Amie reads Calvin and Hobbes during Hurricane Sandy (13h) power outage, 29 October 2012

So we weathered yet another storm. Or rather, we didn’t. Sandy went around us. We got some of her peripheral gusts of wind and some rain, but none of it very severe.  Half of my town was out of power.  School was closed Monday and again today due to power outages and blocked roads.

So we got lucky. Or did we?

Our power went out at the very beginning, before Sandy had even made landfall 300 miles south of us. So just the smallest of what Sandy could throw at us instantly toppled our infrastructure. Why? Because  all she had to do was continue what Irene and previous storms had already wrought: trees and branches weakened by those storms had to come down.

The lesson here is that we don’t go from crisis to crisis, resetting each time. Instead we now accumulate risks and dangers. The next storm, however small, might be a major tipping point. The next big one might be utter disaster. Lacking the money or will to repair our infrastructure to pristine condition or to replace it with more resilient systems – systems that can take a hit - we “maintain” it in good enough condition for “normal” conditions.  The downed wires will be restrung, but we won’t be putting them underground.

We’re merely treading water.

***

Reading during (40-h) power outage Nor-Easter of October 30, 2011

Here’s another example of our lack of resilience. When the grid went down, our grid-tied solar array went down with it. Batteries are still too expensive, environmentally problematic and short-lived, so my household was without power too. With Solarize Massachusetts we managed to get about 130 solar small residential and business arrays up here in Wayland and in our neighboring towns of Lincoln and Sudbury. We pat ourselves on the back for our success, yet in times of crisis it turns out that it means nothing.

The majority is not bothered, of course. “Those couple of days in the year when you’re without power don’t matter,” they scoff. To them it’s all about the 362  (give or take) good days of energy efficiency and environmental impacts. These are all good and necessary qualities, of course, but we should also be looking at resilience. Climate change and other predicaments will impact  us more and more, faster and faster. “Normal” will shrink and “Frankenstorms” will become the norm. All our efficiency won’t matter if there’s no resilience underlying it.

If you’re thinking that that’s rushing to ring the alarm bell, may I point out that only a few years ago people laughed at the possibility that whole swaths of the country might be without power for more than a couple of hours. “This is not a developing country!” Nowadays we easily skip worrying about the power, taking it for granted that it will be lost, and move on to worrying about the water supply. In a few years time, even loss of water supply will be expected. What’s next?

And so we go happily down the rabbit hole, adjusting our expectations with each step so that we don’t have to do something about it that may – sweet Gee!  - demand sacrifices to our wallets or our idea of ourselves as on top of the world!

***

For me this isn’t just a social – local or international – issue. I’m pointing the finger at myself too.

Yes, we’re prepared. We have bug-out bags at the ready and food, water, flashlights, batteries and sleeping bags (*) in a hurricane room in the basement. But let’s not kid myself! Yesterday, as DH was charging our brand-new NOAA  emergency radio, the hand crank broke off. I was furious: what if we had really needed it? Though I am still  fuming, I am grateful for the wake up call. There could have been no more powerful sign of how fragile we are, and only fractionally less fragile even with all our preparations.

That I believed that my radio would work also betrayed that I had not really given up a key assumption: that we are rebuilding this ship in dry dock rather than plugging her leaks in the middle of a choppy ocean. I thought I had:  it’s my favorite image of our world in peril, along with “we’re treading water,” which complements it. But obviously I had assumed that this radio was built in dry dock, that is, under the very best of circumstances and conditions. I know now that it was not, that it was made cheaply, its parts sourced and assembled by the cheapest bidder, its testing foregone because the buyer would buy it anyway and because, perhaps, most buyers wouldn’t need it, anyway.

Well, may we all shed our assumptions, and soon. Treading water is hazardous enough without live wires coming down!

—-

(*) Some accuse us of being hoarders, but we bought our emergency supplies in times of plenty, when our purchases didn’t  impact supplies – which is not something you can say of those who raid the supermarket shelves the day before the storm.

 

I discovered Rob Hopkins’ book, The Transition Handbook, about two years ago and it immediately struck me as the right approach to our problems – climate change, peak oil and economic crisis (all bound up together, of course) – and to our solutions (grassroots, positive, pro-active, hopeful, inclusive).

