Saturday, August 29, 2009

On Being "Powerless" - The Heat is On

On Friday morning in early December 2008, I woke. The house was dark and eerily quiet. Outside, I could hear the cracking of ice-heavy limbs falling to the ground when the wind blew.

I got up to look out the window in my bedroom.

It was like a crystal palace in a fairy tale. The trees were bowing and almost touching the ground from the weight of the twinkling ice encrusted branches. Beautiful, sparkling brilliance, but deadly. A branch from the choke cherry tree just on the outside of our fence had snapped and was hanging by its bark over the top of the chicken coop. We'd have to get it down before it fell and crushed the structure. I didn't want to be outside trying to rebuild their roof in the freezing temperatures.

Speaking of cold, I shivered. It just seemed really cold in my room at that moment.

Out of habit, I looked at the LED alarm clock to see what time it was and saw only blackness where the familiar red glow should have been. I realized we didn't have any power.

I fumbled around, shivering in the dark room, and found the sweatpants I'd dropped on the floor before snuggling with Deus Ex Machina under the several layers of down comforter, fleece and flannel. I grabbed a sweatshirt, pulled on a pair of wool socks and went out to check on the fire.

The fire was nearly out, and I stirred the coals and found some kindling to stoke it up a bit. After the fire caught, I added a few logs. I sat on the floor in front of the woodstove watching the fire dancing behind the glass door for a few minutes.

It was a good stove.

We'd replaced the old relic that had been in our house when we bought it eleven years earlier, almost to the day. When the price of heating oil started rising, we'd discussed our alternatives for heat, because truly, in Maine, heat isn't, exactly, a luxury. It's, maybe, not a necessity like food or water, either, and certainly heating all 1500 sq ft of our house to a balmy 75° is not just wasteful, it's also incredibly expensive, but having one or two places in the house, where the girls and I spend nearly 24 hrs a day, warmer than 40° is nice.

After much discussion, we decided to invest in a more efficient wood stove and keep the oil furnace (at least for the time being) as a back-up source of heat. Much later in the winter, we would realize that on the coldest nights, after we had gone to bed, and the fire had burned down, and the temperature in the house dropped below 50° (the lowest setting on our thermostat), the furnace would kick on, but it had to be seriously cold, like below 0° cold, before the radiant heat from the cooling firebox wasn't enough.

Since mid-October, when the temperatures during the day time weren't getting very far (maybe ten degrees) above freezing, our only heat had been the wood stove, and as I sat there, in the dark, realizing that even if the fire did go out, there'd be no furnace, I was very happy we'd made the decision and invested the money in the wood stove. Our old wood stove worked okay, but this one had been keeping the whole house warm with no help from the furnace since October. That realization comforted me.

I heard footsteps in the hall, and Deus Ex Machina came into the room.

"Power's out," I said.

He told me he'd figured it out, and I asked him what time it was. His cellphone cast a greenish light on his face, and he told me it was 4:30.

I grabbed the wind-up alarm clock I'd purchased at the hardware store several months earlier, set the time, and wound it up.

We went back to bed.

When I woke, several hours later, Deus Ex Machina was already up. The dogs had awakened him at their usual breakfast time, and he'd gotten the wood stove going, heated up water in the kettle, and made coffee.

"No one has any power," he told me. He'd talked with the guys who usually got to work around that time, and the power was out in the industrial park, too. He said he'd go over later and see if the power was back on, but for the time being, everyone was staying home.

I called my client, and they were without power, too, and wouldn't be opening the clinic. It looked like we both had the morning off.


In a survival situation, the first concern is shelter. In inclement weather - like sub-freezing temps during an ice storm - one can die of exposure in a matter of hours.

In our "survival" situation, we had shelter, because we were at home. Our next concern would be to make sure our home stayed secure and because we live in a cold climate, to make sure we stayed warm, which was easy, for us, because we had our new wood stove, which provided heat.

But it also provided a surface for cooking, and I'll go more into that on a later post.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Not What I Thought It Was

The other day I found this:

... attached to one of the logs in our stack of wood.

My whole life I've thought it was a locust shell. I've been told it was a locust shell.

Today, I found this ...

... flying around in my office.

At first I thought it was a monster fly. Then, after I caught it in a jar, I thought it was a locust.

It's neither. It's a cicada.

A locust looks like a grasshopper.

The things we learn as we get older ;).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

No Wheezing the Juice

I referred to myself as a "hardcore doomer" the other day, but after spending the better part of the day today reading some other blogs around the Internet, I'm not so sure I deserve that title.

I mean, I totally believe that we are in a world of hurt and that life as we knew it has come to an end. That is, I think our future will look nothing like the 1980s and 1990s, when I was "growing up." And technology is grand, but the days of DVR, HDTV and iPod are numbered, as far as I'm concerned. Enjoy them while you got 'em, I say. The End of the World as *we* (the generations born between 1960 and 1990) know it has happened.

But we're all still here, right? I believe that our world is changing, but I don't believe we're all doomed, and while there may be pockets of serious, intense, militaristic-type violence in every country on every continent on earth in the very near future, I don't believe we all need to be armed to the teeth.

And if climatologists are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, there will be more intense storms and some mass migration out of some of the areas with more intense weather patterns, but that doesn't mean everyone should have a hurricane bug-out bag ready.

I don't expect that we'll have food riots everywhere.

And while the Swine Flu has already been dubbed a pandemic, I don't expect we'll be dropping like flies in a cloud of Raid.

When I talk about the end of the world as we know it, I'm talking about moving very slowly (or maybe very rapidly - I don't know which) toward a lower energy future, where things just aren't as available as they are today, and where we live more fully where we are, than we do today.

And what I mean by live more fully where we are is that our lives will be much more local. The things we need to make our lives comfortable will be produced right where we are, rather than in a factory thousands of miles across an ocean and a vast continent away. The food that we eat will be grown by farmers in our region, and things like pineapple and oranges for those of us not living in a tropical climate will be incredibly expensive, or just not available.

I'm a hardcore doomer, and I'm also a "prepper", but having done some reading around, I think my prep strategy is very different from other people's, and maybe part of it is where I live. We don't have a lot of natural disasters - no earthquakes or mudslides or tornadoes or hurricanes - and our current crime rate is pretty low, and I think those things tend to make us rather complacent, compared to someone who lives in Florida, say, where the threat of devastating hurricanes is a fact of life.

