Archive for the ‘Homesteading’ Category

The Cult of the Expert   17 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

— ∞ —

“A system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average—one is tempted to say ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturalists and ‘agribusinessmen,’ the problem of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else—or, perhaps more typically, nobody else—will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him.”

— ∞ —

I suppose specialization is a feature, and not a bug, of the modern, industrial economy. To run such a complex and industrial infrastructure as we have come to rely upon, we need millions of people carrying out very specific and specialized tasks. This infrastructure is made up of uncountable widgets and devices and roles that all have their own particularity and that, thus, require their own particular machines or trained humans to be run and maintained. Broad classifications of generalized and necessary economic activity have been broken apart and splintered into much more specific niches, and then have been absorbed as a fraction into a far more sprawling beast we might refer to as the discretionary economy. In today’s industrial economy, the necessities of life—food, water, shelter, a clean and functioning environment, community—are now almost an afterthought to the vast and consuming industry of non-necessity: distraction, destruction, profit-driven specialization, a massaging of and attentiveness to human ego both impressive and horrifying. We have discovered an infinite number of economic niches driven not by the particularities of place and community—which would be the basis of niches in a functioning and sane economy—but on the basis of catering to the human ego by creating an infinite number of variations on conformity so that we might convince everyone that, no matter how much they immerse and then lose themselves in the base homogeneity of our culture, they truly are a unique human being, as proven by their particular combination of iPhone apps, or which of the many Nabisco snacks they prefer, or which Anheuser-Busch-owned beer they drink.

Of course, as we’ve created this insanely complex yet oddly generic economy and industrial base, we’ve come to worship at the alter of specialization. We know that we need years upon years of education and training so that we may be successful in today’s high tech, globalized economy. We know that to seize the bright future that is rightfully ours, we must *insert cliche here* so that *tribal term here* may compete in today’s *overtly positive economic buzzword here*. And we know this because we’re told it again and again, each time with slightly varying terms, and always emerging from the mouth of a respected “leader” or, even better, a certified expert.

For in today’s world of hyper-specialization, we have a never ending supply of experts always streaming across our television screens and popping up on the internet, ready and willing to tell us something that we desperately need to know but that we don’t know because we lack the training and intelligence and bottom-of-the-screen label that this particular expert does. In a world, after all, in which specialization reigns supreme, it only makes sense that we have an expert for every conceivable situation—and that we rarely have more than one expert for any particular situation. By embracing the idea of specialization, defining the industrial economy as the greatest economy that has ever existed or will ever exist, and celebrating every new fragmentation of our lives as a matter of great progress, we’ve created the necessity for this multitude of experts. By proclaiming that the height of human ability is to be trained in one very specific task and to be the sole person capable of performing that task—or to be the very best at that task, even if other people fumble through their own inadequate attempts at said task—then we condemn ourselves to, at best, being extremely good at one or two things and very bad at everything else. Or, if not very bad, then at least inadequate—unable to stake our claim to that task with the sort of legitimacy that a real expert would.

— ∞ —

“The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals—or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.”

— ∞ —

Such a world of experts is the wet dream of the industrial cornucopian. We are told constantly that the mark of a great economy is efficiency. We must grow our citrus only where citrus grows best, our apples only where they grow best, mine our metals only where they are easiest to mine, derive all our energy from centralized power plants producing the most possible energy with the least amount of human labor, build our machines where the taxes are the lowest and the energy is cheapest and most abundant and the labor is low-cost and compliant, make our butter and cheese in vast factories where machines do the work and every bit of wasted energy can be cut out, then ship that cheese and butter all around the world. We must take every meaningful human activity, load it into a spread sheet, determine how to transfer the activity to machines, cut out as many humans as possible, destroy as much of its meaning as possible, commoditize it, cheapen it, degrade it, divvy it up, and declare success. We must find wholes and reduce them to pieces, mechanize them, specialize them, burrow down into their specific depths and obsess over the details and forget always any inherent or overarching meaning, forget anything that the pieces might make together. We must never see the forest; only the trees, and then only the value in cutting them down. We must eliminate God or any semblance of God at every turn, for God only confuses the issue. We must destroy any sense of the sacred. It clouds our vision. Lastly, we must declare science and economy our new God, make them sacred, and then proclaim our vision finally clear. With this clear vision, we will specialize everything, reduce all we can see, proclaim our knowledge and wisdom infinite, and worship experts—all for the unequivocal good of humanity.

But where is this good? A life in the hands of experts is supposed to be the perfect life. That’s why we have all these experts in the first place—so we can avoid mistakes and engage our lives only in the most effective of ways. And yet, we seem in many ways a miserable and perpetually unsatisfied people. Things never are perfect but we yearn to make them so. It’s a paradox—our cult of the expert should provide us constantly expert advice, which should provide us the means to live our lives perfectly. But there’s nothing paradoxical about this at all. It makes perfect sense that in a society that worships experts and the idea that all tasks should be carried out to perfection that we find ourselves constantly unsatisfied, always searching for the perfection we can’t seem to grasp. And that’s because, rather than attain any kind of perfection, we’ve simply altered the expectations of our society, creating desires that are unfulfillable.

Seeing perfection as a possibility, we yearn for it and sense that if we can attain it, we will be perfectly happy. In our efforts to attain it, we pay attention to the experts who are supposed to know how to attain perfection—who are supposedly practitioners of it. Yet there are two problems with this approach. First and foremost is that perfection tends to be an unattainable ideal. Or, more specifically, it’s an unattainable ideal for humans. It’s a much more attainable ideal for machines, and therein lies one of our problems. Since we have allowed our thinking to be distorted by our industrial economic base, we tend now to think in mechanistic terms rather than in the animalistic terms that are natural to us as human beings—as animals. Our ideas of perfection are rooted in mechanical notions. They’re based on reductionism, strictly-defined variables and controlled circumstances. By homogenizing and standardizing the scenario in which we attain perfection, we should be able to homogenize and standardize the perfection. We define the scenario, define the desired outcome, and then use those defined realities to create the steps we need to take from scenario to desired outcome. This often works in the realm of machines. If we have a human-made screw that needs to be screwed into a human-made panel, we can create a human-made machine that will work within strict parameters to screw that screw into that panel. Every element of the scenario is controlled by us, the outcome is defined by us, and thus we are able to create the fulfillment of that outcome.

But that’s not how human lives work, now is it? If we want to raise our children well, there’s not an expert in the world who can define the full breadth of the scenario of raising children, define a final goal (what does it mean to “raise our children well?”) and then provide us the steps to get there. It can’t be done because the scenario cannot be defined and controlled by humans, nor can the outcome be so controlled, at least not completely. There are far too many variables, far too many elements, far too many other creatures involved, far too much unpredictability and lack of control. Human lives do not unfold within the same paradigm as our mechanistic creations do, and so attempting to attain perfection as defined in mechanistic terms is doomed to failure.

There is, however, an even bigger problem with our attempts to attain perfection and thus be happy, which is that perfection doesn’t make us happy. I suspect some people might argue that point, and I imagine there are even a few exceptions out there to this rule. But I firmly believe that perfection would lead to human misery—utter boredom. Even if there was some way to define and then achieve perfection in the realm of human life, why would we want to do so? How could that produce happiness? The happiness we feel as humans stems out of the inherent messiness of life. We need our successes and failures, our joy and pain, our horrors and contentments. Without these contrasts and these back-and-forths, we can’t appreciate any of this life. It’s a terribly old idea, but you can’t appreciate light without dark. We can’t be happy if we don’t know sadness and misery. We can’t enjoy our successes if we’ve never known failure.

