Erik’s 2012 New Year’s Resolutions in Review

Thank you Kurt and Ben and all who helped build our adobe oven.

I never used to make New Year’s resolutions until I decided to flaunt them on our blog last year. And, of course, I made way too many. So how did I do?

Completed:

  • Build adobe oven in the backyard: check! Thanks to Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher who led a class in our backyard.
  • Plan out garden ahead of time instead of playing catch-up at the last minute: I did indeed plan out the garden but nature had her own plans including a destructive series of skunk attacks. I’ve switched to a hands-off approach to veggie gardening inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka.
  • Start a podcast (decided to make it a video podcast). You can subscribe in the iTunes store here (it’s freeeeee!).
  • Clean up the graphic design on the blog and organize information better: Thank you to our book designer Roman Jaster for doing this for us!
  • Return to the fencing strip (I’ll admit it’s a pretentious activity–sort of the artisinal mayonnaise of sports–but I’m addicted to it.). See the first topic on the incomplete list.

Fencing jacket is still hanging in my office as a reminder to get those knees working again!

Working on, i.e. incomplete:

  • Fix bad knees–retuning to the fencing strip gave me the worst case of runner’s knee I’ve ever had. This is a good thing because it forced me to get into physical therapy and fix the problem.
  • Improve writin’ skills.
  • Celebrate the wonderful awesomeness that is Mrs. Homegrown each and every day.

I’ve got the book but not the license.

Fail:

  • Get HAM technician’s license.
  • Learn Morse code
  • Attend CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) classes.
  • Organize messy office so it doesn’t look like an episode of Hoarders.
  • Organize supplies in garage into labeled boxes: still messy.
  • Turn the garage into the ultimate man cave.
  • Increase running distance.
  • Organize bug-out box.
  • Backpack more often.
  • Camp on Santa Rosa island again.
  • Return to biodynamic practices in the garden.
  • Learn how to sharpen knives and tools.
  • Create an iPhone or iPad app.
  • Check email only twice a day.
  • Take more time to cook.
  • Keep the kitchen spotless.
  • Ferment vegetables more often.

My New Year’s resolution this year is to have a much shorter New Year’s resolution list. I’ll post that list tomorrow.

So how did your 2012 go? What did you accomplish on your homestead? Please share in the comments . . .

Happy Mayan Apocalypse!

OK, so why are the folks in front having a good time?

If you’re reading this post the Mayan apocalypse did not happen. Either that or I’m blogging via a HAM link from the Root Simple bug out location. So what is the official party line here at Root Simple on the whole 2012 deal?

I’m hoping the uneventful passing of this day will mark a peak in interest in apocalyptic scenarios. While I could opinionate about the Apocalypse meme, as John Michael Greer calls doomsday thinking, I think it would be best just to quote Greer from his book Apocalypse Not:

there’s at least a chance that the upcoming failure of the 2012 prophecy might encourage people to take a hard and skeptical look at the apocalypse meme itself, to recognize that longing for the annihilation of most of humanity has no place in an authentic spirituality, and accept that our happiness as human beings depends on how we choose to live our lives here and now, in this beautiful world on which we each dance for so brief and precious a time.

Garden Amendments as Placebos

I just finished writing an article for Urban Farm Magazine on the subject of aerated compost tea (ACT for short). It proved to be one of the most contentious subjects on which I’ve ever tried to, as Mark Twain liked to say, “corral the truth.”

It got me thinking about other controversial soil additives popular in organic gardening and farming circles right now such as rock dust, mycorrhizae additives, and biochar.

Now I prefer not to touch these topics with a hundred foot pole. But let me go out on a limb with a thoughtstyling outside of the usual debate about the benefits or worthlessness of these soil potions. I’ve started wondering if the strong anecdotal evidence supporting things like ACT, biochar etc., might indicate a kind of ecological placebo effect at work.

Note: I’m not saying that placebos have no value or that, “It’s all in your head.” Quite to the contrary: the placebo effect is powerful and causes real changes in the physical world. Even hardcore skeptics agree with me on this (note also the downside to placebos in that article). As the fifteenth century alchemist Paracelsus said, “You must know that the will is a powerful adjuvant of medicine.”

So could working with these soil additives be a way of focusing human will, of changing human consciousness towards the goal of healing the damage to nature that we’ve caused? And what about biodynamics? I suspect a consciousnesses shift within human hearts and minds is what Rudolf Steiner was really trying to do with his, admittedly bizarre, preparations.

