Rain Life

The storm approaches

The storm approaches

Their eyes go wide. Their jaws even drop a bit, sometimes.
“Really?” they say every time.
We live off rain catchment.
It’s not that big a deal.
When we turn on the kitchen sink, water comes out, just like for anyone. Only ours is rainwater. We have enough for washing the dishes, doing laundry, and having gardens and guests.
And no, we have not resorted to dustbaths. We shower with rainwater. It’s quite luxurious as our neighbors with wells put up with water that smells like rotten eggs and haul in filtered drinking water from the city. Our water is tasty, clean, and local.
How do we do it?
It rains.

It rains.

Living off rainwater means having a big enough roof to catch a bunch when it rains. It means having big enough tanks to catch enough to last us through the dry months.
We re-use all of our water in the gardens and greenhouse. We built our greywater systems to drain automatically into planted beds. We only use certain soaps and detergents that we know won’t harm the plants. And we have sculpted our land to harvest seasonal floodwater that runs down the hillsides.
The big secret to living off rainwater?
Treating this precious resource as the special thing that it is. You know how special it is when you have none.
We keep track of how much we have, and how much we use. Having our main storage cistern outside our front door makes it easy. We installed a tank gauge that through the use of two pulleys, a float, and a weight, it dangles a marker on the outside of the cistern right where the water level is inside. That way, even though the tank is opaque, we can tell at a glance how much water we have. Sometimes we track our water use by putting dated stickers where the gauge hangs. This way we can easily calculate how much water we are using per day and per person.
Just like we track our expenses to live within our financial budget, living off rainwater means that we have to live within our water means. Do you ever take money out of your account and throw it in the trash can? We don’t either, and we don’t turn on the faucet without using the water before it goes down the drain.
Rain runs in the gutters and the earth works.

Rain runs in the gutters and the earth works.

It’s not hard to get. But for people who don’t have the infrastructure that we do, where we can easily track how much we have and how much we use, it can be more of a challenge to feel the water that comes out of the tap as valuable or sacred.
Australia is dry. And has been dealing with drought in a serious way for some time now.
In Brisbane, water use was reduced by 60% during drought. Some of this was due to hardwired structural changes –things like low flush toilets – and the rest was due to changes in behavior.
After the drought, behavior didn’t revert back too much. Water use leveled at 50% of what it had been before the drought.
We experienced this too at our little homestead. We have an outdoor kitchen where the sink drains into buckets. Before the buckets overflow we hand-water the nearby trees. That extra step has shown us how much one does naturally conserve when there is an immediate physical incentive/feedback.
Everything slick, shiny, and wet.

Everything slick, shiny, and wet.

And when we moved into our newly built house with plumbing instead of a bucket system, our water use increased. Just because we were one step removed in the system.
Systems drive behavior. We feel for people who rely on larger governmental systems to conserve and protect this resource for their area. Folks seem to be waiting for leadership that is just not showing up.
We can track and conserve on a household scale. That’s manageable.
Most people don’t seem to realize that they can do that too. Folks in the city may not have the same at-a-glance system for tracking water. But most dwellings have a meter that they can learn to read and track.
Where’s your water app?
Written by Amanda and Andy Bramble
Our cisterns fill. One week later, the water level is still high due to our actions and our infrastructure.

Our cisterns fill. One week later, the water level is still high due to our actions and our infrastructure.

