Saturday, January 21, 2017

Is the bubble bursting???

We moved into the Bioshelter 10 years ago and role modeled a different kind of western living.  We learned so much, but we also realize it’s not enough.  Curt and I are really taking a hard look at retirement. How do we reshape a system?  It’s so much easier to start over.  I think we should become Amish and go live in the woods at the cabin.  Curt isn’t so sure, but the system we are in, our culture, is really becoming more and more DE-generative and the possibility of something that’s regenerative seems out of the realm of possibility.  

If suddenly Big Ag can’t feed us there would be a crisis, so we’d be forced to change.  So how soon is that crisis coming?  I read 1491, a book about before Columbus arrived.  It seems the woods were abundant food forests that the indigenous cultivated.  Could we do that?  Maybe, but in a crisis situation, it’s better to have the life boat already built.  So how do you build the ark, if it hasn’t even started raining?

I think our culture is almost at the edge—the crisis is almost here.  It’s so hard to know.  We have to take exponential growth seriously. This video helps explain it.  Please watch it.  

   These days hockey stick graphs are everywhere and they seem to be getting worse every year.  




And the next hockey stick graph we aren’t really allowed to talk about:  too many people.  The UN put this graph together.

So how do we get these graphs to change?  How do we use less energy and have a better life?  How do we use less water and have a better life? 

I think oil consumption is my number one concern. If that bubble bursts we are in big trouble.

Thinking about our big ag system made me do some research.  This came from the University of Ottowa, so this might be Canadian statistics.  It takes 400 gallons of oil to feed one person for 1 year.  

  • 20% is the farm equipment; 
  • 16% is the transportation; 
  • 13% is irrigation; 
  • 8% is live stock; 
  • 5% are pesticides.  

I’m wondering how much it is to feed our Alaskan family?  How many gallons of gas do we use to go to Chitna, put the boat in, motor up and down the river dip-netting?  How many gallons do we use to pull the boat and a 4-wheeler to the mountains to get a caribou?  How many gallons do I use driving to town to get seeds, or to Palmer to get manure?  If there’s suddenly no more oil……Curt and I don’t know how to live without it.  And we are not very dependent on the Big Ag farms.

 It stresses me out to know that when the fictitious Beverly Hillbillys struck oil, they paid $0 to get the oil out.  Now we may be using a barrel of oil to get a barrel out of the ground.  Here’s the quote:  If we have energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI) = 1 then the net energy is zero. We use as much energy to gather energy as energy gathered.  

Here’s the historical numbers from the Energy Matters  blog site is:  “ERoEI for finding oil and gas decreased exponentially from 

  • 1200:1 in 1919
  • 5:1 in 2007. 

The EROI for production of the oil and gas industry was 

  • about 20:1 from 1919 to 1972, 
  • declined to about 8:1 in 1982 when peak drilling occurred, 
  • recovered to about 17:1 from 1986–2002 
  • declined sharply to about 11:1 in the mid to late 2000s.” 

So where are we now???  How much energy does it take to pull more oil out of the arctic?  According to Peak Oil, for things to keep going as we are used to, we must have at least an ERoEi between 5 and 7. 

Okay, I’ll stop now. I’m beginning to feel like Chicken Little. “The sky is falling.” Who wants to come to the cabin with us and live off the land??? ☺

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reflections on my Biome

 I’m so confused about my biome.  I can’t understand it.  Where are the boundaries?  It reminds me of OUR TOWN, the play.  Here’s the quote I’m remembering from it. 

I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America…Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the mind of God – that’s what it said on the envelope. 

So my address would be Cindee Karns, AlaskaBioshelter, RamValley drainage, Eagle River Valley, Anchorage; SouthCentral; Alaska; and then the rest and finally: the Mind of God.  The Mind of God is the coolest. 

Permaculture says to design from WHOLE to PARTS and to look for patterns.  What’s my whole?  If I work on designs for all of my biomes, will that thinking process of mine somehow seep out into other’s thoughts of their biomes?  Since Permaculture also says start with observations, that’s a good thing.  It gives me some focus, but then I get lost when I’m hearing a podcast about the similarities between Italy’s President and our in-coming president.  That’s a pattern and if you look closer at other countries you can see other similar patterns in leadership.  What pattern is that?  Do I have a responsibility for that Biome? 
And then I go out to shovel snow.  I don’t hear the birds that I know winter here.  I hear snow blowers all around me.  That’s a pattern.  Is that a sign of our pattern of oil dependency?  Or am I just observing that because I have a shovel in my hand and am feeling a little elite in my attempt to become part Amish.  J

Eklutna Lake
I often think of who might have come back to this valley in ancient times:  where was the glacier?  It’s still astonishing to me that Knik was the named because it was the END of the Knick glacier when the town was founded.  Amazing.  We still have a glacier hanging above us I think.  No telling when it will be gone.  Soon I fear.  It sends water down to us—on both sides of our neighborhood.  Many of us drink it right from the stream. 

I see cottonwoods everywhere---an awful tree to partner with in terms of a heat source, but they are responsible, along with the willow and other water-loving plants, that sprouted and grew really fast because of the water source.  All of those leaves over the years have turned this valley into a place of soil, a place that can be cultivated, albeit with LOTS of rocks throughout.

There are many animals up here, but they are also down in the valley:  moose, bears, coyotes, rabbits.  We could have warm clothes, bear fat and meat to eat, but I’m not sure we could feed the current population in our neighborhood.  We have plenty of year round birds to entertain us:  ravens, eagles, chickadees, nuthatches, and stellar jays, and my favorite:  the grouse.  Our nocturnal residents help us keep our vole populations down:  owls and coyotes, but unfortunately they eat the grouse too.   

 So, if I think of my ancestors, I don’t think they would have settled here.  Even though there’s fresh water, and SOME spruce trees, it’s 1 mile up on the side of the mountain.  They might have lived in the valley after the glacier receded. But not up here. 

It certainly makes me wonder if I should live here?  I rely on fossil fuel to drive that mile up and then another 10 miles to town.  We use lots of electricity and natural gas to stay warm.  We have to import our wood because we live in a cottonwood forest.  However, it all might be changing.  Our summers are now warmer and I see the cottonwood struggling, but so are the birch and the willows.  There isn’t enough water or snow melt.  Apparently this area used to be covered in PINE trees before the last glaciers covered our area.  Maybe that will be the new tree? 

The mind of God……up here in the mountains.  What pattern is that?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Largest Community Garden in the US.

Largest Community Garden in the US

The Shiloh Field Community Garden just happens to be in Denton, TX where my son and his family are living.  Today we toured it (11/23/16) and talked to the founder, Gene Gumfory. This garden has been open for seven years and they have learned a lot, most of which is very relevant for the Central Urban Farm in Anchorage, especially since both gardens are on church property.

The Shiloh Field Community Garden prides itself on being a teaching, sharing and growing garden.  They welcome everyone.  There are 159 individual 15x15 garden plots for anyone to use for free.  You simply have to register each year.  There are no fences around the garden, but each person can add fences to his/her own plot.  It is open 24/7 so that gardeners can come and tend their gardens as they need to.  Water is free and is supplied by the church, as are wood chips. However, they don’t allow sprinklers.

Gardeners are encouraged to use organic fertilizer, but that is not supplied by the garden. 

Here is the sign that is up at the 
entry of the garden.

Across from the private plots they have a large orchard with pecan, pear, plum trees. Toward the back of the acerage is another type of community garden.  It relies on the community, church members, students from the two universities located in Denton, K-12 studetns and even some court-ordered community service volunteers to grow, harvest and weed the gardens.  Each Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings at 8am before the heat begins, they start arriving.  They all must sign up in order to work there.  Homeless or hungry people are encouraged to sign up as well to work side by side learning with the more experienced volunteers.  During harvest season at least, each volunteer is allowed to take home his/her own food for that night’s dinner. 

To access free fertilizer, they now have horse farms delivering to them directly as well as the tree companies.  In the fall, they put out an all call for raked leaves and people just bring them.  They also have all of their chicken manure.  The long rows of compost mixes right there on site and stays very hot all year. 

The garden also boasts 3 high tunnels for winter growing, 15-20 doz eggs a day, honey, blackberries and grapes.  All of the extra food is shared with many, many organizations who feed the poor.  In Denton 1 in 5 persons lives below the poverty level. 

Gene recommends a committee of 4 or 5 to run the garden, which is not what he has.  He is trying to manage it himself.  He also recommends that every community garden organizer join the American Community Garden Association.  They have lots of ideas there, he told me. 

I left with lots of ideas---especially signage. 

Monday, August 24, 2015


I love touring people through the bioshelter!  Every Thursday this summer folks come out and I get to tell them about how we live lightly on the planet.  This last Thursday a gentleman toured and at the end, even though his eyes were glassing over with so much input, he summarized, "So really it's all about design."  He nailed it on the head.

To live permanently on the planet humans need to design systems that work with nature so that we aren't harming the planet.  In our bioshelter home that means that we use the rain water for all of our needs and then return the surplus back to the environment as clean or cleaner than when we captured it.  That means we feed worms all of our waste products (anything that's not plastic), so that we can return that surplus back to the environment.  That means we used all biodegradable materials (except for the roof) to build our greenhouse.  The walls are made of clay we dug from the ground, straw we got from Palmer, and sand we got from Alaska Sand and Gravel with windows destined for the dump from Craig's list.  For insulation, we packed the clay covered straw in between two walls 12 inches apart and plastered the outsides of the walls with natural clay plaster .  We also built a rocket stove  with some firebricks, which is covered with an Alaska clay and sand plaster to warm the greenhouse.

Designing for sustainability is easy to talk about, but actually doing it is much more difficult.  Stores that sell building materials shipped up here from thousands of miles away, make building much easier.  The immense amount of carbon that is spent to get those building materials here is also a huge concern. The materials being shipped are highly toxic and many will never disintegrate, even though the homes they are placed in will only last 50 years.  The immense amount of carbon that is spent to get those building materials here is also a huge concern.  It is not sustainable.

It's time to change the way we live.  We need to design and plan for a future that stops harming our fragile ecosystem.  

So the question is:  how can you design this change?  An easy way to begin is to start growing your own food or buying from local farmers, and then composting the excess waste.  Growing your own food means you are not spending carbon for your food to be sent to you from the Lower 48!  Usually food is flown over 1,500 miles to get to your plate.  Some people are growing food, but are still importing fertilizer made from chemicals to fertilize their food.  Without going into the health concerns of adding chemicals to our food system, we can design a system that utilizes a natural fertilizer source:  animal manure. And it's local!  Designing a local food system that includes animals, especially when they have other benefits like meat and eggs, is extremely environmentally friendly.

This is only the beginning of the design process.  Designing systems for fodder or for watering those animals and plants, or for gathering produce from the wild, or for feeding the microorganisms in your soil, or for better ways to share food with each other, or share the work load....these are all things that you learn in a permaculture design course.  

It seems to me that more and more people are feeling the need to become more and more self-sufficient, localized, and healthy.  It's time.  You can get a kick start by taking a permaculture design course this winter.  It's all about designing your sustainable future and our planet's future simultaneously.

Friday, August 14, 2015

1st Rammed Earth Home Being Built in Butte

I was lucky enough to attend a tour of the first rammed earth house being built in Butte!  It’s an amazing, albeit expensive way to build a house!  According to the architect on the project, if you were to simply build a stick-built house with 12 inches of insulation, you would pay 15% of what this house costs to build.  Here’s why.

There are 10 people working for 10 weeks.  The material has to be made on site.  There is a lot of equipment that needs to be rented. 

But what you end up with is a semi-natural built home, and I'm betting it will last a lot longer than the 50 years a standard home is built to last.

First you measure out the materials.  

The sand went into the bobcat bucket first and was leveled off.  Then they added 2 5 gallon buckets of D-1 rock.

Next, they dumped it into a giant round mixer.

Only one bag of Portland Cement, which makes up about 8% of the walls.  That’s important because Portland Cement is extremely dirty to make and is responsible for atleast 5% of greenhouse gases each year!  The cement is what holds it all together. 

I asked why they couldn’t use clay and one of the answers was that it is hard to find a big quantity in nature and to buy it is cost prohibitive.  I’m also not sure it would work because of the way they are building the walls.

Next they added the dyes.  The 5 gallon buckets behind the woman were all filled with pre-measured dyes.  She collected 3 different bags out of 3 different buckets and handed them up to be mixed in.
They had done 2 test benches to decide which colors to use.   Here is one of them.

Each layer is another batch with a different color in it.  They ended up not liking these colors, but went with a warmer version of these. 

Then they added water.  It looked like they didn’t measure, but were able to go by what it looked like. 
I noted that this is a cake recipe since they were mixing all of the dry ingredients first before they added water.  I’m sure it’s easier that way. 

Next they delivered the material up to the guys on the scaffold.   You can see that it does not look like a glob of mud, it’s just moist enough to RAM into place. 

The ramming process was the biggest part of the production.  All of these forms had to be shipped up from Washington State.  The builder has experimented with all sorts of forms and found these metal ones to be able to withstand the mechanical ramming process. 
Note that there is wood on one side, the inside, to produce a smoother wall. 

It’s a lot thicker than it really is.  In total the wall is 2 feet thick, but what they are doing is ramming an 8” wall on the outside, placing 8” of insulation in the middle, and then ramming another 8” on the inside of the wall.  They are staggering all of the seams so there is never a straight through passage where air can flow in.

This is actually an outside corner.  The outside wall, inside insulation and then the wall continues at a 90degree corner to make the wall of the bedroom. 

You can see the batches of material they rammed by looking at the layers.  When they get close to the top, they pour a wet batch to seal the top of the wall.  When they pull off the forms, it looks like this.

Each place that needed an input like electric, or gas, or TV cable had to be planned for, so they could do the wiring later.  So this signifies that something will come into the room there and then once it’s in the house, it will be wired or piped in the floor to other rooms in the house.

So this is what the footings look like.

The outside wall is the taller poured concrete---it’s 8 inches and the materials will be rammed all the way up the wall of the one story home.  They do one wall at a time.  The middle white strip is for the insulation so it doesn’t have rebar.  The inner wall is 8 more inches of the rammed earth material.  They will put the plumbing under the poured concrete floor.  (yikes)  There will be 6 inches of foam on top of the slab. So the floor will come up to the inner 2x6 that’s laying flat.  The electricity and piping will go above the insulation, but under the floor. 

They are adding a vapor barrier between the inside 8” of material and the insulation, but the architect said that was overkill since any moisture can get in the walls and nothing that’s in there can rot.  So it doesn’t really matter.  There will be an HRV unit in the home to bring in fresh air every hour since it is so tight.  If all goes as planned, the home will be a 6 star energy efficient home.   15,000 btus per hour

Of course I couldn’t take pictures of the roof yet!  But the plan is to have a regular standard roof.  There will be beams on top of the rammed earthen walls to attach trusses to.  There will be 18” of foam blown in the ceiling and then an impermeable membrane covering the ceiling of the whole house. 

The reason that they didn’t just do a poured concrete home, was that they are looking for ways to build cheaper in the Aluetians.  The folks doing this are from the Aluetian Housing Athority.  If all goes well, they could bring this type of home to that bioregion of Alaska in the future.  There will be sensors built into the walls and they will take measurements for 2 years before they decide if they should build more of these homes. 
Check out the boxes that they have to build for the windows!  It’s too bad they can’t bevel the windows like we can with our clay windows. 

That’s 1.5” plywood around there!  It looks like it should be able to hold up to the ramming.  This is the bathroom window form.  I believe the form will be pulled when it dries and that outside plywood frame will stay to put in the window.

They are planning a lot of glazing on the south side of the house, of course and not any on the north side.  There is a chance that it will be too hot in the summer, but the hope is that all the walls and floors will collect the heat in the day and give it back at night.  The question remains how much will you have to heat it.  I forgot to ask if they will have a standard boiler.  I imagine they will. 

I talked to the Exec. Director of the Aleutian Housing Authority and he would be happy to let the Permaculture Design Course tour again this winter!  :-)  Sign up for the course here: