"Permaculture" from a Lost Age

When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nr for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our fathers did for us.” 
–John Ruskin, 
Audel’s Carpenters and Builders Guide 
I collect old manuals on construction, horticulture, agriculture, etc. Many of these guides, such as these from Audel in 1921 contain lost knowledge and secrets of doing things in ways that are necessarily “lower tech” and far more energy efficient than the way they’re done today. As such, they’re often more appropriate to the human scale. 

But they also embody another nearly lost secret… a traditional view towards quality that laid the foundations for long-lasting culture, going back to Homer’s careful description of a well-made Greek spear, the sturdy home of a fisherman, or a boar perfectly roasted over a spit.



Gravity Heat: the Complexity of Energy Efficiency

Recently, we’ve been looking into a few upgrades to our ol-timey Gravity Furnace. Whenever we ask for recommendations, we always hear the same advice: “just replace the thing!” 

And that is the generally the advice you’d hear from just about anybody in business that makes money by selling new equpment.  
In fact, a very similar project that I’ve been admiring for years-another ecological uprade of a victorian home–heralded the replacement of their gravity furnace as their number 1 
“green” improvement! 
But given the particulars of our home and furnace, when I “do the math” I find that replacing our old “octopus” unnecessarily adds to our negative ecological impact as well as increasing our “net” heating cost over the life of our home. 
For those who aren’t familiar with a “gravity furnace,” they’re the simplest kind of central heating you can have, relying not on fans to circulate heat, but on the simple fact that heat rises and cold air sinks.  
And while that system comes with certain draw backs and inefficiencies, it also has some advantages, which from a certain perspective, outweigh the negatives:  

1. Fuel Adaptability: in its lifetime, our furnace has run on wood, coal, oil and gas! If current trends towards economic instability and increasing resource scarcity continue this alone makes our “octopus” very attractive as a second furnace (we also have a modern forced air furnace in for parts of our home.)  
2. Dependable: few moving parts, no fans, baffles, computers, plus strong long-lived materials, little to go wrong.  
3. Ecological impact of embodied energy: As an annualized impact, this equipment’s ecological footprint is tiny, even assuming impractically large efficiency improvements, an honest evaluation including the embodied energy of new ductowrk, etc. makes it unlikely that furnace replacement would “pay off” in the lifetime of a furnace.  
4. Financial viability: again, assuming huge efficiency increases only possible with home alterations (wall insulation, increased sealing)  that are likely to have a negative impact on the lifespan of our victorian home (Victorian homes weren’t made for that kind of air-tightness)–and not including those costs in my calcualtions–a new furnace is unlikely to pay for itself over its lifetime! When I do the math, the payback time ends up being over 40 years, not including maintenance and parts replacement!  When it comes down to it, the money we save by waiting to replace this monster can be invested in things that will have a bigger ecological impact and shorter pay-back time. 
5. Depressurized heating efficiency in an old house: lab tests of efficiency assume the relative air-tightness of a modern home. In a leaky victorian home, there are efficiencies that come with not having heat “forced” out of the home by a blower. It’s hard to measure this factor, but it shouldn’t be discounted when calculating supposed benefits of newer furnaces. 
6. Reasonably Upgradable: efficiency improvements can be made such as updating the ignition, adding thermal mass, and installing radiator coils in the flue pipe, which was popular in the 70s and can capture 40-50% of the “lost” heat, bringing efficiency into the range of modern heaters. Unlike a new furnace, these improvements would pay for themselves in a few short years. 

All things considered, it’s impossible for me to justify unnecessary replacement of our gravity furnace on ecological, efficiency or financial grounds. It just goes to show that the conventional advice isn’t always right, and fancy “efficiency upgrades” sold by the industry don’t always work out to be more efficient when you do the numbers. 

Some day, this beast will come to the end of its life and it will be time to replace it. Even then, this analysis shows there may be ecological and financial benefits to eschewing fancy “green” high-efficiency equipment promoted by “green living experts,” with so many short-lived parts, fussy electronics and high embodied energy for more “appropriate” tech that’s simpler, longer-lived, more adaptable, and less expensive. 

The Quince–a Great Permaculture Tree Crop


If you want to grow your food on trees–and there’s a lot of good reasons to do so–then you traditionally would have an easier time of it in the tropics, where there are a lot of “tree fruits” that can be used as staple vegetables, like plantain, avocado, jack fruit, etc. With the powerful productivity of trees, this means that tropical Permaculturists with establish food forests report feeding 30 families from a small fraction of an acre year round from their “vegetable” CSA. Of course, most of the “vegetables” are actually tree fruits! 

