Archive for April, 2008

Tikkun olam on the lord’s day

April 20, 2008

The Jewish tradition (of which I happen not to be a member) has a duty they call “tikkun olam” which translates to “the repair of the world” – as I understand it, it basically means that the world is a messed up place, and it’s not enough to just be pious or whatever, you have to actively work to patch it up and make it better. In the Christian tradition Sunday is a day of rest, but I’m not that either, so I didn’t rest, but I had an inspired day nonetheless. In the carpool on the way back from music class this afternoon we passed a truck towing a big four-bottom plow and some other implements on a trailer, and maybe that got me thinking big. Or maybe it’s the global food crisis, which is variously attributed to climate change, biofuel production, market manipulation, high energy costs, or any number of associated evils. And instead of wringing my hands about it, I reckoned I’d do something. So I went over to Pete’s house (a great guy from music class; we all get together at his place on Thursdays for potluck dinner and play traditional music) and borrowed his TroyBilt Horse tiller. This is a great old red rear-tine beast that’s approximately the same age as I am and about four times heavier. It’s all chunky iron castings and it has a funky design where the drive is engaged by a linkage that raises the whole engine to tension a belt. To reverse, the engine is lowered until the sheave on the crankshaft contacts the rubber-rimmed sheave on the front of the gearcase. Pete has kept the machine in phenomenal running order, and it starts with little more than a flick of the wrist.



Beautiful Day

April 19, 2008

It was a fantastic day to be outside.  I hitched up the trailer and drove upriver past Mascoma Lake to Enfield, where I forked up a load of horse manure that a woman I know was looking to get rid of.  I guess it’s the nature of the season that it was near to 80 degrees out and yet the lake was still mostly covered with ice.  I trundled the dung home and spread it on the garden, ending up with a layer about an inch thick, with a few shovelfuls set aside to incorporate into hills for the squash.  Tomorrow after music class I’m going to borrow a big TroyBilt from a guy in the class and turn in the leaves, lime, horse manure, and wood ash I’ve spread on the garden since fall.  My folks also gave me a couple buckets full of composted chicken manure for my birthday, and these will end up in there at some point this summer, along with last year’s compost pile.  Once the garden is tilled, I’ll put up a chunk of fence and start the peas, along with kale, chard, and similar hardy stuff.  It’s tempting to bust up more lawn while I’m about it, maybe put in a big potato patch or something.

As the sun was setting I walked down the hill, across the river, and around the Lebanon green, where a strong warm southerly breeze was blowing.  On my way back up the hill the full moon rose over the red bricks and white clapboards of the town.  The river has receded a bit from the torrent of the last few days, but it still thundered through the rapids that once powered Lebanon’s mills.  There’s something remarkably satisfying about these long-term projects, like fiddle, orcharding, cidermaking, and gardening – they have their own slow rhythm, with a modest increment of skill added each season along with new challenges and possibilities for the coming year.  It becomes natural to think of life as a vastly interconnected web of cyclic processes and traditions passing gently through time, with my own life as a small but integral element.  I wonder if the joy I find in this sort of life is a function of the way I grew up, or whether it has more universal appeal that will resurface in a world of energy constraint and economic contraction.

How far can wood fuel take us?

April 19, 2008

There was an interesting discussion around the lunch table at the solar startup where I work the other day, and someone mentioned that if we switched over entirely to wood heat, the nation would be entirely deforested in just a few years. Having grown up in Maine, the most heavily forested of the 50 states, this is a bit hard for me to imagine, so this evening I poked around a bit on the internet to get a sense for the orders of magnitude involved.

