Friday, July 25, 2008

Perfect Pita on the Volcano

Here at the Ecovillage Training Center our cook for a number of seasons was a former-kibbutznik, Shmuel Ofanowski, and when he left to return to Israel, his tradition of making pitoh in the traditional Middle-Eastern style was kept alive by Murad Al-Khufash, director of Global Village Institute’s Marda Permaculture Farm, who was a visiting instructor here at The Farm off an on for five years. Murad is back in Nabluus now, where he liaises with Shmuel in the Peace Thru Permaculture initiative, and manages our tree-planting program. When Starhawk was unexpectedly detained and refused entry to the West Bank to teach, with Jan Martin Bang, our permaculture course at Marda earlier this year, Geoff Lawton came to our rescue and peeled off two of his local volunteers to fill her shoes. The Marda course was a great success, transmitting orchard and garden design, natural building with cob, earthbag and stone, traditional Palestinian terrace farming, rainwater harvesting and graywater recycling, swales and keylines, vermiculture, composting, cover crops, bioremediation with mushroom mycelium, chicken tractors, and much more.

I have to think that Murad’s skill in making pita has to be at least one small part of why these courses are so successful. Back in 2003 when Murad needed to go to the big city for a while to make some money to help his village back in the West Bank, he got a job in a restaurant in Chicago, and they soon appreciated his skill and put that to work. Nobody could make pita like Murad. Before long, he was catering to restaurants all over Chicago.

In order for some of our newer staff to be part of the ecovillage design course here this week, we are tag-teaming in the kitchen and I drew a lunch slot with pita and zucchini hummus on the menu. Where is Murad when I need him, I thought. I emailed him for tips on pita, and he sent me several. One was to not bake the pita, but rather do it in a large skillet, using flour to keep from sticking.

Since it is pretty hot here this week, I got up early this morning and set out a summer kitchen on a picnic table. I pulled down our volcano stove from where it hangs under the eaves and lit a fresh batch of charcoal. The volcano burns anything, and very efficiently, so it is a tool I recommend in my book.

The process actually began around dawn, when I started the dough while my tea-water was coming to a boil. Pita dough is pretty simple; just pizza dough with less sweetener. I recommend freshly ground flour and corn meal (which we now get in bulk from the Yoders, our Amish neighbors), sea salt, and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. I start by pouring warm water into the mixing bowl, and adding the yeast, a pinch of sugar, a pinch of corn meal, and the oil, stirring just one turn, and then watching to see if the yeast is working. It should start bubbling up to the surface and spreading out from the center if it is a healthy, active yeast. Once it does that, I whisk in the flour until it is too stiff to whisk, then stir with a wood spoon or my hand, adding more flour and beginning to knead it. I actually used 3 kilos of flour this morning, but most folks won’t need that much, so I have cut the recipe below to 1 kilo, which will make about 15 large pita.

The dough gets covered with muslin and set in a warm place to rise, until it doubles in size. Time enough to light the fire and get the pan good and hot. Most pita recipes call for an oven at 400°F but both Shmuel and Murad favored our 18-inch skillet, so that is what I use. It takes a long time to get the skillet hot enough, but while it was heating, I began to divide the dough into fist-size balls and set them out for rolling. They needed another 20-minutes of rising, uncovered, after being divided.

As expected, the first pita in the skillet did not make a pocket for me, so I knew the pan was not hot enough and went to fetch the oven thermometer. I discovered that the pockets start happening above 250°F and pop really fast at anything over 300°F. I could tell the pan was hot enough if they bubbled on the uncooked side, like pancakes, when laid in the pan. As soon as I flip them, they should pop out the air pocket. They deflate in the covered dish, but can be re-opened by the guest when it is time to put in the hummus.

When I rolled out the dough, I used corn meal with a dash of salt to cover the balls and protect the rolling pin, and that also kept them from sticking to the pan. Murad did not use corn meal, but I found it better than flour to keep the pita from burning or sticking, and it also gave the bread a nice flavor and crunchy crust. I found I could speed up the pan-baking process by covering the skillet with a lid.

2 c. lukewarm water
1 Tbs active dry baker’s yeast
2 tsp salt
¼ c. olive oil
1 pinch sugar or tsp honey
1 kg (2.2 lb.) unbleached wheat flour
1 c. cornmeal
Mix water, yeast, oil and sugar, add a pinch of corn meal, stir briefly, and let stand for a minute or more. Add salt and stir, whisk in flour, stir as it stiffens, and knead. Cover and let the dough stand until it doubles in size.

Heat pan as hot as you can get it. Form small balls (tennis-ball size) with your hand let them stand uncovered for 20 minutes. Roll out the balls into flat circles 1/8-inch thick, dusting with salted cornmeal to keep them from sticking. Dry fry the pitas in the hot pan until they puff out and brown, then place them in a metal or ceramic bowl and cover the bowl to keep moist and flexible.

These go well with hummus on a hot day, or stuffed with falafels. They are also good for personal pizza shells. We never have any left over, because people will eat as many as I make. Thanks again to Shmuel and Murad for enriching our lives in this lasting way.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Natural Air Conditioning with Sandwiches and a Shake

The heat index today in our part of Tennessee is 110°F (43°C), so if you want to get chores done outside, the best time is the morning. At 6:30 we convened our bleary-eyed but green-tea-infused permaculture workshop outdoors to work on the roof of the strawbale greenhouse, putting in a garden. It was a lovely 68°F (20°C), perfect weather for gardening.

We are gradually in the process of greening up all of our roofs since we discovered to our delight that the indoor temperatures in structures we had built or retrofitted with green roofs were typically 15 degrees cooler than outside temperatures in the summer, as well as having enhanced insulation in winter. Only part of that summer effect is insulation. The other part is evaporation, or the transpiration of water from the roots to the leaves, dropping coolth into the building below. It’s the same way your fridge works.

We don’t have very big construction budgets, so most our materials are harvested or scavenged locally. The basic technique is to build a sturdy roof (one which can support the weight of wet topsoil and the maximum snowload), and then install a “carpet sandwich.”

The sandwich has a layer of carpet scraps (the dumpsters behind carpet warehouses are especially fertile sources), an impervious liner (old swimming pool liners and covers work well), and another layer of carpet. The carpet underlayer is to protect the liner from nails, screws, pebbles, or rough bits of roofing. The carpet overlayer is to protect the liner from ultraviolet light, limbs, hail, or anything falling from the sky, and also provides some structure for roots of plants to latch hold of so they don’t slide off the slope.

When we don’t have good scrap liner or want to go whole hog on a new building, we spring for new EPDM, which is the same material used for pond liner in your nearest garden store. If kept out of direct sunlight, it will last 1000 years, although we have to acknowledge it is a petroleum product (vulcanized rubber). Try to cut and splice it as little as possible, because leaks and penetrations are death to living roofs. You can add insulation to the area under the liner (flake straw, for instance) if you want to increase the R-value for heating and cooling.

On top of the top carpet we spread turf and mulch it really well so it can tolerate the low water regime.

A good place to get turf is by turning lawn into garden. Street/sidewalk medians are good for this.

Another possibility is sun-tolerant mosses. Here is a recipe for inoculating your top carpet with moss:

Serves 1 roof

1 clump of mixed mosses taken from a sunny area, dirt shaken out
½ pint buttermilk or thick soymilk
Place ingredients into a blender and blend at low speed
Insert mix into spray bottle and broadcast over substrate (carpet with light dusting of soil)

Moisten regularly until well established.

Today we took the roof on the greenhouse to the next stage by planting a summer garden there. The plants we chose had to be shallow-rooted, but there are no shortage of herbs and vegetables that can qualify. We made some bordered raised-beds and weeded out the random grasses that had volunteered since the roof was initially covered last year.

We now have experience with putting carpet sandwiches on all shapes and sizes of roofs — gable roofs, hip roofs, shed roofs, round-pole, even domed. In addition to the cooling effect in summer, they are beautiful, productive, and carbon-sequestering.

As the price and reliability of electricity becomes less predictable, and climate continues to warm, living roofs will undoubtedly become more popular for natural air conditioning.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tipping Ice

Ted Glick at Climate Crisis Coalition is sending around this chart created by the Climate Emergency Network in Australia. Glick says, "It's very striking to see what has happened with Arctic sea ice over the last 30 years--going down at a fairly consistent rate, overall--and then the precipitous drop from 2006 to 2007."

It is interesting to contrast that to the hypothetical graph that was used to illustrate the principle of tipping elements put forward by a National Academy of Sciences panel convened by William Clark of Harvard and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on February 12, 2008 (PNAS 105:6;1786-1793).

The panel employed ''degenerate fingerprinting'' to extract from the system's noisy, multivariate time series and forecast the vanishing of local curvature, the best example being the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation under a 4-fold linear increase of atmospheric CO2 over 50,000 years. Eventually, the circulation collapses without early warning, as I presented in greater detail in my February 13 post.

It is too soon to say that the Arctic ice cover will follow the same pattern, but the Australian graph is evocative.

Monday, July 14, 2008

For the Children

from Turtle Island:

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

— Gary Snyder

with appreciation for Rob Hopkins who reminded me of this poem, and Stephanie Mills, who has lately been re-preaching this message to anyone who will listen. Good advice.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

WALL*E – A Push-Button Fable (Blogger's Cut)

Disney is not breaking any new ground with its overly advertised full-length animation, WALL*E. This is just Lady and the Tramp set in 2700 AD.

Nor is Pixar a stranger to the theme of rehabilitating consumer culture remnants that nobody seems to love anymore. Think Toy Story for out-of-fashion toys, The Incredibles for Super-heroes, and Cars for Route 66. It reminds you of the Jawa recyclers who drove their huge Sandcrawler around the Tunisian desert in the first Star Wars. Pixar could change its name to Fixar.

WALL*E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), a cross between R2D2 and Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, was marooned on Earth with his exabyte A.I. algorithms tasked to the mundane chore of gathering up garbage, compacting it into cubes, and stacking the cubes into skyscraper Watts Towers. In his recharging time, he uses up spare processor bandwidth endlessly watching Hello Dolly through an old iPod, like Howard Hughes in his Las Vegas penthouse.

One day, as his rusting Burtynsky dystopia rises around him, cube by cube, WALL*E is visited by a svelte Japanese-style robot named EVE (Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). EVE discovers that WALL*E has inadvertently stumbled upon the key to reclaiming Earth, a living plant, with roots and leaves and everything, and races back to space to report her findings to the humans, who are wandering, Battlestar Gallactica-style, on an endless journey that employs consumerism in the place of cryogenics. After 800 years of wandering, the whole colony looks like Super-Size-Me Tele-tubbies.

It seems that the Buy-N-Large (BnL) corporation was the result of the ultimate merger of everything else, including government. It took over the Earth and basically trashed it. Holding economies of scale as its sole raison d’etre, it grew and grew until it reached the limits of consumption expansion that could be contained by one Earth. When it ran into a slight resource and waste disposal hitch, it simply gathered its colony of USAnians aboard its ark, The Axiom, and buggered off to space. I suspect that the axiom is that all growth has limits, but that seems lost on this plot, as we shall see.

Kyle Smith, who reviews for the New York Post had this salient insight: Buy-N-Large is Disney. Smith writes:
The meatball humans in WALL-E are like customers passively being served up a fake existence at the Magic Kingdom (which readily provides wheelchairs for not merely the afflicted but also the obese and the simply lazy), snorfling up the latest wows in an entirely artificial setting where every beverage and hotel room brings profits to the same corporation. And Disney paved over a few thousand acres of Florida wetlands to build Walt Disney World in the first place.
The high point of the movie for me was when the colony’s captain decides to end the exodus and return to Landfill Earth. After a battle with a runaway Hal-9000 computer named AUTO (A Mac Speech Recognition Voice — is there no limit to Steve Jobs’ product placements?), the captain struggles to the console and pushes The Green Button.

The idea that you can suddenly change the course of history by pushing a big green button is itself a very pointed dig at our lack of grasp of the challenges we face and what sustainability will really entail.

At this point, the matrix that was keeping the spaceborne humans happily distracted by television, neon billboards and a Big Gulp! was supposed to instantly switch to reprogram everyone to be happy farmers re-seeding the Earth. I expected to see a machine-assisted reconditioning, like Mr. Incredible squeezing into his old super-suit. I expected organized crash diets and calisthenics. Instead, their flying barcoloungers are all re-routed to the central auditorium so they can get the news from the big screen, instead of the small screen at eye level on every chair.

