The Collapse Gap

It’s not often that I run across a startlingly original interpretation of current events, but here’s one. The writer asserts that, quite by accident, the USSR of the late 1980s was much better prepared for economic collapse than the US of today. He then proceeds to show why many of the characteristics of Soviet society, so miserable from the point of view of modern industrial capitalism, served the population well as their union disintegrated and governmental mechanisms collapsed, while the antithetical characteristics of Western society are likely to make economic collapse (if it ever comes) dire and painful for westerners.

One good thing about this essay is that it consists mostly of observations well worth pondering, no matter how the reader is inclined to view modernity. In thinking about economic collapse it hadn’t occurred to me that the Soviet Union was an excellent recent example of just that, one well worth studying and about which there is lots of information available. This essay is a good starting point for that.

Cow Report

  • The folks who sold us Puzzle and Dory told us that Dory would probably calve in very early May, and she probably will. Just in the past few days her udder has begun to swell prodigiously, one of the early indicators.

  • Dory always seemed to be the more skittish of the two, which had us worried about being able to lead her to and from the barn for milking. The kids got a halter onto Puzzle while she was in the milking stanchion, and soon enough she would lead OK. They tried the same with Dory, but couldn’t even get her to stay in the stanchion; the one time they got her in, she actually managed to duck under the side and escape (the design has since been modified).

    Maggie is a patient and steady worker, and she spent hours each day working with Dory, grooming her and feeding her alfalfa pellets and even singing to her. And while Chris and I were away at jam camp, we called home one night and found out that she had managed to put the halter on Dory with absolutely no problem; in fact, she put it on, then took it off to adjust it, then put it back on, while Dory just stood quietly.

    Now it turns out that Dory is much better on the lead. Maggie has been bringing them alternately up to the house and picketing them in the very grassy yard. Dory practically gallops along, while Puzzle plods and quite often decides that the grass along the way needs to be eaten a bit before proceeding.

  • Flies are getting to be a problem. The cows are both covered with them, not only while in the barn but in the field. We do plan to start following the cows with chickens, which we hope will be some help.

  • The wild onion problem is almost gone. The suggestion we got which helped the most was to let the milk container stand open in the refrigerator; that eliminated much of the bad taste and smell. But I think that the changing pasture is also eliminating the problem. Although still there, the smell is not as strong in the fresh milk, and in the past couple of days we’ve drunk batches which have no trace of the bad smell or taste.

Jam Camp

Chris and I returned yesterday afternoon from a week at Pete Wernick’s Bluegrass Jam Camp, this one in Wilkesboro, North Carolina preceding the MerleFest music festival. In years past we’ve attended both the festival (which is always one of the best) and the camp, but time and money are short these days so we had to choose, and I think we made the better choice.

This year the camp was held at Herring Ridge, a conference and summer camp facility run by the area YMCA. Previously the jam camp had been staged at the community college where MerleFest happens, but as the festival grew it became more difficult for the campers to stay out of the way of festival preparations, so Pete was strongly encouraged to consider moving it to Herring Ridge. Which turned out to be a great improvement, in fact; the cost was lower than staying in area motels, and since campers mostly ate and slept at Herring Ridge there was much more time to spend playing music with one another.

This is the fifth camp Chris and I have attended. It certainly doesn’t take five camps to learn what Pete Wernick has to teach about jamming, but it is a great environment and many folks are repeat attenders, coming back to see old friends and to spend four days playing music. We generally justified our return visits by having Chris focus on a different instrument, one year guitar, another year bluegrass banjo, and the last time he worked on his fiddling. We didn’t attend last year, but since last summer Chris has really buckled down on learning old-time and bluegrass fiddle, and we thought this year that camp would be the perfect place for him to take what he had learned and put it into practice in an ensemble setting.

Also, we had seen Pete at the IBMA convention last fall, where he told us he was thinking about expanding the jam camp by adding some intermediate-level teaching. He was initially surprised that anyone would sign up for the camp year after year, and as more people did so he wanted to make it a good experience for them as well as the beginners, so at the MerleFest camp he planned to experiment with breaking off the more experienced players and giving them some advanced instruction. Chris and I thought that was a great idea, and told him we’d definitely be interested in attending such a camp.

We arrived Sunday afternoon and set up our camping equipment. Most campers stayed in fourteen-bunk cabins, which was inexpensive enough, but we decided to save another $210 (for two people) by taking the tent-camping option. For the most part that worked fine, since the weather was warm and dry and the tent handled the wind. Towards the end of the week the weather turned rainy, but even then we made out by moving the tent from a field to the porch of a nearby unused cabin.

There was plenty of opportunity to play music, not all of which we used. The Sunday night before the beginning of camp there is always a reunion jam, and we joined in with that until 10pm or so, and I think we were the first to leave. Monday night we were tired enough that we simply retreated to the tent after supper, reading books and listening to the music from a distance. Tuesday we might have done the same, but as we were walking out of the dining hall we ran into a small group on the porch where a friend, one of the more experienced players, was playing two-chord songs very slowly so that some of the beginning players could have some practice changing chords. Not only was that a kind and noble thing, but the slow tempo really lent itself to establishing the kind of groove that Chris and I live for, so we stopped to help out and ended up staying a couple of hours—and still we were the first to leave, around 9pm. And on Wednesday, the final night, we jammed for about an hour before we had to go practice with a few others for a school performance we would be doing Friday morning, after camp was done. But we were relatively wimpy; we generally heard music being played past midnight, which is pretty good for a group of folks who had been playing steadily since mid-morning.

The experimental intermediate camp was divided into two parts—well, maybe three, since we did spend stretches of time together with the basic-level campers, either working on subjects that were relevant to us all (e.g. harmony singing) or practicing songs for the end-of-camp group performance on the MerleFest stage. But at many points the intermediates met separately, either as a group so that Pete could teach us some higher-level techniques, or as small ensembles of intermediate players that would be visited by instructors from time to time. Initially Pete formed the jamming groups almost randomly, replicating the random collection of people you’ll often find at a jam. And then towards the end of the second day he reconfigured the groups, having spent a good deal of time thinking about who would fit together best; the second group was your group for the rest of the camp, and the one that would perform during the Jam Camp Opry, a Thursday afternoon event where each group gets up in front of the rest of the campers and performs a song they’ve been working on.

The first time around Chris and I were in different groups, as Pete would usually have it. Since we both think it is important to be jam facilitators, I think this is a wise and helpful thing. The playing was certainly at a higher level that it had been in years past, when we had been mixed into groups with more basic players, but there are a lot of non-musical behaviors that are counterproductive (e.g. sitting around talking about instruments or favorite performers rather than getting on with the playing) and both Chris and I do anything we can to counter such behavior (e.g. suggesting another song if a lull begins to stretch out too long). These are all things that Pete teaches about in the basic camp, but they still cropped up in the early stages of our first group—we were rusty, I guess.

For the second group Chris and I were back together. In fact, I had missed the announcement of the new lineups, and when I asked Pete who to join up with he told me that he was smiling as he was forming our particular group. And it was a good one. There was Charlie, a young fellow who has been to Pete’s banjo camp and plays a very solid Scruggs-style banjo. And John, a proficient mandolin player who had been mostly a closet picker focused on tunes but wanted to learn to play well with others. And Greg, a fellow visiting from Australia who was originally not going to attend the camp, but was just traveling with his camp-attending friend Allan. But a week before camp another camper suddenly couldn’t attend because of a medical emergency, and rather than take a partial refund he decided to pay the rest of his tuition and offer his spot to someone who couldn’t afford to attend otherwise; and Greg took him up on this generous offer. Greg’s instrument is banjo, but since the camp was heavy on banjos and light on guitars this year he agreed to play guitar. He also is an experienced singer, something much appreciated by me and Chris since all week long we struggled with hoarseness due to lingering colds.

I have to say that our second group was hot, really hot. I felt guilty about having commandeered (sort of) the time and skills of the best musicians at the camp, but not so guilty that I was going to demur. Especially because this was exactly the thing I thought would help Chris’s fiddling the most, being challenged by playing in a proficient ensemble, something we haven’t yet been able to put together at home. Chris more than rose to the occasion, and I’d say that he now has the basics down for good bluegrass fiddling. And I don’t think he’s ever enjoyed himself more playing music.