On the opposite, non-interventionist side of the gardening spectrum, I’ve been re-reading Masanobu Fukuoka’s books. Fukuoka advocates a radical, almost (but not entirely) hands-off approach to natural systems. Paradoxically, Fukuoka was striving for the very same shift in consciousnesses, though by entirely different (Eastern) means. As he put it, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

I think we would do well to spend more time investigating the intersection of human consciousness and ecology in the years ahead. Our survival may depend on it.

Now, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.” So let me know what you think in the comments . . .

Is Cycling Too Dangerous?

Photo by Dru Marland.

I’ve been hit by cars twice cycling around Los Angeles. In the first accident a medical delivery driver made a left turn in front of me and I collided with the rear panel of his car. It was his fault but, initially, the driver’s employer tried to come after me for $900 worth of damage. Fortunately, their insurance company took my side in the matter and even replaced my bent fork. In the second accident, a motorist bumped me from the right. I’m not sure what happened, but I think he was merging out of a parking space and didn’t see me. Thankfully, they were minor collisions and I walked away from both without a scratch. But the cycling death of an acquaintance and the serious accidents of several friends has caused me to consider the risks of cycling, particularly in this less than bike friendly city.

An excellent blog post on the Guardian takes up the question of the costs and benefits of cycling. Author Peter Walker does the right thing, in my opinion, by seeking the opinion of public health experts. One, Dr. Harry Rutter, has this to say:

All activities carry a risk. For some reason there seems to be strong focus on the risk of injury associated with cycling. Clearly, when deaths do takes place that’s tragic, and we need to do all we can to avoid them. But I think there is a perception that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is.

This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it’s given. What we don’t notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there’s a cost to that sedentary time. It’s silent, it doesn’t get noticed. What we’re talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.

Having volunteered on the board the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition for a few years, I’m well aware of how hard it is to make our cities more bike and pedestrian friendly. Another expert Walker talks to compared the struggle for safer cycling and walking infrastructure to efforts to curb smoking, noting that the anti-tobacco struggle took 60 years to get going.

The article concludes with a provocative conclusion, “There are two interventions that we know increase walking and cycling: living in the Netherlands and living in Denmark.”

So what do you readers think? Is cycling worth the risk?

Ladies of Manure 2013 Calendar

Just when our Kickstarter fatigue has reached terminal limits, this crazy pitch shows up in our mailbox to make our day. Two words: Humanure Cheesecake.

(Err…two words you really don’t want to see together, ever,  now that I think about it. Sorry.)

As teachers, we spend a lot of our time trying to convince people to mulch and compost. Return it all to the earth, people!

We’re particularly fond of throwing down the humanure* gauntlet, partially because it really is a very important subject,  and partially for the shock factor and the giggles. Some audiences are primed for this challenge. For others, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of the concept, and by the look on some faces, I imagine them thinking:

  • “Nope. Not even if civilization is burning down around my ears.”
  • “Note to self: Never visit these people at home.”
  • “They want me to keep poop around the house. Poop. Around my house.”
  • “Hmm, I’m sensing some sort of potty-training trauma here. Definitely an unhealthy anal obsession.”
  • “Funny, they don’t look like hippies.”

It’s an hard nut to crack, the poop nut. This environmental non-profit called The Fertile Earth Foundation is going about in a bold way, by trying to make manure sexy and fun. To be fair, the calendar isn’t all about humanure. (Then it would have to be called Jenkins Girls Gone Wild or something.) It’s about composting of all sorts, but humanure certainly gets much more play in it than it does in your average cheesecake calendar.

Take a look. They’re doing a Kickstarter to raise printing funds. What do you think? Think it will turn people on to the wonders of decomposition? What do you think it will take to make even basic composting a more commonplace activity? Do you humanure? If not, what keeps you from doing so?

*If humanure is new to you, check out the Humanure Headquarters for everything you could possibly want to know.

Sunday Spam: Automatic Chicken Cage

We interrupt the usual picture Sunday feature to bring you the best and most misdirected spam email that has ever graced the Root Simple in-box:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Liaocheng Dongying Hengtong Metal Manufacturing Co.,Ltd here. Glad to hear that you are on the market for Automatic chicken cage. We are a professional producer of the complete sets of equipment for raising birds. At present, it is an enterprise which has the import-export license and exports a batch of complete sets of automatic equipment for raising chickens.

These products gained good prestige among customers and they are not only used in great-scaled biological raising farms in domestic provinces, but also exported to Middle Asia, South and East regions, Australia, South America, Middle East areas, Africa mainland and so on in great lot. We are willing to wholehearted with all the friends and customers to establish good relations of cooperation, realize a win-win benefits, and create a magnificent performance. If any interest, feel free to contact me.

