Small Batch Garden

Our Philosophy

Solvitur ambulando - It is solved by walking

Friday, January 23, 2015

Inflection Point

Not just a moment, but a blinding flash of mental clarity overtook me 6 years ago when I was sitting at my computer listening to an interview with David Holmgren.  A couple of days ago I celebrated that milestone and took the opportunity to reflect on what exactly that experience meant.  And here's what I've come up with:

"Epiphanies" are amazing moments.  When you have one, it elevates and excites you, gives you a sense of renewed purpose, makes you feel in command of your relationship to the world around you.  And then, if it was a true epiphany, the work begins.  I mistook that flash of light 6 years ago as "enlightenment," when what it really was was an inflection point.  It didn't impart some superior knowledge to me, all at once, that would help me navigate the world in fine fashion.  And it didn't make me luminous, nor give me the ability to travel through time.

What it DID do was redirect my focus.  It gave me a brand new starting point, a new foundation, from which to explore the world and my relationship to it.  I was already an ecologist before that moment - it wasn't like I had to start from the angle of, say, a derivatives trader - but this was revolutionary, even to an ecologist.  My relationship with the universe would never again bear any resemblance to the form it took before January 21st, 2009.

Since that time, however, the nitty gritty of living that new vision, day-to-day, has formed the backbone and supervisor of my new ideology.  Several times I wanted to give it up, take a regular job, pay a mortgage and car payment for a normal house and nicer car, put the dishes in the dishwasher, take a hot shower the very second I wanted one, nuke some leftovers, adjust the thermostat and sit down to veg on some TV.

My life is nothing like that.  And it takes a not-insignificant amount of willpower to keep it that way.

The planet is groaning under the weight of fossil-fueled excess.  Swimming in embarrassing seas of garbage placed out of sight and out of mind.  Warming steadily, and yes, made worse by our sheer population and level of activity, whatever the background oscillation might look like.  Rising seas are not an issue to be addressed at some later, more convenient date, but something that is already displacing and destroying one island and coastal population after another.  Within a century sea levels will have displaced potentially half of the global population.  Where will they go?  What will become of New Orleans? Venice?  Miami?  Amsterdam?  Will those people move to north Georgia? The French countryside?  Utah?

A lot of those upland locales will be suffering from their own problems.  Increasing immigration and resource shortfalls notwithstanding.  In the southwest and mountain west of the United States, a tiny, and much hardier, fraction of the current population will get by in crispy desert conditions.  I'd be surprised if anyone is still even faking a plush green lawn.  Rain belts will continue to shift, making formerly reliable agricultural zones a lot less reliable.  Topsoil erosion will continue apace as farmers try to squeeze every calorie possible from their land to feed a slightly larger, if not slimmer, population, before human numbers begin to decline again.  The obese should already be morbidly embarrassed for their gluttony in the face of so much, again current, poverty and malnourishment.  Undernourished populations aren't something that technology and science are going to "fix."  It's an unfortunate state of affairs that will spread gradually across the planet for a long time to come.  This is already happening.  People need to wake up to the daylight reality of petroleum's decline, a global economy circling the drain, currencies on the verge of collapse, geopolitical upheaval, and a whole bunch of commodities that define the industrial way of life approaching a forced redefinition as "non-resources."  After all, if you get less out than you put in, eventually you're going to stop investing.  May take some stupifyingly long periods of time to sink in, but eventually it'll get tossed.  Ethanol comes to mind.

Again, I hope my language (and emphasis) makes the point that the decline we're dealing with is not some beast to slay off in the future.  The Baltic Dry Index, which measures the pace of global shipping, fell from 2200 to 800 last year.  Whatever the units, that's a steep year-over-year decline.  And it's not a glut of oil; it's demand destruction.  The average human on Earth is considerably poorer than they were a year ago.  They aren't buying as much stuff.  Industrial decline is inevitable following the peaking of global oil production, a predicament to be adapted to, not a problem to be fixed.  All the shiny alternatives rely on cheap oil.  Nuclear doesn't exist without an enormous government subsidy.  I'll let you ponder why any government would go to such expense.  Technologies like Oceanic Thermal, salt fusion, and so forth, currently being trotted out as new energy saviors, have been on the "Not Thermodynamically Possible" shelf for decades.  As John Michael Greer basically said in his post last week, let's at least come up with something novel if we're going to trot it out to bamboozle the masses for a little while.

