Archive for July, 2008

You Need a System: Managing Everything

Sharon July 29th, 2008

Ok, you’ve canned your heart out.  You’ve dried everything that can be dried.  You got the oatmeal, the spelt, the anasazi beans, the nutritional yeast, and put it in buckets.  You vacuum packed.  You built shelves.  You made sauerkraut, kimchi, chutney, you name it.  You built a root cellar.  You did it all.  Now you are all done, right?  Nothing left to do but sit around and wait for dinner to get made (assuming, of course that magic fairies, a housemate or loving partner will take care of this, since you’ve been working hard.)

 Sorry, there’s one more thing  - I’ve mentioned a bunch of times that food storage is pretty interactive.  You see most of these foods aren’t very far from being alive - they respirate a bit, take in the sun, leak a few vitamins into the air here and there.  So you have to check on them regularly. 

I can just see the eye rolls - she SAID that already.  Yes, I know, I have to go in there and look at it once in a while. FINE.  But I’m done, right?

I know, I know, I’m annoying.  But it isn’t just looking.  You see, you need a system to allocate everything.  Think about it - if you eat strawberry jam every day (my kids’ preference) for six months, you will have six months with no strawberry jam.  If you froze 16 servings of broccoli, you don’t want them gone by October.

And for the things you don’t make yourself, well, there’s shopping to do.  If you want to keep a six month supply of canned pineapple around, you have to go shopping when the stash drops down.  How do you know what you need, when?  Or how often you actually have to go into the pantry and count the boxes of pasta?

Now there are probably readers out there who have nifty spreadsheets and designed programs.  I am not one of them, but I welcome suggestions for software from anyone who does.   Me, I’ve got a notebook.

In my notebook, I have my actual reserves - X jars of canned vegetables, X jars of dehydrated vegetables, X lbs of whole wheat, etc…  and my desired reserves - desired is what I’m shooting for.  I keep a list there of ‘things to add next’ - although it is flexible - if Agway is having a sale on our brand of dog food, I’ll buy a couple of extra bags if I happen to be there, even if it isn’t on the list yet. 

Every fall, I go through and count everything, which is a PITA, and I hate it, but it is useful.  I make a little list to hang up in the storage closet of how many of each item (pickled beets, dried apples, etc…) by the jar, bucket, etc…., and I try really hard (and fail miserably every once in a while) to take .002 seconds and put a check mark next to each item.  Then, once in a while, I count the checks.  Ok, we’ve used four jars of dried greens and have 13 left.  Got it. 

For stuff we have a limited amount of, I make a chart listing the months across the top divided by the number of items I have - so if I have 20 quarts of honey-lemon carrots, and I want to eat them from December to June, when the new carrot thinnings show up that means 3 quarts each month, plus a couple with four.  When the carrots are done for the month, we don’t have them again until next time.

For things I have to buy, when only X amount is left (by counting the checks, or when I take the last one off for things we store only small amounts of), it goes on the shopping list. 

There are a few items that are a bit hard to allocate wisely - things, for example we all like a little too much.  These I sometimes hide - it is such a treat to pull out one last jar of blueberry pancake sauce or salsa after everyone thought it was gone for good.  Of course, this only works if the Chatelaine can be trusted - I can’t always be. ;-) .  But, of course, being chatelaine means that if something disappears it can be attributed to “spoilage.”

I do inventory in the spring again - I see what we ate, what we used, what we wish we’d had more of and when we ran out.  Ok…double the apricot sauce, but we had more green beans than we needed and we need 10 more quarts of pickles….  I’ve also learned to add 5-10% for the growth of four boys - that is, every year they are going to eat more, so why not plan for it.  This also gives me something important - a real sense of what a winter’s worth of food looks like for us. I try to keep track of what we buy that doesn’t count as storage as well, because it gives me a sense of what our totals are.

 Does this sound too overwhelming?  Well, when you are first starting food storage, it is easy to simply focus on a few foods - a dozen or so things that provide the basis for a monotonous but tolerable diet - beans, rice, vitamins, dried greens, canned pumpkin, rose hip tea, rolled oats, salt, spices, honey and tuna, for example, would cover most of the bases.  So you can concentrate on those, if you like.

