Energy Enlightenment and the Better Angels of our Exotherm

January 10, 2020

When I was a kid, my mother always had a shelf of serious popular science books, and among the authors represented was Stephen Pinker, a Harvard professor and linguist.  I’m not the language zealot that she is, but I kept track of Pinker, who has come to prominence in the last 10 years for a pair of books about violence and the well-being of humanity.  In the first, (The Better Angels of our Nature) he argues – with reams of data – that violence has declined drastically in modern times, and explores some causal themes. In the second (Enlightenment Now) he further demonstrates a remarkable, consistent, and progressive improvement in the material, social, and intellectual well-being of humanity, and argues that that the primary cause of this improvement is the rise of Enlightenment values, including science and humanism, which took root in Europe in the 1700s.  

I am basically convinced with respect to the decline of violence and improvement in quality of life.  Two thirds of Enlightenment Now consists of a train of short chapters presenting data to show how longevity, health, wealth, knowledge, freedom, crime, safety, happiness, etc. have improved drastically in the last two hundred years.  It’s not a subtle book, and its triumphal tone is an odd fit to the mood of our times, but there’s a ton of evidence to support the argument that if one was forced to choose a time and place to be dumped – Rawls-fashion – into the world, ‘right about now’ would be a pretty good choice. Pinker does grapple with the existential risks of climate change and nuclear war, and acknowledges they are real.  Unsurprisingly, he argues that reason, science, and humanism are our best tools for overcoming them, and I agree.  

I am less convinced of the Enlightenment as the cause of this dramatic improvement.  I am not a historian, but my amateur sense is that there have been a lot of smart people working out principles of philosophy, logic, and the intricacies of the natural world for at least a few thousand years.  But something else started in the 1700s, accelerated sharply in the 1800s, and then exploded globally in the 20th century: the development of techniques to burn fossil fuel to liberate immense quantities of energy.  This suddenly enabled humans to perform useful tasks at superhuman scale, and I believe it is a much more powerful force than the achievements of any cohort of philosophers.  If this is true, it has serious implications for the future of the benign trends that Pinker celebrates.  

To understand the force of this argument, the reader will need a quantitative sense of energy at the human (and superhuman) scale. This is an essay that I have been meaning to write for some time, both because it ties together many of the themes that captivate my personal and professional interest, and because I believe the average citizen doesn’t understand how profoundly energy fuels and enables every aspect of life, both primitive and modern.

In simple terms, energy is a property that provides the ability to do work.  Work has a specific technical meaning, but for practical purposes it means roughly what blue-collar people think it means – for example, energy must be provided to do the work of hauling water from a well, pushing a vehicle along a road against the resisting force of aerodynamic drag, or driving a flow of electric current through a filament to create light.  Energy comes in a number of forms (kinetic, thermal, chemical, potential, etc.), and humans use it both to do physical work and to perform chemical and industrial processes, heat or cool buildings, cook food, etc. This diversity of uses reflects the fundamental importance of energy, which extends to our physical bodies – like all organisms, we require energy to survive.  Food is the fuel that allows our bodies to do work, and without it we quickly die.

Energy is universal and quantitative.  Universal because it cannot be created or destroyed, and because its various forms can be interconverted, subject to natural laws and practical limitations.  Quantitative because it can be measured, and certain tasks absolutely require a defined amount of it. If it requires 10 units of energy to get my electric car to the top of the hill, and my battery only contains 8, the car will predictably stop short of the summit.  

The proper scientific unit of measure for energy is the Joule (J), which is a tiny amount – about as much as is released when a sandwich falls off a table and hits the floor.  An iphone 5s stores about 20,000 J of electrical energy, an Oreo™ cookie contains about 300,000 J of food energy, and a gallon of gas releases about 120,000,000 J of thermal energy when it burns.  Because the joule is such a tiny amount, we have other practical units of energy that civilians are more familiar with, including the kilowatt-hour (kWh), which is equal to 3.6 million Joules.  

Is a kWh a large amount of energy, or a small amount?  The fascinating answer is: both, and this starts to get at the point I’m trying to make.  

On one hand, it’s a relatively piddling amount in modern terms, equivalent to the thermal energy in a few tablespoons of gasoline.  In a few minutes I can tap a kWh effortlessly from the outlet under my desk, and the most amazing thing is that Central Maine Power will only charge me fifteen cents for it.  

On the other hand, on the scale of a human body, one kilowatt-hour is a formidable quantity.  Imagine pushing a car up a steep grade for over a mile – that’s a kWh. I could pedal an apple grinder bike all day and struggle to deliver a single kWh worth of energy.  In fact, our entire pedal-powered cider operation with four bikes may only be delivering around 1-2kWh over the course of a Saturday – that’s less than 50 cents worth of energy at electric utility rates.  

To bulk up our intuition about energy at the human scale, it’s helpful to understand a related concept, Power.  While it is common in the civilian world to mix up Energy and Power, the concepts are related but distinct in an important way.  Specifically, Power (in the engineering sense), is simply the rate at which energy is delivered. If one joule is delivered per second, this is described as a 1 watt flow of power. So an old-fashioned 100W lightbulb consumes 100J of electric power per second, most of which is wasted as heat; a modern LED bulb might deliver the same amount of light while consuming only 15 J per second.  If the old-fashioned bulb is operated for one hour (3600 seconds), in total it will use 360,000 Joules, or 0.1kWh.  

It turns out that if you ask the average healthy non-athlete to pedal a bicycle (or climb a ladder, or some other efficient means of producing power at a sustained pace), you find that a human body can only deliver useful work at a rate of about 100W over a period of hours, and significantly less on average, since we require hours of rest and sleep.  And for hundreds of thousands of years, that was pretty much all the energy we had.  The Bible says “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” and back in the day that was pretty much the size of it.  The great majority of people foraged or toiled in fields to grow crops, and they did it pretty much their entire lives.  

Naturally the proximal source of that energy was the food they ate, but its ultimate source was the sun, which powered the photosynthesis that stockpiled that energy in the crops and livestock in the form of sugars, fats, starches, and the like. This was a serious limitation, because photosynthesis is relatively inefficient at turning sunlight into stored energy.  According to Wikipedia, typical crops are only about 1% efficient in turning the sunlight that strikes a field or forest into biomass, so it takes a lot of land (or a lot of time) to produce a given amount of usable plant energy. In many climates (e.g. deserts) the conversion is many orders of magnitude less efficient.

As a result, for millennia our ancestors were fundamentally limited by the strength of their bodies and the relatively modest efficiency with which crops could turn sunlight into food and fuel.  What about beasts of burden? The more fortunate among our ancestors had access to an ox or perhaps a horse, which can deliver a modest multiple on the power of the human body. But like humans, draft animals were solar-powered, and their calorie needs were likewise multiplied – a horse or cow required the output of several acres of land for its fodder, and this land could not be used to grow food for humans.  

Of course beasts can be eaten as well as worked, but here again, the amount of land required to feed a person on meat is far more than the cropland required to feed them directly on plant-based foods, which is why meat was (and probably still should be) considered a luxury.  

Worse, the most productive staple crops require cooking (more energy) to be readily digestible, and cooking was likewise done using wood, which required still more land.  Firewood supply was limited in the more populated areas – google ‘coppicing’ or ‘pollarding’ to get a sense for how the supply of precious renewably-grown combustibles was husbanded in those times.  Using land to grow fuelwood traded off against using the same land to grow food crops.  

If energy is universal and quantitative, and energy for humans comes in the form of food, it should be possible to relate the amount of food we eat to the amount of work we can do.  The typical human diet contains about 2000 Calories per day; the Calorie is an archaic unit of energy equal to 4180 Joules. So 2000 Calories is about 8,400,000 Joules or 2.3 kWh. To put our diets in Power terms, I am delighted to discover that typing “2000 Calories per day in watts” into Google yields the following:

2000 (kilocalories per day) =

96.8518519 watts

That is, we eat food energy at an average rate of about 100 watts, and this sets an absolute limit on the amount of physical work we can do; in actuality we’d be lucky to deliver 100W of work for 8 hours per day, with the other ⅔ of the calories given over to the business of living.  And because food is fuel, serious endurance athletes need much more – up to 8000 Calories per day.

To sum it up, in pre-industrial times our ancestors lived ‘land to mouth’. Life went along this way for hundreds of thousands of years, and though it changed in appearance and intensity with the invention of agriculture, the same fundamental limitations were in place. At best, people carefully husbanded a limited ‘working capital’ of stored foods, livestock, and standing timber; however, despite primitive tools it was all too easy to over-exploit the productive ecological base and get in an ugly situation, as Jared Diamond details in cases including Easter Island, Greenland, and others.  Life was nasty, brutish, and short in the myriad ways described in the ‘before’ section of Pinker’s books.

