If this were a real post, there would be more screaming.
As some of you know, I have a Patreon thingy set up, where people who are so inclined can pledge a monthly donation in return for various rewards. The money keeps the sheep and goats fed and I’m hoping we can start work on my credit card bills. To that end, I’m writing my guide to a comfortable apocalypse and publishing the chapters there monthly.
Once the thing’s complete it will be available as an e-book in various exciting formats, but if you want to read the first draft in all its gory unedited messiness then a mere $3 a month gets you access.
Anyway. Here’s the preface to the thing.
Andrea’s Guide to a Comfortable Apocalypse: Preface
Who Should Use This Guide?
This is intended as a general purpose guide to get you started on preparing for the post-apocalyptic future as comfortable as it can be, like you’re in the finest bed and linens. That future may come because of the zombie virus, the oil and water wars, or just a generalized collapse of western civilization due to an overdose of end-stage capitalism. The strategies outlined in this humble offering may help you continue to live in relative comfort after whatever end is coming for us arrives. It may also be useful for authors and other creative sorts who need to know enough about small scale agriculture in a modern setting to sound convincing. My techniques, while historically based, often veer from the historically accurate, and this guide should not be used in an attempt to authentically recreate a historical lifestyle. Thousands of years of human innovation are not discarded lightly, and I try not to do it without good reason, e.g. the expectation that the technology to support a given method will no longer be available once niceties like electricity have gone the way of arsenic face paint.
In each chapter I’ve attempted to sort the subject matter into categories ranging from skills and techniques almost anyone can practice (always depending upon available resources) to those that require you to have at least a little land and privacy, or generous zoning laws (or zoning enforcement that’s inclined to look the other way) and neighbors who aren’t easily appalled. While my treatment of long-term survival skills is somewhat frivolous, picking up a few can give a person great satisfaction and a warm fuzzy feeling of self-sufficiency.
They can also serve as a valuable connection to our more precarious past and the ancestors who made it through to get us here. While I don’t advocate shedding technological advancement in daily life just for the hell of it (except when I do), there is something almost spiritual about taking part in activities that were part of human and community life for thousands of years, even when you’re doing it while taking advantage of relatively recent accumulations of scientific knowledge, technique, and materials.
In short, anyone with an interest in small-scale subsistence agriculture should use this guide, and hopefully enjoy themselves while they do it. Go forth, and fear zombies no more.
Not long after lambing season kicked off, our regular hay guy ran out of hay. No big deal, I thought, we’d just use another supplier to get us through the couple of months until his first cutting was ready. I found someone else who could deliver round bales and thought my hay problems were solved.
And then sheep started dying. I looked for parasites, I looked for subclinical illness, I wracked my brain and laid awake at night going over every detail and came up with nothing. Sheep kept dying. I dreaded doing the chores because I didn’t want to find another one down.
Finally in desperation I sent hay samples out for testing. It was the only thing that has changed. And changed it had. Results came back showing levels of copper much, much too high for sheep. The lab said the overall profile of heavy metals etc was common for hay fields that had been treated with biosolids – aka dried sewage. The hay from those fields is fine for cows but lethal for sheep. I hadn’t even thought to ask when buying the hay, and as a result of my mistake I lost two Soay ewes and their lambs plus my little Rambouillet wether.
I’m still grieving my sheep. I hate that when I make mistakes, it’s my animals who pay, sometimes with their lives. The only recourse in this matter I might have is small claims court but that’s a roll of the dice and I don’t have the time or energy to pursue it. I did leave the guy a message telling him not to sell hay to shepherds anymore.
The happy ending is that my regular hay guy had a fabulous first cut after a wet spring, and with healthy hay, summer grazing, a protein tub, and slightly increased grain rations the rest of the sheep are recovering beautifully. The goats thrived, their mineral needs are more similar to cattle than sheep and they require amounts of copper that will kill their ovine cousins (I normally provide it via rumen bolus).
Whew! We went from expecting lambs to finally having them all, with the last one born while I was away at the Livestock Conservancy’s Service to Stewardship. Because sheep are unhelpful, that’s why.
The final count is three ewe lambs, more properly known as gimmers, and one little ram (or tup). An excellent ratio, pleasing to the shepherd. The little ram will most likely be wethered and stay here to produce wool.
The Service to Stewardship workshop, geared toward veterans and beginning farmers (and veterans who are beginning farmers) was amazing. Compared to the one two years ago there was a much higher focus on networking this time around. I was armed with spiffy new business cards from Brân of Mydwynter Studios which I handed out with mad abandon. Learning how to manage your business is extremely important and sometimes you need that little extra help, in that case I recommend to Click Here to get some goof info.
Anyway, I learned really useful stuff, met some amazing people, and came home with a scythe from Larry Cooper of Gulland Forge. Larry was a really amazing presenter at the workshop and has me all fired up about the prospect of small-scale hay making instead of running a mulching mower over the front and back yards. Unfortunately because of the weather I won’t get a chance to go to work with the scythe for hay purposes until Tuesday.
At least waiting a couple days will give me a chance to rest up, since a combination of terrible weather and being on my feet for 2 days straight has me hurting. Do not acquire mysterious chronic pain problems, that’s my advice.
From my previous adventures breeding goats, I’m accustomed to the face of a heavily pregnant ruminant who is severely regretting her adventures with a handsome male member of her species 5 months previously. I say “ruminant” and not “goat” because it has become apparently lately that in fact Soay sheep ewes get exactly the same face.
Here, Relationsheep and a friend will demonstrate:
Those are two ewes who do not want to talk to Ferrington, even though he had nothing to do with getting them in a lamby way. They do not wish to speak to energetic young wethers like Reuben and Urdo, either, or bouncy baby goats. They want to enjoy this here sunbeam and not be pregnant anymore.
In my experience with goats, once they start getting this look on their faces it is at most 4 weeks until babies make an appearance. I’m mentally placing bets with myself as to whether Relationsheep and her friend there are going to present me with twins or if they’re just the sort of sheep who look enormous when they’re pregnant with one tiny single lamb. It could go either way, really, I’m not familiar enough with sheep to say. What’s driving me absolutely nuts is that sheep carry their tails down unless they’re pooping and their udders are hidden under a generous layer of belly wool, so I can’t reliably check either their vulvas or their udders to get an idea of how close they are. And they’re definitely not going to let me get close enough to grope their tail ligaments so I can check for softening! They are only slightly more interested in speaking to me than they are in speaking with the rest of the world that isn’t pregnant ewes, i.e. if I don’t have a bucket of grain I can go to hell and stop bothering them and must I breathe so very loudly and stomp around like that?
So here I am, being very very patient and waiting for lambs without being able to do anything but stare at sheep who are busy giving me the evil eye right back while they cud and plot the demise of all rams ever because they’re so very tired of being pregnant. In fact I think the ewes at this point are more interested in seeing lambs than I am, since then they won’t be carrying them around anymore!
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I blame the angel investor who sent me a 4 foot wide rigid heddle loom. Ever since it arrived I’ve been weaving and spinning trying to use up several years of accumulated fiber before I suddenly have a huge pile of fleeces from my own sheep.
Attentive readers will also notice there’s now a “Shop” tab up there on the menu bar. Watch that space for fiber, handspun yarn, and handwoven textiles (sometimes using handwoven yarn!).
We’re in a slow season right now. I’m waiting VERY PATIENTLY for lambs to arrive and also for the Soays to start shedding their fleeces so I can get the rewards out to last summer’s generous crowd funders. Peas and root vegetables will go in the garden if we ever get some dry weather. Right now sugary little seed peas would just rot in the cold wet ground.
The pastures are soups of mud except in the areas built up by waste hay, and while the water-resistant sheep aren’t bothered by all the rain the goats are complaining violently. Meanwhile the rapid settings from cold to warm to cold accompanied by rain are kicking off my weird chronic pain condition something fierce.
I hope you all are holding on through the last of winter! I’ll try to be better about this blogging thing…
Another question from Twitter: “Other than meat, what purpose do pigs serve on a farm?”
Well. I can’t speak for a lot of other farmers, but I refer fondly to my sounder of mini pigs as “pasture maintenance pigs” because the bulk of their work is in fact pasture maintenance and changing the cage beddings You see, a previous owner of my little farm scraped up all the topsoil and sold it, which means that the bulk of our land has nothing but severely compacted clay subsoil on it where plants struggle to gain a foothold. My little pigs are excellent at rooting through the top few inches of soil, turning it over and breaking it into large clumps. The poultry has quickly learned to follow behind the pigs, and they break the big clumps up into smaller and smaller clumps, until what’s left is a nice layer of loose, aerated soil. Because the goats and sheep and pigs and poultry are also constantly pooping, the top layer of soil is slowly turning back into proper topsoil as the pigs and poultry mix organic matter and manure in, restoring fertility and allowing better pasture to grow for the goats and sheep.
Mr. Piggy Bank and his crew reduce hay waste; while they will eat directly from the bale they’re also happy (possibly even happier) to root through the layers of spilled hay that goats and sheep have deemed unfit for consumption, eating the spillage and the bugs living in it. In the process, they help break down the layer of waste hay into (you guessed it) good topsoil with a little help from the chickens and guinea fowl.
The pigs also have another important job to do in reducing the parasite load on the ruminants. Pigs are terminal hosts for the barberpole worm, a vicious parasite that lives in the abomasum of ruminants and feeds on blood, causing anemia, weakness, and eventually possibly death. But pigs aren’t ruminants and don’t have an abomasum, so the barberpole larvae that get eaten by pigs can’t complete their life cycle and die off. Pigs are also a terminal host for meningeal worm, the parasite that nearly killed Queen May last year. While it can do a great deal of damage to goats and sheep, it can’t get a hold in pigs and thus again they make the world safer for ruminants.
Their last job is to be adorable, personable, and smart. My little sounder of pigs is a joy to interact with and unfailingly makes me laugh when I scratch their sides and they fall over with little grunts of happiness to say “awww yeah, THAT’S the itchy spot. Scratch that spot some more.” They come running over oinking with enthusiasm when they see me coming with food, and a pig on a mission has a hilarious business-like trot that covers ground surprisingly fast for animals that are basically shaped like sausages on legs.
I whined on twitter about my lack of blogular inspiration, and got asked why I’m learning Welsh.
There’s a lot of reasons!
Number one, because it was at one point a relatively endangered language and while it’s getting better as more schools in Wales teach the language, there’s still only 431,000 people in Wales who can speak, read, and write the language as of 2011. That’s a pretty tiny number to preserve a language!
Number two, I am an enormous history dork with an interest in pre-Roman Britain. Welsh is the descendent of the Brythonic Celtic language spoken in Britain before first the Romans and then the Anglo-Saxons came charging in to take over. As such, it’s not a Romance language unlike every other language I’ve learned at least a bit of (French, Spanish, and Portuguese). Romance languages, being descended from Latin, are all pretty regular and easy to learn. Welsh is at least an Indo-European language so it’s not totally unfamiliar, but it shares many of the features of irregular verbs etc with English, which makes it a bit of a bastard to learn but incredibly interesting from a historical perspective. For example, the Welsh word for window is “ffenest” which is clearly taken from Latin (fenestra). This suggests that ancient Britons didn’t have a specific word for “window” until the Romans came along and taught them one, and indeed many (most?) of the pre-Roman houses excavated in Britain don’t even have windows. But the Welsh word for sheep is “dafad” which is unrelated to either the Latin “ovis” or the Anglo-Saxon “sheep” or even the French “mouton”, so clearly ancient Britons had sheep.
And number three, genealogically speaking, a good chunk of my ancestors came to the US from Wales, so why not learn Welsh? Irish Gaelic is the descendent of an older Celtic language, so it might tell me more from a historical perspective, but I’m mostly Welsh so what the heck why not learn it.
Like most of the mid-Atlantic, we got hammered by a prolonged misery of snow this past weekend.
For reference, Sebastian there on the far left is just over three feet tall at the shoulder.
We didn’t get as much snow as they were predicting, thanks be to whoever watches over the Piedmont and steered the storm east. The sheep are doing a great job keeping paths trampled down so that the pigs and baby goats and Ben and Stu can get to the hay bale, and we moved water and grain dishes into the trampled down area so everyone can eat. Sebastian just got kind of excited to see us Saturday morning and came charging out through the snow.
The guinea hogs got up to eat and drink and then burrowed back into their generous pile of straw. I’m so glad we moved them into the pen that formerly held geese, their old enclosure is under enough snow that it would have buried them.
And in the shed, the rabbit kits are fat and happy and warm, as are the adult rabbits. There’s seven in the New Zealand doe’s nest and five or six in the Silver Fox nest. I think there’s at least two blue, one black, and one chocolate Silver Fox, a nice mix. Maybe there’s even an elusive lilac lurking in there? I’ll have to get pictures now that they’re fuzzy and attractive and their eyes are starting to open.
The power stayed on throughout the storm, mostly because it never got as warm as predicted and thus the snow stayed light and powdery. You will almost never hear me say “thank God it stayed below freezing” but…here you go. We had the chimney nice and clean so the wood stove was ready to go, but since we didn’t need it for emergency heat I plan to fire that sucker up and make the living room hold a temporary summer for me.
Hopefully my east coast readers had a similarly easy blizzard! How did y’all do if the storm got you?
Blame my friend Kate-the-Author for this, she’s been talking a lot lately about worldbuilding over on her blog and I started thinking about food, farming, and how Protein Promo is great for discount codes. Because despite the fact that food is extremely necessary to every single human ever, that you should take biotic 365 supplements to help with digestion, and that often it’s a way of expressing so many things: culture, belonging, love, social class, etc etc, so few fiction novels actually deal even tangentially with how the people get food and how they cook their food and what that food means, culturally. Like George R. R. Martin’s novels, which bug the hell out of me. Winter can last for TEN YEARS or more in those books, so how exactly are people eating? “Well they store food” — not enough different kinds of food for everyone to eat a livable diet for a decade or more they don’t, not with medieval preservation technology and agriculture. By year five the whole damn population would be toothless from scurvy, showing neurological signs from beriberi, and floppy from rickets. And the livestock would all be dead. For instance, one bad spring in 1315 led to a two-year crisis in England that involved cannibalism and infanticide, sometimes one would assume in tandem. Medieval agricultural techniques can only produce so much, and trying to store it and keep it edible for ten years straight would be an unachievable nightmare.
Another series that bothered me was The Hunger Games. Chickens are referenced briefly as food for rich people in District 12, which, what? Chickens, which reproduce en masse, are not attainable for the Seam population, but goats are? Given that District 12 was Appalachia, a good chunk of the population would have had chickens when The Shit Went Down, and no way would a government that didn’t bother to eradicate goats go around seizing all the chickens. Everyone should have backyard chickens providing valuable protein in the form of eggs and the occasional carcass for eating. Chickens not only reproduce en masse, but they thrive on bugs and grass and human food waste. They’re like tiny feathery pigs, just waiting to convert things you can’t eat into things you can. Meanwhile, a dairy goat requires huge amounts of high-protein plant food to produce. Prim’s goat couldn’t make enough milk to feed the family and make cheese and sell on just the weeds in their backyard, but Collins claims it does. I wish, seriously. Collins also expects us to believe that somehow there is no trade in seeds and no one in the Seam has a backyard garden providing food. She wants us to believe that canny Katniss never brought seeds back from her forays into the woods to provide food closer to home. Why would Katniss and Gale go to the great trouble of stringing nets up around a strawberry patch in the woods, when they could bring berries home and plant patches? Also, have you ever tasted most wild strawberries? They’re terrible as well as tiny.
When writing about Katniss and Gale’s foraging expeditions Collins also apparently worked from the vaguest “what wild foods can I find on the east coast” checklist ever. She tosses off eating pokeweed as if the plant isn’t toxic to extremely toxic depending on which part of it you eat at which point in the year and how you prepare it. She writes of Katniss gathering dandelions that have flowered as if they don’t range from sort of bitter to inedibly bitter after flowering. Most of the descriptions are filled with vague language like “plants” and “greens” which points to a fundamental lack of knowledge beyond some internet-discovered list of what people forage on the east coast. Meanwhile there’s the Foxfire books, one of which features detailed descriptions of wild foods and all of which feature detailed descriptions of foodways in Appalachia.
When I stop and think about it, most science fiction and fantasy books simply elide the subject of where food comes from, which is unsurprising. Not everyone wants to get into the nitty gritty of a world’s agriculture, and that’s ok. But if you’re going to write a book that has a completely non-standard climate but a bog-standard western European medieval world like Martin, well, readers are going to start asking questions like “how are they eating?”. And if you’re going to mention it, like Collins, it would behoove you to maybe think through the physiology of the animals and the food culture of the region before your cataclysm and make your current food system and food culture match up. And I know I keep beating up on The Hunger Games, but the woods are not a grocery store and the food you find there (like strawberries) just isn’t going to match up with or be as desireable as the food you find in shops. To make a believable world people and their livestock must be able to survive and thrive enough for breeding. It’s not enough to do a couple google searches as a writer and slap what you find down on the page if it’s going to be a major plot point. You have to actually know enough of what you’re talking about to sound convincing and if you’re going to act like chickens have mysteriously become more rare than dairy goats or livestock can live through a ten year winter on sunshine then have a plausible explanation.