Book Review: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forester

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high.

Those are the first words of The Machine Stops, a haunting, odd–and oddly prescient– short story about the dangers of over-reliance on technology. It is extra noteworthy for a few reasons. The first is that it was written by E.M. Forster. Yes, that one. Passage to India Forster. Room with a View Forster. Who knew he dipped his toe in SF?

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Book Review: The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil


Phoebe says that despite her midnight coat and lambent eyes, she has nothing whatsoever to do with magic. Or peak oil. And for the record, she also scorns Halloween.

What do magic and peak oil have to do with one another? Quite a lot, actually, if you believe the author, John Michael Greer. And if you read The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil you’ll probably come to agree with him, because in this book, as in all of his writing, Greer is remarkably lucid, straightforward and persuasive.

Blood of the Earth is unlike any other book you’ll read on peak oil. It’s challenging, honest, sobering and inspiring.

It’s not a end-times book. Greer doesn’t do apocalypse. Nor is it an airy-fairy “we’ll save the world by the magic of positive thinking” sort of book. Instead, it is an investigation of the spiritual/psychological impulses that play out in our responses to peak oil. Part of this is understanding behavior and propaganda in magical terms. To do this, Greer offers a quick, intriguing primer on Western magic.

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Book Review: More Other Homes and Garbage Designs for Self-Sufficient Living

If I could have only one book on my zombie apocalypse bookshelf it would be this one. Though it has to be one of the worst book titles ever, More Other Homes and Garbage: Designs for Self-Sufficient Living, by Standford University professors, Jim Leckie, Gil Masters, Harry Whitehouse and Lily Young has everything you need to set up your off-grid compound. This book, first published in 1975 and revised in 1981, grew out of a heady period in appropriate technology research and DIY hippie experimentation that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. In some ways it’s the rural version of the original urban homesteading book, The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City.Both books, not coincidentally, share the same publisher.

Feeding the digestor on the homestead. An illustration from More Other Homes and Garbage.

More Other Homes and Garbage covers alternative architectural materials, passive cooling and heating, home power generation, solar water heating, methane digesters, sewage reuse and disposal, water supply, small scale agriculture and aquaculture. All topics are covered in great detail with, as is expected for a group of engineer/authors, lots of formulas and tables. While some material is out of date (Art Ludwig has taken greywater well beyond what’s in this book), most of the 374 pages of More Other Homes and Garbage are still very useful.

I especially like the can-do DIY tone of the introduction which describes a middle ground between “terminal pessimism” and “technophilic optimism.” What’s depressing, in fact, is that a lot of the topics in this book have not received much attention until very recently. The frivolous 80s and 90s were simply not the time for More Other Homes and Garbage. Thanks to the great recession, however, this book is relevant again. Get your copy before vengeful Mayan time travelers zap the interwebs in December.

Update July 31, 2012
A Root Simple reader, Lisa, pointed out that you can download this book for free here. Thanks Lisa! 

Pure Vegan

Root Simple pal Joseph Shuldiner has pulled off something of a miracle with his new book Pure Vegan: 70 Recipes for Beautiful Meals and Clean Living. You’ll find no bizarre attempts to mimic meat. Ted Nugent might even dig the recipes in this book if you didn’t show him the cover.

Shuldiner has no agenda other than cooking up pure deliciousness. The recipes in this book just happen to be vegan. What you will find are some of my favorite ethnic foods: a nut mixture called Dukkah and roasted red pepper paste from Armenia called muhammarah. There’s also an idiot proof bread recipe that I teach at the Institute for Domestic Technology that Shuldiner runs. And, do I need to mention the vegan cocktails?

Full disclosure: Kelly and I helped test a few of the recipes in this book. Neither of us are vegans, but I’d happily make this book a part of our library and use it when the Nuge comes over for dinner.

Eating In: The Biosphere Cookbook

This has to be one of the strangest cookbooks ever published, Eating in: From the Field to the Kitchen in Biosphere 2. Author Sally Silverstone was the food systems manager during the much hyped and ultimately disastrous Biosphere “mission” that began in 1991. Without falling down the rabbit hole of discussing what went wrong and why the Biosphere project became fodder for a Pauly Shore movie, I’d just point out the hubris of thinking that you can simulate mother nature in her infinite complexity.  Watch episode 2 of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace for more on that problem.

