Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Smoke, Fall, and Fire

Where is that smoke coming from?
View looking west from Mt. Hull, 2pm Friday
View to our west, about 6pm Friday
That particular smoke is coming from the Diamond Creek fire, over a few mountains from ours.  
To geek out on smoke patterns, I love this site: earth.nullschool.net
Use the "earth" menu to see particulates, chemicals (CO shows wildfires very distinctly), hurricanes (wind speed/temperature), etc.
To get updates on specific fires, this is my go-to: inciweb.nwcg.gov

What's new with rocket mass heaters?
PermaEthos is starting to put out some videos, showing my wrap-up of our June Appropriate Tech course in Montana. 

Like batch boxes? You might enjoy this one. 
(It is an update on the first 8" batch box that Peter Van Den Berg ever built, the one that turned out to make less smoke emissions than a candle for most of its burn cycle.)

The Rocket Mass Heater innovators will be gathering in Montana again in early October, for what Paul Wheaton is calling the "Jamboree."  A lot of good folks are signed up already, but I believe there's still room if you want to come.

I am trying out my wildland fire fighter chops:

And with the rest of my crew, learning structure fire-fighting tactics:
If you want a Mt. Hull Fire T-shirt, we're letting our crew send extras to family and friends for a $15-20 donation.  Let me know.
Back of 2017 T-shirt

Part of wildland chops is, of course, filling the woodshed for winter.
I prefer to do it a year ahead, but in these extremely dry conditions, I'll take having it done before the fall rains start.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Burn Season and No Burn Season

Stay safe this summer!

Back home in the Okanogan Highlands, we typically enter our seasonal Burn Ban between June 1 and June 30th each year.  (I'm writing this post just before our Montana trip, so I'm just guessing on this year's date.) 

The wet spring has been wonderful for us, overwhelming for some neighbors' culverts.  Yet summer's warm winds and intense sunshine will dry that lush grass out quicker than you think.

If you notice windy and sunny days starting to increase, consider ways to reduce fuel loads, or chop down easily-dried-out fuels like dry grass and pine branches to make a moisture-retaining mulch.

Ernie and his dad ran a burn pile this spring, for the first time in several years.
("We've had these dry springs" says Ron, "it's raining and too wet for anything to burn, and then it's too dry [and dangerous] to burn.")

It's amazing how fast pine needles will burn.  They are called "one-hour fuels" for a reason - it takes an hour or less, sometimes only minutes, for them to dry out in the sun.
We had very heavy rains earlier this week, then hauled wet brush out to the close-cropped part of the meadow near the pond.  This set of branches had been sitting in the sunshine, on green grass, for ... not even an hour.  It didn't even wait for the fire's heat to dry it out - flames popped up like there was turpentine in there.


As a tool-using fire ape, you are accustomed to riding around in literal chariots of fire.  (internal combustion powered vehicles).  Some of you probably breathe fire (smoke) on a regular basis.

It's easy to forget the power we hold, to cause or prevent fires.

But we also have phenomenal ability to communicate, in detail, and that gives us access to a wealth of expertise that other animals have to learn by instinct.  We can learn from others' experience without repeating the tragic consequences.
Places to get good information about the state of the weather, fire danger, and burn bans and Industrial Precautions:

What are Burn Bans?
Fire is fun and useful, but not always safe.  When seasonal conditions turn dry, windy, and fire-prone, fire-fighting and land management agencies may issue a partial or total "Burn Ban."  This may mean no fire works, no wood-fired smoker or barbecue, sing-alongs but no a campfire, and no more burn piles to dispose of yard or agricultural wastes.
Other times, fires may be restricted to designated (supervised or wetter-area) campgrounds, certain times of day, or certain areas in a larger park or landscape.

Find burn bans
State of Washington, here: https://waburnbans.net/
Anywhere in the USA, try this site:  https://firerestrictions.us/

What are Industrial Precautions?
Equipment with combustion engines, electrical discharges, or even just steel blades striking rocks can start a fire in dry conditions. Industrial Precautions tell you when it's legal to operate equipment in the woods (like chain saws, track hoes, harvesters, etc). Sometimes industrial forestry activities are fine in the morning (cooler hours) but not afternoons.

State of Washington: http://www.dnr.wa.gov/ifpl
For other local areas: regarding woodcutting in national forests: search the forest service site using your specific forest by name + "IFPL": https://www.fs.fed.us/
Or go to your local ranger station or forest service office.
(If you already know your geographic zone number, you can use a touch-tone phone to get Industrial Precaution updates: 1-800-527-3305.)

Why do I care?
Track current wildland fires here: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/

Sure, I'm a tree hugger.
I'd rather noodle around taking photos of wild flowers than drag hose through the smoke and ashes where they used to be.

My first year in training as a fire fighter, I made this T-shirt design to sum up most of the ways I heard of fires starting. 

(This does not include the trailer dragging chains that made sparks that caused multiple fires, or mysterious roadside fires well outside the range most people can flick a cigarette butt, or many of the other things that happened.  There were thousands of fire reports in our wild Highlands that year.

Maybe a third to a half were 'natural causes' - we had a lot of dry lightning that summer.  So rather than include more categories of human error, I felt it was only fair to mention the Excessive Smiting there at the end.)

If you would wear this T-shirt, or order a few to hang on the wall in your camp store / fire hall / school info center, please let me know!  (You are welcome to print a copy of this design and pin it somewhere to see what kind of responses you get.)

If you're interested, email questions@ErnieAndErica.info, or leave a message at 509-556-2054.  The prices will depend on how many we order at once.  Realistically we are looking at printing them mid-summer, not before the end of June.

Here's to a great summer! Green and gold, pleasant, breathable, with distant purple mountains visible all day and clear starry night skies.
And every time we hear thunder, showers of pouring rain.  :-)

Erica Wisner

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Mycology and Human Networking

While we're hip-deep in projects in Montana, I thought I'd share this essay that I started in late winter.  (What a gift this year's birthday inspiration has been!) 

Where we are weak or broken, 

there is our best chance to connect with a greater whole

I'm writing this post in March, but scheduling it for May. I hope you are smelling those intoxicating healthy-dirt smells as you work in your garden, hugel-kultur, or start hiking the back woods.

Paul Stamets has a lot to say about mycelial networks (the hidden webs and channels that support fungi and soil health, transporting nutrients long distances to feed mushrooms, trees, plants, and healthy soils).  See Mycelium Running if you want a truly geek-out version of that story.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The image from those lessons that's resonating for me this week is the weird, observable fact that individual mycelial cells, in those networks, are busted open.

Most plant cells, animal cells, and single-celled organisms are little sealed bags of carefully-portioned living matter, guarding their "guts" and nutrients from a presumably-hostile outside world.

A diatom, amoeba, bacterium... in fact most living cells ... have a carefully-guarded perimeter.  Symmetrical shells, cell walls (sometimes multiple layers and armor, in the case of woody plants and diatoms), and/or additional defences like chemical-detecting cilia or toxic slime coatings.  Yet the amoeba can just about give us dysentery, and requires pretty cushy watery conditions for active survival.

Our own cells - muscle cells, blood cells, nerve cells - maintain a pretty good perimeter despite all the specialized ports and exchanges they make for vital nutrients and waste.  It's not a bad recipe for staying alive.  Much of life on earth goes with it.

But what about alternatives?

Mycelial cells have wide-open gaps at both ends, and their nuclei and organelles may flow back and forth along with nutrients and fluids.  One mycelial cell alone would be a blue-plate special, spilling its guts into the cannibalistic micro-ecological void.

But a mycelial cell is almost never alone.  The mycelial networks of underground fungi can support whole forests, overcoming mineral and water shortages that would kill a crop-farmer attempting to raise the same biomass on chemically-sterilized soils.  Some species can convert "dark, dank, and stinky" toxic petro-chemical dead zones into food for bugs, birds, and new life.  Other specialists can turn the most rot-resistant trees into long-lasting nurse logs for huckleberries, mushroom soup, and wild honey.

Mycelial Network, Electron Micrograph
Image Credit:
Fungi Perfecti blog, fungi.com
What you can do with a network of "broken" individual cells is pretty darn amazing.  The more selfless each cell, the more the whole network can speed the flow of goodness.  A mycelial network (or similar self-organizing networks like the Internet) is a pretty great way to combine limited organisms into a meta-structure.
We animals require specialized channels (veins and arteries) to carry blood and nutrients to individual cell areas, and when our oxygen and waste removal can't keep u with our activity we definitely feel the burn.  Worse, we are highly susceptible to arterial bleed-out or heart attacks when one area gets damaged or blocked.  With vast webs of cooperating cells, mycelial networks can bypass unproductive channels and grow new 'main routes'. 

It sounds like a pretty effective way to handle "drinking from the fire hose" rates of transfer - both of vital fluids, and of vital information.  The Internet functions in a similar way, with many self-developing channels of information instead of a single, centralized broadcast system.

I'm using the power of mycelial networks as a metaphor for dealing with my own weak points.  Where I have a weak point, like procrastinating my bookkeeping, or letting bedtime routines slide to finish "one more thing," it's not healthy to sit alone with it.

I've been more or less trying to hide those weak spots, or use "willpower" to overcome them.  Press that weak spot up against a wall, beat myself up about it, worry that all my business "guts" might spill out and show that I'm not perfect.

Instead, lately I'm learning to show my weak points to trusted friends.  To watch others' strengths and weaknesses, and to ask people for help in areas where they really shine.  Or even just to ask.

Barbara Greene recommended an excellent local accountant from Brewster, WA (a few hours south of us in the same county).  Skirko Business Services helped me learn the WA state sales tax system for destination-based sales.

Mariah recommended a helpful young lady as a potential virtual assistant.

Our new neighbor gave our Facebook page a makeover, with some edited graphics so you can see our whole logo:

During my February sleepless-euphoria experience, I even broke down on the "grownups go to sleep on their own" myth, and asked my sisters, mom, and favorite aunties to take turns calling me at 9pm and "put me to bed."
(See earlier posts from February 2017, such as "Erica Turns 40 and Levels Up.")

My wonderful sister Teresa reported feeling a series of emotional reactions when she saw that email:
"What?  You can't do that... grown-ups can do that?
"How come she gets to do that?
"Why can't I do that?"

Such personal coddling is NOT a long-term substitute for basic adulting.
After about 8 days of much-needed sisterly support and advice, I'm now back to a self-managed sleep cycle that is better than my old 'normal'.  Because when I need to, I'm using all my sisters' tricks: everything from mindfulness, physical activity, serotonin-boosters like Vitamin D3 and melotonin, and just plain regularizing my schedule with 9-6 office hours and a 10pm bedtime.

I notice that I didn't get here by toughing it out, or by making it Ernie's job to cover for me.  For a health or mental crisis, it's a pretty good practice to let trusted friends know what's going on.  It's part of the adult, responsibile communication skills package, you might say it's "reaching out instead of burning out."

And I think this sort of reaching out could be good for everyday business, too.  I'm watching for ways to build a team, where each person has good lines of communication, connection, and support at their weak points.

So is your main ambition in life to be an "I got mine" giardia cyst, or are you ready to open up and become part of something larger?
... one link in acres of mycelial soil networks..
... a sensitive eye with a whole glowing jellyfish to call upon for response
... a connected link in a larger community of co-creative intelligent life?

I should be clear that I'm using "you" very loosely there. 
Because this is probably not news to YOU, personally.

This feels like an insight that I'm finally articulating after experiencing it most of my life.  I have the good fortunate to have a LOT of inspiring collaborators - family, friends, and on-the-same-wavelength "strangers".

We have always been part of this larger collaboration. 
We just forget sometimes.

Hope your week brings you plenty of wonderful reminders!


Monday, May 22, 2017

Getting our wild geese in a row

Ready... set... LAUNCH! 
(the lead gosling is already in over its head)
We are getting ready to head to Montana for most of a month.

Arranging for things to thrive during our trip - Ernie, me, Radar, and whatever else fits in the car; and the plants and homestead while we're away.

Taking a few more pictures of goslings before they outgrow the adorable fuzzball stage.

All lined up and taking care of business...

Flotilla in excellent formation

(Ernie is getting pretty good with that new-to-us camera, these are all his photos.)


Paul's Kickstarter for our Permaculture Design and Appropriate Tech courses has less than 48 hours to go.  They are installing a dedicated, separate internet link for streaming live video and chat from these courses to online supporters.

We have been warned that with over 40 people on site for these courses, the regular internet for other business may be slow.  So I likely won't be able to post in-person updates from Montana.  I've pre-loaded a couple of things for you while I'm gone.

If you'd like to follow along, now's the time to sign up for that Kickstarter before it closes.

Here's the link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/paulwheaton/live-stream-permaculture-design-course-and-app-tec?ref=ap8ze3

"Please form two lines as you exit the flotilla..."
Ernie's dad paddled the canoe out today, and measured the deeper part of the pond.  7'6" of water.
It's within a couple of feet of the highest he's ever seen it... and probably twice as deep as I've ever seen it, as it's been during the past 6 to 10 dry years.

Which means the gees actually have TWO islands, although the moat for the new one is a lot shallower than the old one. 

Water in abundance, and a good place to put it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

One Week Left + More Friendly Rocketeers

Worth mentioning again, with one week to go:
Only seven days left on this Kickstarter for virtual access to the Permaculture Design and Appropriate Tech courses. This is a pretty amazing team coming together in one place for several glorious weeks, it will be a LOT to take in, so I'm glad it will be recorded!

If you want a taste of all this, from the comfort of your own Internet connection, please click on the link above or below. (Full disclosure: We do get a small kickback if you use our link to pledge, so please do!)



Speaking of documentation:
More evidence that our book is working!
Fouch-O-Matic gave us a lovely plug in their Rocket Mass Heater Building episode (this link should take you to about where our book comes in):
Later episodes document how their project worked out.  Nice to see!

And this week also brought a friendly note from Jami Gaither, who also supported our 2016 Kickstarter (early and often, as I recall): 

"Here's a link to a radio show we were featured on last week.  Thought you'd like getting a shout out.  https://beta.prx.org/stories/203798  Milt was fascinated and entranced by our RMH."


We are excited to see Jami and Dan in Montana, not this trip but in early October, for the Rocket Jamboree. 
There is a super-early-bird deal going on for folks who register before they finish the official website for the event:

Hope your year offers as many fun people and projects as ours is doing!


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mothers' Day 2017

My mom will be giving some reflections on motherhood at church today.

A few weeks ago, she asked me about whether I had any particular thoughts on the topic.  After posting about this all last May, I didn't have a lot new to add... until I got back indoors.

Then I went on a sort of treasure hunt, finding the places in my life that a 'mother's touch' makes things so much nicer, cosier, or more functional.

Here are some images.  See if you can find the little sticky hearts on particular items from my Mom, grandmas, stepmom, great-grandmother, mother-in-laws, etc. 

(I ran out of sticky notes before I ran out of "motherly touches," so there are some 'secret', unlabelled elements my family may recognize.)

If you were looking

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Rocketing into Spring: Frog Ponds, Stoves, Garden Goodies

Heading outdoors for summer?
Consider these fun projects for outdoor kitchens, camping, and greenhouses.

Rocket into Spring Combo Pack:


People are not just reading our book, they are building cool things with it!
("My Creation... It's ALIIIIVE!!! Mwa-ha-haha....")

Check out this cute little mini-bench project:

RMH Builder's Guide

(To buy The Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide,
click HERE

We are going to be video stars again in Montana next month!
This year's Permaculture and Appropriate Tech courses are sold out, so jump on Kickstarter quick if you want a taste.  Any pledge will get you great project resources from many different instructors.  The full-price video access options will include something over 200 hours of instruction (likely to be streaming or thumb drive, not DVDs, because the full two weeks of each course would take too many discs).

The pond is filling - most water we've had in 15+ years!
The island, dock, and grazing horse...

While I was attending Flood meeting led by the county's Emergency Management Director, Ernie and Ron spent about an hour and a half sitting on the dock, letting their feet dabble in the water.

They reported seeing a LOT of ecology in this pond.  Even though it has been shallow for so long, the culvert allows little fish and other critters through from the lake.  Ernie reported some little fish, maybe sticklebacks, as well frogs, newts, water-striders, boatmen (beetles that swim with legs like oars), two or three kinds of ducks, and our resident Mr. and Mrs. Goose Goose.

(Ron has been visiting the pond regularly each morning and evening, training the dogs not to bother the Canada geese.  As a result the geese are also now getting less panicked around us, when we mind our manners.  And they have what passes for names, in dog-training language.)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Spring Woodshed Challenge: 2017 Part I

How early is your wood stored and ready for winter?  Most experts recommend a full year in advance.

I've set myself a challenge to post pictures in spring as I improve and fill my woodshed.  (Think of these as the "before" pictures if you like... we can go back and look at the improvements over time.)
Year 1

Year 2 (tarpaper roof)

Year 3-4: shingled

Year 4 (experimental stack)

Year 5

This year's project: a DIVIDER. 

To stay a full year ahead (or more) on drying time, I need to be able to separate the cured wood from the drying wood.  And I need to start stacking wet wood somewhere to dry, in fall or mid-winter, while still having full access to my cured, dry stash. 

I do NOT want to re-stack wood back to front every time I start processing a downed tree.
The tool for this job is simple: a divider, like stalls in a barn. 

Now I can start the winter with two sides full.  I use the older, drier side first.  Whenever one side is empty, I can clean out and re-fill it. 

We seem to use a little over a cord per winter, and this shed is 8' by 12' inside.  So I've made the divider a little taller than 4 feet.  That gives us a cord+ on each side, plus 4 feet of semi-dry space for the chopping block and junk ... *ahem* ... "useful barbecue stuff".  
Maybe I will build a "stuff shed" onto the side of the wood shed, so we have a shaded place to store gasoline and other goodies without losing wood space.  But I suspect that no matter how many sheds you have, there will always be more stuff that drifts in there... it's like a junk magnet.

The divider is ... "ghetto chic."
A recycled pallet would have worked, but I am "saving" my palettes for a bigger project.
So this divider is made almost entirely of wood scraps that are crappier than pallet wood.  Stuff I prefer not to burn - pressure treated, OSB, painted boards.  It is gappy to allow air flow. 

It is REALLY messy looking because I got fed up with trying to find where I'd squirrelled away all my outdoor tools last winter.  (I am already a couple months behind the time I started stacking wood last year.) 
I ended up taking the scrap to a borrowed saw, cutting a few useful-ish gussets (little angled chunks of OSB), and just gobbing it together. 
I finally found my saw, safely tucked away in our new carport, about 20 minutes after I screwed the last board onto this mess.

But it works!

As of May 2:
about 1/3 cord
(1 face cord).
It makes it MUCH easier to quickly stack a pile of wood. And it gives me a thrill of hope to see the disappointed look on the faces of our two dogs. 

These two eager squeak-hunters have been tumbling the wood rows into piles, and eating chunks out of the woodshed itself, following the scent of long-gone squirrels and the sound of each others' scrabbling around.

Maybe with this divider in place, they won't be able to mix the wet wood quite so thoroughly into the last precious stacks of dry wood.

Maybe I'm being optimistic.  Two 60-pound dogs, one full-blooded terrier and one mutt, can rearrange a lot of wood when they are in the throes of "squeak-hunting."

So if I can't stop them eating my wood shed, at least I can look forward to the chewed-up corners giving a little bit of improved ventilation. 

As long as they don't chew through the support posts, we're good.  ;-)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

April 29 - Rocket Mass Heater Intro Day (annual event, Okanogan Highlands)

Our sixth annual Rocket Mass Heater Intro Day is coming up fast.

When: Saturday April 29th, 10:00 am- 3:00pm

Where: Okanogan Highlands, 35 minutes from Tonasket WA.
(Please register for driving directions.)

What:  Play with fire, mud, and bricks. 

Registration Contact:
Erica Wisner, 509-556-2054, questions@ErnieAndErica.info


-$25 per adult, $12.50 for youth*,
FREE to emergency responders**
(*Youth: age 15 and under; those under 12 please bring a participating adult)
(**Any emergency responders (fire fighters, EMS, etc) whether volunteer or professional may register and attend at no charge.)

The Details:

What is a Rocket Mass Heater?
Rocket mass heaters are a clean-burning, super-efficient, affordable way to heat with wood.  They are also a fascinating real-life example of some very weird fire science.

Make flames burn upside-down and sideways.  Learn clean burn methods, so you can safely use ladder fuels as free firewood.  Peek inside the smoke-eating dragon that lets us heat on 1 to 2 cords of wood per winter at 3200 feet.
Non-Suicidal Wood Heat:
At least one fire marshall has called rocket mass heaters "the first non-suicidal wood stove I've seen."  Burning all the smoke not only gives much higher efficiency, it helps prevent chimney fires.  Storing heat in a masonry bench creates overnight comfort without the risks and hassles of overnight fire.  While they are not yet legal everywhere, they're increasingly popular as a common-sense alternative, and many jurisdictions will permit them under masonry heater codes or local rules.

Fire Science, Survival Skills, and "Magic" Tricks:
Even if you don't care about safety or efficiency... there's something awfully fun about upside-down fire siphons, flame vortexes, and the ability to throw together a sneaky stove that is virtually undetectable.

What Would We Actually DO on Saturday?
This is our local 'taster' to share our work with friends and neighbors.  You will not see everything we offer in a full 3-day weekend builders' workshop (nor pay the $350-500 sticker price).  Instead,
- inspect and run an already-working rocket mass heater
- choose from a selection of live, hands-on practice projects.

The specific hands-on activities are chosen by the group on that specific day.  We have materials, tools, and fire-safe space on site for a wide range of practice activities and small projects.
Past groups have built modified full-scale rocket fireboxes, split up into teams for survival fire-making or primitive stove cooking contests, learned Erica's favorite green-fire magic trick, and built practice projects with non-toxic fire clay mortars and fire brick.  This year, we could do any of the above, or something else.

You will always get a chance to see fire burn upside-down and sideways, and you will have the option to make it do tricks yourself.

What to Bring/Prepare:
All necessary tools and materials will be provided. 
- Personal Gear: Wear your grubbies.  You may wish to bring rain gear, work gloves, and/or boots for muddy and sooty conditions.
- Food and Drink:  Bring pot-luck lunch/snacks. We'll provide at least one main dish, and coffee/hot water will be on from 9:30 am before class starts.
- Road Conditions: Consider 4WD, AWD, and printing the directions.  When you register with a valid email address, we'll send you driving directions following the local school bus route.  These are gravel roads, generally well graded (by Highlands standards, anyway). Your GPS may mislead you onto ill-maintained back roads at your peril.  Cell phones have poor reception up here.  Please let us know if you'd prefer to carpool or have someone shuttle you up from Tonasket or Ellisford. 
- Emergency Responders: to attend free, please wear your colors (hat, shirt, etc) or bring a badge to show at check-in.
- Pocket Money: We will have books and videos available for sale, if you're looking for training or self-study resources.

About the Hosts:

This private event is hosted by Ernie and Erica Wisner of Wisner Resources, and not sponsored by any agency or fire district.  Fire demonstrations will be small scale, suitable for family and public participation as entertainment/cooking/campfire activities.

 For questions, larger groups, or for wait list registration after the event is sold out, please email us at questions@ErnieAndErica.info, or call 509-556-2054. 


To look for a full-length workshop this year, please visit http://www.ErnieAndErica.info/upcoming_workshops.