Friday, January 27, 2006

Where Will It All End?

This is the EarthQuaker's washing machine. I'm going to replace the horrible plastic seat with an old leather Brooks Saddle that the former resident of this house gave me when he moved out. I think that it would pedal more efficiently with a longer set of cranks, but since I only have to pedal it for twenty minutes a week to take care of making my clothes as clean as they really need to be, I can probably just live with it.

The contraption is an unholy union of a discarded exercise bike and a 1930's era Maytag washer, complete with 'mangle' for wringing clothes. It was a student sustainability project which I oversaw at the Woolman Semester ( When the students researched the ecological footprint of doing laundry, they actually found that it takes more energy to heat the water for warm or hot laundry loads than it takes to run the washing mashine for agitation and spinning. So, cold water and pedal powered agitation and wringing make up a pretty earth-Friendly way to get the clothes clean.

But what about refrigeration? Running this computee? Reading lights and the electric toothbrush? Can the EarthQuaker live an ecologically responsible life without running nekkid in the woods, eating grubs and berries? Where will it all end?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Oh S--t!

The EarthQuaker whips past the animal barn, late to staff meeting. Love that Raleigh Superbe.
We are not called to renounce the material world, but to discipline ourselves to enlightened materialism. Stewarding those possessions we have is part of this discipline. Here is the Raleigh, its first time back to the site where I found it, obviously offered up to someone who would restore and love it. I've regeared it, lubed and adjusted all bearings, new chain, new saddle, upside downed the handlebars and taped, great new brake pads, and Carradice saddle bag. She runs like a dream. I didn't get the saddle clamp quite tight enough, however, which is why the saddle is tilted up a little too much--perfectly comfortable, though. Some cyclists don't ride Brooks saddles--what must they be thinking?

Who needs the Department of Motor Vehicles? Anarchists don't let anarchists drive cars...
(A more normal seat angle, before the ride home...)

Well, something magical happened today, almost accidentally. I didn’t really plan it, but I smelled it on the wind…
I was trying to figure out what was causing the shudder in the school’s hammered Chevy Astro van this morning. There was also a complaint of a fuel starvation kind of problem, but I couldn’t recreate that one. The shudder is very pronounced—no doubts about that one. I tried rotating wheels around, in case that would provide a clue, but eventually decided that I would just take the thing to the Chevy dealer, who has a lift, and knows the quirks of this all-wheel-drive vehicle. This van really embodies many of the things I dislike the most about motor vehicles.
Of course, if I’m going to leave the van in town, I need a way to get back to Sierra Friends Center, right? So, I loaded up my Raleigh Superbe. While I was in Berkeley I got a used Brooks B15 saddle (the one that is slightly wider than a B17, and no longer available) from the library bike collective on Channing Way. It was totally sunburnt and dried out, but I upturned it and wrapped it in aluminum foil two nights ago, and poured about half a can of Huberd’s Shoe Oil onto the under side. This morning I wiped it down, put it on the Raleigh, covered it with a rag, and rode to the end of Jones Bar Road and back. It’s hard, like a new Brooks, but I think that it’ll break in just fine.
Trying to put all errands together, I dropped off some library materials, left the van with the garage, and went to the DMV to register our Ford truck for the road, and get my driver’s license straightened out. I got a fix-it ticket for not having my current address on my license in November. Considering that the CHP stopped me on my motorbike for going 97 mph, this seemed like a pretty mild outcome. When the officer told me that he had clocked me going 97, I spontaneously ejaculated, “HAH!!” I think that he was unused to that response, because he did eventually figure out that he had the wrong guy. No, really—I wasn’t going anywhere near that fast.
Well, I sat in line for some time at the DMV, under the fluorescent lights. I thought about Scott Savage and John Woolman. I thought about Alan Stahler, the slight, bookish scientist who lived in this house before me, and was car free, riding an old Raleigh ten speed bike to town almost daily. I was called to the window. I registered the Ford for the Center, and I cancelled my driver’s license. Actually, I let the license lapse, since it expired last month (Ooops!) and applied for an ID card. I no longer hold a valid DL. I am car free!!!!
It is an incredible relief to be car free. Initially, it will be a hell of an adjustment, but ultimately I am going to really enjoy living in the Light of sustainable transportation choices. I imagine that there will be some tough conversations with folks who just don’t relate.
I pedaled all the way home on the old “all steel bicycle.” I didn’t walk it once. It was a glorious, crisp day for a ride. The new Mathauser brake pads stop really well—I scared myself a couple of times, expecting the old lousy brake performance. I never thought once about the B15 saddle, so it must have been fine.
I feel somehow that this blog should be more dramatic, funnier, more full of spiritual conviction. The truth is, however, that I just feel relieved.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The EarthQuaker and John Henry


I look up the trunk of the young Ponderosa pine as it stretches towards the clear blue sky above. The tree is straight as can be, and no breeze stirs her branches. I tilt my head down again and the sweat that has condensed in the top of my helmet runs off the brim and drips on the muffler of the ancient Stihl chainsaw roaring away in my hands. The droplets of sweat evaporate instantly off the hot metal, as if to say, the sweat off your brow don’t mean nothing to the Machine. The steel plate in my right wrist, legacy of a motorcycle accident years ago, throbs with the saw’s vibration and the blue tinged two-stroke exhaust gives me heartburn. I am doing the back cut now, having notched the tree in the direction I want it to fall. Slowly, she begins to topple. I hit the kill switch on the saw, and step back. The young tree, about forty feet tall, falls in slow motion, and lands softly on the forest floor. The saw is still buzzing away in my hand, though the kill switch is clearly in the “OFF” position. I throw the choke lever and the saw sputters and dies. Blessed silence.

“Thanks for your beauty and your life,” I say aloud to the tree, patting its now horizontal trunk. I sit down on the stump. I want to sacralize this sacrifice, but it is so profane that my words just seem like sentimentality.

In disgust, I carry the saw back up to the truck. I take off the helmet, bandana, earplugs, Kevlar chaps, long sleeve shirt and safety glasses. I drink a little water. It is about time to fuel the saw. When you are falling trees, it is good to put gas in the saw before it runs out. There are times when you don’t want to hear that skip, stutter, stall of a two-stroke motor running out of juice, like when a tree is just about cut through, and a breeze might send it any which way, rather than where you want it, while you are fussing with gasoline and two-stroke oil ratios.

As I reach for the gas can, my hand falls on the old double bit axe that I have put in the truck. I have sharpened one side to a keen edge for falling, and the other to a tougher working edge for limbing and knots. The handle is oiled with linseed oil, and a fresh steel wedge has tightened up the head nicely. It’s not a Wetterlings, or a Gransfors Bruks, but it is a good old American axe. It has a wonderful heft to it, light and strong, perfectly balanced. It weighs about four and a half pounds. The chainsaw weights twenty. I eye the next tree to drop in the thinning project. It is about the size of a telephone pole at the base. I need to drop it very precisely so that it doesn’t damage the trees around it. I put my gloves back on and pull up my suspenders.

A clean white chip flips out of the notch in the tree and lands at its base. The axe makes a solid thunk as it bites in, first from above, and then from below, a neat chip with every second stroke. The thunk is the only sound in the forest, besides my regular breathing. I get a rhythm going. I’ve never actually falled a tree with an axe before, but it instantly seems safer and easier than the chainsaw. I do get one bad bounce, however, and the axe comes rebounding back, glancing off the toe of my stout Wesco Jobmaster logger’s boot—that’s why Wesco makes ‘em like that. ( I adjust my stance so as to keep my toes out of harm’s way, and start on the back cut. I am surprised at how well I can use the axe ambidextrously. Not only are all chainsaws built for right handers, but if I tried the thing backward, I’m sure I’d acquire the nickname “Stumpy” pretty quick.

Chainsaws are also notoriously polluting. Noise pollution is one form, and then there are emissions. A brand new chainsaw pollutes as much in an hour with a 39cc engine as a modern car driven 100 miles with a two litre engine! Once the saw is fifty hours old, it may pollute twice as much as it did new. And, you’re standing in that cloud of noise and poison the whole time you are working with the thing. Infernal combustion indeed!

After several more axe blows, there is a sound, almost too subtle to be considered sound. It is a feeling almost, coming up from the ground. I pause. The sound is clearly audible now, and then I can definitely see the trunk of the tree leaving the vertical. I step back, the axe responding instantly to its “OFF” switch, and watch the tree fall just where I had intended. This time when I thank the tree there is a true sense of reverence, respect, and gratitude.

What the Bleep is the EarthQuaker doing falling trees? I have been wondering that myself. The Sierra Friends Center got a USDA grant to do “timber stand improvement” on our 230 acres. We have planted nearly 3000 trees in the last two years, and cleared areas for that planting. What I am doing now is “thinning.” I cut trees that are under eight inches diameter at breast height if they are close enough to impair the growth of other trees that are more desirable as timber trees. The added benefits are firewood, a decreased fuel load for forest fires (we live in the highest rating of fire danger in the insurance industry’s system of assessment), and paid work for Carl to do. In a natural forest, there would be succession and we would just harvest the trees that matured according to sustainable forestry practices—our Timber Harvest Plan (THP) is very conservative and all officially approved. Because this whole area was mined and logged pretty brutally in the (to trees) not so distant past, there is not a lot of generational diversity in the forest, so there can be five “pecker pole” pines all within five feet of each other, and they impair one another’s growth. So, I am being an Ent and choosing which trees to leave, and which to cull. I actually have spent more time brush clearing for fire safety (eliminating fuel ladders) than I have been falling these trees. If the land hadn’t been logged, and if we were able to let it burn naturally, it would be totally unnecessary for me to do any of this work.

The wages for Carl part of the project is looking a bit spurious as well. This is hard, hot, dangerous, loud, poison-oakey work for a wage that after taxes really isn’t worth much more than saner work that I could do without sweating so much. The Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World or I.W.W. See: who started my union would be disgusted with me for working with such old, funky equipment alone in the woods for poor wages and no benefits. I’m a bit disgusted myself. I wonder if I need to go see the high priest of Fellow Workers, Utah Phillips, for absolution. He lives right here in town. (

I’m going back out to the woods soon. I have honed my axe, and I've got my Welsh suspenders on ( In the old days, if a fellow showed up on a logging crew with a belt instead of suspenders, they sent him home as too green to be doing such dangerous work. Besides, suspenders are Plain ( It is beautiful day to work outdoors.

I might just leave that chainsaw in the truck. It only has one advantage over the axe: it is quicker. And if I practice with the axe, that advantage will diminish. I’ve seen enough of where an emphasis on so-called industrial efficiency is leading the human race, and I’m not impressed. However, the USDA grant that is paying my wages is “your tax dollars at pork,” so how do you feel about my doing the job by hand?

When I was a kid, I loved the story and the song of John Henry. This contest between a “steel-drivin’ man” and a steam drill epitomizes the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of the industrial age. In my childhood book, John Henry was a big, pleasant-looking black man with a mighty hammer. He hammered in the mountain, so that blasting charges could be laid and the rock removed to make a tunnel for the railroad.

The fellow who invented the steam drill
Thought that he was mighty fine,
But big John Henry made fifteen feet,
While the steam drill only made nine.

So, John Henry defeated the steam drill in the contest. Many new technologies are like this: the old technology is actually better than the new technology, but we persist with the new technology until it exceeds the old. Horse-drawn farm equipment was very good, reliable and efficient when the first expensive, unreliable, soil-compacting tractors came along. The bow and arrow in skilled hands could be a much better weapon than early muskets which were inaccurate, took forever to load, and occasionally blew up in a person’s face. The cellular phone is a similarly useless pile of poo, but its potential, and its performance when it does work, seduces us. These technologies rob us of precious things, trading “efficiency” for peace, safety, affordability, quiet, sustainability, and a sane pace of life. They require less intelligence, hard work, skill, and patience than the technologies they replace.

In the song about John Henry, this loss is given its due. We learn that:

John Henry hammered in the mountain,
He hammered so his hammer’s strikin’ fire,
But he worked so hard that he broke his mighty heart,
And he laid down his hammer and he died…

So, he dies with honor, on the altar of industrialism as symbolized by the railroads, which were both a product of industrialism, and a powerful instrument of it. To me it is particularly poignant that John Henry died of a heart attack. Lest we think that only the blue collar working man is sacrificed to the industrial machine, heart disease is the great killer of white collar cubicle dwellers whose hands are clean and who never sweat.

They carried John Henry to the graveyard
And they laid him with his hammer in the sand
And every locomotive that goes rumblin’ by
Says, 'There lies a steel-drivin’man,
Lord, Lord!
There lies a steel drivin’ man.'

Today the EarthQuaker will take a page from John Henry's book, and do his work with muscle power. I'm gonna skip the heart attack part though...