Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Day at Organic Grower's School

Last Saturday [March 8-9, 2014] I joined several Earthaveners at the Organic Growing School in Asheville, NC. I feel like a broken record starting another blog post this way, but… awesome experience. 

The ride there
I caught a ride from two other Earthaven members who drove Patricia and me. I learned that these members live in an ‘Earthship’. Earthships were originally designed to be completely self-contained desert dwellings that recycled 100% of their water, human waste, and anything else. Theirs is adapted for the temperate climate they live in so they don’t recycle all their water since it’s so plentiful. They don’t quite grow all their own food yet, but it was interesting hearing about their life path, how they decided on Earthaven and their Earthship, and what plans they have for it.

The schedule
Here’s the doc describing all the sessions offered at the School. I wanted to take all the courses, but I settled on 4: Using kudzu, Understanding Bird Languages, Foraging, and Using Nuts.

Course 1 - Using Kudzu
This was taught by Justin Holt, who has worked for a few years with Earthaven member Zev Friedman. A few highlights from the course:
  • Kudzu grows like crazy. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen pictures: 

Kudzu smothers everything. How great would it be if we could use this to feed ourselves and our animals and make ropes and medicines?

  • Kudzu is good for making ropes. We started the class building ropes out of kudzu - my first natural cordage!
  • We moved into food and medicinal applications. Justin showed pictures of gathering massive kudzu roots, some several decades old and weighing over 100 pounds. Justin discussed all the processing that turns kudzu roots into food, which seemed a little involved - it’s not a pull-the-root-and-eat process. Leaves can be used like spinach. 
  • Justin described the process of experimenting with kudzu with Zev, a good reminder that earth skills are ever evolving just like everything else as we learn more about the natural world.
  • I got some kudzu tea to end the class: kudzu root, honey, and chocolate peppermint to be precise. Yummy.

Course 2 - Understanding Bird Language
These guys had a fun time designing their session. I went to understand bird language, but the instructors had to set the context first (paraphrased):

“You have to understand something about song birds. They look pretty and sound lovely, but they live in constant fear of their lives.”

The instructors showed a picture of a song bird, then another of a hawk swooping in for the kill. 

“Let’s put this in perspective. These songbirds’ wingspans can be up to 5.5” wide - let’s say 6” to make the math easy. And hawks’ wingspans can be 36” wide! That’s a monster 6 times as big as them swooping out of the sky to eat them or their children.”

The instructors held out their arms wide at this point and stood side by side so their outstretched hands were just barely touching at the fingers.

“Our armspans are about 6’ wide, and together we’re about 12’. Imagine walking across the square after class, having to constantly fear that monster 36’ wide could swoop out of the sky from any direction and kill you or your friend. Our culture would be very different! And that’s the culture these birds live in! So all bird songs have to be understand in that context.”

A dragon swooping in for a kill. 

Cool way to start the class!

One other fun fact before jumping into the song types: there are songbirds all over the world that greet the dawn by singing. As dawn moves across the planet, birds all around the world sing to greet it. Birds have been around for ~140 million years, so planet Earth has experienced a continual chorus of joyous bird songs for 140,000,000 years. Mind-blowing.

The teachers broke birds’ songs into 5 very rough categories, including adolescent begging (chicks needing food), companion calls, territorial aggression, songs, and ALARM.

Hearing the calls and learning how I can use them as a human was pretty awesome. Since I can’t reproduce those on this blog, I’ll share some cool nuggets:

  • Birds engage in territorial ‘arguing’, but they never get violent - any injury would make them easy prey. A major distinction between ‘territorial aggression’ and ‘ALARM’ sounds is that other species of bird and even other birds of the same species will not react when 2 birds argue about territory - but they do react to alarms.
  • ‘Alarm’ calls have gradients of severity too. Pretty much all birds and many rodents in an area will respond to alarm chirps. Many birds will sing alarm calls when they see the threat, giving the flock (and other listeners!) a rough idea where the threat is. Other prey-type animals will use this to escape, and humans can use this to hunt - songbirds’ predators may be our prey. The instructor talked about finding a weasel in the bush one time after hearing birds’ alarms indicate a threat there.

The ‘survival of the fittest’ explanation for evolution really ignores how much cooperation plays a role in survival. A few cool examples: 

  • Birds and humans have developed symbiotic relationships. For example, the Honeyguide bird will alert humans to beehives. The humans then consume the honey and leave some for the bird. If the humans take all the honey, that bird won’t work with those humans anymore and will find other tribes to work with.
  • Birds cooperate not just within flocks or species, but across species too. For example, different species will have different range of vision, for example some will see into the ultraviolet but not the infrared, and another species will see infrared but not ultraviolet. The same differences occur with hearing ranges. Apparently flocks of birds of different species will move together so they can observe reality across the largest possible range of light and sound, leveraging all their collective vision and hearing abilities. How cool is that?

Lunch time
I met some interesting people over lunch, including a founder of Earthaven and a midwife named Louise.

The midwife’s life story was especially interesting. She’d gone into nursing, specializing in hospice care. She said, “Death is the great equalizer. Everyone, rich and poor alike, want two things when they’re on death’s door: They want to have had a meaningful life, and they want close relationships.” The wealth did not make the wealthy any happier if they didn’t have meaning and relationships. She also said she burned out eventually, but not before learning a life’s lesson: “I regularly met couples who had worked and scrimped their whole lives so they’d have money to live on in retirement. In many cases, they worked for decades at jobs they really didn’t like. Finally they retired at 65, and maybe a year later one spouse would get cancer and die within 6 months.”

