Saturday, August 29, 2009

What are you going to do when they see the bright lights of the big city? Well, to the folks back on the farm, I hope your kid is an aspiring Luddite, because then you just have to wait for him to come crawling back, eyes squinted from the electric onslaught.

But I over dramatize. Last Tuesday (8/25/09) I made the return to civilization, cruising at a comfortable 60 MPH down I-80, making me the first person to obey the speed limit since...well, they put in the highway. Sadly, it's hard to criticize the need for speed on 80. It is said that for every outlet store that opens between Sacramento and Vallejo, an angel gets his wings. From the looks of things, there are a lot of angels flying around the Central Valley these days, shaking magic development powder all over the place.

Having returned to Berkeley, I began to experience farm withdrawal. Fortunately, the city hasn't been entirely paved over (yet), so I was delighted to venture forth and collect some blackberries along the Ohlone Greenway, a bike path which parallels the BART tracks through Albany, El Cerrito, and beyond. Stumbling through the bushes, I managed to find a patch of semi-wild grapes. Using a dehydrator that was kindly given to me, I dried those suckers out and now am the proud purveyor of a raisin packet. Despite being seeded, the raisins are surprisingly delicious, particularly with a bit of yogurt. Plus, those seeds are good for you; loaded with antioxidants, fiber, and that magical substance that makes Sardinians live forever (actually, that's booze. Yep, just lots o' booze.)

But my urban foraging didn't stop there. Volunteering at the beautiful Berkeley Youth Alternatives garden, I collected some of their coddling moth-infested windfall apples (truly satisfying my orchard withdrawal here; I spent a lot of time at Green Cedar beneath apple trees with a five-gallon bucket). Carefully cutting out the worms and icky-parts, I dehydrated these with the grapes, making sumptuously sweet snacks for my mid-day meals.

Last time I checked, there weren't a thousand fruit trees lining University Avenue. Despite the lack of urban food production, it is comforting to know that, if you're willing to allow a bit of wilderness into yourself, you can find a bit of that country cornucopia even in the asphalt jungle. Stay tuned for more tips on foraging, fighting elderly women for figs, and wearing funny hats.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Down on the Farm

Since the Casual Luddite always has to stay up to date with the modern vogue, I have developed an interest in agriculture, specifically, the “sustainable” alternatives to the dominate forms of industrial agriculture. Of course, us followers of Ludd have a natural aversion to mechanized implements of cultivation. However, since we are somewhat lax in our rejection of the fruits of this system, it is difficult to dismiss it out of hand. After all, even the hardliner Luddite can have some appreciation for the benefits of modern medicine and the convenience of the internet. Can these products exist without the purported abundance of industrial agriculture? Is “sustainable” agriculture so labor-intensive that it would dramatically impact our lifestyle? Do white people look funny in big hats? By interning ourselves at an organic farm, my girlfriend and I hoped to find the answers to these questions and many more.

Green Cedar Farms isn’t much of what you or I would label a “farm.” Positioned on the commanding heights above Oroville in the foothill community of Berry Creek, Green Cedar offers glimpses of the Central Valley, where agricultural operations are hundreds of acres in size. In contrast to these gargantuan flat land farms, Green Cedar is nestled in a complex geography on a foothill ridge. This terrain comes as a relief for a linearly-disabled person such as myself, the curves and turns of the land making straight lines into a futile Cartesian wet dream. Most of the 15 acres here are orchard. Although apples (in many different varieties) predominate, pears and peaches are also to be found along with a scattering of plum, cherry, fig, and other fruit trees.

Our first week saw a good bit of hard labor. Although the orchard is the focal point of Green Cedar, Frank Mazarino and Sally Shea (the operators of Green Cedar and our gracious hosts) also maintain a large garden for their private use. Prepping the beds involved a fair deal of brush clearing (using a small hand-scythe called a coma), adding soil amendments (a mix of gypsum, azomite, kelp, and fertilizer pellets), then turning the soil with shovels.

Outside of the garden we hung pheromone lures to distract the coddling moth, a common pest of fruit trees. By turning the orchard into a sex-crazed moth dance party, we hope that they will not send their worms burrowing into the apples. It appears that this tactic is working, as casualties have been light among the crop, although the unseasonably cool weather we have been getting can only help our efforts to disrupt the moth breeding cycle.

The orchard at Green Cedar is strongly influenced by the no-till ideals from the “do-nothing” school of Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese luminary in sustainable agriculture. No-till farming allows the abundant growth of what other farmers would consider “weeds” among the trees, waiting for them to seed, and then chopping them down with mowers. Green mulch such as this augmented by material from the garden builds nutrients in the soil and improves soil structure.

Another task has been thinning pear and apple trees that have been over profligate in their fruit production. Thinning helps prevent branches from breaking under the weight of fruit, as well as assuring that the fruit will be sufficiently sweet for the consumer’s palette. Frank and Sally both pursue a high ideal of “flavor” in their products, not only in culturing sweetness, but also making sure that their diverse array of apples represent a wide spectrum of other flavors, from tart to fruity. Although I consider myself to be a relatively healthful eater, I cannot pretend to be as cultured a connoisseur when it comes to fruit. I’ve been plucking both Gravensteins and Pink Pearls (two early season apples) and enjoying their tart, pre-ripe flavor.

Unfortunately, while Frank and Sally are faithful to their ethics and attempt to channel nature in the most productive way possible, conflicts are inevitable. The early part of our stay here involved a prolonged struggle with the birds, who had their sights on the farm’s several cherry trees. Even netting and distraction trees (alternatives to cherries, such as mulberries and native cherries, planted specifically for the birds) could not dissuade the determined flock of tanagers, stellar jays, grosbeaks, and robins from taking a sizable portion of the crop. However, now that we are past the cherry season, Frank is already starting to sing the praises of his avian friends, claiming that they are helping suppress the coddling moth by eating the worms before they penetrate to the apple cores.

I’ll have more to report in a few days; even in this long of a post many things have gone unreported. I swear that the happenings on the farm have not been half as boring as I have made them seem. Well, there are some slow times weed whacking…but there is plenty of bird fighting, good stories, good food, and yes, white people in big hats to entertain anyone. But more on that next time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Manual dexterity isn't exactly my forte. You're talking to a man whose hand/eye coordination has doomed him to loose every ping-pong game he will ever play with his (younger) brother, even in some inverted universe where everybody has little goatees. My patience is also notoriously short. Back when I gave a shit about basketball (for reasons that somehow escape me now), family legend has it that I broke a remote control throwing it at Shaquile O'Neal's head (this is actually more common than you'd think among Sacramento Kings fans).

All of these things suggest that I would make a terrible sewer. At least, that's what I assumed, until I tried my hand at patching up my favorite pair of jeans. Fortunately, it seems that somewhere beneath this clumsy exterior of a likely natural-selection victim lies the steady hands and iron patience of a Navy Seals sniper that happens to be a 75-year old woman.

Ok, so I can't sew like your grandma, but I did manage to patch up my jeans (notice the finely sculpted hindquarters above). And if I can do it, pretty much anybody can. For my little project, I took a bit of denim from the inside of my back-right pocket (tip to pickpockets: I always wear my wallet on my left-side), pinned it to the hole (which I had cut out more or less neatly from the hanging tear), and sewed. When I had made stitches all around the patch, I ran a couple of small stitches over my last stitch, and tied the two ends of my string together with several slip-knots. Now, instead of seeing my beautiful green boxers, people will just think that I'm wearing black ones!

Since my powers of description are a little lacking, I've included this link to let you see how a pro does it. Or at least someone whose hands aren't malformed clubs like mine (hey, we can't all be perfect).

Jean Patching Guide

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Edible Plants: Nasturtium

I've been finding edible plants all around my apartment here in Berkeley. Miner's lettuce, wild onion, and nasturtium are all rampant in the street planters and up in the hills; just take a bag with you when you're walking and you'll have a nice salad for dinner! Here are some links to give you an idea what to look for (plus my own "identification guide" up top):
-Miner's Lettuce (I like the story about the ant hills and the Indians; wonder if it works?)
-Wild Onion (The ones I've been finding have whiter flowers than these)

As with all edible plants, you're on your own with these. Experts (a cadre which I do not pretend to belong to) recommend you check three different guides before eating any wild plants. That said, I think these three plants are some of the easiest to find and identify; have fun storming the castle!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rage Against The Machine: Wheel Wars

In my history as a bicyclist, I've hit two cars. No, they didn't run into me, I decided to take bring the fight to the home front and ran smack dab into them.

Now, before you begin writing folk songs about how Alec fought the machine and lived to tell the tale, let me clarify that both of these cases were classic examples of me being a dumb ass. Both times I was going too fast with worn out breaks and fully immersed in my typical guinea pig-level consciousness. In both instances, I was lucky enough to cause no damage to myself or the other person's automobile, and didn't run into a seven foot former felon.

So bicyclists can be dicks, too. We can be "slow" (fifteen miles an hour seems fast enough to myself, but then again, I'm somewhat dubious on this whole "combustion engine" idea, so you have to compensate for the wingnut factor), we can take up the lane for no apparent reason, and sometimes we can just be plain stupid.

Deal with it.

Bicyclists can cause serious accidents, but they are by far the most vulnerable party on the road that abides by the same rules that motorists follow. We choose to spend our recreational time and commute in a manner that respects our bodies and contributes to a cleaner community. No matter what your opinion is on anthropocentric (human-caused) climate change, the negative impacts of smog and other pollutants that result from automobile use are undeniable. In addition, bicycles make for a safer driving experience. They cause less congestion, travel at a slower pace, and allow for greater awareness due to their open design; all of which helps prevent accidents.

Automobiles have a variety of uses. They are ideal for mid-range travel between cities not covered by adequate intercity mass transit, integral to the distribution of necessary goods to many semi-remote locals, and essential for quick emergency services. But automobilists have to recognize that they share the road with other users. My experiences in the city have shown that most drivers are very respectful to bicyclists and even go out of their way to accommodate them. However, to those of you that constitute the exception, grow up and try a bike. Maybe you'll find your road rage channeled into something more productive, like charging up the next hill or doing some jumps off curbs.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

FutureFright: The Good, The Bad, and the Internet

The digital world. It's all around us, primarily because it's what we're both in right now (you are reading a blog, right?). Like Casper, the internet is a friendly ghost that's around for adventures when you need it, but leaves few traces on the material world (aside from slime, a la Ghostbusters). However, the digital world is founded not upon magical tidbits of ghostly love from an ancient cult headed by Gozar, but computer servers, which create more heat than a cockerspaniel on her rut. Not only consuming energy to be powered, these servers have to be cooled, purportedly consuming as much energy as it takes to boil a kettle of water over the course of two Google searches. It's enough to make a Luddite like myself consider going back to print.

But hold on there, my unhappy stone-aged camper! Compared to reading the traditional print version of the New York Times, a PDA user reading the same content sourced from the internet uses around 2-3% of the energy, according to a UC Berkeley study. It makes logical sense; the amount of resources required to create and distribute most traditional media are extravagant compared to the energy required to make and run the computers which you and the server farms use. That said, it is a good call to awareness for IT companies to develop more efficient electronics and for users to spend less time on YouTube and more time enjoying...well, whatever there is outside the internet. Just do a Google search to find out (and don't worry too much about that boiling water).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Retro Reboot: The Sims (Original!)

"This grow is frenshnay!"

Words of wisdom from our Sim brethren. Yes, yours truly was once a devoted video gamer back in that netherworld of the late 90s/early 00s, and yes, I did adore the virtual voyeurism that we know and love as The Sims. While the series has gone through more expansion packs than there are Byzantine dynasties and has since bequeathed an updated sequel (with the innovative title of The Sims 2), the original Sims has surprising staying power. With the entire hoard of old video games that I have laying around unvanquished and forgotten it will be years before I need to buy a new game. Plus, running only old games, even my first generation MacBook Pro looks like...well, a pro. Ah, the benefits of flipping the bird to the obsolescence curve.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

FutureFright: The Electric Car

As both a neo-luddite and a pseudo-environmentalist, it's difficult to discern where I should stand on certain issues. Case in point: the electric car. Sure, it promises to replace the pollution-spewing combustion engine with a more efficient and (at least not directly) polluting electric one, but what secrets is it hiding? The question of where the power sow for this fleet of suckling electric piglets will come from, not to mention issues surrounding the material required to make these cars in the first place (particularly in regards to the battery) makes me wonder about their wisdom. Plus, I totally can't hear them when I'm out on a run.

To make me feel a bit better, here's an awesome video of some Norwegians trying this little Think! car out. Mostly, look for how funny the Norwegians are. Also note the discussion of the Think! car's capabilities as a bower of love at 3:00, the explanation of its safety features at 3:30 ("you would think, 'oh, if I crash I will die'": they address the concerns, at least of my grandmother), and it doing doughnuts in the snow at 6:00. If the future has to look like that, well...I'll think about it.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Trashcapades: Dumpster Diving Food Porn

Ah, chicken soup for the dumpster diver's soul. This blog has some drool-worthy photos of freegan excursions in an unnamed city. As anyone that has found a good dumpster knows, nirvana is possible in these miniature Shangri-las filled with bread, pastries, and veggies.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


"You'll shoot your eye out!" The perennial warning against BB gun ownership is translated for potential hitchhikers as, roughly, "You'll get your head cut off!" Indeed, in a world in which all the news reports is people being dismembered on Greyhound, one has to question the wisdom of travel beyond the confines of an automobile cabin.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. While your hippy-ass father had to stick out his thumb and risk recreating the ending sequence to Easy Rider, today we have technology to hook us up with safe and cost-effective travel options. Craigslist Rideshare makes sure you won't end up as a billowing cloud of smoke drifting over the credits to your life.

Unlike hitchhiking, Rideshare allows you the option of talking to your potential travelmate and browsing their personal pages (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) to judge whether they belong to the (admittedly over hyped) realm of sanity and are not, in fact, an axe murderer. I will admit that I had a fair bit of trepidation on my first Rideshare, but quickly found out something that many other travelers who trust themselves to the wiles of our fellow man have already discovered. We Americans, by and large, aren't half as bad as we think we are. Particularly the kind of folks who willingly post their travel plans on the Internet in the hopes to find conversation and, perhaps most importantly, gas money. All the people that I have given/taken rides from have been twenty-somethings, conversational and extremely amiable. There is no better way to fill up an eight-hour car ride than by telling stories with another person, who, if just because they are unfamiliar, are probably more interesting than you are.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Peanut Butter: or, Breakup Tips with Plastic

Plastic. Love it? Hate it? Indifferent? Even though I have to admit that we're not on a speaking basis right now, plastic and I have had a good relationship in the past. It's light, can be used for a variety of applications, and is (relatively) sturdy. The problem with plastic is that it just wouldn't go away. Whenever I wanted to be alone, plastic decided to tag along. I mean, can't plastic have its friends and I have my own? The relationship was getting a bit stressed.

Like any good ex-, I now indulge in an elaborate dance to avoid awkward meetings with plastic on the street. One way I get out of her routine path is to make some of my own consumables from bulk foods, the most notable (and easiest) being peanut butter. It ain't rocket science, folks. Just take a fair amount of peanuts, throw them in a food processor (I use a Magic Bullet), add salt and sugar to taste, and puree to your heart's content. It can sometimes help to add a little canola oil to, uhum, lubricate the situation with your new companion, but before you know it you'll be having meaningful relationships with all sorts of alternative packaging materials that are sexier and smarter to boot. There's nothing better than talking for hours with a reused glass jar about your shared convictions of thriftiness and environmental responsibility. Oh, and peanut butter.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


There are some things that are sacrosanct in our society. We treat a select group of products as if they were holy water handed down from on high, material that is intended to be integral and not altered by human hands. For myself, toothpaste was one of these items. The folkloric wisdom of my forefathers warned that to alter the traditional mystic components of this magic paste would rend the earth (or my teeth) apart, invariably bringing down the riders of the apocalypse and gingivitis (which, if anyone has watched Crest commercials, apparently belongs in the hellish pantheon alongside plague and pestilence. You know, God brushes like a dentist.)

Fortunately, there are alternatives. For several months now I have been making my own toothpaste using baking soda, mint extract, and glycerin. Baking soda acts as a deodorizer and cleansing agent, while mint extract adds flavor and glycerin provides a pasty consistency. In all honesty the home-brew toothpaste still tastes a bit like baking soda, but it provides the same clean feel as store-bought paste and avoids the personal health quandaries of fluoride. Plus, it can save you a couple of bucks. Try the recipe below, or just eye it; this isn't an exact science.

1 TBS Baking Soda
1-2 tsp Glycerin (This can be found at many grocery stores and pharmacy-type outlets)
1/2 tsp Mint Extract (Commonly found in spice/cooking isles of grocery stores)