sustainability

A truly shitty post

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Q: What do you do with your pooo? How do you handle your number twooos? Whence do you scoot when your bowels are looose? What do you do with your pooo?

IMG_0137A: Right now we’re using the tried-and-true repurposed containment method, which is to say the latrine here consists of a big white pickle bucket nestled under a purpose-built toilet cabinet. Primitive as that may sound, there’s a bigger picture in mind.

My first project on arrival was to replace the rickety old roof over the latrine’s location along the rear of the cabin. The old one was a couple of lathes with some clear plastic and the ‘chickenwire treatment’ on it (the ‘mossification’ method of choice here). It hung so low it was unavoidable when standing after a visit, which defeated the whole ‘keep dry’ mission of the structure. The dripline it generated was also too close to the latrine structure itself, putting knees at risk and splashing dirt up on the latrine itself.

bin_loadingThe reason I’m keeping the latrine system is because years and years ago I read the good words of Joseph Jenkins in The Humanure Handbook. The truth is despite the best efforts of our digestive system the stuff that comes out of our bums is full of highly valuable nutrients. Of course it’s also full of stuff that makes humans sick so we have to be careful how we unlock those nutrients for reuse.

Jenkins recommends the addition of rotted sawdust to the raw humanure to add an easily-digestible form of cellulose to the mix to recreate in your bin the same conditions one finds in a healthy compost or animal manure pile: a thermophilic reaction that raises the temperatures inside the pile to a level so consistently high that over time almost all of those parasites and intestinal bugs get killed.

Jenkins recommends an annual cycle. Last year’s section in the humanure bin (a two-stall affair) ages, mellows, and digests itself into a fine crumbly brown nutrient that’s perfect fertilizer for indirect nutrient generators like orchard trees or berry bushes. I’d plant berries here by the house but the deer would make short work of them. My eventual nutrient product I’ll likely just add to ferns around the house to make them even more prehistorically enormous than they already are.

There are no openings in the structure along the East wall (outside of which the latrine sits) so intrusive odors are never a problem. I’m going to rebuild the base underneath the latrine structure itself so it’ll hold together over winter. Right now there are a lot of old rotten pallets along the East wall acting as a sort of base for some of the fixtures out there. There’s plenty of lumber in the shed (and mains power for sawing/predrilling) to rebuild it properly. A paint job is in the works too, to make it a little easier to clean.

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Amenities and shortcuts

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The only current built-in amenity at the cabin is a Magic Chef RV stove/oven (with the oven inoperable). Some online investigation has shown me that this specific model of stove/oven often has problems with oven lighting but I haven’t been able to devote the time and resources I need to sussing out the solution. Come winter I’ll wish I had an oven for all manner of warming foods, but come winter I’ll be able to use the wood stove & Aunt Itsy’s skillet (really a dutch oven) in combination to handle a lot of these tasks. Getting the oven operational isn’t near the top of my list. I’ve even considered the wisdom of switching to a cooktop only situation to claw back some shelf space in the kitchen.

I bought a radiant propane shop heater to provide spot heat on the coldest mornings and was the proud recipient of a rechargeable handheld DeWalt shop vacuum for my birthday this year so we’re able to add significant points to the comfort and cleanliness gauges.

The radiant heater has been useful in drying out the floors after my initial bout of hot soap scrubbing, and will be an especially welcome addition for newcomers who might not be used to the chill of a Northwest morning.

The little shop vac allowed me to vacuum surfaces that had never been vacuumed before: floors yes but also walls, joints, concealed surfaces, and all those little nooks & crannies full of two decades-worth of dead spiders and the hair of long-departed tenants. Dust mites, surreptitious mouse turds, sand, and cobwebs all sucked up and neatly containerized. It might be psychosomatic but the house just felt cleaner after a week of daily vacuuming projects.

One major additional benefit of the rechargeable shop vac (and the reason I never let it run all the way down if I can avoid it) is its perfect utility as a collector of ginormous spiders of the sort that wander in from the forest if I leave the place open to the breeze. Having dealt with forest spiders in Virginia during grad school my general rule of thumb is if the spread of its legs is bigger than a quarter it has to go. Too many mornings with spider bites…to many times awakened to feel some bold arachnid scurrying across my face. There’s a chance being sucked out of your web and hurled at high velocity down a tunnel into a hard plastic container will kill the spider but absent this solution there’s a 100% chance the spider dies via a rolled up New York Times magazine or something. The use of vacuum technology as a way to avoid having to get close to them and/or killing them makes me feel a little better…a little less eek-y.

