diy

What is freely given and what is stolen

Lichen.jpg

The Maths Captain and I finally put our electric motor to the test and took The Runcible Spoon, our long-refashioned sailboat over three hours and 12 kilometres up the Danube to Ottensheim for Ottensheimer Cremeschnitte (not just any Konditorei cream slice, but one with a special dash of redcurrant jelly). E-motoring back down to Linz with the current took just an hour and ten minutes but even so, such a journey is a little tedious when you’re not sailing but especially when you discover the cooking gas is empty and you can’t cook an adventurous cup of tea in the tiny sailboat “galley” on the floorboards. (Boat tea is the best-tasting tea ever).

The journey back was made far a little more exciting as I had collected fallen twigs covered with lichen at the mouth of the Rodl river where we anchored. On the return journey I used The Maths Captain’s knife to scrape off the lichen into a little beeswax cloth, ready to dry and process as a dye for wool. A lovely acquaintance of mine who teaches nature connection cautions her students to only gather and forage what nature is giving freely. Normally, I’d leave lichen on trees and rocks as that is where it is doing lichen services like photosynthesising, rock decomposition, soil formation and looking lovely as well as being a bio-indicator, but a recent storm had shaken these dead twigs and small branches off to the banks of the Danube and Rodl and were about to be washed away into a very big and commercial river. A gift indeed.
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Even though I somehow knew that lichen could be used as a plant dye, I didn’t exactly know how the colour should be extracted and it turns out that C+ lichens (I made a test with bleach)  can produce a pink-violet colour when fermented over months with ammonia, or historically, stale urine.

So, I’m drinking a tea and considering collecting my urine in a pickle jar, and letting it stand in a warm place in order to ferment a tiny batch of lichen dyes with.  I’ve done a wee bit of research (hah!) about the many pre-industrial chemistry uses of urine and how stale human and animal urine (ammonia) were commodified and used to process leather, whiten and soften laundry, whiten teeth and make Saltpeter for gunpowder. Here in Linz I live near Lederergasse and Ludlgasse (Leather and Piss Streets) and frequent Gerberei, a lovely cafe named after the tanning industry that existed in this corner by the Schlachthof (slaughterhouse / abbatoir). Nowadays, a couple of kilometres away is the Chemiepark where Borealis uses huge amounts of natural gas and electrical energy in the Haber-Bosch process to extract ammonia and amongst other uses, produce nitrogen rich agro-chemicals.
 

So here we are in the modern world where urine, a freely surrendered resource, along with commercial fertiliser runoff ends up polluting waterways as ammonia naturally forms. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison describes a pollutant as any output of a system not being used productively  by other parts of the system. Permaculturists and other organic gardeners are onto this and often use fresh, diluted urine as a natural way to add nitrogen to the soil, combined with carbon rich matter in compost heaps.  Of course, if using a composting toilet makes sense, a urine diverting toilet seat makes it even easier to gather the flow of urine’s nutrients.
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Thinking about processing my 20g of dried lichen with my own, stale urine, and wondering what pink or violet accent colour I can incorporate into a knitting project is obviously just a starting point for a number of distractions including other natural dyestuffs (indigo! black beans! avocado pits!), the ethics of foraging and wild food and colourstuffs and whether I should ferment the carrots sitting in the fridge.  Often though, these distractions contribute to a line of thinking about how dependent our lives are on globalised, late-stage capitalism and fossil-fuel dependent industry

Even when we claim to be self-reliant, back to nature or simplifying our purchasing patterns by say, dying and making our own clothes, cleaning with vinegar and baking soda, minimising packaging, or “frugally” cleaning the oven with just ammonia rather than an over-priced commercial oven cleaning product we remain entangled.  We still need to get those basic ingredients from somewhere, even if they come in bulk or are traded in a non-monetary economy – they are still dependent on the industrialised system. What on earth will we do if this brittle system breaks?  It’s enough to make me hoard baking soda and consider cleaning the oven with stale piss – though of course, in that potential scenario there would be no electrical grid to supply my apartment kitchen with power, so I wouldn’t be able to use the oven, clean or dirty.  I think I would happily keep my standards low – the oven hasn’t been properly cleaned since I started my Masters degree and will probably stay that way for a few months more.

