting.

About half the orchard - missing are another pear and paw-paw hidden off camera

Up hill from the Canning Garden is my permaculture orchard.  Complete with 9 trees (Pears, Apples, Peaches, and Paw-Paw) along with well over a dozen fruiting shrubs, a few hardy kiwis, a couple of hazelnuts and a growing understory it is a nutritional force to be reckoned with.  to bolster its productivity while it fills in I liberally add annuals like peppers, garlic, and sprawling squash vines (these are actively managed and pruned to avoid crowding).  This year will also see the planting of 7 more fruit trees (another apple, a cherry, apricots, and 3 plums) and we planted 4 nut trees (from seed) for a protein/fat producing overstory (in a decade or so!) of chestnuts and hickory/pecan hybrids.  The fences will also be drafted into duty as a vineyard with a dozen grape cultivars for table eating and perhaps even wine.  In 5 years of so, the orchard will likely out produce the canning garden, and in a decade it certainly will – heck the kiwis could be up to 200#’s themselves!

Yarditarianism

Pretty sure I made this word up tonight (the Google can’t find it), but I prefer it to the slightly less obscure “yardavore”.  This is geeky, but -vore typically denotes an eating behavior that is by nature, where “-tarian” usually denotes an eating behavior of choice (herbivore v. vegetarian).  I also like this contrast with Localvore, which has been our “nature” historically, and yarditarian which is more a factor of choice and privilege.  Regardless, if one is gonna slap it on the table and try to grow 2000#s of food in one year from one’s yard, it goes without saying that we will be eating a significant amount of our food from our yard.  From March’s first French Sorrel and cold frame spinach leaves to the final stored potatoes and onions of the following March this will be an outstanding journey as we work to eat our bounty, working through the logistics of harvesting, preparing, storing, and sharing the produce from even this 10% of our yard.  I am not pretending to try to eat *exclusively* from my yard; self sufficiency is not, and never will be, my goal.  But adding 2000#’s of food to my family’s diet will add a significant amount of resiliency to our food supply while also teaching my children and myself incredibly valuable lessons about what is possible on so small a plot of land.

Should be a great year!

-Rob

Energy Descent and the New Reality

Like most of us, I am quite sensitive to the price of fuel and watch its movements with keen interest, and it has not been disappointing of late.  We set a new record for the price of pump gasoline in December last week at $2.93, and have proceeded to break it 4 times since then and we currently sit at $2.98 for the average price across the US.  That is noteworthy, especially considering that this is up 14% from last December, and higher than it was the December before we hit $4+ in the Summer of 2008  and all hell broke loose in our economy soon after.

Oil IS our economy.  It is what makes global trade at this scale possible and why it makes “sense” to ship raw materials from Africa to SE Asia for processing and then to the US for final sale, grain from the Ukraine to be fed to cattle in Brazil to end up in $.89 cheeseburgers in the US, and the 1500 mile side salad.  That fact – that Oil is Everything –  means that watching the price of crude, or just the pump, is rather important for predicting when the next recession, or rather the deepening of the current one, will hit.  Since we hit Peak Oil in 2006 the New Reality is that energy economics are now ruthlessly driven by supply and demand.  Now that we are Post Peak, there is no significant means of mitigating price by upping supply to meet demand; when demand increases, price MUST follow suit soon after as supply is fixed and slowly diminishing.

Supply v. Demand: a graphical depiction...

What became painfully clear to us all, is that there is a price ceiling that our economy is able to support.  In 2008 it was somewhere near $110/bbl or $4/gln of gasoline.  Beyond that point oil/gas pushed the expense side of doing business too far (and had the psychological impact of drastically reducing consumer spending) and we smacked into a New Reality that energy was perhaps more expensive than we could afford; that we couldn’t afford to do *everything* we wanted as a global community.

And then we learned another reality about our current economy.  GROWTH is IMPERATIVE.  Chris Martenson in his Crash Course will explain this far better than I can, but in long and short the rate of our economic growth MUST EXCEED the interest that is due on everything we, as a global society, “own”.    As soon as the economy fails to grow faster than the interest that is due on the all the zillions of loans –from credit cards to government bonds– there is literally NOT ENOUGH MONEY to pay the banks and massive foreclosures begin to happen.   This is also why we continually here that 1-2% growth “isn’t enough”.  Check your car/mortgage/credit card bill for your interest rate if you wonder why not.

