Thursday, April 21, 2016

Spring and Tides

We're pointed toward the ocean this month.  Seeing the waves and abundant shore life is some compensation for missing part of garden season back home.

We are musing on a couple different science topics.
Animated real-time global conditions at
One is coastal changes.  Ernie is still passionate about the massive changes that are happening, and likely to increase, along our beautiful coastlines.  It's not just a question of who gets beachfront property; the coast is always eroding, but even a small change in sea levels could massively change the current coastlines, affecting agriculture, fisheries, harbors, tides and currents, and the weather.

While the weatherman may not be able to tell you months in advance which particular spring day will be fair for your wedding, you used to have pretty good confidence in which month to plant peas vs. beans, or use a tide chart to time your way through a tight spot, and know when and where to expect tuna, salmon, or crab season.  Changing ocean currents sometimes move fish runs hundreds or thousands of miles off course (if the fish are surviving at all, which we devoutly hope they are).

In the face of all this change, reclaiming predictability is pretty attractive.  I think that's part of what drove our ancestors to make a religion out of calendars in the first place - Stonehenge, the Celtic sun-mazes, Mayan temples, the Egyptian pyramids, built on carefully-surveyed celestial axes and bearing enduring witness to the passage of the seasons as well as the ambitions of mortal man.

This is not the first time change has confronted us.  Our ancestors lived through ice ages, droughts, floods, fire, and plague; what's a few breadbaskets turning into fjords compared to historic miseries?  But you can see where there is a very strong human resistance to change, and a craving for predictability and reliable rules for dealing with complex things like weather, growing conditions, and morality.

One of the most popular, and misunderstood, elements in nature are the effects of the moon and tides on the living, breathing Earth.  (By which I mean the biosphere: the plants, animals, soils, swamps, reefs, and skintillions of tiny unseen beings who make up the growing, living, dying, feeling skin of this blue planet.)

Many people understand the tides as caused by the moon pulling on the earth.  That's somewhat true (both moon and sun affect tides).  But I think we assume the timing is simpler than it actually is, because we are used to relying on the moon and sun as the main cog-wheels of our calendar.

The waxing and waning of the moon is a great way to set rendezvous and festival dates in low-tech societies, because everyone can synchronize their schedule without a watch alarm.  Rendezvous are not just for wild parties or philosophical societies: the longer "day" can be used for coordinated work like plowing, haying, and harvest home.  Some almanacs or systems such as biodynamics give ever-more-complex ways to organize the growing calendar, defining certain days and even hours as "seed days," "root times," and fallow times. 

Having a schedule that reminds you what kinds of activities you might need to do this week, and helps you pick a time to do them, is very useful, especially in a situation where your normal instincts about weather can lead to undue optimism and early planting. 

However, I get a little twitchy when people justify these schedules because of the "tides" or the "pull of the moon." The majority of calendars reflect the waning and waxing light, and basically ignore the tidal forces.  (The full moon and new moon are both aligned with the sun to produce higher and lower tides, compared with the out-of-alignment quarter moons). 
It's conceivable that the moonlight may affect some types of plants.

But what really prickles me is that this simplified "explanation" for lunar influence, "just like it pulls the tides," ignores how complex and rich a pattern the tides actually are.  The tides are different from one place to another, even from one side of an island to another.

If you don't have any idea of the full complexity of the tides, which after all are basically just sloshing water, how much more are you likely to mis-understand the intricate forces that coax many different kinds of plants to their best growth?

People with woo-woo garden theories nevertheless often have spectactular gardens, possibly due to caring enough to pay close attention to their plants.  "Listening" and "talking" to plants, whether there is any scientific basis for it or not, seems to open the mind up to notice what's needed and support the plants in a timely way.  Sceptics who don't garden are not well-positioned to offer advice.  But it's still annoying to be quoted pseudo-scientific justifications for folk practices, whether they work or not.  There's been a lot of bad science done around biodynamics, in particular: biased studies or compilations that only list favorable outcomes; claiming statistical significance by growing large numbers of seedlings at the same time, but without controlling for other variables like weather or temperature, or by comparison to any other years.  Bad science doesn't disprove a pet theory, but it doesn't prove it either, and it often grates on science-minded ears as an annoying waste of time.