It still took me a long time to try to act upon my enthusiasm. I tried to set up a meeting in my town to see who would be interested (and no one showed up, which I ascribe entirely to my awful advertising skills). This debacle did result in making a friend in a nearby town, and he urged me to take the Transition Training. I signed up and attended a training in Boston, led by Tina Clarke, about three weeks ago.

That’s the background. Now where do I start?

~

I’ll start with a conversation I had today with a mom at Amie’s school. It was the first time we talked and we sparked. As the kids played we spoke very passionately and openly about what moves us. From issues at school and global social justice we bounced into… peak oil, climate change, the end of the world as we know it. Only, I didn’t phrase it like that. I called it “this terribly exhilarating and terribly frightful time when we must all be heroes and activists and rise to the occasion of saving the world. Just here, in X [name of our town].”

What was that all about? Where was my usual hopelessness, helplessness? It’s still there (ha, I should be so lucky), but I am rising above it by stepping outside myself into a local community. There I can make a difference: “think globally, act locally”. So I explained:

See, these are the facts, and I laid them all out (my attitude changed, not my brain): oil is in everything and it has peaked, but not in time to stop the burning of it from frying the planet, our health, our spirits, and this economy is just going to get worse. This part took about 1 minute. What took longer was the “this is what I am doing about it” part.

I started with myself: I am taking back my food and my health, by gardening, by buying local, by keeping chickens (soon), by beekeeping (soon), by Independence Days, and I am lowering my consumption, by Rioting for Austerity, by Freezing My Buns, etc.

But that’s not enough: now I want to re-localize my life to within my community, by promoting community gardening and orcharding, or by organizing workshops on how to build with local materials, or by relearning to have fun and make art together, or by helping to retrofit and weatherstrip houses, or by setting up emergency supplies, or by giving frugality and sewing workshops, or by starting a bulk food co-op, or a local currency, etc.

I put it so that, even if my friend didn’t “believe in” peak oil or climate change (terms I had mentioned just that once), she could still find one or two items on my list that would appeal to her (thus the “or”s). She could still see how our town, the place she invested in and where she is raising her kids, would be better for it.

~

That’s what finally dawned on me at the Training. That’s what I think Transition is really about:

  • all-inclusive: whoever shows up is the right person
  • non-prescriptive, non-directive: give people access to good information and trust them to make the right decisions
  • Let it go where it wants to go, which is where the community takes it

As our wonderful trainer said:

Transition happens when someone says: I have a gift (any gift) to give to the community. And the reply is: Be welcome! And thank you! And here is what I can give to you!

As such Transition is a “movement” only in the most basic sense of a change. It is not a “group” but, simply, community. Those who start it and guide it somewhat aren’t “leaders” but facilitators. It is not a “label” in the pejorative sense but only very basically a name, because it is facilitated by an organization that shares its experiences and its tools – free of charge,  run with ‘em and let us know where they are taking you so we can learn from you.

~

This realization was important for me. I abhor conflict. I was scared to be a Transition initiator and facilitator in my town because I foresaw people confronting me on “Peak Oil” and “Climate Change”. “Prove it!” they’d say. How could I? [shudder]. But now I realize it’s not about peak oil or climate change, it’s about Community.

So, you deny climate change? That’s fine, but can you show me how to sew this quilt? Or what are your ideas on a local currency? Or do you know what’s wrong with my lettuce? Or… [trails off having too many things to do to stand around arguing, already!]

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Amie cans a quart of water

The Indian summer came, went, and came again. Last Friday we hit 37 F – cutting it pretty close – but yesterday it was 70F. It’s going to get cold again soon, though.

Plant. Moved (replanted) the 2 rhubarb plants, because in the end we chose their first bed as one of the beds to be covered by our winter hoop house. Planted 50 or so garlic cloves (3 varieties) next to the rhubarb. Sowed peas and planted onion sets for overwintering and early spring germination in outside beds. I’m investigating more winter sowing in containers here.

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some onions at least made it to scallion stage, the celery is thin but tasty, the carrots are small but super sweet

Harvest. From plants still going strong: Swiss chard, kale, peas, green beans, potatoes, parsley, basil, scallions, carrots and all the culinary herbs. Last ones: cucumber, eggplant, cherry tomatoes. Pulled most of the celery for mirepoix (with own and Farmers Market carrots and Farmers Market onions).

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Mirepoix in the Dutch oven

Preserve. 6 quarts of green beans, 3 pints of pickled cucumbers, 6 pints of peach pie filling  making the (preliminary) total of jars to 101… PLUS (just in) 5 pints of Caribbean peach chutney – and that‘s the end of the peaches. So 106. Froze 5 lbs of mirepoix (I first cook it in butter, until just soft; I just love chopping it up; and I could cook it every day just for the smell of it). Froze 2 quarts of vegetable stock made form scrap (mainly celery leaves).

Waste not. We had a largish party, during which I was planning to do an experiment: I was going to set out paper napkins and cloth napkins and see which were most popular. Then I noticed I was out of paper napkins, so cloth it was, and the defunct experiment was the talk of the evening. We also used metal cutlery and recycled and compostable paper plates. The ashes from the 7-hour ribs went into a ash-bin for the compost and soil improvement. Filling a large bag of veggie “waste” (e.g., celery leaves) in the fridge: once I have enough I’ll make veggie broth and freeze or can it. For the rest, we continue on with our usual stuff.

Want not. Bought more canning jars (for some reason there weren’t many 8 oz jars in my Freecycle/Craig’s List hauls) – they were on sale this time. Our toothpaste was on sale too, so now we have enough for a year. But nothing else. It’s pathetic – I really want to be better prepared, for flu or power outage or whatever, but my self pep talks on the issue fizzle out so fast. I wish I had a buddy nearby to do this with.

Build community food systems. Chatted with farmers at the Market, getting on a first name basis and getting nice discounts too – I never ask for them, and when they’re offered, I always ask: “Are you sure? I know it’s not easy for you…” Some tell me about how they are just scraping by, and I also get to see how competition among the farmers at the market plays out. It’s very educational. I also went to a Transition Town meeting, and local food is of course a large part of Transition (more on that later).

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100% homegrown "shepherd's pie" filling, to be topped with homegrown potato mash

Eat the food. Ate most out of the garden and whatever is left over from canning – one evening when it was just Amie and I, I had only green beans for dinner, almost an entire quart of them. Amie was so impressed: how can anyone eat so many vegetables!? We’ve eaten nothing from our canned stores yet: it will be special, cracking open that first jar.

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"See, I can do this, Mama, because I've seen how you do it!"

{Reset} Since I started again last week, I’ll call this week 2.

Plant: Transplanted mostly lettuce seedlings in the old potato bed, but I’m afraid they drowned in  last week’s downpours; luckily I didn’t put in all of them, and I have many more waiting on the porch. I did drop a tray with mizuna seedlings, but I planted more as seeds directly in the garden.

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Harvest: More green beans, dry beans, many more tomatoes, 1 cucumber, most of the basil. Amie and I collected 2 bags of acorns from our garden and the neighborhood and will experiment with processing them soon – though they already seem to have been re-purposed.

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Preserve: Canned 8 more pints of apple* sauce, 14 more pints of blueberry* jam, 5 more pints of fig preserve, 6 pints of basic tomato sauce (half the tomatoes from my garden, half from the Farmers Market), 6 pints of peppers*. Froze 5 pints of pesto. Figuring out now what we’re going to do with the many potatoes we’re expecting from our potato bins.

Waste Not: On his return from work, DH is picking up coffee grounds from the local Starbucks again. Cleaned out basement of cardboard boxes, freecycled all of them, but the moldy ones. Computed our Riot for Austerity (post coming tomorrow).

Want Not: Purchased First Aid necessities, enough for home stash and two preparedness backpacks. Purchased 2 large bags of baking soda and 4 large bottles of vinegar (as that’s what I’m cleaning with now), and 5 lbs of sugar (though most of that’s gone now, after making all that jam). I also bought 4 humongous bottles of Ecover laundry detergent (206 loads each!), because they were on sale and I had coupons, though I had also stocked up on washing soda, Fels-Naptha soap and Borax, thinking to start making my own once I ran out of my last bottle of commercial detergent; they’ll keep.

Build community food systems: Contacted a couple who have been keeping a beehive for the last 30 years, quite close to where I live. They’ll help me get started in the Spring, if I’m ready – that is, if the garden is ready (no flowers!). Got the ball  rolling (some more) on a possible Transition Town in my town (about that later).

Eat the food: Ate some (or most) of everything in the garden, and those jars that didn’t seal (one because there was a nick in the rim – missed that one – and one for unknown reasons), and those jars that didn’t fill up totally.

* = Farmers Market.

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So behind, it’s shameful. Forge ahead, anyway!

Plant: Fall garden of spinach, kale, broccoli, purslane, various lettuce, chard, mizuna, mustard greens, all as seedlings, and in the ground peas, more green beans, chard and carrots.

Harvest: chard, kale, cucumber, potatoes, various tomatoes, beans both green and dry.

Preserve: apple* sauce, peaches* in syrup, tomato-apple* chutney, blueberry* jam, fig jam (figs on sale at grocery store), freezing dry beans. (* from Farmers Market)

Reduce waste: We’re still in our Riot for Austerity mode, so we never produce much waste. Our renovation project required a small dumpster, which came out at under 2 tonnes: lots of the wood was salvaged. We replaced the 50-year-old old yellowed porch roof, which we’re reusing as roofs for our wood piles.

Prepare and store: had our wood burning stove installed; got more mason jars from the landfill; bought large bags of sugar; large bottles of vinegar and big bags of baking soda for home-made cleaning products; am collecting glass bottles for water storage (once I have a bunch I’ll wash them en masse and fill them up). Installed rain water barrels and investigating the Berkey filter system. Purchased and began studying Kathy Harisson’s Just in Case.

Build community food systems: chatted with farmers at the Farmers Market (got a nice deal too), and someone from the Food Project about their Build-a-Garden program. Contacted a local beekeeper. Still plotting Transition.

Eat the food: ate most of all that we harvested and even some (already) of what I preserved.

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If for some reason you couldn’t leave your house, how long could you and your family survive on the food and water you have at home? If your answer is three days, you can count yourself “normal”.

If for some reason the grid blinked out, would you be able to cook that food, heat your house and light your evenings? If you answer no, congratulations, you’re “normal”.

If for some reason you had five minutes to evacuate your family, could you walk out confidently, knowing your family, and your house, will be “all set”? If your answer is again no, you guessed it, that’s “normal”.

My answers are more or less the same. And it feels awful.

What with the wood stove now (it’s being installed on Friday), and our cords upon cords of fire wood, we could heat the house and cook (though not bake), and boil some water for washing and perhaps for purifying. But that’s about it, and upon evacuation I’d have to spend my five minutes looking for our social security cards and some cash.

For months now I have lived (not very gracefully) with this gap between the fears I now take seriously, and paralysis. My paralysis stems from the slippery slope built into the “for some reason”. What reason, I ask.

Oh, it’s just a winter storm that knocked out the grid, and they’re working on it. So let’s have a week’s worth of food and a non-electric way of cooking it (if it’s not winter). But maybe there’s a sudden break in the supply of oil and while the powers that be fiddle and connive, no food is making it into the supermarket, no heating oil into the house, and no gasoline into the car. Okay, so we need two more months of stored food, and a way of washing clothes, and perhaps we should also find a reliable way of purifying rain water, or stock some drinking water in our basement. But there has been a chemical spill, and we need to hunker down. Then we’ll definitely need some good water, along with all the above and some sort of safe (and livable) room in the basement, and a way of going to the toilet there. But what if it’s a nuclear disaster? What if it’s the end of civilization and the mob is coming to get all our stocked-up emergency supplies? We’d need a gun to protect ourselves, and there we draw the line, and anyway, would it be worth it, life I mean, under such conditions?

And so it goes.

But today I received this book, Just in Case, by Kathy Harrison. And though she does discuss the dreaded Nuclear Disaster, I think with her help I could take one step down the slippery slope, stop and catch up, then take another step, etc.

It helps to already have a way of heating the house and water for the next three years, but in a few months I would also like to have:

  1. four winter months worth of stored food and recourse, for the rest of the year, to fresh, homegrown food and stored staples like grains and sugar,
  2. a year’s worth of soap, cleaning products, toothpaste and toilet paper,
  3. a well-stocked first aid kit,
  4. enough water for two months and several ways of filtering and purifying bad tap or rain water for a year,
  5. an off-grid device to charge batteries for reading and flash lights and a radio,
  6. skills like making bread, growing and canning food, chopping wood, administering first aid -  skills that I could anyway use today,
  7. emergency packs for quick evacuations.
  8. No gas masks, no nuclear bunker, no guns. Just common-sense just-in-case.

Tomorrow I plan to turn the blueberries I got from the farmer’s market into jam, to can them into eight 8 oz jars, to line them up, neatly, on a shelf in the basement, and to just stand there and look at them and say: I’ve begun.

It will feel so good.