So everyone alive has know nothing but the fact that Oil IS the Economy, and that the Economy MUST grow.  But there is no more cheap oil, and the Economy CAN’T grow – at least not until it bottoms and the Peak is a lofty mountain indeed.   The Old Reality is over.  Welcome to the New One.  The next century or so will be dominated by series after series of recessions, which will relax the demand pressure on the price of energy enough to allow a brief “recovery”.  But as soon as the economy recovers enough it will inevitably hit the energy price ceiling (which is now lower than the last one due to all the bankruptcies that occurred in the last recession which lowered the overall size of the economy by destroying “wealth”) and we will enter a new recession.  This is the economic reality of Energy Descent: series after series of recessions interspersed with brief “recoveries”.

This is why I watch the price of fuel with so much more interest than I did 3 years ago.  Our current “recovery”, which is really just a slowing of the bleeding rather than healing, is inherently short lived and the price of Crude at its current mid $80’s and climbing does not bode well for the length of this reprieve.

We cannot control this.  We cannot “solve” this problem –mostly because its not a problem, its reality. That means we must react to our situation and find personal solutions to the IMPACTS of the New Reality on our lives.

This will mean many things, and the they will be very different to many people.  Tom recently commented with a challenge that went something like “cut the theory and prove it with your checkbook” ; i.e. try to see if the ideas are economically viable by earning my living through their implementation.  Tom runs a successful CSA in North Carolina and is well along his way towards resiliency assuming he isn’t running a mortgage and depending unsustainably on inputs.  Its a fair question, but as a “challenge” it is also arrogant and insensitive to the New Reality, and in that arrogance which runs the strong risk of demoralizing rather than inspiring.  There is no more cheap credit to buy land (5 acre farmettes are still running $350,000 hereabouts – add $10,000 for each additional acre), there are likely mountains of debt that were accumulated in the Old Reality forcing a much higher income threshold to maintain principal and interest payments, and hundreds of other economic and social facets of our individual situations that makes “proving” our ideas by forcing them to support our families a false challenge.

The fact is that the New Reality will do that for all of us.  The rub of the next few decades will be: can we re-adapt fast enough (using theories, hunches, untried ideas, and examples from those around us) to reduce our dependency on the Old Reality at least as fast as it is replaced by the New Reality.  Can we offset our energy needs as fast as their costs rise beyond our ability to pay for them; can we grow increasing amounts of food as fast as their price increases beyond our ability to afford them. Can we find additional incomes in cottage economies (or career changes in the case of those lucky enough to be in a situation like Tom) and reduce our expenses fast enough to keep our homes, pay down our debts, reskill, and retool?

In many ways it can feel like a race – can we pay off the mortgage before I lose my job, etc?   The impact of the Recession Rollercoaster will in many ways be limited to our connection and dependance on the system.  With a 40 mile commute, traditional mortgage, and no wood stove or PV cells, I am far more dependent on the Old Reality and its cheap energy, than if I am able to relocalize my income, truly own my home, and add more than a bit of self reliance to my household.

The coming, hell CURRENT, crisis will be mitigated in so much as we are able to innovate and implement individual organic solutions to the changes that are being forced upon us by the New Reality.   The changes may come faster than I can adapt to them  – I could lose my job this year and become one of the millions of long term unemployed and my permaculture orchard will be for naught.  But, knowing that, I can take strong, bold steps to limit my exposure and control the variables I can.  We can ALL do this. And my suspicion, based on the experience of the past 4 years, is that in adding that control back to our lives, in living in closer touch with reality, we will find more value in what really matters most and very likely increase our personal happiness in direct proportion to our reduced adherence to the Old Reality.

It will be wicked hard, there will certainly be moments of dread, but we can do this.

Be the Change.

Kunstler on Suburbia- Dang Sucka.

As part of my commitment to doubling down and getting real about rebuilding Suburbia into something that is livable I stumbled across this talk by James Kunstler of Long Emergency fame, which I am finally getting around to reading.  Well worth 20 minutes of your time. Though he spends the majority of the talk beating the shit out of Suburban and current Urban planning, he is a gifted speaker and refuses to pull punches.  The shit is real.  Get busy.

Be the Change.

-Rob

Winter Reading Project, Post Script

Some other additions for the small scale ag side of things.  Notice that these are ALL from Chelsea Green.  They are a publisher (along with New Society Publishers) that I hit frequently and they are also offering 35% off EVERYTHING and free shipping over $100 until 12/31/10. Resilient Gardening has been on my short list for a year and with its glowing recommendations from several reader/bloggers, passing it up would be foolhardy at this point.  Laughton’s book is on a larger scale, but I refuse to let my dream of a small holding die and I also do consulting work on larger properties so that will be welcome reading as additional viewpoints are always welcome.  Cooper’s book seems to be right up my alley and I would like some more perspective from “over the pond”.

