Hello to July

July 11, 2009

I’ve been working on other, related blogs since late last summer, but now I think I’d like to bring this one back again. You may have been referred here by one of my other writing sites, either Peasant Fare or Urbiculture. Peasant Fare is the blog for business ventures that have to do with cooking and gardening. I think about broader issues to do with living online and off-grid in Urbiculture. And Greens and Beans is driven by ideas about food these days, though it had a somewhat broader focus when I started it. The inspiration for all of this was the decision to let my academic life lapse and indulge my love of cooking, gardening, and proselytizing.

I’m in Richmond, Virginia, these days. I’m gardening and worm farming, occasionally selling at farmer’s markets. I have a part-time job in an independent neighborhood cafe, baking scones and cookies, pouring coffee, washing dishes. I’ve been pretty broke since last December, when I moved here. The bottom fell out of the economy at a bad time for me, and for the first time in my life I’ve been unable to support myself with temp work. But with a few pickup jobs and the support of friends and family I’ve made it through the roughest patch, I hope.

Goodbye to August

August 31, 2008

I have almost given up on this blog, not because my focus has changed, but because I am so busy gardening, cooking, creating my living space, and administering a new blog, Citygrown Produce, that promotes a new business that is a collaboration of four growers and cooks. We’re selling vegetables, fruit, and prepared foods, including baked goods. People order by email and we have a couple of pickups a week, one downtown and the other at a nearby farmer’s market. We have a health-certified kitchen in a downtown church that we rent by the hour — keeps the overhead down and makes more intensive use of urban space and resources. (I wish it were not all-electric, but that’s a problem to be solved or gotten around somehow.)

I have a kitten named Zio Gato. He consumes considerably more manufactured goods than I do, but maybe I can learn to “green” his little kitty life as the days pass. He’s a really fine cat. Good company.

Go to citygrown.wordpress.com if you want an idea of what I’ve been doing all summer.

Mary Jane Butters is a big fat fraud

July 1, 2008

On green websites and in the mailboxes of green friends, ads and catalogs for Mary Jane Butters merchandise are suddenly appearing. It’s the worst sort of consumerist garbage, a styrofoam cake with green icing. It’s a scam. She’s selling organic powdered food from Idaho. There is nothing green or sustainable about buying powdered organic food from Idaho. Bleh.

First blackberries

June 30, 2008

We have wild blackberries, a few bushes facing south, more to the east, some north, some west. South-facers near the Fertile Crescent came ripe first, but the most delicious and mild-flavored ones came off of the canes that have been getting morning sun. I went down after my wakeup coffee and picked about a cup’s worth, then ate them with the last tablespoon I had of lightly sweetened whole-milk yogurt cream. Nancy’s recipe, heavenly.

It’s the end of summer planting this week and the beginning of fall. The last of the melons will go in over the next few days, the last corn, and the first carrots and parsnips. Some beets, too.

A post-move update on the seven categories:

June 26, 2008

I’m afraid I’ve done only part of the work here — below is a report on my activities of the last two months, but I haven’t finished calculating things and coming up with percentages.

Electricity. The most positive event in this department is the arrival and successful use of my Storm Kettle — a little chimney-shaped double-skinned kettle that sits over a small burn chamber and allows me to easily bring more than a quart of water to a near-boil with three strips of balled-up newspaper and a fistful of dry twigs. This has enabled me to stop using electricity to heat water.
On the other hand, since I’m raising chicks now, I’ve had to use electricity to keep them warm, and so have been burning a couple of incandescent bulbs 24/7 for a few weeks. Surely there is a better way. (Hmm. There would be the way the chickens do it. But that requires a rooster, or the services of one. Do people hire roosters out to stud? I’m not allowed to have a rooster in the city.)
And it being full-blown summertime, anytime I’m in the loft, I’m running a fan.
I’ve also had to install a bug trap in the bio-digester, which takes electricity, though not too much. I’ve described in earlier posts my CFL/flypaper device for catching fruit flies and other small flying bugs that multiply in worm bins, and I’ve had that going pretty consistently for a week or two.
So even though I’ve met one of my goals by replacing electricity with biomass for heating water, I haven’t really reduced my usage.
I’m averaging 2.61 kwh a day from late April to late June, but it was roughly 2 a day or less at the beginning and it’s between 4 and 5 a day now. There has also been some usage in the other parts of the building, but not too much. Some lights, some power tools.
My refrigeration has settled into a pattern. I use my small chest cooler to make ice and transfer it to the Coleman cooler every day or two. When the weather stays in the mid-80s, it’s a piece of cake. When it goes into the 90s I have to pay more attention. I don’t honestly know whether this is better than a reasonably efficient small refrigerator/freezer. I ought to get a kill-a-watt meter and figure it out.
My usage has never included all of the electricity I used for laundry. When I was in PA I went to a laundromat once in a while, and since I got here I’ve used Mary Ann’s washer and dryer a couple of times. But now I’m regularly washing clothes by hand and not using any electricity at all.
I still rely on electricity to run my oven, but hope to change that soon. I haven’t been using it much, but I have just done some work toward getting my kitchen more functional, and that will probably change.

