Sunday, August 14, 2016

The thrivalist life - progress report

When Anaheim peppers go red
Somewhat over four years ago I self-published a short (56 page) eBook entitled The Thrivalist: Beyond Survival in 2012. It's not a hot seller, but it got nice reviews from my friends. As one person put it, "This is not a survivalist handbook, with instructions on how to survive the next tsunami, two-day power outage, or bank failure. The author makes a distinction between survivalism -- gritting your teeth to endure an emergency til things are all well again -- and thrivalism -- living the good life every day in as self-reliant a way as possible for your situation."  (Thank you Laura!)

I don't just write it, I live that lifestyle.  I do it not because I think there's going to be an apocalypse or any particular Bad Thing beyond the tough things that have always happened (flood, drought, blizzard) where I live, but because I actually prefer the lifestyle.

 I always have.

I'm one of those people who, as a kid, was thrilled with stories of explorers and pioneers, of disaster victims who made it through. I didn't care if it was fact or fiction, or whether it was the past (the farther back the better) or the future. I was fascinated by those who would boldly go where no one had gone before and who planned on staying there and living the good life.

I yearned to live that way. I experimented here and there, trying out various ways of doing things. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize that I was building up to the kind of lifestyle I thought I could only dream about. It was even later when I decided that there was nothing stopping me from going whole hog with it if I really wanted to. I wouldn't be the first, after all.  But you know...

It would be a lot of work to just jump in.

Hence the gradual introduction of the various self-reliance practices over time at a pace that suited me. A very gradual pace. So gradual, in fact, that I didn't realize how far I had come until I took stock today.

For instance:
Off the grid and on solar for electricity. No utility bill – yay!
Solar hot water heating in the summer and even sometimes in the winter.
Composting toilet (home-made, not store-bought). I never have liked the idea of a big tank for holding sewage.

Gray water & rain catchment for irrigation .
Wood heat for the house in the winter and for water heating in the winter.

Propane: as little as possible.  I use it now only for cooking in the summer (not needed often, see below) because I cook on the wood stove in the winter. I've learned how to bake loaves of sourdough bread on top of a wood stove!
Mostly raw food diet. Much healthier way to eat, energy saving, too. Plus if I really want cooked food I can enjoy someone else's cooking in a restaurant in town (and someone else's dish washing!)

Garden… well. Maybe I shouldn't go there. This year I planted too much of the wrong stuff – why did I plant anything that requires processing to eat? And zucchini? What was I thinking? There's a glut of zucchini in the world. Fortunately my horses like zucchini. Anaheim chili peppers? Why? I probably will let them all go to red and then dry them. But my tomatoes are doing well, as are the potatoes, which I can store till winter when I want to cook since there's a heat source happening anyway. If I can figure out how to properly store potatoes for that long. The asparagus, which is now quite a few years old, gives me more than I want in the spring. The ants enjoyed the strawberries more than I did. Apples: Finally I got some on the trees this year! Four trees and a big total of three apples that I can see. Garlic: I failed to get it out of the ground in time, so the cloves will grow another year. Ditto for horseradish. My citrus tree (maybe a lemon, maybe a grapefruit) is growing like gangbusters. I started it from a seed. Who knows if/when I'll see fruit.
Plastering my straw bale house. Ummm. You'd be amazed how many people nag me to finish plastering.  Well. I did move the cement mixer closer to the house. That counts for something, doesn't it?
No refrigeration. Yes, it's true, and this is a biggie. For nearly three years I have not powered up my refrigerator, yet I've been able to keep foods cool that need keeping cool. And that's big because for over three years I have not had to have propane delivered. My huge, ancient (1940s model) propane fridge just isn't efficient enough for me to want to burn that much fuel to keep food cold. I'm getting a new (to me) smaller, more air-tight fridge delivered tomorrow. I'll hook it up to the gas line but I don't know if I'll ever turn it on.  It'll still work better to keep my food cool than the leaky old one will.

I could do more. I'm far from self-sufficient. But the end of the world as we know it hasn't arrived yet. I have the leisure to do whatever I want – or not do it. I have time to mess around with possibilities, and to learn as I go, and to enjoy the process because I don't have to do any of it! 

Sure, many of my experiments have failed, but I keep at it – not because I have to but because it's fun. And while it's more labor intensive to live this way,  the trade-off is it costs less to provide myself with what I need to live comfortably. It means a lot to me that I can work less to earn a buck and have the time to work on my own stuff.

Accidentally vegan

If you aren't going to use a fridge to keep foods cold, you have to be careful about your food choices. Cooked/processed foods, dairy and meats don't keep unless they're down below 40°, a temperature I can maintain in the winter but not in the summer. Fresh foods (fruits and veggies) can do fine with that if they're chilled overnight (are you wondering yet how I do that?)

Not keeping prepared foods, dairy, or meat at hand, I wind up eating vegan a lot. Since a vegan diet is not mandatory for my purposes, I don't mind it at all, especially since there are so many great vegan recipes out there these days.

Last week I cooked potatoes. Sometimes I go on a potato-only diet, but that's another story. Today I realized I had 4 leftover whole ones that I wasn't really that enthusiastic about eating plain., so I whipped up a tasty potato salad. It's accidentally vegan. Here's what I put in the dressing. Note: I like things tangy.

Vegan potato salad
  • Salt
  • Ground pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Parsley
  • Green onions (chopped)
  • Dijon mustard
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Land of Enchantment spice mix (yummy - but chopped garlic or garlic powder will do if you don't have any LOE)
  • A few pounds of cooked potatoes (I leave peels on but you do what you want)
Dice the potatoes and cover with the dressing, mixing lightly to get all surfaces coated. Let it sit half an hour for the dressing to sink in.  Eat.

Swamp cooler: chilling foods without a fridge
Warning:  This is something that works best in lower humidity

Evaporative coolers (swamp coolers) are a real thing. While I've never actually bothered with a thermometer, I can tell you that my swamp cooler system can cool objects lower than the lowest air temperature overnight if the air is dry enough to evaporate liquid from the surface.

Why pay money for propane or use electricity if you can use air to do the work?

Here in the arid southwest swamp coolers work just great, whatever the scale. At its most basic, you put your beer bottles in a bucket of water and keep it out of the sun. The beer won't get cold but it will be cooler than the air, because the water surface evaporates  Any time liquid evaporates it removes latent heat from the surface of that liquid. It's what happens when you sweat.  Sweating works best when it's not humid and the same is true with swamp coolers.

Taken one step further, a metal bucket that is in a pan of an inch or two of water will keep the objects inside the bucket cooler than if the whole thing was sitting in a dry pan. And if you put a moist cloth over that bucket, making sure the edges are in the water so that the cloth stays moist, the contents of the bucket get even cooler because there will be more surface area for evaporation and the metal bucket will not insulate whatever's in it from the cooling effect.


You do need to be disciplined about this, but then most of this thrivalist stuff calls for some discipline. You have to remember to set up your cooling system once the sun goes down and the air temperature starts dropping, and then you have to get up in the morning and get your food into the fridge before the sun rises and starts warming everything up.

I also cool jugs of water this way and put them into the fridge to create thermal mass. In the summer my system works even when nighttime temperatures don't drop as far as I want. In the winter, of course, it works really well.  

But remember, kids:  this kind of primitive swamp cooling is only cool enough for living foods (whole raw fruits and veggies). Don't be stupid about it. Food poisoning isn't fun, especially if you've got a composting toilet to deal with.