I am not a biology buff, and my garden is far from exemplary. 
But I have been learning about the tides, and it's fascinating.

If you look at tide tables, the most extreme tides are generally at the new moon, when moon and sun's pull line up.  These will be the "spring" tides, both highest and lowest tides.  The full moon has relatively regular tides. During the quarters in between you can get uneven tides where one low or high will be different than the other for that day. 

You can look up tides for different coastal areas here:  (they can be off by several hours for places under the same moon phase, due to differences in the shape of the bays and basins and coastline.)

The tides don't actually race around the world keeping up with the moon - water waves simply can't move that fast, they would have to go over a thousand miles an hour.  Instead, it's more like a dancer spinning plates, where repeated motions create a sloshing effect.  If you want to play around with this, the easiest (and most fun) way is to sit or lie in the bathtub, then rhythmically flap one hand back and forth in place.  Sometimes nothing much happens.  Sometimes if you hit the right rhythm, the whole tub starts sloshing water out both ends.  If you shift position (sit up, or lie down), the rhythms change.  Your body is like the coastline and undersea shapes that define the basins, or "bathyscape."  Your flapping hand is like the regular pull of sun and moon, working the waters into a sloshing rhythm.

The ocean tides get nudged into circular currents, or sloshing extremes, or pivot points of near-perfect stillness, based on the shapes of the continents and ocean basins.  Some areas, like Alaska or New Zealand, have extreme tides.  Some, like the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, have almost none (that's part of why hurricane storm surges are so devastating in the Gulf, their coast is not adapted to sloshing water). 

The tides have patterns, and the patterns tend to mostly repeat with the lunar cycles, but they are a complex dance.  The tides don't simply 'wax and wane' like the Moon's light.  The ocean does get pulled by the moon, but it doesn't bulge at full moon and shrink during the new moon.  There's always the same amount of water, and it returns roughly to its own level one way or another. 
You can have big influences due to current weather (storm tides), undersea earthquakes, or big ice-sheet or land slides even.  "Tidal waves" are more often called "tsunami" now by scientists: these are seismic-driven waves due to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or big land-slides, with no tidal influence involved.  However, tsunami are big and broad, and they drop and flood into harbors like a very fast and extreme tide, rather than being a surface-level curling wave like wind-driven fetch.  Storm waves batter and froth; "tidal waves" can funnel into certain harbors like a tidal bore, as if the ocean had changed its mind about where to allow a shoreline.

The tides are wild and mysterious, and hard to predict without a chart.  Those charts are based on years and years of experience, records going back centuries for many ports.  But once you are tuned into your local tides, you may be able to use your own observations to take a guess at the current tide based on the time of day and phase of the moon.   I feel pretty good if I can get within an hour or two this way - that's close enough to schedule a harvesting trip or keep me out of trouble on a coastal hike.  The tide charts are way more reliable, but it's worth trying to learn the local patterns if you're interested, in case you are ever caught without a current chart.

If the tides don't line up from one coast to another, I don't imagine that all plants will respond the same way to the "lunar pull" across continents and climate zones.  Or for that matter, that they would respond more strongly to "lunar pull" than to the sun's stronger pull, or the Earth's even stronger gravitational pull.  If I had to guess, I would imagine that the plant feels a very slight fluctuation in the earth's effective gravity.
 If you're just talking about upward 'pull,' the sun has 175 times more pull than the moon.  And they are both pulling on us at all times, sometimes up and sometimes down.  It's just relatively the same across all the earth.  The daily small difference in pull, as our side of the Earth turns toward or away from the sun, is about 44% as much as the moon's difference in pull.

The strongest pull would be when the moon is closest, and when it's lined up near or exactly opposite the sun, at the same time: 'supermoons'.

Factors like temperature have a much more measurable effect on plant growth (and insect and fish maturation - to the point where hatcheries and stream volunteers talk about "degree-days" to maturity).  Weather affects temperature.  Some animals definitely can feel and respond to barometric pressure, as do some types of plants (Ernie has a "weather leg" that pains him with pressure changes, and he recalls some type of orchid that opens and closes with changes in the barometric pressure).

