Live in the Margins   16 comments

An entry in How To Be Poor

In the previous entry in this series, The Reductionist Trap, I wrote about a possible diet I could eat that would seem to be sustainable and practical, given my circumstances and the broader world at large. As I noted in that post, I believe such a diet could be resilient, both in the world as it is today and, quite possibly, in the world as I expect it to exist over the coming years—that is, with reduced available energy and resources and lower purchasing power for most involved. In today’s post, I want to speak in greater depth about resiliency, raise the issue of margins, and make an argument for how these concepts can help guide how we structure our lives for a future sporting greater material poverty.

Resiliency is defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” and John Michael Greer— in a post about resiliency that I’ve referenced before, in this blog’s longest, but by no means best, entry—defines it as “the opposite of efficiency.” He goes on to write that, “What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down.”

If I’m correct in the belief that the future is going to sport a good deal less energy and resources—a good deal less wealth for most all of us, in other words—than resiliency is exactly what we need. That future is going to be rife with misfortune and change, a series of shocks to the industrial system, and an altered landscape—figuratively and literally—on which we’ll have to make our livings. Jobs will be lost, incomes will drop, food will become more expensive and scarce. Blackouts are more common, and that trend will continue as power companies cannibalize their existing infrastructure. I wouldn’t be surprised if rural areas started deelectrifying within the next half century. Road systems will degrade, bridges will collapse or be shut down due to safety concerns, and driving will become less viable in a wide variety of ways. America is in the early stages of decline and faces a rough future in which the general state is one of contraction—thus, the list of these changes could go on and on. Suffice it to say, though, the future is going to be much more rough than the recent past.

To imagine this future in simpler terms, let’s consider a piece of lined notebook paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. But let’s change it a bit from a standard piece of notebook paper. This one has two inch margins on either side, leaving just four and a half inches of writing area in the middle. Not much room in the core, right? In fact, barely more than in the margins. The core of this paper is industrial society as we expect it to function, complete with high technology and massive energy usage, the waste of natural resources, and the assumption of perpetual growth. Draw a line straight down the middle, top of the paper to bottom, straight as an arrow. That might be something like the Wal-Mart ordering system and supply chain—one of the more efficient structures in today’s industrial society, within the confines of how we define efficiency. There’s little waste in the sense that products are ordered just in time, from centralized factories, arriving via centralized transport systems, all maximized as much as possible within a computerized system. There are wastes, granted, but they’re wastes that we by and large ignore within the context of our industrial assumptions and economic organization.

There’s little resiliency to this system. A disruption in the transportation, or in the ability of the factories to function, or in the supply chains that feed the factories, or in the computer system that does the ordering, or in any other number of the system’s numerous points of functioning could lead to empty shelves and lost profit. But so long as everything functions according to plan, the shelves stay full and the profits stay high. On our hypothetical piece of paper, a straight line unimpeded is the supply chain functioning properly, and the line ends in massive profits. But this line can only follow one way to that destination, and it’s straight as an arrow. Put anything in its way—any disruption to the system, in other words—and it stops. It can’t go around. It has no ability to bend, to curve, to find a different way. It only knows the one.

Now, any number of systems reliant on the functioning of the industrial economy can be drawn within the core of this piece of paper. Some must stay straight and will stop if they hit any blockade. Others are more resilient and thus can veer around a bit. They’re capable of twisting and turning and finding new ways. But even these are bound by the margins. Those are lines they simply cannot cross, and so they’re left with four and a half inches of wiggle room, and a couple of wide and wild, two inch stretches on either side that can’t be entered without the system falling to pieces. That’s because these margins don’t function under the rules of industrial society. Fossil fuels are lacking or nonexistent in these margins, there’s no perpetual growth, waste doesn’t exist and energy usage per capita is low. High technology functions poorly or is absent altogether. Sun and air and water flow through these margins, but not reserved masses of millions of years of condensed carbon. Labor is provided by humans and animals rather than machines. Food is provided by soil rather than oil and natural gas. The margins do not function as the core does.

Consider, still further, that the margins are widening a bit each year. Accordingly, the core is shrinking—and, accordingly, the available paths for systems and processes dependent on industrial society is shrinking. Every year the margins grow closer, offering a place to live but under the condition of adapting to new rules, new ways of living, new forms of personal and social organization. Within time, these margins are going to squeeze out the core and leave all those people, communities, economies, businesses, machines, and so on that depend absolutely on a functioning industrial society with no place to live. At that point, they’ll be forced to either survive in the margins or perish.

If we’re to face the future in a coherent and resilient manner, we’re going to have to broaden the ways in which we can function in this world. We’re going to have to learn to live in the margins. That may not mean living entirely in the margins today or tomorrow, but we have to take our first tentative steps into them and begin the long and challenging process of learning the new ways of living that they require. We’re going to have to veer into them at times, familiarize ourselves with the marginal world, and continually increase our comfort there. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble as the core continues to shrink and crowds more and more of us out of an industrial economy based on perpetual growth and increased consumption, and into a contracting economy that demands a dramatic scaling back of our lives.

