Dienstag, 24. Juni 2008

Hard Work and Intensive Vacationing

Part I – Vacation (don’t go there!)

After my permaculture course I thought I deserved a vacation. Actually, it wasn’t the permaculture course that caused this. After that I felt full of energy and couldn’t wait to just jump right in and experience it in practice. But the additional watershed restoration course I’d signed up for was not really what I expected. Sitting in the classroom, being overwhelmed by theoretical information, then pulling a muscle in my back in the only afternoon of practical application was the beginning of my crankiness. The next day (May 14th) we were confronted with a snow storm. So together with three other participants I decided to skip out on the rest of the course and go to Santa Fe.

When hearing Santa Fe, most people think of cute adobe buildings, lovely southwestern style furniture, and little art galleries and museums. Well, everything is true to the extent that there is virtually nothing else Santa Fe could offer. In other words the whole town is as fake as the adobe structures built of concrete. While the “southwestern flair” is preserved, one can’t help but feel like the omnipresent Californian visitor, sipping on latte, driving a Prius, wearing an ironic T-shirt, and apologizing for having Stella Artois in his fridge. I still can’t explain exactly what’s wrong with it, but I’ve got a strong feeling that there is something. Anyway…

If Santa Fe wasn’t bad enough, Sedona definitely gave me the rest. What brings me to these places anyway? Well, I had the opportunity to meet my old friend Manuel from Germany, whom I hadn’t seen since 7th grade. He just happened to be in the States, and was planning to come out West around this time. Of course I didn’t want to pass up the chance of seeing him, but as I had a few days left, I decided to take a Sunday trip to Sedona. It was on the way. 

I should have known what this trip was gonna be like. I’d heard enough about it. But maybe that was exactly what I came to experience. I just had to see with my own eyes, what madness really means. For all those who don’t know: Sedona was a tinny little western town in the middle of Arizona, with nothing much to offer. A couple of ranches in the late 1800’s, the first church, school, and post office around the turn of the century. In the 1930’s typical effects of the depression, many ranches sold, people moved away. Then in the 1960’s Sedona was discovered by artists, hippies, and artsy hippies. Today, the place is plastered with crystal shops, massage parlors, yoga, reiki, drive-through-chakra-cleaning sites, and places where you can feel the famous vortex. The latter has been explained to me as a place where electromagnetic energy bubbles up from underground and “Dude, you can totally feel the colors and the shapes of things…” or something like that. As for me, I felt quite amazed by such mass stupidity, as the entire place is overrun with tourists to the extent that it feels more crowded than Manhattan. As for the natural beauty, I have to admit that the red rocks are increadibly beautiful. But one can enjoy those just a few miles upstream, where there are also less people.

So after Santa Fe and Sedona, I went ahead to see Manuel in the place where he would be at that time: Las Vegas, Nevada. I’d never been there actually, and now even this would be taken care of. Talking about tourist madness! Only the tourists here were of a different breed. These people didn’t care so much about the cosmic spiritual connection as about the basic bottom line. Or rather the other end of that line, where it’s less about making money as it is about spending it… with both hands! Gambling, whores, liquor, and they call it “entertainment”. Interestingly enough, hordes of people are into it. Entire families visit from all over the place, go up the replica of the Eifel tower, or cruise in immitated Venetian lagoons. They watch white tigers and black girls, all of them wearing just the minimum of clothes. And they spend a fortune on what some call "toxic mimic". Though I knew exactly what to expect, it was shocking to say the least. Still it was worth seeing Manuel. We caught up on the last thirteen years, and walked down the strip experiencing American decadence in its full swing. I ended up with a pair of used dies from Casino Excalibur, for my own private gambling pursuits.

Part II – The Solar Ark

After these last days I really felt I had done enough vacationing. I was ready to jump into action and learn something. My first attempt at experiencing applied permaculture took me all the way up into the high mountains of northern New Mexico. Pretty close to the Colorado border, and not too far from Lake Vado, lives an eccentric genius named Arvo. He used to teach together with Scott Pittman, and today he is happy to share his know-how with visitors, wwoofers, couch-surfers, and aspiring permaculturists. What drove me to his place was his amazing website describing the many technological features, from passive and active solar energy, the methane digester, the shower in the greenhouse, the ingenious "Watson Wick" septic system, the 60 watt refrigerator, to the general design of his greenhouse-house. Take a look at it yourself. It’s well worth it. http://solarark.org/index.html

Arriving at his place, I was truly astonished, that all of this was just like described, but much more life-sized. I mean, the water in the shower came out in a strong, steady stream, with sufficient hot water not having to hurry. It was all warmed by the sun, and could be supplemented with burning some pine cones, if the weather had been cloudy. The methane digester produced sufficient gas to cook with, and once the pressure in the tank increased to over 20 PSI, it would be necessary to make use of it by cooking beans for the week, or the like.

