Saturday, October 04, 2014

Permaculture: The Dynamic Clock

So, I’ve taken on helping to plan next winter’s Permaculture Design Course, which has made me so busy that I haven’t had much time for blogging. But, here I am, hoping that a new post will kick my rear into gear so I can share some of my summer accomplishments with you.

I feel like I talk about permaculture a lot on the blog. The course has kind of taken over my life, which I have mixed feelings about. Frankly, I didn’t anticipate having to do so much advertising, which I hate. But I loved the course last year and I’d really like to see another one happen this year, so you do what you have to.

Over the past year, I kind of realized why I like permaculture so much: it really teaches you to look at your world as a whole, not just individual parts. Our environment is basically a constant feedback loop, and each piece interacts with others in ways we don’t necessarily see. It’s like the workings of a clock, only more dynamic, because the way an element interacts with others may actually change the way it behaves.

From the standpoint of a meteorologist, it’s microclimatology at its best. Each leaf of a tree reflects some light, absorbs some light, absorbs some gases and emits others. Standing under a tree is a cooler, more humid environment than in a sunny spot, and a forest will be cooler than a field. And then there’s the biological aspect – the shady cool forest attracts other plants and animals than you would see in the meadow.

From the standpoint of a project manager, permaculture embodies the idea of the perfect system. All waste is used, output is maximized, and effort is minimized. And we can actually design the system to work that way. It’s not just luck, it’s planning, observation, and thought, with creative design thrown in.

Finally, from the standpoint of a human being, permaculture integrates human interaction into the environment in a positive way. It shows us how to pull the pieces together so that we’re working within the system, not just acting like we’re running a simulation or viewing from a remote planet.  

I’ve read the books and the websites, but last year I felt like I was missing the pieces to put it all together. And that’s what the design certificate provided. I was so proud of the final project my group pulled together. Even more importantly, I’ve met some great friends who I can rely on for advice and support as I try new things. Permaculture is like a well of knowledge that I’ve just taken a sip from, and I can see the rest of the water still shimmering down below. But at least now I have a bucket to go back for more.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Living on the Edge

One of the things we learned about in permaculture class was wild harvesting. I needed some borders for my garden bed, so this Saturday, my new friend (name withheld to protect the innocent) and I decided we would drive down the Turnagain Arm to harvest some wild rocks. I mean after all, why buy rocks at the store when you can get them for free in the wilderness?

I didn't take any pictures on our drive, because ho-hum, same old Turnagain Arm (ha!). That's how you know you've been in Alaska for a good little while. Also, it was super hazy because of all the smoke from the Funny River Fire down on the Kenai Peninsula (now at over 123,000 acres). But it was still a good day for a drive.

We drove all the way to Portage, the site of a once-visible but now disappearing glacier, and found a stream bed with lots of beautiful round rocks. We gathered a whole bunch of rocks, and were just deciding whether we wanted to try to collect some lupines or some fiddle head ferns when a man pulled up. "Are you two removing those rocks?" he asked. "Uh....yeah...." we responded. "Hmmm. Okay." He glared at us and drove off.

Now, I'm not sure if we missed some sort of rule about rock collecting. But the stream looked like this (not my picture, but this is a very similar stream in the area).

We followed the rules of wild harvesting, which state that you shouldn't collect more than 30% of what you're harvesting to allow it to recover. Obviously, there's no way we collected 30% of the rocks. But additionally, even if we had collected all the rocks (which would have been a feat!), guess what? See those mountains in the background? They are made guessed it...rock! More rocks will come from the mountains to replace the ones we took!

I'm not sure what that guy's problem was. Maybe he was mad because he just paid a fortune to have a company in town deliver rocks to him (as my friend pointed out "Where does he think those rocks come from?"). But anyway, we decided not to do any more wild harvesting and call it a day.

My rocks, awaiting placement around the beds.