Recently, I read on a couple of different blogs the "power down" challenge. The idea is to turn off the main power switch to one's house for a designated period of time (usually 24 to 72 hours), and live without electricity. I think it's a great idea, and if I didn't think Deus Ex Machina might actually hog-tie me to a chair and flip the switch back on if I tried it, I'd flip the switch tonight before I went off to bed (well, not tonight, but tomorrow night ... because I have to work during the day tomorrow, and I work from home on my computer :) just to see how we'd do.

The problem I have with these challenges, though, is the preparing, like I would be doing by not turning off the power on a "work" day, and reserving our experiment for a weekend, when it's more convenient to be powerless. But if the whole idea is to see how we'd manage without electricity, I think it's a bit disingenuous to make some of the preps people are making prior to flipping the switch.

First is the whole idea of knowing that the power will go off at this moment in time and will come back on after this much time has passed. If we end up in the kind of scenario that is most likely, with rolling blackouts and sporadic coverage, having had the type of artificial experience described in the challenges will not ever, really, prepare us.

I think a better option would be for there to be more than one person flipping the switch. Like, maybe Deus Ex Machina and I could agree on a weekend during which we would flip the switch. One of us would be in charge of turning off the power, and the other one wouldn't know when it was going off, and the other one of us would be in charge of turning it back on. I think having a more random time frame is more realistic, because in a real-life scenario, we won't have the luxury of knowing, "Oh, we don't need to do laundry, because we can just do it Monday morning when we flip the power back on."

Second aspect of the challenge has been the kinds of things I've seen done in preparation. In one after action review I read, the author said that prior to starting the power-down weekend, he filled his bathtub with water. Okay, seriously? We've lost power before due to weather-related activity, and we had no idea it was going to happen. There was no opportunity to fill my bathtub with potable water, and unless I always keep the bathtub full of water, this sort of prep is not going to help me assess any areas of weakness in my preparedness.

Likewise, if I go to a dinner party in the middle of my "no power" weekend or go to the library to access the Internet, or decide to go out to eat instead of cooking, I'm really not getting the full benefit of turning off the juice. What have I learned about where I am with regard to being able to live comfortably without electricity, if I'm eating out at restaurants or using the library's power? That would be just like the people who have not made any preps at all, and just always assume there will be power. So, when the electricity is disrupted, for whatever reason, they spend the night in a motel.

The thing is, if we approach these challenges as an "Oh, not to worry, we'll have power on Monday," then we kind of lose any benefit of having done the exercise.

So, instead of actually turning off the juice for a test weekend, I started to think about all of the things we use electricity for that we think we need in our daily lives, and I started trying to find alternatives. For some things, there just is no alternative. I could do the typing part of my job with a manual typewriter, but I am a transcriptionist, and there is no non-electric alternative for listening to tapes. I'm working on finding some inexpensive ways to power things like just my computer in case of a long-term blackout, but I haven't gone far enough in my preps on this one, yet.

But for other things there are non-electric alternatives. For instance, last year, I bought an antique wringer, and recently, I found a wonder wash on freecycle. If I have no electricity, I can still do laundry, because I have a washer and a wringer, and I've been hang-drying my laundry outside (or using my indoor wooden drying rack) for a couple of years.

We've been making all sorts of preps for years, because losing power due to winter storms is not unusual for us, but it wasn't until after I started really doing some thought exercises into the likelihood of things like rolling blackouts or not being able to afford electricity, that I started really trying to find alternatives. I haven't, and likely won't, turn off the juice to test myself and my family, but this past December (2008) Mother Nature tested us, and I believe we passed, not with flying colors, because there were a couple of weak areas, but we earned a good, strong B+ ;).

I will relate our powerless experience in full detail, but for now, here's a picture of the potato towers at the beginning of the season.

I keep meaning to get out and get a picture of it now, but I keep forgetting. Anyway, what I did was to take a piece of 48" by 72" 1" hardware cloth and cut it in half. Then, I rolled each half into a circle. In the bottom of each, I planted a couple of seed potatoes. As the plants grew, I should have buried them every 6" worth of growth, leaving only about an inch of growth uncovered. To bury them, it is suggested that one line the outside, next to the wire, with straw, and then fill in the middle with compost. I, sort of, did this, using spent hay from the rabbit hutches. I didn't do a very good job of covering them, as I mentioned before. One of the towers I almost completely neglected, and was rewarded with a one pound potato, and I still haven't harvested the other tower. Next year, this bed will have nine to twelve towers, depending on how many I can get across with room left for me to fill them, but next year, I'll be more attentive to them :).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When the Bank Calls

I need to stop answering the phone ... or maybe change my phone number so that the telemarketeers can't find me.

This time, it was the bank that bought my mortgage when my original mortgage holder went belly up, and apparently, my original, original mortgage was owned by one of the pseudo-government lender FM twins.

So, the guy is giving me this big spiel about what this new government home mortgage program can do for me.

Okay, I had to give him a little latitude. He doesn't know me ;).

So, blah, blah, blah ... lower interest rate ... blah, blah ... save tens of thousands of dollars ... blah, blah ... something something APR.

"What's that?" I ask.

He says it has something to do with the government assigning this extra fee for giving me the privilege of refinacing my house loan at a lower interest rate. Not a very good explanation and certainly didn't answer my question of what it was for, and how it affected my loan.

But, okay, continue.

So, blah, blah ... Can I pull your credit report?

I say no.

He says he'll just run some numbers, then, and what do I think my credit rating is on a scale from 1 to 10, and so I tell him, and based on my answer he can get me a loan for 4 something or other percent ... and that mysterious 5+% APR (you know, because the government is doing me a favor, right?).

The gist was that I could reduce the loan period, decrease the interest rate, and increase my payment by a mere $40 per month. I'd end up saving almost $100,000 over the life of my loan. WooHoo! Sign me up!

No, wait. I'm just kidding.

I already knew that I wasn't going to refinance. Not tonight, anyway. Deus Ex Machina wasn't here, and there's just no way I'd make that kind of decision without him. I'd expect that he'd do the same thing for me.

And because I already knew that I was saying no, I had to ask the guy ...

"You're telling me," I say, "What this loan will do for me, and I get that, but tell me, if it's going to save me money, it's taking money away from the bank. What does my refinancing right now do for your company?"

I mean, seriously, if we've learned nothing else since September 2008, it is that every corporation in America is in it for the money. Profit is the bottom line, and if there's not something really significant in it for them, there's no way they'd be offering me this great deal.

I just wanted to find out if he'd tell me what the bank is getting out of my refinance.

He actually got pissed off at me over that question. I think it was a fair question.

Don't you?

I told him I'd talk to Deus Ex Machina, and IF we decided we wanted to refinance, we'd give him a call.

"I've Always Relied on the Kindness of Strangers"

I received a phone call the other day from a charitable organization seeking donations. They wanted one hundred of my hard earned dollars to help mitigate the current "food crisis" on the reservations in Arizona.

I'm afraid I wasn't very nice, but, if I were to explain some of my experiences with telemarketeers (spelling on purpose), you might be more forgiving of my immediate, knee-jerk kussen mein Arsch reaction.

I listened for a bit. Their plan was that I would donate $100, and they would take my hundred dollars to the store and buy non-perishable foods, which they would distribute using volunteers. It is, supposedly, a program that encourages self-sufficiency, because the recipients of the donations 'work' to distribute them to others.

I was left wondering, where is the self-sufficiency part?

So, I asked, "Do they have arable land in Arizona?"

He said that they do.

Then, I asked, "Do you know how much a packet of seeds costs?"

I didn't hear his answer, because I didn't care to know if he knew how much a packet of seeds costs. I was kind of being facetious.

So, I asked him who he represented again, and then told him that I would not donate at this time, but that I would like to do some research on his organization, and invited him to call me again some other time.

And I did do some research.

I found that they don't score very high with the AIP, and there was a lot of negative press about the entire group (this was one of the larger group's subsidiary programs), but most of it was several years old, and it's likely that they've cleaned up their act.

I guess being only one generation removed from extreme poverty (heard the stories, but didn't live the life), I have a problem with organizations like this - in general. I understand that the US government and Anglo settlers were unkind (I know - understatement of the year!) to the native populations. I mean, imagine if somebody just came up the beach and told you to get out. I wouldn't be terribly happy, and I would, very likely, not just up and walk away, either. The natives have reason to be ired, and they deserve more than just the land that has been allotted to them. They certainly deserve more than a paltry $100 from someone like me.

I get that, and if there were anything I could really do to help ease their suffering, I would be more than happy to do so, but I don't think my hundred dollars worth of canned food is really going to make a difference in the bigger picture.

It's like the whole stocking up for TEOTWAWKI thing. Yes, we should have some food stored, BUT at some point, we'll have to find a way to produce our own. At some point, the supply lines are going to run dry, and there won't be the option of the grocery store. At most, people will have stored a years' worth of food.

And, then, what?

What's the plan for replenishing in the absence of an oil-soaked food chain? I mean, we need to eat every day for our entire lives, right? If the grocery store (or my $100 canned goods donation) is the only place we know of where we can get food, and there is no grocery store ... what?

What do we do?

Yes, in the short-term, if people are starving, we should give them food to eat, but that's not the long-term solution. There has to be the teaching-how-to-fish part of the equation, too.

I couldn't find anything about how this (or any other) organization was working with the native populations on the reservations to learn to feed themselves once my $100 ran out.

Rather than answer my questions, much of the information I found just begged more questions.

In one video I watched, they showed a man who was living in, essentially, a one-room building without electricity or running water. He walked several miles each day to a neighboring town where he did odd jobs, and earned about $20 per day. I assume he fed himself with this money.

What I took away from the video was not how horrible this fellow had it, but rather the tragedy that his ancestor's knowledge of self-sufficiency has been completely lost to the point that he feels like he needs "modern" accouterments to live a good life. That he feels his quality-of-life is substandard because he doesn't have money. That the most proud and self-sufficient people on the North American continent have been so changed that they can no longer speak to the Earth that once nourished and sustained them ... without the help of Green Giant whole kernel canned corn.

And worse, that we "do-gooders" feel like we know what's best for them (and have thought so for hundreds of years). *We* think they need canned food (there is an extremely high incidence of diabetes among the natives living on reservations. Reckon the Hopi suffered from diabetes in the 1830s?), because they're starving. *We* think they need suburban-esque, vinyl-sided houses with electricity and indoor plumbing (heck, *we* think *we* need those things).

It made me sad, and it reminded of my own ancestor's experiences with the do-gooder US government programs.

The book Stinking Creek is a look at what happened in a very poor, very rural, very isolated part of the Kentucky appalachian region following Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, and how much more terrible life has been for the people of that region since they've been turned into Welfare County.

I know this region. This is where my grandmother grew up. The region is where much of my family still lives, and like the natives on reservations, my kin (many of whom are some degree of "native") were stripped of their dignity and plagued with government assistance programs that took away their pride and self-sufficient, subsistence living, and forced them into a life-time of dependency and impoverishment - because there will never be enough money or adequate government programs to replace what the people in that area of the world once had.

I know all of this is very easy for me to say from my comfortable, suburban home with fully-stocked pantry and a pot of beans simmering on the electric stove while I type on this computer, and my girls wash their hands in the bathroom with hot, soapy water, but I also know that we have done (and continue to do) these people a great disservice, and I won't perpetuate the myth that we are doing "good" with our charitable donations.

I also know that if someone were to give me an allotment of raw land, where I could live completely for free (no taxes, no mortgage) that I would find a way to make that land support me and my family. I probably wouldn't have a computer anymore, and I may not have indoor hot and cold running water, and life would be incredibly labor-intensive, and often very difficult, and we'd probably be hungry a lot when things weren't growing, but I would be able to take a certain pride in my independence, because, really, for me, the best part of life is having the freedom to make my own choices.

In the end, I won't be giving any money to that organization, because, like all of the public programs available, it will be money wasted trying to force an unsustainable lifestyle on these once proud people who lived just fine, thank you very much, before the US government mucked things up with their do-gooder programs.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pommes de Terre

I planted a 5'x 5' bed of potatoes this year using a block planting method. On two of the corners I made "potato towers." Using hardware cloth, I made two circles, and at the base of the circles, I planted a couple of potato seeds. Over the summer, when the plant reached a height of approximately six inches, I was supposed to bury it up to its top leaves, leaving about an inch sticking out. The theory is that as the plant keeps growing to get above the soil, it will set roots every six inches or so, and at each level, there will be potatoes.

It's kind of like hilling the potatoes, in really deep hills, which, supposedly, encourages the plants to set more potatoes and for the potatoes that grow to grow bigger, and it also prevents the potatoes from getting "sun burned" when they grow too close to the surface.

The garbage can method, and the tire method, and the wooden tower method (where you planks are added as the potato grows) all work in the same way. We've tried the tire method, but it didn't work at all for us. We got a few potatoes, but nothing very impressive. We also tried using a plastic storage bin, and it did okay, but again, I wasn't terribly impressed with the results, and if the object is to grow enough for subsistence, we'd have been very hungry.

On the nanofarm, however, it is imperative to find growing methods that make the best use of space while producing the highest yields. So, I thought I'd give the vertical method of potato growing another try. This was the first year we tried hardware cloth for the tower, and I have to say, I'm pretty impressed.

At the end of the summer, I should have had two four foot tall wire-encased towers of dirt under each potato plant, but we pretty much neglected one of the towers, because we just didn't get enough compost to fill them both. I dumped a little dirt on the plant once or twice, and added some spent straw from the bunny cages once. It had one plant growing out of the side and another one growing up inside the tower. The plant on the inside died back a few weeks ago, but the other one seemed to be doing okay. We decided to harvest it today.

I found this:

It weighs just over a pound, and I'm not exagerating, not even a little. It's definitely the biggest potato I've ever grown.

There was another two pounds of spuds in the tower varying in size from about a quarter the size of this one, which to me is a fairly respectable size for a potato, to the size of a small marble. I'll probably pressure can the tiniest potatoes.

So far, we've harvested about 20 lbs of potatoes from the 25 sq feet of space, and I haven't even begun to dig, although the chickens and ducks have been doing a good job of unearthing them for me. There probably aren't a whole hell of a lot more potatoes under there, but still 1 lb of seed = 20 lbs of potatoes. Not a bad yield for my first time planting potatoes in a bed.

In final analysis, I have to say, I'm very pleased with the potato tower. I didn't even, really, take care of this one the way I should have, and it gave three pounds of potatoes. If we'd really been careful about cultivating the space and adding compost like we should have, I'm certain we would have been rewarded for our efforts.

This year's potato tower experiment has convinced me, though, that I could grow enough potatoes for my family for the entire winter in a 25 sq foot raised bed using the hardware cloth tower method ... if I make sure to fill the towers as the potatoes are growing.

Potatoes, grown in hardware cloth towers, will definitely be a staple in our garden in the future, and maybe, next year, I'll grow scarlet runner beans on the outside and potatoes on the inside to maximize my space even better ... or, as I add soil to the towers, maybe I push a few carrot seeds through the cloth, and we'll have the makings of a good stew in one tower ... just add chicken.

And speaking of, if the hens don't stay out of the potatoes next year, they might round out my stew for me.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Doomer Dinner

I've heard the phrase "[insert name here] ceases to amaze me" for most of my life, and I've even said it a few times, but it wasn't until today that the true meaning of this phrase finally hit me. I mean, really hit me - like an epiphany -, and I finally understand what it means.

As we were going through our day today, I let Deus Ex Machina know that for dinner, I planned to cook the chicken that was thawing in the fridge.

And not only was I planning that for dinner, but I also intended to cook it in our new campstove.

So, after breakfast, we restacked the wood in the backyard to make room for the pergola we will be building. It was hot, dirty work on a pretty muggy, buggy day, and so, after we finished restacking the wood, we all played for a bit in our new (used) pool (thanks Aunt C and Uncle C ;), and then we had to run a couple of errands.

On the way home, the remnants of Hurricane Bill passed over us.

I still wanted to cook chicken and potatoes in the campstove, and Deus Ex Machina made sure that I was able.

In the pouring rain, he went outside and lit a fire in the firepit.

Did I mention it was pouring rain? I mean, soaked-through-to-the-skin-in-two-minutes-flat, torrential downpour.

He had a roaring fire going in less time than it took me to cut up potatoes and carrots and season the chicken.

I helped him cut a couple of branches we had lying around the yard, and he lashed them together to make a tripod.

An hour and a half later later, we were eating our "doomer dinner" consisting of chicken (we raised) seasoned with herbs (from our garden) and cooked with potatoes (from our garden) and carrots (from the Farmer's Market). It was a 10 mile dinner, if you include the carrots, and was completely prepared without the help of any fossil fuel ... inspite of the rain.

That wonderful husband of mine never ceases to amaze me!


What's a Doomer Dinner?

Several months ago, Peak Oil Hausfrau challenged us to prepare a meal using what we stored or what was available in our gardens. This was mine and consisted, almost wholly, of food we grew right here on our nanofarm in the suburbs.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Leaky Roof and the Crumbling Basement

Five hundred thousand Americans bought new cars in a program that cost the government three billion dollars. In numbers that's 500,000 people out of 300,000,000 Americans (about *point* one percent or 0.001) at a cost to the American taxpayer of $3,000,000,000.

The program is deemed successful beyond anybody's imagination - or so said President Obama.

GM has rehired 1300 workers.

Hyundai has recalled 3000.

Because half a million cars were sold to 0.1% of the population, who would, likely, have bought a new car at some point in the very near future anyway. That 0.1% of the population are the folks who have the extra cash to spend.

Growing up on coal country, I observed this sort of activity all of the time. There would be a boost in coal production, and the mines would start hiring and/or rehiring lots of employees, who would work for several months and make great money, which they would spend, spend, spend, like there was no tomorrow.

And, maybe it was the nature of the job, which is very dangerous, that made the workers feel like there was no tomorrow.

