Independence Day 2020, composting diapers

July 4, 2020

We had a quiet but productive Fourth today, including the ceremonial digging of the first new potatoes, which we ate for dinner together with the first of the broccoli and some mini bok choy.  The corn is far past knee-high, the strawberries are winding down, and the zucchini are coming.

One of the things that has contributed to the good garden this year is a much greater quantity of compost, which we have on account of the diapers I’ve been composting since last summer.  We’ve been using the ‘g diaper’ brand, which consists of a cloth shell, a waterproof rubber liner, and a disposable/flushable/compostable insert with the magic dessicant in it.  Thanks to the Georgetown Mall I have some kitty litter buckets with close-fitting lids, and we keep separate ones for yellow vs. brown, ripping the paper skin to free the dessicant. ( We do use one disposable diaper per night, as the compostable ones definitely don’t seal as well or hold as much.  These are theoretically biodegradable, but I’m skeptical and haven’t tried it out.)

Once a couple buckets full accumulate, I put them in a ~20 gallon rubbermaid trash can, add a couple scoops of dirt or compost, and fill the can with water from a hose to completely hydrate the dessicant.  I stir the resulting mess with a manure fork, let it sit for a few minutes, then bail it into the compost bin, mixing with wood chips, weeds, grass, leaves, planer shavings, etc. – whatever we have around.

The yellow ones I compost directly into our regular compost bin, a dual 4’x4′ wooden box that I built inspired by Holly’s very trim setup in Somerville.  The brown ones have their own smaller dual wooden bin, where I will give it plenty of time and then spread under some trees or something.

Based on my experience I would highly recommend this approach to diapers.  The diapers themselves don’t actually add that much volume to the compost, but they do add nitrogen, and they inspire me to collect a lot more organic matter to put into the process.  The bins are full of worms and other wriggly life, the piles compost quickly, and the resulting compost is dark brown, smells fresh, and the plants seem to love it.  There is no sign of the paper or the dessicant particles in the finished compost.  Because the vegetable matter feedstock we use varies widely in size, I screen the finished compost through half-inch hardware cloth, which separates out the avocado pits, corn cobs, stubborn vegetable stalks, etc. to go back in the bin.  I then put the screened compost up in dogfood bags until it’s needed.

Not half the calories, but half the frequency

June 20, 2020

One of the long-time obsessions of this blog is the tension between my interest in physically producing the basic stuff of life, and my engineers’ grounding in quantitative realism regarding which measures might be scalable across our society.  The latter has led me to the conclusion that it’s not realistic (neither terms of available land nor available time) for the vast majority of Americans to grow any significant fraction of their own food.  So close to a dozen years ago I wrote a post titled ‘Not half the calories, but half the dollars‘, suggesting that a reasonable goal of serious home gardening might be to focus on fresh specialties and luxuries with market value equivalent to half the food dollars of the homestead.

While we still grow our share of potatoes, winter squash, and the like, our shared garden definitely leans in this direction – top-quality tomatoes, basil for quarts of pesto, fresh strawberries, and the like – and in Kelsey’s case an increasingly impressive assortment of flowers.  I’ve also learned how to grow shiitake mushrooms from oak logs harvested in our woods, and there’s nothing like frying up a pound of them for breakfast to make a person feel the culinary wealth.  But in the time since the coronavirus arrived in force in March, it’s become clear that home gardening is also a great way to reduce the frequency of trips to the grocery, at least in season.

We’ve leaned into this strategy as the spring progressed.  After looking at them sitting in a pile for ten years, we finally turned the stack of glass sliding door panels Joshua salvaged into a trim little greenhouse, and grew lettuce and spinach even while the late snows this spring piled up on the windows.  I brought my 5’ PTO tiller from Five Islands, turned over our old grass-choked strawberry bed, and prepared a new ~1ksf garden where a huge pile of wood chips had been rotting for most of a decade. Z and I have gradually patched together the fence to enclose the entire garden, and we are now at the stage where we have more lettuce and other greens than we need, the strawberries are producing heavily, and the peas, broccoli, zucchini, and new potatoes are not far behind.  The corn is on track to be knee high well before the fourth of July.

I gather we’re not alone in this new focus; the garden center just down the road has been mobbed every time I’ve gone past.  While there simply isn’t enough space in the typical suburban yard to feed the family that lives there, by carefully selecting varieties, using Eliot Coleman-style season extension, and buying a lot of shelf-stable staples in bulk, it may be possible to eat well while reducing the frequency of trips to the grocery by half or more.

