Sunday, December 15, 2013

Skilling up for the Future

Greg demonstrates how to turn a branch into a longbow

As the end of another year hovers into view and the long dark evenings invite reflection we naturally start to ask ourselves what the next year will bring. On the economic front, things don’t look as rosy as we are told they are. The global economy is still running on the fumes of smouldering credit notes and the only difference now is that political and financial elites are telling us via a compliant media that the economy is fixed. Yet debt levels in all sectors are continuing to rocket and the feeling remains that this fragile economy is like a huge and intricate sculpture made of glass and could shatter with the slightest tap. Where will the tap come from? Will it be a China/Japan war? Will the ascendent Islamic militarism spill over from Syria and Iraq and come home to haunt the perpetrating nations? Or could it be a relatively minor black duck event, such as Slovenia’s credit collapsing and causing a cascading failure?

Who knows, is the short answer, but things cannot keep on grinding along as they are now. I now find myself wishing that things would speed up a bit before it gets much worse. With the signing of the latest ‘free trade’ agreements last week we now have the spectre of trans-national corporations being able to sue national governments for ‘lost profits’ based on national policy. A few have been quick off the mark to launch legal suits against countries and just in the last few days we have seen a Canadian gold mining company sue the Costa Rican government for protecting its rain forests, Philip Morris  suing Australia for trying to stop teenagers from smoking and the nuclear power industry suing Germany for phasing out nuclear power. 

It will surely only be a matter of time before the likes of Monsanto sue European countries for protecting their citizens from the failed experimental poison that is GM food. Signs that they are getting ready to do so are evident if you look for them in op-ed articles in the press. So, to me this seems like the end game of out-of-control capitalism. People might be meek and compliant in the United States but in many corners of Europe, South America and Africa this is decidedly not the case. Might we soon see the whip back as people, indebted and impoverished, can take it no longer? Is a revolution on the cards? I’ve been reading about the history of Poland recently and that country would seem to be a contender for launching a revolution - the Poles don’t take much crap.

These are big questions and it’s interesting to speculate on the weighty matters of our age - yet it’s easy to get caught in the headlights, transfixed on ‘the news’. But from a personal point of view, being well informed about world events doesn’t amount to much of a survival strategy - we need to do other things too. Knowing the intricate details of how hedge fund managers are looting retirees’ pensions might be interesting on a cerebral level but it won’t feed you or keep you warm.

And so I find myself reflecting on what I have done and learned that is of practical value in 2013, and what I need to do next year.

Firstly, a big part of my year has been taken up with my piece of woodland. Having only owned it a year I’ve done what all good permaculture manuals tell you to do: I’ve observed it. This has been useful. I now know which bits get the sun at different times of the year, what kind of soil I have (good, with a ph of 7), where frost pockets form and what kind of animals and plants thrive there. This has all been very useful but I couldn’t just sit there looking - time is pressing! - so I was also doing and learning. I’ve learned an awful lot about trees and the art of coppicing, and I’ve learned about soil and how to enrich it on the one acre field that forms the centre of the woodland.

But what should I do with all that wood? It is mostly oak and chestnut, so it is far too valuable for firewood. Instead I have been learning to make things with it and thus add value to it as much as I can. I went on a bow making course last week with my friend Greg Humphries. He showed me how to use an axe to sculpt a piece of ash into a flexible bow. I also learned how to use a shave horse, a drawknife and a froe - and I’ve had a local blacksmith make me up a set of these tools that should last me a lifetime.

A longbow is potentially useful (and very dangerous!), although for the time being I’m sticking to my .22 air gun for the rabbits and squirrels which ruin everything I try to grow there (my descent from mild-mannered ex-vegetarian to ‘take no prisoners’ small mammal hunter was swift). As someone put it to me ‘You can either have squirrels, or you can have a woodland.’ And given that I am planting at least a hundred trees - mostly fruits, nuts and berries - next year, I can’t afford to share them with invasive rodents no matter how cute they look. Especially when they taste so good in stews. 

Next year I am planning to learn how to make charcoal with the offcuts. I’m also planning to make rustic garden furniture, fence posts and a set of trestles for my wife’s upholstery business. Furthermore, I’m inoculating some piles of logs with different types of fungus to sell to local fancy restaurants, attempting to plant mistletoe seeds into the boughs of some large oak trees to sell at Christmas, and about 20 other small money making ideas that I’ll detail later on.

I’ve learned to identify locally edible wild plants thanks to the delightful Rachel Lambert, who has taken me on a couple of coastal forays. She also showed me which seaweed is edible and I figured out for myself how to harvest and cook mussels and limpets, of which there are millions here. I haven’t been out mackerel fishing yet, but that’s something I plan to get up to speed with next year, along with learning to sail.

I’ve ramped up my home food and drink production this year, making several different wines for the first time (the dandelion was a great success, but the plum was a disaster). Next year I aim to make 100 bottles - not only are they good to drink but they make great barter items and presents. I’ve also made sauerkraut for the first time, and have been experimenting with different sprouting techniques for pulses and beans. I’ve also been experimenting with making cheap, nutritious food using as little energy as I can, and spend at least two hours a day cooking. Next year I’m making a straw box for slow-cooking (I have also picked up an old pressure cooker and a recipe book from the early 1980s). I've given up eating wheat after reading Wheat Belly - probably the best thing I have done in ages as it has cured all manner of ills at a stroke.

Community is probably more important than anything else when things start going wrong, so I’ve been trying to get to know as many interesting people as possible in the nine months I’ve been living in Cornwall. I’ve joined the local Transition group (Transition Penwith) and can count on meeting people who ‘get it’ through that. I have met some interesting people through our children’s school and have been a member of various other groups, such as a Tai Chi club. Furthermore I’m now working in a shop one day a week at the local organic farm - Bosavern Community Farm - and was even nominated to be a board member there (but decided to pull out - long story). This part of Cornwall is packed with people who are making their own - often unusual - way in the world, which is why we chose to live here in the first place.

Furthermore myself and the folks who own the woodland next door to ours have put together a network aimed at connecting woodland folk in west Cornwall who are interested in reviving coppicing and orchard arts. We were partly pushed into this by local NIMBYs, suspicious of what we ‘hippies’ are up to in the woods, but it has got off to a great start. At our first meeting we thought only a couple of people would turn up, but in the event there were 16 - and a further 50 expressing interest! It seems that there are a lot of people out there who are keen to see a revival of woodland work as part of a more sustainable future.

All of these networks, activities and groups eat a lot of time, meaning that I haven’t been able to devote much to another trans-national project that has kicked off - the SUN (Sustaining Universal Needs) Project - initiated by RE at the Doomstead Diner along with a few of this blog’s regular readers and commentators William Hunter Duncan and Lucid Dreams. This is another exciting JDI (just do it) project that isn’t encumbered by bureaucratic red tape or idealogical orthodoxy. 

All of this relates to another skill that has been more or less forgotten by most people in this day and age - democracy. For a democracy to work properly it has to be made up of informed and engaged participants. Yet most people today think that democracy is something clever and smart that we export to the oil-rich countries we have just invaded, a bit like Burger King and KFC. Indeed, it has become almost interchangeable with 'capitalism'. This idea of democracy has to be rooted up and thrown on the weed pile along with the other weeds such as ‘technological salvation’ and ‘ infinite economic growth’ and 'efficiency'. Being part of a group and/or participating in local political debates is therefore of prime importance if we want to have a better future. It should be something they teach at school.

So, there are lots of skills to learn, and the thing is that you can’t learn them all. Anyone who tries to become completely self sufficient will either have to be very very capable indeed (and still will have to live a very frugal life) or will learn the hard way that no woman is an island. 

So, those are my skills, tell me yours.


  1. Hi Jason,

    I've been reading and enjoying your comments for years over at The Archdruid Report and ClubOrlov. I occasionally post there as artinnature. I'm just north of Seattle in Edmonds, WA on Puget Sound. I've had a bit of down time the past two weeks due to extreme cold weather (I'm a gardener by trade) and the wife is out of town, so I read your extensive "About" section. It's a bit addictive. Like a good novel, I had to keep reading to find out what you were going to do next!