Imagine the happiest moments of your life and tell me whether or not you understand them without contrasting them against other moments of your life. I’m not saying you always think of dichotomies when you think of happiness, but I do think it’s lurking there in the back of your mind if it’s not in the forefront. When I think about the joy of waking up in the morning next to someone I love, then maybe having some coffee and a leisurely breakfast, I understand the joy of that in contrast of waking up alone on a cold morning, knowing I have to go to work. Now, that first scenario may not be perfect and that second one may not be horrible. Perhaps I like my work, even if I really don’t want to get out of bed and prefer the idea of sleeping in. Perhaps the breakfast with my significant other isn’t that satisfying or we get into a small argument, or there’s a clash of desires. But whatever form of perfection I might see in the first scenario, I need the second scenario to appreciate the first. This is simply the juxtaposition of comforts I’ve written about before. We need a wide breadth of experiences to better understand those experiences. We need to be able to compare and contrast, to work different sensations off each other so that we may better learn those sensations.

We’ve attempted to eliminate the messiness from human lives, but in so doing we only are making ourselves less happy. Our joy comes from that messiness, even if our misery does as well. It’s the point of being human. What could we possibly have to do here if we were here only to live a perfect life? Why even bother?

— ∞ —

“The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstance and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties.

It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be—because he still has some gumption that he has not yet given up in deference to the experts. He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim.”

— Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, (p. 19-21)

— ∞ —

The industrial, globalized economy is the attempt at perfection. It’s the height of our mechanistic dreams, our specializations, our worship of experts, our attempts at control. It’s us not figuring out how to live well within the messy realities of life, but our attempts to control and purify that life, to make it work well no matter what. It’s our attempt not to find our happiness and satisfaction from within, but to impose perfection upon ourselves from outside—to control our outer environment so that we don’t have to concern ourselves with our inner environment. As such, it is an outer economy. We go to work. We leave the home. We tap outside forces to guide and maintain that economy and then we insert ourselves into it, into our very controlled and defined niche.

The household economy is much more messy, at least in terms of how we think of messiness. The household economy necessitates that we deal with ourselves, that we work within the uncontrolled variables of life. We don’t go to work in the household economy. We live there. We don’t leave the home to engage in the household economy. We stay in the home. We don’t give control of the household economy to outside forces. We control it ourselves. We don’t standardize the household economy. We make it our own and each household economy exists only in one specific home.

Similarly, the household economy is a complete affront to the cult of the expert. We should not be making our own butter; a machine should be making it, and it should be strictly controlled. We should not be making our own cheese; a machine should be making it, or a master cheese artisan should be crafting the finest cheese. Our households are not efficient. In fact, the household economy is necessarily inefficient, at least in the insane way in which we define efficiency in the industrial economy. Rather than trusting our livelihoods to machines, the household economy is about bringing our livelihoods back into our homes and into our own hands. It’s about replacing machine labor with human labor and embracing all the messiness, variability and lack of control that entails. It’s about embracing that lack of industrial perfection in the pursuit of human perfection—in that animalistic mix of trial and error, of frustration and success, in the inherent joy of creating things with our hands, of making our own life and living with the contradictory results of that process. It’s about working with the outside world rather than controlling it, and instead finding our joy in the inner familiarity and satisfaction gained slowly through good work and a life well lived.

The household economy rejects perfection in favor of experience.

That’s not to say, however, that the household economy is devoid of craft, care or expertise. Indeed, I would say the household economy features care as a matter of course, very commonly features greater craft than the industrial economy, and will often, as a matter of course, feature expertise. It takes all of these elements as part of a broader experience, though, and is not afraid to mix and match. The household economy, again, is messy. In that messiness, it’s beautiful and it’s sacred and it’s fulfilling in a way that the industrial economy almost never is. The household economy, after all, is run by humans. The industrial economy is run by machines.

As I write and advocate for the household economy in this series of posts, one of the core values is going to be a rejection of the cult of the expert. This is necessary for the household economy. If we constantly seek the sort of mechanistic perfection advocated by this cult, then the household economy can never be successful. It functions only under different ideals, different pursuits, different goals. It functions only in the real world of human care and experience, not in the mechanistic world of industry. And so one of the foundations of this series is that we all get dirty without worry of perfection, that we all be willing to make mistakes, and that we all find joy in the experience as much as in the outcome—and that we find joy in the experience regardless of the outcome.

The projects won’t always be successful when defined strictly under the terms of the desired final outcome. But they’ll always be successful when taking into account experience, the pleasure of the work, and the sense of ownership that comes from an act of making one’s own living. And while I’ve dared to throw some religious terms in this post, I’ll say once more that they also will be successful in the sense of engaging in something sacred, however you define that term. Peter Berg, in an interview in Listening to the Land quoted a woman from Mexico City who said that “the kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I dare say much more good can be done in the kitchen than in a factory—and that God, in whatever form, can much more easily be found in the kitchen, as well.

In the household economy, we become generalists. We may occasional stumble upon something that makes us, in that particular instance, want to become a specialist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we find we love making cheese, we may want to delve deeper into that craft and work to become a craftsman cheese maker. But in general, the household economy is about working as a generalist and finding our love of the work and its outcomes not necessarily in the perfection of the final product, but in the perfection of the work, in the meaning of creation, and the satisfaction of each bit of self-reliance and personal care.

In that sense, each of us has the potential to be an honest expert—someone whose expertise is rooted not in ingraining pervasive dissatisfaction but in caring for ourselves and making our own small satisfactions and moments of true perfection, seen only in the inherent and sprawling messiness of our humanity. Someone whose expertise is rooted in work, not in theory. Someone whose expertise recognizes the folly of perfection and strives instead for joy, good work, and care.

The Household Economy: A Return to Normal   19 comments

An introduction to The Household Economy

As I write this, the smell of fresh, baking bread is wafting from the wood stove here in the farm’s main, communal house. The bread is one step in my attempt to come up with an easy and tasty recipe for sandwich bread. I’m doing this not because I can’t get good bread at the store—there are, as a matter of fact, multiple local bakeries that produce delicious sandwich bread, using good ingredients. No, I’m doing this because I want to take that small bit of dependence and bring it back into the home, to root that dependence not in a complicated and industrialized supply chain, but in my own work and care, my own flour-dusted hands.

Of course, looking at the title of this blog, that might not be a surprise. This originally started as a blog that would be focused primarily on farming and homesteading, and I imagined the possibility of perhaps teaching the occasional homesteading class out here on the Oregon coast, with this site functioning partly as a way for me to advertise such a business. As that idea faded into the background and my life took a different turn, the blog slowly morphed into what it is now: a cataloguing of my thoughts and experiences, certainly featuring farming and homesteading but also dealing quite a bit with peak oil and other energy issues. Yet, all of those subjects are interrelated and I likely wouldn’t be attempting to refine my own bread-making skills if I thought the store would be there forever and I could always afford the five or so bucks for a good loaf of bread. Why, after all, should I bother, given such considerations?

Well, there are many good reasons, including ones that hold up even while the stores remain open and five bucks always resides in my pocket. One is the satisfaction of creating my own living, even if it’s in a very small way. In a society that seems every year to tilt more toward the abstract, engaging in some good, old fashioned physical creation (not just the late night kind) is quite a satisfying experience. Much as in building a wooden gate, I find baking a loaf of bread, cooking up a pot of stew or making some ginger ale to be very elemental, and very good for the soul. There’s a real sense of pride and comfort in being able to make something for myself rather than buying it at the store. Furthermore, the more I create things, the less mystifying the process of creation becomes. As I build these skills, I feel more secure in my ability to figure out other necessary tasks and more willing to take on new projects. Before, when I was beholden to others for most all things rooted in the physical world, I found much of that world mystifying. I didn’t know how things work. Now I better understand.

There is, however, a bigger picture here. As is clear for anyone who’s spent time reading this blog, I think we’re all going to be poorer in the future due to energy and resource constraints, and I further think that beginning the process of preparing for that reality now makes far more sense than putting our heads in the sand and pretending that the powers that be or technology is going to pull our ass out of the fire at the last moment—especially since there’s no good or compelling reason to believe in that as a likely scenario.

