Hay Boxes or Fireless Cookers

Illustration from The Fireless Cook Book

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Jessica from Holland sent us a letter recently praising our work, but very, very gently scolding us not including the hay box, a groovy old energy saving technology, in our book. We do stand corrected! And her enthusiasm for hay boxes has reignited our interest, too.

We actually considered hay boxes for Making It, but didn’t end up building one for a variety of reasons, including just plain running out of time. But I have to admit one of the primary reasons was that natural gas here is really inexpensive, so the cost savings of starting and finishing a pot of soup on the stove, vs. starting a pot of soup on the stove and finishing it in a box, just wasn’t compelling enough for me to make a lifestyle change. This is a silly excuse–water is also inexpensive here, but I’m obsessed about saving that resource. I guess a lot of what we choose to do just comes down to our various quirks and passions.

I’m thankful to Jessica for reminding me of the hay box. I believe that my New Year’s resolution will be to meditate on the sources and real costs (in terms of the environment, human health, etc.) of gas and electricity, and work on new ways to conserve energy. The hay box, or fireless cooker, may be one of these strategies.

What the heck is a hay box?

Sorry if I’m leaving some of you out of the loop. A hay box aka fireless cooker is a very old fuel saving technology, which perhaps has its origins in Scandinavia.  It is simply an insulated box that you put a hot pot of food into, and leave it all day (or all night) to finish cooking. It’s the forerunner of the crockpot.

This cooking technique isn’t limited to hay boxes. The same concept is used by people who put oats and boiling water into a Thermos at bedtime and enjoy the finished oatmeal in the morning, or by campers who wrap their sleeping bags around a cooking pot so they’ll have hot food when they get back to camp.

As far as I can tell, no one is selling fireless cookers made in the old style, but they are quite easily fabricated at home–or improvised in emergencies. However, if you are in a buying mood, a very similar technology exists in something called thermal cookware. These are essentially giant Thermoses–I’m including a link to a random example of one on Amazon here.

Why would you want to build a fireless cooker?

  • To save time at the stove
  • To have food ready when you get up, or come home from work
  • To save energy, because you’re a do-gooder.
  • To save energy, because energy is expensive/unreliable where you live.
  • To learn this technology well so you’ll know how to use it in case of emergencies. (A fireless cooker combined with something that can boil water, like a camp stove or a rocket stove, would be a great combo for any emergency, long or short.)

Okay, so how do you build one?

It’s really simple. You’re just insulating a pot. There are many ways to do it, including simply bundling the pot up in a bunch of quilts. But if you’re going to do this regularly, you probably want a more stable system than that. You’ll want to build a box.

First, though, you should probably start with your pot and build from there. This technique works best when the pot is full, so you’ll want to choose a soup pot/dutch oven sort of pot that is the right size for you and your family. It should have a lid, obviously, and should be made of something can come and go off the stove top–i.e. no ceramic.

 Once you’ve chosen your pot, you’ll need a box to keep it in. This box should allow enough space for at least 4″ of insulation all around your pot. (We’ll talk about the insulation next.) So the pot height/pot width plus at least 8″= the minimum dimensions of your box.

The cooker could be anything sturdy with a lid, but the tighter built, the better. A big cooler would work great. I’ve just had a crazy inspiration that one of those newfangled ottomans that are hollow inside for stashing away your junk when company comes would also work nicely!

You can make a “two holer” if you want to have the ability to cook more than one dish at a time. In that case you might be able to build one in a hall bench or a big toy chest or trunk. If you can’t scavenge anything, you could build a wooden box with a hinged lid. A well-insulated, box-style solar oven can do double duty as a fireless cooker, too. Whatever you choose, the box should have a lid that either latches or can be weighed down so it closes securely.

If your box is not built pretty much airtight–say it’s pieced together out of wood–you should seal it up before you insulate it. In old manuals they recommend gluing a layer of  paper all over the interior. You might choose to use tin foil or a Mylar space blanket. A space blanket would help reflect heat no matter what your box is made of.

Then you need to choose an insulating material.

