Friday, 29 June 2012

Eco Worrier Series - Falling off the Edge of the World

Individually we can live anywhere from zero to about 120 years of age, then we die; it’s a biological certainty everywhere except in the annals of science fiction.  As a species we also have a use by date.  Scientists provide murky prophecies by dissecting the entrails of our environment, from the microbes of disease to the pH level of our seas and the health of our atmosphere.

Some days it seems we’re leaning hard on the kill switch, as though by some subconscious collective desire we’re keen to get on with our extinction phase.   Against all genetic reasoning I’ve kind of got to like the idea that we end.  I can console myself that I’m not alone in this. We’ve always had a fascination with the end of the world, and looking back at popular culture it’s interesting to note the change in plot lines, from the alien fearing days of the Day of the Triffids and War the of the Worlds, to man-made post apocalyptic scenarios such as Mad Max, through to the growing popularity of environmental disasters with such movies as Waterworld and The Day after Tomorrow, and the BBC TV series, Outcasts.
It’s a theme littered throughout literature too. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, death, war, famine and pestilence have always been waiting in the wings. I like Pratchett and Gaiman’s concept in Good Omens of the four sidling into society and providing us with the means to our own end, like calorie-less food, till we all, by personal choice, gorge ourselves to  emaciation.  It’s clear - while they court us with death we groom their horses.  There are few options for extinction that do not require our assistance.    
But it wasn’t till I’d read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman that I started to seriously consider an earth without humans.  Weisman posits that, for whatever reason, we no longer exist, and explores what would happen to the earth from an hour later through to millions of years – and it seemed, at least at first, that nature can grind us down fairly quickly, that our traces would be, if not wiped up with a wash cloth, obliterated by time and those all powerful microbes. Towards the end of the book it seemed as if it was one of those cleaning jobs that once tackled one realises the item in question may no longer be of an aesthetic or practical value and it would be easier to throw it away, start again. 

But nature has less of a throw away approach and eventually our damage will be undone.  Though until such time as a plastic chewing microbe evolves polymers will be one of our most lasting mementos.
Will we go out with a whimper or a bang? The disaster movies proliferating prefer the CGI excitement of the bang theory - it makes for better ratings.  Though I suspect our descendants will eke out a marginal existence for centuries till they’re no longer viable.  Inevitably our reign will be over.  It will take millions of years for other species to evolve and rule the earth. I wonder if they will find us in peat bogs and disturbed cemeteries. What will they think of us?  Will they sift through our bones looking for clues or will they chew on them? 
There are days I wax lyrical on human extinction, but most times I cling feverishly to the hope that the environment we live in can survive our excesses, and that we can reduce them to the point it can do so on a long term basis and that our descendants will laugh at our naivety as we do at our ancestors’ fears of falling off the edge of the world.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Eco Worrier Series - Carbon Natural

Carbon fixation is a scientific process. But it’s not the kind of fixation I’m talking about. If carbon had been white it might have had a chance, but its colour coded for evil, an insidious atom that proliferates at our every action. It’s the second most plentiful element in our bodies at 18.5% of our mass. It’s popular in the universe, being the fourth most abundant element behind hydrogen, helium and oxygen. If it’s an evil, then it’s a necessary one. We wouldn’t exist without it. It comes in different forms or allotropes from diamonds, which we revere, to dioxide, which we, increasingly, don’t. And in all likelihood the text you are now reading is created by specifically arranged blobs of it, and it’s a lot of these combinations of carbon in our reading matter that has us all fired up on the atom with the highest melting point of all the elements. 

It’s the 810 gigatonnes and climbing in our atmosphere that causes the atmos-fear. Carbon is a stable atom, but the amount of it in our atmosphere is de-stablising its ability to control our climate.  We can’t even exhale without it; my eco-worrier paranoia comes to the fore, cringes and wonders - should I cut down on breathing? 

The average person inhales around 25,000 times a day filtering 10,000 litres of air for oxygen and producing approx 900 grams of CO2, more if physically active. With over 6 billion of us that’s close to 6 trillion tonnes of CO2 a day.  Seems like one of those figures meant to restrain your desire to sigh and instead consider draconian population control. But don’t hold your breath! What we are exhaling is fast cycle CO2 - it was absorbed by eating plants and animals that ate plants.  Emitting this CO2 doesn’t make any difference to atmospheric levels as it would have decomposed and re-entered the environment within a short time period anyway. So breathe easy. 