Butane. I’m still using my little buffet range for most of my cooking, and my usage has gone up a little. I usually go through an 8-oz. canister a month and this last time it was 28 days or something close to that.

Garbage. This really hasn’t changed much over time, though I definitely filled a dumpster when I moved. All non-toxic organic waste goes either into a worm bin or a compost pile. A few bottles and cans are recycled. And the bits of plastic and coated cardboard trash that need to be picked up by the city fills a medium-size bag every six or eight weeks.

Water. I’ve made some progress here in terms of household water usage, which is quite low. Since I’m using composting toilet facilities, there’s no water for flushing. My bathwater amounts to about 3 or 4 quarts most days. Sometimes dirty clothes then go into the bathwater. I don’t use much for washing dishes when I’m a good girl and clean them up right away. (One spray bottle with soap and baking soda, one with water and a little vinegar, dry with a clean cloth. It only takes a couple of mouthfuls to brush my teeth. It’s safe to say that for household use I’m at about 2.5 gallons a day or less most of the time.
But I’m drinking a lot of water from the tap when I’m in the garden and I’m using city water in one of my gardens on a pretty regular basis. We’re meaning to come up with a way to capture rainwater for that instead. (The other garden I think will be fine with Mary Ann’s cistern.) None of that is being measured.

Consumer goods.
I’ve made several purchases of new items: a nice range hood with exhaust fan and lights; my Storm Kettle; and a brand new copy of the second edition of Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer. The first edition is one of my favorite books, and I was interested in seeing what she had to say these days. I have also bought several of those clip-on work lights, some large plastic (vinyl?) bins, a great big cooler, a package of white dishrags. Not sure what else, will add things as I remember them. ( Checked: the lights, bins, misc. hardware and household adds up to about $138.50 since I moved here. Plus a little for two spray bottles. Call it $150 for misc., $125 for the Storm Kettle, $187 for the fancy range hood. All of it is new household-related, thus reduction-oriented.) I am mostly scrounging for stuff that nobody needs anymore here on the Hill, but also shopping at the Habitat second-hand building supply store on a pretty regular basis. My kitchen has been constructed so far out of a $2 set of shelves, $10 worth of sawhorses, a $10 door panel, and a $5 piece of formica. I painted the sawhorses and the shelves a nice shade of gray-lavender with a can of surplus paint that cost Jeff $2 some time back in the past. I’ve been taken out to eat a few times.

Transportation (gasoline). I rarely take the bus, because I rarely have to go anywhere. However, I will ride it over to Grandin Road tomorrow to get my hair cut. I’ve taken one long cross-country trip by bus, and one trip in a rented car. That took about $27 in gas, which means — about 7 gallons. I have also carpooled to several things, most significantly a 75 mile trip this week in a Ford Focus with two other people — so put another gallon on my tab. The garden work has involved the use of a gasoline generator on several occasions and the regular use of a riding mower to pay our “rent” to the business that lets us use the land. I suppose this should be divided by the six people on the Hill, but it’s also part of the footprint of the vegetables that Rachel and I will be providing to others. Two different pieces of large equipment that run on gas or diesel were also used for a few hours each when we were breaking ground and building beds. When I work for Nancy, that involves riding in a car. Yesterday we took an 80-mile round trip, so that became part of the food miles of the food we served the 50 people we fed lunch to. But this will hopefully be balanced out by the fact that my gardening will enable her to do less traveling to shop for local produce.

Food and household consumables.
Hmm. I don’t spend much money in the supermarket anymore. Most bulk, dairy, and processed things now come once a month on a truck: soap, ginger beer, feta cheese, powdered milk (for making yogurt), miso, almond butter, dried fruit, nuts. Lots of food I get in the form of surplus from Rachel’s garden or Nancy’s catering, which is probably about 70% local. I buy fruit mostly at the farmer’s market, though I did fall for organic and conventional grapefruit pretty regularly until the local cherries came in. And of course we’re all about local food here, that’s our business. How completely I manage to switch to local eating depends on how my “subsistence mix” crops — grains, oil seeds, dry beans, storage vegetables — perform and how well they store. I’m eating meat now (chicken, mostly) because we can get it locally and also because other people on the Hill eat it and offer it to me socially. I don’t plan to buy any more salmon after the cans my sister brought me from Costco. I just don’t feel right about it any more. Anchovies I’ll probably continue to buy when I can find them at a good price. She also brought me baking soda in bulk, sunblock, fair-trade coffee, maple syrup, and light bulbs. After a while I guess our chickens will provide a lot of food. I’d like to feed them as much as possible from foraging but we haven’t figured anything out yet about that.