Or maybe it was something else, but the job never lasted very long for most of the employees (there are many grizzled, old coal miners, but for every one, seasoned, employee there are three who are on-again-off-again). In June the unemployment rate in the county where I grew up in Kentucky was 12.3%, but with a 20+% unemployment rate in Detroit, no one is feeling sorry for the coal miners, right?

The unemployment rate in 2004 in coal country was 7.6%, when the overall unemployment rate for rest of the country was 5.4%.

But that's the way it was there. People would say that the coal industry was on a ten year cycle - ten years up and ten years down, which means that most of the time, people were in a kind of economic doldrums, where things just didn't move in one direction or the other.

All of that information, though, is just background so that one can understand why I have the point of view that I have. When it comes to being optimistic about what I see happening in our country, right now, I'm having a hard time.

I want to say, "Yippee! Half a million new cars were sold, and four thousand people got their jobs back."

Only ... half a million cars were sold with a three BILLION dollar government subsidized program, and now that program has ended. Who is left to buy a new car?

Not me. Both of my cars are currently running, and if one of them breaks down, I can guarantee that I won't be buying "new", anyway.

I think about those four thousand people, though, who've been out of work for ... how many months, now? ..., and I wonder how they've been living all this time. If they're back at work *like that*, chances are good that they didn't have another job, and so they were living on a combination of unemployment and/or other government programs, savings, credit cards, and ... just not paying their bills. It will take them months to get caught up again, to rebuild their savings, to pay down the credit card or collection agency debt, to catch up on their mortgages.

And in months, when there is no government incentive to buy a new car, and GM and Hyundai stop production ... then what?

I want to be optimistic, but ... millions of jobs have been lost over the past year. Whole companies, who were employing people, have just folded and all of those people no longer have jobs. Companies that kept part of their employees and restructured or were bought by other companies have been very creative and done things like reduce pay and/or benefits.

I'm just not convinced that half a million cars sold using a government rebate is going to do anything more than provide a temporary blip on the radar screen of our economic woes, and I think that it's actually going to make things much worse. In my opinion, it's like giving people a temporary food subsidy, enough to keep them from starving, but not enough for any long-term benefit. What happens when the food subsidy is no longer available?

What happens when people stop buying cars, because there is no government incentive? What happens when those recalled workers get laid off, again?

We're being very short-sighted, as a country, and reacting to small problems, while ignoring the bigger ones.

It's like this house I used to live in. The roof leaked, which was damaging the wall paper and the flooring. The roof leaked, because the foundation was damaged due to tree roots from a tree that was still growing and pushing its roots into the basement, which also leaked. When it rained really hard, that whole corner of the house, from the roof to the basement floor, looked like a waterfall was running through the house.

If I were the government, I would fix the roof first, to keep the inside of the house dry. The problem is that the very foundation of the house was crumbling, and I could invest all of my money in the leaky roof, or I could invest my money in shoring up the foundation and rebuilding the basement wall, which would be much more costly and a great deal more time consuming and wouldn't fix any "immediate" problems (because we didn't "live" in the basement and our things weren't being destroyed during every rain storm).

But in the long run, investing the money in the foundation would save the house, even if I ended up having to replace a few walls, the wallpaper, the flooring and all of the personal items that got wet because of the leaky roof. The fact is that all of it eventually needed to be done, but by working bottom up, I ensured the house would be sound. Working top down, ensured that I would end up redoing all of the initial work, if I ever got to the foundation, because by not doing the foundation, first, the damage would keep recurring.

Fixing the roof would become an exercise in futility.

Like all of the stimulus programs, thus far. Futile.

And in six months, ten months, a year, we'll still be right here, setting up buckets to catch the rain as it pours in like an open faucet.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Getting Started on the Path

One of the members of the permaculture meet-up group I joined recently posted a link to an article on the OilDrum that provided a timeline for "survival homes." While I think it is really important that people be realistic about what it takes to really have a successful homestead in the country (how much time and energy ... and yes, even money is required), I think there really is too much emphasis in some survivalist circles on "bugging out", and I think there is some wisdom to be had in the idea that "digging in" might be just as good an option.

For those new to the whole TEOTWAWKI prepping, I wanted to offer two of my favorite resources for getting started with staying put. I found both of them at the beginning of my journey, and it really has made a difference in my outlook with regard to my future.

The first is Dolly Freed's book, Possum Living. It was out of print for a very long time, and several years ago was available (probably illegally) online. It is being republished in the very near future, and if you follow the link on my side bar to Amazon, you can pre-order a copy. This isn't my very lame attempt to get you to buy something, but rather my advice, as a sort of veteran prepper. The first few things I read about Peak Oil, and then about the impending economic collapse, really scared the bejeesus out of me, and it wasn't until I found Dolly's book that I was able to gain a better perspective and start seeing possibilities rather than limitations. Dolly was not by any stretch a "doomer", but she was living a grand life on very little money, and in her book, she explains how they managed to do that.

Why would I recommend this book so highly, then, if it's not about prepping for TEOTWAWKI? Because the advice Dolly gives about living with no money is completely applicable to what we will likely be facing in our future. It's what Argentina is going through right now where no one has any money with which to buy basic goods, and what happened in Russia when their economy collapsed on the '90s. She has good advice for surviving without money and without a years' supply of Ramen Noodles in the cupboard.

The second recommendation is actually a television show. I know I rail against televsion, in general, but this particular show was one of the catalysts when I first started down this path toward self-sufficiency. The program is called The Good Life and was produced by the BBC in the 1970s (hmm? You reckon those folks in the 70s knew some stuff we should be learning?). It is about a couple who live in a London suburb and decide one day to become "self-sufficient", but they decide not to move out of the suburbs - much to their neighbor's dismay. It's a very funny program, and while some of the stuff they do couldn't happen in many of our suburbs (like raising pigs), it wouldn't be hard to translate some of their experiences to our modern reality.

The key is not to be afraid, because fear-induced action will always lead us astray. The key is to take control, and those two resources helped me a great deal, and I even had a few laughs ;).

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Thanks, Bayberry for your comment about the chicken umbrellas :). It reminded me of this great use for a satellite dish that I had seen in a Mother Earth News article.

When I googled satellite dish gazebo there were several hits, and so, I guess, it's not a novel idea, but it is a cool one.

If I can find an old satellite dish, I have just the spot for a gazebo :).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Boob Tube

I was driving along some windy, country roads today through what can only be described as a "rural suburb." My girls had choreography camp this week at their dance school, and the road I normally take was being repaved. I'm one of those people who doesn't wait in traffic. I go around.

On one road, I counted several houses that had satellite dishes in the yards. These weren't the little "dish network" dishes, either. These were those huge, swimming pool-sized monsters (one house had it mounted to their roof of their two-story home, which was a little nerve wracking for me. I mean, those things are big ... and heavy! I could picture it crashing down to the ground - not a pretty image, either).

Back when I as in high school, I lived in a rural community where cable access was not available back in some of the more remote mountain hollows, and satellite dishes were all the rage.

But they're expensive, even by today's standards, the price twenty years ago for a satellite dish was pretty steep. I mean, we're talking thousands of dollars ... thousands. In that community, people didn't always have steady work (coal-mining country), but had a drastically penduluming feast-or-famine lifestyle, and when there was money, it was spent, often extravagantly. During a feast time, people would mortgage their homes for a satellite dish, especially of they didn't have access to cable television. Without one or the other, there was no television reception in many of those areas.

And suddenly, as I was zooming along, it struck me. People mortgaged their homes for television, so that they could watch some ESPN or some HBO or some MTV.

Mortgaged. Their homes.

For television.

What kind of society do we live in where it's okay to spend a month's pay for a television?

At that moment, as I was zooming along, it just seemed incredibly sad that that's who we are, and that it is acceptable, and even encouraged, to spend [fill in blank with something valuable that is wasted, i.e. time, money ... brain cells] on something as non-essential (and not terribly interesting or enlightening, either - with a very few exceptions - but none of which I'd spend thousands of dollars to see) as television.

Very sad, indeed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Sustainable Suburbs

For those who missed it when I published it on my blog in 2008, my series of posts on why, if we're already in the suburbs, we should plan on staying here, was republished on the GroovyGreen website. I've linked to my articles below, if you're interested in reading them :).

Oh, Give Me a Home

A Rose By Any Other Name

Pass the Scoop, I Likes Me Some Ice Cream with My Cake

There was No Fat Lady Singing

The Sustainable Suburbs: Fowl Language

The Sustainable Suburbs: Self-Sufficiency

Love Thy Neighbor

Feeding the Suburbs

Some of the stuff I said a year ago is still very true ... in fact, much of it is even more true than it was last year.

"Sub"Urban Animals ... In the News (in a good way :)

According to this article on, Deus Ex Machina and I are hard-core urban farmers, because we raise animals (chickens and rabbits) for meat.

The funny thing about seeing this article today is that I had planned to talk about suburban "farm" animals. I did a post about it some time last year and really took a beating in the comments section over my suggestion that it was possible to raise animals for food in a suburban setting. It's funny, now, that having animals in the suburbs is starting to be more accepted. I probably wouldn't get the same reaction, if I were to post the same article today.

At the time, though, last year, before the "official" crash, people were still on the consumer train, and they didn't want to think about ways to keep animals. Things have certainly changed, it seems. While it's true that there are suburban areas where animal numbers are limited (Kate, in Pennsylvania, is limited to six outside animals - right, Kate?), or where certain animals can not be kept at all, there are alternatives to the chicken coop in the backyard.

I addressed a few of them in my original post.

At the time that I wrote my original post, I suggested that if I couldn't have chickens outside in my yard, but I lived in a "typical" suburban home with a garage and a basement, I would find room "inside" for my animals. Some people who commented didn't like that idea, but if you read the article, apparently, there are people who think like me, and there are entrepreneurs who've grabbed the torch and are running with it, making things like chicken diapers.

In her book, Possum Living, Dolly Freed details how she and her father raised chickens and rabbits in their basement, and in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan talks about going into a shed at Polyface Farm, where rabbits and chickens were kept, and the fact that the expected noxious fumes were not present, because the chickens rooted through the droppings under the rabbit's cages and kept everything cleaned up.

But, as I mentioned, in the original article, it doesn't have to be chickens. How about quail? They lay prolifically for about nine months, are quiet, don't take up a lot of space, and with both males and females, it can be a closed loop system (which I don't have with my chickens - no males, so no fertilized eggs). When they are "finished" laying, like all birds, they can be eaten. Pigeons are another choice for poultry that provides eggs and meat, and there are often no restrictions to keeping those types of birds, because neither are considered "farm" animals or livestock in the way that chickens, ducks and turkeys are. In fact, pigeons have been kept in urban settings for a very long time.

We have rabbits and have been raising them off and on for almost a decade. My gardens are lush and happy with the rich "fertlizer" the rabbits provide. My daughters (and all of their friends) love playing with the bunnies. Our breeders are "pets", but the offspring are food. Rabbits are easy to raise and can be kept indoors or out.

Of course, as I was informed, some places won't even allow an outside rabbit hutch, and, if I lived in one of those places, I would have kept my rabbits inside - because a town or an HOA might tell me what I can do with my lawn and how the house has to be painted, but they can not dictate to me what happens inside my house. But it doesn't have to be rabbits, either. In South America, guinea pigs (which are about the size of a small rabbit) are raised for food.

But let's be really creative. How about aquaculture? I've seen some pretty massive fish tanks in some of the suburban homes I've visited. There's no reason the fish in them have to be purely ornamental.

There are just so many options, even for those people who are convinced that there is no way they could raise meat animals (and I'm not really referring to those people who have decided that not eating meat at all is the preferred option ;).

In my opinion, the most responsible way to be an omnivore is to know the animal before it becomes meat, and the only way to do that is to know someone who raises the animals for you or to raise them yourself. Deus Ex Machina and I do both on a quarter acre suburban lot.

And Novella Carpenter makes us look like the amateurs we are with her urban farm.

I guess my point is, one shouldn't simply say a thing can not be done. Chances are that someone, some where, has found a way to do it, and the key is to think creatively, rather than simply accepting what we are told as the final word on the matter.

Oh, and laws can be changed. With regard to urban and suburban zoning restrictions and farm animals, change is happening all over the country.

