Monday, January 22, 2018

Day zero and the challenge of becoming a hopeful, non-cynical prepper

There's rising panic over our taps being switched off on 21 April, and some 4 million people going to collect 25L of water, per person, per day, from some designated taps spread across the city. Some have rightly pointed out that this is what people in informal settlements have been doing for years. There's fear of anarchy and a lot of people practicing picking up 25L containers and collapsing (I also fall over when I try to pick up 25L with one hand, but it seems ok if I'm able to divide into two buckets-- still it obviously won't be workable for a lot of people).

A couple of things come to mind in the context of this panic-- albeit from my own position of privilege. I think everyone in Cape Town should be carefully preparing for Day Zero. At the same time, it's worth stepping back and thinking, without any panic, about this crisis, and also about the next crisis, one that we can't anticipate.

There's quite a bit of overlap in the prepper (emergency preparedness)/homesteader communities in the U.S. (where a lot of blogs and videos originate, though I suspect there are many preppers in South Africa, also). Still, I sometimes distance myself from the preppers because a) I'm worried that they may support Trump, b) they are sometimes heavily armed and preparing for the zombie mob, which I think has had many negative unintended consequences in the many years when there hasn't been any zombie mob. c) they sometimes seem to hate or fear people. All of which are stereotypes, I know, so I'm sorry if it seems like I'm perpetuating those.

So in this circumstance I really appreciate some of the helpful information and ideas that preppers bring to the table. About 3 years ago, we had severe electricity shortages. About 2.5 years ago, there were a few days when we couldn't leave our street because of violent protests in the nearby township. And now, there's the possibility of us having no water whatsoever, and the type of chaos that might ensue. There are some preppers who argue that there won't be one massive mega-collapse of capitalism as we know it, but rather a slow decline. The crises of the last few years may have been a demonstration of that. That's not even including household crises-- like illness or unemployment-- that we all have had at some point. I really don't want to live in fear of the next crisis or be constantly focused on others' perceived shortcomings; I also don't think that capitalism and consumption as we know it can continue.

I think the first way to be a hopeful, non-cynical prepper is to recognize that we can't control everything, and that things might go badly, and things might be hard, but don't need to break us. (then again, they may totally break me, and that is also potentially ok, one moves on from brokenness. I'm not meaning I'm stronger than the average person here). I'm saying fearing difficult situations is not the best approach, and preparing for the absolute worst sometimes means being consumed by thoughts of the world at its absolute worst. Which I find is too depressing, and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In my case my faith plays a role in how I think about my own limitations.

The second way is to do what we can to have systems in place for lots of different kinds of possibilities. I know I'm speaking to the middle-class here. It's really hard to prepare for crisis if you're already in crisis, so I'm not meaning to diminish that for anyone who might be reading from within a crisis.

By this I mean when it comes to security, energy, water and food, it makes sense to have several options available, or be in the process of putting options in place. Not necessarily expensive, complex options-- rather things that will help us live a better life even if there is no crisis. I'll go through how we think about each of those four areas:

We don't have much in the way of security because that's not really our thing, it's a bit of a weakness. We don't want to do the scary electric fence thing, but we're gradually making our fence stronger and safer by planting thorny, hardy but still beautiful plants on our perimeter (who may die during the drought, but I think they may survive). We also stay home a lot, have a small house, and are thinking about doing something to make our doors and windows a little more secure-- in the next few years.

For energy, we have access to municipal power, we have solar power, a low-pressure solar geyser, a woodstove for winter, a sunstove for summer, and we cook day-to-day with gas, and keep spare cannisters.

Water (and sanitation)
For water, we have a wellpoint (recent) and collect all rainwater (to a Jojo tank and reservoir); no water that enters the property leaves, as we also have two simple greywater systems. We're also gradually putting together a two-week supply of drinking water, by which time we hope to have collected enough rain water to survive and thrive without any municipal water. We've used a composting (dry) toilet exclusively for a few years now, and I write about it a little here, here, and here. The key is that we didn't put everything together all at once-- we set up slowly, and things started to work better over time. Still, we're using our greywater reeds less as we try to not waste the little dishwater we use.

For food, I'm working on improving our storage of some key groceries (I haven't preserved much  in recent years), but we're also working on growing more and more of our fruits and vegetables (using stored rain water from the reservoir) and expanding our flock of chickens and ducks (and making sure we have thought through their feed, also). This might not be possible for you, or it may be more possible than you expect. We spend a few days a month organizing and distributing staples (meat, legumes, dairy, grains, oil) of pretty large quantities of food, from small scale businesses and farmers, to between 20 and 30 families, including ourselves. This might get interrupted in a crisis, but I appreciate that it doesn't involve the complex supply chains of large supermarkets. For me, these are less about pessimism and anticipating doomsday, and more about homesteading in a way that adds resilience. I imagine we'll always get some food from elsewhere at least some of the time, but learning how to grow and compost adds resilience to our household and to our community. It's not just about growing, it's also about learning to cook and bake good food with few ingredients and little water and energy. All of which takes time and can't happen all at once in the context of crisis. In the crisis our fears come to the fore and it's hard to do anything other than crisis mode. A lot of learning probably also happens during crisis, but I think it's often less costly and more gentle on the environment if one changes slowly.

Resilience is also about finding ways to not contribute to the crisis (even being part of the traffic when there's a rush to the supermarket or the water line). Even not needing too much money, or having a few people to support us in our kids' learning, seems to be part of thriving independent of crises. I don't think high-tech fixes are necessarily the answer (60m deep boreholes with advanced filtration so you can still use insane amounts of water, for example).  There might be cool technological stuff, but I feel like a lot of times it's about learning how to do basic things-- as much as is possible given one's current circumstances-- and finding our ways to good systems through trial and error. This also teaches us to live more simply, which I think is one key to not contributing to crises. Learning happens slowly and incrementally-- we certainly have a long way to go.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Updates: Buying a nursery, 11 year Moringas, pig, protecting chicks, school gardens

Sorry, this is going to be scattered because it's been so long since I last posted:

Heart & Soil nursery
We really like our area, and our mini-farm. Despite it's challenges, it feels like a good fit for who we are. Like a lot of things that have happened in our lives, our farm feels like it's a gift from God. The drought has been really hard on a lot of places, including nurseries, and one of the nurseries on our street put their land (1 acre) on the market a few months ago. We ended up buying it, including the nursery stock.

We've been thinking for a while about responsible savings. Having kids, it doesn't feel right to us (at least not right now) not to build any retirement savings if it's within our power to save, especially given our relatively tenuous work incomes, the fact we have chosen to be completely uninsured, and the knowledge that although our lifestyle is pretty simple, it still costs some money. The nursery felt like a good middle ground for where we are at: it's not giving away all our savings, but it's also not putting money into huge companies.

We want to keep the plot as a nursery, and keep the people who work/live there employed. Much of the nursery management will continue to be in the hands of an experienced nurseryman, and we'll try hard to support without being overly involved, at least while I have full time non-farm work.

Despite pretty high financial stakes (retirement no longer in U.S. Stocks!), it felt very low stakes-- the logical next step in an adventure that will inevitably have hard parts. Despite feeling this is low-stakes and good-- the hardest thing about taking ownership of this property is still facing up to fears around money. We are trying really hard to fight that idea that we own or deserve our money. Even so, knowing the nursery is not going to make money for a long time quickly brings the focus back to money as we grapple with our responsibilities for paying people. When I am focused on money, it becomes about power, and I wonder if the opposite of coercive, extractive, money-oriented power in this scenario is not powerlessness but a spirit of learning and partnership. For my part, I have an opportunity to learn about a vast, vast array of plants.

Fun fact since you made it all the way here: the nursery came with piles and piles of props from the movie 10,000BC. Giant fake trees. plastic flowers. Yup. The previous owner designs sets for movies, and 10,000BC was the big break. So it's a mess but if you wade your way through all the movie props, there's an amazing variety of plants and extraordinary plant knowledge. It's a special place for a lot of people in this area, including us. So in that spirit we present: Heart & Soil. Please go and visit, or tell friends in Cape Town about us. There'll be a fake flower in it for you.

11 years
In December, Eug and I celebrated eleven years of marriage with moringa! Eug knows me too well. Well actually, I sent him a link to the moringa seeds, and it happened to be on our anniversary so we're calling it an anniversary gift (um, from both of us to both of us?)

There are definitely going to be moringa trees for sale...
Right before the New Year, our neighbour brought a pig for Noah to care for. I happened to be at my desk at the time, and by the time I emerged we had a runt pig. The pig was getting hurt by his brothers and sisters, and when it moved in it was still struggling the first couple of days at our place. Now he's doing pretty well-- though he's still tiny. And very intelligent. Aargh.
piglet likes snuggles and getting his back scratched...
Building new safe options for chicks and ducklings.
It's been a little while since we built outbuildings for our ducklings and chicks, as our large structure had been working really well until recently, when mongooses or cats started getting through the mesh and killing off animals in large numbers. So we've converted the large structure into a safe/enclosed structure for young trees-- a kind of mini-nursery. In the drought, our property has much better water options than the nursery so we can keep sensitive trees here rather than at Heart & Soil.

Eug has moved the large chicken enclosure and is making a system where we have 3 small enclosures for chicks and ducks to rotate through. We're not buying anything new in doing this project, we're just trying to make a better system with what we have. It's really painful to lose 2-3 animals a night, so we're hoping this will to dissuade predators (Once they don't have success for a while, they move on-- our rats are good eating, guys!).

Noah made the guinea pig a Christmas tree

Summer harvest.

Partying the New Year

New coup (for night time, and hopefully for sitting hens)

A hinged tortoise arrived on our property
Very small hatch-- one of hens only hatched out a single chick. Oh well.
These are some seeds from a seed sharing group of African women. It makes me so excited and happy to be growing some of these seeds on the farm. I'm going to save the corn for next year (when I have infrastructure), but I'm growing okra and many different beans.

Our first pumpkin of the year. I can just barely carry it. 

Our male duck, Male seems to be slowing down and we've not been getting many hatchlings from our broody ducks, but our grey duck-- Fluffy-- just hatched out eight babies. We'll keep a male from this batch so that Male can live out his days in peace and we can keep breeding ducks now and then.

School gardens

I've been really busy with two school gardens at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, as part of my role as a researcher. I'm not a professional when it comes to making urban gardens... I have a lot to learn, but I'm helping to start them because I'm able to leverage my time and sometimes a little funding as a researcher. If you're interested in following along, I'd really appreciate you following Nourishing Spaces, and checking out project videos that come out as the school garden work evolves. In the videos, we'll try not to make more of the project than it is-- these gardens are not going to make anyone healthy in and of themselves, nor solve systemic injustices. We'll just try to make the gardens as good as they can be, over time and through partnership.

Our kids are also starting their own channels on YouTube, so it seems to be becoming a family thing. I'll link to them once they're properly up and running. Noah and Eli really enjoy using ProCreate, an app on the iPad, to draw, and are gradually learning how to animate. Noah is loving listening to audio books, since we learned we could borrow 3 books a month from the Cambridge public library system. I've been reading a lot of Dick King-Smith and W.J. Corbett books to the boys for the last month or so. Hana is not so into books yet, but she has lots of other loves (including YouTube)!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rock gardens and upside down permaculture planning

My inspiration for our property (*until they started claiming rights to the term "urban homestead" and giving off a bit of a cult-ey vibe*) were the Dervais family in southern California. They produce tons and tons of food on just 1/10 of an acre. They're the go-to model for a lot of people of what is possible in a small space.

We have quite a bit more space than that, though we're definitely a smallholding or homestead rather than a fully-fledged farm. Particularly because we have a lot less labour, our plans need to unfold gradually. Planning our property out has been interesting, because I want so much for the entire acre to have maximum productivity. What does maximum productivity mean, and how quickly does one get to this mythical status?

Maximum productivity is of course really subjective, and if you’re starting out I’m still thinking through if this is a helpful goal. If you’re like me, you’re not quite doing a really perfectly planned permaculture design. You’re probably not doing a permablitz where a lot of people come over and transform everything in a weekend (though hey, if you guys want to come over work on a section of our property, I'm in! I'll plan it and do the free lunch and everything). I’m into design, but it’s hard to get to design quickly or all at once. Good design dawns slowly, and changes in stages as we go. At the same time, sun and water are so important so we also don’t want to prevent future productivity by planting a huge tree or building a structure where we could actually grow good food in the future. Animals are another really challenging factor on the urban edge: where do you put walls, where do you put animals? How do you make sure you don't negatively affect neighbours?

In planning, you almost have to know what you don’t yet know. So it’s ok to make mistakes and also to have a plan that changes. It took almost two years to plan and bring in enough sticks and manure to make it work, but our vegetable garden this year is doing pretty well, and has had nothing but stored rainwater so far this drought year. We’re eating about 2kg of tomatoes every day (fresh and in sauce) for now, as well as a couple of beetroots whenever we want them (four or five a week), spinach, cape gooseberries (10-20 or so every day), we have many pumpkins and butternut maturing well on their vines (and getting eaten by molerats, unfortunately), various peppers almost ready to pick, as well as some just starting out, sweet potatoes are getting going, and I could imagine setting up a few more beds so that in a couple of years we can grow a lot more. The plan for the hugelbeds took quite a bit of time, and unfolded over time— though we did plan around sun and reservoir (rain) water.

A lot of food in 4 hugelbeds.

Spot the giant pumpkin.

We're wanting to use as little as possible of our property for driveways and cars, and so, having moved our car back for now (and hoping to move it back still further), we have a small space between our container and our house— about the size of a carport. Though we’ve long put straw down, the straw just blows away, leaving eroding sand blowing away next to our house. Added to this, we have a sneaking suspicion that the foundation of our house is not well built (we used an existing foundation on the property, and it’s just rocks and concrete built up together). The blowing sand from under the foundation was a concern for us and January and February always bring serious winds. So I found a (free to us) source of landscaping rocks, and have been putting rocks between the house and the container, to help stabilize our foundation and stop erosion.

A lot of rocks
What’s interesting is that in stabilizing this small area  around our house, we seem to be facilitating the growth of other things around it. I was a little worried about putting down landscaping rocks and non-edibles (bromeliads and a tree fern, as well as some succulents): it seemed like a concession of precious space that could be used for edibles and defeat the purpose of not using the space for a carport. Yet it’s been interesting to see how adding plants (though non-edible) and rocks to this eroded section of our property seems to have a potential ripple effect— perhaps we’ll be able to add edibles or more useful flowers over time, or perhaps we’ll accept that ecological diversity—no matter what the shape— adds something.

Over time I'm tending towards doing things project by project, based on what presents itself as a priority, is a good way to go when one cannot overhaul an acre all at once. Over time, these projects compound, and you start to build momentum, feel encouraged, and see more fruit (and vegetables). So far, my experience is that it's important to be somewhat aware of sun (including variations in temperature, or microclimates— though this can be a little complicated to actually figure out in the beginning), water, and wind. Beyond this, I think it's important not to worry if bits don't work and you have to reconsider (replant) and let things evolve.