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.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Do Less

In most respects, "green" energy is no better than the fossil energy it replaces, and serves primarily as a fossil fuel extender. As with the smoker who opts for light cigarettes, or the horribly misguided popularity of diet soda, the easiest solution is rarely the right solution.

Now that faith in the Cornucopia of Technology (what cool toy will Apple make for us next?) has moved into first place as the #1 global religion, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that so many people are convinced technology will solve the very problems it's created (climate change and peak oil / energy depletion come to mind). Never mind the fact that all of this technology rests upon a crumbling pedestal of fossil energy.

A recent case in point is the much touted new Tesla "Powerwall" home battery. It's a lithium-ion battery, with a 7 or 10 kWh capacity, the latter of which will be selling for $3500. Maybe Tesla has made a dramatic improvement in the lifespan of lithium ion batteries, but I doubt it (they promise a 10 year warranty -- which is about the expected lifespan of a well treated lead-acid battery).

The larger 10kWh battery (with 1/3rd the capacity to run the typical 30kWh household's daily consumption) is roughly equivalent in capacity to 3.3 8D series deep-cycle lead-acid batteries, which I see retailing for $330 apiece. But, because lead-acid batteries don't last well when regularly drawn below 50%, you'll want to double the number of conventional batteries for equivalence, so that's 6.6 batteries. You can't buy .6 batteries, so we'll round up to 7. Total cost for 7 - 8D batteries is $2,310, vs $3500 for the Tesla battery. The Tesla battery will be smaller and lighter. That's a big deal in a car, but not so much in a house. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I fail to see the breakthrough here.

Though people seem to be figuring this out as their sales wane, electric cars aren't really any more environmentally friendly than their gasoline counterparts. "Clean burning natural gas", if you include the environmental costs and emissions of the full life cycle, isn't really any better than coal. Then there's nuclear energy, which we can't afford to get rid of (and will be decreasingly able to get rid of as energy depletion bites ever further into our economies). Did I mention contamination that lasts longer than human civilization has been in existence? I suspect that there are some folks in Tokyo who might take issue with its green image.  Have you read about the latest greatest source of CO2 emissions (accounting for about 30% of all human caused emissions)?  It's the draining of peat bogs in Indonesia for oil-palm plantations to meet the demand for "green" biodiesel.

No matter where you peek behind the curtain on green energy, you find problems which reveal it to be the wrong answer for offering a chance at continued human survival.

The problem is, to a large extent, that we opened the pandora's box of fossil energy, fell in love with all it had to offer, and are now willing to commit mass murder in order to keep it. We've insisted that we could reproduce without limits, fly anywhere on a whim, build homes as big as we like, and fill them with manufactured goods shipped from around the world. As it turns out, we've made what currently looks to be a fatal mistake.

The answer is not "green" energy any more than it is "light" cigarettes.  The answer is to reset our expectations. Mother nature and her pesky laws of thermodynamics will take care of our numbers issue in her own less-pleasant ways, because we refused to do it ourselves. Those who remain, if any, will certainly appreciate us making their world a little less bad by making ourselves a little less harmful. That means doing less than we've become accustomed to. Travel should be within walking or perhaps biking distance, not across continents or oceans. Food should (for a million different reasons) be produced (or preferably foraged) locally, by ourselves and our neighbors, as should our modest homes, clothing and tools. I think you'll find that the life we're returning toas a matter of necessity is in many ways much better than the one which we're all clinging to now.  I know that my movements in this direction would suggest exactly that.

When the future we're headed towards turns out not to include us or anything we value, it's probably a good idea to return to the past that does.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Not-so-chocolate Easter Bunny

The cows are out on pasture as of this week, and seem to be enjoying themselves.  I love walking out to meet them in the pasture at first light, with all the birds belting out their morning greetings.  I made my way to the far end of the pasture this morning without finding the cows, and assumed they'd gone to play wild-cow-of-the-wilderness in the small patch of woods they have access to. After searching for them with my headlamp to no avail, I completed a loop around the rest of the pasture, checking the corners where I might have missed them on my way out in the dim light.  Coming full circle, I found them already waiting for me back at the barnyard.  We have sneaky stealth cows, as it turns out.

While milking Penelope, I could hear a bunch of rustling straw in the main loafing area of the barn, which I assumed to be "Ninja" Fritz (our 4 week old calf) tearing around in circles and kicking at imagined foes. Then I heard the screaming, and went to investigate. Burrito the cat had scored herself a baby rabbit and was relentlessly torturing it.

Apparently not hungry enough, Burrito left the bunny to an eager Coon. She's the three-legged cat who became that way while hiding in the tall hay as the horses walked past with the sickle mower one day. Coon carried her prize over to the milking area and made it scream some more before getting down to the crunchy business of eating the cute creature in front of me, starting (as usual) with the delicious head.

In between the screams and crunching, my thoughts turned as they often do to things I've read lately. There's a super El-Nino developing off of our west coast, which is dramatically increasing the die-off of ocean life that depends upon plankton (just about everything, that is). On the plus side, it's also expected to break the 4 year drought in California. On the down side, it's likely to trigger a drought where we live.

Climate change isn't something we might get to experience a few decades from now. It's here, now.  I find it terrifying, and even more terrifying is the complacency and outright denial that grows worse as we watch it wreaking havoc. The same things are happening in Syria, Sao Palo, YemenIran, Ukraine, and California really. It's not just that we're warming, or drying, or seeing unprecedented floods and storms. The problem is that we're losing the stability that has made life possible. We're losing the stability required for agriculture, for forests, and for every living thing.

The drought our farm experienced in 2012 was nothing like the 4 years of drought currently being endured by much of California, but that one year alone cost us several thousand dollars, quickly making the farm a losing proposition. The risk of a similar event in any given year is rising, which turns any farm into a losing bet. Farmers don't just "fail to make a profit" when there's a drought. They lose money, and lots of it. Most are spending hundreds of dollars per acre, every year, for seeds and fuel, and perhaps irrigation. If a crop fails, that's all lost. It doesn't need to fail every year. I'll bet once every third or fourth year would be enough to destroy most farming enterprises and render grocery store shelves bare. After pouring our heart and soul into our own farm for several years now, the thought of it losing viability is gut wrenching.

Look outside your house, and I'll bet you see trees, which are in many ways the lungs of the planet. That makes them just as important as our own lungs. Trees need stability as much as we do.  If the growing conditions that made a forest cease to be reliable, the forest dies. With the rate of change we're seeing, forests won't just move northwards, as many expect. By the time a more southerly species is able to establish, changing conditions will likely kill it too.

A lot of folks are looking to permaculture as the type of agriculture which we should move towards. In a destabilized climate, however, the longer lived species required for permaculture won't do any better (and will likely fare worse) than the annuals that currently comprise the bulk of our agriculture.

But, for now, our farm in spring is beautiful. The breaking buds look like a light green mist settling on the trees. The lambs are bouncing on all fours and chasing chickens that wander past. Our pastures are green and lush, and the cows are fat and happy. For that, I'm thankful.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Ah, the naivete of youth! Perhaps you've read about them - the students of the divestment movement - pushing for their respected universities to stop investing in fossil energy companies. These kids apparently haven't figured out that screwing everyone's tomorrow is the only way to live well and get an affordable education (cough, cough) today.  Perhaps the students are biased, thinking they have more of a future ahead of them than most of the (older) administrators do.

The typical assumption is that investments should be green (like the little green leaf on the back of cars to make us feel better about using them), or socially responsible. I doubt most of the students in these campaigns would protest against their university administration if they were instead invested in wind and solar companies. This assumption is where the true naivete shines through, however.

There is no such thing as green or socially responsible investment, at least none that would be available in any of the major stock exchanges or brokerage firms. The legal structure of publicly owned corporations ("green" or not) prioritizes the need to generate shareholder return above all else. In so doing, it subjugates the human qualities of morality and empathy that would otherwise temper business decisions. Come to think of it, I'm not aware of a single publicly owned corporation that exists outside of the industrial economy. Any business which uses fossil fuel extracted by the "bad" energy companies, is really just "bad" once removed.

It's not just that public corporations are inherently driven to do bad things, like skirting, ignoring, (or re-writing)  our lax environmental regulations. Investing in corporations is exactly what feeds the beast that has subverted democracy around the globe, with a particularly egregious example here in the US.  You did read that we now fit the textbook definition of an oligarchy, right?

Investment in corporations is what blinds people to the corporate behavior that subverts governments
and destroy nations. "Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth" or you'll loose your retirement.

The subversion of democracy is very much in play right now with the Trans-Pacific-Partnership negotiations, which amounts to NAFTA on steroids. NAFTA played a huge role in destroying manufacturing and the middle class in the US while destroying agriculture in Mexico. This lead to destruction of thousands of families in Central America, waves of desperate illegal immigrants in the US, and the creation of new corporate wet-dream worlds such as Ciudad Juarez just south of our border with Mexico. Witness also the rise of super-powerful Mexican drug cartels soon after NAFTA was implemented. Coincidence?

Let's assume for a moment that you're a sociopath with no friends or family, concerns or desires beyond money itself. Social and environmental responsibility mean nothing to you, and you think democracy is massively overrated. I have a convincing argument for you to divest your portfolio as well. It's called peak oil. Oil drove the industrial economy of the 20th century, with stock markets and GDP closely tracking oil consumption.

When the peak in conventional crude arrived as predicted circa 2005, the economy started sputtering. Attempts to fill our tanks with unconventional oil since then haven't helped much. After 2007's now forgotten heart-attack, the stock market is again climbing quite nicely. Do you think that's because the economy is still really growing, or even capable of significant further growth? The Quantitative Easing game of twister currently employed by central banks around the world might make you think so, but eventually this tangled mass is going to fail.

So let's say you're a normal person still set on the concept of retirement, or are already retired. Our culture of the last several decades says that investment (in anything!) is a-okay so long as you don't peek behind the curtain too often. No investment means no retirement, and who wants to keep working until the day they die?

Well... sometimes there is no good answer, but there may be less-bad answers than business as usual. My own answer thus far has been to first invest in myself. First of all, paying off any debt. This will usually garner greater returns (through the fact that you will forego *paying* interest to someone else) than you can expect from much investment now anyway, and the returns are guaranteed. That's a no-brainer in my opinion.

So you're already debt free, and need to invest just to have income? I can't recommend any sure thing for returns, but I do have a suggestion which might ameliorate the damage of investing. The closer you are to your investment, the better.  Perhaps that's investing in yourself through classes that might allow you some increased returns (monetary or otherwise), or skills that may be useful now or in the energy-constrained future.  Perhaps it's a friend or family member that runs a business. Perhaps it's just someone you trust to remain human, and who is operating on a scale which makes that possible. The point here is to avoid the separation of monetary and human interests which occurs with larger corporations.

Ultimately, all investment will again be as it once was - with people we know personally and see daily, and probably with no money involved or needed.