Now I have a yard full of wild rocks lining my new native flower bed I want to create. And somewhere out there, there's an angry man telling his friends "I saw two ladies stealing ROCKS from the river!"

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Permaculture Class: The Grand Finale

This weekend was the final weekend of my Cold Climate Permaculture Class out in Palmer. This is the class I've been taking once a month since October, and I've had two major projects for. We had to deliver our final project today, and oh my gosh, I was so freaking proud of what we had done.

Our final design. Drawing by Ray Nabinger, color by Alicia Nelson.

I had a fantastic group where everyone contributed equally. We met at Bridget's lot (the place we were designing) almost every week for the past month to get everything put together. We ended up with 4 or 5 drawings, about 10 overlays, multiple spreadsheets, and a 53 page report. Now, before you end up too shocked, most of those 53 pages were illustrations. But still, 9300 words is a lot of work for something you're doing for "fun".

I got a design certification!
...which I will need to pay off my new library.

But it was fun! We really enjoyed meeting at the lot every time. The last time, Bridget brought the rocket stove she had built in one of our classes, and we cooked a meal of Alaskan-grown cow, nettles and onions over a fire made out of twigs. Talk about eating locally! It was amazing.

Fievel and Tilly fighting over a locally grown bone. The big dog sat nearby and behaved.
This class was expensive, true (although very reasonable for the market -- I've seen similar classes offered at $1500 to $2000, where this one was $1200). But I can honestly say I got so much out of it. Of course, I learned a lot of gardening techniques, and a lot about growing things here in AK. I learned how to kill and process a rabbit. I built a rocket stove out of tin cans. I visited 3 local farms and a bio-shelter and learned how they work. But the best thing I got out of it was finding other people who live here and are like me.

I even made friends who like small dogs! (L-R: Fievel, Tamara, me, Tilly)

The group gathering to say their goodbyes.

What do I mean by that? Well, up here, it seems like there are not a lot of people who are interested in the environment. People like their "toys" and their fertilizers. But in the class, I met people who don't think washing and re-using ziplocks is crazy. People who like to talk about the possibilities of owning chickens, and when I say "I'm getting rid of my yard. Planting cherry trees is just the first step", they laugh and nod knowingly. And then they give me tips on where to find cherry trees!

My two tiny cherry trees in my giant yard.

So what am I going to do with my design certificate? I'm not sure, at the moment. I am a certified designer, but I don't feel ready to go out and start charging people just yet. My group and I got along really well, and we'd like to continue that momentum -- so I think we're going to try to design each of our lots for practice. And we have to help Bridget actually implement her plan, so we're going to have work parties. The operative word there is parties. Lots and lots of parties.

4 Fish Design team partying at the lot: (L-R) Ray, me, Bridget, and Alicia

You're probably sick of permaculture by now, but I won't tell you I'm going to stop blogging about it. I will promise you, however, that I'll try to blog about other things in between. Summer is fast approaching, and some of it will be gardening -- but I'll also be hiking, and biking, and camping, and going on a big trip to South Carolina for a family reunion of sorts. So I'll try to keep things interesting. And thanks for reading, friends and family!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Spring Projects

Now that I'm back from my short trip, things are really starting to ramp up here, spring wise. The snow has almost all melted, and I'm starting to do more outdoor things. I've been hiking several times lately, I have the Heart Run next weekend, and I'm starting to clean up the yard.

In addition to those things, I've started several batches of seeds indoors. I decided this year I'm going to take the plunge and try to grow some warmer weather items, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. I will need a greenhouse for this, but I've wanted one for years and I think I can get a temporary one until I decide where I want to permanently build one.

I used an old spinach container to make a seed incubator.

As if I didn't have enough to do, I also decided I want to build a table out of a pallet I found behind the electronics recycling center. It's a really nice pallet -- I've been told it's oak and used for heavier duty stuff. I'd like to use it on my deck for an outdoor plant table. It should be an easy project, but of course, there's been some snafus with buying 4 x 4s at Lowes, etc. I am hoping to have this done in the next couple weeks, to share on the blog.