One of the ways in which we’re most vulnerable to such a future is rooted in the reality that most of us in industrialized nations have outsourced a very significant percentage of our living. While human history has largely consisted of people making their own living via the combined labors and support of their community, we’ve come to mostly replace that community and its labors with various businesses, corporations, and other entities providing our needs via industrialized production methods. Since those methods are necessarily dependent upon fossil fuels—the exact fuel we already are running short of, and will run yet shorter of as time progresses—we find ourselves very vulnerable to a future of energy and resource shortage. If the grocery stores were to disappear tomorrow, a good number of us would be in serious trouble.

Luckily, the grocery stores don’t appear set to disappear tomorrow. However, anyone who thinks they and the industrial, globalized food system that backs them is fated to live forever is quite mistaken. That system is going to fail, and before it fails it’s going to provide us some serious dysfunction. Of course, it already is providing plenty of that. Look at rising food prices, huge food-borne illness outbreaks tied to industrial supply chains, the massive losses of arable land and topsoil across the world, depleted aquifers, poisoned water supplies, and a host of other destabilizing ills. This system is breaking apart before our very eyes, but many of us refuse to see it, or—upon seeing it—refuse to recognize the full breadth of its implications.

Seeing the precariousness of the industrial food system—and other industrial elements of the economy—with clear eyes would lead us to the conclusion that it’s in our best interest to minimize our dependence on it. This is where the household economy comes in. There are a few ways, working within the household, that we can lessen our dependence on the dominant, industrial economy. One of the main ways is by growing and raising as much of our own food as possible. This can be done via gardening, permaculture, planting fruit and nut trees, raising livestock, foraging for wild foods, hunting, and so on. All these activities begin the process of us making our own living and increase our resilience and self-sufficiency—the increasing of which will come to be quite the boon in an age of scarcity and contraction. Even if we aren’t able to or don’t produce any of our own food, though, we can still lower our dependence on the industrial economy by turning to local farmers and ranchers whenever possible and then utilizing another feature of the household economy: the in-house processing of our foods. The aforementioned bread-baking is one of these. Making jam is another, as is canning produce, lacto-fermenting veggies, making condiments, brewing our own beer and sodas, making kombucha and yogurt and cheese, sour cream and kefir and butter. There are all kinds of activities—many of them not that challenging, after a bit of experience—that we’ve unnecessarily outsourced to corporations.

That bread I mentioned earlier? Well, I’ve now eaten three slices of it, slathered with butter, and accompanying a lamb stew I also made. The stew used a package of lamb riblets from one of the farms I work for and was thus acquired in work-trade—and I helped raise the lamb. I slow cooked it for hours in our wood stove, making broth while simultaneously cooking the meat. To that, I added potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic for a simple and delicious stew. The veggies, aside from the potatoes, came from the farm I live on. (The potatoes would have, except we ran a bit short this winter.) So, all in all, I ate a meal tonight borne largely of the household economy, with minimal inputs from the industrial economy. It was delicious, and nourishing, and satisfying in both its preparation and eating, resilient in its minimal dependence on outside systems, and far more sustainable than a meal eaten at a restaurant would have been, or prepared out of a box, or bought from the store.

Which brings me to another benefit of the household economy. Aside from the unsustainable amount of energy and resources we use in industrialized nations, our outsourcing of our living to corporations gives them an incredible power over our lives, our culture, our society, our economy and our political system.

Let’s say, as a mental exercise, that you find yourself on the street, enjoying a lovely day, taking a walk around the neighborhood. A stranger comes up to you and begins to berate you, spewing profanity, agitated and angry. What would you do? I suspect most of us would take our leave of this person, or tell him to leave us alone—possibly in unfriendly terms—or in some other way extricate ourselves from the situation. Imagine, now, that it isn’t a stranger but your boss. At that point, it becomes quite a bit trickier, doesn’t it? Our boss holds a certain power over our lives, being able to interfere with our means of making a living. You may still tell your boss to knock it off or walk away, but by doing so you risk retribution, perhaps a firing. Even if that’s unfair—even if you could take your case to a court and win—you still face the potential of a disruption of your life. It’s a much more complicated situation.

By relying on corporations and other businesses to provide us our living, we make them our boss. We become beholden to and dependent upon them and that limits our ability to push back against them when they behave in an improper manner. There’s quite a lot of concern that corporations have gained too much power in recent times and use that power with impunity, polluting the earth, exploiting land, people, and communities, extracting wealth, corrupting our economic and political systems and running roughshod over much of the population. These are legitimate concerns, to say the least. But if we want to reign in these corporations and work to strip them of some of their power, we’re going to be seriously hampered in our ability to act if we’re also dependent upon those same corporations to provide us the means of our living.

There are reasons, for instance, that oil companies have vast political power. One of those reasons is that we need oil, desperately, to power the society we’ve become used to. If we didn’t need that oil to power our society—if we had the option to opt out of its use—than their power would be greatly reduced. If they had for sale a simple product rather than a necessity, their power wouldn’t be so great. We would have more ability to push back against them.

This is relevant on a somewhat more abstract level, as well. Right now, our lives are dependent on fossil fuels and all the destruction and inequity their use has come to entail. Most of us in industrialized nations would be at a complete loss without fossil fuels, our way of life pulled out from under us, extremely vulnerable and subject to significant impoverishment at best, death at worst. Due to that reality, we’re going to ultimately support the use of fossil fuels no matter what. We may talk a good game against them, agitating for change and reduced use, but our dependence on them necessitates that we continue to use them and to subject ourselves to the systems created around them. I do exactly that as I write this on a computer and ready the posting of it on the internet. Every time we make use of the industrial infrastructure, we support all it entails. If we don’t want to support that, we’re going to have to make much less use of that industrial infrastructure.

This is the crux of the argument for individual change, in my mind. We can’t get away from these systems at a societal level until we get away from them at an individual level. We can’t alter our economic and political systems until we alter the individual actions that support them. Yes, those individual actions are influenced by those systems, but it’s through individual change that we’re going to create any will to alter those systems. Without that element, we’ll be left dependent and beholden, with little to no power to change what we see wrong with those systems. And if we stay beholden to these systems, politicians will continue to support and uphold them, knowing that any imposition on those systems will be passed down to the public and that the public, whatever they might claim, will for the most part punish the politicians in turn.

There’s another, deeper layer to this argument, though, and that’s rooted in the predicament we face that I’ve written about before. If there was a broad, large scale system capable of supporting our current way of living in a sustainable manner, then it might make sense to attempt a switch over to that system rather than focusing on individual behavior. However, even if that could be done, we would need for a different system to be available to transition to without having to change individual action. We would need, in other words, the system that so many people in our society like to advocate: our current lives, largely unchanged but powered by renewable energy.

If this were possible, then it might make sense to advocate for it. It might not make sense, either, as it would not address the core issues of industrialism that lead to exploitation and destruction. It wouldn’t address resource issues or all the other natural cycles of renewal that we’re going to have to learn to live within, such as the renewal cycles for top soil and fresh water. It wouldn’t address ecosystem stability and biodiversity. But all those concerns aside, the problem here is that such a switch isn’t possible. There’s no way to power our way of life without fossil fuels. There’s no way to build the sort of centralized, industrialized renewable energy system that’s so often advocated without an industrial base powered by fossil fuels. The solar PV panels and wind turbines are made with fossil fuels, made from fossil fuels, and dependent on a vast industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels. We’re already facing the beginnings of constriction. We’re not going to be able to divert massive amounts of fossil fuels to these alternative uses, and even if we were able to do that on such a scale, it wouldn’t be supportable in the long term. Eventually, the fossil fuels run out and then so do the alternative energy technologies built on top of them.