The Alternative Kitchen Garden
An A–Z

by Emma Cooper

“The Alternative Kitchen Garden is an evolving idea of what a kitchen garden could be in the twenty-first century: organic, environmentally sustainable, resilient, and about localizing at least some of our food production. It’s also a place not only for learning and practicing growing skills but also for enjoying ourselves and having fun. The Alternative Kitchen Garden is the ideal companion for anyone getting dirt under their fingernails for the first time and full of fascinating ideas and experiments for the adventurous gardener.”

Surviving and Thriving on the Land
How to Use Your Time and Energy to Run a Successful Smallholding

by Rebecca Laughton

“Surviving and Thriving on the Land looks at ways in which projects can be designed that care for the people involved in them as well as the earth that they are trying to protect. If land-based ecological projects are to offer a realistic solution to the problems we face in the twenty-first century, it is imperative that they be sustainable in terms of human energy. This book offers a framework, backed up by real-life examples, of issues to consider when setting up a new project or for overcoming human-energy-based problems in existing projects.”

The Resilient Gardener
Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times 

by Carol Deppe

“Scientist/gardener Carol Deppe combines her passion for gardening with newly emerging scientific information from many fields — resilience science, climatology, climate change, ecology, anthropology, paleontology, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, health, and medicine. In the last half of The Resilient Gardener, Deppe extends and illustrates these principles with detailed information about growing and using five key crops: potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs.”

Enjoy your reading!

-Rob

Winter Reading Project

Last winter I read a bit over 1200 pages on Soil Science, and the learnings from that project were profound enough that they inspired me to revamp the way I plant my gardens,  created and taught several workshops on Introductory Soil Science and posted enough about composting that you all were justifiably concerned about my interests bordering on obsession.  Passion often comes delivered without an “off” switch…  I never did write up my learnings on Soils in a specific series of posts and that is on my list of winter writing projects.

But this year, with December half gone, I was struggling a bit as I was lacking a research project for the winter.  Plans for next year will be coppice experiments and a Full Bore shot at small scale, intensive “ecological yardening” (really need to just take a Permaculture Design Course so I can use the dang copyrighted term in my business).   With the readings of the past several month and the 3 days at the Midwest Biomass Conference I am only about 2 books short of the books on coppice that I want to read – and one of them isn’t even written yet.

So for this winter I am focusing on 2 subjects:  Systems Thinking for the theory side, and Small Scale Agriculture systems on the practical side.  The goal will be 3 books on each, which will leave some room for the week or two in January where I lock myself into a room with seed catalogs, coffee, and spreadsheets to plan my gardens, and still leave time for some strolls into literary whimsy should one present itself.  To that end here are the first few contenders (please add your own if you have recommendations) – I typically only buy 1-2 books at a time, as they almost always lead me to new pathways.

Systems Thinking

Resiliency Thinking, by Brian Walker and David Salt.  I just finished this and HIGHLY recommend it.  If you want to better understand the theory on how complex, ecological systems respond to change and why some bounce back and some cross tipping points, this book is a fascinating starting point.  150 pages means you can polish it off in a day of reading and a few pots of tea, but though it is very accessible, it is so dense with epiphanies that I gave it 2 weeks so that the insights could percolate through my thinking more thoroughly.  Great books change how you think and interact with the world.  This is one of those.

Next on order is Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows. Ms. Meadows authored Limits to Growth in 1972 and has been one of the most influential thinks of the Energy Descent movement.   When an author is recommended highly by the likes of Lester Brown, Hunter and Amory Lovins and is referred to by Bill McKibben as “one of the smartest people I ever knew” I take notice.

We’ll see where my muse takes me after that, but contenders are some of the books by Fritjof Capra, though not sure if he’s a quack yet, and likely a re-re-re-read of Permaculture Principles by my hero David Holmgren.

Small Scale Intensive Ag / Applied Suburban Permaculture

Solviva, by Anna Edey has been on my “should read” list for several years now and I need to tear the bandaid off.  So its on order too.  There are several other practical books out there such as Gardening When it Counts, the Urban Homestead, The Self Sufficient Gardener and the Backyard Homestead.  But likely I will stick to more theory (shocking) and read some of the newer permaculture books out there that I’ve missed so far such as the Earth User’s Guide by Rosemary Marrow or The Permaculture Way, by Graham Bell.  The upcoming book by Sepp Holzer should be a knock out – I loved what I saw of him on You Tube.

