Archive for the ‘homesteading’ Tag

Ending Our Exuberance   17 comments

An entry in the How To Be Poor series

In my previous entry in the How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, I argued that many people’s dietary choices reveal the sort of luxury we have available to us today in industrialized nations. By choosing what we eat from a wide variety of foods, without regard to the limitations and constraints inherent to our local landscape and personal circumstances, we often provide ourselves a diet possible only in an industrialized world swimming in cheap energy and resources. Our context is utterly unlike that of most all others throughout human history.

In making that argument, I suggested that how we eat may be as or more important than what we eat. It’s a mark of luxury that the specific foods we eat can be mulled and considered and decided upon, rather than being dictated to us by a strict set of circumstances. If, instead, those circumstances dictated our food, what we eat would not so much be the question and we might instead focus on how we eat, with that determination providing us the method of building meaning into our diets. Creating a set of moral and ethical codes around the how of eating rather than the what of eating makes more sense in a world facing serious energy and resource constraints.

Still, we don’t yet face that world, though it certainly seems in the process of asserting itself. For those of us attempting to eat well, we face instead the question of what to eat, which is an important question. I wrote in that last entry that “I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.” I think that line could come across as flippant, disavowing the importance and implications of what we eat, and that’s not at all how I want to treat the subject. No, I think what we eat is very important. As a simple matter of very specific circumstances dating back millions of years, we find ourselves in a period of human history in which those of us living in industrialized nations can choose to eat almost anything we want, regardless of the time of year or where that food is capable of being grown, raised, processed or produced. That reality places a significant burden on us to attempt to eat well. Since we don’t find ourselves restricted by our local context, I believe we’re left with the responsibility to do our best to eat in a way that is nondestructive. We should eat foods that serve well our bodies, the land, animals, farmers, our environment, other humans and the soil. Our eating should not worsen the state of the world. Ideally, it should nourish it.

And yet, that’s not how we tend to eat. Most of us eat in ways that worsen the world; that exploit farmers and animals; that destroy land bases, soil and waterways; that are built upon suffering and cruelty; that impoverish other human beings; that degrade our bodies; and that serve to further sever our connection to the world around us. We often eat fast, dirty, and thoughtless. We fail in our moral responsibility—often we fail to engage that responsibility at all.

There’s nothing surprising about that. There was a very perceptive quote from Bruce Friedrich that I first read in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. In arguing for vegetarianism, Friedrich asks, “What does it say that the leaders of the ‘ethical meat’ charge, like my friends Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and even the Niman Ranch farmers, regularly pull money out of their pockets and send it off to the factory farms? To me, it says that the ‘ethical carnivore’ is a failed idea; even the most prominent advocates don’t do it full-time. I have met countless people who were moved by Eric’s and Michael’s arguments, but none of them now eat exclusively Niman-type meat. They are either vegetarians or they continue to eat at least some factory-farmed animals.” While I’m not impressed by some of the things Friedrich says before that quote, I find this particular observation to be spot on. As I’ve noted, I started eating meat again after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma with the idea that I would eat good meat. While I follow through on that ideal a good percentage of the time, I still find myself getting the occasional hamburger at a bar that comes out of the Sysco supply chain or buying bacon from New Seasons—which is much better than Smithfield, but far from a small, local, humane ideal. The reason I fail at times is a combination of availability, convenience, and lack of will power. If I’m at a bar and I’m drinking, I’m hungry, and it’s on the menu, I’m going to order that hamburger, even if it’s not grass fed and from a local rancher. I fully understand the implications, but I give myself a pass and dig in. It’s an available moral failing and I take it.