Furthermore, even if such a system were possible, that still wouldn’t address the fact that we use our energy to power an industrial economy that is tearing apart the earth and its ecosystems. If we were to find some magic bullet solution to the energy problem, we would still be faced with the necessity of drastically scaling back our lives so as to avoid the sort of crash that always happens when a population overshoots its carrying capacity—or, more realistically, to limit the damage of that crash. We are already far past carrying capacity, even if we were magically able to switch over to an economy powered entirely by wind and solar tomorrow. We still would be consuming the earth and industrialized nations would still find their populations facing a necessary scaling back to a life more akin to non-industrialized nations.

Therefore, we find ourselves back to the necessity for individual change. Our scaling back begins in the household. It was not so long ago that a good deal of America’s economic activity happened in the household economy. To this day, many non-industrialized nations have thriving household and subsistence economies—it’s how they survive. Thus, it likely won’t be that long before we’re back to a similar reality. As we all become poorer, resources become tighter, and money becomes harder to come by (or less able to purchase goods and services) we’re going to find ourselves having to make use of our own labor and good work to keep up a decent standard of living whenever possible. Rather than spend five dollars on a nice loaf of bread, we’ll more likely bake it at home for a fraction of that cost. Rather than buy expensive organic jam, we’ll make it from the fruit or berries supplied by a nearby farmer, or picked out of our own back yard. Rather than purchase a variety of dairy-based products, we may just find a local source of fresh milk and make our own butter, yogurt, sour cream, and so on. Rather than eat out, we’ll make our own meals. Rather than buy a tiny, three dollar package of basil, we’ll snip it off our own basil plant.

We’ll recycle, and reuse, and wear things out. We’ll darn our socks and patch our clothes, mend our shoes, and learn the fine art of attrition as we simplify our lives, whether we want to or not. We’ll make blankets out of leftover scraps of cloth. We’ll cook our food in hayboxes or on rocket stoves. We’ll brew our own beer, make our own hard cider. And we’ll learn to rely on the other members of our community to help us make our living rather than on faceless, dominant corporations and on the continued functioning of assembly lines populated by robots.

This is the reality that I think will be asserting itself. It’s a reality, as well, that offers us the hope for a better future than the one we might otherwise have. If we begin to grow the household economy, we’ll begin to provide more of our own living, gain a greater control over our own lives, insulate ourselves against economic shocks, free ourselves from dependence on entities that would as soon harm us as help us, begin the process of building relationships, strengthen our community, and provide more space to work for a better society. It may not all turn out well—it probably won’t. But we’ll give ourselves a much better chance than if we just wait for someone else to fix our problems, then wonder what the hell we’re going to do when the industrial infrastructure that keeps us alive begins to crumble beneath us. We also will gain a satisfaction from our own labors, will likely find ourselves much healthier, and will refocus our attention from useless and unhealthy distraction toward good work done in support of ourselves, our family and friends, our community.

This series of posts, then, will focus mainly on my trials and tribulations with getting my own household economy going. It’s already up and running to a degree, but it could stand to be enlarged, to encompass more of my living. And it’s going to find some changes this year with my shifting circumstances. I’ll be writing, therefore, about my adventures in gardening, my various homesteading activities, possibly some building projects using reclaimed and recycled materials, and whatever other paths my particular household economy takes. This will be something of a companion to my How To Be Poor series of posts, in that it will focus more on the actual activities with which I reduce my costs of living and usage of energy and resources, while How To Be Poor focuses more on the theory and philosophy of voluntary poverty—though I reserve the right to occasionally veer into the theoretical, as I may very well do in the next entry.

Throughout most of history, we’ve made much of our living at home and in our community. Over the last few centuries, we’ve slowly outsourced that living. In the last few decades, we’ve mostly abandoned it to the province of corporations and governments. It’s time to bring back the household economy, both as a necessity and as a moral good. It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with our own living. It’s time to get off this misguided path and return to normal.

Revisiting Old Fermentation Projects   9 comments

Today marked my first day off from working since I returned to the farm. As such, today has been more relaxed. I’ve been puttering around the farm, having a decadent and leisurely breakfast of french toast and bacon, doing some relaxed reading, a bit of cleaning, preparing dough to bake bread later this evening, and noticing old fermentation projects.

This last came about due to Ginger mentioning the possibility of a dinner using sauerkraut. I went exploring what we had on hand, knowing I made some this summer and that I even had a couple quart jars of the stuff from a year and a half ago floating around. The sauerkraut from this summer sat in a crock out on the porch and, upon the last check, it had been covered by quite a bit of nasty looking mold. It might be able to be saved, but I didn’t feel excited about trying. So next, I checked the oft-ignored cold box in the house and scrounged up a quart jar about two thirds full, made in the summer of 2010 when I was farming at Sauvie Island Organics. That, too, had molded on the top—though perhaps not to the same degree as the crock sauerkraut.

Voicing my distaste for that jar, Ginger noted from upstairs that I had a few other random fermentation projects I should check, sitting on the kitchen shelves in mason jars. One was a batch of ginger carrots and the other a jar of cherry chutney. I hadn’t forgotten totally about the carrots—I consistently would catch glimpses of their orange presence while in the kitchen—but the cherry chutney had long exited my memory. Curious now, I pulled down the ginger carrots and took a taste. The fermentation process on these had clearly gone into overdrive. Most of the liquid had dried out and while the carrots hadn’t turned moldy (perhaps due to the ginger) they had turned to the consistency of mush. They also had an incredible bite to them, not so much from the ginger as the long fermentation and high build up of lactic acid. They weren’t particularly pleasant, but I imagine they could give quite a boost to the digestive system. Perhaps they could be turned into a tonic.

The cherry chutney also packed a punch, but it had better survived the long months of quiet shelf life. This had been my first attempt at chutney and came from a recipe in Nourishing Traditions, dusted off after Ginger acquired multiple large boxes of cherries from a fellow market vendor on the cheap. After spending an hour or two pitting the cherries alongside some WWOOFers, I decided to finally try out a chutney recipe—something I’d been wanting to do for years but had never gotten around to. Lo and behold, the recipe turned out great. A mix of cherries, cloves, coriander seeds, and the zest and juice of an orange, the chutney ended up sweet and spicy, with a bite from the lactic acid.

In the months that followed, the chutney sat on the shelf, somewhat forgotten as, while I loved it, I wasn’t entirely sure what to use it on or with. Tasting the chutney now, I found that it had preserved wonderfully, not molding a bit and essentially becoming tangier. The lactic acid had increased, but otherwise it was the same lovely chutney. So now I have to figure out some way to eat it. Perhaps just a spoonful or two with the occasional meal for digestive purposes and to add a little something interesting.

Finally, having explored these random jars of fermented foods, I remembered my forgotten bottles of ginger ale out in the tool shed. I started making ginger ale this year and it proved a success—with certain caveats. The bottle conditioning proved a bit overzealous, creating a drink carbonated to the point that it would either explode out of the bottle upon opening it (though I developed quite the skill for popping the cap outside while holding a large glass and being able to immediately direct the fountain into said glass, preserving most of the soda) or sometimes just shatter the bottle. This happened with one batch sitting on the same kitchen shelf that the chutney now sits on. I was standing next to the bottles when one of them exploded, sending out small shards of glass and sticky soda. Somehow, none of the glass hit me. Needless to say, I moved the soda to a less exposed place, which in this instance meant a box tucked away in the tool shed.

Of course, I promptly forgot about the soda. It was made on July 19th—much of it is still out in that box in the tool shed. I noticed it about a month ago, much to my surprise and chagrin, and so today I figured I should give one of those bottles a try since I was in that mode of past project exploration. The reused beer bottle was dirty, the cap a bit rusty, but it otherwise seemed okay. I pulled my trick of popping the top outside with a glass handy and pretty soon had a nice mug of fizzy ginger ale, no worse the wear for being nearly six months old. In fact, it was delicious and I drink it now as I write this post.

So by my final count, that’s three less-than-successful projects (though all of them had their day) and two that had survived the months of neglect to still provide tasty, fermented goodness. Not a bad haul for such a lack of attendance! And a good reminder of one of the joys of fermentation projects: they’re alive and changing and so you never quite know what you’ll end up with as you let them play out their existence. While the moldy sauerkrauts don’t shock me, I didn’t expect the ginger carrots would fail to mold but turn to mush as their brine dried out or that the cherry chutney would remain mold free and as delicious and edible after multiple months on the shelf as shortly after I made it. It’s a pleasant surprise to return to old projects and find their success continuing, and a nice reminder from the less successful ones that a bit of care and attention can make the difference between maintaining something useful or losing its function.

For 2012, then, I resolve (amongst many other resolutions) to provide more care to my fermentation projects and to be more attentive to my food preservation attempts. As for my other 2012 resolutions relevant to this blog, that promised post is still coming. It should be up later today, in fact, or Sunday evening at the latest. And for those who have done their own fermentation experiments, feel free to share your successes and failures in the comments. I love a good bit of fermentation, and am always interested in hearing what others have done.

Resilience and Stealth Infrastructure   17 comments

A Need For Response

For those following this blog, it’s likely become clear that I don’t expect our society, economy and general way of life—either here in America or elsewhere in the industrialized world—to last far into the future. Despite previous stages of this belief of mine, I don’t currently think that the end of our way of life will manifest itself in some extreme, apocalyptic moment. Rather, I have come to believe in the likelihood of a stairstep collapse, thanks to the writings of a certain Grand Archdruid. I think the underpinnings of what we consider modern society will come apart—as they, indeed, already have started to come apart—and this entire sorry game will unravel. I don’t expect that unraveling to happen entirely in my lifetime, but I expect to live through enough of its beginning to see and be forced to deal with quite the fallout. I have no illusions of a zombie apocalypse, but I neither have illusions of a relatively easy transition or the saving grace of new technology or a grand shift in consciousness that solves all our problems. We’ve made a mess of the world and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.

Similarly, the mess we’ve made is a mess that most everyone in the industrialized nations have had a part in. That’s not to say there aren’t certain bad actors who have turned in virtuoso performances, but even they have almost certainly been functioning to some degree within the context of this insane society and culture we’ve all helped to create. I have been no stranger to bitter complaints about Obama’s failed promises—and much less a stranger to bitter and venomous rants about Bush the younger’s detestable administration—but Obama’s is a presidency in context as much as all the others. As a society, we have not shown a particular interest in being told the truth and even those of us who have opted out of our culture’s dominant narratives of myth have too often opted into alternate narratives of apocalypse that serve just as easily to protect us from the hard work a new way of life requires. That politicians are less than eager to tell us the truths that we are so quick to avoid ourselves is no surprise. It’s not particularly relevant whether they do it because they don’t know those truths or because they are actively ignoring them due to a recognition that speaking them would not be beneficial to them on a political or economic level. Either way, our broader society holds a certain level of culpability.

Within this mind frame, I wrote a recent post that served as something of a criticism of the Occupy movement. It was my attempt to advocate for a longer view within the movement: a recognition that our problems are not just about social and economic inequality—which is a serious issue, no question—but also a distorted view about what is a reasonable standard of living. I specifically called the American middle class way of life bullshit. I stand by those words. We have a worldview that is built on top of a fantasy of independence from hard ecological and environmental realities. That worldview is falling out from under us and we need to respond to that changing landscape immediately and with an intention based in community, care and cooperation. Unfortunately, that’s not a task that will be easy, and there are many forces, both external and internal, which will serve to push us toward more destructive responses.

The Risk of Demagoguery

One of those responses that I worry could happen is the Occupy movement turning more and more toward a movement of revenge. I’m not saying this is what will happen, but I do consider it a legitimate and reasonable concern. As the world economy continues to spiral out of control, austerity measures assert themselves ever more harshly and the ability to get by financially for a majority of the population becomes more challenging, our collective level of stress will rise. And the sort of harsh and stressful environment I think we’re facing in the near term will be a fantastic place for demagoguery to flourish.

Understand, I think many in the financial industry should be doing perp walks and the lack of that reality is a massive failure of justice and the rule of law. Similarly, the way Obama swept the war crimes of the Bush administration under the rug was despicable. But all of these injustices happened, again, within a societal context. And that context is something that all of us have played a role in. Hell, if you’re reading this blog, I can pretty much guarantee you that you had a role in this reality, because the internet and the vast infrastructure put in place to maintain it and provide access points to end users (i.e. me, you, and somewhere around two billion other people) is an infrastructure built on vast ecological destruction. It is an infrastructure built on economic and social inequality. It is, as well, an infrastructure that helps to perpetuate the sort of war crimes that the Bush administration engaged in. While the Iraq war might not have literally been conceived in a cartoonish, movie villain style plot geared toward oil capture (though it certainly may have) our country’s never-ending need for fossil fuels brought that war into existence. The outsized existence that we have become accustomed to powered the mechanizations that led, tragically, to that war. It’s easy to put it all on the head of W and Dick Cheney, but that’s the sort of short view that leads to demagoguery—of which I have engaged in, believe me—and the convenience of never having to examine oneself in the mirror.

The Need for Good Work

It also leads to the convenience of not having to throw oneself into the challenge of doing good work. The myth of progress leads inevitably toward desires for utopian schemes. We imagine new ways to structure our economy or our government or our cultural institutions to lead to a gloried future, a cornucopian golden land in which we have everything we’ve ever needed or wanted. We proclaim the ability to smooth out the inherent vagaries and fallibility of human behavior, if only we create the proper context for their existence. The problem here is that we seem too quick to place our hopes into the utopian basket of revolutionary change (or forced utopia that always seems to be waiting on the other side of apocalypse, once all the people we don’t like have died) and too hesitant to engage in the long, hard work of actually creating new cultural and economic contexts that can indeed inspire better behavior and constrain damaging impulses.

Let me provide an example. I have been meaning to write this blog post all day. However, I didn’t start it until late afternoon. For multiple hours before that, I poked around on the internet engaging in largely useless but satisfyingly distracting behavior. This is a common theme of mine: the lack of self-discipline and the propensity toward distraction. Overcoming it can only happen through restraining my own behavior, dedicating myself to what I consider worthwhile pursuits, and ignoring the need for overstimulation. This is all hard—oddly hard—and it as often as not devolves into me wasting hours of time looking at shiny things on the internet because, you know, it’s easy. Writing, on the other hand, is intensely satisfying when it comes out well but also, often, extremely hard. It’s so much easier to read about the NBA or look at my blog stats or read someone else’s hard work. This, of course, extrapolates out to TV, shopping, bitching about whatever we happen to not like at the moment, speaking rapturously about whatever we happen to like at the moment, eating, drinking, and a thousand other ingrained societal behaviors that serve to distract us and keep us from the hard work of making our life and community better.

Another example. I have participated in the Occupy movement and thoroughly enjoyed my time marching and shouting, protesting and bonding. I met great people, I felt empowered, I believe without question that I did good things. I also thrived off the emotional power of laying the blame for our very messed up world at the feet of other people. I felt the bonds of shared outrage and anger. I felt the easy pull of demagoguery. This is a fine line, of course—where does a legitimate demand for justice end and the blaming of problems on everyone else but yourself began?—and I have not figured out the exact placement of that line. I probably will never figure it out exactly. But there is a line and I think all of us need to both be very aware of it and be constantly vigilant in wondering whether or not we are crossing it. This is especially true in our culture, where distraction and shallow soothings are constantly championed at the expense of the long, hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world.

