Saturday, February 21, 2009

Changes to the blog

Regular readers will notice I've been making some changes to the blog lately. Been playing around with the way the sidebar looks, changing the way I link to my favorite blogs, showing links to related posts in a widget after each post, messing with the html code to tweak things, etc.

Everything looks good on my end. But if anybody sees anything that looks haywire or off, please let me know. Also, if you think my blog could use something different or would function better with some kind of adjustment, tell me. You want me to focus my content on some particular aspect of living the rural, poor, biological farm life? I'm all ears (no corn pun intended... seriously).

Though I do this blog partly for my own personal satisfaction, it's also about communicating with and sharing ideas with other folks, both those I already know and those I've yet to correspond with. So, let me know if you've got some ideas or thoughts. Comments are a good way to do it, but email (ramblinjoe[at]gmail) works as well.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Economy: It's hard work

You've been hearing it all over the place, probably every single day for the last several months: the economy sucks. Everyone says it. And it sure looks like it, with people losing their jobs left and right.

I know a little bit about this. I've been looking for work on and off for the past several months, and I can tell you that the available employment situation in central Wisconsin has worsened considerably--and it wasn't even that great to begin with. In the middle of '08 I would say there were plenty of jobs available, albeit not-so-desirable jobs, but still, plenty of jobs. Now, well, it's slim out there. Back then, a non-specific job search on the local daily newspaper classifieds yielded about 15-20 new job postings a day. Now you get that many new job postings every five days or so.

Still, in 08, wife and I combined made more money than we ever did as a couple. But we still struggled to make it at the end of the year. I don't exactly know why. For one, we probably spent more in general (that tends to happen when you make more money). For another, food and fuel costs were way up (though, we were less impacted by food prices because of our involvement with local agriculture). Regarding fuel: since we've lived in this apartment (it's been over four years now) we've managed to, on average, cut our electricity usage year to year. Electricity runs everything in our apartment (heat, stove, hot water, etc.). And yet, our electricity bills have continued to rise, this past December being the highest bill ever. Granted, it was cold, so heat was being generated at a high rate. But still, what kind of encouragement is that? People learn to use less, people cut back, but costs continue to rise. What's that? It's a dysfunctional economy.

That's right, the economy isn't bad, it's fundamentally dysfunctional.

I understand there are holes in my examples above. I do admit that we probably spent more in general. But ask my wife, she thinks I'm pretty extreme about avoiding purchases, so my idea of increased spending is probably a bit overstated. And I do admit that the winter has been cold. But if you look at the raw numbers provided on our little electric bill you can see that we've done a pretty damn good job of cutting our kWh usage in relation to heating/cooling degree days.

I think it has gotten to the point where if you live most of your existence in the mainstream American economy, you have few options to control your own livelihood--unless, of course, you desire money, pursue it, and are good at attaining it (the shortcomings of money coveting is a topic for a different post). For the rest of us who hold different values, our only opportunity for making a living, in my opinion, is to reject the dominant economic paradigm.

(What I'm about to say, I'm fully aware, is not anything new. It's all been said before. But now's the time for us to really consider viable alternatives to an economy that's been broken for so long. Perhaps this is the first time in several decades where a critical mass of people is willing to really question the way things are run and how it affects their daily lives. I'm just a messenger trying to straddle the divide.)

So, if I want to cut costs, take gentle steps on the Earth, and live a more satisfying life, I need to either change the deeply entrenched economic system (which many people much smarter than me have been trying to do for so many years now, to nearly no avail) or a bunch of us need to opt out and make our own economy (which is already happening successfully in small patches throughout the world). Whichever path one chooses to take to an alternative economy, it's gonna involve a rededication to good old human labor.