The Buzz

Last month, Deus Ex Machina and I went to a workshop on "Top Bar Hive Beekeeping" (very interesting). My grandfather was a beekeeper, and so it's something I've always been fascinated about. Deus Ex Machina agrees that bees would be a good addition to our homestead. We've been interested in keeping bees for a long time.

At first, I was a little concerned about having hives here, because, realistically, we have such a small space, but the Dervaeses have less land than I have, and they have bees.

Today, this is the story about bees ;).

Poop Power

Ha! When I first posed the idea of generating electricity with my septic tank, everyone thought I was crazy.

Waste treatment plants, like this one in Arizona, are extracting the methane gas from their muncipal sewage and using it to, not only power the plant, but also to provide electricity for area homes. They estimate a $90,000 savings.

And, as the reporter quips, "It's a very green source of energy."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

When Shit Happens

So, I said we'd probably end up with a bucket that was emptied into the existing septic system in the event that we had to find an alternative to our lovely (water wasting) flush toilet.

It seems like such a waste, though, to simply toss all of that wonderful bio-material.

Joseph Jenkins has some great ideas about ways to use what is usually considered waste, and while, in theory, I know that his methods are perfectly safe and a much better option than the septic tank, I haven't made the mental leap to being comfortable with putting human poo on my garden (which is ironic, as I put rabbit poo and chicken poo on the garden without a second though ... anyway :).

The issue, for me, is that I don't have the storage containers, nor do I have room for several 55-gal drums full of ... poo.

But I also think there's a much better use for all of that poo ... and the animal poo ... and, for that matter, kitchen "waste" and yard waste, too.

A while back, I was pretty certain that our septic system could be converted to a methane digester, and while I found some evidence to suggest that a typical suburban septic system does not produce enough methane gas to make it useful as a digester that didn't stop me from exploring some other designs and ideas for making digesters (including the half dozen or so DIY projects I found on YouTube - what a hoot! ;).

What I found were some pretty amazing projects centered around methane digesters, including this one from India, in which they use kitchen scraps to make methane gas, which they use for cooking.

Because garbage in the streets was such a problem there, the digester solved several problems:
1. The digester gave people a use for their vegetable waste so that it didn't end up in the streets attracting flies and vermin.
2. It gave people a (virtually free) renewable, alternative fuel.
3. It provided compost for the urban, rooftop gardens.
4. It provided water for the urban, rooftop gardens.

In short, once the people who had a digester started producing their own fuel, they were also able to grow their own food. It became a closed loop.

It's one of those things that if I had my druthers, we'd have - even right now, when things are still okay - for the same reason that people have been buying solar panels for decades. It's not just about the belief that we may be left in the dark with no options, but also about choosing to live more lightly.

A methane digester would provide fuel - renewable and non-polluting. The fuel produced have a number of uses, including cooking, heating water, and producing electricity (in conjunction with a generator).

But from the perspective of preparing for the worst case scenario, having a methane digester would close one of our dependency gaps.

We could make our own fuel using our own wastes, and the end result is water and compost.

What alternative system would you install if you could?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Potty Talk

I hate disaster movies. Like that one about the plane crash in the Andes, Alive, and the survivors stay there *almost* until it's too late. I do realize that it's based on a true story, which makes it even more frustrating for me, because I wonder.

I wonder why they waited so long before they decided to act. I mean, Dude, the plane crashed in this barren wasteland where it's freezing, and you have no food, and no fuel. Get the hell out of Dodge, while you still have the strength to go!

But I also wonder if I would act in time to make a difference if I were put into a similar situation. There's some comfort in staying put and believing that "someone" will come to your rescue.

I'd like to think, based on my past behavior, that I'm not the kind of person who would wait around, though. I don't like waiting, first of all. I'm incredibly impatient. And I also tend to get really panicked by inaction. I know it's not the same, but I won't even wait in traffic jams. I mean, what happens if we have to wait there a long time? I've seen those kinds of disaster movies, too, right? Where people get "stuck" in their cars and bad stuff happens. I'll go around, or depending on where I was, I'd get out and walk, because waiting just isn't an option I can take. I have to keep moving. You know?

I don't usually wait until things get "really" bad before I make a change.

Like with the housing bubble. We bought our house in 1997, and by 2002 the value had more than doubled. It made no sense to me that the value of our little house would increase so much, especially considering we hadn't made any changes. I mean, if we'd added a second floor, or completely remodeled the interior, or even just painted the walls, maybe it would have increased the value a little, but we didn't do anything. It just never made sense.

Of course, like most folks, at first, I was all for borrowing against the value of our house to pay off our increasing debt.

Then, someone said to me, "The value will just keep going up," and I thought about it a little, but could not imagine my house being worth $1,000,000.

Or how I would still be able to afford a house that was worth that much money - especially if I kept borrowing on the equity. It didn't seem possible, anyway, that my house could be worth that much money.

But, there are, indeed, homes in my community that are (supposedly) worth that much. I couldn't imagine my house being worth even a quarter of that, but there's a house within shouting distance of mine that was listed for more than $300,000. That's so much money! The idea that my house could ever be worth even as much as the list price of that other house boggles my mind, frankly, and it just doesn't make any sense.

Oh, I understand how and why it happened, and I understand that it had nothing to do with my individual home, but that it was something much bigger, over which few of us had any control ...

... like a plane crash ...

... or a housing bubble burst ...

... or an economic crash.

Over the past few years, I've spent a lot of time reading around the Internet. There's a whole group of folks who are looking at the current times and thinking, "Get out!" I totally respect their feelings, and I wonder if maybe I shouldn't be also thinking in those terms.

We could (try to) sell our house and buy an RV, fill it with books, and travel around the country hoping someone will buy our books so that we can buy gasoline and food. The problem with that scenario is that we'd be even more dependent on the "money" economy than we are now. At least here, we can produce some of our own food, because (in a manner of speaking) we "own" the land. We don't have to worry about where to park, or being run off the land for parking illegally, and if gasoline becomes seriously scarce or cost prohibitive, we don't have to worry about being stranded someplace where we'd have no way of supporting ourselves (like the middle of a desert).

