Saturday, December 26, 2015

Old Stuff

Like most everyone else, for most of my life I've been sold (and wholeheartedly bought) the idea that newer is better. Most of us still believe that the march of technology is generally a good thing. Sometimes, this idea is based on fact, and sometimes it's not. More often than not, this view is based on ignorance of older technologies, and is almost always supported by a willful ignorance of costs, or a disconnect that makes them difficult to quantify.  I suspect much of the "progress" we've made in recent years is driven more by the profit margin associated with newer goods than anything else.

One great example is that of the traditional straight-edge razor, contrasted with the modern disposable or electric. I've been using a straight-edge for a decade now, and expect that it will most likely last the rest of my life. I've found that I rarely cut myself with it, certainly far less than I ever did with a "safety" razor. Yes, it requires occasional stropping (taking perhaps a minute every other month) and sharpening (about 5 minutes every 6 months), but that's a heck of a lot cheaper than buying a new razor every month and then tossing is in the garbage. Unlike multi-blade safety razors, the blade is *incapable* of plugging, which is a big plus when shaving near a beard or when shaving off some multi-day stubble. Unlike electric razors, they actually work as advertised!

Standing in an antique shop once, I overheard a teenage boy looking at a straight edge razor in the display case, and asking his dad about them.  "Looks like a good way to cut yourself to pieces!" was the response. He'd obviously never used one. I decided to bite my tongue, and didn't enlighten them.

Bit brace
Yet another discovery is that of the old fashioned bit-brace. Folks that use the modern equivalent on a regular basis, the cordless electric drill, find that they have to replace them annually. The last one we used (one of the "good" brands) had a battery go bad within the first month, and the charger went belly up a couple months after that. When they're not broken, I find that their batteries are invariably uncharged or have lost their ability to hold a charge, whereas the bit brace's battery is always fully charged and hasn't failed me yet. You can also get new attachments for them which will hold any of the bits for driving screws.
Yankee push drill/screwdriver

For smaller jobs, either drilling or driving screws, the yankee push-drill makes an excellent companion to the bit brace, with all the same benefits.

American Scythe
The scythe is another excellent tool that was buried too soon by a public that's forever infatuated with anything motorized. I remember the first time I saw one in use by a groundskeeping crew at a zoo somewhere in Germany. It was fascinating to watch them mow around trees and fences, and the crew certainly didn't choose it because they were masochists. They chose it because it was the best tool for the job. Aside from the fact that they either give you cancer (2 cycle engine exhaust is nasty stuff!) and stink, or have an annoying cord to drag around, weed-eaters simply don't work all that well. A well sharpened scythe can run circles around them, and is far cheaper to purchase and operate as well as being far more pleasant. Yes, they need sharpening, but you'll spend less time with that than you will monkeying with the weed-whacker's string-feeder, cursing the motor for not starting, or wishing you'd been careful enough to not spill the gasoline all over your shoes when filling it.
European Scythes

American style scythes tend to be heavier than their lightweight European counterparts, and are often discounted by homesteaders as a result. They are, however, much more durable. I like to use mine for clearing heavier brush (it can cut small trees up to an inch in diameter), but prefer the European model for mowing grass or trimming around the yard.

Direct usefulness isn't the only measure we should be looking at when deciding what to use for any particular task, however. Everything has a cost well beyond what we paid for it at the store.

With a disposable razor, it's the extraction of petroleum for a plastic handle, burning coal to smelt the iron for the blades, and a greatly increased transport cost (both to the store and to the landfill) due to the large number of units required throughout a lifetime. Though the units required for the electric are fewer, the impact of each is much greater, particularly if it utilizes a battery. Ditto for the electric drill.  Ever seen China's special rare-earth-metals dumping grounds? Or how about their air? Chinese manufacturing isn't just cheap because of lower labor costs, it's cheap because they've decided to sacrifice their country (and planet) for present day prosperity. Their pollution doesn't stay in China, either.  Check out what we recently discovered in our west coast forests.

Older tools were made in and for a world where energy was more expensive and thus used more sparingly, which is exactly the world we're returning to whether we like it or not. It's the reason they were made to last, rather than to catch your eye with their bright colored plastic. Perhaps best of all is the satisfaction of holding a well worn tool that you can pass along to future generations instead of tossing in the garbage when you're done with it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Once your entire life is outsourced, you're dead.

The trend over the last century or two has certainly been one towards outsourcing. I'm not talking outsourcing in terms of corporations moving jobs offshore, but rather in terms of personal tasks -- the things we used to do before anyone knew what a job was. The vast majority of us have outsourced the production of our food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, childcare, education, and a myriad of other activities which our ancestors handled on a regular basis.

If there's one takeaway message that I picked up in my university economics courses, it's that this is a good thing. If Joe is an exceptionally good farmer, and Bill is an exceptionally good fisherman, then it's in everyone's interest for Joe to be the farmer and Bill to be the fisherman, each paying the other for their skills rather than doing everything themselves. This is the model of efficiency we've all been sold, and it makes sense from a narrow perspective. The expansion of this trend, combined with the widespread utilization of fossil fuels, is exactly what has made our industrial society the wealthiest in history. It's the reason we all own and use far more than we could ever expect to make if we made it all ourselves. The book, "The Toaster Project" is a perfect demonstration of this.

But, as always, there's more to the story. An increase in efficiency is always paid for with a decrease in resilience. In a village where Joe and Bill both farm and fish, the death of one doesn't appreciably impact the other. However, when tasks are divided, the death of either has a much greater impact, as one of their essential skills is lost.  Should we ever find ourselves in any of the major upheavals of the sort which fill history books, we'll find that a diversified skill set may be the very key to survival.

There's another, perhaps greater cost to our outsourced lives as well. When we specialize only in a particular skill or task (i.e. our "careers"), we experience less and less, to the point that once diverse and multi-faceted lives have become monotonous and repetitious. We're bored. Bored people tend to get fat, develop addictions, bad habits, and physical or mental illness. Anti-depressant use skyrockets, as do the side-effects we regularly hear about on the news.

Though purely economic reasoning would suggest otherwise, we can and should reclaim the experiences and skills we've given up. Monetary return is important in a world that still runs on money, but I'd suggest that it's far from the only issue of importance. The less we outsource, the more we live.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Early Morning

The shorter days have me out well before daylight now, even too early for the cows it seems. They're about as far from the barn as they can get, grazing down the last lush growth on our back hay field, surrounded by woods.  The quarter mile walk to collect them gives me some time to think, and enjoy my surroundings before heading off to my day in a cubicle.

With the scooping done in the barn, I head outside and turn off the headlamp. The world beyond its 20 foot beam opens up.  I'm always amazed at how easy it is to see at night, outside, without a light. The dim light of the moon offers up no colors. Everything appears in black & white, like an old movie. The crescent moon illuminates the broken clouds as they scoot eastward. I get brief glimpses of the stars, and of blinking jets heading east from Chicago. Though we're in the same part of Michigan, the experiences of the passengers are nothing like my own. I'm glad not to be one of them.

The rumble of trucks out on the highway is annoying, but grows weaker the further I walk. It's a little cool for them, but a few crickets still chirp half-heartedly from the osage fencerow we planted a few years back. A ways out, I can hear the neighbor's rooster.

An owl hoots in the woods on the other side of our pond. I stumble on an old dry pile of horse poo that feels like a lost pillow. A larvae glows at me like a star lost in the grass.  Reaching the hay field, I stop and listen, just in case the cows have wandered into the woods.  All I hear is an occasional acorn rattling down through the branches on its trip to the forest floor.

Eventually I find the cows, bedded down at the far edge of the hay field, chewing their cud. They enjoy a little scratching on the top of their heads and then get up to do what cows always do first when they get up. Tails lift and I step back to the safety zone. That stuff splatters much further than you'd think.

The cows don't share my interest in a speedy trip to the barn. They've got bellies to fill, and the tasty alfalfa-grass mix is too much to resist. They encourage me to be patient like themselves, but I resist. I work back and forth between them, prodding the laggards back into motion. Coyotes yip on the other side of the woods, where I've heard they have a den in the stone foundation of what was once a barn.

