Friday, May 13, 2011

Around the Farm

After work this evening, a storm started to brew outside.  To my dismay, it managed to wrap itself around us and leave us with almost no rain whatsoever, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and snapped a few photos.  Everything is so lush and green right now, and it looked dramatic against the dark sky with all the trees whipping around in the wind.   Here's our new hand pump, looking out over the barnyard pond (aka Peeper the Duck's romantic puddle o' lovin) and the pastures.

 On the left is our plot of naked oats, on the right is our hay/dandelion field, nearly tall enough to cut already. 
Another spring delight -- one of the many dogwoods scattered around our woods.  Henry took great pleasure in telling grandma (who loves dogwoods) that I cut one of these down to make a mallet.

The barnyard, looking back towards the house.   The oaks are just breaking bud.  The horses are lamenting the fact that I just locked them up to keep them from getting too fat.

Our ladies enjoying the nice tall grass.   All the grazing books talk about letting the grass reach a certain height, and then pulling the animals off once the height has been reduced x number of inches.   Our cows haven't read these books though, and often ignore the tall grass while concentrating on the short grass.  If I had endless free time, I should be mowing the pastures after they're grazed, but that hasn't happened yet this year. 

I thought that this year I would finally be able to keep the grass from getting too tall and going to seed.   Should be easier now that we have a total of eight cows and calves, along with 3 horses and 8 sheep grazing.   Well....   the reality is that the grass jumps by about a foot in height over the course of a week, and much of it is heading out already.   
 On a jaunt through the woods at this time of year we find Jack-in-the-Pulpit growing near one of the marshes on our property.   Neat looking flower!
A terrestrial crayfish burrow.  My grandparents had these living in their front lawn in southern Illinois, miles from any significant body of water.  I would take a piece of bacon on a string and lower it down the hole until I felt the crawdad take hold and try to pull it.  Then ever so slowly, pull it back up in a match of tug-o-war.  I got them up high enough to see, but never high enough to catch before they let go.   If I had more time I'd love to try that again. 

We took a day earlier this month to check out a stream near our house.  Had a beautiful walk through the woods to reach the creek.  Found some musclewood -- a strange tree that has bark looking like muscles on a skinned animal, and a box turtle with red eyes.   The creek meanders through a large meadow ringed by tamarack (which turn a beautiful yellow in the fall before losing their needles), where we saw no people whatsoever.  Henry and I each caught a nice brown trout, though his managed to snap the line just as he was being landed.  

Just before I caught my fish, a 3' northern water snake came floating down the creek, writhing around in the water and landing in the muddy bank right at my feet.   He couldn't see me because the bullhead catfish he'd just caught had its mouth over his nose and eyes.   He eventually managed to get it off and swallow it before continuing back into the creek. 
Back in February while we were boiling maple syrup, I took advantage of the time between attending to the sap and fire by making a ladder to go between the basement and loft of the barn, using only wood from the farm, all mortise & tenon with wedges holding each rung.   Much more aesthetic than the aluminum ladder it replaced, and it doesn't clang and scare the animals anymore when I throw a straw bale down from the loft.
Henry with the pile of wood he split himself.  He worked on this for over an hour on his own initiative.   Quite impressive for a kindergartener!   Next year I'll save him a couple more cords to split.


I keep hearing phrases these days such as "when the economy gets better", or "when gas prices come back down".   I wince a little every time I hear things like this.  People are holding on to investments, or waiting for the job market to improve, or making new business investments that I think are doomed to failure.  I'm not always right about everything, but I'm pretty sure that the economy will not be getting any better over the long term.  Ever.  I also think that's a good thing, so perhaps my own desires are clouding my judgement?    Let me explain...

The economy was we know it today is the economy of an industrial society.  The lifeblood of industry is energy.  The more energy we use, the wealthier we become.   Consider the fact that a ditch-digger from a century ago had a shovel to work with.   That same ditch digger today probably has a backhoe or an excavator, and can easily do the work of 20 people with shovels.   The productivity of this one person is dramatically enhanced.   The same is true of all sorts of industry.  Over the course of the 20th century, home sizes more than doubled or tripled in many cases.   We have so much material wealth that it means nothing to us.   A screwdriver that was once the prized posession of a father from 100 years ago can be purchased for pennies today.   A box of nails was at one time worthy of bequeathing to your relatives in a will, for instance.  People were poor, and we're all going to become poor again.