But one thing that seems certain to me is that most people will come up with a darn good reason not to take any of this seriously.  We can blame it on the Russians, or the Ukrainians, or the Saudis, or the Chinese, or the Catholics, or the Baptists, or the "brown" people, or the "devil," or the referees at the Seahawks game.  Anybody, ANYBODY, so long as we don't have to bring our own lives under scrutiny.  We'll make up plenty of cloak and dagger stories about the "end times," and, to be honest, there's no lack of that excuse being utilized among the non-religious set, too.  "It'll be over soon, so it's not really my problem."  "We're special, so our apocalypse will be special too."  Yeah, and it'll probably be the end of the world as we know it, right?

Right.  Except that we'll still be here.  And energy will still be harder to come by every generation.  And still less food will make it onto the average Earthling's plate, regardless of address.  And still the climate will continue destabilizing.  It is OUR problem.  There's no easy way out, no quick and painless option, no rescue, nor rescuer.  But again, I'd bet my last dollar that most people won't listen, and fewer will act.  And that's why I keep doing what I'm doing.  It's not all going to fall apart tomorrow, or this year, or this decade, but the long slow collapse is already underway, and we need to have models of radically-lower energy households out there to observe and critique.  And we need the next gen innovators to live even LOWER energy lives.  I want people out there who make ME feel like an energy hog.  We need to be making mistakes now, while we can afford them, and sharing what we've learned.  And fortunately for all of us, there are countless people out there doing it already.  But we need more variety.  We need tons of different strategies, and approaches, and philosophies, and technologies, and folks willing to be weird.  This isn't a time for herding.  We need cellular adaptation - this works here on a small scale, let's try it next door, or the next county over.  Or this really isn't working, and I need to chuck it no matter how much I've invested in it.

What we definitely DON'T need is great master plans, or more government largesse, or singularities, or new world orders, or salvation from the great god Technology, or daydreams about population and affluence rising in lockstep, or this gadget saving the day, or this vaporware making the nightmare go away.

We just need to be still.  We need to stop doing so much.  Stop spending so much.  Stop making up excuses to stay comfy and ignorant.  The planet is already in the process of scratching off its fleas.  Don't tickle.  Don't bite.  Just be still.

Rant off.
Tripp out.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Tribute

For everyone who has helped us out this year, and anyone who visits my little blog...I hope you enjoy this performance masterpiece engineered by my 11-year-old niece (cause heaven knows I couldn't have done it!).  Cheers.  And have a wonderful new year.  ;o)Tripp


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Promises, Promises

What a dirty stinking liar I am!  Not only did I not get back to my blog "soon," but my absence was even longer than the last time I had to apologize for!  Yikes.  And the crazy part is, we have an internet connection at home now.  My wife got us a little tablet with service carried by a company that actually maintains some coverage in our area, unlike the T-Mobile smart phone we arrived with from south Georgia, that usually managed to connect by the time we hit town 7 miles know, when the Earth's EM fields were behaving normally.

Man, high tech around here these days...but unfortunately, I don't get to use much of the battery charge we scrounge here and there before the kids get ahold of the computer for such important tasks as watching "Nanny McPhee Returns" for the 18th time.  Not every day, mind you, but then we don't have a charge on the computer every day...HOWEVER, I am going to do my level best to commandeer my own computer just a little more often to knock out a post about our crazy life.

And by crazy I mean great.  I think.  I'm still waiting for enough time to sit down and take a good hard look at it, but by my best estimate, life's been extremely productive and rewarding, and increasingly comfortable 'round here of late.  Our tiny house is all but fully insulated, with just the little kitchen area left to stuff and floor.  Most of the interior walls are up and the loft built, thanks to a HUGE gift from local friend Isaac, who donated about 1800 s.f. of 1970s era 1x6 barn wood to the cause. Thanks, buddy.

