Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanking our Partners for Three Great Years

With American Thanksgiving this week, it seems appropriate for a couple of ex-pats to give thanks to all of our partners and supporters in Whanganui. We came here three years ago with next to nothing to a villa with no power, no water, no hot water cylinder, hardly any wiring, a handful of broken windows, and thousands a tiny holes in the roof. Oh, one other thing, we were newly-weds, and there literally was no threshold at the front door.

No threshold at our front door.

Note to readers: Think twice before undertaking a major renovation two months into marriage.

But that was then and this is now. Now we have, in no particular order: one of the most sustainable suburban properties in the country; a section full of healthy, organic kai; a power bill that averages under $30 per month; an active, healthy toddler; and one of the best grass roots, community-based, sustainability education programmes in the ‘Western World’ (ie, OECD nations).

While the first four items on the list we did more-or-less ourselves (using qualified trades people where required), the last was only accomplished through partnering with dozens of individuals, community groups, and businesses across this awesome city. Aside from the core work on our villa, nearly every other project we have successfully engaged with in Whanganui has been the result of partnership. We appreciate all of our partners, and hope to continue our work together. There are too many to mention without forgetting a few, so best just to say, “Thanks to all. Chur! Chur!”

Community Garden @ Day One

Together we have: attracted respected international thinkers and writers to Whanganui; offered over 50 free and donation sustainability programmes; run 20 below-cost workshops offering expert advice on eco-thrifty renovation and organic food production; visited 10 local and rural schools; delivered close to 80 free home energy audits; answered dozens of telephone inquiries on energy efficiency; and, developed a community garden on our ‘front lawn.’

Solar Sausage Sizzle

Some say, “success breeds success,” and we have certainly witnessed that, going from strength to strength as more River City residents see the logic of eco-thrifty design thinking. Granted, it’s hard to argue against creating win-win-win situations that save money, help people, and protect the environment, but it is shocking how many people and organizations try! What is that about old dogs?

Note to readers: If you are a climate change denier, please don’t ring me to argue your point. I am far too polite to hang up on you, and far too busy to listen to your conspiracy theories.

Interestingly, a completely unexpected form of thanks that has come my way lately appears to be associated with some opinion pieces I wrote for the Chronicle: one connecting the WDC rates structure, widening wealth inequality; and social problems; one on the futility to shifting sand around Castlecliff Beach when it all blew back into place in a fortnight; and, one on the comic tragedy of wasting approximately $200 of ratepayers’ money per year running outdoor lighting during daylight hours in front of Central Library.

Since the first piece ran in October, I’ve been asked by complete strangers to: a) run for mayor; b) run for Parliament. (Previously, I had only been asked to stand for Council.) I reckon that is about as fine a “thank you” one can get from a stranger.

But with no elections on the near horizon, what’s a poor boy to do? I reckon I’ll continue to build local partnerships, help those in need save power and money, tend the community garden in front of our home, change nappies, walk on the beach with bubba, surf as much as practicable, and grow the world’s best garlic.

Community Garden @ Day 500

And what can you do? Come visit us at the River Traders Market on 7th December for free advice on healthy homes and healthy food.

Also make a $20 donation to The ECO School and receive a free 2014 Permaculture Principles Calendar. Available at these locations:

• Whanganui Environment Base @ Whanganui Resource Recovery Centre, Maria Place
• Community Education Service (CES), Taupo Quay
• Delicious CafĂ© and Wine Bar, 132 Victoria Avenue
Riverside Osteopathy, 15 Pitt Street

Happy Mo-vember, Estwing


Monday, November 25, 2013

Local Newspapers Still Relevant to Democracy

Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is participatory. At best it is a contact sport, but unlike rugby or gridiron, the contact is done through communication not bone-jarring hits. In my experience, however, our local government appears lacking in its willingness or ability to communicate.

As a researcher, I seek to draw conclusions based on data and observations. Expressed in research-geek language, the data from my personal experience over the lat three years suggests that there is roughly a 40% probability that council staff will respond to a phone call, email or hand-written note, and about a 25% probability that an elected official will do so. Please note this data is based on a small sample size, and should be considered indicative only.

Some council staff have been excellent in their communications with me, and one Councilor has scored 100% (1 out of 1 email). As I have written many times in my regular column, I have a high regard for Building Control, but I do not necessarily consider them WDC employees for two reasons: 1) we pay them extra to do their jobs (ie, It does not come from rates.); 2) my understanding is that they answer to central government, not local government. As such, I did not include them in my informal research above. Chur, boys.

One thing research-geeks do is discuss their findings. A discussion is an attempt to identify relationships in one’s findings to those of others through a literature review. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not complete a thorough or even partial literature review on this topic. But I have mentioned the tendency toward non-communication with some friends, who have suggested that a great strategy for those in positions of power is simply to ignore those who appear to lack power.

Using my case as an example, the response may go something like this: “Who is this nobody? An unemployed, pesky Yank trying to complicate my day by offering positive suggestions and constructive feedback. Bugger that. If I ignore him he’ll just go away.” Fair enough.

That strategy probably works most of the time because many people are busy and don’t have the time, inclination, or patience to follow-up on what may seem like a lost cause. Fair enough. We are all busy, and life does get in the way. Unfortunately, this reality is exploited by the ‘powers-that-be’ across the planet, often to favour powerful interests rather than the people. Nothing kills democracy like non-participation.

This is why an independent press is critical to vibrant democracy. A free press gives voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. Any tiny influence I may ever have on our fair city – like turning off outdoor lighting during sunny days – has come through the Whanganui Chronicle. That said, I am not a supporter of the Chronicle for the Chronicle’s sake, but for the sake of democracy.

Please note that I’m fully willing to hold the Chronicle to account, although my wife was the one who has done so most recently. Also note that I have never been paid for my contributions to the paper. Approximately 90 pieces of writing and close to 400 photographs representing over to 300 hours of work have earned me one flat white from previous editor, Ross Pringle, although current editor, Mark Dawson, has promised me another coffee before the end of the year.

This is what democracy looks like, and anyone can do it. From my perspective, the Chronicle remains an extremely relevant entity in our community, and I encourage everyone on every side of every issue to write carefully constructed, well-supported arguments to support their point of view. If your case is strong enough, those in positions of power will no longer ignore you. (Although after all of my constructive feedback to Council, I suspect they’ll do their best to ignore me until I join them at the Council Table.)

One final example: After three years of inaction on the lights outside the Central Library, it only took three days for WDC to get in an electrician on the job after my opinion piece ran last week. The moral of this story appears to be: If you want something done in this town, do it through the press. Get writing you lot!

Peace, Estwing

Friday, November 22, 2013

Permaculture Explained by Examples

Permaculture, an eco-design system developed during the 1970s, is sometimes known for the paradoxical statements of its founders, such as “Lazy gardening,” or “The problem is the solution.” To the uninitiated, these types of statements may only add confusion to an already enigmatic word: permaculture.

Lazy Gardening

Personally, I have come to define permaculture this way: an eco-design system that seeks to recognize and maximize beneficial relationships while minimizing or eliminating harmful relationships. In this column, I’ll provide some examples that illustrate this definition, as well as one that demystifies the paradoxes above.

The results of Lazy Gardening

In an agricultural/horticultural application, maximizing beneficial relationships can include: companion planting; attracting beneficial insects; integrating animals such as ducks (snail and slug control), chickens (grass and insect control), and in larger systems sheep or small cows (periodic grazing between rows in an orchard or vineyard).

Our muscovies are snail vacuums. 

A home can be designed – or in our case re-designed – for its relationship to the sun. For example, we added glazing to the northeast and northwest sides of our villa to increase the amount of free warmth provided by winter sun, while removing windows from the southeast and southwest sides to reduce heat loss. Additionally, by removing the southwest window, we limited the overheating of our home during the summer caused by late afternoon sun.

From an organizational perspective, our tiny non-profit – The ECO School – seeks out mutually beneficial relationships with businesses, organizations and individuals that share our kaupapa of healthy homes, healthy food, healthy people, healthy planet. For example, we have excellent working relationships with the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Community Education Service, Central2Health, TreeLife NZ, the New Zealand Maters Games, YMCA Central, and the Wanganui Chronicle, Midweek, and River City Press, among others. On the other hand, despite our best efforts, we have failed to develop relationships with other organizations with whom we thought we could work successfully. And in the rare case, we have cut off relations with those entities with whom we felt we were only giving and not receiving.

And now to address the paradoxes of lazy gardening and problems as solutions.

Like many residents of our fair city, we have an abundance of kikuyu and couch grass on our section. These grasses, among others I cannot identify, compete with our shallow rooted fruit trees for nutrients and water, and encroach into our garden beds. The eco-thrifty ‘solution’ to these ‘problems’ that I have adopted involves a firm grip and a stack of newspapers.

Freshly mulched area.

When I find an area needing attention, I simply pull out as much grass as I can comfortably handle, lay down the newspaper, and lay the grass back on top. The grass I have pulled acts as a mulch that keeps the newspaper from blowing away while blocking sunlight to the shoots that emerge from the roots below. The ‘problem’ grass has become a ‘solution’ mulch, and I have not had to move my body any more than a simple twisting motion while kneeling. I have not had to go to the shop to buy a bale of straw, nor have I had to involve a wheelbarrow. Problem sorted, with plenty of time to go for a surf.

Interested in learning more about this type of eco-design thinking? Check out the upcoming events.

