Sunday, November 1, 2015

Compost Cage

As I've discussed elsewhere, composting is the process of speed-rotting organic material to make the perfect garden nourishment. And while you can follow formulas and build lidded wooden bins and fuss and fret over your compost, the truth is that it's very hard to screw up. Still, even with a regular-old rotpile, you'll probably need to turn it on occasion if you have lots of grass clippings.*  The compost cage eliminates even that little bit of work.

My compost cage is made of:
One 20' x 6' section of chicken fencing 
One fence post

Drive the fence post in the ground, zip tie one end of the fence to the post, then attach the other end of the fence to the first end by wrapping the loose end wires around it**.  What you end up with is a round, vertical 'cage' about 6' tall and 4' across.

I set mine up last spring and put exactly two ingredients into it, grass clippings and shredded paper. Both can be problematic, because when wet they tend to pack, making an oxygen-proof mat that can force a slower, anaerobic rot in your pile.  But the tall, slender cage keeps the whole inside oxygenated without mixing. 

The clippings I just raked up from around the cage after mowing and tossed them in. It takes surprisingly little to fill 6' of cage.  It does settle pretty quickly, so there's room for more every time you mow.

The shredded paper took a little preparation.  I shred everything I can: newspapers, junk mail other than the little plastic envelope windows, Taco Bell boxes.  Once I get a 5-gallon bucket-full, I fill it up with water and let the mix soak overnight. The water gets soaked up by the paper, which helps break down the fibers. It also helps the pile stay moist.  I don't add any other water to the pile.

All through the summer, the cage looked like a greenish-brown pillar at the back of the yard. It was even taken over for a month or so by red-flowered trumpet vines. But worms and rolly-pollys were working the whole time.  When I removed the cage this morning and knocked it over I got about 20 cubic feet of compost, enough to fill one brand new 4'x4' bed and to cover the 4'x10' bed I'll be planting with garlic this week. What you see in the picture is all that had not rotted, plus a new bucket of paper.

The compost cage is a slow-rot, also known as "cold composting." It's not going to steam in winter.  It's not going to drop noticeably over the course of a few days. But if you have lots of materials and lots of time to wait for them it's the easiest way to get wheelbarrow loads of good compost with almost no work at all.

* Composting works best when you have a mix of "browns" (like leaves) for carbon and "greens" (like grass clippings) for nitrogen. One problem you might face is that it's hard to have both at the same time.
** You could use zipties here, but I don't because I want it easy to disassemble.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Too Much Magic

Low tech, FTW
Even those convinced the technological world is dying can't seem to let it go:
We’re likely to lose many of the books printed on acidic paper between 1850 and most of the 20th century within decades. For the last twenty years, many books and journals have been printed on non-acidic paper and put on microfiche.  Both can last for centuries if kept at an ideal temperature and humidity.  But that isn’t permanent enough...

If it is possible to etch words into metallic or other extremely durable substances, we ought to do it, not only for the coming dark ages, but to enable some knowledge to survive through future climate changes.

After all, we once put a disk on a space probe to explain humanity to potential aliens, why can’t we do that for our descendants?
We can, but that doesn't save it from being a really stupid idea.

Imagine, if you will, mankind passing through a 500-year dark age featuring not only the end of fossil fuels, but global warming climate change of such magnitude that Al Gore himself must change his rather sizable skivvies. World populations are reduced by 90%, individual lifespans by 50%. Agriculture, while it allows people to survive brutal winters, also makes them targets of ubiquitous bands of hairy horsemen, and is thus hidden where it is not outright eschewed. There is not a single bus, train, tram, car, or computer running, and has not been for centuries. In short, the year 2491 looks a lot more like 1491 in New York than it does 1991.  On Summer Solstice of that year, a wandering tribe of hunter gatherers, their asses painted blue in the most noble pagan tradition, discovers somewhere near Lake Erie a metallic strongbox containing a half dozen late 20th-century academic journals printed on rolled sheets of aluminum.

What good could such a preservation of knowledge possibly do them?

The first likelihood is that they would not be able to read it anyway. The average college student today, even after $150,000 worth of education, cannot read Shakespeare in Elizabethan English, much less Bede or Caesar in Latin. And dark ages are not known for their universal literacy.  But even if they could read it, how much value could these hairy horsemen possibly get from a technical treatise filled with 21st century, politically-correct academic jargon?  Such 'knowledge' as preserved by us would likely avail the future nothing.*

Here's a better idea: we should rediscover how to make paper and ink and the block printing press using low technology, and pass our knowledge on that way.

Books don't have to last 500 years: they need only last long enough to share their contents with lots of people and to be copied. The proof is that despite the fact that books have never lasted 500 years, we possess the 3500-year-old book of Genesis today.  Far better to have 20 generations of Common Sense block-printed on sheep skin than to save a single copy stamped into copper that no one will ever read.**  Passing books by hand - people writing them and printing them and binding them and trading them - assures that the people living in the 'dark ages' can actually profit from their contents.

But there's a second reason why relying on the ephemeral is in this case wiser than relying on the permanent: we don't know what knowledge will prove useful in 500 years. Gauging by history, we humans don't even know what will be valuable in 50.  So who should decide what is worthy of saving?  I propose that it's the very people for whom such knowledge will prove a lifesaver. Since we cannot do it, our children should be the ones who jettison forever the riffraff of our modern, narcissistic culture-circus.

As the author sagely notes, we cannot save everything, nor should we. But based on how humans collectively act here in post-modernism's dotage, we are far more likely to preserve what strikes our fancy and strokes our ego than anything actually useful to our descendants. We would surely save Vonnegut, because his work so masterfully distills the essence of our generation. Those in a future dark age, like those in the last one, will preserve Aristotle.

Considering ourselves in any sense the saviors of society a half a millennium in the future may be a very Boomer way to see the world. But that doesn't make it desirable, feasible, or wise.  It's not our job to preserve knowledge for people 5 centuries into the future. Rather it's our charge to pass wisdom and ability to those 20 years in the future, from which the next transfer becomes their responsibility.

* Just as 99% of it avails us nothing. And we're the ones writing it.

** I'm not sure some future discoverer would not a) turn it into an idol or b) pound it into a necklace, anyway.