Our Philosophy

Solvitur ambulando - It is solved by walking

Friday, January 24, 2014


In 2005 the square footage of the average American new house build decreased for the first time in half a century.  That same year global oil peak became a fact of life.  Last year was the first year in a century in which cities grew faster than suburbs, marking, among other things, a reverse in the general trend toward increasing affluence in America.  People need jobs, and with gas prices the way they are, they want to live closer to those jobs.  Oh yes, things are still growing, but only from a very localized point of view.  People are moving to the cities because there isn't any gainful employment to be had anywhere else.  Entire exits in rural areas of Georgia off of I-75 have dried up and are slowly blowing away, gas stations shuttered, signs of former economic activity faded and peeling, and accompanying stretches of billboards still advertise the same (sometimes very specific and time sensitive) things they were advertising back in 2011.  Ostensibly without paying the bill.  So Grow Atlanta!  Grow!  The worst is behind us;)  As William Gibson famously pointed out in The Economist way back in 2003, "the future is here - it's just not evenly distributed."  It's distributing itself quite nicely around the rural backwaters of our country, but for now the big cities don't seem to be feeling it.  (Unless you count pesky little things like light bulbs not being replaced along I-75 through Atlanta.  The lighting is down to around 10% now, and I say good riddance.  But dark freeways are still small potatoes compared to dried up towns...)

You are welcome of course to interpret the facts any way you like.

Moving on, it's customary for peak oil prognosticators to make some sort of prediction about the upcoming year round about this time on the calendar.  Thankfully I am not a peak oil prognosticator, nor do I own a crystal ball, functional or otherwise.  But, like any observant participant in the web of life, I can certainly sketch out some trends in rough outline.

Reducing our economic obligations is a common thread in the fabric of our particular life, and I imagine that strategy is gaining traction all over the industrial world right about now.  Most of you have some idea of the lengths we've traveled to cut our bills, but there is still plenty of room for improvement!  Mrs. Small Batch Garden and I sat down the other day to confront our top expenses and talk about how to reduce or eliminate them.  Probably quite minor compared to most budgets, but our top expenses were 1) the cost of storing our possessions since we live in such a small place, 2) the cost of supplemental propane heat to keep us warm at night and rested, and 3) laundry at the laundry mat!  At about $75/mo each, this trio comprises about 3/4 of our monthly bill load.

The first two will be taken care of when we convert the tent we live in now to a wood cabin, which is coming up very soon! No more storage unit, and we'll be able to hold onto a lot more of the heat produced by our rocket mass stove, plus gain plenty of passive solar heat from the south-facing-window-rich design we have planned.  Supplemental propane heat should be almost negligible by next winter.  We will install it, because the county will insist, and heck, we have the bulk of the equipment already, but it won't get used much.  The surprise for me was just how excited my wife was about bringing the laundry back home with the purchase of a few useful tools.  We sat down together and looked through the Lehman's catalog as she pointed out a wringer, a washtub setup, an old-fashioned scrubbing board, and a couple of well-designed retractable drying racks - one for kitchen towels, and one to mount by the dragon for clothes.  Another retractable set of lines for the porch addition should round out summer drying needs.  So by building the wood cabin and bringing laundry home our bills outside of food and transportation should be well under $100/mo!  Which frees up more money for fruit trees, earthworks, livestock, and so forth, which further reduces our need for money to buy food, water, and so forth, which...well, you get the idea.  It's probably the reason you're reading this.

As I mentioned up-thread, moving from a rural area to a big city also fits the bill of the reduction directive, as it cuts mileage traveled for work, sometimes even eliminating the need for a car altogether.  In big cities most daily needs can be had within walking distance, or a short bus or bicycle ride, and like minds are almost always nearby.  I have good friends who would rather live in the mountains like us, but manage to grow a substantial market garden for sale at a few local farmers markets and local-slanted restaurants, and make a pretty decent living doing it too!  Their life just wouldn't be possible where we live because the local economy wouldn't support it.  And although they must own a pickup to do business the way they do, I bet they drive less than 500 miles a year.  That's hard to compete with in the country.  Expect the urbanization trend and the reduction benefits it conveys to continue full-force in 2014.

Reusing goods will continue to become more common.  Outfits like Craigslist should continue to gain market share, much to the chagrin of the IRS.  If you're not in a big damn hurry, bundles of money can be saved when the perfect item shows up in the list and you're sitting there prepared for it.  And bundles of money are just what people, who may suddenly find themselves in less of a big damn hurry, in this country will be looking to save this year.  For housing needs buying a "fixer" instead of something turnkey will become a little more normal this year, as will buying used cars over new ones, which to me seems like a no-brainer.  Fewer Americans will have the disposable income to just toss ten grand out the window as they drive off the showroom floor just to get that new car that no one else might have screwed up (or perhaps TO get that lovely VOC smell that gets peddled as "new car scent" at car washes.  Ridiculous.)  Buy something used and reliable that is below your budget, and keep it in good nick.  Avoid loans wherever possible.

Recycling materials will gain new meaning for a lot of people this year as it has for me in the past half decade.  To most Americans, recycling means placing your glass, plastic, paper, and metal in a blue bin on the curb for someone to pick up.  I get recycling paper, so we can avoid cutting down more trees, trees that we desperately need in the landscape of the future, and recycling metal is a gimme, since you can actually SELL it to someone who wants it for very little effort, and sometimes a surprising amount of money!  [If you're looking for a real eye-opener (and have some mental discipline) check out this video called "Peak Mining," and you'll understand why more and more people will be selling metal from here on out.]  But plastic and glass?  Do entire recycling infrastructures really represent a net energy or material gain compared to making new ones?  All the bins, all the trucks, all the gas, all the personnel, salaries, and benefits, all the facilities, the sales, marketing, and distribution folks on the other end, and so on - these all have real world impacts to consider.  It's not enough to just say that it's better to keep it out of the landfill.  We have to be brutally honest about the systems impact of our proposed "solutions."  Better yet would be to reduce or refuse items packaged in the materials in question - something I've heard referred to as "precycling."  Or reuse them again and again if you have them.  Buy wine in glass bottles and then make something that you can put back in that bottle; I've been making mead regularly this last year and bottling it up in old wine bottles for the cellar.  I want to add cider to the repertoire this year, and perhaps beer and/or wine, too.  I find a wine bottle's worth of beer to be a great serving size for most people.

But beyond the usual suspects of America's recycling juggernaut, there are endless material resources we can recycle.  By metal I don't just mean aluminum cans, but scrap iron, copper wiring, old appliances, electronics - anything made of metal will sell.  I see metal scrapping as a time-traveling scout from the salvage culture that will replace the scarcity industrialism into which we're just now headed [See John Michael Greer's book The Ecotechnic Future for more on these thoughts about the coming phases of cultural senescence.]  Beyond metal, there are so many things lying around for free that can be put to good use - old tools and furniture, rock, brick, tile, scrap lumber, fencing, the list is endless.  2014 will be just the latest in a run of years of expanding perceptions about recycling.

Repair will continue to become an increasingly familiar part of daily life in the States.  With less money to throw around, we will start fixing the things we already have instead of throwing them away and buying new ones.  The other day my wife saw an old Toyota Camry just like ours that had wood shims wedged under the headlights to hold them up.  Ours could probably use that too!  I imagine the garages of this land are staying pretty busy these days.  I know we have a sizable chunk of our forthcoming tax return set aside for routine maintenance - tires, brakes, tune-up, that sort of thing - this on a car sporting 260k+ miles on the odometer (and still spinning like a top).  It's just a machine.  Keep it repaired!  Beyond a status issue, there's no real need to keep buying new cars...

Nor for that matter is there any need to buy the cheapest option that fits our needs.  It's a waste of all kinds of resources to buy "the cheap version," and have to throw it away and get a new one later.  Buy something of value, something that can be repaired, and if it has components with built-in obsolescence replace the part in question with a higher quality one when you do repair it, say, a metal version instead of the plastic one it came with.  I've worn the same good-quality shoes for many years and kept the local cobbler busy, probably spending roughly the same amount of money as someone who has bought and tossed several pairs of cheap shoes in the same time period.  For heaven's (or perhaps more appropriately, Earth's) sake, buy good-quality durable goods, and keep them repaired.  By buying good shoes and keeping them mended, I've thrown next to nothing in the landfill and helped to keep craftsmen employed in an unusual (these days) but very useful trade.

Refuse to buy things you don't absolutely need, or can rent or share, or make, or pick up a recycled or reused version of.  If you must refer to this last strategy as "upcycling" by all means do [gag], but just do it, no matter what it requires.  That's the most important part.  The emerging trend for industrial culture is a movement away from materialism and toward a more spiritual existence.  This is a tough one for Americans in particular, but I don't believe that one can really move toward increased spiritual awareness while clinging to materialism.  "Simplicity" sells, can be marketed, has become its own economy actually.  What Thoreau had in mind was very specifically embraced poverty, not simplicity.  But poverty doesn't sell, can't be marketed for private gain.  It takes balls to embrace voluntary poverty in a land of plenty, and most people WILL NOT understand it, or will completely MISunderstand it.  They'll forward email after email about how their particular political interest is making the lives of the poor more tolerable, making things better for you, or they may just think you're a lazy, good-fur-nuthin' scoundrel.  But a serious scale-back of our activity and consumption is precisely what the planet needs, and will be requiring, from us in the years to come.  I have discovered that embracing the tidal shift away from materialism has opened unexpected doors to much more interesting ways of being and thinking in the last five years.  Try selling that one to America.

But one of the most unusual aspects of permaculture is its tendency to try to improve system function by removing elements from the system rather than by adding something.  Instead of adding a new mouthwash, or electric toothbrush, remove something you find damaging from your diet.  Instead of taking an aspirin, stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer (Mollison).  Instead of adding a pesticide, try removing soil life-damaging fertilizer.  It doesn't work every time, but it's amazing how often it does.  But of course the establishment finds this sort of anti-economic behavior extremely threatening.  Refusing to buy, use, or participate is damn near an act of aggression against the state in this country.  Which makes it one of the most potent actions we can take as individuals!

Hmmm, reduce, reuse, recycle, and the two largely ignored by America, repair, and refuse.  Seems like I've heard it somewhere before.  Expect actions that fit into these categories to continue becoming more mainstream in 2014.  They are, after all, the most adaptive strategies we have for a declining energy base, and 2014 should be no exception.

There, is that vague enough for you?
Just my .02
Tripp out.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Say Hello To My Little Dragon - Rocket Mass Heater in a Wall Tent

This is the combustion unit in all its temporary glory - standard fire brick J-tube built on a thick 16"X 24" landscape paver base (3 of them laid side-by-side to make a 4' x 2' platform) raised up to create an air space on old clay bricks salvaged from our house in Macon, wide side vertical (~4"), one under each paver joint, both sides, all set on a rigid reflective insulation panel in contact with the wood floor (the thin white strip at the bottom).  For those unfamiliar with rocket mass heaters (RMH) the flue is INSIDE the steel barrel; in this case they call it a heat riser, and ours is an 8" x 8" square clay flue pipe surrounded by a sheet metal jacket with perlite infill between the two for insulation, capped with a little mud to hold the perlite in.  The internal heat riser creates a heat pump that actively moves combustion gases through the unit.  As the gases fall down the perimeter of the barrel, they give up a substantial portion of their heat via radiation to the room before collecting in the bottom of the barrel and exiting through the horizontal flue, actively pumped to the exterior.  The galvalum can closer to you in the photo is the jacket for the feed tube, similarly insulated with perlite, with a tight-fitting lid to kill the fire when we're done with a burn.  The whole shootin' match is enshrouded in concrete we poured into a form (we were in a bit of a hurry or we would have cobbed it - more on that in another post).  The combustion unit weighs approximately half a ton, is supported by extra reinforcement under the tent deck, and cost roughly $200.  She's not going to win any beauty contests, but when you feel the heat it produces on next to no wood, an undeniable fondness for her begins to creep in.

Wet, wet, wettest year I've ever lived through, and abandoned for most of 4 months, there was (and still is) plenty of rehab to do on the old tent and deck floor.  On the left side you can see the mildew and floor wear we're dealing with; to the right where we're headed.  We're painting over the mildewed canvas with an oil-based primer to lock out the fungal unpleasantness (any better ideas?), and you can see where I've sanded and oiled the pine floor.
Not without its own shortcomings, one of the major advantages of a RMH in a tent is that a vertical flue jack through the tent roof isn't necessary, since the flue can exit the tent horizontally.  This nasty mess was caused by leaves and moisture falling in around the flue pipe and getting stuck between the canvas and poly rain fly.  Like any good composting process, it's completely digested the canvas at the pressure point against the internal framework.  Without a vertical flue stack this weakness is never introduced and the integrity of the rain fly remains uncompromised.   This mess has since been stitched, painted, and fully covered from above.

Turn around, view to the south during renovation.  The floor is done now and the painting getting there.  We will also be adding more of the 4' x 8' rigid reflective insulating panels, like we used under the combustion unit, around the walls to help hold heat in, and probably painting over them to match the wall.  Since this photo a screen door has been stripped down, fitted with 4 mil clear plastic sheeting for "panes," and hung in place of the old zippered flaps on a 2x6 frame anchored to the deck.  Makes coming and going so much easier; I wish we'd done that at the beginning.  The RMH combustion unit is built roughly on the old wear shadow spot (lower right of the photo) where the box stove lived last winter. 

This is where the real magic of a RMH comes into play.  With an active heat pumping action and a horizontal flue, we can run a long length of flue pipe through a thermal mass to absorb the remaining heat and store it to dissipate into the room over time.  Unwilling to cart 2 tons of our sandy, clayey, gravely subsoil in by bucket to fill this bench until the trouble-shooting is complete, this is about all you get for now.  There is about a quarter ton of thermal mass under the children's bed to help hold a little extra heat and the flue pipe in place now, and we will be doing our side under the bed soon since it will remain in that form once we build the wood cabin on this platform in the spring.  We're filling the bench only up to near the top of the flue pipe with the subsoil and then topping it off with pea gravel for better heat movement up through the mass and into the bed, and a cleaner finish.  The near section will change forms in the next phase, so we may not be filling it at all.  This bench is 16' long, and the back 10' will be our bedroom in the cabin; the front 6', plus the bend and the combustion unit will, once approved by the county, be cobbed into a permanent couch the shape of a dragon, complete with scales made from old favorite broken pottery we've been carting around with us, emerging from the fairy tale section of the floor-to-ceiling bookcase that will become the wall between the living and sleeping areas.  Safety-wise, the floor of this mass bench is raised up on a 2x6 riser to create an air space underneath, though closed off to keep any wandering mice out.  Once you get around the 90 degree elbow, the flue pipe isn't very hot, so I'm not worried about the mass bench causing any problems with the wood floor, especially with the air space separating the two.  More reinforcement is being added underneath the mass bench as it gains weight.  More details in the future.

Did I mention the trouble-shooting?  RMHs are not for laissez faire fire tenders.  They require attention, and at least a rudimentary knowledge of fire physics and fluid dynamics.  And it helps if you're a bit of a pyro, too.  The 90-degree elbow in this shot has been replaced by an 8-8-8 T-section and cap to provide cleaning access to both the short stretch from the combustion unit and to run my 20' flue brush through the long length of the mass bench and out the far end.  Apparently these dragons like to have their intestines cleaned regularly.  At the far end, the outdoor bit, I replaced the original 90-degree elbow there with a T-section and cap as well.  Besides flue brush access, when the weather is wonky I can go out and light a primer fire in the T-section under the outdoor vertical stack, or slip a battery-powered fan in, to help encourage the draw to move in the right direction until the combustion unit warms up.  Smoke-back into the tent, bad; smoke out the far end vertical flue, good.  Once the system is hot it rockets beautifully and cleanly, with only an occasional tiny belch that usually gets sucked back down the feed tube.  The exit gases move so slowly and are at such a cool temperature when they exit that you can lick the flue pipe (if you really want to) - it's hardly ever above 100 degrees F, even when the rocket is roaring.

So this is the idea for this particular design.  Beds ride on top of thermal mass bench to help keep sweeties warm at night.  Even without the thermal mass in the bench the extra warmth is noticeable.  I built simple plywood platforms, left over from our bath house project, to hold the beds up level with the bench, and, since there's no box spring, give us a bunch of storage space underneath.

Now the kids' bed is added, although I think that's a big pink bunny benefitting from the design, and not Ella.  Theirs is the warmest spot, near the combustion unit, which doles out a considerable amount of heat through the night, too.

You don't burn this kind of stove through the night, though.  You burn it hot and fast, for a few hours before bed, and in the case of a tent, when you wake up in the morning.  Then you cap the feed tube, kill the fire, and bask in the stove's warmth between burns.  This is one of the shortcomings of a RMH in a tent: there's not much insulation in the shell of the structure to hold onto the heat you produce.  We actually use a propane space heater during the night so we can get some good sleep, not be up all night tending a wood stove, but we certainly benefit from the slow-release warmth of a system like this under and around our beds.  And we really built it for the future cabin, when it will function more like it's supposed to.  Most RMH users claim to only burn once a day, for 2-3 hours before bed, and get plenty of heat through the night and the next day from that one burn, sometimes burning only every other day! The savings in firewood (money or processing time) is immense.  Even in a tent, with almost no insulation, we never burn more than 2 cubic feet of firewood a day, and generally less than one.  Last winter we burned ~600 cubic feet in our box stove (our stove season is about 5 months).  Yes, there is a little propane cost to be considered, but only so long as our house is a tent.  The fuel you see in the photo above is kiln-dry hardwood off-cuts I get for free by the trunk-load from a local cabinet shop.
Hard to see through the lunch break, but I've borrowed a trick from Ernie and Erica Wisner's playbook for our stove.  When buying the steel drum for our heat exchanger I got one with a removable lid and lid clamp, so I could open it from the top for inspection and cleaning.  A little stove insulating cord in the lip of the lid keeps it air tight.  Here you see Ella demonstrating the proper use of the stove once it's been shut down after a burn.  The little black and silver fan at the back of the stove top, driven only by a heat differential between its solid base resting on the stove and cooler aerial radiator, is a must-have for tent dwelling.  They are a a bit pricey, but so worth it.  We got ours from Lehman's.

I can't really explain the sense of self-satisfaction I got, and continue to get, from building an inexpensive wood stove from scratch that actually works and keeps my family warm.  I didn't come to the project with any particular skill in this department, and no more experience than one (long) winter with ANY sort of wood stove.  Rocket mass heaters burn very little wood - generally less than a quarter of what a typical box stove burns, and some claim as little as a tenth.  The fuel feeds into the unit vertically, (the fire rocketing sideways through the burn chamber and up the heat riser) and has to be processed down to fairly slim pieces (mine doesn't want to burn anything larger than 3" across, and even that seems to be a chore), but overall the labor input seems very minor compared to the endless splitting of heavy, chunky wood of last winter.  And the fuel requirements lend themselves very well to a coppicing woodlot scheme, which produces thin round fuel every few years on rotation, and which I'm currently developing on our land.  The stove does look a bit like a burn barrel in your living room, but can be dressed up in any number of ways.  Like I mentioned above, we plan to do a cob dragon sculpture around ours, which should hide a lot of the industrial look, but you could stack brick or stone around the parts you don't like for sure.  Just keep in mind that you're adding thermal mass, for long term heat storage and release, and covering the quick radiant warmth you get from a lot of exposed steel.  It wouldn't work very well in a tent in other words.  But coupled with a well-insulated house, or a thermally-massive house, like adobe or cob, I can see a stove like this being a major boon to the owner-builder's comfort and work load.  Weird and quirky, yes, but inexpensive and efficient, too, and utterly fantastic.

Special thanks to Andrew for his help with the materials gathering, layout, and pointers.
Tripp out.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Local > Organic

It takes a while sometimes to become confident enough in our own capacity for broad systems thinking to feel comfortable making such generalizations, but the more time I spend thinking about these two increasingly popular labels the more confident I feel making them.  A simple food chain perspective can be an illuminating place to begin our thought experiment, and it has become an increasingly common mental pattern for me over the last five years.  

One of the more common tropes in sustainability thinking seems to have otherwise heavy energy users dissecting specific topics or products or activities for ways to make themselves feel better about their day-to-day energy use.  To use the current dichotomy under discussion as an example, the thinking often seems to be that "eating organic is good for the planet, period."  The fact that the organic asparagus in question came from Chile, out of season, seems to be a secondary matter.  Not so fast, I say.  In food chain terms, you've got a relatively high-energy market crop to begin with: cutting asparagus is something that generally has to be done by hand, or by very specialized machinery, and the resulting product has to be handled very carefully between field and market.  All of this would be fine if it were being done in a family garden in the back yard, served up fresh on a lunch salad, or grilled for dinner.  But then we wouldn't be eating asparagus in November, and it wouldn't have been shipped thousands of miles in the process.  Here, "organic" simply becomes a way to soothe our conscience about putting richy imperialist tidbits on American tables whenever and wherever we feel like it.  It doesn't require any sacrifice, no discipline, no behavioral innovation.  Even if the production process on the far end was organic, enriching the soil in which it was grown year after year, all that good work is undone in a long-range shipping and distribution system, with all the fossil fuel burned to make it viable.  We have to consider the NET impact of such a food chain, not just the cultural practices that originally produced the food.  Simply eating organic doesn't ameliorate the greater damages wrought by a high-energy long-range supply network.

Another looming example of systems thinking gone awry is the current "Obamacare" debate.  Health care in the United States has its share of problems, to be sure, but a lack of centralized management wasn't one of them.  In essence, we've taken a system already in need of a major overhaul, in need of major behavioral innovation, and added a new level of organization to the top of its food chain.  Any ecologist worth his salt, as well as plenty of non-ecologists, will know that adding another link to the top of a food chain drastically increases the energy contained in that food chain.  I would hesitate to say that it doubles it, but with the increasing metabolic losses that are inherent in all food chains as one moves up the ladder, coupled with a whole new predator at the top feasting on the former, slightly less metabolically-inefficient, top predator, it's significant.

To illustrate this idea, consider a simple oceanic food chain composed of an autotrophic phytoplankton forming the base of the pyramid, eaten by pelagic krill, krill that are in turn eaten by small schooling fish, and those small fish finally eaten by a tuna.  Totally inventing numbers to save time and simply demonstrate a well-known universal pattern, let's say that the phytoplankton are completely (100%) efficient, turning sunlight and dissolved gases, combined with free minerals in the ocean water, into carbohydrates and cellular structure.  No net metabolic losses there, but this is the only producer in the food chain.  Climb up one level to the krill that eat the phytoplankton and we begin to lose metabolic efficiency; let's say the krill convert phytoplankton to more krill at a 67% efficiency.  That is, for every three pounds of phytoplankton consumed, two pounds of krill are made and maintained.  Still pretty good, but then up one more level to the schooling fish dining on the krill, and let's say our conversion efficiency drops to 50%.  That is, for every two pounds of krill consumed we get one pound of the small fish.  Keep in mind that the krill already lost 33% of the original energy represented by the phytoplankton via their metabolic processes, and now the small fish have lost 50% of that already-reduced amount.  Now we come to the tuna.  They bust up the schooling fish violently, spending a fair amount of the energy they acquired from their last meal in the process, chasing down the little fish, and maintaining a warm body in the process.  Yes, tuna are practically warm-blooded, and that carries a considerable metabolic cost of its own.  Let's assume the tuna convert the schooling fish to more tuna at a 33% efficiency.  That is, in order to make and maintain a pound of tuna, three pounds of the small fish must be consumed.  Now remember that the small fish had already used up 50% of the energy represented in the krill they ate to make and maintain themselves, and that those krill had already used up 33% of the energy represented in the phytoplankton to make and maintain themselves.

This is getting fairly pricey in terms of system energy.  A little quick math shows that we're already down to only about 11% of the original energy represented in the phytoplankton remaining in the tuna stocks.  I.E. in just three consumer stages 89% of our original energy base has been lost to metabolic maintenance of the food chain, and it gets a lot worse every time we go up a level.  For the purposes of our healthcare discussion, let's assume that this is analogous to the U.S. healthcare food chain prior to the enactment of Obamacare: fraught with the inefficiencies inherent to and unavoidable in a multi-level food chain, but more or less sustainable within the current resource environment.  And now let's add another top predator to the food chain above the tuna.  Let's say the small school of tuna just got hammered by a pair of mammoth blue marlin, and that these marlin convert tuna to more marlin at a 25% efficiency.  That is, every pound of marlin requires 4 pounds of tuna to make and maintain it, which reduces our system output from 11% to less than 3% .  This is in essence what centralized management of our healthcare system introduces to its own food chain.  Increasing metabolic loss is inherent in all food chains as you move up the pyramid, and fewer and fewer individuals on any given level can be supported by the levels below. 

Which would all be fine if we were living in a system with an increasing energy base!  That, however, is not our reality.  And it requires a gargantuan suspension of disbelief to protest that fact.  For all practical purposes, we've been living on piles of free energy - provided by half a billion years of ancient sunlight and the incomprehensible power of geologic processes - to make and maintain the extremely long and energetic global food chains that bring us Chilean asparagus in November, and increase our population exponentially.  A finite planet with finite resources and a growing population simply doesn't lend itself to lengthening food chains that require significant increases in embodied energy to create and maintain.  Quite the opposite actually.  There's no need to dissect and analyze the minutiae of the Obamacare plan's ins and outs.  Like incorporating 22 federal agencies under the banner of the Department of Homeland Security in late 2002, Obamacare simply adds another even-higher-energy level of organization, complete with its increasing and unavoidable metabolic losses of operation, to an already overstretched healthcare food chain.  It can't happen; not that it shouldn't happen, it just can't.  From a systems perspective, the only way to make this work is to either shred a whole bunch of other federal agencies (or the federal government itself) in the process, or to magically strike it rich again in the energy lottery.  A quick and honest look at EROEIs across our potential energy resource spectrum is all it takes to send the latter packing.  The former is inevitable in time, but I doubt there are many people drawing a paycheck from the agencies in question who will be amenable to the idea.  Especially when all they're getting out of the deal is more expensive healthcare.  There simply isn't enough free energy in the system to support another trophic level riding atop the healthcare pyramid.

No, the landscape before us is a bit more terrainy than that.  A future largely organized around steadily decreasing access to energy, and increasing price volatility, will be one where resilience becomes more strongly emphasized than efficiency.  The perceived efficiencies of large centralized organization will slowly give way to local, dispersed resilience strategies with local management.  Like an airplane pilot who refuses to remove the redundant spark plugs from his plane's engine in order to reduce weight and save fuel, it just won't seem like a good idea anymore.  As John Michael Greer is quick point out, we over-build bridges for very good reasons.  Producing a growing share of our food in our own back yards, less commuting to work, more farmers markets and fewer supermarkets, more bicycles and fewer cars, more garage workshops, more garden medicine, more village breweries, these are the things that inevitably happen as food chains lose their energy support.  And they foster a resilience over efficiency paradigm.  Once "organic" became standardized it became exploitable within the current high-energy long-range food chain.  Organic sells, and it sells big these days, but where organic once meant buying veggies from your neighbor at the farm stand, it now means looking for the little green and white USDA Organic stamp.  An expensive stamp, a stamp which, more than anything else, means another trophic level piled up on top of the already teetering long-range food supply chain, with its inherent and unavoidabe metabolic losses.  Like DHS and Obamacare, that's not where we need to be looking for our answers.  It's part of an imperial system based on cheap abundant energy that becomes less a part of our reality by the day.

By contrast, when you buy local you are consciously choosing to cut out the middle man, maybe radically cutting out the middle man, shortening the food chain involved by choice, reducing or eliminating level after level of system metabolic loss and expense, which ultimately creates a healthier, less expensive, more resilient overall system.  We've seen how simply cutting the top level off the food chain can have a monumental impact on the whole system's embodied energy.  3% > 11% > 33.5% > 67% > 100%, as you cut each top trophic level off of our example food chain.  Properly considered, an "organic" but long-range supply chain can have a far more deleterious impact on system fitness than a short, not-quite-organic direct sale from the producer.  If we can get it local AND organic, that's a win-win for sure, but if faced with a local OR organic decision, don't be too quick to jump on the organic bandwagon...

In this light, "local" is actually more organic than "organic" that traveled a long way to involve itself in your decision making process.  Organic means "of, related to, or derived from living matter."  If the food chain in which you choose to participate is local, or is shorter than the next option, that means it uses less energy top to bottom, and it will have less impact on the whole living biosphere.  It therefore promotes living matter, promotes life.  And honestly, I don't think it gets any more organic than that.

Just my .02
Tripp out.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Rabbit-Powered Lawn

Thought I'd throw something different out there this time for the making-a-lawn-useful department.

We've converted well over an acre of lawn adjacent to whatever house we were living in - both front and back yards - into productive gardens over the last half decade, and hopefully nudged a few others out along that (garden) path as well.  And I can't praise such transitions highly enough!  But if anything, permaculture is a flexible bedfellow, and this situation begged for something else.

Meet my lawn crew.  The small cage in the front is the rabbit finishing tractor and has 6 nice fat little 5 week old rabbit kits, freshly weaned, doing their lawn maintenance doody in it.   The two-legged chap with the old-fashioned reel mower is yours truly - bare feet, pleasantly quiet, no smelly gasoline exhaust, and a nice bit of exercise just for good measure.

Both tractors get moved to a new patch of greens once a day.  The larger tractor contains a standard breeding trio of New Zealand meat rabbits - one buck and two does.  Each compartment has a half gallon lick bottle and heavy-duty rubber food dish, making daily maintenance low key.  We can actually leave them completely unattended for at least 3 days; just be absolutely certain that the water bottles are nice and secure.  Both tractors have a floor of poly-coated chicken wire to keep the inhabitants from digging out, and a 5-gallon-bucket-cum-rabbit-hole bolted to the dividing walls in each cell for comfort.  The big tractor here does require some effort to move, so be smarter than I am, and make your version lighter!

New Zealand rabbits come in black, white, red, and "broken" versions, that is, red and white or black and white, like the sweet little doe we got from the Mennonites on Labor Day in the far right slot.

Any breeding stock selection we do from our babies will keep the standard breed colors in mind.  I'm afraid it's freezer camp for the grays and tans.  After a few generations of selection and more attentive importation of fresh genetic stock, we should be able to pedigree, if that's a route we choose to take.  So the albino, the solid black, and the black and white broken may have a future 'round here.  Ella will be glad to hear that; she's pretty enamored with the albino for some reason.  I don't usually like the children playing with their food, but they've done a lot of it this round for some reason.

The lawn is pretty good quality I think for rabbit forage - nitrogen-fixing clovers and medics boosting grass growth, and providing extra protein variety for the maturing kits and lactating does.  I tend to think that animals raised this way turn out healthier and more immuno-competent than animals that are confined and fed a "perfectly engineered" diet.  We should always learn from our weeds, too, and the presence of these nitrogen fixers suggests that we are dealing with soil that is probably compacted and maybe not terribly fertile.  Rabbit pills always help with that.

We've had a couple of soaking rains since the old tractors got moving in the front yard of the new farmhouse.  The area between the tractors and the car is where they've been, heading right to left in this view.  You can almost see the improvement in the lawn already.  Rabbit pills aren't "hot" like chicken manure, so they tend to improve their environment without a delay.  Of course any input of sufficient quantity can be damaging, organic or otherwise, so keep those tractors moving!

When done right, the ecological benefits of raising rabbits on the lawn should be obvious, but the economics of the arrangement are promising, too.  A healthy breeding trio of meat breed rabbits like these can produce 1-2 rabbits for consumption per week, averaged out, without even pushing the does very hard.  A dressed young rabbit weighs about 3 pounds in 8-12 weeks, and costs between 50 cents and $3 per pound to raise, depending on the rabbit's genetics and what you're feeding - lower if you're foraging for them and feeding a little hay, in the middle with a mixed strategy like this, higher on straight pellet off the ground.  At retail prices rabbit runs 6-7 dollars a pound, so immediately you've saved at least half your meat money, even if you go the expensive/lazy way.  And, even on a smallish lawn like mine, our rabbit production could easily be doubled, and maybe tripled, for a little extra income.

Rabbit is one of the least expensive meats you can produce(*), with excellent feed conversion efficiencies, loads of soil benefits that initiate a positive feedback loop for your production system, and low start-up cost.  The small tractor in the last photo (above) was built completely from scrap wood and metal, with only a little chicken wire and a couple of hinges to purchase (unless you have those laying around, too, like I did).  What's more, if you were to lose the ability to buy rabbit pellet (for whatever reason), they can be fed weeds from the garden and leaves from the forest pretty effectively, though they may take a bit longer to reach market weight that way.  But then, if you get to that point any meat will be a real treat, and chicken would be tough to raise without imported feed...or tough to eat by the time you get them there without it!

Rabbit is delicious, tender, low-maintenance, high-protein, low-fat (not necessarily a bonus to me, but...) meat that could easily replace a lot of our higher-energy chicken consumption.  Where feathers become a smelly disposal nightmare sometimes, rabbit pelts can create an additional income stream or useful material resource for making mittens, jackets, hats, slippers, bags, etc.  AND, they are wicked easier to clean than chickens.

Here's a rabbit recipe I really enjoy:

~Stuff the cavity of a whole rabbit with a little fresh marjoram, summer savory, and/or thyme.

~Rub the outside of the rabbit down with olive oil, lard, or melted butter.

~Salt, pepper, and garlic to taste.

~Wrap a couple strips of bacon around the rabbit to close it up and add some more fat, and pin the bacon in place with a toothpick or two.  Use good fatty bacon!  Life's too short for cheap bacon.

~Braise both sides in a hot cast-iron skillet, and then stick the skillet in a 375 degree oven for half an hour or so.  A little liquid in the pan - butter, bacon squeezins, apple juice - keeps the meat quite tender.

~Set the rabbit on a plate to rest and return the remaining liquid to the stovetop.  Add a cup of decent red wine to the rabbit juices et al, and reduce over medium heat until it reaches a good light gravy consistency, then drizzle it over the rabbit (quartered) and serve.

~Absolutely enjoy the hell out of it with good friends and a homebrewed beverage of your choice.  (I'm partial to hard apple cider as a compliment for rabbit, but of course the rest of that red wine you shared with the gravy would be great, too...)

I imagine this recipe would be good for squirrel, guinea pig, ground hog, or whatever else you might have handy, too!

(*) I would say that wild meats are cheaper except that I've seen the real cost of hunting too many times to feel confident about that statement!  Since Sandy Hook, ammunition alone has tripled in price.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Back From Bivouac

Two young fellas are upstairs laying the new flooring, the last critical task remaining before we move in.  I'd be laying it myself except that the farm owners insisted on third-party culpability in case anything went wrong.  The farm owners, by the way, are new friends of ours.  I met them in the parking lot of the Rich Mountain - Cartacay Tract trailhead outside Ellijay, GA, just before I co-led 22 paying customers on a morel hunt in April.  They just happened to stop by, for the first time, and they caught me peeing in the bushes...

After the zippering and blushing formalities, the conversation turned quickly to wilderness survival, life in our tent, and of course, mushrooms.

"Do you think you could survive out there?" he asked me, waving at the forest.

"I think I could avoid starvation," was my hesitant reply.

Later, when he saw my garden, fairly modest in scale but lush with garlic, raspberries, greens, and herbs, he said, "so you're one of those guys that can cut a hole in the woods and feed his family?"  Highly complementary considering I didn't think I had much of a garden going at that point.  I hope I'm that guy, but better yet would be the ability to feed my family without cutting a hole in the woods at all.  I'm nowhere near being that guy.  But I'm curious about him.

And so it was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that we entered negotiations with these new friends about living in their farmhouse and developing a farm for them.  We learned enough from the last co-farming/-housing experiment in south Georgia to know that this time the deal needed to be clear, concise, and official.  Hi ho.  So we set about the task of describing and assigning responsibility for activity on the farm today and tomorrow.  Considering that both parties in the matter are "preppers" (as they are generally referred to here) to one degree or another - both contemplating issues like currency collapse (which wouldn't take much honestly), declining energy resources, corrupt government in cahoots with unethical corporations, unstable weather, crop failures, water supply redundancy, etc - it was one of the more complex contract processes I've been a part of.

First was the matter of intellectual property.  I've been studying permaculture, agroforestry, mob grazing, natural building, appropriate tech, and so forth for years, after being an ecologist, and these guys were credit brokers and tactical defense enthusiasts.  Very sharp people, very driven people, very wealthy people, but very different from us.  And since it was them wanting to do all these things that I know about on their farm, and us looking for a better piece of land on which to do those things, there was a lot to define.

We're still keeping and developing our land in the direction of a cob cottage in a food forest, just for the record.  The old homestead is only 3.7 miles farther out of town than the farm, as the car drives, closer if you cut through the woods at the base of our property, so it's an easy and pleasant mountain bike ride around the eastern base of Talona Mountain.  Lots of mushrooms to check on, and great plans for the next few years, developing our southeast facing slope with dessert and cider apples, apricots, cherries, figs, peaches, plums, pecans, chestnuts, blueberries, tea, copious amounts of mushrooms, and whatever else comes along for the ride.  Plenty of herbs you can be sure.

We have no idea what shape the future will take for us, where we'll be living in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, but I can say that the tentative plan is to stay here at the farm for a while, maybe till the kids finish school, make this place hum, make a little money, and beef up our own holdings along the way.  So to speak.  We would really love to pick up the 2.5 acres below our land, build a driveway in from there to a lovely cob cottage, on contour of course, around our little dell, and move our mailbox down to the paved road.  Maybe give that privately-"maintained" gravel road along the ridgeline above our land, and the world-class jagoff that lives across the "street," a miss.

But there's a certain attraction to being this much closer to town, right on the main road that takes hundreds (thousands?) of customers out to a popular grass-based farm several miles farther south of town.  People come all the way from Atlanta to buy meat there.  And they don't sell chicken or turkey, which is what we are planning on raising, nor do they mob-graze their beef.  We are definitely planning on doing that; pastured chicken, turkey, eggs, beef, rabbit, berries, figs, nuts, mushrooms, and if all goes well, hard cider down the road.

There's 87 acres here, with a smallish creek running south to north near the front of the farm, gaining a little strength from two spring runs, one from the east under the main road and just south of the farmhouse, and one from the west that originates on the farm way back in the woods.  Both seem to be very high quality.  Around these 3 creek runs, there is 15-20 acres of pasture among 5 distinct plots.  They haven't been maintained for a few years, but the one directly behind the house, across the main creek, has been bush-hogged and has become grass-dominant again in less than a month.  I am extremely excited about the possibilities these pastures and this water hold.

And not just in terms of fertility.  We learned a lot of valuable energy lessons over the past 5 years, and the last 16 months in the tent in particular.  While I now think that electricity is the way to go for lighting, fans, and refrigeration, none of these are the main domestic energy drains, and could very likely run on a decent micro-hydro setup.  Of the four big users, we asked the farm owners to just skip the HVAC system (we'll be heating with wood still), immediately started hanging laundry out to dry again (instead of going to the laundry mat - we had no sun in the woods) like we hadn't missed a beat, and plan to build a passive solar batch water heater from remodeling leftovers and feed it into the house supply, and a solar oven on the upstairs deck rail and cob oven down below somewhere.  So I could see being practically off-grid again within the year, but in a much more comfortable situation.

And speaking of comfortable, boy was that first hot pressurized shower nice after 16 months of bivouac!  And the rest of the running water, too, in 4 different sinks, plus the dish and clothes washers.  And the fridge!  And the internet connection.  Our internet activity during our tent stay usually cost us lunch out, or coffee and a muffin, or a cocktail or two, or at least a visit to the library on the other side of town.  I'm guessing having internet service at home is cheaper all around.  And for some reason I could never remember what it was I wanted to look up when I finally got a connection away from home.  Although the margaritas were usually worth the effort...

My urban farmer/forager friend Chris thinks pockets, and containers in general, were one of humanity's greatest inventions, and I have to agree.  Containers made from big leaves, vines, canes, rushes, clay, cloth, metal, wood, plastic, whatever, had an enormous impact on the way we humans do business.  But fans!  God I love fans.  And chainsaws.  And refrigerators.  And (modest) electric lighting.  [Just because you use CFLs doesn't mean you need to use them all at once!  Mr. Jeavon's Paradox...]  Those four technologies are likely the best ways to use fossil fuel ever.  And if we could govern our energy use to those four, peak oil would become a non-issue.  It's all the other stuff we pile on the back of cheap easy energy that gets us (and unfortunately everyone else on Earth) in trouble.  Fifty-gallon hot water heaters, indoor ovens, air conditioning, clothes dryers, computers, internet (guilty obviously), and the mother-of-all, the happy motoring culture.  No greater abuse of Nature's gifts was ever devised than the personal automobile and its related infrastructure.  And the sad part is, we don't really need it, we just can't get out of it.  We designed our American habitat the way we did intentionally, in order to spread our population out in an effort to avoid being concentrated targets for the Rooskies, or zee Germans, or the A-rabs, or whoever the enemy du jour might be.  Paranoia is expensive, and it might just be our undoing.  Europeans never adopted such short-sighted strategies, and they use 1/3 of the energy per capita that we do (and arguably have a higher standard of living...)

Again, peak oil concerns tend to fizzle out when those sorts of adjustments are made.  Conservation is a real solution, very much unlike ethanol, electric cars, shale oil, or fracking.  Those are rope-a-dope answers to our predicament, sleight-of-hand maneuvering, not strategies, and they all demonstrate a profound lack of systems thinking.  We don't have a problem that needs fixing, we have a predicament that requires paradigm shifting.  Biological and behavioral, not technological, solutions are the order of our time.

Those are the solutions we pursue in permaculture, and what we're doing here on this new farm.  With shifts in land management tactics we will turn derelict pastures into a deep, rich, productive topsoil base that sequesters more carbon from the atmosphere, where it is too dense, into the ground, where it's not dense enough, and produce top-shelf meat in the process.  This is what Nature prefers, and mob-stocking strategies are useful for speeding the process up.  I heard permaculture referred to as "aikido farming" the other day, and I love that term!  Because it's spot on.  We steer Nature's normal momentum, her successional energies and incredible fecundity, to toss that succession forward into a highly productive forested food production system.  Or in the case of this farm, a robust and mature prairie ecosystem maintained by regular mob grazing, surrounded by the prior.  I've been wanting to do this for years.

But there was one other reason we decided to jump ship, er, tent.  2013 has been the wettest year on record in north Georgia, and it has wreaked havoc on our little canvas house.  The mildew is closing in, nearly as black now as it is white, and the canvas is ripping in a few unfortunate areas, making the situation worse.  Everything inside the tent was molding - books, shoes, clothes, furniture - and it has been so wet that even the mice seemed desperate to move inside with us.  The endless rain has checked our business profits to some degree, too, since we mostly work in outdoor markets, and we can't afford another tent to stretch over the framework, and couldn't even string enough sunny days together to try to treat the mildew issue and patch up the old one.  Something had to give. 

It was an amazing experience, one I'll never forget, and I think it changed me for the better, but I'm also glad it's over, glad to be under a hard roof again, glad I can take a hot shower inside, and glad to have the opportunity to participate with this grass-based aspect of permaculture.  And very glad to have some financial backing from nice folks who believe in what we do.

The campstead will be available soon at a modest rent if anyone is interested in a little vacation from civilization, or for someone to live in if they want to help with our projects.  I'd be glad to work out a tenure agreement for someone interested in living onsite and converting the tent to a hard-roofed structure and/or building a little cob cottage on our property.  Just drop me a line here or via email.  My address is trippticket(at)gmail(dot)com.

Cheers, permies et al. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Reply To Steve Carrow About My "Experience"

Did I miss something? Before you turn back to rational permaculture topics, are you going to share what the brush with the world beyond the [veil] was? -Steve Carrow

[This started out as a reply in the comments section of the previous post but, as you can see, quickly became its own post.]

Hey, Steve.  I guess different people have all sorts of different triggers for experiences like mine, but it's the results of that experience that seem to validate it more than the actual trigger - what a born-again might refer to as the "fruit."  I suppose that's why I spent all my time talking about how it changed me instead of talking about what actually happened. 

It's kind of mundane really.  I was watching a YouTube interview with permaculture co-originator (his own terms) David Holmgren, talking about his new book "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability" when it hit me.  David was talking about how aggressive pioneer "weeds" will capture and occupy a disturbed site, forming a monoculture or restricted oligoculture, and remain until the site's energy resources begin to decline.  At that point the stranglehold of the dominant population becomes maladaptive, and increasing biodiversity and cooperative relationships begin to emerge in an effort to more effectively utilize a declining energy base.

The parallels between that weedlot community David was talking about and human cultures on Earth hit me across the head like a 2x4.  All of a sudden I recognized the gravity of global energy peak and what it would mean for our species.  I saw colonial Eurasian farming culture (us) for the aggressive, (to borrow ecological jargon) r-selected, pioneer monoculture that it is, and energy descent as the very beginning of our people's return to a more normal, more reverent, mixed-strategy existence.  And probably the emergence of a new, far more spiritual, far less material, ecological culture.

[To define the disturbance that lead to the aggressive mental monoculture currently in existence, I would place the initial disturbance on the doorstep of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago, and a much greater disturbance on the shoulders of the fossil fuel era, which encompasses roughly the last 300 years.  Eurasian farming culture simply multiplied its initial agricultural disturbance when it figured out how to harness the awesome power embodied in fossil fuels.]

But suddenly my anger toward our exploitative, extractive (and ultimately suicidal) economic mode subsided, not because I was suddenly OK with it, but because I knew it wasn't going to last forever.  Couldn't last forever.  I knew that our Earth would begin to recover now, and that humans, being part of the Earth, would too.  That's the real silver lining of energy descent!

[Like every other liberal "progressive" I formerly believed in fantasies like "free energy," "weightless economies," and a soon-to-be-generally-affluent-if-we-could-just-get-those-other-idiots-out-of-the-way global culture, but the systems thinker in me subconsciously knew that that wasn't going to turn out well.  It caused me a lot of anguish.  The recognition of peak oil and subsequent energy descent as an inevitability was really a huge sigh of relief...]  

Being an ecologist I had a decent mental grasp of how very differently populations tend to behave in a contracting energy scenario than they do in an expansionary one, and realized suddenly that the behavior of the average Westerner was eventually going to be altered, and probably altered radically, in favor of a more permanent, (to continue the ecology lingo) K-selected culture.  A permanent culture.  Permaculture.

Oil being what it is to us, the industrial world that is, and the U.S. particularly, peak oil meant that humankind's expansionary phase was coming to a close.  It meant that our inertia toward one world order (controlled by us, the aggressive monoculture) was about to make a U-turn.  In other words, peak oil equaled peak exploitation, of the Earth, of other people, and of ourselves.  And that understanding changed me deeply.  I consider my experience to be a full-on mental paradigm shift.  Whether it constitutes a brush with the "sacred" is certainly debatable, but I've never experienced anything like it, nor heard more than a handful of stories that could compare.  Among Westerners in particular they seem vanishingly rare.

Everything I started predicting 5 years ago, based on this new revelation, is coming true.  I predicted that food would get perpetually more expensive as average real wages continued to decline in tandem, and it has, as they have.  I predicted that more and more affluent industrial people would be gardening and keeping small livestock every year from now on, and they have done both, with gusto.  I predicted that specialization would begin to decline and that the return of the generalist was at hand, that herbal medicine would start to regain its former prominence as the desirability and efficacy of allopathic chemical medicine came increasingly into question.  On and on.  All of which is the case today.  Just look at how much energy the dominant culture is investing in maintaining the status quo!  Since then I've read lots of similar opinions and of course tend to gravitate toward them - the writings of John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, Masanobu Fukuoka, Toby Hemenway, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison of course, cyclical historians Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, Colin Campbell, Ianto Evans, etc.

And now Stephen Harrod Buhner's writing on indigenous herbalism is altering my perception profoundly once again.  Maybe we'll have this talk again one day!  I hope that answers your question well enough because a lot of this is fairly hard to articulate, but thanks for that little stroll down good memory lane...cheers.

And now, back to permaculture...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hunting For the Big Antenna

Wow, if my world isn't moving these days.

Maybe it's the never-ending rain, keeping me in the books, keeping me in my head.  Or maybe it's the fact that I haven't been distracted by the "connectivity" of the modern world as much lately.  Apparently it's been two weeks since I even checked my email.  (Sorry, Josh.)

Recently I decided it was time to be a hard-core student once again, so I hung up a couple of distracting habits and decided to learn more about indigenous plant medicine.  The book I turned to had been on the shelf of Mrs. Small Batch Garden for four years since I bought it for her as a birthday present when we were still in Washington.  The title had always been a bit off-putting to my rational Western brain (though intriguing enough to buy obviously!), but, after hearing a few people I really trust and respect speaking highly of the author, I finally decided to dive into Stephen Harrod Buhner's Sacred Plant Medicine

The first chapter blew my mind. 

Like every other intellectual rationalist in the industrial world I had always considered indigenous myth and tradition to be quaint, superstitious, and generally useless to serious and sober people.  I don't think that anymore, although, even in my unusually receptive state, it took some time for me to really wrap my head around the information gathering process he was explaining. 

Buhner leads the book off by pointing out that certain organs in our bodies generate electromagnetic (EM) fields, and that these fields can be detected by sensitive instruments out to about 12 feet away but are strongest within 12-18 inches of the body generating it.  Ever had anyone get inside your "personal space bubble" that wasn't welcome?  Yeah, that's the field I'm talking about.  But the real revelation in this new knowledge was that the field generated by the heart is actually 5000 times stronger than the one generated by the brain.  5000 times stronger.  In other words, our heart is our big antenna, not our brain.

Ask any Westerner where his consciousness lies and he will point to his head, generally right around the temple.  But ask the same question of a man from any indigenous medicine culture and he will very resolutely put his hand on his heart.  And therein lies the mountain of difference between the two.

Because really, even from a rational perspective, what is it that we use to communicate with one another, to exchange information?  One range of electromagnetic wavelengths or another, in fact.  Radio waves, microwaves, ultraviolet, visible light, and so on.  And apparently we've been selling ourselves awfully short in the quest for rationality!  No wonder Mother Theresa quietly commented, when receiving her Nobel Peace Prize, that "it is not we who are poor, but you."  Never mind using only 10% of your brain; how impoverished are the people who only utilize 1/5000th of their faculty to communicate with the world around them?  No wonder we feel so alone.

Could ignorance of that magnitude keep us from any real understanding of the other living organisms that share this planet with us?  I can't imagine it not doing so.  To only command 1/5000th of your capacity to do something is like not having any capacity at all.  I think this may be an area where "born agains" have some advantage over atheistic rationalists: they've likely acquired an ability to communicate, to send and receive information, with at least some of their heart capacity and not just the brain field.  Strong heart-felt emotions seem to be much more normal for believers than they are for scientific rationalists, and a major reason for breakdowns in communication between the two worldviews.  But don't misunderstand me.  I'm not lending any particular credence to their specific doctrines, merely suggesting an explanation for the powerful feelings that are apparently invoked by their "salvation" experience.

So why God?  Why salvation and eternal life when similar experiences lead indigenous people to such different places?  Buhner suggests that this might be due to the fact that we respond to our brushes with the "sacred" (or what my Irish ancestors called the world "beyond the veil") by fitting the experience into the narratives we know best.  For folks weaned on the Bible this is how they explain these experiences and the radically re-energized direction in which their lives head as a result.  You can't deny the deep fervor of a young pastor in the pulpit no matter what your beliefs.

Indigenous people have these same experiences with the world beyond the veil all the time.  Matter of fact a large portion of their day-to-day activity focuses on having them.  And the report from all these unconnected people scattered across the planet comes back surprisingly similar.  For example, indigenous people everywhere believe that non-human life forms have voices of their own, and that we can learn to communicate directly with them if we spend enough time learning their ways.  In every medicine culture that has access to cedar trees the cedar is considered to be not only an agent of benevolent plant medicine, but also a protector of people from evil forces.

My Western understanding (all 1/5000th of it) immediately jumped to "well, cedar is a very common thing to use to protect our possessions from pest damage, things like old special quilts in cedar chests protected from hungry moth larvae, so of course it makes sense that their brains would project this sort of supernatural power upon it."  My wife was quick to point out that, if she wasn't mistaken, their brains weren't even involved.  Wrapping my rationalist head around this sort of knowledge is always going to be tough.  And now I know why.  There isn't much of it to go around.

If you could convince a born-again that he could feel the power of his salvation experience repeatedly through disciplined exploration of his big antenna, the comparatively giant heart field that he's learned to tap into, would there be a single one who wouldn't engage in just such an activity?  I doubt it.  I haven't personally had a "salvation" experience, but in January 2009 I had a brush with that world beyond the veil, and it changed me deeply, and permanently. 

Among other inheritances, the driving forces behind my daily activity moved quickly from the material toward the spiritual aspects of life.  I lost my interest in sports, in drinking and smoking (though I backslid for a while due to a lack of direction), and stopped believing that either Democrats or Republicans had anything meaningful to offer the world.  I went from rational atheistic ecologist to ethical permaculturalist with a deep sense of belonging almost overnight.  My liberal guilt disappeared.  These days I can't get enough of the soil, or the plants, fungi, and other macro- and microorganisms that make it what it is.  I often walk to my various gardens multiple times a day just to spend time with the plants, animals, and mushrooms that live there.  I acquired an unshakable desire to be home and to grow roots where I stood, though I couldn't settle for just anywhere.  Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time probably knows more of that story than they ever wanted to.

I could suddenly feel and communicate with my surroundings, even if it was only subconsciously.  I, at first instinctively and later consciously, knew that life after industrial abundance would be difficult in a place like Spokane, Washington, due to the length of the cold hard winter and lack of rain in that dry semi-arid steppe.  Not that Spokane doesn't have plenty to offer today!  If you live there enjoy it for me, please.  Mentally I love Spokane, and I found my mate there.  Likewise, I knew that our situation in Macon, Georgia, wasn't a long-term solution.  We didn't have much land, the house was not designed well for life without energy-hogging A/C, and we were the only white folks for half a mile.  There were going to be deep cultural issues to deal with, and potentially a lot of anger erupting as the federal government and its multicultural initiatives disintegrated over the coming decades.  In Tifton, Georgia, where I was born, and where we moved after Macon, we found tons of wonderful family and friend support, but also the opposite problem of Spokane: long, hot, gnat- and fire ant-ridden, sultry summers that are mighty testy without air conditioning.  And something wasn't right about the terrain either.  We were looking for home and we didn't feel it there.

But we're home now.  We settled where we used to vacation, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of north Georgia, right along the piedmont/montaine ecotone, where life without modern amenities would be pleasant enough, where apples and blueberries thrive in the schist-derived soils, and where the hills are swarming with some of the greatest plant diversity on Earth, just waiting for the return of humans who are interested in talking with them.

Now that I know where my voice is, I think you can count me in...

Photo at top of post courtesy of Amir Peeri.