Even with gas canisters stockpiled, my little gas camping stove would of course eventually fail both for boat-board cups of tea and to cook in an emergency, power rationed scenario. Mindful of redundancy I am waiting for a Kelly Kettle to be delivered, ready to optimise summertime boating adventures, brew freshly gathered wild herb teas, grill a cheeky sausage and take advantage of the pinecones that were also shaken down in last week’s early “summer” storms. There is a fine line between doing things for general self-reliance and “deep prepping” and that is probably when you stop doing it for fun and satisfaction and are motivated by fear alone.
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The box of pinecones I have gathered for the storm kettle is nothing in the big scheme of energy vulnerability and possible futures both good and bad.   It is one thing to make a pot of herbal tea or have an off-grid home, but how would roads be repaired, materials for infrastructure quarried and foundations for bridges dug in a low-energy future?  And I think here not only of a low-energy future in the framing of peak-oil, but also in terms of low-energy when energy distribution fails, demand becomes too high or the global financial system reveals its inherent fragility.

I can use pinecones to heat my tea, but even electrically powered digging machinery requires vast forms of electricity from a stable system. Without energy to power industrial tools, we go back to manual, human labour, without a functioning economic system that exchanges value for labour, our societies could easily return to a large-scale slavery model.  It is tempting to think that forced labour hasn’t existed since the abolition of slavery and serfdom. However, slavery and indentured labour is still present in the modern world and touches us indirectly through the goods we buy and services we make use of.

This Twitter-story by on racism, incarceration and labor exploitation in Louisiana, USA reminded me of the yet another way that slavery is present in modern life, though one that is far more mandated by the state than drug and food growing, the sex-industry or shellfish-production.  William Gibson is reputed to have said that the “future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed” and with that in mind I began to chase down leads on the potential return to slavery in a peak-oil, low energy world, including a call to move away from “energy slavery” to participatory democracy and appropriate technology from Ivan Illich.

I think that where my thoughts have been going with this is that 20g of lichen, my own urine and pinecones could all be considered as “gifted” resources along with the gifted labour of friends have helped us to restore the boat, whereas exploitative use of nature and humans can only be thought of as extraction and theft. But at what point does foraging of nature’s gifts or cooperative and volunteered labour practices step into misuse?

I am reminded of the permaculture ethics and how directly they relate to Principle 5 to Use and Value Renewable Products and Services of co-founder David Holmgren’s interpretation of permaculture principles. In  Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability Holmgren discusses valuing ecosystem services, wild products, water and working animals but doesn’t directly include valuing the labour of human inputs into a system.  The People Care ethic and _efficient_ design is inherent to permacultural practice, so maybe “avoiding the need for exploitative labour practices and slavery” doesn’t need to be said or considered in the immediate systems such as homesteads we have the opportunity to design, we should be careful though. Like so many things though this reminds me of why we need ethics-based approaches like permaculture at a higher and more widespread model so that we design societal culture futures to avoid widespread slavery too.

More Yellow

For some reason I love the colour yellow at the moment. I’m buying and scavenging and dying all the things yellow. Well, that is all the things that aren’t already teal, red, grey or blue.

When I was growing up my mum had a biscuit tin that was filled with onion skins. She had been saving them for years in order to use them as a dye. As far as I know the onion skin collection is still there.

Obviously these things run in the family as for the last 5 years I’ve been collecting brown onion skins in a tin. It takes a very, very long time to save 100g of onion skins.

Finally the time was right – not only was my tin of onion skins full, but tidying up my yarn stash revealed a skein of off-white Finnish wool that my parents-in-law gave me after our travels coincided in Helsinki back in 2013.

I followed a couple of blogs‘ advice about onion skin dying.

It was a three day process! I mordanted the wool with alum (boiled and then cooled) to make the fibre more receptive to the colour. I boiled, cooled and strained the onion skins. Then once again I boiled the wool in the dye, then cooled it off and rinsed the now yellow wool. There was still a lot of colour in the onion skin pot, so I dyed a pale pink linen tshirt that I’d bought with the intention of dying and threw in some grey linen scraps too. I then added another piece of white linen that I’d previously dyed bright yellow with Procion MX. After all those years of saving onion skins and the days of boiling and cooling there was no way I was going to pour the remaining dyed down the sink after 100g of wool.

In the picture below you can also see a poly-cotton bedsheet and another piece of scrap linen that I dyed with Procion MX earlier in the week.

I loved the anticipation and process of dying with onion skins and I’m interested in trying out other natural dyes such as black beans (blue) and turmeric (yellow). That said, it is very labour intensive – so I’m definitely not giving up on my Procion MX experiments any time soon.

photograph of dyed fabrics on blue sofa cover.

unmordanted pale pink linen HM tshirt and grey linen overdyed with onion skins. Finnish wool mordanted with alum dyed with onion skins. Polycotton bedsheet and white linen dyed with Procion MX (lemon yellow:orange yellow 9:1 at 50%) left most piece of linen dyed in Procion batch, then overdyed with onion skins.
The sofa cover was a plain canvas slip cover from IKEA that I also dyed using Procion MX

DIY Pond Slime

I mentioned the other day that besides the calendula that I dried and zucchini that I fried I had a bunch of other things from the garden that needed processing? Well amongst my harvest were beetroot and their leaves as well as some rainbow chard.

Normally I love sauteed chard and beet leaves – with the addition of lemon juice, garlic and maybe some toasted almonds they are delicious. Or maybe used as part of a spanakopita style pie? But on Sunday my normal desire for greens failed me and I needed to do something different with the leaves – and fast, the weather was hot and they were beginning to wilt.

The obvious answer was to get all wild and hippy and ferment the damn things.

Over the last year I’ve been playing around with wild fermentation and making things like kombucha and elderflower wine. I’ve successfully made traditional sauerkraut and fermented my own beetroot with great results.

But some things just don’t work out the way you think they could.

Today’s exhibit? Rainbow chard and beetroot leaf… slime.

photograph of jar containing Fermentation experiment - rainbow chard and beetroot leaves

In theory it could have worked out – but ultimately it was like smelling and eating the bottom of a stagnant pond.

I went the normal route of salting and “massaging” the leaves to break down the cell walls and release the salty plant juice. And then – I carefully packed the shmooshed up leaves into a jar and weighted the leaves down and added a touch of brine to the top to make sure all the leaves were submerged.

And then I waited.

The last couple of days have been very hot in Linz and as a result my kitchen was close to 30° – things began to happen to the jar of leaves straight away. By the next day there was some foam and a strong odour of pond.

Pond – that’s really the only way to describe it – a little like the smell of our sailboat’s hull when she comes out of the Winterhafen. Pond – in the right place (i.e. near a pond) it is a smell that makes sense and can be not unpleasant – but in my 30° kitchen it was not something I was handling well. The normally earthy flavours of beet leaves had combined with water to make the wet earth flavour of mud.

Generally you have to wait a couple of days for more advanced fermentation to kick in and with it the nice souring that comes from the good lactic bacteria of successful fermentation. Maybe if the weather was cooler and I was more patient this could have happened. In the end though the combination of a very hot kitchen and the persistent smell of slime meant that I had to apologise to the food gods and take the experiment out to the compost bin.

Second Ferment Kombucha

Lively Second Ferment Kombucha

A couple of years ago I unsuccessfully tried to clone a scoby from a commercial kombucha (Carpe Diem) that turned out to be pasteurised. Recently I attempted it again with an expensive bottle of very hippyish looking kombucha and was finally successful.

Since then I’ve made three batches of kombucha, each of which has been secondary fermented with dried and fresh fruit to add flavour and carbonation. This latest bottling coincided with some pretty warm weather and some very, very fizzy bottles which had to have the excess gas released to prevent explosion!

 

Everyday sunshine

Everyday Sunshine - dyed vintage linen napkins.

Everyday Sunshine – dyed vintage linen napkins.

A day of waiting needed to be filled and so I finally dyed a pair of linen napkins as a belated wedding present. The napkins are a couple of pieces from a hoard of vintage linen that I inherited from my grandmother.

Tim and I have a set of everyday linen napkins which are made out of fabric  from IKEA. They are nowhere as glamourous as this pair, but having cloth napkins designated for everyday use has made most meals feel that little more special.  Hopefully the couple who receive this pair enjoy the splash of sunshine in their kitchen while they eat their muesli.

The linen was dyed with Procion MX dyes (5% of fabric weight – 1:1 004 Lemon Yellow : 010 Golden Yellow).