At this point I’ve been to Trader Joe’s once since February (and spent close to $600), and I’ve been averaging Hannafords about once a month.  If we got some laying hens and were willing to use powdered milk, we could probably get it down to once a quarter.  We really aren’t eating that differently either – normally my soup and bread-making would slow down this time of year, but I’ll probably keep at it. The primary differences are less fresh fruit (until the strawberries started), and until the garden kicked in I missed the big tubs of fresh baby spinach I used to buy, but those probably weren’t that ecologically sound anyway.  I was already buying sprouting seed by the pound, and windowsill sprouts combined with grated carrot and thinly-sliced purple cabbage makes a pretty good salad.

Book Review: String Too Short to be Saved

February 16, 2020

Not this Christmas but the one before, my parents gave me a memoir called String too short to be saved, first published in 1960 by Donald Hall, and I finally find some time to read most of it this winter.

The book describes Hall’s summers as a boy, spent with his grandparents on a small dairy farm in New Hampshire  in the 1930s.  The writing is good (turns out the author is also a former Poet Laureate of the US), and there are many heartfelt and beautiful passages, but the mood is persistently elegiac to the point of being depressing.  His grandparents are aging and struggling to maintain the farm, the agricultural economy is in terminal decline, and the colorful cast of characters around them are in varying states of decay which Hall paints unflinchingly, without cheap gestures toward redemption.  

Perhaps this is appropriate.  It has always struck me when I drive back roads in northern New England that many communities more than a few towns inland from the ocean appear to have had their best years long ago, with collapsing barns, peeling paint, and sleepy main streets.  But it had not occurred to me just how long ago those best years might have been.  Inland rural Maine and New Hampshire grew up around agriculture, but railroads opened up prime farmland to the west by the mid 1800s, and the industrial revolution pulled the population to cities and factories. The young people left, the old people died, and the fields grew up in birches and pines.  A passage from the book captures this diaspora:

“The hurricane of 1938 blew the pines over, and the great trees crushed the camps, the church, the meeting hall, and the ice-cream stand.  Soon after, the war took away the young men.  The dance in the evening ended, and the play which the young people put on. Old Home Day became a Sunday afternoon in August, when the old people met in the yard of a church.  When Old Home Week was established by Governor Rollins in 1899, these old people had been young… Old home week was the time for returning to the place you had left; even in 1899 the country was emptying,  By 1949 most of the survivors…didn’t even know they had an old home.”

And as go the rural areas, so go the small cities that once supported them.  Hall’s book reminded me of an essay by Paul Krugman from a couple years back, The Gambler’s Ruin of Small Cities. Krugman notes that while small cities served an obvious function when the foundation of the economy was farming, they had to reinvent themselves in various ways when industrial agriculture depopulated their surroundings.  With constant, accelerating waves of change driven by technology and globalization, many may eventually run out of luck – particularly if they are in cold, inaccessible places, without the benefit of a university or attractions to draw tourists.

I grew up in the woods, and I’m attached to the idea of people producing the vital substance and sustenance of life by engaging the natural world around them.  But I’m also an engineer and a realist; I know that technology and economics drive the changes that poets then write about.  Is it too much to hope that a transition to clean wind and solar power, which are by their nature as diffuse as loam and timber, could bring new life to rural northern places?

Grift, niche, scale

January 28, 2020

The more fortunate we are, the truer it is that we create the world through our actions.  Once we understand the scientific reality of emissions-driven global warming, and accept the moral responsibility to do something about it, the next question is, what to do?  And for those of us who are engineers, the further question arises – what to work on? To answer these questions, it helps to think about which solutions could actually be the change that we need to see in the world? – that is, which solutions can scale?

Ever since environmental awareness became a mainstream concept, there have been lots of ideas about how people can do their part – from composting household scraps and sorting recyclables to the self-serving notices in every hotel that we can save the planet by re-using linens.  My biggest beef with these ideas is their innumeracy – the idea that a right-thinking citizen can do their part by hanging up a towel, when their share of the emissions from the flight that brought them to that hotel could easily run a thousand times greater than the impact of the laundry.

As I pointed out in the previous post about the massive scale of human energy use, modern civilization consumes an absurd amount of energy to deliver the basic goods of our lives, and most peoples’ ‘environmentalism’ doesn’t recognize or grapple honestly with that fact.  In his phenomenal online book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, David MacKay similarly pokes this innumeracy, which lets people think unplugging a phone charger or carrying around a re-usable straw is an effective response to environmental challenges, while they flit about in jets, rumble around in SUVs, and eat a bloated western diet.

So what does work?  The question must be answered on a couple of different levels.  At the individual level, each person’s emissions and environmental impact is relatively straightforward to estimate, and it’s hard for me to knock anybody’s well-targeted efforts to reduce them.  Further, environmental sensibility, financial thrift, and physical fitness are often in very close alignment, a point repeatedly made by early-retirement blogger Pete Adeney., who points out that joy- and health-improving life choices can often save 75% of both cost and impact.  In a world where superhuman quantities of nearly-free energy are vomited out in every direction, this is not a surprise.

And so for instance a plucky, mechanically-inclined tribe (and small industry) has sprung up to collect used fryer oil from restaurants, react it with industrial glycerine to form a bio-derived fuel that is a fair (in fair-weather) facsimile of diesel, and use it to drive around (often in classy old Mercedes station wagons).  And my parents are clothed and shod essentially for free by the high-class leavings in the help-yourself shop at the Georgetown Mall – ‘satisfaction guaranteed, or twice your garbage back!”

Clever hacks of this type are admirable, and hard to knock.  But they are what I would call ‘niches’ – moves that are smart and efficient, but fundamentally can’t scale, because they depend on the massive inefficiency of the mass market of energy and stuff.  Free lightly-used name-brand apparel is only available because people in Georgetown buy and discard a ton of clothing, and fry-oil biodiesel only works because industrial agriculture has driven the cost of food down nearly to zero.  If everyone tried to adopt these practices, the supply would quickly dry up – that’s what makes them niches.  Similarly, hunting deer for meat in overpopulated suburban landscapes is a niche – highly economical and environmentally sound compared to industrial farming, but if everyone tried to adopt the practice, soon there would be no deer. And despite my attachment to it from the days of my youth, wood heat falls in this category as well – even at maximal sustainable production, the energy output of US forests could not heat US buildings.

Worse, there are also certain practices and products that are touted as environmentally beneficial but are actually useless or harmful.  Given the marketing cachet of environmental values, these I would term ‘grifts’.  The most egregious examples are the transparent ‘run your car on water’ sidebar scams that pop up every time the price of motor fuel spikes, or the sleazy ‘energy saver’ capacitor boxes that are marketed to save 10-35% on electric bills.  But green-tinted grift is everywhere.  Basically the entire bottled water industry falls in this category when any environmental claim is attached (e.g. recycled plastic in the bottles), since tap water is safe, often purer, and produces vastly less emissions than bottled. I described biofuel as a niche above, but as it tries to scale it becomes something else – according to some analysis, the huge US corn ethanol industry produces more emissions than it saves, and could be considered a giant environmental grift fueled by poorly designed subsidies; reportedly Brasil’s sugarcane ethanol industry is better.  And I would put most eco-themed travel in the grift category, when marketed internationally – whatever benefits may derive from locally-sourced produce and organic spa treatments are swept away in a category-five hurricane of airline industry emissions.  Local food itself is sometimes grift, particularly where fossil-heated greenhouses are used to grow low-calorie, high-value produce under LED lights. In order to figure out whether something is an improvement or a loss, you need to Do The Math.

What we really want are practices, products, and energy systems that can scale – that is, their benefits hold up even when adopted across the entirety of industrial civilization.  Niche technologies like biofuel fails this standard, because even if we turned all of our food into fuel we could not run our current fleet of vehicles (not to mention that 7 billion people would have nothing to eat).  Growing delicious tomatoes in one’s front yard is a delightful hobby, but except for those with huge lots and extreme zeal, it cannot materially reduce the dietary climate impact of its practitioners.  There is not a hard and fast line between niche and scale solutions; no one approach or technology will solve all our problems, and larger niches might end up as some of the smaller climate wedges – for instance, we might ask whether carefully-sourced biofuel might power a smaller, more efficient air transport industry.  The point is that we should focus most of our attention on approaches that are big enough to matter on a global scale.

In terms of generation of useful energy, historical data shows that clean power sources can scale at least to a material extent.  Hydropower already has scaled – to about 17% of global electricity supply. Further expansion in the developed world is limited by site availability and environmental impact of dams, but last I checked it’s still growing rapidly elsewhere – for better and for worse.  In the time I have been in the clean energy industry, utility wind turbines have scaled from nothing to about 7% of the US electricity grid (and similar numbers globally).  Solar is further behind, at around 2.5% of global electricity, but growing fast (on the order of 25% CAGR).  Nuclear has historic scale, but as a long-term, centralized, base-load technocratic solution, it is a poor fit to these times of tepid government investment, dynamic energy markets, and fear-driven public conversation.  Nor do I hear its proponents grappling honestly with the weapons proliferation implications of a massive global buildout.

For clean power to continue scaling, storage technology must scale likewise to manage the intermittency of wind and solar; similarly electric vehicles must continue their growth across another two orders of magnitude.  Fortunately our industry is tackling this challenge head-on, and market demand is strong.  Onward and upward!



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: