Chapter 7 – Cool Stuff
Copyright Michael Bunker 2009
A Gift in the Desert
In the summer of 1192, in the stifling desert heat of Palestine, Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was at his headquarters as head of the Crusading armies in Jaffa. While he had won many victories, he had the sense of foreboding. He saw no way to take Jerusalem from the Muslims. The task was just too daunting, and the Lionheart was a realist. He was in the midst of negotiations with the Saracen (Muslim) King Saladin, over just who would rule in the Holy Land. Circumstances had conspired to bring him to the negotiation table. He, the mighty crusader, lay sick in his bed in the sweltering heat, worried about the war; worried about his health; and worried about the evil machinations of his brother John, who was even, at that moment, conniving to become King of England. Richard needed to return to Europe to defend his title and his claims there, but he did not know if his health would hold out; the infernal heat might just kill him first. Just as he pondered these things, and as the sweat continuously rolled off of his body in streams, emissaries from Saladin arrived. The messengers carried gifts and the concerns and best wishes of the Saracen King. Saladin had heard of Richard’s poor health, and he had sent pears, peaches… and ice, to sooth and comfort his enemy. Ice! These desert barbarians had ice!? I think there were two messages sent by Saladin that day. The first was that he was a chivalrous King, and that he respected and honored his enemy. History has recorded it that way. The second message was that (and we should take note) an industrious people; a people who can have iced drinks in the desert without power or machines, hundreds of miles from the mountains (the nearest source of ice); are not a people who will be easily defeated or enslaved.
If I had to pick just two statements that I hear the most often when people are telling me why they cannot or will not consider going off-grid, it would be these:
1.) I don’t think I could live without air-conditioning.
2.) I don’t think I could live without ice.
It is absolutely certain that people can, and have, lived without air-conditioning and ice, even in the hottest climates in the world, for thousands of years. Most of those millions of people did so having never once heard of air-conditioning or ice. It is not the lack of air-conditioning or ice that will be the downfall of many people in this modern consumer society (if those mainstays of “civilization” are lost); it is the unhealthy dependence on those things, and the utter ignorance of how to live without them, or to provide for them in alternate ways, that will be the downfall of many.
Again, when we study history, we find that the colonized mind has atrophied and become weakened and corrupted. The distilled genius and skills of thousands of years was virtually lost when machines and corporations began doing the work of feeding the people and providing for the needs and wants of society. The colonized mind, then, of the society as a whole and not just of the individual, has lost the knowledge and wisdom gained by the hard work and industry of previous generations.
Is the word “industry” a bad word? Unhappily, it has become one. The industrial revolution has fixed the word “industry” with a new definition. Its common, modern definition is “some business using machines and human capital to mass-produce products”. We may talk of the “automobile industry” or the “paper industry”. But is that even what the word industry means? In the Webster’s 1828 dictionary there was only one definition for the word “industry”. Let’s take a look at it:
IN’DUSTRY, n. [L. industria.] Habitual diligence in any employment, either bodily or mental; steady attention to business; assiduity; opposed to sloth and idleness. We are directed to take lessons of industry from the bee.
Words change meanings, do they not? Industry is not a bad word. The word has been stolen from us by despots and tyrants bent on profits and on colonizing the mind of the world.
Earlier generations succeeded by using their minds, wisdom, reason, logic, and INDUSTRY; and that is something we need to keep in mind.
I must emphasize once again (and I will never stop emphasizing it), that the first concept that is visualized when someone hears about, or begins to consider”, going off-grid, is that of alternative energy. The mind naturally begins to conceive of ways to attempt to live basically in the same manner (with some lifestyle changes) and with the same “conveniences”, but without being connected to the grid. I hope that I have made it clear that this type of thinking is a result of the mind falling into its natural predispositions and its years and years of societal and cultural training. In the area of cooling, refrigeration, etc., the mind automatically defaults to some concept of alternative energy like solar, wind, or a combination of the two – and with that power you would provide electricity for lights, freezers, refrigerators, and maybe even TV’s and game consoles. It is so difficult for the average person to conceive of a life without these things, that this type of thinking is really just a default. My constant harping on this issue is because we are not just talking about philosophy or some kind of “cultural” preference. This gets down to the basics of “Are we going to be able to afford and accomplish this change in life and living?” Because when you add the overwhelming cost of doing this type of thing (moving to alternative power) to the idea of buying land, building a house, building barns and out-buildings, planting gardens, buying equipment, purchasing tractors, etc., you can see why most people convince themselves that this is either not doable, or at the least it will take several generations to get it done. I tell most people I counsel with, “If you are like me, you cannot afford to go off-grid. Going off off-grid is your only real option.”
