Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Toilet paper guilt

Recently, I read another article bemoaning the vast tracts of Canadian temperate forests being cut down and pulped to wipe our soft American bums.

This is not a new issue, and I have read similar articles in the past. Not much has changed.

We buy the recycle stuff most of the time, for added cost, but is there another way? How do people clean their anus in other countries? How did people do it here in the U.S. before mass consumer products started rolling out?

A quick visit to wikipedia and we find that toilet paper was actually first used in China in the 14th century. One more time we find that Western countries had a lot of catching up to do. But, I imagine the paper was mostly used in  the royal courts and wealthy homes.

More perusal of the wikipedia shows that people will use just about anything. The list is crazy. I guess if I could find some substitute that was effective and comfortable ( and with less impact to the environment), I'd be wiling to try it.

Last year, When we harvested our sweet corn from the garden, I saved some husks, and actually sorted through them finding mid layer husks that were softer that outer husks, but still large enough to be usable. I then flattened them and used sissors to cut them in to squares. They are still sitting in a box in my workshop................

But back to that guilt thing. I guess for me, and maybe many others, it's not so much guilty feelings, but rather a feeling of unease.

Update Apr 7, 2020:

I started this post months ago, and just left it in my draft folder, as it didn't feel finished, and it was goofy topic anyway. WHO KNEW!

With the current pandemic, we've now had TP hoarding, shortages, and articles on various alternatives to the current first world use of virgin tree fibers. While we try to use recycled TP, it is still a cost, and I wonder how much better it really is.

For, now should it come to it, Guess we may switch to "family cloths". Maybe in combination with a bidet? Since I already use a composting toilet, managing the ick factor is minor.

Anyway, the guilt is still there, because why haven't I switched already?

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

quick note on climate control

It is now late winter here, and the sun is gaining strength, climbing higher in the sky, and days are getting longer.

BUT, it is still winter, snow is still on the ground, and the average March will still get 7 inches ( 180mm) of snow in our region.

We are fortunate to have a large sunroom along the south face of our house, gaining warmth, and a good place to start garden seeds. 

When we have sunny days, and when it is warm enough in the sunroom, we open the sliding door, and let warm air enter to replace burning wood for the day.

How to know when it is warmer in the sunroom than the house? I have a very sensitive temperature differential sensor, and when it signals good conditions, we open the door, and monitor the sensor to know when to close the door in the late afternoon.

It's a bit low tech. I taped a small length of black thread to the top of the door jamb, and if the thread starts being blown in to the house, I know that warm are is moving in to the house in the upper half of the doorway, and relatively cooler air is flowing from the house out in to the sunroom in the lower half of the doorway. When the thread is no longer moving, or even showing flow out in to the sun room, it's time to close the door.

Yay for the buoyancy of warm air.

hopefully you can see the thread in this shot, showing warm air entering the house.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The life of a tarp

A tarp is a handy thing when you want to keep something dry, but don't have an industrial sized warehouse in the back yard. Now that we are hobby farming/homesteading, we have acquired some "stuff".  Some of it won't or shouldn't fit in the pole shed, and some of it is just temporary. We also heat with wood, and it should be kept dry to make the most of it. If I've split more wood than will fit in my storage sheds, I tarp it. (time build another wood shed!)

While it's not that green to go buying things made of plastic, I"m not a purist, and will buy things made of plastic when the need outweighs my desire to consume less.

There are actually several life stages of a tarp. Tarp in its initial setting sits on a shelf in a home improvement or hardware store. They used to be only blue, but now come in several colors.  Once purchased by the typical home improver, they might be used for about anything. They come in light duty, medium duty, heavy duty, trucker industrial duty, good old canvas, and even one called recreational. I have never had a recreational tarp, but suspect they are pretty flimsy, more for casual frippery and nothing serious.

While it depends on the application, I generally buy a medium duty, trying to go for the eternal compromise between short term and long term economics.

When a tarp is put to its first use, it is pretty much waterproof, and I use them for covering things that need the best protection, or that probably really should be stored inside. But after a few months, or a season, the wind and sun takes its toll. They begin to wear, and you can see wrinkles, light streaks of discoloration, and maybe even the beginnings of light showing through in pinholes. They are still pretty good, but might be leaking a bit, so moved down the hierarchy to slightly less demanding duty.

This new tarp is protecting a new electrical wood splitter we just bought. The splitter will get its own post later.

This tarp is protecting our grill/smoker. It's a bit older. but still in good shape.

Another season or two, and now they definitely leak, but only in areas, and most of the surface does deflect rain. Can still be used for things that can stand a bit of water. Maybe used for temporary coverage, maybe to cover a tiller or brush mower that ran out of gas before getting to the shed. Or covering a load in the pickup truck on a trip that threatens rain.

After another year or two, it is definitely tattered, and you wouldn't want to count on it for shelter in a rain. By this time, it is good for gathering leaves to drag to the mulch pile, or to catch wood chips shooting out of a chipper, but not much else. It can be in this stage for a couple years, if stored when not being used.

Once large tears have developed, it's pretty much useless, and time for the trash. They are effectively unrecycleable here.

Recycling has always been a bit of a conscience salve anyway, rather than a true implementation of a circular economy, but it has become even less effective since China stopped taking our poorly sorted detritus last year. I suspect much of it is going in to landfills now, but reducing plastic use can be hard to do completely.

I'm ready to try the used old billboard tarps next time I need new tarp. While they don't recycle either, at least I'm repurposing some plastic. Until I can figure out a better, more sustainable way, I will use tarps for temporary wether protection, and just use them for as long as I can.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Energy flows

It is winter here now, with about five inches ( 127 mm) of snow on the ground, with wind chills around zero F ( -18C). Pretty typical for a Wisconsin winter.

Plenty of activity around our bird feeders, especially the juncos hopping around on the ground. Since retirement, I spend a bit more time just watching and trying to grok the natural world around me.

The thought that keeps coming to mind as I watch from my warm home is how amazing it is that these little balls of fluff can survive and thrive in the cold, with so little food easily accessible. They enjoy the bird feeder, but do just fine without it. Their existence proves that their ancestors for millions of years managed without birdseed from the hardware store.

The same applies of course, to the other creatures that stay active all winter, but to me these little guys epitomize the ability to find a way to survive in marginal conditions. Heat loss is a function of the ratio between volume and surface area, so small birds are playing a tough hand in that respect.

The world, and the universe itself, for that matter, is a big old entropy generating engine, and we are all busy doing our part, consciously or not. I imagine there is some soil bacteria species that will find sustenance even in the tiniest spec of junco poop.

I'm no paleontologist, but my mental image of evolution goes like this:

The planet has many different energy flows happening continuously, with sunlight being the main one driving living systems, once plants figured out how to photosynthesize. Boy, wasn't that a great leap forward.

Then, as plants multiplied and got to crowding each other, evolutionary forces kicked into overdrive, with some plants growing taller to grab the sunlight first, or others changed other features to get enough energy to reproduce.

Before you know it, the tropics were packed, and some plants figured out how to withstand freezing by going dormant each winter or changing their internal chemistry. Thus plants crept toward the poles, covering more and more of the land. ( hmm, wonder what might have happened without our 23 deg. tilt?)

Insect and animal life came along over time, and they all figured out a way to harvest energy and reproduce as well. All along the way, more and more subdivided niches were filled, as one species or another found an energy flow to exploit.

And then Homo Sapiens came along. Our unique assemble of traits mean we are a generalist that can exploit many energy flows. Even fossilized carbon from millions of years ago. Oh, we'll finish extracting all that energy soon, and the food web will adjust accordingly.

The thing to keep in mind, with all these energy flows, is that each species finds a balance between population levels and the energy flow they are a part of. At the geological scale, our use of fossil carbon is a one time brief blip, and our numbers will readjust to the available energy, as the food web hopefully restabilizes in a complex, diverse new balance.

I'm thinking juncos will still be part of it.

Monday, November 4, 2019

demand side power management

This is a thought experiment on how a local community might utilize electricity on a completely solar powered resource.

The obvious changes and limitations from our current arrangement are radically less energy available, and much restriction on when the power is even available.

But let's say that we want to ( or simply must) power our village, town, or neighborhood with only solar power. Till now, it seems all focus is on how solar could replace fossil energy as we are currently used to using it. That ain't going to happen.

Rather than figuring out matching power output to demand, what if we matched demand to supply? Individual off gridders already do this, and seem to get by fine, though with different habits and patterns than the rest of us. What if a neighborhood or small town did this collectively?

It might look like this.

The power grid gets divided up into many microgrids, with optional connections to the wider grid.

All homes have solar panels if homes are situated correctly.

Some shared solar farms could also be part of the generation mix.

All energy users have smart meters, as well as smart disconnects, meaning a central coordinating function controls where and when available energy is routed if needed.

Someone(s) in the collective could manage and maintain the system. There doesn't have to be help from some distant on call utility office. This will be a big step toward self reliance.

Some sort of equitable allotment scheme would be created, and then schedules and rules would be followed which basically gave each household a turn at the power so the generation does not get overloaded by demand.

This really goes against the normal individualistic mind set and culture of America, but when the end of easy energy looms, compromise and collaboration may well be forced on us as the alternatives would likely be even less palatable.

The thought experiment gets interesting when you try to imagine what the fair rules and scheduling might be. How to share cost, how to allocate power- by size of family? Strictly by ability to pay? Some mix? What about medical needs? How might time slot trading work? What about time of use pricing, or peak use pricing?  Lots of questions come to mind.

How would you rearrange your life to use electricity only for certain stretches, and in only partly predictable patterns. Maybe  a collective choice to spend on more storage would improve flexibility and access, but would it be worth the ongoing cost? Each microgrid might decide for themselves.

I guess the first thing I personally would do is ruthlessly eliminate waste and inessential loads. Find new ways to do things without electricity, or don't do them at all.

Another big one for each house would be water use. In rural areas, everyone is on a well here in the midwest, with an electrical pump at the bottom of it. Increase or create aboveground storage? Have an extra large pressure tank and even a cistern? What about homes in an urban neighborhood on city water? How will local utilities power themselves and still provide sufficient water? I can see water bills going up. Less and very quick showers would become the norm.

Home heating is a whole other can of worms I won't go in to right  now.

Next would be learning how to time shift, and how to get household chores arranged so they are prepped and ready to go as soon as a sunny day occurs. Lots to think about.

Electricity will become very expensive, and thus husbanded like the unique resource it is. Could this concept even be affordable?

But at least we'd still have it for a while.

Friday, May 3, 2019

top down or bottom up

In responding to the unfolding environmental crisis, I am torn about what the best personal and societal response(s) should be. Sure seems like we are in new territory, there are so many variables in flux, with human hierarchies and psychology making it murky as to what are realistic options.

Top down solutions are not likely to be forthcoming, and bottom up change needs a great amount of anger before it explodes, and the results might not be optimal or as intended. Our collective brain wiring doesn't respond well to the diffuse, long term threat we have created.

It's an ongoing internal debate on how to proceed. 

For me, the choice is how much effort to spend on either personal, local change, or to put myself out there and advocate for wider, systemic change. One is direct and at least partly achievable, but the other is more daunting, and seems less likely to be of any significant impact, seeing how things are trending.

One can advocate by being an example, but sharing your example to more than the neighbors turns in to public advocacy.

( Gore was of course the poster child for the hypocritical inverse of this)

I recently read about the Christian dilemma which has a similar fork in the road to consider. Prolific writer Rod Dreher, has written a book and blogs a lot about the concept he calls "The Benedict Option". The concept is a bit tricky to grasp in terms of religion, but the base question it tries to answer, is how to respond to a world that is going in a direction that you feel is wrong? Do you hole up in a monastery, or redouble efforts to advocate/evangelize for your faith?


So the analogous situation for those who are  to the attuned to our unfolding environmental crisis is how to act? Should one hole up in a bug out getaway, eating foraged foods and going off grid, or joining forces and taking to the streets to demand the oligarchical political system change and react rationally?

Many options between those two poles exist, and as Chris has shared, some sort of split, parallel  effort could be managed by some.

 So is there a way to describe a sort of Benedict Option for environmentalists? Some way to be in the world but not of it, to borrow biblical phrasing. This is a sort of middle path, though how it could be lived out would vary considerably, depending on ones situation and personality. 

As I've mentioned before, for now, I plant trees.

And one more thought.. Are we truly at this epochal a turn, or does it always feel thus for people getting rushed along in the tumult and torrent of history?

Monday, March 18, 2019

A permaculture gathering

There is a young organization here in Wisconsin that is promoting perennial agriculture. Since I am trying to informally use a permaculture approach to our land, I decided to go see what others in the area are doing. The Savannah Institute hosted a gathering for permaculture approaches to food production couple months ago, so I signed up. ( I'm just now posting this!)

My first impression was, there are a lot of people here! Sometimes, when we chose an interest or specific path in life, it might seem eclectic or lonely, but the internet has enabled a lot of people to connect with their tribe(s). We are of course a tribal species. And let's face it, alternatives to conventional agriculture have been ascendant lately, so I thought the showing was good.

Second impression, since I knew no one there, was that there was a kind of "look" to the assemblage. Kind of farmer hipster look? Not suburban, but not full on bibs or clodhoppers? Or maybe I'm just out of touch on fashion for younger generations who also happen to be drawn to the land. Dunno.

I saw mostly young folks, but a few grey hairs sprinkled though the group. The oldsters were  pioneers, early adopters of sustainable food production methods. Good on them. The younger folks seemed to be very networked, and of course, full of enthusiasm, but short on resources to see their plans come to fruition very quickly.

Presentations covered orchard and fruit production, progress of hazelnuts as a new midwest crop, business plans for starting farmers, marketing, research reports, collective efforts, and so on.

Other thoughts on reflecting on the two days: There was a lot of enthusiasm there, both in the younger set, but also in the older folks, who were happy to see others taking up the quest. Farming is hard work, and trying to step away from conventional food production is even harder, but it felt like many there were "mission driven", to borrow a phrase.

The system as it works right now does not make it easy to acquire access to land, either conventional or alternative ways of growing food and stewarding the land. So these young folks have a tough row to hoe, so to speak. I wish them well, as they are the future.