Joshua Tree as the Outskirts of Civilization

In my 9th grade geography class, Mr. Ferguson had several standard rants he liked to visit on us, like how high school freshmen were not yet fully human. We all had the potential of full humanity, and in a few more years we could achieve it, with work. We were halfway between primordial ooze and human.

Another rant was how we lived on the outskirts of civilization, Los Angeles being civilization. “And you can see,” he’d say,”as you go from LA towards the desert, that the people get less and less hip until you get here, right on the edge.”

At the time I thought he was funny and slightly mean, but probably wrong. I was living in Joshua Tree and going to school in Twentynine Palms. Almost three decades later, I’m back living in Joshua Tree and working as a therapist in Twentynine Palms, and I’m thinking he was probably right. I don’t know about people getting less hip as you leave LA–it’s arguably true, but depends a lot on your values and aesthetics–but look at this map of population density and you will see that I do live on the edge of civilization. (Click on it for a clearer view.) Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms are the last two splotches of orange (at least 100 people per square mile, no more than 250) heading east out of LA. Just east of us is all fewer than 10 people per square mile for an hour’s drive, then less than 1 person per square mile for another hour. It’s beautiful country, but desolate.

Southern California Population Density 2000

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape on May 19, 2013.]

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Rainharvesting Workshop by Transition Joshua Tree Water Group

I went to my first Transition Joshua Tree event, a rainharvesting workshop on April 28. It was fun and inspiring to meet with a good-sized group (maybe 20?) of neighbors interested in water sustainability in Joshua Tree. It was nice timing, too. Reanna and I just spent the previous day on the Desert-Wise Landscape Tour, looking at how local people are designing for low-water use.

The main topic was how to catch and store rainwater that falls on your roof. Our presenter, Buck, seemed to have quite a bit of experience installing gutters and catchment tanks, and thinking about water in the desert. He had a machine that made seamless gutters of any length out of strips of aluminum:

gutter maker

And showed us some tanks and filtration systems:

catchment tanks

One of the participants reported catching over 2,000 gallons of water in a four-minute “rain event” with one of these systems. While it is very dry here (less than a half inch in 2013 so far, I believe) it can rain really hard. In my 10 years in the rain country of the Pacific northwest, I never saw it rain half as hard as a big rain in Joshua Tree. So you can wait a long time for a rain event but you want a large storage capacity when it does.

We want to catch as much of the water as possible because we are using up our aquifer about 10 times as fast as it is replenishing. (If it is replenishing, that is–there seems to be some controversy about it.) Water that runs off of our roofs flows down washes to the dry lake in Sunfair, where it mostly evaporates, and eventually rains on someone else downwind of us. According to the conservation representative from the Joshua Basin Water District in attendance, we use 151 gallons per person per day and sustainable use is under 15. She talked a bit about two plans to replenish our aquifer using technology: One, under way right now, is piping in northern California water from the Hisperia aquaduct down into our aquifer. Another, under study, is diverting the Quail Springs wash from the surface (and the dry lake) underground. I’m not sure what that will look like–I picture a 600 foot hole in the middle of the wash, with caution tape around it–but at least it would be using our own water.

Living on less that 15 gallons of water a day looks to be tough. Here’s an essay by my sister-in-law, Maya, about going from 420 gallons per day to 50 gallons a day, with a toddler and while continuing to grow food. I’d like to visit each person who came to the workshop and see what systems result in what level of water usage. Because Reanna and I share a water main with my family, I don’t know how much we are currently using. I will figure it out and write a post about it.

[First published May 11, 2013 on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.]

Keeping Cool in Joshua Tree: Dressing for Yard Work

Joshua Tree is in the Mojave Desert and hot in the summer. The average high is 100 degrees. That’s not Sonora Desert hot, but it’s still hot. My subjective thermometer of summer temperatures is something like this:

70s: Nice. Rare.

80s: Warm. Still nice.

90s: Hot. The sun is hot.

100s: Baking Wall of Heat. The sun is hot, but the air is also hot.

One option for dealing with this is not dealing with it: Stay inside with the swamp cooler on. If I spend most of the day in the office, my moments spent outside feel refreshing, a warm-up.

