Wants versus Needs

When we started this project four years ago, we envisioned our Thanks for Nothing Month as a period of reflection – a time to think about each and every item we are consuming.  And, of course, it does work.  Sort of like walking up a steep hill, all the time reminding yourself how good the exercise is for you.

For some reason the experience keeps reminding me of that old routine by George Carlin when he talks about “stuff.”  You go on a trip and only take some of your stuff.  Then you go on a day trip and take even less stuff – only the stuff you really, really need, and so on.

Conscious consumption has brought on thoughts of things I need, rather than things I have or want.  What are the things I am very aware of consuming when I limit consumption.  Here is a brief list...
  1. Firewood.  Seems that in the middle of January, when the outside temperatures hit minus 5 degrees, I seem to need some heat.  This is an actual honest to goodness need.  Not a “want” pretending to be a need.  
  2. Water.  We don't need a bunch of this – but the goats and llamas and dogs and cats seem to get very irritated if we don't keep fetching and carrying water to them.  They just can't seem to get in the spirit of Thanks for Nothing Month (especially the cats).
  3. Blankets.  I feel like this is a borderline item, but there is nothing quite so nourishing as to get below a pile of blankets on a warm, soft bed as the world freezes solid outside.
I think everything else really falls into the “want” category, although if I didn't have them, I would probably be able to summon enough rationalizations to push them up a notch to “need.”  I speak of course of...
  1. Food.  I could probably stand to go a fair time without it, but wouldn't want to.  This month, however, I find that we are eating less and less.  Perhaps it is because we have worked our way down through all the “goodies” and are well into bags of frozen chicken broth and rice.  Still good and all that, but just fine in moderation.
  2. Light.  I could be flip and simply say that when the sun goes down, just climb under the blankets.  But a bit of light in the evening is cheerful.  But it is amazing how little light you actually need.  We have been discussing personal light rather than abundant light. No need to light the whole room (or house) when you can simply light the place you are looking at.  
  3. Coffee.  I thought about putting this under the “need” list.  It seems to motivate me more than heat to get up in the middle of the night and fill the wood stove (so that hot water is waiting for me when I climb out from under the blankets).
  4. Clean hair.  I always figured that if I was captured by terrorists (or the CIA), all they would need to do is not let me wash my hair and then touch it.  I would chatter away like Joe Biden.  
So that's about it when it is pared down to the basics.  So why do I have all this other stuff around the house?  Under which list does the Chia Pet go?

Blowing up Inverters – Sort of

I now know what I didn't know.  I know what I know.  I don't know what I don't know I don't know.  And I don't care that I don't know what I didn't know but now I know but could get by just fine not knowing.
750-watt inverter working happily after the connection was fixed.  Now on lighter "office duty."
750-watt inverter working happily after the connection was fixed. Now on lighter “office duty.”
The learning curve continues.  

Perhaps I'll have that carved on my headstone.  Seems rather profound without being actually profound (a bit like Donald Rumsfeld).  But I digress.

I have managed to blow up one of the inverters on one of my solar generators.  Not blow up as in it lies in pieces at my feet – but blow up as now when I push the button, nothing happens.  I know why this happened, which is helpful.  My mistake was believing the literature.  The inverter was plenty big enough to handle the job, except that it wasn't.

The information on the internet was wrong (imagine that).  The manufacturer was apparently mistaken – asserting that limited power could handle the problem (why does this all keep reminding me of Donald Rumsfeld?)  

I have fixed the problem by installing an inverter that is rated to handle ten times the power requirements of the refrigerator.  Colin Powell would be proud.

Postscript:  Turns out I didn't know what I knew.  I went to replace the bad inverter – but it turned out to be a bad connection.  The smaller inverter still won't power the refrigerator, but at least it didn't meet its maker... yet.  

Tweaking the Solar Generators

The first full day of Thanks for Nothing has come and gone – and we have once again survived without some of the conveniences of a modern society.  Amazing. 
Annie enjoying dinner by candle light in front of the wood fire.
Annie enjoying dinner by candle light in front of the wood fire.
My role on the first day was largely technical.  As mentioned, we are trying out our solar generators – trying to test them and push them to their limits.  Well, right off the bat we found some limits.

We built three units.  The small unit, complete with a 400 watt inverter, a 35 amp-hour battery and all the other bits and bobs that make it work seems to be doing its assigned job just fine. In fact, I am connected to it as I write this.  For more than a day it has managed to supply power to my laptop, printer, cordless telephone and lamp (see, a complete office if your office consists only of a laptop, printer, telephone and lamp).  

