Picture this, if you will…An old woman, looking at the ground, is mindlessly walking loops of a communal living room, occasionally muttering something unintelligible to herself. Another old woman, still in her dressing gown at lunchtime, is sitting at a table hunched over a bowl of unidentifiable pudding, crying ceaselessly while she asks someone to “Make it stop.” An old man with a birds nest of dark grey hair falling to his shoulders (one assumes, from how well the residents are cared for, that this is because he’s a grumpy old bugger and his temperament makes a hair cut impossible) asks me, with deep concern, if I can please explain why he has had a tooth removed.
For a while, I didn’t want to go and see Mum. It was too hard. Our relationship too sticky, the rest home to confronting. But then things shifted and softened and I found myself wanting to see her. And I thought to myself, with – in retrospect – a tiny amount of hubris, that finally going to see Mum was easy. Um. Yeah. Until it wasn’t.
Yesterday, I found myself doing loops around the dementia unit beside Mum not knowing what to say to her. Not that anything I say makes sense to her, it’s more about me being there and the sound of my voice, of course, but suddenly I ran out of things to talk about. I found myself wishing desperately that I had a sibling there to chat with while we walked alongside Mum. Someone to share this load with. But I didn’t, so I left. I went and sat in the car, cried quite loudly for a few minutes, was given gentle nudges from both collies, pulled myself together and drove home. Only to get grumpy with Adam because he commented, as we tried to listen to an interview together, that “I wasn’t really there”, to which I replied “I had a really hard visit to Mum but I don’t want to talk about it” because I really, really didn’t know what to say.
A couple of weeks ago, at the end of a massage, my very lovely therapist was brave and wholehearted enough to not only acknowledge this post about the miscarriages but cry with me. She. Cried. With. Me. And I cannot begin to tell you how healing that was. But also how revealing it was to suddenly become aware of how much I’d needed that reflection. It was the first time in seven years since I lost the babies that someone has reflected my grief, with unapologetic and unembarrassed tears, back to me. The first time I really felt I had company in my grief.
Grief is mostly a solitary thing in our culture, at least that has certainly been my experience. We grieve, mostly, alone. Behind closed doors, we hide it’s wholeness, it’s all consuming nature, from others, even those closest to us. Grief is awkward, it makes us vulnerable, inarticulate, tricky, puffy. There is a statute of limitation on grieving, after a certain time we’re expected to have pulled ourselves together and if not over it, at least have the good manners to hide it so it doesn’t make others feel awkward.
And yet awkward it is. Grief is messy and unpredictable, if often arrives unannounced. It is also very physical. If we don’t express it and instead we shove it down, grief resides somewhere in your body until one day – and that day could be a decade away – you accidentally squash a snail or drop a full jar of tomatoes on the kitchen floor and burst into uncontrollable sobs.
I am aware that friends of mine who live (or even those who are American and live elsewhere) in the United States are currently grieving for their county. I am aware that friends are navigating their way through the slow loss of parents to disease that comes with old age. I know that family and friends are grieving loved ones taken far too quickly by cancer. Others are grieving life changing transitions forced upon them by circumstance.
Lately, sitting in quiet conversation with Adam, my parents-in-law, and some local friends, we’ve been sharing our grief about our dying world. We’ve come together to take part in an online conflict transformation summit but we’ve inevitably touched on the grief we all feel, and don’t quite know what to do with, while we watch ecosystems collapse as humanity accelerates towards the edge of the cliff. And while it is important, essential, wonderful (pick a word) to maintain hope, it is – I am increasingly sure – necessary to be true to your grief and find a community who can not only hold space but share it.
Are you grieving?
Do you feel seen?
Is there someone sharing your grief?
Are you able to share the grief of someone else?…
“After a while, though the grief did not go away from us, it grew quiet. What had seemed a storm wailing through the entire darkness seemed to come in at last and lie down.”
Seven years ago this evening I was lying, very uncomfortably, in a bed in the maternity wing of the Wellington Hospital having the first of three miscarriages. Adam’s still grumpy about the fact that the only thing they could find for me to eat was white bread and vanilla ice cream. As I lay there, ignoring the little pot of Tip Top’s finest and thin white bread which was tired enough to be curling up at the corners, a very dear friend was in a room at the other end of the ward with her brand new healthy baby. The last thing in the world I could bring myself to do was let her know I was there, miscarrying.
Every year, on the anniversaries of three babies lost – 25 June, 22 September, 31 December – both Adam and I are tender. He’s currently lying by the fire, I’m sitting here, self-medicating with dark chocolate and wondering how vulnerable I feel like being this evening. Do I want to raise the uncomfortable subject of miscarriages again? I do, because here’s the thing…we still don’t talk about them enough.
Women are left to process the grief and shame and sense of failure in losing a baby largely alone. There are myriad ways of experiencing infertility as a woman. I can’t speak to Adam’s experience, although I do know his is equally lonely and complex. Amongst all of my friends – and I am so lucky to have so many wonderful ones – there is not a single woman that I know of who shares my reality of recurrent miscarriages (and the subsequent hormonal rollercoaster) without a successful pregnancy to follow. Miscarriages without the happy ending.
We make our peace with how life turns out, don’t we. As you’ll see from the photos I post every few months of our life here at Peka Peka, it is beautiful. But it is not idyllic. Life is messy and behind the glorious images of sunsets there are trips to see Mum in dementia care, the wild ride of perimenopause (can we please talk about that too?!) and summoning the energy and enthusiasm to be a part of another conversation about the shared reality of motherhood while I sit there, very quietly, managing my grief and irrelevance. I may well have friends who read this, who have been aware of my journey over the last seven years, who can’t quite stop themselves from thinking “Jeez, is she still caught in that story? Hasn’t she finished grieving?” No. The answer is no. In the same way I still really – if not nearly so acutely or relentlessly – miss my Dad, I am still very sad we don’t have children. I wish we hadn’t lost our babies. I wish I didn’t feel so alone amidst the sea of mothers with children and their stories.
I’m posting this not because I want to check my FacebookDo tomorrow morning and see lots of notifications of comments of support. I’m posting this for two reasons. Firstly, if by any chance you share my reality and would be willing to have a conversation about it, I would truly, truly love to hear from you. Secondly, if you have experienced the grief of miscarriages, I would like to honour that grief. Whoever you are, wherever you are, in whatever situation, know that you are not alone. (P.S. Adam tells me I’m quite brave about having hard conversations and holding space for grief, so if you would like to talk, message me, I’d be honoured to hear from you.)
P.S. I wasn’t sure which photo to include, so chose the one from my library closest to the 25th of June, 2013. Adam and our fuzzles.
At the beginning of this year, I made the decision to close ElementAll. Increasingly I felt torn between channelling my energy into the development of our small regenerative farm and community, and this small clothing company. As I looked out into an increasingly unpredictable world, in which we’re all navigating the chartered territory of climate change, producing a very small range of locally produced merino garments didn’t feel like the best path for me. Then Covid-19 happened.
Thanks to several weeks of lockdown, we found ourselves with time (how privileged my husband Adam and I have been to ride out isolation in this place, in safety and comfort) to reevaluate the way we’re living our lives, to reconsider our priorities. Time and a slower pace created some key pieces of self-awareness which have shifted my relationship to ElementAll.
The first realisation was that it turns out I’m considerably more extroverted than I thought I was. Which is apparently no surprise at all to Adam, but it was to me. I’m an only child, I absolutely need time to myself, but it also would seem that I need very regular connection (in person, Zoom won’t do) with people. This is directly relevant to ElementAll, as one of my seemingly relentless struggles has been the isolation. Doing it all myself, but most importantly ‘by’ myself, has made commitment hard.
In an attempt to solve the problem of feeling isolated (at least for the next few months), we’ve set up an informal co-working space in the living room of what was, until recently, our BnB. Serendipitously, a dear friend has moved to Waikanae from Melbourne for a new job and Covid-19 means she can now work remotely two days a week. However, her scrumptious 18-month old daughter (delightfully, my goddaughter) makes doing this from home a challenge. Solution? She now comes up here. It works for her but also having the company makes a very real difference to my motivation and enthusiasm.
The second key realisation I had during lockdown was the importance of logistics in getting things done. Wonders will never cease, you say, but bear with me. Adam, an experienced manager and facilitator, observes that people generally favour one of three ways of approaching problems. The first is strategic (looks at the big picture, ‘where are we going’), the second is tactical (how to deploy resources to achieve the strategy) or the logistical (who needs to do what, when and then the actual doing). I tend to address problems strategically – looking at the big picture is my happy place – then to a lesser extent tactically. Logistics, the actual doing of the thing, is the least interesting part of the puzzle for me and consequently my weaker muscle.
Stay with me while I tangent briefly. Many years ago, in a former job as a policy analyst for the Pharmacy Guild of NZ, I spent six months working on pandemic planning for the Avian Flu. As soon as Covid-19 began to take off in Italy, my experience suggested that this could be very serious, even for New Zealand. As we moved through Level 4, I’d spend a couple of hours every day reading long-form articles from science writers and following family doctors, other scientists and experts in public health online. In addition, it turned out a friend was working as a key member of the team coordinating New Zealand’s pandemic response and we’d often talk as she walked home at the end of the day.
As I read, listened and digested a lot of information, it dawned on me that the logistical response to Covid-19 was critical. The necessary strategy was fairly clear, the tactics super important, of course, but what was absolutely essential was a well-executed logistical or operational response. No good having a tonne of PPE squirrelled away in a warehouse somewhere if it’s out of date or doesn’t reach the medical staff on the ground. No good having an apparel company if I’m not attracting customers, ordering fabric and capturing essential data in Excel spreadsheets. Understanding the importance of logistics has reframed my relationship with ElementAll, which means that instead of focusing on the big picture, I’m going to spend three months on the nuts and bolts.
The third realisation, triggered by a shift in my relationship to logistics and a growing awareness of the impacts of climate change, is that it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by how much there is to do. I’d convinced myself that a very small sustainable clothing company was simply not enough and that it existed in competition with the regenerative work we’re slowly doing here at Living Ground. But of course, it’s not in competition, it can fit elegantly into our lives here. At this point, I honestly believe that every little bit each of us can do to make our corner of the world more sustainable (ideally regenerative) is worthwhile. We all still need good clothing.
My original intention with ElementAll was to create the most sustainable, resilient, and ethical little clothing business I could, and that hasn’t changed. The garments are still made in Wellington, by Jan and Marilyn at Stitch Products. While I dearly wish I could buy merino that was guaranteed to be New Zealand merino (NZ produced textile from NZ sheep), at this very small scale, I can’t. However, the ZQ merino I purchase from The Fabric Store is Australasian and ZQ prides itself on being the world leader in ethical wool. The Fabric Store – as ‘middle women’ (in the case of the lovely folk I deal with) – is a New Zealand owned and operated business about which I only have good things to say (click here for their statement on sustainability).
As I launch myself back into ElementAll, logistics are my priority. I’ll continue to investigate my supply chain and work to make it even more sustainable, ethical and resilient. There are new designs in the wings (long-sleeved tops just waiting for a handful of samples and some promotional photos) for both women and men. I’m excited to share the stories of some of the remarkable women who wear ElementAll.
In the meantime, I’ll sign off with a bit of house-keeping, then a thank you note. The price of ZQ fabric is higher than the premium merino I’ve used before and the margin for the Fabric Store is smaller, consequently, you’ll see there is an increase in price for the cardigans. While the tunics remain at $150, the cardigans are now $195. You will also see that the colours have been updated. The ZQ range is larger than the 11 listed on the ElementAll website, and you can find the full range of ZQ colours here – if you’d like to order a garment in one of the colours we haven’t listed, just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, I’d like to say a very, very big thank you to those of you who have remained ElementAll cheerleaders. Jo, Adam, Anna, Emily, Emma, Tina, Stephanie, Ray, Kath and Vanessa. Thank you. Your support means more than I can say.
I don’t often get angry online, the mere thought of it seems fruitless and feels exhausting. But I’m having a harder and harder time keeping my silence.
Politically I’m a boring one-trick pony. The only thing I deeply care about is how we treat our planet’s ecosystems. As far as I can see, however terrible the other issues might be, everything else can wait.
That aside, this is about something else.
As a country, we just went through something amazing. For the first time in my nearly 50 years, I saw my government work through something big and hard together. A few weeks ago, a friend who was very involved in NZ’s pandemic response said that she thought the “NZ government would be kinder for years because of COVID”. Based on my experience in the crucible of the film industry, this makes instinctive sense to me. The bigger the crisis, the tighter the team afterwards (provided the crisis doesn’t blow the team apart).
As a country we pulled together, temporarily shelved our differences, and got on with what needed doing. No doubt it was an imperfect response, but it was an effective one. NZ is one of the few Western countries with a success story about how we collectively responded to COVID. For one of the few times in my life, I’m proud of how my country collectively responded to something important.
There are two basic ways we can individually and collectively act. We can be Breakers, or we can be Makers. Making is the work of life, it is what we are all capable of, and hopefully, what we all aspire to. Life, powered by the Sun, is the only force on our planet that resists entropy. For as long as the Sun heats our planet we can be Makers. In my opinion, Wise Making is the noblest of acts and is within the reach of everyone.
As a country, we just performed a collective and heroic act of Making.
I know that lockdown was somewhere between stressful and traumatic for some people, but my experience of lockdown was nearly ecstatic. Without kids and with a part-time job I could do from home, each day stretched out gloriously in front of me. But the only reason I could relax and enjoy those days was that I felt safe. I felt safe because our government seemed to be responding in a sane way.
Was the government response perfect? Of course not, but there was approximately zero chance that it would be. Even if, against all the odds, we stumbled into the “perfect response” we would have no way of knowing that.
I’m all for constructive critique. Let’s talk about how we might be able to do it better next time, but let us also honour what we just accomplished. Let us honour the people who did the work, who put our collective safety before seeing their families. Let us remember all the people who weren’t on TV who worked invisibly to put in place systems which kept us safe. Let us remember that nobody in NZ had ever done anything like this before, and while we could spend hours on Twitter comparing the details of different countries responses, they were up to their eyeballs dealing with the messy reality of actually implementing lockdown in our wonderful and deeply imperfect world.
Now, back to anger. Here’s where I’m about to throw in my towel out of disgust. Where I loudly declare that Project Humanity deserves the ignominious end which it is working so tirelessly to achieve.
At the end of this beautiful and imperfect act of collective Making, some of the leaders of our country are acting with deliberate malice to destroy what we built. Instead of blinking in astonishment at the unlikely and beautiful thing we just collectively Made, they are trying to tear it down. Instead of joining in and contributing to this act of Making, they are deriding their opponents. Instead of telling us about their vision for all the wonderful things we can Make, they are lying and manipulating facts.
And we, the punters at home, are going along with this in soul-crushing numbers. We, the ones who just got handouts to keep our households and businesses alive. We, the ones who literally don’t know a single person who died of COVID (with condolences to the friends and families of the 22 people who died of COVID in NZ). We are cheering and jeering as we tear down what we built.
What’s it going to take for us to collectively and individually realise that the only worthwhile thing we can do with our brief and precious lives … is be a Maker?
This lockdown I got a wild hair up my ass and decided that it was time to move to Linux. I spent a ridiculous amount of time figuring out how to extract data from my Mac and (coming in a future post) researching alternative Linux apps.
Below is the “good bits” version of what I learned. Should you decide to escape the Big Apple one day, hopefully it will help smooth your way.
Almost everything I write starts in Notes. I have many hundreds of notes going back to the 90s. It might be my most used app. Getting my notes out of Notes was the most frustrating part of this process.
As best as I can determine, the only way to get everything (text, formatting, links, folders and attachments) out of Notes is to do it by hand. This is extremely lame and makes me very reluctant to ever use Notes again (which sucks because I really like Notes).
By far the best solution I could find is the free Exporter by Chintan Ghate, but there are caveats:
If you want to get attachments you must be running macOS 10.15 (Catalina). Even then it will only export images (annoyingly this doesn’t include scans).
Embedded links are lost. The URL vanishes and only the text remains.
It will only export to Markdown (which is what I wanted).
This was adequate but frustrating. Before exporting I manually removed URLs from linked text and copied them into the text of the note, converted scans to PNG and moved all the PDFs to iBooks.
If you need a more automated solution the only remaining possibility I can think of is Keyboard Maestro.
I expected this to be the most unpleasant part of the migration. Thanks to Rhet Turnbull’s open source tool osxphotos it was easy. He was incredibly friendly and responsive, fixing a bug and adding two features for me. This is open source at its most wonderful. A few details:
osxphotos won’t download photos from iCloud. Before you can use it, all your photos must be on local disk.
My HD is too small for all my photos, so this meant that first I had to move my photo library to an external drive.
Make your life easy and download the Mac executable rather than mess around installing the Python modules. You want the latest file that ends in “…MacOS-exe-darwin-x86-64.zip“.
osxphotos is very configurable. It will export your photos in nearly any way you can imagine. Here’s how I ran it:
I’m still grumpy that Microsoft bought Wunderlist and ruined it. Anyway, I don’t like Reminders.app very much but I use it because I haven’t found anything “better enough” to bother.
I haven’t looked very hard, but I didn’t find a way to get my data out. I will probably just cut and paste the pieces that matter.
I used to keep all my PDFs and ePubs in iTunes, it was weird but worked great. Then iBooks ruined everything. iBooks is less infuriating but I’ve only stuck with it out of inertia.
Until 10.15 (Catalina) there was no way to export your books from iBooks. Fortunately, a bit of hunting revealed that they were stored in the below two locations. Make sure that everything is downloaded from iCloud before copying them out of ~/Library:
If you are running 10.15 (Catalina) you can simply drag and drop your books to a folder.
I haven’t yet dared to check if years of lovingly curated metadata has survived the export.
Mail, Contacts and Calendar
My email is on Gmail, my contacts and calendars are on iCloud. Linux supports both of these so no need to change anything.
Stay tuned for a future episode about extracting myself from Google and iCloud.
iTunes is the shining light in all of this. It’s always done a fabulous job of making both data and metadata easily available. Just copy your music to where ever you want it and everything should work fine.
I had a bit of fun with this and set up a music server for the house. Centralising our music on the server means that anyone in the house can play all of our music. Music can be played either locally on a laptop/phone or through the house stereo.
I’ve always had a soft spot for cross-platform apps. There aren’t as many good ones as I’d like, but it’s becoming more common again which is great. Below is a list of the apps I use which run on both macOS and Linux:
There seems to be an emerging consensus that the choices we make around food, and thus agriculture, are important. That the individual decisions we make about food have planetary consequence. These dietary beliefs are coalescing into words like conventional, organic, vegan, regenerative, locavore and paleo. Each of these represents a different view of our collective situation and suggests different choices if we wish how we eat to be of benefit to our world.
I’d like to begin with what I hope is an uncontroversial starting point, and then explore a little from there.
If humans want to continue to exist (in anything approximating our current population) we must provide for ourselves from within healthy ecosystems.
Okay, so what’s an ecosystem?
An ecosystem is a community of organisms living in a specific place. Ecosystems are dynamic and constantly changing. Species disappear and new ones arrive. Sometimes ecosystems “die” and sometimes ecosystems are “born”. Ecosystems can look like almost anything: a coral reef, a desert, or a forest.
Okay, so how do I know if an ecosystem is healthy?
The amount of life that an ecosystem can support indefinitely is called its carrying capacity. The maximum carrying capacity is determined by the resources and constraints of the place the ecosystem occupies (eg. sunlight, water, temperature, minerals, shelter, pollution, wind etc).
Ecosystems are healthy when the amount of life they contain is near the maximum carrying capacity of the place they inhabit. If the amount of life within an ecosystem is below the maximum carrying capacity and steadily decreasing — we can think of that as a “sick” ecosystem. If the amount of life is below the maximum carrying capacity and steadily increasing — we can think of that as a “healing” ecosystem.
Life within ecosystems is organised in complex food webs. As ecosystems heal not only will the quantity of life increase, but new species will arrive and new interactions between species will occur. As the complexity increases so does the quantity and availability of food. In this way the amount of life the ecosystem supports will spiral upwards until it eventually maxes out at the carrying capacity (where the underlying limits of the place it occupies are reached). This allows us to use complexity as an indicator of ecosystem health.
As ecosystems heal they increase in complexity. As ecosystems sicken they decrease in complexity.
To assess ecosystem health you need to have some idea of its carrying capacity. Imagine an exposed, rocky hilltop compared to a sheltered, warm river valley. At full health, each might have a dramatically different carrying capacity and complexity. This can be confusing because a healthy desert ecosystem might be less complex than a sickly woodland.
Okay, so why are healthy ecosystems important?
As ecosystems degrade, the amount of life they can support decreases. If there are more humans than the ecosystems of the planet can support, then eventually humans will die back to a population that the ecosystems can support. Since human population is projected to continue growing (at least for a few more decades), it would be sensible for us to focus on increasing ecosystem health. We are especially vulnerable because many of our industrial practices create pollution which further damages the ecosystems we rely on.
The focus of this article is about food, but humans require more than food from ecosystems. In addition to our needs for fuel and fibre, healthy ecosystems also regulate temperature, create rain, reduce flooding, mitigate pollution, pollinate crops, etc. These are sometimes referred to as ecosystem services.
In a broader context, anthropogenic ecosystem degradation is not a new phenomenon. Humans have been damaging ecosystems for millennia. Perhaps the first major shock began about 50,000 years ago as we started hunting most of the world’s megafauna into extinction. Then about 10,000 years ago, our early attempts at agriculture began turning some of our planets most abundant ecosystems into deserts.
One of the unfortunate realities of long-term ecosystem degradation is that every generation sees their degraded experience as normal. It’s hard to comprehend what was lost before we were born, let alone what was lost before our grandparents were born. For most of us, the loss over the last 50,000 years is unimaginable.
Despite this long history of destruction, there is also a long history of humans living skilfully within ecosystems. All indigenous cultures, including indigenous European cultures, developed rules and customs which enabled them to live in harmony with the ecosystems on which they depended.
Okay, so what does any of this have to do with farming and food?
At this point I hope that we can agree on two things:
that healthy ecosystems are essential to a future of healthy humans, and
looking at the complexity of an ecosystem is a way to evaluate ecosystem health.
Agriculture was developed on the floodplains of the world. The regular floods brought nutrient-rich sediment which makes floodplains some of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet. Most agricultural crops require ecosystems as fertile as the floodplains we originally cultivated them on. While carrying capacity and complexity can vary dramatically between ecosystems, when talking about agricultural ecosystems we can assume a degree of uniformity because the crops have similar requirements. By comparing the complexity of different agricultural production systems, we can get a sense of the ecological health they engender.
Below are some photos typical of conventional production. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?
Now let’s look at some photos of alternatives. How complex are these ecosystems? How many species can you see?
You can’t see the climate, pollution, soil type, microbes, insects or the details of plant species in either set of photos. However, even without those details, you can get some sense of their health and how close they might be to their potential.
All conventionally produced crops use a mixture of monoculture, tillage, irrigation, fertiliser, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Combined, these techniques kill soil microbes, cause soil erosion & compaction, cause drought & flooding, kill vast amounts of wildlife and poison our water. Sadly most organic food production is also destructive as it also uses monoculture, tillage, irrigation, fertiliser, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides (though the fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides are less toxic to humans).
When you buy food at a supermarket you are buying conventionally produced food. The amount of care and skill with which conventionally (and organically) food is produced varies tremendously from farm to farm.
While the amount of damage varies from farm to farm, the reality is that conventional production techniques damage ecosystems no matter how much care and skill is applied.
That all sounds terrible, what’s the alternative?
The good news is that people have been figuring out how to produce food within healthy ecosystems for decades. The current catchphrase for farming systems which can also heal ecosystems is Regenerative Agriculture. However many farming systems have been developed with this intention. Agroecology, Permaculture, Forest Gardening, Natural Farming, Syntropic Agroforestry, No-till, Holistic Management, Analogue Forestry, and Biodynamics are some of the farming systems which attempt to produce food, fibre or fuel while healing ecosystems.
While there is a steady increase in numbers of acres under regenerative management, overall there are very few farms using these systems. In Western countries, adoption has been particularly slow. In part, because the increased complexity of these regenerative farms makes mechanical harvesting difficult (and the low cost of food and the high cost of labour means manual harvesting isn’t financially viable).
The good news is that we know everything we need to know to farm regeneratively. We aren’t waiting for a technological breakthrough, we aren’t waiting for scientists to figure something out. There are regenerative farms producing high quality, nutrient-dense food. And they’ve been making a good living doing it for decades.
What we are currently lacking is the political and social will to regenerate ecosystems on a massive scale. This is something that everyone can help with. Find your local regenerative farmers and buy as much as you can from them. Talk to your friends, coworkers and family about the importance of ecosystem health. Talk to community leaders and local politicians. After all, history shows that only 3.5% of the population is required to catalyse massive shifts in public perception and policy.
During those early months of Earthlight, there was a frighteningly long period where I had almost no idea what I was doing. These days your average grandparent knows more about computers and the internet than I did. Yet on the desk next to my bed, basked a Sun Microsystems SPARCstation. After a couple of months of slow progress, we made the decision to move into a basement office underneath Ruby in the Dust in the Octagon. Here we hoped that I could focus on the task at hand, and be alone with the terror of not knowing what I was doing.
Slowly over the following months, I learned. I learned to build a 286 from parts and turn it into a KA9Q router. I learned to build a 386 and turn it into a BSD terminal server. I learned about IP networking and how to connect these computers to the internet and hopefully, our customers. In retrospect what I did was only possible because of how ignorant I was. If I’d understood the magnitude of what was required, I would never have begun.
One of the ways I made it through those first six months was the kindness of strangers. Each day I’d try and solve another piece of the puzzle. Most days I’d fail. Most weeks I’d end up close to tears in frustration. And then something that still seems magical would happen. Sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by cables and components, someone would walk through the door. They’d ask if we were starting an ISP and I’d point to the mess on the floor and say I was working on it. We’d chat and I’d explain what I was trying to figure out and — they’d have a missing piece of information! They’d ask to use the keyboard for a moment, or for a piece of paper to explain something. One time a gentleman even went and bought me the missing piece of hardware. Over and over this happened.
I wonder if those strangers, whose names and faces I can’t recall, remember those acts of kindness? I suspect they don’t, but I carry those acts with me every day.
Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern. When somebody makes a point of telling me I helped them out, I rarely remember doing or saying what they describe. It seems, that many of the meaningful things I’ve done for others, were inconsequential to me at the time.
I find enormous hope in this. All the kindness and generosity in the world which is performed almost effortlessly by people who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. It’s a reminder to leave the space in my life for those small acts. And a reminder that I’ll probably never know what they grow into.
To those nameless and faceless strangers. Twenty-something years later I still remember. Thanks.
PS. There were also family, friends and acquaintances who were crucial to the success of Earthlight, but that’s a different story.
Wildfire is a feature of many sites and climates. and can be created even in hot humid climates by logging. or by block plantings of eucalypts and pines. It is notoriously violent in summer-dry climates peripheral to large arid areas; “wet” savannah or chaparral scrub will burn fiercely when strong advected heat blows in from deserts.
Periods of high fire danger coincide with periods of strong ground winds from continental desert interiors, and affect many climatic types on desert borders, up to 200km from the desert edges themselves. These winds are the normal precursors of widespread and catastrophic wildfires. which in the presence of enough local fuel may develop into terrifying firestorms, which themselves generate a type of fire tornado, with fierce ground winds. In the southern hemisphere, fire winds blow anticlockwise, and in the northern hemisphere clockwise.
The critical factors for firestorm are:
FUEL SUPPLY; this includes the dryness of available fuels and their distribution and quantity (loose fuels of more than 6cm diameter}.
OXYGEN SUPPLY as winds to fan the flames, especially hot winds.
PREHEATING as upslope or radiant heat in front of the flames, or as advected desert winds in unprotected forests.
UNSTABLE AIR MASSES, so that wind shear, ground whirlwinds (dust-devils), scattered cumulus clouds and shifting winds all presage fire danger when dry fuels reach to less than 35% moisture. In unstable air, smoke does not level out at low altitude, but ascends to great heights, or is up and down in streamlines, and the air is otherwise clear (no fog or smog before the fire). In some forests, one can smell the volatile oils, terpenes, or resins, and light-blue haze develops over these forests.
A small proportion of fires start from lightning strikes, even in remote forests. This is why many ridge forests show pyrophilous (fire-dependent) species, and on some ironstone ridges, every tree will be scarred by strikes. Such places should be noted as areas where houses need earthing for lightning strike.
However, most fires are deliberately lit, or arise from previous “controlled” burns left smouldering (often lit to reduce fire risk!) Freak fires can start from electrical shorts (power lines). backfire flashes from vehicles in grass, heat focussed by bottles or curved glass, and welding, campfire. and cigarette accidents. In all, lightning and accidents are perhaps only 4% or so of total fires; the vast majority are lit by mischievous, psychopathic, or even well-meaning people. A few pyromaniacs light and attend many fires, and even enlist in volunteer firefighting organisations; in aboriginal or tribal peoples, an angry person will sometimes burn out a camp or forest,
Factors that Increase the Fire Intensity or Spread
Once initiated, wildfire can spread with great speed; grass fires spread after 10–11am (after the dew has dried off); forest fires from midday to 3pm After an initial flareup, an hour or so suffices to develop firestorm conditions, aided by:
Loose fuels of smaller than 6cm diameter, grasses and sticks, at less than 20% water content (a chunk of 75 x 50mm pine, unpainted, can be weighed to judge humidity and wood dryness; where saturated, this wood is judged at 100%). Pine woods erupt at less than 30% humidity or moisture content due to high resin or oil content.
Winds from 10–50km/h accelerate spread, as the square of the velocity. Eg., at 20km/h, if the spread is 2km squared per hour, then at 30km/h, the rate is 4km squared per hour. At higher wind speeds, tongues of fire break up the fire front. At 80km/h, ground fires may self-extinguish.
Winds “backing” (shifting) late in the day may blow out a fire flank into a broad front, or even blow a fire back on itself and make it safer, However. backing winds are unpredictable, and in wildfire the best strategy is to order an early evacuation of a broad area except for teams (in safe refuges) whose job it is to put out minor house fires in the first half-hour after the fire has passed. For this reason, forested suburbs need local refuges (gravelled areas with underground shelters), as do isolated homesteads, and long stretches of roads through inflammable forests.
Wildfire will always occur on arid borders; thus we need to first be able to live with fire, and perhaps only secondarily (over a period of years) design to exclude fire from settled areas by a combination of:
Altering the vegetation to create more fire-immune systems.
Designing dams specifically to flood flow over hillsides subject to fire.
Mechanical or grazing removal of fuels just before fire—danger periods—this includes dead brush, long dry grasses, and the dead lower branches of trees.
In uninhabited areas, both “cool” fires (damp and weather) and “hot” fires (dry periods) are sometimes lit as a management mosaic to preserve fire-dependent flora and fauna; this is unsafe and difficult to control, and often causes fires.
Houses, dense surrounds, village surrounds, and in town planting (or the forests at the base of settled slopes) should all be designed to minimise fire damage and mortality. Fire can be expected as wildfire on a more or less regular schedule in specific vegetation types at about 30 years in wet sclerophyll forest, 8-10 years in dry savannah, and even annually in unbrowsed grassland. Thus, fire provides a specific problem for designers and landowners progressing from grassland to forest operations. From 3–5 years, or until forest establishment, the system has high fire risk, and we need to programme planting mosaics to reduce district risk.
FIREBREAK is a way of decreasing fire intensity; roads act as firebreak, as do ponds, marshes, rivers, stony areas, and summer-green or sappy plant crops hedgerows. Horizontal firebreak weakens or reduces the fire front energy. Vertical firebreak, to prevent fire “crowning” in trees, relies on the removal of lower branches, dead tree material, and perhaps on planting sappy ground cover under the forest.
No firebreak (even 10km of water) is effective in firestorms, as fire tornadoes, with ascent velocities of up to 250km/h can develop on the lee ridge side of hills, travelling downhill and lifting aloft large logs and branches and pieces of houses, and creating massive aerial gaseous explosions. The ground winds near the base of this column (some tens of metres across) can reach 100km/hour and will roll people over and over. The noise is deafening.
In these tornadoes, or in more minor whirlwinds, incandescent material is carried aloft and dropped out from 1–30 km downwind to start fresh fires, and fresh firestorm sequences (Figure 5.23).
In towns, fire resistant design (for wildfire) has these features:
A simple roof and wall outline (no internal roof valleys or re-entrant wall corners to pile up incandescent ash).
No tarpaper roof lining projecting into gutters. Roof gutters should have either a leaf free profile, or can be plugged and water-filled in the event of fire (plugs are handily chained to the gutter near downpipes). Roof spaces often catch alight from leaves in the gutter.
No unscreened windows, underfloor, or wall cavity vent spaces; all need fine-mesh metal screens to reduce spark size. Even beds can catch alight with large embers. and cellars or underfloor spaces may have dry firewood or fuel liquids stored there.
No inflammable doormats, nor woodpiles or shrubs against the house walls. Large cans of petrol, or explosive materials, should be stored in a shed away from the houses, tightly lidded.
Siting of Houses and Buildings
In fire prone areas, houses are at most danger from upslope fire; few houses survive wildfire on sharp ridgetops, or in hill saddles that have diverging ridgelines creating a wind (fire) funnel effect. The same funnelling or intensification of fire is created by planting inflammable trees (eucalypts) or grasses (pampas grass) along a house driveway. I have seen funnel-shaped plantings of this type that would have the effect of a blowtorch on the house, when even concrete will powder, and steel posts behave like spaghetti influenced by Uri Geller (or an Indian snake charmer).
For every 10° increase in the angle of upslope, fire speed and intensity doubles; the effect is that of updraught plus enhanced drying out of the fuel ahead of the front due to upslope flame and wind. That is, if the fire speed is at 16km/h at 0° slope, it is 32km/h at 10°, 64km/h at 20°, and 128km/h at 30°; thus slope effect alone can wipe out hill ridge settlements. It is critically important therefore that downslope forests are not pine or eucalypts, but slow-burning deciduous trees, with low leaf oils, and are sappy or thick-leaved forests with a clean floor, or with succulent groundcovers and lily clumps, or succulent vines and crops interspersed.
To reduce the ridge effect, site houses not only off the ridge, and if possible on downslope plateaus, but also excavate the site instead of raising the downslope house wall on stilts or stumps. A house nested into a shelf on the hill is protected from radiation, has no open underfloor area, and can have a rim wall, pond, or earthbank on the edge of the plateau as further protection. Such houses can more easily develop a cave or dugout refuge behind the shelter of the house itself (these are fully earthed over and have a wet blanket door and a dogleg or curved entrance to further escape direct radiation). Each such fire or radiation refuge needs a small (270 litre) permanent water tank incorporated, a few old blankets, and a bucket of water or two. This is absolute “fire insurance” for those caught at home (often women and young children). All these fire aids also apply to barns, livestock shelters, and outbuildings.
Around house and building sites, it is essential to reduce forest and grass fuel to a distance of 30m (100 feet). This does not mean tree removal, but rather the planting of such trees as Coprosma, deciduous fruits, figs, willows, poplars (not olives, pines, eucalypts), lines and clumps of lilies (Agapanthus, spring bulbs, arum, Canna) or “summer-green” ground cover (comfrey, ice plant, Tradescantia, Impatiens, shortgrass sward) to reduce flame and radiation effects.
My own family survived in a dense eucalypt forest only by prior removal of all lower limbs, loose bark, twigs, fallen leaves, dry brush, dry grass, and dead stumps (every year); most of this material was chopped down and stone weighted into hollows and swales, or burnt as cooking fuels. The tall tree stems not only saved the house from fire wind, but regenerated after the fire. A downslope line of willows and fern-leaved (not hard leaved) Acacia was fire-killed but rejuvenated from the roots when cut down. This sacrificial hedge, or fire barrier, dampened out the ground fire, and even the leaves of the willows did not combust, but shrivelled and gave out steamy ash as the flames reached the trees. The house was blistered, and the zinc roof coating flaked off, but the close fitted boards were unburnt. All walls were white-painted, and screens fitted; we had ample bucket water stored both indoors and out for the many small spot fires that were left after the front had passed. Apart from sore eyes and some short beards and hair, little damage resulted (Hobart 1967, a firestorm condition). In my street alone, 70 houses were burnt to the ground, with 1,100 houses burnt in the area, and 90 people killed.
The safest house sites are in damp valley mouths, in well-tended built-up areas, on farms with flood-flow or Keyline irrigation fitted, in irrigated areas, on peninsulas in dams and lakes, and in any plateau site where the design and maintenance criteria are rigorously applied.
It follows that all designers should take fire into account over many climatic regions, and especially where we are developing forest from grazed areas, as long grass or tall stands of straw are the worst fuels for fast fire spread and for ground survival.
Important to human and plant survival are RADIATION SHIELDS; these are solid or reflective (or both) objects that reflect or harmlessly absorb the radiant heat from the fire front. It is radiant heat which quickly kills plants and animals. Most human casualties of fire are not at first burnt, but either smothered by toxic smoke or fumes from furniture or plastics, or killed (unburnt) by radiation.
Thus, radiation shields can be houses, stone walls, thick tree trunks, hollows or caves, hedgerows, and car bodies; a white-painted brick wall is ideal. White paint on houses reduces radiation absorption, as white roof areas reduce sun heat. Fireproof or slow-to-burn insulation in houses (mineral wool, seagrass, sawdust, feathers, wool) all keep the interior cool and assist fire control. Wooden panelling transmits little heat, while stone, brick, and mud may convey heat indoors, unless of sufficient thickness to absorb and disseminate it. Thatch and shingle areas must be replaced by tile or metal roof cladding in fire prone areas (by law in some districts).
Note that a fire shadow is tapered to about 4–5 times the height and width of the solid radiation shield, so make shields of trees or walls extend past the house (Figure 12.32).
A Note on Fuel Reduction
Wildfire will always happen, often every 8–30 years, on many sites. It will not be severe if normal annual fuel reduction is practised; the most unsafe way to do this is to “cool burn”. The safe ways are to graze off, slash, compost in swales, use as firewood, or to replace tinder with sappy green plants. Part of bioregional planning must be to keep monocultures of inflammable trees to uninhabited ridgetops, or better to scatter such stands throughout grazed or wet forested areas, or to tend them very well indeed in the matter of fuel reduction.
Ida and Jean Pain (Another Kind of Garden, 1982) have clearly laid out a broadscale, beneficial, fire–reduction system of chipping all dry forest fuels, composting or using them for biogas, which in turn fuels the chipping and carting operations, and lastly using compost and sludge to grow gardens, improve soils, and further reduce litter. Every bioregion should, perhaps must, adopt these methods if forests are to be preserved and eventually made fireproof.
Likewise, in the case of scattered suburbs, it should compulsory for houses to build to fire specifications, have large roof tanks and ponds, and for developers to build fire-damping dams able to operate by radio-control to sheet water over slopes on a Keyline principle. Fire will then be restricted to remote dry-ridge forests, and lightning strikes (as it should be).
Fire Effects in Forests
Fire sharply reduces litter, and leaves nutrient-rich light ash that can wash or blow away, or wash into lakes and streams as a clear or cloudy nutrient load. Hot fire will remove from the soil in low-intensity burns:
Nitrogen: 54–75% (109kg/ha}; replaced in 11 years by legumes, rain.
Phosphorus; 37–50% (3.0kg/ha); replaced in 20+ years by rain.
Boron: 35–54% (Figures from Ecos, 42 Summer ’84/85)
Additional losses come from those shrubs and trees where foliage is burnt, and particularly so if the fire occurs early in the growth season. As fires “glow” at 650°C and burn fiercely at 1,100–1,400°C when strong winds blow, sulphur and nitrogen are volatilised, as is carbon. Phosphorus and potassium are volatilised at 774°C and calcium at 1,484°C (cement structures powder at this temperature). However, organic compounds containing these elements may volatilise more easily than soil elements.
Obviously, there is a very slow recovery of soil nutrient after fire, and this depends on trace elements brought in by rain or birds, and minerals recycled to topsoil by deep-rooted vegetation. Clearly, fires never improve soil status. Humus loss of 10–12cm occurs in forest soils. and peats often combust to greater depths. Clays lose structure, and mud flows can result.
Stock Losses in Fire
Good stock managers can, by preplanning, reduce losses in fire. Some ideal situation would be to make sure that some paddocks (small areas) have been close-cropped from late winter (or late summer in monsoon areas) to early summer; so that these small fields carry no inflammable fuel and can be used as general refuges in fire. Even more effective is to place a water trough in deliberately bare soil area, even one where topsoil and shrubs have been bulldozed into a surrounding earthbank (for protection against radiant heat), and to use such areas as always open refuges off 4-6 prepared range paddocks; stock can be confined there early fire danger days. Stock enclosed by a temporary electric fence will clean off rocky knolls of grasses before the fire period; these too can be used as refuges.
Tethered goats or sheep reduce patches of fuel near houses, as do close grazers such as geese, wallaby, and rabbits. Wild wallaby or geese can be “fed in” with pollard on such areas, and thus encouraged to create marsupial lawns (or rabbit swards). A forest of young deciduous trees, fig, mulberry, or oak will make a stock refuge if close browsed before fires are expected (dry grass period). Short swards are fairly quickly developed by close grazers if first slashed, then limed and fertilised (phosphate). Eventually, such fire refuges become popular places with stock.
With respect to a house or village, close-grazed or mown areas form part of the (upwind or downslope) firebreak system, and in fire danger periods stock can be fed in or mustered, and secured in these areas or in the settlement itself. Chickens survive well in solid housing, as they often produce bare areas around such houses, or chicken sheds can be part-buried in banks to give complete protection.
Personal Survival in and After Fire
For people, the main survival factor is to cover the body. wearing wool or cotton. and to shelter from fire front radiation behind a tree, car, house, or in a trench; all the better if the whole body can be caped in a wet blanket (wet blankets are no longer considered a good idea, best is to cover yourself with dry wool blankets – Adam). Wait until flames have passed, then move cautiously onto burnt ground.
For civil authorities, radio stations must be commanded to keep constant reports going on fire direction, open escape routes, family location centres and refuge areas, and to give constant instructions to householders and travellers.
Just as the fire passes, well-equipped ground teams preceded by a bulldozer should clear roads, and put out spot fires in unoccupied houses. Police need to roster guards, or well-disciplined volunteers, to prevent looting until the area is re-occupied and services reconnected. Such services must be on standby at the fire periphery as it is suicidal to put forward teams in the path of the wildfire.
In firestorms, oxygen is periodically exhausted. and the fire goes out briefly. People cannot breathe and they faint. so they should never take refuge in small water tanks, dams, or rivers, as they will drown while unconscious. The sea, and large rivers of 100 m or so across, are safe to run to. but beware of fainting from lack of oxygen in the air and water (the skin needs oxygen too). Drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration, and make sure children and stock get water to replace lost body fluids.
We survive better if we have planned ahead, built fish ponds or bought metal buckets, prepared blankets and important papers to be picked up by the rear door, filled roof gutters, removed doormats, hosed down the garden, tied up or penned the stock, prepared woollens to wear, taken in the clothes, filled baths and sinks with water, and so on.
We recover faster if we have expected the noise, confusion. sense of isolation, and are prepared for looters and for “survivor guilt” (that is, “why should I have survived when people around me have died?”); for weeks, months, perhaps years, we can feel desolated by the losses we know of. It greatly helps if we have assisted others before, during, and after the fire, as we know we did our best. This applies to all catastrophes, not just fire. Even so, in every large wildfire in settled areas, people will be lost or very badly injured, much property and stock will be destroyed, and the psychological and social effects will persist for months or years.
And if your house burns down, do not build another “just the same” as most people do; build one to survive the next disaster. Thus, have realistic expectations, act on them, have some planned moves, and prepare better for next time!