Most people do much the same thing, either part of the time or all of the time. We don’t tend to eat with our brains but with our heart and stomach. We give in to desires—this is one of the reasons there’s a number of massive and profitable industries built around food and diet. Food is something we think about, obsess over, attach moral implications to, satisfy emotional urges with, and which provides us the very sustenance of our lives. It’s a relationship rooted in messiness and complication and the industrial world we’ve built around us has only served to complicate that already complex relationship by vastly opening the choices before us—and vastly increasing the moral implications of what we do decide to eat. The food we normally would eat has become far more corrupted via poor farming practices and the food we normally wouldn’t have available to us now is available and serves to tempt us in ways it never could before. These realities have imbued the question of what we eat with moral implications that it never had before, and as such has shifted our concerns more firmly toward the question of what rather than how.

This isn’t a good thing. While I love having the easy access to sugar and animal products, coffee, chocolate, fruits that would never grow here, ginger and coconut milk, and so many other foods that I wouldn’t eat if not for our industrialized world, I can’t endorse this availability. It’s distorted our ways of eating and skewed them toward destructive ends. It makes every meal fraught with moral and ethical considerations, often turning those meals into exhausting acts full of self-doubt and worry. Recent neurological research, as outlined in a New York Times article, suggests that as we make decisions, we deplete our will power. We become less able to make good decisions until we’ve restored that ability to our brain, which is tied to glucose levels. In other words, our decisions around food are particularly likely to be based in irrational thinking as we often crave sugar as a way to restore our decision-making abilities. But even aside from food, the need to make constant decisions saps our will power over time and degrades our ability to keep ourselves firmly within self-established limits.

In other words, deciding how to eat well is not a simple matter of rational thought, education, or strong morals. All of those things have their effect, but they’re part of a much more broad and complicated act of decision-making that is tied as well into brain chemistry, sugar levels, genetic predispositions and emotional signals. So while it’s important to acknowledge the moral importance of eating well in a world awash with bad food, expecting moral implications to lead to good eating amongst the world’s population is a fool’s game. There may be the rare person out there who is capable of eating at all times within a strict moral code, but the vast majority of us are not going to manage such an impressive feat. We’re going to make decisions that are not going to be good for the world—sometimes purposefully and sometimes not.

I recently read William Catton’s Overshoot and the final paragraph of chapter ten has been haunting me. Catton writes, “Using the ecological paradigm to think about human history, we can see instead that the end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.” Our behavior, in other words, has been perfectly natural. If we see humans as simply another species on this planet, as I do, then we can see how we would make these poor decisions. We can understand why we would eat foods available to us even if those foods increased misery throughout the world. We can see how we would crank the heat even if we knew we could put on a sweater instead, and even if we knew that heat comes from fossil fuels that pollute the world and that are quickly being drawn down. We can recognize that we are animals, not perfect moral beings, and that we will as often as not choose the route of comfort and convenience and satisfaction, even when we intellectually understand the long-term downfalls of those choices.

So while, yes, I think we have a moral responsibility to eat well—much as I believe we have a moral responsibility to live and work well—I don’t think we can undertake such lives via morals alone. Our morality is only so strong and is only one piece of a tangled web of emotion and physicality, genetics and desire, social and cultural norms, and so many more variables. Attempting to engage all of those variables and always still make the right choice is an exercise doomed to failure, and one that will exhaust and break us in the process.

What we need instead is a life of limitation. We need less choices, fewer options, more constraints. A life lived more local and constricted by context would help to absolve us of many of the decisions and options that globalization and industrialism has foisted upon us. Such a life would necessarily be of a smaller scale, rooted in the local land and intimate knowledge, rather than resources that can come from anywhere in the world and through the debased, standardized knowledge of industrial systems. Such a life would limit our impact on the world not by forcing us to choose each time to limit our impact, but by limiting our ability to make such impacts.

This, again, gets at the absurdity of the challenge of voluntary poverty, as I wrote about in Our Distorted View. It shouldn’t be hard to live poor, but it is when you have money and so many options to live otherwise. If we’re constantly facing that temptation and constantly having to make the decision to live a modest life in the face of the ability to do otherwise, we’re quickly going to exhaust ourselves and make poor decisions. So to live a life of voluntary poverty, we need to build limitations and constraints into our lives.

