Saturday, January 30, 2010

What's on the shelf?

I've been snowed into the house for the past two days, and probably will be for another two, but luckily I have an extensive collection of literature documenting the train wreck we call modern civilization (along with some gardening, preserving, and community building books), which proves to be both endlessly amusing and instructive. Don't get me wrong - I'm what you might call a "heavy user" of library services, but sometimes I need reference books to be available at all times.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dear Universe

Sometimes, when I awake at 4 am as if a shot of adrenaline has been applied to my heart a la' Pulp Fiction, I try to transcend my frustration and say a little prayer instead. And it goes a little something like this:

Dear Universe,
Although I am currently in the wretched embrace of insomnia,
which I apparently inherited from my mother,
that's not such a bad health-related inheritance as such things go,
especially when compared to breast cancer or schizophrenia,
although according to some research it does make me easy prey for a host of other health-related ailments,
I want to tell you that
Grateful to be lying here,
on my comfortable non-toxic latex mattress,
on my soft clean sheets,
and a glass of potable water in easy reach,
with my husband snoring softly instead of like a jackhammer,
and my blackout curtains that my mother-in-law sewed me for Christmas last year blocking the infernal streetlight located in my backyard,
and an appropriately-sized, firm pillow for my head.
Thank You.
And despite the fact that You are about to rain down
a vast and terrible furor
of resource and ecological limitations upon us,
I realize this crisis is due to our own freewill,
which has manifested as shortsighted stupidity,
prodigious procreative ability,
and excessive rapaciousness,
and that You have also given us the capacity
for creativity, self-restraint, and cooperation
if we choose to use these skills
on a path of energy descent and balance.
And so although I cannot sleep though not for lack of trying,
and fear imminent doom in some as-yet unforeseen fashion,
though probably not a 2,000 foot tall marshmallow man,
I am grateful that at least for now I have these small comforts,
and food and water and a warm home,
and my health,
and the health of my family.
Thank You.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lasagna Garden

I have run out of room for my tomatoes. Over the last three years, I have placed tomato and pepper plants all throughout my current garden beds, and now I need a new spot to rotate them into to avoid building up diseases in the soil. Thus, last weekend's activities.
I "won" the labor for a lasagna garden bed from our local Sierra Club chapter's Christmas fundraiser. Since I had to hightail it home for my son's bedtime, my friend Vicki (of Rose Ranch grass-fed beef), fiercely competed for the lasagna garden in my name, even going so far as to kick in $15 over my top bid in order to win the apparently highly-coveted prize.

A lasagna garden is basically a sheet compost created in layers above the ground, without traditional rototilling or double-digging of the soil. This allows the soil structure to remain intact and reduces the amount of digging. Rick, the volunteer who contributed the prize to raise funds for the Sierra Club, called me to schedule a consultation, we found a location for the new bed, and he told me what materials to procure:

- cardboard (saved over the last two years)
- peat moss, (about15 cu. feet)
- composted horse manure, (1.5 cu. yards)
- compost, (1 cu. yard)
- various amendments like bone meal, greensand, blood meal,
- leaves, and
- straw (from Rick).
On Saturday, my husband and I unloaded the composted horse manure, which luckily smelled just like regular compost. We paid a friend to haul 1.5 cubic yards (a yard is a cube 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet or 27 cubic feet) from some stables in Edmond. We had enough for three/four layers of the lasagna garden and enough to cover all my 200 sq. feet of current garden with about 6 inches of the loamy gold.
The deliverer of our horse manure compost, Ron Ferrell, reports that he has used this on his garden with great results, especially helping with the water retention of the soil. I have heard that horse manure often has weed seeds, but hopefully the composting process took care of that - and if not, we'll have newspaper/straw mulch on top.

On Sunday, Rick arrived and proceeded to demonstrate his Puritan work ethic! We found, fairly quickly, that the area I had chosen for its' sunny location actually had a path of bricks buried under the weeds. Those proved quite handy as cardboard placeholders and as temporary edging for the garden.

Normally, I might not trust cardboard to kill off the demon bermuda grass, which seems to actually consume cardboard boxes. But this area of my yard seems to be mostly non-Bermuda grass weeds. The cardboard layer in our 7 x 17 bed was followed by a layer of peat moss, composted horse manure, peat moss, leaves, horse manure, bone meal and greensand, peat moss and horse manure. From what I've read, peat moss is not the most environmentally friendly amendment to use. But Rick insisted on it as a key ingredient in the lasagna and didn't have any alternatives to suggest. Anybody know of some?

Unfortunately, the local fellow we had contracted with to deliver our non-animal compost got a wee bit confused on the timing and never showed up. He did, however, call later and promise to complete the delivery within the next two days. Too late, too late! I guess I'll have to finish the job myself by topping off the compost, newspaper and straw. Ah well, I'm still pleased to have been able to find a source of local compost and composted manure that did not involve multiple trips to big-box store Z and disposal of 85 plastic bags.

I feel lucky to be in a position to create this kind of lovely soil in our urban location. If we had to start from scratch for some urgent reason.... it would be a lot more difficult. Our compost pile has never yielded a huge amount (from what I've heard, it usually boils down to about 10% of the volume you put into it), and there are no large sources of manure within walking distance (aside from people). There's always green manuring / cover crops, but those take a few seasons to really amend the soil.

Now, I'm planning for a great tomato season. By April 15th (traditional tomato planting date in OKC), all these layers will have been composted down to a luscious rich soil. This year, I am really trying to get "heat and drought tolerant" tomato varieties to foil the problems with drought and heat that we had last year. So along with that precaution, and lots and lots of mulch, I hope to be able to get a good crop this year. Of course this year the weather will turn out to be damp and soggy instead ;).

Even with all this new extra room, I think I only have space for 10-11 tomatoes. Because I can't resist their catalog, and their new on-line feature offering reviews of their seeds, I obtained my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Royal Hillbilly, Carbon, Black Cherry, Orange Banana, and Henderson's Pink Ponderosa. I am contemplating making a second order just to get Arkansas Traveler, Sioux, Amish Paste, Riesentraube and Bloody Butcher.

I also read several reviews of the "Delicious" tomato reporting that this heirloom seems to repel the blight which infested quite a bit of the country last year (the blight reportedly started / spread through big-box store tomato plants). If for some perverse reason my seeds don't start, I'll be headed to the Tomato Man's Daughter, who grows specialty tomatoes.

Tomato lovers - big plans this year? Heard of any more heirloom blight-resistant tomatoes?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Growing Fresh Air

Despite our best efforts to get outside, many of us western industrialized folk spend 90+% of our time indoors (especially in the winter!). In that time, we are inhaling all the emissions off-gassed by our furniture, carpet, appliances, cleaning fluids, personal care products, even ourselves (called bio-effluents). These emissions include formaldehyde, methyl alcohol, benzene, ammonia, and acetone.

On top of that, our homes become much drier in the winter. As our nasal membranes dry out from the lack of humidity, they become easy prey for the viruses shopping around for a new home, and become more prone to irritation from allergens and airborne chemicals. And since many of us have weatherized our houses and offices in order to become more energy-efficient, those chemicals may stick around for a while. In the more extreme cases, this can result in "Sick Building Syndrome," a constellation of associated symptoms like headache, nausea, fatigue, and allergies.

Fortunately, NASA scientist Dr. B.C. Wolverton has now published "How to Grow Fresh Air," a guide to 50 houseplants that can help make your home environment cleaner and more comfortable. In the book, Dr. Wolverton reports research that specifically shows which houseplants cleanse which chemicals from the air. Each plant is rated based on four factors: ability to clean the air, ease of maintenance, resistance to insects, and transpiration rate (ability to humidify the air). Plants range from palms, to dracaenas, to philodendrons and even flowering indoor plants.

I knew that houseplants cleaned the air, but I didn't remember that they humidify the air as well. And, I discovered something new - houseplants actually suppress molds, bacterias and microbes in the home environment. Research has shown that plant-filled rooms have 50-60% fewer molds and bacteria colonies than rooms which are empty of plants.

Personally, I love houseplants, and not just because they clean my air. I love how they bring life to a house full of dead objects and stale air, love how their organic shapes bring a beautiful untidiness to my decorations. I've also read research on healing that demonstrates that people who have views of the outdoors can recover faster - I imagine this might apply to views of houseplants as well. And from a practical perspective, plants are the perfect way to hide plugs, wires, and empty corners.

After reading this book, I went to the store and bought seven houseplants. Apparently, you should locate several inside or near your personal "breathing zone" - which is the 6-8 cubic feet around where you spend most of your time. For me, that means: near my head in the bedroom; near the computer, and in the kitchen (to clean out cooking smells). And offices are perfect spots for houseplants. When my husband moved into his new office (a building located INSIDE a warehouse), which was filled to the gills with new carpet and freshly painted chemicals, and where no views of the outdoors were possible, I bought him four houseplants. I think they help keep him sane!

In a world where it seems like we can't avoid chemicals even if we try, since they are in everything.... at least we have a way to clean them out of our air.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A short history of peak oil preparation

Frankly, when I first learned about peak oil, I was a bit freaked out. But after time, a little too much wine, a lot of research, and some productive action, I recovered, and went on to slowly change my attitude, expectations, and lifestyle to accommodate a radically different reality from the one I previously knew.

Here's a year-by-year summary of the last five years of my efforts at peak oil preparation in three key areas: Short term (Emergency planning), Medium term (Economic / Financial crash), and Long term (Sustainable Future). Keep in mind, this does not cover the first, and perhaps most important area of preparation: psychological adjustment.

I first had to mentally adjust from the "normal" middle-class expectation of general peace and prosperity, a steady career, and an easy retirement, to an expectation of rapid change, potential austerity, and the need for self-sufficiency combined with an awareness of my interdependence on the people surrounding me. Accompanying this change in expectations is my ongoing search for meaning in a world that, in the future, may no longer provide comfort and progress the way I once thought it would.

Is this a model or perfect plan? No. It's just an actual report of what one person has been doing....

Year 1 - End of 2004, 2005

What's happening in 2005? President George Bush is sworn in for a second term; Hurricanes Katrina and Rita rock the Gulf Coast. Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over is published. The Hirsch report, warning of severe consequences if peak oil is not addressed, is released by the Department of Energy.

Personal Preparation
- Moved to OKC from Denver to be near family and for my husband to pursue a more lucrative job.
- Chose home in the closest thing to a walkable neighborhood we could find, with a lot and a half to grow food and a southern-facing exposure (unfortunately requiring many compromises).
- Purchased Energy Star appliances with best energy rating available for fridge and washer.
- Chose a 15 year mortgage, started paying it down.
- Started analyzing the lay of the land for my garden/orchard.
- Obtained two large rain barrels and set them up.
- Put in first garden bed, realized I was clueless about gardening.

- Became obsessed with energy blogs (Energy Bulletin, LATOC, Sharon Astyk).

Year 2 - 2006

What's happening in 2006? Ben Bernanke is confirmed Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Patriot Act is renewed, Saddam Hussein is hanged in Iraq, US population passes 300 million. Matt Simmon's book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock is published.

Personal Preparation
- Suffer through two natural gas leaks in 17-yr old furnace, installed geothermal HVAC unit for heating, cooling, and hot water.
- Put in insulation and sealed our house "envelope", replaced light bulbs with CFL's, thereby decreasing our energy bills.
- Realized pecan trees shade most of the back yard, established 200 sq. feet of gardens in the sunny areas.
- Planted two peach trees.
- Purchase Katadyn water filtration system.
- Purchase tent, sleeping bags.
- Install Solatube.
- Start Peak Oil library: both "watching the train wreck" books and "how to" books.
- Sell most non-IRA/401K mutual funds, put into savings.