It’s become a much maligned substance, but, like our decision to consider guns evil (when it’s the person using them), or that money is evil (when it’s the love of it), carbon is the scapegoat side effect of our lifestyle.   

Carbon is naturally sequestered in coal, oil, and organic matter over millions of years and we’ve become adept at extracting it. We have a myriad of techniques devised to access the stored energy to do everything from increase the carbon value in our toast (by burning it) to converting it into plastic boxes plugged into fossil fuel based energy sources  used to exchange electronic information, sometimes all day, in the thermostatically controlled atmosphere of a home or office. 

We are so inventive with the stuff, we drop it below –78.5o and use it to make dry ice to augment  nightclub atmosphere in which we toss back drinks livened up with little bubbles made of the same stuff. There seems to be no end to the things we can do with two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom. 

It’s difficult to visualize 391ppm of carbon suspended in the atmosphere. The problem is it’s invisible to the eye and odourless and unless you have a Photo acoustic Field Gas-Monitor handy you can only measure its effects by the number of magazine articles and news bulletins the subject generates.  

However, when we drive to work and flick switches on electrical appliances we can visualise our contribution to the carbon equation by understanding that on average, for every litre of petrol we burn, 2.4 kilos of CO2 is created and this pollutes 10,500 litres of fresh air. Every kilowatt hour of coal produced electricity creates approximately 1 kilogram of CO2.  An average household uses 15 kWh a day, polluting 65,000 litres of air. 

For the eco-worrier, when it comes to the carbon cycle, the best advice is to get on yours and don’t be frightened to exhale!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Confessions of an Eco-worrier

Radio broadcasts, news segments, blogs, emails, newspaper headlines, books, casual conversations, any of these can promote an eco-panic attack.  There are many contributors to these attacks; the issues of over-population, deforestation, profligate resource use, acid seas, oil spills, loss of biodiversity, toxic food processes, soil salinity, water shortages and peak oil – that’s if we can see beyond that great mushroom cloud of global warming. Not sure if it was the length of that sentence that has me breathless or if I’m suffering an eco-panic attack.

The problems are overwhelming. With commitment we could (probably) solve them. But we don’t. It’s like watching a tsunami approach from under a beach umbrella and remarking on its size while sucking on a pina colada. It’s like closing your eyes while driving down a winding hill. It’s like rolling every morsel of commonsense ever known into a ball and sitting it in a dusty corner of a museum to await labelling.

Eco Worrier symptoms are; an obsession with knowing and understanding everything that’s happening on a global scale; reading scary books that read like sci-fi novels of gloom, doom, despair and the end of the world as we know it, (and we don’t feel fine); watching movies, many of them the earnest preachings of movie stars turned environmentalist evangelists, and that fist of fear tightens. This is no longer just the preserve of the side of the road loony holding the ‘end of the world is nigh’ sign.  This is mainstream. It’s flashed in front of us constantly; CO2, global warming, sea level rise. This feeds our fears, but we’re so darn busy feeding our families and paying the rent we can’t commit nearly enough time to doing everything that’s becoming mandatory – changing our own personal world 360 degrees.  This increases the desire to do more, yet the fear and guilt do not enliven us – they paralyse. We become spectators at the arena of environmental destruction. We don’t want to watch, but not to is too great an indulgence and so we open our eyes, and do everything we can; read those scary books, change those bloody light bulbs; install the insulation; but we know, deep inside, it isn’t enough.

So this eco-worrier, having resolved to do something more, looks outside and sees the flotilla of modern society on the rivers of no change. While I can’t see the carbon atoms accumulating I know they are there.  I see their birth as I drive impatiently behind logging trucks lugging themselves up steep slopes as they deliver the combined tree life of thousands of years to its ultimate destination as toilet paper and the print out of the email I received last week on the ten stupidest road signs I’ve ever seen.