Another is dressing for it. If you can avoid the sun, say in a hammock under a tree, I advise being as naked as you can get away with. Bare skin is pretty good at keeping cool via sweat evaporation, at least in the dry of the desert. If you can’t avoid the sun, it’s more complicated. Here’s my yard-work costume:

1) Straw hat with a wide brim, loose enough for ventilation, but not loose enough to blow off in a breeze. I think the sun is good for us, but getting sunburned is not. I get sun on my skin every day but avoid burning. The hat helps with that.

2) Polarized sunglasses. I also think unfiltered sunlight is good for our eyes, and I get a fair amount every day, but hours in this kind of intense light makes me feel like I’ve sunburned my retinas.

3) My best white dress shirt. My wife Reanna was appalled at this sacrifice, but this is how I justify it: a) I do way more yard-work than I do dressing up, so it gets more use. b) It fits really well, so it’s comfortable, doesn’t restrict my motion, and doesn’t get tangled in the saw or drill or plant-to-be-pruned. c) It’s bright white, so reflects the sun really well. d) It has long sleeves, so I don’t have to wear sunscreen on my arms, but I can roll them up when appropriate. e) It has a collar which I can turn up to protect my neck. When the sun is low, my hat doesn’t do the trick for my neck. Again, less sunscreen. f) It buttons up, so I can button or unbutton, as needed, for venting. Most often I have only the second-to-top button fastened for maximum venting plus protecting the skin of my upper chest, which received more than its share of sun damage in my youth. g) Once it has some paint and a few tears, neither of us will feel remotely precious about it.

4) White work gloves. Sometimes gloves are not appropriate to the work I’m doing, but when they are, I wear white cloth gloves with rubberized palms and fingers. They save sunscreen and save my delicate musician hands from injury.

4) Shorts to the knee. Protects my thighs from sun while allowing leg-venting. This does leave my calves vulnerable to sun. In the middle of the day they get somewhat shaded by my body. At other times I can often find a shadow to fall on them. If not, sunscreen or sunburn. I find the trade-off worthwhile.

5) White socks. This is the part I’m most conflicted about. I generally eschew socks when I can get away with it, but in this kind of heat my feet can sweat and get stinky and uncomfortable. Plus, socks help make having sand in your shoes less uncomfortable. And they protect your ankles from sunburn.

6) Light, vented shoes. I wear Nike Free 3s, the most comfortable shoe yet created. They do not protect feet from dropped tools or lumber but, cross my fingers, so far it’s worth it.

Here are a couple photos of the costume, taken by Reanna, missing only socks and gloves:

(This post was originally published as “Keeping Cool in the Desert: Dressing for Outside Work” on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.)

Two More Carbon-Footprint Calculations

posted earlier about my first carbon-footprint calculation attempt, on carbonfootprint.com and thought I’d try another couple calculators to see how they compared.

First, I tried The Nature Conservancy‘s calculator. They gather a lot less detailed information than carbonfootprint.com, but also ask some new questions, like how often I check my truck’s air filter and tire pressure. They also have a way to be clear that I’m getting my individual carbon footprint, not that of my household, which was not so clear with carbonfootprint.com. They calculated my carbon footprint as much bigger than carbonfootprint.com, though, at 17 metric tons of CO2 per year: 17.8% on home energy, 64.6% on driving and flying, 2.8% on waste and recycling, and 14.9% on food and diet.

They also provide an opportunity to offset my entire carbon footprint and calculated the cost for me to do was $255: $15 per metric ton. That’s pretty cheap. I’ll have to look into carbon offset schemes and see if they are convincing.

Second, I tried footprintnetwork.org. They try to calculate how many planet earths it would take to support a population living my lifestyle–an interesting way of thinking about it. They gather a lot of the same information as the other sites, like how local is my food and how much I fly and drive. In some areas they gather more details, like how often I eat each of several kinds of animal products, how often I buy new clothes, furniture, appliances, and computer gear, and what kind of siding my house has.

This site estimates that if everyone lived like I do, we would need 3.5 planet Earths to sustain us. They suggested several ideas that would decrease my footprint: .1 of an Earth if I half my animal product consumption, .2 of an Earth if I “pledge to use less packaging,” .1 of an Earth if I use public transportation once a week, and .1 of an Earth if I do not fly this year because I chose “a local vacation.”

If I did all of these things we would need only three Earths to sustain us all at my standard of living. Half of an Earth’s savings is nothing to scoff at, but doesn’t really get us there. Plus, I already use very little packaging, and do not often fly for vacations.