The first 19th century piece of today's tour, this hoosier cupboard was inherited from my late step-grandfather.  I believe it went back at least as far as his grandmother.  It was the cornerstone of our tent-based kitchen setups for the last two years.  Glad to have it.
Looks like a rustic cabin, and I think it's dynamite.  The new bookshelves are bigger than the footprint of the bath house at 9' wide by 8' tall, 4 vertical sections, 28 shelves total, and eerily close to capacity already.  Great to see our books after a couple years of storage!  And of course we keep adding to them.  My wife is a librarian and we consider this project to be an important one.  

We have a Christmas tree (Solstice tree!) up for the first time since we've been here, art on the walls, rugs on the floor, and windows to let the world in in winter (although I do miss the amazing ambient light of the tent).  But the star of the show in the last month has been the "new" wood stove.  And by new I mean really old.  Old as in, it belonged to my great-great-great grandmother, who died in 1954, when the stove most likely went out of use.  It was a pile of rusty cast iron pieces when I pulled it out of storage, but check it out now:

My 3G-Grandmother was born in 1871, married in 1891, and best we can tell the stove dates from 1881.  It's hard to tell for sure, and there isn't much information available about these Birmingham Stove and Range Co. stoves, but we know this model was made from the 1850s until the 1930s.  Whatever the legitimate date, the origin makes this a seventh generation wood stove for my children, who are already learning to tend it.

Here's the wider view.  The legs were broken off and I don't know how to fix them, so I just built a masonry pedestal for it, hoping to hold some extra heat with the extra thermal mass.  But as far as I can tell, it doesn't produce enough heat underneath to really register.

What kept me from using this stove sooner was the tiny firebox, but my fears were unfounded: it keeps our little cottage nice and toasty.  When the oven isn't doing duty as an on-deck wood dryer, it has been turning out some fine biscuits, fruit breads, and most recently panettone, a la Crescent Dragonwagon of Dairy Hollow House Inn in the Arkansas Ozarks.  It was very good. Coincidentally, she is also a children's author that I read growing up, stacking history as well as functions.
OK, I might as well admit it now, I busted that old rocket mass stove up into pieces and hauled it out of the house.  We wanted to do something different with the layout of the house, and honestly, I think we suffered through one too many smoke-backs in that bitterly cold winter last year.  It was a fun and interesting project, and I will build another one, I'm almost positive.  But when I do, it will be on-grade in a different kind of room or building.  Just too heavy on a raised platform.  With the rocket mass out, we were able to put the stairs on this side of the house and the library on the other, and build a more gracious closet for the composting toilet, plus another closet for us.  Or will soon.

 One of the very next things to do is build a short wall up against the stairs on the bed side.  That will give us a truly private sleeping nook (finally!), and provide more safety for sleepy children going up and down a steep staircase.  And some desperately needed art space.

As always there's dirty work to do as well.  I'm in the process of digging a French drain on the uphill side of the house through soil that I've determined to be more or less 1/3 root, 1/3 rock, and 1/3 coarse mineral soil, with a telephone line and a propane service line thrown across for good measure.  Oh, and the 14" red oak stump closer in than the photo will be fun to dig out by hand, too.  Once excavated I'll lay a perforated drain pipe to daylight, cover with coarse drain rock, top with some sort of geotextile to keep the soil out of the drain rock, then top with onsite gravel to make a level path.

BUT, as any permie worth his salt knows, we should never do just one job at a time!  So we throw in a fun project to absorb the negativity of digging ditches.  Level ground is hard to come by around here, so I've used the spoil from the French drain digging to level up a couple of terraces around an awesome new fire pit:

Plenary council anyone?  It is mid-winter's day after all.  Hope you've enjoyed it.

Tripp out.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Six Months of Construction

Man, it's been a while since I posted, but that's not because nothing has happened!  Finding enough time to sit and work out a post, on the other hand, has been a real problem.

I found some good pictures of the rocket mass heater (RMH) build to post, as promised, and have plenty to share for the house build as well.  And since heaven knows when I'll have another couple of hours to myself, let's just dive right in, shall we?

Starting last November when we high-tailed it out of Psycho-ville and parked ourselves comfortably back in the woods at our place, we'll begin with the RMH construction (any relevant advice will be included in the caption area of individual photos):

We used 3 thick 24x16 pavers raised on bricks for the base plate of this unit.  Make sure to seal up any cracks in the masonry before proceeding.  The two pavers to the right are under the steel barrel heat riser, and caused the RMH to leak, smoking out of the bottom, and seriously affected the initial performance of the heater.  This would have been much easier and more effective to seal up tight at this stage than it was to troubleshoot down the road.