The pallet.

In other news, I'd like to share my friend's next adventure: Allyn is going on a cross-country bicycle trip, and she is blogging about it at This would be an accomplishment for anyone, but Allyn is also a teacher and a mother of two, so it's not like she doesn't have anything else to do! She's a great writer, and I'm really excited to follow her journey.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Unfrozen -- Spring in Philadelphia

Last weekend, I went to Philadelphia for the NCAA mens hockey tournament, otherwise known as the Frozen Four. I was supposed to go down with my friends Joe and Allison, but unfortunately they had a death in the family and were unable to make it. So, as the official ticket courier, I headed down to meet Joe's grad school friends alone.

The weather was beautiful in Philly and I had a great time seeing a lot of outdoors things. One of the first things I did was stop by Philadelphia's magic gardens, a studio and lot turned into a giant mosaic grotto by the artist.

The outside was covered in tiles for multiple stories.

I liked the grotto feel.

Not just random tiles; there were words, figures, and designs.

At the end of my visit, I tagged onto a tour and got to meet the artist, Isaiah Zagar. I stayed back to ask him a few questions, and at the end he said, "Can I get a hug?" so I said "Sure!" Then I asked if I could get a picture with him. "A selfie?" he asked. Yup, exactly what I had in mind!

The next day, I got to do some historical touristy stuff. We stopped by Independence Hall and although the signs said the tickets were sold out, the Park Ranger came out and gave us some tour tickets for free. It was really cool seeing the place where our Founding Fathers formed our nation.

George Washington sat in that chair at the back
Hard to believe that what happened in this building changed the world.

I also learned something -- Thomas Jefferson did not write the Bill of Rights. I totally thought he did, but he was busy being an ambassador to France at the time. So although he was a big proponent, and gave some ideas to the authors, the true authors were James Madison and George Mason. Oops. I had to correct my history there!

Friday we also went to a baseball game: Phillies vs. Miami. I'm not a big baseball fan, but it was still fun. We started out near the top and finished the game in some empty seats near home plate.

Buy me some peanuts and crackerjack, I don't care if I ever get back...

Blurry because it's a close up. And I had beer. 

Saturday was market day! I started out at the Reading Terminal Market, the oldest continuously operated farmer's market in the U.S.

Flowers are the prettiest, even if food is my favorite

Then I visited Ben Franklin's grave. At one point he wrote his own epitaph, although in the end he decided he didn't want that on the grave itself.

Good old BF certainly had a sense of perspective: "Food for Worms" indeed!

After that, I met up with the rest of the gang at the Italian market, an outdoor market. It was interesting because the northern end of the market was definitely European, but the southern end was more Latino in nature, and there were lots of Mexican restaurants around and you started seeing things like prickly pear pads in the veggie stalls. We also found a butcher with whole, skinned goats hanging from the ceiling! I'll save you the picture out of respect for my squeamish or vegetarian friends.

What is a trip to Philly without a Philly cheesesteak? Everyone else had already eatern theirs, but I needed to get one before I headed home. And it was fantastic! I got provolone, no "Whiz", but I was eager to forgo a little authenticity in favor of taste.

Certainly not a misteak in my opinion!

I also got mushrooms. What? I like mushrooms!

So far I haven't mentioned much of the hockey -- it was really good. The first two games were fantastic; an action packed game between Boston College and Union College, and then a slower game between University of Minnesota and University of North Dakota -- which finished with a surprise goal by U of MN with only 0.6 seconds to go! The Championship was a bit disappointing for U of MN fans (Joe and his classmates), 7 to 4, Union College. But they really outplayed Minnesota and I felt like the best school won.

So, a whirlwind trip that really gave me a nice taste of what Philadelphia is like! Overall, a very positive experience. Philadelphia has a lot of neat neighborhoods, fun things to do, and good restaurants. I call that my kind of town.