Showing posts from 2015

The Fracking Gamble

+Gail Tverberg 's theory about the deflationary spiral of oil prices (she thinks we are locked in to a price slide that will bottom out around $20/barrel) also applies to natural gas.  The fact that Chesapeake Energy (the U.S.'s second largest natural gas producer) is headed toward junk status supports this corollary.  A lot of Chesapeake's problem stems from land speculation with the intention of drilling and fracking.  These land deals were conducted with money from bright-eyed investors who never understood the economics of fracking and are now realizing how little real value most of the shale plays held.  Chesapeake's co-founder, Aubrey McClendon, seemed to know when to leave the party, as he departed the company in 2013.

He chose the name for the company out of a liking for the Chesapeake Bay area, despite the company's Oklahoma roots.  From Oklahoma, Chesapeake Energy's gas pipelines grew toward the Chesapeake Bay like a mycelium seeking humid climes to …

The Future of Mass Transportation

One of Maryland author John Michael Greer's oddities (other than being an archdruid)
is that his preferred mode of intercity transportation is passenger rail.  In fact, he chose his adopted town, Cumberland, MD, partly because of its proximity to a working train station. The motivation for he and his wife's move to this Allegheny rust-belt arts-centric village was that we would soon enough become a more regionally-scaled economy, reverting from a global or national scale.  Underlying that conviction was the view that oil would not be abundantly cheap in the near future, driven by the occurrence of global peak oil. Rail travel would then become relatively more important.

It looks like JMG's move is now going to be validated, as we've arrived at peak oil. Although oil prices are much lower than in recent history, the price drop is driven by falling demand, which, along with a host of other commodities, shows that the world is entering a global recession. The fact that th…

Don't Wait for the Lifeboats

The Brown- and Green-tech scenarios David Holmgren postulates are only half of the picture.  When you factor in the effects of a rapid decline in worldwide oil production, the scenarios become "Lifeboats" and "Earth Steward," respectively, with Earth Steward being the lesser of four evils. Murphy's law favors the greater of the four evils, especially as we find oil production to be past peak with no viable substitute.  Assuming oil production will decline more rapidly than our ability to power down in a controlled fashion gives us the Lifeboat scenario, where civilization fragments and humans die off by half.  If you think it couldn't get any worse than that, read Revelation or Dante's Inferno or a Cormac McCarthy novel; our capacity for suffering seems almost unlimited.  Yet, it is so troubling to plan for the Lifeboat scenario, much less act on that premise, that we are loath to even consider it.

Holmgren's solution to our predicament is to accele…

Climate Refugees

Did you notice the environmental subtext in the latest Star Wars movie contrasting the despoiled, brown desert world with the overgrown blue-green planet where freedom reigns?  It strains credulity to think that life could be sustained as depicted on the desert planet, while the blue-green planet offers a multitude of niches where creatures could luxuriate.  Earth is a mix of these two worlds, but with the desert gaining more ground every year.

Included in the desert are many cityscapes that are denuded of flora, paved over, serving as commons for swarms of seemingly unconcerned occupants.  This has been our direction since the time of Nimrod and the industrial revolution magnified the devastation many times over.  David Holmgren classes the two types of environment as results of brown- and green-tech.

Maryland is on course for more land "development" in the years ahead, but forest canopy cover is required to be a minimum of 40%, meaning we won't end up like the desert …

Pushing back the Invaders

There is something of a tragedy in places where natives are driven into minority status.  Who knows what the waves of climate and resource war migrations will do to Europe in terms of cultural upheaval? The wild kingdom endures its own invasions of animals, plants, and insects, driven, as well, by climate change and human exploitation.  Often, the invasive species can be predatory, as were the settlers vs. the Native Americans and certain Islamic extremists living in the free world.

As a master gardener intern, I've been trained to side with the natives in their fight to possess territory.  This sounds like a convenient simplifying precept until you start asking for native plants at local nurseries.  Browsing through the Native Plant Guide for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, I picked four ground cover plants that I decided to shop for to get the best price from nurseries as far as 50 miles away.  It turned out that price wasn't the issue, since not a single one was available at…

Fruits and Nuts

The forest garden I intend to plant will consist of 25 black walnut trees and several compatible species.  That limits the field to only a few species which don't seem to mind the juglone (5-hydroxy-alphanapthaquinone) that black walnut roots secrete.  A recommended native plant guild for black walnut* from Maryland permaculturist Michael Judd consists of:

Goumi bush - producing a juicy, red berry in June (use 2 varieties; won't tolerate wet soil)Persimmon* - delicious Diospyros (Food of the Gods) virginiana (requires full sun; dioecious {requires a male tree}; half the height of black walnut)Paw paw - custard cream tropical fruit for making smoothies (full sun best; half the height of persimmon)Mulberry - exotic berry flavor (tolerates shade; a bit larger than paw paw tree)Currants - tart to sweet from black to pink nutritious berries (a shrub that grows well next to trees)Black raspberry - (not out-of-control like blackberries)Alpine strawberry - smaller fruit than commercial…

A Candy Store

Speaking of treasure troves, stumbling across the new Maryland online nursery has opened up a glorious new chapter in my forest gardening efforts.  Whereas, formerly, the only affordable and accessible source for me to buy native plants was the annual Master Gardener plant sale in Prince Frederick, where I would have to pay at least double the online nursery price, plants are now available online throughout the growing season and early orders are possible.  A minimum order of 25 plants is required and a minimum shipping charge of $20 applies to each order ($30 if your state doesn't adjoin Maryland).  Considering that retail nurseries charge over $150 for a young tree, and you could get 150 seedlings at this website for that price, it's a huge bargain.

This outlet is not for commercial resellers.  As the DNR website stipulates:

"Landowners who purchase seedlings from the John S. Ayton Nursery agree to: Provide a planting report upon department requestProtect plantings as mu…

Please Don't Feed the Algae

Global warming isn't the primary cause of all environmental problems, but it still plays a hand in most.  Take the Upper Middle River outside of Baltimore where, last month, 200,000 fish were suffocated by an algae bloom that led to anaerobic conditions in the water.  The algae bloomed from a combination of warm temperature and an over-abundance of nutrients in the water.  When the weather cooled, the algae died, decaying through a chain of microbial feeding frenzies that consumed dissolved oxygen and released toxins damaging fishes' gills.  Dead fish compounded the effect of dead algae. Not to say that we will suffocate from all of the die-offs occurring around us (though the oxygen concentration in our air is falling), but this is an example of how the fate of a lesser ecosystem occupant can dramatically affect higher species.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has not identified any single pollution source as the trigger for the algae bloom, but leaves open the pos…

Insanity Checks

Now that the COP-21 Paris climate confab has devolved into muddling over short-term economic privilege instead of the physical threat of global warming, let's see how this sharpens our focus of future first-order impacts nearer to home.  Taking at face value the effects listed in the draft 2015 Maryland Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act Plan, we can assume that the worst case is now the most likely within most of our lifetimes, since Maryland's and most other parties' minuscule contributions to the solution will be of little consequence against the outpouring of fossil fuel and peat gas emissions arising from the Far and Middle East.  Here are aspects of Maryland's inescapable future environment and some checks on future decisions that could proveinsane if we follow our usual course.

Sea Level Rise over 4 feet: The U.S. Navy has new port real estate at the Solomons Recreation Center in lieu of the industrial area.  Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy can make it to their se…

Keep the Home Fires Burning

Most analyses of the greenhouse gas emissions problem hold the precept that we cannot quickly reduce our use of energy.  Hence, the introduction of technology to displace fossil fuel usage with more sustainable sources must serve as a substitute source of energy.  Oftentimes, the substitute is nearly as polluting as the original, or of dubious marginal value since it is difficult to estimate emissions from all potential sources.

Likewise, it is difficult to estimate the contribution of ecosystems to CO2 reduction.  This is why biochar is struggling to be recognized as an important, if small, part of the solution to the problem of global warming.  Biochar is made with little, if any, production of useful energy compared to incineration of biomass, which produces little, if any, biochar.  This is why the National Academy of Sciences gave biochar such short shrift in their recent study of carbon sequestration approaches. Maryland, unfortunately, adopted this study as the basis for seque…

Crash and Burn

Going into the COP-21 Paris climate talks, the U.S. position is reportedly to emulate Maryland's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, bringing carbon emissions for the whole country down 27% by 2025.  I imagine this won't be very hard, since peak oil and financial disaster will force us down that path eventually, anyway.

Meanwhile, Maryland can't seem to see the forest for the trees of gas lines crisscrossing the state. Though informed in 2010 that Maryland's abundant biomass could provide a portion of the state's energy, clean power investment has favored natural gas, solar, and wind power.

It would be comforting if Maryland would ban fracking like New York did this year. Otherwise, investments in cleaner power plants, such as the PSEG Keys Energy Center being built up in Brandywine, may end up as incentives to further damage the environment.  While it may beat coal and gas export in terms of carbon emissions, natural gas is non-renewable and only sets us up for a big …

Playing with Fire

I am proud to be a Marylander just for the simple fact that our state is a leader in the fight against climate change.  Maryland's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act (GGRA) rivals the plans of such progressive states as Switzerland in the rapidity envisioned for reducing emissions to fight global warming.  Since GGRA was enacted in 2009, Maryland has actually reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions faster than required by the plan, which calls for a 25% reduction of the 2006 level of emissions by 2020.  We are now at the point where an update to the plan is needed, as the Act must be reapproved in 2016.

Insofar as the real importance of Maryland's plan is not in drawing down emissions, but in showing other states how it is possible to do so while growing the economy, the GGRA is laudable. I do, however, have my reservations as to motives and the ultimate outcome.  It's not that Maryland is just so small as to have little bearing on global warming, it's that, at this point in …

Terror Starts at Home

The heightened level of "security" brought on by the most recent global terrorist attacks and threats will likely be evident in several ways to all Americans right where they live.  One local organization that is primed to play in this game is the Calvert County Sheriff's Department.  They have been itching to take on any would-be disruptors of our sedate rural existence, so much so that they zero in on whatever appears alien.  Out of state license plates are one clue.  Visiting for the purpose of protest is another.

A situation like the one recently at Bank of America stadium involving repellers with a banner protesting the Cove Point Plant expansion was resurrected recently when charges and counter-charges were filed over the treatment of protesters who had been arrested following the crane climbing incident early this year at Dominion's staging site on the Patuxent River.  It is not at all surprising that the Sheriff's Department would put a stop to such a st…

Chicken Shit

Turning our gaze across the Chesapeake Bay where chicken factories are one of the salient features of the landscape, a group of activists called Food & Water Watch has raised protests against the incineration of chicken manure.  You might think, with my advocacy of using chicken litter to make biochar, I would take exception to that position.  The truth is, incineration is not how you make biochar.

F&WW seems to mainly want to make CAFO's go away, but their agitation against the Renewable Fuel Standard inclusion of manure as a Tier 1 renewable fuel is ostensibly based on increased air pollution from incineration.  A long and twisted tale leads to the current state of dissatisfaction over the way we deal with this resource.

We can begin with Martin O'Malley who, back in his days as Maryland Governor, made a deal with Exelon Corporation to fund $50 million of a project to convert chicken litter to energy in exchange for allowing them to merge with Constellation Energy. …


An encouraging trend in Maryland and much of the country toward more local self-sufficiency is the explosive growth of local beer brewing.  Even more encouraging is the 2012 passage of a law here that allows farmers special dispensation in order to brew and sell beer and other accompaniments. This reduces the logistics of delivering agricultural inputs to the brewers.  I noticed one such farm brewery close by that I would like to visit someday.  Calvert Brewing Company makes several types of beer, with their webpage telling you which types of hops go into each one.

Therein lies my interest; not so much in the drinking, but in the ingredients.  A few weeks ago, I introduced myself to the brewmaster at The Ruddy Duck Brewing Company in order to inquire as to the chances of relieving him of some of the spent grains used in making his beer.  He was happy to oblige.  I now bring him a 30 gallon container every week, which he fills with wet hops and grains out of one of his tanks.  He also…

(Sh)it's All Good

Avian flu is not the only disease that might come from raising chickens.  The common concern is e.coli. Some 60,000 cases of e.coli infections get treated every year in the U.S. and a few deaths do occur, but, though those rates are low, who wants to be sickened by some nasty bug?  Nasty, because the main source is animal excrement.

I could say "shit," but that's not what it is to me.  I treasure it and all other excrement because, in a display of nature's alchemical capabilities, crap can be transformed into black gold through the phenomenon of composting. There are several types of dung I currently collect. We have a backyard chicken owner in our church who lets us take their droppings to our community garden for fertilizer. I regularly visit a riding stables about 3 miles away to fill bags with horse dung and cart them home for composting.

Anyone who has pets can also compost their caca with a little forethought.  I bought a cheap, versatile Geobin composter for…

Chickening Out

If there is one food species other than crab that Maryland is known for, it is chickens.  Purdue, Tyson, and others run vast chicken farms on the Eastern Shore.  If one wants to raise chickens in their backyard, however, that can be problematic.  The state only requires that poultry keepers register in case of an avian flu outbreak.  Counties have their own rules.  Calvert county only limits the number of birds you can have if you are raising them as pets, rather than for production.  The hangup occurs with homeowners associations.  A good number of homes are part of HOA's, including our own.  I have searched the rules for several of Calvert county's HOA's and found that one thing they have in common is prohibition of poultry and livestock.

In a state that prides itself on supplying a good deal of the country's chicken meat, this is singular. The reasons may be that odor could reach neighbors, or noise, or disease.  These rules are not in step with the times, however, …


Our house is in a homeowners association area known as the Chesapeake Ranch Estates (CRE).  The census designated place of Lusby, MD is inland and adjacent to our neighborhood.  We, and all but two other places in Calvert County, are beholden to the whims of the Board of County Commissioners for managing our tax dollars.

A petition has been submitted to the county government to allow our neighborhood and the adjoining commercial district to incorporate into a municipality, which would allow us to decide where some of our tax dollars are spent and to apply for grants and loans from state and federal agencies. If approved, our rural village will be known as Calvert Shores and, though late in coming, the change is a step in the right direction.  It would allow stronger enforcement of local rules, which have proven difficult for the HOA to maintain due to the enormous size of CRE.  It might also allow our village to begin the transition to a more resilient community, able to adapt to fin…

Calvert's Dirty Little Secrets

A worst-case scenario of a fire at the aforementioned Cove Point LNG plant is that a major leak could ignite and carry a fireball along the surface of the Chesapeake Bay up to 5 miles.  That is not the scenario that prompted the expenditure of $31 million at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant for a fifth layer of emergency back-up gear to avert a repeat of the disaster at Fukashima, Japan. A reciprocal scenario is the possibility of a large aircraft crashing into the nuclear plant resulting in an explosion that gets compounded by more explosions from the LNG plant.  Let's hope Murphy's Law doesn't evince itself by demonstrating the unintended linkage between these two contiguous facilities.

More likely, Calvert Cliffs will, like hundreds of other nuclear power plants, prove to be a financial mistake because of the cost of decommissioning and disposal.  Nuclear power is costly in so many ways that the U.S. has been practically in a nuclear plant construction moratorium…

We're Not Your Dumb Minions

It's disconcerting how energy issues have a way of intruding on stuff that's important to us.  In my own life, energy has come to the fore so often that I could count myself as a professional in some ways.  My naval career pulled me reluctantly through the nuclear power pipeline in both military, and later, civilian capacities.  Soon thereafter, I worked for Puget Sound Energy.  My next job involved power to the Internet, but that ended quickly after Enron's shenanigans were exposed.  My year in Iraq once again thrust me into the energy arena as part of the Energy Fusion Cell in Baghdad.

Even when energy isn't our unintended profession, it can get in our face.  So it was last night for viewers of the NFL Monday Night Football match in Charlotte, NC.  Right in the middle of their most important pastime, hundreds of thousands of fans had to stop and take notice of a couple of anti-fracking activists with a giant banner repelling down from the roof of the stadium.  Like …

Physical Reality

STEM seems to be the focus of many parents' desire for their children's educations due, in part, to the sponsorship of Bill Gates of educational programs including common core standards.  Whatever it takes for the kids to be admitted to college is what most parents are willing to aim for, and with the new standards, it takes a lot more technical ability than before.  What parents need to realize is that a college education is going to become ever more unattainable as the economy devolves into a less energetic state.  People power is what is going to be more valued in the near future as the consequences of peak oil play out.

For that reason, we shouldn't fret over the dismally low scores of many minority groups in Maryland showing that 95% of them aren't ready for college when they should be.  On the one hand, it does not serve the fight against discrimination for their cohorts to be left behind those of whites and Asians.  On the other hand, many whites and Asians wil…

Future Reedy

Calvert County's school district, like over 2,000 districts across the country, took a pledge recently to support the Future Ready initiative that attempts to level the digital playing field for students while enhancing the payoff of technology-based learning.  Half of Maryland's school districts have taken the same pledge and almost all are sure to follow suit, since parents and corporations are quite concerned about youths' ability to deal with the work challenges of the future.

In Calvert County this year, there was a lot of anguish over the 2016 budget squeeze which resulted in possible cuts to many extracurricular programs.  Nevertheless, the march of technology is going to require more funds, some of which will have to be paid by the school district.  It will probably mean that students will have fewer opportunities or incentives to become athletic and will be more encouraged to become geeks.  This is an unrealistic plan since the energy-deficient future these kids …

Getting Smart

Higher education holds out some promise for getting us away from the canyon our economy is stumbling toward.  Canyon is an apt metaphor since the easiest way to stay or get out is orthogonal to the slope that you might tumble down.  When the direction that worked for awhile leads to danger, maybe there will be enough smart people around to understand that we need to change course.

Such critical thinking is rare and difficult to engender with many of the higher education programs currently available.  Non-traditional education and online groups may be better.

Here in Southern Maryland, they are pressing on with business-as-usual in the groundbreaking for a new community college campus in Hughesville, central to our tri-county area.  With the higher education industry in crisis partly due to overleveraging their student portfolios with debt slaves, many colleges will be unable to continue as before.  Community colleges will suffer less than many of the 4-year schools, but even they are …

Cultivating the EcoMind

STEM extracurricular programs seem to be all the rage these days, but the environment gets a modicum of educational attention on our continent by way of an annual Envirothon.  Engineering (the 'E' in STEM) includes consideration of the context directly affecting the artificial system of interest.  One aspect of these contextual influences is that associated with the natural environment.  Some understanding of the environment is essential, therefore, to design of engineering systems, but the engineering perspective typically assumes that we can surmount or circumvent environmental forces by adjustments in the system's design. However, an environmental perspective of our human systems' contexts would lead to designs more harmonious with nature.  (Have you ever noticed that Environmental Engineering is usually all about how to clean up the messes we make on our planet?)
I am, therefore, pleased to note that the environmental literacy standards that Maryland instituted for…

Fall Undertakings

Though wood chips are available here year-round, a more compostable product of nature is offered only once a year.  When the leaves fall in the Fall (get it?), we have some choices to make.  Are we going to blow or rake them off to the side? bag them? shred them first? and then what?
Any of those three options are fine, it's the "then what?" that makes the difference.  If you leave them on the ground off your lawn, they will eventually decompose and nourish the soil there.  If you bag them, then add a little rich soil or compost, slash the bags in several places, and plan on turning them every month for a year, you will then have leaf mold that can be used as a mulch or compost input. If you shred them, then use the shreds as mulch or as a compost input.
Speeding up life and death's natural rhythm always takes exertion, as I demonstrated yesterday at Double Oak Farm when I made 25 gallons of biochar during the Calvert County Farm Festival.  In our area, the most pr…


Today I found what appears to be a bunch of clustered wood lovers fruiting on dead roots near my "farm."  I'm assiduously verifying the identity because this little brown mushroom has some deadly near-look-a-likes.  If they are hypholoma capnoides (aka clustered wood lovers), I might try to cultivate some - on wood chips.
Mr. Hanners, our local mushroom mogul, gets his thousands of logs delivered by tree service companies for a fee.  One thing the innumerable tree service companies are happy to drop off at no charge are fresh wood chips.  We had a pile conveniently dumped in our driveway early this year and now I have decided that several more are needed.
A byproduct of portable, powered equipment, and thus destined for near-term decline, wood chips are usually made from ramial wood, i.e. less than 4" diameter branches, in order to save on hauling or to avoid creating brush piles.
I have a solution to both of these problems.  Not only is hauling of bulky branches …

Mushrooms Mushrooming

The message from Paul Stamets' book, Mycelium Running, is that mushrooms can help save the world.  They do this, in part, by helping to recycle organic material, often in the form of wood.  That would make the gentleman we met today at the farmers market a real hero.  As the main local supplier of gourmet mushrooms, Mr. Hanners vouches to maintain 10,000 mushroom logs on his farm in central Calvert County.  He has been raising mushrooms for 40 years and seems to have an untiring passion for all things mushroom.  In contrast, I have managed to inoculate 25 or so logs in this, my first year of growing mushrooms.

Chespeake's Bounty is also planning to begin mushrooming on a commercial scale.  At the Mother Earth News Fair last month, the number of people taking an interest in the mushroom growing vendors and lectures was surprisingly large.  Mr. Hanners also told us about the excellent potential of finding morel mushrooms in our area - a quest that I had abandoned.

In addition …

My Secret Garden

After attempting to grow vegetables in my backyard, which receives less than 4 hours of sun per day, I shifted those efforts to the front, where the sun shines up to 8 hours per day.  I can grow things there, but not as well as those that come from my plot in our community's garden area.  Now, I am going back the other direction.  Rather than concede my remaining undeveloped 0.6 acres to the forest, I'm beginning to turn it into a forest garden.  Ironically, this entails removing a good number of trees for reasons just mentioned.
The thing is, a forest garden is not the type of forest that we find most places.  It is a place where selected plants are allowed to successively develop together, as in a new forest, but does not result in an overstory that shuts out the shrubbery from the sun.  My first tree removal authorization comes with the stipulation that I plant a new tree for every 5 that I cut down.  In my area, that is probably a good ratio to build a forest garden by.  …

Local Radicals

The transformation that forest gardening will make to our lives, if the Forested vision comes true, is radical.  Radical means "related to, or proceeding from, a root."  In that sense, any change that stems from a "grassroots movement" is, by definition, radical.  There are a number of these upstarts in my local area which I will be posting about in the future.  The most relevant to the matter at hand is one I will be assisting this coming weekend - Chesapeake's Bounty.

I had long taken this farmstand to be not much more than a mini-farm with a good location.  Later I learned that they bring in wholesome food from all over the local area.  They also give classes on topics that match my interests, e.g. mushroom cultivation, and other permaculture subjects.  More recently, I discovered that they are planning on planting food forests across much of their 40 acres.

This is just the beginning, but it is mind-boggling to imagine being able to wander through acre af…

A Vision for the Eastern U.S.

At the Mother Earth News Fair we recently attended in Seven Springs, PA, we were privileged to listen to Lincoln Smith of Forested, LLC give some practical advice about food forest gardening. Forested runs a training center in Bowie, MD where they seek to enact their vision, which reads,

Our 50 year vision is for forest garden ecosystems to sustainably supply
a large portion of all the things people use in the eastern United States.

Considering that the portion of forest garden products in what most people here currently use is approximately 0, Forested's ambition is on a scale as that of  Smith speaks with certainty about the need for forest gardening to replace the mono-culturated crops that presently supply most of our food, fiber, and a little fuel.  Edible Forest Gardens - Volume One: Vision & Theory by Dave Jacke elaborates greatly on Forested's vision, and may, indeed, be the source of it.

Let me quote excerpts of the scenario that Jacke lays out to give y…

A Vision for Calvert County, MD

The grass can often seem greener in other pastures, but I found a kindred spirit in the American Chestnut Land Trust (ACLT) here in my county, so I may need not search far to find my chosen community. Below is an excerpt from their strategic plan.  How would you like to have this be your county?
Our goal is for Calvert County to be a national model for environmental stewardship balanced with a healthy economy. We hope that in 2018 our landscape will be characterized by forests, fields and farms and well-planned and diverse communities, surrounded by a healthy river and bay. Additionally, we envision a future where citizens are educated and active stewards of the land and their daily living is enhanced by the abundance of natural areas. The ACLT is a grassroots organization started back in the last century with pushback against developers potentially destroying the natural beauty of this part of the western shore of the Chesapeake.  It now manages over 4,000 acres of semi-wilderness in…