Harvest Swap

In order for me to explain my passion for the Radical Homemakers Harvest Swap that I attended last weekend, I have to start with telling you about my obsession with fruit.
All summer, from strawberry to apple season, I glean, trade for, and purchase the fruits of this region. I’ve gleaned shriveled pears from forgotten orchards, and purchased 20 lb boxes of perfect peaches from the San Juan valley of Colorado. I don’t grow much fruit here at Ampersand, partly because we only have rain catchment as our water supply for everything.

Radical Homemakers Harvest Swap

These awesome photos are by Gabriella Marks

If we drilled a well here, it would tap into the same seam that our neighbor’s well draws from. Their water level has been dropping nearly every year. Our draw would make their well go dry maybe twice as fast, or faster if we planted a big orchard. The deep wells in our area tap into old fossil water. Using well water here is is not sustainable over the long term (which is really what sustainability is all about).
Radical Homemakers Harvest Swap

Photo by Gabriella Marks

Raising milking goats here would not be sustainable either. There’s not enough forage on the land. We would need to bring in food for them, and still, all goat-accessible land would be devoid of vegetation. If that ‘s the case, why don’t we support people to have goats in higher elevations where there are lush green pastures? It makes more sense for me to purchase or trade for goat cheese from a homesteader in a lusher micro-climate, than bring in all of the food necessary to goats here, especially when I’m trying to restore the land, not degrade it.
We’ve been exploring sustainable living in this particular spot for over ten years now. In this time we have been able to change our attention from creating minimum impact shelter to stepping into our role in the larger community and economy. As we reach our limits to self sufficiency, we look outside our own property to source local foods and supplies. It is way more fulfilling to interact with our community, cobbling together a locally sourced life, than relying on cheap stuff from China and out of season produce, shipped in from the Southern Hemisphere.IMG_1506
There are things we have to contribute to our community: education about sustainable skills, and design ideas that minimize work, and embodied energy to create a more self-sustaining living environment. But also, we’ve got this thing with fruit. Our solar dehydrator can take more than 60 lb of fruit at one time. A community college class instructor who visited this year calculated that if we were diligent, we could dry 3,000 lbs of fruit in a year. And it costs nothing to run. We’ve got several solar ovens that can be used for making preserves and canning fruits. Our pantry has a sizable shelf dedicated to just fruit.
Happily, there’s a little bit less on that shelf due to the Radical Homemakers Harvest Swap last weekend in Santa Fe. I left the house with arm fulls of dried fruit, and jars of nectarine rose syrup and apricot ginger sauce. My dear friend Erin O’Neill spearheads this event (this is her awesome blog). Thirty six swappers set up their goods on tables around the room. The swapping process was very organized, with time for showing off, for suggesting swaps, and then we were set free to trade.
Radical Homemakers Harvest Swap

Photo by Gabriella Marks

This event still thrills me. Not just because of the bounty of diverse hand crafted products that are now in my possession. But seriously, I took home not only goat cheese! I also got osha infused honey, beet green kimchi, pickled ginger carrots, pesto, elderberry tincture, apple elderberry jam, macadamia coconut butter, a whole fresh apple pie, coconut deodorant, herbal chest rub, arnica salve, sauerkraut, a beeswax candle, and more. All handmade by these lovely women who I got to meet!
No one knows how long our inflated economy that runs on imaginary value will bring cheap household products from China and strawberries from Chile. We need to know who is making what right in our backyard, and support each-other’s industries to make our local supplies strong. So our communities can be resilient. The most amazing part is that this is fun. It makes me excited about the future.
Photo by Gabriella Marks

Photo by Gabriella Marks

Thanks Radical Homemakers! And thanks to Gabriella Marks for these great photos.  You can see more of her photos of this event here.
Erin O'Neill spearheaded this revolutionary event

Erin O’Neill spearheaded this revolutionary event- photo by Gabriella Marks

Thanks Radical Homemakers!

Thanks Radical Homemakers!

Written by Amanda Bramble

Unspoken Options

Like many people I recently read that 17 communities in California would run out of water soon. In 60 days or less. I perused 20 or so articles turned up in a Google search about this. Now reading a handful of articles certainly doesn’t make me any kind of expert on this complex situation, but I noticed a few things. Some ideas that were touted. And others that were omitted.
Desalination was the most mentioned solution. Who doesn’t love big sexy technology. Most articles also mentioned that desal is both costly and energy intensive.
Money, in the form of a $7.5 billion water bond, is also high on the list. What does $7.5 billion buy? “…new water storage, presumably dams. The rest would be used for wastewater management, storm water capture, recycling and groundwater cleaning.” After the whole well documented history of dams in the west and the damage they do (they tend to kill rivers), it’s weird to read that dams are part of anyone’s toolkit these days. (Dams are beyond the scope of this piece, but check out Cadillac Desert and/or Dam Nation as a start if you’re unfamiliar.) The other (not-dam) strategies sound good, but … well there’s a whole mindset I’ll come to in a sec.
Time, of all media outlets, had some interesting points. They noted that 80% of water use is agriculture and suggested moving to drip irrigation. Saves water, sure. Also, drip is made from plastic, which clogs with minerals and also breaks down and needs to be replaced.
And this example perhaps gets at the heart of what I saw reading through these articles: there was a flatness, an across-the-board oversimplification coupled with a lack of new vision, a thinking inside a certain industrial box, inherent in every piece, whether it was from National Geographic, Fortune, Mercury News, or a government website. It was a very consistent experience.
Take desalination, a not-dam strategy. It’s an industrial system that comes packaged with an industrial blindness to environmental impacts such as cleaning chemicals, heavy metals, and brine on the ocean floor (note that brine is not seawater and can damage sea ecosystems). I didn’t notice any mention of outflow in the initial pieces I read. After searching, I found: “The concentrated seawater will be diluted before it enters the ocean in accordance with environmental regulations and as approved by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.” Pretty slim, compared to all the other info on that site about how environmentally friendly it will be and the jobs created and… you get the picture, I’m sure.
In East Porterville, hundreds of residents have no running water. They flush their toilets with water from a bucket. There is no mention of composting toilets or setting up humanure systems. We seem to be locked into these preexisting systems with no thought of changing. No mention of permaculture techniques, water harvesting earthworks, curb cuts, water catchment, fog harvesting. Greywater got a slight nod in Time’s piece, but most waste water reuse is, again, in the context of large, centralized, industrial systems.
Brad Lancaster says that if we examine the urban infrastructure in place, one would have to conclude that we live in a hydrophobic society. We have designed in such a way as to get water away as quickly as possible. Flooding was a problem in Europe and the Eastern states and that mindset was brought to the west. But water and land are very different in the west and the same approach is not appropriate.
The solutions, as I see them, fall into two main (often dovetailing) categories: behavior and design. A NY Times piece focused on market based solutions to change water habits. A base line minimal cost for washing and drinking, followed by a steep increase “to make people think twice about refilling the swimming pool.”
In Australia (I forget which part), houses are required to have roof catchment. The cisterns have gauges that show how much water remains in the tank. At any time the house can be switched from the cistern to the municipal system. Water use went down when people could see how much water they had. The gauge changed their relationship to water and that changed their behavior.
There are a lot of people and groups experienced with permaculture-style design in California. I hope they are advocating for these decentralized, hyper-local, low impact solutions. And I hope their efforts are recognized, discussed, and spread. Because the industrial design systems we’re currently locked into haven’t served us well, not in the long term sense. And business as usual seems a foolhardy path. (On one of these sites there was an ad for artificial lawns next to the drought article.)
Here in New Mexico, the commission studying whether to divert the Gila River has been conducting secret meetings and refuses to release data on the proposed project. Its subcommittee is chaired by an irrigator. I’m not sure if that falls under design or behavior, but the basic question remains: what are appropriate responses to drought in the west?
Other questions spring to mind. Should food be prioritized over ornamental plants and golf courses? That last question clearly has an agenda. Perhaps we should begin with fundamental questions.
Where does your water come from? What is your relationship to your water? Once you’ve used it, what happens to it next?
How do you feel about your answers to these questions? What would you like to see?
Written by Andy Bramble

Prickly Pear Harvest

One of the many reasons I love September is that the land is full of wild fruits. And that’s saying something for our high desert grasslands. The most obvious one dotting the hillsides is the prickly pear fruit.
They are thorny and prickly, which deters many people. The methods I’ve heard about for removing the thorns include shaking them in a bucket of sand, roasting off the prickles, and boiling and straining.
Folks tend to be surprised at my super easy method for making use of this tasty fruit. There’s lots to do at harvest time, so I take the easy route. Rather than boiling and adding pectin or sugar to make jams and syrups, I just make juice. Here’s my simple method. I’m telling you now because there are still plenty fruits to harvest and make use of!
Pick the fruits that are most purple and shiny. Use tongs! Put them in the blender, yes with all the thorns. Add water- the more water you add the less slimy the juice will be. Blend. Drain the seeds and pulp through a sieve, using a spoon to push the juice through. Put the once-strained juice through the strainer again, this time just letting gravity do the straining. This is drinkable juice! It’s a little pulpy, probably more texture than you are used to for juice. But there are no thorns. You can use cheesecloth to squeeze out more juice from the pulp, or to get more pulp out from the juice. The more times you strain it, and the smaller the strainer size, the less pulpy your juice will be.
That’s it! Adding a touch of agave nectar makes it super yummy. Adding it to cocktails does the same, only more so. The spanish name for these fruits are tunas, so we have developed a cocktail named the Gin Tunic. Be creative. Enjoy, it’s Magenta.
DSCN0047Written by Amanda Bramble

Mushroom Miracles

The first miracle was that Peter McCoy, one of the founders of Radical Mycology,radical mycology image even made it out to our off grid site with his giant cultivation equipment laden RV. We do suggest high clearance vehicles for the trip down our road. Peter’s RV seemed to be millimeters from the ground, wires dragging in the dirt. But apparently he didn’t scrape the bottom once. This was the first miraculous mushroom occurrence.

It seems Northern New Mexico is bursting at the seams for mushroom cultivation information. We could only fit 30 people for this indoor presentation, so a long waiting list developed and folks who had not registered were bold enough to show up anyway and offer to sit outside the door and strain their ears. The Radical Mycology class was incredible. We desert dwellers learned about things like coffee grain bucket spawn, spore slurry, and growing mycelium over grains as a harvest-able product in itself.

Here in the arid southwest mushrooms don’t jump to mind as an abundant resource. Of course they do exist, micro-climates can be created, and a trip up to the mountains this time of year will reveal the abundance that is available at higher elevations.080

It turns out that even here in the desert there is a network of mushroom enthusiasts who remain undercover most of the time. This mushroom cultivation event was a fruiting of this cultural mycelium. Ampersand and Radical Mycology managed to create the right conditions to create a fruiting body. The mycelium is always there, underground and unseen, growing and making connections, redistributing resources throughout the ecosystem. Ampersand made for the fertile ground, a well worn gathering place for exchange. Radical Mycology offered the nourishment of information and experience which acted like a cool moist weather system blowing through. The mushroom lovers emerged, exchanged ideas and disappeared again into the wilds.

016We woke up the next morning to actual perfect mushroom conditions. We were surrounded by a cool fog that had descended into our canyon, closer and thicker than we had ever experienced. It was like a message from the mushrooms that they could be happy here, and Peter helped us find a place where they might really thrive- in an overgrown hollow below the plum tree to the North of the strawbale cottage where water pools when the rain catchment tank overflows.IMG_5769

The next day we went into the mountains and experienced the magic of mushrooms in a more direct way: we hunted them. We became initiated into the basic knowledge of mushroom hunting by our friend Lili. She showed us which ones are edible, what to look for, and how to harvest respectfully.040



Gleaning from the wilds is so satisfying. Mostly we found Porcini, Hawke’s Wings, Puffballs, and Chanterelles. But on our way down the mountain there was one log, right by the path, with one nicely sized oyster mushroom. The spores from this gift may end up recolonizing under the plum tree.056


The mountains nourished our spirits. The mushrooms now fill our bellies and the screens of our solar dehydrator. Hopefully our gratitude and appreciation was felt by the mountain. I think so.

By Amanda Bramble

Stories Told

Every culture tells itself stories. Ours has realized the power of story in unique ways. Not just the multimedia forms of books and movies dovetailing into one another, but also video games and even marketplace items. Everything has a story now, we are led to believe, from milk to cereal to whiskey to soap, if there’s a product, chances are good it has a narrative.

Perhaps the stories with the strongest hold on us are the ones that aren’t obviously stories, the ones that don’t begin Once upon a time (or even They say). I recently came across such a story, one central to our culture. Published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), it had a terrible, dry title – Policy Changes for the Next 50 Years – and a narrative full of uncertainty. One thing the authors were certain of, growth would continue, economic growth that is, but it would slow. They described how much it would slow with numbers. And a graph.

In my opinion, it wasn’t a very good story; it was narrow and self absorbed, though there were some bits I liked. (Some may say that that isn’t a story at all; it’s a report. I disagree; one is not exclusive to the other. Either way, that’s a subject for a different piece.) It recognized events such as climate change and an exponentially rising population. And it knew that these were too uncertain to factor into its predictions and recommendations.

That same day, I came across a few more stories. They all, to my mind, related to one another and to the first story. They formed their own narrative, a response to the initial call.CarDetail4

The first of these, The Dark Mountain Manifesto, states:

We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unraveling. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths. It is through stories that we weave reality.

We as a species are facing converging crises because of the stories we tell ourselves. We need different stories. Stories that are not anthropocentric.

We have had those sorts of stories before, from cultures that had much healthier and respectful relationships to the land and the non-human communities that shared it. The oral myths of just about any indigenous people fits the bill. The Dark Mountain folk launched a tony literary series guaranteed to be seen by very few.

Regardless of my opinion about Dark Mountain, it did strike me as an unintended response to Policy Changes. It  proffered a perspective much different and much wider than economics, the concerns merely of humans. And it did call for looking at the crises converging on us while …reject[ing] the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’. New Avengers

Then I came across New Avengers, a terrific science fiction series. The multiverse is collapsing, one universe colliding with another. The earth of each universe is the convergence for this collapse, referred to as an Incursion. Both universes perish unless one of the earths is destroyed. The “heroes” seek to save their earth. “Everything has a solution,” they say. And they seek such solution(s) at the cost of their own souls.

Black Swan, witness to an unknown number of Incursions, tells them that they are only putting off the inevitable. “Everything dies.” The immortal Franklin Richards informs Captain America that there is no solution and no work around for this situation. It’s simply how things are. A realization shared by some characters and ignored by others in lieu of short term actions.

New Avengers seemed to echo and extend the position taken by Dark Mountain. How does one move forward from such a dire place?

Perusing Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay The Counselor, this popped out:

I would urge you to see the truth of your situation, Counselor. That is my advice. It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done long ago.

Things certainly became no rosier. Perhaps there is a benefit to not panicking, but also to not hoping for a best outcome. Perhaps there is something in accepting that at some point, growth stops, seas rise, everything dies. Perhaps then we can collectively look at what may actually be coming our way, not to solve it, but to respond to it somewhat consciously. To respond to it humanly.

Finally, I came across these two quotes from Robert Bringhurst.

Humans, like penguins and seals and lichens and rocks, are interesting because of what they are, but what they really are is in large part a set of interrelations with the world in which they live. The more they recede into a world of their own making, the less truly human they become.

A culture based around the factory, the parking lot, and the supermarket, astoundingly disrespectful and inconsiderate of the land in which it lives, might be changed into a culture that felt a real and articulate kinship with the ground beneath its feet.

What sort of culture do we really want to live in? Plastics in the landfill? Mercury in the water, in our food chains? Or something else?

I thought of one of the bits from Policy Changes that, as mentioned earlier, I did like. “As a consequence [of slower human capital accumulation] earning inequality could grow…  the OECD average [level of inequality] in 2060 might be close to US levels today.

Buried in Policy Changes is a warning for the other 33 OECD countries (the US is a member) that within 40 years, inequality could be as bad as it is in the US today. That’s a much different story than the one America tells itself about prosperity.

I thought about this and about the stories humans tell themselves about their place in the world, about growth, about progress, about separation. I considered the story fragments quoted above as telling their own narrative – one of denial, consequence, realization, reckoning, and repositioning.

I sat outside and gazed at the Ortiz Mountains and at the wild aliveness surrounding myself – the curve of the valley, framed by waves of hills and the mountains; the many different grasses interspersed through the fields; the antics of ravens, nighthawks, and blue jays; flow patterns in the wash – each it’s own story, each implicit in the stories of the others.raven 200409 (36)_renamed_13653

Without these others, these non-humans, and their stories, we have no st
ories of our own. And no life.

Perhaps we should listen to them, again.


Andy Bramble