Sunday morning, rainy and dreary, everyone is inside coughing and wheezing. I brought back a bug from Balaton and promptly passed it to my dear housemates. The place sounds like a tuberculosis ward. Ah, community! Togetherness in suffering!
It’s the equinox, days suddenly, strikingly shorter. Not light enough to open the chickenhouse (which is how I measure my days) until 7 am (in June it was 5 am). The biddies are back up on their perches ready to be closed in against the foxes by 7 pm (instead of the midsummer 9 pm). Egg production is going down with day length. Time to rig up a light on a timer out there, to cheer them through the dark half of the year.
We haven’t had a killing frost yet, but we had an early nipper on September 5, right after I left for Hungary. Just on the edge of freezing. The damage skipped over Marsha’s and my garden and landed right in the middle of the cucurbits and basil and tomatoes in Stephen and Kerry’s big garden. Blackened the top leaves, but didn’t kill the plants. No fair. Those warm-weather crops struggled to ripen all through this cool summer; they didn’t need such an early blow. But S&K harvested plenty of squash and pumpkins anyway, and the 62 CSA boxes that go out each week are stuffed with cukes and melons and tomatoes. It could have been a better season for those crops, but it was good enough. The cool-weather crops — lettuce and broccoli and Brussels sprouts and kale and arugula and peas and cabbage — have been magnificent. For some reason the eggplants and peppers have been magnificent too. We have never seen such a yield of eggplant, which S&K planted in purple and white and green varieties of many shapes, from eggs to baseballs to baseball bats. Since eggplant is not my favorite vegetable (actually it’s my only unfavorite vegetable), we make lots of jokes about it.
Up on the hill the construction site looks like a World War I battle zone. After scraping off the topsoil onto two side mountains, they shaped the contours and put in a curving road that climbs the hill and keeps the cars on one side, away from the kids’ play places and the pedestrian paths. The minute they got the roadside sculpted properly, Hal and Susie, with occasional help from their friends, swept in with grass seed and hay mulch, to get the raw earth covered before the fall rains. Those swaths are already coming up green. That edge of the site looks great.
Then they started digging cellar holes and, of course, ran into bedrock. We knew it had to be there somewhere, but, in a crazy act of denial, budgeted only $5,000 to blast it away. Well, the blasters charge $1,500 a day and have been up there more than a week, and have at least another week to go, so there goes the budget. Meanwhile the housing site is increasingly piled with broken rock rubble.
Blasting is exciting, though. They drill noisily for hours and set charges, then they set off a warning whistle and the dynamite truck goes scurrying down the hill out of the way. At that point we all gather round to watch, of course. The crazy guy who stays up on the hill (Susie, who talks with the crew daily, says she is beginning to wonder about guys who just love the job of setting off dynamite) kneels down and sets off the fuse, and KABOOM!!! a whole section of hill heaves up. When they do a trench (for the water lines, which have to be six feet down), there’s a big, long heave. Then there’s an all-clear whistle and we all go about our business again.
The neighbors are being amazingly tolerant of this process, at least in our presence. We are very popular with small boys. And we give everyone else a lot to talk about. I think we have evolved in most people’s view from distrust and wild imagining to curiosity and endless amusement. Anyway, they like our vegetables, and many of them, without our having done any soliciting whatsoever, drop into our mudroom to pick up a dozen good fresh organic eggs, leaving two bucks in the basket.
It’s nice to see the effect we’re beginning to have, even on bulldozer operators and electricians and fuel-truck drivers who come here to work. They drive through the farmyard past the chickens, then look down on the beautiful gardens. They see Stephen and Kerry work the horses; they see all of us busy as bees, including Marsha busy with bees; and they pass on to each other the story of what we’re about. They like it. They like to talk to us about it.