Basically, the philosophy that most people bring to moving off-grid, is the idea of moving to the Promised Land while taking Egypt with me. I say we move towards the Promised Land and leave Egypt behind us.
When I talk to people about moving off off-grid, the questions we normally get from folks run along these lines:
How do you keep food frozen?
What about air-conditioning?
What about keeping milk, eggs, and drinks cold?
How do you keep food from going bad in the heat?
It is important to note that not one of these things would have even been a question in the minds of our great-great-grandparents. Prior to the ready availability of cheap and easy grid power, none of these things were a problem or a concern. People lived generation after generation without even considering that it might be a good idea to freeze meat for years on end, or that you might want to drop the temperature 30 degrees during the day, or that somehow ketchup and mustard (which were invented as preserved food products) need to be kept a degree or two above freezing. It is an interesting and almost unknown fact that almost every kind of food we eat in our diet was first invented as a means of preserving a harvest (and this fact can be translated from almost any culture):
Ketchup – is a means of storing tomatoes.
Cheese, Sour Cream, Yogurt – are all a means of storing milk.
Jellies, Jams, Raisins, and Wine – are all a means of storing fruit.
Mayonnaise – is a means of storing eggs.
Ham, Bacon, Sausage – are a means of storing pork.
Jerky, Pemmican, and Broth – all a means of storing beef and other meats.
Pickles, Relish, Kraut, etc. – are all a means of storing vegetables.
The list is really endless. Almost any food you eat, or any food you order from a restaurant, exists because some Agrarians somewhere decided to make use of their brains and their wits to preserve the harvest. Every time you eat one of these foods, whether you know it or not, you are confessing that your ancestors created and lived a way of life that is far superior to the plastic, junk, virtual life that exists for most earthlings today. You are existing, cruising, on the fumes of a far superior culture – and maybe you don’t even know it.
We want to learn the old ways, not just because they are old, or because they are historical, but because they work and because they are sustainable. I do not mean “sustainable” in quite the way the modern eco-friendly folks do, though there is something to that as well. I mean “sustainable” in its literal meaning. We learn these ways because we will be able to continue in them even if the grid beast collapses and dies. We can continue in these ways without undue intercourse with a corrupt and dying world, and without being stained or harmed by too much dependence on what the world calls “necessities”. Again, it is all about dependence. As you will learn in this chapter, there really is no valid reason to keep food frozen to 0 degrees for long periods of time. Your great-grandma didn’t need a 48 inch fan or plasma TV screen, and neither do you. Your great-granddaddy didn’t need a perpetual 72 degrees in every room he entered and every minute of his life, and neither do you. The point is that we ought to get past that thinking, and when you do so, you will find that most of the costs of moving off-grid are eliminated when the myths and bulwarks in the mind are eliminated. If you realize that you can do the things you want to do with hard work, with industry, and with your own labor without paying $24,000 for an off-grid solar power system, then you will have just saved $24,000 and all you have to do now is learn to replace stuff with SKILL and KNOW-HOW.
