Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hey! I mentioned Rosanna and the MiniLivestock blog back when I did my series on entomophagy (that's bug-eating for the uninitiated). Seems Rosanna came by to read what I had to say on the subject...                           

Hey! I mentioned Rosanna and the MiniLivestock blog back when I did my series on entomophagy (that's bug-eating for the uninitiated). Seems Rosanna came by to read what I had to say on the subject and wrote up a short piece about my blog. The MiniLivestock site has moved since I mentioned it last, so go check out for info on bugs, eating bugs, and recipes for the bugs you eat. It's a great resource for this interesting subject.


Want to know how to compost indoors? Here's are the details for the composter I made for my kitchen out of a couple of totes. Best of all, it'll only set you back $10.                                                    

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 2 of 2 in a series of posts on indoor composting. Click here for part 1.

I previously posted on the specific challenges of composting indoors, and from that, I decided to make an experiment out of composting indoors.

Well, I've built my composting bin and it's been going for about a week now.

Here's how:

Find a couple of matching plastic totes. These are 18 gallon bins. That is a bit excessive, but they were on sale for $5 each, which made them cheaper than the 10 gallon bins. If you have old bins, or can find used bins, choose those over buying bins... but remember that they need to have lids.

Drill holes in the bottom of both totes. The holes should be a quarter inch to allow the eventual migration of worms from one bin to the other (did I mention there were worms involved?) My dremel only had bits up to 1/8" so I improvise and used a grinding stone to widen out the holes.

The next step was to repeat the process, adding 1/16" holes around the top of the bins and in one of the lids.

It's probably hard to see since 1/16" holes aren't that big, but there are two rows of holes, about an inch apart, all the way around the bin.

The same with the lid. Only one of the lids though! We'll be using the other one for something else.

Soak enough shredded newspaper and scrap paper to fill the bottom 3-4 inches of the bin. Wring it out so that it's moist but not dripping. Add some vegetable matter to this. Make sure you bury the vegetable matter to keep fruit flies out of it. Let this set for a week or so before you add worms so the food can start breaking down.

Get your worms. If you have red wigglers growing wild in your area, you could just dig some up. I don't, however. Don't use night crawlers. Red wigglers are surface feeding worms that do well in big groups. Night crawlers feed deeper in the soil and are loners. They're not a good choice for a composting bin. 

I ordered my worms from It wasn't the best experience in the world (they sent the wrong shipping confirmation, I had no idea when the worms were supposed to be arriving, worms looked half-dead when I got them). But, this was one of the few places I found where I could place an order for just a 1/4 pound of worms. It only cost $11 plus shipping, and I was looking to start this bin as cheaply as possible. And they all ended up living, so despite the less-than-stellar service, I can't complain.

Add them to the bin! Along with a cupful of dirt, of course. The dirt helps them grind up food, and contains microorganisms to break down food scraps.

Somehow I neglected to take a picture of the completed bin all set up. I'll have to do that at some point. Here's what you do:

Set the lid without the holes on the floor. Rescue four or five paper cups and place them upside down on the lid (I used a glue stick to hold them in place). Set the bin with the bedding material and worms on the cups. Place a piece of cardboard over the bedding. Place the second bin inside the first. And then put the lid with holes on top of the second bin.

When the first bin is full, add moist bedding and food to the second bin and remove the cardboard from the first. This will allow the worms to move into the second bin and start the process all over. Once the worms have all moved into the second bin you can empty out your delicious compost and use it on your plants.

A couple of important things: keep your food scraps covered or you will end up with a fruit fly infestation. Guaranteed. Also, don't feed your worms more than they can eat or it will start to smell. Red wigglers can eat half their weight in a day. That means my small 1/4 pound of worms can eat about a pound a week.

As things start to break down, I'll be watching for odors. If things get out of hand, I'll test the carbon filter theory.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 2 of 2 in a series of posts on indoor composting. Click here for part 1.


Friday, March 26, 2010

A continuing discussion with a fellow blogger on the pros and cons of going nude for Mother Nature. What are some of the challenges? What are some of the benefits?                                                                         

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 2 of 2 in a series of posts on sustainability through nudism. Click here for part 1.

Photo by SantaRosa OLD SKOOL

I was glad to see someone taking me up on the topic of going naked to save conserve energy and resources. It was Michelle, of course, whom I mentioned in my previous post on illegal yards. I already responded to Michelle's post over at The Clueless Gardeners blog, but I thought I'd recap and elaborate here for my readers. This discussion actually has a lot of parallels to the illegal yard discussion.

Michelle says:
I can't get on board with going entirely without. Partially, this is because I get cold easily, and I sunburn easily. There is only a narrow window of conditions in which I personally would be physically comfortable going naked.
I agree with this sentiment whole-heartedly. I definitely stay bundled up in the winter. It would be impractical, and sometimes dangerous, to not wear clothes. If you're in Alaska, please wear clothes to stay warm. If you're in the Sahara, please wear clothes to protect you from the sun.

Those are extremes, and it could certainly be considerably warmer or cooler and still be uncomfortable. But what about those places or those days when the weather is agreeable? Not too hot, not too cold. Certainly then we could go naked.

And what about all of the time we're spending indoors? Now, I'm not suggesting that we turn the heat up just so we can go around naked. That's counter-productive. The point, after all, was to go nude to conserve energy. But, that said, it is pretty easy to regulate temperature indoors without using any electricity. Just use passive heating and cooling techniques, such as passive solar. There are lots of green building techniques designed to keep air temperatures comfortable without expending energy by utilizing shade, thermal mass, insulation, air circulation, and more.

So, with thoughtfully designed buildings, we should be able to go nude indoors nearly 100% of the time.

Michelle's other big objection is...
sanitation. We females have moist nether regions. Sitting naked on a chair that has been sat on by another naked woman is like wearing another woman's underwear. Eww eww eww eww eww. Not hygienic!
Simple solution: put down a towel. This is actually a requirement at every nudist resort I've read about, precisely because they're hygiene-minded. Really, this is a side-effect of an industrial society that we can't avoid. In nature, the things we would have sat on wouldn't have been so permanent. They would have been bombarded by sun and rain and animals, and sitting in the same place more than once would have been highly unlikely. But, our chairs are made of wood and plastic and other materials that will often outlive us. Not only do they last a long time, but they're also porous and hold bacteria and other nasties. (If you've ever looked into having wooden earrings, as I have, then you know that it's recommended that you wear stainless steel until your ear is completely healed up, as wood is porous and can hold bacteria that will cause your ears to get infected). Living communally is a recipe for spreading disease, so putting down a towel where you're sitting would be a necessary step. (This is also related to my disgust with bathrooms--in our pre-civilized state, there's not way you would have found so many humans going to the bathroom in the exact same spot. When you think about it, it's gross and a breeding ground for disease. So much for being civilized...)

Michelle's other objections are mainly about physical comfort of the non-temperature-based variety.
Having a toddler, I find that going shirtless is dangerous, because the curious little monkey likes to grab things - such as my nipples. Ow. I don't know how I would be able to wean him without shirt, either. 
Speaking of nipples, I am not large-breasted, but even still, I need support. Bouncing flesh hurts.
 All of these are very real concerns. I definitely don't go out into a patch of blackberry briers without a pair of jeans to protect my legs. It would ultimately be more costly to get my legs all cut up, and could very well lead to infection. If we're in pain, we're less likely to be productive. And it's just plain not fun. There's no reason we should submit to that thing when we could have it otherwise (unless we really like that kind of thing).

But hey, even if a person wore a bra for support and protection, that would be one piece of clothing versus six or more. Reduce is the first and most important part of the ol' "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle" bit, and there's a reduction already.

I am male, so I can't fully relate, though I do understand pain and discomfort. The only thing I can do is point to African tribes where women don't wear any kind of covering or support, and then point to the history of the human race pre-clothing. Those people don't seem to be too inconvenienced... so maybe we're missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. Maybe they've figured out how to get by without the support that "civilized" people take for granted. Who knows? I'm just speculating.

Like I said though, a reduction from fully covered to only wearing a bra would make a huge difference in terms for how much clothing is being manufacture, for one, and also how much clothing is being washed.

Which segues nicely to Michelle's point about reducing our wardrobes and buying secondhand clothes.
I propose, instead, going with minimal clothes in the closet, minimal clothes on the body, minimal washing, and maximum clothes use. Most of my son's clothes, for example, come from yard sales. My own pants are worn between washings until they are stained or smelly, and they aren't retired until the knees tear open. And I rarely dress up, so my hoard of clothes is small.
I love yard sales and thrift stores. Why have something manufactured when somebody already has one that they don't need? For the clothes that a person does need to protect them from the elements, etc., I can't recommend enough going this route to purchase them. Also, instead of purchasing secondhand clothes, you could participate in a clothing swap--a group of people drops off wearable clothes that they don't want or need, and then people take anything they want. Anything left is donated to a homeless shelter or other such organization. I got a very comfy jacket this way, and got rid of some old shirts from my "black phase."

But, even if we reduce the amount and frequency of washing, we're still washing. That, as I mentioned, is the big killer. I probably wash clothes once a month or less, and I only wash full loads when I do. If I need to have a particular piece of clothing between washings, I was them by hand. Really, washing buy hand is preferable since it uses less water and energy, and because it extends the life of the clothing. But, it's time consuming. That's why I only hand wash two or three things at a time. If I had more time to devote to it, maybe I would.

So then there's the issue of the machine. It's fast and convenient. Congrats if you're using a high-efficiency washer like Michelle... you're using about half the water. But then we have to worry not about the pollution from manufacturing the clothes, but also the pollution from manufacturing the washer. There's a statistic somewhere, and it might actually be in Stuff, that compares the amount of pollution produced to manufacture a car versus the amount of pollution that car is likely to emit over its lifetime. For the average car, more pollution is emitted in the manufacturing process than in the actual driving. A similar claim could probably be made about washing machines. Even if the manufacturing process doesn't create more pollution, it's likely that it produces a very significant amount.

The problem then is not about how frequently we use it, but rather, about how infrequently we use it. We could have five families using one machine, but instead we've manufactured five machines and each family has a different one. Each of these machines is sitting around doing nothing most of the time.

This is one theoretical upside to laundromats. But laundromats are really only effective in urban areas, and urban areas come with their own unique problems. The alternative is to have multi-family or multi-adult households in order to prevent the unnecessary production of large appliances. This is what I like to call a neo-nuclear household. These kinds of arrangements, in my opinion, would have lots of added bonuses over just preventing the unnecessary creation of appliances.

But even acknowledging that clothed and nude both have their advantages, and that one might be more appropriate in some situations than in others, and then setting aside this part of the discussion, there are still social and moral issues to consider.

Though there's plenty to touch on in this arena, for the sake of brevity I'll stick to the big one: (public) nudity is illegal. Not everywhere, of course, and except for a few local ordinances nudity is legal in Oregon. I'm more than happy to concede that if you're uncomfortable, you should be allowed to wear clothes, despite the environmental impacts that are implicit in the act of clothes-wearing. But, given the benefits of going nude, shouldn't it be legalized?

And where it is legal, shouldn't we encourage people to take advantage of that? "We" shame people into their clothes... and we wonder why people have body image issues?

Of course, a lot of this stems from our religious history (Adam and Eve, Garden of Eden, etc.), and perhaps there are still lots of people who think we should be ashamed of our bodies.

On top of this there are fears of pedophilia, or rampant sexuality... things that I sincerely doubt are as big of a concern as they're made out to be. But, I think my reasons for saying so will have to be saved for yet another post on this subject.

P.S. I'm naked right now.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 2 of 2 in a series of posts on sustainability through nudism. Click here for part 1.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

I'm literally weeks away from graduating and I'm grinding to a halt--physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. At this point it's just a mad dash for the finish line that isn't accomplishing much of anything. It isn't teaching me any new skills or ideologies. It isn't preparing me for any job I will likely have. It isn't pushing me toward the future life I wish to live or the future world I wish to live in. It's all for a piece of paper that says I survived 4 years.


I'm not being the change I want to see in the world, as Gandhi famously suggested. I'm bending to the will of a world that I see as broken, a world where everything we eat is corn, where my generation may have a lower life-expectancy than my parents', where sea-levels are rising and islands are being consumed, and where people are forced to stay inside to protect themselves from man-made smog.

I don't want to be here. Do you?

Add to that a lack of community, a lack of connection to food and people. I'm supposed to be on "break" but instead I'm spending hours a day at a computer dreading a thesis I don't want to write. I get nary a text message, email, phone call, or knock at the door (except for a couple of Mormons who meant to convert me, and who I later regretted shoeing away in such a hurry).

Too much time inside. Too much time apart from people. It's frustrating.

TribeNot to mention that I watched The Tribe a few days ago. Certainly it was far from a perfect situation, but I connected with the situation: a modern group of people all depending on each other for their survival while living largely independent of the larger social structures.

Lets face it, we've created a system where it's easy to feel stuck.

If I don't go to school I won't get a good job. If I don't get a good job I won't make good money. If I don't make good money I won't be able to buy any land. If I don't buy any land I won't be able to grow my own food. If I don't grow my own food I won't be able to be self-sufficient. If I'm not self-sufficient I'll never be able to get out of this system which I detest.

We've made it even easier to get stuck by pouring concrete over land that was once abundant with food and by making it illegal to hunt or fish without the proper licenses. Our survival, our very instincts, are regulated.

But what if we worked together? What if we unstuck ourselves? What if we started a New American Tribe?

If this sounds like something you'd be interested in, you should fill out this form.

Basically, I want to put together a group of 10-20 people from the Pacific Northwest with a diverse set of survival skills (foraging, hunting, fishing, trapping, shelter construction, first aid, etc.) and head south. And then north. And then south.

Our goal would be to cover all 48 contiguous United States on foot, moving with the seasons to avoid the most extreme weather. We'd forage, hunt, and fish for our meals and trade manual labor (like farm work or yard work) for shelter and food. When necessary, we'd sell handmade trinkets (perhaps you're a jeweler?) to earn money for food. Ideally we'd be eating 100% local food (wild or from local farms) and in turn avoiding additives like high fructose corn syrup which have become seemingly necessary components of processed food. We'd be getting back to our heritage as wholly as is possible in this broken landscape.

So often we're ground down by overwhelming abundance. We don't have to work for food. Surviving becomes trivial. Life becomes boring because we don't have to try in order to survive, but instead we worry about created stresses like phone bills and rent.

This experiment would allow us to be energized by the act of surviving. It would allow us to see the country in an environmentally friendly way. It would allow us to have a community amongst ourselves and to connect with our fellow Americans. Our interactions with different farmers and people with diverse backgrounds will help us develop a diverse skill set in a world where we're forgetting how to do many wonderful things.

Yes, this is a crazy idea. But I'm sick of worrying about what job I'm going to get when I graduate, and about how I'm going to be perpetuating a broken system. I need a break to do something crazy. I think you should do it with me.

If you're between jobs, just graduated from school, or are otherwise unsettled, this might be right for you. If you want to do something crazy, refreshing, educational,  and rewarding, this might be for you. If you want to see the country in an environmentally friendly way, connect with others, and be a part of something big, this might be for you. If you have the necessary hunting, foraging, and wilderness survival skills, this might be for you.

If you're interested, fill out this form and subscribe to the blog. If I get enough interest in the project I'll contact people to start discussing details.

Thanks for reading and your continued support. This crazy kid is now off for some shut eye.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 1 of 2 in a series of posts on sustainability through nudism. Click here for part 2.

Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (New Report, No 4)One of the things I like about Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, is how well it breaks down each item it focuses on. A t-shirt starts out as a huge diamond drill bit, powered by an ungodly amount of diesel fuel, drilling for yet more oil on account of our energy hungry society. Why the oil? Two of the products from the highly-polluting oil refining process go on to be polyester. That polyester is coupled with cotton from highly fertilized fields. The fields are also heavily sprayed with pesticides and herbicides to eliminate any competition the cotton might have. Finally, right before the cotton is harvested, the plants are all sprayed with a defoliant to get rid of the leaves which would stain the cotton balls in the mechanical picking process. Up to half of these chemicals end up in local streams during application and even more end up there when heavy rains or irrigation leach them from the soil.

Once the cotton has been picked and the seeds have been removed it is shipped to a textiles factory where it is combined with the polyester and spun into yarn. From there it is woven into fabric and finished with a combination of chlorine, chromium, and formaldehyde before being dyed. As much as a third of the dye ends up in the wastewater because cotton resists coloring. These are all regulated toxic chemicals.

This fabric is finally shipped halfway across the world to be turned into t-shirts by women making 30 cents an hour in a Taiwanese factory. It's packed in an assortment of plastic and cardboard before being shipped back across the country where it will sit under the glaring lights of a department store waiting to be bought.

But that's not where it ends. A load of laundry in a conventional washer and dryer will use 40 gallons of water. An extremely energy efficient model will still use 20-25 gallons per load. Add to that the bleach and detergent which goes out with the wastewater and the electricity used to heat the water and then to dry the clothes. Over the life of the shirt, washing it ends up being a larger environmental concern than its manufacture, and that's even consider the amount of packaging and transportation that it underwent

The average household, according the Consumer Energy Center, does 400 loads of laundry per year. Thats as many as 16,000 gallons of water per year. 16,000! Based on the fact that experts recommend drinking 64 oz. (1 gallon) of water per day, the amount of water that the average household uses on laundry in just one year is enough to provide fresh drinking water to one person for almost 44 years. And this is in the face of the fact that our supply of freshwater (less than a percent of all the water on earth) is going to struggle to meet increasing demand as the world's population increases along with the standard of living for many parts of the world.

Am I suggesting that we go around naked? Yes. And no. First, I want to know why we wear clothes.

Of course, there's the practical concerns: protection from the elements. But for those of us who are forced to spend more time than we care to admit indoors, how much of a concern are the elements anyways? For those that do spend a great deal of time outside, the extremes of heat and cold tend to be the biggest concerns. But even then, we should be worried about function. Does it keep me warm, or does it keep me cool? The toxic dyes and chemicals are hardly a necessary component in a functional piece of clothing; clothes have been around for a long time, and the industrial use of these chemicals is relatively new. Even when clothing is practical, current manufacturing process are extraordinarily wasteful.

And those of us that don't need clothing to protect us from the elements 90% of the time? What is our excuse?

Shame. Shame is a big part of it, and a lot of that stems from our puritanical history.

I read an article the other day on a nudist website where a daughter found out that she would have to dress down for P.E. in junior high. She openly refused to do so because she didn't "look like a super model." I remember my own days from junior high and high school. I wore my gym shorts under my pants. I never showered. I never saw anybody else shower for that matter.

This is an era in which we are bombarded by airbrushed super models that inform what we're "supposed" to look like. We are made to fear the ways in which we are different from others rather than celebrating those differences.

The small amount of research that has been done on nudism suggests that children that grow up in nudist families and who interact with other nudist families have a much healthier self-image. It might be by accident that we are teaching children to be ashamed of their bodies, but it is clearly happening.

But, of course, there are always social pressures to don clothing. In Oregon, barring certain local ordinances, nudity is legal so long as it is done without the intent to arouse. There are two nude beaches in the Portland area. And even several nudist resorts. These places allow a person to shed clothes in a noncontroversial and nonthreatening environment.

Better for our self-image and better for our planet? I think we can all afford go naked sometimes. And I'm not the only one that thinks so.

Around your house, when you sleep... whenever you can, be naked. Think about the 40 gallons of water you could be saving for every load of laundry you save yourself from doing. That adds up.

And if you want to join a club, the American Association for Nude Recreation has annual memberships for $24.50 for students ages 18-25 years old, and $57 for adults. This provides discounts at various resorts as well as on services like car rentals... which I suppose is better than owning a car.

I just got a confirmation that my worms are on the way, so stay tuned for my post on making an indoor composter.

Until next time...

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is part 1 of 2 in a series of posts on sustainability through nudism. Click here for part 2.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Okay, so apparently people couldn't comment while the system comments were screwed up. The site isn't going to be very usable for a few hours or so. I'm starting back at square one and adding things one at the time and making sure they're in perfect working condition. Sorry for how sporadic things are going to be... and the fact that the look of the blog will probably be changing yet again... but after that, things should be pretty stable, as I don't have plans for any major renovations as soon as I get all of the current features working properly.

Photo by Dagny Scott
Wish me luck...


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I'm pretty sure I have an Amazon gift certificate coming. If that is the case, I think I'm going to spend it on books. I've already got three in mind, two of which I've read, and one of which I haven't. I'm going to keep the list of books a secret for now... it'll be more exciting that way.

Photo by flyzipper
The tentative plan would be to give these books to readers, chosen at random, who perform some simple task... perhaps leaving a comment on their favorite post.

Obviously I haven't figured out the specific details. I'll keep thinking about it, and when the books get here I'll let everyone know what I've decided.

Make sure you subscribe so you can get updates. It's the most surefire way to get all future information about this contest and other goings-on at Going backward, moving forward.


All whining aside, the reason I posted that lovely array of wild plants the other day is two-fold. First, wild plants thrive and reproduce without human intervention, which makes them great for a no-maintenance food forest. Second, native species thrive in the climactic patterns of the areas where they are growing (in my case, wet winters and springs followed by drought in the summer).

The biggest problem is learning how to identify the plants, as one plant may be edible, and another that looks just like it could be deadly. And, once you correctly identify a plant, you have to know how to prepare it. Parts of a plant may be poisonous, or it may need to be cooked to be made edible.

In any case, going out into the wilderness with someone that knows what they're doing is your best bet. If you don't have friends or family members who are familiar with local edibles however, it could get spendy.  Hundreds or even thousands of dollars spendy.

Well, the other day I overheard a comment about the work that Trackers NW is doing. They have seasonal and year-long classes on hunting, tracking, trapping, permaculture, wild plant identification, blacksmithing, and other "old time" skills. It's more than I can afford, to be sure (although I just found single day, single skill classes on the PDX site that are under $50.) But, I got excited when I found out that they offered free days. They're about once a month, and you have to make a reservation, but you get to check out Trackers NW for free, which goes to say something about their confidence in their service.

I'm definitely planning on checking out one of their free days, and since I'm especially interested in learning about wild edibles, I'll probably see if I can scrape up the extra $45 for the edible plants class. I'll probably end up putting off the whole "paying for a class" bit though until I know I'm going to be able to afford my rent. 

I definitely picked the wrong degree for that.

But, I have read two pretty good books on the subject of plant identification. Granted, books on plant identification are more of an appetizer than something you should use to make a definitive identification unless you can be 100% sure that there are no similar looking poisonous species. That disclaimer out of the way though, the two books I've read are Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places by "Wildman" Steve Brill (who also happens to have a pretty informative website) and The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants (which is quite extensive in both scope and breadth). There was also a good one on poisonous plants which was especially good, but I can't remember for the life of me which it was. Possibly Poisonous Plants of the United States by Walter Conrad Muenscher, but that's only a guess based on the books on poisonous plants offered by the university library. The other possibility is Toxic Plants and Other Natural Toxicants. In any case, it would be a good idea to get some book on poisonous plants since, in reality, it's more important to know what will kill you than it is to know what is good eats, as then you'll at least not die even if you do stumble across something less than palatable.


I switched to from the old subdomain (if you have the site bookmarked, you should update your bookmarks, though all links pointing to the old domain should redirect.) Old comments are (hopefully temporarily) down. You should be able to post new comments without any trouble, however. I'm knocking all requisite heads to get the old comments back up ASAP, but there's currently no telling how long that will take.


Monday, March 15, 2010

There's something wrong with me that makes me detest getting paid for things that I love doing. It feels criminal. When I first started out at B St., I refused to be paid. I just volunteered my time even though I had work study money I could be paid with. Finally, they forced me to start taking home a paycheck.

I like to give a lot of myself as well. I especially love cooking for big groups of people. It feels wonderful to give of yourself and see people smiling as a result.

If individuals tend to take a lot more than they give, I eventually cut them loose... but generally, the give and take is fairly balanced.

That's not to say that I don't have a good mind for business. In fact, I have a pretty entrepreneurial spirit. It's just an aversion to money that gets in my way.

Like right now.

I just found out that a group of people were getting funding for an indoor gardening system not too unlike the one I made three years ago. You know, the one I just had a story published about on the PRI website. If I had a group of people to test and develop all of the ideas I came up with, and if I were just a little more money hungry, then I could probably be making the money I need to develop that forest garden I dream about.  Would it be worth it at that point? Wouldn't my symbol of community and giving be just a little bittersweet? Probably.

And have you noticed that I'm not linking to the group of people in question? Call it my "childish protest."

I'm just burned out on schooling, so disconnected from plants and nature, cramped in this tiny apartment, separated from friends and family and community, stressing about what kind of job I'm going to (be able to) get with a writing degree, and worrying about affording rent in a place where I don't even want to live. And then this comes along.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad that they're having better luck spreading the joy of indoor gardening than I have. The more food people can provide for themselves, the better. But I still think I deserve the right to be pissy about the fact that it was them and not me. We all want our big break, right? And I missed mine. (Think "public transportation," that is, "oh shit, there goes my bus," and you'll have a scaled down version of how it feels).

Anyways. Now that I've unloaded that onto you, my readers, I'm going to disappear. I promise that the next post will be cheery, and hopefully even helpful.


Art inspires us to act. Some of us, at least. Some art is so well-blended with science that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Don't know what I mean? Ecovention contains some of the best examples of this unique blend (though it appears to be out of print).

The art in Ecovention is functional in a very beautiful way. You can see plants change colors as they react to, and filter out, heavy metals in the soil. Places that shouldn't be alive are made that way by these thoughtful artists.

But sometimes what art "does" is less about the art itself, and more about how it makes us feel, and what it makes us do.

Take Pete Dungey's pothole gardens for instance. In subject, it's a far cry from a forest garden. But, in spirit, it's exactly the same thing. It's a concession to let nature do what it will, and allowing nature to benefit us, rather than forcing it to do so. It is a concession that we are not apart from nature, but rather, a part of nature.

Plants are patient. They pre-date animal life by millions of years. Long after we're gone, they'll still be here, as you'll no doubt realize if you've ever tried to remove a well-adapted invasive weed (Himalayan blackberry in my case).

When we are gone, those plants which we've chased into the shadows will reemerge. Their roots will break up our roads, crumble our bridges, and topple our skyscrapers. Plants have no archeologists. Plants don't care about that little blip in Earth's history called Homo sapiens. They will just go on living.

If this sounds like the voice of loss, it is not.

Plants are so unassuming that it can be awe-inspiring to step back and realize how well they thrive in spite of us. Rebellious, they will not be told "no." We cut them back, but they return, branches outstretched toward the sun, toward warmth. They bend with the wind. They bend with the sun. Forever bending, if slowly, but not breaking. They have time. They are in no hurry to get where they are going. Where they are going? Destination: life.

To move at a plant's speed would not be a major inconvenience, though we might think it so. A plant can bend 180 degrees in a single day, chasing after a light. The plant doesn't know where the light is coming from tomorrow. The plant doesn't know if the light is coming tomorrow. The plant simply follows the light each day that it does come and it is strengthened all the more for it. And if the light doesn't come the plant won't make any fuss about its passing. It was nourished by the dead, and now it will be among them, nourishing whatever future takes root. And why must we look any further than today? If we do not have water and nutrients and sunshine, we seek them out, and when the sun sets we will be content.

But we won't be.

Can we ever be?

We are torn between our pasts--where we survived when natured nurtured us--and our futures--where we have the knowledge and power to bend nature to our will, regardless of what the costs might be.

All of this is to say that there really is very little that separates a writer and a biologist. We're all just blips.  And if either one of us got everything we wanted, we would likely find our species to be unbearably off-kilter.

But you wouldn't know we were so similar by the reactions we get.

My studies took me toward the humanities, despite my great appreciation for the natural world (or, perhaps, because of it). Because I have made that decision, I am not "allowed" to do science. "Leave science for the scientists," they will say.

"If I have to call my science 'art,' then so be it."

But if I have to call my science art in order to have it respected, then we take too lightly the words of one great scientist:
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. ~Albert Einstein
We mustn't forget just how much science has followed from science fiction. Or, for that matter, how much science has been born in the bosom of philosophic discourse.

Art and philosophy are the parents of human endeavor. They are the inquisitive mind on which science is built.

As a writer, I might have to stand back and let the scientists take credit for their often egocentrically named theories. But, silent as the plants, I can take pride in knowing that my reaching for the sun, my putting things into words, is exactly what will decide the direction of science long after I'm gone. And just as plants will outlive us, as our species declines, being able to share stories with our loved ones will prove more important than the gadgets we use to do so.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

It was bound to be a topic of discussion at some point considering the quantity of wilderness I'm inviting people to invite into their yards. And Michelle Clay raised the issue during a recent guest rant on the Garden Rant blog. What do you do when your neighbors start complaining about the forest in front of your house? Or when they get the law involved?

If you live in the Portland area, then you're lucky. I don't know exactly what laws are on the books, if any, regarding the state of a front yard, but court rulings have set a pretty strong precedent for freedom of expression in all its forms. And certainly, I've witnessed my share of front yard vegetable gardens. Portlanders try hard to earn the eco-friendly title, and so you're more likely to find awed neighbors than annoyed neighbors.

But that could change the further from Portland you get.

And a vegetable garden is well-manicured relative to a forest.

In her post, Michelle lays down three rules for handling your less conventional yard in the face of less-than-genial neighbors.

1. Know the local laws (and law-enforcers)
2. Be on good terms with your neighbors
3. Make the yard as aesthetically pleasing as possible

In regards to rule three: well, of course a forest garden is aesthetically pleasing! Well, okay, your neighbors might not think so. A bit of trimming will help you stay on your neighbors good side and will actually make your food forest more productive. It will allow more light to reach the forest floor, thus causing shorter species to flourish. You can have a no-maintenance, low-maintenance, or high-maintenance forest garden. The amount of work you put in determines how much food you'll get out, and will likely also determine how aesthetically pleasing your yard is to your neighbors.

You can avoid some of the work if you focus your energy on rule number two, a rule which I think deserves more attention regardless of what kind of yard you're keeping. We used to visit with our neighbors all the time growing up, and all of our minds and resources together were greater than any subset of them. But, as I've grown up, I've found that neighbors have become less... neighborly.

Chances are that if your food forest is mature, you're producing more fruit than you could ever possibly eat. Offer your neighbors apples, pears, and plums. Or, invite them over for an exotic food forest dinner. If you play your cards right, you might just be able to convince them that they need a forest garden as well.

Take that time to help them design a forest garden!

The reasoning is simple. In a small suburban yard, if that's where you've ended up, you can only plant so many trees. But there's an unbelievable variety of fruits and nuts that you can choose from. If you help your neighbor plan their own food forest, you can ensure that they end up with different plants than you have. Then you can trade with each other for the things that you're not growing. It's a win-win situation.

And even if you don't convince your neighbor to turn their yard into a forest, the fastest way to a persons heart, as they say, is through their stomach. The more people you feed, the more people you'll have defending your unconventional yard if you do run into trouble with the law.

Also interesting to note is that one of the commenters on the aforementioned post suggested that they had, or were considering, putting up a variety of signs. These included notices that the yard was a NWF certified wildlife refuge and that all of the plants were native species. This comment made me think back to a presentation I was lucky to see by artist Fritz Haeg, the brains behind Edible Estates. Edible Estates was an "art" project to bring vegetable gardens into people's front yards and covered various topics, such as the origin of the grass lawn. The part that really impressed me though was the official/government-looking logos that Haeg designed for each of the front yard gardens he designed. The basic lesson here is that if you make it clear that what you're doing is intentional, rather than just laziness, then they're less likely to bother you. I'm always inspired to do this kind of mix and match anyways: take something wild, mix it with something "sophisticated," and keep people guessing. Think mohawk and three-piece suit. It's easy for people to judge something as "unrefined" if that's all you give them. But if you mix "unrefined" or "wild" elements with "refined" or "sophisticated" elements, it's harder for them to peg you as "one of those people" and write you off entirely. This is one of those concepts that I love to play with...

Anyways, what are you doing to upset the status quo in the land of grass lawns?


Because I can't.

These are plants I found during a recent trek through a local patch of woods. I photographed all of the different plants I found, and have posted most of them here.

This looks like it might be a species from the genus Rumex. Anything thoughts?

This also looks similar to some Rumex species, but I can't find anything identical. Likely a different genus, but don't know.

This looks like either a nettle or a clearweed. I know of a quick, if uncomfortable, way to find out. Don't know for sure though.

A fern, obviously. I think a sword fern from what I've been able to find. No guarantees though.

Those are all of the guesses I have. Anybody else want to take a stab?


Saturday, March 13, 2010

I was piddling around on the Portland Nursery website the other night and noticed a brochure they had produced called "Edible Plants in Containers." I wasn't expecting much more than tomatoes or cucumbers, but much to my surprise... I found trees!

One in particular that struck my fancy included a dwarf apple, a lowbush blueberry, and strawberries. To me, that was screaming of forest garden. Any time you get fruit trees and berry bushes in close proximity you're halfway there.

All they were using was a half wine barrel, which means a person could theoretical grow a "mini forest garden" and take it with them when they moved.

The only downside is that it requires more maintenance. The soil will dry out more quickly, so you'll have to water more than you would a forest garden planted in the ground. And, trees in containers can become root bound, so at least every few years, if not every year, you'd have to take everything out and prune the roots.

The first consideration would have to be what kind of fruit tree you grow. Here's what Mid City Nursery says on the subject:

Not all fruit trees will grow well in containers for long periods of time. If you want to grow a fruit tree in a container for just a couple of years, then you can grow just about any fruit tree. However, if you want to grow a fruit tree in a container for its entire life, then you may want to try some of the fruit trees listed below. The size of container plays a factor in what you can or can't grow. Generally, you will want to use a container that measures 18 - 24 inches wide and about the same depth. Larger containers can be used as well. Wine barrels cut in half are often used. It really doesn't matter the material of the container as long as there is adequate drainage. Some of the fruit trees that can be grown well in containers are dwarf meyer lemons, dwarf kumquats, dwarf eureka lemons(will require regular pruning), genetic dwarf nectarines, genetic dwarf peaches, and some of the dwarf apples(varieties on the Mark and M-27 rootstocks only grow 8-10 feet). Also, pineapple guavas, chilean guavas, or strawberry guavas can be grown successfully in containers. Other dwarf citrus may do okay in large containers with regular pruning.
 I'd probably go with a dwarf pear or plum, if an appropriate variety exists. Or I might get adventurous and try jujube, or stick with plain ol' figs. Then some sort of low growing bush berry. Perhaps cranberries, or the lowbush blueberries mentioned in the brochure. Dewberries also sound good, but I wouldn't want to deal with thorns if I had to pull everything out of the container every year or so. Other interesting things to try would be ostrich fern, with it's asparagus like (or so I've been told) fiddleheads, or some sort of wild green. Trying to vine something up the tree would also be fun, although this trees are small and can't support much. You could try a smaller vine like cinnamon vine (a.k.a. chinese yam) as it stays relatively small (although, I don't know how easy harvesting the tubers would be). Or you could try something bigger like akebia or passionflower and just prune it heavily. Trees can be expensive, so you'd have to decide if that's a gamble you're willing to take.

In any case, it's an interest idea. One could also potentially start "sections of forest garden" and once they were established, plant them out into the actual garden area. It would be like buy potted trees or other plants, but it this case, you'd be buying whole sections of food forest. In this case, you might be able to get away with growing a bigger tree, so long as it's not staying in the container for too long.


Friday, March 12, 2010



One of the biggest challenges I face when trying to "convert" people to forest gardening is an unwillingness to give up our favorite annuals--tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, carrots, etc. In fact, forest gardens are very heavy on fruit trees and nuts, followed closely by berries. Littered across the food forest floor is a smattering of this green and that.

It's a system built on shade.

Our lovable annuals are sun-hungry.

Well, I have four tentative solutions for this sticky situation.

The first is to grow your annuals at the edge of your forest garden. This is my least favorite solution as it requires me to give up valuable space I could be using to grow the more productive fruit trees and bushes. Still, there might be some merit to training vining vegetables like peas and beans up the trees at your gardens edge. If one has to give up valuable garden space, I suggest sticking to productive and multi-layered companion plantings like three sisters.

The second solution is to grow your annuals in the sky. No, I'm not talking about magic. I'm talking about upside down planters like the Topsy Turvies I used in my indoor garden. These could be attached to the sturdy branches of larger trees, or, lacking such trees, could be attached to a building or temporary fixture. A simple bamboo tripod comes to mind.

This technique has the advantage of adding another layer to the forest garden: plants that start at the top and grow down. Granted, you'll want to be careful where and how you're planting your upside down planters as leafy trees can block the sun and cause your tomatoes or other annuals to die. But, a well positioned planter can give you annuals and keep your forest garden a no-dig zone.

The third option is to focus on winter crops. Broccoli and other brassicas, root crops, and many greens can be over-wintered... depending on how harsh your winters are and how well you take care of them. This means they're better suited to low light conditions and can thrive when the trees lose their leaves in the fall. They'll certainly grow slower and may never develop to the extent that they would in a sunny monocultural garden bed. But, they should develop nonetheless.

The fourth option is to find alternative crops. It might seems like forest gardens are all fruits and nuts, but their not. Lots of edible greens can be grown in a forest environment. Ostrich ferns can be grown in dappled shade and their fresh young shoots can be harvested at the beginning of spring and used like asparagus. Bamboo shoots are another good pick. Cow parsnip can be used as an alternative to rutabaga. Hog peanut serves as an alternative to true peanuts. Wild cucumber (Streptopus amplexifolius, there is also a plant called wild cucumber which is poisonous) can be a substitute for... you guessed it: cucumber (in terms of flavor, at least... it doesn't look like anything you'd ever call cucumber).

My entire list of shade-loving perennial edibles can be found here. I'm still working on the much longer list of of plants that thrive in dappled shade and hope to have that up sometime before the end of the world.

Until then, hopefully these solutions inspire you to jump into forest gardening whole-heartedly. You won't regret it.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

I feel like I've seen this documentary before, but perhaps I'm imagining things. In any case, the other day I watched the Discovery Channel documentary Impossible City, which demonstrates Dubai's tremendous growth.

The first building showcased was the Burj Khalifa, a.k.a the Burj Dubai. It's currently the worlds tallest building. It's about 1,000 feet taller than the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). It's nearly twice as tall as the Empire State Building. It towers over everything around it. It's intense.

Just about everything in Dubai is over the top. One of the experts in the documentary described it as Las Vegas on steroids. The prime minister has the final say, and he wants impressive buildings, and so architects flock to the city.

Part of what I saw made me cringe. Really, any kind of "I must expand" mentality makes me cringe. But, the buildings in this documentary did command respect. And really, if more people were living in 3,000 foot towers. In fact, if the Burj Khalifa had been built horizontally instead of vertically, it would cover nearly 115 acres. The foundation is 80,000 sq. ft. according to So, they've gained nearly 60 vertical acres per horizontal acre. Impressive.

But, of course, all of this building means they have to be resourceful. How do you supply water and electricity to this massive skyscrapers (at this point I think they're skypiercers more than they're skyscrapers)?

The Dynamic Tower is an interesting way to deal with these problems and it's another proposed building project in Dubai. Each of its 80 floors can move independently of the others and the bottommost floors are pre-programmed to to move such that they harness the maximum amount of sun possible.

Also, between each floor is a horizontal wind turbine. The building will literally produce all of its own electricity using renewable sources. And, just imagine if your indoor garden to move to harness the maximum amount of sun. This thing could be a vertical farm on steroids.

Additionally Dubai, being in the desert, has to concern itself with cooling these skypiercers.

This tower, the O-14, has the answer. The strange, holey, structure forces hot air to move quickly up the sides of the tower, cooling the interior passively.

Well, I suppose if we're going to build this is a way to do it. Better up than out. And, if buildings can provide all of their own electricity and provide passive heating and cooling, that's a step in the right direction. Hey, the Burj Khalifa tower even collects its own water (a "significant amount") by condensing it from the hot and humid air. We'll just have to see how the human race does over the next decade or so...


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I just wanted to give a heads up that one of my fellow bloggers over at My Tiny Plot is holding a contest where you can win a $15 mix of salad green seeds (if you live in the EU) or a collection of biodegradable pots (if you live outside of the EU). Check out the post for details. The gist of it? Send pictures of you sowing your seeds (or prepping pots, sorting tags, etc.)

I hope one of you wins. Best of luck!

UPDATE: I'll tentatively be holding my own contest, if things pan out. Check out the details here.


The Permaculture Research Institute, whose forest gardening DVD I mentioned previously... wait for it... BLOWS. MY. MIND.

They've started permaculture work in Jordan where the dry and salty conditions should be all but inhospitable, but where they're having success with dates, figs, olives, pomegranates, bananas, and more. I'd think it was movie magic if I didn't know it was possible.

They have a 36ish minute video demonstrating the work they've done in Jordan, and the work that can continue to be done in order to reclaim the deserts of the Middle East.

Here's the first of four videos. You should be able to click through to part two at the end of this video. If not, go to the video on Youtube and the links are available in the side bar.

If you prefer you can watch the whole video in one go on Vimeo, but I had audio problems. Your mileage may vary.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

It's only be accident that they learn things while they're here, and a good deal of what they do learn, it probably wouldn't hurt to forget. And so, I'm going to show these pictures and videos of my sulcata tortoise, Avicenna:

So, now that I have you all entranced with pictures of my adorable tortoise, it's time to do something bordering on doling out wisdom.

This is a sulcata tortoise, a desert tortoise from Africa. They are the largest mainland species of tortoise, though you might not be able to tell that from looking at my little guy. They're rivaled only by Galapagos tortoises. The live on a diet of grasses. Fruits are too acidic and can damage their digestive system.

They thrive in temperature ranging from approximately 80-100 degrees. They like to burrow, soak in shallow pools of water, munch on weeds, and push through anything that gets in their weigh. They can get up to 100 pounds (the largest on record is over 200 pounds) and 2-1/2 to 3 feet long. They need to be outside and have open space to explore.

I am a human being, native of the Pacific Northwest. I find 80 degree weather tolerable, but much warmer than that and it becomes uncomfortable. I love fruits and vegetables and would never dream of subsisting on a diet of things so tough and fibrous as grass. I enjoy being outside, but I'm much partial to trees than to open savanna.

What does this mean? Both myself and my tortoise are better suited for very different environments than the other. One solution people have come up with is to get heated dog houses for their tortoises to keep them comfortable during cold weather. Alternatively, some people up an move to a warmer location and invest in air conditioning. And then there's always the group is forced to give up their tortoise because they don't have the space or resources to care for it.

For now Avicenna is content to munch on the weeds I grow for him, and to go outside and play during the warm summer months. But as he gets older he'll need more room and he'll need to roam around outside more. It will always be like trying to put a square peg in a round hole: if you damage the hole and you damage the peg enough, you're bound to make them fit haphazardly at some point.

And that's what we're doing with our agricultural system. We fight the weeds. We fight mother nature's attempt to get back to beautiful forests. If we'd leave well enough alone, then we'd be provided for without all of the extra work. Of course, forest gardeners nudge mother nature in one direction or another, but forest gardening is very Taoist in nature: let the garden happen, let the food grow, let us be taken care of, as opposed to making the garden happen and making food grow, which is how so many of us are trying to do it now.

I know I repeat myself a lot, and sometimes I wonder why, but then I remember that repetition is one of the most powerful teaching methods there is. Maybe if I tell you about forest garden after forest garden you'll one day be telling me about yours.