In cold climates, our ancestors haven’t cultivated many fruits to fill this role. While we do have quite a few tree vegetables, like Toon Tree and Linden, we don’t have many traditional calorie rich, starchy staple crop trees. The only two that come to mind are Chestnut and, of course, the Quince.
Most people these days aren’t too familiar with Quinces, but our great grandparents were. There was a time when this was the desert-island tree of choice for American settlers–if they only had room for one fruit tree,  it would be a quince, for its versatility and many uses. Not only was the quince prefered over other “pome fruit” like apples and pears for desserts, but its high pectin content, acidity and spicy aroma made it the perfect side-kick for any fruit preserves, jam or jelly. The same pectin content also made it great for cosmetic purposes, including the orignial “hair jelly,” or “pomeade.” As a matter of fact, I’ve been using a home-made pomeade for the last month to keep my coiffure in order and I’ll be sad to go back to salon products when its gone. It works great, doesn’t get greasy or stiff and as Ulysses Everett McGill said of his “pomade” in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? “I like the smell of my hair treatment–the pleasing aroma is half the point.”

But more importantly for northern Permaculturists, the Quince has a tradition of being used as a staple in savory dishes going back to antiquity. It has been featured alongside olives in tapas dishes, added to stews in hearty chunks, paired with meat and poultry, used in stuffings, and even stuffed and roasted in its own right, with cheeses, bread crumbs and herbs.
Growing Quinces 
Although it is generally renowned as the easiest-to-grow of all pome fruit–being all but indestructable–growing quinces in regions with Fireblight requires some special considerations. Here in S.W. Michigan we have occasional outbreaks of blight, and the Quince can become problematic. Many orchardists have complained that the species can act as a carrier and that normally “blight immune” varieties of apples or pears will be killed by blight if they’re too close to an infected Quince. (I know of one S.W. Michigan grower who reported severe blight outbreaks every year in her “blight tolerant” Seckel pears, which went away completely after removing a nearby Quince.) So, in our food forest, we’ve planted Quince far from any other pome fruit, in a “zone 2” area where we’ll visit it often and catch any blight early on. We also made sure not to place it someplace where it would be a key landscaping feature, since it might require extensive and unattractive pruning. 
Unfortunately, there are no varieties currently marketed as “blight tolerant” in the United States, as the fruit is so uncommon that it hasn’t been cultivated or researched much here. However, in the Caspian region, where Quince is still a staple and blight a major problem, this has been worked on, so varieties from this area are often considered by knowledgable growers to have better blight tolerance. According to Quince enthusiasts at Garden Web, Russians consider the variety “Aromatnaya” to be the most blight tolerant cultivar. It is also commonly recommended for ripening well in northern climates and cool, cloudy summers. And while I haven’t tried it myself, it’s frequently rated among the best tasting Quinces, highly aromatic (as the name suggests) and one of the few sweet enough to be eaten raw. 
(NOTE: While the variety has been cultivated for blight tolerance, American nurserymen will likely be selling it on standard Quince rootstock that has NOT been cultivated for this purpose. That would seem to make Aromatnaya an ideal candidate for growing on its own root. Planting a grafted tree deeply, with the graft below the soil level should allow the grafted species to take root.)
With blight considered, the Quince seems ideal for food forests, reportedly very low maintenance and highly productive in more shade than other pome fruit would tolerate. 
Quince Galette with Goat Cheese and Thyme 

In this traditional southern European Quince Galette with goat cheese, the quince takes on a savory, hearty–even meaty–quality, while retaining a mild sweetness and citrusy aroma. 
Highly recommended. 
I made a few changes based on my preferences, including roasting the quinces in a mixture of rum, apple cider and orange juice. In my short experience with the quince, I’ve found I really enjoy the complexity of flavor that comes out from long cooking, and quinces paired with rum smells basically like Christmas. Just halve the fruit, remove the core, and roast the quinces in enough liquid to keep the bottom of the dish from drying out, about 45 minutes. The quince should keep its firmness and be ready to be sliced. Don’t forget to keep the quince pits, and cover them in cup of water to make a pomeade! 

I also found from similar recipes that the goat cheese could dry out too much, and followed the common recomendation of combining the first layer of goat cheese with one or two egg yolks to keep it moist. The final layer of goat cheese on top doesn’t require egg, as it’s added at the end.