The first couple of times our group met we mostly ripped through a lot of standard repertoire, although occasionally one of us would dig a little deeper and suggest a song that the rest were just vaguely familiar with, and we would spend enough extra time running over unusual p
arts so that we could play through them properly. During Wednesday afternoon’s meeting Greg suggested “In the Sweet By and By,” a song the rest of us had heard but never played. It’s a great song, and although nobody’s favorite—I can think of other similar songs I like a lot better, and Greg even suggested a couple which we also tried—there was just something about our sound when we played it that made me think it should be our performance piece for the Opry. I suggested we do it, the others agreed, we played it a couple of more times, then moved on to other things.

Our Thursday morning meeting was the last one, about an hour long. Pete had suggested that we jam for awhile, then spend the last twenty or thirty minutes picking a song to perform at the Opry and playing through it a few times to prepare. Instead we went off and spent the entire hour practicing our song, making sure the baritone harmony was correct, figuring out the optimal sequence for the breaks, even working out our single microphone choreography. Since the song sounded so good to us, it wasn’t drudgery at all; each time through it felt a bit tighter, the only reward we needed to keep at it. I also seemed to remember Pete’s advice that, under such hurried and pressured circumstances, we’d be lucky if the final live performance were 80% as good as our best efforts in the practice room. And, indeed, I think we only reached about 80% at the Opry, so I’m glad we pushed it as far as we did during practice.

As I said, the intermediate track was an experiment, but I think the results were very promising, and I think that with some work and thought Pete will be able to offer something new, something that could attract more experienced players who have never attended his camp at all.

Chick grit

It was Saturday morning, and our first batch of chicks were going to be arriving on Monday, and suddenly I’m hearing about chick grit. This is something you sprinkle on chick feed while they are being raised in a brooder and don’t have access to sandy dirt outside. The kids had gathered some fine sand down by the creek the day before, and Debbie had dried it out in the oven, but the results just looked like dirt, and the more I looked around on the internet for information about chick grit the more uncertain I became.

Not wanting to take a chance with our first chicks, I decided it would be best this time to go buy something commercial. Chris and I drove over to Goldenrod Feeds in South Fork, the Mennonite feed store. It was bustling, and they had lots of stuff, including chicken grit, but they were fresh out of chick grit. So we decided to drive into Liberty for some.

But since we were in South Fork, we drove up on the ridge and stopped to see Jerome. It was a beautiful sunny day, and he gave us a quick tour of the gardens to teach us a few more things. As we were about to move on I asked him what he knew about land for sale in the area, since a friend had asked me about it. He told me a few things, then asked if I wanted to see the best place he knew of. Of course I did, so we drove over to Merritt Ridge and saw a beautiful spot with a small but serviceable house, maybe five acres of good flat land for gardening and another ten of cleared hillside that would be fine for grazing animals. Jerome had considered buying it when he first came to the area; for awhile later the owner’s mother was staying there, but she just went into a nursing home recently and now they are looking to sell it again.

We then drove down the road a bit and visited with the owners, a very sweet and friendly older couple. They offered to supply us with a bunch of composted manure, so we may be back again. By then it was about 1pm, so we left, dropped Jerome at his place, then drove on to Liberty to the Southern States farm supply store. How quaint—it turns out that Southern States keeps old fashioned hours, closing at 1pm on Saturday. Fair enough; we decided to drive on to Campellsville and try the Tractor Supply store there. Well, they were open, but they didn’t have any chick grit. When I asked someone if she knew where we might get some, she said, “Well, not today.” I’m sure she was thinking of Southern States.

Finally we arrive home again, most of the day wasted. (Well, not really, we did pick up a heat lamp and thermometer for the brooder, both things we needed even worse than chicken grit.) I told Chris to call up Jacob Ellis, who would be coming over that evening for a guitar lesson, and ask him to bring some chick grit along if he had any. He called and left a message for Jacob, which somehow got scrambled in the telling; when Jacob’s dad Al brought him over, they had brought chicken feed along. Debbie told him that no, what we really needed was chick grit. Al looked at her kind of funny, and said “You mean like this stuff?”—and started kicking at the ground with his foot. Then he told her that she should just send the kids down to the creek and collect some sand to dry out.

We’re pretty sure there were a few chuckles at our expense that night at the Ellis house. But that’s fine with us.

Bookstore news

As part of our annual rethinking of the bookstore in preparation for the next catalog, we have decided to add more than sixty books (so far) to our offerings. Twenty are by Wendell Berry and nineteen by Eric Sloane; the rest are mostly practical introductions to various basic homesteading skills.

It takes awhile to get the descriptions written for these books, along with the essays that tie things together. In the meantime, though, all the books are in stock and it seemed good to make them available now. I’ve added a Recently Added page that contains links to the individual book pages; right now those pages contain only publisher’s descriptions, but they’ll be replaced with our own descriptions as soon as possible, and we’ll announce it when that job is done.

I’ve also added an RSS feed to the left-side navigation bar on the website, which we will use to inform subscribers of interesting changes and additions to the website. Like this one.

Imminent problems with energy

Here is a very good article by James Howard Kunstler which starts with the assumption that the “peak oil” theory is true, and makes some conservative yet horrifying predictions about how the declining availability of cheap energy will play out.

First, what is the “peak oil” theory?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001.

Okay, so oil will become increasingly scarce and increasingly expensive. What about replacing it with another form of energy?

The popular idea, expressed incessantly in the news media, is that if you run out of energy, you just go out and find some “new technology” to keep things running. We’ll learn that this doesn’t comport with reality. For example, commercial airplanes are either going to run on cheap liquid hydrocarbon fuels or we’re not going to have commercial aviation as we have known it. No other energy source is concentrated enough by weight, affordable enough by volume, and abundant enough in supply to do the necessary work to overcome gravity in a loaded airplane, repeated thousands of times each day by airlines around the world. No other way of delivering that energy source besides refined liquid hydrocarbons will allow that commercial system to operate at the scale we are accustomed to. The only reason this system exists is that until now such fuels have been cheap and abundant. We are not going to replace the existing worldwide fleet of airplanes either, and besides, there is no other type of airplane we have yet devised that can work differently.

Okay, so no replacement for oil is likely. What will scarce, expensive oil mean to the American way of life?

If you really want to understand the U.S. public’s penchant for wishful thinking, consider this: We invested most of our late twentieth-century wealth in a living arrangement with no future. American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future. Period. This dilemma now entails a powerful psychology of previous investment, which is prompting us to defend our misinvestments desperately, or, at least, preventing us from letting go of our assumptions about their future value. Compounding the disaster is the unfortunate fact that the manic construction of ever more futureless suburbs (a.k.a. the “housing bubble”) has insidiously replaced manufacturing as the basis of our economy.

Surprisingly, Kunstler is not prophesying doom, just (!) an impending crisis where we will have to face up to the impossibility of continuing on our current path, and, as the title of his article says, get on with “making other arrangements” for the basic activities of everyday life. The article ends with some quite specific observations of what sort of changes will have to be made, and why.

Kunstler’s article appeared early this year. I stumbled across it because I wanted to know more about Kunstler, who just contributed an article (scroll down) to a e-newsletter I receive, The Daily Reckoning. In it he explained why we should take no comfort in the fact that the price of oil has been more or less stable for awhile (until recently, anyway).

But beyond this debate, in the background, another ominous trend canaccount for the stalling of oil prices in 2006 – totally unrecognized by the public and ignored by the news media: Prices on the oil futures market leveled off because the Third World has effectively dropped out of bidding for it – and using it. They cannot afford it at $60 a barrel.

The Third World has entered an era of energy destitution and it is manifesting itself in symptoms like local resource wars, genocides, falling life expectancies, and in many places a near-total unraveling ofthe sociopolitical order. American mall-walkers and theme park visitors are oblivious to this tragic process, but it is perhaps the major reason why we are not now suffering from $100 a barrel (or greater) oil prices (with the consequent unraveling of our sociopolitical and economic order).

That impressed me enough to look up his website (not linked due to profane language), where I found a pointer to the article discussed here, and found out that he has also written a book, The Long Emergency, subtitled “Surviving the converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century.” I’ve ordered a copy.