"There is no 'try'...there is only do, or do not." ~ Yoda

"There is no 'try'...there is only do, or do not." ~ Yoda

Preparing myself, my family and my friends for the Fourth Turning.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Much to Discover

Every day, I try and take a walk around this property, some part of it, new or old, it doesn't matter.  One cannot become acquainted with one's environment all at once.  Today I tramped northeast along Hemlock Creek to the property line, and encountered four separate springs emerging from the hillside, two of substantial volume in the aftermath of yesterday's rain.

I was already familiar with one, as it adjoins the planned driveway section on the hill, and we already have made plans to accommodate its periodically heavy flows.  It is a steady flow now.  Farther along a smaller spring arises, perhaps 50 meters northeast of the first, then another after 25 meters, a third 25 meters farther in, and still a third another 25 meters.

The third is also substantial, and judging from the vegetation, the depth of the channel and the lack of sediment in evidence it seems to run pretty continuously.  I recall identifying a seepy, swampy, boggy area up above it on the hillside during a walk some months ago; I think that seep likely feeds the spring I found further down the hillside.

On the way back, I discovered an apple tree bearing fruit.  The fruit was small, about the size of a baby's fist, its skin mottled and shot with brown traces, but worm free and quite tasty, sort of a cross between a granny smith and a yellow delicious, tart and crisp, juicy.  I ate two.  Only a few bites per apple, but hey, they're free, and only about 35 meters from the abode.

The Fruit of the Tree:

I also discovered another stand of wild roses - they're everywhere on this property, as are Hawthornes, and both are members of the same family.  Roses produce a small, berry like fruit, reddish orange to red, known as rose hips.  This edible fruit is a good source of vitamin C, and can be made into jams, jellies, wine - the usual stuff.  Not sure how they taste raw - I'll give it a try and report back.

I also discovered a Mahaleb Cherry, only some few meters from the Abode.  The fruit is a dark, very bitter, cherry like drupe, very distasteful, but a quick search reveals that the seeds are used in Mediterranean cooking, which is a past time my wife and I enjoy together.

From Wikipedia:

The plant is cultivated for a spice, which is fragrant and has the taste of bitter almonds. It is used in small quantities to sharpen sweet foods, such as the Turkish sweet-bread çörek (chorak), the Greek sweet-bread tsoureki or the Armenian sweet-bread chorak. The chemical constituents are still uncertain, but the spice is prepared from the seeds, either by grinding and powdering the seed kernels, or in oil extracted from the seeds.[12]

The wood is hard, and is used in cabinet-making and for pipes.[13]

The bark, wood, and seeds contain coumarin.[13][14] They have anti-inflammatory, sedative and vasodilation 

Away from its native range, the species is grown as an ornamental tree for its strongly fragrant flowers, throughout temperate regions of the world; it has become naturalised in some areas, including Europe north of its native range (north to Great Britain and Sweden), and locally in Australia and the United States.[7][15][16]

I've also found what I believe are some Red-Osier Dogwood shrubs, notable because of their white, blueberry-like (although apparently inedible, sources differ) fruit. I does have the advantage of being a preferred food of ruffed grouse.

I'll keep you posted.

The Best Laid Schemes

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy! 

Robert Burns, from "To a Mouse "

A wee spot of trouble yesterday and last night.  The last courtiers of Tropical Storm Nicole hung around the party long enough to finish their devastation in North Carolina, slowly traveling up the eastern seaboard and bringing a full day of heavy rain here yesterday.

As a consequence, I stayed inside most all day, listening to the slowly-maddening drum of the drops on the tin roof of the abode, keeping the fire up, checking on the dog (curled inside her house, waiting it out like me), reading and writing.

I took some pictures of the event as it unfolded, and will take some more of the aftermath as I am able. Here's one of the coffer damn built to permit pouring of the first footer, which can be seen in the bottom.  I apologize for the poor picture quality.  Please note the breaches in the coffer damn wall, which is otherwise holding well.

Here's one from last night.  You can see the coffer dam is now fully submerged, but intact.

And finally, from this morning, around 0800:

Structurally, the impacts are negligible.  We'll have to wait for the water to recede, however, before any additional work may be done.  There was some damage to the driveway - on the other side of the dirt pile in the background is a two-culvert system draining a swale that experiences flows during heavy rains.

One of the culverts washed from its location, about two hundred feet downstream.  I am informed of this my my contractor, who told me that the excavator dropped by this morning to check on the driveway.  We have ordered additional stone, an additional culvert (widening it to three), and will repair it over the next day or so.

Meanwhile, I am reduced to foot power for mobility, as I cannot cross the damaged section of the drive in my car.

C'est la vie.

Of far more importance is the impact to our construction schedule, which is substantially behind. After some sticker shock on the 23rd, we halted progress until a redesign of the bridge could be effected, to bring the cost to a more reasonable level (from 48,000 to just under 30,000).  This necessitated a request for an extension from the DEC - by law, stream impacts are not to occur from September 30 to May 15th - which was granted, providing us until the 15th of October to emplace the abutments and complete all excavation and backfill.

Two weeks is a tight construction schedule - we had been intending to lay forms today and pour concrete tomorrow, but now we are set back a day.

The abutments are the key; the deck may be emplaced without impact to the stream, and it is of lesser concern.  Without the bridge, however, there is not chance of beginning construction on the house.  And, after witnessing this rain event, I am even more firmly convicted that up the hill is the place to build.

More later.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Reasons Why (Part Two)

In part one, I disclosed the ontological influences in my ongoing attempt to radically adjust my lifestyle.  This disclosure was a necessary predicate, as there are a number of responses to the conditions I am about to outline that have informed this attempt; I have chosen this one from among many, because of who I am.