Of course that whole train of thought brings up the problem of staying, in that *if* we were to lose our jobs, how would we pay the mortgage, but if we lose our house, where would we go? And it's that question I grapple with. How much time should we struggle to stay here, hoping things get better? How much do we continue to invest in this living space?

Those thoughts sometimes make me feel a little like a plane crash survivor who keeps hoping against hope that help will come. I'm not thinking that eating my neighbors would be too palatable.

But at the same time, it's nothing like that, because unlike the plane crash survivors, I have the tools necessary to survive, here, if help never does come. I'm not at the mercy of elements I can not control. I certainly can not control the economy, but I can control what I do right now so that if things keep getting worse, we won't be as hard hit.

That's what all of this prepping has been about, after all - the belief that help is NOT going to arrive, and that, essentially, we're on our own.

We're still not even close to being off-the-grid or totally self-sufficient, and I realize that there are certain changes we could make toward self-sufficiency that we probably won't make until it's too late or until our choices are very limited.

Like a composting toilet. Right now, we could probably afford to buy an ultra fancy, non-electric model, but we probably won't get a composting toilet, because for our house, on our lot, in our neighborhood, with things being the way they are right now, it doesn't make sense to invest the thousands of dollars. We have a perfectly good private septic system that cost several thousand dollars to install, and installing something else to take its place, isn't prudent - especially when we can be spending that money on classes and books and tools for which we don't have alternatives.

But it's not that I haven't considered what we would do, if we no longer had access to the municipal water that we use to flush the toilet, and we no longer have power to pump the excess water into the leach field. If it comes down to it, we would dig out the septic tank cover, build it up a couple of feet above the ground (so that no one would fall in it when we take the cover off), and then, we'd use the five-gallon bucket toilet option inside the house, which we'd empty into the septic tank. There are two very large, fully enclosed, cement tanks down there (one is the pumping station) that we could fill. It would take a very, very long time to fill them up.

My mom told me that when she was growing up, they had an outhouse out back and a chamber pot in the house, which they carried outside to the outhouse. When she shared her story with me I thought, "Ew! What if the pot tipped?", and so I asked her if she'd rather have emptied the pot or just used the outhouse. She said she preferred using the pot inside, and that carrying it out wasn't as bad as having to go outside at night and in all sorts of weather.

Which made me realize, we could easily make something like this. We already have the bucket ;).

I guess the difference between my decision to stay here in the suburbs and a plane crash survivor (well, other than all of the totally obvious reasons :) is that I know there's a very strong possibility that we may be in an emergency situation, and I'm able to make some plans.

Waste disposal is just one of the things we will, likely, have to deal with.

What's your plan?

Twenty Mile Dinner

I'd thought this would be my "Doomer Dinner", but I used electricity to cook it, and so it doesn't qualify.

But it does qualify as an all local (within 20 miles - except flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and vanilla beans - most of the ingredients in the zucchini bread :), and most of it was from our yard.

The menu consisted of:

(leftover) roast chicken
(the rest of the) Farmer's Market corn-on-the-cob
Roasted potatoes and beets
and zucchini bread.

I was preparing all of that at the same time that I was making pickles (zucchini and beets) and drying thyme and onion tops.

My house smells yummy right now with all of the cooking smells - cinnamon-y bread, sweet pickles, and drying herbs.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dried Raspberry Leaf

Yesterday I made two lovely loaves of zucchini bread.

And then, since the oven was hot anyway, I put the raspberry leaves I'd harvested on a pan that has holes in it and shoved it in the warm oven.

Voila! Dried raspberry leaf for tea ... no power required.

I harvested some sage and some tarragon today. I'll do the same thing with them, when the chicken is finished cooking.

And speaking of cooking ... tonight will be our Maine dinner, per the Governor's challenge. It will consist of homegrown, oven-roasted chicken (our own), grilled corn-on-the-cob with local butter (both from the Farmer's market), generous slices of zucchini bread (Aunt Amy's zucchini), and, maybe, some wild Maine blueberries with fresh whipped cream topping (both from the Farmer's market ;).

Mmmm ... Local food is so yummy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Things I Will Miss if (when) TS really does HTF

My son called me today. He said "they" (he and his friends) wanted to know how to pronounce the word that means fear of long words.

I didn't know what the word was. It took me about a minute to find it on the Internet.

The word is hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia.

I love the Internet. I love being able to find things and search new ideas. I get all of my news and most of my entertainment from the Internet. I use it to order books and redbush tea for Deus Ex Machina (because there's only one store around me that has it, and it costs a lot to buy it there). I love that the Internet gives me the option of shopping around ... without leaving my home.

But the Internet is a huge energy sucking monster, and even if we all gave up our cars (not likely) and learned to grow our own food, and saved all of our (alternative) energy to operate the server farms that power this vast network of computers, it's unlikely that there'd be enough.

And then there's the energy cost of manufacturing the equipment needed to access and maintain the Internet infrastructure (computers, etc).

Oh, and then, I guess we'd all need at least enough power in our homes to operate our computers so that we could access the Internet, because without people browsing it, it's ... well, it's a tree falling in the woods.

As we lose bits and pieces of the life we all take for granted, the thing I will regret losing most is this little window into worlds I might not otherwise have known.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My "Village" :) - II

Yesterday, we were out most of the afternoon, and while we were gone, Gar stopped by and left us a gift.

They're from Aunt Amy's garden, and Gar even took a couple of them over to my neighbors across the street.

I'm thinking: zuchinni bread, zuchinni pickles, grated zuchinni for the freezer, zuchinni chips ....

Thanks, Gar ... and Aunt Amy :).

My "Village" :)

Aunt Tammy is always lookin' out for us.

The other day, Aunt Tammy was at the recycling center in her town, and a woman walked in with a plastic laundry basket full of canning jars - the kind with the wired on glass lids, which are totally awesome for storing stuff (and can be used for canning with the use of a rubber seal). She was just going to discard them.

Aunt Tammy took one look and thought, "Wendy would like those."

And I would.

And I do!

Thanks, Aunt Tammy!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Oops! My Roots are Showing

Harvest Something: Potatoes!

It's only about five pounds, but it was also only those that I could see peeking above the dirt. I don't know what's hiding down below, and I haven't harvested the potato towers, yet.