Some flowers called "moonflowers" are just round and white; a few of these (and others) bloom mainly at night.  A very few are said to bloom mainly during the full moon.  However, there's a good argument to be made that this behavior could evolve to attract specialized night-flying pollinators, like the more common night-blooming behavior.  Some pollinators may be particularly active or accurate in finding the flowers with more moonlight.  The idea that it's moonlight, rather than some kind of gravitational pull, that sets the cues for this dance would be reinforced if the plants could be mis-cued by artificial light, or by variations in day length.  There are a handful of such species I found mentioned online (on a less-than-impressive eHow post , or the more ordinary evening- and night-blooming flowers listed here on Ava's Flowers  All three of those said to bloom best in the full moon (datura inoxia, one of several plants commonly called "moonflower;" night-blooming jasmine or cestrum nocturnum, and night scented stock (Matthiola longipetala) are tropical or subtropical plants, which prefer roughly 6- to-12-hour days with warm or hot temperatures.  The last one is a desert plant blooming mainly in spring and fall (12-hour days).

I'm impressed by serious gardeners in any case - and these plants appear to have a lot of strict requirements besides the lavishly regular lunar cycle. 

However, one thing that excellent gardeners often share, and I fall short, is a reliable sense of time and time management.  If gardeners sometimes build mystical stories around their all-important calendar or almanac, a little poetry to get the juices flowing and help you stick to your plan, there's nothing wrong with that (unless it makes you less open to reliable, proven methods that might be of more help).  So if a lunar planting, weeding, sprouting, and rooting cycle is working for you, keep doing it. 

 Lunar cycles are a good predictor of changes in animal activity levels (including humans), possibly due to availability of nocturnal light and enhanced twilight.  This light/activity connection, which also affects a LOT of nocturnal pollinators, could be one reason why some very successful gardening methods and guides have used the moon.  Full moons have been used historically for extended work hours during harvest, and for festivals where participants might travel and celebrate longer together without fear of being caught in the dark o the way home.

Many gardeners are women, or live with women; our menstrual cycles famously synchronize with the moon.  It is worth tracking our own cycles. Any given woman may feel more productive in certain lunar phases than others - though I would expect this to vary person to person.
I have had some difficult years when somehow EVERY heavy-lifting workshop and over half our air-travel dates managed to line up with the wrong "time of the month."
While some ancient cultures put taboos on menstruating women participating in certain activities (cooking, handling sacred items, etc), these may be related to harmonious concentration, intense arguments, or the possibility of blood stains attracting scavengers.  In the modern context, menstruation cycles can usually be managed, they're just an extra burden to bear while working on a time-sensitive project.

However, there's one more reason why lunar cycles might be a popular element in garden planning guides and almanacs.
The moon has strong mythological connotations, and has been part of both calendars and legends for longer than we can remember.  It's attractive; it's sexy; it's mysterious; it's a little risque.  And in the world of marketing, sex sells.  A calendar that marks out the full moon, or gives poetic lunar instructions for getting through the tasks of the week, might simply be more interesting.

I'd rather take my poetry at full throttle, with moon and flowers fleshed out in beauty, scents, strong feelings, and layered symbolism reflecting my human needs and longings.  And I'd rather let my science explanations stand or fall on their own merits, humble as science should be, proven or disproven by results over time.

If the moonflower likes moonlight best, so be it.  If it's happy with a 12-hour daylight cycle, a little evening coolth, and maybe a grow-light boost when I want to party out of season, then we can have fun together that way too.

And if planting your seeds on Monday and Tuesday this week, but not until Thursday or Friday of next week, works for you, then do it.

I find that my seeds get planted "now" or not at all.  There are enough challenges in semi-arid gardening while working out-of-town gigs; I don't need a mystical schedule to tell me I'm doing it wrong.
From what I've seen, plants grow very well for people who pay attention to their individual needs and their common routines (like water, temperature, sun and shade).  They can also grow well for people who believe in all kinds of moons and fairies, as long as they also get out in the garden regularly and give the plans good physical care.

