A Year after The Age of Limits: 5 Responses to the End Times

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photo by Sansculotte on de.wikipedia

Ever since Erik and I and our friend John attended the Age of Limits conference a year ago, I’ve been meaning to offer some kind of measured response to the conference.  (The Age of Limits conference is a sort of woodsy fiesta for doomers held annually in Pennsylvania. For more info, follow the link.).  I’ve hesitated to do so, though, for two reasons.

The first reason was that I wasn’t sure if I should engage with the topic. Erik will rant now and then, but overall neither of us likes to preach or “opinionate.” We’d rather just focus on the lifestyle, and let people find their own reasons for reading whatever it is we happen to be blogging about.

The second reason was ambition. In my head, a proper response to such complex topics required long, thoughtful essays with footnotes.  That was a surefire way to keep myself from writing anything at all.

Yet a year out, memories of the Age of Limits conference nag at me. I wish I were an excellent long form journalist so that I could describe the entire event in detail, because it was such a strange trip, full of interesting characters, unforgettable moments, and strong emotions. We met some really good people there.

I can’t describe the event,  not unless you come over to my house and let me ramble on for about two hours, with many asides and breaks for snacks. But I can distill my overall reaction into a handful of concepts which relate more to the overall “doomosphere” than to the conference in particular.

And since this is the Internet, the home of unfounded opinion, I’ve realized I can say whatever I want, with no footnotes. So, if you want to keep reading, I’ve whittled my responses down to five points, but it’s still long.

N.B. This is what I think, not what Erik thinks. He has his own post to write.

Continue reading…

Saturday Linkages: Gourds, Cats and Cider Bread

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The Mukombe. Image: Afrigadget.

The Mukombe–a hand washing station made out of a gourd:  http://www.afrigadget.com/2014/04/06/the-mukombe/ …

Farine: Mike Zakowski making cider bread http://www.farine-mc.com/2014/04/mike-zakowski-making-cider-bread-video.html?spref=tw …

6 Methods for Harvesting Rainwater – Homesteading and Livestock – MOTHER EARTH NEWS http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/6-methods-of-harvesting-rainwater-ze0z1404zjhar.aspx …

Are probiotics helping you? | Food Matters, Scientific American Blog Network http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/food-matters/2014/04/29/are-probiotics-helping-you/?WT.mc_id=SA_sharetool_Twitter …

Photos, Videos: Up Close With The Kitties At NYC’s Cat Cafe http://gothamist.com/2014/04/23/nyc_cat_cafe_photos_video.php …

Corro Kitty DIY Feral Cat Shelters – http://go.shr.lc/1knpbqd 

ScienceShot: ‘Chameleon’ Vine Discovered in Chile | Science/AAAS | News http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/04/scienceshot-chameleon-vine-discovered-chile …

A warning about “bee-friendly” plants http://www.honeybeesuite.com/a-warning-about-bee-friendly-plants/ …

L.A.’s First Public Transit Used Actual Horse Power http://southland.gizmodo.com/l-a-s-first-public-transit-used-actual-horse-power-1566350171/+nathanmasters …

Neuroscience of junk-food cravings, researched in a Chili’s dumpster – Boing Boing http://boingboing.net/2009/04/27/neuroscience-of-junk.html …

What the hell to do with the parkway? http://gardenrant.com/2014/04/hellstrip-gardening-highlights-and-give-away.html …

The Case Against Cars | VICE United States http://www.vice.com/read/cars-should-be-safe-legal-and-rare …

How to scare kids away from riding bicycles: http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2014/04/bsnyc-no-quiz-because-in-my-mind-its.html …

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Mulch Volcanoes: Another Bad Gardening Idea

Root Simple reader Donna, in response to my post on decomposed granite as mulch, alerted me to a related phenomenon: the infamous mulch volcano. For whatever reason, I don’t see this viral gardening phenomenon much here in Los Angeles but it’s really common elsewhere in the US.

Mulch volcanoes are generally considered to be a bad idea. It’s thought that the lack of air circulation at the base of the tree can lead to disease problems and you don’t want roots to grow up into the mulch so close to the trunk. When applying mulch you should keep it a few inches away from the base of a tree.

herber bayer grass mound

Artist Herbert Bayer’s EarthMound, 1955. Image: GardenHistoryGirl.

How strange gardening practices, such as mulch volcanoes, get started is really interesting to me. Mulch volcanoes remind me of miniature versions of minimalist art earthworks or Native American mounds. Is the mulch volcano a kind of outsider landscape art? Is the mulch volcano a misguided attempt at putting a human imprint on nature, what landscape architects call “clues to care?”

Decomposed Granite as Mulch: A very bad idea

Decomposed Granite

There’s a well defined architectural vocabulary house flippers use in our neighborhood. Flippers buy a crumbling 1920s bungalow, paint the front door orange, add a horizontal fence, redo the interior in a Home Depot meets Dwell Magazine style and then turn around and sell it for a million bucks.

When house flippers tackle a yard they tend towards the “low-maintenance” landscape (in quotes because there’s no such thing as a low-maintenance garden). One of the favorite tools in the flipper landscaping toolbox is decomposed granite (DG) used as a mulch. Put some plastic landscape fabric down (blocks rainwater in our climate, fyi) and top that plastic with DG. They then punch some holes in the DG/plastic and pop in succulents and maybe a rosemary bush or two. By the time the yard becomes a sad, desertified tangle of unhappy succulents and crabgrass, the flippers are long gone.

I’ve got a big issue with DG as mulch. In order for DG to look good, it’s got to be compacted and soil compaction is really bad for plants, including hardy natives and succulents. It stifles the life of the soil, and does not build new soil. And eventually, the plastic will fail, and the weeds will come through (some come through even when the plastic is new), and whoever is left holding the bag a couple of years down the road will be pulling decaying bits of plastic out of their garden for evermore.

What’s a better approach? Wood chips. Pile it on thick. Skip the plastic liner. Eventually your new plantings will cover any bare areas if you space them correctly. It looks good,  and the mulch breaks down and turns into soil. You will still need to weed but that’s called gardening. Save the DG for walkways. Or use mulch on your walkways too. Mulch is free or low cost. Just ask your local arborist to drop off a load.

From the Archives: Loquat Leather

loquatleather

Judging from the reaction to Mrs. Homegrown’s post yesterday it looks like some folks have a loquat obsession. Welcome home brothers and sisters.

At the risk of tooting my own loquat horn and repeating an old blog post, Mrs. H neglected to mention my controversial 2012 loquat leather experiment and recipe. You’ve still got to de-seed the damn things but at least there’s no need to skin them. Plus it makes use of booze.

I’ll admit it’s not a thrilling fruit leather but it’s not too bad.

Mrs. Homegrown chimes in:

My philosophy is simply that if one is going to go through the trouble of making fruit leather, preserves, pies etc., one should use outstanding fruit. The flavor tells in the end. After all, the starving times are not upon us. Even Erik can’t get super excited about this fruit leather–as I recall it tasted mostly of lemon and booze.

Then again, some people may have outstanding loquats–it sounds so from the comments on the last post. The ones we have access to just aren’t fantastic for preserving–too watery, too light. I just learned that there are over 800 cultivars of loquats, so there’s going to be lots of different loquat experiences.

Loquat season is here!

loquat tree

photo courtesy of wikimedia

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) season is upon us here in our neighborhood of HaFoSaFo (that is, one special corner of Los Angeles).

This post will not have much relevance to those of you who do not live in a subtropical or mild climate, but for those of you who do, I highly encourage you to get to know the humble yet mysterious loquat.

Loquat trees abound in our neighborhood, and I don’t know if this is a purely local phenomenon or not. Loquats are hardy evergreen trees with thick, glossy leaves that remind me of citrus leaves and magnolia leaves and avocado leaves all at the same time, meaning it’s vaguely tropical looking.

They don’t seem to require much water or pruning–so they do well under benign neglect, though I’d suspect the fruit is best on trees which are not completely ignored.  This is the time of year when the fruit comes ripe, and it’s always kind of an exciting time because the loquats bridge the “fruit gap” between winter citrus and stone fruit.

The thing about loquats is that they are really suited only for fresh eating. And I mean fresh off the tree–they don’t keep long after they’ve been picked, which is why they never appear in stores. We’ve tried to figure out things to do with them, but they defy preservation because they are made mostly of water. They are also small, have skins which are impossible to peel (you just eat the skins), and large pits, all of which makes processing difficult. Yet they can be really tasty. The best ones taste a little like citrus honey and have a nice floral fragrance. Their light, watery flesh is refreshing on a hot day

(If anyone has figured out something to do with loquats other than eat them out of hand, please do let us know! The best we’ve been able to do is to infuse them in vodka, and that was not all that thrilling in the end.)

They are highly prolific, too. So right now all of the loquat trees in the ‘hood are studded with hundreds upon hundreds (thousands, maybe?) of little yellow-orange fruits. These fruits seem to be nuisances to most homeowners–I rarely see a tree which looks as if it’s being harvested, or if it is, the harvesting does not make a dent in the bounty. After all, how many fresh loquats can you gobble down in a day? All of which is to say I feel no guilt about snagging loquats off of accessible trees as I walk around.* On-the-hoof snacking is one of the pleasures of walking at this time of year!
Ripe loquats tend to be a little larger and fatter than the unripe ones, and the color is darker. They also have a tiny bit of give under the fingers. You’ll get a sense of how to tell which ones are best with experience. I usually rub the fuzz off the skin before eating, which, in my book, counts as washing. Beware the pits! Some trees have better fruit than others, so if you try a loquat and find it less than thrilling, try fruit from another tree. You may find a new favorite seasonal treat.
ETA:  Days after posting, I just got around to reading the Wikpedia entry on loquat. (ahem) Turns out there are over 800 cultivars of loquat, some of which are bred for smaller seeds and sweeter fruit, others which are bred for white or orange flesh, others which are bred for backyard production, meaning they fruit in waves, a bit at a time, while others are bred for commercial production, meaning their fruit appears and ripens all at once.  Some trees are meant to be ornamental. Methinks some of the trees in our neighborhood are commercial producers, and others downright feral. All of this is to say that there is going to be a huge variation in the loquat experience from place to place–which is reflected in the comments below.
***

*Re: fruit foraging: I consider it fair/legal to snag fruit from street trees, those trees growing on the strip of public land between the street and the sidewalk, and fruit which overhangs the sidewalk. Now, of course, you don’t want to be a jerk about this–I pay attention to context, and won’t take fruit that people seem to be using, or which seems precious in any way. (Loquats I classify as a weed/borderline nuisance.) It’s never okay to step onto someone’s land to take fruit.

Also, I would never take vegetables from any part of a yard, public or not. That’s just different. To take a random example, I would never, say, help myself to someone’s giant squash.

And it’s important not to be greedy. I don’t take more than one fruit from a tree at a time (or maybe two or three, in the case of loquats). But if the tree is burdened with fruit and rotten fruit is splattering on the sidewalk, it seems more a favor than anything else to take one or two.

Of course, it is always best to ask the homeowner for permission. In the case of loquats, we’ve done this in order to harvest them in quantity for our preservation experiments. Homeowners are usually happy to share, even let you onto their land, to make use of their fruit. It turns out most folks just don’t know what to do with the bounty of fruit trees, or just don’t have the time/equipment/mobility to deal with harvest. In return, if you get permission to take lots of fruit, you can return some to them in the form of preserves or whatnot. This keeps the good will flowing.

Saturday Linkages: Saris, Punk Rockers, Poppies and Young Agrarians

Sari as Insulation: http://notechmagazine.com/2014/04/clothing-insulation-with-different-drapes-of-typical-sari-ensembles.html …

Humanoid wasps’ nest built over an abandoned sculpture: http://boingboing.net/2014/04/24/humanoid-wasps-nest-built-ov.html …

Punk rock homesteading resources: http://punkrockhomesteading.com/e-books/ 

Two new California poppy species: http://www.pensoft.net/journals/phytokeys/article/6751/two-new-desert-eschscholzia-papaveraceae-from%C2%A0southwestern-north-america …

Contrasting Front Yards: Turf Only v. Wildlife-Filled | Garden Rant http://gardenrant.com/2014/04/contrasting-front-yards-wildlife-v-turf.html …

When Pedestrians Get Mixed Signals http://nyti.ms/1aclEcA 

Underground Ferrocement Homes http://feedly.com/e/GRF29x3h 

Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’ http://n.pr/1jLfth3 

When Vegetarians Tried To Build A Utopia of Octagonal Houses in Kansas http://gizmodo.com/what-utopias-have-to-do-with-the-19th-century-craze-for-1564535216/+sarahzhang …

Aeroplane Bar Letka Tu-104: Inside grounded passenger plane is a bar once a Communist hang out now a ratty relic http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/aeroplane-bar-letka-tu-104 …

DIY Beer Bottle Windows for your Cabin, Shed, TIny… http://relaxshacks.blogspot.com/2014/04/diy-beer-bottle-windows-for-your-cabin.html?spref=tw …

Repurposed wood log lamps http://www.recyclart.org/2014/04/repurposed-wood-log-lamps/ …

How to build a cheap 3D-scanner mostly out of spare parts http://wp.me/p1SNZL-1 

A Young Agrarian Land Covenant http://garynabhan.com/i/archives/2446 

The Scientific Gardener: Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener by Joseph Tyc… http://scientificgardener.blogspot.com/2014/04/plant-breeding-for-home-gardener-by.html?spref=tw …

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Journal of the New Alchemists

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“Six-Pack” Backyard Solar Greenhouse, 1975. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

After reading an article by Paul Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!,” Nancy Todd turned to her husband John and said, “We must do something.” The year was 1969 and the Todds along with Bill McLarney went on to found the New Alchemy Institute.

History repeats itself. What the New Alchemists did, in response to the 1970s era energy crisis and political instability, sounds a lot like what people have been up to since the 2008 economic bubble: aquaculture, organic gardening, earth building, market gardens, no-till agriculture, old timey music, wind power, four season growing, permaculture, non-hierarchical leadership and goats. Only the 1980s era of appropriate technology amnesia separates current efforts from the work of the New Alchemists.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

By accident I discovered the Journal of the New Alchemists deep in the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library. As revealed by their journal, what distinguishes the New Alchemists from other efforts of the time is the Todd’s science background. The Journal has a refreshing research-based approach to its subject matter. The period I reviewed (their last decade of publication) covers mostly their agricultural experiments, but occasionally dips into urban planning and other subjects.

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Biodome. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

It’s interesting to look back at their work to see what ideas went mainstream and what faded away. What didn’t stick is what Nassim Taleb would call “top-down” approaches to design epitomized by the 70s fixation on geodesic domes and self contained ecosystems (though we’re starting to see a resurgence of the latter via a renewed interest in aquaponics). The more bottom-up work of refining conventional organic agriculture through no-till farming and integrated pest management had more long lasting influence. One could make a good argument that you need the domes and aquaculture schemes to inspire people to work on the more prosaic stuff. But another criticism of the appropriate technology movement of the 70s is that it focused on technology rather than social and political problems (see economist Richard S. Eckaus article “Appropriate Technology: The Movement Has Only A Few Clothes On“). We may be in the midst of repeating that mistake.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

One does not need to wander the closed stacks of the library to find the amazing Journal of the New Alchemy. Thanks to the internet you can download the New Alchemist’s publications as pdfs. Aquaponic enthusiasts will find much information. The Journals are a fascinating read and gave me a great deal of respect for the founders of the New Alchemy and their many contributors (one issue features a young Gary Paul Nabhan). They went far beyond talking the talk and walked the walk. They did something.