Archive for the ‘history’ Category

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?

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!



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.

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.

2016 pruning, remembering Poppy

March 12, 2016

Today was the day for the annual spring pruning, and it was a great occasion to remember my grandfather, who died peacefully earlier this week at the age of 95.  William F. Herman (‘Bill’ around town, ‘Poppy’ in the family) was a big part of my life as a kid, and his love of growing things inspired me to plant the orchard when we moved back east over 10 years ago.

Pops and my grandmother, ‘Ummy’ grew up and lived their professional lives in eastern Massachusetts, but spent a lot of time in Maine – her father was an avid rod-and-gun sportsman. In the sixties they bought a slice of land on a remote island in the midcoast, two miles beyond the end of the electric power lines near the village of Five Islands.  When my parents decided to settle down after some years of teaching mountain-climbing in the mountains out west, Um and Pops invited them to homestead on the land in Five Islands, and I grew up off the grid, surrounded by the natural wonders of the Maine coast.

In 1983, Pops retired from a 25-year career at Polaroid, and my grandparents joined us in Maine.  By then electricity had come to the North End, and my father built them a passive solar home.  Though rocky and overgrown, the land had been a farm until early in the 20th century, with stone walls, foundation holes, and odd bits of pottery and rusted iron in evidence. Over the years the family cleared land and planted gardens, berries, and apple trees, and some of my earliest memories of my grandfather relate to agriculture.  He kept a very neat vegetable garden, which he would weed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt (he’d shower and put on a jacket and tie for dinner every night until he was far along in years). He grew masses of vegetables – great sweet corn, bowls and bowls of shell peas, and so many cucumbers and tomatoes that he put a wooden box at the end of the driveway and wrote ‘Help Yourself’, to the joy of the neighbors.

The garden was surrounded by semi-dwarf apples – Cortland, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Red Delicious, and he showed me how to prune the trees.  There was also a big wild tree behind their house that was saved in the construction, and it gave great green apples that were my favorite kind when I was a kid. In the fall we would collect the fruit in bags, and Poppy, Ummy, Joanna, and I would press them using a hand-crank cast iron press that had belonged to my great grandfather – the same press that Alexis, Holly, Becky, and I used back in Cider Year 1.  I think he tried to ferment some a couple times, but it was a casual attempt in a plastic milk jug and I don’t remember anyone thinking it tasted good.

In all the years of living and romping around as a kid, I can’t remember Poppy ever raising his voice.  He became a respected character around town, serving as selectman and sometimes as moderator at the old-fashioned town meeting. An engineer by training, he loved to keep careful records – of the amount of firewood he burned each month of each winter down to the tenth of a cord, of the number of quarts of blueberries his waterfront bushes produced, and of gallons of maple sap we collected each spring.  He taught himself to play ragtime piano by ear, and made some pretty nice oil paintings in an engineer’s realistic style – I think he said Norman Rockwell was his favorite artist.

If I drank another pint of this 2014 cider I could probably go on all night, remembering Poppy teaching me how to build kites and drive a tractor, and ‘messing about in boats’, fishing for mackerel in the Sheepscot river out of a 13′ Boston Whaler – he loved the water though he famously would never swim no matter how hot the summer. As the years went by, Poppy’s world gradually compressed; the boat trips shorter and the garden smaller and weedier, but he stubbornly kept at it. I remember a couple years ago when I was working in the orchard, I looked back toward the house and saw him at the edge of the field, using his old-fashioned scythe instead of a cane – he’d take a couple of swipes at the overgrown brush, then lean on the tool to catch his breath.

As Poppy slowed down my parents increasingly picked up the slack, mulching and pruning the berries, planting the corn, and splitting the firewood. And in 2006 I asked him if I could clear some land off to the the south to start a new orchard for cider apples, and he was happy to let me get started. For as long as he could walk, he’d totter up the woods road to the orchard gate to see what I was up to, and we’d talk about trees and plans.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the opportunity to grow up in a unique and beautiful part of the world, and for the sense that tending and caring for the land is a project that can last more than a lifetime, and build connections across generations.