And that brings up another element – we are reaching a point now where the interweb is an ever more important source for researching these aspects as the practical applications of Permaculture are far outstripping the pace with which conventional media outlets can keep up.  Again, it is the diverse organic solutions that we as individuals are creating that will be the solutions.   And to that end expect these books and research to continue to influence my thinking and writing this season, and of course expect the dirt to fly as soon as the frost is out.   Should be a great winter!

-Rob

Panhandle Hooks and Transition Lessons

The upper Midwest just got clobbered by a doozy of a Panhandle Hook dumping plenty of snow followed by some serious winds gusting to 50mph (80kph).  I work the weekends, so I had the pleasure of driving through all this at 4am this morning.  Now the signs were clear – NOAA has been preaching this storm all week – heavy snow, bitter temps, massive winds.  Its gonna be brutal.   The troopers are adamant – no travel unless you have to.  Again and Again the mantra is clear – be prepared, be careful, take precautions.

I have almost no choice – I have a job to do and a team to lead, but I know the drill.  I own an AWD Subaru.  I mount dedicated snow tires.  I leave with plenty of time, wearing enough fleece line gore tex and merino wool that I could have walked the 20 miles to work if I had to.  And in case I do need to, I put snow shoes, flashlights and some food in the car.  My wife hands me some water as I walk out the door.  I fill the gas tank and put a heavy winter camping sleeping bad in the car in case I bin it and it takes a while for help to arrive.  Heck, I’ve taken performance driving classes and raced cars in my past; I know the limits of my abilities and my vehicle.  I am not self sufficient, but I am prepared for the reasonable issues that I may face.  I will be in a bad way if I wrap my Forester around a tree, so I drive slow to ensure that never happens.  But if I ditch it or get caught in a drift I will be fine for a day or two which is 4x longer than I will need to be.  I have added a significant amount of resiliency and self reliance to my treacherous commute.

While gassing up, I see 3 different cars pull up and people run into the store wearing track pants and sneakers or flats and a dress.   I went to school in South Dakota…  weather will kill you dead in minutes out there in winter and people like this would literally get talked to for endangering themselves and others by their lack of preparedness (in South Dakota you have to pay for your own rescue if you are dumb enough to get into trouble in a winter storm).  On the commute home the drifting was intense as the Alberta air was blowing down in full force.  The roads were clear when blocked by woods, but hit a field and the drifts were very real, and the roads glare ice.  The troopers knew this and had gotten sick enough of pulling people out all damn day that they towed out a 12′ tall flashing neon sign telling people to SLOW DOWN: HAZARDOUS DRIFTING ahead.    Sure enough – it got BAD about .5 miles later.  I lifted off the throttle, hit the hazard lights, and slowed to 30mph.  Then, predictably, three cars blew by me 1…2…3….  the first hit the drift, braked and of course started to spin on the ice as the weight lifted off the rear of the vehicle.  Of course the next two did the same and they all hit the ditch 1… 2… 3…

I pulled over and ensured that they were all ok and were able to call for a tow and then I drove on struck again by how surprised each of them were- one even muttering “what happened?”  The signs were there –literally– and they failed to heed them.   The conditions changed, but they failed to adjust their paradigm.

There are many lessons here.  In any population there is naturally a wide array of risk aversion levels.  In herbivores it is a classic tug of war between bolting at the first sign of a predator and wasting precious energy, or waiting a bit longer saving energy and perhaps even taking a few more bites of grass. Too risk averse and you can’t compete as you gradually become weaker and less able to produce.  Not risk averse enough and, well, you get eaten.   Mammoths in North America had evolved to regard anything smaller than a short faced bear as too small to be a threat.  But when the Clovis people arrived – massing 1/4 of a bear so of course no threat at all– they were summarily wiped out in mere centuries.    I was raised in an environment that valued preparedness.  I have often thought that one could draw a loose, but fairly accurate, line through male society along the line of Those That Carry Pocket Knives and Those That Do Not.   Go to any birthday party and when the stubborn ribbon hits, there is always one or two people there that quickly reach into their pocket to produce a small tool to do the job.

