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:

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."

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, 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.
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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