I know, I know, you thought you were done, and here I’ve got another project.  But once you’ve done this, you really do get to take a nap, put your feet up and wait for the fairies to make dinner.


Preserving Food When You Have No Money

Sharon July 29th, 2008

Several people have expressed frustration recently that there are so many things to buy when you are preserving food.  They are experiencing what many of us probably will experience sooner or later - no money.  So while some people are using what they have while they have it to get good equipment, others are already priced out of these options, and it is hard for them.

So let’s go over the lowest cost ways to store food, and the best strategies for getting ahold of equipment cheaply.

- Ok, the cheapest technique is definitely root cellaring. That will be the subject of Thursday’s posts, so I won’t be emphasizing it here, but the cooler you keep your house (a characteristic of low income folks) the more you can keep things. 

First, squash and pumpkins like cool house temperatures, and garlic and onions do pretty well at those temps too.  Most other storable crops, including roots and apples require colder temps - but if you have natural cold and can close off a room, throw a cooler outside, or bury an old fridge in your yard (or a barrel) you are golden, and get all the potatoes, onions, beets, carrots, etc… preserved in their natural state.  You can also use the “dig a hole” (or use an existing hole like a basement) method for refrigeration, saving you money, and extending the life if your kimchi and sauerkraut. 

 How do you get root cellarable vegetables if you are struggling?  Well, pumpkins are pretty easy - I’d be willing to bet you can get as many as you want the day or two after halloween if you go to a farmstand or any venue that sells them - better yet, make the arrangement first.  I’ve gotten 100 for $5 - and they make good people food, not to mention chicken, goat, sheep, etc…

Many places have gleaning programs - I’ve mentioned them before, but if your area doesn’t have one, you might talk to a farmer about whether you and a friend could glean their fields after they harvest. 

Talk to farmers - they may be selling the potatoes for $2 a lb, but they probably aren’t using that price if you can buy 50lbs at a time - last year our local farm sold potatoes at $12 for 50lbs and “horse” carrots for $6 for 25lbs.  You don’t have to tell anyone you don’t have a horse.  If you are willing to take whatever they have leftover at the end of the day, or to buy their weird surplus of beets, it might be even cheaper.

It isn’t too late in many places to plant some root crops - winter radishes, daikon, turnips, some rutabagas, beets and some carrots will still mature. 

Lots of people don’t harvest their fruit - ask if you can collect apple drops.  Or visit a farm and ask if you can have them - the damaged ones can be sauced or dried.

 - Ok, next cheapest method - lactofermentation.  All you need is salt and water and vegetables.  This is a great way to use wild greens that you harvest from your yard or a public park (just make sure they don’t spray) - dandelion, plantain, lambs quarters - all can be fermented and flavored with a few pennies worth of hot pepper or caraway or other spices.  If you want to keep it a  long time, don’t have a cold cellar or a fridge, bury it in the ground.  Cabbage is generally inexpensive, and again, it isn’t at all too late to plant some greens for fall that can be fermented when it gets cooler.

- Season extension probably comes in next in terms of cheapness.  Depending on where you live it might need a fair bit of stuff, or you might be able to just scrape up some leaves from the ground (or grab a bag someone leaves out on their lawn, and mulch stuff deeply.

I’m going to do a whole post on this tomorrow, but generally speaking, south of the mason dixon line or in the pacific northwest, you can probably overwinter with just mulch and the right crops, north of there you might need to scavenge some old windows to put on top of a few bales of hay or straw (for this you can get the ones that were rained on in the field, or ones that have started to rot, or last year’s dusty ones - you might be able to get them free - or try after harvest festivals and halloween asking about the decorative ones) over your crops.  Plastic sheeting will work too. 

Root crops can often be heavily mulched and survive - parsnips especially, but other crops might manage if you are in a moderately mild climate.

And again, in my lattitude, a lot of season extended crops are being planted right now - it isn’t too late!