To clarify, I don’t view it as realistic for every household to burn splits of stovewood as primary heat – most people won’t be willing to go to the trouble, people generally aren’t home regularly enough, and in towns of even modest size the air pollution would be intolerable. But for a while I’ve been intrigued by the prospect of wood pellets – wood or wood waste that has been extruded into little cylindrical hunks about the size and shape of chicken feed (for those not familiar, about 3/16-1/4″ diameter by 3/8-1/2″ long as best I remember). The result is a fuel that is much cleaner and more convenient than stovewood; pellet stoves have hoppers that take a whole sack of pellets at a time, enough to last a day or more, and an auger mechanism feeds them into a controlled combustion chamber at a controllable rate. The pellets are transported in sacks on pallets. The local garden store sells pallets of pellets for $225/ton, which compares favorably to fossil alternatives with the exception of coal. The pellet industry trade group reports annual production in N. America of 1.1 million tons. Apparently pellets are a common heating fuel in Scandinavia, and you can buy furnaces that run on them in the US. With a bit of technical ingenuity applied to get around the inconvenience of having to grunt sacks of pellets around, it’s possible to imagine them becoming a significant source of residential heat.

So, what about the resource? The US has about 750 million acres of forested land, and the number that I heard back home in Maine for maximum sustainable yield from well-managed forest land is about 0.5 cords per acre per year. This yield is confirmed by a paper I found on forestry in MN, which estimated a maximum sustainable yield of 7M cords per year from 14.8M acres of woodlands. In my home state of Maine, the actual yield recently has been in the neighborhood of 6M cords per year, and though the state has 17.7M acres of forest land, a great deal of it is not actively managed.  Some of that forest is in wilderness areas and places that we wouldn’t want to go sawing into, and some places (like the mountain west) surely have lower productivity due to poor soils and lack of water, but others (like the south and northwest) must have higher productivity, so it’s probably a decent number to work with.    So, we estimate the sustainable production limit at half of 750M or 375M cords per year.  Poking around the internet I found an estimate of annual US timber production at 132M cords per year, so that leaves something like 240M cords of potential resource.  I believe there are about 100M households, meaning at most about 2 cords per household (once you account for wilderness and such).

It just so happens that two cords is nearly the amount that Alexis and I burned, along with about one tank of heating oil (which contains about 20% less energy than the two cords of wood) to heat our small (1200sf, almost zero solar gain) poorly insulated (brick) house here in NH.  Most people live in houses substantially bigger than ours, though many also live in much warmer climates.  It seems safe to say we couldn’t replace all of our residential heating with wood pellets on a sustainable basis.  But at least it’s on the right order of magnitude – and with the construction business in the toilet it’s not hard to imagine a good part of that 132M freeing up until the economy recovers.  All in all, it wouldn’t surprise me to see an upsurge in wood pellet usage as oil and gas costs jump sharply higher.  Anecdotally I hear that the market for stovewood has perked up already as oil prices have spiked.  Good passive solar design is a no-brainer for new construction and remodeling in suitable locations, and we might even see active solar come back, but we are going to have to find some other way to stay warm in the lean times to come.

Pics from fencing

April 12, 2008

Some photos from last weekend, when the electric fence went up.  In other news, another half-dozen or so trees has arrived from Fedco; they’re cooling their heels in my grandparents’ root cellar till we get a chance to stick them in the ground.  We had a big rain last night, but now it’s cleared off and looks to be warmer.  Time to go transplant my tomato seedlings.

Drilling for timber spikes to tie the gateposts together:


Electric Fence Up

April 6, 2008

Alexis was away this weekend for a medical conference, so I took the dogs to Maine to get some work done on the orchard. In two days of hard work, Dave, Emily, and I got the site enclosed with an 8-wire electric fence. We started by sinking the final post at the southeast corner, guying it back to trees, and attaching plastic corner insulators to the posts with wire loops. We then trimmed off the top of one of the gateposts to make it even with the other gate post (trying to cut a 6×6 off square to a line ten feet off the ground on a stepladder using a chainsaw is not the easiest thing in the world), grunted a 6×6 cross timber up to the tops of the posts, and spiked it down using foot-long bridge timber spikes. We braced the cross timber to the posts with 2×6 and mounted insulated eye bolts to the outside of each gatepost. (more…)