Louise said she took the hint, and even in her 20s started dialing down the number of hours per week she worked. Her coworkers chided her about not being able to save for retirement, but she wanted to have the time to live happily now and enjoy her kids as they grew up. Now she midwifes for income, keeps bees, gardens much of her own food, and lives adjacent to the Celo intentional Quaker community in North Carolina. She and I share the same vision for reducing material consumption so we can dramatically reduce the income we need to live happily - it was so great hearing how she accomplished it!

Course 3 - Foraging
The instructor for this was Matt Hansen, and this dude lives what he teaches. He came dressed in hand-made clothes made of plant and dried animal skins. His satchel was hand-woven with an animal skin cover. While we were out walking, he introduced himself as someone who lives an actual hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the wilderness. I really look forward to dipping my toes in that soon.

We walked across the well-manicured campus of UNC-Asheville, and even here he saw food everywhere. Bamboo was for eating, knife-making, and a container in which to boil water to cook. The roots of the grass we walked on were edible. He explained how to get sap out of a maple tree and get sugar out of that sap. 

Lots of insects are protein sources, but avoid bright caterpillars and bugs with exoskeletons. Ants, ant larvae, and crickets are great though. One cruel but hilarious trick: you can get ants to give you their babies (larvae) to eat. Put twigs at the bottom of a bucket and then cover them in leaves. Then take an ant colony and drop it in the bucket. The ants will adjust by taking their larvae and moving them to the bottom of the bucket. Remove the leaves and everything above them by pulling up the twigs and you’ve got a nice concentrated source of protein - ant larvae!

He pointed out junipers for flavoring gin, hickories for making axe handles and bows, pines for making tea containing vitamin C (keeps away scurvy), elderberries for making fire by friction, tulip poplars for making canoes  - the list goes on. Many plants had multiple uses and many uses were fulfilled by multiple plants.

Course 4 - Working with nuts
I won’t get into detail here. The course covered how to harvest and process nuts for eating. We covered hazelnuts, acorns, walnuts, butternuts, and pecans. These can be major sources of carbs and fats in the wild, so I’m looking forward to learning to use nuts this fall.

Other Thoughts
A few things really stood out from these sessions and the gathering overall:

1) All the presenters were personally living and experimenting with change they wanted to see society undergo. The ’nuts guy’ wants to help society move to getting its calories from perennials, the forager wants people to live in much closer connection to the natural world, etc. Their teaching was one component of helping society make these changes. 

2) The information was strongly grounded in personal experience unless explicitly noted otherwise. Contrast this with academic papers which cite others’ work without experiential verification. Some presenters did cite others, but all the presented information was personally verified and lived.

3) Building on (2), all the information was ‘human-scale’ - info that could be verified by individuals without a college degree’s worth of training and massive capital investment. Much of the info did take years to learn and integrate, but any one point could be quickly verified.

4) Everyone looked really healthy. I rarely saw people pecking on cell phones. Even the relatively-old moved and spoke like they were young. This mirrors my experience at Earthaven, where I regularly guess people are a decade younger than they really are.


I definitely recommend the Organic Grower’s School. You can avoid the fee by being a volunteer-writer who sits in on 2 sessions and writes about them. These 2 sessions are picked for you, but you still get to choose the other 2 sessions.

Demonstrating a Culture of Awareness with the Meal Plan

Intro - A Culture of Awareness
People at Earthaven talk about living an ‘aware’ life - living in awareness of the impact we have on the world and true challenges we face in living happy, healthy lives. We respond to this awareness by ensuring our impact on the world is positive (‘living a regenerative life, not just sustainable’) and making sure that malicious institutions do not do us harm.

This culture is awesome because it encourages me to be the kind of person I want to be and to make the decisions I want to make. In this post, I’ll use the meal plan at Medicine Wheel neighborhood to show how this works in practice.

Basics of the Medicine Wheel Meal Plan
Note: for the rest of this post, everything is specific to the neighborhood I’m staying in, Medicine Wheel (MW).

At MW, non-permanent members owe $200/month to be on the meal plan full time. In exchange, MW provides a full home-cooked meal every evening and a wide range of food for people to make their own breakfasts, lunches, and snacks whenever they want.

The MW-cooked and -bought food is ovo-vegetarian except that they use butter. “Ovo-“ means they use eggs. MW gets its food from the garden and from a wide range of sellers I’ll describe in a bit. 

Every Monday, all the residents split up the co-housing tasks for the week: each day there’s a head-chef and a sous-chef for dinner, among other tasks. That means each night a different pair is making dinner, which has lead to some good variety so far.

Basics of Rules for Buying MW Food
On one of the cupboards is a printout with the rules for buying MW food. Here is the transcription:

Medicine Wheel Food Standards
1. To be as local as possible
  • shopping preferences, in descending order: Earthaven Valley, then Black Mountain [the nearest town], then Asheville, then bulk order
  • at least from within the continental US, and preferably from the Southeast
  • non-bioregional food can be brought with someone who is making the trip
  • avoid greens from California due to toxicity (even organic) (NO CALI - circled)

2. To be as organic as possible
  • avoid NOG [non-organic] foods known to be heavily sprayed: apples, celery, grapes, peaches, pears, berries, greens, bell peppers, green beans, rice, oats, and all root crops
  • local NOG produce which has a thick skin (watermelon, etc) is acceptable
  • NOG special occasion foods, for one meal, are acceptable

3. To be as non-processed as possible
4. To use minimum packaging
  • avoid aseptic containers (Rice milk, etc)
  • avoid nonrecyclable plastics, use #1 and #1 only
  • buy bulk

Before explaining the ideas behind these rules, I’ll note that individuals can buy and cook whatever foods they want, including milk, cheese, and meat. However, those personal foods don’t end up in the group meals.

