Monday, November 4, 2019

Caitlin Johnstone

For those of you who may not have clicked on my link for Caitlin Johnstone on the right, here's a push in that direction.  She's an Australian writer, married to (I think) an American ex-pat, and is brilliant in her ability to see through the facade of our corporate media.  I highly recommend her in general, and today's column in particular.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Stop Pretending

Maxfield Parrish clouds above the farm during evening chores

It's always nice to know someone has thoughts which mirror my own, particularly when nobody that I personally know seems to share them. It's even better when these people have a far bigger bull-horn than I.

I've only read about it (at this point there isn't even a trailer available) but truth-teller Michael Moore has partnered with Jeff Gibbs to put out a new film, Planet of the Humans. As I understand it, the thesis of the film is that the push towards "renewable" energy is misdirected, since such energies are neither truly zero carbon, renewable, nor capable of supporting civilization in its current form. The film suggests that a reduction in expectations is far more important, and I agree.

I just learned of another opinion piece written by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker which mirrors my own thoughts as of late. What if we stopped pretending?  takes a look at the reality of our situation and our track record to-date, concluding that we have not and will not do what it takes to save our own lives.

It's especially prescient, as I now feel as if I've been pretending to do some good over the last decade with my attempt to eliminate fossil fuel dependency from my life. When everyone around me from my closest family members to casual acquaintances all seem to be enthusiastically embracing the benefits of fossil fuels, my own hard earned yet meager efforts are not going to have any significant impact beyond that of self-deprivation.

It brings me no comfort, but I think I've finally come to an understanding of why people are not going to do anything to save themselves.  Sure -- some of us will do the usual protesting or nibbling around the edges with the purchase of a Tesla, or perhaps start farming with horses, but we will not strike at the core of the problem.

People like to focus on eliminating the frivolous use of fossil fuels (i.e. flying for vacations or powering mega-yachts), but that's not the bulk of what they're used for. The fact of the matter is that our lives are now 100% dependent upon fossil fuels, whether for food, shelter, clothing, water, or any of life's other essentials. Fossil fuels are what enabled our population to explode to nearly 8 billion from the pre-industrial level of about 1 billion. That's why I'm certain we will continue to embrace them as their extraction grows ever more harmful (fracking, tar sands, deep-water drilling, etc) and ever less profitable (fracking for oil in the US has never made a single penny).

If we're to eliminate fossil fuels in a very short time frame -- as is clearly the only action to offer even a slim chance of continued survival -- we will be killing our neighbors and ourselves.  Nobody is willing to do that, so we continue our support of the status quo of their continued use. We can no more expect to sustain our inflated population with "green" energy than we could expect a vat of yeast to thrive in a solution of nutra-sweet. Yes, there are alternatives to our current way of life (they're what sustained us before the industrial era), but they're not capable of supporting 8 billion people.  

This is precisely why politicians are unable to enforce a top down change. It's also precisely why we do not make significant changes at the individual level. It's the reason that two cars still reside in my driveway despite my contempt for them and what their use is doing to our future.  The decisions that doomed us were made centuries ago, when the lure of ease and convenience afforded by fossil fuels first took hold.

Though I will never be able to embrace what is now considered a "normal" American lifestyle in good conscience, I now wonder if it's possible for me to shrug it off and accept that fates are already sealed.  "When in Rome...", as the saying goes.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Tell-Tale Pump

A couple weeks ago, Rachel and I visited an estate sale in one of the 1960-ish suburban neighborhoods on the edge of town.  I find that they make a fantastic excuse for avoiding the work I should be doing.  I've become quite a sucker for stuff I don't really need when it's at rock-bottom prices. It's even better when I find something I do actually need - or have suddenly decided that I need.

While walking from our parking spot over to the sale, I noticed an older gentleman trimming the four small bushes which made up the entirety of his landscaping.  "How nice it would be to have so little to maintain!", I said.

The more infrastructure that exists on a farm, the easier most tasks become. Fencing around the yard means we can let our sheep mow the lawn. Additional barn space means our equipment is under cover and less likely to have bearings or bushings seize up, and also leaves space in the garage/shop for various projects with no need to first move equipment outside. A water line out to both barns, along with the orchard and garden, makes it easier to keep animals watered without dragging leaky hoses everwhere. Our mile of fencing means that I don't have to worry so much about one of the animals making a break for Canada.

But the more you have, the more you have to maintain.  I haven't yet plotted out the maintenance to benefit ratio of our farm's infrastructure, but it feels as if it's fast approaching 1:1. 

A case in point is the frost-free hydrant in the horse's barnyard.  Being as they are clumsy 2,000lb beasts, they managed to bump into it and bend it last winter, despite the protective post on one side.  "No way to dig it up now -- the ground's still frozen", I thought to myself. 

I bent it back to a relatively upright position and all seemed okay... but something was causing it to leak underground, as evidenced by our well pump cycling every 5 minutes whenever the waterline that serves it wasn't shut off. 

I managed to forget about it for a while, and suddenly it was spring (too busy to deal with it now!), and then summer (too damn hot and humid to be digging a big hole!).  Rachel was clearly annoyed that I always had the waterline shut off (the valve is in a dark and spider-web filled corner of our cellar which she absolutely *loves* getting to), and I was growing ever more annoyed that she would leave it on after finishing her work in the garden. Whenever I sat down to relax in the living room, I could hear the well-pump -- a barely audible humming --  whenever the waterline was left turned on.  That sound makes me crazy, no matter how hard I try to ignore it.

So I finally decided that today was the day, despite the morning's not-so-low of 66 and a forecast high of 84.  Any time the night-time low stays above 60, the air holds humidity, and our days aren't so pleasant.  But... there's no time like the present! (or in this case, 6 months after the fact)

With the hydrant placed right on the edge of the hog pen, I decided I could let the hogs out into the surrounding horse barnyard while I worked, as they seemed to be quite fascinated with the big hole I was digging.  They're still at a relatively cute stage, especially the one we call Pinky.  She's the first pig we've ever had that wants frequent tummy rubs. 

The pigs quickly bore down on my dirt pile and started rooting around with their snouts. They came over and stood on the edge of the hole while I was in it., with one foot repeatedly slipping into the hole. Two of them fell into the hole with me. One got so scared that she pooped on my leg while squealing bloody murder as I lifted her back out. I could hear Bilbo barking at the commotion from inside the house.

As the hole reached 5' deep, getting the long shovel out became a real chore, but I was aided by one of the pigs repeatedly biting my elbow as I lifted the loaded shovel up above shoulder height so I could empty it above-ground. Later, while I was inspecting the fitting that attached the hydrant to the waterline, another of them pushed the shovel into the hole and down on to my head. When I climbed back out, yet another took great interest in the heel of my boot, and started biting it. 

This hydrant isn't the only deferred maintenance on our farm, of course.  Though the list is shorter now that I'm no longer spending hours each day to milk our cows, it's still pretty long, and seems to grow about as fast as I'm able to check off the various tasks.

I've not cleared beneath our electric fences for a couple years now, which causes them to short out and lose their potency as the brush grows up around them. Then again, I wasn't able to keep them on much until the last few weeks anyway, as they make fantastic antenna for catching our regular lightning. Our old Amish farrier told of working in a barn when lightning struck the fence.  The charger exploded into a fountain of sparks and started a fire, so I keep our charger disconnected whenever there's lightning in the forecast. 

There's still a lot of painting on my list, and I need to get up on the roof of our new barn, where the ridge cap leaks whenever we have a strong driving rain from the north.  I also need to put some slide-stoppers on the roof to keep the snow from ripping the gutters off, and it would be really nice to install some gutter guards so I don't have to spend so much time on a ladder looking down from 27 feet in the air while cleaning the gutters twice a year. Oh, and the windows on the barn need some panes replaced, and painting after that...

Our tractor has always played second fiddle to our horse-drawn equipment, and I figured that since we don't use it much anyway it didn't need annual oil changes.  Whether that was a factor or not I'll never know, but the engine began to suffer a heart attack recently, making a noise from somewhere deep inside that I was soon unable to ignore.  Though I despise the coating of grease and oil I find myself bathing in whenever I work on it, I don't have too much trouble fixing the various external things that have gone wrong with it over the years.  But... tearing apart the engine itself is more work than I'm interested in, so it's being sold to someone with less of an aversion than myself. 

This means, of course, that I'm looking for a new tractor.  I can't dream of affording the $30,000 of an actual new tractor, so new in my case means upgrading to a 1960's era tractor from our 1950's tractor, and hoping that the maintenance to benefit ratio of the tractor will remain below 1:1 for as long as possible. Perhaps a tractor with a loader (and more associated maintenance) would be useful...?

