Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Book review: Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets plus our fungal plans


I've finally read Paul Stamets' Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, which has been on my list for some time. It's an excellent assembly of the ways in which mushrooms can be used for real-world applications, from growing in your yard for edible and medicinal use to filtering contaminated water to speeding the regeneration of clear-cut landscapes. A while back I started reading Stamets' The Mushroom Cultivator, mistakenly believing I needed to read his books in order. I was turned off by the book, finding its detailed descriptions of how to set up a sterilized mushroom lab boring and impractical for a world of energy descent. My friends Torey and Briannah recently assured me that The Mushroom Cultivator and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms are not prerequisites for Mycelium Running, acting rather as companion volumes with details on laboratory-based cultivation.

Much of the information in Mycelium Running I had already picked up from friends, glancing through the book in the past, reviewing other Stamets and Fungi Perfecti writings, hanging out with permaculture people, etc. But it was good to read through it all at once and get an organized presentation of some of the possibilities. It's clear that the functions and human uses of mushrooms are only barely understood so there's plenty of learning still to be done.

I found it interesting comparing Stamets' world-view with some of my realizations and insights from other authors. Even though the book was published in 2005, Stamets doesn't seem to have been aware of Peak Oil while writing, or at least doesn't give any indication that he expects civilization to deviate from its course of ever-onward progress. He does express concern about various environmental issues, but doesn't say a thing about changing the behavior that causes the problems, either at an immediate direct-cause level or at a root-cause level. He simply presents ways that mushrooms can remediate some of the damage, allowing us to continue on our path. Several of these remediation techniques still rely on high-complexity organization for deployment. In general, Stamets' philosophy strikes me as a variation on "technology will save us", except that Stamets believes it's mushrooms that will save us (and as much as says so in the book's subtitle). There's also an echoed theme of faith in science as the path towards betterment of humankind.

Despite those big-picture blindspots, Stamets is one of the foremost mycologists in the world, doing cutting-edge research and dissemination of this sort of information, putting it into the hands of lay-people who can run with it. The book is an invaluable resource and I will definitely be buying a copy for my library.

Our Fungal Plans

Last September, in The Birds and the Bees, I mentioned the logs we inoculated with shitake and oyster mushrooms. We have since moved the logs away from the house, where our friends warned us they might attack the wood. The shitakes are now piled in the back yard, and we spread the oyster mushroom logs (several of which are already fruiting a tiny bit) through the front yard, half-burying them in the wood chips. Since oysters are very aggressive mushrooms, we're assuming that they'll continue to dominate the logs without concern of other fungi invading from the ground (which is why you usually elevate your mushroom logs on a pallet). In fact, the oysters may well start to colonize the surrounding wood chips.

I have a few other plans for fungal experimentation:

  • Grow oyster mushrooms in buckets of coffee grounds, which we get for free from two local coffee places. We should be able to use our fruiting oyster mushrooms as inoculant for the grounds
  • When we come across more fresh-cut wood, add some into the pile of shitake logs to be colonized by the existing logs. Maybe put some adjacent to the oyster mushroom logs in the front yard, too. As the shitake logs fruit, we'll at least shake spores onto the new logs, and maybe do a more deliberate spore-slurry creation and inoculate the new logs.
  • We're taking out all the asphalt in the yard, which will free up about 1300 square feet of driveway and walkways for growing things. The ground underneath is probably somewhat contaminated by the petroleum sludge leachings, so we'll try inoculating woodchips across the whole area with oyster mushrooms, which break down hydrocarbons.
  • I want to get Fungi Perfecti's "Three Amigos" Garden Pack of outdoor patch mushroom spawn. This includes the Garden Oyster (Hypsizygus ulmarius), the Garden Giant (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) and the Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus). We'll start them off by inoculating a wood chip patch for each type. As the mycelium spread through the patch, we can transplant clumps throughout the yard. In theory, so long as we keep them refreshed with organic matter, they'll naturalize and become permanent growers in the landscape.

Ever since I saw Dave Jacke's diagram of nutrient and material flows in a mature forest ecological community, I've been excited about the potential for harnessing the decomposer cycle. (I think I saw his diagram at a presentation; I can't find it in his book Edible Forest Gardens.) The diagram showed how the vast majority of energy in a system flows through the microbial level, especially decomposers. If that decomposer niche can be influenced towards species producing food for humans we can tap into a lot of extra energy. I look forward to continuing my baby steps in integrating edible mushrooms into the rest of what we're doing!

