Archive for August, 2010

Minimalism in its place

August 23, 2010

I learn from the ridiculously snarky Eben Weiss that trendy people are now into minimalism. I suppose this should be encouraged. An expanding global population (that’s us) is starting to feel the thin leading edge of resource scarcity, and it would be fortunate if a cultural movement emerged that encouraged people in the developed west to be satisfied with less physical stuff. But trendy minimalism seems to devolve quickly into self-congratulation edging towards self-help hucksterism. In addition to claimed ecological and spiritual benefits, there seems to be a sizable freedom-and-independence streak running through modern minimalism, and in that vein, I propose that trendy urban minimalism actually stands to make a practitioner less independent and more of a consumer than he might otherwise be.

Cycling is a classic focal point for minimalism. But anybody who does real bike commuting knows that keeping your gear in good working order requires maintenance, and maintenance requires tools. Though not a really serious rider, I have accumulated a small toolbox of skinny wrenches, splined freewheel removers, and other assorted bike-specific equipment. It sounds good on paper to winnow down your possessions to some impressively small number, but in doing so, you may be tempted to ditch those cone wrenches – which is fine until you need to adjust your bearings. Then you’ll have to go pay green money to someone at a bike shop to do it, or limp around thrashing out your hubs until you manage to hook up with a friend who does have a set of tools and borrow some. I’m not arguing that everyone with a bike should have a room full of bike tools, or against borrowing per se, but it’s only polite to have some gear of your own with which to reciprocate. Otherwise you’re just a freeloader – like those people who don’t vaccinate their kids because of the vanishingly small risk of complications. Until recently the kids would probably be fine, because of all the other parents who dutifully vaccinated their kids. But then the trend got too trendy.

But I digress. The point was tools – good tools are a key to thrift and functional independence. I have for instance previously argued that even for apartment dwellers with street parking, it can be faster and cheaper to change your own oil – if you have tools. Advocates advocate minimalism as an antidote to consumerism. I think minimalism has a valuable place, but with the right tools you can get beyond the one-dimensional scale of consuming more or less, and become a transformer, a producer. This instinct to get beyond consumption and directly produce the basic physical stuff of our sustenance is the driving force behind the orchard project, and most of the other stuff I do. While I’ve argued that the maker revolution is oversold, I think there’s a bright future for clever people engaging in low-input production responsive to evolving local needs. But it’s hard to get very far if all you’ve got is a web browser. Beyond the very basics of cooking (pots, pans, pantry inventory) and mending (needles, thread, sewing machine, scrap box) that until recently would have been recognized universally as basic home economics, one obvious place for folks to start (assuming they have access to even a small piece of dirt) is gardening. But to garden successfully you need a handful of tools, and more importantly you need to invest time and effort in building up the soil and learning the specific nature of the place. When you invest in soil, when you plant rhubarb or asparagus or apple trees, you tie a part of yourself down to that place, and this is antithetical to the freewheeling live-out-of-a-macbook minimalism that’s being advertised.

I suppose that there is a tiny set of people who blog or code for a living and spend all their time online, and maybe its theoretically possible for them to live out of a backpack, couch surfing. But for a professional blogger to advocate that his audience pare away their physical life and go digital is like a junior high gym teacher advising all his students to become professional athletes. Couch surfing is not a sustainable way of life, at least among the people I know. And the last time I checked, the online universe was powered by ads, which often as not are advertising, um, stuff.

Afterthought – Japan is a decade or two ahead of us on the minimalism front, but their term for it lacks the rugged individualist vibe: grass eating men

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Human Microclimates

August 13, 2010

Gardeners, especially gardeners living in challenging climates, are familiar with the concept of microclimates – small areas that by virtue of their aspect, soil type, proximity to water, or other geographic feature offer growing conditions significantly different from the prevailing climate of the surrounding area. I think a similar phenomenon might be more important than we realize in providing conditions for humans to thrive as well.

I start from the notion that one’s geographic location is a dominant factor in quality of life. For instance, of the people I went to college with, the vast majority either stayed around Cambridge, or moved to the SF bay area. It becomes a sort of mental rule of thumb – Boston and SF must be the places where technologists and nerd hippies can thrive, to the near exclusion of other options. There are small islands of possibility around Madison, Ann Arbor, and Boulder, and a couple of modest outposts in the Northwest, but at least anecdotally an overwhelming fraction of the people I know have gravitated to one of the two poles. But a large city can’t be homogeneous enough to be a real predictor of happiness, which like healthy organic produce is bound to derive from a more specific match between the organism and its immediate surrounding ecosystem. I propose that much of what really dictates quality of life is sufficiently ecologically specific and geographically concise as could aptly be called human microclimate.

