The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Natural Building II: Rocket Stoves! October 17, 2012

Earlier this week, I blogged about my visit to the Strawbale Studio.  In this second Natural Building post, I’m going to talk about the rocket stove workshop itself.  I’m quite excited about rocket stoves, because they use simple materials to create incredibly energy-efficient ways of cooking and heating.  I took this workshop because we’ve been talking about building an outdoor kitchen.  The plan next year is to build a rocket-stove cob baking oven and a rocket stove cooking oven.  Should be quite cool!

Rocket stoves can do a lot of things.  Typically, they are being used for two things in natural building: heating spaces and/or people and cooking.  Deanne’s indoor rocket stove features a cob bench.  The bench heats up at 1″ per hour when the rocket stove is going, so if there is 4″ of cob (a sand/clay mixture), it will take four hours to get warm.  Deanne says this kind of rocket stove heating system is best for long-term heating.  The basic principle of the rocket stove is that it uses a “J” shaped design to funnel heat through the stove system–the stove system can take many forms.  One form that Deanne has in-progress at the Strawbale Studio is a heating bench that goes the entire way around the natural building, so that people will warm up as they sit.

Deanne’s indoor rocket stove couch!

Deanne explains the rocket stove

Close-up of stove diagram

Rocket stove #2 (bare bones stove)

The above photo is a bare-bones rocket stove that Deanne had on the property.  You can see the “J” shape made with bricks.  This stove doesn’t have much insulation at all.  But it gave us a good idea about what the inside of one of these could look like.

Before we set to building our own fireplace, it was quite cold and a little rainy.  So we decided we’d also build a “rumford” fireplace that reflected heat back to us as we worked.  It was such a simple, elegant design–and it worked SO well in keeping us warm!

Building Rumford Temporary Fireplace – to keep us warm!

I ended up tending the fire for a lot of the day, and worked to build a fire that would keep out the rain and protect the coals.  Turns out, the rumford design is really good for that!  Here’s our fire going strong, even in the pouring rain!

Rumford in Rain!

So after building this quick stove, we set to work about 8′ away from it to build a cob-and-rocket cookstove.

Step 1. We began with mocking up what our rocket cookstove would look like using bricks.  Deanne told us that the bricks are important–old, red bricks work fine.  New red bricks are different and don’t work as well.  You need something that can handle repeated heat-ups and cool downs and that is fire-resistant.

Step 2: After we were satisfied with our design, which consisted of a piece of fireplace pipe, insulation, and an outer layer of bricks with a cob mortar, we began the process of putting the stove together.  The photo below shows us learning about brick laying!  As we put the bricks into place, we dunked each brick in water, then added cob to the brick.  Then we placed the bricks, tapping them into place.  After tapping, we used a level to make sure that we were building level as we went–both vertically and horizontally.

Beginning to add cob mortar to the rocket stove!

Step 3:  Add in the pipe.  The photo below shows how we placed the pipe.  Note the space around the pipe for our insulation (pearlite).  All of those spaces were filled either with insulation or cob.

Rocket Step 3: Adding in pipe!

Step 4:  We added a bit of insulation to the bottom (even below where the logs are placed) and then continued to cob up around the pipe.  Eventually, we had built up enough cob to add a brick which held the pipe in place.  You can see the cob is quite wet, but it still held together as we kept adding it!

Cobbing up the pipe!

Step 5: At this stage, we added more bricks and more insulation. Deanne used something called Pearlite (which you can find at a hydroponics store) but she said any non-flammable, insluating thing would work.  Wood ash works quite well, and that’s what we plan on using since we have a lot of it from our wood fireplace.

Adding insulation!

Adding more bricks!

Step 6: We finished the top of the stove with more cobb.  This is the heating surface.  You can’t just stic a pot on it though, you need a way for the heat to escape.  So you can put three little stones around the top and sit a grill or a pot on it.

Cobbing the top of the stove!

Step 7: After we finished the stove, we had to do some stove cleaning.  We took cob and patched up any cracks.  We also used a wire brush across the bricks to get off any excess cob mortar.

Cleaning rocket stove!

The completed stove!  I can’t wait to see how it works!

Finished Rocket Stove!

Concluding thoughts: 

Every time I learn a new skill or area, I am reminded about how much knowledge we have lost and need to work to regain. We claim to live in the information age, but for all of the information we have, we can’t do simple things like grow crops or build ourselves an oven. Its exciting and necessary to learn these new skills as we seek to live in harmony and transition to a more sustainable world.

I am looking forward to taking these skills and working on our outdoor kitchen project next year! 🙂

 

Art and Spirit: The Bardic Arts as Self Development and Spiritual Practice July 30, 2017

“The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.”

–Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.

 

In the last two months, through various angles, we have explored ways of taking up the path of the bard, one of the three paths of the druid tradition. Topics have included the cultivation and flow of awen, cultural challenges surrounding taking up the path of the bard, and tips for how to cultivate the bardic arts. In my last post, we also explored some of what industralization had us lose in terms of the bardic arts–both to those who create them and those who use them and how we might regain some of those things individually and in our communities. Today, we delve deeply into what I believe is the deeper wisdom in studying the bardic arts: using the bardic arts one means to of self enfoldment, self-betterment, and self discovery.

 

Shifting from Product to Process

Worlds within Worlds, or the Unfoldment of the Self

Worlds within Worlds, or the Unfoldment of the Self

A few posts back in this series, I talked about the commodification and commercialization of the bardic arts in our age of hyper consumerism. In this age, if you are good enough to sell your work, you should be doing so, and if you aren’t good enough to sell it, you shouldn’t be making it. This belief, of course, suggests that the point of the bardic arts is producing a product that has a commercial value: a story that people will pay to listen to, a song that people will download on Itunes, a painting or wooden bowl that people will buy, and so on.  And our culture makes it hard to be a bard if something else is your goal–the pressure to do this, as your work improves, is really intense at times. The problem with this mentality is that it focuses on the end product: that the bardic art has produced a particular thing that has some kind of value to other people such that people would pay to see it/hear it/own it. Of course, in a society that is oriented to consume products of all kinds (including non-physical ones), the privileging of this mentality makes a lot of sense.  But in emphasizing this product, we lose the value of the bardic arts as a process–a process of deepening, of unfolding, of development.

 

The point of pursuing the bardic arts, as part of a spiritual path, is the same reason we pursue the spiritual path itself: because we want to go on a journey. Not because we want to achieve enlightenment or achieve any other worldly accomplishment–rather, it is to develop, to grow, to unfold.  In this view, then, it doesn’t matter how talented or skilled you are in your bardic art(s) of choice because the point is to gain a deeper understanding of self, of craft, of spirit and of the connections between those things.  The real “work” of the piece from a spiritual perspective is unfolded in the act of creation. If the point is to express yourself and learn more about yourself as part of the journey, the end product is almost like a bonus. The bardic art journey is its own kind of journey, an incredible one, and one well worth pursuing.

 

The Bardic Arts and the Cultivation of the Self

“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.”– Robert Pirsig

 

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig describes how the main character, Phaedrus, has an older motorcycle that he has learned to service himself and throughout the story, he “listens” to the engine and fine tunes it to his great satisfaction and joy–to him, this work on his motorcycle is an art in and of itself. Another character, John Sutherland, prefers to allow experts to fix his motorcycle, and often gets frustrated and is forced to hire professional mechanics. This interplay between Phaedrus and Sutherland offers a rich exploration of what constitutes craft, quality, and value. For Phaedrus, the point isn’t to fix the motorcycle, rather, fixing the motorcycle helps him better understand himself.  It is in the interplay between the honing of his own craft, addressing challenges, and the focus and dedication of that work that he grows to deeply understand himself and his own life.

 

The bardic arts have a way of doing this kind work on the self like few other things do.  This comes through embodiment, cultivating a richer identity and self-love, being in relationship, connecting to spirit, and striving for excellence.

 

For one, many bardic arts require intensive focus, where we simply are present with our own bodies in ways that we are rarely present at other times. The bardic arts demand our hand-eye coordination, our voices, our vision, our sense of touch and smell, and many of our other physical faculties. Westernized culture is largely a disembodied one–our minds are the focus, and much of the pastimess of modern humans have us going off into various fantasy worlds (through games, television, movies) rather than being present and centered in our bodies. This embodiment, then, helps us recognize what our physical bodies are capable of and helps us re-orient ourselves back into our bodies. This has the benefit of grounding us back into the here and now, slowing us down, and helping us be fully present, among many other things.

 

Second, the bardic arts help us cultivate a deeper sense of identity and of self. Engaging in a bardic art, and the practice of that art, often requires you to work solitary–spending time with the self. Even if you do some kind of performance or collaborative art that requires a group (like playing an instrument in a band or acting), practice by one’s self is still a regular part of that experience.  This time spent with yourself strengthens your own self love and bonds with yourself because you are taking inherent time to simply be with yourself and enjoy that time. We often don’t take much time for ourselves–but I believe we need to get to know ourselves and develop relationships with ourselves in the same way we might develop relationships with any other friend.  This time, then, helps us better understand ourselves.