Finding the Edges

IMG_1949I know you expect me to write about sustainability. I understand.
But after exploring sustainable living on this one piece of land for 11 years, sometimes I think a lot more about the limits to sustainability.
We can do a lot with self-sufficiency here; we build with our earth, create shelter that heats IMG_5462with the sun, get energy from the sun, we can provide nearly all of our water heating and cooking needs with the sun too. We live off harvested rainwater most years. But when it comes to the ever present need to fill our body with calories, we fall short in the sustainability department.
I love the rhythm I have developed here with the cycles of the seasons. Spring means a big harvest of Egyption Walking Onions. I chop them and fill my fermenting crocks, adding some garlic and ginger. I love how my garden is so tightly packed with a variety of tender greens that eating large salads daily has become a necessary practice. That season will be over by the time I can glean local fruit from forgotten trees and use my solar dehydrator to render them store-able for the rest of the year, and longer.DSCN1369
But to be honest, sometimes it feels these delicacies are more the exception than the rule. While I feel so lucky to have created my nest in a beautiful and comfortable landscape, I realize it’s quite a challenging environment for food production. We have no running stream through this patch of high desert. If we had a well we would be mining deep aquifer water that really doesn’t get recharged from rains in order to farm our food.
But we rely on rain catchment instead, and grow all the vegetables we need in the summer. We mostly limit our veggie consumption to what is local and in season, and what can be stored like potatoes and onions and carrots. As far as dry goods, we can source pecans, peanuts, quinoa and beans locally (from Colorado to Southern New Mexico), but not rice and lentils. Limiting ourselves to local producers for all dairy products is outside our price range(I’m still making up for my vegan years).IMG_2028
Sometimes I feel our sustainable eating occurs in homeopathic doses. But there is something to that. Harvesting the barberry flowers to make a tart and aromatic beverage is quite joyful. Munching the wild mustards growing plump in the sandstone cliffs makes me feel connected to my land. Eating these wild harvested foods synchs up my heart with this place, this season. It feels wonderful, important, and even better when shared.
Basing my diet on whole grains and legumes gives me the protein I need on a daily basis. I won’t be getting it from factory farmed meats, as that is something I just can’t stomach. Beginning my meals with the seeds of plants helps me stay connected to the cycles that bring such a harvest. Even though brown rice is not local, preparing it feels way better than tearing off the plastic film from a prepackaged meal and putting it in the microwave. I’m still cultivating a consciousness of connection with the Earth.
IMG_0495With all my sprouting, solar cooking, fermenting, dehydrating and gardening, I still fall far short of my sustainable eating mark. While I don’t generally buy bananas, I do live in a globalized world, and the economy does not incentivize supporting local small scale agriculture like I wish it did.
Alas, sometimes attempting sustainable food systems in this location feels somewhat patchwork and piecemeal. But if you can’t cultivate your land, then cultivate your mind, your heart, and your experience of connection. I feel the Earth wants that from us.

Meanwhile, join our eight new interns for their first Ampersand class Sustainable Kitchens and Solar Cooking (May 24) to learn about how far you can go with harmonizing our kitchens and bellies with the cycles of our seasons.IMG_0333
Written by Amanda Bramble

Two Books

Not a review, just my experience reading Klein and Epstein side-by-side.DSCN1231
At first glance The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and This Changes Everything are Tweedledum to the other’s Tweedledee. I mean, look at the covers. It may never have occurred to me to read these two together were it not for the matching color scheme.
And no doubt, they seem like contrariwise twins but the differences are deeper than the subject matter. Wish I could have read them unbiased, but as usual, there’s the…
Stuff I brought with me
I stumbled across The Moral Case online. It wasn’t Mr. Epstein’s book I found though. It was an 11 page pdf with the same title.
What it is, the pdf, it’s a sales pitch. Not for a moral case, that’s just the instrument. It’s a pitch for Alex Epstein and his services as a pr guy. It starts with here’s the Problem and ends with contact me directly to discuss how you or your company can win hearts and minds.
There’s great stuff in this little document.  If you’re into reading things like how to reframe every issue to take the moral high ground (pg 8) and the six principles of values-based communication that we apply—and teach. My hands down favorite principle? The last one, normalize your hazards. (pg9)
So when I saw Moral Case the book in the library, I had the pdf’s let me show what I can do for you pitch already in my head.
With Naomi Klein, I had a much different bias. I haven’t read her other books, but I’ve read outtakes and reviews. I have some familiarities with her take on things and I tend to agree. She’s critical of corporate global capitalism and neoliberal economic policies and that’s the lense through which she looks.
Epstein, contrariwise, confesses to being a fan of Ayn Rand and the novel Atlas Shrugged. So there’s that.
Changes Everything assumes the reader is familiar with climate change and agrees that it’s caused by humans burning fossil fuel. Moral Case seems to assume that the reader has not read widely and has a stake in not believing that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Klein actually addresses this second point and offers some anaylsis as to what this stake might be.
Klein writes that conservatives are (rightly) afraid that if anthropogenic climate change is happening, then it calls the righteousness of neoliberal-free-market-global-corporate-industrial-capitalism into question. Because (let’s-just-call-it-)capitalism runs and grows on fossil fuels. And if using them is wrecking the planet, then maybe the capitalism isn’t so great.
A Difference in Style
Both have sections on Those who aren’t in agreement with my premise in their books. Which of the two models presented hew most closely with your experiences of people?
Klein goes to a Heartland Institute conference in 2011 and reports on different things that various people said or wrote there. She seems to come with questions like Who are these people? Who are they connected to? Why do they say what they say? The quotes and summations are all from speakers at this conference that happened not so long ago, and interestingly they’re not all on the same page. They often contradict each other. There’s no warming. Well, there’s some, but it’s not caused by emissions. Warming is irrelevant, it’s all a socialist plot. Freedom!
Epstein paints with a much broader brush.  For example, he characterizes environmentalists, all of them, as nonhumanists. To get there he starts with a rational sentence.  Religion is not the only standard of nonhuman value. (pg 30)
Then he takes on Bill McKibben. He uses a quote, not from McKibben’s first book, but from a 1989 review of that book by someone else. Then he uses a quote from the introduction of McKibben’s 2010 Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. The quote references an earlier work and it’s out of context, so who knows?