And that is the idea I keep coming back to. This is an idea championed by Wendell Berry, and there’s no question that I have been greatly inspired and influenced by my readings of him. We have to begin—or for those who have already begun, continue—the hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That’s an incredible challenge. I would argue it’s the central challenge of being human, of being alive in this world. What else could be the point? For what other reason could we be here? It’s not to see who can die with the most toys. It’s not to see how high a percentage of our life we can spend being distracted by shiny, technological toys. It’s not to discover how quickly we can convert the living creatures of this world into cheaply-made commodities. And it’s not to find the one person who’s screwing everything up for the rest of us. It’s the very personal work of living well in this world. That is a challenge. That is a huge, never-ending challenge—a lifetime of work, the question that only has incomplete, always changing answers.

Read the rest of this entry »

“To Work at Many Jobs”   3 comments

Today, I worked at many jobs. I woke early in the morning, in a freezing cold yurt under a pile of bedding, and allowed the alarm clock on my cell phone to ring multiple times. Eventually–knowing I needed breakfast, and knowing I needed to conduct the day’s business–I eased my way out of the warmth of my bed and into the extreme chill of the morning air, pulling on yesterday’s Carhartts (belt still threaded through its loops) and a fleece and an extra pair of thick socks, then walking–cold, stiff–to the main house both for breakfast and its small, lingering warmth from the previous night’s fire.

I ate a pair of duck eggs from the farm, bacon and toast not from the farm. I made coffee and filled my thermos with it. I attempted to wake up. Before leaving the house, as the sky finally began to lighten, I opened the duck and chicken houses, welcoming them to the cold world. The birds seemed largely unperturbed by the chilly weather: the chickens cautiously wandered outside in typical fashion and the ducks went straight for their pond plastic kiddy pool, though the coating of ice delayed their entry into its waters. Meanwhile, I drove to the farm down the road. There, the farm’s owners and I loaded six lambs into the back of their canopied truck and, shortly thereafter, I drove off with them–and with one of the farm’s owners, Brian, riding shotgun.

We were driving about two hours to a small butcher. Today was to be those lambs’ final day. As it turned out, it could easily have been Brian’s and my final day, as well. About half an hour into our drive, at perhaps 60 mph or a bit less, I lost control of the truck on a patch of ice on Highway 26, the main route between the Oregon coast and Portland. We spun 180 degrees and I have little idea of what I did during that spin. It was fast and slow–a bizarre meditation. I know I hit the brakes at one point and I think I let off them not long after, some small voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t hit the brakes. I don’t know which way I turned the wheel, if any. If I had moved quicker, with more certainty, with greater skill, perhaps I could have avoided the full spin and danger of that moment. But what little I did or did not do ended up not mattering. We simply spun around in a half circle, the tires squealing, the truck out of control and sliding out of our lane, into the lane of oncoming traffic, toward a hill side. I remember thinking, don’t flip over.

We didn’t flip over. No oncoming traffic hit us, either, as we had the good fortune of there being no oncoming traffic. We came to a stop in the left lane of the opposite direction of traffic. Having completed a bit over a half circle, we faced approximately in the right direction. I noted no traffic coming in either direction and I tried to start the car, which had died. It was still in drive and thus didn’t start, though I hadn’t yet recovered my wits enough to realize that. I knew we needed to get out of the road, to make sure we hadn’t lived through this spin only to get plastered seconds later by traffic coming around the bend a short way behind us. I let my foot off the brake and we coasted forward, which happened to be down the hill, and I guided the truck over to the side of the road.

Brian and I caught our breaths. We tried to calm our adrenaline and talked a moment about what had happened. At most, a minute had passed.

On the shoulder of the road, facing the wrong direction, I put the truck in park, engaged the parking brake and then checked on the lambs. They seemed fine–all upright and oddly calm. I can’t imagine they had enjoyed the ride, but who’s to say? I know not the mind of a sheep. Returning to the cab of the truck, Brian and I decompressed a bit more and then I awaited a full clearing of traffic to maneuver my way back out onto the highway. We had survived. We still had work to do. So back on the road we went–this time at a slower speed and with the four wheel drive engaged.

We made it to the butcher almost two hours later, due in part to my slower, steadier pace. There, we unloaded the lambs, picked up some stored cuts of beef, hit a nearby farm supply store to buy poultry feed and then headed into Portland. We met up with a chef and sold him twenty pounds of beef brisket. We ate at Burgerville–a local fast food chain that prides itself on using many local and seasonal ingredients and engaging in sustainability initiatives (see my previous post for related thoughts)–gassed up the truck and headed home.

After the trip back, I used the remaining hour of daylight to feed the awfully hungry ducks and chickens back on my home farm and then went down to the lower field, where I inspected some damage to the hoop house from a previous storm and replaced the blown-off row covering on our overwintering beets and carrots. I returned up top to the main property, closed up the ducks and chickens in the waning daylight, then brought firewood into the main house, fired up the stove, sat down with a beer, and promptly became distracted by the writing of this blog post.

Which brings me to now. So why did I just regal you with tales of my day? First, I wanted to write about the more exciting moment of spinning out of control on the highway. Second, I wanted to note a thought I had earlier this evening, when I was walking down to the lower field, which was that if I had died in the Great December Spin-out, and the six lambs in the back had happened to not only survive the wreck but break free of the back of the truck and escape into the woods, I would like to think that–should I have some form of post-life consciousness enough to note this exciting development–I would be supremely pleased, despite my own death. For all the misery we’ve heaped on the animal world as humans, why shouldn’t they get the last laugh now and again?

Finally, though, I couldn’t help but place my day today in the context of something I read last night. I’m currently reading The Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer, a masterful peak oil writer and Druid. In this book, he writes about the future he foresees for industrial civilization, which is one of contraction and collapse. He believes, as I do, that we are running out of fossil fuels and that, in the last three hundred years or so, we have built an industrial economy that now guides the world but can’t run on anything other than fossil fuels–which means that we’re in for some rough times ahead. There is far more detail to this story and I would recommend the book for anyone interested, even if you’re familiar with peak oil theories and have read other books about the subject. Greer takes an approach that I find unique and only 78 pages into The Ecotechnic Future, I find myself fascinated and extremely engaged by all the possibilities and theories he throws out in the text–many of which I likely will write more about on this blog in the future.

Anyway, Greer believes that in the not-too-distant future, we will all find ourselves living with much less (energy, stuff and stimulation) and scrambling to make our way in a new world. He writes, at the end of one chapter, that “Most of us will learn what it means to go hungry, to work at many jobs, to watch paper wealth become worthless and to see established institutions go to pieces around us.” Today seemed to me to be a small glimpse of that future reality. While I certainly did not go hungry (I ate as a glutton, though not in any way other than normal in this country) and my money still means something, I worked many jobs. I worked here at the farm I live on, I worked at the farm down the road, and all that work was varied and piecemeal–a lamb driven to the butcher here, some frozen meat sold there, a duck fed here, a row of beets covered there. I also simply lived meaningfully–bringing in firewood to provide heat and cooking, burrowing deep under my covers on a very cold morning. I also had small moments of joyful clarity–not just the very long seconds of spinning out of control and wondering if I was about to die, but also the moment when multiple small icicles slipped out of the hose along with icy cold water while I refilled the duck’s water jug. True, I drove far more than will be feasible in the future and ate fast food and drank both homemade and purchased coffee–also unlikely future activities–but I lived today a life that seems to hold something of a framework that will be quite relevant in the future. There will be exposure to the actual local climate, not just controlled environments. There will be close interactions with a variety of animals–many of which will be feeding us in some way. There will be both mundane and enlivening chores. There will be direct engagement in the production of heat, not just the turning of a switch. There will be moments when you will suddenly realize you might die, much sooner than you think, which Greer also notes in the sentence right before the one I quoted. There will be moments of wonder at the world around you and its beauty, both despite and because of its challenges. There will not be air conditioned or over-heated offices, nor will there be many highly-specialized careers. Most of us will again become generalists, and our work will be about providing basic needs.

