Going Feral

Cherie said she’s imagined the opening scene from a documentary.  Our children are on camera and an off-screen voice asks, “When did you first notice that your parents were going feral?”

We’re eating more wild edibles these days and we’ve taken to sleeping outside. I know that for many readers of this blog those facts aren’t particularly remarkable, but they’re way outside the cultural norms these days.  Plenty of people would see them as evidence that we’re going feral.

So be it.  Sleeping outside this time of year is wonderful.  The air is cool, the sky is beautiful, the lightning bugs are entertaining and the nightsounds are enjoyable.  It’s not quiet outside at night.  The frogs and crickets keep up a steady hum, punctuated by the calls of whippoorwills and the occasional owl. Less pleasant, but interesting, are the howls and yips of coyotes.

I’m an early riser, but sleeping outside wakes me even earlier.  Not just because the rooster starts crowing well before sunup, but primarily because daytime arrives much sooner than we realize when we’re sleeping indoors. And at dawn the air is crowded with birdsongs, nature’s alarm clock.

I don’t think there’s any danger of us becoming entirely undomesticated, but I do hope we keep stretching the boundaries.  I hope we keep going feral.

I’ve Got Worms

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It takes effort to keep the soil fertile when growing food organically.  That’s especially true for us, as we don’t use any off-farm inputs for fertilizer, even those approved for organic use.

With 10-10-10 not an option, we have a fertility toolkit that might seem strange to a conventional farmer these days, but would have made perfect sense to a farmer a couple of generations ago.  We use cover cropping, crop rotation, compost, manure and chicken litter–as farmers have since the dawn of agriculture.

And now we’re also using aerated “worm tea,” taking advantage of our composting worm bin.

We start with an old chest freezer in the basement, which serves as our worm bin.  Of course it’s not necessary to have an old chest freezer to have a worm bin. Simple directions for making them out of plastic bins are HERE. (We have this kind of bin too).

Our bin isn't pretty, but it's functional.  This can be done on a small scale in an apartment or home.  No big ugly freezer needed.

Our bin isn’t pretty, but it’s functional. This can be done on a small scale in an apartment or home. No big ugly freezer needed.

We dump our tea leaves and coffee grounds (with filters) into the bin.  The worms eat the tea and coffee and turn it into worm castings–nature’s finest plant food. Of course the worms will eat anything that decomposes, but we just limit ours to tea, coffee, paper and some occasional eggshells. It’s a good way for us to get rid of those items and we don’t have to worry about smell or attracting flies.

To make the tea, you’ll need an air pump, air stone and a piece of piping to connect them.  These are inexpensive and can be found anywhere that sells aquarium supplies.

Put the stone into a bucket (I use a five gallon bucket) and connect it to the pipe and pump. You’ll have to weight the air stone down with a rock.

Add water to the bucket along with worm castings.  You can either put the castings into an old sock or stocking tied off at the top, or just dump them into the water.  I’ve done it both ways but you’ll have to strain it either way if you’re going to use a sprayer, so I don’t see an advantage to the sock method.

Add a couple of spoonfuls of molasses and let the concoction brew for 24 hours or more.  The beneficial aerobic microbes will be activated and will multiply during the process.

Tea brewing in our shed.

Tea brewing in our shed.

Then just feed the tea to growing plants.  I strain ours and apply it with a garden sprayer. The plants love it.

It’s a win-win situation.  We provide a worm-friendly living environment and in exchange they give us worm poo to fertilize our gardens. For more info, just google “worm tea” and you’ll find lots of websites with all the info you could ask for.  One of many examples is HERE.

 

Play Time

It looks like we're fixing to need a bigger trough.

It looks like we’re fixing to need a bigger trough.

I helped the pigs have a little fun yesterday.

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I reckon this is the porcine equivalent of city kids playing in the spray from a fire hydrant.

***

Last night, like the other animals on White Flint, we slept outside.  Under a cool beautiful  star-filled sky we enjoyed the nightsounds, the lightning bugs and a good night’s rest.

After a cup of coffee (and a few minutes of my obligatory internet time) I’ll go back out to begin the new days work, assuring that I will sleep well again tonight. Under the stars.

In and Out

In and Out
by Philip Larkin

Raking a fire, November morning, out in the garden,
Fly from the embers, skirling upwards, black scraps of paper;
Yesterday’s news.
Today the news is fog has invaded, year has hardened.

Along the saltings, commas that rise and spatter a vast
Grey nowhere are suddenly birds; seen, they settle
Beakily, you think,
Embarrassed. Caught disturbing the year’s first frost.

Which is, after all, only a warning. Later it will be harder.

But, for the moment, riding past backs of houses,
How comforting to see, saffron in each dark block,
One lighted window.
Reliable men live there, pursuing reliable courses

Which will take them, you can be sure, out from the unimportant
Secrets of half-awake bedrooms, knickers, dropped socks, and turning
Away from the light
With luxurious grumbles, wives who’ve forgotten they met,

Into this now. Before starting, on bikes with boxes
Wingnutted onto carriers, they’ll pause and take the perk
Mortgaged days earn:
A moment to rake the roundel of embers, find an astonishing glow.

It has lasted, against the odds, all the time they slept.

Yesterday’s news was bad: today’s will be much better.
Left out in the gathering frost, the fire kept in.
It took so little.
Quick, rake it together. Glittering nights are coming

And longer ones, too, that will test banked timbers and quell
Even the cheekiest birds until well past first light.
Simple lessons, then.
Learn to be still, and moving. There you are out, and in.

Source and more info HERE

Tanzanian Visitors

Thanks to Cherie’s efforts, our farm stay is now open and available (details HERE and HERE). Almost immediately after listing it on farm stay websites we had our first reservation.

This weekend we had our first guests: a Tanzanian farmer, a Tanzanian farm advisor and their American guide, a former Peace Corps volunteer who met them during her time in Tanzania.

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Our new Tanzanian friends were here to learn about sustainable chemical-free agriculture.  It was delight to exchange ideas and knowledge with them.

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They insisted on doing some farm work while they were here, so I gratefully allowed them to help me weed the beets and lettuce and lay drip tape.

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We loved sharing the message and having the opportunity to teach and learn from colleagues on the other side of the world who share our values and goals.

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A Good Day on the Job

The main character in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is a bond trader. There is an amusing scene in the book when the character is attempting to answer his young son, who has asked him what his occupation is.  It goes something like: “Hmm. Well, you know the bridges that we cross when we come in and out of the city,” he says.  “You build bridges!,” the child responds excitedly.  “Well, no, but…”

As difficult as it would be to explain bond trading to a child, I imagine that for a hedge fund manager who rakes in billions of dollars per year with a computer program that executes trades with lightning speed–never intending to hold onto a security, but only to grab quick profits as the price moves on the trades of others–it would be even harder.

But in fairness, I suppose someone has to shuffle the money around.  It wasn’t so many years ago that I was pretty good at cleaning up the messes those folks often made, and The Man would toss me a few of his crumbs for my effort.  I could have generally described my job to my young son, but the daily specifics would have been challenging to explain.

I had a pretty good day on the job yesterday. Some of the things I did not do: I did not obtain a temporary injunction, or effectively cross-examine an expert witness, or win a summary judgment motion, or discover a fatal technical deficiency in a pleading, or jet off to the other side of the world to interview a witness, or schmooze a client at a fancy restaurant, or eat Tylenol and drink coffee all day, or come home stressed long after the family had gone to bed, or sleep in an airplane seat, or cancel a family vacation due to an emergency hearing. Some of the things I did do: I tended to farm animals, I weeded beets and lettuce, I picked vegetables for the farmers market, I spent all day with my wife, I watched the sunrise and the sunset, I stayed home all day, I went to bed tired.

If a child should ask me to describe my job, I could do it.

Easily.

Back to Work

While technological change has been destroying categories of jobs and reshaping the world’s work force for centuries, lately the process is accelerating.

In the past, some new category of jobs has always emerged to largely absorb the workers displaced as some other category was mechanized/industrialized. So mechanization and industrialization of farms drove workers to factory jobs (and factory work increased as the former farmers now had more cash to spend on factory-made stuff). Then, as the factory jobs vanished (when factory owners relocated to places with cheaper available labor) the workforce transitioned into so-called “service” industry jobs.  But now that those jobs are also being outsourced/mechanized, the obvious question is what will replace them?

This post and related podcast at NPR provide some food for thought.  Are we moving toward a time when, thanks to robots and devices, there simply isn’t enough paying work to go around?  And if we continue to eliminate the need for workers, aren’t we thereby erasing the means by which we make those workers into the consumers necessary to make the economic machine function?

The concept of a guaranteed minimum income (GMI) has been generating a lot of discussion lately.  The idea is that every person would be guaranteed enough income to meet their basic needs, thus eliminating the necessity of employment for those unable to find work or those satisfied with a life at that income level. Proponents argue that there won’t be enough income-producing work to go around in the future and that the GMI would eliminate the necessity of working out of fear–presumably freeing people to pursue more meaningful work (or, I suppose, to spend all their time watching television). In theory, because most people would not be content to live on $12,000/year, they would still pursue and compete for jobs that would that would provide the money for more luxurious lifestyles.  The concept is predicated upon the elimination of our current $1 trillion annual “safety net” spending, which is why some on the right have been receptive to it.  But however interesting the proposal may sound, it’s not likely to get much traction. The economic feasibility of it is questionable.  And even as we slide ever deeper into a culture of dependency, by and large we still accept the idea that we should have to earn our keep.  It is interesting however to reflect on what a world might look like if people could choose their work with their basic needs (food and shelter) already met.

Whatever direction we may take, if we are headed to a future where waiters and check-out attendants go the way of elevator operators and gas station attendants, we may have millions of people with a lot of time on their hands.

I wonder if we might see the tide turn again in favor of agriculture.  Maybe we’ll end back where we started. Back to the garden.

All of which brings to mind a letter to the editor Wendell Berry wrote in response to an article advocating a shorter work week.  It is full of wisdom and among my favorite things he has written:

The Progressive, in the September issue, both in Matthew Rothschild’s “Editor’s Note” and in the article by John de Graaf (“Less Work, More Life”), offers “less work” and a 30-hour workweek as needs that are as indisputable as the need to eat.

Though I would support the idea of a 30-hour workweek in some circumstances, I see nothing absolute or indisputable about it. It can be proposed as a universal need only after abandonment of any respect for vocation and the replacement of discourse by slogans.

It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.

The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

And why should you not be affronted by some official decree that you should do less of it?

A useful discourse on the subject of work would raise a number of questions that Mr. de Graaf has neglected to ask:

What work are we talking about?

Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money?

How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work?

Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work?

For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself?

What are the ecological and social costs of your work?

If such questions are not asked, then we have no way of seeing or proceeding beyond the assumptions of Mr. de Graaf and his work-life experts: that all work is bad work; that all workers are unhappily and even helplessly dependent on employers; that work and life are irreconcilable; and that the only solution to bad work is to shorten the workweek and thus divide the badness among more people.

I don’t think anybody can honorably object to the proposition, in theory, that it is better “to reduce hours rather than lay off workers.” But this raises the likelihood of reduced income and therefore of less “life.” As a remedy for this, Mr. de Graaf can offer only “unemployment benefits,” one of the industrial economy’s more fragile “safety nets.”

And what are people going to do with the “more life” that is understood to be the result of “less work”? Mr. de Graaf says that they “will exercise more, sleep more, garden more, spend more time with friends and family, and drive less.” This happy vision descends from the proposition, popular not so long ago, that in the spare time gained by the purchase of “labor-saving devices,” people would patronize libraries, museums, and symphony orchestras.

But what if the liberated workers drive more?

What if they recreate themselves with off-road vehicles, fast motorboats, fast food, computer games, television, electronic “communication,” and the various genres of pornography?

Well, that’ll be “life,” supposedly, and anything beats work.

Mr. de Graaf makes the further doubtful assumption that work is a static quantity, dependably available, and divisible into dependably sufficient portions. This supposes that one of the purposes of the industrial economy is to provide employment to workers. On the contrary, one of the purposes of this economy has always been to transform independent farmers, shopkeepers, and tradespeople into employees, and then to use the employees as cheaply as possible, and then to replace them as soon as possible with technological substitutes.

So there could be fewer working hours to divide, more workers among whom to divide them, and fewer unemployment benefits to take up the slack.

On the other hand, there is a lot of work needing to be done—ecosystem and watershed restoration, improved transportation networks, healthier and safer food production, soil conservation, etc.—that nobody yet is willing to pay for. Sooner or later, such work will have to be done.

We may end up working longer workdays in order not to “live,” but to survive.

Wendell Berry
Port Royal, Kentucky