But how do you recharge the battery? you might ask. Every day I come into town to conduct my affairs, usually involving a stop at a favorite coffee shop for an hour or two to get my connected work done (e.g., emails sent, online shopping done, research projects, professional tasks). On arrival while I’m plugging in my laptop I also plug in the cable of whichever recharger(s) I brought with me that day. Sometimes it’s the vacuum. Sometimes it’s the drill. Sometimes it’s the 18650 battery charger that reliably powers so many of my household items (e.g., high-intensity LED flashlights, holiday light strings, a wireless clip fan &c). All but the 18650 batteries charge in less than an hour and two hours of charging those, even if it doesn’t show me the green ‘charged’ lamp before I leave, is going to be sufficient to get me through the night at least.

General thoughts on pending restorations to the ‘Hobbit Hole’ cabin

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QUICK CABIN FACTS: I’ve calculated the enclosed square footage of this cabin as 273’ sq., including the loft and the ‘sun room.’ The construction is rough-hewn post-and-beam with kiln-dried members interspersed. Insulation unknown. Exterior cladding of shakes over marine plywood (of which I am suspicious). Interior floors of smooth-worn marine plywood just begging for me to find some nice, cheap oriental rugs. No indoor water except what you haul. All indoor lighting is either rechargeable or a combination of oil and candle lamps. There is no power at the cabin. Upon occupancy the cabin had not been thoroughly cleaned in years, and certainly never vacuumed since completion.

The improvements I’m set upon are in keeping with the limited scope and scale of this cabin and the ethos of the property as envisioned by the shepherd of this place, my landlord Alban.

  • I want hot and cold running water indoors and at an outdoor shower site formerly located below the cabin deck, on its south face.
  • I want to be able to flood the interior and proximate exterior spaces with light for living, entertaining, and winter sanity-preservation purposes.
  • I want to be able to charge a phone or laptop; maybe even power the odd low-wattage household appliance (e.g., immersion blender).
  • I want to build an two-part enclosure to process the cabin’s humanure (as recommended in Jon Jeavons’ The Humanure Handbook).
  • I intend to repaint the cabin’s outdoor toilet and rebuild its foundation.
  • I want to extend the beach-stone ‘walkway’ up and away from the cabin to provide downhill traction in wet months.
  • I am already collecting & cutting 1” sections of found wood to assemble into a corduroy footpath for some of the boggier spots on the 100m+ walk up to the cabin.
  • If I can locate an inexpensive source of sheet plexiglas or similar clear substance I want to build a small passive solar feature into a south-facing windowsill in the ‘sun room’ to help preserve the exposed window frame and shelter a section of the south wall of that room that shows a certain amount of past infiltration of water.
  • I intend to finish a cut and discarded piece of logwood by installing slabwood shelves, finishing with spar varnish, and securely mounting it to the corner of the deck.

Some of these projects appear pretty low on the list, as things that would be nice if I can get to them before winter. This cabin being the builder’s first, there are some fundamental mistakes that require thoughtful remediation if this is to remain a healthy place to live. Most important is to have spotted the problems. The ability to combine solutions for these with certain of the new projects listed above reflects my thorough, reflective nature and personal mania for efficiency.

The first project –the one I’m in the midst of now– is bringing water to the cabin, deeper analysis of which I will leave for my next post.

‘Organic Island’ redux: Bhutan takes steps toward becoming the world’s first ‘organic country’; ten year timeline proposed

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So the notion of taking a whole nation organic isn’t so loopy (or original) after all. In Bhutan, political and social leaders are coalescing around a plan to ban a whole slew of agricultural and industrial chemical poisons and promote sustainable, organic methods in their agricultural sector. It runs counter to the ‘what’s good for business is good for [insert nation here]’ thinking that so frequently prevails but this decision represents not some atavistic neo-Luddite groundswell that’s predestined to fail but a fantastic opportunity for innovation and development that employs and educates vast populations in its achievement and maintenance.

Bhutan, by flickr user Christopher Michel. Used by cc: license. All rights revert to originator.
Bhutan, by flickr user Christopher Michel. Used by cc: license. All rights revert to originator.

Organic agriculture relies on the maxim “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” The organic farmer learns more, thinks more, and works harder to produce the same pound of cocoa or tomatoes or sugar cane as his/her conventional compatriots. Organic farmers accept a self-imposed standard of excellence that functionally eliminates 80% of the problem-solving shortcuts available to conventional farmers: the ‘spray-and-forget’ solutions that never ask how the shortcut was manufactured or where it goes after it kills whatever needed killing. National acceptance of the organic farmer’s mindful ways is the opposite of atavistic. It is an evolution: a step forward that equally and unreservedly reveres their shared past, present, and future.

In a nation with so ancient a Buddhist & Hindu tradition maybe the idea of everyone working together to improve everyone’s situation isn’t so alien or unlikely-seeming. I think perhaps that’s why I could see Grenada going the same way. I saw so much real agape on the island I can’t help but believe the political will exists to undertake the same level of national self-improvement & -empowerment. Every human rationale and potential benefit that accrues around this call to action applies to Grenada as well. Someone has to show the world what ‘possible’ means.

New York Times analysis of estuarine development at the mouth of the Elwha

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In the early days before the removal of the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams that returned the Elwha River to its free-flowing state, most talk was focused on the return of salmon to a once-prodigious Native fishery. Some raised valid concerns about the post-removal turbidity as decades of sedimentary buildup behind the dams washed down to the sea: making the river water too cloudy for hatchery fish to survive in outbound migration much less the return spawning trip from the sea.

Eventually — in a decade or more, Dr. Warrick said — all of the sediment that had accumulated behind the dams will be gone. Then, the researchers predict, the river will revert to its pre-dam pattern, moving about 300,000 cubic yards of sediment downstream each year to the beaches.

Though the geology of California differs from that of the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Warrick said, this project demonstrates that dam removal may remedy beach erosion in both regions.

The idea is popular among some environmental lawyers and legal scholars who have long argued that beaches have “sand rights” — a right to sand that would naturally flow to them if people and their infrastructure had not gotten in the way. Advocates of sand rights say anyone who interferes with the flow of sediment to and along the shoreline should be required to mitigate the effects.

Once the water levels had gone down behind these dams the amount of sedimentary infill in these impoundment lakes was fully revealed. The entire contour of the valleys where the lakes had been had slowly filled up with sand, silt, and gravel. Deprived of their source of natural replenishment beaches and wetlands downstream had become anemic, requiring bolstering with rip-rap or other artificial means (as the law of unintended consequences rears its head). Reconnected with a century of undelivered sediment, the beaches at the mouth of the Elwha and nearby along the Strait of Juan de Fuca are rebounding at a reassuring rate as the turbidity of the Elwha’s waters continues to improve.

Read the full New York Times article from July 15, 2015 here.

Organic Island

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When we moved to Grenada in 2008 it didn’t take long to discern that the best produce was sold by roadside vendors. Our first week in our house we met Miss Annette at her stand on the Mont Toute Road. Gardeners ourselves, we found lots of common ground. She was never a voluble conversationalist, but engage her about her farming business and she would tell you everything there was to know. It was this way we came to understand how certain Grenadians make a living, but also to realize that for the most part the produce sold in roadside stands was grown organically.

The most evident reason for this is economic: pesticides/fungicides and chemical fertilizers are expensive. In the absence of modern industrial solutions to ancient agricultural problems however, Grenadian gardeners and truck farmers relied on tried-and-true pre-industrial methods to keep pests at bay or maintain the health and productivity of their soil.

Agriculture is everywhere on a small island, even at the bus stop by Grand Anse.

Yard fowl proliferate throughout the island, making a useful living for themselves on the fat bugs attracted by a yard full of delicious food while fertilizing & aerating soil as they go. Early-morning drivers often pass the gardener in his/her plot, taking advantage of the coolest hours to lend credence to the old saying “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” Manic pot-hounds or cunning scarecrows deter opportunistic avian thieves. The farmer could simply spray chemicals all over his/her garden and go inside to watch TV for the rest of the day, but to the Grenadian farmer such ideas are as alien and inconceivable as the endless flat fields of the American prairie.

As accidental as organic Grenadian produce may now seem, certain Grenadian agriculturalists pursue these methods the same way avowed organic farmers do: as a living homage to an ideal. Among the lane’s-end backwoods camps of Grenadian Rastas organic agriculture is practiced in accordance with and observance of a universal ideal.

In Rastafari : from Outcasts to Culture Bearers, Ennis Edmonds observed that according to Rastas “the entire universe is organically related and that the key to health, both physical and social, is to live in accordance with organic principles” (60). One need not rely on academic sources however to realize that Rasta culture urgently identifies and stresses the unity of mankind and the Earth. Popular attention is focused on Rasta rejection of material ways and cannabis consumption, but viewed as an ethic instead of a cultural oddity Rasta reveals itself to be as powerful a motivator for organic methods as the mission statements of any number of international organic colloquia.

Organic agriculture wholeheartedly accepts the notion that obsessive fixation on maximizing productivity and profit shortsightedly –perhaps even lazily– engages the job of farming. Like Rastas, organic farmers hold ever in mind The Bigger Picture: that everything we do happens within a closed system of responsibility. The science-driven organic farmer acknowledges the interrelatedness of environmental and biological systems and seeks to preserve them in their original balance by either by mindful, principled action or judicious non-intervention. The Rasta farmer seeks to align his every action with the principles of his religion, and so is prevented from using what he rightly perceives as poisons on an Earth he sees as the very tableau through which he lives an observant life of spiritual communion.