Someone doesn't want to talk about fertilizer runoff and dead zones

Someone doesn’t want to talk about fertilizer runoff and dead zones

Then he talks about an environmental movement in India. In the 1980’s. Again with the 80’s.
There’s a lot of this in Moral Case. Cherry picking. Oversimplification. Misdirection. A narrow range of examples. Damning quotes from 30 or 40 years ago.  And omissions. He’s all about omissions.
There is a real difference in the quality of discourse and thought between the two. It’s perhaps best exemplified in how they write about…
Epstein challenges the news from May 13, 2014, when for 1 hour Germany produced 74% of its energy with renewables.  Part of his challenge, two graphs showing wind and solar compared to the total production of German electricity.
The problem is that Germany also gets power from hydro and biomass. They both contribute to the total production, but they’re not singled out in the graphs or even mentioned in his Germany section. He writes about wind and solar, making an argument that these are unreliable.
The news was about all renewable sources combined. Epstein represents and discusses only two of them. It’s a neat bit of bait and switch. He saves biomass for the following, not-about-Germany, section.
So how does Klein handle Germany?
She doesn’t harp on May 13. Or percentages. She has a whole different context. She starts by writing about the democratization and decentralization (not nationalization) of power production in Germany.  Mostly it’s done through a national tariff program that includes incentives and priority access to the grid.
Then she notes that emissions rose in 2012 and again in 2013, the same time as the German renewable miracle. Why? Because while renewable energy and decentralized production were encouraged and nuclear began to be phased out, coal wasn’t phased out. Some coal replaced nuclear. Some was exported.
Klein isn’t trying to convince the way Epstein is. She’s mapping out territory. He’s trying to provide ammunition for an argument.
I say trying because lots of his ammunition is pretty…alice_in_wonderland_mad_hatters_tea_party
Like the claim that fossil fuel use is responsible for the eradication of disease. (pg 145) Here we have omission (germ theory), a tenuous connection (fossil fuels freed up time to do research), and mistaking correlation with causation (graphs comparing a decline in TB with a rise in fossil fuel use).
There’s the claim that in the last 15 years there’s been little or no warming. (pg 104)  Another way to say it is the past 15 years have shown 9 of the hottest years on record. Or, look at these graphs from NASA. 15 years isn’t a very long time compared to 135 years.
My favorite is where he has a link to what he says is John Cook’s summary of his (Cook’s)own paper. Now, this is over what I consider a stupid point, but it’s not the point itself, it’s the way Epstein (mis)handles it.
Epstein gives this quote: Cook et al. (2013)found that over 97% [of papers he surveyed] endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions ofgreenhouse gases are the main cause.(pg 110)
There is a footnote. (And while we’re on footnotes, Changes Everything has a well organized, easy to reference footnote section. Moral Case, not so much). The footnote leads to the paper referred to, the paper where he determined this 97% number.
However, that is not the paper the quote comes from. That quote comes from another paper about… agnotology, the study of ignorance and its cultural production. The paper notes …critiques must be based on arguments actually made in the original papers if the process is to be constructive.
Two other papers supporting Cook’s findings are not at all mentioned in Moral Case.
Alex Epstein does not seem to be interested in a constructive process, unless that process is to get paid. If his book were fiction, he’d be characterized as an unreliable narrator. It’s not fiction, explicitly. It’s an expansion of his original pdf. And like his original pdf, it’s got the feel of a con. Like a street hustler trying out for a Vegas slight-of-hand magic show. Alice-the-Cheshire-Cat
If I wasn’t convinced before, researching Epstein’s Moral claims convinced me that anthropogenic climate change is what’s happening.
Klein is certainly convinced. But it’s just a context for what she’s really passionate about, social justice. She also cares about integrity and constructive process. She’s a professional journalist, not a spin doctor/philosopher king. For her, clearly it’s not soundbites, easy answers, ammunition. It’s much more along the lines of what is actually going on? How do these systems work and interact? Are they beneficial for us? Can we change them? How?
She understands that the ends don’t justify the means. It’s all means.
And that means being thorough, not slick.
Written by Andy Bramble

Designing for Cozy

In Northern New Mexico, most rural folks heat their homes with wood. Winter conversations can revolve around where you got your wood, how well it burns, and how much is left. We quietly listen during these exchanges because it is impolite to brag. We rarely need to start a fire in our hearth. Our home is designed to capture the heat of the sun and store it, even through a cloudy day or two. IMG_1984
By designing around natural patterns we have created a living structure where the systems interact seamlessly. Heat rises, water falls, the earth’s temperature is fairly stable. We can count on these things. So this is where we started with our house design.
It is built into the Northwest side of a hill.DSCN0676 The roof has 14 inches of blown cellulose for insulation (R51), and the attached greenhouse acts as a heater in the winter. The South facing greenhouse is slightly sunken, helping not only with heat circulation but also with utilizing our grey water without pumps and filters. We are very careful about what we put down the drain, and all our grey water drains into a processing bed which grows food year round.
We kept the hot water system small and localized around the south of the house where the naturally thermosyphoning solar water system is located, requiring no pumps or heat exchangers. Our water systems draws rain caught from the roof, stored in a 2,500 gallon cistern, into the pantry for pressurizing(the rest of our site is pressurized just from gravity) with a pump and tank. We have an additional 2000 gallon tank for extra storage. Our Big Berkey ceramic filter sits on the side of our kitchen sink and we fill it whenever we are waiting for the hot water to arrive.

The things that make us happy are fairly simple. We like to be warm (but not too warm), dry, and well fed. Housing that helps to meet these basic needs without making major impacts on the Earth and it’s inhabitants is an accomplishment in itself for humans of this era. This brings a peace of mind that not many folks have these days. Any comfort and convenience beyond that, we consider a luxury. These are some examples of the luxuries of our simple home:

  • Freshly picked vegetables from the attached greenhouse year round.
  • Solar oven accessible from inside the house via the Solar Wall Oven design.
  • Solar hot water nearly all the time- our storage tank is located in the house and well insulated.
  • The root cellar/pantry is conveniently located just off the kitchen and tucked into the North hill for winter food storage.
  • Rainwater passed through a ceramic filter makes delicious clean local drinking water- a rarity in our area of wells that are hundreds of feet deep and water thick with minerals.

Our house is made with earth, strawbales, and salvaged wood. The walls are round and finished with fine earth plasters. It has a cave/womb-like feel but with plenty of light. Our earth floor is sealed with linseed oil and beeswax and is always a favorite aspect for our visitors.IMG_3344
As we see it, our task as humans now is to reclaim our place as creatures on this earth. We can be part of a healthy ecosystem, not destroyers of it. Our house helps us retrain ourselves to cultivate our attention towards the immediate environment. The comfort of our home depends on our interaction- a far cry from the common ‘climate controlled’ standards. Sure, we designed and built the house to be comfortable; it’s soft, round, earthen, bright, cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. But it’s also designed to encourage intimate relationships with our resources. The tank gauge on our cistern just outside the front door keeps us in touch with our most scarce resource. Our thermometer in the greenhouse and in the main house are large and easy to read. That helps us decide when to open or close the doors to the greenhouse for ultimate efficiency. Our voltage meter is easy to read, encouraging informed and quick decisions about our solar electricity usage. Integrating these feedback systems into our home has helped us stay in touch with the sun, the rain, the sky- the elements that are essential to our survival.

We made this house so it would use resources efficiently- not just in the building process, but in the systems we use once it is built. We have focused on simplicity for easy maintenance, and natural materials for our health and sanity. It is customized to our environment. We have a lot of sun, so we use it as much as possible. We don’t have a lot of water, and our infrastructure reflects it’s preciousness. All of these factors make our home the most comfortable human habitation we have ever experienced. It not only reflects our values, but also all the sweat and love we put into it’s creation. IMG_3388Written by Amanda Bramble

The Winter Garden

To commemorate the longest nights of the year, I’m writing about one woman’s winter gardening success. It’s so impressive that I have included information here that will help you get this going at your own place.
Clair Gardner’s experiments and successes are tucked away against some cliffs in Lamy, NM. Her home is off the grid and full of cobbled-together nooks and crannies filled with delightfully wild productivity.
Clair’s garden beds were not obvious at first. I had walked by several in my search to find Clair in her goat pen. With full pails of fresh milk in her hands, she showed me how her chickens get a good amount of the protein they need from the bugs in the goat manure. This adventurous and intelligent woman has a whole lot to share.

When the beds were uncovered, I received a fresh whiff of green moist air. The plants inside were vibrant and large. There were seedlings happily covering an area of the bed. This is late December, not really a time when most people plant outside. But these beds have an interesting indoor quality to them. The bed is sunken into the ground, straw bales are stacked as walls and greenhouse double walled plastic sheets are used to cover the bed flat on top. These beds she uses mostly for greens- for her own family and her chickens. She mixes together seeds that include boc choy, spinach, collards, broccoli and mustard and sprinkles them in the area that she harvests from. Thick seeding and heavy thinning is an essential part of Clair’s system with these beds. She keeps the chard separate as it can take over. Arugula has been banished from the beds for this reason.
These straw bale greenhouse beds have two layers of double walled greenhouse plastic purchased at Plastic Supply Inc. in Albuquerque for $130 per 12 x 6 foot sheet. Clair had the company cut them there. One of these sheets supplies both layers for the bed. They are cut to fit into a wooden frame on top of the straw bales The frame allows space between the ultraviolet resistant plastic sheets. In the winter Clair has seen a thermometer report temperatures down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. But she has never seen the plants themselves frozen. In the summer she just props open the greenhouse lids, and the greens are very happy. Somehow this design that Clair has developed creates a growing environment that doesn’t change all that much throughout the seasons of the year. She thinks it is because of the lack of evaporation and keeping the plant roots cool.
Usually I have an aversion to covering my gardens so they are not visible as I walk by. A friend told me once that I was too plant-empathic. Nevertheless, I think I’ll make a garden bed according to Clair’s designs. I’m sold because of how little she has to water. In the summer she only waters once a week. In the winter, it’s once every three weeks. And it seems she has seeds germinating and good growth all year round. Like I do in my greenhouse, she will let some plants go to seed, and keep harvesting years later. Another thing that I find amazing is that Clair only adds compost to the top few inches of soil. Without deep soil improvement, the plants do well. She rarely has insect infestations.
My own greenhouse is now thriving. There are giant tomatoes filling out a plant that volunteered a year ago. The leeks are monstrous and ready to harvest. The kale trees are still trying to grow out of the greenhouse. It’s best for me to keep a good supply of older plants in the grey water bed. I know their roots have found the subsurface irrigation. I’ll build one of Clair’s designs specifically for year round tender greens. It’s perfect.
Now a few photos of Ampersand’s greenhouse during Winter Solstice.
Written by Amanda Bramble