One important thing at Arvo’s was the basic notion that the best way to conserve energy is to reduce the need. This, however, has nothing to do with sitting in the dark. Instead it means using smart solutions, such as the pressure cooker draped in thick blankets, or turning off appliances completely instead of letting them hibernate. We would have to check the gauges to decide whether to use the electric cooker or the gas stove to heat water for hot chocolate, depending on what there was more of. And according to the permaculture principle we would convert every excess back into other, more usable forms (gas into cooked food, well water into irrigating plants, manure and liquid kitchen waste into the digester, etc).

Besides being really good at building things, and optimizing energy flow, Arvo likes to cultivate fermented food. The first thing we did after I arrived was cut up vegetables for delicious kim-chi. He also makes really good kombucha, which is perfect ice-tea with soda-water, and ocha honey mead, just the right thing for watching the sunset. We also baked bread in his earth oven outside and it turned out to be sheer delight.

My work at the Solar Ark, besides checking water, power, gas, and making necessary adjustments, consisted mainly of gardening. After all, that’s what I came here for. It happened to be the season for transplanting veggies from the greenhouse to the gardens outside. Up here the growing season lasts only from May to September, and even then there is a good chance for frost at night. So we built many planters, mixed good soil, and transplanted chard, beets, mustard greens, as well as corn, squash, beans, sunflowers and many other things outside. It was a lot of work, but all in all very educational.

For those of you who are thinking about visiting the Solar Ark, you should keep one thing in mind. You have to be like water on the rocks or like willow in the wind, because Arvo has his ideas of doing things his way and he expects the same of you (his way, not yours!). The key term here is EFFICIENCE. At the Solar Ark it is much more than just a guideline. It’s a belief system. While being the perfect teacher for this, Arvo can be somewhat impatient. You have to keep not only an open mind, but one that is sharp as a razor. Pay attention to everything he tells you, and remember it! He tends to explain everything in great detail, the theory behind what he does, what he expects you to do, how things work, how they would not work, and everything all around. I can see many people getting turned off or scared away by his style. Nevertheless, for those who can undergo this intense experience without running away after the second day, they will be rewarded with valuable knowledge. He even offers visitors a great deal of literature on alternative technology, and is willing to build something with the interested student. Unfortunately we didn’t get around to do this when I was there, as things had to be transplanted. 

Part III – Deep in the Heart of Texas

Given the fact that I only had about two more weeks before I had to leave the US, I made sure to head southwards, closer to Mexico. My destination was Austin, where I was going to check out a bicycle collective I had heard and read many good things about. http://www.rhizomecollective.org/ Specifically I was interested in their RUST (Radical Urban Sustainability Training), which was going to be a good supplement to my permaculture course. As it turned out, however, they were offering it in the spring only. Never mind, I wanted to take a look at what they were all about. I wrote them an e-mail, they approved my request of staying there, and I took a Greyhound down to Texas.

Unfortunately, the only American bus company proved itself utterly incompetent, even more so than what I was used to from seven years ago. Okay, they got me to Dallas on time, even though I missed my first connection in Amarillo. But then they refused to let me on the bus to Austin. The reason: although I had a ticket, there were too many people who'd booked “priority” seats, and there was no more space available. So I had to wait five hours… which gave me a chance to investigate the Kennedy assassination.
As a knowledgeable homeless man pointed out, the Grassy Knoll was not much of a place to hide. Instead, the shot came with all probability from under a manhole, through the water drain. From there the assassin could easily escape by climbing through the pipes, ditch his gun, and get away unnoticed… quite obviously.

But I digress… from my Greyhound story, which ended up with me in Austin at sunset and my pack still in Dallas, following me two hours later. So by the time I made it down to the Rhizome, it was past midnight, swelteringly hot, with an insane humidity. I didn’t care. I was ready to pass out.

The next day I realized that I had arrived in the off-season. It was hot, I mean HOT, like in a busy kitchen. What I thought was a welcome change after the cold nights of New Mexico, many people considered unbearable, and they had taken off to cooler climates. There were but a handful people left. Really, you could count them on one hand. One of them, Ignacio, the guy I had contacted, gave me the tour, and got me involved in working in the bicycle library. I could pick any one I liked to ride around on while in Austin, but since all of them had minor problems, I had to do some repair work. Fine with me.

Then I got to know Joe, who was in charge of the Brownfield. What had been used and abused for many years as a city dump, was now given to the Rhizome Collective, along with a hefty grant, to clean it up and give back its natural dignity. I expected to see what the name implies: a big brown field, with lots of trash, all sorts of unpleasant things, and not a trace of shade anywhere. What I found was a lush green area, covered with many trees, rolling hills, with small gardens in between, and Joe’s trailer. I had made my decision: the Brownfield is where I was going to stay. Besides regular garden work, there was also construction awaiting me. Joe, was tired of sharing his trailer with insects, so he was going to build a cabin. At the same time it was supposed to be cool and shady. We made plans with a carpenter friend of his. It was supposed to be a one room 18’ x 16’ structure, with a loft, water catchment on the roof, and lots of screen panels for ventilation. And the first thing to do was to dig four big holes. We went about doing that, which was easier said than done. Digging around in a landfill brings many weird things to the surface…

My time at the rhizome was interrupted by an invitation to Radical Redneck Farm, now known as Firewheel Farm, way out in the boonies about 40 miles east of Waco. http://firewheelfarm.blogspot.com/ The owner, Laurie, a good friend I’d met at the permaculture course, had just inherited it and is planning to turn it into a food forest, with different fruit trees, grapes and olives, Mediterranean style. To my surprise, many features were already present. The fruit trees as well as everything else were in some need of tending, but the will was strong and unlike me, she is going to stay there. Interestingly, there was one very familiar structure we did the planning of: a little one-room cabin with water catchment on the roof and screen panels for ventilation.

Part IV – Vacation (as it should be!)

There is one problem with work in Texas in the summer: it is too damn hot. This I realized during my work on Laurie's Farm, as well as digging holes on the Brownfield. After 10 a.m. it is quite difficult to do pretty much anything, even in the shade. After 11 a.m. it is utterly stupid. So while getting up as early as the sun and jumping right into work is advisable, the greater part of the day is best spent lazing around on the porch, drinking ice-tea, and having a good conversation, or reading a book. And that’s exactly what we did.

Another alternative is going sailing, to which I was invited just before leaving the Rhizome. My friend Brian, who lives just a minute from Lake Travis, invited me to go out on the lake in his 14’ single sail Laser. After all, a small boat is ideal for learning. And it was. For the first time I experienced myself (by myself) what it was like to trim the sail and work the tiller at the same time, and then tack to go close haul to capture most of its strength. It was fun. We spent the whole day on the lake. After letting me deal with the wind and the lake on my own, Brian joined me to sail over to the pier near the dam and have lunch at Carlos & Charlie’s. It took us some time to sail down the river, tacking back and forth several times, and then going downwind between the motor boats and jet-skis. It was a beautiful Saturday, just before Father’s Day, so many other people shared our good idea to spend it on the lake. At the pier it was not any different, as it also happened to be the day of the ROT (Republic of Texas), a huge motorcycle get-together, and thousands of bikers had taken over the place. Going back was equally interesting, with a little stop on a rocky island, from where we could observe boats from the sailing club, with their spinnakers filled with the smooth breeze.We got back just after sundown, and cooked up some Gumbo that is looking for its equal. The price I had to pay for this awesome day were my legs. After being hidden by shoes and long pants for months, the day out on the lake, with water reflection all around, turned them red as (cooked) lobsters. Thanks to aloe lotion they got better… a few days later. Not before we went to explore Enchanted Rock, the Ayers Rock of Texas.
As Australia seems to have many things in common with Texas, it was just appropriate to take a look at this famous landmark: a unique, large rock in the middle of the country. Climbing it was just part of the fun. Following the traces of water to the little forest on top of it, we came across a system of caves. We just had to descend and explore them. Climbing around in them was not easy with my burned legs, but it was well worth it.

I had two more days left before my stay in the US would expire. Before leaving Texas, there was one more thing I wanted to do: catch up on my Texas history, and visit the Alamo in San Antonio. It was smaller and less amazing than I’d expected, though it gave good info on the history of the Lone Star State. With that done, I was going to spend the night and take a bus down to Mexico. As it turned out, however, my couch-surfing host happened to be a really outgoing chick, who introduced me to the vibrant Mexican subculture of San Antonio. We went to a discussion night with political activists, followed by a visit to the oldest bar in San Antonio. I got to know many interesting people, had good discussions about local currencies, and found a ride all the way to Mexico City. It could not have been more perfect.

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