I come from a long line of knife carriers and this year my son will get his first knife – a right of passage indeed– and in a few years his younger sister will too.  There are also those who went to Boy Scouts (Be Prepared!) and those who did not.  The trappings really don’t matter a lick – the key point is that there are those of us that want to be READY to handle, well whatever “it” is.  We are a bit more conservative, a bit more thoughtful, and a bit more diligent.  We are also rarely going to be reckless and will miss out on situations that favor immediate response and action without forethought.  We make shitty venture capitalists but are great in a plane crash.

I suspect that many of the readers of this blog, many of The Choir in the Energy Descent Age, are “knife carriers”.  We are heading the NOAA forecast.  We put the snow boots and blankets in the car.   We see the troopers signs and slow down.  In the coming decades we will also likely be the ones able to pull over, walk down into the ditch and rap on the window with a friendly “You OK in there?!”  I salute you.

Be the Change.

-Rob

Resilience Thinking

“When it comes to resilience, what’s important is that the different organisms that form part of the same functional group each have different responses to disturbances… …If there are a large number of different response types, the service provided by a functional group is likely to be sustained over a wider range of conditions, and the system has a greater capacity to absorb disturbances.” – Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking

Redundancy is a goal, not a label; we need to get busy getting creative. The authors also describe those disturbances and “creative destruction”, which breaks down stability and predictability (say a Hurricane to the Gulf or Peak Oil for you and me) but at the same time releases tremendous amounts of resources for innovation and reorganization. Change is Here. What we need now is organic millions of organic, diverse, and innovative solutions to build a new regime and redefine normal at a more resilient level.

This is our challenge; This is our calling.

Be the Change!

David Holmgren’s “Retro-Fitting Suburbia” talk in Auckland 2007

After I wrote Evolving Suburbia I came across this talk on and found it interesting to here David go into more detail than in the initial video I posted.  These are all availible on You Tube, but can be a bit hard to track down, though deepgreenvideo has them all up and I am using their uploads.  Also, you can find the text to the paper that covers the same topics on Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Bulletin.  Total time for the talk is a bit over 90 minutes, the first 45 is a very nice summary of permaculture, and a high level overview of David’s book Future Scenarios. Starting about part 5 or 6 he really starts to hone in on suburbia.  Specifics remain light, again the answers will be individual and organic, but his tactic of following 4 “homes” from the 1950’s to the early 2000’s is rather fun to watch.

 

Evolving Suburbia

Fall and winter are times of reflection and as I look into the 2011 year I am continually drawn to the question of how to best spend my time, resources, and energy.   It is very likely that 2011 will be the Year of the Home (2010 was the Year of the Soil).  By that I mean its time to Get Serious about pushing the resiliency of my .5 acre (.2 ha) suburban homestead.  The reasons are varied and complex, but the short answer is that when I look around I see adding resiliency to our existing built environment as one of the areas most ripe for change – both due to how critical that change will be, and to how little is being done on that front currently.  One of the key thinkers that I turn to when working through this problem is David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture and an advocate for the reality that we’re stuck with suburbs for the next 50+ years so lets make the best of it.  The “problem is the solution” after all…  Here is David talking through Suburbia in Energy Descent, a reoccurring topic for him.

Reality of the Burbs

This is Reality - The future is what we make of it.

Suburbs have long been maligned for their intense resource use and the simple fact that they have been designed for automobiles rather than people; of course this is all too true.  More recently, the burbs have come under intense fire for being perhaps the last place on Earth that one will want to be be in an Post Peak Oil world.  There is much emotional reaction driving this assessment.  And emotion, while incredibly useful at times, inherently clogs clear thought.   I am not going to ask that we devote time to a truly thorough list of the pros/cons of the burbs, but hitting on some of the easy, perhaps positive, attributes will be helpful to this dialogue (the cons are well known).  First up is population density.  Significantly less than urban environments, and significantly more than rural ones.  In my subdivision, we have about 50 homes in 20 acres.  Factor out roads and each property gets .3 acres (.12 ha) –and it can all be irrigated with one 100′ hose.    This is close enough for a chat over the fence during chores, but far enough away that your son can play his drums without disturbing the neighbors and if your compost pile goes anaerobic you get a few days to fix it before anyone notices.  Most kids can walk to school, but you have to drive a bit for a bite to eat or to watch a movie… but your choices are limited for both compared to a city.  Whenever we have looked at moving to the country, the LACK of neighbors and amenities is one of our biggest concerns. Then there is the scale and quality of living space. Homes here average a bit over 2000 sq ft – mine is smaller, some are rather larger.  Currently that gives us over 500 sq ft per person – luxury indeed in global terms, and should the need arise much of this space could be converted to more utilitarian use (huh, that rec room looks rather like a root cellar…), or boarders/extended family taken in.  Our subdivision is newer, so insulation and build quality is relatively good – I will see a 4 degree rise due to solar gain on a sunny 40 degree day and we only get about 1 degree of heat loss per 1.5 hours overnight with outside air temps at 25 degrees (-4 C) and moderate winds; bake some bread and the furnace won’t run for hours.  Then there are the garages.  If you ditch one or two of the cars there is a serious amount of space in there.  As Holmgren points out these could be truly useful spaces for all kinds of cottage industries.  The asphalt roofs on the two story colonials style houses are well above tree line and hence have great solar access for PV, and are also already plumbed to gather irrigation water.  Change roofing material and I have over 25000 gallons/yr (99,000 l) of drinking water with some filtering and purification.  Perhaps most important of all, as Holmgren points out – the fact that the homes are individually “owned” gives the intrepid homeowner massive license to change, tinker, and retrofit as they see fit.  No need to take it to the condo association or get your 40 fellow tenants to agree to have chickens or a PV array.  Just do it.  Do I still have to drive 19 miles to work?  Well, only as long as the job will have me.  If it doesn’t I will have to do more with less, and to that end the asset list of my suburban home has much going for it.