Best regards,
Senior Sales Manager,
Fatma

Clearly a product that’s not a win-win for the chickens, but thank you “Fatma” for providing us with some much needed scratch for the blog.

Alternatives to the Funeral Industrial Complex

A casket made by the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Louisiana.

If there’s one business I’d like to see shut down and rethought it would be the funeral industry. I’m not going to mince words. The funeral directors I’ve had to deal with just wanted to turn grief into dollars. When my dad passed on his pastor warned me about what would happen at the funeral home, telling me that they would try to up-sell my mom and I. He said, “don’t let them try to equate money with love.” He was right. Even though everything was supposedly per-arranged the funeral director still tried to get us to buy more expensive items.

If treating individuals like this isn’t bad enough, the funeral industry works like a cartel to curtail the rights of any alternatives to their products and services. In Louisiana the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, staffed almost entirely by funeral directors, tried to shut down a group of monks who were making and selling simple wooden caskets. And let’s not even get into the horrific tales of abuse, theft of dental fillings, reusing graves, etc.

The good news is that there seems to be a growing alternative funeral movement. The monks won their court case. And I have a feeling that as the baby boomer generation begins to grasp its own mortality, we’ll begin to see more changes. Either that or the funeral industry will start marketing fake green burials (they probably have already).

What prompted this rant was a comment from a Root Simple reader asking if I knew of any green burials in Southern California. I don’t. If any of you know of any alternative funeral services in Southern California, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in hearing about the experiences of readers outside of our region. Have you participated in a DIY funeral? Do you know of any resources for opting out of the funeral industry?

What’s Your Personal Food Policy?

Tom’s got a policy. Do you?

The Thanksgiving holiday brings together an often incompatible assembly of  vegetarians, paleoterians, pescatearians, breatharians and folks who just don’t give a damn, to share a meal. While I’m sure many family gatherings pass without controversy, many of the readers of this blog probably end up in uncomfortable discussions about where our food comes from. It’s a holiday that provokes a consideration of what Mark Bittman calls our “personal food policy.”

The point Bittman makes about developing a personal food policy is that our choices at the dinner table make a difference. We all have to eat and we vote with our supermarket dollars. Just as our Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack helps craft our nation’s schizophrenic food policies, I thought the Thanksgiving holiday would be an appropriate moment to define my own personal food policy.

But as I started to write down my personal food policy I discovered so many contradictions and exceptions that I just stopped. My own personal food policy, when considered honestly, was almost as tangled as the USDA’s. Yes, sometimes we manage to grow all of our greens, but other times bugs/bad soil/forgetfulness in the garden sends us on a trip to our local discount Armenian supermarket. Other times we’re so busy that we pick up prepared crap at Trader Joes. And frankly, my personal food policy, started to sound a bit holier than thou. As Rumi says,

Spiritual arrogance is the ugliest of all things.
It’s like a day that’s cold and snowy,
and your clothes are wet too!

One issue, however, that over the years I’ve come to feel strongly about is factory raised meat. I just can’t eat it anymore. It used to be that, out of courtesy, I’d eat anything served to me when I’m a guest at another person’s house. I’m not sure I can still do this. As Michael Pollan says, “Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” And those walls have become transparent to me. I’ll happily eat meat, but only if I know it was humanely raised or hunted.

So, dear Root Simple readers, what’s your personal food policy?

And, of course, Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Notes on Mark Bittman’s “Behind the Scenes of What We Eat”

Last week Erik and I went to see well-known food writer Mark Bittman speak on food policy. He spoke in a huge room in The California Endowment–and it was a full house. Afterward, Erik and I compared it to being in church. We were surrounded by people of the same faith, being told things we already know, and being reminded to be good. And I don’t mean that in a bad way! It never hurts to meditate on how to be better, to do more. Bittman is an engaging speaker and it was a great evening. I took notes, and will share a little of what I learned.

He spent a good deal of time describing how our national food system and food policy is depressing and screwed up. We all know this, right? Factory farms, fuel waste, massive environmental degradation, obesity crisis, etc. & etc.

(One quick scary fact from the roll of shame: Did you know that 80% of antibiotics used in the US are fed to farm animals? That number has been shooting up fast for the last 20 years. Why are they used on animals? Not so much for illness, but rather to prevent illness in animals living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and to speed growth. They’re prophylactic. Lovely. Antibiotic failure happens to be one of my favorite doomsday scenarios.)

Bittman believes that in 50-100 years we will no longer be shipping food across country or across planet–we’ll be relying on local/regional agriculture systems, based on family farms. Whether this shift is a positive, pleasant transition or made in a state of dreadful calamity, is entirely a matter of how soon we begin working on the shift.

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