A Backyard Bioshelter

Jonathan Bates of Holyoke, Massachusetts has a nifty greenhouse he calls his “backyard bioshelter.” He uses it to grows veggies year round in a climate that often goes well below 0°F. An aquaponics setup and a worm bin are also integrated into the shelter. And he’s even trying to grow avocados!

You can keep up with what he’s doing on his blog at permaculturegreenhouse.com.

Thanks to the Natural Building Blog for the link.

Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land

book cover for "growing food in a hotter drier land"

We just got our hands on Gary Paul Nabhan’s newest book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I heard about this book on the grapevine a good while back, and requested a review copy from the publisher because we’ve met Gary and like his work. Getting free books once in a while is one of the perks of blogging. This book, though, I would lay down cash for in a heartbeat.

At the time I made the request, I merely though it would be an interesting read. In the wake of the Age of Limits Conference, and my subsequent reading about climate change–and the depression that resulted from that–its fortuitous arrival this week has given me much to think about, as well as a much needed infusion of hope.

I leaned a terrible word at the conference: hopium (Hope + Opium). This is a doomer term for any practice or philosophy that would give us false hope, or perhaps any hope at all. It has a satirical counterpoint: despairoin (Despair + Heroin), which speaks to the seductive nature of despair.

Nabhan’s book is neither hopium or despairoin. It’s sublimely realistic. He’s looking with clear eyes at a future which is going to be hot and dry (except when it’s flooding, of course.).

This hot, dry future is not limited to already hot dry places, like Los Angeles. He points to recent droughts in places which usually receive generous rainfall. Right now it seems as if this tendency toward drought is occurring on a global scale and will worsen in coming years.

Unfortunately, conventional, large scale agriculture is not only adding to the problem, it will also not be able to deal with the changes in the making. It is ill-suited to chaotic weather. In sum, if we don’t start growing food in different ways, we’re not only looking at a dry future, we’re looking at a hungry future.

To solve this puzzle, Nabhan takes a look at at existing desert agriculture, from the Sonoran desert to China to Oman. From the ancient past right up into the present, humans have been cleverly managing their water, soil and plants to gather harvests from some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. We have much to learn from them.

Over and over he points out that we’re not meant to replicate the exact methods of these desert farmers, but learn from them and adapt them to our own particular situation and climate.

To help us do this, he breaks down the methodologies into conceptual chunks, like catching runoff, using efficient water delivery systems, easing heat stress in both plants and animals, tips on orcharding in uncertain climates, choosing stress tolerant and/or quick maturing plant varieties, etc.  All of this information is supported with helpful tables and plant lists.

While some of his information is only going to be useful to people with large-ish parcels of land, I found plenty of inspiration in here for my tiny yard.

Woven between this practical information is separate body of information which he calls parables. A parable is story he tells us about a current dry land farmer, or stories from the past which can be pulled from history or the archeological records. These parables provide a sort of emotional bolster to the otherwise “dry” information, giving us a glimpse of the lived experience and philosophies of people who have thrived in difficult climates.

Some of the key positive characteristics of a dry land farmer are adaptability, resilience and persistence. What worked for us in the past is not always going to work in the future. We must know our land intimately, make good guesses, and be creative about developing  strategies to distribute risk.

Gardening is hard enough, heaven knows. The bad news is that it is going to get harder. The good news is that you can work your way through the challenges. Their are tools, techniques, and plant varieties that can help you weather the changes. Better to start learning these skills now than to wait for the squeeze.

A Vision for the Future

The part of the book which really set me on fire, though, was a talk Nabhan had with a Sufi visionary, Aziz Bousfiha, who lives in the dry outskirts of Fez, Morocco. There, he’s built a dryland paradise, lush with heat adapted fruit trees, like pomegranates, mulberries and jujubes. He also grows olives, agave, citrus and poetic herbs like lavender and coriander.