Retrofit Rather Than Rebuild

Natualis Earthship - passive solar heated, rain water collecting, greywater cycling, and internal food producing greenhouse.

Here is perhaps the hardest truth about Suburbia – and we need to internalize it as fact very quickly.  IT ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE. Buildings have a staying power measured in generations – most of the farmhouses around here are over 100 years old.  We hear often in the Peak Oil circles about how long it will take for any changes in automobile fleet dynamics (to more efficient power-plants) to reach critical mass for change, but cars are only around for decades and even they won’t change fast enough.  There was a time when “back to the land” was an option, but thanks to the economic crisis , unless we are willing to walk away from our mortgages and squat somewhere, most of us are now finding it nearly impossible to find a bit of land to farmstead on due to lack of finance and liquid capital.  Also, in the same vein, the capital and finance needed to rebuild Suburbia in a more eco image also does not exist.   My neighborhood will not be torn down and rebuilt in Earthships anytime soon despite the fact that it would make us much more able to thrive in the coming century.  BUT we CAN retrofit our existing structures as we respond to the growing challenges of our age.  Look around your neighborhood – that is your  reality, or at least the starting point.  Much as we can put inexpensive add-ons on the oxygen sensors of our current cars to allow us to run pure homebrew ethanol (easier than installing a new hybrid drivetrain!), we can also retro fit our homes to be far more sustainable than they are now without a complete tear down.  And the possibility of hundreds of thousands of individual responses to the Long Emergency is incredibly exciting to me.  Welcome to the greatest Open Source Human Ecology project of all time; we will literally get to actively participate in the real time evolution of our own built environment.  Bring it on.

Organic Response to Change

Holmgren nailed the likely response to the coming predicament in his assessment that the response to the this century’s changes will be diverse, organic, and individually based rather than some grand top down salvation.  There is already significant evidence to show that this is indeed already occurring.  Last year, 7,000,000 people starting gardening for the first time as concerns about food security and cost increased.  The decision by millions to stop buying gas guzzling SUV did more to change the fleet offerings of the major auto manufactures than any legislation has for the past 30 years.   As each of us is confronted with our changing environment, we will make hundreds of adaptations to allow our families to thrive.  The adaptations that add sufficient resiliency will survive, those that were too extreme, or not bold enough, will hinder that household’s ability to survive economically.  The survival of the fittest works in human ecologies too.  Each household will respond as they see fit – some will undoubtedly favor certain areas more than others based on their individual circumstances, strengths, resources, and values.  We chose to focus first on increasing the resiliency of our food supply as we are concerned about the health of our family, a desire to eat seasonally,  and I have a strong personal inclination to garden.  Others will be more concerned with energy and will focus on PV, home-brew biodiesel or backup generators.  Perhaps you live in a cold environment like we do, and home heating weighs heavily on your mind as you see your utility bills rising faster than your pay.  Still others awaken to see their careers fading before their eyes and will focus on entrepreneurial aspects first to add resiliency to their economic lives.    The responses, in pace, severity, and type,  will be strongly individualized leading to fantastic diversity, incredible ingenuity, and greater resiliency for the community as a whole as neighbors talk to each other with pride about their recently built root cellar, new woodworking shop, or the efficiency of their new wood stoves.  The cross pollination of these ideas will greatly speed the progress and spread of these solutions as our responses to the Long Emergency goes viral.  I see far more hope in this organic, diversified response to the myriad challenges of our Age than a Top Down solution.  To be sure, incentives like credits for wood stoves, upgrading insulation, and small home-scale hoop houses would have immense impacts on many levels, but the real problem solving will be millions of hard working people getting their Change On and recommitting to the future of their communities.

What is Possible

We can’t build Earthships, but damn do they make a good target to aim at.  Our goal will never be self sufficiency, but greater resiliency.  The more we can cover the basic needs of our households for power, heat, food, and income the greater will be our chances to weather crises and storms (perhaps literally) as they come.  To that end I’d like to delve into what I think is possible on my lot here in southern Wisconsin.

Food is what I have focused most on and we have every intention on producing about 2000# (907 kg) of food in our yard this year.  And that is only using a bit under 4000 sq ft (370 sq m) of space with about 3/4 of that in perennial foodscapes, and the rest in a large 1100 sq ft canning garden.  This isn’t enough to feed my family for a year, but it adds significantly to our resiliency; with 300#’s of potatoes and squash in the cellar and several gallons of jams, sauces, soups, and such in the pantry we are much better off than we had been even a few years ago.  And as the orchards come on line, we see exponential growth in yields with very little extra work.  We are able to grow much or our nutrition as well as a bit of our calories, fats, and proteins.  Adding chickens or rabbits to our system would help immensely with nutrient cycling and protein production.

81% efficient, clean burning, will heat 2000 sq ft, and will simmer a skillet of potatoes all day long.

 

Heat is another prime concern.  At an outside temp of 20 degrees (-6 C) my home will lose about 1 degree of internal air temp every 1.5 hours.  That means in a few nights without power we become really damn cold in January.    Currently, like most suburbanites, I have a natural gas forced air furnace and stove, and my power is grid tied and produced by coal.  My automobiles use petrol and diesel from the fill stations and there are no bio-fuel coops within 100 miles.  In other words we are completely dependent on the energy grid for transportation and power.  But, we also live in Wisconsin, and thanks to our annual rainfall if I quit mowing my lawn I would have a mixed hardwoods forest for a yard in about 50 years.   Heating with Biomass makes a lot of sense for me, assuming the stove is high enough efficiency and we take care to ensure our wood is harvested sustainably (paulownia coppice anyone?).  Retrofitting a wood stove in my home will be about $5000, and I will need to source a few face cords of wood a year.  Another feasible option, thanks to my southern exposure, would be to retrofit a cobbled together passive solar system.  By changing 4 windows, and adding 3 more windows intended for thermal gain, as well as the addition of thermal mass to our home’s main wall we could significantly cut our heating needs.  This would never “heat” our home, and would cost at least double the wood stove option, but has the added benefit of be maintenance  and input free.

Energy is an area that is well documented.  Installing a PV array is not hard, but does incur a significant up front cost –though the price is coming WAY down, if you haven’t checked in the past several years call an installer.  Again, the goal here would not necessarily be to replace ALL of your electrical needs, but some.  Also, I am a fan of having at least a partial battery backup to literally keep the lights on in time of crisis.  Transportation fuels can get harder.  There is a vibrant and thriving culture of home bio diesel brewing and as the last local BD-100 station closed its pumps this year, I may finally assemble my Appleseed Processor.  The problem with home brew BD is the fuel stock.  Waste grease is already very difficult to come by in many parts of the country and this will only become more true as we continue through energy descent.  Still, I see it as a good transitional fuel until we get  community scale biofuel co-ops up and running.  Just watch yourself with the methanol, ok?

Gardening by Bike - image used w/o permission so check out her site in the link!

Economics is the final area that can be retrofitted.  Holmgren talks about the ease of which the garage, already a utilitarian space, can be converted to supporting Cottage Economies of all sorts.  Mechanically minded?   There will be a huge push to repair rather than buy new as funds become tighter – everything from electronics to appliances to furniture will need intrepid tinkerers to stay functional.  More creative of mind?  Bentwood furniture, toys, cabinet making, weaving, tailoring, etc will need new champions.  Home repair, food production (someone has to make all that jam from our guilded orchards!), and installations of the very retrofits we have been discussing are all good candidates.  A small business in root cellar retrofitting and repair crosses the mind.  CSA’s with a twist, where gardens throughout the community are installed, tended, and harvested by a “farmer” with the produce dropped at each individual’s home are already in place in various cities.  Perhaps you can start one in your neighboorhood. Pedaling around on your cargo bike to spread good soil and good food while literally building resiliency as you go seems like a job to me.