To engage these margins, we’ll need to change our behavior. But to do that, we need first to change our ways of thinking. Many of us have been taught to live in a world of growth, a world of industrialism, a world of massive available resources and energy. Trying to live differently without first changing the way we think is only going to serve to compound an already challenging situation. This is why, in the previous post, I wrote about the need to move away from the sort of reductionist thinking that is employed and common in the industrial world—the core of the paper—and toward a systems thinking that is rooted in the natural functions of ecosystems. The margins, after all, are wild. They’re rooted not in machine control and the brute force application of massive amounts of energy, but in the elegant and complex functioning of ecosystems. To make our way in them, we’re going to have to learn to think as the margins function, thus providing us the tools to tease out the full implications of our actions—to see the rippling effects of the way we live and to understand what underlying systems support or don’t support those ways of living.

As an example, let’s consider a wood stove. One has existed in each of the three places I’ve lived out here on the Oregon coast. It was the source of heat in the yurt I lived in when I first came here in 2011, an option in the old farm house I lived in last year—which also had available the horror that is electric wall heaters—and an option in my current residence, in addition to an electric furnace. Despite the presence of that electric furnace, the wood stove is far and away the primary source of heat in this house. A good question, though, is whether or not it should be.

One way we could consider this question is through a simple, reductionist lens of trying to suss out exactly how much energy is used by the wood stove versus how much by the electric furnace, looking at efficiency ratings of the actual devices, the efficiency rate of conversion of wood and electricity to heat, or perhaps try to determine the cost of a cord of wood in comparison to the cost of an equivalent amount of heat via electricity. Perhaps we might broaden out this reductionist perspective by crunching all these numbers to the best of our ability and then evaluating all of them in conjunction to try to come up with a final determination. We may even bring in yet more variables, such as the cost of the electric furnace versus the wood stove, the amount of energy used in their manufacture, and so on. All of this is good information to consider, but it’s only a small piece of the whole system consideration of how to heat your home, and it takes only the dimmest account of resiliency.

What if we instead evaluated the two methods in terms of resiliency, in terms of how straight must be the line that leads to heat? If we do that, then we’re talking about a whole host of other considerations. The electric furnace, for instance, deals in a mighty straight line laid down within the core of our hypothetical piece of paper. To create heat, it needs a steady flow of electricity, and that electricity needs to flow at a certain level. As currently designed, our electric furnace would pull that electricity from the centralized energy grid. If the flow of electricity stops, the heat stops. Period. If there’s a blackout, the heat stops. Period. If the bill for that electricity becomes too expensive to pay, the heat eventually stops. Period. If we get far enough into contraction and decline that our rural area completely loses access to centralized, grid electricity, then the heat stops. Again, period. And even if we wanted to attempt to replace the grid-sourced electricity with renewable electricity produced on site, it’s not likely we could do that. An electric furnace needs a heck of a lot of electricity, in heavy bursts. I don’t see any way we could cobble together any combination of solar PVs, small wind turbines, and micro hydro generators—and the necessary battery rack—to make that happen. Not for heat on demand. Especially in the winter out here, which is when we need the heat and when the sun isn’t shining. (There’s an important connection there, we should note.) In other words, our electric furnace needs the centralized industrial economy and the electric grid it provides to produce heat.

Now let’s consider the wood stove. Here we find that the line is not nearly so straight, and even is capable of veering into the margins. Unlike the electric furnace, the wood stove can work with a variety of different types of fuel. First and foremost is wood, of course, but it could produce heat from many different combustible materials. Even if we were to stay with wood, though, the ways that wood can be acquired is far more varied than the electric furnace, which needs to be hooked up to a centralized electric grid to work. Wood can be acquired in ways that are highly dependent on the industrial economy and ways that are far less dependent on it. Depending on where you live, it could even be acquired without help of the industrial economy. Scrap wood can be harvested from the forest floor. A series of sturdy hand tools combined with human (and perhaps animal) labor can take a tree and fell, split, chop, and stack it into a winter’s worth of heating. For us in particular, out here on the Oregon coast, access to consistent and reliable electricity is almost certainly going to go away before access to locally grown wood.

Furthermore, a bit of systems thinking leads us to other advantages of the wood stove. As a concentrated source of heat, it not only can be used for heating the home, but for cooking food—and it can do both those things at the same time, with the same heat. Even those wood stoves not made explicitly for cooking provide a hot surface. If you have a cast iron pan and that surface is big enough to balance it on, you can cook food. Still further beyond that, modifying your wood stove to include some kind of wetback system could provide hot water, to boot, providing you three critical functions for the price of one. In the world of permaculture, this is called “stacking functions” and it’s a way of making the most out of your resources that’s rooted in ecological and systems thinking. The beauty of a wood stove is that—in the simplicity of its design and its lack of high technology, which tends to focus on single tasks—it’s capable of supporting multiple functions. An electric furnace, on the other hand, simply can’t heat your water or cook your food. It’s designed only to heat a house, and it goes about that in a very particular way.

