Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Chocolate is released into the world

Our friends at Pantry Paratus are trying out a digital-downloads section. 

We gave them a copy of Ernie's delicious chocolate truffle recipe to test out their sales page, just in time for Valentine's day.


The trifold is simple, easy-to-follow recipe text, but the product description includes some of Kacy's gorgeous pictures of our actual truffles, from when we did the Chocolate Fantasy event with Dessert Noir.

Mmmmm... good times.

If, like me, you can no longer indulge in rich, sweet chocolate as often as you might like, please consider these pictures as a virtual Valentine.



Monday, January 25, 2016

Raising Steam / Higher Ground


Terry Pratchett left one heck of a legacy.

One of Terry Pratchett's last books: Raising Steam won't make you any better at building a rocket hot-water heater, but it will probably keep you entertained for a few memorable hours.  And it may leave you marked with a priceless, life-saving, wriggly-little-feeling down the back of your neck, whenever the idea comes up, "Wouldn't it be fun to invent a crazy new technology that eats fire and breathes deadly steam!"
I can't remember if I read the whole book, or just a chapter preview in one of his other books.  I definitely want my own copy for our bookshelf, in either case.

With help from my friend Leaha, we finally got some video in the can to finish the Kickstarter project.
While waiting for it to upload, I went looking for our friend Suzanna's band, The Moonshine Band, whose music we were hoping to use for the video.  Found this amazing new video of a treehouse performance of "Flood," filmed by our video friend Bryce.


A good omen for the project moving forward, I think.
And a pretty darn awesome way to end the day.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ordinary Magic and the Romance of the Commons

It's a very ordinary woodshed.
Ever take a second look at some everyday thing in your life, and feel astonished at how it works?

When the fog and clouds on our mountain have coated every tree branch in white frost and rime, including the ones underneath the main branches which are sheltered from direct snow and rain....

Why does the wood inside my woodshed stay dry? 

Your natural response might be, "Isn't that what a woodshed is for, to keep the wood dry?"

Well, yes, of course. 

But that still doesn't explain it. (Or if it did, it that would be magical thinking: believing that the woodshed works because "that's what it's for" would be like believing that it knows my intentions.  Reality almost never responds directly to my intentions, except sometimes with ironic mockery.)
So why doesn't the fog cover the wood in frost?

So why does the wood in the shed stay dry?
Is it storing summer's dryness?  
Is there something about the air movement in that simple, shed-roofed, sheltered space that is somehow perfect for its job?

The sides of this particular woodshed are solid OSB (like plywood, but cheaper); ventilation is provided by a gap between the sides and the ground, and by raising the wood up on runners made of other wood scraps.  So maybe the fact that it draws air all summer while it's dry, but then the moist air of winter fog gets blocked by the winter snow filling the gap.

Maybe the depth of the shed - 16 feet - is enough to keep the fog from swirling in there too deep.  But even the front posts of the shed don't show as much frost as nearby trees.

Maybe the overhang cuts down on the amount of moisture on the ground nearby... but no, there are snowdrifts and snowplow-piles right up to the wooden sides of the shed, and the opening has a thin layer of snow inside it for about 6 inches, as you'd expect.

It is a mystery. 
I'm glad it works so well, anyway.

Other little pieces of everyday magic recently:
- Caramel: Toasted pears that get slightly over-done taste a lot like marshmallows.  Since I don't eat sugar, the idea of a fruit-based marshmallow that can be toasted like the real thing is an exciting new experiment waiting to happen. 

- Steam: Pouring water into the neck of our dragon-shaped humidifier, when it's boiled dry, and watching the clear steam shoot out the top and the incoming water bounce and spray like a whale spout.  Intellectually, I know steam is invisible, but actually seeing it irrefutably doing its thing is pretty magical.  Especially when it's at a small enough scale that nobody gets hurt.  Likewise, watching the steam from the chimney completely disappear.

