Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What Sustainability means to me.

Harvesting old-fashioned apples that do not require spraying.

People interested in sustainable living do it for many different reasons. Some are interested in living lightly on our planet, some are concerned about the political and economic future of our country, others just like the secure feeling of knowing whatever happens in this world, they can take care of their family. I am fascinated about how the homesteaders moving west during the 1800’s survived and how they chose what materials would be of most value to them as they left civilization behind. I can’t imagine how scared and excited a family felt as they left St. Louis for the wild west knowing that everything they needed to survive for the next several years had to fit on a single wagon. I am interested in how they created everything they needed in a world without electricity, gas motors and drug stores.

I like to experiment with trying to make my own family more sustainable without making myself a slave to our garden or making my neighbors think I am crazy. To this end, we do not keep farm animals (not allowed in my neighborhood anyway) that require daily maintenance and I do not garden year round so we can take a vacation when we want. I also understand that many modern improvements can help a family become more sustainable while saving a lot of time and money. My family lives a completely modern existence, but I enjoy experimenting with many of the ideas I will share in this blog.

I define sustainability as being able to provide for needs now without hurting the environment that we will depend upon to provide for future needs. A simple example is the woodlot. If a tree takes 50 years to be big enough to harvest for firewood, you should never harvest more than 1/50th of your wood and you must replant more trees every year or you will eventually use up all the wood that you need to heat your house in the future.

Future discussions might include clothing, soap, tools, frontier medicine, hunting and fishing but today I want to discuss the basics of how the settlers did it moving west and what it means for us today as we try to live more sustainably.

The basics:

Shelter and heat: On the frontier, heat was generated by burning wood. If you were lucky, you might have a wood burning stove to heat your home and provide a place to cook food. Most cabins had fire places, but they were extremely inefficient and lost a lot of heat up the chimney, thus requiring a lot more work to cut enough wood to get through a winter.

Food: People moving west initially hunted for food and gathered whatever they could find seasonably in the way of berries, nuts and other edible plants. Settlers were able to dry some food for winter, but there were large periods of time where people were lucky to have a few potatoes for a family to eat and some squirrel meat or fish to sustain them over winter. When families settled on a home site they were able to begin clearing land for a garden and perhaps have some more variety of food for the lean months of winter, root cellars were dug and people would find springs to store their milk, butter and eggs as a means of refrigeration, but bland food was the norm.

Water: Homesteaders maybe boiled their water, but more than likely, they drank from a spring or a stream. We do not have that luxury with our polluted streams and probably a lot of Pioneers got sick from naturally occurring parasites and bacteria in days past. For irrigation, I am sure that most gardens were sited near streams and water was carried from the stream to individually water all plants. One advantage settlers had was that all they had to do was survive. They did not have a day job and then have to come home and grow their own food, cut the wood and water the garden.

More than the basics. Why this is relevant today:

In an emergency your family must be able to survive with interruptions to utilities, food and water. If you can heat your house, grow/preserve/store your own food and collect/purify water without the use of electricity you have the ability to survive no matter what happens around you. Learning how the Pioneers did it and incorporating some modern improvements can be a very fun and empowering experience for a family.

Shelter and heat: Assuming most people are starting with a given home, I will not get into designing a perfect home from scratch, but discuss retrofitting an existing home. Wood burning stoves will save you money on your utility bills every day, keep your house from freezing in an emergency, as well as provide a place to cook food. Fireplaces lose more heat up the chimney than they create and thus are very inefficient. Pellet stoves require electricity to feed the pellets so they are worthless in a power outage, plus you have to buy the pellets. Passive solar is a great idea for any new home construction, but assuming most people cannot build a new home, a wood stove is a basic need and can easily be added to any home. Wood burning stoves are efficient so you don't have to spend months cutting enough wood to heat for a winter. You can cook on a wood stove and wood is a renewable resource. Even if you have to buy your wood, a wood burning stove with several weeks supply of firewood is a great thing to have to keep your pipes from freezing if a winter ice storm takes out your electrical service.

Food: It is a good idea for every family to have a supply of dried food or food stored in a root cellar and be able to grow more food to replace your supplies. Food in a fridge or freezer will thaw in a couple of days, if the power goes out. Heirloom vegetables can be grown well in your garden and the seeds remain true when saved from year to year. Hybrid seeds can cross pollinate so if you save the seed, you do not know what you will get the next year when you plant the hybrid seed. It may take several years to experiment with which vegetable varieties will do best in your area, so get started. Each year we grow the vegetables we know will work well in our area and try a few new types of seeds to see if there is something we are missing. A solar food dehydrator can be an outstanding method of preserving the food you grow and store for years. See the link below. Stainless steel containers and or heavy duty plastic containers are important to store the food you grow and protect it from rodents and moisture. Mice can chew through most plastic containers and glass containers will eventually break, so stainless is the best option for long term performance. A good garden fence to keep out deer and rabbits is incredibly important for garden success. Perennial berry shrubs and fruit trees, particularly varieties that do not require spraying for disease and or bugs, are a great thing to get established in your yard. The return on getting blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, fruit and nut trees established in your yard will last for decades. Canning can also be a great way to store food, but it requires more materials to save (salt, sugar, canning jell, etc.).

Water: Storage of rain water is a must to keep your garden alive in the summer and also serve as a source of clean water to bathe and purify for drinking, if need be. A 50 gallon rain barrel will not help much when you have a month long drought. Think more about 500-1000 gallon tanks for water storage when you depend on your garden for food. For drinking water, purification filters only last so long before they need to be replaced, whereas a stainless steel water evaporation system can last for decades. Interruptions to drinking water are very rare, but if you are going to invest in a water purification system, why buy one that requires filters, pumps, is made of plastic or requires electricity. See the link below.

More food for thought later! If you have young kids, check out Thanks.


Heirloom vegetable seeds:

Solar dehydrator:

Steam distiller for drinking water:

Wood burning stove: more on this later!

Metal food storage containers (keep the critters out): more on this later!

Passive solar diagram: more on this later!

Root Cellar: USDA 1975 design plan. See below:

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