Archive for May, 2009

Free Nitrogen! Comes with Handy Dispensor!

Sharon May 25th, 2009

Note – Another rerun here, this one was written several years ago. Isaiah has gotten over his obsession with peeing outside (well, it has gotten less intense, anyway), but now Asher is at the same stage of toilet training.  The first time he peed out on a tree, I told him I’d get Simon or Isaiah to demonstrate for him, and he asked me “Why can’t you show me, Mommy?”  I noted that I couldn’t model, since I didn’t have a penis.  With great seriousness, Asher said “Oh, Mommy, I’m sorry.” ;-) .  I wasn’t, but I love that potty training gives me an excuse to draw attention to this subject, which is terrifically important - we are going to have to figure out how to maintain fertility, and human outputs are going to be an important tool.   

Sometimes I think that having grown up in a mostly female home,  with a lesbian Mom and step-Mom and two younger sisters, I was inadequately prepared for life with a husband and four sons. Now don’t get me wrong – it isn’t as though I didn’t know anything about males. I have a father, and male friends, uncles and during college and graduate school, I lived with more men than women. But by 18 or so, and certainly by graduate school, the men in question had learned that getting girls required a bit more grace than waving their genitals in said girls’ faces. Mostly.

My background makes me much better qualified to answer questions about first periods, whether boys will really die from blue balls and when a bra is officially required for gym class than Isaiah’s recent query about whether when he grew up he could pee all the way up to the sky or not. Thank G-d for Daddy.

After a long and tedious toilet training process, my son Isaiah finally clicked into big-boyhood last week, when he discovered peeing on trees outside. He was *so* excited and pleased with himself – now he and big brother Simon can try and hit a spider on a leaf from 5 paces (sorry, spider!), and discuss who went further at considerable length, to Mommy’s utter bemusement. Some days it seems like they spend more time with their pants down than up, but who am I to ruin their fun?

We do have some firm rules. No peeing in the container plants (I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my poor impatiens). No peeing off the porch when Mommy is sitting and reading just below it (hmmm…rain…that’s funny.. not a cloud…ick!!!). And strong encouragement to pee in the nice bucket that we keep. Because while Mommy may not fully grasp just how cool it is to play “shoot the grasshopper,” Mommy is a major fan of free nitrogen.

You see, we all of us, during garden season, fertilize our garden with our urine. I use a commode we inherited from Eric’s grandparents, and the rest of them use a bucket outside, and the commode in. Human urine is powerful fertilizer – every day people in the US discard 7 million pounds of nitrogen and trace minerals in the form of human urine. In fact, if you go to the farm store, you can buy artificial pee, called “urea” – except that that stuff is made with natural gas and lots of fossil fuels, whereas the other stuff comes out whether you like it or not.

The thing is, one of the scariest elements of the forthcoming energy peak is that we are terrifically dependent on anhydrous ammonia and other artificial nitrogen sources, mostly derived from natural gas, to feed ourselves. If we are to keep eating, we need to find another source of nitrogen. Conveniently, the artificial nitrogens that have been supporting the human populace (in our food) gets recycled through our bodies and comes back out in highly usable form. You just have to dilute it 1-10 (1-7 if you keep hydrated normally) to keep it from burning your plants.

And natural nitrogen, rather than the artificial stuff, is much gentler, and somewhat less likely to float downstream destroying the oxygen in the oceans. We apply way more artificial nitrogen than soils can absorb, and it is creating the famous dead zone in the gulf of Mexico – fish can’t live there because a vast excess of nitrogen has destroyed the capacity of the sea to carry oxygen.

While feces can contain all sorts of bacteria, urine is generally sterile, and there’s virtually no health risks to putting urine on your garden. Even if you have a UTI or salmonella (one of the few things that can be excreted in your urine), exposure to air means that pathogens die pretty fast afterwards. The most conservative estimates are that you shouldn’t use urine directly on plants a month or less before harvest. Since we tend to pour it on the ground around them, that’s not a problem, and for our personal use, we don’t worry much about the urine (if you live in a place where tropical diseases like leptopirosis and schistosoma are endemic, you probably want to have your household tested before you use your urine and not take anyone else’s free pee – these could be passed on if you had them, which is pretty unlikely). We don’t use it on sale crops, however.

In Sweden, however, farmers often use urine from city toilets (urine diversion systems are in place, and the urine is held in tanks until it is collected) on the farms that feed Stockholm. Swedish studies have found urine to be similar in composition to fish emulsion, which is great because the little fish like menhaden and others that are used to make fish emulsion are important to ocean ecosystems and feed larger fish. Those little fish are being depleted for organic agriculture, and aren’t a great alternative in the long term (there are some sustainably harvested fish emulsions).

You can also compost urine, or put it in a big barrel (six months in a barrel in your garage and it will stink to high heaven, but be pathogen free). You can pee on a few straw bales, leave them for a rain and then mulch your garden with them. You can use it to water your houseplants. Ideally, just don’t dump it in drinking water and flush it away!

Now us girls can collect our pee easily enough, but boys really have a natural advantage in this regard, plus my three year old regards it as a potential hobby, the kind of thing you really devote a lot of time and energy to. And I’m very grateful, even if I don’t quite understand the appeal. Plants fertilized with urine really grow beautifully. Peter Bane of _Permaculture Activist_ says that a person’s yearly urine output can provide all the high nitrogen fertilizer a half acre needs.

So I spend a lot of my time smiling at the “Mom, look, I peed on a *big* tree this time.” I just nod and tell Isaiah how proud I am of him. And I am. I did laugh, however, the other week when he was in the bath, flipped over onto his stomach and complained to Daddy, “Daddy, my penis gets in the way.” Daddy’s reply? “Get used to it, sweetie.” There are times when I *know* I’m just not up to a task. Thank G-d for Daddy, because that just wasn’t in my manual ;-) .

Ordinary Human Poverty

Sharon May 22nd, 2009

Note: This is a rerun, a piece I wrote last fall, at the tail end of high energy prices.  What’s interesting to me is that our collective crisis seems to play out this way no matter what element – financial collapse, energy prices, food crisis…whatever is in ascendence, we end up in the same final outcome.  For me, this is perhaps *the* central notion of my work – if you are prepared to be poor, poor in a sense that most Americans do not know, you will probably get along through the coming crisis.  The problem, of course, is that we’re not prepared.

At one point in his writings, Sigmund Freud (who, btw, was not at all the caricature that many readers imagine him as) wrote about the difference between two states – one of them abnormal, and subject to resolution by the “talking cure,” the other ordinary and not necessarily remediable.  The first he called “neurotic misery,” the other “ordinary human unhappiness.”  His point was that psychoanalysis could only address pathological states, and neither it nor any other solution could preserve us from the ordinary bad experiences of being human.  Thus distinguishing ”ordinary human unhappiness” was essential in diagnosis.  Ordinary human unhappiness did mean, of course, that one was unhappy every second, merely that one accepted that normal human states had periods of suffering, sadness, anger and fear in them too – it was important to recognize that nothing, no tool, could ever make life good every second.

Riffing on Freud, for some years, I have been arguing that the reality of peak energy, climate change and our precarious financial situation was leading us towards re-experiencing “ordinary human poverty” – a state that I would argue is fairly normal, if at times unpleasant.  I also believe it is the future for most of us.  And it would be easy to imagine that this meant that our future was one of true horror, an pathological nightmare from which we cannot awaken.  The despair many of us feel when we see that word “poverty” can’t be underestimated.

I think we are now at the point where the argument I’ve been making all these years – that peak oil will be less about whether there is gas in the gas stations or whether the grid crashes – and more about whether we can buy gas or whether the utility company shuts us off for nonpayment is pretty much certain.  Right now, we are watching the crisis unfold mostly far from us.  It is coming home – and rapidly, and we are shifting to a lower eocnomic level.  Consider housing – we have a vast inventory of houses at high prices that no one particularly wants to buy – and certainly, no one wants to build more.  Moreover, we have a rapidly aginging older population, many of whom relied on those houses for their financial security.  Add to this the pressures of age, job loss and economic crisis and there’s every reason for people to move in together, and every reason for people not to build or buy new house.  Expecting growth in the housing market is a lot like expecting growth in the VCR market – the moment is past.

We could make much the same analysis for many other segments of the economy.  Whence the high paying NYC and other urban restaurants that depend on high finance types buying expensive meals?  Poof!  Whence travel and tourism in an era of unemployment and rather inexplicably rising gas prices (last time the price per barrel of oil was this low, gas prices were significantly lower).  We may go some places – those who still have money may head to the beach, rather than Cancun – but the overall amount of wealth flowing through the economy has dropped like a stone.  And the fear takes the rest of it with us, as we become afraid to spend, afraid to invest, afraid to lose what little we’ve got left.  Bailout or no, the economy is headed into something deep and dark, and most of us are going into this new world with it.  Poverty is about to go back to being our human norm – just as it always has been for most of the world’s people.

And yet, the reason I’m using Freud’s language here isn’t just to remind us that poverty is a normal state for human beings – although it is.  Those of us who are so terrified of losing our wealth should remind ourselves that 85% of the world is poorer than we are – that is, we are not entering truly unknown territory.

But more importantly, I use Freud’s language  to imply that there is a distinction between the deep suffering of what I would call “pathological poverty” and the functional poverty that is “ordinary human poverty”, sometimes unpleasant, probably always troubling in comparison to the relative wealth we’ve had, but a basically livable state.  In it one can have periods, even long periods of happiness and security and comfort along with some less pleasant moments.  And I believe that while none of us can insulate ourselves entirely from the trauma of the darker ends of this, there is a great deal we can do to ensure that our coming poverty is not the pathological kind.

Dmitry Orlov observes,  in his excellent essay  “Five Stages of Collapse” – that on the one hand, there’s not much cheery about the fact that we’ve jumped from Stage One to Two. But there is the reality that we can do a great deal to keep the elevator from dropping down to the basement. 

What is the distinction between “pathological poverty” and “ordinary human poverty?”  Well, cast back in your heads to your grandparents or great-grandparents.  Among the stories of hardship in post-war Europe and Asia, of recurring crises across the Globe, and of the Great Depression in America are likely to be moments that distinguish between the pathological poor.  “We were very poor, but there was always food on the table.”  “We were poor, but we didn’t really know it.”  “It was a struggle, but we were happy.”  We will also hear stories the other side of poverty – the pain of hunger, the blind terror of being turned off with no place to go, the deaths and the pointless losses and tragedies.

The question becomes how do we turn this story into one where most of us can say “We were poor, but we had enough – just enough, but enough.”  How do we make the story into one where our kids may grow up not really realizing just how poor we were? How do we accustom ourselves to the ordinary human unhappiness that is our shift in wealth, without allowing ourselves to fall through the floor, into the deeper stages of collapse?

There are three answers to this.  The first is to reduce your needs.  I expect that for a long time, the stigma that attaches to any kind of poverty will keep many of us struggling to keep up appearances.  We are likely to feel ashamed the first time we have to ask for help, ashamed that our clothes are no longer as fine, that dinner is plainer and that we now share our homes.  The best way, I think to get over these feelings is to get over them in advance – to change your values as so many here have.  Thrift shop clothes and patches should be sources of pride, symbols of your independence from industrial manufacturers. The food on the table – and the people who share it - are the point – not whether high-social value elements like wine and meat are present.  The need to speak out against the culture that tells us that poor is dirty and bad becomes paramount – because the more resources we waste keeping up appearances the harder it will be to adapt.

The second is self-sufficiency of the kind most of us are trying to achieve.  The garden, the sewing needle, the saw and hammer, the ability to make and repair, to grow and produce and nurture things – these are things that demonstrate, as Jeremy Seabrook has contended, the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is self-sufficiency.  None of us will ever be wholly self-sufficient – but to be able to say that it doesn’t matter if you can afford shoes this year because you can repair last year’s boots, or to not have to spend much of your money on food means that you have a much better chance of covering that emergency medical bill or the property taxes. 

But these things alone are not sufficient.  One’s self-sufficiency can be taken away too easily when we lose access to land.  You can lower your standards to allow “poor but decent” but when we get to “filthy and rat infested” that’s not such a good idea.  The only way to live in the world of ordinary human poverty is to live there in a world where your pocket isn’t picked constantly, where you aren’t the victim of endless resource conflicts, where your government doesn’t sell your future out.  And the only way to be a nation of reasonably self-sufficient, ordinarily poor people living decently is this – to remember that the reason we use the word “ordinary” here is that there are a lot more of us peasants than there are of the powerful.  The truth is that repressive governments, or even well intentioned but stupid and misguided governments are scary – but they never have enough troops, enough power to stand up against the unified dignity of those who are simply ordinary, and simply want enough.  But that requires that we trust each other, that we work together, that we create the institutions of ordinary poverty, the ones that have fallen into disuse – Granges, Unions, Consumers Unions, neighborhoods, land use committees, voting blocs, and larger groups that can be used to pull us together.  These things too are ordinary and human - and it is getting to be time to build them. 


Quiet…too Quiet

Sharon May 21st, 2009

Just FYI, don’t expect much from this blog until next Wednesday.  Will I be spending Memorial Day on a road trip, packing the dog, four children and the goats into the back of our Ford Taurus as we seek out the best of the roadside snake-related attractions?  No thanks!  But friends of ours are doing the road trip thing, and coming here, and there will be 13 people, including 7 kids ages 9 and down racing around my house, and between that, cleaning, and providing meals, accomodations and fun for the guests, and the usual springtime farm craziness, something has to go, and I fear it is the blog. 

 So go read the folks on my sidebar.  Play “clown car” yourselves and cram as many living things as possible into a small vehicle for entertainment.  Or best of all, go out into sun and plant some food.  Enjoy the weekend!

Back on Wednesday!


Sunburned…and Happy

Sharon May 21st, 2009

“Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburned.” - Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing

“Can we go outside now?” That’s the first morning song here – each day my children, as I sleepily open their bedroom door, greet me with “Mom, when can we go outside!”  This morning we managed a record – 12 minutes from door opening to the children settled on the front porch, awaiting their oatmeal.  13 minutes until Eli was covered with mud up to his ankles ;-) .

There is nothing like spring in the Northeast, after a long, pent-up winter.  There is nothing like the joy of green after white, and then a period of greyish brown.  There is nothing for small children who have lived swathed in sweaters and jackets to arise in the morning and race outside in shorts and t shirts – and some of the time even those get tossed aside, as the kids go off to play in the creek or we put on the sprinkler.

And their parents follow them.  In spring and summer, my deepest housekeeping inadequacies are on display – there’s so much to do outside, how can I possibly worry about the fact that the sink hasn’t been wiped down since the bronze age?   Who even goes into the house? After a long and uncertain spring, a period in which there were days, even weeks when it is tempting to put in the tomatoes, and yet we knew that there would still be one last frost, well, the frost came, and the forecast calls for nothing but net from now on.  

Spring here is a long period of “nope, too wet, nope too cold, nope, more wet…oh, crap gotta get everything in today!”  So out we go, Eric to dig the new garden, me to fill the beds that aren’t already crammed with plants further.  Me to haul the old straw, him to clean the barn again, me to plant the fruit trees and herbs, him to rake the beds.  We come back exhausted and filthy, no filthier than the children who have been hunting toads, climbing trees, building things, planting and hunting eggs in the barn. 

They are merely tired at the end of the day, and exhilarated, as they tell us of what they found and where they’ve been (we were there, but it doesn’t matter, the best part of life is the story it makes).  We, of course, are stiff and sore, because we’ve spent the winter being lazy.  But the reclamation of our bodies from winter, the shifting from pasty white to brown or pink, the exhaustion – these are part and parcel of happiness.

So is the sense of never getting enough done – I was in the garden 9 hours yesterday, planting and digging, lifting and hauling.  By 8pm, I could think of nothing but excuses for not doing the dishes or sorting the laundry.  Today, I could work another 9 and another and still feel that there was far more to do – but the dishes will call me…and I will resentfully come in.

In late winter, I find myself envying people for whom spring comes earlier.  But by late autumn, I always long for winter – cold, white, but merciful – time enough to return to my long neglected house for some much needed rest.  But for now, I’m a long way from wanting winter.  I have seeds galore to bestow upon the ground, and transplants calling me. I have soil and manure and mulch to tend to.  I have sun and warmth and rain to absorb, as though I too could photosynthesize.  And I wake up each morning thinking, too “how long until I can go outside?”


On the Upside…

Sharon May 20th, 2009

_Depletion and Abundance_ won a Bronze Medal at IPPY.  What on earth is IPPY, you ask?  It is an independent publisher’s award.  I’m told this is good.

 Just as well I stayed out of bed ;-) .


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