I’ve decided to do my bit, no matter how small, only to step outside and it seems so very few others are.  The panic rises, what does my incalculably small contribution mean?  Is it meaningless? Is all this eco-worrier business without point? Am I squandering my hard earned on solar panels when I could fly to Bali in winter and relax? But it’s too late; it requires some serious abstinence of thought and conscience to do so. No matter how hard I push down the guilt it has floatation devices and keeps bobbing back up. This annoys me. Here I am, trapped in the eco-worrier cycle with no way to get off. I am now a thwarted, frustrated, angry participant in this global experiment in energy extravagance. And I still haven’t done much more than change my light bulbs.

If this sounds familiar, you  might just be a fellow eco-worrier, one of a growing demographic.
In the end I’ve come to the conclusion that...

I can’t afford to feel overwhelmed, nor guilty, I don’t need perfect knowledge, a lot of money, heaps of time. All that does is compound the problem and stops me from doing what I can.
My actions will not save the world, that should never have been my goal. It’s about doing the things that are within my power to do, that’s all I can. I don’t think of it as an obligation, I think of it as an adventure.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

So why don't we throw in the trowel?

The alternative to home sustainability is no longer possible. I have no romantic ideals about over consumerism and rampant resource use. I could not tolerate living a life without understanding that it has energy constraints.  I cannot with any degree of composure eat meat seven days a week or create enough rubbish to choke a river or two. I want to do the right thing and if that means eating more zucchini than I’d like. Then we all will J

Our family’s personal contribution to saving the world won’t amount to much. But we are doing what we can. And sustainability at home, even stripped of its romantic overpackaging is still pretty good. We might have to spend time spreading poo, carting around mulch and pruning, but the taste of a real, dribble juice down your chin apricot for those few weeks we get to eat them are worth it. If it means we have a glut of them and I spend ten consecutive nights preserving them on a wood fired stove. I know it’s not romantic, but I do enjoy pulling them out of the pantry in the middle of winter and feeling thankful for our previous efforts. Sustainability at home has its own rewards but I don’t need rose coloured glasses and lyrical phrases to clog up the truth of it all.  And I certainly will never need to put a nappy on a bloody chook. I hope you don’t either.

I also hope you enjoyed that series of raves.
I think somewhere I can dig out a rave or two of being an eco-worrier - interested in having your inbox subjected to more?

Monday, 25 June 2012

Myth Ten : Organic shmanic!

There are days I wish I’d never done all that agonising research about soil microbes, and nutrient run off. There are days that reaching for a bottle of quick fix for every weed and pest known and shamelessly spraying it everywhere sounds a darn sight better than hand picking 28 spotted ladybirds, and squishing snails by moonlight. 
Trev - Save me from straw!

Someone once told me that there’s something weird about having your friends over for dinner (play hide the zucchini on the plate), providing them with a glass of your best vintage elderflower champagne before handing them a wooden mallet we called exsnailaburs and a torch and telling them that before they get dessert they need to take their ex-snailabur into the garden and whack the hell out of every passing snail.  The snails had got to plague proportions by that stage. They’d even got into my letterbox and partially eaten my first royalty cheque.  How much easier would it be to spread piles of innocent looking, commercially available and cheap as chips, pellets. 

Squishing pear and cherry slugs while thinking on which pest I hate most is not conducive to the romantic image of sustainability, of all those butterfly filled gardens. Because darn the butterflies, if you’ve done your research you know every butterfly starts as a caterpillar.  Let me pull off their wings, I love you, I love you NOT! 

I tried an experiment in organic weed death. It involved expensive bottles of pine oil, which kind of worked, but when you worked out the cost, I’d better off paying someone to pull them for me. I tried cider vinegar, and it was relatively successful but same story. I’ve tried pouring boiling water, torching them, and various other assassinations but in the end in an organic garden nothing beats blisters.

So there, you have my ten most unpopular misconceptions on sustainability at home. I’ve missed a lot. Climbing on the roof in thunderstorms to make sure your  tank gets filled.  Discovering your son has swapped all his home grown nutrient rich organic school lunches for Uncle Toby’s Roll ups. It’s endless. But we’re still doing it. We fall off the wagon every now and then. Sometimes I forget my glasses when I’m in the chocolate aisle and the ├ęclairs trapped behind a mountain of plastic are deemed psychologically worth it. But for the most part we are good. Not perfect. Never perfect. But we are pretty good. So if those nappied chooks have got me this far in my rant, in my sustainability at home crisis, why am I not throwing in my trowel?
Tomorrow: Why we haven't thrown in the trowel... and why it's all worth it!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Myth Nine: Everyone understands the need to get sustainable.