19th century clean energy technology in Maine

November 10, 2013

As some readers know, we are fortunate to inhabit a beautiful spot on a small river in southern Maine, which was long ago the site of a water-powered mill.  One of the enigmatic relics of the ruined works was a 3″ diameter steel shaft sticking out of the muck in the riverbed, with a Lovejoy coupling on the upper end the size of a dinner plate.  Soon after we arrived, we made a preliminary effort to unbury it one spring afternoon, but if I remember it was hot and buggy, and we ran out of steam after digging down and finding the runner pinned under some chunks of broken metal.

runner in hole

18 months intervened, and I had basically given up the thought of finishing the job before winter, but Saturday dawned pleasant for working, so I took some buckets, a shovel, and a digging bar down to the site and was soon hip-deep in a mucky hole.  By a combination of bailing, digging, and pitching out rocks, I was soon able to get back to where we had previously stopped, and was able to rock the runner. With a bit more excavation I could see what I was up against – about half the circumference was trapped under a semi-circular cast iron ring, which had clearly been some sort of inflow nozzle that directed the flow downward onto the axial-flow runner.  The cast iron parts were not going to move, since they were bolted down to some structure buried even deeper in the mud, but I was pretty sure if I could pull the one main chunk off (to the right in the photo above), I could lift the runner clear.

At this point I was pretty confident of victory, so I texted Tony and invited him to join the fun.  Together we toted our light oxy-acetylene cutting rig down into the riverbed, and without too much effort we were able to burn off 3 nuts (or bolt heads; hard to tell with that much rust):

torching off nutsfire in the hole

The old metal was wet and covered with mud, so the cutting was pretty mangy, but I got them burned off and then knocked the slag away with the digging bar.  I lifted off the iron chunk, and then we had a pretty good view of the runner.  it appeared to be about 3′ in diameter, with 10 graceful sweeping vanes.

The runner was free, but it was way too heavy to lift.  However, we were fortunate to have two good-sized forked trees in line with it on either side; an ash on the manmade island between the main watercourse and the ruined spillway, and a pine on the high ground,directly beyond a steep  cliff that rose about 15′ above the riverbed.  We rigged a chain in the ash, a snatch block on the runner, and a second snatch block in the pine, and used our trusty orange worm-drive hand winch to take up the strain, with the red Ford as an anchor.  Once we levered it clear of the remaining bits of metal in the hole, it rose smartly thanks to Tony’s efforts on the winch:

starting to rise

coming out of the hole2013-11-09 14.51.14

We were about out of winch by the time the runner was clear of the hole, so I guided it over onto the riverbed and Tony set it down.  We lowered the attachment sling to just above the balance point, re-rigged to pull directly with the truck, and tied on a rope-a-long that was hitched to the south shore.  Then with the truck we quickly raised it until it was even with the cliff edge above:

runner suspended

We then winched it south with the rope-a-long while gently lowering it with the truck, to arrive at its new resting place on high ground:

closeup of runner up top

All in all a fun project, and a neat piece of Maine renewable energy history – I’m curious now to learn more about the mill that was at this site, and more generally about this type of small water mill.  My first impression is that this runner seems much bigger than appropriate for the flow of the river (which can be judged from the photo above, which shows the outlet of the millpond, roughly at the location of the ruined dam) – at least during typical summer and early fall flows.  Of course there are times in November and early spring when the entire valley fills with a raging torrent (see canoeing pictures from earlier this year) but I wouldn’t think you would build a larger-than-needed mill just to run on those few days or weeks of the year.  Maybe the process (sawing wood or what-have-you) had a relatively low duty cycle, and they’d let the millpond fill up between cuts, then open the floodgates to get more power when they needed it.

Pika Energy: Home wind and solar power

April 17, 2012

Posting has been light and progress limited, but there’s a good reason: my colleagues and I have launched a startup, Pika Energy, to develop affordable, high-performance home wind power systems. When I was a kid growing up in Five Islands, we lived off the grid, since the power company hadn’t yet brought lines out the North End Road, so naturally I was fascinated by electricity. On a cross-country trip to California I saw tons of water-pumping windmills, and when I got home I started experimenting with wind turbines to make DC power. Here are some pictures of a turbine I built and mounted on the roof of our barn:


If 2008:1929::2011:1937,

August 5, 2011

Does that mean that time moves 267% faster now? Apple trees still grow at the same speed. I’m going to try to sneak up to 5isl this evening and bud graft the peaches…