A Letter to Mark Boyle

I wrote a letter to Mark Boyle recently, the Guardian writer who went off-grid and ditched electricity:

Hi Mark,

I just recently discovered your endeavor to live a quieter, slower, simpler, kinder life, and I applaud you. In the past few years I’ve drifted through the ruins of the peak oil scene, picking up pieces here and there, before doing a intensive immersion into the philosophy of radical primitivism. I didn’t stay long in either of those places, but I learned a lot, and I’ve since come to the realization that industrial society more broadly and digital infrastructure specifically are built on the backs of failed states, gutted wildernesses, and borrowed time whose interest rate we cannot and could never afford.

I’ve also learned that there are only a small handful of things in this world that I can safely take for granted: that human works tend to fail and disappear faster than we can imagine, that plants -want- to grow, and that the most meaningful relationships are built not on shared demographics, but shared experience, cooperation, and most importantly, proximity.

You are living the life I want to live. And if I’m honest with myself, you are living the life I’ve always wanted to live. What child dreams of growing up to pay bills, read emails, and compulsively check Facebook 14 times a day?

I plan on being where you are soon enough, however. My husband and I will be moving out of the city soon enough to hand-build our own house in central British Columbia somewhere. It will be small, and cold during the winter, but it’ll be ours through and through, and that’s more than most people can say about anything they own. The only thing we’ve yet to hammer out is exactly how many light bulbs we want in the house. (I’m thinking maybe two: one for each of us.)

Please keep in touch with the digital world, Mark. There is a great discontentment bubbling up among people of all ages and walks of life, and whether they know it or not, they’re searching for a new story. They want their preconceptions about technology to be proven wrong, but so far no one has given them the excuse they need to walk away. Maybe you could be that person.

I was hoping that I’d be given an address where I could write to you by mail, but it appears that typing this into a form on a webpage will have to do the trick.

Anyways, I’m going to end this on a VERY trite note: thank you for being the change you want to see in the world.

-Lo

Of course I discovered that a mailing address was provided (couched in a paragraph, so I didn’t see it), so I’ll probably write to him that way too. Even if only to say “Ha! Found the snail mail address!”

Book Review: Second Skin

Second Skin: Choosing and Caring for Textiles and Clothing is part how-to, part manifesto, and part memoir by lifelong seamstress, dyer, and textile artist India Flint, made famous by her contributions to the world of environmentally-friendly dyeing and surface design. (I took a class last year to learn her ecoprinting technique from a local Vancouver artist.)

India Flint is a staunch and powerful, though still gentle, voice in the slow fashion movement. And by slow, I mean slow. She is unrelenting in her dislike of synthetic fibers, high-impact dyes, and consumer culture’s influence on design and wastefulness.

The official blurb:

Almost from the moment of our birth, clothing acts as our second skin, yet we rarely consider where our clothes have come from and the effects they might have on the environment and ourselves. This beautifully photographed and illustrated book is about easily achievable ways to care for the planet by living simpler lives and using fewer resources, specifically those to do with cloth and clothing. It discusses the role of cloth in how consumption affects the ecology; looks at what textiles are made from and examines their properties, with an emphasis on those derived from natural sources; and talks about how to make informed choices regarding clothing-including deciding how much clothing one really needs. It also covers how to mend and maintain clothing, repurpose fashion, dyeing, and when all else fails, instructions for patching, piecing, felting, and twining. One ‘gallery’ chapter is dedicated to clothing designers and artists who have made a practice of working with salvaged materials, including Natalie Chanin (Alabama), Jude Hill (Long Island), Christine Mauersberger (Cleveland), and Dorothy Caldwell (Hastings, Ontario).

Honestly? This book is a must-have for people interested in lowering the carbon footprint of their wardrobes. And I don’t use that term lightly. Flint is thorough in her explanations of even the fibers themselves, their histories, and their contemporary processing methods; everything from how to choose the fabric your clothes are made from, to what to do when they start breaking down is under her slow, careful purview. She leaves no stone unturned.

Some reviewers are put-off by her reverence for textiles, and many pick up her books looking for simple step-by-step instruction. But that’s not what India Flint is about – she will not allow herself to abandon the whole picture of the textile industry to focus on some little technical detail, and she won’t let you forget the big picture either. I don’t find this off-putting, actually. I find it refreshing and necessary, and as a low-impact zero-waster (the two are not one in the same!), this provides an important piece often missing from the dialogue we have concerning what, exactly, goes into making our wardrobes.

The book itself is beautifully designed, too, and as a hardback, should last for years to come. Flint’s writing can get a little precious at times, but it really does fit with her slower way of life, and if you take the time to read her stories, you’ll find yourself rewarded with relatable anecdotes and inspiration from where her own life has taken her.

It’s not just about technical know-how for making our clothes last longer. It’s about asking ourselves how many clothes we have, why our clothes look the way they do, why they’re made from the materials that they are, why we wear them how we do, and why we can’t put more care and effort into making them last until there’s barely little more than threadbare scraps left before returning them to the earth.

Second Skin is a book that concerns itself with philosophy and ethics as much as it does with tricks of the trade, chemistry, and why wool felts when you wash it in hot water. If that bothers you, then you might ask yourself why that is. And if not, if you’re looking for a text packed with environmentally-conscious knowledge about textiles as well as one that asks harder questions, then this is definitely the book for you.

Going Analog Part 4: Reclaiming Real Literacy

About a month or two ago, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to start lettering my comics by hand when I’d originally planned on doing so at the start of the next volume. I finished my page with some time to spare, so I gave it a go.

Lettering comics isn’t like writing at all – professional letterers, who are about as often seen these days as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster – say that proper comic letters must be drawn: each letterform must be treated as its own tiny picture that must be composed, started and finished, just-so.

I did hand lettering in college, but only because we generally had to when turning in pen-and-paper cartooning assignments. I didn’t take a lettering class, so I wasn’t really graded on my pretty sub-par, albeit perfectly legible, letters, but I wasn’t interested in getting good. I wanted my comics to look like the stuff put out by the big name publishers and big name titles. I wanted my work to look “legit”, and achieving that perfectly sterile, flat, and lifeless quality through the use of Adobe Illustrator was the only way to go about it, I though. Deep down, though, I always hated digital lettering.

Compare this:

With this:

Analog, hand-lettering is a living, breathing thing. It’s a creature that responds to the page, the environment it lives in, rather than just blasted over on top of it like a transposed caption from somewhere else. The latter is a fully composed, united piece of art. The former is a Frankenstein’s monster of dead, disparate ingredients forced to life with a jolt of electricity.

The problem with hand-lettering is that it’s slow, and it takes years to master – in short, the problem is that it’s a craft. And the comics industry, for all its noise and production, is actually pretty threadbare. An emperor without clothes, even. Most of the craft involved in making comics back in the 60’s and 70’s (and underground talent of the 80’s) is long gone now, because it’s simply too inefficient a method of producing flashy, colorful stories. Most comic work these days is a digital assembly line set to a ruthless pace and fueled by artistic compromise. I said on twitter recently that most comic creators these days aren’t cartoonists, but rather would-be animators settling for a poor man’s substitute. The things that make comics a unique and beautiful medium are being forgotten in the streaming age.

Lettering is one of those things, and I’m finding that I like the look of a fully inked comic page complete with word balloons and letters too much to ever go back. It’s how a comic pages were meant to look.

But I’m also doing a lot of thinking about writing in general – the analog art of putting words to paper. Penmanship became a lost art a long time ago, and cursive writing too, but it seems that all writing is in danger of becoming a niche skill. When was the last time you wrote something important by hand? Don’t remember?

There’s something about fountain pens that make you want to hold them and write. I plan on taking up scripting my comics by hand at some point in the near future, the idea of which was entirely inspired by my buying my pair of Kaweco pens. There’s a practical reason for this too, though. John Michael Greer and even The Atlantic both acknowledge the negative effects of word processors on writing. Not only do distractions reign on the digital device, but on a more fundamental level, it mashes together the writing and editing processes into one homonculus of seemingly increased efficiency. Turns out, it’s not actually a boon to productivity at all, because each aspect of writing requires a different part of the brain, and trying to do both at once results in a mental gridlock we know as “writer’s block”. And that’s after you’ve managed to stop compulsively checking Facebook for the umpteenth time.

This whole endeavor has made me question the concept of literacy, though. Can we really be said to be a literate culture if we’ve lost the ability to write longhand, or decipher a broad array of writing styles? Has “literacy” quietly come to encapsulate only being able to read letters formed by typefaces, and writing by punching with our fingertips at chiclet keys?

By removing the craft from these basics of daily life, from these art forms, we relegate them to the chronically underappreciated realm of mere utility, where they are eventually starved of passion and meaning until they’re either forgotten or picked up as hobbies by the rich and made even more inaccessible than they would be if they’d just been unceremoniously left behind.

2017 is the year I begin lettering all of my comics by hand, on paper. It’s also the year I start writing more in general. Grocery lists, notes, correspondence. It’s also going to be the year that I start scripting my comics longhand, too. I’ll buy a notebook specifically for this purpose, divide it into two columns – one for a messy first draft, the second for notes, a final draft, or a complete rewrite altogether – and hammer out pages of script just the same as I do on the computer. And unlike a digital text document, I’ll be able to leaf through the pages; dog-ear them; color-code or otherwise index scenes and important dialogue that I’ll need to consult later. I’ll be able to have a spatial understanding of the work I’ve done, intuitively understand where in the story I am just by feeling how thick the left side of the notebook is compared to the right. I will be engaging the whole of my body and senses in the writing process.

Because I’ve forgotten what that’s like.

And so, probably, have you too.

6 Things Zero Wasters Need to Know About US Supermarkets

So I’ve been with Whole Foods for a good 4 months now, and I think I can safely say that I’ve learned and seen enough to write a post like this. Because zero waste people make a lot of assumptions about the way supermarkets and grocery stores work – either in good faith, or because we assume that store policies are logical, which they aren’t sometimes – and I’m here to set a few things straight.

1. Most of how the modern supermarket functions is due to lawsuits.

Americans are a litigious people. We sue at the drop of a hat, and even the most ridiculous claims have the chance of settling out of court, granting the plaintiff a handsome sum of money. But we’re litigious because we also have a long and storied history of being screwed over by business interests, a history that is just as American as apple pie. See: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; the meat-packing industry of late 19th century Chicago; current working conditions of Amazon warehouses.

Part of my orientation involved a 90-minute safety walk around our store, in which one of the assistant managers went over every square inch of the building to outline best practices for emergency exits, eyewash stations, where to put things, and so on. But the subtle language he used made it clear (to me, at least) that these procedures were less about employee and customer safety, and more about avoiding lawsuits, theft, and wasted money. For instance, if someone falls in the store, we are not allowed to help them up – they could sue and claimed we worsened their injuries. Or when taring for an imprecise amount – like butcher paper in the meat department – we always over-tare due to somewhat recent legal action taken against the company for overcharging on weighted items.

Most larger businesses that have been around for a few decades are like this, though, and the vast majority of laws on the books concerning business, public safety, and food handling are because of about 170 years of litigation of consumers and employees against businesses.

When it comes to supermarkets in particular, though, such troubled history sets the stage for the rest of this post.

2. They depend 100% on plastic and disposables.

I’m not kidding. I knew a lot of stuff got thrown away in the process of running a store, but I had no idea until I started working at one. As a floater, if I’m working in a department that involves handling an edible product in any way, I need to wear disposable plastic or latex gloves, and I’m to discard them before handling something else (if I have the opportunity to do so). In this way, I can go through dozens of disposable gloves over the course of a shift, sometimes even most of a box. And I’m just one employee, at one store, at one market chain, handling food at only the final stage of a long assembly line of processes that gets your purchase from the farm to your grocery bags.

Even Whole Foods’ much beloved salad/olive bars and bulk bins use up huge amounts of plastic just to get the stuff from the truck to its final destination out on the floor. For one, bulk product does not actually get packaged in large containers. The biggest olive containers we have, for instance, come from two-gallon buckets of very heavy duty plastic. Some of them come in smaller bags that weigh maybe only a pound or three, and some just come in larger consumer-sized containers.

Without even 5% of the disposable plastics we’re required to use to do our jobs, the store would not be able to function. There would just be no legal way to handle product without it.

3. Everything you return to the store gets thrown away.

Don’t ever, ever return something to a grocery store unless it’s gone bad, because it will end up in the landfill. We cannot put it back on the shelf, even if its been unopened. In fact, if you can compost it at home, do that instead. It’s probably not worth the $4 return.

4. There is little to no auditing of employee waste.

Every department has both black, green, and sometimes blue bins behind the counter, but no one’s there to make sure that they both aren’t treated as garbage bins, and emphasis from management on proper sorting is nonexistent (at my store, at least). Speed of service is valued above anything else at Whole Foods, so during rushes, especially, garbage ends up in whichever receptacle is closest. We have a composting program, but how it works is completely esoteric – we lump stuff that’s mostly compostable together, and set it outside with the other mostly compostable stuff at the loading dock. Where it goes or how they’re able to pick out the thousands of plastic drink cups, straws, gloves, rubber bands, twist ties, milk jugs, juice bottles, and produce stickers is beyond me, and I think, beyond everyone else I work with.

On to of that, there’s really no one to tell us to be more frugal with the tools we have on-hand to accomplish our work with, especially if wasting more translates to being able to do more faster. In the meat department, thawing shrink-wrapped shipments of chickens or racks of bison ribs is done with an industrial sink full of running water. Sometimes it’ll be running for over an hour just for one batch, wasting hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons our precious California water. Or in the juice department, where even the smallest problems are solved by throwing away the first cup and lid and using another one, or using a plastic bag. (And that’s not even mentioning how much waste juicing produces. It’s really almost equivalent to killing an elephant for its tusks or a deer for its antlers and leaving the body to rot. Most of the nutrients is left behind in juicing – it’s truly just a gross status symbol.)

5. Even stuff that looks like it would have been packaged in less plastic is sometimes packaged in a lot of plastic.

During the holidays, all of our drip coffee at the coffee bar came in small baggies of pre-measured grounds that we had to cut open individually, pour into another bag, weigh, and re-measure for use in our industrial coffee maker for the dispensers we have on the counter. At the bakery, all of our “fresh baked” bread comes frozen, shrink-wrapped, and sandwiched between layers of parchment paper (no grocery store actually makes its own batters or doughs on-premises) before being put on baking sheets and thrown in the oven, to give just a few examples.

6. Keeping product topped up is to make you feel better.

Keeping a product topped up – that is, making it look like there’s plenty of it on the shelf – most times has nothing to do with keeping it in-stock in the case someone wants to buy it, and more to do with making the customer feel good. 

This is how a lot of stores wind up throwing so much stuff away – the need to keep shelves and displays immaculately organized and full ensures that there’s more to toss into the garbage bin when the whole display meets its sell-by date.

What does this have to do with customers, though?  Psychologically speaking, a business like this instills in the customer a sense of comfort when they are visually reassured that there is no shortage of goods for them to buy. This is why so much effort is spent on keeping every square inch of shelf full of something, and as I can assure you, doing that with a good ten or twenty thousand different products is a maddening game of physical, logistical, and financial tetris. Because who wants to shop at a store where what you want is out of stock? Or where shelves sit empty because everything sold? Consumers want what they want, when they want it – if that means throwing away 10 pounds of smoked brisket every evening because the display would look bad if one of the warmer trays sat empty for more than a couple hours, then so be it. Spoilage is cheap; customer discomfort is not.

These are all big problems, I’m sure you all can agree. Even Whole Foods, supposedly one of the leading environmentally-conscious companies in the US is up to its eyeballs in environmentally-destructive bad habits with no monetary or legal incentive to change.

The consumer culture we have is ruthless in its hunger for more, for cheaper, and for comfort; the litigious culture we have is ruthless in its conniving greed, its paranoia, and its short-term gain over long-term sustainability.

