Wednesday, October 27, 2010

prickly pear juice

here in the high desert, the deep magenta fruit of the prickly pear cactus - called a tuna in spanish - is especially abundant this year, so we tried making juice for the first time ever. step one: harvest tuna very carefully using tongs (they have lots of tiny thorns, or glochids) step two: cut the fruits in half lengthwise and scoop out flesh with a grapefruit spoon or melon baller. step three: place flesh in a pot in the sun oven or on top of the stove with a little water, let cook down for an hour or so. step four: press pulp thru a food mill. step five: put back in the sun oven for another hour with some sugar (we used some mexican brown sugar). step six: enjoy over pancakes or ice cream, mixed with kombucha or in a margarita, or any other way you might use a wonderful sweet-tart berry-flavored syrup!

Friday, October 15, 2010

rainwater harvesting

we've edited together some footage we shot last winter into a 1 minute video to give a quick overview of how a basic rainwater catchment system works.

the amount of rain you can harvest will, of course, vary according to the area of your roof. there are formulas for this, but the basic gist is that a 1000 square feet of roof can provide 600 gallons of water for every inch of rain. there are also ways to use swales and berms to slow down and direct the flow of water on your land in order to create areas of higher moisture where trees and croplands can flourish. we learned so much from brad lancaster's book rainwater harvesting for drylands - one of our favorite reference materials.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

pilot lights

I was taking care of a friend’s house near Big Bend National Park a few summers ago and the usual daily temperature did not fall below 100 F until late in the evening. The kitchen was situated in the middle of the house and would not cool down at all. After considering every option I opened the top of the propane stove and found that there were three pilot lights running full time. Luckily I could turn them all off with a screwdriver. Although I had to light the stove manually, the temperature of that room dropped probably 10 degrees or so.

During the winter we sometimes leave the oven pilot light on, but only when we want the extra heat. Otherwise, leaving the stove pilots lights on not only heats up the kitchen, but apparently burns quite a bit of fuel, be it natural gas or propane.

There are many different types of gas stoves: some come with electric click starters and have a pilot light for the oven, some won’t allow the pilots to be turned off, and some you might not want to mess with at all. But under the right circumstances this idea can save quite a bit of energy, money, and make your kitchen more comfortable in the summer.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

bubble up

BUBBLE UP is a song dedicated to the current state of the world, with music by julian mock and lyrics by nick santoro.

you can stream the song by clicking on BUBBLE UP, or download the mp3 for 99 cents - please see our music store along the right-hand sidebar. all proceeds go directly towards supporting our work.

Music by Julian Mock
Lyrics by Nick Santoro

Bubble up, bubble up from the bottom
Bubble up, bubble up below.
Who poked this hole in the bottom,
Who poked this hole below?

Can’t stop this flow from the bottom,
Can’t stop this flow below.
Who poked this hole in the bottom,
Who poked this hole below?

Hey, stop sighin’.
Hey stop cryin’.
Hey stop drivin’.
Hey stop lyin’ to ourselves.

Don’t like this stuff on the beaches,
It’s stuck between my toes.
Don’t like this stuff in the wetlands,
This stuff has got to go.

You use this stuff from the bottom,
I use this stuff below.
We bought this hole in the bottom,
We bought this hole below.
Hey, stop sighin’.
Hey stop cryin’.
Hey stop flyin’.
Hey stop lyin’ to yourself.

Bubble up, bubble up from the bottom
Bubble up, bubble up below.
Who poked this hole in the bottom,
Who poked this hole below?
Can’t stop this flow from the bottom,
Can’t stop this flow below,
Who poked this hole in the bottom,
Who poked this hole below?

Hey, stop sighin’.
Hey stop cryin’.
Hey stop drivin’.
Hey stop flyin’ to yourself.

We killed life in the ocean,
We changed the life we know.
Who poked the hole in the bottom,
It’s us, don’t cha know?

We’re going down down down to the bottom,
There’s just one way to go
Stop using this stuff from the bottom
Or we’re all goin’ down below.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

1.3 kWh per day

we just got our electric bill for last month - we used an average of 1.3 kWh per day, for a total bill (including $9 worth of miscellaneous fees) of $14.11.

most of the electricity we use is consumed by our very efficient refrigerator (retrofitted out of an old chest freezer). the rest is used by lights, computers, a random battery charger, mp3 player, or other small items. our bill does not reflect the amount we use to do laundry - we take our stuff to the laundromat for washing, and dry it on a clothesline. we don't have a conventional hot water heater - all of our hot water is heated in a black hose and in a black tank on the roof of our bath house (dish washing and bathing is an afternoon activity). fortunately, we live in a temperate climate, so our heating and cooling needs are extremely minimal. that, and all of my studio equipment (sewing machine and sound equipment) runs off of a solar system that cost around $500.

when we move into the papercrete cabin we're building, we expect to be able to run everything we need off of a very small solar system (under $2000). we've mentioned this before, but we really feel strongly that an important step towards getting off the grid is to minimize usage and maximize efficiency as much as possible first, then buy only the smallest system necessary. it can always be added onto later.

Monday, May 31, 2010

fairy cactus?

the cactii around here are blooming like crazy. maybe it's because we got a lot of rain and snow this winter?

good year for pine nuts?

we're not sure if all the buds on the pinons mean it's going to be a good year for nuts. julian recalls a steady rain of pine nuts onto the tin roof 4 or 5 years ago, but we haven't seen any since. pinon nuts, while extremely delicious, have extremely hard shells which are incredibly difficult to crack.

pizza oven: work in progress

made of local clay and stone. after the coals burn down, we insert a shelf, on top of which we place the pizza stone. works GREAT, even without a door. we ate all the pizza (made with heavenly stewed tomatoes from our friend sandra's garden - last year's crop - and zucchini, onion, and garlic precooked in the sun oven) before we could get pix - promise to be more diligent next time.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

makers: DIY agents of social change

i've got another article published at truthout: makers: DIY agents of social change. it's inspired by joseph beuys' concept of social sculpture, and emphasizes the potential of acts of personal creativity to transform the world.

Friday, May 28, 2010

seeds for haiti

inspired by this article at truthout describing haitian farmers resolution to burn tainted seeds being donated to them by monsanto, i've managed to track down an organization in florida that is willing to accept donations of non-hybrid, heat tolerant, preferably organic seeds that they will deliver directly to haitian farmers and families in need. seeds can be home-grown, but will need to be labeled with seed type, approximate retail value, and estimated expiration date. commercially purchased seeds must not be past their expiration date.

please send seeds (tomatos, okra, squash, peppers - preferably summer crops that are likely to grow in haiti) directly to:

Friends of Paradis des Indiens, Inc.
PO Box 292234
Davie, FL 33329
attn: Chantal Bazelais

i've posted a page on facebook to publicize this seed drive. please feel free to forward this link or this message widely, and if you happen to have any contacts at garden stores or seed suppliers who might be interested, all the better.

thanks for any help you may be willing to provide!!

thanks so much,

Monday, May 24, 2010

spaceship earth: navigators wanted

today my latest article, spaceship earth: navigators wanted, was published in truthout. in it i outline why the climate debate needs to shift away from the ongoing argument over whether humans are causing climate change, and focus instead on the undeniable fact that POLLUTION is harmful to us all. there's no time left for bickering.

Friday, May 14, 2010

rice & beans cooked with the sun

A few years ago we became interested in trying to cook with the sun. Initially we'd planned to build something ourselves out of salvaged materials, but then some good friends gave us a Global Sun Oven as a gift. Since then we have used it practically every sunny, not too windy day, sometimes making three different dishes before the sun goes down. We cook rice, beans, bread, veggies, and cakes with this simple but very effective technology.

In the summer we now use 2/3 less cooking energy and the kitchen stays much cooler. We also use it extensively in the winter on sunny days. Although the cost of an "official" Global Sun Oven is way beyond our normal means, we must admit that it's a practical, efficient design. We also believe that a more economical and just as effective solar oven could be made with minimal material and know-how - search on "solar cooker plans" for lots of ideas!

For more recipes, please visit Alyce's Solar Kitchen.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

the french way to eat a radish

we harvested the first of our radishes yesterday (note to self: plant even earlier next year, and stagger planting so they're not all ready at once!).

to me, there's no better way to eat radish than to simply wash it and munch on it whole. leave it to the french to improve on this technique by adding...what else? butter and salt. what's not better with butter and salt?? as far as the french are concerned, rien du tout. this technique requires a bit of finesse, however, which i learned from the natives.


1. make a groove your whole radish with a beautiful knife.
2. pick up a pat of fresh butter (in our case, vegan butter - earth balance) on said knife.
3. slowly draw the blade through the groove, filling it with butter.
4. dip in freshly-ground sea salt.
5. bon app├ętit!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

julian's speakerwire shoelace


urine is a valuable source of nitrogen for gardens that is often overlooked. used correctly, it is not only a safe and extremely effective fertilizer, it saves water (if you have a non-composting toilet) and reduces effluent that causes eutrophication (over nitrification that causes algae blooms) of lakes, streams, and rivers. there's an excellent book out on the subject called liquid gold.

some rules of thumb: keep urine separate from solid waste (pee in a bottle or bucket), dilute at least 5 to 1 (more for tender plants and seedlings), use it right away (or it will turn to ammonia), water at the base of plants (not on leaves), and generally don't overdo it.

why let all that tea go to waste?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


we just planted two rhubarbs that we got from a local nursery for a couple of bucks each. a neighbor recently gave us some strawberry plants that he'd culled from his own patch, so getting some rhubarb (mmmm - pie...) suddenly seemed urgent. rhubarb can live a long time and likes a cool spot, so we picked a place on the north side of the house that we didn't have any other big plans for.

so far this year, aside from the usual greens and various herbs, we've planted a pear (a mate for another pear we planted two years ago), two apples, two blueberries (we've got one that's two years old and going gangbusters - they love acid soil, and that's what we've got), several jujubes (a great tree for our climate, native to asia. it bears little apple/date-like fruits and has a fantastic latin name: ziziphus zizyphus), sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and peanuts! we read that you can grow peanuts from plain old raw peanuts you can get from the grocery store. they need a long growing season...we've got we soaked about 10 nuts in rainwater for an hour or so and stuck 'em in the ground. peanuts are a great source of fat for vegetarian diets - we hope they'll work out.

tiny tea

we drink a LOT of tea, and it's one of the products we buy that often travels vast distances before it reaches our cup. we did a little research on what tea needs to grow, and decided that we have the exact same climate here as they do in darjeeling. well, maybe that's a little bit of wishful thinking, but we do have a good bit of elevation...

back in february, we planted 6 little tea plants (camillia sinensis) that we ordered from camillia forest nursery in north carolina. we planted them in a spot where they'll be right outside the kitchen of the cabin we're about to build, so they should get pretty constant moisture from graywater runoff from the sink. for the past few months we've kept them covered with blankets on cold nights, though when they get a little bigger, they should be able to tolerate the winter cold and frost. right now they are only about 6 inches tall - in a few years, they could reach as high as 15 feet. so far, they seem to be doing great!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

today's harvest

the last of the beets that have been growing in the greenhouse all winter.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

solar for under $500

my art studio (housed in a converted 1970's school bus) runs off of a solar set-up that can be installed for around $500. i've got three 15W solar panels that came in a kit with a charge controller, plus two deep cycle batteries, and a power inverter. i can run a sewing machine, lights, stereo, printer, and scanner (make sure if you're running computer equipment you spend a little extra on a "true sine wave" type of power inverter).

papercrete blocks arrive!

papercrete is a mixture of paper pulp made from recycled newspapers, water, cement, and sand molded into blocks. we are about to begin construction of a tiny cabin made from stone and papercrete bricks with a metal frame and roof. papercrete blocks are cheap to make, fairly light (about 25 lbs each when dry), fire resistant, and have an extremely high insulation value. we'll be posting much more about papercrete as we go along.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


tonic used to be the name of one of my all-time favorite music venues in new york city (now defunct, like so many things with value not commensurate with lucrativeness). i recently came to find out that it's also the name of a website that aims to share what it considers to be good news. the use half now campaign, and my lifestyle by association, were recently covered in an article called "living on less: one woman's life-altering decision".

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

cool fridge

About a year ago some good friends gave us a small chest freezer they had found next to a dumpster. The power cord was a little chewed up and there was a small amount of rust down inside. We replaced the cord, sanded down the rust and touched it up with some paint. After plugging it in to see if it worked we installed a Johnson Controls A19AAT-2C Thermostat.

The new thermostat has a small box that we mounted on the outside, and a tiny probe that we ran through the door seal and down into the lower part of the freezer. We set the new thermostat at 40 degrees and cut our electric use by 1/3 just like that. Since we have not permanently modified the unit it can still function as a freezer if necessary.

Since cold air sinks, a chest fridge does not lose its cool when opened. Our converted fridge is on the porch, so much of this winter it has hardly even switched on. Although it is not as easy to organize as an upright, using stackable baskets works fine.

This design can be ten times more efficient than an Energy Star fridge, and is an affordable way to reduce our energy needs. We were inspired by the good folks at Mt. Best to try this idea.

According to the EIA, refrigeration accounts for 14% of household energy usage.

(another picture of our fridge is below in the last post)

unconventional living

When it comes to finding ways to make your living situation more efficient, there are many options worth considering. Where the winters are long and cold, most of the year’s energy use may go almost entirely into heating. In hot areas much money is spent on cooling using air-conditioners. Either way, a well insulated small space is the most economical and efficient way to go.

You can retrofit an existing structure with better insulation/windows/doors, and possibly solar panels. Unfortunately many homes are so large that heating and cooling the whole building is very costly and wasteful. This is where the notion of the need for a $30,000 solar system comes from - it's true that a large system would be needed to support an inefficient lifestyle. One way to save on a large place is to heat or cool only the rooms in use.

Another option is to build an energy efficient house from scratch, using techniques such as passive solar (maximize winter sun use  and minimize summer’s sun), and using materials such as adobe, cob, papercrete, and other affordable high insulation materials. In this case the best place to start is to tune into the landscape, weather, and path of the sun. For instance, knowing where the dominant wind comes from enables you to incorporate this information into the plans. There are many good ideas like this in books on Permaculture.

Although there seems to be a certain stigma against mobile homes, an excellent option is to find a small, used, 16-30ft  travel trailer. Like the cabin of a boat, most travel trailers have been meticulously designed to utilize the small space wisely. They usually have a small refrigerator, oven, sink, and even a small toilet/shower. As for alt energy, many are already wired for 12V systems, with lights, water pump, etc., so hooking up a small solar array is not much of a leap.

These trailers can be functional in an RV park, as a guest house, or as a completely off the grid, compact, living arrangement. Add a roof for shade and rain catchment, and a porch to spread out a bit, a composting toilet,  and you have a cozy, inexpensive, very low energy home anywhere you want...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

change is dead, long live change

i'm very honored and delighted that an article i wrote has been published in, a journal i highly respect: change is dead, long live change.

monday march 22 - hummingbirds arrive!

11 days late. maybe they were around, just hunkered in until the chilly weather passed? we're still getting below-freezing nights, but the days have been in the 60s/70s.

Monday, March 15, 2010

how to make kombucha tea

Kombucha is a fermented drink brewed from a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). Homemade kombucha requires a bit of nurturing in the form of feeding and a clean, warm, sweet environment in order to thrive.

To get started you’ll need to ask a friend for a “kombucha daughter” – the “offspring” of a kombucha culture, which is called the “mother”. A kombucha culture, if sufficiently fed and nurtured, will cleave off a daughter once a month or so. The daughters can be given away, put in the compost, or – believe it or not - dried into a leather-like substance that can be used in the making of arts and crafts!

Get a good large (preferably glass) container with a wide opening and clean it well. The best containers are wide all around as opposed to narrow at the top. The old candy store style with the big glass lid, probably about 5 gallons, is perfect. My jars hold about a gallon.

Make the tea of your choice, add a cup or so of sugar per gallon of water while the tea’s still hot, then let it cool down (don’t worry about the high sugar content - the “mother” will digest it all!). We like to use fresh ginger tea that we make by chopping up a chunk of the root. Black or green tea works great too. Stir the sugar into the hot tea and let it simmer for a while so it gets dissolved completely. After your tea and sugar are well blended and cooled, gently slide the “mother” into the jar using non-metal implements if possible – the “mother” will float to the top soon if not immediately. Cover the opening of the container with a clean breathable cloth (a cotton dishtowel secured with a rubber band works great).

Store your kombucha in a cool dark place for about two weeks. Time ‘til your brew is complete will vary according to ambient room temp – in summer it goes much faster! Give it a taste after two weeks, and if it tastes pleasantly sweet-and-sour, it’s ready! If it’s too sweet, let it sit a bit longer. If you wait too long you’ll have vinegar - i've heard this type of vinegar is used traditionally in mexico...probably other places too! if you wait much longer past the vinegar stage, your "mother" will have no sugar left to digest, and will eventually perish.

To bottle: empty plastic water bottles or pint-sized jars work well. Fish the “mother” out of your jar – again using non-metal utensils - and put her temporarily on a clean glass pie plate (or, if you’d like to let her go dormant for awhile, store in a mason jar in the fridge until you’re ready to start again – a couple of inches of water and a few tablespoons of sugar will enable her to live in the fridge for about a month).

If you are using plastic bottles, pour in the tea, then squeeze the bottles a bit so they’re indented. Cap them with a dent – when the bottles un-dent, your kombucha will be delightfully fizzy and ready to drink! If you are using glass it’s a little harder to know for sure when they’ve reached perfect bubbliness – two or three days should probably do it, but they could be ready even faster in hot weather. Store the bottles at room temp ‘til they undent or after a couple of days, then put them in the fridge ‘til you’re ready to drink them.

If your kombucha produces foam or stringy things or brown spots that’s okay. Mold, however, is not good. If your batch has fuzz on it, smells “bad”, or is in any other way suspicious, throw it out and start again. If you’ve given a daughter to a couple of nearby friends, you’ll always have back-ups. Kombucha-making is definitely a community affair!

While the medicinal effects of kombucha are considered dubious by some, it would be hard to deny the wonderous feeling that comes from a creating a drink made from a living creature that provides you with a delicious substance in exchange for your enabling it to continue to thrive.

If you happen to be interested in a healing, nurturing, culturally symbiotic, political/philosophical movement inspired by kombucha, you may wish to peruse the kombucha party.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

sun oven cookery

we'll be posting much more soon about our experiments cooking with a solar oven. today we made pinto beans - one of the most healthy, inexpensive, delicious, and easy dishes under the sun! soon we'll be posting videos - but in the meanwhile, i'd like to invite you to visit me over at alyce's solar kitchen.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

welcome back hummingbirds

the old lady who lived down the road for 20 years swore that the hummingbirds always return to this part of far west texas from their annual migration on march 11. well, it's march 13 and they still haven't shown up. we're completely prepared - got the feeder filled and hung. being somewhat concerned about our tiny friends, today we decided to make a sign to encourage them back.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

magic bullet?

it's a common misconception that "green energy" technologies are costly, and that we need to wait until they become more efficient or less expensive before implementing them. nothing could be further from the truth. by reducing one's usage and identifying the most critical gadgets to keep running, one can tailor even a tiny solar system (our entire set-up cost less than $500) to run just the essentials, and build onto the system from there.

meanwhile, conservation of resources is the most obvious, simple, cheap, immediate, and constructive "green technology" we have available to us. what if we could cut carbon emissions, energy bills, and use of all non-renewable resources in half NOW? maybe we can...please come share your thoughts with the USE HALF NOW campaign group on facebook.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

operate at maximum efficiency

Understanding alt energy options can be pretty overwhelming unless you are an electrical engineer. Even then there are many factors that must be taken into account, such as location, type of building, size of system, cost, etc. A good place to start is to examine your own current usage and consider if there are ways to use less.

Most of us can cut our electrical, gas, and other energy usage immediately with minimal changes in habits or lifestyles. For the average household this means tracking down all the appliances and power strips that remain on unnecessarily. You may not realize that all those power strips, wall warts (oversized plugs), and anything with small lights that stay lit use that much energy, but cumulatively they can use $80-$100 per year.

The next step is to find the biggest energy drains in the house. This is typically anything that uses heating elements, i.e. electric stoves, electric hot water heaters, toasters, and especially clothes dryers. Other big draws are things that stay on constantly, like refrigerators and heaters. This is where finding solutions becomes trickier and requires a bit more creativity.

Here are a few ideas:
1) Electric hot water heaters can be turned to a lower temperature and/or put on a timer.
2) Electric kettles, preferably insulated, are more efficient than heating water on an electric stove.
3) A freezer can be converted into a fridge that uses one tenth the energy of most fridges.
4) During cold months, only heat the areas in use.
5) Hang clothes up to dry...inside the house or out.

A Kill-A-Watt meter allows you to plug any appliance in and monitor both the usage and the cost over any amount of time. These start at about $20 - an investment that pays off most when used and passed on to a friend.

A few reasons you might want to try these things:
1) To save money.
2) To reduce your carbon footprint. (on average,  51% of US electricity comes from coal)
3) To obtain useful knowledge that can be applied directly to solar/wind/turbine, other alt power systems.

The less energy required, the smaller, cheaper and more manageable an off grid system will be.

the hybrid art of obvious observation

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832) was a writer and philosopher who believed strongly that science and nature could not be understood solely on the basis of data derived by breaking matter down into its constituent parts. He believed instead in a kind of research based on intuition or empathy derived from prolonged, reverent observation of a thing in its whole form. He referred to this style of investigation as "delicate empiricism".

Gardeners who practice permaculture techniques notice patterns of prevailing sun, wind, and rainfall over long periods of time in order to help them live on and cultivate land in harmony with existing ecosystems. Permaculturists look for simple, sustainable ways to maximize productivity and efficiency while minimizing the amount of effort and resources expended.

The great poet Allen Ginsberg said, "Notice what you Notice."

Obvious observation is inspired in part by all of these things. And, last but not least, by the Quaker proverb, "Proceed as the way opens."