Growth is a double edged sword. Unchecked, growth can be cancerous and destructive. It is this type of ceaseless expansion that has put our society into the precarious environmental and financial positions in which we currently find ourselves. On the other hand, growth can be regenerative and life-giving. Following a forest fire or a bitter winter, the first green shoots to emerge from the earth bear witness to the earth's ability to restore life in the wake of disaster.

My goal for this blog is pretty simple and open-ended: I want to document and share with family and friends my efforts to incorporate an ever increasing degree of self sufficiency, voluntary simplicity, and environmentally-conscious design into my life as a would be urban homesteader.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book Shelf : The Big Picture

I like to read quite a bit. I don't watch TV, and I hardly listen to the radio, so I get the vast majority of my information and entertainment from magazines, newspapers, and books (and of course, the good ol' internet tubes). I regularly haunt the St.Louis County library, and I'm slowly building a personal collection of books that I find inspiring, informative, or otherwise worthwhile. This is the first in what's sure to be a sporadic and informal series of book reviews and recommendations.

For the installment, I've picked 5 books that aren't really "how-to" guides, but rather are inspirational stories about their authors' lives. Some of them are instructional in parts, but overall, they deal more with the big picture of living a more self-sufficient life.

Gene Logsdon is a farmer from Ohio who also happens to be a gifted and very prolific author. He's written over 20 books that range from novels to informational non-fiction. 'The Contrary Farmer" is about common sense, small scale farming that is rooted in a genuine love for the land that is being stewarded. Logsdon balances practical know-how with beautiful prose to create a book that informs while still being a pleasure to read.

Perry has an easy going and humorous way of relating the ups, downs, and corkscrews of rural life. While not a farmer by trade, his stories and anecdotes deal with his attempts at raising chickens and pigs, fixing up an old farm house, and the birth of a new child. He filters many of these episodes through his memories of growing up on his parents farm. It's a warm and funny read that is sure to have at least a few parts which any aspiring homesteader can relate to.

The premise of this book will be familiar to people acquainted with the local food movement. For one year, the author and her family attempt to only eat food that a) they grow themselves or b) they get from farmers and producers in their bioregion. Along the way they realize just how difficult (if not impossible) it can be to get many of the foods that we consider staples from a local source. As a result, the Kingsolvers broaden their diets, acquire new skills, and develop a deeper appreciation for many of the culinary luxuries that we take for granted. The recipes and sidebar additions from her daughter and husband make this book truly a family project, and it is a lot of fun to see them work their way through it.

In "Better Off", Eric Brende asks a very thought provoking question: How much technology is necessary in a society for its members to enjoy full and leisurely lives? He chose to address this query for his Masters thesis at MIT by moving with his new bride to an ultra conservative, Amish-style community. For the next 18 months, the Brende's lived without electricity, a car (mostly), and virtually all of the other conveniences that make up the fabric of day-to-day modern American life. In doing so, he comes to understand the multi-faceted value of doing things the "hard way". He also notes the inseparable nature of manual labor and genuine community. In the end, a surprising allergic twist seems to be the only thing that keeps the couple from joining the community for good. I picked this book up without realizing that the author lives in St.Louis, and is active at Soulard Farmers Market. I've since met his wife and would love to have the opportunity to talk to him personally. I read the book in two days (I couldn't put it down), and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in self sufficiency, technology issues, or simple living.

The previous four books all deal with, or at least take place in, rural settings. "Farm City" appealed to me because it focuses on this seemingly oxymoronic concept of urban agriculture. Also, Novella Carpenter is funny as hell. She and her boyfriend move to the ghetto in Oakland, California. She proceeds to carve a farm out of an abandoned lot with bums, gangbangers, and crackheads for neighbors. While I don't exactly live in the 'hood, her exploits here really resonated with me. I saw myself in many of her triumphs and failures. She exposes the incredible amount of waste that a city generates, and puts it to good use raising animals and plants. She tackles the issue of eating sustainable and ethically produced meat by raising and butchering her own chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, and hogs. She breaks down many of the common stereotypes about what it means to live in the city and what it means to be a farmer. It's genuine, hip, hilarious, and very inspiring. I can't recommend this book enough to anyone who aims to be an urban homesteader.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Tomatoes come rolling in...

My tomato plants are starting to do their thing (which is good, because everything else is taking its' sweet time). Here are a few of the ones that are ripening up so far: left to right, Silvery Fir Tree, White Currant, and Beam's Yellow Pear

Friday, July 9, 2010

My current nemesis

Above is an adult Japanese Beetle. These iridescent little vermin are native to Japan (duh). They first showed up in the United States in 1916. Since then, they have been working their way west out of New England. St.Louis is about as far west as the beetles are currently established in large quantities. The peak season for Japanese beetles is June and July. During that time, they can be incredibly destructive to plants in your yard or garden. Ironically enough, they're not considered pests in Japan because predators control their population naturally. Here in America, however, they run rampant.

This is the first year that I've noticed them in large quantity in my garden. While there are a number of different organic methods for getting rid of Japanese beetles, including a certain strain of Bt and Milky Spore bacteria, I've opted for picking the adults off by hand this year. The beetles give off a pheromone when feeding that attracts more beetles. If you pay attention, and stay on top of it, squashing the bugs as you find them seems to help keep their numbers from getting out of hand On a couple of occasions I've killed a dozen or two at a time, but more often than not it's only 6 or 7. It's worked so-so thus far, but if they are as invasive next year (which is likely) I may have to look into something else. You can also buy Japanese beetle traps, but studies have shown that they actually attract more beetles than they catch.
You can see how completely Japanese beetles will destroy the vegetation of a plant. This is what they've done to some of my Kentucky Wonder Pole beans.

Now the little bastards are moving on to some of my red Amaranth. Arrrgh!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Another post, another month

Just as I was getting back in the swing of things, my computer goes in the shop for a month. At that point, summer was just getting started. Now, we're head long into the meat of the heat and humidity that define Summer in St.Louis. (That said, the past 3 days have been gorgeous) The garden is looking good, but the lack of vegetables actually coming out of it right now is evidence of the late start that I got on a lot of things. It is amazing the difference that one month can make. The tiny green blob that I was so excited about back at the beginning of June now looks like this:

The cucumbers, melons, and squash that were such spindly little strings 4 weeks ago are now sending their vines creeping through garden beds and up trellises. They're covered with blossoms that will (hopefully) turn into lots of good food.

The best part about summer, though, is getting to hang out with the kids. Between football and art camps, I'm usually at school during most of June, and we start back again in August. By contrast, July actually feels like summer vacation. We're in the middle of rehabbing their clubhouse and there are still plenty of projects to do around the 'Burbstead, but sometimes it's good to just play around.
Alex, Tater, and Erik beating the heat in style