Myth Nine: Everyone understands the need to get sustainable.

I’ll never forget standing at the local school with a group of 4WDriving city mum’s who were admiring their French nail polish jobs  while I hid my dirt rimmed jobs behind my back. One of them was complaining about what to give the kids for breakfast and named a number of processed off the shelf options. Me, being naturally stupid, laughed and said,

‘Yeah well, if we want peanut butter on our toast I have to think about it three months in advance, gotta grow it before we can eat it’.

Caleb's self made Lego tool to stop me feeding him pumpkin
There was a deathly silence, a shuffling of feet, a rolling of eyes and a nearly audible internal dialogue from each of the mothers, something along the line of ‘whacko!’

I’m not saying they’re wrong, but being driven to be as sustainable as possible in the highest 4WD owning town in Australia was not a great conversation starter seven years ago.

I used to bike Caleb to school on my tip shop bought bike and he’s sit on the back and pretend to shoot 4WD all the way to school. Some of them thought he was waving and even waved back.

I tried to barter my chook eggs for other staples in the neighbourhood but one neighbour wouldn’t eat our eggs because the yolks were too orange and, ew, my nappiless chooks had touched the ground. She much preferred to know they lived in cages, well away from dirt.

I felt alone. But then I often felt my aloneness just as  keenly when I met up with other sustainable folk – because I realised that it was a competition, and that the only way to win is to trample someone else’s attempts at sustainability at home.  I hate to say it, but someone is always greener than you.  It’s not a competition people, it’s a complementation.

Myth Ten : Organic shmanic!
and after that... why it's all worth it!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Myth Eight: It's a Cornucopia of Produce

Myth Eight: It’s a Cornucopia of produce

Quite frankly there are always far too many Zucchini’s – and never enough watermelons. Yet they come from the same family.   I want to know why? Living seasonally is a great concept, but what about the hungry months of spring when it’s old and hoary potatoes, limp carrots and mouldy cabbage?

Myth busted: living seasonally and out of the garden is difficult and your culinary skills are often challenged by the repetitive nature of your main ingredients.
You can always try giving it away.  I’ll never forget offering a neighbour excess zucchini, he swore at me. I won’t repeat the exact words, but the nature of it was pretty much on the level of, ‘not on your nelly’ and he leapt a fence to safety.  He makes himself very scarce around peak zucchini season every year. 
I‘ve discovered that giving them away is a successful strategy in warding off less favoured neighbours. I have more  strategies to deal with zucchini, planting less never seems to be one of them. Why do punnets of zucchini come in nothing less than 6? I find opening the back door and throwing them to the pigs works for a while, but after that they start looking at you funny and I worry about them pushing through a fence. Cooking zucchini up with a 50% ratio of something more interesting and putting it in a jar can reduce their numbers.  My favourite one though is going out early in the morning and picking the female flowers , stuffing them full of fetta cheese and chilly and deep frying them in a light batter.  
The truth is growing your own is managing the glut while craving mangoes and other delicacies that won’t survive a frost.
Tomorrow: Myth Nine - Everyone understands the need to get sustainable.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Myth Seven :Your kids will love it!

Generally speaking they’d much prefer a meal that comes with a free toy than the dinner that took you six months to prepare. From seed to saliva. A great concept only it just doesn’t make them salivate, and they certainly have no romantic illusions about weeding, feeding, and picking up poo berries? Caleb did this for me once. He wore gloves, a face mask and still dry retched around the paddock till I caved in.  I didn’t even ask him to pick up the sloppy ones. When he was a child he enjoyed throwing mandarins at me while I gardened. He also didn’t mind eating them, or nibbling at snow peas while they were still on the vine. Throwing the odd insect into the chook pen to watch the chook scrum, great sport, and baby animals are great.  I thought it would help him understand where his food from, perhaps even respect what got on his plate a little more. It certainly taught him the origins of his food. The day I saw him licking his lips when he saw his pet sheep running around the paddock made me realise we’d succeeded so spectacularly in doing this that we’d also failed. He has a policy around meat eating, you only eat it after it’s stopped being cute.

The thing that really gets to me is he’s content to spend long periods of time on a computer playing lame games like Farmville, where he raises virtual reality crops but has zero interest in the real thing.  In the end you have a narrow window of opportunity, somewhere around 3 or 4 years of age in which growing raspberries and picking them is fun. After that they tell you that you’ve taken all of the fun and taste out of raspberries by insisting they help you pick ten kilos of them.

The truth, raspberries and strawberries come in punnets in supermarkets for a reason, Doh!

Tomorrow: Myth Eight: It’s a Cornucopia of produce

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The True Nature of Sustainability - Myth Six

Myth Six: Pests are easy to deal with organically half the time all you need to do is arm yourself with a spray bottle of one teaspoon of oil, a bit of soap and some warm water.

Slug guns were not inventing to kill slugs with. But I want one that is. Slugs are able to annihilate acres of seedlings in half the time two goats and a marauding sheep can.  Then there’s the pear and cherry slug which can successfully skeletonise small trees, and even if you get the cherries to fruition you’ve got Turdus Merula, an apt a name as I’ve ever heard for what we commonly refer to as the blackbird.
The cabbage moths and butterflies, the slow cancer of those brassica hearts. Aphids, scale, parrots, mice, sparrows, the devils and quolls who swipe those nappiless chooks right from their perch, the lice, the worms, the ticks… it goes on. Please refer to Myths 1,2,3. By the time you’ve figured it out the damage is done.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The True Nature of Sustainability@home - Myth Five - it doesn't take much time

Myth five - It doesn’t take much time. An hour or so pottering in the garden.

Tell that to my blisters.  Mention that to that long lost friend, the lazy weekend.

Some people do this kind of thing for a living - they get paid for it, then they go home and they rest. I’m not sure what this looks like anymore. The last time I did the sleep in, lie around and watch movies and read books thing was fifteen years ago. Instead  we bludgeon ourselves up at the crack of dawn to feed pigs, ducks, chooks, dogs, goats (and milk them too), then it’s all the usual things like picking poo berries for the garden. This involves gloves, several buckets and a good stooping action to pick up a variety of animal dung to compost. Chopping wood for the wood fired stove that heats our water and cooks our food and keeps us warm. Digging, pruning, weeding, watering, sowing, harvesting, fencing, building, repairing, preserving or just plain persevering.  Then there’s the animals - from  pulling them out of the birth canal to burying them and all the shearing, hoof trimming, feeding, worming and nurturing in between. Then if you’re lucky you get to eat breakfast.
Sustainability at home is a big commitment.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The True Nature of Sustainability@home - Myth Four

Myth Four : Water is a naturally occurring garden and household commodity.

There are only two types of water, not enough and too much. We call water the biggest single limiting factor of gardening.  I also call it lots of other things when it’s rained so hard and for so long my trees get root rot and dis-assemble before my eyes and my seedlings float on the surface of small streams. But I have strategies do deal with too much, it’s harder when it comes in the form of not enough. Not enough happens every year. You can install every water reading gadget you like in your water tanks, but nothing increases the likelihood of getting more unless of course you resort to bringing in truckloads of the chlorinated stuff to contaminate your tank with. You can go in for brief and I mean very brief approximations of the rainfall phenomena in your shower every day.  But then I’ve been caught looking at my broccoli seedlings and deciding which comes first, my personal hygiene or their green and tender lives. 

It only takes a few unwatered days of blistering sun and your garden suffers growers droop. There’s little you can do about rainlessness. You can conserve water, provide thick layers of mulch (and don’t the slugs just love that.) and a multitude of other things you spent nights up researching (please refer to  Myth  three), but in the end not enough is not enough. So while it’s generally a naturally occurring phenomena the amounts it falls in often falls short of requirements.
 Myth five Tomorrow - It doesn’t take much time. An hour or so pottering in the garden.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The true Nature of Sustainability@home - Myth Three - Sustainability is Easy

Myth three - Sustainability is easy.

No one tells you need a science degree to understand that substance weeds so love to grow in or the signs and symptoms of boron deficiencies and nitrogen overloads and the complex relationship between pH and nutrient availability. Then there’s knowing how to prune for fruit, and deal with a myriad of invasive insect pests more intent than you on eating fresh.

That’s before you get into the house and start organising your life into kWh of power and relative efficiencies of every appliance  and then try change the rest of the families usage patterns, perhaps even going so far as to plot them on graphs to show trends and stick them to your new energy efficient fridge.

Next, learn to read the label on every shampoo, laundry powder, toothpaste, soap, deodorant and use your honorary degree in chemistry to sort out the good from the bad. Of course, you could just do it the easy way and make your own.

Sustainability at home isn’t just about what’s  going on at home, it’s what you bring home. Have you got time to educate yourself? Walking down the aisle... it’s always been seen as a big commitment, and it’s no less important when shopping.  But due to the overpopulation situation in today’s world, we need to be aware of the ramifications of our spending.  There’s much to consider as we trawl the shelves, how’s the quality? Is it fresh? What about reading the label, are there preservatives, colours, additives I don’t want my family to eat?

Then there’s the fat and sugar content, the calories, and the impact on the environment. Is the product genetically modified? How do I feel about that?  And pesticides, herbicides use? How many food miles has it clocked up? How has it been packaged?   How do I safely dispose of it, has its production resulted in soil and water degradation or deforestation?  What about the ethical considerations; has the grower been paid a fair price for it; have animals suffered?

The supermarket is a landmine of choices that can overwhelm the best of us.  And I didn’t even get to the big two, can I afford it, and even if it passes all the tests, will my family eat it?

There’s always something new to learn, often directly conflicting what I’ve learnt previously. Keeping up with the latest information gets to be a fulltime commitment.

Then of course our family decided to build sustainably. A straw bale house.  We spent years  getting our heads around the alternatives to using PVC (not many, why would you, are you crazy, and at eight times the cost why bother?) But we did it anyway.  What paints? Hmmm, make your own out of home made goats cheese, lime and naturally occurring clay pigments, never again. You want to have windows and doors made from local timbers, what’s usually a two year full time course and five year apprenticeship, learn in six weeks and build your own (Trev that is).  You want Tasmanian tiles, they don’t exist, learn how to diamond polish small amounts of cement and broken glass for twenty three consecutive weekends!

Then I made the mistake of trying to do the right thing and dye my hair with henna, a herbal concoction with the least amount of environmental impact. It said on the packet my hair would be blonde, but after I scraped off the cowpad of crud on my head it was Ronald McDonald orange. I had to wear a scarf to the hairdresser and tell her to take it back to only a couple of millimetres.  But the good thing about it was it inspired me to write another book.  A bit of a departure from everything I’ve written previously. It’s best described as being an Australian version of Janet Evanovich’s books. Comedy, the laugh out loud kind. The whole time I wrote it I giggled and chortled. Seems most people when the read it chuckle and guffaw too. The problem came when I got to the end and realised that I’d like to publish it, and that I love a book you hold in your hand, but that I couldn’t possibly condone tree’s being chopped down, the toxic bleaching process, the petroleum based inks.  So, typically, and quite obsessively I suppose. I decided to do it myself, and do it the right way. It took two years and lots more research to get it to the bookshops.  It’s carbon offset, printed on recycled paper using vegetable inks, elemental chlorine free. And it’s fun. It’s a great  example of a sustainable way of publishing and the books not even about the environment.  But it wasn’t easy. Why can’t I just go with doing things the easy way? 

Because Sustainability is  a big commitment and it’s not always easy.
Tomorrow: Myth Four  - Water is a naturally occurring garden and household commodity.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The True Nature of Sustainability@home Part II - Gardening

Myth two - Gardening is easy – sow the seeds in a row, watch em grow.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Well I’ve been tempted to take mine out into the garden and suck the weeds up. Those nice neat cultivated rows full of perfect vegetables  you see in Beatrix Potter’s gardens are simply not achievable.  Not in my backyard.  The old saying, one year’s seeding is seven years weeding. Did anyone ever do the maths on our property?  No one weeded for at least ten years, and for each of those years it’s another seven, I’m looking at well beyond my own lifespan to get it back into manageable proportions.

One of my favourite pass times while weeding is to think about which weed I hate most, to prioritise my hit list. It’s not a pass time I ever get sick of, I’m not sure that life is long enough to sufficiently hate yarrow.

The thing is I’m never able to give up on my romantic ideal of this perfect garden and for small spaces in time I even manage to achieve it, then it’s a couple of weekends in a row doing something other than pulling weeds and it’s out of control and the only thing left to do is slink past the conquered rows or set fire to them.

Keeping on top of your garden is not easy.

Tomorrow - Myth three - Sustainability is easy.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The true nature of sustainability@home

Sustainability at home.  The idea of this is based on a romantic ideal, the return to a better world, one  rooted in the soil, living enriched lives with our children who chase chooks and gather eggs while we pick apples for a good old fashioned home baked pie. Roll out those neat ordered rows of vegies like custom made wallpaper of our sustainability dreams. Yeah, right.

Until recently  I’ve had just a few, small, relatively short lived crisis’s of sustainability faith, but then I chanced upon an advertisement  and it changed me.

The advertisement’s for a scheme where you can rent a chook and a portable chook pen  to set up in your backyard. So far, so good. It’s the rest of the ad that had me reeling. Now you’ve rented your chook, you’ll need a chook leash, you know, to take it for a walk. Hmmm, that’s weird and contrary to the nature of the average chook. Can’t imagine they’ll take to that in a hurry. But it’s the next part that had me.  We all know that chooks are famous for pooping.  To avoid the embarrassment of a gloopy poopy you can purchase chook nappies. It was right there in black and white, chook nappies. That’s when I realised that this whole concept of sustainability at home had simply got out of hand. I know people want to make a living, and they’re great at coming up with ingenious ways to reduce our water use while creating an income, and for the most part these are commendable.  But the chook nappy - it opened my eyes. I am no longer the same person because of the chook nappy. The chook nappy is crappy.  To mix my birds, it’s the canary in the cage, the feathered aviarian that tells us that things are not well in the mainstream, backyard push for a sustainable lifestyle.

So I figure this is a great opportunity to address this issue. Usually I write about my family’s adventure in backyard sustainability, where we challenged ourselves to go six months  without spending a dollar on food, power, water, fuel or basically anything but pay the mortgage, rates, insurances while living on a suburban block.  We did that in Queensland in 2005. We did bizarre things like grow our own toilet paper, eat garden snails, kept a goat in the backyard and even went without chocolate.  We wrote about it in the book Living the Good Life,   it details the ups and down’s of the six months, lots of recipes and facts, a row of raves designed to enlighten and enliven, even maybe make you laugh. It doesn’t romanticise sustainability and there’s not one chook nappy involved.

Instead I’m writing about the Ten popular misconceptions of a sustainable lifestyle.

Myth One - Everyone loves animals, it’s great to raise your own.

Animals bust down fences, fly over them, poke holes in them with their heads, they lean on them, they dig under them, they can lift gates off hinges, and snap 6 inch batten screws.  All because they love the things that we love to eat, and with half a chance they will scratch them out of the ground, and annihilate them in less time than it takes you to grab your pitchfork. Repeatedly.

Anyone who thinks those nice white fluffy  sheep are peaceful creatures should see mine. They’re noisy, insistent, greedy, they’re forever sorting out their pecking order with the goats. You can hear it while you’re in the garden.  The kind of thud you feel through your feet the same time you do your ears. The goats ate the blackberries. Our block was so overgrown that several cars were later found  buried deep in them.  Kind of a house sale bonus –the cars are now gone, and so are the blackberries. The goats ate the blackberries, but not the cars.  Which was great, but they’ve also  ring barked my sugar maples. One goat, let’s call her Peg, is so smart she can open gates and take the lids off buckets. She did this recently. Apart from having a big feed herself, she let all the sheep in too and they almost ate themselves to death. Pegs smart.  But the pigs weren’t about to be outdone.  They must have witnessed this transgression and decided on one of their own. You’ve  got to respect them for their ability to upend a battery on the wrong side of the electric fence and break out. Being shorter in nature, they didn’t even bother with trying to outwit the latch, a pig, let’s call her Browny, stuck her nose under the shed door and, well now it kind of hangs there a sad and buckled testament to our failed understanding of a pigs strength.

