Landscaping Lightly 2015 Calendar

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I think we can pretty much close down this blog now that the Council for Watershed Health has summarized all or our creeds in their 2015 downloadable calendar (pdf). The calendar offers “tips and techniques for sustainable landscaping” and sharp graphic design by artist Edward Lum. Each month you get a new exhortation: everything from installing a greywater system, to welcoming pollinators to, gasp, using a broom instead of a leaf blower. The last two pages are a handy list of California-centric resources.

If we all worked to implement the simple steps in this calendar we’d pretty much be living in Eden.

A ceramic oil lamp

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There is not an ember burning on the table top! It just looks that way.

This is to report that I’ve accomplished one of my New Year’s resolutions: I made a ceramic oil lamp.

Regular readers will know that I’m a little obsessed with lamps that burn cooking oil instead of kerosene.

I like them so much, I made a little seashell oil lamp the very first project in our book Making It. As a child of the electric age it continuously amazes me that I can make light so easily with cooking oil. Also, in reproducing these lights, I feel a connection to history. I’ve no doubt that my ancestors gathered around fish oil lamps in the north and olive oil lamps in the south.

To add to their charms, they aren’t based on petroleum–as paraffin tea candles are, for example–and they’re non-toxic. They’re relatively safe, compared to kerosene, in that vegetable oil has such a high flash point. And finally, in their list of virtues, they’re cheap. They can be improvised out things like jar lids and Altoids tins, and I use rancid and otherwise questionable oils to fuel them — oils which I would otherwise throw out.

This ceramic lamp more fancy than the little lamps I’ve made previously. It’s based on the standard-model Mediterranean oil lamp which was ubiquitous throughout the ancient world. Ancient Romans had cheap terra cotta lamps in this shape which were stamped with the names of popular gladiators–the ancient equivalent of a 7-Eleven superhero cup. Nowadays I believe these lamps are standard stock in the Holy Land tourist trade.

At any rate, I’ve always wanted one, so I built one. Next I want to make more of them in more complex forms–designs with two and four flame outlets.

The workings of the lamp are quite simple. Inside is the oil reservoir. There’s a fill hole on the top, which I capped with a little leaf to keep the cats from sampling the oil. The top is convex, the slope leading to the fill hole, so it’s easy to top off without spilling oil. I fished a piece of cotton rag up through the “nose” to serve as a wick. The wick is long enough that it extends into the main body of the lamp. All ancient lamps are low-slung like this. The fuel seems to draw better when the wick is almost horizontal.

The lamp is smaller than you might think from the picture–it fits in the palm of my hand. Due to its size, and the fact that the walls are thick because I’m still pretty clumsy at the clay work, the reservoir only holds about 2 tablespoons of oil. Nonetheless, that much oil gives a strong bright flame for 4 1/2 hours.

My Favorite Podcasts

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There’s a lot of repetitive manual labor to do around our household this year. Kelly and I are in the midst of re-doing our garden and fixing up a few rooms of our old house. While I could execute my duties in a contemplative and mindful silence, the fact is that I’m not that type of person. I’m also not the audio book type, so when I’m working I like to listen to podcasts. Here’s a selection of what I subscribe to:

C-Realm Podcast
This is the first podcast I ever subscribed to and it’s my favorite. It’s hard to pin down exactly what this show is about other than that the “C” stands for “consciousness,” but in no way would I call it “new age.” The topics vary widely, everything from resource depletion to singularitarians to heady economic theory. The talented, thoughtful and compassionate host goes by the pseudonym, “KMO” and it’s been interesting over the years to hear his ideas change. Lately, KMO has come out of a doomer phase and has shifted his focus to a new set of guests who are articulating the problems and possibilities or our time. KMO also has a paid subscription podcast called the C-Realm Vault, which I also enjoy.

Futility Closet
A romp through historical curiosities. Recent episodes have covered the 1925 serum run to Nome, a 19th century attempt to balloon over the North Pole and Victorian children’s author Favell Lee Mortimer’s offensive travel book.

In Our Time
Host Melvyn Bragg corrals a posse of academics to discuss topics in history, religion and philosophy. When guests drop big words like “hermeneutics” and “teleology,” Bragg always brings them down to earth and makes them explain things in plain English. This show has filled in many gaps in my education and functions as a reminder that not all of the media in this world is fixated on Kim Kardashian’s derriere.

On Being
Like Bragg, On Being host Krista Tippett has an almost supernatural ability to tackle difficult subjects, in this case religion and spirituality. I’m especially fond of a recent episode, a rare interview with poet Mary Oliver.

Radiolab
A highly produced NPR show. Readers of this blog will especially enjoy the episode, “How do you put a price tag on nature?

Reply All and Start Up
Two podcasts from a new podcasting network founded by This American Life producer Alex Blumburg. Reply All tell stories about the people behind the internet and Start Up is a recursive look at founding a podcasting network.

99% Invisible
An short and to the point show on design and architecture.

Grow Edible
Homesteading advice from Seattle blogger Erica Straus.

Do you have a favorite podcast? Leave a comment!

Saturday Tweets: Gluten, Complete Streets and Badass Free Libraries

How to Subscribe to a Podcast

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First, I want to thank all of you who have subscribed, listened to and given us feedback on our podcast. I think there are many more of you who might like our podcast but are flustered by the user-unfriendly technology of podcasting.

You can, of course, just use the player that we embed in our podcast blog posts. But then you can’t do your dishes or listen to us natter on during your commute to work. If you’ve got a mobile device you can subscribe and have the podcast automatically downloaded via:

When I’ve got some menial chores I make sure to load up my cast-off iPhone with my favorite podcasts. I’ll share some the podcasts I listen to in a future blog post.

039 Climate Change and Be-cycling With Peter Kalmus

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Our guest this week is Peter Kalmus who is, among many things, a physicist, a climate scientist, a gardener, a beekeeper, a cyclist and the father of two boys. In our conversation he discusses his “Be-Cycling” response to climate change. Through a series of lifestyle changes he has reduced his personal CO2 emissions from 20 tonnes a year–which is about the US national average–to two tonnes. And he says he’s had a great time doing it. During the podcast he also touches on:

  • His transition from astrophysics to climate science and why he made the switch.
  • The carbon footprint of climate science.
  • Not giving climate skeptics any more airtime.
  • The disconnect between evidence and action.
  • Meditation.
  • Techo-fixes vs. “pulling back.”
  • Figuring out your carbon footprint.
  • Avoiding flying.
  • The carbon footprint of food.
  • Becoming a vegetarian.
  • Dumpster diving.
  • Growing food.
  • RIPE Altadena.

You can find out more about Peter through his be-cycling website. You can also download an excerpt of his book-in-progress (pdf) and see slides from one of his talks (pdf).

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

With bonus plantain!

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I was cruising the nursery aisles when three of my favorite words caught my eye: dandelion, chickweed and plantain.

I read the print on this bag as saying “Contains dandelion, chickweed and plantain” and–apparently drifting in my own fantasy world where things make sense, instead of the world in which we actually live–I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fantastic! All three in one bag for easy seeding.”

Then I looked again and realized that the text read “Controls” not “Contains.”  It was–of course– a bag of weed n’ feed lawn stimulator–chock full of poison for killing my favorite edibles and medicinals  (as well as, I admit, some pretty intractable grasses).

Not a large bag of wild seed to make your yard into a giant salad bowl.

I’d like to return to my fantasy world now, please.

The Flow Hive: a Solution in Search of a Problem

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This week so many people have forwarded me links to this Indigogo pitch for a new kind of beehive called the Flow™ that I feel I’ve got to respond and let you all know what I think of the idea.

On the slim chance you haven’t been forwarded the pitch yet, the Flow™ Hive is a honey super that you can extract honey from without having to open the hive and remove frames. It’s like a cross between a beehive and a beer tap.  My problem with this design is mostly symbolic.

Conceptually, the idea that a beehive is like a beer keg you can tap is troublesome. A beehive is a living thing, not a machine for our exploitation. I’m a natural beekeeper and feel that honey harvests must be done with caution and respect. To us, beekeeping is, at the risk of sounding a little melodramatic– a sacred vocation. We are in relationship with our backyard hive, and feel our role is to support them, and to very occasionally accept the gift of excess honey. For new beekeepers, and for people who are not beekeepers, beekeeping is all about the honey. “How much honey do you get from your hives? ” is the first question people ask us. But in our minds, the honey matters very little. What we get we consider precious, and use for medicine more than sweetening.

So that’s where we come from, and if you understand that, you’ll understand why we look askance at this “bee keg.” It reinforces our culture’s unfortunate dualistic view of nature that says all of creation is ours for our exploitation–our convenient exploitation.

On a more practical level, it seems to me that the ease of the tapping could lead inexperienced beekeepers to over-tap the hive.

Now, the inventors say this system is less stressful to the hive, because you don’t have to remove the frames for harvest, or even to check to see if the frames are ready for harvest.  And this is true. It is a novel system, where the plastic comb is built so that frame splits open and lets the honey drain out secretly, as it were, so while the bees are not disturbed by the lifting of frames, they periodically discover that all their work has just vanished into thin air.

This novel plastic foundation is key to this system. Under it, the bees do no building of their own. They are set to live in a tower of prefabricated plastic cells. As a natural beekeeper I  don’t use foundation at all, as bees are by nature builders, and I believe they build the best homes for themselves. I would not presume to define the scope and size of their home.

Another concern for me is honey robbing.  Pictures on the Flow™ Hive site also show honey dripping from the hive into open jars. In our region, this would set off a robbing frenzy as other hives in the area discover free, open air honey. When robbing gets going the bees in the hive get very defensive and stinging of people and animals nearby can result. Other photos on the site show the harvest tubes connected to lidded jars, which would be a lot safer. But I don’t think lidded harvest systems are included in the price of the set up.

Speaking of the price: It’s $460 for just the contraption or $600 for a brood box and the Flow™ Hive. I can buy two unassembled Lanstroth boxes with frames for around $40. A top and bottom board ads a few bucks. Some folks build top bar hives entirely from free scrap lumber.

All in all, to me this invention seems like a solution in search of a problem. It’s not difficult to peek in the top of the hive, take out a few honey frames and replace them with empty frames. It’s true that you have to take precautions: honey harvests should be done swiftly, deliberately and gracefully. But that’s not hard if you just make sure you’ve got everything ready before you open the hive.

As of this morning the inventors have raised an astonishing $1.2 million USD on a $70,000 campaign. I can’t help but think that the money would be better spent on researching natural beekeeping methods.

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