These conditions collectively represent what I believe to be our species' present circumstances and the likely outcomes of those circumstances.  Both my circumstances and my ontology shape my choices.  Moreover, my ontology shapes my circumstances, and vice-versa, and feedback occurs.

In order to shape my response to my personal circumstances, it is at first necessary to understand what my personal circumstances are, and from that basis develop a framework of who I am.  Knowing who I am helps me rearrange my circumstances to better suit me, which further defines who I am and shapes the next rearrangement.  As stated in Part One, the goal is the maximally positive outcome possible.

Who I am not can in some respects be readily disclaimed:  I am not, for example, a peasant in China.  Nor am I a Brazilian rain forest aboriginal.  I am likewise not a 5th century monk, nor am I a a prehistoric native American, making my slow way across the frozen bridge linking present day Russia and Alaska, together with my tribe.  In turn, who I may not become is similarly disclaimable.

Thus, my circumstances define the possible range of choices.  My choices define the possible range of outcomes.  The summary outcomes of my choices, coupled with the summary circumstances, choices and outcomes of my predecessors, contemporaries, and offspring dictate the fate of our species.  It cannot be else-wise.  And as always, randomness gets a vote.

My circumstances include certain facts about my being, that are particular to my being: my intelligence, awareness, ability to learn, reason, remember, predict; my physical characteristics and needs; finally, my preferences, regardless of whether they are innate, such as the preference for satiety over hunger, or acquired, such as chicken over steak, are included in my circumstances. 

I note that I have a vested interest in my own survival.  I note that I desire to reproduce so that others like me might arise and I might then enjoy their companionship and foster my genetic continuance.  I do not so far find a reason for this to be so; it merely is.  I finally note that I might, at any time of my choosing, end my participation in life by my own hand, but I feel a strong desire not to do so, and am puzzled by those who do.

To the weight, then, of my ontological imperatives, I add epistemological imperatives:  I am, I wish to survive, circumstances may arise which may threaten my existence, I wish to avoid or counter those circumstances.

This is no different than any human, or any known organism for that matter, does every day of their lives (excepting those who, for some reason, choose to self-destruct).

Being who I am, a somewhat educated, late 20th to early 21st century middle-aged American male with substantial technology at my disposal, some accumulated resources, and relative freedom from oppression, I am able to expand my awareness and understanding of the factors influencing my existence far beyond the sphere of knowledge available to most of my ancestors.  As I have greater knowledge of of existing conditions, I can predict farther into the future, and with more accuracy, ever mindful that randomness gets a vote.

In this, I an not unique in contemporary terms.

In sum, taking account of my present circumstances as far as I am able to determine them; taking account of my knowledge of my self; taking account of my desire to continue as my self (which includes my capacity as a member of a community at some level); and considering that fact that any choice I make comes at the cost of other choices possible, I must make my analysis and plan my path.

I note many things about my present circumstances:
  • I live in a global society, where the choices of individuals not known to me nor directly affect-able by   me can be shown to have an impact upon the choices with which I am presented;
  • I live in a world of substantial technical complexity, one in which certain human minds have cast off the constraint of disbelief that ever-more higher technology is both possible and readily available to provide solutions to problems;
  • I live in a world where it is equally misunderstood by certain human minds that the cost of such higher technology may surpass any gain achieved by that technology;
  • I live in a world where, even if the higher technology is both possible and cost effective, it may arrive too late to be of practical value to certain individuals and populations on the planet;
  • I live in a world that has and has had, for the entirety of my existence, access to sources of energy that immensely magnify the capacity for work of any human or group of humans;
  • I live in a country that has and has had, for the entirety of my existence, access to a share of those resources and hence their productive use, disproportional to my country's share of the global population; unlike some other individuals in some other countries, my share is greater;
  • I live in a country, and in a region of my country, that has and has had, for the entirety of my existence, access to fresh water and arable land in quantities greatly exceeding those available to some communities and individuals in my country and elsewhere;
  • I live in a world where the deliberate analysis of those resources, their capacities, their amounts, their usage rates, their replenishment rates, the likely impact of shortages and the range of possible outcomes of those shortages is the widely undertaken, and I have access to the conclusions of such analyses;
  • I am aware that like every other species now existing or known to have existed, the usage rate of resources by my species appears to informed commentators to tend to periodically outstrip the replenishment rate of those resources (resource overreach);
  • It appears to informed commentators that our species has past the point of  of resource overreach;
  • Resource overreach tends to be accompanied, regardless of species, by conflict;
  • I am aware that the climate of my planet appears to be changing; the reasons why are of academic interest only, as I cannot hope to affect them.  My goal is to understand the ongoing changes and their likely impacts; 
  • I am healthy, capable of manual labor, capable of withstanding and/or devising solutions to reasonably undesirable environmental conditions; capable of exploiting available resources to mitigate and counter threats and improve my sense of well-being; and, capable of an exchange of resources, knowledge and skills with others of my kind;
  • I live in a country where it is possible, and I possess the resources necessary, to choose the location in which I live and relocate to that location;
  • To a lesser extent, I am similarly able to choose my lifestyle. For example, I must pay taxes and obey laws, whether or not I like it, but within those constraints I am generally free.
This, then is what I know.  And in none of these points is a value judgment implied.  From these observations, I may reach some conclusions:
  • I exist, and wish to continue to exist;
  • I wish my descendants and certain of my contemporaries to continue to exist (I have no particular desire for any of my contemporaries to perish; I simply am not directly concerned with most of them);
  • I am prepared to attempt to assure my existence, and the continuance of my descendants' existence by various means: first, by work and, where necessary or desirable, commerce; second, by violence where necessary and unavoidable;
  • Others like me exist and appear to share the above characteristics;
  • Some others like me are capable of desiring, may at times desire, and if provoked by circumstances,  will at times act upon the desire for me personally or my society generally or other societies or individuals to perish;
  • My circumstances are no different that those of any previous or extant human in that my circumstances dictate the available means for survival;
  • Threats to survival exist;
  • I can understand and identify those threats, and greater study will produce greater understanding;
  • With greater understanding, I can better develop attempts to counter those threats;
  • Obtaining and managing a personally-owned source of renewable primary resources is very important to continued autonomy;
  • My labor plus my resources becomes my capital.
  • Being part of a community can be both helpful and harmful.
Now, we are to the heart of the matter:  why move to an obscure community, in a state in this country that is experiencing a population decline, experiences some degree of harsh weather, where manufactured or refined resources are scarcer and thus more costly to obtain, and where the government is arguably more oppressive (in its taxation and regulation) than other governments elsewhere?

Why not simply attempt to acquire vast wealth, legitimately or otherwise, and ensconce myself and my family in a castle on some remote island, with a private army at my service?  It falls within the range of possibility.  Why not take up residence on a tropical island, where harsh weather is not a concern, and food is readily available from the landscape?  It falls within the range of possibility.

To answer this, we must accept certain premises.  I am perfectly willing to debate the rationale  for these premises, and the following conclusions, with any comer; I am perfectly willing to be proven wrong in both my premises and my conclusions.  But potential opponents should be prepared to challenge and respond with reason and facts; I shall not entertain challenges arising from raw opinion or uninformed belief.

Premise 1:  Some resources necessary for human life are practically infinite (on human time scales) such as the energy obtained directly from the sun, and some are practically infinitely recyclable, such as water;  others are, for purposes of exploitation over human time frames, finite, such as oil.

One can presume that fossil fuels are even now replenishing themselves.  The problem is, they appear to be doing so much more slowly than we are accessing and consuming them.

Further, while some resources are infinitely recyclable, such as water, there is no guarantee that the recycling of these resources produces usable quantities in one's immediate environment or over the period of one's immediate needs: it is possible to pollute one's drinking water for a period sufficient to provoke the death of the individual or society reliant upon that water.

Premise 2:  The accessible and useful quantity of any resource necessary to any individual or any species is, regardless of actual finiteness or in-finiteness, finite.

Even the sun is finite: it will cease to convert hydrogen to helium when the hydrogen runs out.  The resources of our earth are finite.   While some are perpetually recyclable (such as water), others are not (such as fossil fuels).  Moreover, the aggregate quantity, and as importantly, the quality of resources will be constrained within a particular locality.

Premise 3.  Circumstances and the structure of the organism control how much of a particular resource a particular individual or collection of individuals may access, use, and store.

Premise 4:  The discovery of fossil fuels as an energy source dramatically affected the global population of humans.

Prior to the industrial revolution, itself an outcome of access to abundant, easily transported, and easily employed energy fewer than one billion people at any time inhabited this plan.  This, over a measurable historic period exceeding 40,000 years.  We now number 6.9 billion humans (source).  3.5 million people are born daily; 150,000 die daily, resulting in a daily! increase of 3.35 million people.

This is only possible because we as a species were able (are able) to exploit the energy and nutrients contained in fossil fuels to dramatically increase food production on a global scale.

Premise 5:  The population of the world has surpassed, or is very close to surpassing, a level which is calculable to be sustainable given resource limits including starting quantities, usage rates, replenishment rates, and recycle rates under existing technological conditions:

While technically a conclusion, Premise 5 is stated here as foregone conclusion.

Every species now known  to exist or known to have existed undergoes a 'bloom and bust' cycle when presented with a windfall resource or resources.  Every species will exploit that resource to the fullest, increasing its population, until the limits of the least available resource place a check on growth.  When growth is checked, an abrupt collapse typically follows.

Our species includes members who have already calculated and published both the usage rates and replenishment rates for numerous societies individually, and our species collectively, and shown them to be unbalanced.  We have 'bloomed'.  The 'bust' awaits.

Premise 6:  Humans, both individually and collectively, are capable of a range of behaviors, such as cooperation, neglect, and hostility.  The behavior chosen by my contemporaries affects me.

Premise 7:  As resources become scarcer through overuse, misuse, or failure to recycle, as climate shifts affect local weather and thus food production; as technology falters in an attempt to retain current circumstances for lack of sufficiently robust energy inputs, there will be conflict.

Premise 8:  Conflict has begun.

With these premises in mind, and with the supporting facts and conclusions listed above in mind, it became clear to me that a change is my personal circumstances was necessary in order to improve my chances, and by extension my family and friend's chances, of survival.

I personally do not believe that some technological white knight will appear on the horizon with nuclear fusion in his fist and a cache of technological solutions to the other problems facing humanity in his saddlebags.  Perhaps one will appear.  Perhaps aliens will land, and solve our problems for us. Perhaps this is behind the reported (and since denied) recent UN selection of a Malaysian astrophysicist as head of its Office for Outer Space Affairs (report) .

Nothing prevents one from irrationally hoping for a Cargo Cult solution as opposed to taking decisive action.  But if an exterior solution is not forthcoming, then the world is unlikely to intervene to save us from our own inaction, should we find our survival threatened.

Therefore, better to develop a working solution whilst one is able, and in the event aliens or time travelers arrive with nuclear fusion, spare planets, and beneficent intent we may adjust both our circumstances and our expectations.