Book review: The Weather-Wise Gardener by Calvin Simonds

I saw The Weather-Wise Gardener: A Guide to Understanding, Predicting, and Working With the Weather in a used bookstore and thought it might be a helpful read to better understand the weather. (As an indication of how clueless and oblivious I've been to the weather, I thought it was really neat when Theressa predicted the afternoon's weather by simply looking up into the sky and seeing which way the clouds were blowing!) After reading the book, I definitely know more than I did, but found that I had a lot of trouble comprehending the book. It's extremely unusual for me not to be able to follow the text of a book--I don't think I've experienced that since the dark days of college depression, slogging through textbook pages not because I wanted to but because I "had" to. I don't know whether the problem with this book was because it's such a complex subject, because I wasn't mentally focused (noticing that Keeping it Living was also a slow, more difficult read for me than usual), or because the book doesn't do the best job it could of explaining weather systems. Another complicating factor for me was that the book is written from the perspective of an east-coaster, and in the author's rare mentions of the pacific coast he seems to think that that means California. It was very confusing to me whether the weather patterns described for the rest of the US really apply over here, especially to the Willamette Valley in which Portland lies.

That said, a few thoughts on the book. It begins by describing the cyclical patterns of individual storms. I'd never realized that weather tends to have a four-day cycle and is locally predictable based on the shifting of the winds, which rotate around in a clockwise or counter-clockwise cycle depending on how storms are moving in relation to your location. The book expands on individual storms to explain how storm systems travel across the US and through different regions, what different temperatures and barometric pressures mean, what the influencing ocean currents and marine and continental wind systems are, what all the symbols and descriptions on a weather map mean (at least in 1983), and of course how to put all this together for a crystal-clear understanding of what's going on at the moment and how to make reasonable predictions of what's coming.

The final portion of the book applies the larger understanding of the weather systems to interpreting weather forecasts and making your own predictions for your own garden. A lot of it is pretty straight-forward how-to-react to frost predictions, precipitation, etc. And some of it is how to extrapolate weather predictions from the city for your rural garden 200 miles from the nearest weather station.

Unfortunately, although I grasped the basics and now understand a lot of terminology and concepts I didn't understand before, I was unable to follow the examples of predictions given in the book for different starting conditions. I'll have to do more reading and studying, tuning in to the weather channel, and of course simply paying attention to the weather, clouds and winds overhead. I'll see where paying closer attention and casual learning takes me, and at some point in the future check out some of the other recommended books (or see if there are newer books which may be worth reading): Meteorology, the Atmosphere in Action by Joe R Eagleman, British weather in Maps by James A Taylor & R A Yates, Weather Forcasting by Alan Watts, and A Field Guide to the Atmosphere (Peterson's Guide) by V J Schaefer and John A Day.

Book review: Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why is a study of who makes it through extreme survival situations and why. The author, a life-long thrill-seeker by way of extreme sports, aviation, etc, mixes case studies of people in wilderness situations with psychology and information about how the brain works. Although the book focuses on raw, wilderness physical survival situations, the author's argues that the mental attitudes crucial to survival in the wild are equally important in dealing with financial crisis, a divorce, or presumably peak oil and the collapse of civilization.

I have a hard time putting into words the messages of the book. In fact, as I was reading it, I wasn't even sure I was getting much out of it...until I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda and found myself applying some of the lessons and theories of the book to the survival situation of the characters in the movie. This book needs to be read and experienced to get the full meaning, not just summarized in a book review. But I'll throw out some of my thoughts anyway, partly for you and partly for me as notes to jog my memory.

One of the interesting themes of the book is that we don't live in reality. We live in the mental construct of reality which we have assembled in our brains. Our mental map is updated with new information all the time, but there's also a strong tendency to cling to the map or aspects of the map even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the map is wrong. Examining what it means to be lost, in the woods for example, Gonzales observes that if you find yourself making up elaborate explanations for why your map of the hiking trail doesn't match what you're seeing ("that lake on the map could have dried up so I can't see it now" or "that huge boulder could have rolled away somewhere") then something is wrong and you need to stop and reevaluate where you actually are. This seems so obvious from the known position of my desk and my keyboard, but Gonazeles' warnings are invaluable preparation for embarking into befuddling new landscapes. It's important to know that our brains so desperately want to retain a sense of knowing where we are that they'll concoct ridiculous stories to force the contradictory evidence from the eyes into the pre-existing mental map. Hopefully knowing that this occurs will make it easier to break the spell when it actually happens.

A similar mental blind-spot to watch out for is when emotions surge and take over from the rational brain in dangerous situations. Gonzales gives an example of search-and-rescue snowmobilers returning from a successful rescue, revved up with adrenaline. Two of them decided to sled down a hill and up a far slope, despite having been warned that day of the risk of snow-slide on that slope. One of them died in the resulting slide. A similar urge comes when lost or when headed towards a comforting destination. The emotions and imagination of reaching water or of getting to safe, familiar home can cause you to rush forward, heedless of rational precautions of pacing oneself, marking a path so as not to get lost, or even whether you're actually headed the right way. Hopefully having read about the effect will make it easier to recognize it if it ever comes up for me in a wilderness setting.

Gonzales also dances a lot around the concept of "Positive Mental Attitude", a top item in the US Air Force's survival checklist. Positive Mental Attitude can't be defined or explained, but it's another major theme that he weaves into the tales of survival. He doesn't give any advice on how this can be learned or cultivated. It's not clear whether it's something you're born with and have or don't have for the rest of your life, or whether it's something you can deliberately develop. Closely related to this theme is that of using dark humor to prepare for or cope with difficult situations. Another indefinable quality is that of "cool", being able to stay calm and poised in the worst situations, coralling and maybe even harnessing the emotions of fear and anger while keeping the rational brain in charge of actions.

It's interesting how routinely civilized humans these days underestimate nature, with the ease of driving halfway up a mountain and walking out along a pre-marked sign-posted nature trail. This book was a good warning to me (with almost no experience in non-urban areas) that when I depart the carefully sheltered confines of the city, I need to be really aware of where I am and how vulnerable I am to the real world if I'm not prepared. A similar attitude will have to apply to homesteading, both on the main site and when hunting and gathering in surrounding wilderness.

Gonzales summarizes what survivors do:

  1. Perceive, believe (look, see, believe)
  2. Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus)
  3. Think/analyze/plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks)
  4. Take correct, decisive action (be bold and cautious while carrying out tasks)
  5. Celebrate your successes (take joy in completing tasks)
  6. Count your blessings (be grateful--you're alive)
  7. Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your head)
  8. See the beauty (remember: it's a vision quest)
  9. Believe that you will succeed (develop a deep conviction that you'll live)
  10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying: "put away the pain")
  11. Do whatever is necessary (be determined; have the will and the skill)
  12. Never give up (let nothing break your spirit)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Kucinich for President 02008

Dennis Kucinich announced he's running for President in 02008! It's exciting to see how many people are voicing their support on his website forums, and I've already seen two people I worked with in 02003 express their support. I'm glad Kucinich and his voice of sanity will be present amidst the business-as-usual madness of national politics.

I'll definitely vote for him (except in the unlikely event someone with even more sanity runs), but I don't plan to work on the campaign this time around. Although I think it would be fantastic to have Kucinich as President of the US, I think it's too late to turn things around through national politics. Further, I've become more radical in my solutions to the coming collapse. Kucinich's policies are about the best that could be hoped for from a national politician, but they're still essentially band-aids to a fundamentally flawed system--civilization. Civilization needs to come down entirely, and people who see what's coming need to prepare their own lifeboats at a local level. Even if Kucinich took office with a fully supportive House and Senate, there are too many powerful forces arrayed against the fixes he wants to make for them to achieve a soft landing. Again, I'm not saying it wouldn't be good to have Kucinich as President. I'm supportive of Kucinich and will vote for him, but I no longer feel his campaign is the most strategic place for me to put my energy and time.

Book review: Keeping it Living by Nancy Turner & Douglas Deur

I'm not that well versed in her works, but Nancy Turner has for decades been researching and publishing books on Pacific Northwest cultures and especially ethnobotany. I believe most of her work has been in British Columbia, but her books usually cover down to northern California. She's on my list of "authors to check out more".

I just finished reading a collection of essays edited by Turner and Douglas Deur, entitled Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America. The basic goal is to prove that indigenous peoples in this region were actively cultivating crops prior to European contact. Apparently the assumption amongst Europeans since the start, and thus subsequently amongst anthropologists through the 20th century, was that Indian people cultivated a local species of tobacco, harvested and ate and preserved a hell of a lot of salmon, and hunted and gathered a small amount of plant and other animal foods. This volume makes the case that plant foods were more important than previously realized, and especially that tribes deliberately cared for and cultivated berry patches and root crops.

I found the writing rather dry and had to push myself through a lot of the book--it's written by anthropologists for other anthropologists to debate fine points of anthropology. It's definitely accessible by laypeople, but not written for us per se. Not knowing much about anthropology and the details of the debates, I'm convinced by its claims, but what do I know? Anyway, I was mostly focused on practical applications to modern times. The main take-home points I got from the book are:

  • As I've read for other Indians elsewhere (such as in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson and Changes in the Land by William Cronon), Indians in this region maintained berry patches through pruning, burning, and fertilization. Berries included blueberries, huckleberries, cranberries, salal, Rubus sp (salmonberries, blackberries, etc), strawberries, currants, and gooseberries. Some berries were transplanted to the edges of village sites. Also, the native crabapples were maintained, although I only recall pruning and maybe fertilizing being mentioned for those.
  • At this time, remaining Indians do not engage in the same kind of maintenance practices. Obviously prescribed burns are out of the question. Many historical berry patches have been wiped out by logging and settling, or made inaccessible because they can't be found anymore. Although Indians do still gather from the wild, the existing patches are too unpredictable for Indians to put energy into maintaining--they could be cut down next month for a logging road. This warns me not to expect that in a homestead situation we can reliably harvest large quantities of berries as people did in the past--things have been trashed, and the work required to achieve the productivity of the past in a given patch may not be worth investing so long as logging and other civilized destruction is still a threat.
  • Fireweed shoots (Epilobium angustifolium) and Rubus sp shoots were prime spring vegetables. Indians broke them off at the base, encouraging further shoots. They knew how many rounds of shoots to harvest before leaving the shoots to grow to maturity. I plan to control domesticated blackberries, raspberries, etc by eating unwanted shoots, and to pay attention to how Rubus sp and fireweed respond to the shoot harvesting.
  • Native people cultivated multiple roots by weeding, working the soil, removing rocks, pruning and removing encroaching woody plants, prescribed burns, replanting tubers, perhaps facilitating the spread of seed into turned soil, altering the environment in the coastal estuarine flats to expand habitat for desired plants, perhaps selecting superior varieties, and hunting or scaring off predaceous wildlife.
  • Roots cultivated included:

    • Wild carrot (Conioselinum pacificum)
    • Camas (Camassia sp.)
    • Rice root (Fritillaria camschatcensis)
    • Chocolate lily (Fritillaria lanceolata)
    • Pink fawn lily (Erythronium revolutum)
    • Tiger lily (Lilium columbianum)
    • Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia)
    • Springbank clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii)
    • Pacific silverweed (Potentilla anserina)
    • Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)
    • Brackern fern (Pteridium aquilinum)

  • Some or many of the root plots were monocultures, though at least some were polycultures of these species. It's not clear to me how many were managed as polycultures or what the exact species mix was.
  • It sounds like the Indians put a lot of work into their plots, making multiple trips to their plots during the year for preparing the beds, weeding, and harvesting. It would be nice to find less labor-intensive ways to grow these roots. Wapato seems to have been an exception, being pretty much a show-up-and-harvest kind of crop. (Though the harvesting method of wading into the water in the cold months of the year, sometimes as deep as one's neck, has its drawbacks.)
  • All or almost all the root plots were owned by clans, kinships, families, and individuals. The most productive berry patches were similarly owned. This allowed people who put work into a particular crop to benefit from the harvest, avoiding "tragedy of the commons."

I'd like to try many or all of the native root crops listed. Half of them are aquatic or at least boggy plants, which makes it harder to experiment with them now, and limits their use to a homestead with significant water resources. (My ideal homestead site has, of course, multiple ponds for aquaculture and aquatic plants!) For berries, it seems we'll need to plan to grow most of the berries we consume, not relying on abundant harvests from wild areas until it's reasonably certain that industrial logging and civilization's expansion has ceased. Although I assume blackberries are a widely available weed in rural areas, as they are in the city...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Self-sufficient diet, rough draft

Note: see also my post on Self sufficient tropical diet, rough draft

I've been thinking about how much land would be required to give an adequate, roughly paleodiet (no potatoes, cereal grains, or dairy, minimizing annuals domesticated & bred within the last 10,000 years) in a homesteading situation. My first step has been to figure out what the diet would consist of, in terms of proportion of calories from fruit and berries, meat, tubers, vegetables, etc. I've worked up a very rough draft which I'll jot down here. I welcome input, and will post future drafts as I learn more, think more, and crunch more numbers!

As best I can tell, an ideal hunter/gatherer diet consists of about 50-65% meat, and 35-50% plant foods. Assuming we have some need for land efficiency, this seems unrealistic for a self-sufficient homestead, since it does take a lot more land to raise meat than the equivalent calories in plant food. So for now, I'm figuring a minimal level of meat from the "homestead", with, hopefully, supplemental meat available from hunting and trapping. I haven't tried to do a full nutritional analysis of what a "balanced" diet requires; I'm just figuring that with a wide variety of foods most of that will sort itself out. But again, I welcome input into any of this, especially if I'm missing some important macronutritional info!