In the alternative economy I'm directly responsible for my heat, for example. If I'm using wood, the biggest "cost" is personal labor, which involves me and my neighbors actively managing a forest, cutting down some trees (or clearing dead timbers), hauling wood, and maintaining a heating system. But (here's a major key) it's not a cost in the traditional sense, with the proper mindset, because my labor is enjoyable. I get to be physically and mentally active (it keeps me healthy in more ways than one), in many cases I get to be outside (which I think is a built-in human desire), and the cash money I need to spend on such an activity is minimal. No doubt, physical labor and active, meaningful problem solving aren't always a "good time," but far worse is paying the utility provider, who you have absolutely no sway with. (And really, we pay money to go to college or work out at the gym, when a good majority of both meaningful education and physical wellness can be provided through truly productive personal labor.) If I'm providing my own utilities, on the other hand, I guide the entire process: I make the decisions that affect me--not some faceless, sprawling company who doesn't have a meaningful relationship with me or have my interests at heart.

Two things about this economy. Despite the way I describe it, it's not an "I" economy; it requires people consciously working together. Imagine that. It requires community. In that sense, it is much more like the way we have lived for the majority of our time on this planet. The other thing: using wood for heat is only a convenient example; this economy is a modern and forward-looking one that can utilize (when it comes to the example of energy use) things like solar forced-hot-air, earth-rammed construction, passive solar, and, really, anything you can think of that is not energy intensive.

So, I have a real stimulus package for you: we should learn to do things and make the majority of our decisions on a small-scale local level. But let's not be ridiculous about this. You don't have to be some jack of all trades, some complete do-it-yourselfer. It's the 21st century, and we've learned a lot, invented a lot of useful things. Specialization makes sense, but only if we have a general understanding and awareness of the system that makes it possible for us to live a good life. We need to make the system accountable to what we value. Then the possibilities expand.

But we can't be afraid to do a little bit of hard work.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Down the Canyon

With spring just around the corner and our imminent move to one of the most beautiful areas in the country just a few weeks away, I thought I'd post about our short adventure into another beautiful area of the country that occurred this past May: the Grand Canyon. Plus, this blog needs some pictures, and I got lots of decent shots of the Canyon while hiking from rim to river.

It was an experience. Six of us rented a van in Vegas and drove to the South Rim, knowing full well our backcountry permit had been denied in February because the corridor trails (South Kaibab and Bright Angel--the most maintained trails in the whole park) into the canyon are so popular. But we figured we'd get on the in-person waiting list and hope for the best. If we weren't successful, we'd just explore the upper regions of the canyon with several day hikes.

We made it to the South Rim, gear and people smooshed into the van (I told the annoyingly skeptical rental counter guy we could do it--that naysayer), and it was cold at night. Snow was still on the ground. Some of us were freezing in our tents. I was pretty warm though.

The next morning, we got on the waiting list, and we received the last available permit to do the hike. Some of us were a bit freaked out; some of us were pumped. We'd be going almost a vertical mile down and then up; in actual walking distance, it would be about seven miles down and around nine miles up. Not all in one day. Hike down, camp near Colorado River. Wake up next day, and hike out.

Next morning, we had to catch a 5:30 a.m. shuttle to get to the South Kaibab trailhead. Backpacks were loaded with clothes, quick-energy, high-protein foods, and various camping supplies. I had almost two liters of water clipped on to my pack. It was a chilly morning on the rim. But that would change.

The South Kaibab has some spectacular views. There ain't much in the way of trees or shrubs to impede your vision, which, as we would find out, makes for a warm sun beating down on you later in the day. But it was amazing to see the river get closer as we trekked onward.

We had several encounters with the NPS resupply mules and their rented bretheren that carry the non-hikers down to the bottom and back up. Give the mules room! Stay close to the inside of the trail!

The downward hike is more vigorous than one might think. It takes a toll on the legs always going down, down, down. And down (the South Kaibab is pretty consistent across the length of the trail when it comes to elevation change). And we shed layers as we went.