We used the laptop all day – plus watched two movies on it during the evening (actually documentaries – so we are still pure and righteous).  We have also been listening to the radio over the internet on the laptop.   Some day we might actually stream music and join the modern world more completely.  As I type this, the unit just gave out a squawk that it was at the end of its juice.  So 24-hours seems to be the limit on this unit.  That will probably get you through most power outages.

The middle unit is, as you would imagine, a bit bigger.  It has a 750 watt inverter and a 110 amp-hour battery.  We determined to use this for the refrigerator, as our LG fridge only draws about 165 watts when running, I figured this would be more than enough.  But we have learned something about inverters (and motors).  

When the refrigerator kicks on (and this applies to any appliance with a motor), it draws a bit more energy in the first few seconds of operation (a surge).  Our inverter is supposed to handle this, rated to up to 1500 watts for a few seconds, but happier if only providing 750 watts or less on a continuous basis.  

We found that when the refrigerator tried to kick on, the inverter would indicate it was overloaded (even though it was well below its rated limit).  It would do this four or five times, then chug away happy as could be.  I worried that all this might be putting a strain on our refrigerator – so we moved the bigger unit in to take over.

The large unit has a 2,000 watt inverter and a 225 amp-hour battery bank.  The refrigerator is really happy with this unit.  We need to do a bit more testing, but it looks like there needs to be a lot of headroom in inverter capacity when working with motors – much more than the rated watts of the unit might suggest.

So we are off and running, settling into the slower pace of Thanks for Nothing month.  Dinner must be anticipated well in advance and cooked on the wood stove.  It is eaten by candlelight, which is never a bad thing.

The First World Problems of Thanks for Nothing Month

Okay, after my rant against Wall Street, the Media and American politics (in the last post), let's get down to some of the practical aspects of living during Thanks for Nothing month.  Here is the plan...

As mentioned earlier, we don't spend money during this month, which is to say (of course) that we still spend some money.
Solar Generator
Renie monitoring the solar generator. This unit powers the refrigerator/freezer. Note the laundry drying in the background (domestic chores continue).
What I mean by this is that we still have some ongoing expenses that happen whether we want them to or not.  For example, we will still accumulate 1/12th of our real estate taxes this month.  We will still get a phone bill (which is automatically paid from our bank account), and our insurances (ah, that's another topic for another rant) will still get paid automatically. 

So money is still spent – but we don't do any of the spending ourselves.  We don't purchase anything, such as food, household stuff, etc.  This year we extended this part of the experiment to three months (December, January and February).  No new stuff forces us to make due with what we already have.  And to be honest, most of us already have way too much stuff.  We just can't find it because it is tucked away under other stuff.  After a month of no shopping, it seems we have barely made a dent in the freezer.  I've managed to get by with the socks I already owned (go figure).  

As for transportation, if the car runs out of gasoline during the month – we simply don't go anywhere.  So conscious consumption of stuff grinds to a halt and exits our minds.

Energy is a bit more problematic.  Here at Blue Rock Station, our heat is provided through thermal mass (rammed earth tires and earth berming), passive solar (light and heat coming in through windows), and a small wood stove.  Our water is from rain, our waste is all, for the most part, composted.  In past years during Thanks for Nothing month, electricity has always been the issue.  

This year we installed a solar array for electricity.  So we could cheat and simply say (to ourselves) that we are only using what the sun provides each day.  But we want to push ourselves a bit.  We are currently writing a book on making your own solar generators – so we figured this month would be a great time to test their limits.

We have built three solar generators.  One is hooked up to the water pump (so we will have water – although the water heater is turned off, so we will have to rely on the wood stove for hot water).  Another solar generator is hooked up to the refrigerator/freezer.  The other is a mobile unit which we will use for our computers, lights,  phones and the like.

In the evening we intend to rely on lanterns for light (and not the solar generator).   Cooking will rely on the wood stove.  So dems the rules..  

So far, only a couple of problems.  As in past years, I miss my coffee maker already.  That friendly little appliance each morning has a pot of hot coffee waiting for me when I get up.  At 6:30 each morning it goes to work.  About 10 minutes later, one of the miracles of modern living... hot coffee awaits.

Today the little coffee maker sits unplugged and unloved.  The wood stove had to be lit, water placed in pots, and then... wait.  After waiting a full hour, I tried some of the water in a French press filled with several scoops of grounds.  The result, rather tepid coffee (although better than nothing for the true addict).  It wasn't until another hour had passed before the water and coffee properly got their act together.  

The other problem is that I broke the shoelace on one of my work boots.  Unlike Imelda Marcos, I only have one pair of work boots (although to be fair, she probably didn't own any pairs of work boots).   So this could be a problem.  I guess I can tie two smaller shoe laces together...

Ah, first world problems (lukewarm coffee and a broken shoe lace).  I figure I'll survive.  

Thanks for Nothing Month Begins – 2015

Today we embark on what has become our annual “Thanks for Nothing” month.  

For the past four years (this being the forth), we here at Blue Rock Station (meaning Annie, myself, the two dogs, and way too many cats) turn off the electricity for the month of January and also commit ourselves to spending no money (zero, nada) for the month.

We started this project for a number of reasons.  It was first motivated by listening to NPR (brought to you by America's Natural Gas Alliance) as they dutifully recited the daily stock market report.  It is a pet peeve of mine that nearly every media outlet reports the stock market numbers each and every day (and on days the market is closed, they remind us that it is closed).

Yet who gives a flying rip about those numbers.  They are completely meaningless to anyone and everyone.  You might as well report that the number 16 came up more times than any other number on the roulette tables in Vegas on any particular day.  Those numbers don't indicate economic well being.   They don't indicate a fundamental change in the way companies do business.  They just indicate whether some speculators will pay more or less on a particular day for stock in a very few companies.  

And anyone wanting to trade stocks will certainly not rely on NPR or the Zanesville Times Recorder for their information about the stock market.  That's why Micheal Bloomberg so rich.  Once again I repeat.  This information is of no value to anyone hearing it!  Yet they report it each and every day.  Why is this?

If I were skeptical about the growing corporate influence within American politics as well as within the media, I might wonder if it is not simply the daily financial “Our Father” - recited dutifully each day to remind us that some hidden and very important force is guiding our lives unseen.  The high priests of Wall Street have been busy sacrificing lambs at their alters and all is well with the world.

Having attended (and actually graduated – imagine that) from one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the nation, I suspect it is more about laziness (at least if myself and my fellow students are any guide).  The numbers are handed out like Halloween candy.  No work is involved (except to randomly pick some event to explain why they went up or down... “The Dow fell 36 points today on news that Pluto is no longer considered a planet...” or some such nonsense).  Journalists are essentially lazy bystanders, who want to be where the action is without being responsible for the action.  

Anyway... I rant.  The point is, we wondered what would happen if everyone took a break from consumerism.  Thirty days each year of not spending, shopping or consuming.  How would that change our collective perspectives?

We thought, at first, it would be a chore.  As it turned out, January has become a month of rest and reflection.  Every major religion sets aside a month where you must be conscious of what you consume (Lent, Ramadan, etc).  It seems necessary for humans to periodically break their cycles of consumption.  

This year we are trying a few variations on the theme.  I will do my best to keep you informed of the insights, trials, successes and failures as we once again give thanks for nothing.

Here Comes The Sun

There’s anticipation in the air and it’s not because fall weather makes me nervous that it will frost and finish off the garden. Actually there should be a giant drum role because when we created the first 10 year plan for Blue Rock Station in 1996 we put renewable energy (I barely understood this term) at the end of the goals because it wasn’t an efficient use of money or resources in those days). BUT…In three weeks we will install the solar array that will provide most of the power we will need for the entire farm.

The system we’ve designed is going to be installed in three segments – one the first week of October, and then we’ll add another array in a year, and then, if we need it, another array in 2016. This approach allows us to practice more conservation and also to learn more how we use energy, and how not to go hog wild since it is technically free.

Jay likes to say that when solar energy is readily available (and cheap) people will go crazy using it – “like a bunch of fraternity boys at a party with free booze”. I don’t want to think about energy as “free” because it is not. Many resources (some that are very limited) go in to making the solar array system. Rare minerals are required to create solar panels and those minerals are growing more and more scarce. That’s the reason that the US (and other countries) are exporting used electronics to China – little children are used to extract these rare minerals so they can be re-used. The rare minerals have some very serious side effects when touched by humans. I will leave you to figure out why this isn’t good.

My hope is that this new way of generating electricity will provide us with ways to “think” more honestly about how we live on this land, and how we can learn more about ourselves in our quest to not take away from the future.

The Greenhorn at Blue Rock Station: Post #5


According to Genesis 1:26, “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth (King James Bible).” The United States, being founded on Christian ideals, has shown to have taken the biblical directive of dominion over all to heart by consuming 20% of the world’s resources despite making up only 5% of world’s population. Additionally, this concept has created a worldview that has reduced many of the farm livestock and the pets in the US to dollars signs in the pasture, and ornaments in the apartment.

The reality is that when one views their livestock or pets as an object that they own, and not as a sentient being that also provides service for the human beings, it completely changes the dynamics of that relationship. For many Americans farmers, any kind of sacrifice, or inconvenience brought on from the animal’s anatomy (e.g. horns, claws, etc.) is often too difficult to learn to work with. Rather, the American farmer’s most preferred management style is to maim or strike fear into the animal for the sake of convenience (or because that is how it has always been done). The focus of this article will be on the prevalent practice of disbudding goats in the United States.


The process of disbudding a goat is an extremely painful procedure. A 1000º iron is pressed against the top of the skull of a baby goat (typically less than two weeks old), leaving large wounds in the place of the horns. In the best case scenario the animal screams, goes into shock, and is scarred for life. However, it is not uncommon for the animal to run a temperature for several days, and can become lethargic accompanied with depression. The eyes can also be affected if the heated iron touches soft tissue, causing blindness or a disfiguring of the face. Unfortunately, some animals experience personality changes and even stunted growth after disbudding.

The American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) currently does not allow dairy goats to be shown if they have horns.* It seems odd that a surgically altered goat would be deemed the breed standard. The official response from the ADGA is, “for the safety of other animals, as well as exhibitors, horned animals are not allowed at ADGA sanctioned shows.” This is the most common justification for disbudding. Having a goat with horns is just far too dangerous to have around humans or other goats. Horns do have the potential to be dangerous, but the danger is an exception and not the norm when the proper precautions are taken to ensure everyone’s safety around the animals.**

Fern-bunny believes that she is the standard of perfection.

At Blue Rock Rock Station, the philosophy of livestock management focuses on ‘peaceagree’ (i.e. the ability to get along with the herd) rather than pedigree. Annie Warmke has been a goat herder off and on since she was 19 years old. She says that, “goats will ram with or without horns; it is part of who they are, but their horns are an important part of natural health for these livestock. They provide protection when giving and receiving blows. Constant maliciously intended rams to a goat’s side or udder could seriously injure it, but that goes back to ‘peaceagree’. The question we ask ourselves with any animal in our herd is, ‘Would I want a person with that attitude living with me in my home?’ and the answer to that question should help a farmer decide whether an unruly goat living amongst the herd is worth the risk.”

It is, of course, the job of the farmer to teach their livestock that it is not okay to ram humans. With or without horns, the farmer must always be aware of where their bodies are in relation to the goat’s head. Additionally, it is imperative that the farmer be attentive to places where a goat could potentially get its horns stuck (e.g. housing, fencing, etc.). Likewise, it does not mean that it is time to disbud if the farmer is unable to do their job adequately. It means that it is time for the farmer to reevaluate whether or not they should continue having a partnership with goats.

Franklin scratching his side.

Horns provide great utility to the goats. Goats scratching themselves in hard to reach places while the disbudded ones are forced to rub up against fences, fence posts, buildings, trees, humans, large rocks, doors, etc. They are also handy when browsing for food. More importantly, the horns are chocked full of blood vessels that help to regulate the goat’s temperature.*** Losing horns is akin to a human losing the ability to sweat. It seems unkind to do this to an animal that spends most of its life outdoors.

The goat is the most widely domesticated livestock in the world, and in most countries the goats get to keep their horns. However, in the United States (i.e. cattle country) the inhumane practice of disbudding has been normalized; all in the name of safety. But life on a farm is full of potential hazards, many of which are exclusive to certain animals (e.g. horses’ hind legs, dogs’ teeth, cats’ claws, etc.). Part of being a farmer is learning to mitigate these hazards in a way that promote health in addition to prosperity to the land. This is a situation in which bending nature to human will is causing unnecessary suffering to sentient beings. It is not the goat’s horns that are truly dangerous, but human’s lack of desire to learn from these beautiful animals.

Floyd is happy to be able to grow out his horns!

*ADGA Ruling, pg. 80
**Our Mountain Hearth, “Why We Don’t Dehorn Our Goats”
***Johnson, Robert L., “Why Horns”