- Upside-down fire: oddly enough, this is the most ordinary, and has not seemed like magic to me for a while now.  I've been living with a rocket mass heater for the last 8 or 9 winters, and have become pretty complacent about watching the flames disappear downward into the fire box, instead of flying back up in my face.  Instead of noticing the magic of backward-flowing flames, all I notice now is to complain when Someone puts too many too-tall sticks in the feed at once, and a little wisp of smoke or flame escapes from between them.
   I did have fun whittling down a big, gnarly, forked piece with the axe; my skills are improving, so I can deal better now with cross-grained and knotty pieces.  And I do enjoy hitting the timing just right so I can put a full-size log on top of an almost-burned-through log, with the coals still hot enough that the new log catches easily, but the old coals burn down faster than the flames creep up the log. 

That's the kind of magic I believe is real, in general: knowing the properties of things well enough that you can get them to do what you want, not by mystical commands, but by dropping your efforts into exactly the right place at the right time.

I remember watching Ernie walk in to a room where 3 people have been failing to light a fire for the last 45 minutes, it's basically a smoldering pile of damp sticks and we have burned all the newspaper.  He rearranges the sticks and adds just one thing, a log or a pinecone or something, then walks away.  3 seconds later the fire goes "whoosh!" and flames are shooting up merrily like an animated Christmas postcard, and the fire burns steady and bright for the next hour or so without further struggle.

Or when you see someone who has spent a long time getting friendly with local animals, like crows or cats or songbirds, to the point where there is a rapport even when other people are around: with no words, nor effort, they just sort of acknowledge the critter and it jumps right onto their shoulder. 
(I can do this with exactly two cats at our friends' farm, who are addicted to shoulder-climbing and will swarm up a person given the least opportunity.  But it was fun seeing people's faces when I sort of cocked a knee and had the cat on my shoulder while we were all still holding hands and singing grace before dinner.)

The magic is not in some mystical power to summon fire, or cats.  The magic is in recognizing the cat, or the state of the fire, and recognizing that it needs just one subtle trigger to follow its nature.

The world doesn't always offer a trigger like that; sometimes things just take a lot of steady effort.

But when there's a trigger and you don't know enough to recognize it, you can put in a lot of effort to no avail, or it may even be counter-productive. for example, chasing after the cat would almost guarantee that it will not climb your shoulder today.

The real magic would be finding those triggers that bring out other people's ability to tune into the natural world in this way, so that we see all kinds of global crises (climage change, mass extinctions, water shortages, terrorist attacks) as simply an ill-tuned situation requiring simple, compassionate intervention. 

 We have come to believe the "tragedy of the commons" is inevitable; but this often-cited notion is a pretty weak argument, which largely describes the behavior practiced not by the poor or "commoners," but by those looking to benefit from privatizing the commons.

A brief history of the actual period of common pasturage and subsequent enclosures, treated as a hypothetical situation in the 1968 article:  http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain

Common, ordinary people are capable of behaving with honor, restraint, humility, and reciprocal generosity.  We are not inevitably rapacious.  And it was common in many indigenous societies (meaning those with a long history of dwelling in a particular environment) to reinforce those virtues with education and community governance.  We are highly trainable, and even untrained people often have moral impulses such as affection, generosity, and a sense of fair play.  

So an ongoing puzzle for me, the type of "magic" I'm studying right now, is how to better evoke that kind of compassionate, ethical, humble contribution, in myself and in others.

How do we bring out our own sense of heroic responsibility?  How do we call for "heroes in waiting," as Phil Zimbardo did at the end of his 2008 TED talk on The Psychology of Evil? How do we raise ourselves from complacent pettiness, or serving as amoral stooges to the powers-that-be, to see every day as our next chance to make a difference?  Every oddity is a potential discovery, every humiliation a chance to learn wisdom, every unpleasant or disturbing duty may be our chance to make heroic choices.  If ambition and laziness don't get the better of us, there is even great pleasure to be found in ordinary work: marvelling at the shed while splitting wood, marvelling at the abundance while weeding the garden, grinning in the teeth of the storm and sweating in the summer sun. 

How do we grow into our best potential, as good shepherds (or at least good neighbors) to all life on Earth?

Right now we seem to be a society that cultivates anti-heroes: we are drawn to the spectacle of dysfunctional celebrity as to a train wreck.  Along with this, we are easily manipulated by fear, greed, and braggadocio; the greatest deception of the 20th century may have been was convincing us to "get used to disappointment." If we don't expect much of people, including ourselves, we can accept the status quo.  Like slaves with no say in their own future, we idolize indolence and our masters' imagined luxuries.  But the opposite of slavery is not mastery - they're two sides of the same system.  The opposite of corporate entitlement is not personal entitlement - they're two variations on the same psychopathy. 
We need to rediscover real alternatives, ancestral models and new ones.  We need realistic mental images of family-scale business, multi-generation investment in a common goal, and the necessary reciprocity between peers in an egalitarian society.  And we need the exaggerated, comic, personal, romantic, and emotionally-true stories that help us learn the morals associated with those ways of living.  There is not just one set of "sustainable moral values" - the past contains many cultures, some more sustained than others, and we may need a wide variety of models to suit our different communities and climates moving forward.

One thing that is not working is to accept the advertisers' adolescent definition of success.  At some point I got attached to some very unhealthy notions of success, or "reward," and I'm struggling to break these habits. 
For example, sleeping in is a "reward" or "treat" that I over-indulge in badly.  Is the reward for work the opportunity to lie around doing nothing? Doing nothing is definitely over-rated.  For me, sleeping late interacts badly with blood-sugar problems, and diurnal business obligations (though noctural creative ramblings are arguably productive).

The other kind of reward for work is a "treat," and the danger lies in defining what's "good for you" as unpleasant, and what's bad for you as a "treat."  If the reward for work is to over-indulge in a harmful vice, then it's self-defeating.  If the "treat" is some expensive luxury that puts you deeper in debt, then it can add stress rather than relieve it.  Have you found 'treats' that are actually good for you, and genuinely pleasurable?  I try to "parent" myself responsibly, by offering - and following through on - healthy treats that are also good for me.  Like making cookies without added sugar, or making sure I get to go for a walk or do creative hobbies after a responsible session of computer work.

And realistically, sometimes the 'reward' for work is barely breaking even: you work as hard as you can to maintain the housing, transportation, and social standing that keeps you eligible for more work.  The "rat race" it's called, and whether you over-indulge in treats or ambition, or are struggling up from untenable poverty, the result is similar: driving pressure, scarcity, and the constant fear that, no matter how hard you strive, one bad failure can drop you into the abyss.  If your work is repugnant and stressful, but you feel forced to do it by circumstances, success becomes defined by just having "a good job."  It's easy to lose perspective on how your life and work relates to the big picture, for good or for ill. 

One of the unquestioned assumptions in American culture is asking "What do you do?" as an icebreaker question: defining your status by specialized work.  Only after traveling abroad did I realize that there are other ways to define a person's station in life, such as "Are you married?  Do you have kids?" or "Where are you from?" 
The question "Where are you from" is a particularly difficult one for US Americans, as we move on average every 5 years.  Do I give the name of the town where I currently reside, the neighborhood where I would be most likely to recognize someone during a casual errand, or the region where the largest collection of my ancestors are buried?  If we have a clan or tribal identity, it's often different from our siblings and cousins (it's hard to be German-Italian, or Irish-Dutch-French-English-Scottish, without identifying more strongly with one side than another.)  If I don't know where I'm from, don't have any lasting connection to one particular place or people, how can I observe any lasting effects of my actions, or imagine my own role in the world beyond the immediate moment?
Some Americans therefore define "settling down" as a kind of success in itself.  Establishing a household, with a partner, nuclear family, stable ongoing relationships with neighbors and co-workers... this is an achievement.  Whereas staying at home with Mom is considered a failure.  This definition of success emphasizes financial "independence," being able to afford one's own everything; and it's almost always based on debt (mortgages, student loans, credit cards, and car loans).  If you have to use a credit card to buy an appliance from offshore manufacturers, which you are not entirely sure how to operate let alone maintain and repair, you are "independent" only in your ability to make this decision without input from anyone but the marketing and sales teams.

A lot of traditional cultures, by contrast, build on a stable extended family as the basic unit; you may build your own house, but more likely you'll add a room onto the ancestral compound.  In that context, "success" could be defined as being a joy to one's parents in their old age.

