Posts Tagged ‘homestead’

Doomsday Preppers: Kevin Barber

Like I said, ‘We Are the Marauders’ thankfully only referred to the previous numbskull. The other half of the episode consists of an update from a previous family profiled at the end of Season Two. And even better, this is a family that’s doing great things!
That’s right, Kevin Barber is back!

and, might I say, rocking a sweet suntan!

Last time we saw them, the Barbers had just packed up their suburban Kansas lives into a shipping container and moved to Costa Rica, where they set up a chicken coop and proceeded to eat a dozen kinds of fruit right off the trees.

They’re still required to have a single-issue preparedness motivator, so Kevin’s is still US&A Economic Collapse, but unlike pretty much every other person who talks into the camera on this show, Kevin doesn’t sound scared, paranoid, or like he’s spoiling for a fight, post-collapse. Instead, there’s just calm, levelheaded, healthy confidence. I wonder why that is? Could it be—just maybe—that Kevin seems to have peace of mind because his family’s survival plan takes a form that actually addresses his feared disaster? He’s not focused on hoarding guns, bullets, and purchased foodbuckets, or buttoning up in a concrete bunker—the Type I strategy held up by most would-be preppers as the one-size-fits-all ‘solution’ to every collapse contingency; such thinking is painfully inside-the-Box and as such only serves to play into the hand of the capitalist/consumerist system that bred the collapse in the first place. I have to believe the aura of fear that most preppers fairly radiate can only result from the realization that deep down, they know these ‘solutions’ are only temporary stop-gap measures: kicking the can, if you will, another six months or so further down the road (hmm, much like the US&A’s current infuriating pattern of debt-ceiling limit raising).
On the other hand we have Kevin Barber – who, instead of stumbling forward blind and unthinking, has hit the brakes on his suburban American daydream life long enough to take a good look at it, see what needs fixing, and make concrete changes to his way of life.

Down on their tropical homestead, we see Kevin and his wife setting up rain barrels for water storage, showing off their chicken coop, and compost system. In an extension of their last appearance, they’re now butchering their own chicken by themselves, AND they say some nice words for it before they dispatch it! Awesome.

However, the majority of the segment follows the family as they set up an aquaponics system, which unfortunately is chopped into five-minute snippets and spliced with said previous ‘marauder’ asshat. Blerg, I swear, the decision this season to intercut between segments has resulted in a whittling down of actual material by about half…which means the other half is spent recapping what we’ve just seen five minutes before. Ultimately I’m afraid it’s a chicken-or-egg quandary—is this kind of programming a cause of shorter attention spans, or simply appealing to them?

While they’re working on getting set up, a caption suggests that aquaponics may date back to the Aztec use of floating gardens (the chinampa system), which is a pretty cool idea; I’d never thought of it like that before, but it’s totally valid!
When the time comes for Kevin to dig the pits to put his various fish ponds and algae tanks in, he doesn’t foolishly attempt to do it single-handedly (as you might expect of a deluded, gung-ho, lone-wolf prepper)—he gets the neighbors involved! AND he speaks Spanish while working with them! Imagine that! Building community by coming to together to build a system that can contribute to a local, resilient economy! In other words, Kevin has taken a gigantic step towards true survival, a notion that terrifies Amerikans—he has ‘gone native’. How’s that for progress?!

In the end, this family is too cool. Major thumbs-up. Their ducks look to be all in a row, and they have the groundwork laid for a great life off the grid…now if people in this country would only realize that they could do the same thing, without moving to Costa Rica.

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Doomsday Preppers: Curt S.

This episode only spends time on one other person, ‘Curt S.’ of Somewhere in Oregon.

His artificial, single motivating fear is yet another ‘economic collapse’. While we’re just one episode in, I have a feeling that lone issue will continue to dominate the fears of those profiled on the show, just as it did last season (in which fully 50% described their fear of ‘economic collapse’, while none ever suggested that they understood why such a collapse is historically inevitable. It’s simple sustainability, folks).

In his mandatory talk-to-the-camera soundbite, Curt explains how “Government has been infiltrated by corporations, banks, financial institutions, labor unions, and special interests.” Alright now, ♪one of these things is not like the other ones!♪  Can you spot it? If you picked Labor Unions, you’re right! I’m not sure where this guy stands on the US&A two-party-political spectrum (I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Tea Party), but what’s wrong with labor unions? I pick up that they’ve got a reputation for taking mandatory breaks (“laziness”), but when the alternative is to treat workers like expendable cogs—as our prevailing production economy is designed to do—unions are about the only ones doing the right thing and treating workers like actual humans (or at least giving them the best possible treatment, given the work-or-starve coercion inherent in a civilized production economy).
There’s also a timely bit where he describes how there will be “very little commerce happening in America when the debt is due and the government shuts down!” Haha, how about that?! Of course, our most recent partial shutdown ended by kicking the debt-can down the road another six months, so we’ll likely have to go through the whole compounding Mess all over again soon enough. Also, he’s clearly operating under a civilized, limited concept of ‘commerce’. Believe me, folks on this continent were shipping useful stuff all over the place sans central government long before Whitey showed up.

Anyway, Curt’s family live on 80 acres of high desert, which it seems they’re eventually working towards making more self-sufficient and off-grid. Towards this goal, they’ve “built” a two-million-gallon lake (water supply), hooked up a 2400-watt pv solar array, and set up a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse (or at least, they’ve erected the framework). And then Curt proudly proclaims that he has thirty bug-out vehicles. Wait, what? I really hope he’s a mechanic or something. I can understand the need for redundancy, but seriously: a man, woman, and two children do not necessitate having that many vehicles. Do they even have the precious Juice to run them all? I doubt it.

And to defend the compound, he boasts of owning 30 firearms and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Dude, it’s too late, but next time you have the opportunity to broadcast the details of your arsenal to the whole world, take a deep breath…and then, don’t.

He takes the kids out back and they all do some offhand plinking. While there’s some initial anxiety (inherent in getting a nine-year-old girl to shoot a large-caliber rifle (SKS love!)), at least he doesn’t frame it all obnoxious and tactical, and drill the idea that they’re ‘gonna hafta shoot marauders one day’ into the poor girl’s head—it’s simply good skill practice in the backyard.

Curt is apparently very proud of his family compound’s isolation out in the sticks—he considers “not being near anybody one of your greatest defenses”—yeah, if you’re a deluded lone-wolf. If you were part of a community of self-reliant-but-connected (y’know, in the interest of ‘commerce’) families, that isolation would be a major weakness.

There’s a section where he gets a welding buddy to help him make a steel shield to block off the stairs inside their house. Note to producers: you lost an opportunity for more ratings—you could’ve shot at it first! And while we’re not sure how they plan to implement said shield (complete with peepholes and shotgun port), Curt spells out the reasoning behind it loud and clear—to keep people from “getting into my home and taking my Stuff!

Naturally, since we live in a Juice-guzzling, automobile-fetishizing culture and this show loves to pander to the lowest common denominator, a big chunk of this segment is concerned with souping up Curt’s old Bronco into a homemade tank “to survive doomsday roads”. I don’t get it—if everyone else is out of gas, who do they think they’ll have to outrun?

Anyway, they add a couple tons of steel plates, pipes, and a cowcatcher—so I think we can safely assume the vehicle’s fuel economy is now measured in gallons per mile?
Once the rig is finished, they just have to test it out, so they decide to replicate a typical driving situation in their hypothetical doomsday, by making a ‘roadblock’ (pile of burning shipping pallets). The armored truck easily plows through, kicks up some sparks, and everybody hoots and hollers and congratulates each other like they just landed a man on the moon or something. Boys with their toys…
Oh, and there’s another source of drama while all this car-modifying is going on—there’s a forest fire! Everybody freaks out (because I guess they didn’t factor local natural disasters into their plans), and piles into trucks and bugs out. But the fire department gets it under control and they promptly turn around and get back to welding. For future reference, if you’re in an area at risk for large fires, perhaps consider building your survival home from a fire-resistant material (I recommend cob); additionally, think about integrating fire-breaks into your compound’s design (hopefully stopping a fire in its tracks, or else letting it pass by with minimal damage).
Which brings me to woodlands, our country’s management of them…and the application via analogy of one to the other.
When I read articles on the effects of climate change, there’s always a mention of ‘increased likelihood of major forest fires’. Usually the author suggests such fires will result from severe droughts, but as long as we’re talking anthropogenic environmental damage, why does nobody ever bring up Smokey Bear? But what could possibly be wrong with that beloved pants-wearing, shovel-wielding ursine USFS propaganda-mouthpiece, you might ask? Simply this: the success of Smokey’s staunch anti-forest/wild-fire campaign (and Disney’s Bambi, for that matter) has resulted not in healthier forests, but in the conversion of woodlands (especially those Out West) into massive tinderboxes, by successfully applying a human moral code to natural processes, labeling forest fires as ‘bad’, and teaching impressionable younglings that they are to be prevented at all costs. In truth, these ecosystems evolved to rely on periodic burningsto remove undergrowth, enrich soil, and actually ‘activate’ certain kinds of coniferous seeds. By preventing regular burning (itself a key element in the economies and livelihoods of many successful, sustainable indigenous American cultures) from taking place, the Smokey campaign allowed scrub, undergrowth, and dead trees (a.k.a. FUEL) to build up, waiting for lightning or a clueless hiker to ignite it. The addition of climate-change-amplified drought and increased wind patterns into the equation simply means that the inevitable firestorms will be all that more intense.

Ready for the fun part? May I direct you to Chris Hedge’s latest missive, cleverly pointing out that the American/Corporatcrat system (although his position is completely applicable to the larger Western/Capitalist/Civilized matrix) currently takes the form of an unburned tinderbox. And like the woodlands of pre-Contact America, periodic burnings are required to ensure the health of the forest. The only question that remains is this: where will the spark come from?

Doomsday Preppers: Mike and Grayson

The episode’s final ‘preppers’ (and we’re using that term lightly here) are Mike Umberger and Grayson Smith of Maryland.

I guess they were hoping to get some publicity for skateboarding?

Mike is apparently a former Navy MP and Grayson is a…former Zen-Buddhist monk? There’s a lot of focus on how the guys seem like ‘polar opposites’, but that’s really just the angle the producers are spinning for drama. Ignore it.
Really, just be glad we’re seeing Young People with Little Money on the show for once, instead of the usual Middle-Aged-Guys With More Money Than Sense.

The show tries to pass them off as ‘slackers’–although that really hasn’t been a valid label since about 1995.
Their supposed fear is of a Third World War, which they describe by getting creative and actually giving specifics!: they predict that “by 2017, the Chinese will have cemented their place as the world’s superpower, and will quickly blockade the US&A”—something to do with too much of our food being imported instead of grown at home? At least it’s a novel idea!

And if you’re worried about blockading Chinese cutting off your foodstuffs, the smart thing to do isn’t to drop a couple grand on one-time-only foodbuckets *coughWiseCompanycough*, but to set yourself up to grow as much of your food as possible. And that’s exactly what these guys are starting to do: one of their fathers owns 100 acres, and so they’ve moved out of the city (which is a good move in itself) and started to farm it in their own way.

Right off the bat, Grayson and Mikelet us know that they’re “not looking to be traditional farmers”. Now, normally when people say they’re into ‘traditional’ things, that’s usually code for ‘old-timey’—which often happen to translate well into self-reliance (think blacksmithing, spinning, basketweaving, butter-churning, &c.
Here, the opposite is meant: when the guys say they don’t want to be traditional farmers, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want to keep Our Culture’s oldest tradition, totalitarian agriculture!
Hmm, what a novel idea! Says the average viewer: “But why would these bright young men not want to associate themselves with the most productive agricultural paradigm ever devised?”
I dunno, maybe because that approach has never been sustainable?, and because its current iteration amounts to little more than throwing petroleum and ‘natural gas’ (which, by the way, is a bullshit greenwashed term anyway—it’s fucking methane!) onto our fields to grow three main monocrops, all resulting in everything from topsoil loss and soil compaction, to eutrophication, loss of fertility, and greatly-reduced biodiversity? All of these translate to fundamental unsustainability. Especially given the fact that global petroleum production has likely already peaked, why we continue to operate under this model is beyond me. Well, it’s not really beyond me—I know exactly why we continue to do it, but the root causes are about eight thousand years old, and most folks these days seem to have trouble comprehending anything past about 50 years ago.

The dudes admit they’re different from most farmers another way: they don’t want to be part of the grid. There they go, using their brains again! Says the average viewer, “But why would they want to remove themselves from the most glorious organization of shelter, heating, cooling, electricity, water, and sanitation, again, ever devised?”
Perhaps because such wonders of the modern age are again, completely reliant on unsustainable nonrenewable resources (coal, petrol, propane, natural gas methane) and painfully indicative of Our culture’s belief in the One Right Way to Live? If you don’t believe me, why else do we build living structures that are identical (and identically connected to the Grid) whether in Arizona or Alaska? When did we exchange regional diversity for cheap two-by-four stickframing, drywall, and vinyl siding? (answer: probably around 1492, when White people showed up on the scene and set about replicating their beloved England/Spain/France, which required extirpating all the indigs and their pesky regional adapted-to-specific-environments lifestyles).

So yeah, Grayson and Mike intend to turn the traditional farm into a self-sufficient one. Exactly!, because sustainable/self-reliant living is real preparedness! Unfortunately, we’re seeing their self-sufficient farm project in its infancy, so they’re still taking baby steps. But hey, baby steps are better than none!:

To start out, we actually get to see them put together a COLDFRAME!
For you non-green-thumb’ed folks, a coldframe is basically a mini-greenhouse—a sun-warmed, glass-topped container that usually translates into about an extra month of growing time before and after the main season. They’re handy as hell.
Better yet, Grayson declares his bias when gathering building materials—“free is better!” WORD. A society that believes everything must be ‘new’ is one destined for failure (oh hey look, here we are!).
I also like the water-filled wine bottles—for thermal mass/solar radiators—that they stick in the ground inside the coldframe. That’s a good trick; I might have to steal that idea and implement it into my coldframe.

And it just keeps getting better, because HOLY SHIT, not only did the narrator actually say PERMACULTURE, but they even got a captioned definition!! This might just be a miracle—one of the most unenlightening shows on what has become a channel of regrettable, sensationalist programming actually gave its average viewers a like, 30-second glimpse of something actually worth learning about! I just wish they’d done it sooner on an earlier episode, because folks watching this might get confused and think that permaculture-in-action looks like gray, unproductive farmland.

It doesn’t.

But that land won’t be unproductive for long, because it just keeps getting even better, when they wheel out the CHICKEN TRACTOR!!! Grayson explains the genius of these moveable coops, which allow the birds to eat bugs (pest control/less feed to buy), scratch up (aerate) soil, and defecate (fertilize!) everywhere! If you move the tractor every day, pretty soon you wind up with light, fertile, bug-free soil, which is exactly what you want if you’re looking to grow all your own food.

Unfortunately, the producers apparently weren’t content with educating average visitors with three fantastic items of self-reliant living, and felt the need to remind us that we’re watching Doomsday Preppers. And so, for the mandatory producer-enforced stunt, the guys head into the woods to set up spikey booby traps to catch watermelons!

Yeah. It’s especially sad when you think about what they could have filled that time with—maybe the guys could have shown off their properly-carbon/nitrogen-balanced compost pile, or waterless humanure setup, or root cellar—who knows??

Being new transplants (gardening pun?) to the area, the guys throw a barn party, to meet their neighbors (building community is a huge part of offgrid living that we rarely hear about) and I guess maybe recruit folks, because let’s fact it—with 100 acres, these guys have all the ingredients for a kickass intentional community. There’s a Jack White-looking guy in a fur coat and derby hat at the gig, so I guess the producers told attendees to dress as outlandishly as possible?, because hey, let’s make sure nobody takes millennials seriously.

The experts give them just 51 points for five months’ initial survival. Ugh, experts: first off, these dudes aren’t even real ‘preppers’;
therefore, the form their ‘preparedness’ takes results from their operating on a completely different paradigm from the one the scoring system is designed to evaluate;
And finally: everyone has to start somewhere. If NatGeo sends a film crew back to their homestead in two or three years, I bet we’ll see some serious off-grid organic horticultural goodness. Best of luck, dudes!

Doomsday Preppers: Suzanne Strisower

This episode wraps up with a visit to the California homestead of Suzanne Strisower (on the right:).
© NatGeo/Sharp EntertaimentAccording to her blurb on NatGeo’s page, she “and her life partner Dave (on the left^) are both psychics. She was led to her hilltop home several years ago by her spirit guide.” Man, I’m infinitely thankful that they somehow managed to not touch on this angle at all in the segment—talk about dodging a bullet! (I don’t really have anything against New Age-y types, but I can only tolerate them in extremely small doses).
As it turns out, Suzanne is another one of these folks using her appearance on the show to pimp whatever she’s selling, which in her case is ‘spiritual life coaching’ with runes/crystals/energy-work/past-lives/astral projections/other such that-sort-of-thing. Honestly, if her page used Papyrus font, I would’ve had to punch something.

Anyway, Suzanne maintains a 30-acre plot near the Sierra Nevada mountains, which she is slowly turning into a complete self-sufficient homestead. As the show insists on pigeonholing her as a true prepper, she asserts that she’s getting ready for—surprise!—economic collapse.

However, as she explains, she’s definitely a ‘lifestyle prepper’ instead of a doomsday prepper—meaning that she’s ‘prepared’ only due to the simple fact that an off-grid lifestyle is naturally more self-reliant and therefore less affected by those potential shocks to the System that cause doomsday preppers to lose so much sleep.

In her obligatory declaration of evidence, she explains “The U.S. is doing things that are unsustainable for itself…”
Honey, I got news for ya—it’s not that the U.S. is doing unsustainable things: it’s that the U.S. as we know it is fundamentally unsustainable. And it’s not just us, it’s Our Culture’s entire six-thousand-year-old history of Empire which we’ve inherited and blindly continue to carry on. Read a book, wake up, recognize the bars of your cage, and do something about it.

So…as part of her continuing efforts to maintain self-sufficiency, Suzanne places a big focus on bartering. And why shouldn’t she?—her land supports fruit trees, nut trees, chickens, goats (dairy), and llamas (wool)—she’s got plenty of high-value goods.
After doing some bartering for bulk grains with a neighbor, she takes a trip to the local recycling center and does some more bartering with the gentlemen there. I was kind of surprised at how it played out—usually on the show when someone goes a-bartering, they edit it to make them look all kooky and like it’s so out-there to trade goods instead of pieces of green paper. But not this time—the guys haggle a bit and then go along with it. Suzanne winds up with a junked refrigerator, which is going to be turned into an industrial-sized food dehydrator? Awesome! As an avid dehydrator advocate, I’m really curious to see how that works. Surprisingly, they bring back the post-filming update segment (remember those??) so Suzanne can show off her repurposed-‘fridge-dehydrator. Looks like they just took the top off to let sun in, and put food on screen shelves, which seems like it would actually work pretty well. Thumbs-up.

As you’d expect from someone who wears a giant crystal-thing around her neck, Suzanne is adamantly nonviolent. And as you can imagine, that kind of puts a damper on her efforts to defend her homestead. She goes to the local surplus shop and consults with the guys there. Eventually they decide to hook her up with a paintball gun. I dunno about that. Sure, they sting and leave welts, but is that enough to dissuade hungry marauders? Wouldn’t bear mace or something be more effective?

In her ‘expert’ assessment, she’s given 49 points (four months). The experts’ breakdown—as usual—makes little sense, for example scoring her only thirteen points on water, even though she has over 9,000 gallons stored. Once again, those guys seem unable to accurately assess someone’s preparedness when that approach stems from a completely different worldview from theirs.

How-to: Hurdles for Hobbits

Well, it’s High Summer once again, and you know what that means for we horticulturalists: gardening time! As you might expect, high-quality fencing can really come in handy—for partitioning crops, keeping unwanted critters out, or keeping wanted critters in.
Given the general state of The Mess these days, I feel it’s only appropriate to take a second look at those skill-sets that fell by the wayside in the course of our culture’s drunk-on-fossil-fuels bender of industrialization. Of course, the ‘old’ ways of doing things were—by their comparatively low-impact nature—far more sustainable than the way most do things now, and so are definitely worth checking out.
And so, we’re going to learn how to make WATTLE!

But for starters, what is wattle?

1 a : a fabrication of poles interwoven with slender branches, withes, or reeds and used especially formerly in building.

Believe it or not, ‘wattle’ is one of the oldest building materials known to man. The technique dates solidly back to Neolithic Old Europe, and conceivably could even have been used in the Upper Paleo/Mesolithic (as a very field-expedient fire-reflecting or windbreaking addition to a shelter?).
Although these days, most people’s only exposure to wattle is in a basic history class (where it is paired with ‘-and-daub’, usually in an off-hand reference to medieval peasant building techniques – in the same way that cob or adobe construction might get glossed over as ‘mud bricks’), this valuable skill is luckily still kept alive by village elders in those quaint corners of Britain where petroleum culture never fully caught on or was resisted.

Traditionally in Britain, wattle was built of coppiced hazel and willow, but since I live in the Ohio valley, and strongly believe in using materials native to one’s area, I am very fond of using river-cane (genus Arundinaria). A grasslike relative of bamboo, this wonderfully sustainable resource once choked the banks and bottoms of old Mississippia in the form of nigh-impenetrable ‘canebreaks’, providing a number of valuable materials to the locals. From this one plant can be made such a diverse list of items useful to Mississippian Hobbits like myself: atlatl darts and arrow shafts, musical instruments, drinking straws, needle-cases (and other tube-y containers), bedding, roofing thatch, and our focus today, wattle!

Fresh-cut river-cane

Fresh-cut river-cane

The same quantity of river-cane, with the leaves removed. Stuff an old-time mattress with them!

What you’ll need:
-raw natural materials (hazel, willow, cane, basswood, &c): a big pile of long pieces (~eight foot or so) for the horizontal weaving, and a handful of thicker pieces for uprights (~four foot tall).
-a hammer or post-driver
-a suitable outdoor workspace
-a free hour or two
-an open mind

(Note: While ‘wattle’ is the general name for woven wooden material, our finished unit is known as a ‘hurdle’.)

While most traditional hurdlers will start from a mould-board (a long, slightly-curved piece of wood to hold the stakes), for my quick-and-dirty uses I found that pounding the sharpened uprights about six inches to a foot into the ground works just fine. This leaves about three or four feet above ground for the height of the hurdle. Keep about twelve to eighteen inches between the uprights, and I’ve found that mimicking the slight arc shape of a mould-board works well.
DIGITAL CAMERA
*In my examples, the uprights are either apple wood, or leftover bamboo. If you use something like apple, make sure to orient the stakes opposite to how they grew (the thinner end should be in the ground), as the nubs of pruned-off branches really helps to ‘lock’ each course of material in place.

Note: the benefit of using traditional woods like hazel and willow is that they are very bendable. This ability comes in handy every few rows, when you want to bend the excess length back upon itself to keep the outermost uprights in place. Unfortunately, cane doesn’t lend itself to this tricky maneuver very well, so if you’re doing a cane hurdle you may have to use a row of one of these more flexible materials every now and then.

Once your uprights are in place, there’s really not much to weaving wattle, and pictures are worth a thousand words:

wattle-weaveDIGITAL CAMERA
Basically, just keep alternating weaving your long pieces behind and in front of your uprights, and twisting the ends back upon themselves every few rows. In an hour or two or so, you should wind up with something like this!:

A finished hurdle of apple-wood

Or this!

A finished hurdle of river-cane, with the leaves left on.

Or this!

A finished hurdle of river-cane, with the leaves removed.

As you can see, attractive—or at the least, utilitarian!—wattle hurdles like these can be assembled quite easily with only a little time and effort, and they make great ‘primitive’/’traditional’/’rustic’ accents to a garden plot or small livestock paddock.
However, as easy as they are to make, the one thing required for building them which most folks might have trouble finding would be the raw materials themselves! For those of you in the States who don’t have access to a private woodland, you might start by asking around at your local greenhouse or nursery.

Doomsday Preppers: Joe and Wendy

This season’s next-to-last episode finishes up with a look at the Kansas homestead of Joe & Wendy.
© NatGeo/Sharp EntertainmentUnlike the rest of the one-name-only folks on the show (whose full names can be dug up in about five seconds), these guys have a minimal web footprint, and so while I only know their last name through personal correspondence, I’ll be maintaining their privacy in this post. If you really want to get ahold of them, the contact form at their website should get you a pretty quick reply.

I have to admit, when I found the barebones description of this profile a few weeks ago—“Joe is a nonconformist living in the backwoods of Kansas who has given up on modern life”—I was ridiculously excited. Personally, as a similar Kantuckee-backwoods-nonconformist who struggles daily with notions of integrating postpostmodern digital life and Luddite-primitivism, this down-to-earth guy is right up my alley.

Before we even see the family, our ever-dramatic narrator poses a number of very important questions with larger implications, but if I focus on those I’d never get to Joe! Best save them for a later essay in the off-season.

Joe’s purported single-issue in the segment is the “loss of the electrical grid, which will cause the breakdown of society, and change modern life as we know it”; and so we’re supposed to believe that Joe dragged his family out to the country because of a “fear of solar flares” which is some major BS. As Joe told me, “There’s any number of scenarios that could result in disaster – read the handwriting on the wall.”

The truth is, Joe had been ‘living the life’ our culture tells us we’re supposed to aspire to—house on a lake, working six days a week, with lots of ‘fancy toys’ but no time to enjoy oneself. At the same time, Joe began to take an interest in health and “what you put in your body”. This led him to learn about growing his own food and, having been inspired by the late Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living (a book which he credits with “making [an off-grid lifestyle] seem possible”), Joe used the fair chunk of change he’d made from almost seventeen years of laying fine wood floors to buy their rural property.

In order to keep their only debt their monthly land payment, they built their 1,000-square-foot strawbale home themselves for $10,000, (something which—even though it’s the first one we’ve seen on this show—NatGeo disappointedly neglected to point out).
Their home has no TV, so I’m sure most of the viewing audience is wondering what the family uses to switch off their brains and medicate themselves with mindless infotoxin every evening? Instead, they have lots of musical instruments, and spend a lot of time jamming!

In general, Joe and his family seek a happy medium between primitive and modern.
Despite their home being super-insulated, the summers in Kansas can still be pretty unbearable, so the house utilizes the ambient ground temperature for cooling, with a neat system I’d never seen before, in which pipes are buried several feet underground, running at a slight angle up to the house. This allows air to cool before small fans pull it inside the house. These fans—and their other handful of small appliances—are all powered by a 480-watt photovoltaic solar array.

Joe and the girls take a bath outdoors, which, if you haven’t tried it, is just about the only way. I’ve never done a cast-iron-tub-with-fire-underneath bath like they do—mostly because of the fine line between taking a bath, and being simmered. However, in the summer I do bathe almost exclusively outdoors. I lay a large piece of plexiglass or a whole windowpane over a tin tub in the north yard, and in a sunny hour or two the water is hot! Laying a full, coiled garden hose in the sun is perfect for rinsing. A 50-gallon plastic drum (what folks normally use for rain barrels) painted flat black on a raised platform makes a dandy shower-tower.

While their bathtub fire is burning, a caption reminds us that wood ash can be also be used as a soil additive, which is true. Also, if you pour water through hardwood ashes, you can make some very potent homemade lye! This comes in handy for making oldtime soap (as Joe and Wendy do), leather, lutefisk, hominy, &c.

As proper homesteaders, the family does its’ best to grow as much of their food as possible—in fact, Joe expects they will be able to produce 100% of their grains this year with their two-acre garden plot of rich, black riverbottom soil. In addition to growing most of their vegetables, they also have an orchard of young trees and berry bushes that will ensure a harvest of fresh fruits. All of this can be stored in the awesome rootcellar (unseen on the broadcast, of course; as he put it, “All the footage they actually used was the worst stuff!”).
In fact, about the only foodstuffs they still buy are things they can’t grow in their climate: bananas, sugar, and coffee. They also keep a nice variety of livestock, including a Jersey cow for milk, fourteen dairy goats (the ultimate survival animal), plus a number of chickens. Between all those critters and meat donations from hunting relatives, the family hasn’t had to buy meat in years (“and we probably wouldn’t eat what’s in the supermarket, anyway,” Joe said).

What the show tries to spin as a ‘bugout drill with no supplies’ is just a nature walk; as Joe explained it, “We’re already bugged out!” If they ever had to ‘bug out’, you can bet things were really bad everywhere. In other words, “It’s beyond prepping once you’re actually living it.”

The idea of a lifestyle that ensures that should a disaster go down, you wouldn’t notice much of a change is one with which I’m fully on-board. Of course, as we see, it requires a radical amount of lifestyle change, more than most fully-domesticated folks are probably willing to try. However, the rewards are infinite; physical and mental health are only the beginning. For what it’s worth, Joe and Wendy’s decision to home-school their girls in their environment is only natural, and probably comes pretty close to the way humans evolved to learn.
Personally, I’d suggest first cultivating ‘off-grid’ as a mindset first, and then as a lifestyle. But for any folks interested in shifting towards this kind of life, Joe suggests the best thing to do (besides taking a workshop with him, of course!) is to jump right in and “just start Doing.”

In their assessment, Practical Preppers point out that Joe has apparently made no preparations for security/defense, which—instead of meaning something like, ‘think about growing a living fence around your land’—as always, really means ‘think about acquiring the skills and tools to facilitate the easy elimination of life’. Although he doesn’t brag and show them off (like all the Type I preppers do), as a self-respecting homesteader Joes does have firearms. However, he explains that they “don’t want to make killing people our life’s focus; we want to be different.”
Right-on/Word./Fucking A, man.

The experts give them 70 points for twelve months’ survival—although Joe told me they were told their score was 78 points during filming. Furthermore, while they did submit a post-filming update, for some reason NatGeo didn’t air it, either. Hey guys, what gives?

Doomsday Preppers: Freda

The series’ next episode (‘Let ‘Er Rip!’) opens with a visit to the Virginia homestead of Freda Stemick.
fredasHer producer-enforced single issue is “Chaos, caused by an EMP attack due to World War III.” The way she sees it, “we are setting the stages worldwide” for a nuclear shootin’ match, involving “somebody shooting a warhead in our direction”. To which I have to congratulate NatGeo on their perfect timing, seeing as how this episode comes a few days after Pyongyang decided to ratchet up their saber-rattling, abandon their armistice, and cut all ties with South Korea.

Freda is apparently descended from some of the Hatfield clan, so because she happens to still live in the woods of Virginia (instead of say, downtown Chicago), the producers rely heavily on that angle to play up the ‘backwoods’/‘folksy’ nature of the segment; if I were just a little bit more rhetorically-minded, I could probably say something about how the show’s constructed image serves to reinforce Appalachian stereotypes. Or something.

It’s probably a good sign that one of the first things out of Freda’s mouth is a declaration that her family has lived in the “mountains and valleys” of Virginia for hundreds of years. Could’ve fooled me – that doesn’t sound very Virginian. Here in Kan-tuck-kee, we call ‘em “hills an’ hollers”.
She goes on to talk about her great frontiersy forebears who “hacked their way through the wilderness” (which, remember, was only a wilderness because the indigs who’d been tending the place like a garden for thousands of years had been wiped out).

Because she’s aware of the unsustainable nature of our just-in-time distribution system, Freda’s put a big focus on making her homestead as self-sufficient as possible, starting with food. She and boyfriend Mike Davis keep a nice garden to produce fresh veg, most of which it seems they home-can. However, I noticed that their jars are—as we’ve too often seen—just out on shelves, unprotected with no shock buffers or anything to keep them from smashing to the floor. Remember, just because you’re preparing for one possible contingency doesn’t mean a different one can’t sneak up on you: a tornado or earthquake or inland hurricane could always come along and turn your larder into a pile of un-canned food and broken glass.
They also keep a number of chickens, with the intention of using eggs as a compact, versatile form of true wealth. In other words, Freda is the first person on the show to advocate a Barrelhaven-style, eggs-based barter economy! Finally!

Because she fears that having an arsenal of firearms would make her a target for a gun-grabbing government in the event of martial law, she has a bare minimum of traditional armament—twelve gauge shotgun, nine millimeter pistol, compound bow. However, her ever-crafty boyfriend has made a set of ‘throwing stars’ with which he is apparently a pretty good shot. Despite being a fan of improvised and handmade equipment, I’m always wary of single-use (weapon-only) items. Like I’ve said before, I find hatchet-throwing to be a useful skill.

While they’re supposedly in a pretty isolated area (though I saw big trucks passing through the trees several times) they’re concerned about smoke from their cooking fires attracting attention, so they decide to test out their solar oven!
Now, this is a subject with which I actually have experience, and so, some thoughts on the subject.
It should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of solar cooking; over the years I’ve cooked or dehydrated bushels of apples, bananas, peaches, tomatoes, daylilies (even mini pizzas!), using nothing more than the free and abundant energy radiating from the nearest star.
I’m not really a fan of the design of the oven we see them use (it’s basically a wooden cold-frame with foil lining the bottom). Personally, I’ve used a folding, all-foil-covered reflector-based ‘Cook-It‘ to good effect in summer, but simplest is often better: some of my best dried peaches and daylilies were done simply with a cheesecloth-covered wooden frame, placed on a concrete slab, with a large pane of window glass over it. In fact, bugs don’t bother the food, because it’s actually too hot under the glass for them to stand it!

Now, for actual cooking like, a pot of maize and beans, I’ve never tried going solar. For that kind of meal, it’s usually recommended to use a dark-colored pot, inside a sealed, heavy-duty clear plastic bag, all placed on or in the oven for several hours.
However, for simply dehydrating food, this is hard to beat:

I don’t have a car, but I do have a solar oven that I occasionally drive.

The dashboard of a car with windows just slightly opened (to let the hot air circulate) can be an effective dehydrator from March on through October (in the northern hemisphere); hell, in high Summer it’ll get hot enough that you can do two batches per day!
Attentive viewers will note that while we see Freda put a small pig in the cooker, we never see the results of the experiment. As she explains, “we originally planned to put the pig on the campfire and bake bread in the oven but time got short for filming and the crew said “just throw the pig in the solar oven”… I took it out of there within an hour and threw it on the stove.”
However, as our caption reminds us—solar cooking really only works in areas with abundant sun: much of Africa comes to mind; the forested mountains of Appalachia—where the sun comes up about ten in the morning, and goes down about three in the day—do not.

With the food situation well under control, we learn that Freda’s homestead has not one, not two, but three sources of fresh water (a flowing creek, artesian well and pump well?). Mike puts on his diy hat again, and comes up with a turbine wheel to put in the stream to make some free hydroelectricity. I don’t know if it actually charged their batteries, but if so, it’s pretty sweet.

Then they show off their ultimate “perimeter defense weapon”, which as it turns out, is Mike’s homemade catapult…of sorts.
It’s counterweighted like a trebuchet, but the counterweight isn’t articulated, which gives it an arc of swing more like a mangonel. Either of those designs can be solid when they’re followed (back in high school, I built an eleven-foot oak treb that could throw big rocks about 200 feet), but unfortunately this design borrows from both types and doesn’t perform particularly well. Or maybe it would, if they’d thrown something with some weight (like one of the many pumpkins we see lying around?), instead of the negligible-mass ‘throwing stars’.
Actually, I think the best solution in this case might be for Mike to trade his “catapult” to Brent (to go with his “castle”!) in exchange for some long guns to properly defend their wooded homestead.

The experts say her food plan is great, now she should stock up on medical supplies. They give her 56 points, for seven months’ initial survival. I don’t know why, but that seems low to me. Anyway, it’s always nice to see self-reliant country folks instead of the gung-ho beans-n-bunkers types.