I will readily confess that Upstate New York is not the ideal place to which to retreat;  that said, most ideal places are spoken for, or otherwise out of reach.  Indeed, the search did not begin with a search for an ideal place; the search began for a sufficient and attainable place.

Further, lest anyone think otherwise, it has never been our intent to relocate and forgo the trappings and pleasantries of civilization; I am no Luddite, protesting technology in general, nor even technology which threatens my way of life, so long as it does not threaten my existence.

I embrace technology.  I write this from a hillside shed with no electricity save that produced by generator, no plumbing, and with access to the Internet provided by a Blackberry and a laptop.  The trouble is, a lot of our technology is dependent upon energy; without energy, most of it is useful only as raw material.  What good is a backhoe without fuel?  What good is my generator, or my laptop, or my Blackberry?

I want as much technology as I can get my hands on - but I want technology that either requires only limited energy inputs to use, safely and reliably produces energy itself, draws energy directly from the environment on a sustainable basis, or mitigates the loss of energy in useful systems.  And I want this because it is my sincere and firm belief that numbers don't lie: the pace of human growth and resource consumption are about to collide, and as a bit-player in that collision, my own ability to access large quantities of cheap energy will substantially diminish.

It is no longer the experience of most of our society (although it remains so for a goodly portion of the world) that some things which seem both easy to obtain and relatively cheap are in fact neither.  If you don't believe me, go and get yourself a cold, pasteurized gallon of milk.  Without visiting a grocery store, without using any means of conveyance that isn't either an animal or one you have made yourself from raw materials (animal, vegetable, or mineral) by hand without access to electricity, and with a container of your own devising, also made from raw materials by hand .

The comforts and conveniences provided by our energy use are so commonplace to us that they are taken for granted.  Yet it is far from so for a good deal of the world, and it is unlikely to remain thus for ourselves for much longer.  Unfortunately, we seem collectively incapable of acknowledging this fact and people, if asked, either dismiss reality or else invoke some mysterious 'they' as being in the process of concluding a technical solution to be shortly made available, at low cost.

However, when we as individuals and collectively as a society face a significant and prolonged energy shortage we will all very quickly learn how much things truly cost, and how hard they may be to obtain locally.  Abundant energy in the form of fossil fuels pervades our lives.  Without it, most of what most of us do to survive cannot be done.

To understand this, simply imagine your life if the the laws of physics suddenly changed and the electricity went out - right now - forever, and imagine if right now, forever, fossil fuels disappeared from the Earth.

This was more or less the human experience until about 300 years ago.

It doesn't take advanced mathematics to calculate that substantial energy shortages are not only a possibility, but are in fact likely , particularly in this country, as we use a disproportional share of the energy owned by others. Others, both owners and non-owners of energy sources, are starting to want more even as the amount available declines.

We are going to face shortages.  As energy becomes less available, our lifestyles will degrade.  I would prefer for mine to degrade as little as possible, and I would like to have as much control as possible over the changes.  And by degradation, I mean our use of energy to accomplish basic tasks: there is no need for our quality of life to degrade just because we have to press the oil for a lamp ourselves in order to have light at night.

Therefore, Nina and I have chosen to obtain a primary resource - land with running water, trees, game, and arable soil - where we may substantially mitigate the impact of externally produced energy scarcity on our lifestyle, by judicious development and careful exploitation of this resource to in order to replace community provided secondary goods, services, and utilities with self-provided secondary goods, services and utilities where shortages occur.

I am extremely fortunate in that I have substantial energy available to me to assist me in developing this capacity. It would be much harder without it.  I am extremely fortunate in that I have a spouse who understands all that I have outlined, and is a willing partner.  It would much harder without such support.

I acknowledge that I will continue to have energy available to me - sunlight will fall upon my land, and, when combined with other resources (nutrients, organisms, and water) can be harvested as food and fuel.  I can directly collect sunlight for conversion to electricity, or to do other forms of work; heating water, drying food, generating temperature differentials in my house that cause air to flow.  Water can drive a stream turbine. I can combine energies to convert its form: grain and the efforts of yeast will produce alcohol; with fire I may distill it to a useful fuel.  I can use a hand-cranked press to obtain oil from plants.

And this primary resource is most useful to me if I select technology - and develop the skills and understanding necessary to employ it - that maximally, sustainably exploits those resources, including locally produced energy.

An ATV is an example of a technology useful in exploiting these resources - it could be used to drag logs from the forest to my wood yard. I could distill alcohol for is fuel.

But a horse can also drag logs.  And a good horse can be had for as low as 250 dollars in this area; this is around 1/10 the cost of even a basic four-wheel utility ATV. And the fuel for the horse is growing right outside, and needs very little interaction from me to keep right on refueling the horse.  Further horses produce more horses, all on their own, and in a pinch, they can be eaten.

But in addition to choices about what technology I purchase, I must also consider my own training requirements.  I don't know what it's like to survive for very long periods without external energy inputs.  And it occurs to me that if I really propose to survive without said energy inputs, then I am far better off learning to do so when it is an option, as opposed to a requirement.

We have acquired this resource in a place where people are generally leaving; we are leaving a place where people are generally gathering. Thus, the competition for resources will be less severe.  Land is currently fairly cheap.  The community is small enough that we may hope to know most members, thus cooperation should be more likely than conflict during crisis.  The land is good and resource-rich.  There is abundant water in the region.  There exists, in the form of the Amish and others, practical knowledge on how to do things with limited energy.

We are close to several Universities and Colleges, one of which, Cornell, has several colleges devoted to the study of agriculture, and the mindset in this region is generally concordant with our own.  The climate, in conjunction with a properly designed and constructed house, removes the need for generated interior cooling during summer months (a huge energy savings).

Climate change is the unpredictable factor:  how will the weather here change?  We cannot know, but we can make reasonable predictions: generally warmer, wetter, and with a longer growing season, punctuated perhaps by more frequent severe weather occurrences.  This is better than the alternative: hotter and drier.

Finally, one needs only look at the mess humans have made of this planet to understand that a different way must be found. Someone has to start.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Soggy Days and Firewood (Part Two)

As it happens, yesterday did not turn out to be a day devoted exclusively to processing firewood.  There was some digging. Regardless, it was a highly productive day.

I began as planned, cutting logs into stove-length chunks ready for stacking, or splitting and stacking, as required.  I quickly realized I was going to have to stop and sharpen my chainsaw.  Now, I thought I might have to do this before I began, but I didn't feel like it, and so I chose the easy way of going ahead and sawing anyway.

I did, in fact, have to stop after a brief period.  While sharpening, the rain began again in earnest.  Somewhat dismayed, I looked at the growing pile of split wood exposed to the rain (thinking, not of next winter, but of the next few weeks - this is also my heating supply while I am up here).  I looked at the open overhang attached to the Abode (the 'wood shed'), and I noted the litter of tools, spare lumber piled on sawhorses, the generator, and etc. and tried to figure out where I might stack the wood.

If you've viewed a picture of the Abode, you'll note it is built on sloping ground.  The area under the overhang is not so steeply pitched as that under the main structure, but it sloped nonetheless, and had a rather large mound of grass, what used to be an anthill, in the middle of it. (On a side note: one of my ongoing projects is terracing and leveling the ground around the Abode.)

So, much as I knew my chainsaw needed sharpening, I also knew that the ground under the shed needed leveling, and organizing, and that I had to arrange alternative storage for much of the material underneath to make room for wood storage.  Wood storage is its intended purpose.

Now, a cord of wood is 128 cubic feet - generally stacked 4' deep x 4' high x 8' wide.  Of course, four foot logs are unwieldy, so the depth is usually broken into stove lengths, so one ends up with a stack 16"-22"deep x 4' high x 8' wide. Up here, and elsewhere for all I know, this is referred to as a 'face' cord: that which is sold is only the 'face' of a full cord.  Price will vary dependent upon typical economic factors and the participants.

My wood storage area, if filled to the base of the rafters, is 12' deep x 8' wide x 8' high.  This permits the sheltered storage of six full cords of wood, which should be more than sufficient for a single heating season (see how nicely it all begins to hang together?)

Of course, I was left with the problem of the shed's utility, which was low.

So I was faced with a choice: follow the path of expediency, which I did with predictable results in the matter of the chainsaw, or change tack and improve the wood shed.  You can see the results below:

The equipment will ultimately disappear as the main house and shop are built - but for now, I need a small work bench, sheltered space for the generator, and storage that does not take up floor space.

So first, I installed a kick plate along the Abode's north wall, using a leftover 2 x 6 x 12 from the shed's construction.  I had purchased some lumber when I arrived, and hauled it up the hill, confident I would find use for it.  A portion of this lumber facilitated joists, to which I moved most remaining lumber, all garden tools, and a few smaller items on the platform provided by the lumber.  I next hung all tools and equipment and fashioned the workbench.

All this was necessary just to attack the real issue: leveling the floor.  This involved placing a 4 x 6 x 8 across the lower end of the slope, leveling it, and staking it in place.  I next removed soil from the higher end until I had a channel deep enough to hold the second timber, and ensured that the tops of the two timbers were level with each other by means of a line level.

I allowed some slight slope to remain to promote runoff to the lower end.

Next, the dirt had to be loosened, leveled, and compacted.  Finally, I retrieved 14 50-pound bags of gravel from the bridge site, where they were staged for pouring of the second footer, hauled them up the hill, and spread the gravel atop the level, compacted soil, and in turn compacted the gravel.

This was not fun.  I did it in stages of 25 meters each, shuttling two bags forward 25 meters, returning for the next two, until the pile had been moved, then repeating the process in 25 meter increments until all fourteen bags were up the hill.  As it had been raining, the hill was muddy and slippery in places.

I include this comment because one of the things I am discovering as I undertake this process of homesteading is that patience is very much required - the scale of a man's labor is dwarfed by the effects of machinery and energy.  What took and hour and a half of hard slogging, the heavy consumption of water, and the intent to use only what was necessary and no more, could have been accomplished in about ten minutes with the bridge in place, using just my Subaru to haul the stone uphill, with extra thrown in for good measure.

There is a lesson here, one which I will return to in a future post. In point of fact, it is this very lesson I am teaching myself, as I undertake this process.  We all know it, intuitively, but to face it, to feel it, to endure it is a far, far different thing. And that lesson is that, absent the leverage of complex machinery and abundant energy, particularly fuel, progress is slow, tiring, and best approached with deliberation and foresight.

I choose to endure it because I believe that in the not so distant future, I, or perhaps my children, but no later than that, will have no choice but to perform many of our tasks in this manner; I would rather creep up on the concept that have it starkly confront me.  We simply will not have the resources, particularly abundant fuel (notice I didn't say energy), to lavish on such luxuries as allowing each and every high school student to consume gasoline driving their own, personal, two-ton chunk of steel to school in the morning.

We will have energy - energy is abundant.  What we won't have in abundance is fuel, which is necessary to power most large equipment.  Because of these realities, I anticipate a future where I am plowing with a horse with a cell phone in my pocket.

(The subject of why fuel and energy are not the same could involve several posts all on its own; however, I would direct the interested reader here: The Archdruid Report, for an excellent treatment in the linked and subsequent articles on the nature of energy and fuels.)

Our choices for energy use will return to more rational ones - when do I really need to light the fire, as opposed to throw an extra blanket on, given that lighting the fire means the consumption of at least an hour's labor, stored as fuel out in the wood shed.

More on this later.  The real point is that I  now have a suitable space for wood storage, and a sharp chainsaw, and another day, and I am reminded of Ecclesiastes 3:1.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Soggy Days and Firewood

Not completely satisfied with the choices available for format of this blog, but as its free, I don't see I can complain much. 

Today has dawned soggy and rainy - it rained most of yesterday, and through the night, and is raining now.  This limits my activity.  It's not that I particularly mind getting wet - although the colder it gets, the more I mind - it's that this can be a messy business, and living in a one-room Abode with no running water and only generated electricity poses challenges to cleanliness and hygiene.

There will be no digging.  This simply invites more mud.  I am regretting having begun the stone wall around the Abode, as I am now left with piles of dirt, slowly clumping to mud, near the entrance.

Instead, I think I will spend the afternoon in the wood yard - lots to do there.  A number of smaller logs to be cut to length and stacked, much splitting to be done, decisions and work to be done regarding staging of log piles, preparing and driving end posts for the stacks, develping a system for keeping them off the ground.

Although it has been some time since I have lived in an environment where we heated exclusively with wood (29 years), the principles are fairly simple to understand.

One the one hand, one can purchase wood, or wood equivalents, such as wood pellets, in much the same way one purchases electricity, or natural gas, or heating oil.  One is simply trading dollars earned via one's labor for energy that will be principally used to provide warmth.

Or, if one is fortunate, one can exploit one's own resources, apply one's direct labor, and produce what amounts to a capital good: fuel for warmth during the winter (and, potentially, for cooking, heating water, etc).  This can be done as simply as picking up forest litter for an open fire (such as many nomadic tribes have historically done); or it can be as complex as forest management coupled with machine-assisted harvesting, processing and storage.

There is quite a range of techniques in play up here.  A good deal of scrounging occurs - wood can be expensive, and purchasing wood, when it may be obtained for free, is viewed somewhat askance - it's a cultural thing.  Unless of course, one is of the upper-middle class or higher - in these classes, self-sufficiency can be less of a motivator than in the laboring class, where dollars are dearer.

To run a proper woodyard, planning is needed.  First, one must anticipate the quantity needed over a given period and do so accurately: there is no joy in realizing in the depths of February's bitterness that the woodpile will not last and further provision must be made.

Many people tend to overstock.  This carries risk as well:  wood will decay if left for long periods exposed to the elements.  Decayed wood will not burn.  Therefore, one's investment, be it in labor, barter, or cash will have been lost.  It saddens me to see piles of rotting logs that will clearly never be burnt - I am certain there is some family in the area that would have made good use of that wasted resource.

The approach I intend to take is to have two year's inventory of prepared or near-prepared wood close to hand at the closing of each summer.  Now, this is more complicated than it sounds.  I can't just go out in July, cut down a live tree, log it, split it, stack it and be done.  I'll end up burning green or partially green wood all winter.

This produces a fire that must divert some of it's energy to driving off the water in the form of steam, robbing me of valuable thermal radiation.

So, in Year One (this year, as I write), I must either girdle the trees I plan to use next winter, or cut the logs outright, yard them, and later next year cut them to size and split them.

To girdle a tree, one first selects the tree one intends to use for firewood.  This tree should be carefully selected, using criteria (which I won't go into here) that promote sustainable forest management.  Girdling is the removal of bark in a strip all around the tree.  Since bark is essential for the survival of the tree, this will kill the tree.  It should be done in the fall.

The following late spring, one will have a nicely dead, nearly dry tree to harvest.  The tree is then felled, bucked (removal of branches and limbs), cut to length (six to twelve feet), hauled to the yard, and left to dry further.

Over the course of the summer, the tree is cut into stove-lengths.  Stove length is dependent upon the capacity of the stove - the larger the capacity, the larger the log the stove will accommodate.  This is important for several reasons. 

First, larger logs obviously require less processing.  If I need merely cut the log into lengths and then shove the entire stove length log into my stove, it saves me the process of splitting the log. My neighbor's wood boiler can accommodate an un-split log several feet long, for example.

Second, placing several large pieces of wood in the burner results in a longer time between refueling events - provided one is judicious with the drafting, and does not overfire the stove. No one wants to get out of bed, where one is warm and toasty, curled up next to their gently sleeping spouse, and have to go shove sticks in an iron box.

Finally, large chunks resist decay better than smaller chunks.  The ratio of the surface are to volume presents fewer opportunities for water, microbes, and molds to enter.

Anyway, in the fall of Year One (Y1) I girdle the tree(s) for Year Two's (Y2's) winter. In the late spring of Y2 I fell the trees from Y1.  In the summer of Y2 I process the wood from Y1 Trees for Y2 winter use.  In the fall of Y2 I girdle the trees for Y3. And so on.

(As a long term alternative to girdling and felling entire trees, particularly if one has a smaller patch of land, one can pollard or coppice one's trees.)

As an alternative to girdling, I can fell green trees in the fall, cut them to manageable lengths, haul and yard them, and leave them piled to dry.  As I have a large number of logs remaining from the driveway clearing project, I have no need to girdle trees this year.  I estimate I have sufficient wood for at least next winter, and possible the following.

Firewood Left from Road Clearing

The Nascent Wood Yard

In our particular case, we won't really know our annual consumption until at least one winter has passed - and then it will at best be an estimate based upon a single heating season. 

For this reason, I anticipate having to prepare ten cords of wood for the winter of 2011, double what I anticipate needing.  Of course, I must also prepare the wood I will use this winter, when I am here managing the building process.

As for the wood yard itself, one can think of this is a production line.  As with any production line, we want to handle each piece in the assembly process as few times as possible - every time I pick up, move, cut, or otherwise manipulate a piece of fuel, I am expending energy and time.  If I am inefficient, I will expend more energy and time than is needed.

So I want a system where the logs come in one end - preferable away from the house - and out of the other end comes stove ready wood - preferably as near the house as reasonable.  My wood yard location is approximately 40 feet from the planned mudroom entrance; it is also near where our shop will be. In fact, the wood yard is directly between the Abode and the planned shop (which will have its own stove).  To the rear of the abode is the woods from where fuel will in the future be obtained.

Bear in mind, we will have three fireboxes in our home: the primary heat source in the masonry heater, and two wood stoves, one on each floor.  As these will be sized for different purposes, that may require different size fuel.

The process involves taking the logs cut to manageable length (six to twelve feet, perhaps longer if mechanical haulage or a horse is used to bring them to the yard) and cutting them to stove length: generally, sixteen to 24 inches.  If the resulting piece of wood is of sufficiently small diameter to ensure easy handling and a good fit in the stove, my cutting work is done, and I can stack these logs ready for use.

The location of the finished wood piles is important as well - it is from these piles that fuel will be hauled to its point of use.  One wants convenient access and a clear path to the home, and the point of entry at the home should provide provision for storage as well.  Usually, this is on a porch near an entrance. 

Inside the home, each burner should have it's own provision for fuel storage, as well as kindling, tinder, and ignition means.  The preparation of kindling (smaller pieces ignited by the tinder) is also important, and should be kept in mind throughout the process.  As one is processing logs, certain logs will clearly be more suited for additional processing into kindling than others.  These should be set aside in a separate pile.

Generally, logs with straight grains, no branches, no forks, and of easily ignited and hot burning species make good kindling.  Ash, maple, beech - even some pine, if used sparingly (I prefer to retain pine for outdoor fires, where the buildup of creosote is not an issue).

Anyone with a clothes dryer has access to one of the best sources of tinder available to man: dryer lint.  I carry wads of this stuff when backpacking.  In our new home,  I intend to keep a mason jar stuffed full of dryer lint, a box of long matches, and this pine sticks at each firebox as the ignition system.

Flint and steel work very effectively in conjunction with dryer lint as well, as I know from long experience.  However, there is no need to completely abandon technology. ;->

If one wants to make even more effective fire-starters, as opposed to purchasing commercially made ones, it is a simple task: get a used eight-by-eight cake pan, pack it full of dryer lint, melt your leftover candle ends (carefully), and pout the resulting liquid over the dryer lint. 

When it hardens, cut it into sticks.  Each stick is a home-made fire-starter.

So, today, I will be taking the messy pile of logs left adrift in my yard by the logging process and continue to process and organize them. 

That said, I'm off to the yard, my chainsaw, my maul, and my axe.  Enjoy your day.


Monday, September 27, 2010

A Reply to a Friend.

**** -
great to hear from you!  What, you don't like the Jupiter Project as a title?  I can't help that - my Muse provided it, and thus I must accept it.  It turns out that Jupiter (both the planet and the myth) have significant associations with what I am attempting here (I read up on both after selecting the title).
Which, of course, cannot really be understood until I write and one reads the Reasons Why (Part Two), which will deal almost entirely with the practical, worldly reasons for this step. As it is supposed to rain and be cold for the next few days, perhaps I'll finish installing this wood stove, stay inside, and write it.
Abby, as it happens, has a tracking device - it was not found by the original animal control agent.  When he turned her over to the rescue organization, as they were preparing her for adoption, they re-scanned her and located the RFID, and contacted us.
As for the blog, I'll try not to make it all so meaty - but one of things I do hope to accomplish with the second half of my life is a genuine contribution to the pool of philosophical thought developed by man over the millennia.  I am working on an outline for an essay that seeks to incorporate some of what is known or suspected in quantum physics into a metaphysical answer for an explanation of god, and another that explores patterns of exploitation in society, from a moral/ethical perspective (exploitation of parents by their children is not immoral, for example - it is necessary for the survival of our young).
Taking the universe from the big bang (assuming one accepts such), one can think of its evolution as a series of condensations of form - from energy, to strings, to quarks, to the families of particles that make up atoms (leptons, bosons, muons, etc.), to chemical processes, to conscious awareness.  What might distill from conscious awareness?  A higher consciousness?  Might that consciousness mature over time, and come to resemble something that we, as humans, conceive of as God?  Is my 'soul' part of an interweaving of all human experience into a greater, self-aware Entity that comprises myriad souls that cease to be self-aware as chemical life ends, but nonetheless continue?  Much as a raindrop ceases to be a coherent aggregate as it falls into a body of water, but nonetheless continues to exist?
Obviously, this approach is informed by Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian philosophies - but, surprisingly, one can find support in Hindu religions that accept the existence of a 'soul' and claim it occupies a very small dimension, beyond our senses.  How striking to learn then, that current thought in quantum physics calls for eleven dimensions, as opposed to the three of which we are directly aware, all of which are very tightly wrapped at the Planck level.
Perhaps all religions, and all science, like the five blind men examining an elephant, each have only a piece of the answer, and a synthesis is necessary. Call it the Grand Unified Theory of Existence (as opposed to the GUT of physics), I don't know. 
For this reason, while I appreciate your concern for my spiritual health, I would ask that you allay your concerns.  My atheism is more of a denial of the existence of a paternalistic deity directly responsible for, continually concerned with, and frequently impacting the existence and actions of man, that it is an outright rejection of an acceptance of all things spiritual.  Recall, I have studied Christianity at some length, and at one point in my life considered the priesthood.  My loss of faith stems solely from the logical contradictions inherent in Christianity and related Mosaic religions.
One should also consider (in your terms) that if your God does exist, and He gave me this mind (to which very few people on this planet have been deeply exposed), and life at a period in history where so much scholarly material is available to a casual autodidact, then perhaps His purpose for me is that I explore these topics.  Perhaps a more accurate understanding of Him is required - certainly, the internecine conflict waged across the globe, where participants on all sides invoke His name and claim His alliance, is not not helpful to our development as either an intellectual or spiritual species.
Given the weapons we have constructed, it is quite possible for us to destroy ourselves.  I reject submission to apocalyptic inevitability.
I think the Bible states that the meek shall inherit the Earth - I wonder how many people ponder what that means.  Who are these meek, that they are offered such a divine inheritance?  Are they the ideologues with nuclear weapons, professing love for their fellow man?  The wealthy, Christian community leaders professing concern for the poor even as the working poor's share of wages (a measure of their productive output) declines relative to their own? Or are they the isolated farmers and and subsistence engineers who end up surviving global conflict by virtue of dispersion and luck?
That said, at the end of the day, I am simply a man examining my own existence - abiding by the Socratic imperative to do so.  I have no hope of directing Humanity towards a more stable and cordial global society.  But I do hope to add to the effort.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Random Notes And Heating Systems

Have encountered some problems with the bridge - cost rose to an unexpected level.  After much work with the architect and engineer, we appear to have worked the cost back down to an acceptable level.  Footings and abutments should be finished in the next couple of weeks.

Bridge deck will follow as soon as possible - but it does look to be delayed for at least a bit.

Weather has begun cooling - trees are starting to change.  I am hoping for a crisp, dry fall - the combination of cold and dry air brings out the color in the leaves.  I have brought my old Canon F-1 and my tripod.  Ithaca is full of gorges cut by streams through shale; always beautiful, in the fall they are simply stunning.

Trout will begin running from Owasco Lake up my creek in the next few days.  Lake trout entering streams to spawn can be quite large - the largest I ever caught, running upstream out of lake Erie, was as long as my leg, and quite a fighter

These are likely to be smaller than that, but still quite large for brown and brook trout.  There are also native browns in the stream.

Turkey are calling constantly around the site - not three minutes passes without hearing one or another.  Occasionally, a grouse may be heard thumping off in the distance, and I have begun to see rabbit along the new driveway.

We deliberately left the branches and tops of the trees downed for the road in piles off to the sides, intermingled with the existing brush.  These piles of brush provide excellent habitat for rabbits, and should increase the population over the next few years.

Have begun cutting wood for next winter.  Estimates from the locals, depending on weather and heating system used, range from a low of four cords to a high of 18 cords - egads!  Of course, this turned out to have been due to an attempt to heat the garage; once stopped, wood usage reverted to more normal levels.

Many systems of heating up here.  Most of you know we intend to install a masonry heater - essentially a fully enclosed fireplace with a counterflow exhaust system.  This system keeps the hot gasses inside the heater for a longer period than a wood stove or fireplace, causing the masonry exterior to radiate gentle, constant warmth.

For folks in municipalities, gas lines, and of course electricity are available to drive heating systems.  Rural folk have a choice of heating oil, delivered by a truck and pumped directly into a tank at your house; propane gas - much the same except the tank is outside; various wood, wood pellet, and even coal systems.

The neighbor with the 18-cord budget uses an outdoor wood boiler that heats water which then flows through a series of pipes. He has a rather nice control station in his basement that allows him, through a series of levers, to direct hot water only to those portions of the house he wishes.

The advantages of an external wood boiler include taking a tremendous wood charge all at once, reducing refueling times; avoiding the mess (ash, wood litter) that can accompany an interior burner; and, of course, it can be located directly next to the wood supply.

A masonry heater shares some of the characteristics of a wood boiler - it can take a substantial charge - about 50 pounds of wood - and they typically need to be refueled only once daily. In addition, they are highly efficient - most of the heat generated remains in the house.

They do take much longer to reach full warming capacity - on the order of 12 to 24 hours - and you can't shut them off very quickly if it becomes too warm. For this reason, quicker fired, and quicker cooling appliances are desirable.

Thus, we plan to have two wood stoves in the house as well - a cast iron one in the master suite, and a steel one in the main living area downstairs.  The cast iron stove provides a nicer appearance, and radiates heat even after the fuel charge is expended, but warms slowly.  The steel stove provides immediate heat to the environment - you see flame, you got heat.

The reasons for the different behaviors of these devices, all of which burn wood, lies first and foremost in the thermal conductivity of the cladding.  Masonry absorbs heat slowly, retains it for a long time, and releases in gently.  Cast iron takes longer to heat, but once heated, remains work and has good radiant properties.

Steel heats quickly, and cools quickly.

Wood is a major source of winter energy in the area - it is possible, and common, to purchase an entire truck of logs.  Of course, if this is the case, one must still do the work of sizing and splitting.  If one owns property, the fuel is free, but the labor cost must still be paid.

But then, the labor is satisfying.

As an exercise in discovering this for oneself, I recommend Robert Frost's 'Two Tramps in Mud Time' for some light reading on the joys of splitting wood.