Community retrofitting is the most important of all, and the one I am least familiar with (one can’t weld up a pot luck, nor use a mattock to sing in a choir).  Currently my neighborhood is a a bed-room community with most of my neighbors treating their homes as really expensive hotel rooms where you have to mow the lawn.  We have no community theater, no coffee shop, or many of the other trappings of a vibrant community.  But even here we are seeing changes.  In recent years we built a community center, the PTA is revitalized, and several “neighbor” groups focusing on social gatherings and do-goodery are popping up as 21st century mini-rotary clubs.  This must needs continue as we add resilency to our our homes, if the community itself is better able to withstand a crisis, the likelihood that each of us individually will do so increases.  The bonds that tie us to our neighbors are the strength of our community.  As I type this we have a 4 month old gurgling in the living room as we baby sit for a local friend, and while we were in New Zealand on vacation, my neighbor repaired our water heater which had blown out the day before we flew out.  We can’t do this alone. If you don’t know your neighbors, bake some bread or pick a buch or oregano and walk next door.  Every journey begins with a step.

Optimism is there if you look for it – even in Suburbia.  I am not saying that the next 50 years will be a picnic, nor that we are on the verge of a new re-localized utopia.  We are going to have to work really damn hard, in ways that we can’t really even fahom, to deal with the present predicament.  We’ll skin our knees, we’ll cry at times, but we also have more strength in each of us than we know, and looking back across the major societal crises of the past 50 years from Haiti, to Katrina, to Kosovo, to Iraq, to Cuba, to Somalia there are the briefest periods of rioting, and in many cases even this is avoided, and in all cases the overarching result is the vast majority of people pulling together to get shit done.  Looking around at our suburbs we must not lose sight of the fact that in no other time have so many people had access to a bit of land — irrigated, arable land– that they own.  In a purely permaculture mindset, imagine the possibilities of 20 acres of Zone 1-2.  20 acres of the most intensely designed, managed, and productive landscapes one can imagine – fruit literally hanging on every cubic foot from 6″ below the ground to 10′ above it.  Visualize 10,000 sq ft of roofs covered in PV (that’s 120 kw of energy!), and every roof harvesting 25,000 gallons of water and every home producing over 2000#’s of food with garages full of productive ventures.  Streets are no longer dead zones of concrete, but spaces frequented by greetings and bartering of services and goods in the way it was not so long ago.  I lend you a sack of potatoes because I know your plums are delicious, and your husband fixed my stove last fall.    THIS is literally what is possible within the coming decades with reasonable investments of time, resources, and energy.  And we don’t have to live in a red or blue state.  It doesn’t matter if Congress never does a damn thing (which is likely).  The future is OURS and its time to get busy.

David Holmgren’s comments on the individual, diverse, organic solutions to the coming stresses match well with what we are currently seeing, with what myself and all of you are doing in our own lives to add resiliency, confidence, and beauty back into our lives. Our answers will be different, but they also likely spring from a very similar set of principles. Again, we are patterning our response to a changing socio-economic ecosystem after nature; we’re *evolving*. Some of our ideas will be viable and appropriate, some will fail and be a waste of energy despite our gains in knowledge. A few will also have applicability to larger groups outside of our individuality and our neighbors will adapt them, likely with some tweaks. The uncertainty of our near future is troubling to be sure, there will continue to be Oh SHIT! moments, but this will be a very exciting century; we are in the middle of a paradigm shift.

Be the Change

This organic change will come about as a natural, even ecological, response to our changing environment.  But it can be aided by the active pursuit of regenerative activities that will help to rebuild our communities in the image of a more resilient future.   Even as we speak our neighbors are dealing with the realization that something is not right with the world.  As that disquiet is crystalized into a desire for action, how much faster will they be able to adapt if they can look 3 houses down to a PV array on the roof, a willow coppice in the backyard and a yard full of fruiting trees.  The world NEEDS early adopters more than ever!  If a future of more resilient communities is one that you wish to see – then you literally need to BE THAT CHANGE now to actualize that future.  The time will be that our neighbors and community leaders will look to us environmentalist doomsdayers and say …” Well shit. Now what?”  Having real world, working concepts on what is possible in our own local communities will be critical to a satisfactory answer to that question…  “Now what?  Come see my gardens!”

We can do this.

Be the Change!

Rob

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