To my knowledge there is no formal alliance between Rasta agriculturalists and the organic farming movement, but there should be. To show the Rastas that they are already part of and welcome in a well-known and internationally respected community of agriculturalists, to bring new ideas about organic methods to their farms, to witness and document the methods they have developed to deal with the unique problems inherent in tropical agriculture…it is to facilitate the one-ness of man & Earth.

Cocoa pods merrily growing. Photo by flickr user Karunakar Rayker, appearing here under Creative Commons license

For that matter, there is no reason this message couldn’t resound among all Grenadian farmers & gardeners, close as their methods often already place them to even the strictest international organic principles. For most, it might require a few simple adjustments (e.g., removal of pressure treated lumber in/around the garden, filtration of greywater used for agricultural purposes) and then they get a bright ‘ORGANIC FARMER’ certificate to hang on their roadside stand or market stall.

The benefits of a certificate program are obvious. First, Grenadian and international customers alike can buy with confidence from a vendor displaying internationally-recognized symbols of quality. Second, it creates a gossamer layer of useful bureaucracy to gather and administer information about Grenadian agriculture. Third and finally, this information could lead to the creation of the world’s first ‘organic island’, taking cues from the ‘greening’ efforts of other nations in the developing world like the ‘Green Gabon‘ program or the now-legendary economic success of Costa Rica in ecotourism.

The ‘organic island’ –announced proudly to the world– is one of the few positive statements a country can make that can instantly attract the attention of the world’s press and the solidarity of every progressive individual who receives the message. No-one is offended. No vital agricultural sector is regulated out of existence. All you are really saying is that, as a nation, you are committed to the nourishment of all mankind. The goodwill and attention generated by such a move can only positively redound in the tourism industry: the cash engine of the Grenadian economy.

On this point everyone can agree. The truck farmer is given means to burnish his/her professional reputation and gain access to tried-and-true organic methods from gardeners the world over. The Rasta farmer finds the same opportunities, but more importantly the reassurance of witnessing the propagation of an ethic of supreme importance to him. Even the larger-scale sugar cane operations –most likely to have the capital to use non-organic methods– benefit from their transformation into a premium product: one that continues to satisfy local demand but sells at higher prices in the world market. It bears mentioning that other products made with organic cane (e.g., rum) can also transform into and market themselves as premium organic vendors. Given how few changes most Grenadian farms would require to fully adopt organic standards, there is no reason the average consumer would see prices at the markets increase. Ultimately, 90% of the plan is informational: talking to local producers, lining up their support, then shouting the news to the world.

“Ever conscious of God we aspire, build and advance as one people.” To me, no readily-accessible goal lives up to this motto like the ‘organic island.’

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:7-10

Ever conscious of God, we honor him by preserving and supporting His creation. My question –my proposal– is this: can Grenada aspire to and build a national treasury of public health and international goodwill? Does Grenada believe –as the Rastas and organic farmers do– that to mindfully adhere to a principle that benefits all mankind is to advance…to proclaim that Grenadians are one with all the peoples of the Earth?

The Grenada Chocolate Co. LTD – Solar-powered, owner-operated, organic chocolate: from cocoa pod to bar. Inside this building one man’s ‘crazy dream’ became the island’s premier gourmet export. It can be done! Note the solar oven and prodigious photovoltaic capacity in the front yard. Photo: 2008.

Some commentary about the universality of certain experiences…and Darth Vader

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Looks like that row south of Grenville to me. Photo by flickr user Canterbury. Used by Creative Commons License. All rights revert to originator.

From a social media posting:

“I was a punk rock guy in my teens. The local punk rock house was rented by one of our better local bands, the guitarist of which later ‘grew up’ and became a professional chef in a really neat, innovative restaurant (before killing himself with heroin). The things he could make out of last night’s rice and today’s beans…I learned a lot about cooking on the large and cheap from him.

“It’s funny to me, but when I moved to the island of Grenada I noticed immediately these punk rock cook-ins came about the same way the locals would organize a cookout. Whatever you had to offer –be it your share of fish from this morning’s net or a hand of plantain from your yard or a big dasheen root from the market– would all be brought and all go into a big pot over a fire. Sometimes that pot would yield oildown, sometimes fish waters, sometimes something else. Every time though a group would form when the head chef/host judged the pot ready. The fisherman and farmer who provided so much to the pot get their fill, but the wives and children and neighbors with empty bellies who happen by all eat too. There is no such thing as leftover oildown. It just impressed me that this communal way of eating –one that acknowledges our common humanity and our original cooperative social modality– seems to spontaneously arise in certain communities, even at great geographical and sociological distance. It is as if sharing and the concept of ‘enough’ are actually coded somewhere in our DNA, like the last shred of The Force that resided in and ultimately redeemed Darth Vader.”