    As gardener in a fairly similar climate I'm also enjoying reading about your exploits at Fox Wood. By the way, I think I have found it on Google Earth (a bad habit of mine) but since I know you read Orlov (folks like us might want to lie low) I will understand if you don't want to discuss this online, but I would be interested in your confirmation whether what I have found is actually your coppice wood and meadow. Please let me know your preference and I will honor your wishes. My email in case you don't want this discussion here: artinnature A T comcast D O T net.

    As a fellow gardener I was a terror with my air rifle for many years, first .177 and then .22 (I think I prefer the .177)...oh the rabbits and squirrels I've killed! Sadly, I ate none of them. That was back in Minnesota on larger properties, now I'm in a dense town where air rifles wouldn't go over too well (I have a wrist-rocket slingshot though) and although there are plenty of (non-native) grey squirrels, there are no rabbits or deer, which I'm forever grateful for, as I battled both tooth and nail back in Minnesota.

    Good luck at Fox Wood, it sounds like my kind of place and close to paradise, but after reading your About section I wouldn't be surprised if you moved on yet again, and again...

    Cheers from Cascadia


    1. Hello Art - I've read your comments over there too!

      Glad you liked my potted autobiography ;-) As for the location of Fox Wood - I can tell you that it isn't really called Fox Wood and it isn't where I say it is! Yep, you guessed it, my initial plan was to keep it somewhat hidden, but there's no chance of that on these overcrowded islands. In any case my strategy has changed now and it's very much 'out there' in the public realm.

      Send me where you think it is and I'll tell you if you are correct! jasonhepp at gmail dot com

  2. Greetings Jason,
    Wow! You've certainly got a good number of irons in the fire! And timely blog reports as well! You and the Archdruid are certainly inspirations to some of us who are not yet so far along the learning curve, I follow both your blogs, of course. I'm still stuck in rust-belt Ontario, Canada, beavering away at getting free to move to a small island off the west coast of the country, Saltspring Island, B.C., where folks are a lot more transitional/progressive in their thinking, and I have family and grandchildren, and my lady love has a small property (20 metres above sea level).
    I know you've had your ups and downs on the road to Penzance too, so I guess that's par for the course.
    The fishing and sailing project, I can certainly understand the motivation there. Guess it's the British/Dutch/Irish blood in my veins, sea-farers all.
    Thanks for the update, and best of luck with your many initiatives.

    1. Hi Robert. Thanks. That sounds like a good project to keep working at. It makes a difference that local people are willing to accept a different reality to the one they are force fed by the corporate dominated media - even if its a minority. What I feared, when living in Denmark, was the seeming inability of anyone to take responsibility for their own preservation, instead relegating that task to the government. It's one of the main reasons I moved.

      There's a point when cosy group-think becomes dangerous!

  3. I'm curious if it was this post that made you give up wheat:

    Try giving up anything made from seeds (seed oils being on the top of the list, but any un-shelled seeds usually have some strong biochemical defense) if you want to be at your absolute best.

    Glad you feel better!
    Keep it up!

    1. Yes - that's probably the first time I heard about it. I read the book about a month ago and decided to give up wheat before I was even 50 pages in. Immediately - after only a couple of days - all the aches and pains that I had been reporting before just vanished!

      So, since then I've been eating lots of fish, vegetables and fatty things like cheese. Bacon and eggs for breakfast - along with black pudding and kippers - and I still have to tighten my belt as the pounds fall off.

      Yesterday I accidentally ate a tortilla crisp made from wheat, and all the old pains came back - so I know this must be the cause. I was planning to experiment for another couple of months and then write a full blog post about this as it seems to be something very important that goes beyond diet. Wheat in its modern form, it turns out, is making us addicted to other foodstuffs. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why there isn't much information out there which is critical of its effects (hint, wheat makes up 1/3 of the US food production statistics).

      Thanks for the tip!

  4. Great Article Jason, you should Cross Post it on SUN.


  5. You make me feel like a knob, like I am doing nothing. LOL :)

    See, cheers to progress. Progress isn't dead, it's just the like and kind.

    1. You haven't heard the half of it ... I left out the 20 hours a week I spend doing freelance translation, and the esoteric training ;-)

  6. Hi Jason, I love this post as it's way past the time to do anything other than try to prepare for whatever is in store.

    About 5 or 6 years ago my partner and I were offered voluntary redundancy package from our government office job, which we jumped at. We moved out of town to a small house with a large garden in a village in the hills behind and took a year off, not knowing what to do next really.

    We took in a puppy from a local rescue centre. My partner had a fear of large dogs from her childhood and wanted to overcome it and so she decided to learn as much as she possibly could about dogs. She was already a knowledgeable gardener and seamstress.
    In the end I took a few courses in woodwork, bee-keeping, dry-stone walling and the like. I ended up really enjoying the woodworking and took an official City & Guilds course at a local college.

    We now run a dog home-boarding/training/walking/sitting business and I am making things like animal runs/houses, business signs and am looking into making wooden toys and furniture restoration.

    We also now have a 2nd-hand 15m commercial polytunnel and chickens and bees. I am making more and more wine each year from our apple trees and anything else I can think of.

    None of it was planned out, we had no 'road-map' to get here. We are still en route, if anything.

    The message being: take a step back, look around, have a good think and go with what you really enjoy. You can make enough money out of anything, so long as you enjoy it you will become good enough at it.

    Oh, and learn to do with less, or even without. That really helps, too.

    1. Cheers Paul. You've nailed it - do what you find interesting and trust your instincts. I have friends in Spain who moved there with virtually no money. They've still got no money but mostly they have houses (some built themselves), livelihoods and a supportive community of friends.

      Of course, it's a lot easier to do these things somewhere like Spain where there either aren't any rules or they are not enforced. That's one of the problems, these days in so-called civilisation: too many regulations and rules.

      Good luck with the polytunnel - I started digging out the footprint for ours yesterday. Quite a bit of work, but there's no great hurry.

  7. I've heard about the book Wheat Belly, about what the author was claiming. I'm definitely a victim of the "psychology of previous investment" with wheat because my wife and I have a lot of flour in the pantry. I make pancakes and scratch biscuits on a regular basis (dairy free). My wife makes bread. We eat a lot of flour. Recently we've learned that my wife has a dairy allergy. I pretty much eat cheese and sour cream every time I eat.

    I suppose I should just get the book and read it. I'm not one to be willfully delusional about things. Something like cutting out wheat from my diet would require certainty that it's necessary for my health. I'm American after all. Some things are hard to change because of the perceived need to sit on my ass and be entertained in front of an idiot panel. It's second nature when you've done it your entire life.

    1. Damn - I wrote a long reply to this and it has disappeared into the void!

      Oh well, read the book. You'll learn that wheat isn't a food - it's a psychoactive drug that turns your brain into mush and your body into a seething sack of inflammation.

  8. I'm glad you let RE cross-post your stuff on the Diner, Jason. I always read your posts with interest. I thought I'd drop a few words here this time. It's been a year of preparation for me too, although it often feels like I'm not doing enough, or that my accomplishments are less than I'd hoped.

    My main pursuits this year have been towards getting an understanding of wind and PV power. I took a great workshop with Mike Goss of Mike's Windmill Shop out in Arizona in May that got the ball rolling.

    I've been slowly accumulating the bits for a nice off-grid system for my little place here in the Texas Hill Country. Meanwhile, to practice the craft and hopefully pass on some of what I'm learning, I decided to build and document with film what I call the Bugout PV Kit, which is a completely portable 360W solar PV kit intended for nomadic living or emergency use.

    I built a quick charge alternator set-up that will charge the battery bank and also functions as a 150 amp portable welder, which might come in handy.

    This fall I dedicated ten Saturdays to getting my PDC from long time Austin teacher Dick Pierce, and his band of seasoned Texas permies. It was awesome, and I now have the beginnings of a plan for my own place, which will now take some years to work through.

    We still have a house in town where I spend more time than out on the 'stead, so I continue to spend time and effort there with raised bed gardening, (which I suck at, but have some hope of redemption eventually, so I persevere.)

    Sounds like I accomplished a good bit now that I list it here, but I have at least a half dozen other ongoing projects that haven't gotten completed, like building a solar shower, and figuring out how to passively heat and cool my old hoop house, and getting in some gardens out at the 'stead.

    It's a process that doesn't end. I'm grateful for a year of relative stability that has let me work on stuff.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours from the SUN Texas delegation, which is composed (so far) of me and my big family.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.