As I have said before, when it comes to the biggest bulwarks in the mind – I would say that freezers and refrigerators are way up there, and since we have been talking here about these things, the question arises – how do you store the food you produce? Well first, I’ll tell you how the old-timers did it – the folks who first settled this land…
The Root Cellar
Root crops, and many other food products, were kept in a root cellar. The root cellar was usually the first project started and the first completed on the land, and for good reason. When folks first came into my area of Texas they were facing a sometimes harsh climate (especially during the heat of summer), and though there were oaks and other trees for building, the days could get downright difficult during the 104 degree sweltering summer days while the homestead was being built. So the first structure constructed was almost always a hand-dug root cellar. There is one, probably originally built in the 1930’s (before electrification), still existent up at the front of my property. These first excavations were basically wide trenches; the width depended on how it was to be used. If a young couple or young family planned on living in it while they were building a house, the trench may be as big as 4 to 5 feet wide. Sometimes the original hole was dug only 5 or 6 feet deep. So you can see it didn’t take long to build. These earliest “dug-outs” were really just rock-lined trenches that were covered with heavy branches and beams; then some of them would have been covered with 6 to 12 inches of dirt or sod. That was it. The family would live in there for awhile while the homestead was being started. Usually the next thing to go in would be the gardens and animal pens; and then, only after food production was up and running, the barn would be built. Food production and preservation came before the house. Imagine that. That is shocking for most people to comprehend, but because we idolize our comfort in ways our forefathers never did, we usually think of the house as the first and most important structure. But, if we knew better, the concept of building the house last would be shocking at all. Many of our ancestors got their wisdom from the source:
“Prepare thy work without, and make it fit for thyself in the field; and afterwards build thine house” (Prov. 24:27)
It is not shocking at all that modern man has managed to get it totally backwards.
So, after the fields, and the gardens were prepared, and after the outbuildings were complete, the house construction would begin. In our scenario, after the house became livable, the family would move into it and the “dug-out” would get a door and would become the first cool storage or root cellar. When the barns and the house were built, sometimes they would have a larger root cellar dug up underneath them, and here is where your quick foods and your condiments would be stored. Remember, ketchup and things like that were not foods that were originally designed to make french fries taste better. Ketchup was conceived as a way of storing tomatoes from the harvest. We have moved so far away from common-sense agrarianism that even many modern encyclopedias err in claiming that ketchup was created solely as a condiment, ignoring that it was designed to make use of the harvest and to preserve it for a long time.
As an illustrative aside, and to prove the point, here is a recipe for ketchup (or Catsup) from an 1801 cookbook:
1. Get the tomatoes quite ripe on a dry day, squeeze them with your hands till reduced to a pulp, then put half a pound of fine salt to one hundred tomatoes, and boil them for two hours.
2. Stir them to prevent burning.
3. While hot press them through a fine sieve, with a silver spoon till nought but the skin remains, then add a little mace, 3 nutmegs, allspice, cloves, cinnamon to taste.
4. Boil over a slow fire till quite thick, stir all the time.
5. Bottle when cold.
6. One hundred tomatoes will make four or five bottles and keep good for two or three years.”‘
Ketchup, as originally designed and when made for that purpose, will maintain quality at moderate temperatures for years, so the idea that you need to store condiments in a refrigerator is really a very new myth. While it is true that you don’t want to let Mayonnaise get really hot, it is a myth that it must stay refrigerated at 35 degrees in order to stay good. Mayonnaise was originally a product made from eggs and oil in order to store the egg crop at root cellar temperatures. Mayonnaise is perfectly fine at these moderate temperatures. If you were to take everything out of the average refrigerator that doesn’t need to be kept in there, as you looked into the cavernous emptiness of this industrial creature, you would be left with this strange and bizarre epiphany… that most Westerners keep and feed a money sucking refrigerator for a single primary purpose – so that they can have cold drinks and so they do not to have to walk a few feet (or lift up a hatch door) to a root cellar or other cold storage to get their condiments or leftovers.
Not long ago I saw a $2100 refrigerator in a store, and I’ll bet that it would cost every bit of $300 a year or more to power that monster with grid electricity. As I thought about this, I did some quick figuring. The price of most of these big, new refrigerators is figured into the price of a new home construction, or, they are bought using credit cards or store credit. This means that in its lifetime, with interest included and after all other things are taken into the equation, the owner of that refrigerator will likely pay close to $10,000 for a box in which to store cold drinks and cool mayonnaise, and for the ability not to have to walk to the root cellar. And the owners might even write me some day and tell me that separation and moving off-grid “takes too much time and money”, etc., or, “we just cannot afford it right now”. Listen, my whole cabin AND root cellar cost less than $10,000! The point is that the cost of doing things the way you are already doing them is WAY more than you can afford, and it is all because of some myths people have believed, and because of colonization in the mind. A root cellar, even a very simple one, is a much better idea, and it is more conducive to freedom and not slavery.