We get into friendships and deals. Stephen , to whom I had sold my old, brakeless Honda for a buck, managed to pass it on for 50 bucks to a dozer driver (who came by last weekend, rummaged underneath for an hour, poured in brake fluid, and drove it away). Greg Chase, the neighborhood landscaper, who is about to plant the Driscoll Memorial Forest for us (that’s the goddam evergreen screen for the one goddam neighbor who gives us a hard time), took a look at all the broken rock we’re generating and offered to build rock stairs and retaining walls for us for free, if he could haul off rock to some of his other jobs. That’s a great deal for us — if there’s anything we have plenty of, it’s rock. It’s pretty rock, shiny with silver and gold streaks. It will make gorgeous walls or fireplaces or stairs. I hope to keep some of it for the wood-fired bread oven I intend to build someday.
Meanwhile Albee-O’Hara, our general contractors have converted one bay of the barn to their construction office, insulating and finishing it and wiring it for fax and computer and phone. This week the electric trenches will be dug, burying cable from the pole on the road all the way up to the site. Susie kindly managed to get it routed around, rather than through, my driveway-lining “welcome garden.”
It will go through the chicken yard, though, so yesterday Hal and Susie and Marsha helped me put up a new fence and pull the gypsy chickenmobile (it’s a chickenhouse built upon an old wagon frame) around the corner to the east side of the barn. All went smoothly until Susie decided that we should pull the chickens around RIGHT THEN, rather than wait till the next morning, when they would have been tucked nicely inside. So the four of us took on the job of rounding up 60 chickens and stuffing them inside the chickenhouse. Picture shrieking chickens doing broken-field runs, four frustrated folks dashing around and under the chickenhouse, wild grabs, sudden outbursts of feathery flight, chicken screams, human curses.
This would have been amusing enough on its own, but it was made much better by the three dogs outside the fence, who, once we had trapped some birds up against the fence, rushed them from outside and scattered them to kingdom come. Then old Roger Hunt, who lives in the trailer, came driving by and could not pass up the chance to stop and watch us crazy people. I’ll say this for Roger; he manages to crack up inside while maintaining a pretty dignified exterior. I imagined he relayed this enlightening picture to everyone in town before sunset.
One by one the biddies were caught. They’re now exploring their grassy new yard, where they’ll stay for the winter and render it thoroughly non-grassy. Next spring we’ll move them to a future garden site and let them scratch up, debug and compost it.
Balaton was peaceful and fun for me this year. It’s the first time I’ve gone as just a plain participant, instead of a fund-raiser, program organizer, chronicler, and/or presenter. For those of you new to this letter, the Balaton Group is my other community, my professional community of dear friends around the world, all of whom work in wondrous ways toward sustainability in their own country or region. This was the 19th year we have met on Lake Balaton in Hungary.
Every morning we have plenary presentations, which are like drinking from an intellectual firehose in terms of both breadth of topic and depth of understanding. The morning sessions are the way the group reports to itself on learnings and educates itself on topics we need to know more about. Typically about half the speakers are Balaton Group members describing new work, and half are newcomers we want to learn from.
This year, for instance, just to describe Day Two (out of four), we started with the bright young Canadian ecologist Garry Peterson, a protege of Buzz Holling, who talked about the expanding human domination of earth’s ecosystems. He wove together Holling’s succession/surprise theory with Michael Thompson’s cultural theory with the difficult ecological puzzle of change at different scales. He ended with the paradox of sustainability — that it requires both change and persistence, balanced through a nested set of adaptive cycles at different scales. Sometimes a small-scale cycle can grow or collapse while a large-scale one preserves continuity. And sometimes the other way around.
Then Detlef von Vuuren from the Netherlands talked, with lots of interesting data, about the relationship between money flows and real material flows. Since 1970 the world economy’s material flows have grown at about the same rate as the population, by about 2% per year — which means they’ve roughly doubled. The GDP has grown at twice that rate. Does that mean an actual “dematerialization” of the economy? (Hardly, since its materials flows have doubled!) Does it mean we’re producing stuff of much greater value from materials? Or that we’re producing money of much less real value?
G.K. Bhat talked about his studies of food and water use in India. The picture he drew was simultaneously disastrous and hopeful. Given present management (and nonmanagement), agricultural yields in India have peaked, groundwater is being drawn down, and traditional methods of water management (tanks and canals) are not being maintained. Extrapolation of current trends just a few more decades could make large chunks of India fall into severe food deficit. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Even that crowded, hot, dry country with still-rapid population growth could largely feed itself, sustainably, given only modest improvements, especially in land reform, small dam construction, and less wasteful water management.
Klaus Lanz of Germany ended the morning with a talk on global water futures — which he said was a meaningless phrase, because water is a local resource. It only makes sense to talk about it by watershed. He talked through some specific regions, such as Europe (EU policy in a mess, driven by the agriculture and chemical industry lobbies. which refuse to take responsibility for water quality protection) and the Middle East (could be made to work, if Israel would accept food imports rather than irrigate the desert).
Klaus is worried about the trend to privatize water supplies, especially in large cities. French and British companies are taking over public water supplies, mainly in developing countries, with the World Bank and IMF making privatization a condition for grants and loans. Governments don’t know how to provide water for a city of over ten million, said Klaus, but companies don’t either. Company priorities are lower costs (to the company, not the customer, because the company has monopoly power), stockholder value, lower quality standards, no concern for sustainability. Privatization offers selfish, shallow, short-term, technical solutions without addressing underlying problems.
To address underlying problems we need an entirely new understanding of the functions and values of water on the planet — for all systems, not just our own. We need respect for water, not commodification. Protecting water supplies and using water mindfully should not be seen as a constraint, but as an improvement in human life.
Add charts, graphs, details, and spirited discussion from the group, and that’s what our mornings are like. The afternoons are free for self-organized groups about any topic of interest. For example, I dropped in one group organized by my friend Joan Davis from Switzerland, to discuss a new undertaking of hers called CO2OL, an attempt to draw attention to the possibility of combating climate change by sequestering carbon in soil, as well as in forests. If under climate agreements people are to be paid for reforestation, why not pay them for restoring prairie or for organic agriculture that builds humus? Much talk in the group about how to quantify that, about how to strategize it politically, about whether the central objective is carbon sequestration or support for organic agriculture.
Another afternoon I went to a workshop on sustainability indicators, with presentations by four of the best pros in the field. Alan AtKisson talked about his ground-breaking work helping Orlando, Florida, not only to define and quantify indicators, but to get enormous press attention for them. (See www.hciflorida.org.) David Berry discussed his development of US indicators for the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, which is about to go out of existence along with the presidency — and how to keep things going on a subterranean level within the federal government. Laszlo Pinter of the International Institute of Sustainable Development told how he worked in a province of India to involve people in both visioning and indicator development. And Mathis Wackernagel of Redefining Progress told of helping World Wildlife improve their Living Planet Report. (The stock of all species is already down by 35%. Eight countries cause 50% of the environmental destruction.)
Out of those reports leapt an animated discussion. Chirapol Sintunawa told about reducing Bangkok’s peak electricity use by 735 megawatts, by co-opting all major TV stations at 9 pm to show a big dial with the city’s instantaneous electric use, then asking everyone to go turn off unnecessary lights and appliances. As the nation watched, the dial dropped. (Instantaneous feedback! Like my Honda Insight’s real-time mileage meter! Indicators have power!) Bob Wilkinson said California is about to launch a major state-level indicator effort, and he wanted to hold a conference with officials of other states that have begun such an effort. I said I wanted to get Vermont in on that. David Berry said he might be able to find federal funds for such a purpose.
So a new project was born. Probably several new projects, most of which I do not know about. So goes Balaton. It was great to see how well it can proceed without my input. We also served as judges in the Viridian Meter contest and sang songs and walked along the lake in twos and threes having private discussions and had a thoroughly silly final banquet — and so on. Stopped off at Joan’s for an overnight in Zurich on the way home — good to catch up with my “Swiss sister.”
Meanwhile here at the Hunt house meetings were happening, and go on happening, about what color our siding should be, and how we shall configure our electric meters, and whether to buy another tractor, and how to allocate the last few units among the many people who are suddenly anxious to fit into Cobb Hill, and what to do with the wastewater from the dairy and cheese operations. Never a dull moment!