Sometimes, I really like the idea of having nothing to maintain. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Spring Rambling

The relative leisure of winter is giving way now, as our hay fields and pastures spring back to life and begin to call for our labor. For the first time ever, we were able to have all of our manure spread on field and garden, with nothing left over. It's nice when your farm isn't constipated. Everything grows better that way.

We had just started plowing the manure into our garden when one of the spring clips on the left line to the horses popped loose. Though I regularly practice verbal "Whoa!" commands with the team for just such an event, they're just not used often enough to respond to this situation in the way I'd like.  As horses are wont to do when they sense something isn't right, they took off, and I no longer had control with only one line in hand. The newly renovated plow (all new handles) is now in need of another renovation, and the garden fence -- which stopped the horses -- didn't fare so well either. On the plus side, nobody was seriously injured, and the horses both survived with minor scratches. Never again will I allow snap-links in the lines!  It's not the first time they've let me down, and I was dumb to allow a second time.  It amazes me that they're "standard issue" on work harnesses.

At the recommendation of a friend, I recently read the book Lost Connections by Johann Hari. While I've never personally endured chronic depression, it's been in my family, and depression is something everyone experiences to some degree. This book is a fascinating read, documenting the author's own battle with clinical depression and experience with SSRIs. His revelations into the drug trials and the means by which these medications were approved are real-eye openers. 

Hoping to bolster his arguments, one of the biggest proponents of these medications looked in to how these trials were conducted and declared them to be completely useless. These trials showed SSRIs were only marginally better than placebos. Being told to get more sleep had a significantly greater impact on patients than SSRIs do, for instance. Drugs designed to have the *opposite* chemical effect had nearly identical results when tested in trials! 

Close investigation proved that the pharmaceuticals cherry picked the data to achieve their "slightly beneficial" results by excluding test subjects who showed zero improvement. Even worse is the fact that such test subjects are typically low income and are financially motivated to both claim symptoms that the trial is looking for and to claim that the drug helped them. Those recording the results of such trials are similarly motivated to believe these people, as such results help to justify and sustain their jobs.

With Hari's damning revelations, we can hopefully look forward to the end of SSRIs. Perhaps we can look forward to a reduction in school shootings and suicides that these drugs have caused since their introduction. While their benefits are absolutely questionable, their significant and negative side effects are quite well documented.

Hari's conclusion -- which closely mirrors that of Sebastian Junger's book Tribe -- suggests that depression is in fact a reasonable reaction to the detached lives our modern society has created. Community has all but been destroyed, as people bounce between different employers and residences every few years. As I've pointed out before, the automobile is in large part what enabled this destruction. That's precisely why those who greatly value their community -- such as the Amish -- refuse car ownership. Their views are absolutely not a "rejection of modern technology" that they're often portrayed to be. Not only are they quite insightful, but we're now proving them to be correct!

Despite spending massive amounts on plastic when I was into sailing and playing in the mountains (plastic boat, sails, lines, Gore-tex, cordura nylon, polyester fleece, etc), I've never really been a fan. Yeah, plastic enabled a lot of things that would otherwise be unaffordable or impossible, but there's a massive cost. We're just now learning how massive it is. It's all based upon fossil fuel feed-stock, produces loads of long-lived toxins, and now we're realizing that it's anything but inert. Our sythetic-fibered clothing is among the worst offenders. Most of it releases endocrine disrupting compounds, and degrades into micro-plastics which have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and lead to brain damage. It's in our food and bodies, and it's destroying the natural world we depend upon. This is just a hunch, but considering that many of the compounds it releases mimic estrogen and other hormones in the human body, I think it's quite likely at the root of much of the gender confusion that now permeates our society.

There's not a day that goes by now when I'm not exposed to some new revelation that tells me we're fundamentally screwed. It's one thing to be fascinated by a car wreck, and quite another to realize that you and everyone you love are in the wreck as it's happening. Though I'm rarely successful for very long, even I try to look away nowadays.

We've already released enough CO2 into the atmosphere to expect a 7 degree (c) rise in temperature based upon historical observations -- a temperature well above any which may still support human life. Despite much trumpeting that would make one think we're making progress, we're not. Global CO2 emissions have climbed steadily for my entire life, despite ballyhooed events like Kyoto or the Paris Accord. Not only have they steadily climbed, but the rate of climb is accelerating, particularly within the last few years.  It's particularly disheartening to be met with fierce opposition from family members when I try to limit our energy consumption.  Most people -- even those who know better -- don't even seem to try, and I can see why.