24th November, 3-4 pm: Food Forests. Diverse, productive, low-maintenance ‘ecosystems’ of edible trees, vines, bushes and fowl. Donation.

1st December, 1-4 pm. Permaculture Design for a Suburban Section. How to design and install a low-maintenance/high-productivity food system by working with nature, not against it. Sliding scale, $25 - $45.

8th December, 1-4 pm. Driftwood Structures for Gardens and Landscaping. View a wide variety of ways we’ve used driftwood as a beautiful, durable, free building element. Learn how to make some of these items. Tools and galvanized nails provided. Sliding scale, $25 - $45. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Few More Potential Photos

Here are a few more potential shots for Permaculture magazine.

The draft article has a section on encouraging creative, independent play. Here is Verti in her play waka, next to a patch of her favorite food: strawberries. She is making her sign for "more", and pointing to what she wants more of.

"More please."

"That's what I want."

"Chur, bro."

Also, here is a before and after shot of a garlic bed.

July, 2013: Cheerful observer.

November, 2013: Eager helper.

Peace, Estwing

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Please Help Us Choose Photos

Kia ora koutou,

We are writing an article for Permaculture magazine on integrating bubba into our lifestyle and ethics. Please help us choose which photos to include with the article. Your input is greatly appreciated.

Also feel free to order a calendar or two to support our community sustainability education efforts.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, November 15, 2013

I'm Bringing Driftwood Back

Good design, some say, draws inspiration from the natural environment. The preponderance of pohutukawa blossom prints on tea towels, throw pillows, duvet covers, change purses, shower curtains, fill-in-the-blank, in New Zealand appears to confirm this. However, one thing about design is that once its overdone, it loses some appeal.

As humans, we seem to continually seek the new. But there are only so many new news, so we witness the recycling of design. That is, we see styles come back. For example, when I was in high school in the 1980s, my brother and I raided our father’s closet for his skinny ties from the ‘50s and ‘60s that suited our preferred British ska ‘rude boy’ sense of fashion. Additionally, I found a sweater that had belonged to my grandfather, which became my most treasured item of clothing as a teen.

Along those lines, about a year ago the American rapper, Macklemore, released a song called “Thrift Shop” that briefly experienced deep rotation on some Whanganui radio stations. The song not only praises thrift, but also exalts “grandpa-style.”

I wear your granddad’s clothes
I look incredible
I got this big-as coat
From that thrift shop down the road

Restoring an old villa certainly qualifies as grandpa style, or even great grandpa style, but the villa is not the subject of this week’s column. Rather, I’d like to write about how the natural environment has inspired aspects of my landscape design and some pieces of artwork inside our home.

We moved to Castlecliff to be near the coast, but in a cruel twist of fate, during the first year we lived here I was kept so busy renovating and writing my dissertation that I only got out surfing three times. In the words of singer/songwriter, Alanis Morissette, “Isn’t it ironic.”

But now I have more free time, and I spend a lot of it walking on the beach. If you have ever been to Castlecliff Beach you’ll know that a dominant feature is driftwood. For me, the driftwood represents a connection between almost everything I know about the natural environment of the land of the long white cloud. A beautifully sculpted piece of twisted and polished branch pays homage to the forest on the mountainside from which it came; to the river that carried it; to the sea that tossed it; and to the sand that smoothed its rough edges.

Some of the most striking pieces are among the finest works of art I’ve ever seen. While Aotearoa is the artist, I am hardly the first to discover her talent. When visiting local artist Sue Cooke last week, she told me that there was once a time when all artists who moved to Whanganui went through a “driftwood stage.”

My use of driftwood outdoors serves multiple purposes: practicality and beauty. For example, I’ve used it for a bean trellis; a tomato trellis; arcs to support netting over strawberries; a funky fence to direct foot traffic; edging around our car park; posts to support wind netting; a climbing tower for our daughter; two play houses (whare iti and whare nui); and, most recently, a picnic table. 

Future plans include a swing set, a teeter-totter, and benches for our table. Indoors, we’ve used it in Verti’s nursery as eco-thrifty artwork.

From my perspective, the use of driftwood on our property represents the ultimate in eco-thrifty design. It is local, natural, organically-grown, non-toxic, and (nearly) free. The native timbers I select for ground contact are so dense (tight-grained) that they will last decades in our well-drained sand.

Keen to try it yourself? Check out the upcoming workshops.

1st December, 1-4 pm. Permaculture Design for a Suburban Section. How to design and install a low-maintenance/high-productivity food system by working with nature, not against it. Sliding scale, $25 - $45.

8th December, 1-4 pm. Driftwood Structures for Gardens and Landscaping. View a wide variety of ways we’ve used driftwood as a beautiful, durable, free building element. Learn how to make some of these items. Tools and galvanized nails provided. Sliding scale, $25 - $45.