Pigs are not delicate creatures. When  Browny got into the shed she too wanted to remove the feed bin lids. So she trampled them till their poor buckled sides gave and the bucket lids popped off. She scoffed sufficient food to feed several tribes of starving Africans in five minutes.  Pigs are amazing animals, they tell you they plough your paddock for you, and they do. But you have to put a formidable amount of food into their tank for them to keep up the good work.  They also turned me into someone out of a hill billy movie. Because I can now soo-eeee! like the best of them. And when they coming running downhill towards you at great speed you worry about your kneecaps.

Our nappiless chooks, are past masters at seedling removal. And I’ll never forget the time I put them in the paddock with all my lovely tall sunflowers and looked out to see them like jumping beans, leaping up and pecking out the hearts. And you don’t want to get me started on about ducks.  I have ducks that have a 90% to 10% fart to duck ratio. It’s outrageous and while I’m ducking for cover I can’t help thinking of all the methane production.

Animals are not easy.

Tomorrow: Myth two - Gardening is easy – sow the seeds in a row, watch em grow.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Vegetarianism anyone?

Pinky and Browny the two sows left the block a couple of days ago. It was quite a turbulent  time for Trev and I. We'd both got to enjoy having pigs, they have the average intelligence of a three year old, and while this is geared mostly around how to incorporate more of the world around them in them, they are an engaging animal. They love a scratch and are always curious to see what you are up to. I've got a kick out of opening the back door and doing the 'Soo-ee!' and watching them run from all over the paddock (especially when there were piglets) for whatever treat I was brandishing at the time.

But the pigs have been a failed experiment on a number of levels. They did get rid of the bracken fern, but continued to over hoe the paddocks, they cost a lot to feed and we're not satisfied that in the end we raised ethical meat.  It could well be a tautology. While we both agree that raising our own animals is preferable over purchasing supermarket meat sourced from intensive feedlots or sow stalls etc,  in the long run we can't, in all conscience, say it gets the green light.
Trev gets enormously peeved when I use this analogy. But I always say, 'What say tomorrow a mob of aliens came down to earth and went, 'Whoaaa! Look at all this livestock fellows! The planet has a plague of these two legged fleshy beasts, and all the fleshiest bits are conveniently naked, that'll make it cheap and easy to process. Their offspring look tender too. They'd be great snapfrozen at about six months of age. We could even work out a way to get them to smile just before we do, they'd be sure to sell better. We'd make sure to give them good lives, make their end nice and quick. It'd be an environment win/win too. They've overpopulated to the max and are destroying the planet. So let's stop off here on our way to planet bla bla and cull them back to manageable levels.'
All sounds fairly reasonable from the viewpoint of an alien.  Yet we'd see it as a horrendous concept, but we use the same kind of justifications when applying it to other animals. Trev says I'm anthropomorphising but I don't see it as being any different. Animals form relationships with one another, they can feel fear, no one can see a mob of piglets or lambs gambolling around not to know that they can play and feel pleasure. And in the end we are, in the developed world, affluent enough to be able to choose to source our protein from plants. Eating another animal might only be justifiable if it came down to a 'well if I don't I'm dead' scenario.
It's vexed.
Then of course we sold off all these cute piglets knowing that for most of them it will be a short stay on earth in their current form (longer as fat on human thighs). And Pinky and Browny were enticed (oh so grudgingly) but so trustingly onto the back of a truck several days ago and will be making an appearance again soon as sausages in our freezer.
I never had any intentions of eating them. But I did agree it was a better way of acquiring meat. Well. I've decided differently and Trevor, though nowhere near as adamant as I am, is also unsettled by the experience and agrees we won't keep pigs again. Apart from being 'tractable tractors' that have hoed up half of our block, eaten an enormous and unsustainable amount of food while doing so, and woken us every morning grunting impatiently at our bedroom window, they've been a great personal insight into our ethics.
And Caleb – he was quite happy to lip his licks when he saw them walking around in the paddock, he'd refer to them by their composite meaty parts and would grew so excited by the prospect of eating them he talked about needing a bacon inhaler. 

What are your thoughts on the ethics of eating meat?