Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Perspective Prejudices Perception

I am both a keen learner of organic farming practices and an appreciator of alliteration and acronyms. Perhaps that is why a lesson I learned from notable farmer Eliot Coleman a decade ago has stuck with me: perspective prejudices perception (P-cubed). This idea has informed both our eco-renovation and my doctoral research on a permaculture approach to science education. One's perspective on, say, the "waste stream" would determine one's perception of, say, an apple core.

Where some see a piece of rubbish to send to the landfill, others see duck food or a compost ingredient. A holistic perspective informs much of what we do here from day to day practices to our design principles for the renovation. A holistic perspective contrasts with a reductionist perspective, which I believe is the dominant perspective of contemporary Western cultures, especially the USA, (and especially the Tea Party).

On the contrary, the original inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America) had a more holistic perspective often called the "Native American World View." Similarly, it can be argued that traditional Maori had a more holistic perspective than most New Zealanders of European descent. A friend of mine told me about this short story on perspectives, growing your own food, self-sufficiency and the wisdom of many Maori elders.
Enjoy, Estwing


By Patricia Grace

The Grandmother plaited her granddaughter’s hair and then she said, “Get your lunch.

Put it in your bag. Get your apple. You come straight back after school, straight home here.

Listen to the teacher,” she said. “Do what she say.”

Her grandfather was out on the step. He walked down the path with her and out onto the

footpath. He said to a neighbor, “Our granddaughter goes to school. She lives with us now.”

“She’s fine,” the neighbor said. “She’s terrific with her two plaits in her hair.”

“And clever,” the grandfather said. “Writes every day in her book.”

“She’s fine,” the neighbor said.

The grandfather waited with his granddaughter by the crossing and then he said, “Go to

school. Listen to the teacher. Do what she say.”

When the granddaughter came home from school her grandfather was hoeing around the

cabbages. Her grandmother was picking beans. They stopped their work.

“You bring your book home?” the grandmother asked.


“You write your story?”


“What’s your story?”

“About the butterflies.”

“Get your book then. Read your story.”

The granddaughter took her book from her schoolbag and opened it.

“I killed all the butterflies,” she read. “This is me and this is all the butterflies.”

“And your teacher like your story, did she?”

“I don’t know.”

“What your teacher say?”

“She said butterflies are beautiful creatures. They hatch out and fly in the sun. The

butterflies visit all the pretty flowers, she said. They lay their eggs and then they die. You don’t

kill butterflies, that’s what she said.”

The grandmother and the grandfather were quiet for a long time, and their granddaughter,

holding the book, stood quite still in the warm garden.

“Because you see,” the grandfather said, “your teacher, she buy all her cabbages from the

supermarket and that’s why.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The $2,000 Kitchen


We are close enough to its completion to report on our $2,000 kitchen. (You may recall our $2,000 bathroom from a post in October.) The image above is an attempt to mimic the masthead of this blog, although that image was taken through the studs of a wall that now is lined with Gib ("sheetrock"). The "after" picture was taken about 1 metre in front of the spot where the "before" was. The image below gives a fuller picture of what this corner now looks like.

The far corner is the north corner of the villa. If you look closely at the masthead above you can see a toilet there in the before picture. Yes, this house was moved here in the 1980s and placed with the toilet in the sunniest, warmest corner. As you may have noticed, toilets usually do not have very many windows, and so the villa remained cold on sunny, winter days. No longer. This corner is now bathed in sunlight in both winter and summer. There is so much nice afternoon light and warmth in the winter that we cut a double doorway into the lounge that had previously only received morning sun.

A reverse angle of the first images now looks like this.

What you'll notice (aside from our trashed floors) is that we have two ranges side-by-side. Interestingly, they are both made by Shacklock, but that is where the similarities end. These two are just part of a greater system for cooking and heating that includes a solar cooker, an outdoor pizza oven and a rocket stove. We expect to use the electric range for less than 10% of our total cooking needs on an annual basis. But that is a future post. I'm sure you want to know how we did this for $2,000.

