Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Assessing The Good Life

July 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cider Weekend 2017: The Fruit Of Our Labor

October 30, 2017

2017 cider corn shellerLast weekend we gathered with friends and family for the thirteenth year running to make cider using bicycle-powered equipment, and for the first time, the majority of the apples came from our orchard – a major milestone in a project that began in 2006, with the first trees planted out in the orchard in the spring of 2008.  It’s been a long time coming, and in the years since the Cider weekend has evolved and grown significantly.

The weather was amazing, sunny and mild, and we had a good crew to help.  In total we pressed 275 gallons on Saturday, with a yield of approximately 69%.  100 gallons went into glass between our root cellar and Holly’s basement, and the balance went into freezers and refrigerators across New England and beyond.  The equipment behaved fairly well, and we also made significant advances in both growing and processing grain.

2017 cider pressing

Friday night we gathered as usual by the cove for a picnic and campfire, then Alexis, Holly, Steven, Eerik, and I worked for a few hours in the barn on last-minute details.  By prior arrangement Eerik brought some linear guide assemblies made from rollerblade parts and T-slot extrusion to significantly improve the action of the dual counterpressure bottle-filling apparatus, and while he was assembling it I improvised a foot-pedal-operated mechanism out of scrap wood.  Previously the filling head assembly was supported on janky linear guides made from copper pipe with wooden bearings, and a hand-operated screw was needed to clamp the head in position so the pressure of the CO2 wouldn’t blow it out of the bottle in a volcano of carbonated cider.  Now the filling heads moved smoothly up and down, and a heavy counterweight reacted the pressure until it was released by stepping on the pedal, and it all worked brilliantly.  We contemplated how it could be further improved by automation driven by bicycle-compressed air; we’ll see if we get anywhere with that next year.

Meanwhile, Holly fit an antique cast-iron corn sheller to the bike-powered stand that also ran the cider press and the high-quality grain mill we added last year.  As usual he did an amazing job of cleaning up and restoring the cast iron, and he fit a crummy aluminum pulley to the shaft by manually matching the square taper of the handle.  The sheller worked amazingly well on the wheelbarrow-load of corn we had previously harvested from the patch of newground by the Upper Cabin.  It has an amazingly clever and hilarious mechanism whereby the spent cob is ejected upward diagonally so that it doesn’t fall into the bin of shelled grain.  The only issue was that kernels went everywhere; we solved that problem by sacrificing a plastic storage bin to confine the flying grain.

With the equipment in good order, we turned in, returning at dawn to get things spun up.  No matter the preparation, it always seems to take a couple of hours to get everything ready to go (and a pause for Kelsey and Beth’s delicious breakfast burritos), but by shortly after nine we were in operation.  As usual, the first stage of the process is washing the apples; we resurrected the pedal-powered, astroturf-lined rotary wash drum from last year, with the addition of a couple of finely-balanced soft-bristle brushes that may or may not have actually made much difference.  The crew sorted apples on the way into the drum washer, composting the bad apples and cutting out bad spots; this attention to detail is probably a big part of why our cider tastes so good.


Tubs of washed apples were hand-carried to the grinder, where two folks pedaled while one more fed apples in, two at a time, and a fourth forced them into the grinding drum with a wooden plunger.  With vigorous pedaling the chains and forks popped off now and then; a more rigid assembly with less wood in the compressive path would probably eliminate these issues, but in any case the freewheels on the driveshaft prevented injury or damage.  I did get the sense that when the process was running smoothly, the grinder did seem to be the bottleneck, indicating that a third pedaler might be in order (or perhaps Eerik will come through with a rowing machine as promised for next year).

2017 apple wash and grind


From the grinder, tubs of fine, soupy pulp were carried or dragged to the other side of the barn, where they were baled into cloth-lined forms, folded into cheeses, and fed into the pedal-hydraulic press.  Holly did buy new press-cloth this year, but it seemed to be too impermeable, leading the stack of cheeses to get squirrelly, to the point where some of the wooden grates suffered damage.  He says it’s the same stuff per the internet fabric site where he ordered it; next year we will need to try some different fabric.  In any case, we reverted to the old cloths, and the press settled down to its work.

2017 cider pressing


All the while, the same hacked Schwinn exercise bike that ran the hydraulic pump was also grinding corn and rye (both grown in the orchard this year) for dinner; it was relatively simple to pulse the valve on the hydraulic pump to get the desired flowrate of cider while pedaling steadily for the grain grinder.  All in all the new multipurpose pedal hydraulic stand we built was a great success.


Increasingly in recent years the overnight crew has been reinforced during the day on Saturday by a surge of day-trippers, including lots of locals, family friends, and this year a delegation from the Rand family. Many hands make light work, and despite a leisurely lunchbreak (complete with Nebraska Cream Can Dinner) and a near record supply of apples, we were done in time for dinner; we hoisted the gear into the loft of the barn, set up tables and benches, and served Holly and Becky’s amazing feast of chili, cornbread, and apple crisp, baked in the barn using a used electric range secured from Craigslist.  We also had a temporary sink with hot running water from a Craigslist hot water heater, and even an improvised outdoor shower so folks could rinse off the sticky apple mist.  Folks with kids retired to various cabins and tents after dinner; others hung out by the fire in the mild evening.

Sunday morning another beautiful day; pancakes, homefries from Stroudwater garden potatoes; more cleanup as well as orchard tours, and playing by/on the cove.  Ela even conspired to get Holly and me to break out our fiddles and play in the sun, a reminder of times when somehow there seemed to be time for music.  Leftover lunch, and goodbyes capped a fantastic year, with great people, great food, and delicious cider.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in, and thanks to Eerik and Terran for the photos in this post. Here’s a link to Eerik’s photos: if you have others in a world-readable place, please put a link in a comment – thanks again!


On Manipulation: a skeptical stance is appropriate in a world formed by evolution

April 13, 2013

If I am climbing a remote snow-filled couloir deep in the mountains, and a rock breaks loose from the cliff above me, it is reasonable for me to believe that the flying piece of stone is indifferent to my presence as it bounces down the slope – it might brain me by pure chance, but it gains nothing by doing so.  I can look at the distribution of similar rocks arrayed on the gentler slope below and verify this randomness.  But the case is potentially very different for the teeming horde of microorganisms, invertebrates, and buzzards that would take great pleasure in eating my remains.  And if I drink straight from the stream below and ingest Giardia lamblia organisms, it is probably not a coincidence that the resulting frequent bathroom breaks will increase the probability that I make a deposit near open water.


There is a fungus in South America that reproduces by infecting an ant and commandeering it’s nervous system, causing it to perform odd behaviors that are not in the normal ant repertoire, but happen to be especially conducive to the propagation of fungal spores.  This sort of relationship has been discovered all over the place – I remember reading about another critter (maybe a fluke) that causes a different species of ant to depart from its customary routine and hang out on the tips of blades of grass, where the ant is likely to be eaten by the sheep whose gut is needed to complete the life cycle of the fluke. These phenomena illustrate the incredible power of evolution – that the chance appearance by mutation of an incidental cause in one species with a marginal effect on another species can be amplified and honed over thousands of generations into the appearance of an ingenious stunt. 

In the time since Darwin laid the keel of biology, we have come to understand that the living world is full of replicators that have survived from ancient times to the present by possessing heritable traits that made them slightly better than anyone else around at levering themselves into the next generation.   There are a lot of strategies for doing the levering, and one particularly effective one is manipulation – why do the hard work of slithering up a blade of grass, when it might be easier to grab the controls of the body of an ant and make it do the work for you?  And this is at least as true of our fellow humans as it is of viruses, fungi, and ants.  One theory of why humans are so darn smart is that we evolved high levels of intelligence not to outsmart other species, but to out-manipulate one another – a sort of evolutionary arms race in the direction of cleverness.

An understanding of the evolutionary benefits of manipulation should lead us to a healthy skepticism, especially about the motives of unfamiliar agents.  I was thinking about this after a recent discussion of belief, skepticism, and the scientific method, and I realized that the relationship between skepticism and evolution is stronger than I had previously understood.  Skepticism is associated with evolution because the discovery of evolution by natural selection is one of the great achievements of the scientific project, and evolution is a major flashpoint in the ongoing turf battle between reason and received tradition.  But more fundamentally, a worldview informed by skepticism is a logical conclusion that flows from an understanding of humans as an evolved species.

As much as the nature-documentary view of evolution involves carnivores running down and chomping herbivores, a lot of the evolutionary action has got to be intra-species, and in social animals there’s a tension between manipulation, aggression, and dominance on one side and cooperation for mutual benefit on the other.  If manipulation were the whole story, we never would have managed to work together enough to build this amazing computer I’m typing on. Theory shows how  pro-social behavior can emerge under suitable conditions, and how it can out-compete ruthlessness.  Altruism towards family members is easy to understand, but under the right conditions it can extend further – particularly where living arrangements allow for repeated interaction, and the critters in question (e.g. us) have sufficient intelligence and memory to sort out and recognize the reliable characters from the shifty ones. But these conditions are fragile and limited in scope, and powerful motivations for betrayal are never far beneath the surface.   Accordingly, manipulation, loyalty, and betrayal are constant preoccupations among people everywhere, and a perennial staple of fiction.

The principles of evolution offer some guidance about when to suspect manipulation most – especially single-shot interactions (for instance buying a used car far from home) and anonymous settings (e.g. emails from ‘friends’ in Nigeria).  But far beyond outright fraud, on average a random person who is trying to make you believe something is far more likely to be doing it for their benefit than for yours. The most obvious example is advertising: the product might be good and it might be shoddy, but the person producing the ad copy probably may not even know – their bonus (and their continued employment) hangs on their ability to get you to open your wallet.

Understanding the incentives that are motivating the people (and other organisms) we interact with is a powerful tool.  If your doctor receives 30% of his income in the form of clandestine ‘gifts’ from drug manufacturers, it is reasonable to expect that this will have an impact on his prescribing behavior – whether he admits it to himself or not, you are unlikely to be the beneficiary of that influence.  But a flight to ‘alternative’ or ‘holistic’ practice is no refuge – indeed the skeptical worldview is frequently under attack by people who would love to convince potential customers that the scientific establishment are fascist storm troopers, so they can sell more herbs or crystals or whatever type of dubious product they have on offer.

Others are skeptical of skepticism for reasons of iconoclasm – ‘it comports with my self-image as an edgy person to claim that all ways of knowing are equally valid’ – or simply aesthetics and wish-fulfillment: ‘true or not, I am happier believing that powerful forces want me to be beautiful and successful.’ (There may even be a strange evolutionary logic to illogic – if I truly believe that warpaint protects me from arrows, I will surely act with more courage, and in a world of less deadly weapons, the added benefit of banishing fear could conceivably more than compensate for the cost of miscalculations about the effects of pigment on projectiles.) Still others condemn the skeptical stance as heartless and austere; that – even if  true – it is too thin and hard a pillow for the average mortal to rest their head on at night, and that ordinary people would be better off believing in comforting fictions.  But this is condescending. People can handle unvarnished reality, and they make better decisions when they understand it.

Evolutionary insight brings the realization that the world is jam-packed with finely-tuned organisms that in no way have your best interests in mind – ranging all the way from viruses to used car salesmen.  This understanding is very different (and potentially a lot less attractive) than conceptions of a stern but loving God – or a fluffy New Age optimism that the universe cares about you and everything happens for a reason – but it has the virtue of being true.The skeptical view is consistent with our best understanding of how the universe works, and it is of a piece with hard-won, durable, practical knowledge of how matter, energy, and living organisms interact. This same body of knowledge amplified our power (and our environmental impact, alas) a hundredfold by harnessing thermodynamics, cured deadly diseases through detailed knowledge and intricate manipulations of  invisible biological machinery, built us microscopes and telescopes that allow us to visualize the stuff of the universe across 20 orders of magnitude, and landed a few lucky dudes temporarily on the moon. And it says that the universe doesn’t care about you, no matter how much you wish it did, and furthermore that many of its living pieces would much rather use you for their own purposes than do you a favor.

Borrelia burgdorferi!

August 18, 2011

Aka Lyme Disease – that’s what was plaguing me this weekend. Alexis suspected as much, with her keen diagnostic sense, but I figured it was just some virus, until this popped up on my side:

So it’s not a virus at all, it’s a tick-transmitted spirochete. That rash is ‘erythema migrans’, and it sealed the diagnosis (it looks even more like a bull’s eye now, since it’s clearing out between the edge and the center), so now I’ve got some doxycycline (100mg, 2x per day, 14 days) and I’m feeling fine except for the big red itchy thing on my side. I was actually already feeling a lot better before the rash even showed up, and apparently that’s the insidious thing about Lyme – if you don’t get the initial symptoms that bad, tough it out, and don’t get or don’t notice the rash, it can go undercover, mess with your joints, and even get across the blood-brain barrier. So, if you have weird virus-like symptoms – for me it was mild headache, dizziness, and fever to start with, then severe sweats and chills, then on about day 3 when I seemed to be coming out of it otherwise, headache much more severe than the usual virus – also weird was no runny nose or cough or any type of respiratory symptoms. But, apparently the presentation can vary widely – beware, and get it treated!