Early 20th century options, as per old books:

  • Hay or straw, cut fine
  • Sawdust
  • Wool (they mention this is the best material)
  • Southern moss
  • Ground cork (it seems fruit used to be shipped in this!)
  • Softwood shavings (“excelsior”)

Contemporary recycled options:

  • Styrofoam or foam. Carving a pot-shaped hole into a block that fit your chest would be the best, but scraps could work, too.
  • Shredded paper. At last, something to do with all those bills!
  • Cotton or polyester batting taken from old pillows or quilts. 
  • Wool in the form of cast off sweaters and blankets, perhaps shredded?
  • This might sound nuts, but if you cut down a bunch of weeds, let them dry and chop them up, they would work as well as hay. Straw has that nice hollow stem construction which probably holds heat better than hay, but some weeds have the same sort of stems.
  • Note: I’d discourage using fiberglass insulation for safety reasons. It’s nasty to work with and you don’t want to risk any of it getting in your food.

    Fill the box up all the way with insulation. The box should be filled to the top, but the material shouldn’t be packed so tightly that there’s no airspace. Tiny air pockets are where the magic happens.

    Next, make a permanent nest for your pot in the box by hollowing out a pot-shaped hole in the insulation material. Line that hole, as well as the top surface of the insulation, with a one big piece of fabric. Secure that fabric to around the edges of the box with staples or something. That will allow you to lift the pot in and out easily and will also keep bits of insulation out of your food.

    The final insulation step is to make or find a cushion sized to fill all the empty space in the box from the top of your pot to the closed lid. It should be fat enough that you have to use a little pressure to close the lid. There should be no open space at the top of the box. And again, the lid must latch or otherwise secure tightly. In the image at the top you can see the two cushions that come with that set up.

    It’s often easier to understand something just by looking at pictures. If you do an image search for hay box, you’ll see lots of them, many improvised quickly. Whereas searching fireless cooker brings up more antique images.

    A fireless cooker from a 19th century German catalog, image courtesy Wikimedia.

    Cooking with the Hay Box

    Okay, this is all very theoretical for me because I haven’t done it yet, but this is what I know, and I hope those with experience will comment to help us newbies out.

    The cooker is perfect for anything you’d associate with a crockpot, like pot roasts and other stewed meats, soups and stews and chile, bean dishes and also hot cereals, polenta, whole grains and rice.

    First, it’s pretty much impossible to offer up exact cooking times. It’s going to vary by both quantity of food and the construction of your box. In short, you’re going to have to play with it.

    But the gist of it is that you start your cooking on the stove. If, for instance, you’re doing an initial saute, you’d do that first, then you’d add all your ingredients and liquids and bring it up to a simmer (for how long may vary by recipe–the old cook book I’m consulting most often recommends 10 minutes boiling on the stove for meaty dishes, but if I suspect for non-meat things you could just bring it to a boil and then take it off immediately) then move it to the box to finish cooking. A good box should hold heat for 8 hours. The actual cook time will be less–how much less will vary by dish. But it will not burn or overcook and it will keep warm until you’re ready to eat.

    I’ve heard that in general you would use less water than with stove top cooking because there’s no evaporation.
     
    Here’s some of Jessica’s tips:

    Suggestion: put the beans/lentils/wheat/rice/peas in a thermos flask together with the absorbable amount of boiling water/stock. Do this in the morning. In the evening you have a thermos with still warm and well-cooked food. With just a few seconds of boiling water. Think of the hours per month that you can turn off the stove and still have warm, cooked food!
     …

    It works fine with other things as well:
    Eggs: put pan with eggs and boiling water in, take out of hay chest after 10 minutes (or more, or less, depending on your experience.
    Vegetables: take out of hay chest after 110 to 125% of ordinary cooking time. Experiment! Don’t use a lot of water.
    Stock… why not?


    It even works with things like meat balls and chicken wings. Have the meat on high fire until the outside develops the right crust or color, then keep in hay chest for xx time until inside is ‘done’,

    Mr. Google can lead you to various resources on this technology, but my favorite resource so far is this old book: The Fireless Cook Book by Margaret Mitchell (1909), which is actually both a construction manual and a cookbook–a wonderful crusty old cookbook with recipes for things like Mock Turtle Soup. You can read it online at Archive.org, or download a pdf or even as an e-reader file–for free!

