decisions decisions

It started simply enough. We were thinking of alternatives for our seed packing procedure. Right now, my Fellow Man uses recycled office paper, folded into a simple envelope, to hold our seeds. Folding the paper is time consuming, and the envelopes can only hold so many large seeds. Perhaps an upgrade would be in order. So we browsed the large Uline catalog that we get in the mail every so often. We found, among the staggering assortment of boxes, envelopes, bags and other useful equipment, at least three distinct possibilities. They were reasonably priced,

I flipped through the remainder of the catalog and went looking for the ordering information.

On one of the back five-hundred-and-something pages, I found a letter from the Uline president. Aside from a nice paragraph about the new family dog, she expressed her sadness and anger about the Boston marathon terrorist attacks, and then went on to link the attacks to the importance of developing energy independence in North America. Her concern for the issue led her to visit the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota and the tar sands of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. She closed with an enthusiastic statement of support for the Keystone pipeline.

I was stunned. I couldn’t place the order. I’ll help Paul fold envelopes instead. Thinking through my reaction has been a lengthy process.

There is absolutely nothing about tar sands oil that I can support. OK, maybe jobs, though I would be sad to pack myself up for work in Fort McMurray every day. Tar sand oil is dirty expensive oil. The science of how they pull oil from the sands is beyond me, but I don’t have to look far beyond the boon of extra oil production to see that there are problems inherent in the process.

The same goes for high volume slick water hydraulic fracturing (“fracking” for short). There are shale oil wells being drilled 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface. At that depth, the drill is somehow turned sideways, and carries on, horizontally, for miles. Something like five million gallons of water are forced, at very high pressure, into the well. Some of that water gets left down there. At least a million gallons comes back up, loaded with carcinogens and sometimes radiation. There are methods for disposing of that water, but you know what? It’s still water. That’s what we drink and use to clean and cook. Without clean water we cannot live. It falls from the sky and most eight year old children can tell you that the water cycle is closed system. The natural filtration system of the earth cleans the water as well as it can, over and over and over, but evaporation is only good for so much. Tens of thousands of these wells are made each year. How much water is going down these holes and coming back up in an undesirable form? The number is large but, let’s just leave it at A LOT.levon eating

Again, the science is amazing, but the overall cost is tremendous. If our economy allowed for any kind of reckoning for ecological costs associated with energy production, tar sands and fracking would be off the table.

It comes down to choices. We all make them every day, lots of them. I choose clean water and air over natural gas and crude oil, this time. But not all choices are so clear, and it’s much easier not to think about them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from perfect. I’m still driving a car, and we use a tractor, a weed-eater, and a lawnmower. There is plastic in our house, and even though our homestead is off the grid, we still rely on a freezer plugged in at my gracious mother’s house in town. My three year old plays with legos and is obsessed with all that has wheels. And even though we do so much of our own work – growing and preparing food, building and repairing our own machines as often as possible, self-reliance is a limited concept. Cooperative inter-dependence is more realistic. We must rely on each other, as neighbors, and more recently, as a global community.

Because of this, I don’t want the choices I make to become divisive or overly emotional. Just because I don’t agree with the Uline company’s stated philosophy about energy independence doesn’t mean I bear them a personal grudge. It’s not US and THEM. We all share the water, the air, this planet, and therefore we all share the consequences of our actions, collective and individual in conglomerate. And each of us is deciding, all the time, how we use our share.peak1

Often, these days, our everyday decisions are made, not with concrete materials of a trade, or the making of daily bread, but with money. It can be difficult to make choices with money. Financial scarcity, real and perceived, is rampant. The perception that money IS wealth is a giant shimmering mirage that so easily sways our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It seems like the Bhutanese are proving the point with their “Gross National Happiness” measurements. We don’t have an official measurement of our happiness, but we are a wealthy nation on a lot of anti-depressants. No one ever feels like they have enough, and mostly we all want a “good deal”, “more bang for the buck” and the like. But, like so many things in life, it’s not how much we have, but what we make of it that counts. How we spend our financial resources, especially when on a budget, can be the most potent statement of our values, whether we know it or not.

Our little family business is so small. We don’t register as a speck to the Department of Labor or Agriculture. But we’re here, offering our services, using resources, and making choices. Uline will never miss the tiny bit of money we might have spent there. And my choice to not buy from them isn’t a personal attack on them. It’s just choosing to move our financial energy in a direction that builds a world we want to live in. By buying seed envelopes from a business that values and practices environmental responsibility, even if the cost is greater, we are choosing to invest in a different path into the future. It’s our tiny little drop in the ocean, and it still counts. I can’t claim that all of our economic choices are made so consciously. But sometimes a flag gets waved in your face, and you just have to think something through. I can thank Uline for that.

As they say in Economics 101, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Extracting oil at high costs and building huge pipelines to move it around, serves to distract us from getting smart about using LESS, not making MORE. When our economy doesn’t account for ecological costs we are essentially deferring that payment for a later date. It is a payment that will one day come due. Most likely the children and grandchildren of the current generations will be the ones paying then. I would much rather pay more now than impoverish them later. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment.sunflower peek

And I don’t think that the payments we make now need to be so difficult. One of my problems with the whole race-to-the-bottom going on in the wide world of resource extraction and energy production is that it represents a gigantic failure of imagination. With all of our amazing innovations in science and engineering, why can’t we see outside the paradigm of fossil fuels? (I suspect the answer lies in that fickle money mirage.) Likewise, can we not find or create meaningful work for our people that doesn’t involve destroying our life-support system? I am not a scientist or an engineer. I don’t claim to have answers, but I believe that better answers are possible. I like to think creatively, and I believe that we humans are capable of wonderful adaptation and creation.

Surely we can rise above this fray. It’s not people for jobs vs. people for the environment. It’s not Democrats vs. Republicans, Old vs. Young, or Rich vs. Poor. It’s people, all of us, trying to live our lives in a rich and meaningful way. People, making choices. We all want good lives, and beautiful futures for our families. Our true enemies are ignorance and fear.  Not Canadian tar sands, shale oil, pipelines, or money.  The sooner we realize that, the better.getaway

I have purposefully avoided making many statements about the science and numbers around resource extraction. I’d hate to mis-quote and mislead anyone. Huge amounts of information are available about the oilsands and Fracking, if you want to learn more. These are some of the stories I’ve referrenced:

Letter from Liz, Uline’s president –

“The Whole Fracking Enchilada” by Sandra Steingraber in Orion Magazine – plus the interesting discussion, 186 comments long, with only one (that I found) defending the fracking industry. –

“Oilsands Tailings Seeping into Groundwater, Athabasca River: Federal Study” by the Canadian Press, with more links on the Huffington Post:

“The New Oil Landscape” by Edwin Dobb, published in National Geographic Magazine, March 2013 –

The Union of Concerned Scientists also has some good articles. Here’s one:

I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, “Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” But we’re saying, “We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.” And we think, “One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons…” – Pete Seeger

living history

We landed on our little homestead about nine years ago now.  It was an unseasonably cool August, kind of like this one. We hit the ground running and made a rudimentary garden as soon as we could.  The soil was rough and wet and uneven.  There were stumps, and still a lot of trees to clear around the small field before we would have enough light and circulation to get a fair start.  It wasn’t long before we began to run soil tests.  First we just did simple ones from the extension office, then my Fellow Man got serious about it and we started using Logan Labs.

As wonderful as it would be to test a WHOLE garden’s soil.  It doesn’t often work that way.  There are sometimes vast variations from one side of a row to another, and the cost of separately testing each variant would be prohibitive to the average homesteader.  So, we just do what we can, and by and by the garden has improved.  That’s said, there’s always room to improve some more.  And there are always mysteries to ponder.old house 1

Our south western garden is one we’ve been chiseling away at for the past five or six years.  There were walnut trees along one edge, and a plum thicket along another.  We’ve trimmed, cut, burned, raked and year by year made the garden larger, but it’s still a little rough.  As I take the wheel hoe down between the (late) carrots and beets, there’s a lot to notice  The north side of the row is rocky and rough to hoe.  The other side is soft and fluffy.  On the rocky side, there are hardly any weeds, but the carrots haven’t germinated well either.  On the fluffy side there are LOTS of weeds (the dreaded galinsoga), and LOTS of carrots too.  However, the beets look noticeably better on the rocky side.  How about that?  I wonder about it as I work in the garden.

If I stray from the garden path a few feet to the north, I run into an old house that sits roughly in between the southwestern and northwestern quadrants of our bottom gardens. It’s a simple log structure.  The logs aren’t thick, and the siding is thin and gray.  There is a layer of mud packed between the logs.  The singular downstairs window has glass panes, and that’s all the external light there is, except for the one small window upstairs, which has just a shutter and no glass.  It was a very rudimentary home.old house 2

I’m not sure who lived in it.  I’ve heard that some cousins of the old owners’, the Cherry’s, lived there.  But it seems like they didn’t stay for the duration.  Stretched across the rafters of what I think would be the main living room are a couple of long poles, where Elzie Cherry evidently hung tobacco probably 40 or 50 years ago.  We found old fertilizer sacks, mattress springs, and remnants of shoes (go figure on that one) in the plum thicket around the house.  So there’s a clue about our gardens.  Tobacco grew here.  Elzie Cherry ran his mule through these rocks, too.  We have spent some time re-opening drainage ditches he created around this low field, to good effect.  Elzie knew this land well.  We’re not the first to be making a go of it in this bottom ground.

Each year I dream of tearing the little cabin down and freeing up that space, but to be honest, we use it for storage, so it’s hardly a priority.  I’d like it gone because it harbors groundhogs and snakes, and it’s just sort of funky to have an old house sitting around.  But another reason I’d like to see it go is so we can see what’s under it.

Whenever I’m working on the western side of the garden, I can’t help but look at the rocks.   On closer examination of the stones in the path, there are lots of chert chips.  Many of them have been worked.  They are flakes of stone, the leavings of the time-honored process of flint knapping.  From time to time we find a nice scraper tool, or even a complete arrowhead point, but mostly we find chips.  I’d like to see what could be found in the ground under that old house.chert

I suspect, when I look at the flint all over the garden, and hear the gurgle of the creek nearby, that this was a good place to do some handiwork.  The creek runs so close, and I know that it has snaked its way back and forth through the sandy bottom land just below us for many hundreds of years.  Our garden may have been creekside a thousand years ago.

The kids could swim and catch fish while the adults flintknapped and scraped hides in the pleasant cool air by the water.  I don’t have enough information about the people who came before us here to make a really clear imagination of those folks.  I wish we knew more.  It’s a gaping hole in our understanding of this land.  But, as a fellow human being, I appreciate that we have shared this rocky shore, the sound of wind in the trees and the glint of light on the water moving over rocks.  I’m sure that those people felt the warmth of love and tangle of conflict, just as we do now.  They threw their voices over the night sounds of the woods and singing of the water.  I’m grateful they left some stones to show us they were here.bowl of rocks

But I still don’t know why the rocks are thicker on one side of the garden.

Why is the ground wetter on the south side, drier on the north?  Maybe it’s deeper geology at work.  Now my mind is in the creek – down with the slick black slate rocks and blue limestone deposits.  Probably, the creek once ran through part of what is now our garden.  An occasional piece of slate surfaces in the garden, mostly on the north side.  More crinoids there too.  These are fossils left from the Cretaceous Era, when Tennessee was under water.  Mosasaurs swam through these hills, once upon a time.  It makes my hair float to think about the passage of 66 million years.   This world, this little hollow in the hills, has seen more changes than I can imagine.  Our little lives are drops in the long river of time.

There are some questions that soil analysis cannot answer.  Most likely, we will never know for certain why one side is rocky and the other soft.  We will pick up as many chipped arrowheads as we can find.  Some of those scrapers could still be used to scrape a hide.  We will maintain Elzie Cherry’s drainage ditches, and try to break that plow pan he left behind.  Mostly, we work to make the place more fertile, more whole, more loved for whoever comes to enjoy it next.who comes next