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Lifestyles of the Unwashed Multitudes

by paul spencer Thu Oct 15th, 2009 at 05:53:33 PM EST

Mirta and I spent last Wednesday morning prepping various veggies and fruit: green beans from our garden and blueberries from a local friend/grower for freezing; our lettuce, carrot, and cuke for that day's and the next's salad; collard greens, onions, zucchini, and miscellaneous veggies for stir-fry. Mirta also made the dough and formed the dough balls for 'artisan bread' for the next week.

While I was cutting and washing the beans, I thought about the amount of labor expended over the years to build the fence, arbor, and raised gardens; to construct a convenient water system; to amend the soil; to plant; to cultivate; to harvest; and to prepare for use and for storage. It's easy to see why most people forgo the work in favor of the 'grocery store' - or grocery department might be a better term

Diary Rescue by Migeru

Of course, there are other constraints, including the land on which to build the garden; the time and energy available after 'making a living'; money expended in comparison to the prices of food products in the supermarkets; and skill and interest.

On the other hand there's the simple reward of unadulterated food that tastes good to excellent; the health benefits of a reasonable amount of manual labor outdoors in the sunlight; not to forget the aesthetic appeal of the garden.

Y'all may remember the seasonal gardening series that I published here during 2008:
A Temperate-climate Garden in Winter
A Belated Temperate-climate Garden in Spring
A Temperate-climate Garden in Summe[r]
I didn't write an Autumn piece, because it's mostly picking and prepping - activities that seem largely obvious to me. And I had included some of my best storage advice within the three diaries, including freezing tomatoes, herbs, and various kinds of fruit more or less whole as the base for sauces and jams, to be finished when the occasion required.

I realized then - and realize now - that these articles were very limited in application. All gardens are idiosyncratic due to differences in soil, climate, cultural norms and taboos, pests, etc. The idea was merely to demonstrate one system, to encourage folks, to throw out a few lessons-learned, and maybe to show off a bit (we love our garden).

As to the money (cost) aspect, it actually works out well enough, as long as I make one debatable assumption: the price that I pay for 'excess water' from our City's water service is all attributed to the flower gardens.  Aesthetics absorbs this cost; food does not.

Beyond that, though, even the lumber and hardware for the fences, arbors, etc. are amortized in relatively few years, given the fact that we store and freeze food. If I only compared current, seasonal prices with my garden's output, it might be discouraging. But I've already dug 10 pounds of red potatoes for current use; and there are at least 30 pounds of Katahdins for Autumn and Winter. We'll freeze 40 pounds of tomatoes, 50 pounds of miscellaneous veggies for stir-fries, 40 pounds of miscellaneous fruit, and enough herbs to season everything through next Spring (plus that which we eat as it matures). During the non-growing seasons here, our stored produce supplants a fair amount of cash outflow.

Clearly, we're two older people with substantially reduced appetites, or this amount of produce would not suffice. However, I could expand the garden or cultivate more intensively, if needed. Once the investment in fences, initial cultivation, and tools is made, the ongoing expenses are minor (except for that 'excess water' that is going to the flower gardens).

However - this diary is not about gardens per se, so that is probably enough about that aspect. This diary is actually about the Doom of our Times, if you like. A little background to the discussion - and, naturally, I can only speak from my experience, so I will start with that.

First, I am prejudiced toward manual labor. That is my history, and it's my pride as well. I say that, so that you can make allowances for my lifestyle prescriptions, which are mostly about doing more manual work and relying less on mechanical leverage that depends on fossil fuels.

Second, my father came off of the farm (he sometimes seemed to wish that he was back on it), and he instilled in me a love of and respect for the land. My goals, when young, always included a rural bias. I started to head back to the land with my young family when I was 27. That, of course, meant that I was part of the long-distance daily commute for 36 years (and was, therefore, a serial polluter on a significant scale). It also meant that I built up my garden and other rural accoutrements gradually and within my means.

Third, we enjoy relatively good health for our age, which no doubt is partly a matter of events and influences beyond our control. But I think that it is also due to a conscientious application of known health principles - not to mention moderate doses of our garden produce.

Fourth, although I'm known for having strong left/liberal opinions, I maintain good relations - friendships, actually - with people that would be described in very unflattering terms on left-leaning blogs. I do this for several reasons: I actually do like and respect almost all people; I find that Christian fundamentalists, libertarians, and survivalists have some valid points and stories of their own; and we are mutually dependent in some interfaces. For instance, a friend of mine who kills Bambi's fathers in several western states - sort of a migratory hunter in the Autumn - and is a total cynic concerning state and federal governments, is my ally in attempting to bring management back to our national forests (he said yesterday that he is my "assistant agitator"). He is an over-achieving organic gardener, who sells under-priced shares in his produce to local folks, then calls in the 'gleaners' for the excess. Everywhere we go, some woman comes up and gives him a big hug for something he's done for their family recently - or in the past. Salt of the Earth, for sure. The point is that we have community of interest, and we help each other where possible.

Now - despite all of the 'love' shown our President after his somewhat equivocal speech concerning our very equivocal health insurance reform bills in Congress, we are in Big Trouble in the U.S.A. - and we're headed for worse. Here on ET, we all know the story. It's the wars and occupation in southwest Asia; it's Peak-Fossil-Fuels; it's corporatocracy; it's money-printing to pay off an extortion ring of oligopolistic financial companies; it's the Depression cycle of lost jobs -> increased poverty -> decreased consumption -> more lost jobs; it's lack of will and vision in the U.S. Congress to recreate strong regulation or to create a 'green economy'.  And the list goes on.

I don't say this with any sense of vindication; though, as a Marxist, I've known where we were headed for over 40 years. I don't say this with any self-satisfaction, because, despite my current status as an unencumbered home and land owner, we are as endangered as anyone in a severe disruption of our socio-economic fabric. I do say, however, that I have not been a Chicken Little, despite my ideological certainty that this was coming to us at some point. As many ETers, I recognized the imminence of severe problems about two years ago from the data.  But, several years before that, I could 'feel' the growing price inflation rate and wage stagnation (actually wage reduction, due to price inflation), and I 'knew' where it was headed, barring some unlikely political changes.

Now I should back up half a step. We here, in our little rural enclave, are not as endangered as most in case of social dissolution. That is because we have community here that - short of invasion by a large army with advanced weaponry - can, and will, fend for itself. Families will consolidate homes; unemployed members will be hunter/gatherer/gardeners (no exaggeration, I assure you); retail consumption will decline some more; travel will be reduced.  The locals will expand (I was going to write "develop", but it already exists somewhat) our barter economy; small businesses, such as firewood supply, will emerge; more folks will raise pigs, chickens, and cattle; our county resources will be made available for local needs and services.  It's just the way we are: communitarians, if you like.

My concern - short of that invasion possibility - is for the overwhelming portion of U.S. citizens who have lost contact with the basic skills of - what - survival?  (To me they're just Basic Skills.)  My concern is for those without the resources to meet Basic Needs.  My concern is for folks who are surrounded by really hostile, frustrated, semi-organized assholes.  (We only have a few of those here, and they're surrounded by us.)  I am rather sure, though, that our community - and most communities like ours - are not going to take on the role of 'social safety net' for the urban areas.  Our sense of community is somewhat tribal and somewhat xenophobic.  Our population may double or triple, but it will be almost exclusively due to in-migration of family and friends.

So - while awaiting the Apocalypse, we garden and hunt and fish and have dinners with friends and enjoy our families and build things and watch the birds and enjoy the sunsets - and work on the political system.  I'm the Secretary of our County Democratic Party, and I'm a WA State Central Committee member (elected).  I wrote a resolution that was approved at our April meeting; I'm drafting one for our September meeting.  I'm Chairman of our Local Coordinating Group for our County's Firewise (Community Wildfire Protection) Program.  I'm on a Workforce Housing Committee, and I'm the secretary of our Collaborative Group on the Mt. Adams District of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.  (Did I mention that I retired last year?  Obviously, I couldn't be an active part of all of those projects, if I was still working for a living.)  

Mirta and I have hosted 3 meetings of the White House/Democratic National Committee's grassroots organization - Organizing for America - to discuss and give feedback on national issues in 2009.  Mirta hosted a benefit party and raised $500 for our County's Food Bank.  I could add a whole bunch more examples, but you get the idea.  What's the point?

The point is that those are the kind of activities that build community.  Sure, I bite my tongue occasionally to try to prevent personality issues from dominating over substantive matters.  (It gets easier as I get older - must be reduced testosterone.)  And I'm not saying that everybody loves me, either.  (However, everyone does love Mirta.)  I'm pointing out that community and political activism are - or can be - entree into the give and take of community life.  Of course, one pays one's dues.  I made a few enemies 25 years ago, when I started to advocate tourism development to mitigate the economic impact of declining resource extraction in our County.  But I made more friends than enemies; events proved the opinion; the animus faded; and we're all just community members nowadays.

Plus, the participation in Democratic Party politics is not only a team-building exercise.  Likelihood of success may be remote, but - who knows? - one of these days our state's elected officials may decide to align with our WA State Democratic Party Platform.  If they were to comply, we would have strong voices for immediate withdrawal from Southwest Asia; for single-payer, universal health-care insurance; for 'fair trade' rather than 'free trade'; for sustainable agricultural practices; for accelerated development of renewable-energy resources; for full-spectrum Civil Rights; for Good in general.  It's worth the time and energy to make an attempt to close the gap between the documented policy and program prescriptions of our Party's grassroots representatives and the legislative (and executive) actions of our - allegedly - partisan elected officials.

The other ingredient to survival in Doom times is the physical reality: resources, skills, energy, and so on - which gets us back to my starting point.  All of these matters require infrastructure and some planning.  Out here, we have the basic infrastructure: e.g., dirt, trees, wildlife, skills, and tools.

For example, although our County is 96% forested and mountainous, we have enough benchland to grow enough canola to supply bio-diesel to run a bus to carry the senior citizens to their appointments and the emergency-services vehicles to take accident victims to the hospital and the basic farm and forest implements to do the heavy work.  With 'winter canola' we can double-crop with veggies in the Summer.  After thinning the tree 'plantations' for lumber and firewood, we can run livestock in the forests, as in the old days.

To husband the diesel, we have a substantial number of bicycle riders here.  Obviously, more of us would have to work on our butt calluses, but I can easily bike to Hood River and back in a day.  Pushing it, I can make it to Vancouver or Portland and back.  If we run out of gasoline for our chain saws, we still have 'misery whips' and axes around here.  And, despite the fact that I would be sore for a week after a day's worth of such work, I would have enough firewood on the ground for a Winter season.  If electricity supply becomes problematic, we can go back from freezing to drying and canning - but some of us actually have the systems in place to supply some basic level of solar- or wind-derived electricity for our immediate needs.  (Might have to go back to harvesting and storing ice from nearby lakes in Winter; but, as the name of our nearby "Icehouse Lake" implies, that's doable, too.)

Where does the "planning" apply?  Essentially, it's implied in the time spent on skill development, fitness maintenance, infrastructure provision - and community esprit enhancement.  What is your plan?

That's my message for fellow USians.  It's never too late, until it's too late, to paraphrase a great American philosopher.  As for you Yurpians - please be ready to open the door to your friends, just in case.  I'm staying with my ship in any case - except for visits - but there may be refugees from less hospitable regions who will need your indulgence, and sooner than we like to contemplate.

Lucky for you that you had 36 years of cheap fossil fuels to get where you are today. Retirement, perhaps?, in a "little rural enclave".

My goals, when young, always included a rural bias. I started to head back to the land with my young family when I was 27. That, of course, meant that I was part of the long-distance daily commute for 36 years (and was, therefore, a serial polluter on a significant scale). It also meant that I built up my garden and other rural accoutrements gradually and within my means.

And this is precisely the problem, in my opinion, on both a micro-scale and a macro-scale. The only way most Americans, er USians, can replicate what you advocate is to follow a similar high-polluting life choice while building up a green arsenal.

We, as people of this plant, cannot afford to have more "serial polluters" working in one area and living in another. We're over the redline for greenhouse emissions  already, this approach will not work and without the 'city' job funding the 'rural' survivalist lifestyle, it is a fast road to poverty, in my view.

On an international level, this is life the West, especially the U.S., living the modern fossil fuel lifestyle and becoming prosperous and then telling the developing world - that sorry the way to become prosperous is to burn fossil fuels, but its too late for that because the West has burnt too much already.

It's never too late, until it's too late, to paraphrase a great American philosopher.

But I think it is too late to follow your specific example. Another path must be blazed. The destination may need to be the same, but the world cannot afford any longer for Americans to travel there in the same way.

by Magnifico on Mon Sep 14th, 2009 at 05:11:22 PM EST
True.  And were Paul 27 today I suspect he would chose a different path. These problems have been and continue to be an existential dilemma.  For 27 years while raising a family in Los Angeles I lived in the San Fernando Valley and worked in the Basin, most of the time somewhere within seven miles of the intersection of the 405 and the 10 in West LA.  My average commute was about 25 miles each way.

I read The Limits to Growth when it first came out in paperback and it seemed well presented and intuitively obvious to me.  I responded favorably to Jimmy Carter's infamous "sweater speech", a member of a decided minority.  Had I done the "smart" thing and towed the official line on wars and foreign policy I would have been able to get a job with one of the defense contractors, say Hughes, could have purchased a house on the West Side while the rents were still low, had a short commute and ridden the real estate escalator to a significant personal net worth by age 35.  

But I never even tried.  I despised the Vietnam war and everything that supported it and didn't even want to apply for a job that might require a security clearance.  I loved the technology involved in the defense industry but unfortunately was encumbered with a conscience.  In 1978 I was offered a job at Hughes in technical instruction.  It was tempting, but I would have literally been teaching mixed classes of Greek and Turkish military personnel how to use the same weapons systems!  I knew that I could excel at that task, and I was assured that they got along well in class but teaching Greeks and Turks how to kill each other I found unacceptable.

Instead I built recording studios, deferring income that never actually materialized and ended up in electronics contracting, earning less than I could have.  I loved the work and could sleep at night, but ended up with a 40-50 mile daily commute in order to have a single residence dwelling in an area with acceptable schools that I could afford: Van Nuys -> Reseda -> to Northridge over 27 years.

Where we find work and where we chose to reside are complex choices.  I have always supported policies, such as mass transit, that would reduce the impact of such choices, but was never in the position to personally benefit until we found commuter buses that my son could use to commute 35 miles to college while living at home.  Nor were such choices mine alone to make, once I was married, if I wanted to stay married and be a part of my son's life. This is something we all face--a dilemma of our existence.

For me the compromise consisted of driving Japanese cars and putting close to 200,000 miles on them before donating them to charity for the tax deduction.  From 1972 until the mid-'90s the wife's vehicle was a 1972 Honda Z-600, with a 600cc engine!  Got >40 mpg and would pull the Sepulveda grade southbound without dropping below 50mph and requiring a downshift!  We both loved that car.  I drove a '67 Toyota Corona with a 2 liter engine that was almost a hot rod, then a '78 Corolla wagon, a Volvo 140, a Mazda and an Altima, all the while doing my part to melt the polar ice caps.

What can I say?  It was the best I could do?  The greater problem is that the American Suburban Middle Class even now refuses to consider that this must and will change.  The real challenge will be managing that change while retaining any vestige of democratic governance.  Treasure all of the allies you can find, regardless of how sordid their past.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Sep 14th, 2009 at 11:24:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
man i feel your pain ARG... compromises always leave some blood on the walls. well done for listening to your inner yearning to live more appropriately than the model the cultural forces were pushing you towards. you certainly have a more interesting story to tell because of your choices, and those years of better sleep will help you stick around longer, and help educate future generations. i'm sure your efforts to hew to principle have done much to encourage others to strive similarly.

great diary, paul. well written and personal. i really liked your inclusiveness.

@magnifico... i see it differently. the means used to reduce carbon eventually first used more, (the 'speeding up to get to the rest spot' syndrome.)

ultimately though the means to get there (simpler, less consumption-driven life) can be upgraded, what's important is to keep the thread unbroken between city and farm, and to keep alive the knowledge and skills.

with the global exodus towards cities, any move the other way is worthwhile in the interests of balance.

there are already too many overcrowded cities, overdependent on fossil fueled supply lines.

some people will still move from countryside to city without any economic pistol goading them, for though farming supplies physical needs, it cannot concentrate culture like cities can, so we need transport and travel between the two, though i suspect it will have to be a lot more ecologically justifiable than popping out to the local bigbox supermarket a few dozen driving miles away for something trivial, or just going out for a spin.

it comes down to country culture desperately needing right sustenance revival, and public and/or private transport that is both carbon neutral and plentiful, both tough nuts to crack, though i believe we the people have all kinds of intelligent solutions that are being and have been suppressed in order to keep the dying elephant stagger on another few miles.

but die it must, and unless more people do similarly to paul, there will be far too many city folk wondering where their next meals are coming from, and realising late in the game that farming is not going to be as simple as chemfert-plough-herbicide-combine-truck-to-table has been making it since the beginning of the last century.

it's not whether we can't afford it, we have to, instead of dismissing it we need to make it easier and above all ecologically cheaper, that way removing, by incremental amelioration, the validity of your objection.

some things are worth the cost, most aren't. time's lessons will add considerably to our somewhat atrophied powers of discrimination in this regard, methinks.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 03:20:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I read The Limits to Growth when it first came out in paperback and it seemed well presented and intuitively obvious to me.
How unserious™ of you. Don't you know that book is still not even wrong  even after its third edition?
In 2008 Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia published a paper called "A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality".[5][6] It examined the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book's predictions of economic and societal collapse in the 21st century.[7]

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 04:06:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We need a mechanism that rewards Unserious PeopleTM when, after 30 years, they are proven right.  I want my prize!

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 09:38:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And were Paul 27 today I suspect he would chose a different path.
I am in a very small minority among my immediate coworkers riding the tram to work. Most drive, some of them up to 30 miles (in heavy traffic, so lots of pollution). And the development model I see in the outskirts in Madrid is just like California's suburban sprawl. Outdoor malls with fast food restaurants, pillbox shopping and entertainment centres, the lot.

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 04:10:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
for defending me - but Magnifico has a legitimate point. I can list some mitigating factors, but, ultimately, I was exploiting the situation/system. I got mine, so to speak.

The diary, however, was simply using my experience to try to demonstrate some lifestyle - what shall I call them? - imperatives, perhaps. Skill development, physical labor, simple recreation, and political/social involvement are my prescriptions. They are all important factors in the present and - in my opinion - will be more important in the future - especially in the U.S.A.

I left out some of the more speculative elements of the rural/urban interface in the future. Melo touched on some of them in his comment. The interdependence of the two sectors is skewed a bit: the urban areas are more dependent on the rural for essentials. And I don't think that urbanites - and suburbanites - appreciate that fact. When disruption occurs, the urban areas are going to need plenty of spokespersons with some 'standing', such as myself, to maintain the interface. The simple fact is that we can survive out here on the land, and the urban areas cannot - at least they cannot survive intact.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 10:47:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was less defending you than joining you in the defendant's box, Paul.  But honest, Judge, I didn't want to do it!  Life just made me do it! ;-/

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 02:53:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... acting collectively, even as a minority but one willing to vote transport as their primary local issue, gaining a dedicated transport corridor can cut the vehicular commute down to NEV range, an outer suburban village with far less reliance on petroleum comes into the realm of the possible.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 12:42:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The wars are in Southwest Asia.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 01:08:51 AM EST

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Tue Sep 15th, 2009 at 10:47:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
by wu ming on Tue Oct 13th, 2009 at 08:29:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's interesting to think about how much of a family's annual food supply could be grown on a typical suburban lot. Typically in the U.S. they're around 1/4 acre, 836 square meters, with maybe a 2500 square foot, two story house, which would cover around 116 square meters, so maybe there's around 600 square meters after accounting for driveways and stuff.

That's around 0.06 hectare (oh, wonderful metric system!). What would you grow? Potatoes, I suppose, and beans of some sort...

by asdf on Tue Oct 13th, 2009 at 11:10:46 PM EST
600 sq metres is more than enough to provide all a family's veggie needs for the year (depending on local climate, of course).
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Oct 14th, 2009 at 02:25:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
2.000 square meters, but there are setbacks for both well and septic system - especially for the drain-field. Still, the garden space would easily be the size that you suggest, including flower borders.

As to what to grow - that is rather particular to your diet and to climate/soil/insolation. Generally, I would always grow beans; because there is almost always some variety that will work in your area, most beans are good for both you and for your garden soil, and the yield is usually higher for beans than for most other garden crops. Beyond that advice, though, I suggest that you should look to the locals or to the local Extension Agent of your state's land-grant college (Washington State University here).

I recommend 'dwarf' fruit trees, too - again, whatever works well in your area. For instance, I planted a Hale-type Peach tree about 20 years ago, and it suffered badly from a 'leaf-curl' problem. I finally cut it down and planted a variety with known resistance to leaf-curl (in a different location), and we harvest peaches by the dozens now.

As mentioned in the diary, all of these benefits demand a fair amount of work (the good kind in my opinion) and attention. That's probably the main point.

As to annual food supply - I estimate that Mirta and I raise about 60% of our food. If we were Vegan, we would probably raise 90% of our food. Since we're not, we give away that difference.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Thu Oct 15th, 2009 at 07:22:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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