Awareness concepts
I asked about the ideas behind the rules. Here are a few points:

I asked especially about California, and learned that they take the radiation from Fukushima very seriously. MW consulted with local climatologists and learned that a significant amount of radiation falls on Californian farm land as rain in addition to what gets washed up on shore. The radiation in the rain is mostly gone east of the Rockies, so MW may buy food from central-US (though prefers not to).

Some residents here have learned a lot about the impacts of the radiation and various attempts by the federal government and nuclear industry to downplay the risks even while privately being extremely concerned as revealed by whistleblowers, FOIA requests, and other sources. It was cool to find a community that responded to these real issues by confronting them rather than ignoring them!

Separately, they’re aware of the terrible impact many industrial-agriculture pesticides have, not just on farm animals and humans, but on soils and ecosystems near where they’re applied. Besides the non-corrupt research showing the health issues around non-organic or GMO food, they’re also aware of the corruption caused by the revolving door in the FDA and USDA and various private companies like Monsanto. This awareness of problems and lack of trust translates into concrete action to ensure they only eat healthy foods. 

How far away is the food grown and shipped? MW is trying to be as local as possible, hence forbidding bananas, mangoes, and other foods that can’t be grown nearby. This rule, as with many here, isn’t hard-and-fast though. I asked Patricia one morning about her coffee from afar, and she said, “Honey, it comes from a long way, but there are some things I’m not ready to give up yet! Someday.”

People here talk about ‘embodied energy’ - an apple from a tree in the yard has far less embodied energy than one grown in California with tractors and pesticides, and which then had to be shipped to various storage facilities until they could be bought and transported home. The embodied energy is all the energy required to make that apple and get it home. We’re always trying to minimize embodied energy in what we buy.

Eating Seasonally
Though not explicit in the rules, MW tries to eat what’s in season. This also allows them to eat local and not depend on long-distance purchases.

Exceptions and Personal Preferences
MW does buy some food from afar, including olive oil and canned tomatoes. I haven’t asked anyone if they’re careful to avoid food fraud with olive oil, as it’s one of the most commonly fraudulent foods on the shelf.

I don’t know of any concrete plan for MW to move to 100% local foods, though that’s something I’d like to explore for myself some day.

Individuals are a different story entirely. Each makes their own decisions, deciding what to care about and why in choosing the food to eat. We have full vegans and some people who, like me, admit to craving a pepperoni pizza occasionally, whether it’s organic or not. The culture of MW recognizes that making food decisions and changes can be really hard, and we’re supportive of people experimenting and trying to understand the truth about various food issues despite all the propaganda and corrupted (i.e. industry-funded) science and other barriers. I’ll write more about these issues another time. 

Conversations About Food
A decent amount of our light conversation is actually about the food we eat, how it makes us feel, diet ideas people are considering, and discussion of problems associated with ‘normal’ food - GMO, non-organic, factory-farmed animals, etc.

Note that I ask lots of questions about food, so conversations may not be about food as much when I’m not around ;) I’m careful to research any outlandish claims before believing them, but so far I’ve not heard any claims about food that I couldn’t verify. 

Two new residents recently independently expressed surprise that MW buys sugar cane, and both were surprised for the same reason. As one said, when I asked why he was surprised: “It’s… made by the Devil.” That is, it’s created with slave labor oversees. This is a great example of how people here are able to feel solidarity with total strangers a world away, but do more than just feel bad until their attention moves on - these individuals have changed their buying decisions. And they’re eating and feeling better as a result!

Sample Meals
I’ve been really surprised at how much energy I have despite going 100% ovo-vegetarian (+ butter for cooking), especially after I’ve known many ex-vegetarians who felt their energy sap after just a few days or weeks without meat. Apparently there are 8 proteins humans need, and omnivores can get all 8 from meat. Vegetarians must be aware of which plants have which types of protein to ensure we get appropriate amounts of each kind. In practice, my impression is that some cooks know those details, and others just have enough experience cooking that they have intuition for what makes a ‘full’ vegetarian meal.

Here’s a list of the dinners’ ingredients I had for most of the first week:
organic kale
brown rice w/tumeric
red potatoes, 2 varieties of sweet potato (purple and yellow, apparently not common in stores), onion, garlic, curry powder (tumeric, coriander, cumin), garlic powder

cooked brown rice
cooked collard greens
salad: raw lettuce, onions, pumpkin & sunflower seeds toasted in tamare, balsamic dressing
cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions, spinach, curry powder, garlic, lots of seasoning

We had leftovers or cooked for ourself since many people were out of town.
Brown rice, collard greens, lentils, seasoning, apple

brown rice
salad: baby kale, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, cabbage, clove garlic, powdered ginger, raisins, apples

pinto beans
“Kich-erole” (Kiche-casserole experiment): eggs, potatoes, sauted onions, bok choi
salad: kale, apple, cabbage, apple cidar vinegar, olive oil, balsamic vinegar

Tonight was the weekly community potluck. Each neighborhood brought a dish, so it was a big feast. 

Squash soup: squash, sauted onion, apple, cabbage, other things I didn’t get down.
cooked greens: day lily, mazuna, garden cress
cornbread: made with a special mix to replace milk, including tahini, sorghum, salt, and water. It was tasty, looked like cornbread, and tasted… sorta like cornbread ;)

MW buys larges boxes of local apples periodically, so I’m always grabbing 1-2 as I leave the house. There’s also a good supply of real, actual honey. This honey is so good… eating it’s practically a spiritual experience in itself. 


Living an aware life has a lot of meaning for me. I like how MW implements it: MW only buys the foods that we should all be eating anyway, and cooks prepare it so we enjoy eating them. This makes it easy to behave well - happy, healthy, and comfortable with my impact on the world. Still, the culture is supportive of everyone making their own decisions and growing at their own rate. This combination - of encouraging people to care about what they eat, but giving people room to make their own decisions - makes for a very enriching experience, both nutritionally and intellectually.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Community in action at Earthaven

The Earthaven community is wonderful in so many ways. The story of my meeting Molly Currie is a great example.

Sunday - you need to meet Molly
After the Earthaven Council meeting I observed on Sunday, one member, SC, came up and thanked me for my offer to help with one of the issues Earthaven is dealing with. We started talking about other things and eventually, with no expectation that she knew anything about natural building, I asked if she knew of any natural building learning opportunities either at Earthaven or in the Asheville area. 

She said, “Hmm… well there’s Ashevillage. Oh, and you need to meet Molly Currie. She’s not at Earthaven, but she has a local natural building company called MudStrawLove and she’s really good.” SC showed me the ‘white pages’, a local directory of contact info for people near Earthaven where I could get Molly’s contact info. 

Monday - meeting Molly
I’m out in the orchard talking with Patricia when two women, an Earthaven member named KC and a stranger walked by with a dog. KC called out, “Hey Patricia, hey Will!” We all gathered together, and before I could introduce myself, the stranger says, “Hi, I’m Will. Good to meet you!” I looked confused and she started laughing. It turns out she was actually Molly Currie walking her dog with a friend outside our orchard!

I told her that for the last 24 hours, I’d really been wanting to meet her. She told me to definitely get in touch over email or phone soon. This was crazy - I wouldn't have known to talk to Molly about natural building if I hadn't learned about her less than a day before from another Earthaven member.

After they left, Patricia said that Molly was a previous permaculture student of hers who really latched onto permaculture principles and focused on natural building. Patricia clearly had great respect for Molly, reinforcing my desire to contact her.

Tuesday morning - meeting people is easy!
I’m at the weekly Tuesday morning Coffee & Trade, a farmer’s market held in the Council hall. A stranger walks up and says, “Hi Will!” Word had gotten to her that I was at Medicine Wheel, and she knew me even before we'd met - her name is Jeannie. After introducing ourselves, we started talking about how great a community this was, where people could meet, talk and spend time with each other so easily. I told her the story of learning about and meeting Molly Currie in less than 24 hours with almost zero effort. Jeannie said that she’d recently made a list of friends she could visit very easily, especially within walking distance - and counted 150! Holy smokes!

In this kind of environment, where cars are rare and it's so easy to move around and spend time with people, you can’t help but hear about wonderful people and opportunities. That’s the sort of social wealth I’m looking for.

A day in the life

Monday was an amazing day. Here’s what went down.

730ish: woke up with the sun. I walked through the forest to the Labyrinth and practiced Yankee Doodle on the harmonica alone in the woods.

830: Medicine Wheel had the weekly projects planning meeting. We outline who has which house responsibility each day: day cleaning, lead dinner chef, dinner assistance & ensuring everyone helps clean after dinner ’til the job is done.

900: video-chat with Katie at the Council Hall

1030: Garden walk with Patricia and the other new house members. She pointed out most of the plants in the garden and orchard and described them - this one we eat, that plant is for eating and attracting pollinators, this one is a dynamic accumulator, bringing up nutrients from deep in the ground to make them available for other smaller-rooted plants. This plant is edible and a nitrogen fixer. So much to learn! There was way too much to get in one walk, so I’m thinking of organizing a regular Garden Walk so we can systematically learn about all the plants’ uses, garden functions, and other info.

It was such a beautiful sunny day for a garden walk in the woods of North Carolina!

1130: I stayed out in the garden weeding with another new work-exchanger, Allie. Weeding in permaculture is interesting: we don’t do monocultures where each bed has only one plant type. Ideally all the garden beds have at least 2 useful plants in them, and plants will spread through the garden over time just like they spread through the woods. Some are too aggressive though, and so we kill them. Since many ‘weeds’ are edible, we often kill them and eat them, but we always return the weed to the soil either by:
  • leaving the dead plant on the ground roots-up
  • composting the plant
  • eating the plant and creating humanure which, after 1-2 years, becomes a soil additive

Most of these ‘weeds’ we rip up and lay back down with their roots up to avoid removing the organic matter from the bed. A very few species are too aggressive and will reroot after that, so we remove them and compost them separately to make sure they’re good and dead, and a year or two later we have good soil.

So we were weeding, but a much different sort of weeding than many gardeners do.

1230: Allie accidentally ripped out some day lilies and realized she was hungry. So we gathered day lilies, onion grass, and mazuna for a lunch of cooked greens. We went the whole prep process: gathering, separating the onion grass stem from the onion bulb, cleaning off all the roots and chopping them up, and then sauteing it all together with some seasoning. Lyndon had some leftover rice and potatoes from his lunch.

After a few cold days, the sun was really coming down, so I ate outside in the garden. I was happily melting on the bench when Patricia joined me and we discussed guilds, which are groups of cooperating plants permaculturists use to make gardening easier - guilds are how they create ‘managed ecosystems’ instead of human-labor-intensive and destructive monocultures.

Our conversation ended when several of Patricia’s friends walked up to the house with their children to say hi. What a nice thing to have so many close friends a short walk away and with no cars nearby. 

1400: Wood chopping and moving.

I was in the orchard with Patricia talking plants when some of her friends walked by with a dog. We called out and waved, and then came together and exchanged hugs. I met a woman named Molly Currie who is a local natural building guru who runs a natural building company. Since natural building is something Katie and I are interested in, it was great to get in touch!

~1500 (When I don’t have scheduled commitments and my next appointment is dinner, I stop caring what time it is): Helped fix some plumbing.  At this point it was shirt-off time. A pipe had burst during a winter freeze, so I learned how to identify the cracked piece, cut the pipe, and install a replacement.

 ~1530: helped build a compost toilet structure in the back of the house. The structure involves wooden posts buried in 2 feet of well-compacted rock & soil. The hole was already dug and the post placed in it, so it was my job to pour in a ~1/2” rock and soil and then treat it like I was really really angry, beating it down with a wooden board, and then repeat.

1630: Quick shower

1645: I was the sous-chef for our dinner, helping the primary cook Sarah make an awesome kale-apple-onion-seed salad with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and balsamic vinegar. We also had brown rice and a bunch of seasonings and sauces for folks to add themselves. 

1800: Dinner, with 8/10 residents in our neighborhood in attendance.

1900: Weekly ‘check-in’. This was a really intimate and happy time. Each person got a chance to share what what was going on in their lives and how it was affecting them. Some people shared family issues they were dealing with, work problems, frustrations, difficult stories from their travels across the country etc. Lots of positive stuff came out too, and many of the negative outpourings became positive as we laughed and supported each other. We were really good at letting the person speak as much as they wanted, laughing and expressing support (as appropriate) without interrupting. Just being able to talk out our feelings honestly with sympathetic people was cathartic, but no one talked so long that we got bored or anxious to leave. It was a special time.

2030: Clean-up after dinner. 

2130: Video chatting with Katie.

1100: Clean-up and bedtime.

I spent the day in the sun doing useful physical labor and learning about the plant ecosystems and home systems we use. Then I slept like a log. What a great day!

Did you hear the joke?

I was using a circular saw to cut some firewood. Lyndon had told me to wear ear protection, but after a short break I forgot to put them back on. When he came back, we had the following conversation:

Lyndon: “Hey, did you hear the joke?”
Me, looking up from the work: “No, what joke?”
Lyndon: “Of course you didn’t. It goes something like this: the year is 2058, or 2060, and your grandkids run into the room and tell you a funny joke, but… you can’t quite hear it. So be able to hear your grandkids’ joke and wear the darn ear protection!
Me: “Ahhh” [puts ear protection on]

Friday, March 7, 2014

Practical Resilience-Focused Activities in Arlington & Sterling

I started thinking about ‘resilient’ skills, attitudes, lifestyles, and communities pretty seriously in 2013. I recognized that by some measures I was resilient (reliable & well-paying work, loving family and friends, savings / no debt, good health), but by other measures I was not (no water/food stored up if power goes out, few practical skills outside of software development to take care of myself if needed for an extended period of time). 

Before making drastic changes like leaving my job, I decided to start becoming as resilient as I could given my location and the time available. This essay will be a list of all the things I did from January 2013-March 2014 in Sterling or Arlington, VA to try to become more resilient, including how and why. 

Please note: There are tons of ideas, caveats, etc associated with the descriptions below. If something doesn’t make sense, I'm happy to elaborate - get in touch.

Some core themes drove my thinking in selecting these activities:
  • Turn money into skills and relationships: I lose my savings' buying power to inflation and expected future financial system issues, so I invested a portion of my income into investments which can’t be taken away: investments in skills and relationships. Hence foraging, martial arts, etc.
  • Preparedness: I can’t predict the future, so my life should not depend on predicting it correctly. If you’re prepared, you don’t need to predict. If you aren’t prepared, your prediction of ‘everything will be fine’ had better be right. Thus supplies of long-lasting food, water, etc.
  • Reduce unnecessary dependencies: What institutions and physical resources do I depend on (i.e. fossil-fuels and long-distance supply chains)? How can I cease being dependent on fragile institutions, and what can I do while living in Arlington to make progress?
  • Practicing a resilient mindset: I'm moving from a life of paying others to work for me (i.e. home cleaning, buying new instead of mending) to doing the work myself. Is this something I actually want? Can I handle it? I wanted to practice this mindset.

I'll elaborate on some of these ideas in future essays, such as "What is resilience?" and "What kinds of dependencies do you mean?"


Charity Gardening
Katie and I joined Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) which sends gardeners to unused space to garden. We worked on space a church volunteered, for example. The produce is sold at low or no cost to poor Arlington residents. The gardeners didn’t practice permaculture, but were wonderful people and it was a good chance to ask questions and get regular gardening time.

Guerilla Gardening / Permaculture Practice
“Guerilla gardening” means planting a garden in an unused public space without permission, for example in a traffic circle that only had grass previously. I bought a bunch of plants and put them on the edge of a field near my apartment, but a construction project that destroyed the public field without warning also ripped out my garden, so I didn’t get much time with this. 

I mostly stuck to identifying plants since I was so new and in a suburban area with car pollutants, but this was tons of fun. I highly recommend Sam Thayer’s books Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest. He signs the books if you buy direct from him. I’ll write a separate blog post about Thayer some day; he’s an impressive guy.

Permaculture Video Course
The Regenerative Leadership Institute posted a complete 2-week intro-to-permaculture course, and I put some on my phone so I could listen during my commute. The videos would be good to watch while doing something else like knitting or sewing.

Self-Defense / Martial Arts Classes
I signed up for Krav Maga and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes at the NovaMMA gym within walking distance of home. Krav Maga is not a martial art, it’s a combat/self-defense art, the main difference being that KM assumes there are no rules and BJJ assumes there are rules. KM was good for dealing with street-fighting or no-holds-barred fighting (chokes, surprises, big weight differentials, knives, etc), but we did not spar or fight (they began to spar just as I left), so BJJ was good for fighting at 100% intensity, albeit with limiting rules.

Purchased Long-term Food
'Long-term food' means food designed to be edible and nutritious despite being stored for 5, 10, or 30+ years. It was hard to gauge product quality here, and there was a lot to learn and tons of contradicting info with hard-to-gauge accuracy. I tried to go with reputable firms, but… I’m open to suggestions from people who’ve bought and used this kind of food over much longer time periods. I bought ~2 weeks’ worth of food and stored it in 2 locations. One was from Mountain House, the other I forget and don’t have the info on me.

Purchased Long-term Water Containers
I bought about 15 3.5 gallon BPA-free water containers. I also bought a spigot and water-preserver. Without preserver, the water should stay fresh 3-6 months; with it water should last 5 years. I followed up with the Water Brick company to ask about some gunk growing on the inside of the lid of the container after 6 months and he was helpful in diagnosing the issue. I moved some containers to my parents’ place 40 minutes away and kept the rest in my apartment.

Purchased Water Filter + Carbon Filter
I bought the Katadyn Pocket Water Microfilter w/activated carbon. It got very high reviews and an expected lifetime of 13K gallons (carbon filter: ~100 gallons). It was the most expensive of the ones I seriously considered, but the others had much shorter lifetimes - 100s or <2k gallons. Others also had inferior build quality, meaning they were easily breakable or wore out fast. I felt this one had the best value. 

Practiced Using the Long Term Food
I tried to eat some of the food we bought just to make sure I could do it. It’s easy if you can boil water, and unpleasant if you can’t (also you probably don’t get much nutrient value if you don’t cook it).

Withdrew Small Amount of Cash from Banks
Given what happened in Cyprus and the fragility and fraud in our own financial system, I withdraw a small amount of cash and stored it in save places. If ATMs ever rate-limit withdrawals here like they did in Europe (“Sure you still have your savings! But you can only have $10/day.”) then this will be good to have. Read more.

Spread Money Among Multiple Banks
Katie and I tried to find control-fraud resistant banks (i.e. banks which don't have executives looting them). We found one and had a good time doing it! I wrote about the process here. The presumption is that FDIC insurance may not pay out 100% if another systemic financial crisis hits.

Removed Money from Bank of America
Katie was still using Bank of America when we met. After a lot of conversations, I wrote this essay to help explain why it's a good idea to leave Bank of America. We left BoA and you should too!

Talked to friends and family
This was hard, but it got easier and easier over time. Talking a lot about my concerns and goals, and hearing others' thoughts, really helped me articulate myself better and see things from different perspectives.

Spoke With Others about Transitioning to Different Lifestyles
I met a naturalist who took Katie and me out foraging. He introduced me to a friend who’d been a commercial pilot before transitioning into a more earth-focused lifestyle - he now teaches earth skills at a Virginia school, and said my transition plan sounded similar to his. He gave me lots of good resources and encouragement which I hope to pass on.

Developed Frugal Budget for Prior-To-Leaving Kyrus and Post-Kyrus
Katie and I developed a frugal budget that allowed us to save a lot before I left my job. I also developed multiple post-employment budgets based on various scenarios to understand how far my savings could stretch, what extras I could afford, etc.

Did Monthly Budget Review With Katie
Katie and I reviewed our income and expenses at the end of every month and tracked everything on a spreadsheet. We made it a fun thing to do together - I actually look forward to it!

Developed Mental Map of Local Wild Foods in Arlington
I sought wild foods in Arlington, and learned where they were even if I didn’t harvest them. I found a website that gathers urban wild food locations here: It’s pretty sweet.

Bought Books As Long Term Investments
I stopped buying books I expected to read only once. I bought reference and intensive-learning books like the foraging books that I expect to keep forever, as these are very good investments that will only appreciate with time.

Attended Bike Repair Workshop
I learned basic bike repair and diagnosis at a 3-hour class at Velocity Bike Coop in Alexandria. They asked for a $30 donation which was cool. Being able to repair my own things is a core resilience concept. I wish I could have attended more, but it was hard to get to given the traffic.

(Began to) Learn Constellations
It took some driving, but I left the city a few times and learned some more constellations. Katie joined me and we had fun cuddling up on a blanket in a park late at night.  This is good for navigation and is just a beautiful thing to do.

(Began to) Learn Spanish
I decided as times get tough, being able to communicate with non-English speakers will be useful. I got free copies of the Pimsleur course at the library (highly recommended), kept vocab flash cards around at all times, and bought a decent workbook to go through (Practice Makes Perfect Complete Spanish All-In-One). Katie helped a lot too.

Made Concrete Plans for Addressing Concerns
When I realized I wanted to make a major life change, it was hard not having at least a tentative plan. It’s so easy to say, “well… I'll transition next year” and then put off necessary preparatory work. So based on our budget, the growing season, wedding date, tutoring issues, and other items, Katie and I set a transition date. The date moved many times, but just having a plan helped me feel like I was making progress toward a real goal. It also disciplined us to make the phone calls and trips, do the budgeting for the move, and other activities necessary to make the move.

Practiced Feeling Spiritual
I’ll explain the spiritual transition in another essay. Briefly: I’m still atheist in terms of not believing in supernatural powers, but I do feel a spiritual connection with the natural world and other people. My spiritual feelings would wax and wane over the weeks and months, and it was hard when I would go weeks without being away from cars and concrete. Mindfully practicing helped me build the spiritual feelings even then.

Bought Gun, Practiced Using It
I got a Glock 17 4th gen. I’d planned to get the Glock 19, which is slightly smaller, but a friend offered a like-new Glock 17 on short notice so I couldn’t pass it up. Reliability was a major deciding factor, so Glock was the way to go. I’ll practice and learn to maintain it in the future.

Visited Ecovillages & Organic Farms
Katie and I visited ecovillages and organic farms in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Chile. This really helped us understand what we’d be getting into, what budget was reasonable, etc.

Learned to Sew
When some clothes and a backpack tore, I decided to learn to sew (manually). So far I’ve saved $70 of new purchases’ worth of gear!

Learned to Knit
So far I’ve only made a scarf. This is a great mindfulness activity and awesome thing to do while you need to intermittently pay attention, like when you’re watching a video of a speech or waiting for a train.

Learned to Play Harmonica
The harmonica’s light, mobile, super cheap, and makes great music. I picked up a set of 7 for $18, each for a different musical key. So far I’ve learned with free videos & lessons online and to find songs I like. I'm trying to develop my ear better and use the tabs less.

Bought Bitcoins
My friend Dave practically forced Bitcoins on me at ~$30/BTC. Thanks Dave.

(Almost) Took First Aid Course
I came very close to taking a weekend-long first aid course. Then I decided I wanted the week-long Wilderness First Aid course. THEN I decided I wanted to be a full EMT-B(asic) with Wilderness upgrade. Reason: in an emergency situation with unknown technology / medicine / power available, the EMT qualification would let me use the tech and the Wilderness upgrade would let me be useful without the tech. Plus with that certification I can work as an EMT for income. Most importantly, if someone I love gets hurt, I can help them rather than feel helpless. Clearly it’s not as medically useful as being a doctor, but the course for EMT+Wilderness training (WEMT) is 3 weeks long, so it’s a great value. Katie and I plan to take the WEMT course together sometime in 2014 or winter 2014-2015.

Became More Mindful of Health
I realized I must be careful to protect my health - more careful than I was being already. I cared for my teeth more intensively (brush/floss/mouth wash daily rather than merely brushing daily), for example. 

Learned to Meditate
I found a good resource on Vipasanna meditation and tried to implement the ideas.

Attended Gardening Talks At Library
The Central Library in Arlington had weekly garden talks that I sometimes attended. They covered plants, insects, all manner of things. This wasn’t as helpful as other activities because I couldn’t apply what I learned and I didn’t have the context to really grasp some of the lessons. For example, learning about 12 kinds of bugs and how exactly they eat your carrots was info overload for where I was as a gardener. But I learned about AFAC at one of these, so it was a great place to meet other gardeners and hear about other opportunities.

Fostered a Cat
Katie really wanted a pet, but the burden and cost of dealing with a cat during this transition seemed too much. We decided to foster a beautiful cat named Mariah. Bonus: the animal shelter paid all her costs, so it was free to us besides the stuff she scratched to pieces ;)

Bought Long-term Shaving Gear
I investigated electricity-free and long-lasting shaving equipment. I ended up buying a safety razor, pack of 100  blades, shaving brush, and shaving cream for ~$80. The pack of blades should last >=2 years and so I should only be buying $15 bowls of cream every few months. That seems like a good deal, although I have to relearn how to not cut myself shaving now…

Exploring Working With Habitat For Humanity
I worked with HFH a few years ago, and Katie and I have been exploring whether she can work with them while I’m at Earthaven. It’s quality, mentored home-building experience, and free except for transportation and food. 


I definitely took a shotgun-approach to learning this stuff. “Jack of all trades, master of none” applies. Still, in many ways the activities didn’t compete for time - I couldn’t forage in the winter, I could only charity garden Saturday mornings, etc. I wanted to try a lot of things with the goal of eventually focusing on a few to master, and I also wanted to see if I could handle this resilience mindset. Now that I’m at Earthaven and fully immersed in this lifestyle, I’m beginning to think and feel what I want to master, and it’s helpful to have a broad range of experience to draw on.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Arrival at Earthaven

First Day at Earthaven

I arrived at the Medicine Wheel House at Earthaven yesterday to begin my work exchange program where I’ll be for the next few months. It’s about a 7-8 hour drive from Arlington, and I was able to break that into two trips by staying over night with my sister at Virginia Tech (thanks Nina). 

The only hiccup in yesterday’s drive was a big accident that caused traffic to come to a complete stop. I was all ready to be disappointed at being stuck on the road, but it ended up fun - after 15-20 minutes people started getting out of their cars, walking around, and talking to other drivers. I counted at least 3 people walking their dogs on the grassy median of the highway. After talking to Katie on the phone a bit, I played harmonica for awhile. Eventually I noticed some cars had found a break in the median 1/3 mile ahead, so I went off-roading onto the median and went on my way in the opposite direction. I still made it to EH in time for dinner.

Since I arrived before the other work-exchangers, I got my pick of the rooms. I chose one on the third floor with a nice bed, desk, dresser, side-table, and a stove pipe that routes smoke and heat up from the first floor - should make the room nice and cozy on cold spring nights. Two big windows look out into the forested hillside and face the morning sun, so waking up this morning was a treat. I couldn't tell if there was total silence or if I could just barely hear the gurgling creak about 30 yards away.

Can’t help but learn cool things

One thing I love about the people at Medicine Wheel is that it’s hard to go for long without learning or without having an interesting conversation. It’s the kind of atmosphere that will really accelerate me as I move into this new lifestyle.

Some examples from the first 18 hours here:

Before dinner, everyone in the house stood in a circle and held hands. The cook described some things we were all thankful for. It was reminiscent of family prayers, but there was no reference to a deity, and we did not bow our heads and close our eyes - instead we all looked up as we acknowledged what we were happy for.

I met a renter over dinner (“SE”) who moved to the community last weekend. She is in her sixties and just retired. She shared the story of telling her mom, who will be 91 next Tuesday, that she was moving to Earthaven, and how opposed her mom was to this. Her daughters were also disinterested as they’d lose continuous access to Facebook, but since the daughters were on their own, they weren’t forced to come here with their mom.

She also described being separated from her husband but still on good terms with him. SE described calling him a few days ago to ask him to send her mom flowers for her birthday, since she couldn’t afford them. Her husband said he would, but only if she included his name on the birthday card she was going to send. Listening and watching her as she told the story, I could tell that despite the separation, there was still warmth between her husband and her. 

These vignettes demonstrate one of the reasons I so enjoy being here - I get to hear about others’ very unconventional life experiences and how they made things work (or not). In this case, I learned about spouses who chose to separate but who still treat each other with warm respect and care for each others’ parents. SE also understood the difficulties I’ve had explaining the value of Earthaven to family members.

Also over dinner, I learned about one resident’s current project of making a composting toilet & a wooden structure to go around it. I heard about a program at another community where students go for a few weeks and learn human technology from the ground up - you start using flint to make fire, then you use the fire to make something else, and so on until you’ve got cordage, arrows and arrow-heads, etc. I don’t know many details, but I learned that the students who’ve been doing this the longest are now doing metal-working with ore they’re extracting from the ground themselves! 

We also discussed “income equivalents” based on how one lives one’s life: one resident (“BB”) discussed a friend who lived on $30K/year and had more disposable income than someone who makes $90K because they built their own (natural) home for $5-10k, didn’t own a car because they lived near the center of town, and grew 70-80% of their own food. The debts of home and car loans don’t exist, and the size of the home (and one’s attitudes) prevent spending money on the useless crap associated with the consumer culture. We discussed more of the details than I’m conveying here, but I’ll elaborate more in another post, because I’ve already done this kind of math many times and find it very compelling!

After cleaning up from dinner, I curled up on the couch with a blanket and browsed a book on foraging near the wood stove fire, very cozy and warm. SE read next to me.

One last story from last night: on my previous visit, I’d met an ex-Earthaven resident named RM, and learned about her decades of anti-war / peace activism. She’d dropped off some peace activism literature here before I arrived, and it sparked SE and me to talking as I browsed through it. We talked about how inspiring RM was and how she was exceedingly knowledgable about power politics and current events, and it was very tempting to join her in her work - she could make a very compelling case for why to care so much about peace activism! We discussed how there were many causes that deserved that kind of passion though. SE described it needing to find one’s ‘center’ - don’t let yourself get pulled in many directions at once before you’re truly ready to devote yourself to a cause, even if many causes seem deserving. I’ll elaborate more on my personal thinking on this topic in another post.

And this morning, when I came downstairs into the kitchen, I found a great big book on the dining table called, “Edible Forest Gardens, Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture” - one of the major topics I want to learn here! With books like this randomly showing up on the dinner table, it’s not just easy to learn things here - it would take effort not to.

I already miss the family and friends I’ve temporarily left, and I’m looking forward to returning soon to  visit and catch up with folks. Earthaven and Medicine Wheel aren’t ideal, but I’m super excited to start my transition into this new lifestyle here. I’m surrounded by attitudes and values I admire, loving and giving people, deeply important knowledge, and stereotype-breaking life experiences. I’m not alone here in having given up a relatively high income to live in financial poverty but natural & social abundance, and being with others who had the understanding and strength to make the same move is really encouraging.