They estimate how many “global acres of the Earth’s productive area” my lifestyle requires:  7 acres “energy land,” 2 acres “crop land,” 1 acre “grazing land,” 2.5 acres “forest land,” .5 acres “built up land,” and .25 acres “fishing grounds.”

They also calculate my “ecological footprint” percent by category: 52% in services, 11% in goods, 12% in mobility, 4% in shelter, and 16% in food.

Something is wrong about these calculations, but I’d need more details to know what. Half of my land-use is for energy, but half of my footprint is in “services.” What are these services that are using so much energy?

Still, a picture emerges. I have estimates of 10.41, 13.7, and 17 metric tons of CO2 per year, approximately 3-5 times as much as an ethical target. I probably create the most CO2 by burning fuel, driving and flying.

(This post was originally published here on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.)

Hello world!

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This blog is an experiment in niche blogging. I have been writing an all-subject blog called Nathen’s Miraculous Escape in the styles of my friends Jeannie Lee and Ethan Mitchell for several years now. I love that format but imagine it might shed readers who are only interested in only one of the topics I tend to write about. A psychology student, for example, might lose interest after a few posts on my family life, ecology, epistemology, or some other random rant (though they might enjoy my other experiment in niche blogging here). A Joshua Tree local, family friend, or fellow desert-sustainability explorer will almost certainly tire of my deconstructions of the DSM or various essays about theories and practices of psychotherapy. That’s who this blog is for.

I live on 2.5 acres of north Joshua Tree with my wife, Reanna (and very close to much of the rest of my family) in a 24-foot, recently renovated travel trailer. I am a family therapist at Morongo Basin Mental Health’s Military Family Support Program, a songwriter and record producer, a psychology and philosophy enthusiast, staff at Not Back to School Camp, and aspiring family man. Reanna and I are also on a quest to live sustainably here in Joshua Tree, and that is what this blog is about: what we learn, on our own and from our friends and family, as we set ourselves up.

A Quick Foray Into Carbon Footprint Calculation: 10.41 Metric Tons of CO2

(Reblogged from Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, from June 15, 2012.)

On a challenge from the blog 400 Days ’til 40 I did a quick-and-dirty calculation of our carbon footprint for a year here in California. I just used the top hit on Google for “carbon footprint calculator” and made my best estimates for all the values they asked for:

1. I live in California, USA, in a household of two.

2. I use no natural gas, heating oil, coal, LPG, and no net electricity by virtue of a solar array, thanks to an investment by my father. Reanna and I cook with propane, and a little research is leading me to believe we will go through approximately 50 gallons in a year, maybe less. Our share of the firewood that my parents burn for heat in the evenings is about .4 of a cord. My share of all this contributes .08 metric tons of CO2 per year.

3. I fly to Portland and to Albany every year to work at Not Back to School Camp. That contributes .95 metric tons of CO2. Something like a quarter of a ton for each leg. Pricey!

4. Car travel is the biggest polluter at 5.05 metric tons of CO2. This amount probably varies quite a bit each year and is way up from my Eugene, OR lifestyle. This estimate includes a few trips to town each week, a dozen trips to the LA area, and one long road trip to Canada. That’s a bit less than 2 tons for each of those kinds of commutes.

5. I use a significant amount of bus and train travel on my business (and some other) trips as well, adding about .12 metric tons of CO2.

6. The second biggest polluter is a group of “lifestyle” choices. 1.21 tons for eating animal products, 1 ton for owning one car, .5 tons for eating only “mostly” local produce, .61 tons for buying stuff with packaging, .17 tons for buying “some” new equipment, .41 for throwing some stuff away, 1 ton for sometimes going out to movies and restaurants, and .4 tons for having a bank account. Total = 4.21 metric tons of CO2. (The highest value possible here was 24.53 tons.)

Here is the summary they gave me:

  • Your footprint is 10.41 metric tons per year
  • The average footprint for people in United States is 20.40 metric tons
  • The average for the industrial nations is about 11 metric tons
  • The average worldwide carbon footprint is about 4 metric tons
  • The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 metric tons

I have plenty of questions about and criticisms of the way this calculator works. They ask my household size first but do not indicate if they are calculating my individual footprint or my household’s. That could change my score quite a bit if I’m taking the blame for Reanna’s share.

I’d like find a calculator which takes into account more specifics, too. I have owned the same car for 20 years, for example, but the way they asked the question gave me the same carbon footprint as someone who has a brand new SUV every year. Miles driven, too, is not as important as number of gallons of gasoline burned (see my mileage/fuel tracking project here). I buy some things with packaging and I throw some stuff in the landfill (see my landfill tracking project here), but “some” is a vague category to hang such a precise 1.02 metric tons of carbon on! What about grass-fed versus industrially produced meat?

On the other hand, two metric tons is a pretty tight carbon budget, and finding a more accurate calculator will not likely shift my score dramatically. And with this calculator, I am at 520% of my two metric tons, this with a relatively low-profile lifestyle for an American. I could come down to 222% if I did not own a car and never drove one. If I also stopped eating animal products and stopped going to movies and restaurants, I would be close, at 112%. If I also stopped flying, I could actually come in under budget, at 64%, leaving some slack for others.

That’s a pretty discouraging proposition! The biggest barrier is the isolation. No travel means never seeing a large part of my family and community. And the idea is that kinds of lifestyle choices would have to become the norm, not just the domain of eccentrics….

I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this.

Humidity in Joshua Tree

(Reblogged from Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, from February 21, 2012.)

Reanna is from the Pacific northwest and I grew up in Joshua Tree, CA, where we are currently living. We have an ongoing conversation about humidity here because having grown up in a wet climate, she is vigilant for the ways that moisture in the air decomposes things. “If we don’t keep it warm in here, won’t condensation damage the books?” No, it won’t, and probably wouldn’t even if we had a constantly boiling pot of water. The only place I’ve ever seen mildew in Joshua Tree is in one of our bathrooms which, until very recently, had no windows and no fan. This was not aggressive mildew either, just noticeable every once in a while. “If the roof of the trailer has leaks, won’t there be tons of mold in the walls?” No, not likely, because even if rain was pouring right through the trailer, it would be completely dry again within hours.

I have never tracked humidity levels before, so while I knew that Joshua Tree was dry, I didn’t know what level of humidity qualified as dry. I also didn’t fully understand the different measurements of humidity that are floating around out there. The short version of that story is that there are three units of humidity: absolute, specific, and relative humidity. Absolute humidity is grams of water per kilogram of moist air and specific humidity is kilograms of dry air. Relative humidity is more complicated. If I understand correctly (if incompletely) it is the ratio between 1) the pressure that the water vapor in a given amount of air would exert on the insides of a container, should it somehow be trapped there without its accompanying dry air, and 2) the pressure below which water would start condensing out of the air. Relative humidity is the measure of humidity that you usually see in weather reports, partly because it takes into account temperature–at lower temperatures, air holds less water.

Here are some cities with different levels of relative humidity, to give a sense of where we are in Joshua Tree. I’ll also include precipitation. (Data is from Weather Underground unless otherwise noted.)

Seattle, WA, 2011: High 99%, Low 34%, Average 82%, Precipitation 12.92 inches

Honolulu, HI, 2011: High 96%, Low 18%, Average, 65.6% Precipitation 23.82 inches

Joshua Tree humidity, 2011: High = 83%, Low = 10%, Average = 30.7%, Precipitation 1.53 inches

Las Vegas, NV, 2011 (the driest city in the US): High 98%, Low 2%, Average 28.7%, Precipitation about 2.5 inches (precipitation according to climatestations.com)

Kolkata, India one of the most humid cities in the world, on July 15, 2011: High 94%, Low 64%, Average 84%, Precipitation 0.0 inches

And Kartoum, Sudan (Sahara desert), on January 4, 2011: High 43 %, Low 10%, Average 24%, Precipitation .51 inches

Nathen, Reanna, Quilt, Desert

A Violent Windstorm on the Beaufort Scale

(Reblogged from Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, from January 22, 2012.)

Yesterday I woke up to a violent wind storm. I walked up to the house for breakfast and found Grandpa Bob had been blown over in the driveway and he was struggling to get up. A gust had blown him straight over backwards. He was embarrassed but not injured at all. (I hope to be able to take a fall like that at 93!)

Growing up in the desert, wind was my least favorite weather. I’ve been blown into a ditch on my bike and had countless teenage hairstyles ruined by wind. It is kind of exciting to see something so powerful, though. We had gusts at 66 miles per hour, making it a “violent storm” on the Beaufort scale (see below), just between a gale and a hurricane. In the Pacific northwest, and especially in cities, this intensity of wind blows trees into houses and causes pretty radical damage. Stuff around here is built for wind. You might lose your roof and you will definitely lose anything that isn’t “nailed down hard,” as we say, but the plants and other structures will be fine.

Here are a couple of very short videos I took. Turn the sound down–they are loud. Can you see the sandstorm about a half mile away in the first one?

The Beaufort Wind Force Scale, according to Wikipedia:

Calm > 1 mph

Light air 1-3 mph

Light breeze 4-7 mph

Gentle breeze 8-12 mph

Moderate breeze 14-17 mph

Fresh breeze 18-24 mph

Strong breeze 25–30 mph

High wind 31–38 mph

Gale 39–46 mph

Strong gale 47-54 mph

Storm 55-63 mph

Violent storm 64-72 mph

Hurricane  ≥ 73 mph

Creating a New Home, Phase 1

(Reblogged from Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, from December 8, 2011.)

Reanna and I moved from Eugene to Joshua Tree in early November. We were there about a month before leaving to visit her family, and our primary project was starting to set up a new living space: an early-1960s Kenskill travel trailer. We will see how this arrangement suits our needs in real life, but the idea of living in a trailer suits the idea of our needs quite well for the time being. I have lived in trailers off and on throughout my life, and while I found nothing glamorous about it, I really appreciate how cheap and mobile they are. Cheap is very appealing now, with large student loans to pay off. Reanna has been interested in the tiny home movement and travel-trailer renovation for years (check out Tumbleweed Tiny HomesTiny House Blog, and a couple of trailers), so her vision is the engine for this project.

The first phase was creating a space for the trailer and a little yard for us. We did this in the “north 40” of my parent’s property. Here are some before, during and after shots (all photography and editing by Reanna):

Before, Looking Northwest: From left to right you see the sauna/bath house, our trailer in its old spot, Uncle Bill’s shed (to be moved), Grandpa Bob’s workshop (to be made into sewing palace), and the old goat pen.
Before, Looking Northeast: In between the fence and the structures, you can see a pile of 2,500 pounds of plywood and other stuff, the remains of an 8′ vert ramp. Then left to right, an 8′ trailer, Uncle Bill’s shed, our 24′ trailer, and the sauna/bath house.
During, Looking Southwest: Behind me you can see the 8′ travel trailer that served as my bedroom in high school. We gave it away to a local a few days later. It actually made me quite sad to watch it limp away.
During, Looking North: The pile of plywood on the right was the last third or so of the landfill.
After, Looking Northwest: The plywood is gone, 24′ trailer in its new place. You can see we’ll have a nice little yard in between the trailer and the bath house, once we move Uncle Bill’s shed.
After, Looking Northeast
After, Looking West
After, Looking North: Here’s the best shot of the trailer. My friend John lived in it while he did his undergrad. It had been his grandparents’ and parents’. He gave it to me in the late 90s, when I lived in it for two years. It’s got an unusually nice layout, with big windows on the kitchen/dining room side (the right), bedroom in the middle, and bathroom in the back.
Weatherizing in a Wind Storm

Every Heavy Thing in the Yard on Top to Hold it Down

Still to do: seal it up to prevent further water damage, prep for paint, paint, put in new flooring, fix plumbing, furnish, move in.

Guest Post: We are moving to the desert!

My father took the train down from Vancouver to visit me last week. We spent a few days in Portland and a few days here in Eugene, including a spectacular trip to Honeyman State Park on the last balmy day in September.

We walked across the dunes to the ocean and back, talked a lot and swam in a perfect, sandy-bottomed blue lake. What an amazing day. I can’t believe I’ve been living so close to the dunes all summer and hadn’t been! Thanks for visiting, Papa.

At the end of this month, Nathen and I will be packing up, renting a trailer and moving down to Joshua Tree to live near our new nephew and the Lesters. Here’s some of the things I’m excited about:

• Making our first home together and figuring out what our lives are going to be like
• Fixing up a 70s Kenskill travel trailer to live in
• Spending lots of time with the baby
• Being a mere two hours drive from the textile stores in the LA garment district (!!!)
• Finding a place to have our wedding and starting to plan
• Outdoor movie nights with the projector
• Rock climbing in the park
• Fresh goats milk
• Sunshine

[First published October 8, 2011, by Reanna on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape]