24 September 2006

Leaping Off A Cliff (Again)

Almost eleven years ago we Made Our Move; Left the city and moved to our half-built House At Braamekraal.  More accurately, the journey started something like 12 or 13 years ago with the decision to drop out of the corporate city lifestyle, and the subsequent search for land, but I digress...

The first several years were taken up with finishing the house, getting established as a teacher of programming and as an OO-design consultant, all as a way to get debt-free.  What Permaculture calls "looking after Zone 0".  A basic principle of Permaculture is that you get control of the most immediate zone before expanding outwards into the next.  I confess that I broke the rules.  I could not restrain myself, and work on Zone 2 – specifically the veggie garden and Chicken run – began almost from Day One.

Getting Out Of Debt was, in retrospect, absolutely the correct, and most powerful thing to do.  I leave to your imagination the looks on the faces of the bank clerks when I went in there to legally cancel the bond they held on the property and close the mortgage account.
"Ummm....  We don't actually know how to do that.  We'll have to phone Head Office and get back to you."
If you dream of escaping the clutches of corporatised, urbanised life, I cannot emphasize enough the importance and power of getting rid of all your debt.  Remember that "mortgage" literally means "death grip". Another subject for another day...

Previously I thought of this decade past as the fruition of my lifelong dream, and that left me going "Now What?" in some sense.  I have begun to see it as merely a transition period. For all of that time I have still been essentially hooked into the software industry in one way or another.  The past year or so has been the story of "Trying to Fund an Internet Startup".  My TechBlog has some of the details – a little sketchy, as I was trying to protect potential IP details to avoid scaring possible venture investors.  All has more-or-less come to naught.

So I am left with the "problem" – or challenge, if you will – of living in the 21st Century.  That means: To some extent I am still tied into the Money  System (despite being debt free).  Arguably that extent stems from my own addiction to certain Modern Conveniences like The Internet, Medical Insurance, Non-Local Music, Hot Running Water, Flushing Convenience and Toilet Paper, and that ubiquitous evil, the Motor Car.  The kids are pretty-much past the point where I need Life Insurance, and my life-insurance broker is shortly in for a surprise...  To sum up, I need some income.  Its a pretty small amount, by most standards – almost at the "poverty line".  But then, my wants are quite modest.

Now there are numerous ways I could generate that income, especially since I have Arcane Knowledge of Advanced Software Stuff.  I've given a lot of thought and energy to the prospect of organising workshops on advanced software-development topics, or becoming one of those dreaded (by American programmers) Offshore Workers (I'm still not as cheap as someone in India!) or of kicking-off some more modest Software Venture (I conceive about 3 viable ideas-with-a-real-business-model per week!)  But every time I approach a software project, I wilt like cut Lettuce on a midsummer day.  The thought of forging a way back into the software industry makes my energy level sag to the point of catatonia

In contrast, every time I venture out into the garden I feel great.

Ten (eleven?) years ago, when I was about to resign from my eight-and-a-half year corporate job, I had a vision of it as standing at the edge of a cliff, about to leap off.  A leap of Faith.  Either you'll fly, or you'll crash.  Either way, you'll finally experience freedom, whether for just a short, short while, or forever.

Today I feel the same way.

I can keep on hovering – dipping back into the Pond of Corporate Software Development – hating and cursing every moment (well, many moments, anyway) – or I can Get Serious with the Self-Sufficiency thing.

I am already scaling up the veggie garden to be able to supply Veggie Boxes locally, though its a lot of work getting beds double-dug in this soil.

I also have in mind to start an Organic Seed Supply business (and I would welcome input and feedback on this idea!)

A bit of background:  The legal situation in South Africa is a bit complicated.  Legislation seems to be set up to protect the Big Three seed companies.  One may not (legally) sell seed without a permit, and, in the past, permits have been unobtainable as a practical matter.  So I would have to attempt that process.  Then, too, the markets for organically-grown fresh produce are quite undeveloped, and consumers quite unsophisticated in these issues compared with their counterparts in the First World.  This means that prices for organically-grown produce do not command the premium that they would elsewhere.  Some premium, to be sure, but not that great.

My land is pretty small (1.7 hectares/4 acres) so, realistically, Fresh Produce has limited potential as a money-maker.  I also have to deal with my own emotional barrier to selling the abundance of the Earth.  I do so little – the Earth and my friends the Soil Creatures do most of the work.

Seed, on the other hand, is Very High Value.  Think about it: a packet containing maybe a teaspoonful of seed retails for about R10 (about USD1.30/EUR1.00/JPY150/CNY10.34 at today's exchange rates).  My seed cupboard currently harbours 1/2-litre containers of Carrot seed I grew last year, that I have been using to grow Carrots for all time since then.  It must contain a couple of hundred packets of seed, in retail home-grower quantities.

It is also a fact of seed-saving that it is easier (or at least "just as easy") to grow and process larger quantities of seed than smaller.  Consider Beans (Bush Bean, Runner Beans, whatever...)  To grow just enough for yourself for next season (plus a Safety Factor) is pretty easy, but the qunatity is so small – a few dozen Beans – that you end-up shelling them by hand. A large quantity, on the other hand, get stuffed into a bag, pummelled with a stick, and the Beans poured out.  Takes about a fifth of the time and effort for 100 times as many beans!

To ensure genetic diversity, one wants to grow as many plants as possible for a given batch of seed.  This, too, means you end up with a Hell Of A Lot Of Seed.  More, really, than you can ever use before it gets old and loses viability!

Am I just talking myself into something? Or is there a realistic possibility here?

I feel like it is time to embark on the next part of this Self-Sufficiency Journey.  Once again I am filled with doubts, fears, and the sense of expanding possibilities.  Once again its time to Leap Off The Cliff.

21 September 2006

Snakes in a Tin Can

Just had a close encounter with a Puffadder (snake).  (Unfortunately no picture – everything happened too quickly.)  The Puffy was nesting in a rusty old tin can next to my Garden Tool "cupboard" and the garden tap – a place I am in and out of all day long, moving things about, shifting hoses, plant stakes, tools and seed trays.
OB the PHD (Pointy-Headed Dog) alerted me to the snake; she is always very puzzled by snakes, and wears a very different expression to her Rat-catching face.  I guess they are interesting to her, since they move about, but probably smell strange, or perhaps lack a distinctive odour. It must be incredible to have a sense of smell like a dog's.
Being terrified of snakes, I was lucky that the snake was feeling very sleepy and mellow.  It stayed in its tin can while I fetched a bucket and lid, and flipped the snake, tin and all, into the bucket with a long stick.

Brett, my snake-catching neighbour, kindly came and took the snake away to release it in the wild.

Now I wonder where the Boy snake is... :-O

12 September 2006

Global Climate Change

Earthtimes.org has a story on the EU-funded Antarctic ice core project, "Air bubbles from Antarctica ice core tell a scary environmental story".

"we know for sure that carbon dioxide has increased by about 35 per cent in the last 200 years. Before the last 200 years, which man has been influencing, it was pretty steady."
– Dr Eric Wolff, British Antarctic Survey
the natural level of carbon dioxide over most of the past 800,000 years has been 180-300 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of air. But today it is at 380 ppmv.
In one of the universe's divine jests, on the same day we have our Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, speechifying:

[Africa will] see "an increased incidence of extreme weather events; substantial reductions in surface water resources; accelerated desertification in sensitive arid zones; and greater threats to health, biodiversity and agricultural production"
Now, my opinion is that van Schalkwyk is a halfwit. He has absolutely no clear understanding of the urgent need for strong protection of the environment.  He has been handed what is seen as a sinecure post in Cabinet – his reward for screwing the voters of the now-thankfully-extinct New National Party by delivering their votes into the hands of the ANC. 

One of his first actions as Minister of Environmental Affairs was to ease requirements for Environmental Impact Assessment in constructing cellular phone masts.  His department has recently granted carte blanche to golf course developers in the local area to do as they will, in clear conflict with provincial attempts to ride herd on these megabuck millionaire retreats that trash local environments, returning nothing but lies and broken promises to the affected communities.

That aside, I am very happy that he acknowledges the fact of global climate change, unlike some of his counterparts in other countries, who remain steadfastly in denial.

The question remains, though: What is government doing about it?  As a nation we are one of the worst polluters of the environment on a per capita basis.  We produce more pollution per South African than almost any other country on Earth.  The state-owned electricity utility, Eskom, largest electricity supplier in Africa, runs the dirtiest coal-fired power stations in the world.  That is why our electricity is among the cheapest in the world.  At least in the very short term.

Environmental pollution limits, lax as they are, are seldom enforced.  Simply getting chemical suppliers and toxic-waste management companies to comply with regulations commonly takes years, and seldom results in permanent and effective solutions, even after the courts have spoken.

The saddest indictment is that the post of Minister of Environment Affairs and Tourism is considered unimportant-enough by the ANC government to award it to an ex-Nat!  (And guess which part of his portfolio gets the significant porion of his limited attention; Environment or Tourism?)

So: The South African government believes that climate change is before us.  That is, at least, reassuring.  We might have to say goodbye to Cape Town, goodbye Knysna Forests.  Are we doing anything about it, yet?  No chance.

09 September 2006

"Sell" isn't so Bad; Selling is!

In "Why is “Sell” Such a Bad Word?", Brian Clark muses
Sell. Selling. Sales.
Not very popular words, are they?
Quite frankly, I wasn’t initially sure whether I would be banished
from the blogosphere for daring to use the word “sell” in my tagline.
Hmmm.... let me see if I can tackle this from the other side of the fence.

It's not that I have any problem with the word "sell" or the idea of "selling" at all.  What I object to is the absolute requirement imposed on us to sell whatever we do, failing which society will punish us in the severest possible ways.

I grow veggies to a very high standard of organic practice.  I love to grow veggies.  I always grow far too much for our own use.  I am happy to give them away, because I know that people will be getting the best, tastiest, most nutritious food in the world, and because giving away beautiful, sun-ripened veggies is  a way of gifting the gift that the Earth has given.

But if I want to stay alive, to keep a roof over my head, I am forced to sell.

I'll say it again: I have no problem with the concept of sales.  I just don't want to do it.  It's not my thing.  I can "sell" if I have to, for a limited time, but in the long run I am deeply uncomfortable and unhappy doing it.  That's why, in any business venture, I make sure I seek out team members who are good at selling and love doing it.

I also love to teach people about organic gardening, programming, Java, software design, sustainable living, peak oil, alternative energy and self-sufficiency, but I have no desire in me to "sell" these things.

I know, I know; someone is going to tell me that my enthusiastic preaching on these subjects is just selling.  Nonsense, I say! Nonsense!  Selling is when someone actually pays me money for those things.  Up to that point there's no "sale", and my point is that, in the world as it is, I have no choice but to sell.  If I just keep doing things for the love of them, I'll...   well, I won't starve, since I have all those veggies, but I certainly won't be able to afford many of the necessities and pleasure of modern life - stuff like electricity, connectivity, computers, transport.

So.  Its not "sell" that's the problem, but "coerced into selling" that is.

04 September 2006

The Hundred Year Lie; The Ten Day Fix

Dave Pollard raises a very interesting issue in his How to Save the World blog – the nutritional value (or lack of it) in our food. I urge you to read his review of the book "The Hundred Year Lie" before continuing, since the rest of this post won't make much sense otherwise. Dave goes on from reviewing the book to contemplating the use of probiotic supplements to combat the problem.

I would say there is a simpler way: Food Gardening.

Growing your own food – need I say "using organic methods"? – means you can very simply eliminate the whole Industrial Food Complex, and feed yourself and your family whole, wholesome, fresh, untainted vegetables. You can choose varieties that taste good, rather than those that transport and store well. You can be sure of avoiding frankenfoods by growing open-pollinated varieties, and enjoy marvelous flavours that you will never find in any supermarket by growing heirloom varieties.