Most of the problems with the US supermarket, though, has to do with how we understand the concept of sanitation and consumer safety. I’ll dedicate an entire post to that at some point in the near future, but for now, suffice to say, nothing will change if health codes stay the same. I don’t know if we can change them without some major industry shake-up – much of what we want as zero wasters would be considered a step backward, and would be a very hard political sell to anyone, not just policymakers. But I suppose, if you insist on something to do, write to the appropriate people in appropriate places, and write them often. Study the health code, and relevant laws. Familiarize yourself with previous litigation to see how this bloated legal machine came to be.

And while you’re at it – Whole Foods recently, quietly, decided not to let customers use personal cups at their coffee or juice bars. It was a decision that came down from corporate, I heard, and had nothing to do with a lawsuit. So please write them, and please get angry, and please remind them that every other goddamn coffee shop on the planet lets you use your own cup. Thanks.

February is InCoWriMo!

February is International Correspondence Writing Month, where participants are challenged to write and mail or otherwise deliver one piece of hand-written correspondence a day. Whether it’s a longform letter to a friend or relative far afield, a handful of valentines, a greeting card for a co-worker, or an anonymous note left for a stranger in a public place, it all counts so long as it’s a hand-written piece of writing that winds up in someone else’s possession.

From the official FAQ:

InCoWriMo is the short name for International Correspondence Writing Month, otherwise known as February.

With an obvious nod to NaNoWriMo for the inspiration, InCoWriMo challenges you to hand-write and mail/deliver one letter, card, note or postcard every day during the month of February.

It’s simple. It’s fun. It’s rewarding.

When you think about it, paper correspondence has a much smaller carbon footprint than digital, though the latter might at first glance seem so clean and compact. While they might perhaps be close to parity at first, the longer your timeline stretches out, the less that becomes so. Once a piece of paper is made, it’s made – digital services, being entirely ephemeral, requires a vast infrastructure of electronics to keep media not just relevant and accessible, but to keep it from winking out of existence altogether. Properly kept, a letter can last centuries or longer. The best digital devices, on the other hand, barely make it to their 5th birthday, let alone 10th, before needing to be replaced. (There’s a reason new hard drives are delivered daily, by the truckload, to server farms the world over.)

So let’s slow things down just a little bit this month. I’m definitely not going to write 28 pieces of correspondence (or who knows, maybe I will), but my husband has a birthday coming up, and I’ve got a good friend who lives just far enough away to make visiting her a big ordeal, so there’s two excuses for me at least.

How about it? Can you commit to sending at least one piece of written correspondence to someone else this month? It’s not even close to meeting the InCoWriMo challenge, but for the sake of a slightly slower, slightly saner, slightly kinder world, I’m sure we could do it.

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup

Breathe less… or ban cars: cities have radically different responses to pollution – The Guardian
Coming as a surprise to no one, when faced with a choice between continuing to permit the use of cars or allowing residents to breathe freely, many cities would prefer to tell people not to breathe.

The Office Needs a Typewriter Revolution – Low-Tech Magazine
A very thoughtful, thoroughly researched piece on the history of the modern office and office equipment. It makes suggestions on ways in which it might be possible to return to a more analog and mechanical office experience, or at least greatly reduce energy consumption in the information-based workplace.

Smartphone users trust strangers less: New research – Journalist’s Resource
Smartphone use is officially linked with distrust of strangers, neighbors, and people of different backgrounds. Causation is not specifically established, but based on my own anecdotal evidence, it’s likely.

The Embarrassments of Chronocentrism – The Archdruid Report
In this post from a few weeks ago, Greer explains how the myth of liberal progress – that human life is destined to always get better, fairer, and more complex – is a complete fabrication by parties interested in reducing history to a series of caricatures that serves to prop up their vision of an unlikely future. (Read the latest blog post if you want a real kick in the teeth.)

And a sobering quote for the difficult times ahead:

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied.

Kansha: Appreciation, or, F— You, Fossil Fuels

Kimchi.

Fermentation is really, really in right now. It’s hard to gauge how much of this is due to the mere movement of trends throughout the culinary consumer zeitgeist, and how much of it will stick around and be absorbed into an American way of life that will persist for years to come.

I, like our ancestors before us, came into fermentation as a strategy because I’m a cheap-ass.

My husband likes soda; soda is expensive; who says I can’t make my own soda? If I can make my own tonkatsu ramen, surely I can make my own soda.

My several attempts at getting a ginger bug started didn’t amount to much, but the logic was sound, and moreover, I wound up discovering a whole world out there of fermented, probiotic, and shelf-stable food that once stocked the larders of peasant households the world over. (And if it’s one thing peasants and I have in common, it’s a lack of money.) My second foray into home fermentation was kimchi, something I learned to love (and live off) in college, thanks to some Korean roommates. It was wildly successful. After that, I was a fermenting machine. Well, as much as I had the time, energy, and counter space for.

For me, fermentation isn’t about being culinarily impressive – though it often is – but rather more about being less reliant on my refrigerator.

Almost everything I do with food now I try to contextualize in our vast, sprawling, largely invisible web of fossil fuel usage. How much energy goes into making my condiments? My alcohol? How much energy goes into keeping my produce fresh? How much energy goes into making a salad?

I bought myself a used copy of Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions for my birthday recently. Not only did it immediately find itself in heavy rotation in my small cookbook collection, but it will have a place in the kitchen, I believe, for the rest of my life. The premise of the book is basically how to cook frugally and mindfully the Japanese way. The lengthy appendices talk about how to reuse water used to cook noodles or rinse rice (make a sipping broth with leftover sauce), how to use every single part of a daikon in the same way that the subsistence hunter uses every single part of a kill. In the pickles section, there’s also a few pages dedicated to the Japanese nuka pot, a pot of pickling paste made from rice bran, beer, and vegetable scraps that is maintained not unlike a sourdough starter.

Eventually, the husband and I want to leave the city. We want to leave the grid behind; the nine-to-fives, the endless hedonic treadmill of bills and debt, the noise and light pollution, the carbon-heavy, digitized lifestyles that every single person I know claims to depend on for sanity and survival. We want to remove the countless middlemen between us and that which sustains: the earth, the plants, the animals, and the quality relationships with other people that made most pre-industrial cultures worth fighting for in the face of enclosure, capitalism, and colonialist greed. (No really: most peasants through history had to be forced off their land and into the cities at sword or gunpoint.)

And even though that goal will be years in the making, we’re doing all the mental prep work we can. Right now, that means taking a long, hard look at the refrigerator. If we break down what a refrigerator is and what it does, its workings becomes less mysterious and the prospect of going without one less terrifying.

So what is a refrigerator? A refrigerator is a heavily-insulated box that plugs into the wall which makes food cold so it lasts longer, basically. Or, to put it a slightly different way: a method of food preservation that depends entirely on unsustainable energy* and dangerous chemicals to function. Once you frame it in those terms, it suddenly becomes just one in a variety of methods of preserving the harvest. And when that happens, why, again, are we collectively choosing the most expensive, most environmentally suicidal option?

That’s where kansha and fermentation come in. The two seem to go hand in hand, really – if you have a deep love and appreciation for the bounty of the earth, then frugality should follow, no? Kansha the book is full of tricks on not only preventing food from winding up in the garbage, but from the compost bin too, even. Obviously, the recipes are Japanese in origin, but many of the ingredients, from cabbages to root vegetables, fresh greens to foraged mushrooms, are staples across much of the temperate world, and the author’s careful consideration of the daikon could be applied to almost any sort of root vegetable.

Nuka pots, if diligently kept, can last for decades, even generations. They are a common sight in many Japanese kitchens, and where food scraps that Americans would have no second thought about throwing away are given another lease on life in the form of a crisp, delicious pickle.

Nuka, the Japanese word for rice bran, needn’t be made with the stuff – I hear that wheat bran works just as well, and only needs a little tweaking in how its used. I plan on starting a nuka pot myself in the next few days, as I explore the household feasibility of fermentation as a viable alternative to refrigeration, and as I get my taste buds used to the slow introduction of more and more fermented foods in my diet. (Because someday, pickled vegetables may be the only vegetable I can eat for a good chunk of the year. I’m learning to be OK with this in practice.)

S in addition to kimchi, my list of successful ferments are steadily growing, and I’m getting better at sussing out the particulars of each kind, its strengths and weaknesses, the culinary niche that it might fill in my diet. Here’s what has stuck so far, or will absolutely need to stick before we pack up and head out, like some kind of parallel universe, anti-matter Beverly Hillbilles:

Kimchi

I love the taste of kimchi. It’s tangy, spicy, crunchy, and fantastic on a bed of warm rice. It’s also dirt cheap to make and almost impossible to screw up. (Seriously, I don’t know why anyone buys the stuff. It’s as absurd to me as buying water.) My latest batch I made with gochujang paste instead of chili flakes, because it’s all I had on-hand, but it worked really well all the same. I also replace the shrimp paste with miso in my batches, being vegetarian and all. As for its versatility, there are as many kinds of kimchi as there are vegetables in Asia – this is good news for those of us who might be growing things other than napa cabbage.

Sourdough

I’m still not great at making bread from a sourdough starter, but maybe that’s because I’ve only tried with stone-ground wheat. I can make bread that tastes good and very edible, but it’s dense. The starter, though, is also absurdly easy to cultivate, and is edible at just about every stage of the fermentation cycle.

Kvass/Sima/Cider

I don’t know what to call this stuff, to be quite honest. I’ve got a post written up about it, but the jist is this: it’s chopped fruit mixed with sugar, warm water, and whatever herbs/spices you like to taste, and left to get fizzy on the counter for a few days. It’s a little like the Finnish sima, a fermented lemonade, minus the added yeast… and all those other complicated steps.

Mead

Yes, I’m a burgeoning mead-brewer now. I’m going by a sort of eyeballed, wild-yeasted recipe that an acquaintance of mine wrote about a few months back, and it’s also easy as dirt so long as you know how to adequately sanitize your equipment. It’s one part unpasteurized (preferably local) honey to three to four parts warm water. Add fruit, aromatics, or what have you, and let sit at room temperature for a few months until the mead turns clear, making sure that your containers of choice don’t explode. Taste, rack, enjoy. It’s not cheap alcohol, but boy does it mean more when you make it yourself. And it tastes damn good too.

Nukazuke

If the magic happens in a nuka pot, then the magical result is the nukazuke, rice bran pickles. Again, I haven’t actually done this yet, but I see this being a seamless and delicious addition to my fermentation scheme, and a really good way to prevent otherwise good food scraps from winding up in the compost pail. (This is good for those of us who have a jar in the freezer specially dedicated to broth scraps, and don’t know what to do with the leftovers from cruciferous vegetables, spines from leafy greens, or other miscellany. Pickle ’em!)