I feel like I glimpsed all that today, and I must say that I enjoyed it. Of course, the future will be harder, but there is an undeniable joy in the immediacy of such a life–and that joyful immediacy will be more common even as the discomfort and challenge is more present. I enjoyed the variety of my day, the direct engagement of it, and the sense at the end that I had lived honestly, had even almost died, but had not just trudged and–other than at a certain literal moment–had not just drifted.

Today I worked at many jobs. Today I lived a future life.

City of Contradiction   7 comments

Yesterday, I ate an organic, frozen pizza, bought from a grocery store owned by Krogers. I walked to this grocery store and, after purchasing the pizza, I placed it in my reusable, cloth bag to carry it back to the house where I’m staying. I also, yesterday, picked up some books I had ordered from a local used bookstore, then perused them at a locally-owned coffee shop, where I drank a mocha made with coffee and chocolate from across the world. I drank organic tea, also from across the world, at another small, locally-owned business later that evening, chatting with a friend. I did this after getting there on the bus and I returned home on the bus. I walked over five miles yesterday, all total. I ate two sandwiches–one of them a simple turkey sandwich, made with left-over, factory-farmed turkey from a family Thanksgiving, some Best Foods mayonnaise, and bread from a local bakery that uses sustainably grown wheat. The other sandwich was for breakfast, using the same bread, bacon from a local, Portland-based grocery store chain that focuses on local and organic foods, Tillamook cheese (sort of local, sort of not) and duck eggs from the farm I live on, still covered in duck shit. I made that sandwich using a cheap, non-stick pan.

While using that non-stick pan, I experienced a small moment of disquiet. As a non-Christian, I wondered if this was what blasphemy is to Christians: that enveloping sense of not right. I wanted to and should have been using a cast iron pan and, frankly, wanted to be using it on a wood stove, rather than a natural gas-burning oven. But I was not at the farm I call home. I was in Portland, in a house not my own–one without a cast iron pan or a wood stove.

Portland, for me, is conflict and contradiction. Sometimes–as that first paragraph may make clear–it’s practically schizophrenia. Yet it’s a city I love, and in some ways it’s able to at least partially satisfy my ideals. It’s brimming with small businesses, many of which proclaim goals of sustainability. Local and organic food is available almost everywhere (in the inner core) and many of the city’s restaurants and bars aspire to provide that same sort of local and organic food (to varying degrees of success.) The city has fine public transit available and is immensely walkable. It is, in fact, a joy to walk around Portland. The streets are quaint and typically tree-lined, the houses are adorable and often unique, there are other people out walking, the drivers are mostly courteous, and there are plenty of places to walk to. It is a beautiful city and people here are nice. It’s tied enough to the local landscape that you can be in the city without feeling disconnected from nature and it is, similarly, close enough to natural and rural areas that you can easily escape out to these areas for a more complete nature fix, should you need it. It also is a city that strives at every turn to make people who want to live more sustainably feel very comfortable spending their money and consuming a variety of goods and services, all under a veneer of sustainability. It is, as such, a contradiction.

I’m reminded of this whenever I come here. My trips into Portland are typically to see family and friends, to consume alcohol and good food, to socialize, perhaps to engage in a protest, and to spend some time walking around a city I love. Yet it takes me away from a current life on the farm that has reached a somewhat satisfying level of minimalism, coherency and simplicity. On the farm, I live off the grid, heat and cook using locally-harvested wood, eat lots of food grown and raised on the same land I live on or a nearby farm, and I stay much more connected to the land base. It’s not any kind of perfectly sustainable life–there are still plenty of inputs, imported foods, gasoline-powered drives, electronics, plastics of all kinds, and so on–but it’s pretty damn good and a hell of a lot farther down the road of low-impact than I’ve ever been before. It’s also incredibly satisfying, engaging and connecting, which leaves me happier.

Here in the city, on the other hand, I live on the grid, eat out, drink lots, eat a decent amount of packaged and prepared food, often drive a lot (in getting here and then getting around town on short notice) am much more divorced from the land base, am not around chickens and ducks, typically have no idea where my food came from and certainly didn’t help to grow it. I do this for a few days (or a week and a half, for my current visit) and then return to the farm, where I settle back into my simpler, normal existence and try to get my head back in order. Sometimes this takes awhile.

Mostly, though, what I feel here in Portland is that weird sense of contradiction and conflict. It’s a city striving toward some kind of sustainability, but it still wants to engage in the energy- and resource-intensive, industrial way of life. So everyone still goes out quite a bit and eats and drinks and consumes far more calories than necessary, indulging in deliciously rich food, but it seems okay because the eggs come from cage free chickens and the greens are organic and from a local small farm, the coffee is organic and shade grown and fair trade and micro roasted, and the meat isn’t factory farmed. Hell, it might even be 100% grass fed, depending on where you are. The beer is a microbrew, crafted in Portland or at least the Northwest, and perhaps from local, possibly organic ingredients. The breads are from a small Portland bakery. The businesses are small, and local, and I bet they support the Occupy movement. You can have it all!

Of course, I don’t think we can have it all, and that’s part of what’s driven me away from Portland. I love this city, but it can’t give me exactly what I want. I want a deeper and more immediate connection to the land. I want to live on it and engage with it and I find that extremely hard to do in the city. I want to have non-pet animals living with me. I want to live off the grid and generate my power on site. I want a wood stove! I love wood stoves! And I want to harvest the wood for that stove off the land I live on, or off a neighbor’s land, in some kind of a trade. I want to live slow and cities tend to live fast. I want to take my time getting somewhere and I don’t want distractions at every turn. Maybe most importantly, I want to live simply and be always attempting to bring my consumption down to a more minimal level, and that’s something that becomes almost impossible in a city which is constantly waving consumption-ready delicacies in my face and proclaiming them guilt-free. I am not a man with overwhelming self-restraint, especially in the face of food and drink. And even more especially when facing that food and drink while hungry.

So when I come here to Portland, I tend to give in to the delicacies, the indulgence, the gluttony of the city. I eat and drink and I buy books at local bookstores and I walk around this city and marvel at its beauty and I eye small and adorable houses for sale and wonder what it would be like to move back to Portland, to find some kind of well-paying job, and to just fall into this life of indulgence. It would be a uniquely Portland life, I imagine, conducted on a salary that would seem too small in most places and using less energy at home than your average American and with far more local and organic food being consumed and less TV watched and more small businesses patronized. But it would just be a shifting of the usual, unsustainable order. It would be better, yes, but still a mirage. Too much food and drink, too much outsourcing of the day-to-day of life, too much complexity, too much energy, too much money, too many resources, too little thought and consideration. Therefore, I always end up heading back–and not just because the likelihood of me finding a well-paying job in Portland is almost nonexistent. It’s because, as much as I love the indulgences and the contradictions of this city, I want the simplicity of my life on the farm yet more. I want the thought that I’m moving toward something more real. I want the connection and the coherency. I want the slowness, the sound of the rain on the roof of my yurt, the unique heat that comes from burning wood, the constant use of cast iron cookware, the constant cooking, the connection to my food, the mud and chicken shit and duck shit and all the dirty clothes. I want that life more than I want the food and the drink and the leisure and the indulgence because as much as I love all that, it’s not real.

The most authentic thing in this house, as a matter of fact, may just be the dried duck shit on the eggs in the refrigerator. I love this city of contradictions, but I’ll be glad to go back to the farm where that shit came from.

Posted December 1, 2011 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Homesteading

Tagged with , , , , ,

The Fermentation Prelude: How to Extract Whey from Raw Milk   6 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

My full whey station set up, spread out on the kitchen table. The glass in front has beer in it. Not sure how that snuck into the picture.

