Old Ways/New Ways

Part 8

What we did with our basement.

Our basement is large, the back of it opens onto the ground level of the backyard. I've already told about how we turned the back room into our recycling system. Here's what we did with part of the rest of the basement.

There was one large room and several smaller ones. We lined the walls and ceiling of the large room with aluminum foil (making them very light reflective). Then we set up a bunch of tables and gathered up all of the little containers that we had been saving the past year. It had been more than a year since we had thrown away any container -- e.g., all those yogurt, cottage cheese and egg containers, not to mention the various bottles (2 liter, milk, 16 ounce, plastic, glass, you name it, we had a pile of it). We transformed those little cartons and containers into seed starting containers, and placed them on the trays. We then hung two fluorescent light fixtures down low over the tables (4 bulbs total), planted our seed, and set up an automatic watering system that we made by taking a length of garden hose and poking some little holes in it. We also prayed a novena to St. Isidore, patron of farmers.

How did we run the lights? Our budget would not stretch to encompass a generator, and it seemed the wrong solution anyway. Even in the old days, it didn't seem to me that we could store enough fuel to keep it running. So instead we went low-tech and value-priced, and rigged an old lawnmower engine to run a car alternator to charge a battery that would feed power into a small inverter which converted the DC current to AC to supply the fluorescent light fixtures. Each of those bulbs only pulled 32 watts, so the total load was only 128 watts. I know it sounds crazy, but it works. We downloaded the plans for running the alternator/lawnmower engine gizmo from the net all the way back in 1998, printed them and filed them, just in case.

This gives us enough power for the radio and in the early days, we listened to a lot of CDs. Now that there is so much live music everywhere, CDs aren't as important (it really is amazing how many university trained musicians there were out there working at non-music-related jobs, until the millennium bug hit, of course). We also occasionally brought one of the light fixtures upstairs if we needed some good quality extra light after dark.

When we started making alcohol fuel, we were quick to fix the lawnmower engine so it would run on our home-brew. We traded a half gallon of gas for additional light fixtures, and expanded our basement nursery as much as space allowed, moving beyond using it for starting to growing vegetables full term to harvest. We had stocked up on early maturing non-hybrid varieties of several important plants, and we planted these containers in quick succession. The containers we used for the larger plants were five and six gallon plastic buckets. We filled them to within a few inches of the top with dry leaves, with about 3 inches of topsoil on the top. We fertilized regularly with a compost tea we made in the backyard. These buckets did not have drain holes; instead, we stuck a wooden stick in each bucket. As long as about 4" above the surface of the container was wet and glistening, the bucket was OK. If there were five inches, it was time to drain the bucket a bit; if there were 3 inches, water was needed.

You'd be surprised how much food you can grow in buckets. You can get 25 tomatoes from a bucket. We grew potatoes in buckets, and 20 buckets provides about as much food as a 6 by 20' garden plot, which is the amount of space required to grow enough vegetables to feed a person for a year (using the Jeavon's biodynamic/french intensive organic gardening techniques). Between our own greenhouse and yards, plus our share of the community cooperative gardens we participated in, we had enough produce in the fall to put up 200 quarts of veggies plus 500 pounds of dried onions, carrots, zucchini, beans, corn, and peas. We traded with farmers for a thousand pounds of assorted grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats) and 1000 pounds of soybeans (some of which went to our livestock), and 400 pounds of assorted fruit.

Our trade goods included gasoline, diesel, some gold and silver we'd accumulated in the summer, various Bucks currencies, some US currency, spare parts, and shoots from our cinnamon tree plus some other unusual but useful seeds. We have rabbits, chickens, pigs, and we participate in a beef, geese, and dairy cooperative. Our membership in these cooperatives entitles us to a division of the production, and requires us to furnish so much labor each month. A lot of that labor is in the gathering of forage for the livestock, or helping with the milking and cheesemaking.

Here it is February 2001, and we have green salad tonight, from our basement and back porch.

We weren't doing this well in February of 2000, but we weren't starving either, although our margins were becoming dangerously thin. It was increasingly obvious that we were going to have to jump out of our "envelope" and do some new thinking about the new circumstances. This was true not only of people who had thought about this before January 2000, but also of those who weren't expecting anything bad, or at most, some minor inconveniences and localized power losses.

We weren't in imminent danger of vitamin deficiency, as there were a lot of vitamin pills laying around back then, but these days such manufactured medicines are increasingly hard to find and expensive and so we have to pay attention to our nutrition. The thinner your margins, the more careful you have to be, the less room you have for carelessness. Throughout all of 2000, except towards the end, there was a real sense of uneasiness, as though we were perched right on the edge of a precipice, and could go falling over it to utter doom with the slightest of provocations. But the danger had its own stimulation, in that it helped to concentrate our minds and make us very creative, plus people worked very hard. There was a brief fad that blew up in mid-summer, where everybody was telling Donner Party jokes. Everyone would laugh, but then it was hard not to shiver thereafter.

A lot of things that we used to take for granted are very important now and require attention and work. And some things that we thought were really important and took a lot of our time and attention and money in the old days are no longer relevant. That's just the way things are in life. We are all on a journey together, and the road has taken a curious twist.

(c) 1998 by Robert Waldrop

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