OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 2: PANELS & BATTERIES

As mentioned before, at first glance my home looks no different from the standard North American stick frame and stucco house. The only things that give it away as having anything to do with off-the-grid living, is the bank of solar panels and the 2000 gallon water tank in the front yard.

Compared with some of the other houses on our ridge our bank of solar panels is pretty humble: 8 panels total, mounted on a tracker which follows the path of the sun from sunrise to sunset. Together, at maximum, they put out 1400watts. That is my house’s electricity budget. For perspective, that is also the amount of energy needed to run a single space heater on full blast.

However, the solar panels do not directly feed the house. Instead the solar panels charge a bank of batteries. These batteries in turn run a DC to AC transformer which then power our home’s appliances & lights. The batteries act as a buffer.  Without them the whole house would shut down every time a cloud passed in front of the sun. They also allow for spikes and plunges in electricity usage. So if the cloths washer and the fridge are both running at the same time, the house can keep functioning. Then when the house is sitting quiet, the batteries can charge back up.

If I withdraw more power from the batteries than the solar panels are putting in over the course of a day, say on a heavy laundry day, or on a particularly overcast day, the whole system shuts down. This makes us acutely aware of both our environment, and the way we use our resources. The consequences of our actions become self evident within 12 hours or less, not at the end of the month when we get the electricity bill.

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 3: TOAST

Awareness and consequence. Off-the-grid living keeps bringing these two words up again and again. I have to pause at moments I never had to before I moved here. Pause, take account, count the cost. Pauses like when making toast.

We have a simple toaster oven in our kitchen similar to the ones in most U.S. homes. A simple device, made of heating elements and a timer. In the mornings on the way to work, it is nice to have a bit of toast to go with eggs if we got em. But before I throw the slices into the toaster, I pause. I look outside. Is the sun up yet? How many clouds are in the sky? What was the weather like yesterday? Did we do laundry? What will the weather be like for the rest of the day?

I have to stop and ask this, because the toaster oven uses 1200 watts, thats just 200 watts below the house electricity budget, and that doesn’t take into consideration if there are any lights on, or if the fridge is running. At that morning-moment the house batteries are at their lowest charge. If it has been clear sunny days and the the sun is up I can still toast without a second thought. If it has been cloudy days, or the sun is not up, or we used a lot of appliances the day before, the whole house will go black within seconds after starting the toaster.

Then I will have to decide whether to go out and run the backup generator at $4 of diesel pr hour to get the lights and my toast back before I head off to work.

Awareness and consequence.

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 4: TRASH

Its about 4 miles of dirt road to get to my house. the last mile includes a steep hill of clay earth mixed with gravel, which turns into a steep slide of clay slip in wet whether. A garbage truck couldn’t get to us if it wanted to.

So we process our own trash. It starts with eatable green waste, that goes to the chickens. Uneatable green waste, including some paper goods, goes into one of two composing piles. One pile is from the previous year which is closed and “cooking”, getting ready for this year’s garden. The other is this year’s pile receiving fresh compost, but is still too “hot” to be used for gardening.  For the rest, there is a landfill 15 minutes from us which also processes recycling and green waste. Recyclables are a free drop off. Non-recyclables are a flat charge for a pickup truck. So we try to squeeze as much recyclables as we can out of the house refuse.

This gives us a pretty measurable sense of our carbon footprint. Our household of 4 people produces about a pickup truck of recyclables every 6-8 weeks, and a pickup truck worth of landfill-trash every 8-9 weeks. Which also means we have to live with our trash for that long before it goes away. This made a considerable difference to us in the way we purchase…well.. anything. We look differently at the packaging our products: food, equipment, technology, toys, come in, because we will be living with it for weeks, and toting it to the landfill ourselves.

Now, about that landfill…

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 5: LANDFILL

Between recycling and refuse I make pilgrimage to the landfill about once every 4-6 weeks. I wait until I have enough to fill the pickup, and since the landfill is between me and everywhere else I need to go, it becomes a part of my getting between here and there.

Like many landfills, this one is tucked up in the hills behind the nearest town, completely invisible from any approach, other than by a handful of small, introverted, invitations posted at the most crucial road crossings. Then there is the tole gate, followed by one or two miles of dirt road, then the landfill. I had mentioned in previous posts my growing senses in awareness and consequence, and this is definitely an area where before moving here, I really had no sense of “landfill”. Now I am a regular. My visits are spaced, so my perception of the the slow build of sediment is marked, like a real-time time-laps.

Driving in, there is hill on my left. It is a natural hill built up and torn down by the millennia. It is a slowly crafted thing. From below, the Pacific and North American tectonic plates are shoving this hill up from the bottom of the sea.  From above wind, water, and plant life are shaping and smoothing it into organic ridged forms like the shoulders of some giant.  Or rather I should say “used to” and “was” instead of “is” and “are”. Because now it is being shaped by new forces. Each visit I observe new, deep, cat claw trenches wearing away its sides at a rate previously incomprehensible to the forces of earth, water, and trees.

On my right, is a new hill. At its lower levels the untrained eye would find it indistinguishable from it’s older sisters. Here its greatest distinguishing marks are a tell tale geometry in form, that and the root-works of steel pipes which burrow into it’s base. Up it’s side, an a inexorable line of caterpillars and trucks. The former carrying terra from the body of the giantess on left. The latter porting the detritus from the human community just to the west.

My trek takes me to the top of this new hill.  What what trash that is visible sits at the top, but what is visible is a paltry volume. At best only a half-day’s contribution, probably the equivalent of 5-8 truckloads at most. Usually less. On the far side of the pile a couple of yellow machines work nervously to tuck the new deliveries out of site.

I am directed to park, I open the car door. The substance of this hill is then fully betrayed by the scattered chunks which refused to go down quietly and submit to the embarrassed repressive labors of the tractors: A chunk of tire here, the tip of a diaper there. Scraps of adds ground in with clay.

I step out of the car. My boot hits the ground. Then I really know what I am standing on. The earth below is softer than it should be, it is a softness that runs profoundly. It is not like the loamy earth of the garden where one can feel stone and clay below the epidermis of fallow soil with every footfall and shovel thrust.

I can feel it through my soles: it is a young hill grown up too fast. A hill without bones.

 

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 6: DROUGHT

I’m not sure whether to say the timing of our move to this land was fortuitous or disastrous. We moved to these 7 acres to explore off the grid living, and to begin the process of permaculture living: that is to grow our own food on the land in a manner that works with the land instead of depleting it. In this model water usage, weather, soil development, crop, animals, and refuse all work together, and requires very little outside support. And the land, if anything is richer for the usage rather than less.

However, we moved onto the land the year before the worst year of the current Callifornia drought. On clay soil. Hard dry clay soil. Which requires some extra water to get the land broken up and give the plants established.

Oops.

Less than opportune.

or

Opportune.

Awareness and consequence. The lesion this land keeps bringing me back to. Awareness and consequence.

“Listen.

Listen.

Hush my child.

Listen.

Pay attention or you may miss this…”

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 7: DROUT

We were living in Los Angeles for the first part of this most recent California drout. We like many others considered ourselves responsible citizens, with green concerns like many others. So when the city signs, and the utility services sent out their notices to cut back on water usage we did of course comply. We paid more attention to not letting faucets run, shorter showers, took bigger gaps between car washes, and “tisk-tisked” when we saw unnecessary run off in the gutters from over watering. But never once did we ever expect to turn on the faucet and NOT have water come out. After all water was a right.

I realized water was not a right my first week here. It was Sunday, we were headed to church and not five minutes from climbing in the car I heard my wife say “Love… There is no water”

“what?”

“Love… There is no water.”

You see, we now live on a well. Now by a well I don’t mean a stone lined trench covered by a quaint wood roof a bucket hanging on rope complete with clinging roses and sparrows singing “Some day my prince will come”. By a well, I mean a hole. This hole is drilled 500 feet deep and about 8″ wide. One dosnt hit water till 300 feet down. It is sealed by a electric pump which pulls the water up 300 feet then pushes it into a 2000 gallon holding tank, which is small compared to some of our neighbors.  1000 gallons of that water is for our use. The other 1000 gallons is for the fire department just in case they might ever need to blow out a fire on my property. If the fire requires more than 1000 gallons, then it is time to grab the marshmallows and skewers and make the most of the opportunity.

This well is a straw sticking into an underground river. About 10 miles from us this river flows into an underground lake. We are lucky enough to be the first straw in this river.  The straw is about 2″ wide sticking into an 8″ hole. And it is sucking water out through rock sand and dirt. If it sucks faster than the land can pour it back into the hole then we hit bottom. Typically I will then need to give the well  at least a week to refill itself. If I keep running the well to the bottom, eventually the sides of the well will get clogged with silt… And it will never refill.

Frankly, the land dosn’t care whether or not I get a shower. It has bigger concerns. There is no bill to pay here, nor a service to negotiate. If I suck to much water out of the ground. Then the ground will be done with me and I will be the proud owner of a house without water utilities.

“Love… There is no water”

“Excuse me Babe’, I have to go outside and make a heart felt apology to the hole in our front yard.”

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 8a: DROUGHT

I have been on this property 3 years now. 3 years to watch the seasons change and the land change with it. For those not familiar with Central California, we do have seasons, though the colors don’t follow the traditional calendar I see on my kid’s grade school walls.

The summer is golden, the hills and valleys are leafed with the thin tissues of dry grasses over ochre-yellow clay. The color all the more punctuated by the dark terra-vert of oak trees and sage bushes.

The Fall turns the earth Naples yellow, a lighter hue than the summer especially as accenting foliage slowly go grey and strip down to their naked twigs.

Early winter is a light umber. The long awaited rains churn the dehydrated flora into topsoil. A rich mulch mixed with seed, which slowly and tenderly emerge. The rolling late winter is emerald green. Not explosive. The arrival is gentile. Like the young plants are slowly stretching their new muscles, careful not to exert themselves too quickly unless the rains end suddenly and their over-exertion ends in withering. But still the green is potent, the sleepy trees and shrubs are the last to green, so for a while the elfin grasses are able to celebrate their color without the interruption of the more hue-conservative giants above them.

Spring is a gradient of hues. For a few weeks the green ground is exploding with the yellows of the mustard mingling with the whites and violets of the wild flowers, each competing for the attention of the bees and tarantula hawks for their pollination. The grasses send up their fox tails, adding the sound of gentile baby rattles to the whispers of the winds in the tall reeds.  A two day bacchanal of the mosquito hawks, yellow brown waves massing about porch lights and cascading over the hills marks the end of the bright mating season. And then the land slowly soothes from green, to yellow green, to the gold of summer.

The only marked difference between late spring and early summer is the white pods of the fox tails, dancing empty on the tops of their stalks. Their contents now safely dropped to the soil. These little fox-arrowheads, will use morning fogs to guide their trajectories into the mother soil below, or will become the bane of dog toes and human socks. But the white pods will dance and sing in the wind for a few last weeks. A last parental lullaby to their sleeping seeds below.

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 8B: DROUGHT

Awareness and consequence. The lesion this land keeps bringing me back to. Awareness and consequence.

“Listen.

Listen.

Hush my child.

Listen.

Pay attention or you may miss this…”

So far, the drought has taught me that the land does not submit to victimization easily. The land is opportunist. It is determined to be fecund, to make love, and to create the next year’s generation. Gluttonous well pumpers and climate change be damned!

I had a sense of this my first year here. As winter rains turned the umber earth green, my eager hands twitched on the handle of my industrial strength weed whacker. I knew from past experience the grasses would luxuriate in slow supple growth, giving me plenty of time to mow them down before their pollen would mix and mingle, and the dreaded foxtails would be unleashed. I would clear the earth, have loads of compost, and have the land prepped for a large weed-less garden in the spring.

It took two weeks of regular hacking and mowing. I made use of every spare minute between jobs, family and studio. Learning to mow on steep hillsides and learning the basics of lawn & garden equipment repair. But in two weeks I managed to clear 2.5 acres. It was lovely.

It was less than a week for the grasses shot right back up to the level they were at before the mowing, and then promptly pop out their needle point foxtails. The love had been made all around me as I had been mowing, and the next generation was ready for launch. Right on schedule. That was 2.5 acres of green grass all flippin’ their long, thin, green fingers at my industrial strength weed whacker.

OFF-THE-GRID LIVIN’ PART 8C: DROUGHT

Last year was the worst so far in the California Drought. Our area averages about 21 inches of rain annually, and in 2015 we got 6.

Most of that came late winter in the form of pathetic drizzles. Short merciful acts of charity on the part of skinny clouds limping across the sky in late March. By the time they did show, the hills and trees had long since given up their gold/green hues, Battered grey by the dry wind and cold winter sun.

Still, the land proved opportunist, and resilient. I don’t understand the awareness of land, or how it weighs consequence, but it does. Those 6 inches would be all it would get, and the land would not loose the opportunity to live, love, and produce.In the months before, when rain should have been there but wasn’t, the trees self pruned. Pulling their juices as deep within themselves as possible, fruitless branches of luxury were drained and left to snap off in the fall breezes. Also in a preparation, last years parental grasses crumbled, bowed lower than its grandparents or great grandparents, to self dry mulch.  Making the earth-cradle for their seedlings as well made as possible.

Then everything waited… waited… waited for those 6 inches.

Then snap.

Instead of the luxuriant two to three months of green, it was compressed into two weeks.  The grass shot up young and green, touched, pollinated, thrust out their foxtail seeds, and quickly and graciously faced their martyrdom in robes of gold.

The trees likewise raced to construct new banks of chlorophyl solar panels. Leaves shifting from fresh viridian to stubbornly mature green umber. Then settled into a conservative summer of drawing life from the light of the severe summer sky.

There was chance to make it happen. One chance to grow. One chance to love.  One chance to make legacy.  It wasn’t a lovely chance, but when the land took it it took it head first.

Awareness and consequence. The lesson this land keeps bringing me back to. Awareness and consequence.

“Listen.

Listen.

Hush my child.

Listen.

Pay attention or you may miss this…”

DANTE!

dante Response to Dante’s Paradiso. Cantos XXXIII & XXII