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Midsummer orchard progress

August 7, 2010

One full day on the North End. It’s getting time to mow the fields, but when last I was there, the old Kubota was out of commission with some issue in the ignition, and the small walk-behind bush hog was refusing to start, seemingly due to an over-sensitive tilt sensor. In the intervening time, Jake got the tractor running, so I focused on the walk-behind mower. It had gotten progressively more and more sensitive to slope, to the point where it would only work on dead-flat ground, and then finally not at all. The manual was silent on the presence of a separate tilt shutoff sensor, considering the engine a single part. I had a theory that the low oil sensor might double as the tilt shutoff, so first I disconnected it (no luck), then grounded it (in case it was active-high). Neither had any effect, so I dug a little deeper; removed the spark plug and held it against the frame; no spark. I removed the plastic cover between the head and the gas tank, where the throttle and the stop switch reside, and found a nondescript metal module about the size of an ice cube. It was wired to the ‘on’ side of the stop switch, while the other side was wired to ground. The common terminal of the stop switch disappeared inside the housing around the recoil start; presumably the stop switch functioned by shorting the magneto. So I pulled the spade terminal connecting the stop switch to the mystery module, and lo and behold, spark! So I left it disconnected, taped it up out of the way, and reassembled. The mower fired on the first pull.

I wanted to mow in the orchard, but the grass was still wet from a light shower the night before, so I switched gears, and spent a couple hours on dry stonework where the pond outlet runs under the orchard road in a culvert. The crazy rain of a few weeks back had sent a torrent through the culvert, threatening to erode the field below, so I laid the first couple courses of a stone wall to bear the brunt of the outfall where it takes a sharp jog to the south. It was not the best job ever done, as my dry stone skills are strictly beginner level, and the stones that came out of the field were mostly roundish glacial stuff. But I think it will be sound enough to hold, and in any case it’s better than it was before:

The freshly planted field below was remarkably unharmed by the flood, probably because it’s not too sloped, and also I had left a couple of feet of heavy sod between the cultivated region and the drainage. One interesting note was that in cultivating the field we turned up a rusty 12″ smooth harrow disk, the sort that would likely have been used on a horse-drawn implement a hundred years ago. We had known that virtually all of the island was cleared of trees by that time, but most of the rocky land would presumably have been in pasture. This was a pretty solid indication that somebody was tilling that very spot before my grandfather was born – the relatively flat south-facing slope with better-than-average soil would have been considered prime farmland in the years before they discovered Iowa. These days I seem to repair at least one piece of aging farm equipment every time I do some work on the orchard, and I feel a distant sort of kinship to the farmer who must have stood in that very field cursing his broken implement – only they didn’t have ebay and craigslist to go looking for replacement parts.

That’s a closer view of the cover crop I planted. In the foreground is Tartary Buckwheat, in the middle is the Japanese Buckwheat. The seeding rate was the same, so it appears that the Japanese Buckwheat is better suited to the conditions we have. In the background and to the right I planted Fedco pasture mix, which is actually putting up a fine stand, as can be seen in the previous picture, it’s just not nearly as fast as the buckwheat – so the reputation of buckwheat for making a rapid cover is not overstated. I’m going to let it flower, and at that point the usual move would be to mow and incorporate it; I don’t even know how to hand harvest buckwheat, so that’s probably the right move to make. Then, if the clover looks good I’ll just go with that, or if it looks sparse I’ll overseed it with rye for the winter.

By the time I was out of rocks, the grass was dry, so I mowed around the trees in the orchard – not the whole orchard, just strips for each row. I’m going to let the grass grow up a bit higher in the center rows; maybe it will make enough to be worth raking and composting. Really we need something with a sickle-bar on it, as the rotary mowers leave the cuttings in a sorry state. The trees are for the most part looking good, and there were apples on the Roxbury Russet and one on the Yarlington Mill:

I also weeded around the new trees, and checked the grafted apples that I made at the MOFGA class this spring. They’re all still going strong, and the whip-and-tongue grafts look really cool as they heal, like a Harry Potter lightning bolt scar:

I really like grafting, for a bunch of reasons – it’s a craft that seems magical and difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy; the tools of the trade are dirt simple and can be carried in the pants pockets, it involves reuse of materials (trimmings from pruning) that would otherwise be considered waste, and it allows for a dramatic economization relative to buying regular orchard stock. At the end of the day, once the sun was behind the trees I tried my hand at a different kind of grafting, bud grafting, which is done mid-summer. A t-shaped slit is cut in the bark of a rootstock (in this case seedling plums) which we interplanted between the apple trees this spring, and a live leaf with next summer’s bud is cut from fresh growth on a donor tree (in this case peaches, closely-enough related to plums), slipped into the t-shaped slit between the bark and the wood of the rootstock, and taped up. The leaf is trimmed off, and the bud lies dormant over the winter, grows into the bark of the tree, and then comes alive in the spring, whereupon the rootstock above the bud graft is pruned off, and all the energy of the root is channeled into the rapid growth of the bud. Most of the rootstocks I planted were less than a quarter inch and the bark didn’t seem to separate very well, so I only ended up grafting three larger ones – two to Reliance, one to Garnet Beauty, from trees we already had growing on the orchard. The two smaller ones I had tried I taped back up to try again next year. I had it in mind to try budding pie cherries to the wild cherry seedlings that keep popping up in the stone wall on the east side, but I didn’t get to it in time – will try this next visit. Looking at the results I was skeptical that it could possibly work, but I felt the same about the whip-and-tongue grafting, so we’ll see come next spring.

My cup runneth over

August 4, 2010

Up at J&K’s doing some R&D work today, they weren’t here but told me to raid the garden, and I hope they don’t regret it, cuz so help me I did. So much was ripe though that I don’t think I made a dent in it – check this out

I picked zucchini, summer squash, green beens, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, basil, and a couple small but nice ears of corn. The potatoes were looking pretty tired so for an experiment I excavated into a corner of one hill; I think they’re just done for the year, since the three red ones I took for dinner were healthy-looking and respectable size. I baked the potatoes (well, in the microwave), briefly boiled the corn, and did up a mess of the vegetables in a frying pan with chopped up tomatoes and basil. Everything was transcendently delightful – the fresh potatoes unusually creamy, the corn sweet and tender, and the veggies full of flavor. I stuffed myself to the gills, and with the exception of a splash of olive oil, every single calorie came from the garden.

It gets better – around sundown I took the dogs to the north side for a walk, and brought a couple of pails. In about an hour I picked at least two quarts of wild blackberries, and on returning to the house froze about a quart of them on a cookie sheet in return for the vegetables. Then I ate about a pint of them for dessert, along with some ice cream I pilfered from the freezer – ridiculously delicious.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

What we do does matter

August 3, 2010

A colleague at a renewables company once related the following story. He had successfully exited a high-tech defense startup company, and went to talk to a venture capitalist he knew about getting some funding to start another, similar company. The investor looked at him, scrunched up his eyebrows a bit (I’m making that part up), and replied, “Go watch Al Gore’s movie. Then come back and talk to me.” That admonishment, combined with the then-burgeoning cleantech investment bubble, was enough to get him into renewable energy, where I met him.

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Interesting data on energy, food, and meat

August 2, 2010

On a whim I borrowed In Defense of Food from Kelsey last time I was up in Maine; I’d read Second Nature and one or two other of Pollan’s books but not that one. I liked Kelsey’s verdict – ‘It’s good – a Michael Pollan book that’s not too long.’ The proposition: formulating increasingly processed “food” products in accordance with an ever-changing list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nutrients has at once enriched agribusiness interests, spoiled our food culture, and ruined our health. The prescription: Eat Food (as opposed to food-like processed products), Not Too Much (employ/enjoy time-honored cultural practices to avoid routine gorging), Mostly Plants (eating a lot of meat is bad for you – and for the planet).

On that last subject, I was interested to read an interesting account on the blog of Cambridge prof David MacKay, whose online book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air is a refreshingly clear and straightforward assessment of what a transition to renewable resources might look like. He pointed to an industry study that estimated the energy in the typical UK diet, and presented the data in a pretty striking way. Here’s the energy in a week’s food, compared to the energy needed to produce and distribute it:

The energy (mostly fossil fuel, presumably) that it takes to produce, process, package, and deliver the average UK resident’s food is fully 5 times the actual biological energy content of the food. The primary culprit – you guessed it, meat, with dairy a distant second:

This is all pretty much in line with what I proposed here – one of the most powerful (and perhaps least painless, compared to giving up climate control, extensive driving, or air travel) ways to do the planet some good is to become a vegetarian.