MREA Recap -Wow, Wow, WOW!

I Don’t have alot of time for a proper recap, -this weekend is INSANE: I have the Sierra Club of MAdison coming for a tour of our yard, Sunday we are installing a rain garden for a client, and Monday I take shipment of 80 Wine Barrels (by semi) from Kentucky.  But there are a few things that I firmly believe are urgent enough that I will at least repost what I wrote for our Sustain Jefferson Group as a recap: 

Our Message is VITAL
For almost the entire weekend we had being queuing up to hear our message of grassroots, bottom up sustainability.  We had numerous visitors shake our hands and say “THANK YOU -you are the only people here with the answers to the questions that I came searching for solutions for.”  “You were more helpful than any other booth here”.  The fact that normal citizens: not corporations, not huge, branded non-profits, not the government were able to create something as simple and effective as the Earth Victory Garden (EVG) or as fascinating as the Gasifier was incredibly inspiring to the attendees of the MREA.   Our group is young, we may be struggling to juggle multiple tasks, but we simply MUST continue to do our work… and teach others to do the same.

The Gasifier Rocks
I joined in on the gasifier project to learn skills and hang out with interesting people.  Maybe telling people about how cool it 1000 times this weekend I ended up convincing myself, but I am absolutely certain this project was the most exciting thing at the Fair.  The cold hard fact is that we are one of only a very small handful of groups in the entire country with a working gasifier that can heat and power a home with materials found in every community in the country.  While not everyone will be willing or able to build there own, there are hundreds of people who want to, and thousands and thousands who are inspired by it. This project is paradigm shattering and I want to be a part of pushing it forward in a BIG way.

The EVG is on to something
I had expected the Victory Garden presentation to draw about 25-50 people.  Its an energy fair right?  The tent was over flowing with hundreds and the attendees were hanging on every word.  People lined up 30 deep after words to learn more -to do it themselves, to help their neighbors, and even other 501C3’s that wanted to take it back to their communities. Systems thinking is mind blowing to those who have never thought that way.  I will work hard in the next 2 weeks to get it all online -pamphlets, plans, systems thinking -all of it.  For now it will be on my blog, but we can get it to SJ or anywhere else from there.

TNS works
System thinking, diverse networking, and community building are concepts that people are ready for.  After Greg’s presentation the rest of the weekend was a steady stream of attendees thanking him for his poignant message that changed them.  I think many of them had searched the entire fair to find our booth just to hear more.

We are in a moment of incredible possibility and importance in history.
Our message is vital, it is poignant, and it is the future.
We are Being the Change.

Thank you all for making it happen, and in advance for all the work we have in front of us.

In the next few weeks I plan on creating Pages for the EVG and the Gasifier so that all of you have the chance to recreate them in your communities.  The MREA was INCREDIBLE: the energy of the people, the free beer for hybrid drivers, the interest in CHANGE.  VERY inspired since my return!


Eco-Victory Garden: The Sustainable Salad

I posted recently about an idea for providing low cost garden systems that came to me while blog surfing. There is so much buzz about Michael Pollan’s new book, and at the same time so many of the Garden Blog set have Spring Fever and are challenging each other to various great ways to expand their gardens. But what if you read Pollan’s books, get all fired up about eating fresh food, but have zero experience with gardening and no garden blogger friends?

I had proposed building a small raised bed of cedar, and then coupling it with a small 1 cu yard compost bin, and a rain barrel. Combining the three would allow a household to grow local food (at least some salads), begin learning about waste recycling, and also water storage and harvesting. Below is my first crack at the prototypes this weekend. All told, well under $100 in materials (and that is including enough fencing to make 4 bins) and about 3 hours for this armchair handy man if I had built the rain barrel.

Enter my “Eco” Victory Garden:

Earth Victory Garden

The product I will present for our county’s sustainability group will not use the oak whiskey barrel due to pricing, but I included it for now since I have not yet received delivery of the plastic 55 gallon drums. The pitch that I will be making to the group this week, is that with some grant work or sponsors we will be able to provide these systems to the community for $75 or so… installed. With Plants!

In our own family, we started down the road to a more sustainable lifestyle due in large part to our desire to find healthier food for our kids, and just look where it has led! Everyone eats, and even on taste alone the difference in home grown heirloom food is evident to virtually anyone. Food is a great “in” with fence sitters, but its not the only one. Composting can seem like magic to those not familiar with natural systems “you mean garbage can turn into dirt?”. And in conversations I had selling over a hundred of rain barrels last year convinced me that they have a great ability to start conversations about recycling, wastefulness, and common sense practicality. Why not put all three into a turnkey system and start turning the some small portion of the wastes of suburbia to good use?

Though I spent some energy paring down the designs to inexpensive form, there are cheaper ways to do this, and certainly more environmentally friendly ones using reused materials, etc. But I am choosing to break some eggs to get an “in” with those just starting to look for ways to lower their impact. I am banking that an attractive, long lasting cedar system will allow us to reach a larger audience -to make a bigger impact.

Once this country grew local veggies to help a War Effort. I believe that now the time is right to grow veggies in a sustainable fashion, across the nation, to show the world that American can unite for something besides destruction. The end goal hasn’t changed: we are still fighting for the future of our children. But this time, the stakes are, if anything, higher.

Below I will give a high level “How To” to help you make one for yourself, or if in case you want to start a program in your area. Keep in mind that I studied philosophy not architecture or engineering and absolutely zero CAD design software was harmed in the making of these products.

Material List for the $36, 5’x 3′ Raised Bed :

  • 4 1.25″x6″x8′ cedar decking boards ($32.50)
  • 1 1″x 2″ x 8′ cedar board (only use 4′) ($3.25)
  • Handful of 4d coated nails.


Cut the Cedar Decking boards into 5′ and 3′ pieces and then cut the 1″x2″ into 4, 11″ chunks. Use the 1×2 pieces as corner braces to support and nail the decking together. Done!

Material List for $48, 40″ Compost Bin:

  • 4 1″x4″x10′ Cedar Boards ($20)
  • 1 38″ piece of 1×2 left over from raised bed (free)
  • 120″ of 3′ coated wire fencing (I had to buy 50′ for $23)
  • 1 box 3/4″ poultry staples ($1)
  • Handful of 4d coated nails
  • 2″ Brass coated “L” brackets ($3)

Cut the 1×4 into 4 38″ pieces (verticals), and 7 40″ pieces. Cut 40″ of fencing and bend it flat. Using 2 38″ pieces lay them on the floor and center the 36″ fencing on the 38″ uprights leaving 1″ space on each. Now lay 2 of the 40″ horizontals on the 38″ pieces and the centered fencing and, once it is squared, nail the cedar boards together with 3-4 4d nails. It should look about like this:


Now you need to tack the fencing on tight so the weight of the compost doesn’t bow it too badly:


Try to hammer the poultry staples across corners of the fencing squares as shown to limit its ability to mover around. Repeat this for the other side. The back is tricky since you have to hold the side upright and then nail the 2 40″ cedar pieces on top the final 40″ fencing piece to complete the back of the bin. A helper or some clamps makes it possible. It might also be easier to just use a 120″ piece of fencing without cutting it. I will try that next time. Now, take that remaining 40″ board and use it to hold the bottom of the open front together. I know this makes the bottom uneven, but once it is in the yard you won’t notice. With the exception of the top brace (more on that in a minute), it should now look like this:


Now for the final touch. A simple, open framed bin like this bows something awful without a top brace. But a fixed top brace makes turning the compost VERY frustrating. So I included a removeable top brace. Take the left over 1×2 from the raised bed and cut it to 38″. Using pilot holes, screw the “L” braces to each end and then place it on the top of the front of the bin as shown:


The brace is sized to fit behind the front uprights which will prevent it from slipping off the front of the bin. Congrats! Your done!

Blessed Unrest, Moving Forward

Continuing the Community theme on One Straw this week I would like to chat through some of my reaction to Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest. The underlying premise of the entire book is summed up in the subtitle How the largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One saw it Coming.


The book spends very little time regaling the reader with the Doom and Gloom, just enough to bring you up to speed if you aren’t in The Choir. Most of the book is spent making the case that the current Sustainability Movement is the largest movement in the history of human society. Hawken lumps both environmental and social justice organizations into the same movement because he believes, and I agree, that the coming crisis of this century indisputably links the two. The results are astounding: over 1,000,000 organizations currently fit this bill. We are part of something, very, very, large.

What is now needed is the inter joining of these groups into a combined and more overt mission of Saving The World. Hyperbole? Maybe. So lets start smaller in a local example of the potential gains of network leveraging. In our community we have a fairly large local organization set up as a watchdog of the Rock River. They are well organized, adequately funded and preform a very valuable service in tracking waterway health and advocating for water issues. Now we also have an active organization in Madison focused on Slow Food that encouraging citizens to savor the culture inherent in, and environmental impacts of, our meals. Dialing in a third organization we have the ubiquitous Master Gardeners- agents of horticultural goodness and often espousing organic ideals. Each is Being the Change and following their mission. They also will most likely never cross paths. But what if?

Take my Victory Garden idea. The Master Gardeners are the most likely sponsors of this plan since it brings more people into gardening and composting. They also have very limited marketing capabilities in most communities and typically work on near zero budgets. But adding the rain barrel brings in the mission of the River Group to connect the (literal) downstream impacts of water use and bring along with their strong ties to local and state governments. Growing local heirlooms and adding monthly cooking classes and newsletter recipes covering whats in season in the garden easily loops in the Slow Foodies with their more urbane following and marketing savvy. Combine the 3 groups and this program shares the strengths of all (better rain barrels, great soil, wicked good meals) and becomes very, very powerful by adding in the marketing muscle and diverse followings of all of them. Local Media is suddenly more interested, local business starts to take notice, and regional grant organizations see Big Potential. Suddenly a program that would have affected a few dozen affects hundreds or thousands -even in rural Wisconsin. This isn’t Pie in the Sky. This is my Spring.

We each are members of separate and numerous groups as varied as our own interests. How may each of them better strengthen each other?

My dream? Imagine if the Nature Conservancy, Christian Children’s Fund, Amnesty International, the Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Union for Concerned Scientists joined forces in a multi faceted media and political campaign on the current, available, solutions to Global Warming? Suddenly we have a conglomerate big enough to stand a chance to fight the lobbyists, to fight Big Oil, to win back the hearts and minds of the American Public before it is too late. Most of the root causes of the missions of these organizations are rooted in the current economic theory that places the focus on maximizing markets over optimizing quality of life. They share much common ground.

All the pieces are in place, but they must be assembled to create the finished puzzle that will allow us to survive this most critical century. All major technologies needed to avert the Doom and Gloom exist. The only things lacking are Political (or Societal) Will …and time. The latter is fixed, but we can change the former.

Be that Change!


Community… Get Some

This has been a great week for community in my neck of the woods.  Saturday we had the annual meeting of our HOA.  I was unable to get anyone to take over as president, but I met several more of my neighbors and it was good to catch up after a long winter locked in doors.  From there I quick went home to tuck the kids in bed, and then I was off to another meeting.  This time it was a gathering of some of the 300 or so citizens who have attended one of our The Natural Step study circles in the past year or so.  Over 60 people showed up and over dinner and wine, we heard reports from all the dozens of various groups and their actions spurred on by the circles.  Almost half a dozen are running for local and county elections, there have been severl hybrid car purchases, and every town represented now has an active local environmental group lobbying their local village board, holding educational meetings at libraries and otherwise making themselves useful in the Good Fight.  It was incredibly inspiring to see so many people, people from their early twenties to their early eighties, Being the Change.

This power, the power of Community, the power of Shared Vision, the power of wanting to leave a better world for our children and those that come after us is breathtaking and literally awe-inspiring.   We listened for two hours as we regaled each other with our sucesses -from simply planting a rain garden to winning a seat on the county board to starting 501C3’s- and each passing story further emboldened us with the belief that we are not alone.  And together, we are stronger than we ever imagined.

My kids have been singing a song lately from an new album we bought them: “One can’t save the rainforest, but Toucan, Two Can!”  Amen.

Be the Change!


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