Year 3 - 2007

What's happening in 2007? The US Supreme Court rules the EPA has the responsibility to regulate car emissions, an interstate bridge in Minnesota collapses, the US Government Accountability office releases a report calling for the US DOE to create a plan to address peak oil, Al Gore and the UN IPCC are awarded the Nobel Peak Prize.

Personal Preparation

- Son is born. (Technically, not peak oil preparation.)
- Continue aggressive savings plan despite uncertainty of inflation, deflation, stagflation, or imminent destruction.
- Replace drafty old front picture window with nifty superinsulated window.
- Begin storing food: rotational (stuff we eat regularly like oatmeal, canned beans and veggies, applesauce, rice) and just storage (wheat berries, sugar, etc).
- Purchase Country Living Grain Mill.
- Plant 2 apple and 2 plum trees.
- Buy solar light and campstove for emergencies.
- Put together "Go Bags" in case of evacuation.

- Begin storing items from this list (for example, toilet paper, liquor, matches).

Year 4 - 2008

What's happening in 2008? The Russia-Georgia South Ossetia war raises tensions in Europe, rising fuel and food prices trigger riots in "third world" countries. Oil prices hit $147/barrel, the subprime housing bubble pops, the stock market crashes, President George Bush authorizes $700 billion to buy bank assets, Barack Obama is elected President of the United States. Rob Hopkin's The Transition Handbook is published.

Personal Preparation

- Establish inside water storage.
- Purchase good-quality gas can in case evacuation is necessary (in which case gas stations would be rapidly depleted of supplies). Implement 6-month rotation plan for gas.
- Purchase large first aid kit for house and two small ones for cars.
- Plant herb garden.
- Start seriously using and experimenting with the Global Sun Oven; purchase second Sun Oven (Tulsi).
- Experiment with canning, freezing, and drying food.
- Join Oklahoma Food Co-op.
- Purchase Kelly Kettle for extremely efficient water boiling (soups, tea, coffee), using wood.

- Begin discussing peak oil preparation with my parents, who prove to be uncommonly receptive and who begin pro-actively preparing themselves, providing us with a "safe haven."

Year 5 - 2009

What's happening in 2009? Russia shuts off European gas supplies through the Ukraine in the middle of winter, the Icelandic government and banking system collapse, and Australia is ravaged by drought and fires. The H1N1 flu becomes a pandemic, the US Cash for Clunkers program pays people to buy cars, official US unemployment exceeds 10% while unofficial unemployment climbs over 17%, Richard Heinberg's Blackout is published. And Michael Jackson dies.

Personal Preparation
- Purchased used 2007 Prius after 1993 Prizm needed $1100 of repair work.

- Purchase spare bike tires and patch kits.
- Transition Town / community preparation movement: initiating group, training, website, brochures, presentations, events, meetings.
- Put up clothesline (formerly kiwi trellis).
- Plant blackberries and persimmon tree.
- Remodeled kitchen for more storage, counter space and easier cleaning.
- Start networking with local sustainability and local food activists.

I know I have forgotten some of the preparedness steps I've taken, and some I purposefully haven't mentioned (related to home defense - watch out for the alligator moat and Molotov cocktails, zombie invaders!), but that's the bulk of it. In retrospect, I should have done some things earlier, like food and water storage, and I should have done other things better, like planting trees in spots more suitable for fruiting.

I haven't accomplished nearly what I'd like - bees, chickens, a solar battery charger, first aid class, and a fireplace insert are all still waiting for me to get around to them, among other things. But Year 6 promises to be productive, and hopefully Year 7 even more so.

Remember, nothing in this post should be considered investment advice! Which is one reason I didn't include much information on investing....

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My crystal ball

Ah, the future is dim! But in my crystal ball I see.... wailing and gnashing of teeth! Luxuries and comforts foregone, hopes dashed! Coming soon, very soon, even.... yes, next month I see it. As those pernicious envelopes are ripped open and the figure is glimpsed, people all across these cold-blasted lands will curse in anguish at their heating bill.

Here in Oklahoma, we have had a run of freezing weather not seen in decades. Record lows from the 19th century have been broken. Schools are being closed so that kids with "insufficient outerwear" will not have to walk to school or stand outside for the buses; and perhaps so the heating bill for the school won't be quite so bad.

We have a geothermal heating system that keeps our electric bill (which includes heating, water heating and cooling) very reasonable. We were warned by the geo installer not to vary the temperature up and down over the course of the day because it would not reduce our heating costs. In the last few days, with lows hovering under 10 degrees, our secondary backup electric heating system has been kicking in. This is a bad sign, because that furnace is way, way, less efficient than the geo. But the geo just can't keep up when it gets this cold.

So start planning for a large heating bill next month, my friends, even if you have turned down the thermostat lower than normal and started wearing hats in the house. I anticipate a bill at least 50% higher than a usual January. We've lowered the thermostat two degrees (a pittance!) in an effort to keep the electric furnace from running, so maybe it won't be that bad. We won't know for sure until that fateful day arrives.... Until then, I can just hope that this weather will FINALLY kill off the squash bugs that have lived in my garden for the last two years straight.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Simple Plan

I first learned about peak oil on the red-eye flight home from my honeymoon. I read the entire book Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight on the plane and almost woke up my sleeping newly-wed husband to force him to discuss it with me. Later, I read the Life After the Oil Crash website and discovered how close we really were, and how serious the problem really was.

That fall, we moved back to Oklahoma City. In some ways, there's no worse place to be than here ;). The sprawl! The droughts! No public transport, no bike paths! We just got organic food in our grocery store in 2009! But in other ways, it excels. We are near both of our families, have cheaper costs of living and a smaller mortgage, and land here is affordable.

There are many different approaches to preparing for peak oil. Some people like homesteads, others focus on preparing financially. Personally, I think there's no ONE single best way - but many ways that will work for people in different circumstances with different strengths and needs. My particular "plan" focuses on three major time periods with three associated strategies. Those are:

1. Short term / Fast crash:

Preparing for emergencies is good to do regardless of peak oil: you may need many of these strategies to deal with ice storms, blizzards, power outages, quarantine, tornado, hurricane, etc. You might want to consider finding a place to go in case the local situation becomes severe. For example, my parents moved to our house when their electricity went off for 10 days.

- Emergency planning
- Backup plans
- Evacuation plans
- Food storage
- Water storage & filtering
- Home defense

2. Medium term / Economic crash:

Many people now see the wisdom of these tactics, but before the recession they would have been seen as ultra-conservative or inefficient. In particular, no one wanted to hear about reducing expenses or debt since this was seen as reducing the ability to have all the latest toys, bells, and whistles.

- Secure good/steady job,
- Reduce expenses,
- Increase savings,
- Reduce debt,
- Reduce exposure to volatile stock market,
- Diversify income,
- Diversify assets

3. Long term / Sustainable future:

In the long term, I think we are all going to have to move in this direction, although there are many different ways to approach a sustainable future. And along the way, there will be many bumps. Unfortunately, just as we realize that we need to take these actions, our capacity to do so may be reduced due to government regulations, economic conditions, competition from still-cheap and subsidized fossil fuels, etc.

- Site selection (finding a good place to live and work),
- Growing food,
- Energy efficiency in home and transportation,
- Powerdown,
- Alternative energy,
- Grow community,
- Learn new skills (gardening, farming, post-peak career),
- Support local farmers and economy

That's a high level look at one way to approach preparation (as I said, there are many ways). In a later post, I'll summarize what I've done to prepare in the above categories over the last five years.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Prairie Rose Permaculture

One of our Oklahoma City resident expert permaculturists, Bob Waldrop, has formed a new venture - Prairie Rose Permaculture. He is offering his first class, the Kitchen Permaculture Online Workshop, starting February 28th. The class will run 10 weeks, and will cover broad subjects such as frugality, health and nutrition, resilience, social justice, community, and education.

Each week, Bob will cover a design topic, a food type, a food preparation style, a food related technique, and a food source. The tuition looks reasonable (check out the pdf) and there are three different levels of participation available.

Bob is a truly interesting guy. He is the President of the OK Food Cooperative, the founder of a Catholic social justice organization, one of the founders of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, and a dedicated permaculturist. He has worked for years to transform his house and property to a permacultured system. In fact, I had the opportunity to participate in the permaculture workshop that contributed to his home/garden design (about four years ago).

I also had the opportunity to participate in a "Plan C" workshop that Bob put together a few years ago to discuss how we / the city might approach a fast-crash disaster scenario. I loved hearing about ideas for preparation and response as a community, and I was also able to show off my beloved Sun Oven! Here is a list of printable flyers that Bob put together in the event of such a disaster.

Since I've never taken the course, I can't vouch for it, but it certainly looks like an interesting new approach to permaculture!

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010 goals

Who knows what the new year will bring? Will disaster hold off? Will a faux-recovery appear? Will a completely unexpected Black Swan take us all by surprise? The appearance of benevolent aliens, the discovery of the fountain of youth, a left-behind style rapture, and a vampire coming-out party are all theoretically possible - ranking right up there with renewable energy completely replacing the oil in our energy portfolio. Who knows? I'm just going to keep on keepin' on with my sustainability and resilience goals for 2010:

1. Improve/expand my garden and orchard.

My eventual long-term goal is to be able to generate 80% of my familiy's fruits/ vegetables/ herbs/ eggs / honey from our doublewide city lot. I am still at least 10 years away from that goal. This year, I'd like to add two pear trees, landscape the between-driveway area in front with some "micro-beds", and add a lasagna garden to improve the rotation of tomato family vegetables.

Also, I plan to improve my canning and drying abilities to preserve more of my harvest.

2. Home improvements.

We have no backup heating except for a fireplace, which from all I've read actually makes a home colder (except right around the hearth), is only 10% efficient, and oh yes - polluting. We would like to install a fireplace insert (hopefully 75%+ efficient, EPA Phase II rated) that would provide backup cooking and heating.

Luckily, that kind of fireplace upgrade qualifies for a 30% federal tax credit, up to $1500, until the end of 2010. We have also considered a wood stove, but spacing is problematic and we would not be able to use it in the spring/summer/fall anyway. If anyone has suggestions, I'm all ears!

Secondly, we still want to replace our worn, ugly, dust-filled carpet with wood or bamboo floors. To save money, we will probably install the flooring ourselves.

3. Finances.

For many people, finances may actually be the most important prep area (barring a fast crash disaster scenario), considering that an ongoing economic depression is a likely symptom of resource constraints. I am still boggled by the inflation vs. deflation debate, and so this year we will play it "safe" by continuing to pay down our mortgage on the house and by continuing to improve our house. Of course, if we are forced to move to follow a job somewhere, this strategy won't feel so safe with all our equity locked up in an immobile, illiquid structure.

4. Community.

I will continue to work on Transition Town OKC and try to get a local neighborhood initiative going. I hope that we can start doing more hands-on seminars and workshops (gardening, energy efficiency, preserving, biking) in addition to social events and public outreach.

5. Enjoy myself.

All this peak oil preparation and community building can be overwhelming. I am constantly immersed in the day to day updates on the reality of depletion, the continuing failure of our leadership, and the erosion of our options in this catch-22 system we've designed. I am nagged by the feeling that hope is evaporating. All this, and as a Transition Town participant, I'm supposed to be positive about the future!

SO. I plan to enjoy myself as much as possible while accomplishing my objectives (see above) by continuing to write, hanging out with my Transition Town buds, and saving time for myself to relax, read and exercise.

How 'bout you?