Eventually, and this should not be spoiling the movie for anyone, the humans re-colonize Earth and turn the rusty brown trashball all green again. This is, needless-to-say, quite a stretch. With skeletons and muscles atrophied over centuries, it is hard to imagine even the most eager new farmers joyfully hoeing beans on rusting piles of metallic and plastic rubbish.

And yet, that part is perhaps the strongest message in the movie, and the reason why this film is so timely. You may want to hold off on buying the family-size tub of buttered popcorn, cheese nachos and extra-large soda on your way past the concessions until after you’ve seen the people of the future and consider what they will have to do to reclaim their planet.

Friday, July 4, 2008


Under Heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil. Therefore having and not having arise together. Difficult and easy complement each other. Long and short contrast with each other; High and low rest upon each other; Voice and sound harmonize each other; Front and back follow one another. Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no talking. The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease, creating, yet not possessing, working, yet not taking credit, work is done, then forgotten. Therefore it lasts forever.

Kevin Kelly, an acolyte of Stewart Brand and former editor of Whole Earth, Co-Evolution Quarterly and Wired, blogged recently using a neologism he picked up from Brian Eno — David Byrne and Brian Eno talk about Cool Tools (MP3 clip, 3:10), Wired 16.01, December 18, 2007 — “scenious,” to describe the genius blossoming from auspicious scenes where creative people gather. He gave a few examples, such as the Yosemite rock climbers' Camp 4 in the 1930s, Building 20 at MIT, the Algonquin Round Table, Silicon Valley, Soho, and Burning Man. I would add the North Beach of Oahu in the 1950s, Greenwich Village (pick an era), the Panhandle Park flats in the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, Glastonbury, Akwesasne, the affinity groups at Seabrook, the bioregional congresses, the World Social Fora, the UN climate summits, and the Amazonian Shamanism conferences.

I have been lucky to stumble into a number of those scenes in my life; so many, I sometimes wonder if I am Forrest Gump.

The lucky stars have led me to be present at the birth of Noho, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Winter Soldier hearings, Nixon at sunrise on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Earth Day, the Leningrad public baths on Saturday nights, the bioregional movement at Meztitla, the ecovillage movement at Findhorn in '95 and Istanbul in '96, Viridian design, the post-millennium peak oil gatherings, and the Transition Towns kindling at Kinsale.

The scenius I am most familiar with, although it encompasses and interpenetrates many of these other ones, is of course, The Farm. As one of the longest floating crap games of the past century, it remains a dynamically evolving scene. It is a creative hub for the world midwives conspiracy, the cabal of alternative education advocacy, an incubator for progenitors of new media, and lately, the climate-reversal counterdevelopment discussion group, including, but not limited to, we ecovillage, peak oil and alt.fuels evangelists in residence.

What Brian Eno called scenious, Stephen Gaskin used to call “the juice.” In a paper I gave at a history conference in Illinois back in 1987, I attempted to describe a series of intellectual and technological artifacts that delineated the first 16 years of The Farm, but I gave the caveat that I would not attempt to describe the scene itself or try to fathom how it came into being. “How juice moves from place to place and time to time would be an interesting exploration in its own right,” I said.

Kelly postulates some rules. Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region, but the geography of scenius must be nurturing, For example, scenius has:

  • Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
  • Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
  • Local tolerance for the novelties — The local "outside" does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
In the Hebrew tradition this idea of sanctioned mischievousness has a name. It is called yezer hara’, the wayward inclination.

The yezer hara has seven names:
  1. evil;
  2. uncircumcised;
  3. impure;
  4. enemy;
  5. stumbling block;
  6. stone [on one's heart];
  7. hidden [in one's heart].
I think the Farm would most likely fall in the uncircumcised category, regardless of foreskins or lack thereof. Impure might also be applicable, but that is a little more subjective. There is great purity in the sense of purpose and mission that suffuses those who remain here for any length of time.

Confucius, who is often held up as a source of Chinese moral standards, was not a fan of rigid social norming. He used to say of the Bill Bennetts of his time, “Those goodie goodies are the thieves of virtue!”

Alan Watts, who inhabited another scene I was fortunate enough to have sat zazen in, said that Confucius (6th century BC) and Lao Tsu (4th century BC) were the two bookends that allowed the culture of China to endure and flourish for thousands of years.

For Confucius the highest of all virtues was human heartedness. He would not define this, but he said that it was the real basis for any social order. Confucius would not share Antonin Scalia’s strict constructionism. He wanted justice to come from the application of wisdom, not rote.

Lao Tsu (literally the “Old Boy” because he was born with a small white beard), put these ideas into poetry. We think it is silly that we have to take off shoes and give up our toothpaste at the airport, but when Lao Tsu tried to leave China they told him he couldn’t leave until he had written down all he knew. In the Tao Te Ching, the 72 gems of wisdom left with a border guard, Lao Tsu summarized his findings in order that he be allowed to leave.

The first verse is the Old Boy’s disclaimer. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” he wrote.

Watts observed that this famous opening line also showed Lao Tsu to be a punster, but you have to understand a bit of Chinese to get it.

“Tao” means the way, or course, of nature, but it also means to speak. So in Chinese, the first character is this:

The first character is “the way.” The next is “can” or “can be.”
The third is again “the way,” but it could also be “spoken.”

What Lao Tsu says in one entendre is that he can’t really describe the way, because it is ineffable; if he could describe it then it would not be true. The way which can be spoken is not the way.

In the other entendre Lao Tsu says it cannot be taken as a way. The way which can be “way-ed,” or traveled, is not the way.

This is also the point Kelly wants to underscore, which is that scenes, and hence scenius, cannot be created. The best we can hope for is to recognize them when, for whatever extraordinary confluence of good fortune, they seem to arise. And when that happens, the best we can do is not step on them. Allow a little yezer hara’. Keep the goodie-goodies at bay.

We have an annual celebration here at The Farm which we call “Ragweed.” It commemorates that day in history when we were surrounded and besieged by the goodie-goodies. And we pushed back.

On July 11, 1980, a battalion of state police, county police, city police, TBI, Canine Corps, ATVs with sirens, two helicopters, some 50 police cars and several hundred officers clad in battle gear raided The Farm in the dark of night, coming in out of the forest and fields from every direction. Accompanied by television crews from the big three networks, they converged on a field of ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia).

As it turned out, an overzealous helicopter pilot, “Eagle-Eye” Mike Dover, on a routine dope-spotting run, mistook the overgrown watermelon field, with its neat rows of ragweed grown up between the melons, for hemp (Cannabis sativa). Dover’s eyewitness affidavit also told the story of two hitchhikers picked up on the interstate highway who claimed to have escaped the hippy cult where they were forced to work as slaves in the marijuana fields. Eagle Eye had successfully spotted 500 marijuana fields before that night. The District Attorney sat in the back of a limo at the front gate of the Farm waiting to pose for pictures. He sat there all night.

The judge who issued the warrant, giving police the right to search all of the 150 or so homes on The Farm for balloons and spoons among other "paraphernalia," apologized and pledged never to be hoodwinked again. At the time, district judges were elected and we controlled our ward vote.

A humiliated police officer told TV reporters that the hippys must have been tipped off, pulled up all traces of cannabis, and quickly planted the six-foot ragweed plants. We held a press conference, announcing a lawsuit to recover damages for the watermelons destroyed by the helicopter landing struts. Local papers from Memphis to Knoxville ran editorial cartoons showing “Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers Textbook” with watermelons compared to marijuana. Radio DJs made jokes about the sounds that watermelons make when squashed by helicopters. Stephen Gaskin said Dover was now 500 and 1.

We also were able to get our Congressman to call for an FBI investigation, including assaying the soil of the field to see if there were traces of hemp ever having been planted there.

For The Farm, the failure of the massive, 50,000-dollar dope raid was a triumph. The Farm was left in peace and has not been bothered since. When the local sheriff has to serve a summons, he stops at the front gate and waits for the person to come there and sign for it. No police have entered the 6-square mile area in 28 years, except by invitation. The raid is now celebrated every July 11th or thereabouts with a Ragweed Festival. It is our celebration of scenius.

And incidentally, in Lakota, ragweed is called “caŋhlógaŋ oŋzipakiŋte” which means "weed to wipe the rear."




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