In fact, considering the heating device itself is also a good exercise in systems thinking. Our electric furnace is a single-trick pony, designed to be hooked up to an electric grid, a duct system, and a thermostat. Take any of those pieces away and its functioning is either reduced or eliminated. I know of no way to modify it to do other tasks at the same time as its heating the house (though perhaps that can be done and I just don’t know about it!) As well, the electric furnace is dependent on the continued functioning of the heating coil and the blower, or else it simply won’t function properly. If one of these breaks down, the furnace must be repaired or replaced, and that likely will require parts out of an industrialized supply chain. A wood stove, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more sturdy device. It is, first and foremost, a heavy metal box. It’s not dependent on a number of moving parts, nor is it dependent on a duct system (outside of the chimney) or on a thermostat, outside of the predilections of whichever human is charged with starting a fire. It is a sturdy device, likely to last longer than the electric furnace, and certain repairs may be possible without resort to a long distance supply chain. Its heat can more easily be localized if you want to maximize your fuel by heating less space. Closed doors make for a better barrier than closed air vents, after all. In the starkest of situations, you’re likely to have a bit better a time cozying up to a wood stove than to a HVAC vent. (Not to mention, it makes for a more romantic, or haunting, image.)

In short, the wood stove can take a multitude of different paths to the final goal of heat, and can even provide multiple functions upon achieving that goal. The electric furnace knows one path, and its final goal is limited in scope, as well. As such, the wood stove—for many people—is much more resilient a technology for a deindustrializing future than an electric furnace.

This isn’t to say the wood stove is a perfect solution, even for those of us who live surrounded by forests. For starters, those forests can go away fast. The number of clear cuts out here are already too numerous to count and, as we go through the long and harsh process of deindustrialization, there’s good reason to think that quite a bit of rural land could easily be stripped nearly bare by desperate individuals, desperate communities, and desperate governments. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but it might. So even for those of us living amongst the trees, firewood could eventually become more challenging to gain hold of. Furthermore, a good supply of firewood involves quite a lot of labor—either done by humans, animals, machines running on fossil fuels, or some combination of those. A future in which chain saws and diesel-powered splitters are more scarce—either with less of these actual tools around or less access to the fuel to run them—is going to mean that putting away a winter’s worth of wood heating is going to be a challenging task. Particularly for those who are older, in poorer health, or simply not used to hard physical labor. But they’re not insurmountable, and a good community—and good relations with that community—could go a long way toward getting over that hump.

Similarly, the electric furnace could prove to have more worth in certain situations, such as in an urban environment. While I still wouldn’t want to count on it for the long term, there could easily be a day a few decades down the road when a city dweller still has access to the centralized electric grid but couldn’t easily get firewood, while a rural dweller might be able to come across a good supply of firewood fairly easily but has lost any connection to a centralized electric grid. In this case, the city dweller is obviously better off with the electric furnace than a wood stove and the rural dweller vice versa. This comes back to one of the basic tenants behind systems thinking: that it has to be rooted in the local context, not in theory. Systems thinking is about dealing with the world as it is. As such, my above example about wood stoves is relevant for me, in my rural home, and likely relevant for a good number of Americans—but it isn’t relevant for all. Each person has to engage their own local context—their community, their ecosystem, their personal reality—to come to the most resilient way forward.

A final moment of reflection on this post, though—and particularly that last paragraph—will reveal an important truth. All this talk of wood stoves and electric furnaces is rooted in a basic idea that’s very much a product of industrial and reductionist thinking, which is the idea of bending the world to our will. But one inconvenient reality of the future is that we’re going to have much less control over our world than we’re used to today. We’re going to be making do with what we have far more than we’re used to. The margins are wild, and they’re going to demand more from us than we’re going to be able to demand from them. Learning to live well within and accept that reality is a key part of learning to live in the margins, and I’ll delve into that in the next entry in How To Be Poor.

16 responses to “Live in the Margins

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  1. I decided I will give an example of what could possibly happen.

    In a small mountain town of Arizona many years ago, I was taking a workshop and we were dismissed to go have lunch. I drove to the local Safeway, and ordered a deli sandwich in their fresh meat department. The clerk made the sandwich, and then all the lights in the store went out. Their computerized cash register machines were not working. The clerk told me she could not sell me the sandwich, because the machine was not working. I pleaded with her that I really needed that sandwich because I was in a workshop and had no other time to get my lunch. She finally gave me the sandwich, and I gave her the money insisting she could ring it up when the electricity came back on.

