Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Forest And Field

Following on from my recent post about building forests, I had the scientific department out doing some research ( :-P ) and they came up with the following:

From the ABC's News In Science: Native trees key to cooling climate

Some excerpts below:

Extensive clearing of native trees is making Australian droughts hotter and is an under-recognised factor in climate change, research shows.
And, my favourite:

He says native vegetation plays an important role in moderating climate because it is deep rooted, which leads to more moisture evaporating into the atmosphere over a longer period.

This is then recycled into the environment as rainfall.

Native vegetation also reflects less short-wave solar radiation into the atmosphere than crops, which keeps the surface temperature cooler and helps in cloud formation.

I agree with the general aim of the proposed measures of course, but I feel it hasn't been taken to it's logical conclusion, possibly due to political and social factors. I think we can do better, at least in some areas.

Drawing on the previous post, many natives actively resist evaporating moisture into the air as part of their evolved survival mechanism. Rather than planting these natives, put in other trees that are deep rooted, and evaporate more moisture than their Australian cousins, whether this be rainforest plants or non-indigenous plants from other areas of the world. Rather than returning to the sunburnt country, go the next step and move to a moister country all round.

Put in trees that build up humus that works to improve moisture retention and infiltration. Plant trees that face their leaves to the sun and thus cool the earth beneath them more, rather than Eucalypts that hang their leaves down in an attempt to avoid catching (and therefore collecting and/or reflecting) the sun.

I think the idea of open pastures, orchards and vineyards is perhaps a bit of a throwback to the European origins of our practices. The lower light and heat levels there required that the plants have more access to sunlight. Here at the top of the earth (if you're holding the globe up the right way!) we get more intense sunlight, so a little bit of shading comes in handy. Take a browse through some of the Aussie gardening blogs and see how many put up shade covers in summer so the plants in their vege gardens can survive.

It's obviously a trade-off, as the start and end of the growing season would be adversely affected to a degree, but I think there is room to fit trees into our grazing land with benefit to the entire system. If soils are improved, and cooler, and more moisture is retained, then growth during the peak of summer should make up for that lost at either end of the season. Cooler grazing animals should also require less water (and moister feed should also assist with that) and be happier if they aren't standing in the sun all day, or fighting one another to occupy the one tiny bit of shade in a big paddock. Lamb chops may also be tastier if they aren't coming in from the paddock already sun-dried.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

It's not a raft!

I've been reading a bit of discussion on the topic of liferafts and the survivalist approach to Peak Oil. A particularly interesting pair of articles were Why the Survivalists Have Got It Wrong by Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture and Communities, Refuges, and Refuge-Communities by Zachary Nowak at Energy Bulletin. Whilst I found a lot I could agree with in Zachary's piece (and the associated article Preparing For A Crash: Nuts and Bolts) there were also a lot of arguments in Rob's post that struck a chord.

I found myself considering my place in the world, as you do, and what path I was actually on. There is a lot of talk of moving to the country onto some land, and setting it up for self-reliance to insulate and protect from the dark times ahead, setting up a life-raft to use the common term.

Now I'm pretty sure that when I first started thinking about peak oil making such a move seemed like a pretty obvious way to go. The only problem was, we were already on that path for various other reasons. The prospect of peak oil changed the scope of the project to be sure, but it did not alter the basic direction we had chosen for our lives.

But are we survivalists? We want to survive, so that may be a black mark against our names, but we certainly don't fit this description from Rob:
We will, they argue, be able to get by, in utter isolation, up a dirt track somewhere, seeing no-one, with no external stimulus, eating borage and 3 year old baked beans, and attempting to be entirely self sufficient, despite having little previous background in the way of gardening, farming and homesteading.
So where do we fit in? Another couple of pieces from Rob's article begin to give me an answer I can be comfortable with:

The irony is that these survivalists who have the insight into the urgency of peak oil and who decide, in response, to head for the hills, are, ironically, most needed in the places where the rest of the people are, sharing their skills and their insights.

In other words this is a time where the only valid and practical response is to embrace society rather than run away from it. This is the work of now. People are starting to wake up, peak oil is becoming clearly visible, and everything, it feels to me is up for grabs. Energy descent planning has the advantage that it is a response to peak oil that might actually work.
If I understand it right, our primary failing is that we are not engaging our local community in planning for peak oil, we are letting society down by going our own way and doing our own thing, and that this may lead to our deserving the title of isolationist-survivalists.

Any community tackling peak oil in a head-on fashion must necessarily have some proportion of the population who consider peak oil to be a real and impending threat. Whilst I do believe that one person can make a difference, one person, without being able to convince others, is not going to have an effect on a community, is not going to be able to bring about the kind of changes we see in places implementing plans like Transition Towns.

When considering many rural areas, there just isn't this critical mass to allow the ball to start rolling. Try too hard to convince people and you tend to alienate them. Due to the social structures, alienation from one person usually flows on to alienation from many people, as your “reputation” spreads through the tight knit community. Get too radical and you could swiftly find yourself doing your shopping in the next village over.

The question is, are we being selfish and insular by remaining in our communities in the country and not taking any direct social action?

I think not, and here's why: A “life-raft” can be built up so that it is insulated from the worst that may come to try us as a society. In doing that, the location becomes a storehouse of information, knowledge and experience, as well as, perhaps most importantly, genetic material.

There will come a time when the people in country communities are bitten hard by peak oil, and they will be looking for solutions. As long as you haven't alienated them entirely, you will be in a prime position to support that social network, perhaps not by being able to feed it outright from your stores, but certainly by being able to help it transition through education and provision of materials such as fruit trees, plants and seeds.

If you're like me, you may have amassed a library of books on all sorts of strange and wonderful subjects in preparation. The argument is often used that a person, or family, wouldn't have the time to read, much less learn all the skills in all the books. What if that is not the purpose?

Once the community does begin to pull together and face the problem head on, the number of people available to learn new skills expands. You can pass on the books about electricity to the local electrician, and he can work on getting alternate power supplies running. The local mechanic may be very interested in your books about biodiesel, and with the help of the guy who finished his first year chemistry at university, they can knock up a plant and make the adjustments to the vehicles so some transport is still available, for a time at least.

Whilst this approach is not ideal, it would certainly be better for everyone to be prepared in advance, given the circumstances, it is often the only way. It is a whole lot better to have one family prepared, than no-one in an area being prepared.

As a flow on from this, it is probably better to be the only one prepared in a small community than to be the only one prepared in a big one.

Life-rafts shouldn't be seen as personal escape vehicles, they should be seen as the seeds of the future communities in the country. Be prepared and secure in your knowledge and ready to share it with those around you in their time of need. This is the critical first step as I see it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007


Things are still grinding along in the background with respect to the DA, and therefore the purchase of the new land. We got hit with some surprise fees for the DA, must be a new experience for the council, so that has set things back by a week, as they wouldn't even begin to consider it without those fees being paid.

We're going to be organising another visit to the block this weekend, if the vendor is accommodating. I haven't yet taken my mother out there, and she's keen to see it, and we're all keen to see it again. Most amazing, the twins, at three years old, are also keen, and often ask when we're going to be building our new house. I'm quite surprised that their little hummingbird minds retain such things.

The picture above is part of the site we're considering for the new orchard and vineyard. It gets a good dose of sun, and should have reasonable frost drainage. I'll need to see how deep the soil is there, but it's well situated all other things considered.

This next visit I intend on taking as many photos as possible of the important sites, the spot for the house, potential orchard sites, shed sites, dam sites etc, to allow us to better plan from the comfort of our (current) home.

Last weekend I finally made it through the "Big Mowing". Things have dried out so quickly that I will probably only need to mow that one time for the entire season, well, maybe once or twice more, but we wont see the rampant growth again until after next winter, unless we get a heap of rain.

The place looks very different with short grass. All the trees are readily visible, and they're all looking great so far. I modified the irrigation so that we are doing two zones high up on the "hill", where the pressure is lower, so each should get a better dose for the time they run. I'd like to do the same to the older orchard, the younger trees at the top of the block don't seem to be getting enough water, whilst the older ones down lower shouldn't need the same frequency of watering.

Also got around to cleaning the glasshouse out and potting on the vegetables, out of the seedling punnets and into something more substantial that will last them until they go out in the ground. We're still getting a few nights a week close to zero, so I'm wary of putting them out too early. Now that we've got the glasshouse we're not losing a lot of growing time waiting, so I'm not so concerned, and it saves me a heap of time that would be spent covering tender plants every night.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Building A Forest

I mentioned a couple of posts ago my great love of propagating trees, and how the new block of land was going to allow me close to free reign in that department. If I can grow a tree, then I can find a place to plant it. I had purchased a range of seed from Phoenix Seeds in Tasmania, all unusual trees and shrubs that I was not sure what I would do with if they ever came up.

For most of the varieties chosen it was indicated that they would take rather a long time to sprout, up to two years for some. All of these empty-looking punnets of soil in the glasshouse have been teasing me, with the exception of the Kangaroo Apple, a shrub native to southern Australia, which sprouted in record time, and 100% success.

We've since had some European Elderberry come up, only about 10% so far, but there is still hope for the rest, and best of all one, then another Witch Hazels, over the course of the last month. These two seedlings will be treasured and cared for, as I've never seen the plant in the nurseries, even online, and there's only one thing I love more than trees, and that's hard-to-get, if not rare, trees! There are of course other criteria, generally they will be Old World trees, which for some reason have always had a special place in my heart and mind. I've gotten over my initial dislike of our natives, but I'm still an alien, a stranger in a strange land, even though I was born and have spent all of my life here.

I think it comes down to the moistness of non-natives (the ones I prefer at least). Eucalypts and other spiny natives always seem so dry, boney almost, and perhaps it is the longing for rain and moistness, the stories of the lush England of my parents and grandparents that has warped me this way.

I also like to think of another thing. What if the vegetation of a region maintains a particular climate? There is often talk of a climate maintaining a certain type of vegetation, and our land is used as a prime example, it's dryness and heat meaning that non-natives have a poor chance of survival.

But what if it also works the other way? Trees transpire according to their type. Eucalypts only a little, whilst a hazelnut for instance will probably transpire a lot in comparison. Now that transpiration, along with other factors, goes to make rain, so the Eucalypt will only produce a little rain, whilst the hazelnut will produce more. Similarly a field of wheat or other grain will produce only a marginal amount of moisture in the air, and all of that by drawing water from the top few inches of the earth. The old timers around here certainly talk about changes in rainfall as a result of the mass clearing of certain areas around the village to turn it over to farmland.

Another thing to consider is the cycling of nutrients. Deciduous trees will drop a load of nutrients every Autumn, building up the humus in the soil, increasing it's fertility. The native vegetation on the other hand will drop firewood and tinder over the course of the year, tough stuff that breaks down only slowly and burns in preference.

Now those reading this (if any :) ) could most likely accuse me of grandiose plans for environmental engineering, and they would probably be right at a certain level. The idea is not one that I comfortably accept, for I am torn over the arguments in favour of preservation of natural ecosystems. But, sadly, weighed against that is the fact that, at least where I reside, there is very little in the way of natural ecosystem left. Change has always been a natural part of the Earth's life. At this point in it's history we need to be seriously considering creating humus and moistening the environment in order to mitigate the future effects of climate change. Cooler, moister forests cool and moisten the earth, and may be a way for us to avoid living in a parched and sunburnt country (and after a while not living here at all when it goes completely to desert)