In the table below, % of diet refers to calorie intake. "Per day" is about how much of the item would be eaten per day on average. "Cals/lb" is my estimate of how many calories per pound this food type provides. The column for "Land" is a rough estimate of how much space, in square feet, would be needed to provide an annual yield sufficient for 2500 calories/day using this category as a monocrop (not integrated with other foods).

% of dietFood typePer dayCals/lbLandNotes
20%Meat5/8 lb8001 acre?Good homestead options seem to be beef, chicken, sheep, and maybe goats. Beef & lamb relatively higher in calories, chicken & goat low. Maybe 12 chickens (young males and old stewing hens)/person annually, plus half a pound of other meat per non-chicken-eating day? And 1/3 of a steer per year or its equivalent. No idea how much land required, which obviously is crucial.
10%Eggs3 eggs75/egg1/4 acre?Chickens or ducks (maybe other possibilities too?) For average 3 eggs/day, would need 4 or 5 fairly productive layers, or more older layers.
20%Protein nuts & seeds2/3 cup29006900Mostly thinking walnut, hazelnut, pine nuts, and sunflower seeds. Could also include hickory, pecan, almonds, pistachios, monkey puzzle, etc. Land requirement based on 1200 pounds/acre yield (I think very conservative, this could be doubled with good water/fertilization) and assuming 33% average kernel yield.
5%Chestnuts1/2 cup9001150Land requirement assumes 2400 lbs/acre (could be more with grafted varieties) and 80% kernel (I can't find any numbers for this, but this seems reasonable). Acorns would be a nice complement to chestnuts, but don't seem realistic for planting and getting a quick return. (Definitely an option for gathering from existing stands, though.)
10%Roots1.25 lbs8001000Ideally mostly low-maintenance perennials, but for now the common crops for which I can find data are: Jerusalem artichoke, beets, carrots, parsnips, camas, wapato, rutabagas, onions, turnips. Assumes a yield of 1 pound per 2 square feet. The calorie content varies widely for different tubers, so these numbers are very fungible depending on the crop make-up.
5%Starchy seeds1/5 cup1600600Amaranth, quinoa, other chenopods. Avoiding cereal grains (grass family). Assumes yield of 5 lbs grain per 100 square ft (could get higher yield, but maybe 5 lbs is a good guess for a low-maintenance patch).
7.5%Fruit2-3 fruits3001000Apples, pears, plums, persimmons, etc. Assumes 50 lbs per tree per year average, and trees and paths taking up a 16' diameter spread per tree.
7.5%Berries2-3 cups2001000Gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, kiwis, etc. Might include melons in this category? 1000 square feet probably an over-estimate, as vines can make use of vertical space.
2-3%GreensLarge salad, 1 lb70350I haven't yet experimented with weighing different greens to understand how much salad 1 pound of greens actually makes. Assume can get 1 pound greens/square foot.
5%Squash, misc veggies1.25 lbs1001000Other veggies such as squash (including seeds, though maybe they should be included under protein nuts & seeds above, increasing that percentage of diet), shoots (asparagus, Rubus sp., bamboo, etc), tomatoes, peppers, etc. Land requirement assumes can produce 1 lb per 2 square ft.
7-8%Misc2 tbs honey, 10 olives, and 1/2 cup mushrooms 300Miscellaneous calories from things like mushrooms, honey, olives, vegetable oils (processing seeds from grape for example, or surplus walnuts?), and whatever else I haven't thought of yet. I pretty much just totally made up the land requirement number.

So, my very rough conclusion thus far is that for each 2500 calorie diet, you need a bit over a quarter acre (13,300 square feet) for plant food production in a monocrop system, plus 1.25 acres to support 12 chickens for eating, 1/3 of a steer, and 5-6 laying hens (see comments below for my calculations on that). Grand total: about 1.5 acres per person.

The next main research thrust needs to be into how much land you need to support free-range, almost fully pasture-fed animals on a rotational system. (Chickens, of course, will get supplemental feed from kitchen scraps, maggot farm, etc. I also expect it'll prove economical to grow some patches of grains and other vegetation purely for the chickens to pick through or to cut and store as feed for livestock through the winter.) I've read a lot of Joel Salatin's work on integrated livestock systems, but can't remember any details of the numbers.

Another aspect to think about more is how much space can be saved by growing crops under trees, so that it's not 1000 square feet for fruit trees and another 1000 square feet for berries, but rather 1000 square feet of fruit trees with berries growing underneath them, plus maybe another 500 square feet of berries growing in the open, for a total of 1500 square feet instead of 2000. This, of course, is how we're already planning and planting in our food forest plantings on an urban lot...but without mature trees to experiment with, we can't get data from our own experience for what final yields to expect in such an integrated system.