 

Three, interacting with the instruments of the bardic art (your voice, the media, an instrument, even for dancers, the earth itself), creates an interplay between you and your tools/environment. It ultimately teaches us about relationship and how to be in relationship to some other thing.  My words, as I write them, shape me and hone my thinking in ways that without writing them, I wouldn’t experience.  My watercolors, likewise, help paint my soul with color and joy as I use them to paint the page in front of me.  This interplay, this interaction, becomes part of the self-unfoldment of the bardic arts.  When you carve wood–are you carving the wood or is the wood carving you? The answer is simply, “yes.”

 

Finally, creation of the bardic arts connects us with some of the most important aspects of humanity: when we think about what gets preserved in most museums, what remains of a culture, it is rarely their businesses, their stock market, their tallies of grain or ore.  It is their arts: plays, music, literature, statues, architecture, jewelry, stories, songs.  In fact, the study of the things that humans create is called the humanities, where literature, art, philosophy, music, theater, dance, and so on have their place. These are human things, things we create with our hands, our hearts, and our minds.  The oldest things that survive ancient pre-humans are cave paintings. Creating is something that humans do, and have done even before we were human.  The bardic arts, then, allow us to reconnect with our own humanity, our humanness.

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

Arete and the Strive for Excellence

As the opening quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance suggested, learning how to work on something with care, precision, and a sense of wanting to do “good work” helps you cultivate that care in other aspects of your life.  If you develop a sense of wanting to produce quality work, that gives you an inherent sense of care.  That same care can be cultivated into other aspects of life–and part of that cultivation is learning how to do it well in one area.  The Ancient Greeks had a concept of “arete” (Greek: ἀρετή) which has a few translations: excellence of all kinds and in all things, living up to one’s potential in life, or having a high quality. It was synonymous with the idea of “moral virtue” suggesting that excellence was tied to morality and potential. The Greeks believed that people and the things people created could both have arete. 

 

I don’t see arete as an external quality, something to be judged against the “experts” or “professionals” who make a living doing a certain thing.  Arete is also inherently different than perfectionism. Arete is about personal potential and fulfillment–my personal best may not be someone else’s, based on my own skill, tools available, mindset towards the work, where I’m creating it, and any innate talent I may bring to the situation. The Greeks understood this, and maybe, in the druid tradition, we understand it too.  More, arete is in line with doing the best work you can, engaging in your bardic art to the best of your ability, and in doing so, becoming a more virtuous and fulfilled self.

 

I think cultivating Arete through the bardic arts this is particularly important as we are being subjected to a wide range of cultural values that suggest that cheaper, quicker, and easier is always better.   In many cases, it is not, and learning how to do the best work we can, so that we can strive for excellence is a worthy goal.  It is through this striving for excellence in one thing that excellence comes in many other areas of life as well.

 

Embracing the Flow and the Unconscious

I had a dear friend and mentor visit me some years ago. A few months prior to his visit, I had moved my art studio to a different room in the house; the old studio space became a spare bedroom. My friend, who was very much dedicated to his own druid practices each day, was staying in that room.  After spending a day or two there, he asked me if that room was where I had done my daily spiritual work, because the room had a focused energy. I said no, that was where I painted. And that one interchange has had me thinking, and reflecting, since–noting the similarities between my painting and my other kinds of spiritual work, particularly, meditation of all kinds (movement, stillness, discursive, etc).

 

In speaking to many who pursue the bardic arts with regularity and dedication, there seems to be this moment when the intensity of modern living sheds from us and we enter into a place of focus, quietude, and flow. Many very much see it as a meditation, a chance to go deeper and connect. After immersing oneself for some time within that bardic art, one comes out of the experience more relaxed, calm, and grounded. This is not any different, for me at least, than spending time in ritual or quiet meditation: the effect is the same.  A calmness, a sense of fulfillment, and of serenity come over me after time working on my bardic arts, whether that is fine arts, crafts, or writing. I will say though, it takes a level of skill and practice to get to the point where the flow comes–it is after some period of practice.

 

Above, I talked about the unfoldment that happens in the self. I think a lot of that work is semi-conscious or even unconscious. Our rational minds lose their vice grip and things can flow to the surface as the bardic arts flow. I often find that when I paint, carve, or engage in other work with my hands, by the end of that session, I’ll have come to an understanding of an issue that I didn’t have clarity on when I started. This experience is a powerful reminder that there are many levels to consciousness, and tapping into the bardic arts, when you are at that point of flow, allows you to tap into deeper ones than before.

 

Conclusion

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” – Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The bardic arts can also give us a sense of joy that is hard to find in other ways.  We can engage in the bardic arts because they make our souls sing–and finding how to use them to cultivate happiness is an important part of this spiritual work.  For many, part of this comes in sharing your work with others (one of the reasons that the Eisteddfod, or Bardic Circle) is so critically important.  But for others, it simply means tackling a difficult piece and feeling a sense of accomplishment, or learning an important skill through repeated practice.

 

Making things is personally empowering and gets us into a creative, skilled mode where we function best as humans.  There is nothing like a happy group of people learning how to carve spoons, make their own tools, raise a barn, build a rocket stove, or grow their own food.  There is a radiant joy that emerges when we learn how to make our own things.

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The Wheel of the Year: Sustainable and Spiritual Activities for the Fall Equinox September 20, 2015

Note: This post is directed at those who live in the northern hemisphere; for my readers in the southern hemisphere, you can see my post on the Spring Equinox for activities appropriate to you!

 

Hemlocks entering the dark half of the year....

Hemlocks entering the dark half of the year….

As the days shorten and we once again are faced with the coming of the winter months, we are reminded of the cycles that the sun provides to us and the promise, always, of new beginnings.  Each season brings its own spiritual and sustainable activities–and the Fall Equinox is so full of many things to see and to do!

 

The Fall Equinox sits on the gateway between the light and dark half of the year and after the equinox, we are in the dark half of the year once more. It is at the moment of the equinox that the light and the dark are in balance–and we, too, can seek such balance. In my region of the world, the Fall Equinox happens just as the weather finally cools down, just as the leaves begin to change, just as the air has a bit of a nip it didn’t have even a few weeks before. The goldenrod and New England Aster are in bloom but may be on the decline–and these plants, with some others, are our last sources of nectar of the year for honeybees and wild pollinators. The nuts and apples are dropping from the trees everyone is scurrying to get to them before the snows set in.

 

I love the fall–I feel like I’ve been in a frenzy all summer with gardening and foraging activities, where there is always so much to do, so much to put by, so many things you don’t want to miss. As the cold comes in, the world slows down a bit and we slow down with it. This is especially true when you are actively homesteading, farming, practicing herbalism, wild food foraging, or doing any other kind of activity that involves working outdoors and in nature.

 

Given this glorious time, we have many sustainable and spiritual activities we can do to encourage balance, sustenance, storage, and community.

 

1.  Spent time in (very) close observation of nature. Getting outside to see the amazing, incredible fall leaves and the quickly changing landscape is a must-do for this season. I would suggest that this is a good time to zero in on small details of the changing landscape–see the leaves individually, not just the whole forest or trees. One of the ways to get really close is to obtain a loupe (a small magnifying glass that is highly portable). If you take the loupe out into the land during this time, new worlds open up–you can do very close observation of fall leaves, flowers, and other things.

 

2.  Hold an Eisteddfod. In the Welsh tradition (and consequently, in the Revival Druid tradition), an Eisteddfod is a celebration and competition of the bardic arts: poetry, music, song, dance, and so on.  This is a wonderful way to enjoy the cool nights before the winter sets in. Getting some friends together, getting a big fire going, have people share stories and songs, offer  some prizes, open a bottle of dandelion wine or pass some freshly pressed apple cider and enjoy!

 

Pressing Apple Cider

Pressing Apple Cider

3.  Press some apples. Apples are a tree that humanity has held a very long and sacred relationship with–and cider pressing is an important part of that legacy. After a Wassail in the winter to ensure a blessing, the harvest unfolds in September with an abundance of apples! Its great to go out seeking apples–don’t pay for them. Wild apples can be found all over the place: ask your neighbors for their windfall apples, collect them from parks, find them along the road, and more.  You can get hundreds of pound of free apples just for looking and this will result in a mix of  varieties and flavors. In terms of pressing, you can make your own press, buy a press, share a press with friends, or even ask a local cider mill if they will press your apples (many will for a fee).

 

4.  Learn to Can. Fall is a very abundant time–September in my bioregion provides the largest part of the harvest, including the tomato crops, apples, pears, peppers, beans, eggplant, corn, and so much more. If you are new to canning and want to learn, I recommend you start by learning how to hot water bath can and leave the pressure canning till you have some hot water canning experience under your belt. The best way to learn is to find someone to teach you if possible. You will also want to get a book on canning, like the Ball Book of Canning. I use the Ball Book primarily for vegetable canning–their jam/fruit recipes are too high in sugar for my taste. If you want to can jams with honey, low or no sugar, also pick up Preserving with  Ponoma’s Pectin by Allison Carol Diffy.  Learning about Ponoma’s Pectin really changed the way I canned and made it much more appealing because its more fruit and less sweet.

