Friday, November 28, 2008

Getting the wind up

It's been windy down on the farm lately, enough so two nights before Thanksgiving to take some roof off our sheep barn and bring down some trees on our power line. We're second to last house on a spur line, off another spur, deep in the woods, a forgotten enclave as far as the tree trimmers seem concerned, and so we're used to short power cuts every few weeks or so, but I was still worried as my sump pump wasn't doing its job and I have several hundred dollars worth of farm-fresh meat in my freezers and this seemed a longer outage than most.

So when the linesmen showed up I was very glad to see them. This despite the fact that they showed after quite some delay, about 20 hours of no power. About half the county was without power, and our little outage was a low priority job compared to others that would have restored power to hundreds of people, not just a handful.

This logic of electrical triage we understand and appreciate, and we also are mindful of the responsibility to be self-reliant when you choose to live so deep in the deep woods.

We choose to live here. If we and other rural folk demanded the same services and amenities enjoyed by urbanites and complained every time the power went out or the snow didn't get plowed, everyone's utilities and taxes would be that much higher.

And we'd be what our students would rudely call "lame."

So when the linesmen finally showed up with chainsaws and a cherry picker truck, I was delighted, and set to, helping them clear the trees. They were all young guys, and they didn't mess around, expertly wielding chainsaws and winches and other useful implements to clear the trees. Even so, it took them about three hours to fully diagnose and fix all the ground leaks on our five-hundred yard spur, there were so many down and leaning trees. The power came on and off again several times, and we even heard the main breaker crack loudly once, like a gunshot, down on the main line, as the linesmen tried to switch the power on before they'd cleared all the trees.

All very exciting.

Luckily, electrical power, like many other energy problems, succumbs to logical trouble-shooting, and so you know that eventually, if you keep asking the right binary questions, and proceed by elimination, it will get fixed. There's a good lesson there. Reason still works! Surprise! When lots of perfectly intelligent people in academia have tried to make it go away for many, many years. But these are not people who have to fix things and keep them running. Those of us who do, love reason because it makes our lives easier.

Question: How many postmodernist and deconstructivist academics does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None. Because if you don't really believe in logic and reason in the first place, you'll be so busy thinking up silly notions of why the light ain't on, you'll never get around to fixing even the simplest problems.

I've been fixing things since my dad taught me the basics of my first trade, electrical wiring. Dad rewired houses, and I was his crawl space boy, expertly fitting junction boxes into tiny dirty places at the tender age of eleven. Now, a dozen skilled and semi-skilled trades later, from airplane maintenance to barn-building, I remain thoroughly appreciative of practical things and practical people.

Postmodernists never seem to actually do anything useful or practical. They depend on others for all that. And of course, if everything is relative, and there's no such thing really as wrong or right, just differing viewpoints, well, what's to stop me eating my neighbor if I get a little hungry in an emergency? Why should I have to contribute anything important to society and to community, if there's really no such thing, if it's all just a simulacrum.

Obviously, deconstructivism begins to fall down when you realize even the best deconstructivists are dependent on the ordinary con-struction trades for shelter.

Reductio ad absurdum.

Another good lesson was found in not having power for twenty-three hours, this one in ecological systems. Everything is connected to everything else, in our house, and around the planet. As with ecological systems, resilience and redundancy are key. If you don't have power, the things that still work are wood stoves, flashlights, and oil lamps. Appreciating resilience and redundancy, we have all of these. Our propane kitchen stove still works, although its oven does not. When we bought a wood stove, we opted for a practical Norskie model with a hotplate built-in. Those Norwegians appreciate the absolute value of heat. Inverters and generators are also useful things, mostly made in China these days, and we own several inverters and a good propane generator. Practical folk, the Chinese. Admirably productive and adept at engineering usefulness out of steel and plastic. And a sensible hot water tank by GE that runs on propane and still works just fine when the power goes out. Remember when America was the workshop and factory floor of the world?

Unfortunately, some folks have borrowed the genny for quite a while now, and so we were left trying to use inverters hooked up to a pick-up truck motor to run the essential systems of the house and that's where our otherwise careful preparations fell short..

These essentials, in our particular farmhouse, comprise two chest freezers, two refrigerators, a sump pump, and a well pump. The various food coolers are needed to store our farm surplus for the winter. The sump pump is needed twice a year when the ground water begins to rise in our basement. Mostly, we use it to keep the water away from the furnace and hot water tank and one of the two freezers that live in the basement. And we need to run a deep well pump to get water for humans and animals. Our eleven sheep in particular need about ten gallons a day.

If all else fails, we're just two hundred yards from a year-round creek. We wouldn't even have to carry the water, just let the sheep go. They can go get a drink and come back. They're good sheep and they would come back.

Of course, even with all this resilience and redundancy, things never go quite as well as you want. I managed to burn up the larger of our two inverters trying to get it to run the well pump, which had I thought about it, I would have known would happen, that pump drawing about twice as much power as the inverter could supply. I was more careful with the other one after that. We gave up trying to get the well pump to run and used rainwater collected in pools here and there for the animals.

Other than that, all went well and we even enjoyed our electrical hiatus. We heated with the wood stove, shutting down the heat systems that needed power. We cooked on the wood stove and the propane burners and used flashlights and oil lamps for light. We were able to stay warm and fed and to properly water and feed all our animals. We missed our TV a little, but instead made conversation and read books. It was actually quite pleasant at times.

Still, I know now I need to be more forceful about getting that generator back. It's silly to be the owner of a 1500 watt generator, if you can't use it when you need to. I would have been much happier about it all if I could have used the genny to run the sump pump to clear the water from the basement and to run the well pump.

This was a good test, and we were not unprepared. A passing grade. We have a thing or two to tinker with, to be even readier for the next emergency.

So much for the Womerlippis. How resilient is the rest of society? And how redundant are our systems for food, water, shelter, energy, health care and emergency services? Because we are for sure going to need them more and more these next few decades.

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