Saturday, December 31, 2011

Beyond Fuels 8: The 'Plan C' Path

Pat Murphy's Plan C talks about four different plans we could choose. Plan A is what he calls 'Business As Usual', where we continue doing what we're doing, assuming that economic growth is infinite, or at least indefinite, and what we're doing is okay. Plan B uses 'Clean Green Technology' to rescue us from the mess we find ourselves in. (In a footnote he claims that his version of 'Plan B' is not about the book of the same name by Lester Brown and that the comments he makes about Plan B do not 'necessarily apply to him'.)

Plans C and D are wonderfully alliterative: Plan D he refers to as 'Die Off', and I would add, Death, Destruction, and Doom. (I think we are all familiar with that one, so much so that there is a group of peak oil believers commonly called 'Doomers'.) What Pat Murphy advocates is Plan C, 'Curtailment and Community'. I have it up on my door these days as: Conserve by Curtailing Consumption and Create Caring Community.

Thus, the path of Plan C is two fold: first we need to cut our consumption and consumer habits, rather than expecting some new technology to save us, and second, we need to rebuild community around us, since that's what is most likely to support us through the difficult times ahead.

While it talks about peak oil, peak gas, peak coal, peak uranium, peak economy, and peak empire (not to mention climate change and inequality), the book focuses on what each of us can do to forge the path beyond fuels. It looks in particular at the ways we use energy in buildings, transportation, and food--and how we can change what we do. There are lots of graphs and technical details. (Pat Murphy says in the preface that "This is definitely a numbers book.") Much of the beginning of the book will be familiar to those who follow peak oil and climate change. But the book's strong point is its emphasis on what we can do, even going as far as giving 'six steps' we can take to change our food habits (eat less, change our diet [eliminating soft drinks, snack foods, fast foods, and highly processed foods], reduce meat consumption, purchase local organic food, preserve and store food, and create a garden and/or a henhouse).

He does go on a few tangents I found a bit overly focused on specific solutions (the Smart Jitney, for example, or devoting a whole chapter to 'Kicking the Media Habit'), but ends with chapters appropriately covering 'Localization' and 'Reviving and Renewing Community'. All in all this is a useful book, I think, for charting out the path beyond fuels.

Quote of the Day: "We are facing multiple grave world crises--peak oil, climate change, inequity and species extinction to name just a few. ... Twenty year of so-called sustainability conversations have led nowhere, and green has degenerated into a marketing term. ...
"Our problem is cultural, not technical. It is a character issue, not a scientific one. ... We have allowed cheap fossil fuels to change us from citizens into mere consumers. ...
"Plan C offers an alternative perspective to the ever more frantic technical proposals for continuing our soul destroying and life endangering way of living. ...
"I envision a society based on cooperation and care of the planet rather than competition and exploitation of planetary resources." - Pat Murphy

Monday, December 26, 2011

Beyond Fuels 7: The Muddling Path

Muddling Toward Frugality is a book originally written in 1978 by Warren Johnson. From searching online it seems like it's been recently republished with a review by Edward Abbey (also from 1978) tacked on as an introduction.

The scary thing about re-reading this book is realizing how clear it was, even back then, what we needed to do, and how little of it has been done in the last thirty-two years.

Warren Johnson took the title of his book from a paper written in 1959 by Charles Lindbloom called, "The Science of 'Muddling Through'". It was about the way administrators of various types actually make decisions as opposed to the way academic theorists described ideal decision making. As Johnson says, "The only trouble is that this is rarely the way decisions are made, primarily because it is rarely possible." Administrators need to deal with conflicting demands and priorities and seldom have the time or, indeed, the needed information, to make ideal decisions. The result is that "Even with the best of intentions, the administrator ends up by taking only a modest step (well checked out by the powers that be), ... that at least makes a marginal contribution to the issue at hand. In the process of reaching a decision, the administrator becomes practical and political as well as rational. The result is muddling through." And this is basically the process that Johnson suggests for dealing with the coming crises.

This book really is practical and makes a lot of sense. However, as one reviewer noted, Johnson also muddles his way through the book--making detours through history (not that I haven't done it in this blog) and his opinions on a number of issues (some of which I can't say that I agree with). But his point is if we all make small steps in the direction of using less resources and living on a smaller, simpler scale, this will move us to a future beyond fuels far better than trying grand schemes and failing.

Last year, John Michael Greer (see my posts A Magical Way of Thinking, 8/3/08 and The Archdruid Report, 8/5/08, for more on JMG--and note that one of the paths ahead is his) wrote a post in his blog, The Archdruid Report, referencing this book. I want to quote a little of it, since it puts the book in perspective. Greer wrote: "Warren Johnson’s Muddling Toward Frugality has fallen into the limbo our cultural memory reserves for failed prophecies; neither he nor, to be fair to him, anybody else in the sustainability movement of the Seventies had any idea that the collective response of most industrial nations to the approach of the limits to growth would turn out to be a thirty-year vacation from sanity in which short-term political gimmicks and the wildly extravagant drawdown of irreplaceable resources would be widely mistaken for permanent solutions.

"... His strategy, though, still has some things going for it that no other available approach can match: It can still be applied this late in the game; if it’s done with enough enthusiasm or desperation, and with a clear sense of the nature of our predicament, it could still get a fair number of us through the mess ahead; and it certainly offers better odds than sitting on our hands and waiting for the ship to sink, which under one pretense or another is the other option open to us right now." And this summarizes the best reason that I can think of for re-reading this book. Seeing the direction we still need to move in and making moves in that direction, no matter how small, may (if anything does) make a difference.

This is the simplest of the four paths I'll look at. Can we muddle our way to a life beyond fuels? What other choices do we have? Let's look at some other, more recent explorations of the path ahead.

Quote of the Day: "Above all, it can be a good life. In effect, we will be exchanging the grand achievements of large scale technological society for modest accomplishments on a more human scale. ... Above all, we will have the comfort of knowing that our relationship to the environment is sustainable, and that the earth is a true home to us." - Warren Johnson

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Long Night

I'm interrupting this series on life Beyond Fuels to observe the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year.

I usually blog at this time about the darkness and the light. (In fact, last year's post was called just that: The Darkness and the Light, 12/21/10.) There are definitely blessings to the darkness, but it is also true that what we celebrate now is the returning of the light. There are traditions where folks wait up all night to see the return of the sun at dawn. Somehow, it always seems that if we wait long enough we will get through the darkness into the new day--even on the longest night.

And beyond this is the winter, here in New England the coldest time of the year, but if we can just hang on, the spring will come.

And this makes me think that even this is connected with my current series on life beyond fuels. Certainly there are rough times ahead, but I believe that if we persevere there will be a new day beyond it, and even a new spring. We can survive the long night, we can grow in the darkness, and the cold, and we can be there for a new day--not only for this current long, cold night in this confusing, surprising year, but for the nights and days to come.

Welcome Winter, Happy Solstice, Happy Yule, and to all, a good, long, night.

Quote of the Day: "If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome." - Anne Bradstreet

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Beyond Fuels 6: Four Paths

So we've gotten our tools together, flexed our muscles, and looked at some of what may lie ahead. Now where do we go?

The truth is no one knows. I like the book title (about the Mondragon cooperatives) "We Build the Road as We Travel." Still, a number of people have attempted to provide roadmaps.

In the next few posts I want to look at some pathways that we could take as we move beyond fuels. The four routes that I want to look at are far from identical. Yet I think that looking at what they have in common, as well as where they differ can help us think about the road ahead of us. One of the authors of the four books I will profile (John Michael Greer) talks about 'dissensus', the idea that in a situation (such as what we are facing) where none of what might happen is clear or predictable, the more divergent options we pursue (collectively), the more chance that one or another will work. More important, what works in one place may not at all be what works in another.

With that in mind, let's look at four different views of where we may (or should) be going as we move beyond fuels. After I cover them, I'll write a post on my thoughts about why, in spite of their divergences, I think each of these maps of the future is useful. If nothing else, they provide a good starting place for thinking of directions and preparations we will need as the age of fossil (and nuclear) fuels comes to an end.

Quote of the Day: "...the human sense of what satisfies, the human sense of ultimacy, requires what Rosemary Ruether called 'the conversion to the earth'. ... It will only be powerful enough to save the time and space which that future can unfold if our work on collective structure taps the energy at once of judgement and of hope. ...
"At this point calls to conversion and sacrifice only have a chance of being heard if they are inscribed with the language of desire. Desire not just for the sake of an abstract future, but because a new community already begins to form in the practice of ecojustice. That is, to sort through our garbage, to make choices based on awareness of the sinister and/or beautiful web of connections of our food to our weather to our starving and tortured fellow humans to women's bodies and the homeless ... this multi-dimensional work of recycling releases new ways of being together, a new sense of common goal, of being on the edge together, of consoling and delighting each other in our edginess. We find together the spiritual practices which allow us to ground, quite literally, in our bodies and our earth, the anxieties of the unknown future. ... We are here to claim, to defend and to renew our earth home, the inhabited whole." - Catherine Keller

Friday, December 9, 2011

Beyond Fuels 5: Post Carbon

Last Christmas, two young adults that I helped raise gave me a lovely present. They presented me with a book I had never seen before, The Post Carbon Reader, by Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch.

I'd never heard of the book, although I certainly knew of Richard Heinberg and have blogged about him in here (see for example, Peak Everything, 7/30/08). But when I turned the book over, the back cover made it clear that Heinberg wasn't the only author in this book I knew.

This book is an anthology and includes Rob Hopkins (see Transition Towns, 10/16/08), Michael Shulman (see Going Local, 7/26/08), Bill McKibben (a writer and a journalist who has become one of the leaders of the climate change movement), Stephanie Mills (a former editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly, one of my favorite publications ever), Wes Jackson (who has written extensively on agriculture's impact on sustainability), David Orr (a key figure in the ecological literacy movement), Chris Martenson (creator of the Crash Course, an online course that is the best introduction to peak oil, economic collapse, and personal preparedness, that I know of), and Tom Whipple (an ex-CIA analyst who writes a column for the Falls Church News Press, which pops up regularly on my peak oil news searches).

It also includes some folks that I'd like to pay more attention to, like Erika Allen (who works with Growing Power, a local food initiative focusing on low-income communities), Michael Bomford (a researcher in Kentucky working on organic agricultural systems suitable for small farms with limited resources), and Deborah and Frank Popper (who have came up with a concept for the Great Plains states to manage declining population and economic shrinkage by creating land reserves emphasizing ecological restoration and native species, and are now working on 'Smart Decline' strategies for urban areas).

This book is a primer on issues we will need to deal with as we move beyond fuels: climate change, water, biodiversity, food, population, energy, economics, transportation, waste, health, and education--as well as looking at the effects of culture and behavior, the changes needed in cities, towns, and suburbs, and ways to build resilience in the midst of major change. It ends with a 'Call to Action' written by Asher Miller, executive director of the Post Carbon Institute, the initiators of this book. He states, "Our vision is of a world worth inheriting, where people not only survive, they thrive." There's a direction for going beyond fuels. He ends the book with, "Now put this book down and go do something. Anything." Hopefully something informed by all you might learn from this book.

Quote of the Day: "Resilience in the face of social upheaval resulting from peaking supplies of traditional energy and climate disruption requires that we protect our landscapes and ensure that the services they provide are sustained. ... We can do this now and be better for it, come what may. And it's essential that we act now; the unraveling is well under way." - Gloria Flora

Monday, December 5, 2011

Beyond Fuels 4: Human Power

In a world beyond fuels, we will need to figure out what we can use to keep what we want and need going. One method might be human-powered machines.

The Human-Powered Home by Tamara Dean gives a very useful overview of what can be accomplished by using muscles to power things. Solar power isn't always reliable and neither is wind, and hydropower assumes that you are near a river or stream that you can tap into, but when all else fails, there is always what my mother referred to as 'elbow grease'--or in the case of many of these appliances, 'knee and leg power'.

The first two chapters of this book give a history of using muscles to power things, and an overview of what you need to understand in order to build human-powered machines. These should be read by anyone who has ever thought about the amount of energy that can be raised by pedaling, stomping, or hand-cranking. The author gives clear and useful information about how all these things work--as well as what doesn't work and what hasn't worked.

The next three chapters concentrate on plans for actual devices (and stories about similar ones) to power things in the kitchen, the garden, and around the house. The final chapter focuses on recreational devices and, more importantly, devices for 'emergency preparedness'.

I became aware of this book when I found out one of my friends was using plans from it to build a bicycle-powered electrical generator. (I wanted to help but I didn't really know much about electricity. I spent nearly a week with my head in books about electricity and electronics--not really something I wanted to study!)

When you think about Peak Oil, etc, (see my posts on Peak Oil, 7/18/08, Peak Everything, 7/20/08, and Collapse, 7/5/10, for more on this concept and its reprecussions) you may start wondering whether we can salvage any of what we've learned in the last couple of hundred years and whether there will be a place for technology in the future. I think this book point the way to a technology that will always be available to us--using our arms and our legs.

Quote of the Day: "Replacing motors with muscles can even be considered a political act. Gandhi urged his fellow Indians to spin and weave their own cloth, endorsing local self-reliance as a means to defy the British textile industry which had crushed cottage industries and changed the nature of Indian society. He called this self-sufficiency 'swadeshi'. Through swadeshi he believed India could gain its independence. Each day he sat at his spinning wheel and practiced it himself. Perhaps we can claim hand-cranking our coffee mill each morning or pedal-powering our laptop in the evening as our own personal swadeshi." - Tamara Dean

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Beyond Fuels 3: Handy Books

Right across the street from my new place is the city recycling center. It's really convenient but unfortunately they have a book section and everytime I visit, I come back with more books. (It's an addiction, I tell you!)

Two books I picked up fit the theme of this part of the Beyond Fuels series: Handyman: Complete Guide to Home Maintenance (Banner Press, 1975) and, for those who are very ambitious, How to Build Your Own Home, by Robert Reschke.

Once you've learned how to use tools (see my last post, The Tools Beyond Fuels, 11/28/11), it's time to start learning how to fix things--particularly around your house.

I'm not recommending these particular books, but there are lots of books out there on fixing things, home repairs, and home maintenance. Others that I've seen include books from Reader's Digest, Time-Life, and Sunset Publishing. You should be able to find something easily at used bookstores, yard sales, or even giveaways. These old manuals give lots of useful tips for do-it-yourselfers, and as fuels go away, a lot more of us are going to have to do it ourselves.

In imagining a world beyond fuels, I'm imagining a world where we do a lot of the work around our own homes, the way it was done not so long ago before repair people would arrive with their trucks and vans. When I talk about building a new world beyond fuels, sometimes that actually requires a hammer and saw.

Quote of the Day: "One key ingredient is confidence. You gain this by a combination of knowledge and practice. You learn by inquiring and you learn by doing. ...
"As implied earlier, it is more satisfactory to work in pairs than alone. You exchange knowledge and know-how, and beat the weariness and discouragement..." - Robert Reschke

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beyond Fuels 2: The Tools Beyond Fuels

My former housemate Jon is a very handy guy to have around. He's good at fixing things--in fact, he fixes things for a living. When I expressed interest in learning these kinds of skills, he loaned me two of his books. (It's been sort of a long-term loan as I borrowed them quite a while back.)

