Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra)

Recently there were hundreds of black walnuts falling from the tree in our back yard.  Collecting and processing can be a messy, time consuming job when done by hand.  Hands and a hammer were all I had to work with this time though, so I’ve only finished washing and curing about 300 of them for storage.  I’d guess that there are almost a thousand more, currently sitting on the lawn collecting leaves and waiting for me to get to them.  All from just one tree.  The work, in my opinion, is well worth the product.  My daughter compares the raw nuts to a banana and roasted they take on a fluffier texture with, more of what people think of as, a nutty flavor.  You can make walnut butter, walnut flour, and from the hulls you can make a dye or stain.  (I’m hoping to do some more experimentation using the byproduct as a wood stain and write a post about that.  The first test came out quite well and even gave the wood a glossy feeling.)

Juglans Nigra is a tree that I would call courteous.  It begins growing leaves in the spring long after many other species have filled in, and it starts losing them quite early in the fall.  This allows for extra periods of sunlight underneath.  It is true that Black Walnut leaches high amounts of juglone into the soil, a chemical toxic to some plants. The aforementioned  list is not long though.  Some plants it includes would require full summer sun that they would not get near the tree anyway.  We wouldn’t plant tomatoes under a maple or an oak either.  There are also some juglone tolerant berry bush and tree species such as Mulberry and Blackberry, that actually help to filter the juglone from the soil.  They can be used as a barrier, blocking the chemical from reaching any sensitive plants.

The species has an average height and spread of 85 feet both ways.  Its alternating compound leaves with 11-24 leaflets, give it an almost tropical look amidst the commonly larger-leaved trees of the temperate forest.  The deep taproot of this plant helps to bring long buried nutrients to the soil surface.  In full sunlight, with no interference, it will grow tall and straight with an evenly branched pattern, creating a rounded crown.  As with most trees, any individual of the species can adapt to circumstance.  (Ours happens to have been struck by lightening at one point and has lost its height, forcing the tree to become more broad than tall.)   I find the dappled sunlight the canopy allows through to be a calming environment in which to lay on a hammock with a book.

The nut the tree produces contains much nutrition.  Why else would the squirrels hoard them so? Within the dry roasted nut we find protein, fiber, carbohydrates, sugars, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, zinc, vitamins; C, A, D, E, K, B-6 and B-12, and important fatty acids.  You can find the exact values here at the USDA Nutrient Database.

Sure, it’s a “hard nut to crack,” but the black walnut, Juglans Nigra, is a beautiful tree with much potential use.  It deserves a spotlight in the Hall of Fame for it’s patience, grace, beauty, and of course, nutritional value.

Don’t Give Up, Get Started!

So you want to live a more sustainable life.  You have some knowledge of what it is you want to do, but no idea how to get there.  Well, welcome to the club.

My husband and I started deciding we wanted to live this way almost five years ago. We were still only dating, and he showed me a picture of this crazy looking house that (who I thought of then as) a weird hippy guy created, called an Earthship.  I’ll admit, I was very skeptical.

There was still a very naive view of the world in my mind.  I was, at that point, still technically a single mother with a young son and a bar-tending job.  It was finally making me enough money that moving out of my parents’ house would be an option.  I’d been through some drama in the past and was ready for the simple cookie-cutter life that most of us settle for.  All under the impression it would give my son stability and a good chance to make it “somewhere” in the world.

It was my husband who made me realize that there wouldn’t be much of a world for him to grow up to if we didn’t start doing something about it.  The “weird hippy guy”, Michael Reynolds, was actually on to something.  Looking at what he was doing and why he was doing it, changed my entire outlook.  This proved to be only the beginning of a long journey that we are still only, maybe, a quarter of the way through.

When you set out to do something, it rarely goes as planned.  It takes initiative, knowledge, patience…the list goes on and on.  But when you find something you are passionate about, those things tend to just fall into place.  We are years into what we want to accomplish.  Yet, we are still years away.  We’ve been reading, watching, experimenting, and learning all of this time, and we’ve changed our plans dozens of times.

What we have accomplished though, is a clear vision.  My husband has been working extremely hard on drafting our house plans.  Which have changed so much from our original Earthship idea.  We’ve gone from that, to thinking about cob structures, to finally deciding that strawbale is the right design for our needs, material availability, budget, and climate.  I have been working on figuring out how we are going to grow enough food to feed our family without having to take the awful bi-weekly trip to the grocery store to get less than premium quality food.  This involves livestock, vegetable and caloric crop growing, and harvesting and preservation methods.

Our goal is to become 100% sustainable, and even go as far as to become “regenerative.”  Meaning we give back more than we take out.  The term came to us from another great in the vision of a better world, Mark Shepard, who has done some wonderful explorations in creating a permanent agricultural system using tree crops as main caloric crops.  Replacing the destructive annual mono-cultures we have come to rely upon.  You can check out his website here.  And I strongly recommend his book, Restoration Agriculture to anyone interested in this topic.

Anyway, I’m being a bad writer and got slightly off-topic, but the message I would like to convey, is that what works for us may not work for you.  Every situation is different, and sometimes just getting started is the hardest part.  Some of us tend to spend too much time listening to other people and their opinion of what needs to be done.  We’ve experienced many unexpected setbacks along the way, but we choose to let them make us stronger.