The cows pick up their pace once we're back on the regular pasture. Our barn comes back into view, with the lights shining out into the darkness through the open door and dirty windows. After a long drink at the stock tank, Maggie and Millie lead Fritz in through the main door. Penny insists on going through the side door (Penny's *special* door), as the others are likely to give her an unfriendly head-butt if she passes too close. She stops to lick one of the barn cats before putting her head through the stanchion, where she shovels aside the picked-over hay with her head.  My day's chores begin.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


Scooping up in the barn after morning milking, I look up to see the four young barn swallows perched on the edge of their mud nest just above my head. They're eagerly awaiting the next installment of bug-puke from their parents, who sound the alarm when they see me standing too close. In a day or two the kids will be be joining them, swooping gracefully through the air to rid it of bugs. Higher in the barn, in a dovecote built long ago, I can hear the pigeons cooing to one another as they contemplate the creation of more pigeons.

On my way to dump the wheelbarrow full of manure under one of the trees in our orchard, I pass the bird house Henry made from scraps of barn siding. There's a house wren living there, building a nest. He sings beautifully for a girl to come and check it out. On a post at the other end of the fence adjacent to our garden, another of Henry's new birdhouses plays host to a family of bluebirds.  I hear squealing and splashing (they like to jump into their stock-tank) coming from the pig-pen behind the garden.  Mourning doves coo their morning songs.

Next on the chore list are the broiler chickens in their pasture pen.  On my way out to them, I stop at the gate to eat a few mulberries. When I'm done, I shake the branch to knock some down for our turkeys, who are already waiting with eager anticipation.

A swing by the outhouse on my way back from the pasture wouldn't be complete without one of our barn-cat outhouse attendants. Meowy has discovered that it's easy to get some attention from me while I'm temporarily immobilized there. The forever curious turkeys stand in the doorway, craning their necks to see what's inside, and then peck at a bug on the floor. The lambs are calling to their mothers as they make their way out to pasture. Out the window of the outhouse, I can see four painted turtles, sunning themselves on the log we put in the pond for them.

The last stop on my way back to the house is the well-pump. We keep a wooden bucket there for washing hands (one made by Rachel). It's upside down on a sassafras post into which I've hollowed out a cavity as a soap dish. A grey tree frog lives under the bucket, and occasionally invites a friend or two to stay over.  I make sure not to squish him as I return the bucket to the post.

Everywhere I look, the farm is alive. So am I.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


A few winters ago, Rachel read the book "Farmer Boy" by Laura Ingalls Wilder to Henry and I in the evenings after dinner and chores. We chose to turn off all our lights and use only oil lamps while we sat down to read and listen, which was a nice complement to the book. Henry enjoyed listening to the stories (based on her husband Almanzo's experiences on an upstate New York farm in the 1800s), as did I. For me, they were also quite instructive!

Despite being interested in the content, I always found myself quite sleepy after the reading. I assumed at the time that this had something to do with the dim light of the oil lamps. As it turns out, I was right, but there's far more to this effect than I was aware of.

I've lately been reading the book Lights Out by TS Wiley, which explains this effect and its tremendous implications. A researcher focusing on diabetes, the author found herself constantly returning to the role played by light in triggering the various hormones that control our sleep, appetite, addictions, and sex drive.

Though it should come as no surprise, the artificial extension of daylight through our use of electric lights (and computers, televisions, smart phones, etc) is in large part the driving force behind the appetites that drive us to favor carbohydrates and sugars. Since these are no longer as difficult to come by as they were in the age our bodies are designed for, we eat far more than our bodies can use. The resulting chronic high blood sugar we experience is what makes most of us insulin resistant and prone to a wide variety of the diseases that have risen dramatically during the 20th century.

The book is largely a highlight of various studies performed by the CDC and NIH. They interview Dr. Thomas Wehr of the NIH, who suggests that on less than 9.5 hours of sleep (a conservative minimum before the age of electricity), people will most likely develop either diabetes, heart disease, cancer, infertility, mental illness, or premature aging. When the authors asked him if he felt this should be made public knowledge, his response was, "Well, yes, they do have a right to know. They should be told; but it won't change anything.  Nobody will ever turn off the lights".

Considering that 35% of Americans are now obese, and 69% of us are overweight, most of us will suffer heart disease (our #1 cause of death), 50% of us will experience cancer, a third of us are expected to develop diabetes, and 13% are on anti-depressants, it might do us some good to learn a little more about this. Though the author's style is a little shrill, the subject matter appears to be quite sound and is a real eye opener.

Another related book which I found quite interesting is Clark Strand's "Waking up to the Dark", It focuses on sleep patterns, comparing historical (i.e. normal) patterns with today's electrically enhanced patterns, focusing on the implications for spirituality and mental health. Anyone with sleep issues will definitely be interested. James Howard Kunstler recently interviewed him in this podcast, which may pique your interest as it did my own.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Pope

The first letter to the editor I ever wrote (and which was also published), was chastising Pope John Paul II for his insistence that population control not be discussed at the earth summit in Rio De Janiero, some time in the early 1990s.  For most of the time since, I'd viewed the Catholic church as something of a nemesis, mindlessly fighting against our common future through their stance on population and reproduction.

I'm happy to announce that I no longer feel this way.  Better yet, they're perhaps one of my most influential allies.   From Pope Francis's recent encyclical, I quote,

"Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us.  The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn"

Monday, June 15, 2015

Going High Tech

Hay slings laid out in the loft for evaluation.
It's been hot this week... mid 80's with humidity to match. It makes my t-shirt stick to my skin and ride up up under my overalls like an unfortunate halter top. Daily rain is nice for the orchard and garden, not so nice for the weeds which can't be knocked back without a little drying time. The animals all retreat to the barn as soon as the sun is up, where they spend the day avoiding the biting flies whose populations seem to rise exponentially with the temperature. The horses stomp constantly to keep the flies off, and the cows all stand sweating and panting like dogs. The still barn air feels about 10 degrees hotter than the air outside, and reeks of ammonia. The stone foundation is dripping with condensation. Horseflies cover the windows, apparently regretting their decision to follow the animals inside the darkened retreat.

The barn that seemed so well maintained suddenly feels impossible, as the animals deposit all the end products of their night-time grazing indoors on expensive bedding. Keeping up with them feels like mopping up underneath a waterfall. I'm scooping out four heaping wheelbarrow loads a day, but it probably needs to be closer to eight (if there were no backlog, that is).

Weather like this always makes me think of moving back to a cool maritime climate. This year I'm dreaming of Sitka, where this week's highs look to be right around 60 degrees. Last year it was Waldron Island in the San Juans, and the year before that it was Lopez Island. Though wonderfully cool by comparison to our Michigan summer, each location seems to be somewhat lacking in gainful employment opportunities and affordable land. Suffice it to say that I'm really hoping things cool down in time for our second cutting of hay in mid July.

With the construction of our new barn, putting up hay has become a little easier. It would've been considered high tech, circa 1910 -- as evidenced by the patent date on the hay trolley. In the absence of diesel, it will again be high-tech. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best way to put up hay without the direct use of fossil fuels, bar none.

The high technology of our new operation revolves around the use of hay slings, rather than the grapple forks used in our original barn. Hay slings look much like hammocks, which are laid out on the wagon as the hay is loaded, typically three of them sandwiched into the layers on a full load.

For unloading the hay from the wagon, we lower the hay rope with its two hooks on pulleys, each of which attach to a ring at opposite ends of the slings. The horses then pull the rope, which rolls up the hay (each load looks like a large round bale) and raises it to the roof peak. Control lines are rigged to pull the trolley to either mow, where a release cord is pulled, allowing the sling to split in two and release the hay.


What's so good about slings? The biggest advantage is that the wagon can be unloaded in three "bites" rather than the 5 or 6 it typically takes with grapple forks. It's also much easier to attach the slings to the hay rope than it is to set the grapple forks for each bite.  For us, the design of the new barn, with its drive-through center aisle, is easier to use than the bank barn we've been using. The bank barn forced us to park the horses, unhitch the wagon, and roll it in (and out) by hand.

The down side?  Hay slings will load the barn's hay trolley system quite a bit more than other methods, which is why our old barn only gets to use grapple forks. They're also a little more trouble to arrange and keep organized out in the field, as we need to pause to set up the second and third slings partway through each load.


So while the new barn isn't quite finished (it still needs a floor, gutters, stalls, and some paint), we're already making good use of it. Now we just need to get it ready for the animals that will eat the hay.