The Way Things Work by David Macaulay is an introduction to the basic physical principles of tools. While it does explore electricity and nuclear power plants (and the newest edition focuses on computers) the early chapters give a basic understanding of how simple things actually work.

In fact, the first part is called The Mechanics of Movement and discusses the Inclined Plane, Levers, Wheels and Axles, Gears and Belts, Cams and Cranks and Pulleys, and Springs and Screws and Rotating Wheels. If you can ignore the overly cute mammoths, this book will give you a clear and simple picture of the physics behind the tools and machines we use. Even better, it shows how some of these very basic concepts are used in many complicated machines. Later sections explain how boats and pumps and toilets and thermostats work. All in all, incredibly useful to someone who has no real knowledge of why and how tools (and machines) work. And if fossil fuels go away, knowing the use, care, and repair of tools and simple machines is going to be very important.

The other book Jon loaned me is a very old, very useful book called A Museum of Early American Tools by Eric Sloane. Eric Sloane points out that the word 'museum' used to mean a printed collection of facts. His book is a collection of information about the tools used in the US before mass production took over. They were hand made with care and each was one of a kind. The book gives a lot of information about the functions of tools and what was used for what--particularly which implement was used to fashion what before power tools took over. Each page has beautiful drawings of the tools and is filled with information on their use.

If fuels are going away, so are power tools. To live beyond fuels means that we can't take any technology for granted. Not just power tools, but even things like assuming the lights will work and we can just purchase what we want. Knowing how to make and craft things, how things work and how they are repaired, and how to do this all using simple tools will be essential. We will need an real understanding of what basic hand tools are and how they work. Once they were how everything were made and built. I believe that this is how they will be again.

Quote of the Day: "The Civil War period marked a turning point in tool design... Before that time, the word tool meant an implement that could make one thing at a time; mass production tools then entered the scene, and the word tool, which had meant only 'hand tool', took on many added meanings. ...
"Generally speaking, hand tools made after the Civil War period lacked the simple beauty of those of the ante-bellum period. Things were made to sell quickly, things were made in large quantities so that they could be catalogued identically, and hand-made implements began to disappear. ...
"When we consider tools, we are dealing with human benefactors of the most primary sort. Tools increase and vary human power, they economize human time, and they convert raw substances into valuable and useful products. ...
"An extraordinary awareness of life and time permeated our early days; when something was made and the maker was satisfied, it wasn't complete until his mark and the date were added. Nowadays things are almost obsolete before they leave the drawing board." - Eric Sloane

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Beyond Fuels 1: New Living and Old Learnings

We need to learn to live without fossil fuels. (Or nuclear fuels, for that matter.) Whether you look at peak oil (and Peak Everything--see my post of 7/20/08), or climate change, or all the pollution these fuels cause, or what the industrial world is doing to our lives, it's clear (at least to me) we need something different.

I wrote about Walking Away (8/23/11) and taking The First Step (9/3/11) a few months ago. While there is no way to accurately describe or predict where we are going and what lies in a world beyond fuels, in this series I want to point to some resources that give some general directions on where we're headed (or could be headed).

A lot of this will be looking at re-learning the tools and skills from times before nuclear energy and fossil fuels. There's a lot of good stuff that we've abandoned--and not just from a long time ago. Some of this series will also talk about things developed in those heady times in the sixties and seventies when we began exploring alternatives that seemed to have been dropped for our current high tech, high stress lifestyles.

I also want to point to new things that are being created. The future is not going to look just like the past, even if there are similarities. We've learned more than a few new things that don't require fuels to make them work.

The future will be built on what we can harvest from the sun and wind and water and muscle. And it will be built on having less and enjoying it (and each other) more. It will probably be harder, but it could be more fun.

Quote of the Day: "The transition to a post-carbon, post-growth future means relocalizing and reinhabiting certain places, learning where we're at....
"With careful, concerted action on and help from nature's phenomenal capacity for regeneration, the transition beyond fossil-fuel-dependent industrial civilization to a stable world of flourishing, land-based communities may find our descendants inhabiting a planet that still hosts a variety of life and culture." -Stephanie Mills

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Coming Together

Over the course of this past week, the house I'm living in has started to take shape as a community. I've had interesting discussions with several of the folks, I taught composting to one person and I'm planning a sheet-mulched raised-bed with another. We finally have a chore list and we have a long awaited house meeting scheduled for Sunday. We've gotten through at least one tricky conflict and people are feeling good about each other.

The thing about community is that it's organic--and that means it moves on its own timetable. I need to keep remembering this. The things that are happening now are things I expected to happen in September, but that only goes to show that I'm not in control of how community unfolds.

It feels really good and I need to remember that there is much more to come, and a lot of it won't be what I expect. I remember a quote I read years ago that said (and this is from memory): "When venturing into the unknown, by definition, you don't know what you'll find." It's a good description of building community from scratch.

Quote of the day: "Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but of those who are trying to become saints. Therefore let us be extremely patient with each other's faults and failures." - Mother Teresa

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Darkness and Despair

No, I haven't disappeared from the face of the earth. Life at home has been stressful and my quiet job has gotten very, very busy. I haven't had the time to put into this blog. Life will probably quiet down but it might not be until December--or next year.

I started writing the intro for a new series on 'Life After Fuel', and I have lots of ideas for it (and lots of resources), so hopefully when I get the time I can plunge into that.

Meanwhile, I almost always write something this time of the year to honor the pagan feast of Samhain. (Pronounced, for some reason having to do with celtic languages, like 'sow-wen'. See Darkness, 11/1/08, Out of Darkness, 11/1/09, and Death, Decay, and Impermanence, 11/1/10 for my previous posts.)

One aspect of darkness I want to look at is the feeling of despair. This is not an easy feeling for me--or for many people, I imagine. I have a natural optimism that keeps finding reasons for hope, no matter what. I also fear that if I felt some of the real despair that is all around, I would sink into it and become depressed and hopeless.

Yet the despair is there. I'm not sure we (the human species) are going to make it and I am sure that if we do, it will be through a lot of pain and suffering, and I often feel like there isn't much that I can do to affect that. I don't want to deny those feelings, but I also don't want to sink into them and give up. I am not going to give up hopefulness, but I wonder if there is a way to hold to both hope and despair and not give up (or give into) either.

As the darkness, and the cold, and the winter rolls in, I want to acknowledge my despair, and my grieving over the way we are stuck in what we are doing, and continue to do it, even if it means our destruction. I want to feel those feelings and also the hope that even the little I can do may make some slight bit of difference.

I've had the thought (occasionally) that if we are doomed, we should treat each other the way we'd treat someone who is dying. Like hospice work, we need to give comfort and care to each other. If we are going to disappear as a species, it's worth being gentle and supportive to people and allow ourselves to die out with dignity. Of course, I still want to work to make this not happen, but I think it is worth feeling the uncertainty, and the despair, and remain open to the possibility that we are not going to make it. And whether we do, or we don't, loving each other is the best way to go. And for now I will try to remain open to the darkness and despair.

Quote of the Day: "We are bombarded by signals of distress--ecological destruction, social breakdown, and uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. Not surprisingly, we are feeling despair--a despair well merited by the machinery of mass death we continue to create and serve. What is surprising is the extent to which we hide this despair from ourselves and each other. ...
"Despair in this context, is not a macabre certainty of doom or a pathological condition of depression and futility. ... Rather, as it is being experienced by increasing numbers of people across a broad spectrum of society, despair is the loss of the assumption that the species will inevitably pull through. ...
"So long as we see ourselves as essentially separate, competitive, and ego-identified beings, it is difficult to accept the validity of our social despair, deriving as it does from interconnectedness. Both our capacity to grieve for others and our power to cope with this grief spring from the great matrix of relationships in which we take our being." - Joanna Macy

Thursday, September 15, 2011


This is my sixth post on the Seven Habits book. I am going to copy what I wrote in my last post on this (Seek to Understand, 11/11/10) because it's so relevent to what I'm going to write in this post.

"As I've been reading through Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, very slowly, trying to deeply understand each chapter, each of the habits seems to have resonated with what was going on in my life, right at that time.

"Covey's first habit ('Be Proactive') came as I was trying to take control of my life and after being highly influenced by a workshop I took with 'David' (see my post on Deciding, 2/19/10, for more on this). As I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I was reading the chapter on 'Begin with the End in Mind' (see my post, Goals, 5/4/10). Then, as I began to try to figure out how to organize my life, there was his chapter on 'Put First Things First' (which I wrote about in Priorities, 6/26/10). I talked about wanting to take a break from writing about these 'habits' but then I started a thread on this blog about how we could be in a world headed for collapse, which begin focusing on how we could benefit others, and his next chapter, on 'Think Win/Win', fit so beautifully in with this, I had to write about it (see Win/Win, 7/30/10)."

I then wrote how well Covey's fifth habit fit in with the work I was doing with Nonviolent Communication. It's been over ten months since I wrote that last post, but I have been working with trying'seek to understand' and listen and communicate better.

Now, I am in a house full of eight people that is struggling to become a community. I've been thinking for a while I wanted to write on Covey's next habit and when I re-read it, once again it was amazing how much it spoke to what is currently happening in my life.

We are currently trying to schedule our first house meeting. It's a complicated, confusing process. I like everyone and think they each offer something special but I'm afraid that the whole thing isn't going to gel or will take off in some direction that will not be what I want at all. I get anxious and worry. I keep looking at what I've posted by my door: "I can relax and see what unfolds". (See Watching the Process Unfold, 8/1/11.)

This morning, as I was re-reading The Seven Habits, I find this: "Most all creative endeavors are somewhat unpredictable. They often seem ambiguous, hit-or-miss, trial and error. And unless people have a high tolerance for ambiguity and get their security from integrity to principles and inner values they find it unnerving and unpleasant to be involved in highly creative enterprises. Their need for structure, certainty, and predictability is too high." Bingo! A friend of mine said that "Structure Binds Anxiety" is a psychiatric saying. The truth is, I need to build my own inner structure, rather than relying on having a structure around me.

Stephen Covey subtitles the chapter on this habit, "Principles of Creative Communication". He begins by saying; "What is synergy? Simply defined it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It means the relationship which the parts have is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.

"The creative process is also the most terrifying part because you don't know exactly what's going to happen or where it is going to lead. ... It takes an enormous amount of internal security to begin with the spirit of adventure, the spirit of discovery, the spirit of creativity. ... You become a trailblazer, a pathfinder. You open new possibilities, new territories, ... so that others can follow."

Now I just need to remember that as the chaos of building a community continues. Thank you, Stephen Covey. This is just what I needed.

Quote of the Day: "Synergy is everywhere in nature. If you plant two plants close together, the roots will comingle and improve the quality of the soil so that both plants will grow better than if they were separated. ...
"Ecology is a word which basically describes the synergism in nature--everything is related to everything else. ...
"Synergy works.... It is effectiveness in an interdependent reality--it is teamwork, team building, the development of unity and creativity with other human beings." - Stephen Covey

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The First Step

I'm sure that there are some people who, if they read my last post (Walking Away, 8/23/11), would wonder what I was talking about. Even if they agreed with my analysis of what's wrong with this society, there is the question of how can you actually walk away from it--I mean short of heading out for a desert island.

I am going to suggest that the first step in walking away from this society is to stop buying all the stuff that they're trying to sell you that you don't need. If fact, stop buying stuff from the big corporations period. (See my post Boycott Corporate America, 9/12/08.) Start trying to figure out what you need and don't need, and buy what you need from small local businesses--or make it yourself, or reuse it. (See Reduce and Reuse, 11/24/09.)

As far as what we don't need, my guess is that we don't need most of it. What impresses me most is the folks that are determined to live on 10% of what the average American lives on. Back in 2007, Sharon Astyk and Miranda Edel started an online challenge to get their emissions down by 90% of the American average. They got several thousand people to participate in this. (See Riot!, 9/28/08.) Now Sharon Astyk is doing it again. She's challenging folks to use 10% of the transportation energy, use 10% of the electricity, use 10% of the heating and cooking fuels, use 10% of the water, create 10% of the garbage, use 10% of the food from the mainstream industrial food system, and buy 10% of the consumer goods that the average American does.

The 'Rioters' aren't the only ones looking at this question. Laird Schaub, a consultant on group process and consensus decision making who lives in an intentional community called Sandhill Farm, just wrote a six part piece in his blog on "My Summer of Sustainability", where he explicitly mentions the question of "How to create a vibrant, satisfying lifestyle that uses only 10% of the resources that the average American is currently consuming."

What we are talking about here is people in the US (and other countries in the 'developed world') living the way much of the rest of the planet does. What we are talking about is (to paraphrase Elizabeth Seaton) 'living simply so that others may simply live'. It won't get us to a new world by itself, but it's the first step.

Quote of the Day: "The lower we get our energy and resource consumption, the better prepared we are for our emergent future in which we are constrained by limits of climate, resources and wealth. If you recognize we cannot go on as we are, we must not wait for someone else to lead the way - it is time to make the changes that are needed ourselves." - Sharon Astyk

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Walking Away

The world is in a mess, yet what is offered to us--at least the priviledged ones in developed countries--is a garden of consumer delights. Maybe the TVs and junk food and luxury items from around the world and computers and McMansions and SUVs, etc, etc, etc, will distract us from noticing all the pain and suffering around us, as well as the fact that we are making the earth unlivable and we are running out of the fossil fuels that make it all possible. (See What We Need and Don't Need, 9/4/08, as well as Peak Everything, 7/20/08.)

But even those who notice feel caught by this society. What else can we do? We can organize protests, we can try to fix the worst of the stuff, we can try to destroy this oppressive society, we can try to create a revolution.

Or another possibility is that we could just walk away from all this. I have seen this suggested by John Michael Greer (see A Magical Way of Thinking, 8/3/08, and The Archdruid Report, 8/5/08), by Daniel Quinn (see Beyond Civilization, 1/3/11), and by David Korten (I hope in the future to write a post on his book, The Great Turning). Just don't participate in this society. Create something new, something to replace it, something that doesn't use as many resources and something that doesn't exploit people. Something small and local. Something simple, egalitarian, communal, and sustainable. (See Interconnections, 10/8/08.)

Walk away from all we don't like about this society. Walk away from corporate capitalism, patriarchy, white privilege, and that garden of consumer delights. Walk toward a new world--not knowing exactly what it will be like but believing we can create it. Walk away, deciding we want a world that works for everyone, and that's what we are walking toward.

Ursula Le Guin wrote a short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", in which she imagined an urban paradise, which she called a 'city of happiness', where all seems wonderful, utopian--but the happiness is maintained by torturing one small child in a basement somewhere, and every inhabitant of the city learns of this as they come of age. Most, somehow, rationalize this as important for the well-being of everyone else, but the story ends by focusing on the few who can't. Some of these just get up and walk out Omelas, this 'city of happiness.'

Quote of the Day: "They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas." - Ursula K. Le Guin

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Three Small Blogs

Austan, from AUSTANSPACE, recently gifted me (and two other bloggers) with the Liebster Blog Award.

The award goes to three blogs with less than 300 followers. The honor of having gotten it goes with the duty of honoring three more small blogs. One of the first blogs I would have honored with it is AUSTANSPACE--but, obviously, that's already been done.

I don't have the time to research to find out which other blogs have already been given this award, so I may be giving this to a blog which has already gotten it in the past, but I am going to simply pick out three favorite small blogs.

And here's my three honorees:

The first is SoapBox Tech. I think Jerry is doing some amazing things out there and I would love to join him in doing some of it but since I'm in New England (USA) and he is in Alberta (Canada)--several thousand miles away--I am glad that he's documenting it in his blog so we can all learn from it. I also enjoy his rants.

Then there is Michaelann Land. Michaelann is a social justice warrior, someone who has spent her life fighting against poverty, exploitation, oppression, and destruction of the environment, and still manages to have the occasional post about theoretical physics.

Finally, there is The Wheeling Traveller. Blues has not written much in the blog yet, but what's there is a deep exploration of the pain of disability. This is a perspective that many of us need to learn. Blues, consider this a nudge toward writing more.

Quote of the Day: "There are beautiful wild forces within us. Let them turn the mills inside and fill the sacks that feed even heaven." - Francis of Assisi

Friday, August 12, 2011


I've written several posts on Permaculture. (Permaculture, 7/22/08, and Permaculture Principles, 12/24/09, and one entitled Attitude, 8/31/10.) The word Permaculture is a combination of the words Permanent and Agriculture, or sometimes Permanent and Culture. I think the intent of the word 'permanent' is to imply sustainable.

But the definition I found online for permanent (from Merriam-Webster) was: "continuing or enduring without fundamental or marked change". The trick is that nothing continues without at least some marked change.

I've blogged also on impermanence. (See Impermanence, 7/9/10, and Death, Decay, and Impermanence, 11/1/10.) While this is a basic Buddhist concept, the truth of it quickly becomes apparent to anyone who pays attention. Everything changes, everything is in flux, very little endures without changing.

Everything is also connected, also in relationship to everything else, and also changing everything else. It's all a grand and glorious dance.

To me this all relates to systems thinking. I think of Permaculture as just another way of looking at systems theory--in the same way I think of complexity science, ecology, ecofeminism, etc, as other ways of looking at systems theory. (See my post on Systems, 12/14/09, for more on this.)

The problem with talking about systems is that systems is a noun (a plural noun) and nouns seem static, fixed. Nouns are usually "used to name a person, animal, place, thing," or an "abstract idea." (From an online definition provided by the University of Ottawa.) To me a noun is a snapshot of something--an instant picture that doesn't change in our minds.

I have a snapshot in my room of myself carrying a four year old girl on my shoulders. It's a cute picture--the problem is that neither of us look like that anymore. She's now a twenty-one year old woman and my hair has fallen out since and my beard is now snow white. Everything changes. Everything changes and systems are always changing, always in flux. As I said, it's a dance.

Buckminister Fuller said, "I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process..." As far as I'm concerned, systems are definitely verbs, changing, evolving, processing, unfolding, systeming. Everything is connected, everything is in relationship, everything is moving, everything is unfolding, everything is changing, and nothing is permanent. The trick is to relax and enjoy the ride.

Quote of the Day: "The process nature of reality became clear--its continual flow, the radical impermanence of all things, with no element or entity aloof from change. ... All the factors of our lives subsist, therefore, in a web of mutual causality. ...things do not produce each other or make each other happen, as in a linear causality; they help each other by providing occasion or locus or context, and in doing so, they in turn are affected. There is a mutuality here, a reciprocal dynamic. Power inheres not in any entity, but in the relationship between entities." - Joanna Macy

Monday, August 1, 2011

Watching the Process Unfold

For the last two months I have been living in this quirky, interesting building, trying to be patient. Finding housemates has been a slow process and even slower has been the waiting for them to actually live here.

One person did move in and I also found a sublet for the summer to cover the rent and to have people around until others were ready to move in. Both are folks that needed a lot of time to themselves and so until recently, I have not been seeing much of either. Recently, I have been connecting with my new long-term housemate and, as of today, two more of my housemates are scheduled to move in.

We have been conducting group interviews while looking for our last housemate and this has been a good process for us. In the process of telling our stories to the people we are interviewing we have been learning about each other.

This is all such a wild gamble. I don't really know any of these people and we have no systems in place--not even how we make decisions, let alone whether we do meetings or food sharing or how we manage chores. My anxiety has occasionally been really up, wondering whether this all has been a big mistake.

I put a sign up in my room that says "I can relax and see what unfolds". Doing it, however, is another matter.

My goal is to really listen to and learn about each of these precious people, each of whom bring something to the house, each of whom have hidden gifts that will only appear as we begin to trust one another. Community will emerge as the connections slowly happen. I just need to be patient.

Quote of the Day: "The aspiration to communicate with another person--to be able to listen and speak from the heart--is what changes our old stuck patterns." - Pema Chödrön

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Doing it!

Sorry for the sudden change in plans, but it looks like I will be taking a break at this point. It could be permanent but probably not. I really do have a lot of stuff I still want to blog on, but there are things that are much better than blogging.

One of the best is to do a lot of the stuff that I've been blogging on. Out of the blue (almost) someone who had noticed all the workshops I'd been offering on intentional communities offered to rent her house to me to create an intentional community in. (She and her family are actually moving to a rural community in another state.) How could I turn that down?

So now I have the opportunity to do a lot of what I've been blogging on--starting with doing it with love and compassion. (I write this as a reminder for myself as much as anything.)

Yes, this will be about Simplicity, Equality, Community, and Sustainability. Yes, I will try to find ways of embracing Complexity, Diversity, Individuality, and Practicality. Yes, this will be about starting Small and Local. Of course, I will try to apply Permaculture and NonViolent Communication and anything else I can think of to our situation. Of course, I want us to be eating locally, growing food (at least sprouts), conserving energy and water, and most importantly, taking care of each other, learning from each other, and listening to each other.

This house comes with a host of quirky things and a big bunch of challenges. The location is very urban and there isn't a lot of space for a garden--or much of anything. But as I wrote in my post on Attitude (8/31/10), a Permaculture Principle is: "Every resource is either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the use made of it. ... Disadvantages can be viewed as 'problems' and we can take an energy-expensive approach to 'get rid of the problem', or we can think of everything as being a positive resource: it is up to us to work out just how we can make use of it." The other Attitudinal Principle is "Permaculture is Information and Imagination-Intensive". We will need creativity and imagination (and some information as well) to deal with the challenges of this house, but if I can get a good mix of people for this community, we should be able to do it. Now I just need to find them.

Maybe my next post will be an update of how this is working out. Meanwhile, if anyone reading this is interested in being a part of this emerging community (or might know someone who is), please email me.

Wish me luck.

Quote of the Day: "How are you practicing what you preach--whatever you preach, and who exactly is listening? ... It is not going to be easy, but we have what we have learned and what we have been given that is useful. We have the power those who came before us have given us, to move beyond the place where they were standing. We have the trees, and water, and sun, and our children. ... We are making the future..." - Audre Lorde

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Survival Resources 13: Survival Summary

At this point, I am going to end this particular series on Survival Resources. It's not that I won't discuss this stuff again, it's just that it's time to go onto other things. I have a long list of other topics I want to blog about--of course the biggest problem is finding time to write about it all...

So what conclusions do I have? What have I learned? What have you learned?

I think most of this falls into three categories: things we can do something about now, things we can learn (better and better over time), and things that we won't know until we get there.

The two things anyone can do now: 1) Get (or get out from the library) and read some some of the books about survival. My top recommendations are When Technology Fails (see When Technology Fails, 2/13/10) and Deep Survival (see my post on Wilderness Survival, 3/11/11). While you are at it, work on developing a survival attitude. And 2) Create a 'survival kit' (see Survival Kits, 5/6/11).

Most of the rest of what's in these posts are skills you can learn over time: foraging (see Foraging, 1/11/11), winter tree identification (see Winter Tree ID, 1/18/11) and tracking (see Tracking, 2/9/11), studying and learning the land around you (see Learning the Land, 2/27/11) as well as learning 'primitive skills' (see Primitive Skills, 4/13/11) for wilderness survival (see Wilderness Survival, 3/11/11). The only way to learn these things is practice, practice, practice. (I said this in the posts too.) Also, some of these skill can only be practiced at certain times--I've been joking with my friend who I studied buds and winter tree identification that it's too late to practice learning the buds now--it's May and all the trees are in bloom. But winter will come around again--and it's a very good time to start practicing foraging.

Finally, there are some things we will only know when we get there. Reinventing Collapse (see Reinventing Collapse, 5/12/11) is good to read and think about, and the lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union may prove useful to our survival if and when collapse happens here, but unfortunately we won't know anything for certain until something like that happens.

The frustrating thing about emergencies, technology failing, sudden crises, and even complete collapse is that none of it is predictable. Certainly the thing that you really want to do is try to avoid any of this happening in the first place. Still, being prepared is always useful. I hope this series helps some folks to think about preparations they could be taking--and maybe this will help if they find themselves in a crisis.

Meanwhile, I think that the best way to prepare for collapse is to live as if it has already happened. I want to think about what life would be like in a 'Post-Carbon' world--a world without oil or fossil fuels. What skills would we need to learn, not only to survive but to thrive in a very different world? The ideas and skills involved in that is another whole series that I hope to write in the future.

Quote of the Day: “We all need food, water and shelter, but the needs of a family in west Texas in July are vastly different than the needs of a family in western Massachusetts in January. You have to think about what you’re preparing for.” - Kathy Harrison

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Survival Resources 12: Reinventing Collapse

Of course, part of the reason I am doing this series on Survival Resources is that there is a good chance at some point in the future, the corporate-industrial, oil maintained US society will collapse. (See my posts on Collapse, 7/5/10, and Peak Everything, 7/20/08.) Being prepared for this possibility and having some idea how it might happen would certainly help increase our chances for survival.

Dmitry Orlov has a unique perspective on the question of social collapse. Having grown up in the Soviet Union (he immigrated to the US at age 12) he understands the culture and the way the society worked. He visited Russia several times in the 1980's and 1990's after the fall of the USSR. In his book, Reinventing Collapse, Orlov talks about the parallels between the collapse of one 'superpower' and the impending collapse of the other--the US. (He talks about the question of when "the second superpower shoe would be dropping".)

This is a perceptive, cynical, and often very funny book. Orlov has a dark Russian sense of humor that is usually on target. (Sample: "I have had a chance to observe quite a few companies in the US from the inside and have spotted a certain constancy in the staffing profile. At the top, there is a group of highly compensated senior lunch-eaters. ... They often hold advance degrees in disciplines such as Technical Schmoozing and Relativistic Beancounting. ... Somewhat further down the hierarchy are the people who actually do the work. They tend to have fewer social graces and communication skills, but they do know how to get the work done. ... More often than not, the senior lunch-eaters at the top are native-born Americans and, more often than not, the ones lower down are either visiting foreigners or immigrants.")

The book has a bunch of useful insights. An early one is "when faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth as money. Access to actual physical resources and assets, as well as intangibles such as connections and relationships, quickly becomes much more valuable than mere cash." He backs this up with stories from his visits to Russia around 1990.

He also suggests that a nomadic lifestyle with several 'bases of operation' may be safer and more secure than one permanent location. He even suggests life on a boat, saying "there is no such thing as 'waterway rage'" and "Having a moat around you provides a remarkable amount of both privacy and security". He gives ideas about how to adapt to rapidly declining circumstances and talks about what skills and working conditions might prove useful in a collapse.

While I hardly agree with everything in the book (I know I can be critical of American society, but I think he downplays even some its more useful aspects while extolling what he sees as the Russian character--but, of course, he is Russian), nevertheless I think it is really worth reading. There are lots of books about different people's ideas about social collapse. Dmitry Orlov is reporting from experience.

Quote of the Day: "True necessities are those few items found at the base of Maslow's hierarchy: oxygen, water and food, in that order. The order is determined by seeing how long someone can stay alive when deprived of any of these: a few minutes for oxygen; a few days for water; a few weeks for food. These are followed by non-necessities such as shelter, companionship, opportunities for sexual release and meaningful activities, such as exercise, play or work. Most people can survive without these for months, perhaps years; I even know some people who have survived for their entire lifetime without work. Cars, water heaters and flush toilets are not anywhere on this list." - Dmitry Orlov

Friday, May 6, 2011

Survival Resources 11: Survival Kits

Almost by definition, emergencies come unexpectedly. The trick for survival in such situations is to plan ahead. A very useful tool, especially in the event of an unexpected emergency is a survival kit.

Yes, you can buy survival kits online or in stores, but you can also put one together yourself. The advantage of doing this is that not only will you save money, but you are more aware of your own needs than any manufacturer.

In a plastic bag in the library in my house, I have tossed together a bunch of things that I think would be useful in an emergency. I know where it is and I know what's in it and so I know where to go for stuff if something goes wrong.

Here is a list of what's in my kit. As I said, your kit should reflect what you think you might need--my list is only an example.

Inside my bag:
Britta filters (see my lastpost on Safe, Clean Water)
Candles (and candle holders)
A magnesium fire starting kit (in retrospect, I am not sure how useful this is)
Fishing line
A Swiss-army knife
A compass/whistle pendant

Nearby I have two oil lanterns with oil in them.

I also have a Swiss-army knife, a CPR shield, and a micro LED flashlight on the key chain that I always carry in my pocket.

Some things I would like to add to my survival kit include a small first aid kit (fortunately one of my housemates keeps first aid supplies near the kitchen) and one of those reflective 'space blankets'.

Matthew Stein has a whole chapter in his book When Technology Fails devoted to 'Supplies and Preparations'. (See When Technology Fails, 12/13/10 for more about the book.) It's a good source for figuring out what you should have in your survival kit.

Quote of the Day: "No one really knows what the future will bring. You can't plan for all possible scenarios, but a wise person plans for several of the most likely possibilities and stores at least a few basic supplies for emergencies." - Matthew Stein

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Survival Resources 10: Safe, Clean Water

When I was writing about 'Needs', I did a post on Water (5/10/09) where I mentioned 'the rule of three': "you can only live 3 minutes without air, you can live 3 days without water, and you can live 3 weeks without food." Recently I repeated a similar rule in my post on Wilderness Survival (Survival Resources 8, 3/11/11), "A person can go a few minutes without air, a few days without water, and a few weeks without food..." What these rules don't tell you is that if you do drink water and it's contaminated, you could be very sick for several days, or even die.

Unless you can figure out a way of capturing rainwater in a container that is absolutely clean, then the water you are drinking may well contain stuff that's really not good for you. The issue isn't so much about finding clean water; the issue is how to clean the water you have so it is safe and drinkable.

There are two ways water can be contaminated, and so there are two different ways to clean it. The first way that water can be contaminated is by water borne pathogens. There are many organisms that live in water that can cause diarrhea or worse.

A major method for treating infected water is called SODIS or solar water disinfection. This method uses clear plastic (PET or polyethylene terephthalate) bottles which are filled to three-quarters with the water in question, shaken (to aerate), and then completely filled. Water that is turbid (not clear) should be filtered until clear before doing this. The bottle should be placed at an angle on a reflective metal surface (a corrugated metal roof is ideal) for six hours on a sunny or partly cloudy day, or for two whole days if the day is mostly to completely cloudy. This method is used on a world wide basis for safe drinking water.

The second source of contaminants for water is chemical--heavy metals, organic compounds, and even the chlorine that municipalities add as a method of water purification. The question of the health hazards of chlorine is controversial. The American Chemistry Council insists that the amount added to drinking water is safe, but other sources (especially from companies that sell water filters) disagree. Wikipedia notes: "Disinfection by chlorination can be problematic, in some circumstances. Chlorine can react with naturally occurring organic compounds found in the water supply to produce compounds known as disinfection byproducts (DBPs). The most common DBPs are trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs). Due to the potential carcinogenicity of these compounds, drinking water regulations across the developed world require regular monitoring of the concentration of these compounds in the distribution systems of municipal water systems." The woman who taught me water and soil testing when I took RUST (see my post on RUST, 7/13/10) was adamant about the dangers of carcinogenic substances in chlorinated water.

SODIS is no help with chemical contaminations--here some type of filter is needed. The most common is some sort of 'charcoal filter'--the commonly sold Britta filters are an example--and there are many more expensive, sophisticated types out there.

The combination of using SODIS to disinfect the water and a filter to get rid of chemicals should result in safe, drinkable water. There are other methods that work as well (such as solar stills). For more information on making sure water is safe, see the chapter on Water in When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein. (I reviewed When Technology Fails on 12/13/10 at the beginning of this series.)

(I want to thank my friends at DIO Skillshare for giving me much of this information.)

Quote of the Day: "Until roughly ten years ago, no one ever considered it unsafe to drink directly from mountain streams. You could stretch out on the bank of a high mountain meadow creek and just push your face into the water to drink. ... But no longer can we ... drink even a drop before purifying it without running the risk of getting sick." - Kathleen Meyer

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Survival Resources 9: Primitive Skills

(For regular readers: Again, I'm sorry about the long delays between posts. I have been busy with other things--and then I got sick. I have a lot to write on--just less time to write it. I'm hoping that may change in the future but we'll see. Meanwhile the posts will be coming out s-l-o-w-l-y.)

A lot of what I have been writing about in the most recent, back-to-nature posts can be referred to as 'primitive skills'; that is, simple ways of working with nature that hunter-gatherer people and others knew, but 'modern' folks have little knowledge of.

Wikipedia claims: "Primitive skills is a term used by naturists and 'back-to-the-landers' that refers to prehistoric handicrafts and pre-industrial technology. Primitive skills are those skills that relate to living off the land, often using handcrafted tools made from naturally gathered materials. Examples of primitive skills include: gathering and foraging native plants and animals for food, skinning and preparing game, basketry and pot making, constructing shelters, fire making, and useful plant identification."

The question is where can we learn these skills that our ancestors knew so well? Unsurprisingly, a number of schools have sprung up willing to teach them. Maine Primitive Skills School (in Augusta, Maine), is a key one near me. There are also lots of internet resources for this, including Primitive Ways, Primitive Outdoor Skills (from NatureSkills.Com), and The Society of Primitive Technology. There is even a website just devoted to Links to "every Primitive Skills site on the Net".

And, of course, there are lots of useful books as well. I went looking for my copy of Tom Brown's Field Guide to Living with the Earth which I was going to review but seems to have gotten lost while I was sick, but there are a bunch of books like this. Tom Brown has several others, as does Thomas Elpel. Wilderness Survival by Mark Elbroch and Mike Pewtherer, which I reviewed in my last post has bunch of short essays on varius primitive skill.

The point is relearning these skills. And, of course, the point is to learn them and then practice, practice, practice. Slowly we may reintroduce these skills to the world.

Quote of the Day: "According to anthropologist Stanley Diamond, the average man of the hunter-gatherer-pastoral African Nama people is 'an expert hunter, a keen observer of nature, a craftsman who can make a kit bag of tools and weapons, a herder who knows the habits and needs of cattle, a direct participant in a variety of tribal rituals and ceremonies, and his is likely to be well-versed in the legends, tales, and proverbs of his people.' Diamond goes on to say, 'The average primitive... is more accomplished, in the literal sense of that term, than are most civilized individuals.'" - Chellis Glendinning

Friday, March 11, 2011

Survival Resources 8: Wilderness Survival

Learning the Land (see my last post) as well as Tracking (see my post of 2/9/11), Winter Tree ID (see my post of 1/18/11), and Foraging (see my post of 1/11/11) all become crucial if you get stranded somewhere out in the woods or if for any reason you need to live outside for any extended period of time.

This is life stripped to its bare essentials. It takes me back to my posts on Needs (the series begins with Looking at Needs, 5/4/09, and ends with Our Needs: One Last Look, 9/19/09). Indeed, two of the books that I have been reading on surviving in the woods (Wilderness Survival by Mark Elbroch and Mike Pewtherer and Keller's Outdoor Survival Guide by William Keller) both begin with lists of what you need to survive, and for the most part these lists agree. They both say that the most important thing that you need to survive is a positive mental attitude (I will say more on this), followed by shelter, water, fire, and food. This is the order that Elbroch and Pewtherer prioritize; Keller says that: "Each may take precedence over the others in a given situation, and each requires preparation, practice, and experience to efficiently fulfill." On the other hand he also says: "A person can go a few minutes without air, a few days without water, and a few weeks without food, but if you are in an environment in which you will freeze to death in minutes, then clothing and shelter become top priority." (A fire will help, too.) Elbroch, Pewtherer, and Keller all put food as the lowest priority, but Keller also points out that changes if you have a medical condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia.

Laurence Gonzales has written a whole book (Deep Survival) on why some people survive a disaster and others don't. His whole book is on attitude and why it makes such a difference. (Matthew Stein, in When Technology Fails, highly recommends this book claiming, " could save your life someday.") The first half of the book is an analysis of what goes wrong in even what seems like low-risk situations that ends in people being killed or severely injured. A lot of what Gonzales looks at is how we do things that seem irrational and why. There is a good bit of chaos and complexity theory here--why simple systems can develop complex (and unexpected behaviors) and how we are more controlled by our emotions than we want to admit. He focuses on how we behave according to the model of the world that we have built, which is fine as long as these models approximate reality. The problem is when reality shifts and our models don't.

At one point Gonzales mentions a little book he and his six year old daughter were writing that they called The Rules of Life. The first rule was, "Be Here Now". Pay attention to what is rather than what you want to see. Their second rule was "Everything takes eight times as long as it's supposed to". He points out that it is often people's desire to make things happen faster that causes fatal accidents. The real problem, as he points out, is often you can get away with these things, and that can give a false sense of security so when the system suddenly becomes more complex you aren't paying attention--and often pay the price.

Gonzales points out: "We are the domestic pets of a human zoo we call civilization. Then we go into nature, where we are least among equals with all other creatures. There we are put to the test. Most of us sleep through the test. We get in and out and never know what might have been demanded." Unfortunately, in any extended wilderness stay we do find out what can be demanded, and our survival depends on being ready.

The second half of the book, details the stories of survivors. Here it becomes apparent how important attitude is for survival. In one chapter of Gonzales' book, he talks about going through two wilderness survival courses, one in Virginia using US Air Force survival training and the other in Vermont based on 'ancient native skills'. Gonzales says, "Although they seem superficially different, I think they share important similarities." Both are about paying attention and both are about having what the Air Force officially calls 'Positive Mental Attitude'. Both teach you skills but more importantly, get you to think differently. One of the skill the Vermont school teaches is using stories to create a mental map. Walk a short way into the woods and pick a spot. Make up a story about it. Move a short distance to the next spot and figure out a story about it. Slowly, story by story, make a mental path through the woods. Even if you get lost, you can find your way back by moving back a story at a time.

The book Wilderness Survival also has two parts, but they are interwoven. Mark Elbroach's journal of an extended survival trip that he did with two other men (Mike Pewtherer is one) is interspersed with Pewtherer's detailed survival tips. These are short little essays on building shelter, making fires, purifying water, making canteens and baskets and acorn flour, and many tips on hunting and fishing (not exactly thrilling to a vegan like me).

William Keller (who wrote Outdoor Survival) is an Emergency Medical Technician and a veteran member of search-and-rescue services and the stories in his book are often about people that he needed to rescue--although he writes of his own survival stories as well. He writes about shelter, fire, and food and water, but he also has a long section on First Aid in the wilderness. He is clear that this is no substitute for taking actual first aid and CPR courses which he strongly recommends. He also includes a useful chapter on what to do if you get lost.

Of course, each of these books is clear: the best way to learn wilderness survival is to practice, practice, practice. All of the skills, but especially having the right attitude. A native of the rainforests, and, for that matter, our ancestors, knows (or knew) skills for survival that we have never been taught. Maybe it's time to learn a few of them.

Next: 'Primitive' skills.

Quote of the Day: "Most of what I discovered through... research and reporting was not new. ... The principles apply to wilderness survival, but they also apply to any stressful, demanding situation...
"It's easy to imagine that wilderness survival would involve equipment, training, and experience. It turns out that, at the moment of truth, those might be good things to have but they aren't decisive. ... The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it's not what's in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It's not even what's in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it's what's in your heart." - Laurence Gonzales

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Survival Resources 7: Learning the Land

Tracking (see my post of 2/9/11), Winter Tree ID (see my post of 1/18/11), and Foraging (see my post of 1/11/11) are all about seeing what is around you, about re-learning our connections to the land in which we live. If our survival depends on the earth, we need to pay attention to it.

There's a lot that has been written about this. Starhawk's The Earth Path (see my post on One with Nature 2: The Path, 12/28/08) gives a pagan perspective on learning the land. Bioregionalism (see my post about this from 12/11/08) is another way of trying to pay attention to what is around us. There is a great quiz that was originally in Co-Evolution Quarterly and Home! A Bioregional Reader that can now be found online. There's what looks like a photocopy of the Home! version as well as an adapted Australian version available. Working through these questions will get you thinking about what is going on around you in the natural world.

I started a book on that I thought was on tracking by tracker Paul Rezendes, called The Wild Within. It really doesn't have much about tracking (he's written another book called Tracking and The Art of Seeing, that I'm sure does), but is more about paying attention to nature around you. The book begins as a journal of his explorations of the forest ecosystem but eventually becomes a spiritual book--because we, too, are part of nature (something we tend to forget, particularly those of us who live in cities).

Of course, the best way to learn the land is not from any book. Walk into the woods. Pay attention. Look around. Listen carefully. Sniff the air. Feel the bark on the trees and the breeze on your cheeks. Taste anything you forage. The best way to learn the land is to go to out and learn from it directly.

Quote of the Day: "Everything around us is always speaking. We can heal only by first learning to hear, to understand, and, in time, to respond. As we do, the world becomes richer, a more complex and vibrant place." - Starhawk

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Survival Resources 6: Tracking

(For regular readers: Sorry about the long delay in posting. Life is busy these days--but I have lots I plan to post on. Posts just may be coming out slowly.)

Tracking is the art of identifying animal tracks. This is a useful survival skill for several reasons. If you are desperate for food, you can track animals to hunt. I know some committed vegans who are also very survival oriented that were talking about hunting rabbits if necessary to survive. A different reason is to know what might be stalking around in the woods where you are--instead of being the hunter, you might be prey for some other critter. It's good to be aware of what's around you.

I think the best reason for learning tracking is to learn about what lives in whatever area you do. I will talk more about learning the land in my next post but I do think that the more that you know about the natural world (see Survival Resources 3: Back to Nature, 1/6/11), the better your survival chances may be. In spite of the fact that a lot of eco- and agricultural literature focuses on plants, there are many nonhuman animals that we share the world with and this is a great way to begin learning about them.

I think that one of the best resources that I've found to begin learning tracking is Tom Brown Jr and Brandt Morgan's piece on Animal Tracking. It starts with what they call the ABC's of tracking--looking at families of animals and the common tracking patterns within those families. In fact, the website that I got this from is an incredibly useful resource for tracking--it's called Wildwood Tracking.

Another resource that I would recommend is Track Finder: A Guide to Mammal Tracks of Eastern North America which can be gotten from Nature Study Guild Publishers[ for $4.95 or (as I mentioned in my last post) as part of the Winter Finders Set (which I mentioned in my last post) for $12.95. They also sell Mountain State Mammals for the Rocky Mountain Region and Pacific Coast Mammals for the Pacific Coast.

Of course, the best way to learn tracking is to do it. Many state parks, adult education programs, and nature study centers offer programs on tracking (I recently attended one offered through a Boston natural areas association). Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you will get.

Quote of the Day: "It is difficult to identify an animal by a single print. A print's shape is influenced by the surface it's made on and by the animal's gait. Front and rear prints of the same animal may differ. ...
"(Remember that even human foot sizes vary!) A footprint may look different on sand than it does in loose snow. Be observant..." -Dorcas Miller

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Survival Resources 5: Winter Tree ID

In late November, a friend and I went on an expedition to learn some foraging and other outdoor skills. She asked me how well I could identify trees. I said that was easy; I could tell a maple from an oak and...

Then I realized how I could tell the two trees apart was by their leaves--but at this point in the season, the trees didn't have any leaves. That's when she began to teach me winter tree identification.

The first thing she taught me was 'MAD Cap Horse'--this is a mnemonic to help remember which trees and shrubs have opposite leaves and branches: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Caprifoliaceae, and Horse chestnuts. (Caprifoliaceae is a group of plants that include honeysuckle and elderberries.)

After that we began looking at buds which are pretty interesting unto themselves. Beech buds are long and pointed, maple buds often look like little three fingered mitts, oaks have clusters that are really complex looking, dogwood have buds that look like tiny sculptures of onions, and magnolia have soft, fuzzy buds.

I am just beginning learning this process, but I think it will prove useful in many ways--including how to identify tree that have an edible inner bark. (See my last post on Foraging.) But I also think this is part of recovering our basic ecological literacy.

A useful resource for learning winter skills (at least in Central and Eastern US and Canada) is the Winter Finders Set from Nature Study Guild Publishers. This includes a Winter Tree Finder, a Winter Weed Finder, and a Track Finder--all of which have a useful format to help you identify what you are looking at. (Each of these little booklets can be purchased separately.)

Quote of the Day: "Have you explored the miracle of buds? Observing eyes quickly find them, large and small, on bushes and trees in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. To identify buds it is important to notice their arrangement on the twig. ...
"A few inches from the tip of your twig you an discover several lines or rings close together. These growth rings were left when the bud scales of last year's terminal bud fell off. They show last year's growth or how much the twig grew in one year. Now look for the next ring further down. That marked the end of the twig two years ago. Starting at the tip of the twig, count the growth rings to get the age of the twig." - Marjorie Smith