    Now just imagine that there is such a powerful solar flare or coronal mass effusion that it knocks out our electrical grids. How would grocery stores, gas stations, or anything run by electrical machines be able to function? In cities everything would stop functioning.

    In 1859, there was such a powerful solar flare that telegraph lines in the U.S. stopped working and some of the machines caught fire. I had read about that, as well as saw it recently in the current documentary film called Solar Revolution. If that dramatic situation happened today, I would hope people would have extra water and food in preparation for such an emergency.

    I received this email:
    The UN Braces for Stormy Space Weather

    NASA Science News for Feb. 13, 2013
    Forecasters say solar maximum is due in 2013. To prepare, the United Nations is taking steps to organize an international response to stormy space weather.

    FULL STORY: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2013/13feb_copuos/

    This may be the year we learn how dependent we are on electricity to keep us alive and functioning. ……. Dixie

    • Yep, if the electricity suddenly went out in a truly widespread manner, it would lead to a hell of a lot of chaos. I remember once or twice having the power go out at Fred Meyer when I worked there and it caused plenty of confusion. Even the credit card processing system going down could turn things into a bit of a nightmare. Couple that with a lack of basic math skills and the nightmare of bureaucracy, and you get something akin to your Safeway experience. People can become completely at a loss when the underlying support system for our industrial society fails.

      I doubt we’ll end up with a national electricity outage, but the huge Northeast blackout from a few years ago shows the interconnectedness and fragility of our electric grid. Best to have a back up plan in place, just in case. And helps even more to actually go without electricity at times and to have some sense of how you would go about things if you were to lose it for a few days or a week (or longer!)

  2. An interesting note on stacking functions: I don’t know of any way to modify the electric furnace, but they do make fuel cells which heat your home, your water, and produce electricity. And since they run on natural gas, they could conceivably work off of a biodigester.

    Also, wood stoves are a little old-fashioned. These days we have rocket stoves, rocket mass heaters, and wood gas burners available. Individually they are more efficient than wood stoves but less resilient, but collectively they provide more options.

    • Interesting, John! I’ll have to look into that a bit more when I get some time. As for the wood stoves, I do so love them even if they are a bit old-fashioned. Not to mention, there’s already quite a few of them in this country and so I’m sure they’ll be put to good use as we get farther along into our decline. That said, I recently learned of the rocket mass heater and am very intrigued. If I ever get some little cabin or straw bale house built for myself, I would definitely look into putting in a rocket mass heater. Sounds like a fantastic option. And I would no doubt have a rocket stove for outdoor cooking.

  3. Excellent post, Joel. I lived in a little cottage for two years in Western PA and all I had for heat was a small wood stove. I loved it! But due to family circumstances beyond my control, I am now living in a small apartment in CO with my daughter and her young son. Natural gas heat and water. I cannot imagine living here if the industrial society declines so much that there’s no heat. These buildings aren’t set up for any other way of living. People will have to learn to adapt, but I don’t know how. I am trying to educate my extended family about the coming hard times, but nobody really wants to listen. They all seem to sense that things are going radically wrong, but have no idea what to do. At least my five year old grandson is learning that lots of things can be “made” and not “bought”. Things like food, yarn, sweaters, rugs, soap, clothes,etc., etc. What bothers me is none of my extended family feels the need to learn any skills from me. “Oh, Mom can make it”. Or sister or grandma. I won’t be here forever. And I learned to live like this from my own mother. I don’t know what the answer is.
    Well, as always, many blessings, Joel, and I’m glad for your recent postings. Makes me feel there’s hope for the world.
    Aloha, Heather

    • Hi Heather,

      Yeah, quite a lot of our living arrangements are not set up for a loss of natural gas. Especially back in the east, with the harder winters, that seems like it could be something of a disaster some odd decades down the road. We’ll see what happens with it, but I would be a bit nervous to be so dependent on such infrastructure. Still, I can’t see it going away in the next couple years, so there’s probably some time to make adjustments and alternate plans.

      I would say focus on your grandson. Not to sound too harsh, but there’s still hope for him. Even in the next five or ten years, we might start really feeling the effects of contraction and so it may well be that the world to come is one that he ends up being pretty familiar with from the outset. In ways, that will make it easier for him. The more you can prep him now for that world—whether he understands what you’re prepping him for or not–the easier his future we’ll be. He’s blessed to have you.

      As for the rest of the family, there’s not much you can do but be willing to teach them if and when they come around. Hopefully they’ll get it sooner rather than later. But your grandson—he’s more open. Take advantage of that. Teach him now, and help him understand all the ways these skills make for a better and happier life, anyway.

      Otherwise, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad I can give you a little hope. It’s out there!

  4. John, I don’t know if I agree that a rocket mass stove is less resilient than an old fashioned wood burner. I would just say it’s resilient and more efficient at the same time.