But things started to change in a serious way when people discovered that they could tap ancient energy reservoirs of stored sunlight.   For a fascinating early example, I recommend an online article called “Medieval Smokestacks: fossil fuels in pre-industrial times”, on the subject of peat as an energy source.  Peat is the remnants of plant matter that accumulates over millennia in wetland areas, protected from decay by the lack of oxygen – this is actually the first step in the much longer process that forms coal. Peat can be cut, dried, and burned to liberate thermal energy, and the author, Kris de Decker explores in detail how unique circumstances enabled the people of the area that is now the Netherlands to mine and burn massive prehistoric reserves of it, and thus to liberate themselves from the limitations of their annual allotment of sunlight.  The Dutch also mastered the craft of building windmills, which provided mechanical energy to complement the thermal energy from the peat. As a result, they were able to power an impressive array of proto-industrial activity, including glass, brick, ceramics, ships, sugar, salt, soap, spirits, and textiles. 

The ability to mine and burn fossilized plants changed the game for the inhabitants of the Low Countries in a material way.  By the 1600s, the per-capita annual consumption of peat amounted to about 16 gigajoules per person per year, or about 500W of continuous thermal power, compared with the 50W or less of labor they could manage on average from their own bodies.    And soon this region became far wealthier than neighboring regions, with 60% urbanization compared to the 10% urbanization of the surrounding areas less favorably endowed with peat. Sadly, the peat reserves were eventually depleted, and this combined with competitive coal-fired industrial production from the UK knocked the Netherlands from their perch – by 1820 the country was down to 38% urban population.  

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, the real fossil-fired revolution was spinning up.  Natural deposits of coal had been in limited regional use for hundreds or thousands of years for metalworking and local heating in coal-bearing regions.  But starting around 1700, a sequence of tinkerers, blacksmiths, and engineers invented and refined the steam engine – a machine that used energy liberated by burning fuel to create hot, pressurized steam.  That steam could be used to do work – initially to pump water, which was of great value in draining mineshafts and enabling more coal and other minerals to be extracted. But by around 1780 the engines were coupled to flywheels and rotary shafts to drive mechanized equipment that had previously been confined to locations with available water power.  The most prominent steam engine inventor was James Watt, who produced a uniquely efficient engine; the scientific unit of power was appropriately named for him. (Watt also devised the unit ‘horsepower,’ equal to 746W, as a product rating tool.  He sandbagged a bit so his customers wouldn’t be disappointed; the average horse could deliver somewhat less than 1hp on an ongoing basis).

To say that the invention of the coal-fueled steam engine was a runaway success is a vast understatement. By tapping an immense store of fossilized sunlight, it removed the limitations of plant-fueled musclepower and the vagaries of wind and water power, and catalyzed a chain reaction of growth, wealth, and innovation.  Pumping water from mines greatly increased the availability of fossil fuel and minerals. Engines ran blowers for blast furnaces, rolling mills, and a blossoming array of machinery that advanced manufacturing on every axis. In the early 1800s steam engines were adapted to power ships and to transform the rudimentary railways used in mining operations, making fast, convenient transport of people and goods possible.  In the following century, convenient liquid petroleum fuels replaced coal, compact internal combustion replaced bulkier steam engines, and mechanization spread to agriculture, with displaced farm workers taking jobs in manufacturing. An immense fossil-powered chemical industry sprang up, devising among other miracles the Promethean ability to turn air and water into nitrogen fertilizer, solving a major problem in agriculture (thanks to Holly for the book recommendation). And steam power found new life in giant turbines used to generate electricity, literally bringing light and entirely new axes of wealth and convenience – and eventually the information technology that allows me to write and publish this post.  

The power that fossil fuels deliver is amazing in both qualitative and quantitative terms.  For the reasons described above, in medieval times the average person’s access to mechanical power averaged scarcely 100W from the combined efforts of humans, beasts, and a scattering of weak water-powered mills, and perhaps a couple hundred watts of carefully-husbanded firewood.  (see discussion at  By the dawn of the enlightenment, the leading economy of Europe had access to an average 500W of thermal power per capita from burning peat alone.  By 1900, citizens of the UK consumed on average over 2500W from burning coal alone. And in 2016 the average American consumes a whopping 10,000W of primary energy continuously.  This continual torrent of energy enables the amazing material abundance and variety that most of us enjoy, and the everyday superhuman miracles of modern life: I wrote the first draft of this essay in an airplane seven miles above the surface of the earth, blasting effortlessly across the continent at nearly the speed of a thunderclap. 

Is the amazing global surge in quality of life primarily due to philosophical advances, or is it primarily the result of discovering a singular lode of stored energy? It’s not that enlightenment values are irrelevant to the amazing advances in quality and quantity of life that humans have enjoyed over the last 200 years.  I am a huge fan of science, reason, and humanism, and I’m convinced that they have contributed in a central way to the technological progression outlined above – although it seems that early on a surprising number of advances were made by trial and error rather than systematic study and application of scientific principles.  But any discussion of improvements in quality of life over this period that doesn’t recognize the immense increase in available per-capita energy that fueled and enabled those advances is missing a critical insight.  

 I think the answer to this question really matters.  If Enlightenment philosophy really is the driving force, then it could be reasonable to expect that challenges around the sustainability and environmental impact of burning fossil fuels will look like minor matters when viewed from the future. In that case, energy historians of the future will conclude that while we used these fuels because they were available and convenient, had they not been there, we would have readily developed other sources of energy nearly as good, and industrial civilization would have developed more or less at the same pace.  According to this view, fossil fuel depletion and malign climatic influence are technocratic issues that can be expected to sort themselves out in due course. There may be some minor changes related to the transition to other sources of energy, but the transition can be expected to happen naturally as a result of market forces, and doesn’t pose a fundamental danger to the modern quality of life.   

But if, on the other hand, the quality-of-life advances are primarily the result of massive increases in per-capita availability of useful energy, then there is a real danger that the peace, prosperity, and broad-based human flourishing of the last 200 years are highly contingent results of a temporary windfall.  If so, their depletion could easily reverse those advances – just as the black rock desert goes back to the lizards and ants after the Burning Man festival. If benign progressive trends are primarily a result of a one-time windfall, a bonanza of nearly-free energy unleashed over the last 200 years, then an unwind over a similar span of time is likely to be less than congenial to those who think the arc of history bends inevitably toward justice.  If it taps out significantly faster, then all bets are off. Archaeologists point us to civilizations that have fallen; elaborate complex cultures that have disbanded, with their advanced knowledge lost to the nomads who camp in the ruins.

It doesn’t take much of a disruption of the material and economic flows of modern life to deflate the progressive instincts, long-term thinking, and warm-hearted embrace of diversity that Pinker celebrates in his book.  The 2008 financial crisis was mild by historic standards, but it severely blunted the flow of capital toward forward-looking clean technologies, and unleashed an ugly undercurrent of intolerance in the body public.  For those of us working in the clean energy industry this was strikingly clear, with strong popular and investor interest washed away in a torrent of underwater houses and ‘pocketbook issues’.  

The previous, more severe economic crisis of the 1930s came in an energetic time of plenty, yet it concluded in a global nightmare of genocide that ended in a nuclear arms race.  If fossil fuel depletion starts to bite faster than clean technologies can comfortably replace them, or if the global impact of carbon emissions relentlessly drives millions of refugees from major coastal cities, I have a hard time believing that the advances Pinker credits to enlightened principles will be secure.  

If this is the path we are on, then successfully executing a rapid, global transition to clean sources of energy is of supreme importance.  The growth of solar, wind, and other scalable clean technologies must continue and accelerate consistently. Energy storage and load shifting/management must both advance without a hiccup, and the electrification of transport must displace fossil fuel as quickly as clean capacity can be added to the grid.  Liquid fuels should be reserved to particularly thorny technical challenges like air travel, which may need to be curtailed until significant advances can be made in renewable fuels or the volume- and mass-efficiency of clean energy storage. With political leaders abdicating responsibility in the face of the greatest civic challenge in generations, it appears to be up to engineers and Swedish highschool students to lead the way to an enlightened future.

A philosophy of outbuildings

December 21, 2019

My family seems to have a thing for outbuildings.  It’s not that unusual here in Maine, but still I think we take it to an extreme.  Starting from sparse ledgy ground, over time the homestead where I grew up came to include ten useful, non-decrepit structures.  You could chock this up to my father’s love of building buildings, but my maternal grandparents’ property has 12 buildings (including outhouses), most of which he did not build.  So I seem to have the gene from both sides.

Outbuildings provide capacity (both volumetric and functional), but take time and resources to build, they take up space (physical, mental, visual), precluding other uses, and they require maintenance.  So they should be planned and managed carefully.  I’ve mulled this over, and here hope to articulate principles toward an optimal philosophy of sustainable outbuildings.