 

5. Get to know your farmers Spending time at a farmer’s market can have you score big in terms of the bulk fruits and veggie that you want to learn to can or put in a root cellar. Even with my enormous and productive garden at my Michigan homestead, I still purchased bulk potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers because these “nightshade” family crops in bulk would screw up my crop rotations–they are heavy feeders. Now in my transition period renting in PA, local farmers are even more important! This time of year, farmers frequently have reasonably cheap bulk produce at the farmer’s market. Its a good idea to get to know the people who are growing your food, learn their growing practices, and support them in their work.

 

6. Establish a Pantry. In the earlier part of the 20th century, every household had a pantry, although today, keeping a pantry is a skill largely forgotten. Traditionally, a pantry is a place where we can store bulk dry goods and canned goods. There are lots of good reasons to start a pantry: first,  a pantry allows you to buy dried goods in bulk to save on costs. Second, a pantry allows you to safely store things away when they are abundant—this allows you to live and eat closer to the seasons and live more sustainably. Third, a pantry gives me food security, where I have a good amount of food in my house in case of emergency, disruption in shipping lines, big winter storms, and so on. For more information on how to establish a pantry, see this article.

 

7. Build a Root Cellar (or Root Cellar barrel). The compliment to the pantry, is of course, a root cellar. Root cellars take many different forms–I used five-gallon buckets sunk in the earth while I was in Michigan and also helped a friend build his own earthbag root cellar (which was quite a feat, but completely awesome when it was finished). Storey Publishing has an excellent book on different options for root cellars called Build Your Own Underground Root Cellar. The other option for a root cellar is a basement root cellar, where part of a basement is converted.  You can also find a wealth of information available online on any of these three root cellar designs.

 

8. Convert your lawn. I’ve been a long-time advocate of converting lawns to anything that isn’t lawn: vegetables, herbs, perennials, wildflowers, orchards, and more. Fall is a perfect time to begin a lawn conversion process because many of the materials that are useful for sheet mulching can be found in the fall (like leaves, dead material, etc). I have numerous posts on the subject to get you started, including a discussion of why to convert a lawn, a great example from Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm which was a fully converted front lawn, how to sheet mulch (two ways), and broader discussions of the need to regenerate our lands (which lawn conversion helps us do).

 

Anything is better than a lawn!

Anything is better than a lawn!

9.  Adopt and begin to regenerate an abandoned site.  In addition to beginning to work on our own sites, consider adopting another site–especially a site that has been neglected or that nobody else cares about. We have so many sites like these–places nobody wants to be, spaces abandoned and damaged–and one of the things we can do as a spiritual and sustainable practice is work to make that site just a little better than we found it. Scatter seeds, add nutrients, understand the history of the land and create a plan! (More on this practice in upcoming blog posts!)

 

10. Make some Acorn Bread. Another really fun thing to do this season is to gather up some acorns and make some acorn bread! I haven’t yet posted my recipes for acorns, but there is a great PDF from the California Oaks Foundation called Acorn and Eatem.  It has recipes, how to prepare acorns, and more!

 

11. Explore rocket stove technology. Consider building yourself a rocket stove for fuel-efficient cooking (indoors or out). I have built several of these over the years, and they always make a great meal–and a great project.  I’m amazed by how little resources they take to do any cooking, and in a time of resources that are growing more and more scarce, rocket stoves are a smart idea.

 

12.  Go Mushroom Hunting. Some of the most tasty mushrooms of the year, at least in my bioregion, can be found in the fall.  The Hen of the Woods (miatake) is a wonderful mushroom that only appears in the fall–it has both medicinal qualities and is a fantastic edible.  Others include late Chicken of the Woods, Puffballs, Cauliflower mushrooms, Honey Mushrooms, and more. If you are new to foraging, check out my two posts on how to get safely and ethically started.

 

13.  Make some Smudge Sticks. As the plants die off and the cold sets in,  you can make smudge sticks using up any remaining plant matter that you have locally available. Its a wonderful way to create some sacred smoke and a great craft to do with friends.

 

Amazing early fall harvest day!

Amazing early fall harvest day!

14.  Seek balance. The Fall Equinox is a time where the light and the dark are in balance–and we can seek balance in our own lives in a number of ways. One of the things I like to do during this time is to create a list of the things that I enjoy the most and that bring me the most satisfaction and benefit (being in nature, gardening, foraging, writing, reading, etc).  Then, I keep track of how much time I spend on those activities, and find ways of building more time for those things I love the most. This kind of activity keeps me in balance.  Other simple activities include hot baths, learning how to say no, or even just taking time each day to enjoy a quiet cup of herbal tea.

 

15.  Make some ink. With pokeberry, buckthorn, walnuts and many other berries and dye plants now available, its a great time to make some ink! I have instructions here for how to do so.

 

16.  Prepare for the dark half of the year. A lot of people aren’t fans of winter and actively oppose it, but its going to come whether or not we like it to. Given this, approaching the dark half of the year as as much about mindset as it is about physical preparation. One of the ways to make it enjoyable is to ritually and mentally prepare yourself for the coming cold–make some plans for good “stay at home activities” like reading books, writing, artistic projects, learning instruments (for that Eisteddfod!) and more.

 

I hope that these suggestions are helpful as you celebrate the Fall Equinox. Happy Alban Elfed!

 

 

Reskilling for Sustainable Living: Ways to Learn New Skills December 27, 2014

Everyone, to some extent, is a product of their culture. Our culture’s formal education system teaches a set of skills that are claimed to be beneficial and practical for functioning in present society. Certain sets of skills are privileged, and others are simply not taught, and in some cases, skill sets that are deemed no longer relevant are lost from the collective knowledge of many communities and families. Unfortunately, many of the skills of the past that are needed to help us transition to a lower-carbon and lower-fossil fuel society have been lost as newer generations weren’t interested in learning them or because these skills are no longer part of any community or family educational system.  This is where the concept of reskilling can come in.

 

What is reskilling?

“Reskilling” is one of the terms that often comes up in the sustainability and permaculture communities. The concept of reskilling is simple–those of us wanting to get ahead of the curve and transition to low-fossil fuel, sustainable living, need broad sets of skills that aren’t typically taught in our education system nor are typically part of growing up in our present culture. Reskilling is really about gaining the skills to provide for our basic needs for ourselves, our families and our communities–the movement is concerned with skills that help feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, provide daily functional items for ourselves from local materials, entertain ourselves, deal with our waste, keel ourselves healthy, and keep ourselves sheltered and warm.  So we can think about reskilling as the process of gaining a set of skills for basic human life in a non-industralized or lower-fossil fuel setting–a setting that future generations and many of us today are heading toward. Typical reskilling may include a lot of the concepts discussed in this blog-natural building, homesteading, gardening, fermentation, herbalism, animal husbandry, candle making, and much more.

Animal Husbandry as an important skill

Animal Husbandry is an important skill

Why Reskill?

I think there are a lot of reasons people start reskilling, and I’ll give you a few of mine. Reskilling has been a really empowering thing for me for a few reasons. First,I found that each time I learn a new skill–from how to properly start seeds or rotate crops to how to deal with an egg-bound chicken or make my own medicines–I was stepping further away from modern industrial and consumerist society. This meant less dependence and financial support for practices/companies/lifestyles that I spiritually disagreed with.  Second, being able to provide some of my own needs, like food or medicine, also made me feel like I was doing something to face the problem directly rather than lamenting over what wasn’t being done by government, etc. Third, reskilling, while hard work, is fun and exciting–and has created a really fulfilling life full of activities and new interests.   Finally, reskilling allows people like me, who were heavily trained in a specialty, to adopt a more generalist mentality, and there is great benefit in such an approach.

 

Since my spiritual path is rooted in the living earth, I see reskilling not only as a sustainable practice, but as a sacred spiritual practice–the earth is honored, I live more sustainably, my needs are taken care of, I learn more about the land, and I live much closer to her rhythms and seasons.  This is a big part of my druidry, my sacred action.

 

Ok.  I’m sold on reskilling. What should I learn first?

I have found that it is important to learn one thing comfortably at a time–when you start trying to do to much, you risk frustrating yourself.  Start slow, read, talk to people, and find out what you are inspired to try.  Also find out what you can learn about in your area–who is around and willing to teach. One of the things you want to think about is if you want to specialize in one kind of skill extensively or learn a bit of everything. A typical community 150 years ago had certain activities that everyone did (e.g. the home cottage industry such as growing and preserving food, brewing, making home cheeses, churning butter, raising some chickens, etc) but then there were those that specialized, such as a blacksmith, wood carver, or herbalist.  You want to think about your interests and see where they develop.

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

 

How does one reskill?

There are many, many options for reskilling.  I think you’d be surprised the places and things that have things to teach you. It really depends to a large extent on what is in your area, how many like-minded people you have, and how you best learn.  The rest of this post presents ways you can reskill through multiple angles: history, firsthand learning,

 

History

History in its various forms have so much to teach us in terms of reskilling, becuase many skills we are learning when reskilling are skills of our past.  Here are three different kinds of histories that I’ve found are helpful to reskill.

 

1) Living Historical Events/Festivals: The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and other forms of reenactment (civil war, colonial, etc) offer one way to learn traditional skills. Some friends invited to me to their reenactment camp a few years ago, and I was really excited to see how many skills the reenactors were preserving and excited to teach. From these sources, I learned about soapmaking, weaving, spinning, flint knapping, blacksmithing, leatherworking, and more.  While these provided me with “glimpses”; I was able to be inspired, gain some basic instruction, and connect with others preserving these various skills.

 

2) Historical Villages. You can find various kinds of historical villages peppered around the country, and like the “living histories” above, there  There is a wonderful village called Old Bedford Village in Bedford, PA, where all sorts of old traditions are preserved–they have a full fledged print shop, an apothecary, a candlemaker, various woodworkers, a blacksmith, a potter, a tinsmith, and more.  Its an inspirational place and while there is limited hands on, you can learn a lot just studying the old tools and ways of living.  Even seeing a typical house in the colonial era (like where the hearth was placed, the cooking instruments, etc) gives me lots of ideas for reskilling.

 

7) Historical Study: Learning about your town’s and family’s local history serves as another theme for reskilling. Read family historical documents and journals, studyold maps, study what your town or city used to look like also give some hints as to life in centuries past–and the skills that people had.  If you are *really* lucky someone is still around who knows a lot about your town or your family and how people lived.

 

8) Historical shows. If you don’t have any access to the above, the other thing you might check out are a series of “living history” shows produced by the BBC.  These are shows such as “Victorian Farm,” “Edwardian Farm,” “Tudor Monastery Farm.” What I like about these shows is where historians live a year on the farm and practice all sorts of interesting skills.

 

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Firsthand learning from others.

There is little substitute for learning firsthand.  Here are a few ways that one can learn:

 

1) Classes: Classes are a great way to learn many skills, and one of my preferred methods of reskilling. Since I started reskilling six years ago, I have taken all sorts of classes–natural building (round pole framing, rocket stoves), compost water heaters, rocket stoves, organic farming, winter organic farming, herbalism (year long), foraging, candlemaking, fermentation, mushroom foraging, livestock, and so much more.  These classes were found by reaching out to friends, looking to see what others were doing, and also looking on Local Harvest for classes there.

 

2) Apprenticeships: If you find someone who knows how to do something you really want to learn, consider asking to be their apprentice.  While this might be an old idea, its a really good one. Learning under someone who has a skill allows you to have a mentor, to aid them in their work, and to learn firsthand.  I can’t stress this enough.  I was lucky enough to serve as an organic farmer’s apprentice for a season, and there was no substitute for learning under her.

 

3) Friends: Friends may know all sorts of interesting things.  I learned how to make soap from two friends, and now already I’ve taught soapmaking to other friends.  Friends can learn different skills and then swap skills.  Learning a new skill with a friend is a wonderful experience!

 

4) Community Organizations : I’m lucky that in my area, we have a fantastic amount of organizations and groups that you can learn new skills from in my area. Everything from the Mother Earth News Faire (offered in three locations each year) to a more local events like Ann Arbor Reskilling and our own Oakland County Permaculture Meetup allows people to come together and share skills.  I should also say that if a community organization or group doesn’t exist–consider starting one–that’s what a group of friends and I did with our permaculture meetup, and its going on three years now and I’ve learned so much from everyone.

 

5) Reskilling Festivals: Reskilling festivals are becoming another great way to learn how to do various activities.  Some areas may have local reskilling fairs (there is one that takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about an hour fro where I currently live, for example).  There are also national reskilling fairs, perhaps the most well known being the Mother Earth News Fair.  Keep an eye out–they may not call themselves “reskilling” fairs, but if you take a look at the program and see things on there you want to learn, go for it!

Fermentation is a great skill!

Fermentation is a great skill to learn on one’s own!

Learning On One’s Own

Sometimes its best to learn just by doing or trying things out on your own–especially if you want to learn something and can’t find any classes or anyone else doing anything.

 

1) Videos, Blogs, Websites and Forums: There is so much good knowledge to be found on the web–Youtube Videos, websites, forums and blogs. I am always amazed at the amount of knowledge freely available out there just to learn. One of my favorite forums to learn is the permies forum; I’ve learned a lot from reading and more when I ask questions.  How-to stuff on the web, I have found, is generally quite useful and often is vetted by people through comments and responses.

 

2) Books and Magazines: I have saved my favorite way of learning to reskill for last–books! I am especially drawn to books from the 1970’s, as they have a wealth of really good information, great graphics, humor, and wit. From building my own solar cooker to solar greenhouses to organic farming, there are wonderful books out there on literally any reskilling subject. I like to collect books during the year, and then in the dark winter months, hole up in my home near the fireplace with a few good books and get ideas for the coming season. I created a list of some of my favorite books for homesteading (there are so many more I have yet to list!)

 

Reskilling as a Way of Life

What began growing my own food and investigating sustainable practices, I had no idea where the journey would take me. I am so grateful for the people who I have had the pleasure of learning from, from the awesome books I’ve read, the people on the web who have shared their knowledge, and those who have inspired me. Reskilling has become a passion of mine and really, has changed the way I live and work and I am so glad to be on this path!

 

Approaching the Sacred Through Nature: Sustainability and Sacred Action (Pan Druid Retreat Talk, 2014) May 12, 2014

I was blessed to attend the Pan-Druid Retreat in Gore, Virginia this past weekend.  As part of the retreat, I served on a discussion panel about “approaching the sacred through nature.”  We were asked to prepare 10 minutes for discussion.  I used a series of past blog posts and current thoughts to prepare my remarks on “Sustainability as Sacred Action.”  I thought I’d share my talk with blog readers.  Enjoy!

 

Introduction. The common bond that unites druids, and other earth-centered spiritual paths, is a deep respect and reverence for the living earth. We celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons, we revere the plants, and we speak to the forest spirits.  But what does having that connection with nature mean, and how can we deepen that connection into every aspect of our lives? How can we ensure our actions nourish, nurture and support in all ways, especially when live in a culture that exploits and actively harms.

 

For my own practice of druidry, building a more sustainable life and teaching others how to do the same is the cornerstone of my druid path. Yes, I engage in ritual and meditation and all “spiritual” stuff, but I believe that beliefs must be accompanied by actions. For me this means an emphasis on sustainability, on treading lightly, and in helping to change humanity’s destructive practices. Why? First, because the more deeply in tune with the natural world I’ve become through my druidic practices, the more I’ve realized that my own relationship with the land started out more passively damaging than actively nurturing.  With this series of realizations, I began to radically shift my own life to align with my spiritual beliefs. For anyone who has been attempting to live more sustainably, the odds are stacked against us in a culture of consumption—but it is possible with knowledge, determination, and a community of support. I’ll talk about what this can look like and provide some philosophies and resources for making this happen.

Oak Knowledge. The term druid means “oak knowledge.” But what does knowledge of the oaks mean today? While we have many ways of interpreting “oak knowledge” within druidry, I would argue that a deep understanding of the natural world, an understanding humanity’s ecological impacts, and a knowledge of how to nurture our landscapes and communities is critical “oak knowledge.” And what we do with that knowledge and how we share it is just as important.

 

For most of human history, knowledge about the medicinal virtues of plants, how to grow or forage for one’s own food, how to preserve said foods, how to not take too much, were all critical skills. It has only been in the last century that we’ve lost these skills—and druids have much to offer the world if we can find them again.

 

As an example of a really bit of useful oak knowledge, let’s talk briefly about the typical “American” lawn. The typical lawn is a battlefield between humans and nature. The dandelion pops up in said lawn, and it is mowed, pulled, or most often, chemically treated. But my oak knowledge tells me about that dandelion—it’s a species that is the beginning of the land healing itself. Its deep tap root breaks up compacted soil and is likewise a fantastic medicine for digestion. Its greens are a wonderful spring food; and its beautiful flowers are one of the earliest sources for pollen for bees—not to mention, they make a great wine. All of this “oak knowledge” about dandelion and many other useful plants has come in handy in helping my friends and community shift their practices around their landscapes. The lawn is currently the largest crop in cultivation in America, and yet it produces no food, it produces no forage, it requires extensive chemical and fossil fuels, and substantial human labor. When I can show that there are alternatives to a velvety green lawn that benefit all, shifts begin to happen.

 

I am part of the organizing team for a permaculture meetup in our area in Michigan. As part of this meetup this year, we are working to get 100 people in our community to commit to converting some of their lawn into a productive space for herbs, edible fruits, nuts, and organic vegetables. Knowledge of how to do that, and what plants are beneficial, can really help this process. When you have the knowledge of the oaks, you can show others the value in the landscape around us—and this can go far in helping us become more sustainable.

 

The spaces that we choose to interact with and be knowledgeable about are also important. While we may gravitate towards the forests, the wild places, the quiet streams and rugged isolated mountains, and oak knowledge can certainly be useful there, I would argue that we also need to start using this oak knowledge in the spaces that humans most typically inhabit—our cities, our suburban communities, our workplaces, outside or windows and back yards. The most important work is the visible work we can do every day, in our daily lives. These are not simple choices like “paper or plastic or bring your own bag” (all of which still assume a consumerist mindset, which is a big part of how we got into this mess) but rather deep, meaningful changes, like reducing the need to use bags for the procurement of food at all. The choice of how to tend our yards (will we have grass or medicinal/edibles/wild flowers?); what food to eat (will we grow our own, buy it from farmers, or buy it from Walmart?); how to travel and heat our homes, how we spend our time, and so on, are the important, everyday choices.   Each waking moment can be an opportunity to engage in sustainability as sacred action and reconnect with the world around us through nurturing practices.

 

Where do we gain “oak knowledge”? Teachings in the druid tradition often focus on the spiritual side of things, which provide many gifts, but do not necessarily help us in understanding the practical work of living in a nature-focused, sustainable way. To learn oak knowledge and how to live sustainably, I found myself reaching far and wide. A local sustainable living center taught natural building and alternative energy skills; a friend mentored me through my first year as a gardener; my university offered advanced courses in organic gardening; a prominent herbalist offered a year-long herbal intensive; books from the library taught me about beekeeping and foraging; historical reinactors taught me about cheese making, weaving, spinning, cooking over the fire, sustainable fire starting, and so much more.

 

winter_peasIn addition to the various books and friends and classes, I found it helpful to have a unifying theory that guided my actions, mantras that would help me always live in a sacred manner and seek oak knowledge. I found this in permaculture. Permaculture is a design theory, a set of principles that we can use to help us design anything from a simple landscape or organic garden, to a building, and to a community of people living and working together. When I first encountered the concept of permaculture through a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (2009), I thought it was one of the most Druidic books I had ever read. This book helped radically shift my view and deepen my own Druidic practice by observing nature, using nature’s forms, recognize the cycle of nature and nurture that cycle in my own life, and so much more.

 

In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holgren (2002) outlines three core tenets for permaculture. They are: care for earth, care for people, and setting limits and redistributing surplus. Permaculture design also includes twelve design principles, such as “producing no waste” (spend a year meditating on how to accomplish that!) and “observe and interact.”

 

In the interest of time, I’m going to briefly describe one of the ethical principles and how I’ve used and considered it within the realm of druidry. The principle is “set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus.” This tenant affirms that there are limits to what our lands can sustain and that setting limits within our own lives, communities, and broader world is important for long-term sustainability. To understand more about our world’s limits on a larger scale, I highly recommend the book The Limits to Growth: 30-Year Update (Meadows, Randers, and Meadows, 2004). This principle also recognizes, however, that the earth is abundant, and with proper care and tending, she can produce so much for us. I’m reminded of the principles of limits and abundance each year in the fall; the hickory tree in my yard produced an abundant harvest of hundreds of pounds of amazing nuts. I could go and pick every last nut, but if I did so, there would be no nuts for the squirrels and chipmunks that depend on hickory as a major food source. I set a limit of gathering nuts to once every other day and gathered them only from certain areas; this allowed us all to have our share. Permaculture design therefore, focuses on understanding balance—a lesson we Druids are reminded of every solstice or equinox.

 

Permaculture design asks us to see everything in our lives, every object, scrap of food waste, and so forth as something that we can redistribute rather than throw away. Nothing, after all, truly goes “away” as the earth itself is also a closed system. I highly recommend using these principles, or others like them, to guide your path. John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology is a wonderful resource for this.

 

I want to provide you with some resources that I have found helpful in moving towards sustainability and more earth-centered living:

  • General sustainable living: Mother Earth News magazine, Foxfire magazines (1970’s)
  • Herbs and medicine: Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals
  • Gardening and Landscapes: Gaia’s Garden; Grow Biointensive
  • Foraging: Samuel Thayer’s Books

 

I also want to say that if you are overwhelmed with the prospect of making change, and a lot of us are, I’ll turn again to permaculture design for guidance—one of the principles is to “use small, slow solutions.” Start slowly and choose one area. For everyone, the food system is a great place to begin, as so many of humanity’s destructive practices surround it, and we all have to eat. 

 

In conclusion, every action, every choice, however small, can be done in a sacred, intentional manner, a manner that nurtures the earth and allows our practices to become sustainable and nurturing. Each choice for me, is sacred: from growing my own food rather than supporting an industrial food system that burns fossil fuels and destroys life, to picking up “treasures” in my neighbors’ trash to use in a new way, to offering land and knowledge freely for friends to learn how to grow their own food. My actions can’t just be sacred when I walk into a forest and honor the spirits there using ritual—my actions have to be sacred when I am going to work, paying my bills, spending time with my family, when I’m deciding how to spend my money. I started to realize that my offering, and my path, was how I lived my life, each day, and how I interacted with those around me.  Everything became a potential for sacred action.  We are facing increasingly difficult times, where the lands we love are under serious threat from so many forces–including from ourselves. Finding ways of living the sacred of everyday, using and building oak knowledge, seeking more sustainable solutions, and finding ways of engaging in nurturing traditions can help us make this shift. And in that shift, druids can become invaluable resources to their communities and to the broader world.

 

 

 

Strawbale Studio and Tar Sands Oil Pipelines – The Clash of Worldviews, Part I October 17, 2013

Staked out pipeline

Staked out pipeline

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, we have an oil pipeline going through our immediate area in South East Michigan. The first “phase” of the project went 1/2 mile north of my home in 2012-2013. This was “Line 6B, phase I” according to Enbridge’s site, and was an upgrade/replacement project for one that they originally put in in the 1960’s to send oil from Canada to refineries in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. The 2nd phase of the project began a few months ago and will continue into 2013-2014; it will create a new, much higher volume pipeline and decommission the old pipeline currently in that area. One of my goals with this blog, as I have done in the past, is to document such issues and their spiritual and environmental consequences (and long-term readers might recall my coverage of some North Dakota fracking last year).  I’m going to start with an overview about the larger oil pipeline and some environmental consequences–then I’ll get into details about how its affecting one local place, Strawbale Studio.

Tar Sands Oil and Environmental Impacts: This is a short (5 minute) video that provides a good overview of the pipeline in the Great Lakes region, specifically, at Mackinac Bridge (where it crosses the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan).  Mackinac is about 4 hours north of here. Its worth the watch:

 

 

I also have mentioned in an earlier post that this same pipeline was responsible for the Kalamazoo Oil spill in 2010, which put somewhere around 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamzoo river. The pipeline spill is still not entirely cleaned up and just a few months ago the EPA ordered Enbridge back to clean up more of the oil still in the river and surrounding areas. Given Enbridge’s history of environmental ethics in this state, the fact that they are making a larger volume pipeline now is particularly concerning.  One of my colleagues, who has the Line 6B coming through his property on my road, has been blogging about a lot of this at his Line 6B Blog.

 

Also of concern is the source of the oil–the Alberta (Canada) oil sands. This oil sands methods of extraction are particularly damaging to the peat bogs and boreal forests that make up much of Alberta. Water usage, and the release of oil-tainted water, very harmful to wildlife, occurs with tar sands oil extraction. Substantial carbon dioxide emissions are also on the rise (which have increased Canada’s emissions in the last 20 years rather than decreasing them, as per the Kyoto Protocol). In all, these oil sands, and the resulting pipelines, represent serious environmental and ethical challenges.

 

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Going after tar sands oil is an indicator of the fact that oil is a finite and quickly depleting resource, past its peak of production.  Companies wouldn’t have considered mining these patches for oil years ago when other oil fields were still easy to access and full of oil.  These tar sands oil fields are now mined, despite their environmental consequences, because few other options exist to keep oil flowing at the rate of demand. The energy returned on investment (EROI) on tar sands oil is somewhere between 2.9 to 5.1 by more liberal estimates (so for every 1 energy unit we put into the process of mining, we extract 2.9-5.1 units of oil). (Some have suggested its closer to 1:1 if one considers the whole lifecycle of the production of tar sands oil, and things like the upkeep of pipelines). Compare this to conventional oil fields, which today offer a 25:1 EROI (fields of years past offered much higher EROI). In other words, this tar sands oil cruising through pipelines in South East Michigan isn’t even worth much investing in from an EROI, even if one were to overlook the substantial environmental impacts.

One example of strawbale studio's work!  Here is a living roof/wood shed

One example of strawbale studio’s work! Here is a living roof/wood shed

Strawbale Studio in the path…..Back to the matter at hand. Endbridge is now moving onto their 2nd phase of the pipeline project, and this is very unfortunately intersecting with a place near and dear to my heart–Strawbale Studio and Sustainable Living Center (run by Deanne Bednar). Strawbale Studio is a place that, from a sustainability perspective, is doing everything right: teaching and empowering people who want to learn how to live more sustainably, building community, and sharing skills. I’ve been honored to take numerous workshops there and have learned a great deal of information on more sustainable living skills, such as cob building and artwork, strawbale construction and natural building, growing mushrooms, barn raising, rocket stoves, composting, food preservation, candle making, and so much more.  I’ve also been excited to meet so many people from around the world who are interning or taking classes at Strawbale Studio.

Another example of Strawbale Studio's work - A composting toilet!

Another example of Strawbale Studio’s work – A spiral chamber!

On the back part of the Strawbale Studio property spans the old oil pipeline that Enbridge built in the 1960’s; now they are decommissioning the old line and destroying more land for their larger, new pipeline.  A few months ago, we got the word that Enbridge would be clearing the trees near the existing pipeline–about 80 or so feet of trees, 4 acres long. They also required Deanne to dismantle one of the natural buildings that was nearly finished–it was an amazing, quirky guest house. I hate to think how many thousands of hours of labor went into building that guest house.

 

A few weeks ago, Deanne got word that the tree clearing would be occurring at a rate of 1 mile per day, and that it would be occurring soon at Strawbale Studio. I went out to the property to honor the trees and document what was occurring before the crews were to come through. Here are some photos of this patch of lovely forest, thick with many kinds of sacred trees and plants: hawthorn, apple, oak, maple, cherry, brambles, and so much more.

Guest house taken down before logging

Guest house taken down by volunteers before logging

Tree line happy and vibrant

Tree line happy and vibrant; these trees are all gone now

Path through the woods

Path through the woods; most of these trees are gone too

Hawthorn and Apple

Hawthorn and Apple; these trees are no more

I must say, that this was one of the hardest visits I ever had made to a forest.  Why? Because I knew it was doomed and had no hope of survival.  Nothing that any of us could do would permanently stop the great wave of oil that would wash through its path. The trees knew it was coming and had already accepted their fate with a dignity that few humans can ever achieve. They waved at me in the gentle breeze, knowing that they were experiencing their last sunsets, their last ever fall equinox.  When I arrived, I immediately noticed that the workers, in marking up their areas for clearing, had knocked over a small living hawthorn tree, a very sacred tree; we gathered up the berries and will dry them and use them this winter.

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

There is another part to this visit though, the darker part.  This visit was also very hard because I drove there, using fossil fuels that very well could have been extracted and sent down that same pipeline, and I was contributing to the problem even in order to make my visit.  The contradictions were rooted deep within me as I spent time there with the trees.  I’ve been seriously reading on how to reduce my dependence on fossil fuels in an efficient and cost-effective way, but I haven’t yet come up with a solution that I can afford and enact.  So knowing that I was using the oil that is driving this project was particularly difficult.

 

Enbridge clear cuts: A week and a half later, Enbridge did their initial “clearing” of the trees in order to make room for their pipeline. We weren’t sure when exactly was happening when (Deanne was out of town) but when I came back later that week, I was able to document what had occurred this far. Here are a number of photos:

Former oak

Former oak

Machinery clearing "brush"

Machinery clearing “brush”

Former life....

Former life….

Trailer tracks

Trailer tracks

Devastation

Devastation where life once stood

Giant pile of brush

Giant pile of brush

Patch of cleared land

Patch of cleared land with stumps and logs

Where do we go from here? There are ways to be reactive to what is happening and there are ways to be proactive.  This is not just the story just of destruction.  I’ll continue to document what is happening at Strawbale Studio, and talk to some of the people there about the “clash of worldviews” as I am calling it; the sustainable living skills that are attempting to be taught while the heavy machinery rolls ever onward and oil pipeline is built within earshot of our workshops.

 

What this story will hopefully be, however, is a story of what we do with this space after they clear out.  How this space is transformed into something new; how the wood is used, how the land is regrown, and how we all grow in the process.  As they continue to put this pipeline in for the next year or so–and as we brainstorm our next moves in producing something amazing in this space that has now seen such suffering. I hope you’ll follow us and see what happens next.

 

Barn Raisings: Building Sustainable Structures and Communities of the Future July 23, 2013

I’ve been blogging a lot about sustainability and community–and this is for good reason. I’ve come to understand, as I worked my way through the AODA’s 3rd degree (where I investigated the relationship of druidry as a spiritual practice and sustainability, much of which I talked about on this blog), that community is a critical part of sustainability and that efforts in community building are critical to the success of such efforts.  I talked about this a bit with regards to our Oakland County Permaculture Meetup; but I also wanted to talk about it in relationship to natural building and creating the sustainable structures of the future today.

 

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  In those books, I was struck by her descriptions of things like “barn raising” and “community roofing” but never quite had a sense of what it would be like (as very few children growing up in the latter part of the 20th century would know).  When our own family home was built at the age of seven, we hired contractors out to do the work, and came in nearly every day to check in on their progress.  But after being exposed to natural building through the Strawbale Studio, I started understanding more about what these old processes used to be like–and how transformative and powerful they can be.

 

Let’s start with the first natural building project I was able to take part in, a rocket stove, built at Strawbale Studio through the rocket stove workshop. Each time I visit there now, I see that stove and think about the 4 of us who had the pleasure of designing and building it. I feel like I’ve contributed to something important, something that my friend Deanne and her many interns and visitors now get use out of.

 

The same is true of my garden fence.  When I called in two friends to help me put up the fence, and later dig a trench around it and sink in chicken wire to keep out the woodchucks, the fence takes on new meaning because it was done with the help of friends.  That fence continues to protect my veggies each day, and now, it also contains my two new chickens who are too young to be in my main flock.

 

A friend of mine recently hosted a timber framing workshop.  They didn’t get as far as they wanted to get during the workshop, so the timber frames didn’t get raised during that weekend.  In the last few weeks, he called a bunch of us (about 12 in all for the 1st frame, and 6 for the second frame) in to raise the first timber for his outdoor kitchen project.  I’ll walk a bit through our process of raising the timber.

 

Prior to this, few of us knew anything about how to raise a timber.  This isn’t a common skill these days.  But we brought our heads together, took some guidance from the one person who had done it before, and set to work.

Here we are getting ready to pull the ropes! (I am in blue)

Here we are getting ready to pull the ropes! (I am in blue in the window!)

The timbers are prepped and ready to go.  What we need is a bunch of muscle to lift it to attach to the side of the house (see the board below the window?).  Four of us, myself included, went into the house and had thick ropes to help pull it.

Everyone is lifting the timber frame; we pull with the ropes into the house.

Everyone is lifting the timber frame; we pull with the ropes into the house.

We thought it was going to be difficult to get the timber frame up–we were kind of intimidated with the whole thing, since not a single one of us had ever done it before.  We psyched ourselves out, thinking about how heavy it would be, how hard to lift, etc.

Securing the posts!

Securing the posts!

The timber frame went up much easier than we expected–we didn’t even break a sweat!  Here we are holding it in place while my friend Mark drills it into the wall.  Just this past weekend, we raised the second of three frames–I’ll report back when the outdoor kitchen project is a bit further along.

This idea of barn raising was again illuminated for me this past evening.  I went out to Strawbale Studio for a Full Moon Potluck (I should blog about this sometime too!) and it was time to raise the frames on the Hobbit Sauna Project. This is an intensive natural building project….if I didn’t have to work, I’d be there!  They realized they needed some additional hands to get the heavy timbers on top of the sauna. Again, you can see the value in this teamwork as a group of guys lifted the frame.

Moving the frame

Moving the frame

Lifting the frame onto the Hobbit Sauna

Lifting the frame onto the Hobbit Sauna

 

The value of teamwork, of community, and of directing human efforts collaboratively towards goals can be clearly seen in these photos. These are also quite sustainable projects–both are using local materials and human power (rather than fossil fuels) to get the job done.  These are the kinds of projects that I think we will be seeing more of as fossil fuels become more expensive and scarce.  Building knowledge now about the kinds of building that doesn’t depend upon heavy machinery and the kinds of communities one needs to build them is an important step in terms of sustainability.

 

There are other lessons in these kinds of “barn raising” projects.  These projects would not get completed without the help of many hands.  Through this work, those of us who work on them are transformed. I’m finding that when you participate in the building of a structure with others, doing the work with your own hands  you really have a different relationship with the space.  Each time you visit the structure, the object, you think about those who helped you create it, to bring it into being.  You see its value as more than a structure, but as a site of collaboration and community.  You realize how much we really do depend on each other for survival; how our relationships matter and should not be treated lightly.

 

I also think that this concept of “barn raising” can apply more broadly than just to physical structures. These demonstrate the force that community can bring to any project–be it transforming our communities, building a garden, or sustaining ourselves and our lands into the future.  It is through this work of community that real transformation can happen.

 

 

 

 

Book review and Personal Response to John Michael Greer’s “Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress” May 4, 2013

In today’s blog post, I’m going to review John Michael Greer’s newest book, Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress. To review this book, I am going to start with an extended personal example from my own family, through demonstrating this example, I can describe how meaningfully accurate Greer’s insights are, and how much they already apply to those living in the USA Rust Belt areas (and by extension, eventually to the rest of industrial society).

 

The city of Johnstown, PA, a rust belt city that has been in decline for decades.

I grew up in a rural area south western Pennsylvania, in a region littered by coal mining towns with names like “Mine 42” that long ago stopped mining coal. The nearest city, Johnstown, was a steel mill town that lost the last of its mill jobs in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Both of my grandfathers worked in the mine and mill industries, but by my parents’ generation, those “good mill jobs” were gone. The skeletal remains of these mine and mill operations litter the countryside, abandoned and rusting away, and give the “rust belt” its characteristic name.

 

My parents decided to take a different route (mostly by necessity) and pursued degrees in graphic design and visual communications from a technical college in Pittsburgh. They eventually left promising careers in the big city to come back to Johnstown and start a family. They started their own business and for a number of years, experienced success, eventually building a home with dedicated office space when I was seven. Their clients mainly consisted of small and large businesses in the area, such as the regional electric company and regional dairy, that needed graphic design services but were not large enough for in-house designers.

 

Throughout the course of my life, however, I watched my parents struggle more and more as time went on, as the late 1980’s moved into the 90’s and then into the new millennium. They did not struggle because they were lazy—they are the hardest workers that I know—but because of larger factors beyond their control. We were living in an area that was experiencing significant economic contraction.  As I grew up, I watched my parents comment on how each and every one of their larger clients either closed up shop or were bought out and relocated to a different part of the country or even overseas. My mother describes this as a “downward spiral” that they tried everything to continue their business, to bring in new clients, but no matter what they did and how hard they worked, the spiral continued. In the late 1990’s, business had gotten so bad that my father had to look for other work to make ends meet. Work was incredibly hard to find anywhere in the region, and even when my father found it, sometimes in his field and sometimes out of it, layoffs were common.

 

I think about conversations with my parents, and how they often wondered what was going on, what they had done wrong, and I watched them internalize those failures and, at points, slip into despair and depression. They would then redouble their efforts and work even harder to make ends meet, only to continue to struggle. They recognized the decline in the economy, but even now, when I speak to them about their businesses and lives, I sense that they feel the fault lies somehow with them. The cultural narrative, of course, would suggest that their struggles were completely due to their own personal shortcomings or inability to work hard (and this continues to be a dominant narrative of our time for any people who struggle and/or are of the lowest socioeconomic classes).

 

But this is very much not the case, as John Michael Greer’s newest title, Not the Future We Ordered, describes. Greer begins his book by describing historical examples where public challenges or ethical issues (such as slaves’ repeated attempts at escaping to freedom) become reframed as individual psychological problems, thereby mitigating any collective responsibility or call to action (p. 1-3).  So while my parents and those around them, who also struggled financially, would blame themselves, the truth is that we were living in an age of industrial and economic decline in the rust belt that started in the 1970’s and continued to this day. These struggles on their part are a microcosm for the larger macrocosm of industrial decline. What Greer’s book has done for me, then, is to help me understand my own family’s challenges in helpful and psychologically understandable terms.

Not the Future We Ordered Book

 

Greer’s The Long Descent provides an overview of industrial decline in the age of peak oil (an outline of his arguments and a video to his talk in Detroit was in my blog post earlier this week); he provides a brief version of this in Not the Future We Ordered in the 1st chapter. The focus of this book, however, is not on demonstrating the efficacy of the concept of Peak Oil but rather examining the psychology behind reactions to industrial decline and how those in the helping professions (and other interested parties) might begin to personally and culturally deal with such challenges.

 

Greer opens the book with a discussion of “drapetomania” and the “50’s housewife syndrome,” wherein cultural problems, like slavery, were shifted by medical practitioners to individual pathology.  In the case of slaves who attempted to escape to freedom to avoid their horrible life circumstances, doctors of the age invented “drapetomania,” a psychological disease that compelled a slave to attempt to escape.  This effectively shifted the issue of escaping slaves onto the individual slave, and provided a convenient way for society to ignore the causes behind attempted and successful escapes.  Greer argues that this is very much what we have today–the collective pathology of the progress narrative, our inability to rationally discuss and enact change concerning peak oil, etc, is framed as individual sickness (oh, she’s just weird because she believes that stuff).  I saw this manifested so clearly in my parents’ coping with the failure of their business growing up.  Everyone looked at them and thought they must be doing something wrong, they must be incompetent, their problems were attributed solely to their individual abilities.  But the truth of the matter was that the area was in substantial and measurable decline, but we didn’t talk about the decline, we only talked about individual challenges.  It was like the elephant in the room–nobody really wanted to address what was all around us.

 

Greer spends quite a bit of time explaining and examining the “myth of progress” of our modern industrial era, which he describes as follows, “the belief that all human history is a linear trajectory that has risen up from squalor and misery of the prehistoric past through ever-ascending stages of increased knowledge, prosperity, enlightenment, and technological sophistication, and will inevitability do so into a limitless future” (p. 30).  He argues that the myth of progress has become a cultural religion and the most important driving myth in industrialized nations.  This cultural religion, along with underlying psychological factors such as the psychology of previous investment (p. 55), is what has caused America and other industrialized nations to continue to plow on while ignoring mounting evidence of decline and natural limits.  The bulk of his book is devoted to understanding why this process is occurring. I think about my own parents’ struggles, and how they were forever living in a state of cognitive dissonance where the progress myth was perpetuating in our larger culture, but where it was very much not visible in our daily lives.

 

In the last two chapters, having set the stage for the psychological challenges we face, he sets up the concept of the five stages of peak oil, which require letting go of said religion requires one to pass through a process akin to the stages of grief (p. 101).  Although he admittedly uses no empirical data on how the stages of grief might be applied to the broader concept of industrial decline (as at the time of the writing no such data exists), the concepts are drawn upon his own experience in the Peak Oil community for over a decade (p. 110).  Although this section is less well-researched than the rest of his text due to limitations in the data itself, I see it as performing a critical function in the Peak Oil discussion—that is, opening the door for discussing—and researching—how we might better understand this process.  Greer’s final chapter concludes with a call to action—for those in the helping professions to understand and overcome their own grief, and for the rest of us to embrace the idea of hope (not unfounded optimism, but realistic hope) (p. 135).   I wonder if some of Greer’s suggestions might also be found in any literature on the decline of the rust belt and the psychology experienced there.

 

One of the things Greer does really well, in this book and in his other peak oil titles, is to blend historical facts and evidence of similar problems and apply them to today’s challenges.  For example, in describing the “psychology of previous investment” which is one reason that we continue to hold onto the myth of progress despite growing evidence, he uses the aftermath of the failed prophecy of Dorothy Martin, a housewife who, in the 1950’s convinced a group of followers that extraterrestrials were going to destroy the world.  Despite Martin’s failures, her followers continued to believe her for quite some time; this same kind of thing is happening with the so-called economic recovery, which hasn’t actually happened from the bulk of the American people.  This kind of approach is used throughout his book (and many of his other works), and this expert blending of historical facts, logical connections and examples to present times, and psychological concepts makes for a engaging read.

 

Although I have read his other works on Peak Oil, I found his newest title a bit more deeply personal because it gave me the tools not only to understand what was happening, but to investigate my own relationship to industrial decline and peak oil in a meaningful way.  When I finished the Long Descent, I felt ready to go out and continue to pursue a lot of what I talk about on this blog (rocket stoves, organic gardening, etc.) but I was (and still am) very much coping with my own understanding of industrial decline. It also, very unexpectedly, allowed me to investigate my own family’s personal history as it related to decline.  So really, what this book did was give me some of the tools to psychologically adapt to what is occurring, and just as importantly, allowed me to understand that my concerns, nor the struggles of my family, are not merely part of a personal psychosis but as a broader cultural phenomena.  In other words, this book is empowering and is, in itself, a glimmer of hope and a light on a path into an unknown, and in Greer’s terms, unwelcome future. I’m planning on buying copies of this book for a number of friends and family, and recommend it without hesitation to my blog readers. If any of you have had the opportunity to read Not the Future We Ordered or have comments, I would love to hear from you!

 

Review, Video, and Discussion of John Michael Greer’s Detroit Community Lecture, “Not the Future We Ordered” May 2, 2013

Recently, our druid grove brought John Michael Greer to Michigan, where he did a book signing and gave a talk on the fall of industrial civilization.  If you are interested in either druidry or sustainability, John Michael’s works (on druidry, esoteri wisdom, and peak oil) are some of the very best you can read (and I’ve recommended some of them before on this blog). I should also add that beyond his books on peak oil, you can read his blog, the Archdruid Report.

 

I wanted to spend a little bit of time today outlining some of his major arguments on Peak Oil/Industrial Decline, posting the video from his community lecture he gave in Detroit, and providing a personal response.  While the arguments and information that John Michael presents  are not easy messages for anyone in the industrialized world to hear, they are necessary discussions that need to take place.

 

Video of John Michael Greer’s Community Lecture in Detroit: “Not the Future We Ordered.” 

This is about the first hour and 15 minutes of his talk, which includes a few Q&A questions (but the discussion continued long after my memory card ran out of space!)

 

Overview of JMG’s Talk – Peak Oil and Industrial Decline.  In a nutshell, John Michael presents evidence and research through his books, blog, and talk that indicates that the world is running out of fossil fuels (our cheapest and most abundant energy supply in human history) and that this will invariably put our modern industrial society into decline. This decline will not be quick, but rather will likely take the path of most societies in the past—what Greer calls a “long descent” over a period of centuries, with smaller crises and upswings, but a general downward pattern.

 

As Greer demonstrates, back in the 1950’s, Hubbert (a geologist who worked for Shell Oil) demonstrated that oil production in an individual field works a lot like a statistical bell curve due to geology—the oil, which can only be pumped out of the ground so quickly—comes out more and more quickly until it reaches its peak, then it slowly declines in production until there is no oil left. Hubbert’s argument (which was proven right in the 1970’s) suggested that just like an individual oil field, the US oil production would reach a peak and then decline. And that’s exactly what happened in the 1970’s. In the 1970’s, Hubbert’s data also indicated that there would be a global peak in oil production (as we do live on a planet with finite resources, a fact that much of industrial society seems to have forgotten). Most researchers who are studying peak oil agree that we’ve already reached our peak of production (somewhere around 2005).

 

Industrial society, built upon cheap oil, cannot be sustained at its current rate of consumption nor standard of living without the influx of said cheap oil.  Since the world has reached its peak already in 2005, we will continue to see oil prices skyrocket.  We’ll also continue to see our government’s ability to provide for its citizens, and people, over time, will be forced to provide for more of their own needs, grow their own food, and learn to live and make do with less. We also see, as John Michael argues in his new book Not the Future We Ordered, industrial society sticking its head in the sand and working hard to ignore the problem, because the idea that progress will happen no matter what (the “myth of progress” as JMG calls it) is our “civic religion.” This means that people believe in progress so strongly, they hold onto this like a kind of religious belief, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will dissuade them.

 

One more important thing—civilizations don’t rise or fall within a day.  Charting human history, John Michael suggests in the Long Descent that this fall of industrial civilization will take time, likely several centuries. We are seeing the start of it now—walk around New Orleans or Detroit and you’ll see the crumbling buildings, the areas that have already been abandoned. In Detroit, however, you’ll also see a thriving Eastern Market where people are shifting to local eating, using pedal power to deliver vegetables, putting up hoop houses, and converting abandoned lots into vegetable gardens. The future, JMG argues, is here in the rust belt.

 

Where do druids fit in all of this? From my perspective, if we accept these arguments as valid (and by all means, watch his talk and read his books yourself to make up your own mind), and we want to do something about it, we have a long, hard road before us. Most individuals living in industrial society haven’t yet even considered this as a problem (and you may recall my earlier post on Stasis Theory and before policies can be enacted to facilitate change, we first must agree that there is a problem and that it is serious). I try not to think about the larger forces that are continuing to drive us on as though our limits to growth aren’t quickly approaching, because that mindset depresses and overwhelms me, especially insofar as it demonstrates my own powerlessness on that national/international level. Rather, I think about what I can do, individually and in my local community, that will make a difference.  And most importantly–I move from thought to action, to doing things rather than just talking, and its in the act of doing things that I feel empowered.

 

JMG suggests, and I fully agree, that if we want to enact such change, Druids can have a special place in this transition. As the potential holders of “oak knowledge,” (to reach back to the ancient etymology of the word “druid”), we can think about what the knowledge of the oaks is all about. The ancient druids held oak knowledge, in the sense that the oak tree was rooted in their survival. We can think about what modern “oak” knowledge means–literally, things like how we might use all those lovely acorns that drop each year to the ground to being resources for others who need help. While we still have access to cheap, abundant oil, we can work to reskill, to learn things that will be helpful in the future, and to preserve basic technologies for future generations (like JMG’s suggestions in his talk for HAM radio, wind turbines, basic printing press technology, etc). We can work to make sure that when things really begin to shift, we are mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared to that we can help others (which is the subject of his new book, which I’ll discuss further in an upcoming blog).

 

And I think that JMG’s arguments and talk further demonstrate why things like reskilling, organic gardening, permaculture, and so forth are so important—its not just about sustainability but about survival in a post-peak oil world.

 

The Process of Tapping Trees and Making Maple Syrup – A Blessing from the Maple Trees March 15, 2013

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

This time of year, something magical happens to the maple trees. When the temperatures drop below freezing at night and then goes above freezing during the day, the maple sap runs.  In South-East Michigan, this usually occurs in late February and throughout March. Maple sap, of course, becomes Maple syrup or Maple sugar depending on how far down you want to boil it.  A group of us, including some grove members, are tapping trees and learning about this process this year.

Maple is a sacred tree, and the Native Americans were the first to tap it and discover its incredible sap. The sap, and the syrup that results from the boiling of sap, is the lifeblood of the maple tree. In taking part of that lifeblood into ourselves, we receive the blessing of the maple tree. Partaking of such a sacred thing should be done with reverence and respect (and thanking the trees for their offering, of course!)  The process of making syrup also has links to alchemy, and truly, I see it as one of joining opposite elements–we have the cold of the sap and the wet of the snow, the application of heat and flame, and the required persistence and diligence–and the resulting amazing syrup, which tastes like liquid gold and stores for many months!

The process of making Maple syrup is not difficult, but it is very time consuming. I’m going to walk through the process step by step.  Ours is a very small-scale, home operation, not a large commercial operation.  It can be done with a minimum of equipment and an investment of time.

Equipment:

To tap trees, you’ll need some equipment including:

  • Tree taps
  • Small buckets for collecting sap (ours are 1 gallon each)
  • Storage tanks / bins for sap (ours are 40 gallons each)
  • A drill (electric or hand-cranked)
  • A source of heat (we are using hardwoods from dead trees)
  • An evaporating pan to boil off syrup (this process should be done outside)
  • Measuring stick for measuring the evaporation rate of the sap
  • Screens/straining equipment for filtering out impurities

A few other things also help:

  • A secondary heat source and sap boiling apparatus (does not have to be large), this substantially speeds up the process
  • A group of friends (because many hands make light work and this is how we build community)
  • Several 5-gallon buckets (we used these to transport sap from the tree buckets to our storage tanks)
  • Something to take sap home in, assuming your site is not at your property–we’ve been using pressure canners with locking lids)

 

The Process

1.  Identify maple trees of an appropriate variety and age.  Sugar maples work best for tapping (hence the name) but all sorts of maples can be tapped (including box elder, red maple, etc.). We’ve tapped all sugar maples for our syrup making, as they have the highest sugar content (and high sugar content equals less work). The first step in our process is to tie a bright-colored strip around each tree so that we can clearly identify the trees.  You can do this work at any time in the year, but its a lot harder in the winter if you aren’t that familiar with tree identification.

Trees tapped with buckets

Trees tapped with buckets

2.  Tap your trees when the time is right. When the weather will be above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, go ahead and tap your trees. Tree taps also usually have a little bucket holder so you can place your buckets.  We tapped about 50 trees, which is quite a lot, but there were about 8 of us and we all wanted lots of maple syrup.

Running sap!

Running sap!

3.  Collect sap. We collected sap each day in the evenings until we had about 40 gallons (and 40 gallons will make 1 gallon of maple syrup).  This evening collection took us three days when we were starting out because the sap ran slow, but quickly, we were collecting more sap than we could boil in a day!  Depending on the size of your buckets, it may actually be that the sap is flowing so well that you need to empty them twice a day.  If the sun is shining brightly and its warm, the sap will flow quickly! Since our trees are spread across about a 4 acre area, we used the 5 gallon buckets and the larger bins to transport sap to our boiling area.  We find that many hands make light work of this process.

I should also add here that the sap, in its unaltered form, is an amazing beverage.  We fill our water bottles up with it and drink it and its so good.  Its just slightly sweet at this stage.  If you want it sweeter, you can boil it for an hour or so, and then it takes on a very mapley quality but still is not too sweet.   We’ll be using some of this for our grove’s upcoming Spring Equinox celebration!

Sap in storage bin.

Sap in storage bin full of syrup (yes, it freezes at night sometimes!  That’s ok!)

4.  Boil off the excess water.  Our setup for evaporating off the excess water involves a 24″ x 24″ evaporator pan (which was custom made by a neighbor) and an old stove that has the lid cut out of it.  The pan, then, sits directly on the heat from the fire.  We lay the pan right on the stove, stoke the fires, and boil the sap down all day.  As the sap boils down, we add more and keep track of the evaporation process.  This allows us to have a sense of how many gallons of sap we’ve added and how much resulting syrup we will get.

We found that anything we can do to maintain a good boil is worth doing. You can see in the photo below that we are also using the stove to heat up/dry out our wood which keeps things hotter.  After a few days, we got smart and brought out a second little stove and pre-heated our sap on that stove before adding it to the evaporating pan so that the sap wouldn’t cool when we added more.  This probably made us 20% more efficient.  As a complete aside, we also built ourselves a temporary rocket stove for heating up food :).

Boiling sap to make syrup!

Boiling sap to make syrup!

Setup with wood pile nearby

Setup with wood pile nearby; wood is covered with a tarp to prevent excess moisture buildup

 

5.  Boiling at home, part 1.  Our rule of thumb has been that we boil as long as we can, and the syrup takes on an amber quality over time.  We boil till the evening and it gets dark, and then at that point, we take it home to finish it off. As the syrup boils down, you’ll see that it will take on an amber quality.  This was the syrup as I started to boil it down in my pressure canner.  You want to boil it down about halfway where it needs to go one evening, then pour it into jars and let the jars sit. All the debris from the trees and outside will settle to the bottom after 12 hours or so.  You pour the good syrup off, then boil it down until you are happy with the thickness.  If you boil it too much, it will crystalize and turn to sugar (and then you have maple candy!)

Finishing syrup

Finishing syrup

Straining the syrup

Straining the syrup

 

6.  Enjoy your syrup! The last step, of course, is to eat it.  We’ve found that our syrup, using hardwoods to boil it down outside, takes on a different quality than the syrups you purchase from larger operations.  Our syrup has a woody/smoky flavor to it that is so incredibly good, and so incredibly hard to describe.

Liquid gold- the finished syrup

Liquid gold- the finished syrup

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing into this process–its so much fun, and despite the long hours and heavy lifting, the results are 100% worth it!  Commune with the trees, eat some pancakes and maple syrup, and enjoy the Spring Equinox that is almost upon us!