    Do you have any recipes, tips or techniques to share? Please do!

    An obligatory nanny-state warning: If food drops below 140F (60C) for an hour or more, bad bacteria can move in. You might want to take the temperature of your food when you pull it out of the box and see where it is. If it has dropped below that temperature, put it on the stove and rewarm it to at least 165F(74C).

    Earthquake Proofing the Pantry

    So I finally got around to earthquake proofing the pantry. All it took was a bunch of four foot bungee cords which seemed to have just about the right amount of stretch to span our seven foot shelves. You could probably use the same four foot bungee cords to span an even longer shelf. I used eye hooks to anchor the ends of the cords.

    Looking at the picture, the height of the cords on some of the shelves might not be optimal (looks like some of the jars could slip under in a good shaking). But, all in all, I’m pleased with the results.

    Erik’s EDC

    It’s about time I listed my “everyday carry” or “EDC” for short. For those of you not familiar with the EDC subculture, there are entire websites devoted to posting, critiquing and obsessing over the items you carry every singe day (not, say, just when going on a hike). I went through somewhat of an EDC mid-life crisis last month and emerged on the other side with the following items:

    1. A nice Saddleback Leather Wallet that Mrs. Homegrown bought for me after she got sick of my ugly overstuffed old wallet.

    2. My old Leatherman that I use every single day.

    3. A mini pen–I got a box of 12 from an office supply place. It fits nicely in a pocket and I don’t have to worry about losing it.

    4. Ferrocerium Fire Starter “nanoSTRIKER” –this neat little tool has a blade and a ferrocerium rod. You strike the blade against the rod and you get a shower of sparks.

    5. Small keychain pill holders–the red one contains a cotton ball soaked in Vaseline to use as kindling with the fire starter. The blue one contains ibuprofen (I’m a runner) and Benadryl (for insect stings).

    6. MAGLITE K3A016 AAA Solitaire Flashlight. I had tried a smaller flashlight that used watch batteries, but it had a tendency to open up in my pocket and those watch batteries are expensive. This one has not turned on accidentally or opened up.

    You’ll notice that I don’t have a cellphone–Mrs. Homegrown and I share an old one with next to no battery life and I don’t have it with me everyday. That may change soon when we switch plans. And I’ll admit I have yet to use the fero rod for anything other than a bizarre time killer when I deliver lectures to college students.

    What’s your EDC? Comments . . . 

    Many thanks to Jack Spirko of the Survival Podcast for the handy EDC list he put together that turned me on to those pill holders and fero rods. And read an interesting interview with Bernard Capulong, founder of EDC.com, here.

    Scott’s Pepsi-G Stove

    If you’ve ever backpacked any distance you’ll appreciate the need to reduce weight, taken to its logical extreme by the sort of folks who cut their toothbrushes in half. This ultra-light subculture, to our benefit, seems to be populated by engineering types who like to create useful lists and detailed instructions. And, even if you don’t backpack, these innovative ideas can be used in your emergency preparedness plans.

    One of my favorite ultra-light backpacking gadgets is the Pepsi can stove, which has reappeared on the interwebs, after a prolonged absence, here.

    To make a Pepsi stove you take the bottom of a 12 oz Pepsi can and the bottom of a Guinness Draught can and, after a series of precise cuts and pin pricks you end up with a nifty cooking stove that uses denatured alcohol or methanol (both easily obtained at any hardware store) as fuel.

    Efficiency-wise, if you consider the ratio of weight to heat output, you’re better off with a commercial backpacking stove and fuel canisters. But such stoves are expensive and the fuel canisters are only available at camping and sporting goods stores. The nice thing about the Pepsi can stove is that it’s almost free to make and you can find the fuel at any hardware store. I keep both a Pepsi can stove and a MSR backpacking stove in my backpack. That way I’ve got a backup in case one fails to work.

    Mrs. Homegrown here:

    I thought I’d toss in a little more detail for those of you unfamiliar with the concept. A Pepsi can stove is tiny and very light weight, good for two things–ultralight backpacking and as a simple cooking device for what some people call a bug out bag–emergency gear that is ready to grab and go.

    I’ve taken one with me backpacking, as my only stove. It works fine, but it is limited in its capabilities. It can boil a cup or so of water at a time, enough to make one person a hot drink, or enough water to rehydrate a pouch of something. You certainly can’t make pancakes over one, and if you have a family to serve, you might want to consider carrying more than one of these stoves.

    My camping set up included the stove, a sawed off Foster’s can (you know, those extra large beer cans) as a cooking pot, a circle of chicken wire to balance the Foster’s can upon over the stove, and a bit of foil to block wind. It all tucked inside the Foster’s can for transport and weighted hardly anything. Oh, and I kept the fuel in one of those plastic collapsible water bottles.

    As Erik says, a lightweight camping stove and proper fuel canister is a much more flexible and powerful option, but little Pepsi can stoves can’t be beat for price or weight.

    Here’s our 2006 post on the same subject–along with a nice photo of ours burning.

    Emergency Supplies: It’s all about the lids

    Above you see one five gallon bucket transformed into a toilet, and another into a food storage container, by virtue of specialty lids.

    The toilet seat lid I have here is called Luggable Loo Seat Cover and, miraculously, it is made in Canada. I bought it at REI.

    The other lid is called a Gamma Seal, and it is USA made. Do I see a trend, here? Anyway, this I found at an Army surplus store. The Gamma Seal is a two part lid that fits most 3-7 gallon buckets. One part of the lid is an adapter ring that snaps on the rim bucket. (“Snaps” is a euphemism for “Fits on after straining, swearing, hammering and finally calling for the husband.” In the end, Erik held it down while I beat it–er–I mean, snapped it into place.)  The lid itself spins and seals with a gasket. This gives it a nice, bug and moisture proof seal for all sorts of storage needs, transforming your ordinary buckets into superbuckets.

    The set up above is actually a birthday gift for a friend who’s expressed interest in being better prepared for emergencies. Especially as regards what we like to call “Toilet Freedom.” Okay, so a toilet doesn’t scream birthday–but you know, she’s used to us and our ways.

    We’re giving her the black bucket and matching loo seat with a plastic bag full of wood shavings inside and a tp roll, so it’s ready to rock as a composting toilet. (For more on composting toilets, see this post of ours  or go straight to the source, The Humanure Handbook.)

    The green bucket holds enough preservative-filled, ready-to-eat food to hold her for a day or two without access to cooking water or a stove. I deliberately chose foods that she wouldn’t be tempted to eat prior to the natural disaster/zombie attack. Not gross things–you don’t want to be challenging your stomach in an emergency–but kind of boring things, such as plain crunchy granola bars, as opposed to the tempting, chewy, chocolate-dipped variety. There’s also some raisins in there, pop-top tuna cans, applesauce cups and peanut butter crackers.

    There’s plenty of room for her to add more, depending on what she wants to be prepared for. And there are so many types of emergencies to choose from! I mean really, where do we start? She might want to add some dehydrated stuff and drink mixes for situations in which she has plenty of water and a fire source. It’s nice to have hot food, even if it is packed with sodium. Or for longer emergencies, she might want to consider storing fast cooking dry goods, like white rice and lentils, and high calorie foods, like oil, peanut butter and honey.

    Sealed buckets like this are also a good place to store other things you’ll need in an emergency, including medications, first aid kits, extra glasses and copies of important documents.

    A few snacks in a five gallon bucket won’t feed a person forever, but it’s a start. It can make the difference between misery and comfort for the first day or two after a disaster. In disaster preparedness, don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Do what you can. Everything helps.

    With these two buckets we’ve got food and sanitation covered. The third big category–and perhaps the most vital of all– is stored water, which our friend already has under control. For tips on water storage, see our recent post on water storage.

    Free Preparedness E-Books

    Camp loom, for making mats and mattresses from the 1911 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook

    Through a circuitous bit of aimless interweb searching I came across a huge list of downloadable urban homesteading/gardening/survivalist manuals on a site called hardcorepreppers.com. Unfortunately, this site is so popular that it seems to be down every time I’ve checked. But thanks to Google’s caching feature I was able to access a list of those documents. Here’s a curated set of just a few of those links (through the letter “f”) that I found interesting. I can’t vouch for the reliability of any of this information but at least it’s entertaining. And if you have any other favorite free e-book sources please leave a link in the comments. At some point I’ll direct the Root Simple staff to add these and more to our resource page.

    Food and Gardening
    Bulk Sprouter
    Bread Without an Oven
    Building Soils for Better Crops
    Colorado State University–Drying Vegetables
    Collecting, Cutting and Handling Potato Seed
    Everything Under The Sun: Food Storage for the Solar Oven

    Medicine
    Making Chinese Herbal Formulas Into Alcohol Extracts 
    The Ayurveda Encyclopedia Natural Secrets to Healing Prevention and Longevity
    How to Make Cannabis Foods and Medicines
    The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees

    Energy
    Biogas
    Biomass Stoves
    Build your own Rocket Stove
    Camp Stoves and Fireplaces

    Transportation
    Bicycle Know How

    Zombie Apocalypse Skills (or “ZAS” since everything associated with the zombie apocalypse needs an acronym)
    50 Emergency Uses for Your Camera Phone
    Map Reading and Land Navigation
    Boy Scouts Handbook 1911 Edition
    Bug out Bag
    5 Ways to Win a Fight 
    Guerilla Warfare by Che Guevara 
    Cold Weather Survival
    Field Expedient Direction Finding

    Emergency water storage

    We’re finally ready for The Big One. In terms of emergency preparedness, we were pretty well set in terms of food, light, fuel, etc., but we didn’t have much water. Just some jugs, a rain barrel that’s empty most of the year, and the water in our hot water tank. This lack made me nervous, so we finally did took the bull by the horns–or the bung hole…

     How much water should you store? 

    1 gallon of water per person per day. This is the minimal amount necessary for drinking, cooking and very basic hygiene. If you live somewhere it can get beastly hot, factor in extra water for drinking. In scorching temps you’ll need a gallon per person a day just for hydration.

    Expect you’ll need at least a two week supply. That’s a minimum 14 gallons per household member. Then be sure to add extra water for pets and livestock. When we considered all of that, it seemed like a 55 gallon drum was not too much for the two of us and our pets. Ideally, we’d store more. It doesn’t rain here 3/4 of the year, and there isn’t any natural water source nearby. A second drum might be in our future.

    What we’re using:

    We shelled out the money for a brand new, food grade 55 gallon drum. The reason we didn’t go with a much cheaper used food grade drum is because some food stuffs leave behind residues which is impossible to clean from the drum. These might just manifest as off odors that make the water smell and taste bad, or they might even contain tiny traces of food will lead to bacterial growth during long term storage. For example, it is impossible to clean away traces of dairy, no matter how hard you scrub. It seemed better to just pay the extra money than to worry about it.

    I don’t like plastic much, but short of buidling a concrete cistern or something like that, the only other similar option would be to buy a stainless steel drum. I’d much prefer to do so, but new ones priced out in the $800 to $1000 range. 

    Accessories for the barrel:

    There are two vital accessories that go with any 55 gallon drum: a bung wrench (see pic above) to open and close the drum’s bung holes easily (it apparently can also be used as a gas shut-off wrench) and a siphon pump to get the water out of the drum. There are nice, solid pumps sold for frequent use, but we got a cheap one ($20) and hope it will hold up in our hour of need.  All our equipment came from a surplus store, but many retailers can be found with a little simple googling.

    Alternatives:

    You might find sturdy 5 gallon water containers more versatile, both for handling and storage. And choosing them instead of a drum will preserve you from ever having to say “bung hole” out loud. Just make sure they are strong, BPA free, and suited both for stacking and long term storage. The less expensive ones may leak, and can’t be stacked. Find them at outdoor and surplus stores, and online.

    If you want to recycle, you can store water in plastic 2 liter soda bottles. Don’t use the white milk jug-type containers (whether they held milk or juice) because they don’t age well and don’t seal well. Glass jars are nice because they’re not plastic, but they are heavy and must be carefully stored.

    You can just store commercially bottled water. If you do this, change it out according to the expiry date.

    Cleaning the container:

    Whatever container you use, clean it first by washing with soap and water if necessary, then rinsing it out with a mild bleach solution (1 tsp in a quart of water). Bleach is what The Authorities always recommend. I’m no fan of bleach, but in this case have decided to toe the line instead of trying vinegar instead, because I just don’t want to take any risks in this case.