- Next is dehydration.  If you live in a dry climate, you can lay things out on a hot day in the sun, or hang apple rings and green beans under the eaves of your attic.  If you live in a humid one, and have a car or can get your hands on a junker, try doing it in the car.  If you heat with wood, hanging things behind or near the woodstove will work. With a pilot light oven you should be able to dry in that.  And dehydrators are commonly for sale cheap - but it might take a while to find one at your price.  Consider posting a request on Craigslist.

- Preservation in salt requires just an awful lot of salt.  This is not yet expensive, but can’t usually be scavenged and does require an initial purchase.

- Preservation in alcohol is kind of pricey, unless you can make your own wine and preserve fruit or cheese in it.  Most of the equipment for winemaking can be scavenged, however.

- Canning can be cheap or expensive.  If you can find free or very cheap canning jars (and they are common where I am), already have a big pot and something to put on the bottom of it (cake rack, canning jar rings laid flat, anything that makes a rack that will elevate the jars), the only cost is the heating energy and the jar lid.  Still, it isn’t totally cheap.

 Pressure canning can be cheap, again if you have a source for jars, and can find a cheap used pressure canner, but again, it is probably the hardest method.

- Freezing is the most expensive method, and one we haven’t talked about much here, because I think for most of us, the rising price of electricity will make it inefficient.  On the other hand, this gets me into one thing that I do want to talk about - sharing.  While I think that for many people, a large home freezer may not be financially doable, there are a lot of such freezers out there, and people could reasonable rent/barter space in them, and share them.

Which brings me to the other point - what’s the best strategy if you can’t afford a piece of equipment?  Find someone to share - maybe get to know a local home canner, and ask if you can borrow their pressure canner in exchange for cutting some wood or watching their daughter.  Talk to the guy with the dehydrator about whether you could trade something for a few hours of dehydration a year.  Now this is tough stuff in our culture - we don’t do this. But it is time, and past time to start - if we don’t share if we don’t learn to share, we’re not going to get very far in a lower energy future.

 I’ve written before that I don’t think there should be any conflict between the people who are prepping like mad and can buy stuff and those who can’t. Those of us who can are getting ready for the same world those who can’t are - and the odds are good that we’re going to need each other - even if it is just someone willing to help cut five zillion strawberry hulls out in exchange for a chance to use the dehydrator next.  The person who owns enough food preservation equipment to feed India is going to have a labor shortage in many cases - the person who has no money often has some time they can share. 

Some one on a list I was on once referred to it as “building the village before the villagers are ready” - the truth is that if you’ve got money, spending it on useful tools is a good thing.  If you haven’t, get knowledge, a little practice, and share what you can - because you are bringing something to village too - something absolutely essential - time, energy and ability.


The Wasteland, Lucifer’s Hammer and the Problem of Believing A Disaster Can Befall Us

Sharon July 28th, 2008

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, 
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water. 
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.  - The Wasteland

The Wasteland is fundamentally a narrative about an internal disaster - one of my college Professors, the remarkable John Burt, used to say that you could actually track Eliot’s trip through Boston and Cambridge through the narrative, watching as he walked, engrossed by his own depression and misery, decompensating with each step.  And it raises an interesting question, I think - which is how our imagining, our understanding shapes what is happening around us.

A while back I wrote a post arguing that we are experiencing a rapid crash in food and energy, and we can’t see it - that is, we are in the midst of a disaster.  But because most Americans and other rich world denizens are comparatively wealthy, and comparatively insulated - although that insulation is fraying rapidly - we can’t see the disaster when it strikes us as a disaster.  In a way, most of us see the world through brighter lenses than most people actually experience it.  Simultaneously, those of us who are aware of peak oil, aware of the realities of our changing climate and economy see the world through darker glasses than most of our neighbors in the rich world.  It is impossible to ever find a “normal” perspective - that is, there is no point at which we are seeing all the truth, or seeing clearly - it is common to want to say that one group sees the future better than others, but all of us pick and choose and see partly through the lens of what is, and partly through the lens of who we are and where we are and a host of other things.   

There’s a fascinating moment in _Lucifer’s Hammer_ at the end of the narrative of Harvey Randall’s survival preparations.  He doesn’t really believe that the Hammer will fall, but he thinks it would be prudent to prepare.  But the experience of preparing seems, in itself, to make the thing real.  Niven and Pournelle write,

 “Because I’ve got Hammer Fever, and my wife knows.  Loretta thinks I’ve gone crazy - and I’m scaring her, too.  She’s convinced I think it is going to hit.

And the more he did to prepare for Hammerfall, the more real it became.  I’m even scaring myself, he thought.”

I thought in my last post of this month’s discussion, we might talk about whether this experience Harvey has is true.  Eliot provides a more subtle exploration of the question of the relationship between anticipation and experience, but also suggests that there’s a great deal of danger to both knowing, and thinking you know what will happen in the future.

My own experience is that choosing to look at the future as I have does sometimes make it feel much more real and immediate - I sometimes have to make sure that read a wide range of material, because it is a little too easy to read only the bad news, only the things that push one to greater immediacy.  I also find that I warn myself against a sense of artificial scarcity - that is, we are not now where Eileen and Tim were - and while I don’t want to be wasteful, I also don’t want to stop giving things away, to cut my charitable donations before the time comes that I have to.

But I also think that what doesn’t appear here is the sense that knowing (or rather, believing, because while I think the future I predict is likely, I do not claim to know anything with certainty) is empowering.  That is, the fear that Harvey reports is partly a real response to a real danger, partly a perceptual response, but it is, IMHO, most lessened by taking action, and making things happen.  That is, it does simultaneously seem to increase and ease fear. 

 I talk to a lot of people whose partners, like Loretta, don’t want to know things, because they are too scary and too hard.  And I think sometimes people do need their information doled out in small bits.  But I wonder sometimes whether the need not to look sometimes adds to the fear - the fear caused by a partner who does know, is afraid, but without any of the empowering pieces? 

It seems fitting, then, to end as Eliot ends things, with the question of whether we should, in fact, at the very least, set our lands in order even as things are falling down falling down.

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling downPoi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon-O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

“The Wasteland” is, on one level, the account of a human being having a nervous breakdown - the disaster is internal, rather than external. It is in part a narrative of an internal world that looks, from inside, as though a vast disaster has already occurred. 

I think it raises the question of how our internal understanding of the world shapes the experience we’re having - “The Wasteland” could be viewed as an exercise in pure pathology, the transformation of something clean into something damaged - or the transformation of real fears into something quite a bit greater than those ordinary fears - both simultaneously.

There is, I think, a danger in seeing disaster behind every tree, the end of the world in every action

Post-Apocalyptic Book Club - Lucifer’s Hammer - Is This How to Prepare?

Sharon July 28th, 2008

I thought that during the second week on each book, I’d have us look at it as though it were a work of non-fiction, a preparedness manual designed to enable us to face the crisis they imagine.  I didn’t do this with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, because the whole point of the book is that the crisis is ultimately avertable.  But most of the works we’ll be reading don’t have that premise - they assume we have to face the crisis and go on.

Of course, the first question this raises is whether this is a realistic worry - something we have to be concerned about.  This is one of the other reasons (besides the fact that astrophysicists save the world) that I keep my husband around ;-) - he’s very good at analyzing the actual science of a scenario.  And the answer to this one is - yes. 

Now I don’t plan to convert this site to an asteroid-strike awareness one anytime soon, but a recent article in The Atlantic did explore the fact that large asteroid strikes are actually more common than was once thought, and that we don’t do a very good job of looking for them.  Generally speaking, the science of the strike in the book is quite accurate - including the evocative hot fudge sundae analysis.  The only significant thing (there are minor ones) they got wrong was the idea that a water strike was actually worse than a land strike - despite throwing up water,into the air, the dust thrown up by a land strike is actually a bigger deal.  But, for example, it is perfectly possible to imagine that we could not know that an object would strike us until right before it did, depending on how it came at us.

Still, I hope no one is panicking right now - while I generally agree with the author of the above article (and my spouse) that NASA would be better off spending more time tracking near earth objects, I still think there are better things to worry about than this, if you are not an astrophysicist or amateur astronomer, and can’t do anything about it anyway.  Put it up there with giant tidal waves and supervolcano eruptions in the category of “not my job to worry about.”

But many of the books we read will have far sillier premises (if we do the zombies, for example, I’ll expect you all to have zombie-preparedness kits ready), and most of them function fairly well as models of a kind of preparedness.  And since honestly, the preparations for most crises, likely and unlikely, from peak oil to zombie attacks to epidemics to nuclear holocaust really aren’t that different - there are some refinements, but essentially you need an evacuation plan and the resources to stay put - most of these books offer an exploration of how to get ready and how to respond to an immediate crisis.  So how does this one stand up.

 Our Hero, Harvey (only in the 1970s could Our Hero be named ”Harvey”) gets a little nervous when he thinks about the Hammer falling, and he does try and make some preparations for staying in place - if rather late, odd ones.  But, of course, the book tells us that “them” will begin rioting, looting and murdering not when they are hungry and desperate, but the moment the bad stuff begins.  So Harvey’s rather wise basic precautions turn out not to be all that useful - but Senator Jellison’s do (it helps, if you are planning, to have a compound). 

Harvey decides he and Loretta will survive on beef jerky (btw, don’t follow his instructions - the temps at which he dries them are too low for safety) and vitamins.  I will say, if you are making emergency plans, I’d suggest a vegetable here and there.  He also buys a lot of liquor, which isn’t a bad strategy, but since he knows LA is likely to be underwater, and liquor is in glass and hard to transport, is a bit of a strange choice.  But it goes with the manly themes - beef and whiskey are a man’s survivalism - none of this veggie stuff. 

Now Harvey does have grits, and this is genuinely useful and interesting - because we’re in a scenario when other people are stocking up, there’s already “unofficial” gas rationing, and Harvey is smart enough to buy stuff that other people won’t think of.  This is actually a very useful strategy, even if the world isn’t going to end - as prices of commonly used staples go up, those who can use unusual foods will have a flexibility that others won’t.  So grits and cornmeal become Harvey’s grain staple. 

And his making of pemmican (which generally has dried fruit in it, but doesn’t seem to) and storing of bacon will work, and are interesting - although again, I’d have put the effort into getting some veggies if it were me.  Filling the swimming pool with water is smart, as is using the old bleach bottles for water storage.  There is some good scenario modelling here - for example, even though Harvey knows he’s likely to have to evacuate, he does have a strategy for staying in place and making do - and that’s wise even for people who imagine that they might leave town in a more-likely crisis - because sometimes you can’t get out, or sometimes your evacuation plan might lead to a place even worse hit. 

Afterwards, we see a shift in people’s attitudes towards resources - the most immediate example of this is that Eileen tells Tim Hamner that he should save the pop-top of his beer can, because no one is making any more of anything.  No one ever explores the question of what one can do with beer bottle pop tops (I’m sure dozens of things), but there is a radical shift in the world works in people’s minds. 

Now this something that does happen in the face of the disaster.  Some of the assumptions about what shifts are made are disturbing, some are interesting, and some are both.  For example, a child has a tantrum because of the loss of television, and his father strikes him for the very first time, and explains that the days of instant obedience being necessary for survival have returned.  It is an interesting scene, precisely the implication isn’t simply that the father was angry about being interrupted by his son’s tantrum, but that he truly believes his children’s future may depend on their ability to obey when it is essential.

Of course the most interesting question is the one that many people get obsessed with - how do you sort out resources when there isn’t enough to go around.  I’ve articulated my own concerns about the fact that so many conversations *start* from this premise - that we create self-fulfilling prophecies.  But lifeboat games are interesting, and a fascinating subject for fiction - so how do we sort - by relationship, patronage and usefulness?  Or something else?

What do you think?


Things Of Interest (at least to me)

Sharon July 24th, 2008

Before I head off to a weekend of guests and cleaning up from our flood, I wanted to let you know a couple of things.

1.Believe it or not, _Depletion and Abundance_ will be out next month!  I somehow find it very hard, while working on book #3 and getting ready to edit book #2, to believe that there’s actually going to be a book with my name on it, but since it is actually at the printers, I guess it really is coming out. I should get my copies by the end of August, and it should be in stores by mid-September. 

 If you’d like to pre-order it, New Society Publishers is offering a 20% discount for preorders here:

And, While they last, I will  have a limited number of autographed copies available directly from me for 18.95 USD (not as cheap as the above) plus shipping (which I do not yet know the cost of - I will figure it out early next week and let everyone who emails me know).  If you’d like one, email me with “Book Preorder” in the subject line, and bear with me while I figure out how to do this.  It will probably take me a few days to get back to you - I’m not ignoring you, just slow.  The good part of this is that you should get your book before the local store does, with luck, and if it matters to you, it will have my name (and if you want me to inscribe it a particular way, let me know) in it.  I don’t take credit cards, btw, so this requires paypal or a check.

2. Next week will be the second week on Lucifer’s Hammer of the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club, and after that, in August, our next books will be Susan Beth Pfeiffer’s _Life as We Knew It_ and Sherri Tepper’s _The Gate to Women’s Country_.   And this is sort of controversial, but if you are interested in working with a third text, I’d like to read them in conjunction with Derrick Jensen’s book _Endgame_ which ties interesting into the questions of gender, sex, resistance and what level of social engineering is possible or desirable. 

3. I still have several spots in the August class (which actually runs into early September) on Adapting in Place.  The class will focus on preparing for a lower energy, lower money life that works in a volatile climate either in the place you are now or the one you will be in shortly.  This is for people who aren’t going to get to their dream homestead anytime soon - or whose dreams have changed to include the place they already live in.

More info:

Week 1 (August 5 and 7) - How to evaluate what you have.  We’re going to concentrate on figuring out what the major concerns are for your place and your community.  We’ll talk about your region and its climate, culture and resources, your house itself, your community and neighborhood - the challenges you forsee and maybe ones you haven’t thought about yet, and your personal circumstances - how much money, time and energy you have to deal with it. 

Week 2  (August 12 and 14) Will focus on your house itself - we’ll talk primarily about low energy infrastructure for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, washing, etc…  About costs and options and choices for both private homes and for communities.

***August 19 and 21 CLASS IS NOT IN SESSION (Eric and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary by going away - I’m teaching a Permaculture class, and we’re going to treat it as a second honeymoon)

Week 3 (August 26 and 28) We’ll focus on Community Issues - Sharing resources, Building collective infrastructure, cannibalizing existing options, security, privacy, consolidating housing, dealing with the brother-in-law on the couch.

Week 4 (September 2 and 4) - We’ll focus on larger regional issues, especially foodsheds and watersheds, and on employment and economic issues.  We’ll also try to pull together an organizational plan for each household with strategies for the short, medium and long term.

There are Four Components of the Class

  • 1. My blog posts - lots of other people will be following along, which means that you usually get a lot of good info in the comments. There will be 2-4 each day that the class runs. I’m assuming if you registered you know where my website is ;-) /
  • 2. The yahoo discussion group that I will set up a bit nearer - this is a place where I’ll post discussion topics and answer any questions, and we can share our knowledge and ideas. The group will be for the participants only.
  • 3. Email - I’m available by email for anything you want to discuss privately. I’m available most days all day Tuesday and Thursday and regularly thereafter. Do use this email [email protected] and put AIP in the subject line if you can, just so that I keep track.
  • 4. Phone - I want to do one 20 minute phone conversation so we can talk in person and deal with whatever you are concerned about. I’ll set up scheduling for that - my hope is that most can be done on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, but I’ve got some flexibility - more details on that coming.

Finally, payment.  The cost of the class is $125.  I do, however, have a couple of spots left for low income participants and one scholarship unfilled, provided by a kind person who wants to help.  So email me if you need a spot and can’t pay.



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