Bousfiha has built an oasis in a difficult climate and envisions of chain of oases spread around the world: oases for both nature and humanity. These oases are not carefully preserved bits of paradise, but rather are reclaimed from degraded spaces:

For me, the idea is to go somewhere into the desert [to find a place share with others–one severely degraded over time by neglect, depletion of water, a perhaps climate change]. We’ll proclaim that yes, this place has been desertified, but now we’re going to make it into a living oasis, one where we will respect and nurture a diversity of life.

He goes on to speak about the importance of bio-diversity, and how this chain of oasis-like farms could promote this, and serve the larger community. Then he says,

We will generate solidarity between people on and off the farm, who will begin to walk the long road of ancient wisdom together. They will bring back the old grains of the region as symbols of the seeds of wisdom that we must plant. Over the centuries, these ancient sees have adapted to place. It is just not just a natural ecosystem, but a cultural ecosystem as well.

At the end of the conversation, he’s asked how he thinks his vision will fly in the face of climate change. He laughed gently and replied,

I can’t waste time worrying about whether or not this will work. There is a proverb in Arabic–and [probably] similar ones in other languages that may say it all: If it looks like the last day of the world is upon us and the end of life may be coming…and you realize this moment while you are planting trees, well, don’t stop planting.

If this is hopium, give me more.

Los Angeles is a sad and degraded space, and the Root Simple Estate is already an oasis of sorts, but Nabhan’s book has inspired us to max it out, to do as much as we can to capture and recycle water, to improve our soil, to start breeding out tough-as-nails annuals, to develop more effective “guilds” (in Permaculture speak). In regular talk that means we plan manage our landscaping wisely, so the plants support one another.

I’d encourage you to think of your own little patch of the world as an oasis too. How can you help make it more resilient to the shocks of strange weather?  How can you forge links with other oasis keepers?

Connect with Nature Project #2: Rediscover Your Feet

When I was a kid, I watched Kung Fu every day after school, and loved this iconic scene from the opening where Caine walks the rice paper without leaving a mark to graduate from Kung Fu college. Turns out Fox Walking is similar.

Last week we talked about Sitting. This week, we’re talking about Walking.

My personal rediscovery of my feet came from three sources:

The first was yoga. During an intense engagement with yoga a few years back I learned to spread my fashion-cramped toes in order to ground myself during difficult asanas. My toes opened wide, taking on a permanent, natural splay. My foot size also increased by an inconvenient half size, making it newly difficult to find shoes which fit.

Next came barefoot walking. As has been oft mentioned in this blog, Erik is a barefoot runner. I don’t run, but I am a barefoot walker. Barefoot walking woke me to a world of forgotten sensations: the warm softness of asphalt, the fresh coolness of a sprinkler soaked sidewalk, the delicate slide of wet leaves beneath my toes. Feet are as sensitive as hands. It’s easy to forget this when shod.  This new stimulus was addictive. It enriched my walks. It connected me to an entirely new realm of sensory input.

The third stage was learning a technique called Fox walking through nature awareness classes I take through a great outfit here in SoCal called Earth Skills. Fox walking is a kind of mindful walking where you let your toes lead your foot and your foot leads your body. I’m going to teach it to you. Fox walking allows you to walk quietly and smoothly though natural settings. It’s primary purpose is stalking animals, because the gait you assume, ideally, does not startle them. Basically, they do not recognize it as human. It also allows you to walk while scanning the environment, instead of worrying about your steps.

Since I’m not a hunter, what Fox walking has done for me is waken my feet even more than barefoot walking. I now consider my feet antennae. In class, I’ve walked blindfolded through difficult terrain. I now can walk confidently in darkness. This opens a whole new world of night-time nature appreciation. When you are blinded by your own flashlight, your field of vision is confined to a small circle of light. The world outside that ghostly circle seems mysterious, even threatening. Walking without light allows you to see the stars, and the shapes of things. You walk slower, yes, so you see and understand more.

To anyone seeking closer contact with nature, I’d recommend considering your own two feet. They are the primary interface between you and the earth, but they are often neglected and abused, shoved into hoof-like boxes, forcing you to clomp around as if you are numb from the knee down. How can you know the earth if you can’t even feel it?

The simplest way to reconnect with your feet is to just take short walk with bare feet. Grass and sand are great , but don’t wait until you have somewhere “nice” to walk. Go for a sidewalk stroll around your neighborhood. Now that summer is here, it’s a good time for it.

Don’t go very far at first, or your arches will ache later, or your tender soles may be sore. A half-block may be enough to start!  Let your feet toughen up slowly, over the course of weeks. If you want to take a long walk, but can only barefoot it so far, take a pair of sandals with you. If you’re dubious about the whole proposition, just kick off your shoes one day while you’re out on a walk and see how it feels. I think you might be surprised how much you come to enjoy barefoot walking.

For more advanced studies, I recommend the Fox Walk.

How to Fox Walk

  1. It’s best to do this with light, flexible foot wear, such as slippers or moccasins or fancy minimalist shoes or heck, go barefoot, if you can.
  2. Take a relaxed stance. Keep your knees soft and springy, even slightly bent.
  3. Take your arms out of the picture. No swinging arms. Fox Walking is not striding, it’s creeping. Clasp your hands in front of you or hold them bent softly at your sides. Whatever is most comfortable. Just keep them still.
  4. Lift one foot, transferring all your weight to your grounded foot. Lead with the toe. Let the ball of the foot, touch earth first. Before committing to lowering your heel, pause to feel what your foot senses. Don’t look, feel. Is the ground firm? Is there a stick beneath you toes? A hole? Maybe you will shift your foot over and around it. Maybe you sense your foot can bridge it comfortably. Make your decision, and lower your heel softly. Caress the ground with your foot.
  5. Now shift your weight to the committed leg, lift your rearmost leg  (now light and unencumbered by your weight), and reach out with that foot. Make the same determination regarding the ground. Let all your awareness sink into your feet, and beyond. Let it stretch deep into the ground and all around. Trust the sensations you are picking up.
  6. This is how it goes: reaching with the foot, sensing, committing, rolling down in a silent, caressing footstep. Remember, caressing, not stomping! Weight shift. Repeat. It becomes smoother, faster, more automatic, with practice.
  7. All the while, your head is up. Don’t look at your feet! If you do, they can’t do their job right. Keep your head high, scan around with soft eyes, taking in the beauty of the world. Your feet, meanwhile, are engaged in their own conversation with the earth, and feeding that information back to you. This is a magical kind of walking.

Obviously, you have to be very careful when you do this. This is a mindfulness practice. The goal is not to get somewhere fast, the goal is to experience every step of the journey in a completely conscious way.

And as to danger, I’ve never hurt myself during this practice. I’ve never stumbled while blindfolded or in the dark. I trust my feet. I stub my toes when I’m unmindful and in a hurry. I trip and fall in shoes, when my connection with the ground is severed.

Once you are comfortable walking this way, you can use your walk as a moving meditation. Instead of Sitting, you can move through nature, practicing the same quiet mind.

You can also use this method to walk softly to your Sitting place, so you don’t alarm the critters on the way in.

Enjoy!

Self-watering terracotta seed-starters!

Plant a garden front

Root Simple reader and all around nice person Anne Fletcher has gone entrepreneurial with a really good idea: self-watering containers for seedlings. Most anyone who has ever tried to start a garden from seeds has had the experience of having seedlings die or go shocky due to a heat wave or a day or two of neglect. Starting seeds in a self-watering container makes a whole lot of sense. These containers can go up to a week between waterings. Even better, Anne’s seed starters are made out of terracotta instead of plastic. We’ve tried out her 6-pack model. It’s really cute, and it worked like a charm.

Now she’s doing a Kickstarter so she can move her business, Orta, out of the garage and produce a technically more complex 12-pack seed-starter.  So if you’re interested in getting first grabs at her new 12-pack model, or just willing to give a hand to someone trying to start a green, local business, take a look at her Kickstarter page, and let your friends know about it, too.

12-pack