Part 5

Old Ways/New Ways

Getting ready for the winter of 2000-2001

(c) 1998 by Robert Waldrop

One of the differences about these new times is that you have to pay attention to what's going on. You can't wait until it rains to buy yourself an umbrella, because there might not be somebody around with an umbrella to sell you when it starts raining. So you had to think ahead and plan, and it helped that people were forming themselves into large extended families to work together on the basics of life. No one single person had to think of everything; indeed, it would be impossible for one person to understand, plan, provision, and accomplish all the tasks necessary to life these days. Thus, our extended families and the localized neighborhood and community links and networks took on major importance for everybody.

As we came out of the initial shock and emergency reactions (better weather really helped a lot with this), we began to think not only about the summer, but also about the next winter. Having just had a particularly miserable one, we were highly motivated to make sure the next one was better. It was also possible that the next winter could be worse, much worse, this knowledge helped focus our attention and keep people on task.

As summer progressed, more and more farmers brought produce to town -- in the most amazing parade of alternative fuel vehicles that you could possibly imagine. It was like every rural tinkerer-with-machinery in the entire country had just become some of the most important people around. And all those people out there who have dabbled with alternative energy for years and years suddenly found that their experience and knowledge was very important to people.

The farmers were happy to take Blue Valley and Catholic Bucks, as well as US dollars, or silver, or other informal barter deals. People would post signs at their market stalls, "Need gasoline" or generator, or hair pins, or whatever. Trades happened. We had made it a point in 1999 to meet some farmers and we bought some food products from them in the summer and fall of 1999. Some of them were bringing stuff to town in the summer, and we continued our relationship. We also made arrangements for grain, and our neighborhood was looking for straw bales.

Straw bales were very important to getting through the winter of 2000-2001 in comfort. We could no longer afford the obscenely expensive energy expenditure required by our typical American urban houses. The homeless population had skyrocketed, and many of them had become "urban squatters" on public properties, and in the spring they were already dug in, often literally. We weren't the only people to harvest wooden utility polls.

When the cowboys had brought the pigs to market, I asked them about wheat, because often where there's cattle there's wheat. I was interested in grain, and I was interested in straw bales. The cowboys ears perked up. What's this about a new market? I told them that I thought they could sell or trade every single bale of clean wheat straw that they could bring to Kansas City. I've always been interested in alternative construction, and straw bale construction is ideal for this country and climate. Cool in the summer, warm and cozy in the winter, cheap, do it yourself, accessible, not rocket science.

But nobody in my neighborhood felt up to tearing down their old house and building a new house, while at the same time putting in a garden and gathering and preserving other food enough to feed yourself for the next year, and etc., all in one summer. Plus building a new house involved a lot of trades like plumbing and such that would drive the price way up. But it seemed possible and practical to put a layer of straw bales on the outside of the house, and cover this with plaster, and get many of the advantages of straw bale housing while maintaining the familiarity and investment of the existing structure. Think of it as an urban housing makeover.

As the Kansas harvest began, grain and straw bales began making their way to Kansas City, on vehicles powered by methane and horses and mules and steam and ethanol. Bricks were harvested from ruined houses and laid as a foundation right next to the original construction. Re-bar and cement seemed readily available; I guess there is a lot of this laying around all the time, and with the sudden end of all major construction projects, that meant a lot of product sitting around waiting for a purpose. We did our street the old fashioned way. The farmers delivered the bales as scheduled and we just went down the street, doing each house barn raising style. The farmers had brought extra people with them, and they stayed to help, mostly (they claimed) so they could see how it was done and learn from our mistakes.

Another thing everybody was doing was building ice houses in a shady spot. Typically these would be partially buried, with three foot thick earth walls and a thick roof. In the winter we would make ice and pack it back in there in sawdust. We had read that even in a hot summer ice can be maintained until late in the season, so we were gonna put that to the test. We had buried buckets of ice in February, and the last one was still frozen solid when we dug it out in July. An ice house seemed like less work, however, in terms of regular digging. We tried to think about the amount of work involved in something in the way we used to think about the price of something. A person has only so much time and effort and intelligence that can be expended in work, and so it is important to think about how best to utilize that "bank account." So while we could have ice by burying buckets, and that was fine for the situation we were in last February and March, now it made more sense to invest the labor and materials necessary to construct ice houses.

So here is Oakley Street, late August 2000. The houses have all grown new exteriors, white washed plaster exterior (except for where a couple of our more artistic neighbors decided to add some bits of color). No lawns, most of the surface area planted to vegetables, permaculture, or animal pens. Houses have sprouted greenhouses (the idea was too good and useful for people to ignore, an interesting twist to keeping up with the Joneses I guess). Several yards have outdoor bread ovens (these were mostly built in the spring, one of the first construction efforts). Typically, each oven serves about 4-6 families. You can hear cows, pigs, sheep, chickens. You don't hear the roar of traffic, or any gunfire. You do hear people talking, music, and other ordinary noises at a bearable audio level.

We did a lot more than this in getting ready for that winter, but the straw bales and ice houses are two of the important activities that summer. I like the straw bales. Gives the entire street kind of an interesting look, especially with the traditional roofs sticking out the top. Maybe kind of an art deco-ish southwestern look.

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