Philosophical quibbles aside, what’s interesting about this cookbook is that ambitious suburban homesteaders might be able to, like the Biospherians, source entire meals from the backyard and make use of the bare-bones recipes in this book. And don’t worry about having to grow your own cooking oils–the Biospherians had trouble with that and have thoughtfully skipped any deep fried items.

The Biosphere’s kitchen.

But let’s get to those recipes! For relaxing next the the shore of the Biosphere’s simulated ocean there’s “Beach Blanket Bean Burgers,” “Bean Balls in Cheese and Tomato Sauce” and “Banana Bean Stew.” For meat eaters there’s pork, chicken and tilapia but, as this is the Biosphere, you’ll have to do the slaughtering yourself. And for desert there’s “Biospherian Rice Pudding,” “Biospherian Baked Doughnuts” (made with potatoes) and “Banana Wine.”

Like Archdruid John Michael Greer, I find it hard to believe that the fantasy of orbiting space colonies that inspired the Biosphere seemed doable when I was a kid. It’s obviously time to revise those plans. I have a strong suspicion that in the future we’ll be “eating in” just like the Biospherians, except that our “in” will be good old terra firma.

The Very First Urban Homesteading Book

The urban homesteading shelf at your local bookstore, thanks to the great recession, sure has gotten crowded in recent years. There are many fine volumes now alongside our two books with a great diversity of authors opining on chicken coops, homemade soap and composting. This is a good thing–we need as many voices as possible.

But there’s nothing new here. On a serendipitous trip to the library last week I stumbled across what must be the very first urban homesteading book, Cato and Varro’s De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture) written around 160 BC. Well, it’s really more of a rural homesteading manual, but much of the advice seems familiar.

Looks like Cato the Elder forgot to use sunscreen.

Cato holds the farmer in high esteem,

And when they would praise a worthy man their praise took this form: “good husbandman, good farmer”; one so praised was thought to have received the greatest commendation.

The tips on how to site your rural homestead is exactly as I would suggest:

It should have a good climate, not subject to storms; the soil should be good, and naturally strong. If possible, it should lie at the foot of a mountain and face south; the situation should be healthful, there should be a good supply of laborers, it should be well watered, and near it there should be a flourishing town, or the sea, or a navigable stream, or a good and much traveled road.

Varro’s directions for building a chicken coop and run are pretty much what I followed, complete with netting to keep the hawks out. But I never thought of building a caretaker’s residence into the coop:

In addition there should be a large room for the caretaker to live in, so built that the surrounding walls may be entirely filled with hens’ nests, either built in the wall or firmly attached; for movement is harmful to a sitting hen.

Maybe this will be a new trend in big cities where chickens are hip. Half off the rent in return for living with the chickens!

Should you need to know the exact prayer to Janus, the right point to read the entrails and the precise number of employees you’ll need to run a vineyard, you’ll get that here too. But the best advice is probably this simple and timeless statement: “Be a good neighbor.”

Book Review: 1491

I’m way late to this party, because 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbuscame out in 2006 and was a best seller, so it’s probably not news to many of you that this is a fantastic book.

For those of you who haven’t read it, though, this is the type of book that you look up from every few minutes and say, “Listen to this!” or “Did you know…?” 

1491 is a depiction of the Americas just before and just after contact with the Europeans. The gist of it is that the peoples of the Americas were much more populous and their civilizations more advanced than we are taught in our school books.

The first part of the book deals with horrific impact of imported European diseases on the native populations. I always knew it was very bad–but I never understood the extent of the devastation. In part this is because I never understood extent of the civilizations destroyed. This section is depressing, but it’s well worth understanding.

The rest of the book covers so much ground that I don’t even know what to focus on. Warring archeologists struggling to define the past. The complex and fascinating debate over when and how the first people came to the Americas. (Nope, the old land-bridge theory doesn’t hold water anymore.) Grisly tales of the Conquistadors coupled with intriguing records made by Spanish scribes that offer us precious insights into the strange and magnificent technologies and theologies of the Inka, Maya and Aztecs. The mystery of the development of corn and it’s impact on the world. The true history of the buffalo and the passenger pigeon–it’s not what you were taught. The wonders just pile up. 

