Sunday, April 22, 2012

Back to Basics

Sometimes I get nervous about things. About a month ago it was because of some news I was reading about solar activity. I got pretty nervous. I knew there was probably no reason to be ... and even if *it* did happen, other than what I'm already doing, there was nothing I could do ... but still. Sometimes rational thought and irrational fears collide, and one of them is going to win. That day last month it was the latter.

The news that day was filled with stories about Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). Say what? A CME is also known as a "solar flare", and I know that's not really being more descriptive, but basically, the sun that provides the gravitational framework that keeps our nine (I still think Pluto got a raw deal) eight planets rotating, and warms our planet, providing the sustenance for life, is not a simple benevolent being out in space taking care of us. It is a fiery ball of gas that occasionally shoots theses big solar lightning bolts out into space, and occasionally, one of these travels toward Earth and actually hits us.

It happens all of the time with varying degress of effect, and if we didn't have any electronics, there would be nothing to worry about, but our dependence on electricity and the likelihood that a very large CME could do damage to our individual electrical gadgets (at best) or to the grid as a whole (at worst) is pretty high.

In fact, in 1859 a pretty big solar flare hit the Earth, disrupting telegraph service and creating such a magnificent Aurorae that in some places it was as bright as day time. The experience has been dubbed The Carrington Event, after the scientist who first identified the phenomenon.

The significance of that event to our time lies in the fact that we are much more heavily dependent on electricity, and such an event could wreak havoc, if it takes out the grid. In the days prior to the March 2012 CME event, there was some babble in certain online circles about "what could" happen. The gist of the conversations was that there are x-number of substations across the US, each of which have a transformer. Without the transformer, electricity can not be distributed. For every x-number of transformers, there's one replacement, and it takes x-amount of time to manufacture a new one.

So, basically, if a very large CME destroyed *every* transformer, there would be places in our country that would be without electricity for several years awaiting the necessary equipment to fix their part of the grid. The question is, who would be first in line, and further, what would those at the bottom of the list do in response to not being first?

Most people probably didn't even know it was happening - that it happened. There were no worries and no preparations. Ignorance was running blissfully through the masses, and since nothing happened, no harm done.

Even if something had happened, though, what could we have done to prepare? I think saving the electronics would probably have been an exercise in futility. Best case, I could have enclosed our computers in a Faraday cage (there's a really cool one at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts, and a favorite stop for Deus Ex Machina, who is an electrical engineer and has a love of all things sparkly - except Vampires). The problem is that I don't have a faraday cage at my disposal, although I could get one, I suppose. It's just that if all electronics are wiped out (from the grid to unprotected bike generators), what good would having my computer do me after the six-hours of battery life is exhausted?

What worries me, though, is not that there was so little news about the event, which means there was very little or no preparations on an individual level, but that there was a flurry of worried anticipation and half-hearted attemts at getting ready followed by a sigh of relief that nothing happened and a return to life as usual.

And I guess that's what bothers me about our collective mindset in general. It's like bees.

In a bee colony the entire focus is on saving the Queen. Without the Queen, life in the colony ceases to exist. A regular bee's lifespan is pretty short, and in order for the colony to thrive, there needs to be a Queen that is laying fertile eggs. The difference between a fertile egg and a non-fertile egg is gender, with the latter producing the male drones.

Drone bees are pretty cool. They don't have stingers, and while some drones are necessary for the health of the hive, too many will kill the colony.

The fertilized eggs are female. They are responsible for doing the work of the hive that keeps everyone else alive. Specifically, they venture out, collect the pollen, and turn it into the honey on which they all survive.

Honey, for the bees, is survival, and so, in response to a threat to their hive, they will start to eat the honey. One of the common practices among beekeepers who wish to work with the hive is to use smoke. It is often taught that the smoke calms the bees so that they don't sting. It's actually an opposite effect with the same results. The smoke sends the bees into a frenzy. Believing that there is a fire and that the hive is in danger of being destroyed, they begin to eat the honey, and they don't attack the invader (beekeeper), because they're too busy trying to save the hive.

We, humans, tend to be a lot more like bees than most of us would believe ourselves to be. In response to a looming disaster, we rush to make preparations, but mostly, during our day-to-day lives, we just go about our business ... the business of making money ... er, honey.

In a conversation on the night of the CME in March, when I was asked about it, I said that it could knock out the entire grid ... or it could do nothing. Either way, on the day of the event, there's really nothing left for us to do, but wait and see. For the average Joe, the event was a non-event. Where I live, we didn't even get to enjoy the Northern Lights because of the cloud cover.

My concern is that we've become too complacent. It's like we're living in the Boy Who Cried Wolf story, and every time something like this is about to occur, someone cries Wolf!, and everyone scrambles to "get ready", and then, nothing happens, and next time there's a cry of Wolf! fewer people will be slower to react.

Maybe nothing will ever happen, but maybe something is happening somewhere all of the time.

I don't go to the grocery store when a big storm is predicted. Aside from the fact that I don't like the frantic energy from the crowd of shoppers who feel the need to prepare for "this" storm, but little need to prepare, in general, there's very little that I need to get. Deus Ex Machina and I are usually stocked up on the essentials, because I hate running out of stuff (a fact which amuses Deus Ex Machina every week at the grocery store when I put, yet another, carton of oats in the cart ;). So, we usually have, at least, a few weeks of back-up, and for those things that we don't have, we have some sort of substitute.

In short, we're usually prepared to weather any storm without fear.

My concern with this most recent emergency is that, instead of just changing how they live so that things like this won't be an emergency, most people are still living as if there will never be an emergency, and then, when there is news that there might be an emergency, they rush to eat all of the honey.

And what we've created is a reactionary way of life. In short, most of us think we're planning for the future, because we have a 401K or an IRA. We have money in the bank for when we retire. And in the meantime, we're working a 9 to 5 job (with which very few of us are truly satisfied) to pay the bills, and when there's an emergency, it completely disrupts our lives.

Instead of really living and enjoying life, we're always waiting for that "right time" to do one thing or another. Like Scarlet O'Hara, we live in a fog believing that there will always be tomorrow to worry about that, and so when tomorrow comes, and we've lost our job or the stock market tanks and we lose half our life-savings or the price of gasoline creeps up to $4/gallon while we aren't paying attention and we can't afford to fill up our 10 mpg F100 truck (and pay our mortgage) or a crop loss in some town out West most of us has never heard of causes the price of flour to triple, it is an emergency, and we are, invariably ill-prepared to handle it.

What's so disappointing is that, if we were paying even just the slightest bit of attention to that obscure article on page three by the junior journalist who will probably lose his job if too many people actually read (and believe) the truth he's revealed, none of these emergency events would be emergencies, because we would have known they were coming for months.

I got the coolest note from my mother the other day. She likes buying books for me, and I like getting them. Sometimes, though, she buys me a book I already have - as happened recently. So, I offered to send the book back to her so that she could have a copy, but she said she already had a copy, too. In fact, she told me that she'd opened up her copy not too many days previously and got lost in its pages for a few hours.

The book? Back to Basics.

It's one of the best 'how-to' self-sufficiency books we own, and it covers just about every skill a homesteader might need from food (raising and perservation) to reusing rags to make a rug. There's even a chapter on making a mountain dulcimer. The instructions are simple and easy to follow.

Peak oil. Climate change. Resource scarcity. And now, catastrophic sun activity. There's a lot to worry about, for sure, and we won't be able to prepare for every eventuality. In fact, we may find that when at our most prepared, we are ill-prepared. But knowing that we can find what we need, that we can provide for ourselves even in these worstcase scenarios really does make it easier to laugh about a CME, and it takes the fear out of contemplating losing ....

Deus Ex Machina and I have two copies of Back to Basics. We're planning to keep one, and we've decided that we'd like to offer the other here.

If you're interested in receiving our well-loved copy of Back to Basics, please leave a comment detailing a lost skill you have been working to learn ... and also, why you think it's important for you to know.

Deus Ex Machina and I are working on foraging food ... but not just for today's dinner, but also for adding to our winter stores. This past weekend, in fact, we went out and gathered stinging nettles, dandelion greens and flowers, and Japanese Knotweed. The first two were dehydrated for use in future soups. The flower heads were cleaned and are in the fridge. They'll become fritters. The Japanese knotweed was blanched and is in the freezer. We feel learning to identify and use wild foods is important, because we have such a small lot and while we can grow a lot, we'll also need to supplement our diet. We feel wild foods are our best option.

What's yours?


  1. Mine is canning. Both water bath and pressure canning.

  2. I have the book and love it, so count me out of the give-away. I've been working on just a few skills this past year - making vinegar, making yogurt/greek yogurt/cream cheese, doing experiments for energy savings, trying a few new things in the garden. I have a lot more on my list, and need to get with it. It's always so fun - not sure why I haven't hit more of my list. I love foraging the few things I'm familiar with, but need a better book for that.

    brenda from ar

  3. Hmm, a skill I would like to learn. That's a hard one, because I have so many, picking one out is difficult!

    I guess the main one would be learning how to use a fireplace/woodstove/something that uses wood. How to bank the fire, how to set the flue, how to clean the chimney, etc.

    And related to that, how to cook on fire. I really am very deficient in these skills.

  4. I didn't know Japanese knotweed is edible, thanks for the tip! It is becoming evasive here in the Netherlands and I just saw it yesterday in a park nearby. I looked it up on Wikipedia and it said that the young shoots taste like rhubarb. Did you blanch the shoots or just leaves?
    I also have a copy of Back to Basics, great book indeed.
    I love your down to earth way of writing about very important and sometimes scary subjects.

  5. I'm in the UK, so don't think I'll be eligible for your giveaway, but thought I'd comment anyway!

    Foraging is the main skill I'm developing this year too. I've always gathered the obvious stuff, but I'm trying to step it up a level. Nettle Gnocchi has been a big hit.

    I have similar reasons to you; I only have a small garden, and although I do have an allotment too it makes sense to make best use of the wild foods around. Fruits take up a lot of space but blackberries and elderberries are in every hedgerow and wild greens add variety and nutrients to those I grow.
    I want eating a variety of foods, including wild ones, to be the norm for my family.

    I also use wild greens to supplement the chicken and duck food. My dog walking friend laughs because from early spring onwards I end every walk with a big bag of cleavers, chickweed, dandelions, plantain and cow parsley. He comments if we're nearly home and I'm empty handed!

    I was commenting to DH (and anyone else that would listen) about people's lack of foresight or planning after 2 news items here. One was the petrol tankers strike that didn't actually happen but the caused chaos with panic buying, when all the discussion was how to get fuel and should you store it. No suggestions on how to manage without it, or even with less. Similarly with people protesting against wind farms near their house. I understand their concerns, but nobody is trying to reduce their dependence on electricity, which seems a logical solution to me.

    The second story was in the financial news. A major retailer felt it had missed a trick by not forecasting the snow we had in February as they could have sold far more knitted garments than they had in store.
    I can't believe that people only buy sweaters when it actually snows! Wouldn't you assume that a British winter is going to be cold? And anyway, what have you done with last years jumper? I don't think I want to know the answer to those questions...

  6. Oh! I would love a chance to win this! I think I have a whole list of lost skills that I am trying to learn in a isn't so easy. I knit a lot, which is great especially come winter when we need warm socks. I am also canning and preserving a lot more food then I have in the past. And most recently we got chickens, I'm not entirely sure that is a lost skill, it seems to be something pretty common these days, but having fresh eggs from my own ladies is something I am very much looking forward to!

  7. @ Ellen - we use the very young (and tender) stalks - ones that are about six inches tall (not more than nine) and not bigger around than your finger. I don't use the leaves, and usually, when I'm harvesting them, I bring a pair of kitchen shears with me, and I'll clip the leaves off right there and leave them as mulch for the plants.

    You can cook it like asparagus and serve with salt and butter (and/or a sprinkle of cider vinegar). Or you can cook it down to an applesauce consistency and serve with a sprinkle of sugar.

    It tastes a bit like a marriage between rhubarb and asparagus - not as tangy as rhubarb and not as pungent as asparagus.

  8. @ Hazel - very interesting observations about the way people responded to the potential gasoline shortages. I see that a lot here, too. Many people prepare by stocking up, but rarely by cutting back - when the latter is often the better choice ;). I always ask the question: And, then, what? Like, "So, you have 100 gallons of gasoline stored up, and you use it all ... then, what?"

    And the thing about the sweaters ... hilarious! And so true! It's like waiting until a snowstorm to buy a shovel. I live in Maine. The chances that it will snow during the winter are ... oh ... in the 100% range. It's silly not to have a shovel ... or a sweater ... and some boots.

  9. @ Brenda - We're making vinegar, too. I LOVE our raw apple cider vinegar. It's actually quite tasty, and yes, I have downed a shot glass full :).

    I was reading a novel set in Georgia during the Civil War, and it described how they made vinegar - which was used as a preventative for scurvy and other vitamin deficiency diseases. So interesting! It certainly sparked my interest in practicing that craft.

  10. @ Stacy - I think canning was probably one of the first skills we tried learning too. It's a good first choice ;).

  11. @ Heather - I know what you mean. It feels like there's SO MUCH to know and just not any more time to be playing at it. I often feel like we need this skills NOW, but it sounds like you're a lot further a head than you think you are. Don't worry. You have the foundation :).

  12. @ Patricialynn - speaking of cooking over fire, I'm still experimenting with rocket stoves. I'd love to master cooking that way - especially for canning during the summer. It would save so much electricity!

  13. preserving food, knitting garments, bee and chicken keeping, foraging for wild edibles, natural alternatives for much to learn!

  14. Great post, Wendy! Like many of the other comments, it seems tough to say just one thing I'm working on. I'm comfortable water bath canning, but am staring at that pressure canner. This IS the year to try it! That, and I want to learn about lacto-fermenting. And animal husbandry. Seems to be a strange barrier for my husband, but starting at chickens or (and?) bees seems to make sense.


  15. @ Kate - yep. There is a lot to learn ;). The good news is we probably still have a lot of opportunity.

  16. @ Marygee - the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz is awesome for learning about lacto-fermentation. Good luck with your pressure canning. It's not nearly as bad as it seems ;).

  17. My wife and I are working on canning, with some mixed results. Some have stood the test of time and others have turned into science expiraments. We are just finally gettign this gardenign thing figured out and we can't eat all we produce when it's produced so we have to find some way to keep it and our freezer only holds so much.

  18. I'd like to chance to receive that book, as it sounds like something I'd love to read.

    My skill that I'm working on is spinning yarn from fibers other than wool. Where I live, wool socks in August would be too, too much, but if I could spin cotton yarn, that would be much better during the warm months.

  19. We are working on learning more about wild foods this year as well. I am really interested in compiling and creating recipes for the wild foods and perennial foods we have in our forest garden.

  20. Oh, there are so many things...

    like walking...
    building community with neighbors
    seed saving
    mending clothes
    root cellaring
    growing food, and adding garden space every year
    of course there's canning and drying, and cooking on a woodstove

    and this year I have my sighs on sauerkraut, as long as the cabbage harvest is good.

  21. We have also started some foraging and a bigger garden this year. I would still love to learn to make soap. Please enter me in your giveaway.

  22. CArol Frugal in CouxovieApril 24, 2012 at 12:55 AM

    I've already got that book.
    I thought I would tell you about my latest trials and errors with washing clothes with ashes !
    I sift ashes from the fire, soak them in cold rain water for a couple of days then I filter several times the liquid through a cloth.I add a few drops of lavender essential oils for the antiseptic effect and it smells nice too.
    If the washing has earthy/grassy/mud stained knee caps on jeans for example, the ashes alone can't get rid of that so I add some grated homemade olive oil soap and that does the trick.
    I love the idea of not paying a penny to wash the family clothes, sod the fat cat companies that cost a fortune AND I'm not polluting.
    My friends think I'm crazy, I think it's worth the time spent doing this kind of thing instead of just grabbing a barrel at the supermarket.
    Next craft I'd like to learn is wood carving....Have to look into that !

  23. Honestly, since I'm just starting out, I'm just working on getting out more and more of the overly processed goods, and actually cooking more.

    From there, I might be able to snag a plot in the community gardens next year, and start growing more.

  24. While I am just starting out, my (not really) lost art is gardening. This is the first year that I will try my hand at gardening. I have eaten some of my broccoli already.

  25. My latest "return to skills almost lost" are making moccasins. Trying a few different patterns, as well as materials (next up is a hair-on deer hide - built in insulation). Thanks for your inspiration!

  26. I'm learning to dehydrate food, since canning and freezing take so much energy. I'm also trying to improve my gardening skills.

  27. Right now, I'm working on lactofermentation and working with wild yeasts. There's a lot I want to do - I think foraging and pressure canning are probably next, and I need some more work on gardening - but I think it's really important to have low-energy ways to preserve food.

  28. Right now its all about the book learning since we are in limbo waiting for a job and a move. We did some food foraging on our last camping trip with a new book in hand. We purchased the canning lid attachments for mason jars for a food saver....and using a nifty tool from the garage are sealing those lids without a foodsaver or electricity. (Not canning...just vacuum sealing.) We are making a list of wants for when we are in a new place and able to. But really its mostly just research and learning right now.

  29. Hope I am not too late for the contest, I need to learn more about canning and dehydrating

  30. Some days I feel so overwhelmed by how much we need to learn/re-learn! I grew up a child of back-to-the-landers, but it's been over twenty years since I've lived "the good life!" As a child I chose Back to Basics as a prize for selling Girl Scout cookies--I loved that book! Alas, I have lost it somewhere along the years. As for skills, I am working on lacto-fermenting, sourdough, wild food identification (my five-year-old is thrilled that he can eat the Tea Berries we find around here), and I would love to re-learn how to manage a wood stove and pressure can. Now, to find a place to call home and get started!