Here is a rough tally:

Bench top, sink and taps: $100 on TradeMe

Cabinets, drawers and timber: Reused

Electric range: $150 on TradeMe

Refrigerator: $50 at Hayward's Auctions

Butcher block: $25 on TradeMe

Hutch: $150 at Hayward's Auctions

Coal range: $250 on TradeMe

Coal range installation: $700

Pelmets: Reused weatherboards

Grain bins and drawers: $35 at Hayward's Auctions

Plumbing: $550

Light fixtures: $50 at Hayward's Auctions

Total: $2025

*Curtains: Ask the wife

You may also be interested in the choice of colours and curtain fabric. That credit does not go to me, nor does finding these lamps at the auction last month.

It's not perfect, and the floors need to be redone, but it is a far sight better than what it was, and on a shoestring budget with a tiny ecological footprint. Ironically, our bathroom and kitchen combined come in at a price equal to or lower than 3 other items on our tally of expenses:

Solar hot water: $4,000
Insulation: $4,000
New Roof: $5,000

There are no hard set rules for eco-thrifty renovation, but these numbers should indicate where the priorities for expenditures might be.

Peace, Estwing

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Perspectives on Permaculture Abundance

From where I sit gazing out our French doors, the world is one of abundance created by 13 months of applied permaculture design. The view includes our solar-powered clothes dryer, wood-fired pizza oven, one of many veggie gardens and a glimpse of a food forest out the back.

Apples grow and ripen as muscovies patrol for snails and slugs around fig trees, peaches and tagasastes.

While it will take a few more years for this perennial foodscape to mature, the annual gardens are already cranking away. This cauliflower thinks it is a tree with a sizable trunk...

... and canopy.

The cat is included for scale, but I think the sink offers a better perspective.

Note: This was not the biggest cauliflower of the season. That award went three weeks ago to her cousin.

And while the cauliflowers are destined for human bellies, the leaves feed the chooks in our four dimensional ecological design system. The leaves then become eggs and fertilizer.

As potatoes and garlic are harvested at the end of their growth...

... our first courgette forms.

And a host of other green things actively convert sunlight into nutrition.

But not to be outdone, Uncle B. steals the show.

Not Billy T. James, the cat, but what she is standing on.

Definitely the biggest I've ever grown or ever seen.

After filling the skillet, it was still too big for the cutting board. (George Bush, be afraid, be very afraid.) The moral of the story: compost, early and often.

Wishing you peace and abundance in your lives, Estwing

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Solar Sausage Sizzlers

We have just wrapped up a year of excellent educational programming in Wanganui schools with a Solar Sausage Sizzle at Castlecliff School...

and a site visit (and solar sausage sizzle) from Ngamatea and Aberfeldy Schools.

We, The ECO School, are grateful to the Wanganui District Council for funding these awesome programmes and the Sustainable Whanganui Trust for administrative support. And I don't see the children complaining.

Our programme design is based on the latest research in environmental and sustainability education. I can say this with confidence having attended an international research symposium earlier this year across the Tasman.

International Invitational Symposium on Environmental Education Research
Queenscliff, Australia, July 2011

We seek to develop programmes that are responsive to teacher's needs in order to maximize students' learning across the school curriculum. We believe our programmes are equal in quality to the best sustainability education initiatives anywhere in the world at a fraction of the cost. And we hope that we'll be able to continue and expand our offerings during the 2012 school year.

Peace, Estwing

Monday, December 12, 2011

20/20 Hindsight

The last three weeks have been busy for us and our short-term intern, Tom. Along with building wind screens, priming, painting, transplanting, fencing, and sistering up bearers and joists, we had some time to swing a bat. It turns out that Tom is a lifelong baseball player, and our local club has been short on the men's fast pitch side. Not only did they recruit Tom, but they got me on the diamond too. We played our last game on Saturday afternoon (we won by scoring in the bottom of the last inning) and put Tom on a bus at 11 pm for an overnight ride to Auckland.

Team ECO School!

Tom joined us during a significant time of our project and our lives. After a year we are nearly finished with the renovation, but other opportunities and projects have arisen to take its place.

And as the days grow longer, our gardens - patches of earth covered with weeds and rubbish 13 months ago - are flourishing.

We have 32 fruit trees in the ground, 6 chooks, 3 muscovies, but no pear trees and no partridges. We do, however, have an awesome outdoor pizza oven shown below.

The most significant successes we've had have involved the passive solar redesign of the villa.

The term "left for dead" has never been more appropriate when applied to a house.

But we had vision and after a year, that vision has turned into hindsight.

I wrote this for the local paper on a last minute plea from a friend who is coordinating a weekly column on conservation issues. It is an unedited first draft, but I think it makes the point.

Twenty-Twenty Hindsight: A Year of Living Lightly on the Planet

We are now over the 12-month mark of renovating an abandoned villa in Castlecliff into a warm, dry energy-efficient home. When we set out on this low budget / high performance retrofit we had no specific numbers in mind for energy savings and waste reduction. We simply wanted to push the envelope and do the best we could. As it turns out, our power bill has averaged $20 per month (this includes the daily line charge) and we have spent a total of $20 in rubbish fees for the entire year. I’ve come to call this our “20-20 hindsight” but there is no reason it could not also be a 20-20 vision for others to work toward by the year 2020. Of course electric rates will increase by then, but that is all the more reason to invest in efficiency now. (At current rates of annual change, electric rates will double in under ten years.)

The first Conservation Comment I wrote in July explained the design principles we employed for our passive solar renovation that have helped us achieve low energy bills. There is nothing new or unusual about those principles: solar gain, thermal mass, insulation and draft proofing. Similarly, there is nothing new or unusual about the design principles for our approach to resource conservation: reduce, reuse and recycle. The 3 R’s have helped us reduce the cost and impact of the renovation project as well as the cost and impact of our day-to-day lives. Here are a few examples.

While we have followed the New Zealand Building Code and used treated pine, Braceline Gib, building paper, and heaps of insulation, there are also areas where we were able to reduce costs and impacts by reusing materials. Prime examples include the bathtub, vanity, washtub and toilet in the bathroom, and the bench, sink, mixer, drawers, and shelves in the kitchen. Perhaps the most visible example is the vintage Shacklock 501 multi-fuel range that I bought my wife two years ago as a wedding present and we worked with Building Control to find a way to install safely. But my personal favorites are the pelmets that I made from old weatherboards that we removed while re-cladding sections of the exterior. And, like any builder would, we saved off-cuts to use as dwangs or for other small jobs.

Regarding our household waste stream, we compost all of the food scraps and even our fish and chips papers. We save paper to burn in our Shacklock or our outdoor pizza oven (made from an old wood burner) or to mulch our gardens and fruit trees. We reuse plastic bread bags and other small non-recyclable plastic containers. Again, there is nothing special about any of this, other than the fact that we take it seriously and put out one bag of rubbish for every two months. Perhaps the most unusual thing we do at all is emphasize the costs savings rather than simply the environmental benefits. At the end of the day, eco-thrifty living makes dollars and sense.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, December 9, 2011

When its time to leave people are always a bit sad, but I have been leaving from so many places recently that I understand these leaving events as both leaving and going. Perhaps, somewhere new even if you are going back to a place you know. You will be returning with new impressions, perspective and ideas. These months abroad since my June 3rd departure from the States have been packed in full of views and visions of the places I've been, people I've met and places I'll be going. However the stars have begun to align and ideas have synchronized. Well, not completely, I am not claiming or suggesting enlightenment, but whats going on with the "Pale Blue Dot" is making much more sense then ever before. Amidst all the synthesis and understand have been some very eventful final days in Wanganui.
I associate the word final with finals, which generally means a huge test on a heap of information you hope has turned itself into knowledge and understanding. But this final week has just been full of projects and events with friends as well as the community. The pizza oven was fired at the make your own pizza party. Sausages were sizzled with the local school, and rural schools came down for a field trip visit to the little house that could. It reminded me of the days teaching skiing to little kids as the yard was buzzing with energy and questions about anything and everything they laid their eyes upon. That day ended with a bike ride round Wanganui to visit some friends at the Quaker Village and harvest bamboo for garden stakes. I also got to look down on Wanganui from the hills and really see the place I have been living in.

It has been a very welcoming to say the least. Playing softball on saturdays with the local club has been an absolute hoot, and a great reminder that its all about fun and sharing that fun. So we went down to Castcliff Intermediate to share some of the fun we have when we cook on our solar cooker. The children were super keen on our solar powered radio devices. If their shadow went across the panel the music stopped. Magically however, the sun powered our tunes. The shiny satellite looking thing we call a solar cooker was also an area of attention as it turned out sizzling sausages. One student seemed to connect the dots while they were cranking the radio. They figured out with some help that they got their energy from food, which did in fact not come from a box, but was grown by the sun. So, we are powered by the sun; a novel idea and a new and very important revelation for a 10 year old. How about that tree? The sun! Yes, the sun powers the tree and when we use the tree we are using sun power. Nelson mentioned our wood fired pizza oven. Is that solar powered too? Well, yes, it is, indirectly it is solar powered.

So we had a little party. More like a big pizza eating event. Almost completely solar powered, well probably completely solar powered. Woodfired, with all organic ingredients, veggies from the garden, and cheeses(solar powered), dough(from grain(solar powered). You see the point perhaps that the sun does some great things, all of which are free. We just need to spend a little time thinking about how to take advantage of all the sun's magical powers. Most of which is "understood." But I can tell you a fresh pizza is delicious and thats enough for my hungry belly. All the tasty ingredients were connected to the sun. Our lovely wood fire and setting sun provided some beautiful solar powered atmosphere. All the while some guests were asking me if I was excited to return home to the states. I answered a little uneasy, but very psyched about sharing everything I've come to understand about our solar powered Pale Blue Dot.
This past morning some rural students came for an end of school year field trip to wrap up some of their studies on energy. The quiet sunny day was suddenly buzzing with young students and inquisitive minds. We got to share our solar cooking devices, the gardens, the chickens and the house. It blew me away how in tune some of the students were. I asked the what the chickens like to eat. The answer I got was grass and green things, but then they poop and fertilize the grass. All I added was that I get to then eat the eggs from the chickens. They seemed to get a little chuckle out of that. After we had shared about the little blue house and their solar cooked lunches were consumed some students shared with me their science projects. Not your regular science projects. They had studied up on alternative forms of energy and had heaps to share. This became I a moment full of good energy. Young kids very psyched on how their maths and sciences connect to their solar cooked lunches!

Tomorrow I will be on my way, wrapping up my time here in Wanganui and at 10 Arawa Pl. I am sad to leave this little place, an amazing case study on suburban sustainability, but I am happy to be able to share it will people, especially kids. After many hours of travel I will find myself amongst the cold NewEngland winter. People here in warm sunny New Zealand appear confused about my level of excitement for the snow winter. It's no bother to me, I'll have heaps of time to share pictures and new perspectives from the places I've been. I will be leaving here and returning home with hopes and ambitions to bring a little of my travels home.

Thanks for reading,
the 20 Something

Monday, December 5, 2011


"Hugelkultur is an ancient form of sheet composting developed in Eastern Europe. It uses woody wastes such as fallen logs and pruned branches in order to build soil fertility and improve drainage and moisture retention."
-kerryg, source:

I first learned about hugelkultur from a doco on Sepp Holtzer I saw at Rainbow Valley Farm a few years ago, but I have never used it. Until now.

Through a fortunate series of events, a large pile of small sticks landed on our 700 square metres of sand and weeds about 4 months ago. One of our main objectives has been to build organic matter in our soils. The pile sat for a long time until last week when we decided to experiment with hugelkultur while shifting a compost pile and planting apple trees in the lee of our recent wind break project. This is what it looked like around noontime.

We raked the compost away from the fence and took the pallets away. It may be hard to see in this shot, but the grade drops away abruptly before the fence.

This served as a pre-dug trench ready for hugelkultur application. But I did not want organic matter against the iron fence or the timber rail which would be buried in the process, so I used rubble and broken bricks to create a space between the sticks we would be burying and the fence.

Then we backfilled with the sticks...

... and raked the compost back on top of the sticks. Later, we leveled the area with black sand from the beach.

To add extra carbon and calcium to the apple trees we lined the bottom of the holes with paper and crumbled pieces of Gib (dry wall).

And provided plenty of compost to the saplings.

By late afternoon this untidy corner of the section looked like this. This growing season the pumpkins will run over the ground and provide a living mulch. Next year the trees should begin to fill out in the lee of the wind netting and fill out to hide the corrugated iron fence.

We're hoping that as the tree roots grow outward the buried sticks will decompose and feed the apples for many years to come.

Peace, Estwing