Thursday, October 28, 2010

Biochar and Climate Justice

We got a lovely visit here at the ETC from James & Jamie of The Climate Reality Tour (or, as I like to call them: The Climate Justice League). The two Jameses are cycling from the US mid-Atlantic all the way to the 16th U.N. Climate Summit in Cancun. They hope to collect stories of and bring attention to the injustices heaped on all peoples by the business practices of our global industrialized system, whether it's the pollution from mountain top coal removal in the Appalachians or the inhumane conditions of sweatshops in Mexico. They also hope that the stories they gather can be used to help people organize, to create a network of communities standing up to these injustices and working together to better their immediate area and their world.

While they were here Albert took them on a mini tour of the ETC and explained our developing system of using biochar to enrich our soil through carbon sequestration. "Bio-what? Carbon-what?" you ask? Biochar is a substance used in the pre-Colombian Amazon. It's similar to charcoal, but with a few major differences. These differences allow the ground up biochar to be added to the soil to help encourage healthy growth. It's also being used now to trap carbon in the ground, instead of allowing it back out into the atmosphere, where we already have an over abundance contributing to things like climate change and global warming.

I played paparazzi and followed Albert and the Jameses around while he was showing them our system. Here's the little video that came out of it. (I also made one outlining our use of strawbales in our garden and greenhouse, but it doesn't seem to want to upload. I'll try to get that fixed within the next week or so.)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fall Building Flurry

As the weather roller coasters its way to winter, Cliff and the apprentices take this last chance to get some natural building in. A few days ago, the apprentices tackled the exterior of one of our two hippitats, one roomed round buildings designed to be sleeping spaces for one person or a couple. One of the hippitats already plays home to apprentice Jason, but the other still needs some love (and a floor) before it's habitable...or should I say hippitable?

Here's a quick video of the crew preparing and applying an even coat of plaster to the crumbling, mix-match exterior of the beautiful little building. Once that's dry, they plan on adding one last tinted layer, probably in a rich orange or burnt umber.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Change of the Seasons

Jason and Cliff, along with two
apprentices, Jordan and Jessie, getting the job done.
Fall has arrived, and we are feeling it here at the ETC. As the temperature drops here in Tennessee, we start the process of winterizing the property. The very first of these yearly rituals is the replacing of the kitchen window.

The window is removed every June, as the weather heats up, and replaced with screen. This allows all the heat created from cooking to move on out of the house. And, during our first cool snap after Fall Equinox, we put it back in. Just in time, too, as getting up to cook breakfast at 6am was starting to be an exercise in "How fast can I get this water to boil, so I can have some tea?!"

Some other signs that fall is here:
  • The pear tree has finally been stripped of all its fruit, having fed a gaggle of Gaia University Southeast students.
  • We're all showing off our favorite sweaters that have been stored during summer.
  • My kitten slept under the covers with me last night.
  • The tomato plants have been ripped out of the greenhouse and replaced with winter greens.
  • Cloudy days and cool rain.
  • I'm starting to think of the lower story of the hostel as "Siberia," its common nickname during winter due to its tendency to collect all the cool air in the house.
  • The kitchen is decorated with a bounty of pumpkin and butternut squash from Mt. Lebanon Farm.
  • The sound of the kettle singing in the early hours of the morning. Repeatedly.

So, what's your favorite sign of Fall?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fermented Cabbage is Fun!

Amongst the apprentices' busy schedule of planting a winter garden and learning to build with cordwood, they took an afternoon to hang out in the kitchen with me, Merry, the innkeeper of the EcoHostel. As a former apprentice at the ETC, I know what a central role food plays during their time here. So, I make sure that current apprentices have plenty of opportunities to explore different cooking skills that they can use both at the ETC, and in their lives afterwards.

Yesterday was Fermenting 101: Basic Sauerkraut. We took a page from fellow Tennessean Sandor Katz's book Wild Fermentation and made a simple kraut of just cabbage and salt. It was so easy. We just chopped the cabbage, salted it, pressed and worked it until it started to release liquid, then packed into the ceramic butter churn I picked up at an antique shop recently. We weighed it down with a glass jar full of water on top of a saucer, then tied some cheese cloth over the top so we didn't get any volunteer insect protein. The cheese cloth also allows the kraut to "breathe," which is very important to the fermentation process.
Sandor says to press the cabbage down every so often on the cabbage for the first twenty four hours. The salt will break down the cell walls and should draw about enough liquid to cover the shredded vegetable. And, that is exactly what happened! Jason, our newest apprentice, and I took a peek at our kraut this afternoon and sure enough, the brine (salty liquid) was submerging both the cabbage and the plate resting on it.

So, what's going on inside the butter churn, and why would we even want to make sauerkraut when we could buy it at the store? The answer to both questions: bacteria.

The process used to make our kraut is called lacto-fermentation. The cabbage is submerged in the anaerobic (without oxygen) environment of a salty brine. Within that environment, several stages of wild bacterial growth rise and fall, the last being Lactobacillus. While our modern culture cringe at the thought of bacteria eating away at our food, our not-so-ancient predecessors knew the value that these microscopic munchers added to their veggies.

Fresh sauerkraut is full of yummy goodness. The probiotic Lactobacillus is an important member of our internal flora, helping us to efficiently digest our food. Fermented cabbage is also a good source of vitamin C. So good in fact, that before the advent of refrigeration German sailors ate it on long voyages to prevent scurvy. We're making our own here to take advantage of that goodness. Most of the sauerkraut you buy in the store has been canned in either cans or glass jars, and therefor cooked. The cooking process kills the beneficial bacteria and damages the vitamin C.

If you are interested in learning more about fermenting, especially with the wild yeast all around us, then I suggest you get your hands on a copy of Sandor's book. I had the chance to visit his kitchen last year for an afternoon of fermentation madness, and had a great time. The guy sure knows his stuff, and has a great time teaching other people the magic of wild fermentation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Conversations on Collapse Now Available

Ok, folks, here it is. The book you've all been waiting to read your entire life (and possibly some former ones.)

Drum roll please.............

Ta daa! It's Conversations on Collapse, by our very own KMO!

In addition to being the resident ETC podcaster, co-innkeeper, and all around great guy, KMO is the producer and host of the long standing C-Realm Podcast (the C stands for "consciousness.") For over four years, the C-Realm has brought you interviews and conversations about...well, I'll let KMO tell you in his own words: "possible technological singularity, entheogenic exploration, the re-localization of community & agriculture, and individual conscious autonomy."

Conversations on Collapse is a collection of transcribes of C-Realm interviews that explore the idea of a collapse of our current industrial, petroleum-based system, and what people are doing to prepare for that eventuality. Among others, Conversations includes the view points of James Howard Kunstler, Daniel Pinchbeck, Sharon Astyk, Dmitry Orlov, and the founder of the Ecovillage Training Center, Albert K. Bates.

Would you like a copy of this tome of knowledge and inspiration? Nothing could be easier! Simply click here to purchase one (or two, or three) of your very own through

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How to Press Apples and Making a Little Hard Cider

Autumn harvest is happening, and besides the pumpkin and butternut squash, the apples are ready here on The Farm. And do you know what that means? It means fresh pressed apple cider! Doug Stevenson, the Farm manager, stopped by the ETC last week to press some of the apples he had picked with our little press. It’s a pretty simple machine, with an electric motor to grind the apples and a hand crank press.

Doug was kind enough to leave some of the cider behind for the hostel. As the innkeeper here, I’m always trying new ways to produce our own food. With Doug’s gifted apple juice, I thought I could try making a little bit of fermented cider. Inspired by fellow Tennessean Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, I filled two pint canning jars with the golden goodness, laid some cheese cloth over the top, and screwed the canning rings on the top. Without the flat canning top, this leaves the juice open to wild yeast floating around in the air. I’ve been stirring them a couple of times a day, whenever I think about it.

It’s only been about three days, and the cider already has a bit of a bite. It’s fizzy from the carbonation released by the fermentation, and I can taste just a hint of alcohol. I’m loosing some to evaporation, so I’ll probably go ahead and drink it pretty soon. I’ve got just enough for me and a couple of friends to enjoy a bit with dinner tonight…hmmm…maybe some roasted squash to carry on the autumn harvest theme?