After the mainly desert/steppe environment of the South Kaibab, the bottom is like an oasis. The dammed-up Colorado is wide, tranquil, and beautiful. Bright Angel Creek, which roars down from the North side of the Canyon into the Colorado, makes you want to jump right in and cool off. Our rugged campsite was about 10 feet from the creek, and we enjoyed the sound of the rushing waters and the beautiful riparian flora.

Phantom Ranch is up the North Kaibab trail a piece, and after setting up camp, we headed that way. They have a small general store there (best lemonade and Snickers I've ever had), a kitchen (you must reserve a meal--and it's pricey), and park ranger workshops, as well as some cabins/rooms for those who don't like to camp. People who work in this remote village, live there. The rangers who work there live there for something like seven days at a time, then they get something like six days off, where they must hike up the canyon in some form or another, whether it's the backcountry or the rim. This consistent ascent and descent keeps them fit in case they have to run up the trails to help an injured hiker. You should see their calves.

So we took in a couple great ranger talks and then fell asleep early. We woke up early and hiked up the Bright Angel Trail. The Bright Angel is much different than the South Kaibab. There were several streams flowing across this trail in May, which is a welcome sight because you go through so much water during the heat of the day. I still was only carrying my nearly two liters of water, but because of all the flowing water (and my water filter), I wasn't really concerned about not having enough. Anyway, the Bright Angel is a much more lush experience than the Kaibab, but the tradeoff was that there were less grand views (but still lots of good ones).

So, the trail seemed easy at first (despite it being a much hotter day). We blew through the first half of it in no time, which made us a bit cocky about the ascent. But by the time we hit the Three Mile Rest area (that's three miles from the rim) we experienced a shift in the terrain. Those last three miles, and especially the last 1.5 miles, are a near constant climb. Frequent rest and food breaks were the norm.

But we made it back to the rim after several hours (I can't remember the specific time now). (And, just so we're clear, there were lots of people doing this hike. People of all ages and sizes. It just takes a little mental toughness and some sound preparedness.) We ate a large, warm, delicious meal at the surprisingly good Grand Canyon cafeteria, and then we took off for out-of-the-way places in Arizona.

The night ended in a cheap, rundown, dirty (did I say cheap?) hotel in Kingman, Arizona, where we treated ourselves to a sink full of beer on ice, Taco Bell, and The Flight of the Conchords.

One to remember.

(Note: Nothing I could do about the inconsistent formatting in this post. Blogger wasn't letting me put pictures where I wanted, so I did the best I could.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Parting with my shit

I put an ad up on Craigslist today to sell our bed, couch, microwave, TV, and other various crap. And it wasn't 10 minutes before someone was emailing about the stuff. I was shocked. Mind you, this is central Wisconsin, and our city doesn't have its own Craigslist page. But now I know. Sold the TV, some fans, and a toaster oven in a matter of minutes (they were all dirt cheap). Someone already has dibs on the couch. And the bed is supposed to be looked at this aft.

Because I'm stupid and didn't think that people would be interested this quickly, I didn't even contemplate what it would be like to live without these things for about three weeks. I'm thinking, Damn, that's gonna suck. I was even thinking that about the stupid, crappy-ass TV that I hardly ever watch. What's wrong with me?

I mean, in reality, it will be no problem to live without these things. We'll make a nest of blankets on the floor of the bedroom and be perfectly comfortable. We'll set up our camping chairs in the living room and that'll be just fine. The TV and toaster oven are pretty useless anyway, in my opinion. And the fans: well, you know how damn cold it is here right now.

But then I can't help but think that it's such a shame to get rid of these items when we likely won't be able to buy replacements for them for anything close to what we're selling them for. In fact, it'll be a miracle if we ever own a nice king-size bed again. Who knows though, it's gonna be several months before we have to even think about replacing any of this.

It's stupid. We're so attached to our things. In the grand scheme, I'm glad that this move (because of its distance and the expense of renting a truck to haul stuff across the country) is forcing me to purge some of this crap.

After thinking on it a bit, I know that none of this stuff is really important, in the sense that I don't really need any of it to make it through this world (except for maybe the fans in the summertime, but that's not a hard replacement).

It's just hard, as a spoiled American, to get over the addiction to these material goods. I think I'm gonna combat the inevitable withdrawals by honing my building and repair skills; then, at least, my things will have some sort of real labor and satisfaction to them.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Always a challenge

The warmth is dissipating.

In other news, I pulled my spark plugs today and one of them was just doused in oil. "Not good," I thought to myself. From what I gather, I have to replace the valve cover gasket. This will be a new project for me. Let's hope it goes well and solves my problem. But this discovery stopped me from changing the plugs, which in turn stopped me from changing the oil, rotating my tires, and performing other vehicle maintenance. However, I did replace our broke-ass toilet seat and put new wipers on my car. At least something got done.

Saw the movie W. this evening. Wasn't really impressed. I guess I'd call it so-so. The Washington Post (I think it was last year) did a much more interesting job with their fabulous reporting of the ins and outs of the Bush administration. And PBS had something similar (and equally as riveting) to the Post. Stone seemed really afraid to show us the finer details of Bush's early life in this movie, which is understandable, but it really made the film drag. Perhaps the movie industry should have waited about 10 or 20 years before tackling this project; then it could have been a bit more bold and confident in its final product.

Well, bed calls. Wish me luck so that I don't permanently damage my car tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

One way you know your job is good

So, this was an approximate conversation I had while bagging up some potatoes at a local potato farm a couple weeks back--

Joe: I like the yellow-fleshed potatoes. Mmm. They're so yum.
Jenna: Yeah, me too.
Paul: Yeah, but russets are good for baked potatoes. You gotta give 'em that. They're nice and meaty.

(Quiet. Chuckles.)

Joe: Ummm... (looks at Paul suspiciously).
Paul: (Shifts eyes. Cracks a slight smile.)
Joe: Well, I don't know about meaty. I'll just have to take your word for that one, Paul.
Jenna: Ha. Paul the meatman.

Sparked by that exchange, hilarity ensued during the next two days of work. Unfortunately that was pretty much the end of the winter potato season.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Yesterday when I went outside I was quite stunned by the "heat" in the air. It was in the mid-30s. Today, I wake up and I see snow melting off the roof. Here it is, just before noon and it's in the lower 40s. The typical January thaw is a little late this year. Let's hope this year we skip the brutal cold spell that usually follows one of these thaws.

So today we're gonna really try to get things going over here on the moving front. Maybe put the old beat up recliner on the curb and pack up books and other little-used stuff. Or maybe I'll get under the car and do the oil change and remove that annoying heat shield that's sitting on my exhaust. Or perhaps I'll do both. But I figure this is the weekend to officially get under way, it being a little more than a month before moving day. Not looking forward to it, but this is not something to procrastinate. Right? Right.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Buying local: Frank's Hardware

Who frequents an independent hardware store? It's probably rare in these days of Lowes, Menards, and Home Depot. But, I'll tell you, I'll take Frank's Hardware over any of them, any day of the week.

I went to Frank's today because I needed to do something that I knew I couldn't do at any one of the big places. See, I needed a particular tool. I needed to find a socket that fit my engine oil drain plug. I've done my own oil before with borrowed tools, but my absentmindedness stopped me from noting what size wrench/socket I used to do the job. All I knew was that my own tool set didn't contain the right tools. So, I figured I either must pinpoint what size socket I needed or just buy a whole set of sockets that were larger than what my current tool set contains. Anyway, finances being how they are, I decided on the former. And I knew that there was only one place that could help me.

So I went to Frank's, the local, independently owned hardware store in Stevens Point, which still survives despite the long presence of several national retailers who offer better prices than they do. But they survive for a reason. And I'm about to tell you why.

Not a minute after I walked into the store, an employee came up to me and asked me if I needed help (this is standard at Frank's). And it wasn't just some random person hired off the street; this guy had some knowledge (also standard at Frank's). I explained my situation and he immediately had some suggestions for me (again, standard). And then he handed me a bunch of different sized sockets and told me I was free to go out to the parking lot and check to see if they matched what I was looking for. After two trials I found the exact thing I was looking for, a 19mm socket. $2.40 later (as opposed to $18 plus for a set of larger metric sockets), I was all set, going home with exactly what I needed--nothing more.

I know this sounds like some sort of advertisement, but make no mistake, time and time again I've found that a local establishment, run by local people, with local connections, is almost always better than the alternative. These folks have a vested interest in their community, whether they be hardware, agriculture, or food service. I hope we start to realize that these are the people that keep not only our communities going, but also our economy.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Cross-quarter day and roots

Yesterday was a cross-quarter day--the midpoint between the solstice and the equinox. For many traditional cultures, the day was important: it marked the approximate beginning of spring. While it certainly doesn't feel like spring out there, I can understand where these people were coming from. After a hard winter, it's nice to anticipate warmer weather knocking on the door. And in some places it is here. Even in Wisconsin we had a thaw day recently, with more to come this weekend.

Now, in the U.S., Feb. 2 is officially Groundhog Day. I don't know about the groundhog. I'm just glad Hallmark doesn't own the day and we don't give each other crappy cards for no reason. For others past and present the day is/was called Imbolc, Candlemas, Oimelc, Lupercalia, Feast of Nut, etc. It was an important day because time and place meant a lot to the livelihood of the people who celebrated it. Now it's mostly just a silly day.

But I sort of celebrated the day by reflecting and taking stock. It made me think about the food we stored this year. The midway point between the astronomical seasons seems to be a good point to reflect on such a thing. It is also a rough midpoint between last harvest and next harvest.

It was our second year of storing crops in earnest. This year was by far the most food we've stored, with something like 100 lbs at the start of the storage season. Our method of storage is pretty crude: we have a tiny apartment that doesn't offer much variation in temperature or humidity from room to room, so we're pretty limited as to what we can offer our veggies.

Potatoes live in an Empty Beer Box in the Living Room Closet™, which is adjacent to the outside wall of the apartment and thus is the coldest space. Winter squash lives in a paper grocery bag underneath the kitchen table. Onions and garlic live on the bottom shelves in a lower cabinet in the kitchen. Carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, cabbage, celeriac, radishes, beets, and turnips live in various places in the fridge (mostly the crisper, but the crisper can't hold them all at the beginning of the storage season). We've got peppers of all kinds sliced up in the freezer and dehydrated tomatoes in a bag in the cabinet. Some carrot-habanero sauce in a jar in the fridge. And we've been long done with our frozen salsa and tomato sauce.

Storage has gone amazing this year, considering the less-than-ideal conditions of our apartment (we do keep it relatively cool though, for many reasons).

Potatoes (especially the russets) are just now starting to shrivel a bit and the sprouts are starting to get out of hand (because they want to be planted soon!). The yellow-fleshed varieties seem to be holding up the best. Luckily I just reupped my stash of locally grown yellow potatoes, which have up till now been stored in ideal conditions (it was a fringe benefit from a good job).

Squash is doing exceptional, aside from the two red kuris we lost to rot about a week ago (if you've ever tasted them, it is a real loss). The acorns, which are still good and solid, have turned all orange!

Garlic and onions are as good as new, and we have a lot of them left, which is awesome.

Everything in the fridge is still doing well aside from a few cabbage, parsnip, daikon, and celeriac casualities at various points throughout the winter.

The tomatoes are perfect.

And we have a few peppers left in the freezer.

So there it is. Lots of real food left to bring us through the next couple months, which I'm so grateful for. It took a lot of hard but ultimately satisfying work to grow, care for, harvest, and store them. Next summer/fall we'll see about doing more dehydrating and canning.