    Joel, I’m sure you know about them, but if you don’t here’s a great link. http://www.richsoil.com/rocket-stove-mass-heater.jsp Paul Wheaton is responsible for this link, he’s the dude that runs Permies.com.

    I’ve been kicking around a blog in my head today about Rewilding. It’s interesting to me how the collective consciousness works inside the blogosphere. We’re all really plugged into the same thing. I really enjoyed your blog and the paper margin analogy is a good one. The margins are closing in; no doubt about that. You can either let fortune have it’s way with you, you can consciously go towards the margins, or you can attempt to stay inside. Then there’s what I’m doing…a combination of all three. If I was not a family man, with kids, I’d be rewilding right now.

    • Hi Aaron,

      I do know about them, but I only recently learned. I saw that exact same link. I can’t quite remember who first brought it to my attention—do you recall a past comment referencing me to it? Or have you had it on your blog? I do check in there. Anyway, ever since I saw that link, I’ve been a bit enamored with the idea. I met someone recently in Detroit (met her online, that is) who has a friend who put one in their home. They seem like fantastic appropriate tech. As I noted to John above, if I ever get a small cabin or strawbale house or whatever built, I may well put in a rocket mass heater.

      I’ll look forward to your Rewilding post. One of our biggest challenges, it seems to me, is going to be taking the world and our ecosystem on its own terms rather than trying to conform it to what we want from it. We’re so used to being able to force the world to our desires, it’s going to be a hell of an adjustment learning to deal with it on its own terms.

    • Perhaps if I had said “versatile” rather than “resilient” I might have made my point better. Wood stoves can take much larger fuel and burn longer than most of the others. Rocket mass heaters are also limited in that you generally can’t control the speed of the burn nor can you make biochar. Now if you want really versatile, check out the Biochar Experimenter’s Kit: http://bekbiochar.pbworks.com/w/page/6465132/FrontPage

      And Joel, I disagree, as long as we have language and memory, we will be able to conform the world to our desires. What will need adjustment is our patience. What we could do in months will take generations. But that also means we will have more time to observe the changes and not overshoot.

  5. Hey Joel,
    Yeah, wood fires are very versatile and if you are up in the forest, firewood is plentiful. I use this one here: http://www.metaldynamics.com.au/gourmetcooker.htm and it heats the house, water, has a stove top and an oven. Plus the water circuit is connected to hydronic radiators, however they hardly get used now that the house is better sealed and insulated. It’s only a small house after all and the wood box is sufficient. I cook in the thing all winter and fresh bread is to kill for… Over summer I have a small electric oven that sits under the car port (which doesn’t get used for vehicles!) and that runs off the solar and keeps the heat outside of the house at the same time. It doesn’t taste the same though and is slower to cook. A loaf of bread requires about 0.81kWh of electrical energy to bake.

    Electric heaters though would drain the batteries completely in a day or so during winter! Yikes! The hot water over summer is via a couple of solar hot water panels up on the roof, needless to say under the present weather conditions here – which are extreme – the water is toasty hot.

    Had a little heart starter about an hour ago. I looked down the valley and spotted more fire. Fortunately it now looks under control, but the winds would have pushed it up here and it isn’t going to get anywhere below 30 degrees during the day (about 87 Fahrenheit) until at least Wednesday. It is the 30th anniversary today of the Ash Wednesday fires which wiped out this area http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ash_Wednesday_Bushfires

    Are these extremes putting any of your perennial plantings into dangerous territory? Do you worry you might lose some of them as the climate shifts continue?

    Maybe. I’m not really sure. So far I’ve lost about 10% of the plantings overall, but 90% has survived. Chilling hours for the fruit trees may be a problem for the future. Some fruit trees here require at least 700 hours of temperatures below 7 degrees Celsius (about 45 Fahrenheit) to set fruit. It is the lack of water that is the real risk here – and elsewhere across the state. I harvest as much as I can in the soil, and this is paying off as it is only the very young fruit trees that died off here. I’m thinking of replanting them with very hardy acacia melanoxylon for both shade and nitrogen (they’re also local). The risk of being wiped out in a bushfire is very high so I’m tackling that more when things cool down a bit here. Fresh greens have stopped germinating in the heat and if they grow, they all bolt to seed, so perhaps a shade house is in order?

    However, if I run out of drinking water, I have no choice other to buy it in and trucking it up here is expensive. I’m definitely going to add some more water tanks to the system over winter.

    Women make excellent farmers as they are both more co-operative and less dogmatic! I can’t recall where I read that about kangaroos. Glad to hear that you are enjoying Tim Flannery.

    We’re now self-sufficient for alcohol too! I was thinking seriously about sugar in this climate which is crucial for a lot of my preserving so plunged into the world of bees. One thing leads to another and then you find yourself making mead, which is quite idiot proof – which suits me just fine! I thoroughly recommend giving it a bash and I’ve wished that I’d started many years before, it just never occurred to me to even try, that is one of the great benefits of Internet blogs in that you get exposed to lots of ideas to try out… Some friends are trying to do a big apple cider day using their parents apple crusher (they also own a still too!) and they’re on a farm not too far from here.

    I picked up a couple of new silkie chooks today at the Seymour Alternative Farming Expo today. They’re great because they lay eggs during Autumn when most of the other chooks are regrowing their feathers and are off the lay. All of the others lay right through winter into late summer.

    Keep well. Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      I love that you have the kWh of bread baking in the electric oven figured out. That’s fascinating. As for the wood stove, that one you have looks like a beauty. There’s nothing quite like baking in a wood stove, is there? I’ve made various breads and other lovely concoctions when I lived at the off-grid homestead in 2011, using the main wood stove in the house. It took a brief bit of adjustment, but I got the hang of it. (Extra heat in the back left corner—could burn a corner of your loaf of bread or a couple cookies back that way.) The thing I loved about the wood stove, though, is that it teaches you to cook more by feel than set times and temperatures. There is no real set temperature with a wood stove—at least, the one I used!—and so I just had to keep an eye on things. Always worked out fine, though. It was also a good lesson that most of those specific temperatures and times and all that is rubbish. Just wing it.

      Yeah, I’m sure no shortage of hot water for you at the moment!

      Sorry to hear about your heart-stopping moment. It must be stressful having those fires off in the distance, wondering if the wind will shift or catch it. I’ll keep good thoughts headed your way! I’m sure the fire will trump them and do whatever it will do, but I figure well wishes can’t hurt.

      I hope your plantings survive okay. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future in regards to the needed cold nights. You obviously are highly observant and thoughtful, so I’m sure you’ll figure it out, barring any major catastrophes like a fire coming through. This is part of the rewilding talked about in comments above, I suppose—figuring out how best to work within the limitations and opportunities provided by the local ecosystem, then just hoping for the best!

      Congratulations on the alcohol! That’s a fine thing to be self-sufficient in. I would love to eventually do some beekeeping, but it’s not at the top of the list for the moment. Actually, the property I’m on now has some hives in an old barn. They’re from a nearby beekeeper—just a ridiculously nice man and, so far as I can tell, a great beekeeper. But it’s hard to have them out here because of the cold and wet winters. It’s a challenge to keep the hives alive through to the spring, which doesn’t really kick in often until late May or June. Even then, you have to get into July before you can safely count on a lot of sunny weather. Anyway, sounds like you have lots of honey to work with there. Do you think the winter will be a challenge? This upcoming one will be your first with the bees, is that right?

      I would love to eventually grow the ingredients for and then brew my own beer. Barley and hops can be grown out here, even on the coast. The whole process, though, would be quite a bit of work—certainly more than for cider or mead. There are a number of apple trees scattered about out here, so it would be fairly simple to make cider and then let it ferment. I do love beer the best, though. Maybe I’ll try to put in a barley crop this spring. Might be a good excuse to invest in a scythe.

      Hope the silkies are settling in well. Take care, Chris.

  6. Hi Joel,

    Yeah. I love the digital meter inside the house that tells it like it is (keeps it real for me on an energy front. hehe!). There aren’t that many houses off the grid in Australia and there is a small Internet community that keeps in touch and helps out when things go wrong and they’re not shy about telling you when you need to be looking at something in particular – some people may even use the word “insensitive”. They’re a good bunch and have taught me a lot about off grid living. It is amazing that after a few years, you just get a feel for how the system is working. It isn’t that much different from agriculture, in that you are just more aware of the environment around you. I’ll bet you observe things now, that a couple of years back, you would never have noticed?

    Wood fired bread and biscuits. Mmmm yum! It is a different way to cook as you have to be more involved and here it is at different temperatures from the electric oven (or even what the recipes say). It is as you say, more of a feel than a science. Yeah, just wing it. The first loaf, I followed the recipes and temperature guides and the loaf almost caught fire within about 3 minutes. Subtract about 100 degrees Celsius and it worked a whole lot better. hehe!

    Your good thoughts are paying off here so far, please keep sending them. It isn’t working out so well for people living on the northern edge of Melbourne though as they had a big grass fire come through yesterday (yeah, it even went well into the outer suburbs). Not what you’d expect living in a housing estate, but that’s Down Under for you. There is some video and photos at the news article below:

    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/residents-flee-as-fire-bites-melbournes-northern-edge-20130218-2envw.html

    Rewilding,what a great description of what actually needs to be done. Nice one.

    Don’t knock your winters. The photos of the snow on the buildings and gardens looked awesome, plus it is a good excuse to sit inside on the Internet. The bees here are European honey bees, so perhaps they’ll cope with the NW winters? Australia is a large exporter of European honey bee colonies, especially because so far, the varroa mite hasn’t reached (or survived) on our shores. It is the only large land mass left free of the mite. It spread after people tried to cross breed the Asian honey bee – which lived with it in a symbiotic relationship – and the European bee.