My earliest homesteading activities involved food. I think this is common and appropriate; food is basic and elemental, inspiring and accessible. It makes sense within our culture to homestead via food because food is still so capable of connecting us with the earth on a basic level. Despite the incredible success of the industrial system to take over and pervert food within our society, we still respond to it on a very basic and emotional level. Food triggers memories within us, connects us to friends and families, and reminds us of what it is to be human. Many of us still garden, even if we also eat industrial, processed foods. And many of us still preserve food–sometimes from the bounty of our own gardens and sometimes with produce from the store. Either way, that’s a very basic connection and one that many of us still maintain.

The reason my early homesteading involved food is because one of the main books that inspired my interest in homesteading was Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon–and Nourishing Traditions is a book about food, through and through. It’s an alternative cookbook aligned with the Weston A. Price philosophy of eating and rails mightily against not only the industrial food system, but a good deal of mainstream health and diet beliefs. It deals in traditional foods and contains quite a bit of information and many recipes involving the fermentation of foods, demonstrating various ways of lacto-fermenting vegetables and fruits, championing homemade condiments and sauces that are lacto-fermented, and recommending using lacto-fermentation as a way to help break down grains before eating them.

Nourishing Traditions (and another book, Real Food by Nina Planck) altered much of my thinking about food. One of the manifestations of that new thinking was to start drinking raw milk and, in general, eat more raw dairy products. I tracked down a source of it (not the easiest thing in Oregon, as there are strict laws governing how you can legally obtain raw milk, requiring that you purchase it directly on the farm) and before long I decided to engage in what I consider my first real homesteading activity: obtaining whey from raw milk.

Whey is essentially the liquid aspect of milk. It’s what’s left over when milk is curdled and strained, separating out the proteins from the liquid. When obtained from raw milk, cultured milk, or yogurt, whey contains active cultures and bacteria–it’s a living substance. It is, in fact, an incredible healthy and robust living substance and, as such, it’s the perfect additive to various foods to kickstart the lacto-fermentation process. In lacto-fermentation, these bacteria basically start eating whatever food is immersed in them and then excreting lactic acid as a waste product. That lactic acid, in turn, builds up and ultimately preserves the aforementioned food by creating a brine that is too acidic for putrefying bacteria to live in. In other words, this is how you naturally pickle vegetables. Rather than putting them in a vinegar solution and then boiling them to kill off any bacteria, you use lactic acid-producing bacteria to create a living environment that is inhospitable to putrefying bacteria, thus keeping the food from spoiling as long as it stays in that environment. The benefit of this process is that the food is significantly healthier for you. It’s easier to digest and laden with living cultures that will assist your digestive system.

This process also works without whey, simply by putting whatever you’re attempting to pickle in a salt water brine, which slows down the putrefying bacteria long enough for the natural lactic acid-producing bacteria in the air to get into that brine and do the work described above. Whey just gives this process an incredibly effective head start by putting the bacteria into the brine right from the beginning. It also allows this process to happen in other environments that don’t work with a salt water brine (such as making homemade mayonnaise and then preserving it with a bit of whey so that it will keep for months in your refrigerator rather than just a few days.)

The front jar is milk after it's separated and the back right jar is full of strained whey.

All that being said, today I found myself with somewhere around three gallons of soured raw milk sitting out on the counter. This milk came about a few different ways. Some of it was from a large pail of milk I had inadvertently acquired just before taking a week long trip to Portland and it had soured before I returned home. Some was from a cheese-making experiment that did not quite work out. And some I just didn’t drink before it soured because I hadn’t been in the habit of drinking milk. (I had a couple months there when I wasn’t receiving it.) The beauty of raw milk, though, is that because it’s a living food filled with active bacteria and cultures, it doesn’t actually go bad when it sours. It just changes. It doesn’t taste as good, but it’s perfectly drinkable–if anything, it’s healthier for you. But since I don’t particularly like to drink sour milk, I decided to extract the whey from it instead, with the intention of embarking on future fermentation projects.

The whey being strained through the towel and into the pot. The towel catches most of the milk solids and allows the liquid whey to pass through.

The first step in getting whey from raw milk is to leave the milk out at room temperature for a few days until it separates. I just put it out in whatever jar or container it already was in and tuck it away into some corner, making sure not to completely forget about it. Within one to four days, the separation should have occurred, which you can usually tell happened if you have your milk in a glass jar. As you can see in the picture, the milk will often separate enough so that there is a layer of clear(ish) liquid visible. Sometimes that layer doesn’t appear, though, and so after a few days I’ll open up the jar and stick a spoor or knife down into the milk to see if it has solidified. If it seems to be something of a gelatinous mass throughout, it should be ready. (Note that you can use a plain, live-culture yogurt if you don’t have access to raw milk. You don’t have to put the yogurt out in advance, either. Just use fresh yogurt in place of the raw milk and follow the rest of the instructions as normal.)

The separated milk after being dumped into the strainer lined here with a towel (or you can use cheese cloth.) Not the prettiest, admittedly.

Next, you want to set a wire mesh strainer over a large bowl, then line the strainer with a couple layers of good cheese cloth or a towel. I used cheese cloth the first time I separated whey, but I found it allowed more of the milk protein through than I preferred. I later switched to a thin, organic cotton flour bag towel that drains slower, but otherwise works great.

Once you have your strainer and towel set up, you can dump your jar of curdled milk into the strainer. You should have an initial rush of whey that drains through into the bowl and then you’ll be left with the more solid mass, from which whey will drain for a couple hours if you let it. I typically let it drain for awhile and then later tie the towel’s corners to a wooden spoon so that it forms a small bag hanging from the spoon. You can then hang this over your bowl and let more of the whey drip out for however long you’re willing to wait.

Here I am holding up the cloth bag of separated milk. You can see the whey streaming out into the pot.

Now you’re almost done. Once all or most of the whey has dripped from the bag, you can simply pour the whey into a mason jar and store it in the fridge. The whey should keep for many months, ready to provide an assist any time you need to lacto-ferment something or soak some grains. Or you can just drink the stuff–it’s extremely healthy for you and will give a great boost to your digestive system. As for the leftover curdled milk proteins in your little cloth sack, that’s basically fantastic cream cheese! It’s a little different than what you would buy in the store. It has a sharper taste and isn’t as smooth of a consistency, but I’ve spread it on a bagel and found it to be fantastic. It also is far healthier for you and, like whey, is full of good cultures and bacteria that will give your digestive system a nice charge.

The leftover milk solids (protein and fat.) This is nutritious stuff, but I don't have the desire to deal with it today. So out it goes into the woods, where a whole host of other creatures will enjoy and partake in its nutritious bounty.

Unfortunately, my various milk products that I separated the whey out of today were all pretty well-aged. As such, the milk proteins were funkier than I prefer and I knew that if I kept them and threw them in the fridge, I would never get around to eating them. So I decided to dump it all, which I at first felt guilty about. It seemed like such a waste of some very nutritious food. But, of course, there’s no need to waste that food even if I don’t eat it. I took it out into the woods on our property and found a secluded spot to dump it. While I won’t be eating this good food, it will feed literally millions–if not billions–of other creatures. Tons of microbials will munch on it over the next few days, a variety of bugs and insects will surely get into it, and I imagine a few little critters will have their share, as well. There’s plenty of life on this land–the food won’t go to waste.

After dumping the milk solids, I still had myself quite a bounty: over a gallon of whey. Luckily, it’s the height of summer and there’s plenty of food around that can be fermented. Over the next weeks and months, I plan to make pickles and sauerkraut, to ferment squash, make kimchi and chutneys, to lacto-ferment roasted red peppers (I did this last year and they were amazing), make live culture homemade condiments, probably soak some grains, and more. This is part of the beauty and excitement about extracting whey from raw milk: it’s a prelude to still other projects. It’s a laying of the foundation. It seems, then, appropriate that it was my first real homesteading project. It led me to further projects and set me on a fermenting path I’m still on today.

The project's results: over a gallon of fresh whey from raw milk, ready for use in various fermenting projects.

%d bloggers like this: