A boy of seven years age came by to visit. We made a fire in my Russian stove and sat there watching it burn. "Burning trees is polluting to the environment", he said. "But I think it is still better than the other, regular, way to heat your house". Why young children are burdened with this information at an age when they don't have the power to do anything, to make decisions or implement changes in their lives, I don't know. Perhaps it makes parents feel good to have these politically correct conversations with their children.
Is there a better way to introduce sustainability/ ecology/ environmentalism into your life; such as through real practice?
When considering the "real practice" of living sustainably, the question is: are there many, many ways to do things? Yes, because there are many, many barrels of oil. Is there but "one way" that things should be done? Yes, maybe it is not just as narrow as a "way" but more of a "corridor" within which some variation is possible. But in essence there is only One Way That Leads to an Ecologically Sound Life. That is not a very pleasant thought in this age of uber-self-expression; no-limits and liberation from manual labor. One gallon of gasoline is energetically equivalent to 500-600 hours of manual labor. The value of manual labor compared to gasoline is therefore somewhere around 0.6 cents per hour; and that represents a lot of work we are not doing anymore!
The manual work that comes with living sustainably, on this blog is called the Quiet Work; it de-mechanizes our lives increment by increment, and it quiets and elevates the spirit, making us more able to further this pursuit. Quiet Work is joyful and is done because it is fulfilling and satisfying. Which form of Quiet Work appeals to you? - Growing, foraging, working with hand tools, building, mending, sewing, cooking from scratch, baking bread, washing dishes by hand, sweeping, collecting firewood, composting, drying garments on a cloths line?
Lets begin with growing.
Growing your own food sounds very lovely, and truly we applaud all attempts out there to do so. However, it is less clear how to determine which foods exactly can be grown sustainably. Baby lettuce or other greens in the Southwest? It (the lettuce) contains 52% water, not a good match to a very dry hot climate. Corn in a tiny school yard anywhere? It (the corn) is heavy feeder, meaning it depletes soil; it also needs a relatively large stand of plants to pollinate and set fruit - not a good choice for small places with poor soils.
In search for answers permaculture teaches us to observe the patterns around us - not only patterns of nature but also patterns in culture - and that is how we can determine what is best grown in a particular bioregion. What did people traditionally eat in your area? In the Southwest, much praise is given to corn, squash and beans, yet if you garden you quickly learn that this is only part of the total lore. These crops take a lot of space, and are not best for small scale gardens. To produce enough corn or beans to matter in your diet, you will have to plant a very considerable area. Squash grows well unless stink bugs get it, which they do in majority of places that have been gardened or farmed. To harvest and clean and store enough corn and beans, you would likely need a more sizable family that most of us have. But go the farmers' market or open a good Southwestern cookbook and find a list of other, much more realistic crops to plant: onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins etc.
The next question is how much to grow to make it matter beyond a few ingredients in a handful of meals in August, when the harvest begins. It is easy to have tomatoes for a few weeks, fresh; but it a whole other level of commitment to have them all year round, dried or canned - and that is how you can disconnect from buying them. While our ancestors passed the experience to their children, we are left with the task of figuring things on our own. What we can grow successfully and with joy, and within the external limitations of time, space, natural resources? In my garden the list is short but sweet: tomatoes (50 plants feed two of us until next crop comes in - canned + dried), garlic, onions (350 plants support all our canning inspirations and provide fresh onions), pumpkins (3-4 plants feed you for several years, stored). Carrots and root crops work well, though storing them is not easy for us, so we plant for fresh eating and for making sauerkraut and pickled beets. Various herbs - for making teas and for cooking; leafy greens of the tough kind (perennials like french sorrel, salad burnett; and annuals like lamb's quarters, chard, kale). We grow asparagus (a patch will produce for nearly two decades; 6-8 weeks of spears each year - and it freezes well). And we buy all other vegetables (lettuce greens during warm months, peppers and cabbage, potatoes etc).
We also remember that no matter the climate, the easiest way to grow your own food is by growing a perennial polyculture of plants (also called in permaculture a food forest). More on this in the next post -