Living here in an off-the-grid homestead has provided all kinds of lessons in that reality. We heat the buildings via wood stoves, which require more work than the simple flipping of a switch or turn of a dial. That leads to less heat, as the effort to produce that heat discourages unnecessary usage. Our hot water also comes from a wood stove, as well as solar hot water panels. That teaches us to pay attention to the weather and to limit our showers. There simply isn’t always hot water without some work, so none of us showers every day—which is unnecessary anyway. We have electricity via solar PV panels and a microhydro generator, but not an abundance of electricity. Generally we can run what we need to, but we’re not powering big screen TVs or using electric heaters or blow driers and we can’t run, say, the electric tea kettle and the hot plate at the same time. We further can only run devices that use small amounts of electricity (such as CFL bulbs) on a continual basis and run high-power devices in short burst. That’s fine—I quickly grew used to these limitations and they hardly impede my life. But it’s a different reality from being hooked up to the electric grid and having essentially unlimited power at your disposal.

These limitations are ingrained into life here and they quickly slip into the background, barely worth thinking about. As a part of life, they do an excellent job of limiting energy and resource usage while providing, at worst, a bit of inconvenience—and often not even that. I live a good life here, possibly better than I have anywhere else, and likely with less energy usage than I’ve used anywhere else.

That, to me, is the goal of voluntary poverty. Finding that way to live that uses less energy and resources while still providing a good life. It’s not the easiest goal in the world, but it certainly is a possibility. Yet, it has to involve the creation of limits and constraints—a context of living that naturally leads to a downsized life. As I prepare to move to a new situation, I’m going to find myself back on the grid, with more living space and constant hot water and changed circumstances that are likely to lead to me using more energy and resources. Leaving behind this off-the-grid homestead, I’m going to have to craft the context of my life to introduce some of the constraints that my current home featured by default. If I don’t do that, I’ll live larger than I want to live, too often making the easy decisions when they present themselves to me. I’ll be able to heat at the flick of a switch, to shower any time I want, to cook by turning a nob rather than stoking a wood stove. How will I deal with those conveniences? How will I stop myself from slipping too easily back into something more akin to a middle class American lifestyle?

These are some of the questions I’ll be writing about as this series continues. It will be a challenge, but I expect it to be a good one. I hope, as well, that my attempts to live in a home more closely approximating the standard American set up will help me to provide more useful information to my readers. Most of us don’t live on off-the-grid homesteads and so the constraints we need are ones we will have to put into place ourselves, as often as not. That creation of our context is going to be a main focus of this series. To lay the groundwork, I’ll be writing soon about the home I’m moving into and the decisions and tradeoffs that led me to this living situation. Those decisions were rooted in constraint, as well, and will help to illuminate some of the frames of mind we’re going to have to dispose of if we’re to live well in a poorer future.

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.

Thanking the Sun   4 comments

Today I awoke to blue skies. This may not seem surprising–it is August, after all–but even at this time of year, sun cannot be taken for granted here on the Oregon coast. The last week has been cloudy and a bit cool, with only a few brief stretches of good sun. As such, we’ve been a bit grumpy on the farm. It’s the middle of August and, after an unusually cold and wet spring, it feels as though we’ve earned some sun and warmth. Yet the weather hasn’t obliged of late.

Despite hanging their heads, these sunflowers no doubt appreciate the sun as much as we do.

Then, yesterday evening, the sun broke free from it’s cloudy chains. It shone gloriously over the farm, providing a distinct reprieve from the subdued state we had found ourselves in. Continuing into today, the sun has been providing warmth and Vitamin D, a distinct uplift in mood, and vast amounts of energy to be dispersed throughout the farm. It also has provided a bit of reflective thought for me, as I found myself thinking today about everything the sun provides us–about, in other words, just how momentous its appearance is.

The sun is different here. Or, to be more honest, the sun is the same here, but our attitude toward it and dependence on it is different. In Portland, where I have lived a good portion of my life, the sun’s arrival provides warmth and enjoyment, an improvement in mood, and Vitamin D for those willing to venture out into it. For many people, though, it doesn’t go much beyond that. And for some people, it doesn’t even go that far. The sun being out doesn’t much affect the life of someone who wakes up in his climate-controlled house, goes into his garage, gets in his climate-controlled car, drives to his job in a climate-controlled office, and then returns to his climate-controlled house in the evening. Perhaps he ventures out for a bit at lunch and maybe dares bar-be-que some dinner on the back porch, but he’s just as likely to stay inside and watch TV. And even if he does take those moments to go outside, it leads to limited exposure.

Our source of electricity: two solar photovoltaic panels that keep us powered through the summer.

Here on the farm, we of course work outside. That’s a difference. Your relationship with the sun is significantly changed by a constant or near-constant exposure to it. I rarely wear sun screen (I hate the feel of it, I hate how it makes me sweat and, to be honest, I think it’s about as likely to give me cancer as the sun) and so I get some maximum Vitamin D action out of the sunlight. (I’m lucky in that I’m a quarter Portugese, and after a few spring days of sunshine, my arms darken nicely and start taking the sun quite well.) Similarly, as much as the sun invigorates those of us working out in it, it invigorates our crops even more. The revealing of the sun means growth and ripening fruit. We need sun if we want sweet, ripe tomatoes. And we most definitely want sweet, ripe tomatoes.

So when the sun comes out, we notice it here. It makes all the difference in the world. We feel its warmth because we’re out working in it. We get the Vitamin D boost. We get the general invigoration and the mood elevation. Furthermore, we know our crops are growing, our fruit is ripening, our flowers are blooming, that the sunlight streaming down on the land is being converted into food and livelihood–into our very sustenance. And when the sun is out, I find I don’t need so much. I’m less likely to drink afternoon coffee. I often eat less. I know this isn’t the same for everyone, but it’s how it works for me. When the sun is shining, it’s almost as if I’m able to convert a bit of that sunlight into energy just as a plant does. It just feels easier.

These two solar hot water panels are old, inefficient beasts from the 70s, yet they still provide something like half of the farm's hot water for the year. All this despite the fact that we live in one of the least sunny areas in the country. Makes you wonder why every house doesn't have solar hot water panels on its roof.

Still, there’s more. The growing plants and ripening fruit and Vitamin D and elated moods isn’t everything. There’s also the beauty. The Oregon coast in summer is perhaps one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s astounding out here. On the farm, we have the surrounding peaks and mountains, the forest, the creek and river, the farm’s abundant crops and flowers, and they all contain an almost incomprehensible vibrancy when the sun is out. They are beautiful always, but they become almost heartbreaking in the full spotlight of the sun’s rays. The beauty is only enhanced by the fact that sunny days on the coast tend to be near-perfect climate-wise: in the 70s with low humidity and perhaps a light breeze. The air is clear, the temperature comfortable, the warmth encompassing. It’s glorious.

And yet, there’s even more. There’s so much more that the sun gives us. Here on the farm, we’re off the grid. We are not tied into the electricity infrastructure in any way. Which means that we have to generate all our electricity, our hot water, our heat, everything right here from off the land. We do that in large part with the sun. The farm has two solar photovoltaic panels that generate electricity, as well as two solar water panels that provide us with hot water. So when the sun comes out, it’s not just that it’s boosting our mood and providing us with income and growing our crops–literally feeding us–but it also is providing us with our energy. When the sun comes out, we have abundant electricity to use. We don’t need it all, but there’s plenty there for us. We also have hot water for showers. On cloudy days, we may not have that unless we fire up the wood stove (which is set up to also heat our water via the waste heat escaping out of the flue.) That’s more work, it burns our wood, and on cloudy but otherwise warm summer days, it can be annoying to fire the wood stove and introduce that unnecessary heat into the house. When the sun’s out, we don’t need to worry about that. All we need to do is go take a luxurious shower.

The farm version of a solar array: not just solar PV panels, but a soon-to-be solar bathhouse that will use multiple solar hot water panels and recycled hot water tanks to keep us in muscle-soothing hot tubs all summer long.

The sun is everything to us. And really, that’s how it should be. It’s appropriate to live on a particular piece of land, gaining your sustenance through the proper use of that land, and gaining your energy through the harnessing of the sunlight falling upon that land. That can happen in multiple ways: in its passive heat, in the conversion of sunlight into electricity via photovoltaic panels (though even PV panels are not truly sustainable and they’re terribly inefficient when you break it down), and in the growing of food and fuel. We do all of that here and it provides a very high percentage of our energy needs. Since we live within that system and are aware of it, we have an immense appreciate for the sun and experience it on a multi-faceted level when it finally emerges from behind the clouds. It’s giving us so much–how could we ever appreciate it enough? On the other hand, living in an apartment with an electric water heater and electric wall heaters does not inspire the same kind of appreciation for the sun because the sun is not seen as providing your food, your warmth, your hot water–it’s something separate that may provide some nice weather and a bit of extra physical energy, or may just provide a sun burn and the need to turn on the air conditioner. Either way, it tends to be more peripheral. And to make the sun peripheral is a special sort of insanity.

These days, I thank the sun when it comes out because I understand just how much it is providing me. I also thank the fact that I understand that. Much of my life, the sun has been something I appreciated to a certain degree, but that tended to be peripheral. There were plenty of sunny days in which I hardly even went outside and I never, in the past, became excited about newfound electricity and previously-unavailable hot water when the sun came out. Now I do, and I like that. It feels better. It feels more connected. And it feels true, because now I understand the sun in a way I never did before–not as a shadow, but as something brilliant and bright, providing an abundance that I can never appreciate enough, that I can only glory in and hope that it returns the next day.

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.

Living With the Other – An Introduction and Consideration   3 comments

To Begin With

I’m currently living with an evergreen blackberry.

The blackberry in the middle of July.

It’s growing up out of the earth through a very tiny crack between the bottom of the wall and the floor of my yurt. It’s dark green, with jagged leaves, a stalk that thickens by the day and thorns that grow ever more sharp and substantial. It’s growing by the corner of my bed and every day it overhangs that edge–the corner of the head of my bed–a little more.

Luckily, I don’t tend to sleep on that side of the bed. This is good, because I’ve been stabbed in the skull with a blackberry thorn before–while harvesting those ever-alluring berries–and I can’t say it’s an experience I’m particularly eager to relive. Certainly not in the middle of the night.

But To First Backtrack

I’m living in the aforementioned yurt because I’m interning on a small, off-the-grid, organic farm called R-evolution Gardens, located on the Oregon coast. I’ve been here nearly five months and will be here longer yet–at least through Thanksgiving and likely beyond. The yurt’s part of the deal: room and board in exchange for my work on the farm. It comes with a Jøtul wood stove, fantastic (and laden) bookshelves made in part with small alders off the land, a colorful desk, a (futon) bed and, finally, that neighborly evergreen blackberry vine. The vine, of course, wasn’t here in March when I first moved in. It’s a relatively new addition, having been around since the beginning of July.

Now, I’m familiar with blackberry bushes. Back in 2006 and 2007, I did two eleven-month AmeriCorps terms of service, working on a field team doing environmental restoration work. Often times that involved removing invasives, and it was not uncommon for said invasives to be Himalayan and evergreen blackberry. They are beasts, terribly vigorous and not a plant to take your eyes off of for a moment. They spread fast and with little mercy for whatever’s in their path. Trees, shrubs, various native plants, perhaps a particularly still human being–they will happily swallow all, never slowing down to consider whether or not it’s fair for them to be devouring so much land.

A bit like modern humans, no?

In the process of this growth, they’ll create massive tangles of thorny vines that are quite capable of tearing flesh and anything else they come into contact with. They also will create garish, gnarly root balls which can keep them growing and expanding for long periods of time. These root balls turn blackberries into zombies. Kill them all you want, but they’re going to come back. You can chop back those vines time and again, sever them right at the surface, and they’ll still come back. Do it over and over and over again for years, with the right timing, and you may be able to kill them off eventually, but what you really need to do is dig up that root ball. Because if you don’t, the next thing you know, that blackberry’s going to be growing right up into your home.

Enough About Blackberries–For the Moment

This is my third farm internship. Last year, I lived in Portland, Oregon (oh, home!) and farmed at Sauvie Island Organics. The year before that, 2009, I lived my first farming experience at Rosehip Farm and Garden, up on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound (a bit northwest of Seattle, essentially.) Rosehip was a brilliant introduction to farming, showing me the glorious sort of life that can grow from organically farming a small piece of land while living on that land, engaging in a simpler life and feeling far more connected. I lived in a tiny airstream trailer and the first time I strolled out of my trailer and across the field to our onion beds, snagged an onion from the ground, peeled the dirty layers off as I walked back to my trailer, and then chopped and added it, fresh as could be, to my dinner . . . well, let’s say I was a bit hooked on the farming life. It quickly felt as though I would never be able to go back.

Unsurprisingly, I never have.

In actuality, I’ve simply moved farther down the rabbit hole. Along with a love of growing and eating good food, I’ve discovered over the last some-odd years that I love to homestead. I often make the joke that what I really want is simply to be some lovely woman’s housewife, but it’s not really much of a joke. If I could stay home all day and cook and preserve food, make cheese, brew beer, bake a wide variety of breads (from hand-ground flour!), ferment anything I can get my hands on, churn my own butter and make my own sour cream and creme fraiche and buttermilk, brew up kombucha and ginger ale, roast my own coffee, cure my own bacon, and so on and so forth, I would be an extremely happy man. However, I haven’t yet found that lovely woman who will support me financially while I indulge such endeavors, so for the moment I’m left fitting these projects into my free time.

Of course, that means that my farming and homesteading have grown organically (so sorry) over the years, evolving slowly and concurrently with my similarly-evolving philosophy about life, the natural world, and the way we humans live in it. In between farming and homesteading and various other activities, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading the works of a wide variety of authors, many of them environmentally conscious. Wendell Berry, Derrick Jensen, David Ehrenfield, Paul Hawken, Annie Dillard, Richard Louv, Gary Paul Nabhan, Thomas Berry, Bill McKibben, Joanna Macy and others have burrowed into my brain with their words, helping to lead me to a radical reevaluation of what it means to live in this world. These readings, coupled with a few years of reconnection to the land via farming and a significant distancing from the dominant culture and economic system, have brought me to a new way of understanding the world and have left me unable to reengage with business as usual. Further, they’ve altered my ways of thinking and have left me making and noting connections that I could not see before.

And So a Blog

I am a writer. Sometimes I qualify that statement with an “occasionally” or a joke about being a writer who does not write. But I do write, even if not always, and I intend to write quite a bit on this blog. This website is being started mainly to provide myself a venue for the exploration of these new connections I’ve been making, the new thoughts I am thinking, and for the cataloging of the experiences that give birth to these connections. This will include longer, more formal essays as well as short vignettes and the relating of observations, stories and activities. There will be the cataloging of farming life, homesteading activities, stories of hikes in the woods, encounters with other creatures, and small meditations on what it is to be human, to be in this world, and how one might work, live, play and love well. The thoughts and considerations will come from experience, from my life and the lives of others, both human and nonhuman, from my readings, from my successes and failures and from the challenging words and thoughts of others–including, hopefully, this blog’s readers.

I want to share how I came upon this path and where it leads me. I hope to do this not just for my own better understanding, but also to inspire and challenge others. Because, to be blunt for a moment, our society is extremely screwed up and its going to take a whole lot of us realizing that deep level of corruption and bankruptcy to disengage from the dominant culture and forge a new one. Luckily for those of us who want to do this, this is an extremely rewarding and joyful undertaking. It’s amazing how much more satisfying life can be when you start to find your true place in this world and begin to understand how to live well in it.