Building a mock-up of your J-tube before mixing mortar is always a good idea.

You can use cheaper bricks, often lying around any homestead, in areas that aren't directly exposed to the thermal stress of a stove like this.  But remember to lay bricks in a running bond pattern.  We probably cost ourselves some structural integrity by not paying more attention to this detail.

Had we poured the concrete completely around all parts of the J-tube, and not left the inside of the aluminum feed chamber open for mineral insulant, the lack of a running bond in our brickwork probably wouldn't have been an issue, but I wanted a faster heat up, something that I had seen recommended by other builders.  And after a hard winter of burning, the bricks of the feed tube have come somewhat loose.  Any thoughts from experienced RMH operators regarding the wisdom of removing the insulant surrounding the feed tube and filling it with masonry (concrete or cob?), or perhaps just cleaning it out and re-mortaring, would be appreciated!

You can see the previously mentioned issue with the crack between the pavers from this angle, down below the burn chamber.  A good coating of clay-rich mud in the bottom of the barrel took care of it, thought it was a bit more challenging to fix on the manifold side.

An active burn helps speed the drying of your masonry, whether it's concrete, cob, clay-perlite, or whatever.

Winter squashes bake nicely in a hot feed barrel!

We also built a little "bath house," which is actually an outhouse permitted by the county under the fancy name of "pit privy."

And added a new chicken tractor to the arsenal.  This one is now at the kids' Montessori school with a dozen new pullets in it.  In a couple of weeks we'll build them a new and easier-to-use model, leave half of the chickens at school, and bring this one and my new birds home.  In January, a pair of unsavory pit bulls broke into this tractor through the roof (which has now been upgraded - the sides have always been stout rabbit wire) and killed my 5 actively laying hens:(  The photo below the new tractor shows the downgrade in egg quality these dogs cost my family.  And the egg on the right is supposed to be a GOOD ORGANIC egg from the supermarket!  Ugh.  The dogs' owner actually challenged the animal control department about it before the magistrate, where I had to show up to testify, and not only didn't offer to make amends, she never even apologized to me!  Just kept making excuses...

The last of the good eggs, and the first sorry excuse for an egg...sigh.

A few shots of the family and homestead in winter:  (The only thing coming out of the flue stack behind the tent is CO2 and water vapor - virtually complete combustion from the RMH!  When the weather was dry you could barely tell it was burning, even when the rocket was roaring inside.)

April rolls around and it's time to build a little house:

Neighbors start showing up to see what's afoot:

My poor market chair...

Some of them are even helpful;o) (See below)
Quick word of warning: trees built into decks are cute, and sometimes even useful in a small space (we hung a mirror and solar shower bag on the oak pictured here early on), but they sure do present a logistical issue if you ever decide to convert the deck into indoor space...

This was a mighty loblolly pine, and had nothing resembling a promising lean to it.  My neighbor, Leroy, (with me  above) brought his heavy-duty come-alongs and helped me make a perfect drop, right down the slot:

The old tent is coming down, after two years of "trusty" service:

At least the internal metal framework is still useful!  I'll rebuild it soon and strap the rainfly back over it for a tool shed and semi-dry work space.  I'm going to try to grow oyster mushrooms on the old ratty tent to sequester and breakdown the primer I painted the inside with.  Any resulting mushrooms will likely be discarded.

Nothing but floor and rocket mass, which, ahem, really got in the [expletive deleted] way during the build...
Couple of thoughts about tent living before we move on:

1) If you can avoid it, don't do it.
2) If you can't, it's really not that bad, but just don't expect a canvas structure to hold up for very long, especially in a damp and/or humid climate.  Tents probably perform a lot better in the desert.  Ours was shredded by rain, wind, and mildew within two years.  "Inside" and "outside" were very relative terms by April of this year.
3) At all costs avoid puncturing the roof.  A wood stove is almost a necessity for tent life, but run the flue horizontally - figure out a way.  That's where the RMH really shined.  Don't order a stove jack with your tent; buy a solid, continuous rainfly, and make sure you get the overhang for a dry porch area outside.
4) If you're going to build a RMH in a tent (or tipi), you'll need all the thermal mass you can muster, and make sure any and all beds are lying on thermal mass as well, preferably with a mattress made for absorbing heat, for example, a tick stuffed with buckwheat hulls.
5) Probably best to have a gas heater backup.  In a small structure like this, a gas/propane stove is enough to do the trick, but simple wall or floor heater systems aren't terribly expensive or complicated, and of course gas is always cheaper in bulk.
6) Gas light was the highest quality light we tried - far superior to oil lamps or candles - but if you can manage some electric light, even better.  Battery-powered lamps never really seemed to cut it.  Experiment with and diversify your lighting options.  And have a few flashlights handy, including a powerful Mag-light, or other spotlight.
7) It's a lot cheaper to set up your tent on grade, even including bulldozer rental, than it is to build a big deck platform, and setting up a tent on grade keeps the local building department out of your business.  In our county, decks over 120 s.f. fall under regulatory jurisdiction, but tents aren't regulated at all.  We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble by calling a bulldozer out to flatten a spot for us, and then built a raised wood floor inside the tent.  A wooden platform on level ground could also be built with smaller dimensional lumber, saving more money while getting the same look, and the concrete could be avoided altogether.

Just my .02.  Moving on!

The build begins...after a little squaring up...

Atlanta friend, Lisa, spent all day Friday cutting gables.

Yours truly, still sporting the winter scruff.

My "brother" Andrew (he's really my uncle, but he's 6 years younger than me so more like a brother - it's a complicated family tree...) really did the bulk of the planning, organizing, tooling, and project management duties.  We can't thank you enough, Andrew.

Mrs. Small Batch Garden's expression, seeing everything that happened while she was at work, says it all...

Our first bed in the kitchen garden by the house.  Not enough sunlight available before this season.

Lunch!  Even the littlies helped out wherever they could.

It's a pretty conventional build, but we recycled a lot of the components, bought lumber from a small local lumber yard, and hey, it's only 480 square feet.  And this wasn't really my cobbing crew.  These were weekend warriors, many driving a fair distance to be there, camping out in the yard, and wanting to knock this thing out quickly and get us out of that rotting tent.  Now that we have a roof that keeps the rain out, we can slow down again and get back to our normal ways.

My sister's boyfriend, Adam, thankfully volunteered for roof duty.  I sure didn't want to get up there.

My best bud, Aaron, being the asset he always is.

Even Andrew's old pal Liz came up to help out!

And Andrew's wife, Lisa (in the middle).

This is about as high as I like to go.  This was a free, last-minute window donated by a neighbor when we found out we were one window short.  Community love!

My grandparents bought the materials for this project, and couldn't wait to check out the progress!  Thanks again!

Welcome home, us!

If you look carefully, you can just make out our PV "array" at the top corner of the roof!  All 11.8 watts of it.  We have no plans to add any significant amount of electrical power on the drawing board.

Next will be a little finish trim, caulk, and paint, a new porch out over the water tank, and some gutters to fill said tank.

Thank you neighbor Mary for loaning us your little cabin for a month while we shuffled, built, and shuffled again!

Thank you neighbor Cathy for lending me your sunny patch for my growies the last two years!

And your well to keep us hydrated until we could get a water-harvesting roof built!

Such a wonderful little place.  Thank you everyone for all your love and support, tools and hard labor, and camaraderie!  Thanks Aaron, Will, Lisa C., Lisa T., Liz, Jodi, Chris, Julie and Adam, Abby, the crew of admirers from Pleasant Hills Montessori School in Ellijay, GA, and neighbors Leroy and Helen, Randy, Richard, Jason, Cathy, and Mary.

A special thank you to Andrew, for all the countless ways you've helped us pull this adventure together!

And a double thank you to my mom, Carole, and grandparents, G.W. and Christine, for their generous financial support.  We love you all.

I promise my next post won't be so long in the making.  There's still a spring garden tour - of home and school - to attend to, and some pretty incredible projects on the short list, including cobbing the dragon, finishing the interior of this cottage, a Mike Oehler-style earth-sheltered greenhouse at school and new chicken tractor, hugelkultur, mushroom project expansion, bug hotel, and lots more gardening season to go.

Till next time, cheers!
Tripp out.