Appropriate Technologies and Crowd Sourcing

I’ve always loved the term Appropriate Technologies. It evokes ram pumps that use the force of the water to do the pumping, low tech solar water heaters you can make yourself, and bicycle powered washing machines.
Wikipedia says that Appropriate Technologies is an outdated term and suggests that “sustainable development” has replaced it. These are not just trends in language. They are ideological differences. So many of the free thinkingImage designers in the 70s had to figure out how to make a living. Ideas needed to be marketable for the masses and therefore consistent with the entitlement that our culture indoctrinates.
Wikipedia also informs us that Paul Polak, founder of a company called International Development Enterprises, declared “appropriate technology” dead in a 2010 blog post. He now calls it “affordable technologies”.
For the record (because apparently blog posts do matter) I’m in favor of keeping the term Appropriate Technologies in circulation. I’m glad to report that the Permaculture Activist is too. It’s the theme of their winter 2013-14 issue. Appropriate, to me, means that this design has been chosen because it really serves us and our world, not just an elite few, while forcing others into slave labor and destroying the ecosystems of less privileged nations. And it’s appropriate to me if it helps us streamline and organize our lives in a way that keeps 62us connected with the Earth and her cycles and her people and our own ability to learn new skills. Guess what, Appropriate Technologies are not just for the poor folks!
Most likely you are reading this on the internet. Can the internet be considered an Appropriate Technology? The main thing that I love about Appropriate Technologies is the idea that our social, economic and environmental stability is more important than making use of the next invention. We get to choose what tools we want to use in our lives. But so often it’s the marketplace that chooses. Like it or not what’s on the internet has shaped our lives significantly in the past five years. It can certainly promote consumerism, but it also can be a great platform for sharing and building community.
We’ve been hoping that crowd sourcing could be an Appropriate Technology. In researching our own fund raising needs, we’ve looked at Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Crowdrise, and other platforms. It’s amazing what people have been able to raise money for. I saw over $12,000 raised for “geeky sprinkles”- new shapes to decorate your cakes with like gears and lightning bolts. !!!
And it’s amazing what doesn’t get funded. Like campaigns for dire medical costs in life or death situations.IMG_4293
We’ve been asking around. Some say for a campaign to be successful, you need to showcase beautiful young women, you need to dumb down the information to sexy soundbites that make people want to click on something. It’s extremely disheartening to reduce one’s love and passion to a photo and a link, hoping people click the like button. I call that poverty.
So how appropriate are the crowd sourcing and social networking sites? For me the answer depends on how you use them. One thing I’ve learned from watching social networking sites is that if you treat people like idiots, they really can become them! So we are choosing to give the public the benefit of the doubt. We are not offering logo’d hats, t-shirts and mugs for our watershed restoration fundraising campaign. We are not filling our video with kittens (well maybe just a few). We are going to appeal to the part of you who wants the full story, who is called to support something they truly value.
And I guess this is just what it’s come to. We looked for grants and government funding to repair the flood damage and its just not there anymore. So if we are able to take care of our watershed and demonstration center through your pocket change, and this crowd sourcing technology allows us to do that, I’m leaning strongly towards calling it appropriate. So what if a few kittens need to be involved?  Learn about our campaign!
Written by Amanda Bramble

Thermal Awesomeness

Adam Rubinstein rents a cozy house that is unburdened by an abundance of insulation. Fashionably warm in summer and cool in winter, like so many houses. But Adam is not your typical anybody. For one thing, he is curious-nearly to the point of obsession-about his energy consumption.
“How much am I using?” he questions. “What’s taking all that juice? How can I use less?”
So he goes about researching and tinkering. LED lights, bubble wrap over the windows. Solar panels? Maybe not for a house not one’s own. But maybe. Ponder, ponder.
It is, for me, a joy to behold. He’s thinking, asking a variety of folks questions, constantly revising his ideas, his equipment. I’m not going to tell too much of his story, that’s for him. Just this one bit of it, because it’s so cool.
His main heat source is a wood stove. He burns scraps and salvaged wood, thrown out broken up pallets, that sort of thing. It heats the one little room in which it sits real nice.
IMG_4203Till the fire goes out. Then the heat, unencumbered by much of an insulative barrier, flees for the cool outdoors.
For whatever reason(s), he’s not going to add insulation. Of course he’s thought about it-money, time, it’s not his house, I don’t remember why, but that’s not going to be his next move. So how else to keep some of that heat around?
There’s a good run of exhaust pipe above the stove that gets pretty hot. So he researches and asks different folk what they think, etc. And one of his friends has a bunch of bricks she’s willing to donate to Adam and BOOM… thermal mass. The answer leaps out and hugs him.
Thermal mass is the ability of a body/material to store heat. A few winters ago, it hit -20F at our house. Our greenhouse has way less insulation than Adam’s house. But it has four 55 gallon drums filled with water-thermal mass-that helps stabilize the temperature inside. That night the temp inside the greenhouse got only to 20F. It’s still cold, but that’s a 40 degree difference.
Water is far superior to masonry when it comes to holding heat, but how are you going to surround a wood stove with water? There’s ways to do it with tubes or pipes, but it gets complicated and potentially very wet. Bricks, aka masonry, are fairly straightforward.
Adam gets the bricks, stacks them around his wood stove. Adam being Adam, he tinkers with the design, the placement, he’ll probably keep tinkering until he turns to dust, but the point is… it works.
When he fires up the stove, the bricphotoks absorb heat and long after the fire goes out, the bricks continue give off heat. Thermal mass is… awesome. And so is Adam.
He also helped some with our nifty new website, just in time for our upcoming watershed restoration indiegogo fundraiser. When I say helped some I mean mainly, he built it. Could not have done anything remotely as good without him. I’ve just tinkered with it. If it’s broken, that’s probably my fault. You should visit it and see.
And visit Adam. Great person, great designer, multi-talented. Find him at
Written by Andy Bramble

Snapshot of a Solar Stew

Until recently the questions that guided my cooking strategies were:

  • How many dishes will I have to do?IMG_4206
  • Can I do something else while I cook this?
  • How do I cook it with sunlight?
  • Can I fit fairly balance nutrition into one dish?

And sometimes:

  • How would a cave person do this?

As you can see, I’ve got some wholesome ideals, but I’m no Martha Stewart. No one comes to my house expecting three course meals, matching china, or even a napkin, really (or it’s best not to).
But I’m getting slightly more civilized. I just finished Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked. It has inspired me to put a little more attention to “building flavors” and the alchemy of timing and temperatures. This book taught me about a new primary flavor called umami- it’s a savory yummy flavor. Kombu seaweed actually excretes crystals of it. (I swear this is what he says) Following Pollan’s suggestion I was able to re purpose a rind of Parmesan cheese for the first time. How cool!
IMG_4245I adapted his recommendations for building flavor into a stew to solar cooking. I’m blessed to have both a high temperature solar cooker, the parabolic, and a slow cooking box style oven. They both helped me and Andy make the perfect stew. It involved many stages of cooking and mixing, and still we did a bunch of other unrelated things today too.
Here were the main elements of the process:
We chopped two onions finely, added a bouquet of freshly picked parsley from the greenhouse, along with some carrots and garlic and homegrown coriander. We put this in the box cooker. The swiveling one outside the front door, so we could catch the morning sun.
We boiled a bunch of potatoes with vegetable broth on the parabolic cooker,IMG_4171 turning it a couple times as the sun moved through the sky. It was afternoon before we combined these dishes in a big pot and added the browned buffalo chunks. Oh, and we salted the buffalo a few days before, and stuck it back in the refrigerator. The salt pulls moisture out at first, allowing the meat to absorb all the tasty goodness of the broth once it has the chance.
About the buffalo meat: I was a vegetarian for over 15 years. This was due to my disgust with factory farming conditions and the impact of growing a country’s worth of poison riddled corn to feed cows, to feed the US population who would be healthier with a lot less. Now I eat free range organic meats (preferably loIMG_4254cal) on average two or three times a month. Stews are a great way to make a little bit of meat go a long way.
We could have browned the buffalo on the parabolic, but we were alternating this with cooking beans, so we used the propane stove inside. We have a rule of thumb for the propane stove. We limit the use of it to 15 minute chunks. That way we won’t grow dependent on fossil fuels as a main cooking source and we only use about 7 gallons a year. But it allows for early morning tea and omelets, quick quesadillas, and reheating things.IMG_4258
We mixed the slow cooked onions and veggies together with the buffalo, added some chopped chard also from the greenhouse, some red wine, water, and a puree of leftover pinto beans- and the Parmesan rind! We brought it to boiling on the parabolic, and put it back in a slow cooker for the rest of the day. We stuck the stew in the fixed one that we can access through the greenhouse. That way there would be not need to put on a coat to retrieve it come dinner time. I should mention that it’s winter- the short days of early January, and even now there’s plenty of sun to meet all our needs for hot showers, electricity, and the supreme flavor-constructed solar stew.IMG_4252
Wish you could taste it. Definitely the best one we have made yet, and of course extra magnificent the next day. Maybe Martha Stewart can help with the napkins.
Written by Amanda Bramble
Inspired to build your own Solar slow cooker? Here are the construction plans.

The Solstice Tree

We carefully built our house without disturbing surrounding vegetation. Like that one Juniper tree just a few feet to the south of the building site. I had carefully calculated the distance from the tree to the bottom of our greenhouse windows, giving the tree a little room to grow. I knew that the shadow of the tree at winter solstice would not shade the greenhouse. We took advantage of the afternoon shade that this tree provided by planting our perennial sunchoke bed on the East side.IMG_3228a
Everything seemed to be going so well.
Our greywater processing food growing bed in the atttached greenhouse was also a resounding success. Over the years we have planted and harvested many phases of growth. Amazing things have happened here, that I have seen nowhere else.
A pumice wick distributes the greywater underground and the perennial plants in the bed have established their root systems deeply to take advantage ot this reservoir of moisture. Worms have moved in to the pumice wick, dosing the bed with nutritious worm casting juice every time we took a shower.
It was all going so, so well.

Until… we discovered that masses of red fibrous mats had begun to engulf the pumice wick, crowding out the roots of our precious food plants. I had deliberately left openings into the ground so that our plants could access the earth’s minerals with their deep roots. Could it be that the juniper roots had found their way under the foundation of the greenhouse and into the greywater bed? IMG_4135The plants in the bed had been requiring more regular top watering. This could be the explanation.
I discovered this situation a few months ago. While I knew that clearly something must be done, I was daunted by the idea of transplanting everything into temporary containers, dismantling the pumice wick, finding a way to seal the opening in the pond liner, creating a new drain, and putting it all back together again.
I looked at old photos to corroborate my guess of what had gone wrong. The tree had grown some in the past four years, but not massively. Looking into the growth habits of Junipers, I discovered this from the Santa Fe Botanical Garden website: While the juniper is slow-growing above ground, it is rapidly growing downward. A three-year-old plant (less than two-feet tall) can have a tap root 30 feet long. Mature plants range from 5 to 30 feet and can produce tap roots almost 200 feet long. The only other plant in the world with longer roots is the African tree, Boscia albitrunca.
I learned to never underestimate the powers of Juniper tree roots. Still, something had to be done.

A week ago, the most obvious solution hit me like George Washington might if I were a Cherry tree. Perhaps the idea came from this season’s tradition of chopping down evergreen trees. A production that would have taken over my life for at least a week or more, became an hour with Andy and the chainsaw.IMG_4125

Rather than creating a wreath or hauling the branches indoors to decorate for christmas, we decked the water harvesting swales with boughs of Juniper and rang in the holidays with less shade, more mulch, and hopes that worms like dead juniper roots.
Yet another learning experience in the exploration of beneficial relationships and repurposing.
Happy Holidays!
Written by Amanda Bramble

Community Homesteading

When Andy and I came back to New Mexico in 2002, there were a group of us old friends. We went to the Lama Foundation’s Build Here Now program, and tried out the community living and natural building thing for a week. We all were planning to get land together and explore co-housing/ intentional community. I cherished that dream- a band of us getting land together and IMG_2845exploring self sufficiency, economic stability, and community structure. Like a family.
Unexpected infants and illnesses entered the picture and the dream fell apart. After a couple years exploring existing community options, Andy and I found ourselves moving forward, just the two of us now, and we purchased our own property. The community piece of the vision for our life together did not look like what we first expected. That played into our decision not to have our own children. I’ve seen how hard raising kids can be in the nuclear family situation. That difficulty tells me we must be meant to live in tribes, for our lives to be more intertwined so that caring for children and elders doesn’t have to be an isolating experience.IMG_2968 (1)
It seems hard to find the middle ground as parents in the world of today. Making the decisions about day care, schooling, and providing healthy social engagement and learning experiences can be really hard. All this must be balanced with keeping our own health thriving, emotionally, physically, and economically. I want to see children growing into this world with the desire to pitch in with the real workings of community and caring for one’s living environment. This is natural in children. And it’s natural in adults, expanding into a care for the social and natural environment of one’s community.
After a few years on our property, we realized that we do live in a community, a tribe of sorts. Even though there may be a half mile or more between us and some of our neighbors, there is an ethic of sharing and caring and we really do show up for each other. We are blessed to have this, and to have contributed towards this.IMG_7107

The community that gathers at Ampersand is special too, in a different way. The age range is more vast, and the common vision for our world and lifestyle ethic is more narrow. Whether this community gathers for just a day or a couple months, there is something very special and inspiring about it. These pulses of living the sustainable community dream tends to leave us all rejuvenated and inspired. And now, being of the age where the biological clock makes itself known, I’m conjuring ways to include the new children in my life, and those who I don’t yet know. I’m revisiting the quest to make the multi-generational sustainable community dream happen, even if it looks different than we first thought. Kids need nature, and they need lifestyle models of living within nature’s cycles. Adults need children, and the chance to share in the wonder of the world. While parents strive to make the world better by raising truly healthy children, we can offer Ampersand as a place that models a community sharing in the joys of a simple and interconnected life.Image

All ages have fun with mud, whether by making sturdy walls or mud pies. Everyone love to eat, and the food preparation become play when we do it together with each other and the sun. Our community is teeming with people who have simple and helpful skills and practices to share. Hence, Ampersand’s new offering: Community Homestead Day, an all-ages event. Keep your eye on our website as we pin down our spring schedule in the new year. We would like to share in the creativity of a homemade life as well as inspire your sustainable community efforts closer to home. This is work the Earth needs all of us for. And when we do it together, it’s Play.
Here are photos of a few of my inspirations for investing in community.

Written by Amanda Bramble