Archive for May, 2008

Bathing Al Fresco

Ah, nothing like the wilderness to make you reevaluate your relationship to material goods. This past weekend, I arrived on the trail as the clouds and fog lifted from atop the mountains I was entering. A man told me it had been raining for three days… not good news (or so I thought) in the flash-flood prone desert. But it turned out, hiking after the rain was like a hidden secret ritual for many, who avoided the 100+ degree weather by following a storm through the hills. It was beautiful.

Superstitions after Rain

My hiking buddy and I set up camp by a lovely spring-fed stream in the heart of the wilderness. Barely any signs of humans passing through the area in decades, so the water was about as clean and refreshing looking as any can be. I wanted to go for a swim in the natural rock pools and then bathe in the open sun. But when I pulled my shampoo bottle out of my bag, and then looked in the water at the bullfrog tadpoles and other life, I couldn’t bring myself to use any unnatural products in such a pristine place.

Of course, I wouldn’t have thought twice about using that same shampoo at home, though it all ends up in the same water somewhere downstream. Conversely, I wouldn’t have touched water that had a tadpole in it at home, no matter how clearly I could see the bottom. As I said, sometimes it takes a little unfamiliar scenery to make up evaluate our own habits without colored lenses. So I chose to forgo the bath and simply enjoy a swim. Lovely.

When I arrived home, I was determined not to let this happen again, to find myself a potential life-killing polluter in one of the few places not already actively under attack by humankind. So I started researching natural soap, remembering something about “soaproot” from somewhere back in 5th grade when we studied the pioneers crossing the great American plains. Turns out, there are SEVERAL “soaproots”, and had I known what I was doing, there was likely one of them within fifty feet of the proposed bathing locale.

Ever found yourself in a similar bind? Here’s the skinny on natural soap:

Soaproot2

Indian Soaproot, Bouncing Bet, Soapwort

“Wherever Poison Oak grows chances are you will find Soap Root growing. You can harvest Soap Root anytime of the year and it looks the same year round, except for having tall flowering stalks in the spring. The part to use is the bulbous root, so you will need to dig it up. Usually one bulb is all you will need. Peel off the brown, furry outer covering until the white layer underneath is exposed. While using, keep it in a plastic bag to keep from drying out.” – naturalfamilyhome.com

This is the most commonly known of the soap-producing plants. It produces a nice lather for washing both body and clothes, and according to legend, it was also used by the Apaches to catch fish by putting it in the water. It has the most “bang for the buck” of lathering plants.

Yucca

The yucca plant comes in a wide variety of species, but all share the potential for lather. Some people recommend using the root for bathing, but using the root kills the plant. For a small task like bathing, you can simply pull off one leaf from the plant, shred the leaf into strips, and rub them back and forth in your hands with water until a lather forms. (Incidentally, this is also the first step in making yucca twine, another useful thing to know in an emergency!) Use this mix like a pre-soaped washcloth. This plant is so common in the Southwest, you can find it everywhere from ornamental gardens to the untouched National Parks. If I had known, I’d have had a yucca bath that day.

Wood Ashes as Cleaning Agent

Wood Ashes

In an emergency situation, you can wash your skin or pots and pans, etc with ashes from a campfire. It’s important to use clean ashes and not to leave them on your skin too long… ashes are caustic, as they contain lye, an ingredient used in making store-bought soaps.

Buffalo/Missouri Gourd, Mock Orange, Callabacilla

Small triangular leaves and a very spreading habit, this vine has small, orange shaped and sized gourds and a thick taproot that can be up to five feet long. The gourds can also be used as sponges. There is less lather in this plant than others.

Soapberry Trees

These grow in the Southeastern and MidAtlantic states, and are one of three varieties. They have small berries which lather when crushed in water.

Wild Lilac, Myrtle, Buck Brush

Grows in the Western states, covering the land with blue and white flowers in the Spring. The flowers can be used as soap, and are very fragrant, leaving the body perfumed.

Southern Buckeye

A Southeastern plant that is best for washing clothes and fabrics. Like the soapwort, it can stun fish when thrown in water, though this is illegal and should be reserved for survival situations.

Read more about soap plants here

Survival outline that includes a few more saponin-containing plants

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A Memorial to Nature

It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and I can’t think of any way I’d rather spend it than getting as far from lots of people as possible to enjoy the splendors of Nature.  So I’m headed into the woods again to get lost for a few days. Stay posted when I get back for inspiration from the trail!

walking away

Happy Memorial Day, Everyone!

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Database of Edible and Useful Plants

Trying to figure out what to do with that daylily in your front yard? Wonder what it’s good for? (It might be edible!) Check out http://www.pfaf.org/, where you’ll find an impressive database of over 7000 plants and their alternative uses for humankind. Their Top 20 Plants lists for edibility and medicinal value are a great resource when planning what you can plant in your garden that might help you out after grid crash.

Daylilies

According to the introduction to their companion book, 20 is also the magic number when it comes to our current diets: only 20 plants supply 90% of human food. Wow! I wish that they’d gone on to list those twenty foods, but perhaps it’s buried a little deeper in the text. This site is a great resource for someone who either wants to find out about a particular plant via their search function or someone looking to plan a landscape that does more than simply look nice.

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Solar Sailor: cruising through green waters

“We are confident we can build everything up to ocean liners
and in fifty years time people will look back at boats of the
20th Century and they’ll say “where are the wings”?”
– Dr Robert Dane, CEO, Solar Sailor

Imagine a boat powered by the sun. Unlike the wind, which comes and goes with unpredictable ferocity, the sun makes a fairly easily scheduled appearance most days. Add wind power as a concentrated burst of energy when the sun doesn’t necessarily shine, and you’ve got a luxury ride. It simultaneously looks like a subway train and a transformer: it isn’t the lofty elegance of an old galleon, but it makes a fashion statement nonetheless!

The Sun Sailor has won numerous award for its intriguing design. It simply makes sense to marry the sun and sailing, and takes place under some of the least obstructed skies on earth. And there’s some big name support. The leader of the company is an ex-prime minister of Australia, and recently Solar Sailor was awarded a contract with the US navy developing unmanned vehicles.

Visit the Solar Sailor site here

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Stylish and Sensible: Solar Roof Tiles

Solar Roof Tiles

Here’s a really nicely executed concept hitting the research airwaves. Sebastian Braat, an Australian designer working on his graduate thesis, came up with a combination solar electric solar thermal roof tile that not only has up to 18% efficiency, but also is adaptable and looks really sleek.

You can more than power an average sized family home with only 200 tiles.  That allows for more placement options to suit your situation, and there are plans to develop a variety of different styles.  Mr. Braat concerns himself with “easing the power burden our housing estates are rapidly creating” in innovative and informative ways.

No word yet on cost, but file this one away in your “near future” pile.

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BOOK REVIEW: Coming Out of the Woods

Coming out of the Woods, Wallace Kaufman

Wallace Kaufman’s website

Coming Out of the Woods - Wallace Kaufman

I first picked up this book because Mr. Kaufman is an alumnus of the same university I attended, and was a self-proclaimed naturalist. Well, I thought, at least we have something in common. The forest he describes in his tale border the ones I spent several weeks in on my college no-impact wilderness trip, so I felt immediately familiar with the place names and general environment he described on each page. But even if I hadn’t been there before, the way in which this story is written literally walks you through the forest, seeing everything with the trained eye of someone who not only observes, but understands the awesome forces which shape natural (and not-so-natural) history. I learned a lot about ways to detect past human presence in an area simply by observing the trees and bushes around you.

But this book is more than a tale about the woods themselves. It’s about living in the woods, humankind’s constant struggle to understand, adapt, and coexist with nature and her varied forms. As such, and as a tale of fatherhood, this book really shines. I found myself wanting to visit Morgan Branch and sit myself in the cool waters running downhill to join the larger stream. To sit alone and listen to the squirrels and birds and bats fly overhead while old-growth trees wave gently overhead. To help break ancient rocks and lift them into place for a self-built house’s foundation. Truly scenery so lovely deserves the loving documentation it receives in Coming Out of the Woods.

Of course, if you see the title, you’ll understand that all tenures have their end, and this is no exception. What would possess a man who has escaped society by the first Earth Day to rejoin it by the end of the millennium? For the answer to that, you’ll have to read the book!

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Take a Tour of Solarious

This week, you will be seeing a lot of action at the Solarious website, as I update and expand the back pages with new information for you.  Why don’t you stop through and take a tour?

First, check out the food additives page, “In My Food”, where you can find out more about the ingredients that make up you daily diet and how they may affect your health.  If you have any expertise or suggestions about ingrdients, please share them, and I’ll follow up by posting more on the topic.

Next, visit the “Success Stories” page to see how others in your position have overcome challenges and maintained inspiration and vision to complete alternative energy projects.  Again, please feel free to share any inspiring stories or learning lessons you know of so that others may learn too.

And finally, see the brand-spankin’ new section, “Box it Up”, for an ever-incomplete listing of companies that incorporate recycled packaging and goods into their product lines.  I say incomplete, because more companies recognize the need for such sustainable practices every day.  Here’s to wishing for that day when ALL companies use recycled goods in their products, reducing our virgin material needs close to zero.  Until then, support these companies’ decisions to ensure that they view sustainability as a wise business decision.

In regularly scheduled news, everything here is going great.  After a solid week of grey days and spitting rainy weather, the sun is out and blazing.  It’s time to get cooking!  Over the “down time” of cloudy weather, I walked around the city distributing a new magazine for whom I write.  Plenty of time to check out the neighborhood and look for a block to adopt.  And… I’ve found one!  It took a bit of looking, because in my neighborhood the “Clean Team” (ie. people who’ve gotten community service hours to complete) come around once a week and supposedly clean the streets, so I didn’t want to overlap their areas.  And because there is just so much mess to choose from!  I’ve chosen a two-block area near my house to start with, and will expand once I figure out how much maintenance that will entail.  When I go next week to begin picking up, I’ll post before and after photos.  I also found a community garden near where I travel regularly with available plots.  With any luck, I’ll be able to scrape up a little cash and get a plot there to feed my growing demand for veggies to steam in the sun!  If you’re in the LA area and have a neglected backyard that you want planted for a share of the organic produce, holler! We can help each other out… and isn’t that what life is all about?

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