It is a truism that we only preserve the things that we use. Heirloom varieties are usually ignored by the Industrial Food Complex, because they may be a little more trouble to grow, and that translates to added cost of production, and thence to reduced profits. Or they may not have the super-long shelf-life that the supermarkets require. Or they may not look as appealing – where "appealing" has been defined by some market research group, and only applies to the visual appeal. Or they may not be as hardy to mechanical harvesting and packing. These factors that Industrial Agriculturists, Food Processing companies and Food Retailers seek in vegetables usually result in veggies that

  • Grow fast
  • Respond "well" to intensive artificial fertilisers and pesticides

  • Look good on the shelf
  • for a long (sometimes unnaturally long!) time
  • cope well (i.e. don't rot or discolour) when chilled or frozen
  • have thick skins to withstand the rigours of mechanical harvesting and long distance transportation

You may notice that nowhere in this list do we find mention of flavour or nutrition.

If you grow even just a little bit of your own fruit and veggies, you create a huge supplement to your diet.

But That's Not All

There are the other beneficial aspects of Food Gardening. It gets you out in the open air, doing mild, low-impact physical exercise. Pretty much what our bodies evolved to do! You sweat. Exercise and sweat are one of the best ways to reduce stress and the by-products of stress in our bodies.

Gardening is a meditation. It gently occupies the mind with not-very-taxing tasks, and allows the dross of modern life to drain away.

Gardening brings you in direct, literal contact with the Earth. You quickly stop feeling "disconnected" when your hands get grubby with Earth. And gardening by organic methods means that you are actively engaged in fostering all life forms – particularly the soil biota – rather than running amok in a Death Rampage trying to kill things.

It has long struck me as a bewildering paradox that faces Industrial Agriculturists (I refuse to call them "Farmers"; they long since stopped deserving that title). Industrial Agriculturists on one hand try to grow food – and remember that only living things can grow – food that is supposed to, in its turn, sustain life – and yet they run around killing everything they can. Remember that the "cide" part of the words pesticide, herbicide, insecticide, bactericide, fungicide, means "death". How does fostering death support life? It's completely insane, and this insanity is built deep into the modern food chain. Is it any wonder that things seem out of kilter?

I do foresee one argument: "I don't have space for a food garden". Nonsense. Even in a high-rise apartment you can create some small space – a window box, a few containers on a balcony. If you have the will you can find space. Depending where in the world you are there may community gardens, allotments, public land that the local council is happy for you to use, roof-space that can support containers. Get creative! Find someone who has garden space, and swap use of a little piece of their garden for a portion of your produce.

A Warning

If you start gardening, you may find it addictive. You may start wondering about thequality of the water you use in your garden. Where does it come from? If you turn to using rainwater, you may begin to ask questions about the air-quality, since the rain falls through that air and picks up contaminants on its journey from the clouds. You may begin to wonder about the seeds you plant, and who is trying to control that seed-supply.

In short, gardening may turn you into an environmental activist.

01 September 2006


Spring has Sprung
Da grass has riz,
I wonder where
Da boidies iz?

I don't know if its official, or not, and I care less. My hayfever has kicked in, right on cue, so it must be Spring. That means time for the serious Work to begin in preparation for the coming Season.

Thankfully it looks like we're in for a few sunny days which should give the ground time to drain a little after all the (lovely!) rain we've been having. I managed to clear and compost one bed this afternoon, though the soil really is too wet to want working, but I can wait no longer, and, as its an established bed, already well composted, so draining better than Untouched Ground.

Much to my surprise, Chillis are starting to appear in their seed-trays, as are Tomatillos, and signs that we may see Eggplants within the next day or two. I've been very happy with the Chinese Cabbage - at least with the speed with which they grew - the Chickens have certainly enjoyed them, so I've planted more, along with Chicory, which I know the Chooks love. We should also be eating Cabbages (Cape Spitz) within the next ten days or so. Yumm!

I have a very positive feeling about the veggie garden this year...

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