Discussions of near-term human extinction are no longer the fringe concept they were just a few years ago. That's made movements like Extinction Rebellion possible. They're doing the right thing, regardless the ultimate outcome. They're calling for the UK to be completely carbon neutral by 2025. Is that possible? Yeah, anything is possible, but every action has consequences. There's little doubt in my mind that a large portion of the population will not survive such a change whether that's here or in the UK. Still, it's the only solution that *may* allow a small chance for continued human survival -- and that makes it a goal worth achieving.

The "Green New Deal" (GND) pushed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez probably sounds crazy to anyone who doesn't understand what's now happening, which I bet is still the majority of the population. As is often the case, the older generation often refuses to accept any change which will impact their remaining years, even if they know deep down that such change is the only chance their younger family members have.

I think the GND is worthwhile, but not because the technology it promotes will actually reduce our carbon emissions. We've already demonstrated that building a bunch of solar panels, wind generators, and electric cars has the effect of *increasing* carbon emissions instead of lowering them. That should come as no surprise, since they're all being manufactured with massive amounts of fossil fuels, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. So what then is the value in the GND? I think it's exactly what needs to happen in order for society to come to this realization. Just as a smoker who switches to "light cigarettes" hasn't really improved anything at all, a switch to "green" energy won't help us at all. The salvation of human life -- if the possibility still exists -- lies with de-industrialization. Let's hope it doesn't take too much longer before that concept becomes widely accepted. At the rate the biosphere is currently collapsing (particularly in the oceans), we can't afford to be slow learners.

A recent article in Der Spiegel document's Germany's "energiewende" difficulties with introducing renewables to power their grid. Suffice it to say that they're not going to reach their goals, despite being more technologically advanced and more motivated than most any other country on the planet.  The answer, as always, is to reduce consumption, reduce expectations, and live as we did before. Exceedingly few are willing to accept the obvious, but it's nice to see others coming to the same realization I've held for a while now. The Automatic Earth has a recent discussion of the subject which is worth checking out.

The NY Times recently highlighted two companies who are planning to mine carbon from the atmosphere, which they claim will help with reducing our CO2 emissions.  The articles then go on to explain that such carbon can be turned into fuels for sale (thus completely negating any carbon benefit and completely ignoring the laws of thermodynamics, but... well...).

The guys who produce the Crazy Town podcast recently ran the numbers for the task that these companies are supposedly undertaking.  Suffice it to say that *just the energy to run the fans* for such an operation, if it were to only cancel current emissions (but do nothing to actually reduce atmospheric carbon levels) would consume the entire electrical generating capacity of the United States.  The energy required to actually turn the CO2 into something stable or usable as fuel, of course, would dwarf the energy required for running the fans. The episode which covers this subject is They'll think of somethingisms, and is worth a listen.

Instead of swatting at flies, whether that's mental health issues, peak oil, overpopulation, plastics pollution, CO2 emissions, species extinction, chemical & nuclear contamination, or the many diseases of our sedentary lifestyle, let's try chopping at the root of the problem. Time and time again, if we dig down far enough, we find that the root is industrialization, and it's fed by fossil fuels. The two are inseparable.

It's within this light that I find my environmental and recreational interests converging.  My longtime interests in wild foods, foraging and hand-craft meshes very nicely with a reinforced disdain for plastic and all that it represents.  A lack of plastic is a requirement for my other recently-revived interest revolving around historical trekking, black-powder, and primitive skills.  I'm focusing on the late 18th century -- a period when industrialization was just starting to take hold.  It's also prompted a renewed interest in my own family history from that period.

My latest non-plastic creation
I haven't done a whole lot with it yet other than make a bunch of stuff (shirt, moccasins, axe, tomahawk,  knife, turn-screw (i.e. screwdriver), shooting accouterments, haversack, etc), but I'm enjoying the research as well as the activities.  I of course need to test my newly made equipment and newly acquired skills with frequent camping trips to the woods at the back of our farm.  It feels a bit like camping in my backyard when I was a five year-old, only this time my Dad isn't outside the tent trying to scare us with simulated bigfoot noises.

I'm getting very good at starting a fire with my home-made flint & steel, and am also getting better at cooking over a fire with my small reproduction trade kettle. I've been working on the use of a bow-drill as well, though I'm by no means proficient with starting fires that way.

If nothing else, playing 18th century woodsman is a nice way to pass the time while the world burns. It's a temporary respite from the stress that comes with reading the steady drumbeat of bad news about our collective future.

Few things are as pleasant as time spent in the woods listening to the the song of a nearby oriole, watching the wind on the pond, the flames of a campfire, or the busy activities of muskrats and turtles in the pond.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

B. F. Artley

Our barn's granary.  The newly discovered name is on the door behind the black cabinet.
I made a discovery today, which has lead to some new and interesting revelations about our farm.  While cleaning up so that I could close the door on the granary in our barn, I noticed a barely visible name stenciled in red paint (probably the same as was used on the outside of the barn), "B. F. Artley".

I'd long wondered about the history of our farm. We've dug up a few artifacts, most of which add to the mystery rather than answer it.

Three artifacts from our farm museum: a broken clay pipe,
a sleigh bell,and arrowhead.  Unbeknownst to most people nowadays, sleigh
bells were a required safety device used to warn pedestrians who might not
otherwise hear them coming.  Electric cars are known to be similarly quiet.
Perhaps that new Tesla needs some sleigh bells?  Tesla Bells?
I found part of an old clay pipe manufactured by the Hendrix company in Montreal during the late 1800s. When putting in our well, I found a worn down grindstone, buried at a depth which suggests it was dumped into an old privy hole.  A black straw woman's hat from the 1800's fell from the ceiling of the living room when we remodeled.  

The fields and soil around the house have yielded old hand forged horse shoes, horse bits, a sleigh bell, and pieces of wagons and farm equipment. Cleaning the barn when we first moved in, I found an ancient tin of percussion caps, definitely pre-dating the modern resurgence of muzzle-loading firearms, and imagined it to have been left there by a farmer who used his civil-war surplus rifle for slaughtering livestock. 

We knew this farm was homesteaded sometime between the 1858 and 1872, as it first appears on the 1872 map.  The original barn is of a Pennsylvania Dutch (German) style, a two story bank barn. Had the person who built it come from Pennsylvania, I wondered? It's an excellent design, and a perfect fit for the type of farming I enjoy. You can drive into the hay loft upstairs for unloading via the overhead trolley, and then toss the hay downstairs to the livestock accommodations.  An overhang on the downhill side provides a nice covered outdoor loafing area

I went online with the name I found on the granary door, and soon found a slew of information about the man and family who homesteaded our farm -- Benjamin Artley, originally from Hughesville, Pennsylvania. He was born on September 7th, 1840.  Now I know how our Pennsylvania style barn came to Michigan.

The oldest of 12 children, Benjamin was a civil war veteran (perhaps lending credence to my theory of the tin of percussion caps found in our barn) who signed on with a Pennsylvania regiment. He was listed upon one military document as having the disability of "chronic diarrhea, and piles" (hemorroids). This was the dysentery which killed 95,000 of his fellow soldiers. Two of his younger brothers enlisted, one of whom survived the war and one whom was killed at Gettysburg.  

After the war, he moved west to Michigan, where other family members from the same part of Pennsylvania had become well established. He married Eliza Artley in the nearby town of Constantine in 1870, whom had three daughters and was a widow of another civil war soldier killed in January of 1865 near the end of the war. Eliza's maiden name was Wilson, and it appears as if her first marriage was to one of Benjamin's Artley relatives, so she was already an Artley when they married. They had three boys together, all born while living in this house. Benjamin was listed as a carpenter as well as a farmer, and presumably built this house himself, likely with the aid of his younger brother George (also a carpenter) who also lived here at the time of the 1880 census.

The original home was 700 square feet, two stories, and four bedrooms for eight people.  Though they built a fantastic barn, they skimped a bit on the house. I discovered that they only used sheathing on the west side of the house which faces the prevailing winds. The rest of the exterior had clap-boards nailed directly to the oak studs.

Benjamin died in 1908 of hepatitis at age 68. His wife appears to have moved in with her daughter Hattie in Kalamazoo, where she died in 1924 at age 84 of liver and stomach ailments. Hattie later died from smoke inhalation during a fire in that same home in 1940. The other two daughters appear to have moved to Iowa.