We’re Car Free

skull/cell phone street art

Street art by Skullphone.

Well, at least temporarily. Some idiot piloting a SUV sturdy enough to patrol the streets of Kabul rear-ended me last week. He was probably busy posting a Yelp review on his smart phone.  I’m still in pain and our car is totaled, but I’m thankful I’m alive.

In the meantime Kelly and I have no car. Normally this isn’t much of an issue as I can get around by bike/public transit. But my neck and back are too creaky right now to do that. I’m considering some crazy options:

Become agoraphobic
I remember an interview with actor Harry Dean Stanton in which he described the way he deals with the craptacularness that is the City of Los Angeles. His answer? He never leaves the house. I could have stuff delivered–everything from straw bales to groceries are just a click or phone call away. Why venture out on this town only to see miles of deteriorating streets overseen by corrupt politicians? When I want to get some nature time,  I could rent a car. We’d save thousands of dollars.

Buy a Car
Car shopping, for me, is about as fun as a root canal without Novocaine. Was the 19th century carriage industry this scammy?

Take the car of the idiot who hit me
My new Jeep Wranger would be courtesy of the music video producer who totaled my car. (His mammoth vehicle, by the way, was hardly scratched.)  You should have to face consequences for negligence–this was not an “accident,” after all. Wreck someone else’s car by your own stupidity and you should have to donate your car to the person you hit. Nassim Taleb would suggest that the same principle should apply to Wall Street bankers. There would be a whole lot less texting while driving and financial risk taking if, as Taleb puts it, “captains went down with their ships.”

Move to Venice, Italy
Not only is Venice car free it’s also bike, moped, bus and train free. But then I’d probably end up in a nautical accident caused by a texting gondolier.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
I’m cursing my useless music degree. If only I had gone to a college that combined rigorous writing classes with machine shop and auto repair. My dream: a Kickstarter campaign to fund the conversion of a 1970s era Dodge Viper into a bad-ass electric vehicle. Or fuel it with our humanure methane digester. Airbrush the Root Simple logo on the door and folks would really notice our arrival at book signings–especially when we do donuts in the parking lot.

root simple viper

So, dear readers, what do you think we should do?

Is Urban Homesteading Over With?


It seems that we’re back in a period of irrational exuberance. I know because I keep hearing about people lining up to buy crumbling 1,000 square foot bungalows in dodgy Los Angeles neighborhoods for $1,000,000. History tells us that during these periods folks ditch their chicken coops and vegetable gardens and head to the mall to shop.

I hope I’m wrong, that during our next economic bubble people will be more sensible. And the fundamentals have not changed, specifically the uncertain future of fossil fuels. I’m not trading my trips to the feed store for a shopping spree at Hot Topic anytime soon.

So I thought I’d plug a few search terms relating to urban homesteading into Google Trends to see what is going on. This is, of course, highly unscientific–Google Trends may just reflect media generated interest, not what people are actually doing. Here’s what I found:

Backyard Chickens

Many urban homesteading activities are seasonal–in spring people start searching for information on chickens and vegetable gardens, so you’ll see upward spikes towards the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Judging from the results on “backyard chickens,” it looks like that it’s a trend that is growing in popularity. Some of this activity may be related to legalization efforts, but I’d like to think that it reflects a growing dissatisfaction with our industrial agriculture system.

Gardening

It seems that searches for gardening of all kinds–I tried “vegetable gardening,” “vegetable seeds,” “rose pruning” and “lawn care,” are down. I think this may reflect a demographic shift–an older generation dying off. We need to get young people gardening!

Bread Baking

No wonder I can’t seem to offer enough bread baking classes.

Bicycles


Cycling is down, but I’m sure this reflects disenchantment with Lance Armstrong and professional cycling.

Searches for “bike commuting” are up slightly.

It’s inevitable that media interest in home ec topics will decline when the stock market is up. Just remember how quickly vegetable gardens and chicken coops were abandoned in the 1980s. But I have a good feeling that the lessons of the last few years will stick better than they did in the 1970s. What do you think?

New Health Food Trends at the Natural Products Food Expo West

Natural Products Expo

This weekend I attended, for or the second year in a row, the Natural Products Expo West. At this massive convention, health food, natural supplement and cosmetic concerns pitch their products to retailers.

And, again this year, I did a lot of intemperate sampling. For the sake of you, our dear readers, I ate every known power bar, sports beverage and processed soy/hemp/chia meat substitute so you won’t have to. It was the human equivalent of being a fois gras duck, except instead of corn pellets coming down the funnel it was all the snack items from a health food store. I washed this massive amount of food down with a hundred different “natural” beverages, all variations on a combination of hemp or soy flavored with the latest, obscure rain forest berry. I may never have to eat again.

The Rise of Quinoa

Natural Products Expo Bag Dump

Phoebe helps sort through all the quinoa swag.

The main theme of Natural Products West this year is the rise of gluten free products. Gluten intolerance is a problem for many people. One out of 131 people have Celiac diseases and a great many more probably have some sort of wheat allergy. However, someone tell me why we have to label products like tomato sauce and raw chicken as being “gluten free?”

Most new gluten free products, everything from pasta to crackers to power bars, use quinoa. The Natural Products Expo’s own trade publication noted that the exponential growth of quinoa consumption in the U.S. has created a situation in which the indigenous people of Peru can no longer afford their own staple food. Peruvians are now eating cheap, processed crap so that we can eat, well, cheap processed quinoa crap.

And if a health food product doesn’t contain quinoa, I can guarantee it will contain either coconuts or chia seeds. Neither of these two products are easy to grow in the U.S. so you can forget about supporting local producers.

Of the hundreds of booths I went past, most were peddling heavily processed junk foods with a “natural” label. And we wonder why the U.S. has an obesity epidemic?

The Ugly
The bizarre booth spectacle award goes to the weight lifting supplement producer that had a scantily clad nurse, an examination table and a ultrasound machine. Retail reps with pot bellies could have themselves oiled up and examined to find their “hidden abs” that would, presumably, be revealed through consumption of a whey powder supplement beverage.

The Good
The good news is that the handful of cool things I found more than made up for all those quinoa power bars. I’ll share those discoveries this week.

Growing Your Own Food is Like Printing Your Own Money: Ron Finley’s TED Talk

Please take a moment and watch gangster/guerrilla gardener Ron Finley’s inspiring Ted talk. I first heard about Ron after he got busted for planting a vegetable garden in what used to be a weed strewn parkway. He’s gone on to plant many more gardens around Los Angeles.

The end of this talk really hit home for me, “Don’t call me if you want to sit around and have meetings. If you want to meet with me come to the garden with your shovel so we can plant some s**t.”

Amen.

Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Dealing With the Crisis of Overconnection

Hamlet's BlackBerry

All too often in recent months I’ve found myself pulled into a vortex of emails, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and just plain mindless internet surfing sessions.  Let’s face it, the screens in our lives are highly addictive and who among us actually feels better after an info-crack bender?

Published in 2010, William Power’s Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, is a reasonable, balanced and practical guide to navigating our hyper-connected age (and how ironic it is that the fast pace of technological change makes “BlackBerry” a quaint reference in 2013–the book, however is more relevant than it was in 2010).

Powers does not take a finger waving “eat your Brussels sprouts” approach. Rather, he acknowledges the immense potential and usefulness of computers and smart phones while offering sage advice on using them intelligently. He draws on an unlikely set of philosophers, inventors and writers: Socrates, Seneca, Johannes Gutenberg, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McCluhan, each of whom dealt with sweeping change in communication technology in their own times. Powers earns extra points for mentioning my favorite architect, Christopher Alexander.

Using these sources, Powers offers the following suggestions for avoiding technological overload:

  • Distance: it’s good periodically, to take a walk and leave all screens at home.
  • Developing inner peace: make time for meditation practices, working in the garden, working on your bike etc. Powers advocates something I’ve experimented with over the past few years–cutting off national news and letting conversations with friends and relatives fill me in on what’s going on.
  • Read books made out of paper! Even e-book technology can encourage mindless surfing. Reading an old fashioned book can help develop powers of concentration and focus.
  • Use old tools: Powers gives the example of note taking with paper and pen. Sometimes older tools can help reduce distractions–your paper notebook, after all, is not going to chime in with an incoming email.
  • Rituals: As Powers puts it, “Vow to finish all screen tasks by a given time, with a reward if you make it.” Don’t check email first thing in the morning–get some work or exercise done first. I have a disclaimer at the bottom of my emails stating that I check email at noon and sunset. I’ve found this works for me and I’ve trained people to call me if there is something important.
  • The Walden Zone: set up a screen-free area of your house, but don’t get puritanical about it. Your Walden Zone does not need to be quiet. In addition to a peaceful space you might want a fun, loud, party room (minus the screens). And don’t forget about the backyard–most Americans are so addicted to screens that they don’t ever go out there! Powers turns off his modem for the entire weekend. Powers claims that his internet “Sabbaths” have been very successful even with a teenage son in the household.
  • Use technology intelligently: Powers is not Amish! He acknowledges that the internet and cell phones are incredible tools. Understand how technology works and harness it for useful tasks while reducing unnecessary chatter.

Powers acknowledges that what works for one individual or family may not work for another. We have to be flexible in our approach to working with technology. Some of us may be able to ditch our smartphones (I’ve never had one and don’t plan on getting one) but others may need that connectivity for work. But the more important point is that we need to avoid becoming, as Thoreau put it, “the tool of the tool.” We need to use our new powers of connection with mindfulness: to build community, to educate and to inspire.

The Strange World of Artificial Plants

Ikea’s Fejka.

On a recent pilgrimage to Ikea, I ended up staring at a large display of fake plants while Mrs. Root Simple found a replacement for our kitten-shredded drapes. Viewed from a distance Ikea’s plastic plants were realistic, though seemingly outside of any known plant genus. I found myself pondering the question of what permacultural context in which these plastic plants would be an appropriate design solution. I couldn’t answer my own question. More plastic and less living things in our lives is probably not a good idea. But I am willing to consider a very limited use of artificial turf–neighbor Anne Hars once showed me Home Depot’s astonishing selection of fake grass–some that even has fake dead grass mixed in for realism. Perhaps in some ironic post-modern house this artificial turf could fit in.

It did remind me of the time a neighbor, who is a Hollywood art director, grabbed me late one evening to help her fake a vegetable garden for a movie. From her I that learned that their are businesses in Hollywood that do nothing other than provide fake plants. Not just flowers, but everything from corn to . . . hemp.

Having a bad year with your tomatoes? Green Set Inc. will set you up with some fake ones:

They even have a very large (and suspiciously shiny) fake zucchini:

But I think my favorite fake plants come from a company called New Image Plants, providers of  “The World’s Best Artificial Marijuana.” Customers? Marijuana dispensaries, the set decorator for Weeds and law enforcement! From their website:

Across the world law enforcement finds itself with the continuous dilemma of having to train new recruits to identify and find illegal marijuana plants . . . Our plants are used by many police departments across the world, the US Military and the Royal Mountain Police in Canada to name just a few.

Be forewarned that the bush above, complete with realistic buds, is a $325 gag gift for the gardener in your life. For some reason I would love to sneak one of these into my dentist’s waiting room.

How Will You Celebrate the National Day of Unplugging and . . . the Day After?

Image from Reboot’s Unplugging campaign.

I was pleasantly surprised to see an article on “unplugging” in the last issue of Sunset Magazine, “The Unplugged Home.” That the article features a family in the San Francisco Bay area (the capital of plugging in) isn’t surprising. When I was a video editor many years ago the last thing I wanted to do was sit in front of another TV when I got home. I suspect many tech workers feel the same about computers.

We got rid of our TV a long time ago and have never missed it. But the interwebs are a different matter. I think we humans are hardwired to be attracted to novelty and the interwebs are a crack cocaine pipe full of informational novelty. Sometimes I’m using the internet wisely to, say, find the optimal planting times for rhubarb. But other times I’m reading nonsense about the Bavarian Illuminati hand signals Beyonce allegedly deployed during her Superbowl appearance.

Reboot, a Jewish arts organization is sponsoring a National Day of Unplugging from sundown to sundown March 1st to 2nd. I think this is a great idea and I plan on participating–I especially like their Sabbath Manifesto.

But the problem for me is not disconnecting from the internet–that’s easy–since I don’t have a smart phone I do that every time I leave the house. No, the problem is reconnecting responsibly, i.e. using the internet productively. The internet is, after all, a fantastic research and connectivity tool.

Ahead of the National Day of Unplugging I’d like to hear from readers about how you manage technology in your household–your strategies for disconnecting and connecting responsibly. If I get enough responses I’ll feature them in a follow up post on March 4th.

More on our gardening disasters

We need to put the heart back into our garden. (Our Heart of Flax from way back in 2011)

I thought I’d chime in on the subject of this year’s garden failures. Before I do, I’d like to thank you all for your kind advice and commiseration that you left on Erik’s post.

First, I will agree that it really, truly has been a terrible year in the garden. Sometimes Erik gets a little melodramatic when it comes to the crop failure (e.g. the Squash Baby adventure) but the truth is we’ve never, ever had such a sorry string off disasters and non-starters since we began gardening.

And I think that’s something to keep in mind. This is unusual. When things are going wrong, it’s easy to forget how often they go right. That’s why it’s good to keep a garden journal, or a blog, or even just a photo collection to look back on, so you can track your progress more objectively.

So when I look back on this blog, and through our old photos, I can see the successes far outweigh the failures. Disasters are inevitable when gardening–that’s part of the game– but they are usually balanced by good times. This year, though, it seemed nothing went right.

What went wrong?

Continue reading…

My 2013 New Year’s Resolution

A day after writing about all the things I didn’t do in 2012 I understood the main problem with my New Year’s resolution list. And it’s not that the list was too long.

The problem was that I was treating my life as a collection of merit badges. I think it’s an obvious trap for a how-to book author and homesteading blogger to fall into. My merit badge accumulation better served my ego than those around me.

This year, rather than collect merit badges, I’m going to focus on skills and goals that will serve friends, family and community (which includes the audience of this blog). And I’m not going to make a new list–I’ve got plenty to work with from last year’s. In 2013 I’ll act on the goals that will help me help others.

I wish you all good health and a Happy New Year!