Vinegar

I have also not made a vinegar yet, though I intend do as soon as I amass enough apple scraps or wine remnants. From what I’ve read, it sounds similar to making my fizzy fruit drink, except you let it turn alcoholic, then let the alcohol turn into acid. By all accounts this is also ridiculously easy.

Miso

Homemade miso paste is actually really easy to make, it just takes a long time – at least a year – and requires inoculation with a special culture found in a product called koji, where the fungus aspergillus oryzae is grown on specially prepared rice. The inoculated rice is a required ingredient in miso of any type (I’ve seen miso made from all manner of beans, not just soy, as well as barley, which is another traditional variety), though it too doesn’t take too much effort to make if you’ve got koji spores on hand, and the dried koji lasts a long time if stored properly. I love miso and use it in a lot of my cooking, so I can see myself doing a big koji/miso-making spree once a year, maybe entirely out of barley if it’s easy to grow.

With the help of a root cellar, a smoke house, and icy winters, I think we just might pull it off. One caveat: we will probably have a small deep freezer for helping store larger amounts of meat and processed game, which we will likely be able to get away with turning off when outside temperatures are below freezing.

We’ve already committed ourselves to living in a ‘dry’ house – that is, a house without plumbing – thanks to Berkey water filters, and strategically-located cisterns around/under the house and their associated hand pumps, and compost toilets. We’ve already committed ourselves to living with as little electricity as we can get away with also: a DC solar arrangement for a laptop or two, record player,  and occasional light bulb, perhaps. But it definitely won’t be enough to run appliances, let alone one that needs power 24/7.

Yeah, it’s going to be a huge change. But that’s why we’re starting here and now, with the concept of kansha. 

From the book’s dust jacket:

The celebration of Japan’s vegan and vegetarian traditions begins with kansha – appreciation – an expression of gratitude for nature’s gifts and the efforts and ingenuity of those who transform nature’s bounty into marvelous food. The spirit of kansha, deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy and practice, encourages all cooks to prepare nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying meals that avoid waste, conserve energy, and preserve our natural resources.

It’s not about saying “no” to the comforts of a modern Western home. It’s about saying “yes” to a different way of doing things, because if you don’t welcome it with open arms and appreciate it for what it has to offer, then… well, you’re up shit creek, aren’t you? Nothing worse than changing your life for all the wrong reasons.


*All energy that relies in any way on electricity at any point during it or its components’ sourcing, manufacture, use, upkeep, and disposal, is unsustainable in my book. My book is very strict.

Consumer Capitalism Doesn’t Want You Going Back To Basics

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Consumer capitalism has one goal: to devour and assimilate; divide and conquer. To eliminate all markets, economies, and human relationships that function differently. Its one part of one part of one part of this thing that this guy named Fredy Perlman called Leviathan. This is a post about one part of one of those parts.

Once upon a time, we lived in a vernacular world dictated almost entirely by our bioregions. From what our houses were made from, to what colors our clothes were, to what kind of alcohol we brewed, to what our instruments sounded like. But most of us in the developed world don’t really have that, and haven’t for generations. So we grope for that sense of vernacularity wherever we think we might get it: and right now, interestingly enough, stuff that looks like it came from 1850-1950’s America is the trend du jour.

You know the look: so-called hipsters with their leather wallets and waxed canvas backpacks, their plaid shirts, their Edison bulbs, their galvanized steel and rustic wood. Part John Muir, part George Bailey, and part Ozark coal miner, these members of the Oregon Trail generation walk around in the costume of a lost people: those who still had access to the American Dream. I read someone someplace compare this trend to a cargo cult, and it seems apt to me. With a country gutted of its blue collar work, no longer able to afford a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, we’ve taken the old adage of dressing for the job you want and are running desperately with it.

There’s a few problems with bringing these kinds of objects and products into contemporary life, though. The first is due to that aforementioned gutting of blue collar work and increasingly impossible dream of upward mobility, or of living a life on one’s own. One in four Americans is eligible for food stamps (only half that number use them), for instance. Materials like leather and steel were never cheap, so people usually had to scrimp and save to purchase those kinds of goods, and then make them last as long as humanly possible. But we rarely have that kind of buying power anymore – dollars are stretched painfully thin across a veritable tidal wave of products and services that are required to participate in modern life. From data plans, to internet, to legally mandated health insurance, to car insurance, to HOA fees, to school supplies and exorbitantly-priced textbooks, to electronic devices that need to be upgraded every year or two due to planned obsolescence, to gadgets that protect your other gadgets, to… well, you get the idea. Complexity nickel and dimes.

And that’s all on top of the fact that real wages have barely increased since the 1980’s, which has left many Americans struggling to keep up not with the Joneses, but with the fees required to simply exist in one place or another, or the technology required to even find work. These are hidden costs to living that simply did not exist 100 years ago – or even 50.

So the simple fact of the matter is that the effects of yesteryear’s wage laborer is too expensive for today’s wage laborer. Ironic, no?

Scarcity works like that, though. When plastic was introduced to the consumer market, it was intended to provide an alternative to rare and expensive natural materials, which I talked about a little in this post. It was a material for the wealthy and wanna-be wealthy. But as it became cheaper to produce, plastic began replacing everything, and by the 1950’s, plastic’s prominent place in the household was solidified. Note how the current trend of romanticizing blue-collar and pioneer life takes no cues from post-WW2 America – our zeitgeist longs for a return to a world full of things made “the old-fashioned way”, and there is no part of plastic’s manufacturing process that can be done without chemicals and machinery that fly in the face of vernacular sensibility.

The second thing that doesn’t work when it comes to making this old stuff new again is that our current culture was, in its early inception, actively designed to abhor it. The aforementioned objects are, in essence, slow. They are the products of slow fashion, slow food, and slow manufacture. (Well, slower manufacture.) And slow things in a breakneck world are luxuries, because bottom lines wait for no one. Take clothing, for instance. The average American of 100 years ago owned two, maybe three changes of clothes: a filthy, hard-wearing set for work, and a nicer set for Sundays. The garments were likely better made than the vast majority of what passes as clothes in contemporary fashion, and they were meticulously maintained, because a new shirt could cost you maybe half of your weekly wages. It probably didn’t take you very long to realize why this scheme wouldn’t work nowadays. Even if your two sets of clothes were made from the best materials around, were diligently washed, and, too, meticulously maintained, you would face social, and likely job-related, consequences for not having a varied wardrobe.

Clothes were constructed differently then, too, and styles that were deemed “professional” were often in accordance with what a housewife could sew by hand. Not so anymore. “Business casual” is the very definition of anti-vernacular: garment construction that relies heavily on synthetic fabrics and fibers to keep their shape instead of accepting looser silhouettes; knits, a low-tech kind of stretch fabric, and the irregular quirks that gives hand-sewing its charm are both considered sloppy and inappropriate for the workplace; the garments themselves are designed with extensive sitting in mind, not manual work or ease of movement. They are aggressively apathetic to culture, bioregion, and often the physical needs of the wearer.

Where once DIY items were made at or close to home, polyester garments that fall apart after a dozen launderings are now the norm.

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It is also interesting to me to see just what sorts of people are appropriating the wardrobes and personal effects of the early 20th century blue-collar worker. More often than not, it is the pencil-pusher. Why should the WordPress programmer stuck in front of a computer screen all day want to look like a 19th century log driver? In the same way that body fat becomes attractive when food is scarce, someone that looks like they spend their days in the wilderness when we’ve got little wilderness left becomes just another consumer bid at novelty. But it’s also the “creatives” – people who are also increasingly spending long hours in the office, with fewer real art supplies at hand, and more technology. Funny that a commercial artist should romanticize the life of a laborer: someone who, for all intents and purposes, did not do very creative work.

Make no mistake, our culture is in the midst of a crisis. And thanks to generations of rule by neoliberal consumer capitalism, we’ve lost the ability to even put our state of affairs to words. It’s devoured and assimilated us; we have been divided and conquered. Our only recourse in this regime is to consume – to buy our way out of climate change, buy our way out of stagnating wages, buy our way out of an uncertain and fearful future. Individually, we know deep down that none of this will work; but collectively, there’s too much inertia behind it.

All trends of this sort are born from more than just the hand-me-downs of this season’s designer runways. They embody the collective consciousness of a culture, giving form to their hopes and dreams and expectations of the future. Look at the 1950’s again: the cultural obsession with space travel was more than just what the “cool kids” were doing. Sending rocketmen to Mars and beyond was the future on which we all hung our hats of national identity, and consumer capitalism quickly learned to feed on it. The same thing happened to the future as of 1970’s, where increasingly powerful computing technology was central to our vision of Tomorrow, and even so with the birth of the pop culture dystopia of 1980’s cyberpunk.

Even as our idea of what the future meant made a drastic turn from blind optimism to roguish pessimism, consumer capitalism remained in step, ready to appropriate whatever idea was central to the collective unconscious. Ready to sell it back to us with such aggressive insistence that it looses all meaning, and after a few years we’re forced to find a new future to bank on.

But we’re running out of futures, aren’t we? Since the twin birth of modern nationalism and industrialization, our concept of The Future has hinged on technological innovation, fossil fuels, and the conquering of nature to the betterment of all. The bitterness of the 1980’s flipped the narrative on its head, but it wasn’t something truly new: it was simply a diametric perversion of what came before, and it turned out to be just as unfulfilling. It’s left us scrambling for a new story. The 90’s, having witnessed the impotency of smug defeatism from the previous decade, thought it saw something altogether new in the internet, and we allowed ourselves to get unironically excited one last time – though that, too, failed to meet expectations when the corporations moved in like predators circling a kill.

American optimism suffered its final blow when the world trade center buildings fell at the dawn of the 21st century, and for the next decade we wandered aimlessly about our own cultural landscape, searching for pieces of ourselves among the wreckage.

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We’ve found them, alright – or at least, it feels like we have. Too terrified to look toward Tomorrow anymore, we’ve instead turned to Yesterday. What have we found? Leather wallets and waxed canvas backpacks, plaid shirts, Edison bulbs, galvanized steel and rustic wood. We know that the American dream of the 1950’s was a hollow lie, but maybe, just maybe, the American dream of the pre-industrial age still has something to offer us. Surely, log cabins and subsistence farming and bespoke goods and knitting and Mason jars are sustainable, right?

And still the business interests have us fenced in.  The log cabins have to abide by entire tomes’ worth of building codes and pass inspections cooked up by the stick-frame housing industry. The subsistence farming requires buying land (something most of “the pioneers” didn’t have to do) and navigating an entire farming industry that is still lost in the clutches of the green revolution. The bespoke goods require paying for local skill, the cost of which has skyrocketed due to the aforementioned higher cost of living and education. (We’ve also completely dismantled the old system of trade apprenticeships, so training must now be paid for by the next generation of tradesmen.) And both knitting and the Mason jar product have been co-opted by the crafting-industrial complex, which now provides an endless buffet of consumer-ready materials for us to project our wildest creative dreams onto with abandon.

Every single thing that we have tried to salvage from the past has been taken from us by business both big and small. Vernacularity once again ripped from its native context and placed in a zoo with tickets to be paid for by weekend warriors and rural tourists. While we sit and sip our $12 coffee flights, dandelion, chicory, and cassina languish in our neighborhoods. We don’t know what oilcloth is made from. We still want fresh tomatoes in winter.

When the obsession with our recent past, like the obsessions with the future before it, fail to deliver meaning or solutions for a world and planet in crisis, we’ll move on. We always do. Where do we go now, though? What story will we tell ourselves next?

I’m not sure, but it will be a reaction to all of this. Already there’s a resurgence in the old fever dreams of space travel and interplanetary manifest destiny, but whether that gains enough traction to shape our identity again is doubtful. We’ve been there, already: it gave us the cold war, and we can’t foot the bill anymore besides. The floor, as some are saying, is beginning to touch the ceiling. We’re being crushed.

One thing’s for certain, though: consumer capitalism doesn’t want you going back to basics. It doesn’t want you to buy it for life, it doesn’t want you to only own one, it doesn’t want you taking good care of it, and it absolutely, positively doesn’t want it being made sustainably.

Because odds are, that means it probably wouldn’t have been made at all.

 

Going Analog Sidequest: Ditching the Smartphone Part 2: Dumbphone’d and Data-Free

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I’ve had my “dumbphone” for about week, week and a half, and already I’m noticing big differences in my day-to-day. And not in the way that folks like this talk about going smartphoneless for a few days and then document their existential crisis about it for pageviews.

I have an LG Xpression 2 – a dumbphone with a QWERTY keyboard and extremely rudimentary browser, so it could be dumber. A number of the apps, like mobile email and GPS navigation, don’t work for some reason (the phone is only 2 years old, so they should still be supported) but I’m OK with this because it means that it’s only really good for a few things: calling, texting, and alarms.

I’ve had to make a few adjustments in how I do things. Once, when I missed my bus and needed to call an Uber to make it to work on time, I had to hoof it over to a Starbucks for their wifi and use the old smartphone to do it. (I use it like a tiny tablet now.) When I didn’t see where the Uber driver had parked, I couldn’t call or text him from the device that I booked him with! It was a reminder not of what I’d given up, but how fragile our reliance on smartphone technology really is. What if my smartphone had simply been dead, and it was 11 at night instead of 8 in the morning, and I’d found myself stranded in an unfamiliar part of town? You can borrow someone else’s phone to make a call or send a text, but you can’t yet borrow their phone to schedule an Uber pickup – their account is tied in with their credit card, and I doubt a stranger is going to let you do anything on their phone besides make an emergency call anyways.

So when I caught the bus on the way home, I grabbed a folded paper schedule from behind the driver, and stuck it in my bag. The first step to dealing with a missed bus is to not miss the bus. I also made a mental note to keep the number of a yellow cab company in my phone, as well as written down in my traveler’s notebook. Not that I have to worry about the dumbphone ever dying when I need it most (the thing lasts about 2.5 days on a single charge), but if I lose it, or something else happens, I don’t want to be left stranded.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is how much better at casual conversation with strangers I am – or maybe I was previously pretty good at it, but never created space for it to happen because I always had my nose buried in a screen. The fact that a mere phone could have prevented me from realizing this latent ability just proves my point about the asininity of smartphones’ ubiquity even more.

I’ve had several very pleasant conversations with strangers since this development. One of them was with a young man about the election while at the bus stop; I found out that he’d just gotten into a car accident recently, that he preferred pot to alcohol, and was looking for a job, especially now that he had to pay for a mechanic. He found out that I recently started working at Whole Foods, that my partner worked in a Walmart distribution warehouse once upon a time (which did a number on his body), that I was a conscientious objector to the entire presidential election, and that I’d missed my bus.

There are a lot more very small moments like that in my life now. I’m starting to call it “breathing room”, because it really is. I’m giving myself permission to sit and look at things – to constantly reattune myself with my sensory environment, to familiarize myself with the minutiae of its patterns and magical little details – instead of feel the need to disappear the instant my attention grows the slightest bit diffuse.

In this way I’m reclaiming my time. My days seem to last just a little bit longer than they used to, which has always been one of my biggest gripes about the encroachment of technology on our lives. Moreover, as we’re encouraged to share every little facet of our day (for what? likes and followers?), we become less active participants in our own lives and more passive spectators, like paparazzi always on the lookout for a juicy story, and our online “presences” become more like our very own curated tabloid magazines. It’s all a kind of social rat race.

So for those of you interested in ditching the smartphone, a few things I’ve re-learned in my short time using one:

  • Make plans, make contingency plans, and have necessary documentation with you. This includes written directions to where you’re going, phone numbers for things like yellow cab companies, bus maps and schedules, and so on.
  • Check the weather before you leave.
  • Carry a book with you.
  • Carry a pen and pad with you.
  • Leave early and don’t be afraid to get a little turned around.
  • Have patience.