    I’ve heard the trick in really cold weather is not to take all of the honey from the hive, it is their winter stores after all and they’ll starve if bee keepers take too much. Hopefully, this weekend a mate of mine will be coming over to help put the 3rd box onto the hive and this is the one I’ll take the honey from. It hasn’t snowed here for four years now, but dry summers tend to be cold winters or so the old timers tell me. I never know what one month to the next will bring.

    I’ll bet your area has awesome micro breweries if hops and barley are on the menu? Your mission, should you decide to accept it is to search out… Just kidding! Home made beer is like home made bread and biscuits, it’s just better. I’ve been reading up on how to make it and it does look a bit more complex than mead and cider like you’re saying. The cleaning of the vats seems particularly onerous, not that I’m slack on that front, it just seems that there doesn’t seem to be much tolerance for error? Still, if you have the raw materials…

    The silkies are settling in well and tonight have moved slightly up the chook wrung, by sleeping in a chook pack on top of the shell grit container (rather than on the ground in a bed of sugar cane mulch as per previous nights). Do you have any livestock there?

    Keep well. Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Where I’m living now, we have no livestock—unless you want to count the cat (who had a recent close call with a raccoon!) It would be nice to have some chickens and/or ducks around—particularly for the eggs, but also for the entertainment value—but that’s not the current set up. Perhaps that will change at some point, but I also don’t know how long I’ll be here. One of these days, I’ll actually settle. Maybe. I just still don’t know quite how to go about it.

      Snow is not very common here, despite those pictures. We’ve had pretty much no snow this year—nothing but a light dusting, anyway. It’s actually been a very mild winter. While we haven’t had snow, we also haven’t had as much rain and as many storms as we normally do. In fact, we’ve had some nice stretches of sun, which isn’t that common here! So I’m not complaining, even if I did wish for at least one decent snow storm. I’m really curious about how the spring is going to be here. Right now, it’s trying to trick us into thinking it will be nice, but I’m trying not to fall for it. Before you know it, the cold rain and hail will start and then won’t stop until June. NOT FALLING FOR IT.

      Anyway, yes, I think you definitely have to leave some of the honey for the bees, or you have to feed them. A friend of mine who has bees out here gives them syrup in the late winter and early spring, once they’ve eaten through whatever honey was left to them. It’s just a 1:1 sugar and water ratio, I believe. Of course, it’s cheap sugar, and thus from GMO sugar beets. I wonder how that effects the bees? Out here, I think it’s actually more the wet than the cold that really gives them trouble. I believe there are mold issues and the such.

      I hope you get a little snow this winter after the hellish summer you’ve had. Assuming that’s what you’d like!

      Yeah, we have an incredible brewing scene out here. In fact, Portland is arguably the best beer city in the world. I believe it’s still tops in total breweries, breweries per capita, and a number of other metrics. And subjectively, damn is there just a ridiculous amount of great beer in the city. Throughout the state at this point. It’s a serious industry here and everyone seems to know, appreciate, and expect good beer. As for the making of the beer, I think there maybe is less room for error, but I also suspect that gets overhyped a bit. I’ve made beer in pretty lax conditions, not being nearly as thorough in my cleaning as recommended, and it came out fine. Granted, it could get skunked, but I wonder if the risk is a little overstated. And as for equipment, the brewing I’ve done has been in five gallon batches and the mash tun was just a converted Coleman cooler. Attach some fairly simple piping with holes cut into it into the drain hole, seal it up, and then you can put your grain in there, pour in your hot water, close things up, it stays at the proper temperature for an hour or so, then just open the drain hole and drain out the wort into a large, five gallon steel pot, pop that on a propane burner or wood stove or whatever your heat source and boil with your hops. Ferments in a five gallon, glass carboy and that’s not too hard to clean if you have a proper brush. Nor is the converted cooler mash tun that hard to clean. If you wanted a bigger, more professional set up, then perhaps the cleaning’s a bit more onerous.

      Glad the silkies are settling and already climbing the ladder. How ambitious!

  7. Good post, Joel. I think it was John Michael Greer, in one of his books, that said that in rural areas (to start) it will be like a film running backwards. Loss of electricity and roads going to rack and ruin. Already, I’ve seen several articles about States allowing thousands of miles of rural roads to go back to gravel or worse. Asphalt, petroleum based of course, becoming to expensive. Here in our flood prone county (two 500 year floods and one 1000 year flood … in ten years) some bridges have been replaced three times. Bridges that serve a very small number of people. I was so relieved when I moved up out of the flood plane. I might be flooded IN but I won’t be flooded OUT.

    Was glad to see some of your readers had links to articles on rocket stoves. I’ve been very curious about them, but haven’t found many articles that make sense to me. Just old and senile, I guess :-) . One of the major drawbacks of my place is that the landlord isn’t keen on my putting in a wood stove. So, I depend on propane for my heat and a cranky old propane stove to deliver it. At least, if I loose my power, I can at least keep the living room warm and do a bit of cooking on it.

    Just got back from 9 days of farm sitting. No goats this time. I think my friends flirtation with goats is at an end. Not much meat for a great deal of expense and care. So, I just had the chickens, cats and dogs to take care of. No major problems. Odd with the chickens. They deliver 5 to 11 eggs a day. The time I was there, always an odd number. 7 or 9 but never 8 or 10. They’re free range, so every day is a real Easter egg hunt :-). But, they have their favorite places, with the odd egg here or there. Somewhere in a very big barn. Brought home three bales of spoiled straw for my garden. There’s a lot more to be had for the hauling. Just need to get my act together.

    I’ll be helping my friends to get ready for their move to Idaho. House goes on the market in March and a big farm auction in April. I’ll pick up a little jingle for helping them out. They’re giving me 7 chickens. So, I need to build a chicken palace and fortify my potential garden space against critters. And, I’m not handy with my hands. Oh, well. As with so much out here, I’m sure I’ll learn as I go along. Picked up several books on chickens and chicken houses. My friends are giving me a rank of six nesting boxes that I’ll build the palace around.

    My little cat was sooo happy to see me, and I her, even though I was home every two days to feed her and the dog. I finally just sat in my chair for an hour last night and let her have her way with me. Had a good talk with a dog guy, out at the farm, about my old dog Beau who came with this place. He’s taken a couple of bad tumbles down the back deck steps. I think his hips are going. I’m going to put a gate on the bottom of the steps. And start slipping him a little aspirin every day. Ought to add a couple of years onto his life, and he’ll be a lot more comfortable. My, I do run on …

    • Hi Lew,

      Yes, I have a memory of that bit from Greer, as well. It’s stuck with me and rural deelectrification was one of the aspects of that idea that’s resonated with me. It’s certainly something to ponder out here. I don’t expect it will go away tomorrow, of course, but if I stick around long term, I imagine I could see it happen. Every time a big storm hits out here and knocks out the power, I think about those fixes taking longer and longer until one day they just stop happening.

      As for roads, it’s not just the rural areas—though, of course, the repairs will eventually run short as the tax bases falter and new bonds are voted down in economic hard times. Portland has a many million dollar short fall on keeping up their road system. The potholes continue to grow and the gravel roads in the eastern sections of the city—which were always going to be paved, one of these days—will never be paved. As well they shouldn’t, frankly (no offense to the east side—plenty of closer in and western side roads never should have been paved, either.) The same with all those roads in the Cully neighborhood that they keep claiming will get sidewalks. Some may, but most probably won’t.

      And flooding! We, of course, have issues with that out here. With that, I always think of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth in which he made the obvious point that the extreme storms brought on by climate change will disproportionately damage our infrastructure, since it’s so often located along geographical lines vulnerable to extreme weather. Roads washed out by flooding, power lines taken out by falling trees, and so on. Good on you for getting out of the flood zone—that’s a mighty dangerous place to be. I wonder what will happen out here on the coast as climate change continues to ramp up. What if one of the major ice caps begin to break apart? There could be serious sea level rises in a relatively short period of time, not even considering coast line erosion from major storms. Or the economic impact from a collapsing tourist industry, for that matter! It’s going to be fascinating to see, and to see how fast or slow it all happens.

      Basic rocket stoves for cooking are pretty simple, it seems, though I didn’t make the one I used. One day I will. Rocket mass heaters appear to be more of an event to make.

      Congrats on the successful farm sitting. I’ve been on the hunt for free range chicken eggs before. It can be both fun and frustrating, but there’s a real excitement on discovering a real stash. I remember one nest that had something close to three dozen eggs in it, I believe. That was crazy. I’m not sure if any of them were still good—I think they mostly got tossed in the back forty. Anyway, it’s good to hear you’ll be getting some chickens. I’m sure you’ll figure out the coop. So long as it’s sturdy and secure enough to keep out the raccoons and weasels, doesn’t have to be beautiful. Just buy plenty of screws.

      Cats are a blessing. Ours here disappeared for a couple days and just showed back up the night before last. We thought he was a goner. He nearly was, it seems—his back leg was a bit mangled, though not broken. Don’t know for sure, but we’re pretty positive a raccoon got at him and he was able to fight him off and get away. He had an infection, but a trip to the vet, a number of stitches, and antibiotics seem to have him on the path to a full recovery. And he seems even happier than normal to be home. Of course, he’s already getting restless. He’s supposed to stay in for two weeks, until the stitches are out. I suspect he’s going to go a bit stir crazy.

  8. Pingback: Tree Hugger | Of The Hands

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