But for those who, like me, are juggling too many interests and obligations to regularize our garden time, there's a risk that a demanding garden schedule could become an excuse not to plant anything at all.

If you don't have any of those challenges, and you see some difference between Tuesday's and Thursday's plants despite perfect control of water and temperature, then you have the luxury of refining your methods on your own terms.  I have had a few personal experiences with "talking to plants," or more specifically asking permission and listening for an answer, that take the edge off my skepticism about this whole sort of thing.  But I'm still 

I'm a sailor in training, and an incurable science geek.  Being 'in tune with nature' feels good in any case, but it matters even more if you're surfing the tides in and out of harbors, and trying to keep track of wind and current effects on your course.  Sailors can get pretty picky about the accuracy of their nature-based information.

I've been learning boatloads of this stuff lately.  It's amazing.

Erica W

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Final 24 hours on Kickstarter.

All the Goodies!

It is hard to keep straight all these Kickstarter reward packages.
What is everyone else doing?

The most popular reward level is $35.  At that level, you get:

"The Book"

+ the "Fire Starter Rewards"

FireStarter rewards - now with pictures!
In other words, you get:
  • - The Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide, paperback first edition
  • - The Art of Fire ebook
  • - Fire Science DVD, streaming version
  • - Care and Feeding of Rocket Mass Heaters micro-doc
  • - Builder's Guide to Mud ebook
  • - 3 mini-stoves under $3 ebook
  • - 3 mini-stoves under $10 ebook
  • - Simple Shelter ebook
  • - Teeny Tiny Mass Heater Plans
  • - A new DIY project each month for 2016 (8 projects from May to December)
  • - Recipes for Ernie's fabulous chocolate truffles

More than double the value of the book.

A lot of folks are upgrading to the $50+ levels, to get the stretch goal bonus items for serious builders (Bitter Lessons eBook and Innovators' Cookbook).  Or maybe they are just stretching toward Shrimp, Fish, a Fat Rabbit, Mysterious Manifolds, Rocket Wood Cook Stoves, and

Rocket Wood Cook Stoves and Heaters: The Cleanest, Greenest, Most Elegant Wood Burning Stoves in the World

Delivering all these new goodies is going to keep us busy from now til Christmas.

Don't wait.
 Click here for the Kickstarter:

You should read Update #12.

Modular (!) Rocket Mass Heater
by Abrahamsson

Thanks for reading,
Erica W

Seeking builder or owner information for the double-rocket Plancha Kitchen
P.S: If you know the owners or builder of this beautiful rocket kitchen island, please help us find them.  Rumor says it's in Brazil.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

48 Hours, Pie in the Sky and Nudes on Earth

48 Hours on the Kickstarter: Click Here!

This is a tiny graphic of the Fire Starter rewards, for visual people.  Every backer at $10 or higher gets all these things, plus the specific stuff it mentions in the reward level, plus stretch goal bonuses.

There are going to be a LOT of stretch goal bonus eBooks, because we have hit a LOT of stretch goals.

Shrimp: Compact cooking rocket
The outside looks almost normal.
Inside, there is a 4" batchbox,
which gives a 6"w/12"d/9"h oven;
a curled-up heat riser (!) and insulation.
Thick steel tray holds oven heat.
Optional range cover traps some heat
(like a Dutch oven).
For tight clearances (insulated)
the outside dimens. may be about
15" wide by 24" tall, and 24" deep.
With a rear chimney port it could
possibly be coupled to a bell for
a mass-heater extension - first,
we must see how it burns.
Teeny Tiny Mass Heater Plans.
Bitter Rocket Mass Heaters: Lessons from the Dark Side (or something like that)
The Heat Riser Cookbook, and Innovator's Cookbook, and if we hit our next goal we also release Mysterious Manifolds.
I spent Hour 52 to Hour 50 doing a concept drawing for the Shrimp on a brown paper bag this morning.

I'm adding the Shrimp as an unofficial stretch goal at $40,000.
(I'm planning to finish prototyping it during the Alternative Tech course in June, so you can always come and see it then. 
If we cross $40,000, I will make sure all backers get the plans and progress notes, as well as two other plan sets to fulfill the Teeny Tiny Mass Heaters goal from before.)

Also, we have some beautiful rocket kitchens from recent years, with a quick online search.  I'd like to do an investigative tour of those, and get the inside scoop from from their builders, as our pie-in-the-sky $50,000 stretch goal.
Batch-box cooking rocket in soapstone (by Hendrik)

Brazilian kitchen with two Plancha-style rockets

I love the creative inspiration, and this is a new milestone for me as a small business proprietor.  The potential budget for this year's projects is heartening.

Ernie was disappointed to realize we don't get to keep ALL the money - a lot of it goes to pay for books, shipping, content delivery, payment processing fees, and other costs.  Yet this is still a HUGE step forward in our goals for this year.

As we sell more books at once, we also get a better per-book rate from the publisher, which adds up to thousands of extra dollars (beyond the margins we calculated to conservatively cover all the costs).

Satamax's rocket retrofit project from France
Thank you to everyone who has supported and endorsed and edited and encouraged this project.

We have been trying for years to convey how warm and decadent it really feels to enjoy one of these heated benches, plus the radiant warmth from that blackened-steel barrel.

It rarely comes across in pictures.

It becomes more obvious when you hear about Mongolian women sitting on the bench and giggling together as their undersides warm up.

Or our friends from a nature education center report, "you should warn people these things are an aphrodisiac." They had 3 new pregnancies the winter after installing their first rocket mass heater. (Apparently, the ladies on staff had been tolerating a chilly office and cold feet for a LONG time.)

A few years later, the same conversation led to a creative photography session between two talented ladies, and the raw image here, showing a lovely mama enjoying warm cob in Montana in October, without a stitch on but her hair.
If you prefer imaginary nudes,
you might enjoy imagining them
in this rocket sauna.

Nude on a Rocket Mass Heater (NSFW)

Not Safe For Work. You been warned.
Some call it Art, others may find it objectionable.

She looks pretty comfy, doesn't she?

The lovely and talented Katelin, besides being a figure model, is raising a wonderful son, and can cook Paleo meals for 50 in an ordinary home kitchen with a rocket spare-burner out back.
She had the courage to put up with some flack about this already, and confirmed she was comfortable with releasing the pictures.  If you choose to look, please be mature about it.

Katelin and photographer Priscilla Smith ( created this photo to convey the earthy sensuality of the warm bench.  I suspect Priscilla will work this photo over at some point, and turn it into grainy, painterly art - check out her other pieces if you want a lovely visual break, mostly SFW and sometimes surreal.

Ernie also used to model, incidentally, for art classes.
Maybe I should get Priscilla to take Ernie nude pics on the same rocket, for equal rights.

OK, Mom, I have officially sold out.  Not sure how much farther we can go to demonstrate the luxurious comfort and clean-living benefits of these heaters.

Luckily for you, in 48 hours we go back to our "normal" lives.  We'll stop saying "Kickstarter" and post more pics of me in gumboots stocking the woodshed, baking duck-shaped cream puffs, practicing tadelakt on rocket hammam (sauna) benches in a Moroccan village.

You know.




Less Than 48 Hours on the Kickstarter!
Click Here:

Friday, April 1, 2016

Appropriate Tech: Branching Out

Well, now that we've got the Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide off to a decent start,
(Kickstarter! Click Pledge Share!)

what shall we do next?

The obvious answer is to double down and teach a lot of rockety stuff, maybe cash in on the book promotions by starting some online courses or something.

But we're your crazy R&D people.  We like developing new things more than we like marketing proven stuff.

One thing I'm excited about this year is learning more tech tricks.

Ryan Chivers polishing a tadelakt bowl (Denver Post)
I got to take my first tadelakt course this winter.  Ironically, I may get to use it for the first time on a return trip to Morocco.  (Yeah, they could get the expensive guy in from Marrakech... or they could see if the American novice can pull it off, third-hand from Canada and Colorado back to its ancient origins.)

One of the project ideas is a rocket hammam (like a Turkish bath, a heated steam-bathing room).

I am so excited by the idea of a soapy-smooth sauna-like bench, which if it all goes well would be waterproof enough for anyone.   I am eager to try, despite my very beginner experience with the tadelakt process.

I would also like to stop waiting around with my hands in my pockets when I need help welding or pipe-fitting on the stove prototypes.

If I had realized earlier that I would want this skill, I could have learned from my late grandmother Enid, who was a top-grade welder in Portland's Swan Island shipyards during the war effort.  (She claims she only made the top-six list for her yard because "they didn't know if Enid was a man's name or not.")

Or I could have asked my father-in-law before his eye problem which left him, as he puts it, "blind in one eye and can't see out the other."  He is a bit embarrassed by the rough quality of his work nowadays, and I guess that makes me embarrassed to ask him (he puts in a ton of help on our projects anyway, whether we ask or not).

I bet it was Priscilla Smith
who made him look all dreamy like this...
big vision, black fingerprints,
that's Tim all the way.
One of the handiest welders I know is Tim Barker, who is normally in New Zealand.  But he is potentially coming back for a PDC and Appropriate Technology course in Montana this June.

Between Morocco and our book events, the PDC is a conflict for me.  But if I squeeze, I can get in there for almost the entire AT course.  Get that Shrimp heater prototype of mine up and running, and maybe we could even plumb and seal the darned hot tub.  Or build a new darned hot tub (if you have never tried to 'rescue' someone else's abused redwood, it's a real tragedy).  Maybe I can tadelakt the hot tub!  But wrestling with a hot tub all week could be a waste of time, when there's so much else to explore.

Others will be presenting solar, power generation, pumps, all kinds of DIY tech.  I can earn my keep with some rockety demos, and maybe show off my softer side with some fiber-based structural tech like wattle work, pole lashings, sewing.  (I did learn that from Gran'ma Enid, at least!)
Or bring the physics side with passive solar, heat transfer, simple machines. We haven't hit the details real hard yet, just excited to get the team together!

So jump on that early bird registration, and convince these Australians we want them out here already.  They've got a superb forest gardener, and Howard Story of Permaculture Asia, also lined up for the courses.


Back to the Kickstarter:  To keep knocking down those stretch goals, please keep sharing.  We have 10 days left, and while the initial popularity has been amazing, it does take creative repetition to keep bringing in the newbies right up to the last bell.

We've just announced our stretch goal for the $25,000 mark: if we reach that level, we'll write up a brand-new e-book on a topic we don't normally share with the public: Bitter Lessons from Rocket Mass Heaters: Hopes, Misconceptions, and Faceplants.  Or something like that.  Basically, all the 20-20 hindsight, terrifying prototype moments, and surprise errors behind the simple-sounding rules in the Builder's Guide.

Serious builders, given a chance to set down together, swap these stories of nightmare jobs and near misses like a private currency.  So we're planning to put that bonus out for backers at $50 and up.  We figure that's the "serious builder," book-plus level, where you appreciate our work that much more because you have seen the dirty-hands workshop videos, or maybe have built a few home-built projects yourself.
And in any case, those backers have gotten themselves a copy of the "how-to book," can't blame us if they build a "bitter" project for their own stubborn reasons.

We have more than enough personal embarrassments to fill the whole book, but I'm considering letting our top boosters and colleagues submit a story or two, just to add to the feel of it being a coffee-klatch.  We certainly won't name anyone else's names without their express permission.

Whaddya think?  Sound more exciting than a teeny tiny mass heater plan?
Kiko's mini-masonry heater
(one possible example of a
Teeny Tiny Mass Heater)

(The good news is, if we hit $25,000, we make both.)

As a sort of bad-planning April fools' joke on myself, the North American book is going to print this weekend, a full week before the Kickstarter closes.  I'd love to be sure we can order 500 to 1000 books, for a much better per-book rate, as soon as possible.

So please send in all that last-minute support you can muster, and consider April 3 as this week's "last minute."

Send us other stretch goal ideas, or creative marketing.

Or just sign up as a booster and do your own creative marketing, and take full credit.

Thanks again for keeping our lives exciting.

Erica W