A small outbuilding should be portable.

My mother is a writer.  When my sister and I were small and tended to make a racket, she needed a place to get away to focus on her work, so my father built a trim 8’x8′ Writing Shack in the woods east of our house.  It had no foundation, siding, heat, or electricity, but my folks were used to that, and at the time my mom wrote with a fountain pen. It had nice big windows of used plexiglass, overlooking the Little Sheepscot river through the trees.

Later when we grew up and spent less time at home, for a while the Writing Shack sat idle.  Then, at some point we were in need of a dry place to store sails and paddles near my grandparents’ dock on the ‘other side’, so we lowered it onto skids and dragged it half a mile to the head of the dock, where it sits to this day, serving its new purpose admirably.  Its floor framing is made of untreated lumber, but it has always been held well up off the ground on concrete or PT blocks, and its roof has large overhangs.   My father may have replaced the asphalt roofing once, but otherwise it has needed little in the way of maintenance.

I believe the family record for moving and repurposing a building is four placements.  My grandparents originally built a handsome 2-holer outhouse for use with the Upper Cabin, and it stood for 30 years or more in the woods on or near the site of the big barn where we make cider.  When they built a year-round house with plumbing and moved up in 1983, the outhouse sat idle (excepting the occasional power outage), so at some point my father hauled it across the island and set it up at a spec house they were living in.  Later it moved to the homestead where I grew up, the holes were boarded over, and it served as a tool shed for Jake’s arborist tools.  Most recently it migrated to Bay Point, where it was fitted with a handsome set of double doors to serve as a small farm stand.

The large end of the small outbuilding category is fuzzy; the Upper Cabin itself moved to make room for my grandparents’ house.  It being 16’x24′ with cedar log siding and a long porch, that was a bit of a project, but fortunately it was built as a kit in 8′ wall sections, so it could be taken apart with some labor.  I was too young to remember exactly how the move was done, except that at some point my grandmother’s small bulldozer stuck fast in the mud at the new site (now within the orchard fence), and every come-along on Georgetown Island was borrowed and pressed into service to winch it out ahead of a hard freeze.

All the time I was growing up, the Upper Cabin served as sleeping quarters for my many cousins when they came to visit the grandparents.  Its missing outhouse became something of an issue, so at one point I built a small one-holer, entirely from used materials, diagonally planked for strength and with a treated lumber undercarriage.  That outhouse was itself moved as the orchard expanded, and the move was simplicity itself given the small size and sturdy construction – the small excavator bucket fit nicely through the open front door, lifting it cleanly off the ground and on its way.

At this point I hope that the value of portability in small outbuildings is amply demonstrated.

[Dave points out that small, light portable buildings tend to blow over in a strong wind, and should be anchored down, e.g. with earth screws.  The profusion of disposable portable buildings has made these screws a thing that can be found used or cast off in rural areas of late.]

A large outbuilding should be large.

As illustrated above, one of the issues with outbuildings is that they sometimes get in the way of later, more ambitious plans.  It’s a shame and a waste to tear them down; that’s why it’s important that they be movable.  What about buildings that are too large to move?  In that case I believe they should be built large, substantially larger than the initial primary use would dictate. That way you won’t wish you’d made it bigger later on, and won’t be tempted to glom a bunch of sheds or ells onto it, which is inefficient in terms of materials, makes the space less useful, and starts to look busy after a while.

This is an essay about outbuildings: non-insulated utility structures that will not be heated routinely.  I definitely don’t advocate for making a primary residence larger than necessary.  A larger house will use more energy (holding construction methods constant), and these days new home construction runs into the hundreds of dollars per square foot.  On the other hand, an unheated utility structure won’t consume any energy to speak of, and at least using our typical methods of construction can be built quite economically using locally-harvested timber milled on or near the site.

As an example, when my parents were contemplating the design for the (big, older) cider barn near the orchard, I knew that they were moving from the old homestead with a ton of utility buildings chock full of stuff, so I encouraged them to make the new barn big.  While they were skeptical, they had a lot of lumber around (I think a particularly tough winter had delivered a large pile of salvaged logs for the sawyer), and they settled on a fairly ambitious design, 36×60′ with a Corbusian forest of posts, a drive-through center aisle, and stand-up lofts running along either side.  Everyone was happy with the result, and before long the building was full of lumber, tools, staging, cider equipment, free boats, and more lumber.

The original concept for the barn included livestock, and separately they had it in mind to build a sugarhouse, which could also serve as a ciderhouse to keep the beverages separate from the manure.  So last winter they quickly whipped up another barn, this one 26×50′, in this case open inside from wall to wall.  Again the lumber was mostly salvage logs (the hemlock trees on the island have been decimated by microscopic wooly adelgids), and the building is a delight, with a rustic but airy feel.  I have no doubt but that it will soon be full.

One potential disadvantage of large outbuildings is the challenge of maintenance, which could easily get expensive (if hired out) or intimidating (if attempted on weekends).  This brings me to the next topic.

All outbuildings should be economical but built to last

Conscious or not, the thoughtful builder of a building makes a statement.  “This building is right and proper for this site.  It is worthy of the space, time, materials, and energy it takes up.  It deserves to be here, and those who come after will be grateful for it.”  Here I am channeling the spirit of Wendell Berry, that righteous old judge of rural places and uses, and in that spirit, every decision in design and execution is a balance between durability and economy.  Too fancy or too large speaks of ostentation and waste, while too small and cheap depresses the spirit and stinks of disposability.

What does this mean in practice?  Naturally it will differ from place to place, according to the local climate and materials, but in our climate, rot is the enemy, and the first defense is large overhangs.  By carrying rainwater well away from the walls and underpinnings, they extend the life of the building, and for single-story structures may eliminate the need for siding – a further economy.  Naturally, there is a cost in added wood and roofing, but I believe this is well worth it, at least up to the comfortable cantilever capabilities of the materials of construction.

Next, the underpinnings of the building should be well up away from soil, leaves, and duff.  This is easier said than done, for it is the fate of outbuildings to be neglected.  Years of leaves will pile up against the uphill side of a low-set building, and soon the tendrils of fungus are at work.  So too the splash of rain from the eaves is relentless at turning siding into moss.  Accordingly, buildings should be set well up off the ground – and all the more in the case of lazy owners, or buildings (e.g. boathouses) that by their nature are rarely visited.

For permanent structures this is most economically done with sonotubes filled with hand-mixed concrete – like the homestead I grew up in. This is expedient, durable in good soil, and moderate in the use of emissions-heavy concrete  – in fact, the $4 bag of sakrete should be considered one of the wonders of the modern fossil-powered economy.  This construction also makes for ample dry-ish storage space underneath, particularly when built on a slope.  The primary disadvantages are a less-than-trim appearance, and non-suitability for garages and other grade-level applications.

Permanent grade-level outbuildings on the smaller side (e.g. garages) are typically built on a floating slab, or a conventional 4′ concrete foundation in the case of larger buildings.  The site should be well-graded, and the concrete well up above the ground.  This does not sit entirely easily with me; it appears that concrete production emits about 400lb of CO2 per cubic yard.  Taking slab, curbs etc. as an average of 6″ thick, that amounts to 7-8lb CO2 per square foot. The US vehicle fleet emits about 0.9lb per mile, so 1000 sq feet of slab-on-grade building emits the equivalent of driving about 8,000 miles – not obscene, but material in the context of trying to live a low-carbon life.

Concrete slabs are useful, but it’s not clear they’re strictly necessary in many applications.  I’m intrigued by the prospect of using pole-barn construction with sonotube piers extending well clear of the soil, to keep the posts dry.  The problem then becomes how to seal up the necessary vertical gap between the sheathing, to keep leaves and snow from blowing in, without setting up a situation where the soil heaves the building or buckles the siding.  The Kaufmans built a small barn in Flagstaff and used reclaimed polycarbonate panels from e-ink, set on edge just inside the inner surface of the vertical board siding to keep the snow and squirrels out; I bet something similar could be done with reclaimed trex decking or some other less exotic inert planking or panels.

Portable buildings can also be set on sonotubes, but this might be considered extravagant, and liable to leaving obstacles/eyesores if the building is moved.  A reasonable expedient is to set small portable buildings on some arrangement of rot-resistant blocks – reclaimed cement, pressure-treated wood scraps, suitable rocks, or the like, provided that the building can be jacked and blocked level from time to time to account for the settling and heaving of the soil.

Smaller portable buildings are traditionally set on, well, pretty much anything or nothing, but this is why they are often found rotting into the soil.  Pressure-treated timber can delay this significantly, but it’s not what it used to be, no longer containing toxic chromium and arsenic, and even now surely has a much heavier environmental footprint than locally-sawed, air-dried lumber from salvaged logs.  That broaches the subject of materials selection more broadly.

