how i spent my summer vacation (2010)
by chris vansprouts, 2010 sep 26, room 101
metasofa summer camp  (vansprouts photos, click to zoom)

this summer, i decided to throw a party in this over-grazed desert-out-of-balance, and bring lots of shade & water & food for all the thirsty starving critters desperately munching on each other and everything else - but now i'm getting ahead of my story... (or go ahead and click here to skip to the fun stuff... :)  

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setting up basic off-grid infrastructure was easy - i've been living mostly off-grid for about 25 years now with the same 125 watts of solar panels (far left), which is enough for reading lights, stereo, laptop computer, and blender.  in more recent technology (near left), a 120vac 1100watt mosfet inverter (about 95% efficient), a charge controller, and one of solar dennis' magic deep-cycle batteries.


the two solar ovens (far right) are perfect for all-day slow-cooking of anything you would put in a crockpot overnight.  in the sunny southwest, my propane bill is $0.00 for at least half the year.

rain is solar-distilled water.  i think of the passive solar water distiller (2x4-foot black tray, near right) as making extra rain in this desert of too-little rain.  at an average output of 1 gallon per day in the sunny southwest, it's raining about 100 inches per year inside the box under 8 square feet of glass!

distilled water for drinking & cooking (or reverse-osmosis filtered, not as pure or sustainable as solar distilled) is essential for good health in this region of highly mineralized & alkaline ground water.  in some areas, the ground water naturally contains quite toxic levels of fluoride salts, lead, arsenic, heavy metals, and even radioactivity.  (i've been told by some locals it's an acquired taste... yum, yum!)


my source water supply for these experiments is actually from an on-grid neighborhood well, but i'm anticipating future use of an off-grid solar-powered micro-well.  source water arrives at the campsite via 150 feet of 1/4-inch drip-irrigation tubing, and then thru a flow regulator limited to 2 or 4 gallons/hour, which is about 50 to 100 gal/day, or 1500 to 3000 gal/month.  most of this goes to watering the garden, either directly, or as greywater from the solar-heated bathtub (left) or kitchen sink.


no water is used for flushing toilets, however.  i've successfully developed a portable "direct-to-site underground composting toilet" - simply a shallow hole (or trench) in the ground wherever one wants to plant tree(s) in a year or two :) ... over the hole is some sort of toilet seat on a mobile frame.  mine is most simple - a squatter made of four 2-by-4's and four carriage bolts.  after each poop or pee, one throws over it a scoop of magic bokashi from the bucket.  as a rough estimate, each hole might last about 2 months per person using it, and need 2 to 4 five-gallon buckets of bokashi.

the bokashi for this toilet is made mostly of original dirt from digging the hole, mixed with a little peat moss and sand, and enough magic activated liquid e-m (effective microorganisms (tm)) to make it pretty damp, yet freely sprinkle-able.  when all of the proportions are pretty good, odor from the toilet honestly isn't bad when you're right over it, and doesn't carry far either (unlike some outhouses i've experienced!).  if there is bad odor or too much odor, use more e-m to make the bokashi stronger until you find the amount works.  sometimes i apply 1/2 to 1 quart of 50%-diluted activated liquid e-m over the entire hole with a 1-gallon sprayer (below right).  e-m is reliably effective if used in sufficient quantity to match the situation.


i grow 'activated' liquid e-m continuously in a 5-gallon bucket with an airtight lid, from which i harvest about 3-4 gallons per week into smaller bottles for various agricultural & household uses.  for the next batch, i add to the remaining 1-2 gallons of e-m in the bucket - 4 to 8 oz of feed-grade molasses (it's cheap at $20/5gal), a splash of original e-m starter to remind newer generations of the wisdom of their ancestors, and fill to the top with about 3 gallons of distilled or filtered water preferably, or tap water.

so much for infrastructure, on to the party... (click photos to zoom)

[cv7162a.jpg] [cv5930a.jpg] [cv6285a.jpg] i installed a 1/4-inch drip-irrigation line (150 feet to the nearest spigot) which slowly fills the solar bathtub about twice a day at a (drip) rate of 2 to 4 gallons per hour... then put up a small shade dome about 13 feet across and covered it with some big old quilts and blankets.

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then i dug a circular garden all the way around the dome, about a foot wide inside and another foot outside, and mixed in lots of fresh organic vegetarian compost & e-m & peat moss & sand.  this was hard labor since the original earth was mostly hard clay, but the circular form is concise, no energy is wasted, and it's surprising sometimes to end up (seemingly) back where you started, when you've only gone forward...

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then i connected drain water from the bathtub to the garden, and planted wild grass, wheat grass, oat grass, buckwheat, barley, rye, sunflowers, lentils, garbanzos, fenugreek, quinoa, and miscellaneous old seeds... just to see what would happen, hoping at least for some green manure, and then to try planting some veggies too...

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it took a long time to get started, and started, and started... the desperate critters just couldn't wait for my seeds to grow and make exponentially more seeds - they were hungry now! and they ate almost every seed i planted for many weeks.

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(also, the arizona sun bakes everything to dust, even in the shade!  i feel cooler with some wind, but that's evaporative cooling and it costs water, so i've learned to be very generous and very reliable with water for the garden, especially in dry windy weather.  eventually, real monsoon rains make everything easier, and everyone seems to like the rain much better than well-water.)

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along with lots of water, we soon had more guests for the party... big frogs, tiny frogs, lizards, snakes, spiders, horny toads, and birds.  they like water and/or hunting other critters who like water and seeds - ants, gnats, june bugs, and a big toe-biter from louisiana!

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by now it's getting more peaceful, calm, and balanced as desperation (and various plagues & massacres) succumb to growing abundance... i haven't planted the veggies quite yet, but i've gained some experience and certainty of the possibility of natural transformations facilitated by mindful, gentle, and generous human interference! :)

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thanks to david kohlberg for philosophical exercise, and funding for irrigation parts & peat moss.  thanks also to victoria white for gardening inspiration, and to bruce scher and tom mendola for lending me a piece of their barren desert for the summer be continued elsewhere (see metasofa news)
also see - metasofa invitation - eco shelter - balancing with nature - summer 1996 - metasofa news