My own favorite kind of "success" is the feeling of accomplishment when a creative pursuit shifts from struggle to recognizable accomplishment.  Not necessarily polished masterpiece, but proof-of-concept, iterative improvement, result.  A research project that produces tantalizing results, even if the 'discovery' is that you made a wrong assumption.  A drawing that starts to have a life of its own, to capture some essence of the original idea, even as it demands you alter that imagined idea to respect the emerging whole.  A gluten-free or sugar-free recipe that comes out edible, or looking like it should (or both!).  In order to have that kind of success, you have to take risks; you have to go outside the boundaries of what's guaranteed.  Which means you also take a certain number of failures in stride as the price of success. 

As Hannah Bloch put it in a 2013 National Geographic article, "Failure is an Option,"
"Indeed, the very word “success” is derived from the Latin succedere, “to come after”—and what it comes after, yes, is failure. One cannot exist without the other."

So the higher-risk activities that result in success may also give me depressing failures.  There's no guarantee that any given day will be "happy" that way, thought the highs are higher and the overall result is satisfying.

If I'm looking for ordinary, relatively consistent happiness, it turns out that basic animal needs are pretty important.  Food, water, rest, exercise.  Getting outside at least once.  Exchanging affection several times.  I more often find happiness in a day with variety: a balance of physical and mental activity, indoor and outdoor tasks.  It doesn't do to save up all the menial tasks for one day, or all the intellectual ones, or to put off aesthetic wanderings (walks in the woods, art and music) for a once-in-a-blue-moon "reward."  I also find that social time is critical, whether it's by correspondence or in person.  An athlete might be appalled at what I consider "exercise" (I have been known to count walking back and forth to the cookie jar), but for any given person, there's going to be a particular balance that feels good and healthy, and other types of days that you just have to grit your teeth and live through it to get back to the good kind.

It can be hard to define how much "work" our ancestors did, when they were hunter-gatherers.  Do you define "work" as anything productive, and "leisure" as only those things with no direct bearing on meeting life's needs?  When does weaving a basket stop being "work" and start being "Art?"  Where do you draw the line between hunting as a means of procuring important foods, and an opportunity to refresh the soul and improve the body with healthy outdoor exercise?  Is it work if you're starving, and leisure if you can look forward to a solid dinner whether or not the hunt is successful?  Is it work if you catch something, and leisure if you fail?

Or is "work" when you do something you'd rather not be doing, and "leisure" when you have a choice of what to do and can take pleasure in it?  Cooking for family, processing a bountiful harvest, traversing one's landscape, pursuing one's goals, can all be done in a spirit of pleasure or a spirit of duty.
On Christmas morning,
a snow valentine from Ernie.

It is another variety of ordinary magic when we are able to find deep pleasure in the duties of the day: when we find our right work, in tune with our own nature and our stage of creative development. 

Snowy winters test your ability:
- to live with yourself, and your household;
- to plan ahead for provisions and chores
- to see uncompromising weather as
beauty and opportunity,
or oppressive bleakness.
As a Christian theologian once argued, in perfect submission there is perfect freedom.  We are truly free, achieve our highest potential, and enjoy the greatest happiness when there is no conflict between doing what's right and doing whatever we wish - because our deepest wishes are satisfied by doing what's right.

I can't say that I consistently follow this path, but I'm certainly enjoying myself more now (writing this blog post, which has been on my mental to-do list since December 23), compared with playing online games earlier.  I was getting increasingly grumpy with myself for not getting much done today, which spilled over into irritability with Ernie and the dog.  So much for the benefits of "leisure."

  We are happiest when we are in harmony with our household, our tribe, reasonably caught up on our duties, and using "spare" time for creative or learning opportunities that may contribute in one way or another to a better future.

Sometimes (as in my last post) I wonder if it's naively optimistic to believe that human beings have the capacity to work for a better future.  But I do think so. And I think the best future is one with no regrets, because you did your best all along.

Ian Angus makes a good point about the tragedy of the commons in his article for the MRzine Monthly Review, "The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons." http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2008/angus250808.html

Basically, he points out that the entire concept argued in the famous 1968 paper "The Tragedy of the Commons" is a circular argument: if one assumes the (unproven) premise that "rational herdsmen" naturally and categorically seek to increase their herds, without regard for the common welfare, then they will naturally and inevitably strip common resources bare for personal gain. 

This attitude, of prioritizing the owner's profit over community health, is commonly seen in corporate finances, but less often in actual farming communities. 

I agree with Angus, and would add that in my personal experience, small family farmers are social beings, and often have a much deeper relationship with the local landscape than urban writers can imagine.  Astute observation, love of the land, and dedicated stewardship are arguably more common in longstanding farming communities than in agribusiness corporate farms, or even in urban "environmentalist" cliques (who may academically support environmental issues, but often have little notion of the actual costs or consequences of, for example, biodiesel grown on palm-oil plantations in former old-growth rainforest). 

One of the problems with corporate "personhood," and the modern legal structures which make large corporations relatively easy to form and fund, is that corporate behavior can generally be described as psychopathic or sociopathic. If the corporation were a person, their behavior and decisions suggest they are intelligently aware of reality, but they lack social conscience or moral instincts, and are unable to feel genuine emotional connections like empathy, love, or affection.  Corporate entities may be superficially charming, but most are consistently amoral, see themselves as entitled to anything they can get, and do not scruple at dishonest or deceptive tactics to get it.  See for example the 2011 Psychology Today article "Why Corporations are Psychotic," by David Niose.  Please note that the living, breathing human beings involved in modern corporations are not necessarily psychopathic, but they are obligated and rewarded by the rules of corporate structures to consider profit above ethics in their corporate roles. 

Some small and well-regulated corporations may be governed by their owners' personal ethics, but larger corporations answerable to shareholders are rarely so constrained.

So the tragedy of the commons does indeed apply to modern, corporate behavior - ironically, to the very entities who generally receive control of "privatized" common assets.  To accept environmental degradation as the inevitable consequence of human "freedom" presupposes that all human beings are as psychopathically greedy and profit-driven as modern corporations. 

Angus ended his article on by quoting Fredrich Engels, who called the argument "repulsive blasphemy against man and nature."

Human nature is better than that.  We're better than that.  And nature is more resilient than that.  While the scientists are undoubtedly correct that we are facing catastrophic and irreversible climate change, they are also inevitably going to be wrong about some of the details.  In those details, many lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.  We still have the option, for example, to choose between a world that is or is not paved with radioactive fallout; we may have the option to choose between a world with recognizable seasons and one with chaotic, completely unpredictable weather.  Those outcomes may depend on equitable, honest, and humane negotiations with our fellow human beings about how we are collectively going to handle this crisis, and our ability to honor those agreements well enough to earn each other's trust.  In short, they depend on our ability to act like human beings, not psychopaths or short-sighted corporations.

So let's stop taking life-as-we-know-it for granted. Right livelihood is both work and pleasure.  The rewards for active stewardship are intrinsic: the recurring sense of wonder and satisfaction as we expand our capacity for knowledge, power, and wisdom.

Maybe instead of "tragedy," we should call it "the drama of the commons."  It's only a tragedy if we succumb to our tragic flaws, rather than outgrowing them.  If we focus on the social aspects of the commons, the way that common stewardship calls for self-recognition, mutual affection, personal maturity, the dance of trust and mistrust, reciprocity and adaptability, and shepherding shared dreams through setbacks and blossoming opportunities, it could even be "the Romance of the Commons." 

If you have any sense of adventure, there is no better time to be alive than right now, today.  This minute.

Friday, January 1, 2016


Welcome.  We are Ernie and Erica Wisner (mostly Erica, writing this).  We like a lot of different things.  We have a website at www.ErnieAndErica.info, which introduces us and our work.

If you like what you see here, please sign up for updates on this blog (right sidebar), or sign up for our general newsletter.
Or just leave a nice comment (we love that!) and come back when you feel like it.

You may know us from our work on rocket mass heaters and related earth-and-fire technology.  If you want to catch new developments in this field, only, you could sign up for our RMH Builder e-mail list

Ernie also has a long-standing commitment to Pacific fisheries conservation and maritime heritage, including boat-building, ocean ecology, and taking care of our beloved coastal communities. The long-term goal is to build a sailing catamaran as a live-aboard platform for education, research, and coastal disaster relief. We have a dedicated mailing list for that, "The Passages Project."

We are currently based on a snowy, semi-arid mountain in the Okanogan Highlands, about as non-maritime a climate as you care to find.  We are part of a local permaculture study group, and sometimes help out our neighbors with their farms, herds, and fire protection.

We also regularly participate on the forums at www.permies.com.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What's causing the warming?

This is a companion to the "How Big Is It?" post.
It concerns global warming.  It's a thing.

The Bloomberg.com website has a nice, simple, graphic article showing the factors contributing to the gradual warming of our climate over the past 125 years, including human-produced effects and volcanoes.  It's titled, "What's Warming the World?"

Is it natural causes, like volcanoes, the earth's tilt wobbling, or solar energy?
Not really.
Crappy print-screen version of the animated graph,
with apologies to the authors.

Mostly, it's greenhouse gases.  Other environmental effects of human behavior (like deforestation and factory aerosols) are actually holding back the warming somewhat, and ground-level ozone is a slight contributor on the warming side.
print-screen version of the animated graph

(The article is simply and beautifully formatted for smartphones and devices, with active graphics.  Please look at the original; my "print screen" graphic doesn't do it justice.)

I showed this to my friend Barbara today.  She liked it - it's very clear.  But she also said she'd recently found a quote from the now-80-something author of the Gaia Theory, who figures we're already past the point of no return.  He considers it unlikely that plants will adapt fast enough to survive in the new climate, which means most of our food supply will not adapt (not to mention problems with pest-predator balance).  Which means human life as we know it today is a fleeting thing.  He says we might as well party; he's giving it 20 years max.

Depressing thought.  Both Barbara and I are not ready to accept the idea that it's all over, or that because one is late taking action, it's better to embrace counter-productive vices in some kind of nihilistic end-game.  This is not a game.  Nobody really knows what's going to happen (all the witnesses to previous sudden climate change events are long-dead, after all; and the sharks ain't talking).  So we might as well keep doing the things that we figure might make a difference - reducing impact, moving resilient plant species into higher and cooler niches, breeding and sharing heirloom seeds that have good genetics for drought-tolerance, extreme temperature tolerance, and so on.

Because there are always doom-sayers, and they're usually wrong.
Life as we know it has ended numerous times already - "we" would not recognize the social mores, language, or geography that was familiar to our great-grandparents.
My Depression-era grandmother kept calling our cell phones "wrist phones" like from Dick Tracy.  Her father wrote poetry about his friends among the loggers who cleared southern Wisconsin - today's dairy country was deep pine woods in their day.
Her grandmother rendered her own boot black from skunks.  I cannot imagine my housemates' reaction if I were to suggest popping a skunk in the oven for a few hours so we could take better care of our shoes.  (Though my wonderful husband probably does know enough about mustelid anatomy to butcher a road-killed skunk without puncturing the musk glands, making the idea more practical for us than for most of our contemporaries.)

Life as we know it changes continuously, sometimes suddenly, sometimes irrevocably.

As I've described before:
I told my grandmother about Peak Oil in 2007: "They say there's only so much oil in the ground; it's getting more expensive to get it out, and that means a lot of the way we do things is going to have to change."
She laughed, "They've been saying that for years."
"And did it change?"
"I guess...."
Depression, WWII, early graduation and traveling 1000 miles from home to take a 3-week welding course and spend 3 years building Victory Ships... marrying a haunted veteran half-again your age, and raising 4 children in 27 different houses while he helped build the hydropower dams that transformed the Western states (with impacts on electricity, irrigation, fisheries, and massive cultural displacement for both the work crews and their families, but more importantly, for the former inhabitants of the flooded valleys and the new communities growing alongside the altered landscapes).

How much of that change was due to oil prices?

At the individual level, the biggest impact on our personal lives can be attributed to a novice driver losing track of which pedal did what.  This changed our paths more than the insights and career changes of overseas travel, more than the 2008 recession, arguably even more than meeting each other (without that terrifying trial by fire, we probably would not be fused together in quite the same way).

Was that driver caused by oil prices?  Not any more than Ernie's reaction was caused by his military service.

The recession affected my ability to find work after Grandma passed away.  But Ernie's injury affected that even more - because it was difficult to work enough hours to make ends meet and still be home enough for caregiving and chores, unless I could work from home.

What we forget when assessing our collective responsibility in these big-picture scenarios is that we never had the option of a life "without change."  History is one long series of scene-changes, with empires rising and falling and writhing, dramatic weather changes (though perhaps none so big as the ones we can expect in the near future), and of course our own individual choices and circumstances that alter our lives even if we escape being a direct part of the big-picture statistics (being born above or below stairs; how to respond to that intolerable co-worker; whether to let that no-good charmer lure you off into a dark corner).

There was never the option to "freeze frame."  Our weather records only go back to the 1880s, the heyday of the steam era.  How long had we been burning coal and forests before that?  How many of the Ice Age animals were already gone for good?
The gardens of Babylon were already salt-encrusted wastes; Ozymandias already long forgotten and re-remembered.

If we wanted to go back to a real "before," before we started on this path that has resulted in the changes perceptible to the current generations, we'd have to go back a long way.  Before oil was discovered in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania?  Before coal mining?  Before the massive deforestations of the Age of Sail and the exploration (1400s, both in China and in Europe).

Have you ever read any original literature from the 1400s?  Most of us would be trying to talk to ancestors who spoke a different language - who had no word for "extinction," let alone "cell phone." Mine in England would have used the word "nice" to mean "precise and fussy," and "pet" to mean "ill-tempered tantrum;" in Ireland, would have a Gaelic oral tradition due to centuries of being forbidden schooling under Norman and English rule; others would have been hearing Cinderella in the original French, or reading the Gutenberg Bible in German.

They could not predict our future from 125 years ago, let alone the 500+ years you'd have to go back before the expansionist Western industrial era.

We can speculate about rising sea levels (the coast lines will not stabilize again within our lifetimes), but we don't really know what will happen.  Each region will have specific events that punctuate that change; we don't yet know the names of the unprecedented storms, ruined power plants, mountain eruptions, and landslides that will become the historic markers of that change, or the massive public works projects that may stave it off.  Will San Francisco become the gatekeeper of dikes protecting the Central Valley?  Or will the Sierra foothills become coastal farms?  Or will The Big One render previous measurements irrelevant, moving the coastline somewhere else entirely?

We can speculate that life will be harder in the future - but all we know for sure is that it will be different.  If it's harder to travel, it may also be easier to stay close to family.  If it's harder to keep the lights on, it may be easier to get a good night's sleep.
Human beings, and life on earth, are remarkably adaptable.  I've heard some remarkable interviews with people who say "it's probably for the best" after the most appalling misfortunes (the original drummer for the Beatles, who left the band before they became famous, comes to mind).

And while many people will die, in various ways (most of them unpleasant), when all's said and done, the history books will be written by the survivors.

We don't even know if they will be "human."

But there's no call to deliberately make things worse; all you can do is the best you can do, one day at a time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Pie, frost, and friends

Super-easy apple slicing
Making Pie:
I was working on book edits and basically missed Thanksgiving.  I've been waiting for the right day to bake a make-up pie for Ernie's folks, and today was that day.

Making Friends:
I was inspired in part by a great conversation with some folks who are very into home cooking - we started the conversation as acquaintances, and by the time it was finished I think we're definitely moving into the "friends" category, if not some Anne of Green Gables mushy title like "Kindred Spirits."

Wilson and Chaya from Pantry Paratus (www.pantryparatus.com) were asking about hiring us for help on a water purification project.  Wilson's in nursing school, and going down to South America for an infectious disease prevention course.  He wanted to scope out options for doing water purification - a boiler, a distiller, maybe something else?  And of course, Ernie has dozens of ideas on the topic, it's been on his back burner for several years now. 

And then Chaya and I got talking about running a web-based business, and raising kids (she also organizes a home-schooling group; I used to do a lot of work in hands-on education including homeschool group support), and the nature of the human brain, and so on. 

It's funny how when you are doing a preliminary conversation about a consultation, you are thinking "OK, this is about an hour, we have a game plan and we should count this hour as billable. Do you want to keep talking now on the clock, or do our homework and come back?" 

But when it switches gears to connecting on topics of mutual interest, like how to keep the family healthy while running a small business .... how to balance the time-suck factor with the promotion and mission-related aspects of online business.... what it's like being "the conservative one" to all your liberal friends, and "liberal hippies" to your conservative friends and neighbors.... swapping good book recommendations, insights, and so on ... you can spend like 4 or 5 hours and not notice the time going by.  It's mutual pleasure, intrinsic benefit. 

"Someone" couldn't wait for the picture....
oh wait, that was me. ;-)
I'm hereby adding Chaya to my list of people to have tea with by phone.  Possibly with pie.

And I'm also hereby making a plug:
We got the cool apple-peeler above ("Apple Master") from our friends' business at Pantry Paratus.  http://pantryparatus.com/

They are a niche retailer for homesteading equipment - mostly drool-worthy kitchen stuff, but they also have good general info like animal-husbandry books, wild-crafting, etc. 
If you are still working on a Christmas gift list, or gearing up to do your own holiday cooking, I definitely recommend them.  Not just because they carry good products and give reliable advice about how to use them, but because I like them personally, and I want to see them succeed. 

They are the kind of people whose success tends to cause other people's lives to get better too.  Dedicated, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, making-a-difference-as-we-go-along caretakers. 

My wish for 2016 is that both our businesses have so much self-maintaining cash flow that we can get together for a couple of weeks and just tinker around and research the best ways to promote clean water in remote mountain areas - as always, with a big-picture plan that helps reduce pollution as well as improve daily quality of life.

Hoarfrost on pine
On our way down to take the pie to his folks, Ernie pointed out that the hoarfrost is thicker up at the tops of the trees - they catch more fog and wind, apparently.  It's not obvious on all of them, but you can also see it sometimes where the tips are whiter than the inside branches.

It's probably for the same reason that snowflakes are pointy, and boats have tall sails, and your fingers and nose get cold faster than your belly button: there is more air movement at the edges of things.  More moisture moves past the exposed edges of things, and they the wind blows harder higher up where it's not broken by brush and land contours.

"Dendrites" - branch shapes - are formed naturally in snow and other crystals when the exposed points grow faster than the sheltered stems.  And trees and plants evolved to grow in similar, feathery, branching shapes, because this gets their nutrient-collecting leaves and roots out where they can swap more of what they need: exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen from the air; exchanging water, sugars, and minerals with other soil-dwellers at their roots.  Rivers have this branching shape too, as their main channels like stems gather the moisture that arrived in the area as dispersed vapor and precipitation.  The branching structure does something cool when there's a transition between liquid and vapor, or vapor and sold, or dispersed and accumulated concentrations going on.

There might be a case to be made for temperature differences due to biology, as well.  Our fingers get short shrift when our body is conserving warmth for the core.  Air that filters through the interior of the tree gives up its moisture relatively quickly, and may just be a little more tapped-out like it would going through a snowflake, but the tree might be a scosh warmer on the inside, too.  Our pines and firs tend to have dark trunks, which may help them warm up the sap when it's time to photo synthesize in winter.

Regardless, this is a big reason why we have more forests higher up our mountains: they collect their own water.  In a quiet breeze, you can hear the hoarfrost tinkling to the ground, home-made snow these trees are scraping out of the clouds whether or not there is enough water for "official" precipitation.

Here's to making your own rain.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review copies of our book, anyone?

Wow, it's been a long time since I posted.  This is my confession (for those who don't follow with bated breath) that I am back-dating a few posts to describe all the marvelous things that have been keeping me away from my desk - but there really was a gap from March to November ! (yikes!)

The question that drives this post is:

Where should we send review copies of our book?
 Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide at New Society

There are two criteria:
1) The reviewer needs to already have an audience.  A blog or email list with, say, 1000+ readers would count, as would regular book review columns, local newspapers, etc.

2) There should be a reasonable chance that they would actually review the book. Even better if they might like it. For example, they have reviewed other books, host natural building workshops or sell books, or might have an existing bias toward rocket mass heaters.

If you read book reviews on alternative living, how-to, appropriate tech, survivalist tools, or sustainability, please let us know some of your favorite book reviewers!

If you have an audience of over 1000 people, who might enjoy hearing your opinion of the Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide, would you like an early copy of the book sent right to you?

Oh, and we'd need a mailing address.  I think our publisher (New Society) would be especially happy to get copies of the review, if/when it comes out.

Who knew it could be this easy to get an early copy?