Materials of Construction

Here again, judgment must balance cost and environmental impact with longevity and low maintenance (again, it is the fate of outbuildings to be neglected).  I have not done a lot of math on this yet, and have instead gone on intuition.  I spray pounds of copper on my apple trees in the spring as an approved organic fungicide (as the soil test said I was light on copper), so I’ve considered it reasonable to use the modern copper azole PT judiciously.  Still, PT is kiln-dried, pumped full of chemicals, and trucked heavy up the eastern seaboard, so it’s probably best not to use it indiscriminately.

For general structural use, the clear choice here is pine/spruce/hemlock lumber, sawed onsite from salvaged logs by a roving Woodmizer and air dried.  For a classier building, cedar shingle siding is relatively local and maintenance-free for decades, however I am not sure how sustainable eastern cedar forestry is.  The trend on the land recently has been toward vertical pine board and batten, with the windows carefully cased and flashed.

Regarding windows, doors, and hardware, decades of connections in Georgetown and my father’s scorn for waste can usually turn up something that will work for a small building, often with added charm.  Those less fortunate might cultivate a friendship with a local ecologically-minded builder who does remodeling.

Roofing is again a tradeoff between time, cost, and longevity. Surely wood shakes are the lowest impact, particularly if harvested onsite and cut by hand, but in our climate they will quickly rot. With unlimited time, a retired purist might split out pine shakes with a froe, install them with stout stainless nails, monitor carefully for the end of life, and painstakingly remove and reuse the nails.

Absent such fundamentalism, in the shade and raked of leaves, a quality asphalt roof will last decades, and is most economical for new buy, but it makes nasty waste when removed, an unholy mix of petroleum, fiberglass, and gravel.  Painted steel roof is more expensive but attractive and long-lived, which should factor into the calculations, the useful longevity of the building being a goal here.  It appears that steel manufacturing produces about 1.8lb of CO2 per pound, and 26-gauge steel is about 1lb/ft^2, so a steel roof accounts for on the order of 2lb CO2 per square foot (higher for steep pitches).  The lighter weight of steel on straps compared to asphalt may be a boon for portable buildings. [Dave points out that in snowy climates, metal roofing will reliably dump hundreds or thousands of pounds of snow under the eaves of the building.  This should be considered in tight quarters, and when placing doors etc.]

In the extreme of longevity, used corrugated aluminum from retired chicken barns has been in service on the homestead for over 40 years with no apparent wear.  I have not priced aluminum new, but understand that it is too spendy for reasonable use on an outbuilding.  However, if one were to procure aluminum roofing used and install it carefully on a locally-sawn wood building with wide overhangs that’s protected from ground-level moisture, it might be the closest thing to a permanent, ecological outbuilding.

If I am condemned by fate and genetics to be a builder of outbuildings, the least I can do is to be thoughtful about where, how, and of what materials I build them.



Cider Year 15: Fair Winds

December 14, 2019


2019 was a milestone year in many ways for the Five Islands pedal-powered cider tradition.  At the 2018 cider weekend we spread the word that we were expecting a baby in early May of 2019.  In the fall we prepared the ground for a handful of new peach trees that my parents were keen to plant in the open northwest corner of the orchard, placed an order with Fedco, and planned Orchard Weekend for late April.  As luck would have it, Z arrived a couple weeks early, and my parents planted the peach trees by themselves.

More and more over the past 10 years, the orchard has taken a back seat to the pressures of building Pika Energy, a power electronics company focused on clean energy storage and management.  Hours before Z was born, we completed a transaction to sell the company to Wisconsin-based Generac, and now we continue and accelerate our work as a cornerstone of Generac Clean Energy Systems.  All told it was an intense and joyful spring.

In another fortunate turn, while my attention was elsewhere, a stretch of cold, damp weather decimated the population of overwintering Browntail moths that had done such damage in 2018, and by early summer it was clear we had a good fruit set in the orchard, so I scrambled to get a few doses of Surround and BT on the trees amid the changing of diapers and the demands of work. I also bought a used 7′ sicklebar mower to cut down on the time and labor involved in string trimming around the trees in the orchard, and it worked pretty well.

In June we gathered for a 100th birthday celebration for my grandmother Emily Rand Herman (‘Ummy’), and a month later she died peacefully, having overlapped on this earth with Z for just a few weeks.  In September the family gathered for a celebration of her life, and her four children scattered her ashes by the blueberry patch on the shores of Robinhood cove, together with her husband Bill (‘Poppy’). 

The season raced by, the fruit sized up on the trees, and it became clear that we would have enough apples to make the cider without buying any from off the island.  Time being short I did not plan any major equipment upgrades; the main focus was a second attempt to couple Eerik’s ‘Concept II’ professional rowing trainer to the grinder.  To that end I beefed up the jackshaft that accepts power from the two bicycles to 3/4″ steel from 5/8″ aluminum, and sprung for a piece of t-slot extrusion to simplify the assembly.  I also switched the drive between the jackshaft and the grinder shafts from bike chain to v-belt, in an effort to make the whole unit quieter. (Thanks to Eerik and Holly for the photos in this post.)



Another major change this year was the addition by my parents of a large sugarhouse/cider barn, between the house and the older barn we’ve used for the last several years.  It’s a handsome building, and they built it remarkably quickly in the dead of winter, commissioning the arch in time for sugaring season.  We had originally planned to set up cider in the new barn this year, but between the baby and other pressures we decided it was too much work and risk, and there’s not yet any livestock, so we set up as usual in the big barn.  Still, it was fantastic to have the sugarhouse available for meals; the open framing and high ceiling gives it a nice feel, and if it were cold we could lay a fire in the arch.


Alexis, Z and I did a bit of apple picking, but my parents did the vast majority of the work, filling a sea of Tidy Cat buckets (which they get from the Transfer Station) and carefully labeling the varieties with sharpie.  In the end they picked about a ton from our orchard, plus several hundred pounds that they gleaned from neighbors’ yards and wild trees around town.  We’ve increased our standards for wild fruit since one year when we put a bunch of scrumped apples in the mix and the cider came out more tart than we like.


I made one or two weekend trips to set up the gear in the barn ahead of the appointed weekend, enough to have reasonable confidence of pulling off the cidering.  Then, days before the party, a fierce storm blew down the coast of Maine, knocking trees over and blocking roads.  Power was out to the entirety of Arrowsic, Georgetown, and much of Woolwich, and (fittingly) we ran 2019 Cider Weekend on a propane-fired Automatic Home Standby Generator.

With a number of errands on the way, it was mid-day Friday before I made it up to Five Islands, where I continued assembly as A&Z, Holly and family, Eerik, and others arrived throughout the afternoon.  It being on the cold and windy side, we once again decided to eat dinner up the hill rather than down by the water. Buster helped with the refried beans:IMG_0083

After dinner the build party continued; Eerik had fabricated a very classy adapter in California and brought it with him; the idea was that we would lead a small (#25) chain forward from the rowing machine and connect it to a sprocket mounted to a freewheel on the extreme left end of the jackshaft.  That part worked well, however we found that the chain skipped on the sprocket, and the extreme force of the rower’s stroke tended to skid the entire assembly across the floor.  We made some brief attempts to fix the problems, then decided that the rowing machine would once again need to wait another year.


The next morning we continued various setup, fueled as usual by Kelsey’s fantastic breakfast burritos, and and as day trippers started arriving we kicked off the cidering process.  This year we had a nice plank set up on a slight incline that allowed several people to inspect apples and cut out bad spots at a comfortable working height.



Similar to last year, the pedal-powered washer/elevator was a hit with kids and adults alike.  We added some ag spray nozzles on locline positioners on the recommendation of the Kaufmans, who noted last year that the washer could be improved by rinsing the fruit as it emerges from the tumble scrubber drum:


We had previously included flimsy plexiglass guards to keep apple bits from flying in the faces of the pedalers, and to keep small kid fingers out of the gearing, but my dad scored some motorcycle windscreens from the Transfer Station, which were both effective and visually cool:



Generally speaking the equipment ran well; the one exception was that the belt drive on the grinder was not as positive as the old chain drive, such that if pulp didn’t feed cleanly from the primary grinder drum into the nip between the post-crusher drums, it could back up and clog the works, causing the belt to slip on the post-crusher drive shaft, further gumming up the grinder and necessitating a quick teardown for manual cleaning. We added more belt tension at lunch, but it still happened maybe a half-dozen times, and while it wasn’t a big deal, it was definitely annoying enough that I’ll consider using timing belt or some other positive drive method next year.

The press worked smoothly, and ground corn and rye steadily for dinner as it squeezed the juice from the cheeses:




We were as lucky with weather this year as we were unlucky last year.  It was beautiful and sunny, and warmed up nicely When folks weren’t making cider they basked on the lawn and ate Nebraska Cream Can Dinner:


We were even graced by the presence of a couple of Taiko drummers, who set up on the driveway and made an impressive spectacle.


This year we were joined by Jen Coyle, formerly of GreenMountain Engineering but presently running a mobile beverage canning company in the SF Bay area, and she brought fantastic expertise to help with setting up and running our counterpressure bottling system:




Despite a false alarm where we found a misplaced tote with a hundred pounds or so of apples after thinking we were through, things wound up by 5PM.  We did some cleanup, then we ate Holly and Becky’s delicious chili, cornbread, and apple crisp in the new sugarhouse:


We continued cleaning up and hung out by the fire, but turned in pretty soon after a long day.  The next morning we ate blueberry pancakes, cleared out the sugarhouse, and packed the cidering equipment in a corner to be out of the way until next year.

For the most part Z hung out with Alexis while I was running around with my fingers in the mechanisms, but he did help with mixing and dispensing the finished cider blend:



Cider year 15 was great, and I look forward to Z growing up to run in the pack of kids, which seems to get bigger every year.  I am grateful to everyone who pitched in to make the weekend a success, and particularly to the Gates family for partnering with us all these years, to Alexis for tolerating the increasing madness, to my parents for embracing the event, building the barns, and picking the apples, to Jonah for designing the Fair Winds graphic, and to the Jones family for generously funding the t-shirts.  Here’s to a good crop in 2020!



Wheel hoe from junk bikes

September 22, 2019

We have a good-sized garden in Gorham (about 4,000 square feet) and particularly in midsummer there’s a lot of weeding to do.  We’ve tried mulching the aisles between the beds with wood chips; the driveway ends on a very busy main road, and I put up a sign asking for chips that resulted in over 100 cubic yards arriving one day.  The chips work well if we put down a thick layer, but if we don’t go thick enough or skip a year the weeds come right up through, and hauling the chips is hard work.

We have a medium-sized rototiller, but the engine is old and finicky, and using a particularly nasty old fossil-fueled engine for routine cultivation seems like the wrong move.  An ordinary garden hoe is an acceptable solution, but it’s not such enjoyable work that it gets done frequently enough to keep things tidy, and in past years at some point in the summer the garden gets away from us, and the weeds mingle freely with the vegetables.

The old timers had a nice solution, the wheel-hoe.  One large metal wheel in front, some sort of cultivation tool behind the wheel at ground level, and a pair of handles sweeping up and back to a comfortable working height.  Somewhere online I read an article about making a wheel hoe out of bike parts, and this spring I gave it a shot.  I’m very happy with the result, and think there is a lot of potential in general for bike-hacking to build small-scale agricultural equipment.

wheel hoe wide

I put in a request with Dave and Emily for some dump bikes, and they quickly came up with four kid-sized BMX bikes in various states of disrepair.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted, so I designed the tool to take advantage of all the degrees of freedom the bike parts could offer.  The basic concept was to use the rear wheel and rear triangle of the bike frame as the main structure, with the seat tube opening pointed down and a modified seat as the basis for the tool.  I hacked the plastic off a seat, leaving the curved, roughly V-shaped steel seat support to weld an implement onto.  I took advantage of the linear and angular adjustability of the bike seat to enable adjustment of the depth and angle of attack of the implement.

wheel hoe oscillating

The first implement I built was an oscillating stirrup hoe – modeled after commercially available products like this one from Johnny’s.  I used the steel blade of an old handheld swinging weed cutter for the double-sided blade, and hacked up some light steel plate, angle, coupler nuts, and small bolts to create the frame and adjustable oscillating swing.  The oscillating action allows the stirrup to cut in both directions, with the drag of the soil swinging the blade to create an angle of attack that lifts the soil and cuts the roots of the weeds.

wheel hoe adjustable

I wanted to use the handlebars of the bike for the handles of the wheelhoe, but I wasn’t sure about the angle or length, so I hit on what I think is a pretty clever hack.  I use the handlebar/fork assembly of a bike as received, but welded the fork end to the end of one of the crank arms, using a piece of 1/8×2″ strap steel as an adapter.  Of course, the crank arm on the other side of the bottom bracket points the opposite direction, so I cut it and scabbed in another piece of plate steel to complete the structure.  The handle was then in place (with the headset height and handlebar adjustments still viable), but swinging freely on the rusty bearings of the bottom bracket.  I could have just welded the bottom bracket into a solid mass, but to retain adjustability I welded a 3/8″ coupler nut to the kickstand mount on the bike frame, positioned such that a bolt tightened down on it would fit exactly in one of the teeth of the front chainring, such that the angle of the handlebar assembly could be adjusted in increments of one sprocket pitch.  I jammed a bolt down tightly to clamp the chainring to the coupler nut and fix the handlebars rigidly in place.

All of the stick welding I’ve done has been on fairly heavy metal, but for this project I bought some very small rod and got some practice welding at minimum current on bike frame tube and other light metal.  If I were going to get into this in a serious way I’d want a wirefeed welder and maybe a TIG.

Once I got the basic unit built and saw that it worked well, I went all out and cut another seat tube off a different bike, welding the bottom brackets together such that the hoe could have two different implements that could be alternated by flipping the hoe 180 degrees about its long axis.  I then made a dual toolbar out of another bike seat and some 3/4″ square tube, and attempted a spring-tooth harrow using beam clamps to attach to the square tube and curved 3/8″ rod for the teeth.  But the teeth seemed too springy, and jamming nuts against the threaded holes in the beam clamp was not sufficient to prevent the teeth rotating out of the vertical plane.  I’m pretty sure that by fabricating some thinner, sharper teeth out of plate I could make a workable tool, but I used it enough to tell that it was going to be much harder work than the stirrup hoe, so I gave up on that for the season, relying on the broadfork I bought from Johnny’s to do any heavier cultivation.

All of this fabrication happened in the spring, much of it with hand tools in the basement in the early morning, with Z on my front in a Moby baby sling, and grabbing free moments to do the welding and grinding.  In many cases this type of project is fun to execute, but then sits collecting dust, but in this case I’m pleased to report that I continued using the tool all summer, that I found it consistently enjoyable, and that the garden was markedly less weedy as a result.  I am very happy with the outcome of the project, and I plan to make at least one more, to give to my parents for their farmstand garden.   I can’t say anything about particular commercial models, but in general I’d say a wheelhoe is a great tool for serious home gardeners.

If/when I make another one, one worthwhile change would be to add a couple inches to the vertical arms of the oscillating stirrup, because the current clearance tends to clog up and plow a pile when cultivating thicker weeds or mulchy soil.  It’s not a big deal, I just reverse direction to clear it, but I think the problem could be easily alleviated.

Another possible change would be to add one or more sweeps behind the stirrup, to push the loosened soil to the side.  Kelsey noticed that the edges of the slightly raised beds would get eroded over time, and having the ability to mound the soil up (whether in the same pass, or on a subsequent pass using a different implement in the other seat tube) would help with that.  However, with our sandy well-drained soil I don’t think we actually need the beds to be raised; if they were slightly depressed that would help with the watering, though I think they naturally end up raised from compost etc.

If we ever got into more serious row crops, people have made some pretty sophisticated wheelhoes, including with two wheels and a high arch to pass on either side of a row of corn, miniature disk harrows for hilling, etc.  And perhaps the ultimate solution would be a pedal/electric hybrid tractor, with a solar panel canopy and two pedaling positions, one to propel the unit and the other to run an implement.  That would require a lot more space and broad areas at the end of each row for turning.

Remembering Ummy

September 13, 2019

This weekend family and friends will gather to celebrate the lives of my grandparents, Bill (Poppy) and Emily (Ummy) Herman, following Ummy’s peaceful death on July 4th of this year, just past her 100th birthday.  (I wrote about my memories of Poppy on this blog in 2016.)  Ummy’s life overlapped with Z for just over 2 months.

Because she lived without her memory for the last several years, it seemed she slipped away long ago, though until close to the end she could sometimes manage a few words hinting at her long, full life.  Ummy grew up in Boston; her father was a chemical company executive and an obsessive old-school sportsman. He hunted and fished throughout the world, but with a special love for Maine, where he built a rustic cabin on an island in Cundy’s Harbor.  There he introduced Ummy and her four younger siblings to a range of outdoor pursuits, and it’s with her family that I most closely associate my love of the water and sailing, perhaps inspired by early bedtime readings of the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series.

My first memories of my grandparents date to holiday visits to the large red farmhouse where they lived in Lincoln, MA. It seemed ancient and stately, with creaky stairwells, a booming grandfather clock, and a secret room that my cousins and I searched for in vain.  They made occasional appearances on the land in Maine where I grew up, vacationing in small cabins they had built, and became a central part of our lives when they retired to the land in 1983.

I grew up thinking of my grandmother as the picture of refinement and class, in stark contrast to our rough-sawn, whole-grain existence half a mile away.  Ummy studied at Smith College, still knew some Latin, and set her table with monogrammed silverware and napkin rings. She even kept a spiral notebook to record details of her entertaining, to ensure she never served guests the same meal twice.  On the other hand, her own family kept to a set schedule, with the same breakfast consistently on each of seven days of the week (boiled eggs Monday, poached eggs Tuesday, pancakes Wednesday, scrambled eggs Thursday, cereal Friday, fried eggs Saturday, French toast Sunday).  She put on extravagant feasts at the holidays, including Yorkshire pudding at Christmas, and always kept a full cookie jar (to the delight of me and my cousins).

While my grandfather dabbled at oil painting, Ummy was a serious amateur photographer; she always had a giant Nikon, and she volunteered at the Maine Maritime Museum Apprenticeshop, documenting the wooden boats that were built there.  She had a darkroom upstairs in their house to develop her photos when they moved to Maine, and when I was young she gave me a small camera and showed me how to develop film and make prints.  I later graduated to a cast-off Pentax, and while I never got too serious about it, that darkroom experience was a special way to spend time with my grandmother, and my first of many ‘exposures’ to a detailed technical practice.

And while my grandfather was not known to raise his voice, Ummy was more volatile. She was opinionated (particularly about beards and long hair on men) and fiercely competitive – both vicariously, as a lifelong frustrated fan of the Red Sox, who until 2004 had last won the World Series in 1918 (the year before she was born), and in the flesh.  Her family had a tradition of whittling small wooden boats with leaf sails (‘chipboats’, originally from the chips left over from building the cabin in Cundy’s Harbor), and racing them in coves and tidepools, and her prize possession was a particularly speedy hull, ‘the Umiak’, that won several years in a running rivalry with her flamboyant younger brother Jack and his ‘Born Winner’.  The chipboat race evolved into a Labor Day lobster picnic tradition that attracted aunts and uncles and cousins from afar, with the race run in multiple heats for the prize of a coffee mug full of peanut M&Ms.  Raised in an organic household far from other families, both the fame and the candy appealed to me, and during the summers of my childhood I took the design and construction of chipboats to ever more complex technical heights.  In what proved to be a sign of things to come, I experimented with radical rudder designs, evolved my hulls to paper-thin wooden shells slicked with beeswax, and developed an elaborate system of birch bark sails, leading to a string of wins.

In addition to her photography, Ummy kept a beautiful flower garden, which she tended while listening to the Red Sox on a small transistor radio. She also knit steadily (including everyone’s Christmas stockings, mittens, and sweaters for babies), and volunteered for the Georgetown Working League, which sewed and raffled off a beautiful quilt every year to fund scholarships for island students.  In the fall my sister and I would help my grandparents gather apples from the trees in the yard, and grind and press them using her father’s antique cast iron press, setting the stage for future adventures in cider.

On into her eighties Ummy got gradually more forgetful, losing names, repeating questions, and slowing down, and despite their traditional roles Poppy took up household activities to a heartening degree.  Things got tougher when he had a minor stroke, and my parents started helping out increasingly, until eventually they both moved to the same nursing home in Bath.  Ummy’s 100 years started in an age when horse-drawn wagons still delivered milk and ice, and she lived to use email.  She brought refinement, art, and zest to a childhood where my companions were mostly goats and chickens, and I’m grateful for that.

The Times and chickens – again

June 23, 2019

The NY Times is at it again, serving up photos of improbably well-dressed folks snuggling chickens, but this time with a twist – the story is from the western coast of France, and the issue is vacationers complaining about the early-morning exclamations of a local rooster.

Times rooster snuggling - French edition.jpg

I have ranted again and again about this trope, which seems calculated to charm the urban reader while annoying the snot out of me.  To review:



Captive on a carousel of time

June 2, 2019

Circle Game 2019: ERH is 100, ZCC is 0

Ummy Dave Zephyr

Cider Weekend 2018

January 1, 2019


A damp but willing crew including old friends from afar put in a fantastic effort back in October to make the 14th annual Cider Weekend a success.  We produced about 197 gallons of cider with just over 70% yield, and enjoyed great food and great company in the big barn on Saturday, despite a soaking rain.

With other facets of life imposing, preparation for cider was largely on autopilot this year.  Holly arranged the delivery of two bins (about 1200lb) of mixed eating apples from Autumn Hills Orchard, packed in heavy-duty cardboard boxes that previously held ultra-pure silicon from his work.  With the help of the amazingly intrepid Jim Serdy he also picked and shipped a few boxes of Golden Russet for the cider mix.  And I am ever grateful to Steve Wood and the crew at Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Cider, who despite a crummy growing season came through with a bin of Dabinet bittersweet apples for the cider mix.  We combined this with at least a bin of fruit my parents picked from the Five Islands orchard; however this was a shadow of the previous banner-year production.

On the mechanical side, the one area of advancement this year was a pedal-powered chain drive apple conveyor, quickly assembled out of scrap wood and driven by the same bicycle that runs the tumble washer, that served to lift apples out of a receiving tank and deliver them into the washer drum.  The idea was to avoid the laborious handling of individual apples into the washer, previously one of the more annoying tasks. With the new conveyor, clean apples can be dumped directly into the receiving tank without further attention, and the kids found the conveyor absolutely riveting.

I’ve had the chain and sprockets for the project for years, and had been mulling over the design with the help of creative folks including Gene Kaufman.  I finally put it together in a couple of evenings this fall.  It consisted of a loop of 50-pitch chain with 12″ wide oak paddles mounted via special connecting links, running on a wooden frame with sliding facilitated by PEX water pipe.

The weekend kicked off with roll-your-own burritos in the big barn on Friday night; between the October wind, the larger crew, and the build party activities, dinner has migrated to the big barn for the last couple of years.  Some of the kids are old enough to be a real help:


After dinner, the intrepid team of Rachel Taylor and Steven Tobias executed the final assembly and drive details on Friday night, and the conveyor came together nicely:


Meanwhile, Eerik and Holly were engaged in an intense effort to hook Eerik’s Erg (“Concept II” professional rowing machine) to the grinder.  The rowing machine project had its origins in the observation last year that when the whole system was running smoothly, the grinder appeared to be the rate-limiting step.  Eerik retains his love of rowing from his collegiate days, and dreamed of boosting the performance of the grinder with a rowing machine in parallel with the two bicycles.  There were several complexities, including the large size and relatively low stature of the rowing machine, the fundamentally pulsating nature of its power flow, the fact that its chain-driven flywheel spins the opposite direction of a bicycle, and the mechanical details of its flywheel, which is surprisingly softly mounted and not designed to deliver power beyond the squirrel-cage fan riveted to it.

Undaunted, it occurred to us that the hydraulic hoses on the pedal-powered cider press do an admirable job of physically decoupling the pedal powerstand (which also grinds grain) from the press, and inspired by the success of the press in general, I secured the necessary components from Surplus Center, and we contrived to couple a log-splitter pump to the flywheel, and deliver the power directly to the grinder using a small hydraulic motor.




Holly and Eerik executed both sides of the erg-to-apple-grinder powertrain, and with great fanfare we charged the hydraulic loop and Eerik took an inaugural pull on the chain. Unfortunately, while we were able to spin the grinder with the Erg, the losses in the hydraulic system (seemingly primarily in the motor rather than the pump) were such that it was not able to contribute significantly, and we did not end up using it on Saturday.  It appears that human-powered hydraulics are much better suited to high-force applications than high power applications, and in retrospect this is not too surprising.  And realizing how simple the mechanical drive of the Erg is, we resolved next year to figure out how to mechanically couple it to the press and realize Eerik’s long-cherished dream of grinding apples by rowing power.


Keith Richtman contributed his considerable knowledge of bike hacking all around, including the surprisingly effective technique of using a piece of PEX tube to guide and deliver the slack side of a chain drive directly to the sprocket, avoiding the need for a more precise and sensitive contrivance.

All that being accomplished or not, we reconvened Saturday morning to enjoy Kelsey’s delicious breakfast burritos, and set to work grinding and pressing apples.   As usual we got rolling between 9 and 10AM, and work proceeded with minimal mechanical issues.  A steady rain that started mid-morning limited the typical influx of day-trippers to the most hardy and dedicated souls, but the large population of overnighters carried the day – at most we had probably 50-60 people, who fit pretty comfortably in the barn, whereas recently on a sunny Cider Saturday we probably have close to 100 – the event seems to be nicely self-regulating in that way, so long as there isn’t too much fruit to process.  Still, the cold and rain this year suggests that we work to move the event closer to the middle of October than the end.


This year, all of the apples could be rolled around, either with a pallet jack or on the increasing assortment of wheeled dollys that Dave has built – this made handling much simpler, and we made ample use of forks on the tractor for moving apples and equipment before and after the main event.  Once we got rolling, the kids loved pushing the apples into the elevator/conveyor with paddles that Dave improvised for the purpose:




The pressing process was streamlined by the addition of specialized press cloth squares purchased by Holly from a cider supply company, which both flowed more freely and seemed much more tear-resistant than the muslin we’d used over the previous thirteen years.  Instead of depositing pomace directly into the loader bucket of a tractor outside the window, we used a large reclaimed plastic bin outside the window, which limited the tractor trips to the compost pile that were needed in the rain.


The manual diaphragm bilge pump that conveys the cider from the press into the 100-gallon conical bulk tank was also a big hit with the kids as always (though a brief scare at setup made it clear that getting a spare from Hamilton Marine would be valuable insurance), and the tank filled quickly.  As we broke for lunch, headlined by the traditional Nebraska Cream Can Dinner, more than half of the apples were ground, and we quickly spun up the sweet cider bottling operation to empty the bulk tank.  Thanks to Dave and Emily’s foresight and the help of intrepid recycler Jim Coombs, a large array of clean plastic jugs with matching lids were at the ready, and there was only a brief delay before switching over to the hard cider apples in the afternoon.  About mid-day, the sun being over the yardarm, we got the bottling of 2017 cider underway, substantially streamlined by Eerik’s innovation last year in counterweighting the filler heads:


Things were wrapping up by 4PM, and the crew hosed down the equipment and hoisted it into the loft, while Holly and Becky prepared the usual delicious chili/cornbread/apple crisp dinner.  As usual, the grain was ground using the big aluminum grain mill on the hydraulic pedal stand:


Lots of folks including three generations of the Jones/Joukovski family pitched in to help:


After dinner, folks with young kids retired to the cabins early, while others sat up talking by the fire in the red barn.

Sunday morning dawned dry, and with blueberry pancakes and armloads of cider we bid the cider crew farewell by about mid-day.  The rest of the day was spent in unhurried cleanup that somehow always seems to take until sundown, when I loaded the truck and trailer for the return trip to Gorham, said goodbye to the orchard, and headed south.  It was a great year with lots of old friends and an increasing flock of kids, and no shortage of potential for further innovations:

  • The major remaining annoyance of the process is the manual cutting out of bad spots; this mostly applies to the wild and home-grown apples which are not sprayed as assiduously as the professionally-grown apples.  Last year I did pretty well on the organic spray routine with Surround, BT, etc., but with a lighter fruit set and frequent rain I didn’t stay on top of the pests as much as I could have.  We’ll see how I do next year, given everything else that will be going on.
  • Agricultural nozzles from Tractor Supply replaced the finicky improvised garden hose sprayer in the apple washer; Joshua and Gene recommended a more thoughtful arrangement of these nozzles to better rinse the apples after the emerge from the tumbler.
  • The large cast iron frying pan remains a key piece of equipment, but it could use some kind of diffuser to spread the heat more evenly – a valuable junk-scrounging/minor welding project.

The biggest difference next year will by that my folks have built a new maple syrup/cider barn between the house and the current barn, so they can kick the pesky cider operation out and finally bring in the livestock that was its original purpose.  The new barn is not quite as large overall, but it will have a larger open space, and also a large wood-burning firebox that could even be used for boiled cider.  There are other exciting changes in the works as well – always so much to look forward to!

Thanks to Holly and Eerik for photos, and to everyone, near and far, who continue to make this tradition so much fun. Happy New Year, and much love to all!



Assessing The Good Life

July 13, 2018

As my folks were doing a big cleanup of the house I grew up in, an old copy of Living The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing turned up.  I had heard this book mentioned as a venerated bible of the 1970s, but had never actually read it, so I was interested to finally get to the source.  In poking around on the internet after reading it, I came across a related memoir called Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life by Jean Hay Bright, who was invited (together with her husband at the time) by the Nearings to homestead as their neighbors on the Maine coast.  This led me to another memoir, This Life is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman, daughter of Susan and Eliot Coleman, who were likewise invited by the Nearings to farm on their land. Eliot subsequently became a guru to the organic growing community in his own right.

Like Melissa, I grew up on an off-grid homestead in a then-remote corner of the coast of Maine, and soon after I entered into the island’s K-6 elementary school I understood that the way our family lived was unusual.  But I knew that we were not alone in our unconventional habits; many of my parents’ friends also lived in funky home-built shelters, kept livestock, and grew vegetables, and some likewise lived without electricity.  And as I read these books I was struck by the similarity, down to remarkably uncanny details, of their memories to the way I grew up, and I came to more fully understand that in my childhood I was unwittingly part of a significant cultural moment and movement.  As a student of the energy and resource issues that motivated many people in the black-to-the-land generation, I’m interested in questions about the significance of the practices and habits of that era, what can be learned, and what it suggests about the future.

The Nearings were a couple from comfortable urban backgrounds who moved to rural Vermont to homestead in the 1930s, when their radical politics drove them from more conventional occupations.  There they homesteaded, grew food, produced maple syrup and sugar as a cash crop, and cultivated an austere lifestyle and philosophy that they laid out in Living the Good Life, which was published in 1954.  As the rural economy recovered from the Depression and WW2, and the New York City culture encroached on southern Vermont with skiing and vacation homes, the Nearings moved to the remote coast of eastern Maine. There they took up their habits in relative obscurity, until young people searching for alternative ways of life following the cultural upheaval of the 1960s discovered their book and began flocking to their homestead on Cape Rosier for knowledge and inspiration in the early 1970s.  Eliot and Sue Coleman and Jean and her husband Keith were two of these couples whom the Nearings took a particular interest in, and they sold them plots of land to build and farm on.

One of the themes that emerges in Bright’s book is the significant gap between the Nearings’ idealistic prescription for organizing home economic and social life, and the reality of what actually works.  The Nearings claimed that one could live well on four hours a day of ‘bread labor’ to earn or produce basic needs, four hours a day of artistic, cultural, or activist pursuits, and four hours of social engagement.  They claimed to meet their economic and spiritual needs by following this plan, promoted it fervently, and scorned those who fell short in various ways (excessive participation in the cash economy, living on the proceeds from invested capital, eating meat, etc.) But Bright lays out a detailed case that the Nearings were essentially trustafarians – at various key points they received inheritances or other financial boosts that allowed them to buy large tracts of land, hire help, take shortcuts, and generally live much more comfortably would have been possible without that ready source of transfusion.  As a particular example, when the Nearings moved from Vermont to Maine, high-bush blueberries replaced maple syrup as their notional ‘cash crop’, but she shows that the crop never broke even, let alone sustaining their lifestyle and allowing them to build a spacious stone house.

Bright’s book is not a hatchet job; she clearly had and has a lot of regard for the Nearings, but also the scars of a person who has attempted to live by following an idealized prescription, combined with a reporter’s nose for the real story.   And I’m sympathetic to her instinct that it’s important to pay attention to the distinction between what is actually true and possible, and what people are motivated to believe is possible.  Richard Feynman said something along the lines of ‘the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’  The Nearings laid out a path that was attractive and salutary in its broad outlines, but deeply unrealistic in its details, and they had what is surely a natural human tendency to plaster over rather than expose and troubleshoot the places where reality fell short of the ideal. Bright’s book explores how their actions had profound impacts – both for better and for worse – on thousands, perhaps millions of people.

One of the most interesting aspects of both the Bright and Coleman books was the amazing degree of commonality in fine detail with how I grew up, three hours further west along the coast, including:

  • Practical daily use of an antique Glenwood wood cookstove
  • Drinking goat milk, and other people thinking goat milk was nasty
  • Amateur goat obstetrics
  • Trauma of butchering animals in the yard
  • Racoons in the corn at night, wrangling of electric fences, and usually-futile attempts to shoot them in the dark
  • Being the only kid in class with heavy whole-grain sandwiches, while the other kids have Hostess Twinkies
  • Keeping a freezer on the porch of a neighbor in town who has electricity
  • Concerns about a nuclear reactor uncomfortably close to home
  • Newspaper reporters coming to write human interest stories about your family (I was too young to actually remember this, but the aluminum printing plate with a faded image of my mom cooking over a woodstove is still tacked to the wall in the back of the pole barn).
  • The Tomten, and other children’s books that I have not come across elsewhere

These were among the quirkier resonances, but there were broader and more poignant ones as well.  Bright’s conclusion is that it is possible to live a fulfilling life on the land, foregoing many of the conveniences of modern society, but that unless you have a trust fund, it’s not realistic to do it by working only four hours per day, and that it’s all but impossible to do it without materially participating in the cash economy.  And so a related theme is how homesteaders find their craft and their place in that economy –  for Eliot Coleman it was market gardening and related promotions, and for Bright and her husband Keith it was writing and carpentry respectively – exactly the same trades, as it happens, that my parents found for themselves.

A related question that preoccupies me at the interface of ecology, economy, and culture is the question of which back-to-the-land practices represent true advances from a sustainability and social progress perspective, and which are solely cultural badges.  The Nearings were surely serious about ending war, alleviating social ills, and living in harmony with nature, and organizations like MOFGA were explicitly set up to change things.  So it’s fair and important to ask whether they/we were on the right track with their prescriptions, and to what extent they’ve been effective.

Surely a nuanced view is appropriate here.  Some of the cultural practices of that time (such as a whole-grains-based vegetarian diet) are surely improvements from an ecological perspective, a great number are surely neutral (e.g. the colors and patterns one chooses for their clothing), and a few are probably counterproductive (e.g. frequent trips to India in search of enlightenment).  Rather than painting in broad strokes, it seems necessary to look at individual cases, consider realistic alternatives, and actually do the math.  And to be effective, prescriptions must be socially as well as ecologically sustainable.  Another word for subsistence is poverty; sustained, austere, backbreaking labor of the sort the Nearings advocated is not going to catch on broadly in a world where mechanized assistance is cheap and readily available.  The Bright book is chock full of accounts of visitors who tried out the life and then went back to the city, and while some people (e.g. Eliot Coleman) find the hard work of farming viscerally compelling, most others (e.g. Jean Hay Bright) do not. Even those (like my family) who took to the back-to-the-land life gradually reintegrated themselves into the modern economy to a large extent, although many maintained back-to-the-land interests and cultural practices as well.

One thing that has struck me after attending the Commonground Fair off and on for close to 40 years, is how much of it is the same every year – the sheep dog demonstrations, the dry stone demonstrations, the spinning and weaving demonstrations, the draft horse demonstrations, the guy selling high-end Italian walking tractors, and so forth.  The Fair is extremely valuable as a gathering place and a venue to meet old friends and affirm cultural affiliations, but how effective is it as a mechanism to drive real change?  Forty years later, only a vanishingly small fraction of Mainers live off-grid (even though technology has made it quite comfortable), very few grow a meaningful amount of their own food, spinning and weaving are still oddities, virtually everyone still drives everywhere, and very few farmers are using horses for their tillage – and would we want them to?  I’m wary of the tendency to turn sensible-sounding sustainability concepts like Local Food into talismans or cultural badges rather than theories that should be soberly assessed as possible means to a particular set of ends.  As an example, I’ve calculated elsewhere on this blog that even fairly serious amateur gardening has only a marginal quantitative effect (even for the families that practice it), and speculated that it could be fairly easy to overwhelm any positive benefit by e.g. driving a truck repeatedly to a garden center for supplies.  It’s not hard for me to imagine that the greatest quantitative benefit of home gardening might come not from direct effects on the carbon impact of their diets, but rather from capturing the attention of the gardeners and reducing their inclination to take long trips by air during the growing season.

Another resonant theme is the challenge of maintaining relationships through the challenges of hard work, personal discovery, and parenting – particularly among the freewheeling communities of vibrant young people attracted to the Good Life scene.  With the exception of the Nearings, the couples at the center of both books grew apart and split up (perhaps hastened in the case of the Colemans by the tragic drowning death of their middle daughter in a farm pond).   I remember this phenomenon likewise as one of those mysteries of the adult world as seen from kid height – how families that I knew as inseparable social units would suddenly spin apart, with fragments moving to far-flung places, and newly-wise children solemnly explaining custody arrangements. But despite the unconventional mores of the back-to-the land community, I have no reason to believe our families were any less permanent than those in the mainstream, and the question of why certain couples weather these challenges while others do not remains a mystery toward which these books can only offer particularly detailed singular case studies.

There’s a lot more that could be said, but in any case, I heartily recommend this three-generation sequence of books as a thought- and memory-provoking journey for anyone who lived or is interested in the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.

Spring Planting 2018

May 6, 2018

Despite limited preparation on my part and very soggy ground conditions, a small but powerful crew came together in Five Islands in late April of this year and made significant progress on the orchard.  Thanks to all who participated, the orchard is in good shape, and our fingers are crossed for another good harvest this fall.

We set up about 330′ of permanent woven wire fence defining the western boundary of the orchard, took down the ratty plastic deer netting that had protected the orchard until now, and planted about a dozen new interstem trees with varieties recommended by Holly and David Buchanan, a local professional cidermaker. (David’s Portersfield Cider operation in Pownal is definitely worth checking out, both for the high quality cider and the beautiful reclaimed timberframe barn full of gleaming stainless steel equipment.)

The kids, led by Bodhi and Nola gathered an impressive quantity of rockweed at low tide, and this was spread along with organic fertilizer and lime around the new trees, which were then mulched with cardboard and wood chips.  Hopefully this will keep the weeds and grass at bay for a season and help them get established.  The crew also cleared a bunch of rocks, roots, and old fencing material in preparation for turning over and seeding the rows in the new ground in the northwest corner.  I hope to put this area in buckwheat and clover for the new bees, which hopefully will arrive in time to do the pollination.  We transplanted five of the Cornell high-octane sugar maples that had been temporarily growing between apples trees at the bottom of the orchard, moving them outside the fence and protecting them temporarily with cattle panels rolled into free-standing rings.

We also moved the last of the apple trees that had been planted in a five-gallon bucket with the sides split and splayed four ways; I came up with this technique after learning to graft, when I didn’t have enough space prepared for all the trees I made.  The usual approach is to dig up the trees bare-root and transplant them, but especially for larger trees it sets them back pretty significantly.  I started using the buckets in hopes of keeping more fine root tissue intact when doing the transplant.  Inevitably as these things go, the trees sit in the nursery for more years than you plan, and in this case the tree (a Wickson) was over 2″ in diameter.  But the roots find their way out between the split sides of the bucket, and the location of the splits gives a good idea where to go looking for them with the shovel.  Emily and I dug out the roots as generously as we could, and between us we could schlep the bucket, tree, and roots onto the platform extension on the front end loader of a tractor.  There was one remaining open spot on the original grid of Seedling rootstock trees (had been thin soil over bedrock, but we piled some extra loam there a few years ago), and we set the tree in this spot, peeling away the bucket at the last moment.

The bucket technique seems to work surprisingly well, and I think it could be the basis of a local small-time nursery business, since the Transfer Station could probably turn up an unlimited supply of used buckets.  But recently I’ve gone over to planting out new benchgrafts directly in their permanent location, resigning myself to replacing the few that don’t make it.

With three sides of the orchard enclosed in permanent fence, and the remaining north side hemmed in by an outcropping of ledge, the natural extent of the orchard is defined.  There is still a bunch of area inside the permanent fenceline that isn’t yet planted; my folks are contemplating adding some berries, and since the peaches seem to be doing well for us, we might plant a block of those in the northwest corner.

On Sunday I put on a hundred gallon tank of dormant oil and copper, with a pound of BT mixed in to knock back the tent caterpillars which were already starting to spin their webs.  There was a light shower as I did the spraying, so I hope it holds on until the first dose of Surround (organic clay protectant) that I will put on when the apples are nickel-sized.  Surround is literally a high-grade kaolin clay product that I sprayed for the first time last year.  It forms a patchy layer of white powder that turns the entire tree a ghostly shade, but apparently the diminished sunlight doesn’t affect the photosynthesis significantly, and I found it to be quite effective against the various curculios and maggots that attack unsprayed fruit.

Speaking of peaches, the peach buds were coming on fast in Five Islands, and when I got back to Stroudwater I was distressed to see that the -25F lows we saw this winter seem to have killed or severely damaged both of the peach trees we have there.  This is an example of where the marine climate on the island is a big help; lows were probably 10F warmer in Five Islands.

The resistance of the Five Islands peaches to a pretty bad winter makes me think I should take peaches a bit more seriously there; to this point I’ve been interplanting them between the apple trees in the rows, which has worked well since the peaches grow significantly faster but die off unpredictably.  But the new block of interstems has a tighter spacing that doesn’t have room for peaches, and the older apple trees are getting bigger, so it will be harder and harder to keep them from getting overspray on them when spraying Surround.  Last year we found that once the peaches get Surround on them, it never comes off.  This is a just a cosmetic issue that doesn’t matter for freezing the fruit, and Surround is nontoxic (I can’t taste the difference eating them out of hand), but if we ever wanted to sell them at Joanna’s farm stand or Heidi’s store, the chalky spots would be a turn-off.

So I’m contemplating doing a block of peaches in the northwest corner, which combined with whatever the folks do with the northeast corner will pretty much finish out the enclosed space.  Our favorite variety so far is Lars Andersen, which is apparently a Local variety that only Fedco offers, but I’ll ask around for other advice before moving ahead.

Thanks again to everyone who pitched in to make the 2018 Orchard Weekend a success!