Thursday, February 21, 2013

How I Got Here, part 5: Planning for Decline

You can find the previous posts in this series here, here, here, and here.

Moving from a small house on 1/8 acre to a small house on 1 acre provided many advantages. The much larger lot would allow me to raise both a larger proportion and a greater variety of the foods we eat. A small flower garden near the house included several peonies, a favorite flower of mine, and a magnolia tree graced the front yard. The property was located in the loess hills created by glacial processes so I knew it had deep and decent soil, and it sloped slightly to the south and east for a good solar aspect. The house was located close to the street and faced south, suggesting a potential for some passive solar heating. Mike and I had invited his parents to join us when we toured the property with the owner before negotiations began; we knew his father would be sure to tell us about any structural flaws the house might have. While the house did not show well due to worn out carpeting and linoleum, peeling plaster and paint, old fixtures and finishes in both kitchen and bathroom, and evidence of mold in the basement and the two back bedrooms, none of us could find any serious structural flaws. The cosmetic issues meant we could get the house for a price we could (barely) afford. Both the refrigerator and clothes washer were 1960s vintage, thus well past their expected life span, so we could replace them with far more energy efficient versions. The stove and oven unit and the clothes dryer were relatively new so we would neither need to replace them nor would gain an energy efficiency advantage in doing so. The previous owner told us the furnace and central AC dated from the late 1970s, so replacing them with much more energy efficient versions also made sense. We could replace all of the elderly appliances from what remained of a small inheritance I’d received a few years previously. The only work we needed to do before moving in, in addition to replacing the appliances, was to remove the carpeting and linoleum layers to expose the wood floor we expected to lay beneath them and hire out the floor refinishing work. We encountered a few surprises while removing the old flooring: some of the rooms had two layers of linoleum, others had a layer of carpet on top of linoleum, and some of the flooring had been installed using ring shank nails, making for slow progress in removal and plenty of cuss words uttered during the process. Once we got down to the wood floor, we found it was pine rather than oak and in the living room it had been stained darker than the rest of the flooring but along the edges only. We learned this pattern of staining was common to houses built around the same time as ours (1928). Typically a large rug covered most of the floor area in the living room so only the edges of floor that the rug didn’t cover were stained to whatever color the owner wanted. Oddly, when the floor was refinished the stained area ended up lighter in color than the rest of the floor!

By the end of April of 2002 we moved into the current house and sold the previous house. I dug up a few of the plantings from the old lot -- most of the herbs, some native plants and daylilies, and a few of the smallest trees and shrubs -- and brought them to the new lot, planting them into the front and side yards to keep them alive until I knew where they would find a more-permanent home. After the stress of the move I wasn’t up to more gardening that year, and just as well because I wanted to take the time to produce a good design.

I’d been studying permaculture design on my own for the past few years and now I wanted to use the permaculture design process to create a design for our yard. I had the first edition of Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture in hand as well as various issues of the quarterly magazine The Permaculture Activist (PCA). Hemenway’s book was the first book to focus on applying permaculture design in North America. It laid out a design process I felt I could follow without taking a permaculture design course that I didn’t have the money to take, so it became the main source I consulted in developing my design.

Part of the design process was to observe patterns of sunshine, wind, soil, and water flow for some time in order to best work with those crucial energies. The usual recommendation is to observe for a full year before beginning the design process. I didn’t wait that long to develop my design since I wanted to get the trees and shrubs I’d brought over, and others I purchased that spring, into their final locations by the end of autumn, but I did observe the energies from spring through mid-fall while I worked through the design process Hemenway described. When I was finished with the design, I’d laid out the bones for an edible forest garden for the front, side, and near back yards; a large sunny vegetable garden area occupying the middle back yard; and in back of the vegetable garden, on the highest, flattest, and most northerly part of the property farthest from the house, a prairielike area where the previous owner’s vegetable garden had been that will eventually be shaded out by large oak, pecan, hickory, chestnut, black walnut, and wild cherry trees, evocative of the oak-hickory savanna or woodland that was probably here before European immigrants turned it into an apple orchard and then a near suburb of St. Louis.

The next couple of years I concentrated on planting the tree and shrub layers and on getting the first few vegetable beds dug and planted. I did not design the herbaceous layer of the edible forest garden since I wasn’t sure what I wanted there and didn’t have the money for large-scale herbaceous plantings in any event. Instead I observed how what was there changed as the trees and shrubs grew. When I saw the lawn grass slowly weakening and violets, a favorite spring wildflower whose flowers are edible, taking over as shade increased, I was quite pleased (I’m not a big fan of lawns) and decided I could continue to wait to design the herbaceous layer while I concentrated on expanding the vegetable garden to the point where it provided us with the majority of the vegetables we eat. That basic design, with tweaks introduced as some plantings died and others proved disappointing, remains in place today and has proven to be well suited to the site energies and to our goals.

After the older appliances were replaced, we didn’t do any further work on the inside of the house. I wasn’t sure what to do about the mold problem and didn’t want to paint the walls till the mold problem was corrected. We knew the house needed to be sealed and insulated to further reduce energy usage and cold drafts but we didn’t feel up to doing the work ourselves, plus we were no longer saving money and did not want to reduce our interest income any further by using any of our investments to pay someone to do the sealing and insulation for us. For the same two reasons, we did not do anything further to enclose the south-facing front porch to turn it into a sun porch and solar heat source. While we didn’t give up on any of these projects, they would have to wait until we had the financial means to hire them out.

Until 2004 I hadn’t heard of the growing concern about peak oil (the time when oil production stops increasing from year to year because consumption has grown to the point where production can only keep up). I had kept track of our energy usage for the past 10 years, and we worked to reduce energy usage, for other reasons: because it cost money that we could better spend on things and activities we found more fulfilling; because we knew that fossil fuel consumption released carbon dioxide and that increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere threatened to push climatic processes into a different state that would probably lead to hotter and drier summers for us; and because we were attempting to live up to our practice of voluntary simplicity, of using less of everything so there would be more to go around.  It was reading Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies that woke me up to the imminence of the peak of petroleum production and the difficulties we’d all face as we hit and passed its peak. A review of the book in the winter 2003-2004 issue of PCA inspired me to read it. It is one of only a handful of books I have stayed up almost all night to read. As a chemist I was already well aware of the ubiquity of oil as feedstock: after oil is broken down into a variety of components, those components are then combined into many essential materials such as textiles, plastic and thermoset polymers, medicines, pesticides, cleaning products, and many others. I also knew that agriculture relied heavily on oil in the form of diesel fuel and that natural gas contributes the hydrogen to form ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process; the ammonia gas thus formed is the fertilizer of choice for the huge farms of the Midwest in which I live. With all of this background, the information I gained about peak oil and natural gas from Heinberg's book, and knowing that the end of energy growth is also the end of economic growth, I immediately understood the seriousness of peak oil and peak natural gas. It was time for us to get serious about further energy use reduction.

Some internet research through the Energy Star website led me to a concept called home performance. Home performance assesses potential problems with moisture levels and other air quality issues, leaky ductwork and other sources of air leaks into a house, missing or inadequate insulation, improperly sized HVAC equipment, and related issues by doing home energy audits and providing the owners with a detailed report and suggested improvements. In some cases the companies can also do the work needed to fix the problems. Mike had recently received a small inheritance and was willing to use his inheritance to pay to have this work done on our house if I found a contractor. In 2005 I found a contractor who could do the audit for us and who could do some of the work the audit indicated should be done and subcontract the rest. Once all the work was completed, a drainage system and sump pump had been installed to keep the basement dry; the crawlspace under the two back bedrooms had been sealed; the ductwork had been cleaned and sealed; other air leaks into the house had been sealed; the basement ceiling, attic floor, and walls had been insulated (the attic to R-44 and the rest to the extent the cavities allowed); the moldy wallboard in the back two bedrooms had been removed and new wallboard put up; and the leaking electric water heater had been replaced with a natural gas water heater. Testing after the work was completed revealed that the rate of air infiltration into the house had been reduced by 41%, our contractor told us. My records indicate that electricity usage went from 5237 Kwh in 2004 to 3103 Kwh in 2006, a 41% decrease, while natural gas usage went from 477 to 338 Therms, a 29% decrease, in the same time period. It had been work well worth doing.

For the next few years our main efforts focused on the nonprofit organizations we were members of and in two cases on the boards of, and on continued expansion of the vegetable garden as I waited for the fruit trees to mature enough to bear fruit. While I slowly got better at vegetable growing, the lack of further progress in energy reduction and continued excessive driving to execute our various responsibilities to the organizations we belonged to were a source of some frustration to me. The frustration grew as we added another Stream Team to our list of organizations. In early 2009 we and three other people began what the Missouri Stream Team program calls a Cooperative Stream Investigation (CSI) project in our home watershed to better understand the amount and distribution of E. coli and chloride pollution in Watkins Creek and its tributaries. This entailed monthly visits from April through October to six different sites to collect water samples for E. coli analysis and to do the other chemical tests that we’d been trained to do ourselves; then we had to drive the samples across the county to the laboratory that could do the E. coli analysis because the lab had to begin that analysis within six hours of when we obtained the first sample. By this time Mike’s father had died and Mike picked up the additional responsibility of visiting his mother, who lives about six miles away, twice a week and driving her on her errands since she’d never learned to drive. Our gasoline consumption had jumped and we knew we were being pulled in too many different directions, but it took awhile until the stress built up sufficiently to jolt us into action.

Another PCA book review led me to Sharon Astyk’s first book, Depletion and Abundance, in 2008, but it wasn’t until we upgraded our computer to a slightly less obsolete model that could handle Mac OS X that I could read her blog. Reading her book and blog got me interested in trying to achieve the 90% reduction in average U.S. usage that was the goal of her Riot for Austerity project, discussed in that book. For us that meant reducing monthly electrical use from about 233 Kwh to 90 Kwh and reducing yearly natural gas usage from about 377 Therms to about 100 Therms. And those were the easier targets ... we were so far above the Riot gasoline target of 50 gallons per person per year it wasn’t funny. I didn’t see how we could reduce our usage any farther in any of these categories. Meanwhile, now that the vegetable garden was over 1000 square feet in size I found I didn’t have enough time to properly care for it and still execute my responsibilities toward the groups I was involved with and the two bands we now played in. Once the work started on our Zen center’s major fundraiser in the summer of 2009, a fundraiser for which I had taken on the overall organizational responsibility for the past several years, I knew something had to change; I was stressed out to the point of it affecting my health. I’d enrolled in Astyk’s online Adapting in Place course during that time, hoping that I’d learn something to help us further reduce energy use. But instead I learned that our first goal had to be prioritizing our responsibilities. Until we did that, no further progress in energy reduction or reducing the complexity of our lives would be possible. Over the next two months we dropped out of the food co-op we had belonged to for 14 years (it was too far away and took up too much of Mike’s time) and the Dances of Universal Peace band. In 2010 I dropped the farther away Stream Team in order to concentrate on the CSI project on our home stream, a project which continued through last October. In early 2012 I resigned from our Zen center’s board and we reduced our attendance there from once a week to once a month. With these changes our lives came into better balance.

It was through Astyk’s blog that I learned of John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report blog and his book The Long Descent. Mulling over what I learned from Astyk and Greer, I realized that in the long run we’d do better to cash out some of our investments so we could hire out the work to glass-in the south facing front porch. We’re quite pleased with our sun porch, completed in December 2010. Even though the large pin oak trees in our neighbors’ yards to the south and west shade our sun porch too much in the afternoon, reducing the solar heat gain, it still gives us a place warm enough to overwinter subtropical plants such as citrus trees and rosemary as well as a warm spot to enjoy a cup of tea on a sunny winter day.

Astyk’s and Greer’s examples kind of shamed me into lowering the thermostat to 60F most of the time in the winter. I dislike feeling cold more than I dislike feeling hot, and I have difficulties with circulation in my feet and hands during heating season, but taking Astyk’s online course (now available in book form as Making Home) helped me figure out how to dress to manage in a 60F house. I still don’t like it but I can tolerate it, at least on most days. Having the sun porch warm up to near 70F on a cold sunny day in December and January really helps ... and opening the windows and door between it and the house can raise the temperature in the living room by 2F as well. When the sun is stronger in fall and again in late winter and early spring the porch warms up the house even more. With the addition of the sun porch and lowering the thermostat our electricity usage dropped to 2384 Kwh and our natural gas usage to 201 Therms in 2012. We’ll need to install a wood stove to achieve further reductions, something we hope to have done sometime this year or next.

It has been from Astyk and especially from Greer that I’ve come to fully appreciate the extent to which we not only live in a (declining) empire, but how much I myself have benefited from living in that empire. The five parts of this series have been inspired by this realization. While I have not benefited as much as some people, I still have to own up to my own part in keeping empire going and living off its spoils. At the same time, as I hope this series also shows, I have been slowly owning up to my responsibilities to reduce energy and material consumption, and we plan to continue doing so.

The story isn’t ending although I have caught it up to the present. With winter coming to the slow and sputtering end typical of the Midwest, another gardening season is beginning. I plan to share more of our daily lives here at Living Low Acre, more of our efforts to use less energy and materials, and also more about the slow evolution of the permaculture design and the fruits (and veggies, and mushrooms) of our gardening efforts. In the meantime, I have a lovely mix of snow, sleet, and freezing rain to shovel off the driveway tomorrow morning. Gentlepeople, grab your shovels!

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