    Filling the container:

    City water is already treated with chlorine or chlorine variants, so if your house water comes from a municipal supply line you don’t have to treat it by adding extra chlorine or iodine prior to storage. You can store untreated city water for 6 months.

    If your water comes from a well or other untreated source, then you should treat it prior to storage by adding 1/8 teaspoon of regular, unscented chlorine bleach to each gallon of water.  

    Treating dodgy water:

    If you suspect that your water is contaminated–for instance, if after an emergency you doubt the cleanliness of the water from the tap, you should take steps to purify it before drinking. These are things to commit to memory, or maybe pin on the fridge, because in an emergency, you probably will not be able to check the internet.

    Boil it:  If you have the fuel, you can purify water by bringing it to a rolling boil for 1 to 3 minutes. 

    Bleach it: Even if you’re a bleach hater, like me, you should keep a small bottle of unscented, regular (not color safe, thickened, etc.) chlorine bleach on hand for emergencies.

    Add 16 drops (1/4 teaspoon) of bleach to each gallon of water. Shake, and let sit for 30 minutes before drinking.

    Iodine: If you have liquid 2% tincture of iodine, add 5 drops per quart. If you have tablets, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Apparently adding a pinch of powdered vitamin C or orange drink hides the iodine flavor. And prevents scurvy!

    The preceding directions are for clean-looking water. If your water is cloudy, you will want to try to filter it as best you can to remove sediment (filter it though a coffee filter or t-shirt or somesuch), and then be extra rigorous in the purification. Boil longer. If you’re using bleach, you should be able (unfortunately) to detect a faint odor of bleach in your water after treatment. If you don’t, it’s not clean. Repeat the process. If you’re using iodine, use 10 drops per quart instead of 5.

    ETA: Forgot! Another way to disinfect water in an emergency situation is through solar water disinfection, or SODIS. Basically you fill up a clear plastic (PET) liter bottle–it has to be clear, and it can’t be bigger than a liter–and put it in intense sun for 6 hours. Filter the water first if it’s dirty. See AfriGadget for details.

    Storage length:

    Stored water should be swapped out for fresh every six months (except for commercially bottled water–again, check the expiry date on that). Use the old water for your garden, sanitize the containers and refill. We’ve got the swap date marked on our calendar so we don’t forget.

    Where to store the water:

    Somewhere dark and relatively temperature stable. Also, no matter how sturdy the container, there is always a chance for water leaks, so you should keep that in mind, too. We live in a very mild climate, so we’re keeping our barrel in constantly shady, protected corner of our back yard.

    Some resources:

    How to Store Water for Drinking and Cooking (PDF from Penn State)

    Backpackers Guide to Water Purification

    FEMA Preparedness PDF

    Emergency Toilet Sanitation

    The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third EditionI was asked by our local neighborhood council to talk about emergency turlets for their public safety committee. Doing some preliminary research about what our government suggests concerns me.

    FEMA and, it seems, all the state and local agencies I looked into rely on a poop in a bag, throw in some enzymes or bleach and throw it into a pit approach. In a short term emergency, a day or two let’s say, this might work fine. But if the emergency stretched out longer I can see some potential problems. And the cynic in me sees an opportunity for a contractor to sell toilet and enzyme kits to government agencies.

    So what’s wrong with pooping in a bag? First off, it’s disgusting, something I know from backpacking. I have a feeling people might avoid latrines set up with “poop bags” and go do their business behind a bush. And I have a feeling that the government experts suggesting this approach have never tried it themselves.

    Secondly, those pits full of bags could become a serious biohazard should rats, let’s say, start pulling the bags apart or should the pit get flooded.

    As an alternative to the “poop bag” I was impressed with Joseph Jenkin’s humanure approach that he explains in a series of videos he shot in Haiti after the earthquake. You can see those videos here. Essentially what Jenkins did in Haiti was to forage carbon material (“bagasse” or sugar cane waste) and use that as a cover material in the latrines. This eliminates smells and maggots. He also set up a large humanure compost pile in a refugee camp using the same bagasse material as the carbon source. The hot temperatures in the compost pile kill hazardous microorganisms in human poo. As long as you’ve got a carbon source you can keep Jenkins’ sanitation system going indefinitely. With the FEMA approach you’ve got a problem when you run out of those bags and proprietary enzyme mixtures.

    One problem with Jenkins’ approach could be finding a carbon source in an urban area, but I think that’s solvable (suggestions invited!). You also need water for the compost pile but it need not be potable.

    I’m no sanitation expert and am interested in opinions on this topic, particularly those who have worked in emergency situations or in impoverished communities. What I like about Jenkins’ approach is that it relies more on knowledge (how to compost, set up a latrine) than equipment. The job then is to spread that knowledge. Learning how to compost should be a skill everyone knows how to do.

    Jenkins’ Humanure Handbook: for purchase or free pdf download.

    Animal Tracking

    A track trap we laid to capture chipmunk tracks. We got some mice, too. No one wanted our peanuts–the chipmunk actually hopped over them. These critters had an advanced palette, preferring locally sourced pine nuts from the pinon pines. Photo courtesy of one of my classmates, Kurt Thompson.

     Mrs. Homegrown here:

    I just returned from an amazing five-day sojourn in the mountains, at the Windy Springs Preserve, in which I learned the basics of animal tracking from a pair of wonderful teachers, Jim Lowery and Mary Brooks of Earth Skills.

    Tracking is the kind of skill that you can easily spend a lifetime, or two, developing. Yet it is also possible, with good teachers, for even a neophite like me to pick up a working knowledge of the art over a couple of days. By the end of the class, I was able spend an enthralling hour tracking a cottontail through a maze of sagebrush–all by myself.  Over the course of the class, I was fortunate enough to see the tracks of deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes, cottontails, jack rabbits, grey squirrels, chipmunks, kangaroo rats, foxes, mice, snakes, horned toads, lizards and beetles. We also got to practice tracking people, which is a lot of fun.

    One thing I particularly appreciated about this class was that Jim and Mary encourage you to use your intuition as well as the “hard skills” of print identification, precise measurement, gait recognition, animal behavior, etc. For me, this was rewarding–and intriguing. It took tracking out of a purely left-brain zone, into a place of deep connection with both the animal and the landscape.

    You can down load a free pdf on tracking basics from their website.

    Tracking and Gardening

    Now that I’m home, it strikes me that some of these skills I learned could be useful in the garden. Most anybody with a garden has had a moment when they wonder, “Just what kind of critter is digging holes in my beds?” or “Who is eating my cilantro down to nubs?” With my new knowledge set, I can answer these questions by setting up a track trap.

    A track trap is an area of soil smoothed flat to capture animal tracks. In this class we used two methods: one was to drag a big, flat sack full of dirt (for weight) across stretches of open ground to smooth and compress the soil. When made in the evening, these clear spaces catch the prints of any animals that come through overnight or in the early morning. The results the next day were often spectacular–a clean, written record of the night’s activities. You may have seen this type of trap occur naturally on the bank of lake, or on a beach, or on a clean stretch of ground after a rain.

    The other type of trap made by dusting a thin layer of dry clay on the rough side of a particleboard sheet, and then arching a piece of something flexible, like thin metal sheeting, over the board to protect the clay bed from wind, birds etc. If positioned correctly, these traps catch the tracks of smaller creatures–rodent types–very neatly.

    If your garden topography allows it, you could drag clear the area around your beds in the evening and see what prints might show in the morning. The Internets are full of track pictures that you can use to identify your particular culprit. You probably already have a few guesses about who it is–it would only take a minute of googling to find out the difference between the tracks of, say, an opossum and a skunk. Or a feral cat and a raccoon. Even if the prints are not particularly clear, you can often tell a lot just by their size. Websites with track ID pictures come with notes about standard measurements.

    Once you know for sure who is causing the mischief, it might be easier to come up with solutions for how to protect your garden. For instance, you could look up advice from your local Integrated Pest Management program, like the one offered by the University of California.

    Note: If you’re in the market for a good tracking book, I can recommend the book we used in class, The Tracker’s Field Guide, written by one of the teachers.