What I think back on most, though, is what is revealed through these stories about the relationship between nature and culture in pre-contact Americas. As with Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, which we’ve reviewed here before, a picture rises of very active human management of natural resources. All across the Americas there is compelling evidence of intense landscape management practices which in most cases (but not all) managed to provide for the needs of burgeoning human population without destroying the land. This is permaculture. The real deal.

There are so many lessons to be learned from these ignored histories. And what’s most interesting is that it seems we are only able to understand the skill and knowledge these lost people now, because we are only just becoming able to conceptualize more subtle relationships to nature. For instance, until we began to understand food forestry as a legitimate agricultural practice, we had no hope of recognizing an ancient Amazonian food forest when we saw one.

Lots to think about.

You can hear 1491 author Charles Mann deliver an interesting lecture, “Living in the Homogenocene: The First 500 Years” on the Long Now Foundation’s podcast.

Tiny Homes Simple Shelter by Lloyd Kahn

Full admission, I’m a bit of a Lloyd Kahn fanboy. So when he announced a new book Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter I knew I had to have a copy.

Kahn has profiled the alternative building scene since the 1960s and edited the building section of the Whole Earth Catalog. I often thumb through a tattered copy of his seminal book Shelter that I picked up at a garage sale. Want to live in a driftwood shack? Shelter will show you how.

I heard Kahn speak at Maker Faire and show photos from the new book Tiny Homes. He began his talk by describing the first two best selling books that he wrote, both about geodesic domes. To Kahn’s credit he pulled these books from print when he realized the folly of dome building: the waste of materials (plywood comes in 4 x 8 sheets), the fact that they are hard to add on to and their propensity to leak. As he put it, “I didn’t want any more domes on my karma.”Of Dwell Magazine, he says that he doesn’t believe that anyone actually lives in the fastidiously clean and sterile rooms shown in the lavish photos spreads.

In contrast to Dwell, the buildings shown in Tiny Homes look well lived in. And very diverse: there’s everything in this book from conventional frame structures, to intricate masonry, to cob, to yurts and sailboats. Plenty of inspiration and ideas here for the aspiring owner/builder. And Kahn has an eye for vernacular American architecture.

In a way my favorite building is Tiny Homes is the most modest–Tom’s cabin. It’s a a $4,000 Tuff Shed from Home Depot turned into a cozy caretaker’s cabin. Tom took the shed, which already has a built-in loft, converted that loft to a bedroom, insulated the walls, put in a small kitchen and covered the interior studs with 3/8″ particle board.  Ton’s cabin isn’t much to look at from the outside, but on the inside it’s a real home. And that’s the point. It may not actually be practical for many of us to live in really tiny houses (Kelly and I are happy with our current, and by the standards of this book, mansion-like 980 square feet). But size is not what matters. While limited to buildings of less than 500 square feet, Tiny Homes is really about the search for meaning and spirit in the places we call home. After years of bloated McMansions and the debt crisis that went with them, it’s no coincidence that this book has appeared at this time.

Book Review: The New Sunset Western Garden Book

The Sunset Western Garden Book was one of the first gardening books we picked up when we bought our house back in 1998. A new version is out this month, now dubbed The New Sunset Western Garden Book, and it’s a significant improvement over our old copy.

Lavish photos have replaced the drawings of my 1998 copy. The new edition has significantly more coverage of edibles, including a vegetable planting schedule as well as nice photographs of veggies worked into ornamental landscaping schemes.  One of the improvements I’m most pleased to see are lists of plants for attracting bees, butterflies, birds and beneficial insects. And Hawaii, Alaska southern British Columbia and Alberta residents will be happy to find their states and provinces included.  I also find Sunset’s zone system more useful than USDA zones.

I have a few minor quibbles with some of the advice. Adding compost when planting trees is not a good idea. Neither is solarizing. And, speaking as a beekeeper, I would never recommend using imidacloprid under any circumstances. I am happy to see invasive pampas grass moved from “maybe don’t grow” to “definitely don’t grow.”

But it’s the plant list that forms the heart of this book. Even though much of this information on the internet now, I still prefer to get it in book form. I trust the curatorial expertise of Sunset’s editors and the climate specific advice for those of us in the Western US. And the plant lists are still extremely valuable when planning a new garden or remodeling an old one.

ETA: Check out Sunset’s handy online plant finder.

We’ll be giving away six copies of the The New Sunset Western Garden Book tomorrow. Stay tuned!