When times get hard and I get too deep in doubt, my husband reminds me of how it will be one day.  When the kids are grown and we’ve contributed all we can to this life, we’ll be sitting on our porch looking at a lovely view laughing about it all.  And I’m sure a certain sadness will creep over us that longs for the days of the hectic schedules and hard work.  Don’t give up!  Don’t let doubt be a factor.  Learn as much as you can, then take action!  If you fail, try again.  If there’s a block in your path, either move it, or get some off-road tires to go around it.  And most of all, always listen to yourself.

You Are What You Eat

How many times have we heard it? “You are what you eat.”  It is very cliché, but also very true.  Our bodies are quite literally built out of what we eat.

There is a documentary on Amazon Prime called Origins.  In it, Alejandro Junger (MD) puts it very well.  He says that if you follow around any good gardener and they find a plant that is looking sick, they don’t spend much time observing the aerial parts.  They will go straight to roots and the soil.  He says, “Our gut is like the root of a plant.”  I love this analogy.  It just makes so much sense.  A plant “eats” from its roots the nutrients in the soil.  When these nutrients aren’t available, the plant’s systems will not be functioning at full potential.  This means that not only will it possibly have to give up some leaves that it can’t afford to provide with circulation and have a hard time producing seed and fruit, but it will become more susceptible to disease.

Our gut is responsible for breaking down the nutrients in our food and processing them for use in other parts of the body.  It is also directly correlated to our immune system.  Just like the sickly plant, if we aren’t able to extract the proper nutrition from our diet, our bodies will suffer.

We have an entire laboratory constantly working within ourselves.  It breaks down chemicals we ingest as part of our diet and binds them with others to create new ones.  Some of the more important chemicals it creates are hormones.  Hormones tell our bodies how to regulate all of its various systems.  You can read more about it  here.  If we don’t have the proper nutrition/supply of chemicals to start with, how are our bodies supposed to keep the laboratory up and running?  The answer is that, they simply can’t.

We need to get to the “root” of the problem instead of looking at the symptoms and trying to suppress them.  We need to keep funding the laboratory so it can continue its good work.  We need to become the succulent peach ripe off of the tree grown out of healthy soil instead of the fast food burger with pretend meat.  What will you choose to become?

The Fourth Little Piggy

When you tell people you want to build a strawbale house, they often make the same joke.  “You want to build a house out of straw?”  “But haven’t you heard the story of the three little pigs?”

We all know how the story of the three little pigs and the wolf who blew their houses down.  All but one.  Well, here’s the sequel.

You see after the wolf left, the third little pig lived happily in his brick house.  It was springtime and he could let the breeze blow through the windows.  He could hear the birds chirping, and all was right with the world.  But as the seasons changed, so did his comfort level.

Spring quickly turned to summer.  He hadn’t thought out his overhang well enough to keep the smoldering sun out of his windows, and even if that weren’t a factor, the humidity in the air made the house feel like a sauna.  As a result, he decided to install duct work and an A/C unit to keep cool.  This made him comfortable when he was at home, but he was rarely at home.  You see, he had to work countless hours to pay for all of the electricity the A/C was using.

One fall day, a fourth little pig came walking down the road.  First, he saw the devastating aftermath of the other poor piggies’ houses.  The sticks strewn about, and the piles of straw laying here and there.

As he was walking towards the third little pig’s house, he saw him sitting on the front porch and struck up a conversation.  He asked what had happened to the other two houses, and was told the story of the “Three Little Pigs.”  The fourth pig was saddened to hear the news of what the Big Bad Wolf had done, and told the third pig that he was glad he was alright.  The third pig agreed, but then told him of his woes, and how he wished he had planned his house out a little better.

Just then, the fourth pig had an idea. He thought they could build a brand new house. They could use the straw and the sticks.  The straw would make great insulation, the sticks could be used as a timber frame, and they could make some plaster to cover the straw and make it strong enough that no wolf no matter how big or bad could blow it down.  If they made the overhang stick out just right, and put most of the windows on the south side, they could block out the high summer sun while letting in the low winter sun for warmth.  They could make the floor out of the same plaster as the walls to act as a thermal mass that would store the winter sun’s heat during the day, and release it at night.

The third pig thought about it for a minute, then realized it might just work.  Why not?  The materials were mostly already there and he didn’t have much to lose, so they got straight to work.

By the time winter rolled around, they had just finished construction.  The cold came.  The house stayed mostly warm.  There were a few very cold days that they had to build a fire, but the wood was free, and they could use the heat to make delicious, healthy meals.  The third pig was content, but was still skeptical about whether or not the temperature inside could be regulated in the summer so he kept his job just in case.

Spring came and went, and summer reared it’s heavy head again.  But, to the third piggy’s surprise, it stayed very cool in the new house.  The walls were able to absorb the moisture caused by the humidity, they “breathed,”  and the sun was no longer radiating the floor like it was in the winter. Instead, it helped bring the cool temperature of the earth into the house.  The house was well ventilated and any heat that came in would rise and exit,  There was no need for expensive air conditioning.  The third piggy was ecstatic, he was able to quit his job and they both lived happily ever after.

The End