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Harvest timber without destroying forests

Harvest timber without destroying forests

A prehistoric squirrel, it is said, could have scampered from Norway to Singapore without touching the ground, so dense was the carpet of trees that stretched across the world. Similar forests stretched across North America and many other parts of the world – all of them providing a home to thousands of living things, all of them vacuuming the carbon dioxide from the air and keeping the climate stable.

Most of that landscape was felled for timber and paper long ago, the land given over to crops and suburbia – or to wasteland. Of course, humans need food and houses, but we also need timber and wildlife, and our ancestors would have been wiser to preserve some of those forests for future generations. And sometimes, they did – for at least six thousand years, some humans have used an old technique to continually harvest timber from a forest while keeping it alive indefinitely.

When the evergreen trees around here are cut at the base, their roots die. But many broad-leaved, deciduous trees continue to soak up water and nutrients through their roots. The roots put their energy into creating shoots, which grow into new saplings – and soon you will have several smaller trees where you had one before. In a matter of years or decades – how long depends on the type of tree – you can harvest those smaller trees, called “underwood,” and the process begins again. You can keep doing this as long as the original base continues to live, which can be more than a hundred years.

Commonly coppiced species included ash, chestnut, oak, hazel, sycamore and alder, and most of these created shoot from the cut stump, called a stool. The new trunks usually curved outward from the original stool, and so their naturally bowed wood was often prized for ship-building.

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The world-changing potential of hot composting

The world-changing potential of hot composting

As long as there have been humans, we have taken the parts of plants we don’t eat and thrown them back onto the soil again, knowing it would turn back into soil to create more plants. Until we modern people came along, that is. 

Now we take our food and seal it away in plastic, so that the only bacteria that can work on them are anoxic bacteria that generate methane – a greenhouse gas about 35 times worse than carbon dioxide. The least we can do, obviously, is to throw compostables into the compost, let the proper critters munch away, and let it alchemically turn into soil again.
Ordinary composting, however, has some disadvantages that every gardener knows well. One can’t simply add bones or meat – and some gardeners even avoid eggshells – for fear of attracting vermin. Also, plants that have gone to seed cannot be added, or the resulting soil will be peppered with the beginning of next year’s weeds. You can’t add diseased plants, or the diseases might remain in the resulting soil, ready to infect next year’s crops. Also, it takes a long time, and one loses much of the kitchen waste volume in the process of rotting down.

Imagine, then, a new kind of composting, one that avoids all these problems at once – no more weed seeds, no more disease, no more vermin. Imagine being able to compost almost everything, and keep the majority of the biomass. Imagine, finally, that it only takes a few weeks.

What makes hot composting work is bacteria; instead of the usual variety of bacteria that breaks down over several months, hot composters find the right balance of materials – more on this in a moment — to attract aerobic, heat-generating bacteria. Then, they oxygenate the soil by turning the compost regularly, and making sure the compost has enough mass – at least 1.5 metres on each side — to retain the heat it generates.

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Making charcoal

Making charcoal

 

Growing up I knew charcoal as the square, chemical-soaked briquettes people bought in bags and poured into the barbecue grill once a summer. Like so much else in our lives it came from a store, wrapped in plastic and pre-treated for shelf life, with no sense that it shared a name with something amazingly useful, which hundreds of generations had made themselves.

Charcoal is simply wood that has been burned without oxygen, either by being heated but sealed away from oxygen or, more commonly, setting it on fire and then cutting it off from the air, keeping the wood from burning completely into ash. Most other substances in the wood are driven off, leaving a porous shape of almost pure carbon, lightweight and easy to transport.

It can purify water by soaking up impurities, as in many kitchen sink filters, and treat poison victims when crushed and drunk in a fluid. It allows people to burn fires hotter than wood, enabling people to smelt iron or shape glass in a way that wood fires cannot. It can be added to soap for abrasion, crushed to make ink or paint or mixed with minerals to make gunpowder.

Perhaps the most surprising use, one that gained a burst of attention in recent years, involves trapping carbon from the atmosphere. Frequent readers of this blog might have already heard of this and can feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs – but for the unfamiliar, I will recap the basics.

Farmers in Brazil have long known about the “black earth,” or terra preta, found over vast areas of the Amazon. In the last decade or two archaeologists have begun to realise that the terra preta was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but had been cultivated over centuries, if not millennia.

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What science fiction ought to be

What science fiction ought to be

Science fiction has become the dominant genre of the last four decades – the biggest film of the year has been sci-fi almost every year in my lifetime. Of those, some are simply swashbuckler fantasies set in space, like Star Wars, while others are the very entertaining superhero fantasies that have become as ubiquitous as Westerns or musicals once were. Each year, however, brings a new wave of dystopian post-apocalyptic films – in the last year we’ve had Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, War for the Planet of the Apes, Geostorm, and later this year we can expect Alita and Mortal Engines

I say “dystopian,” because science fiction used to be creating utopian futures in which mankind had solved most of its problems – Star Trekbeing one of the only survivors of that age. In the time that science fiction has dominated our culture, though, it has been about something else: telling us how hopeless our future is, and how we’re all doomed.

They have a point; we have created a society that runs on coal and oil, which won’t last forever. Even the amount we’ve burned so far has changed the air so much that it is literally changing the weather around the world, creating more intense storms, harsher droughts, and greater extremes of heat and cold. Anyone who walks along the Irish shoreline can see the other main product of our civilisation, the plastic and other rubbish that now clutters the world’s seas, or piles up in landfills that have become the largest man-made structures on Earth.

Yet apocalyptic stories assume that our modern car-driving, computer-using culture will collapse overnight in some catastrophe, whether a robot Armageddon, climate disaster or Rapture – and the fact that we make entertainment about such horrors means that they are not really our fears, but our fantasies.

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Community-Supported Agriculture

Community-Supported Agriculture

We think of innovations in cars or computers, but rarely of innovations in farming and food. Yet a new type of farm has caught on rapidly in recent years, in both America and Europe – Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

CSAs are small farms owned, jointly, by a nearby community, and that supplies food for people who live nearby. Sometimes townspeople will buy a plot of land close to town, hire a farmer to work it for them, and share all the crops. Other times the community can sell the surplus for a profit.

In some circumstances the farm is affiliated with a farmer’s market that sells the produce back to local people, giving the town a source of civic income; in other cases, townspeople simply own shares in the farm and get part of the harvest as profit. Still other times the farm is more like an allotment, with families owning their own sections. There are almost as many models as there are farms.

Such community ventures solve many problems at once. First, they find a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They provide work for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.

In an interview with Global Public Media, community farmer Jay Martin made the point that many farmers must go deeply into debt in order to begin or keep farming – and when they have a successful crop, he says, they must deal with transport and the uncertainties of the market. When he turned his farm into a CSA, on the other hand, the costs were covered by the community, and he had no transport costs and a built-in market.

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Wormeries

Wormeries

Several years ago a study commissioned by the United Nations found that, at a time when the world has more hungry people than ever before, one-third of all food is wasted. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food, 222 million tonnes, as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. A previous study had found that British households threw away an estimated one metric tonne of food per year.

Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but Nature recycles everything. Dropped in the woods those peelings quickly become food for birds or rodents, which fertilise the ground. If these animals are not around, they become food for insects, which in turn feed the larger animals. Whatever insects don’t eat becomes food for moulds and other fungi, and what they don’t eat goes to aerobic bacteria.

In our modern society, though, we have managed to take Nature’s cycles and slice them into several crises. We use vast amounts of fertilisers, pesticides and water to grow food, ship it around the world, often throw it away uneaten — and when we throw it away, we often put in in plastic bags.

This bizarre habit has the effect of sealing the food away from the animals — furry, feathered or creeping – that would eat it, and cutting off the oxygen that would allow fungi and aerobic bacteria to breathe. That leaves only anaerobic bacteria, Nature’s emergency backup workers, who work slowly and create a bit of an odour. You might think that decomposition smells foul anyway, but a well-turned compost actually doesn’t generate much of a smell.

Moreover, anaerobic bacteria create large quantities of methane, which is a serious greenhouse gas — about 35 times worse than carbon dioxide, and accounts for about 20 per cent of the greenhouse effect.

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Weather that reminds us to give thanks

Weather that reminds us to give thanks

As many times as I’ve seen the wind whistle across our land in the Bog of Allen, I’ve never before felt as nervous as I have today, as the giant trees around our property are bending alarmingly in the gale. Our cement house has actually groaned in the intense wind, which blew down a tree across our driveway recently and ripped our greenhouse door apart.

Our heat pump gave out and the house is cold, the road to our house has patches of water so wide it is almost impassable, and our chickens are barely able to step out of the coop without being blown down. We do have a shed-full of wood for the fire, along with a pile of turf from the bog — but there’s been nothing but rain, and that soaks the turf and slows down the chopping. I’m supposed to be at work in Dublin right now, but our car broke down and the bus never showed up. Thankfully, our internet and phone works, so I could post this. Basically, though, it’s not my best morning.

Then again, I’m thankful we don’t live on the streets of Kilkenny yesterday, as the swelling river burst through the streets, smashing open the doors to pubs and businesses. I’m pleased that we have electricity, as thousands of people here in Ireland were left without it after recent storms. I’m thankful we did not have to abandon our homes over Christmas, or come home to a devastated neighbourhood. I’m thankful we were not on one of the flights that had to be cancelled, or on the roads that were completely impassable.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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