The Other

So I return to the evergreen blackberry that has found itself cohabiting with me. It has grown quite tall now and, yet, has begun to blend into the background. This is not so much because it is less visible, but because I have normalized it. Upon first discovering the blackberry, it nearly shocked me. However, there are blackberries all over our farm, which we constantly work to keep in check. They are remnants of its former use as a staging area for logging of the local land. They are the signifiers of previous abuse, a colonizing species brought forth by abuse of the land.  To find one on the farm is not surprising at all. My yurt, however, is a particular place–a circle of human space, walled off from the outside world and supposedly controllable. It is, it seems to me, not a proper place for an evergreen blackberry.

But that is only because I did not introduce the blackberry and because it made its way into my yurt of its own volition. If I had chosen to bring the blackberry into my living space within a pot, I would not look at it strangely. I would in fact care for it, water it, feed and dote upon it, making sure that it received enough light and worrying if it began to look sickly. In other words, if I controlled it, I would find it acceptable. It’s the fact that I don’t control it that makes it odd. It is another creature–the other–and, thus, does not belong in my home.

At least, that was my initial reaction. I quickly questioned that reaction, though, and wondered if I should not leave it to its own devices. I could always change my mind and cut the vine off at the base, reestablishing the previous order and slowly forgetting about that brief appearance of an uncontrolled guest in my home. Why not? I thought. And so I did.

To Return To The Present

The blackberry now, near the beginning of August.

It is taller than that first picture shows, now approaching the roof. At a certain point, it began to hang too far over the bed due to its increasing weight, so I tucked the blackberry up against the wall, latching it enough to the crisscrossing wooden framework of the inside of the yurt so that it would stay there, rather than dropping upon my face in the middle of the night. There is a second vine, almost as tall as the first. At some point, I suspect I’ll have to cut them both down, yet I can’t find much motivation to do that while they still present me no significant problems.

See, this is one of those moments in which–silly as it may seem, to be uncertain as to whether or not to allow this blackberry to continue to grow in my yurt–I feel compelled to play with expectations, both my own and society’s. It would be logical to cut down these blackberry vines. At the same time, though, they present a fantastic learning opportunity. I observe this blackberry much closer now that it’s in my home than I would if it were outside. I notice its growth and change, the color of its leaves, the breadth of its thorns. I examine, curiously, how well it will grow in diffused, nondirect sunlight. The answer, so far, has been, “Quite well.” I suppose this is an unsurprising observation, considering how well blackberries seem able to spread within the shade. Still, it’s an observation born of direct experience and, as such, might better linger.

A Tying of Loose Ends

Upon first seeing the blackberry growing in my yurt, I wanted to remove it. On further consideration, I decided to live with it. The desire to remove it seemed rash. It appears to not be harming the yurt in any appreciable way and there is no one but me to suffer the mild consequences of living with the plant. Therefore, why not hold off on decisions and allow myself time to consider and learn, to observe, and to perhaps come to some new conclusions? Much can be gained by living with someone other than yourself and little would have been gained by immediately removing the blackberry. I would have already forgotten it and any consideration of the intertwining of our lives would have likely ceased upon the blackberry’s removal.

My reaction to the blackberry and my creation of this blog, then, come from similar intent. I want to study, consider and observe in an effort to better understand how to live, work, play and love well in this world. My interaction with the blackberry is one small manifestation of that effort; this blog will serve as a partial written record of that effort. With luck, it will also grow into a community of people engaging in similar efforts, gaining knowledge and inspirations from my posts while simultaneously providing me with their own knowledge and inspiration. That would be a blessing, for we have much good work to do and too few people who know how to do it. The more we teach each other, the better care we will take in our work and the healthier the world will be.

Let’s get started.

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