Learning to work with the new kettle

June 18, 2008

I have been wanting for quite a while to get away from using electricity (coal-generated) to heat water for washing. A week or so ago my Storm Kettle arrived from England and I’m learning to use it. It’s camping gear, but I hope to adapt it to indoor use when I install my range hood.

It’s a little firepot with double-skinned chimney on top. The double skin holds something over a quart of water. You start a fire in the base and the fire heats the water, quickly. I also have a pan holder that fits over the top of the chimney so I can put another full kettle on top of that and get almost 3/4 of a gallon of steaming hot water from a couple fistfuls of twigs and small branches.

I’m still figuring out how to get it to burn clean and fast with a minimum of smoke, but yesterday used it to catch up a backload of dirty dishes. I think I need to add a grate in the firepot to get it to burn quicker and hotter.

The problem with wood stoves generally is that they are designed to smolder and burn slowly, which creates a lot of particulate matter. Bad for breathing and for adding to the global warming problem. A clean, fast, hot burn is another matter. That’s what the Rocket Stove is designed to produce, and the Storm Kettle  has a lot in common with the Rocket Stove. (Read about Rocket Stoves online — third world activists are trying to develop systems for providing them across the global south to reduce indoor pollution and reduce fuel consumption — saves time and improves quality of life.)

Also still planting like crazy, right up against the summer solstice! Sweet potatoes, dent corn, dry beans, winter squash, and sesame are planted; amaranth, more beans, more sesame, more squash I will try to get in the ground today. It is cool and lovely here.

An inch of rain and hundreds of plants to get in the ground

June 4, 2008

Rachel, Mary Ann, Nancy, Lou, Jeff, and I have been working our fannies off since late April to get four brand new gardens into cultivation. (This is in addition to Rachel’s two gardens at remote sites.) Our partnership with our light-industry host gives us responsibility for mowing any area of their property that isn’t planted: Lou and Nancy have done most of that. Jeff designed the fencing, installed much of it, and was out harvesting bamboo for more fencing and trellises tonight. Rachel helped me finish fencing what we call the Fertile Crescent, which is “mine” and Mary Ann’s. Mary Ann and I hit the hardware store for a second version of our favorite spade, and also found that a nearby feed-and-seed place (Holmgren’s) had a few plants I wanted, some Ambrosia cantaloupe seeds (Nancy loves them), and rhubarb. They also\ promised to provide some starter chick feed tomorrow (our chicks arrive probably Friday).

We finally took the plastic off the hoophouse (washed clean by the rain), dried it in the sun and spread it out to dry. Of course, all the grass and other flora under it was fried to a crisp, which gave Nancy an idea: Why don’t we spread this over the future strawberry patch rather than till it again? (The weeds have advanced considerably since breaking ground.) I think I may try this tomorrow.

A friend of Rachel’s has promised to bring a big piece of equipment tomorrow (rear tine tiller? rotary plow?) and help us build some beds and start some cover crops, but I don’t think it’s going to be dry enough to work the soil. We *really* got some rain last night, and with our Virginia clay, the moisture hangs around.

And this is good, because even though we have a plan to capture rainwater for the three southernmost gardens (all but Fertile Crescent), that plan hasn’t been realized. We want a cistern, but they’re expensive. Short term, our solution has been to dig deep swales, place beds and paths on the contour to capture as much water as possible, mulch deeply, and supplement rainfall with water from the spigot outside the plant. Luckily, the biggest bed (the one we call Iowa, which is devoted largely to Rachel’s CSA) is nicely placed to capture runoff from a little-used parking lot that will be filtered through about ten feet of sod before it gets to the garden. The rest is coming off a huge sheet metal roof.

Dixie (the southernmost bed, of course) is another of my responsibilities. It will be planted about 3/5 cover crops (a legume and some foxtail millet) and the other 2/5 will be what I hope manage to be dryland (unirrigated) crops that I refer to as my “subsistence mix.” There will be two grains, amaranth and corn; two oilseeds, sunflower and sesame; and two sweet orange storage vegetables, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. I’m planting modest quantities of these this year (about 1000 square feet) but hope to ramp that up next year.

June 15 is the deadline to get all of this planted: cover crops, subsistence mix, and the rest of the vegetables in the Fertile Crescent. Normally I would put most of these crops in several weeks, even a month earlier, but it took too long to finish the semester, move, and settle the agreement with our industrial partner/host (a task handled by Nancy while I was still up in Pennsylvania College Town). If we’re all done by the 15th we will have made it just under the wire for most of what we’re growing. With luck, we’ll have a good harvest.

Right now I have to re-read the instructions on supplementing Dixie and sowing the cover crops, so I will have to wait until next time to tell you about the lovely soil and terrific siting of the Fertile Crescent, which I’m filling to the gills with good Virginia summer standbys: tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, melons, and okra, plus some herbs and summer greens. It’s one of the loveliest sites I’ve ever seen for a garden. And when I want a break, a short walk through an alley of pines brings me to a little knoll from which I can admire Rachel’s work in Iowa.

Pictures will come as soon as I’m able to deal with that. Soon.


An update on the garden and the household, finally!

May 25, 2008

I’ve been at Oakhaven for one month. It’s been wild. A lot of schoolwork to wrap up, three family crises, and the worst cold I’ve had in some time were front and center in my life, but I’ve also made some progress getting the household set up and have jumped into working with Rachel’s CSA. That involves two remote sites plus 4500 square feet here.

We have basically four main growing areas onsite that amount to about a third of an acre that’s actually been cultivated at this point. (That’s in addition to smaller, personal gardens on the Ridge and in the Lower Forty, which is near the house, in an opening among the trees.)

We have had to build some pretty elaborate fencing because there’s considerable pressure from deer, groundhogs, and rabbits. That’s expensive and time-consuming, but we’ve managed to find second-hand fence posts and lots of robust bamboo poles.

A cold, wet May delayed planting our summer crops until this weekend, so overgrown tomatoes, peppers, squash, cukes, and melons are going in the ground now. There’s still a lot to do. We’re focusing most of our attention on Rachel’s CSA, but the rest of us will be putting things in the ground this week as well. I’m trying to keep my ambitions for the summer modest and keep my attention focused on fall planting.

My proudest achievement is an in-house biodigester that is set up to handle humanure via vermicompost. I’m hoping it is efficient enough to be kept inside all year, but won’t know for a while. A certain amount of household wastewater is going in there as well. Urine is handled separately, and goes into a 3 gallon bucket prepared with layers of pulverized oak leaves and clay (which I think helps capture nitrogen that might otherwise escape, as well as stink) and that mixture goes into the garden compost as soon as the bucket is full/ sloshy/ stinky — whichever comes first. The vermicomposted humanure will probably sit outside under cover for a good six months or so after the worms are done with it, for insurance against anything unwholesome. (I need to go back and re-read that section of the handbook.)

I’ve also, just today, learned something wonderful that should have been obvious to me. I can make my own SIPS (structural insulated panels)! I don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to have them fabricated and shipped to me! This will make building the pod (my small, warm, protected winter space) much more affordable.

Next step: planning (and planting)

May 7, 2008

I have to finish grading 71 exams as fast as I can! We’ve broken ground (late for the season, but there’s still a lot we can do). I have to gather in soil amendments, plan and create beds, start cover crops, plant summer things, and generally make a plan for the next year of my working life!

Mary Ann, Nancy, Rachel, and I are all going to be working on this at different levels of intensity and following somewhat different models. My goal is to produce a good bit of my own subsistence (grains, oil seeds, dried beans, winter squash, sweet potatoes) while producing market vegetables. Rachel is running a small CSA and we work together. Mary Ann is retired, but wants to grow her own vegetables and raise bees and chickens (we are going to work together on the chickens). Nancy is a caterer who is devoted to sheet mulching, permaculture, and other non-invasive methods.  I am determined to ramp up our compost production.

Back to the exams. Update soon. I have promised to start including pictures and will do so before long.

Low-impact travel through rural Virginia.

May 3, 2008

I got a couple of phone calls Thursday evening that meant a trip across the state. Family stuff. There were a couple of options, one involving renting an economy car and the other calling for a couple of overnights, a shared ride, and a bunch of buses. I decided to go with the second option: a little cheaper and a much smaller footprint. But this choice requires chilling out about the lost time, making the most of the trip, and traveling very light. It’s an alien way to travel for most. I think it’s a good idea to adopt it as the standard mode. If more people would use the systems they could only get better.

So I caught the city bus for $1.50 at the foot of the wooded hill I live on and rode downtown, where there was a lot going on — a strawberry festival, the city market, and booths, music, and crowds everywhere you look. The downtown market was Disney-style, that is, full of conventionally grown, non-local produce completely out of season: Kroger al fresco. A few signs of local food. There will be more later, but the tourists expect to see produce, so produce is provided.

It’s just a few steps from the city bus to the Greyhound that will take me cross-country ($34 for half of a round-trip ticket), but the bus is almost an hour late, a common occurrence. I’m more than halfway to Richmond now, where I’ll spend my first night. Riding across Virginia, I see a lot of small, neat, pre-fab houses, and a lot of gardens. So that’s encouraging — consistent with a green culture, anyway.

One of my stops is Charlottesville, which is a center for research, money, and green politics and lifestyles. I saw signs of some new community gardens, well-tended, with nice coldframes sitting wide open on a warm late-spring day. (Bill McDonough, the Cradle-to-Cradle designer, is based here.) Most of the state is of a different mindset.

When you take the bus in Virginia you encounter a number of people who are barely hanging on, either economically or socially. This group doesn’t make up all of your fellow-travelers by any means, but it’s a significant part of the experience. Sometimes people behave in ways that seem inappropriate to me, but I don’t recall feeling threatened more than once. I think this experience of mixing with people who are down-and-out keeps a lot of folks off public transit. (Of course this doesn’t apply to the urban centers of the northeast, where all but the very wealthy at least occasionally take the subway, bus, or train, but it’s a big deal in the rural south, where **everybody** drives **everywhere** unless they can’t.)

So I tend to try to dress up a little when I take public transit. I find that it helps me negotiate the various social/business encounters. If you’re dressed nicely, but are hot, tired, and sweaty, you definitely give a different impression than if you are wearing ragged sweats and old sneakers and are hot, tired, and sweaty.

Now, I’ve been a fan of the bus for a long time, have lived in a lot of places, and have been around the block a couple of times, so when I climbed down from bus #3 (the city bus in Richmond, that I caught for $1.25 in front of the Greyhound station), it didn’t particularly throw me that I had to walk past an angry man (apparently one of a small group of homeless people at that corner) who was loudly threatening someone else. I knew I was in the iffiest block of a generally pleasant neighborhood, so I just kept walking. If I hadn’t known the city, I might have chosen to stay on the bus another block or two rather than step into a confrontation.

I lived in Richmond for more than 15 years, from my early twenties to just forty. It will always feel like home. I made it to my friend Catherine’s house just before she left for her weekend job, teaching swing dance and jitterbug. During the week she works for an architect and has a lot of experience with adaptive re-use of nineteenth and early twentieth-century buildings. I walked down the street and had a great vegetarian supper at Kuba Kuba, where an old friend bought me a dessert. The servings are huge. Check it out if you’re ever there. Corner of Park and Lombardy in the Fan.

While I’m at it, I might as well explain that I left Richmond thirteen years ago and am now 52, a short, somewhat overweight, bookish woman of the classic “sensible shoes” type. I’m hoping my new situation, which involves a lot of manual labor, will take care of the “somewhat overweight” part. (I used to dance almost as much as Catherine, and wouldn’t mind doing that again.) I don’t usually talk about myself a lot here, but at times I think it might be significant to readers that I’m neither young nor old, neither weak nor strong, particularly, but blessed with a record of surviving the situations I walk into. One of the nicest things about being back in Virginia is that I see a lot of people who knew me when I was young and pretty, and still see something of that girl in me.

In the morning my sister and brother will arrive from points east, and we’ll all drive together past the tiny town I grew up in (Clover, which used to be about 235 people and appears almost abandoned now) to the town where my father lives. We’re going to the funeral of an old friend and having a family conference. I’ll spend the night with my dad and his wife, just because I want to, then catch another bus Monday back to Richmond, spend the night, and head back home on Tuesday.

Here’s another problem that comes with traveling by bus in the boondocks: If I didn’t have a ride for tomorrow morning’s leg of the trip, my only option would be boarding a bus at the Greyhound station at 5:30 am, and there’s no city bus to get me there that early. You can’t count on getting a taxi in Richmond, either, not at that time of day. Same problem holds at the other end of the day: I’m spending an extra night in Richmond on the way back because I don’t want to ask my friends to come pick me up when the bus rolls in at just past midnight. First, it’s friend-abuse, second, I really want to do as much of the trip as possible by public means.

So, as much as I like to promote the idea of lower-impact travel, I have to tell the truth: it’s not easy when you get outside the major cities. But that’s the theme of this whole project, housing, gardening, businesses, and all. My partners and I are trying to promote radically-green choices in an area that knows San Francisco, New York, Berkeley, etc., mostly through the movies and TV. Models for living that work in Portland or Vancouver might work here, and then again, might not. We’ll invent what we need as we go, I suppose.

Life support systems coming on line…

April 27, 2008

I still feel pretty tired from moving, and also have all my end-of-semester work to do still (writing exams, advising students, grading late work), but the new place is slowly taking shape. I’m figuring out where the daylight falls and where I want to put my kitchen and bathroom. Also starting a compost pile and getting certain tools I need together. Have been eating housewarming gifts from my friends’ kitchens and will cook for the first time tonight if I can get enough schoolwork done. Have used about 2.5 to 3 gallons of water since Thursday night — for everything. I knew this would happen, as I have no indoor plumbing. Feels good to be wasting almost nothing. I read the electric meter yesterday when it was at 553 and last time I looked I had used 3 kwh. That would be a good daily goal for this place. (I also am paying for lights and garage door openers that my friends use.) I have found clay, pulverized dry leaves, and a nice big garbage can to convert into a bio-digester. These are part of my waste disposal plan. I’ll put warning signals on future posts for anyone too delicate to read that part.

I have a really interesting view out my bedroom window, looking through wilderness into a suburban landscape and then to the mountains.

First day with a new home and a new plan

April 25, 2008

I woke up this morning in a new house, part of a family, and up to my neck in creating a very large garden. (About 16,000 sq. ft. of beds, plus paths, I think. I’m still not real clear on the measurements of some of our spaces.) I’m going to be producing vegetables for a new market, helping with a small CSA, experimenting with growing grains, dried beans, and oil-seed crops. I met with my partners — three women — and we worked out concerns, made plans, etc.  I can’t remember when I have ever had so many plans and projects in play. Because in addition to all this gardening, I’m also turning an empty loft into a home. It has electricity but no running water. So, like, wow. I’m pretty tired right now from moving, etc. so will write more either later tonight or tomorrow.

On activism plus a note on food miles in the news

April 18, 2008

I think Sarah makes a really important point — that once your
efforts are stymied in the area of personal emissions reduction, you
can shift your energy to activism.

And I think that having a variety of activists who are “stuck” at
different levels, say from 50% to 10% or wherever, has an up side. For
a number of months, when I was stuck buying almost all of my food at
the grocery store, I put a lot of thought into how to do the best I
could within the constraints I was faced with. Sharing solutions
laterally, with people in the same boat, makes a lot of sense to me.
If you live in an all-electric studio (which I do for another week
only!) you’re going to have limited interest in coppicing trees and a
lot of interest in how to most efficiently boil a pot of water, keep
food from spoiling, or bake a loaf of bread. And by golly, it turns
out that it *is* possible to succeed at major reductions even when the
deck is stacked against you. (And now I’m trying to learn about
coppicing, because my situation is changing.)

There’s a lot of effort out there right now in the political and PR
realms (the WE and 350 campaigns), and I’m all for it I suppose, but
personally I want my activism to go in the direction of “here’s how I
did it, here’s how you can do it,” an attitude obviously shared by the
people on this list.

Lots of pundits and other types like to dismiss what they call
“lifestyle” activism, but I think it’s got a lot of radical potential.
Change the way people live, you change their politics, and you change
culture. And I don’t see how we go forward without major cultural
change, meaning values, politics, everything.

By the way, I noticed on my “green news” feed a new study minimizing
the significance of “food miles” on greenhouse gas emissions. While
I’m delighted to see more complete life-cycle analysis being done, the
news article I read (and perhaps the researchers’ report as well, I’m
not sure) drew conclusions based on a false scenario.

The study was trying to control for just one factor, food miles, as if
your choice was between food factories in Chile or food factories in
your own home town. But in practice, if you are buying from local
producers, you are often buying from people who produce their crops on
a different scale and by different means. Not all of these “means” are
low-emission. But chemical fertilizers are a huge source of emissions,
and organic farms don’t use them. That doesn’t mean you *can’t* waste
carbon to the air without synthetic fertilizers, but it is definitely

The study said that reducing food miles would have only an 11% or so
reduction on food-related emissions. That measurement is certainly
useful, and I don’t sneeze at that number, but in fact the results of
changing from industrially-produced, long-distance food to
sustainably-produced, local food is bigger than 11%.

So local and organic, together, remains the gold standard, and results
in a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gases, no matter what the
journalistic “pushback” sounds like. Just MHO.

I have spent too much time online and need to clean this place up and

A stretch, but… 6 hours for the planet, every day?

April 6, 2008

My friend Melinda at Elements in Time has a nice post on Earth Hour here: http://www.elementsintime.com/Blog.html

A wonderful site. But I wanted to use the “earth hour” concept to return to a topic that also interest me, that of strategies for managing electrical peak-demand.

What I’ve been trying to do lately is schedule my electricity usage, to the extent possible, so that it falls outside of the period from 1 pm to 7 pm, standard time, 2 to 8 during daylight savings time (I think I have that right).  This means leaving the refrigerator closed and off, running the laptop on battery power, limiting electronic media to my renewable-battery-powered radio, and no AC until after dark. (For where I live, that’s actually when you need it for a few hours.) If I cook I use the butane burner.

My understanding is that an hour of electricity saved during peak demand is worth more to the planet than an hour of electricity saved at any other time. So in addition to “earth hour”, which is wonderful, how about shutting everything off during peak demand? It takes reworking the schedule (a good time to leave home and run errands, or take a nap) but the payback could be impressive.

A major new project — unconventional housing

April 6, 2008

I have a new project in the works and thought I would share it with the world and take advantage of your accumulated wisdom and experience.

After nine months living the Riot life and being a part-time academic in the urban northeast of the US, I’m moving back to Virginia, where I will probably still be a part-time academic but will also be helping to run a very ambitious community garden designed for serious production.

One reason I can do this is I have been offered very low cost, minimal shelter. This past winter I started looking around Pennsylvania College Town for a more-or-less bare, dry space with electricity and running water that I could outfit to accommodate my new, Riot-based lifestyle. Nobody wanted to rent me anything in the area I wanted to live in (with public transport and wi-fi).

But my friends in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, who were already looking after my gardening equipment, worm colonies, hoophouse, and furniture, had the almost-perfect space: a large, dry, clean room in an uninsulated cinderblock building with windows. It is set on a hilltop and surrounded by deciduous trees, so there’s some heat gain in the winter but not too much in the summer. The prevailing winds are from the northwest. The four windows of my room face north and east. To the south of my room is another large room, used as a garage and workshop, and below me is yet another garage. (Place used to be owned by a truck driver who did a lot of automotive projects. So there are two stories, three big spaces, two of them garages, on the top and north side of a hill. I will live behind one garage and over the other.) My room has a plywood floor, roof trusses that are only about 6’4″ above that floor, and electricity, but no running water, no ceiling. There is a wood stove in the garage room to the south of me and I have permission to put a woodstove in my space, tapping into the same chimney.

My plan is to build a design-for-disassembly (collapsible), well-insulated, small room modeled after a Vardo, or gypsy wagon — about 6 x 10 — right in the middle of that space, probably from SIPs (structural insulated panels). In the dead of winter, that space will allow me to do some very minimal cooking in a warm space and provide a cozy place to read, work, and sleep. In the more moderate seasons, I will live a little more large in the bigger space. Composting toilet, rainwater catchment, some wood heat, eventually perhaps some wind or solar power driving RV or boat-type appliances. (I already bought the freezer/refrigerator, a little chest model.)To start out, I will just be using the same low-wattage electrical appliances and butane burner I use for my all-electric studio apartment here in PA College Town. I managed to get down to about 60 kwh a month here, sometimes lower, plus an 8-ounce canister of butane.

Even though the property feels private and rural once the trees leaf out and hide the developments nearby, I will be on a city bus line (important since I sold the car a couple of years ago) and will have internet access. According to the architect I talked to I am not breaking any zoning rules or laws because the space doesn’t qualify as a dwelling. If Cousin Martha wants to sleep in the garage, apparently that level of eccentricity is not yet illegal where I am going.

It will be like living out of a modest-sized RV situated in a rather nice garage where I also happen to be storing all of my furniture.

OK! That’s a long setup for my first question about systems! I want to build about a six-foot counter with everything I need to wash food and dishes. It should have separate dispensers for potable water and water for washing. I need to be able to drain the water tidily into a five-gallon or so bucket. I don’t mind spending a modest amount of money but want to look first at repurposed and recycled. Rather than use a lot of rinsewater, I picture dipping a sponge into soapy water, scrubbing the dishes, and placing them in a rack where they are then rinsed with a hand-held sprayer.

Any thoughts on this topic would be helpful, also anyone who has experience using a woodstove in an uninsulated building — how well does that work? I will have a pretty good supply of free wood. I don’t plan to try to get it very warm, but it would be nice to prevent things from freezing. Temps will occasionally get into the low teens in this location, and in the winter go below freezing on a pretty regular basis. But it rarely stays very cold for very long. Heat and humidity are actually a bigger issue.

A new, very efficient refrigerator

March 14, 2008

It’s somewhat unusual for me to buy big-ticket items. I usually try to reuse, repurpose, etc. But old refrigerators are real energy-hogs, and I’m moving, and I decided to get a new, small, efficient chest refrigerator with a thermostat that goes from -8 to 50 degrees F. I set it at 37 last night and it’s been running about 9 minutes out of every hour-plus (approx. 65 minutes if I leave it closed). That means about 1/4 kwh a day, or 7.5 a month. Now, it’s not large (dorm fridge size). But I’ve been working on using less refrigeration since last summer and I think this one will suit my needs.

Mushrooms leave footprints

February 18, 2008

I had no idea that Chester County, Pa., was one of the important mushroom-growing centers in the world. Neither had I any remote idea how they were produced, though I had a vague understanding of very rich compost being part of the story.
I read today that the crop (as commercially grown) is very energy-intensive. The crop is apparently climate-controlled 24/7, going from heat to air-conditioning and dehumidification to avoid spots and other imperfections. Good reason to grow them at home, give them up, or find a “green” producer.
I try to buy as little refrigerated food as possible, but really like mushrooms for my vegetable stock, not to mention their nutritional value. I wonder how much of that value survives the drying process, and whether mushrooms grown for the dried-and-bagged market are raised in the same energy-hogging, climate-controlled environment as the fresh ones?

On the other hand…

February 10, 2008

The rest of us, whose average incomes and living spaces are so much smaller, have a pretty powerful incentive to save money by reducing consumption. At my house, the cash difference between heat and no-heat has always justiified some cutbacks, but once I started really aiming for low kwhs the reductions became dramatic.
I wonder how much more there is to cut, though, in houses with tighter budgets than mine, or small children, or…
I wish I could read more about this sort of thing. Wonder what percentage of income buys relatively carbon-innocent activity?

And that top-earning 30 to 40%…

February 10, 2008

…they’re the ones who are consuming the bulk of the US consumables and emitting most of the emissions. An op-ed in the NY Times a few weeks ago said each person in the big 4 western economies — North America, Japan, Australia, and Western Europe — was consuming, on average, 32 times as much as a citizen of a developing country. And in our country, half of the income is earned by the top 20% of the people.
Now, they don’t spend all their money producing direct emissions, but they do have the most SUVs and the biggest houses. So responsibility for emissions falls primarily on Americans whose backs are not against the wall, and who have the means to change if they can find the motivation.

Friend Kyle pointed out recently in a R4A post that 50 to 60% of emissions originated at the household or individual level. He also wrote that a 30 to 40% reduction was really not very difficult. So, just figuring on the back of an envelope, you can make a reasonable guess that if everybody at the top of the heap would cut back by 30% on just household and automotive emissions, fly less, shop at farmers markets, and lay off the beef, we could see emissions drop a lot. The really big spenders could hire me and Juan and Maria to compost their scraps, hang their laundry out to dry, and take care of their organic vegetable gardens. Couldn’t that add up to as much as 12% in one year?

Once committed to greening, wouldn’t these movers and shakers start demanding renewable energy for all and more public transport for the rest of us?
I think Friedman’s wrong on this. I think we need to win over the well-off people if we’re going to get anywhere.

What’s the real potential of R4A type activism?

February 9, 2008

I’ve had a lot on my mind related to climate change activism. I did what I could with the Focus the Nation effort on campus, showing McDonough and Braungart’s “Next Industrial Revolution” to a packed hall. (Thanks to Tony Viscardi for making it required viewing by his architecture students!) I’m working on a series of articles that could provide valuable lessons for small-scale growers and cooks. But what I often picture myself doing is going out on the civic-league circuit with a slide show.
Not an “inconvenient truth” big picture slide show, but a “what we can do now” slide show. I’ve been teaching history of art, architecture, and design for a while now, so I know how to do slide shows, by God.
I’m still stewing over Tom Friedman dissing the personal conservation movement. I think he underestimates the possibility for serious change in the behavior of the educated, high-consuming, top 30 or 40% income class of Americans, the very group that is most susceptible to this kind of persuasion (since they have time to read about it). I also think he overestimates the likelihood that electoral politics will produce real leadership. I think elected officials will lag somewhat behind the educated, moneyed class, mainly because they are so responsive to industry’s cries of protest against anything that might affect their short-term bottom line.
A very charming person issued a “less garbage” challenge on Gristmill the other day, and I was struck by how tentative, even apologetic, she (?) was about what she was asking. She even mentioned her household’s many electrical appliances and their desire to avoid “drastic” changes.
Why so cautious? What’s so precious about our domestic habits that they can’t be improved by substantial, meaningful change? And as important as waste reduction is, we need to keep our proportions straight: the place to put the most effort is in reducing driving, heating, hot water, coal-fired electricity, flying, air-freighted produce, and conventional meat (mainly beef) and dairy.
If you cruise around the web looking for close analysis of consumption patterns and their effects, you’ll probably come away, as I did, with the impression that the Europeans are out ahead of us by several leagues, and they’re *still* having trouble meeting Kyoto standards. It takes time to get enough people on board.
So I don’t get this business of disrespecting personal reductions. It looks like a damn fine way of converting words into practice and at the same time putting more people in a state of mind to demand some help from their elected officials.