We're going to return to historical norms of wealth because our energy supplies are running out.   Nonsense you say?   Consider the fact that Mexico, our #3 oil supplier of a few years ago, is projected to have no more oil for export within 3 years.  The oil fields of the north sea are in similar decline, as are the fields in Saudi Arabia and much of the middle east, to say nothing of US oil fields (we peaked 40 years ago). 

Yes, we're finding new sources of oil all the time, but it's just not making up for the amount of oil production we're losing every year.  We've been burning more than we find each year for over 30 years now.  Canada, now our #1 supplier of oil, will simply be unable to meet our demand despite being having reserves "larger than Saudi Arabia", for the simple reason that they don't have enough water to process the tar sands at a rate which would meet our demand.   The kerogen in their sand isn't even really oil, but is rather the precursor to oil that would need to be cooked within the earth's crust to make oil.   They cook it with natural gas coming from wells which have dramatically decreasing EROEI's. 

That says nothing of the horrible environmental impact of strip mining areas the size of whole states and creating rivers of processing effluent.   Nothing could be worse than tar sand oil from an environmental perspective.   It's probably the dumbest thing humans have ever done.  We're like the alcoholic that has been reduced to drinking listerine and is now eyeing a jug of kerosene.  As Dick Cheney liked to say, "The American way of life is not negotiable".  At least not until we end up in the gutter or the morgue, apparently.

As goes the oil, so will go our industrial economy, and so will go our retirement investments, our industry, and our jobs.  Despite increasing demand, oil production has not increased since 2005 (or 2008, depending on what you count as "oil").   As the Shell geologist M. King. Hubbert predicted in the 1950's, we've hit the peak and are headed downhill.

Why is this a good thing?   I think it's good because the industrial economy is killing us.  It doesn't take a genius to see what carbon emissions are doing to the ocean that feeds us and provides our oxygen.  Nor should it take a genius to see that most of our coastal cities will be inundated as the polar icecaps melt.   It shouldn't take a genius to see that the complete loss of our arctic ice-cap (likely to happen this decade) will dramatically change weather patterns (this is already happening).  Peak oil is our best chance at averting human extinction, because it's quite clear that we like our cars and electricity too much to give them up voluntarily. 

While I'm in doomer (or is it optimist?) mode, let's explain the concept of overshoot, and why I think this century will finish with somewhere between 0 and 1 billion humans regardless of how we play our hand.   Before we discovered the wonders of oil, the planet was more or less at capacity in terms of humans, and our population was roughly a billion people depending on the year you pick.  Like a sugar packet being poured into a vat of yeast, oil has become our food, and we've responded just as the yeast would.  We have 10 calories of oil used to create 1 calorie of our food nowadays.  So it's safe to say that 6 of our 7 billion people are now here because of the oil we're consuming.  As the oil disappears, so will most of us.

Only it's not that simple.   In most biological systems, when a massive influx of food results in such a dramatic increase in population, there is a loss of base carrying capacity.   We read about this in the news on a daily basis, whether that's dying coral reefs, depleting topsoil, overfished oceans, Fukushima, or BP's little oopsie in the gulf.  Oil is the crumbling crutch that supports 6 billion people.  When it breaks, our population will most likely drop below the original level of 1 billion as a result of this degredation in our planet's carrying capacity. 

Another pet peeve of mine these days.   People seem to think that the electricity we've grown to like over the last few decades is now a "need" rather than a want.   My local utility likes to talk about meeting our energy "needs" in their monthly newsletter.  What amazes me is that people were able to survive before electricity ran our lives.  The fact is that our "need" for electricity is little more than a want, and it's also suicidal.   We need to stop presenting ourselves with the false choice of "alternative energy" vs. nukes or coal plants.   None of the above is the only answer which might avert human extinction.

This is much like the question of how we'll "feed the world" that Monsanto likes to present.  If we feed the world, we all know what happens, because it's been happening for centuries.   We make more babies, and thus have more to feed.  There is no end to it, until we reach the point of feeding so many people that they destroy the planet with the byproducts of their existence.  Feeding the world is suicide, but we won't voluntarily stop doing it.   The decline energy supplies will do it for us, however.   Famine won't stay cooped up in Asia and Africa much longer.