A root cellar is a glorified hole in the ground. It capitalizes on the fact that, only a few feet down, the ground stays a moderate temperature year around. When it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit here in Central Texas, it is generally in the 50’s down only 4 to 6 feet in the earth. When it is 4 degrees Fahrenheit in Iowa, it is still likely in the 50’s only a few feet underground.
Some of the folks I know started their root cellar experience with a small hole in the ground, maybe 3′ x 2′ and only a few feet deep. Condiments and things would be put into coolers and dropped into the hole in the ground; then the holes would be covered with a board and some hay bales, etc. for insulation. If ice were to be added, these coolers would keep milk cold for a week or more. One young couple I knew used this method to keep milk cold for a baby and a toddler for quite some time. As a simple and quick solution, it works great. I read a story about a family that dug a small root cellar (maybe 5′ x 5′) right under their kitchen. They put a trap door on it and they put some shelves on the wall and a ladder down into it. They were able to keep all their condiments and almost everything else they used to keep in their refrigerator in their mini root cellar and it worked just fine for them. So, in short, you do not need a refrigerator. I am not saying you cannot have one, or even that you should not have one. A refrigerator can be just fine as an intermediate step, or so long as you know that when you move off-grid you will have to power it somehow; and so long as you know that if the world “system” is interrupted, your refrigerator (no matter how it is powered) will likely be one of the first casualties. If you are not dependent on it, and it doesn’t stop you or slow you down, then there is no problem with having one. My point is that the prevailing myth is that you absolutely need it; but you do not need it.
What about freezers?
This is a question I received even when I was at Homestead Heritage, a large, conservative, agrarian community near Waco, Texas. Homestead Heritage is a religious community of like-minded Agrarians who also run several homesteading schools and classes. I have been there several times to visit and to take classes in woodworking (woodworking without power tools). While the good folks at Homestead Heritage are Agrarian-minded; and while they produce much of what they eat; and while they have many very valuable old-world skills; most of them are still on-grid; so to them, I was a bit of a curiosity. When I told them that I have lived off-grid for many years, one of the first questions I received was “How do you run your freezer?”
It is a natural question. Agrarians like to store and preserve food, and freezing food is an easy way to preserve it; so the question is totally understandable. First I must confess that freezers are nice to have; but if you were to read the top agrarian or homesteading writers in the homesteading magazines, you would think that freezers were actually an absolute necessary fact of life. Open up almost any book on preserving food today, or go to almost any Internet website about preserving, and you will see copious instructions on how to prepare food properly for freezing. And I must admit, as an intermediate step, freezers can be very helpful if used for other than long-term storage. I like to use the freezer mainly for temporary meat storage (until it can be eaten or processed and put in the root cellar). One of the few mixed blessings about living where I live is that it often doesn’t stay cold for long, even in winter. So, while it may be freezing temperatures when we start butchering a pig or a goat, it may very well be 60 degrees by later that afternoon. We cannot do what so many northerners are able to do. We cannot just leave the meat out to age for a few days or a week, because the meat would not last very long. So for us, the freezer is a great way to keep the meat chilled until we can get it processed. And when you talk about bulwarks or road-blocks in the mind, here is where I have to face facts just like everyone else. I do like steak… and pork chops too. I don’t eat them very often. Like my ancestors, we generally get fresh meat during the late fall and winter only. But I really, really like grilled meat. I really have had trouble imagining giving up fresh meat every once in awhile, especially when I have a bunch of cattle and pigs on the hoof, and since a nice ribeye steak doesn’t cost me anywhere near what it would cost in the store. Up north, winter is the good meat-eating time (for meat eaters, of course). Northerners can hang a side of beef in the barn and cut it up and use it at their own pace; but down here we have to design and plan for the ability to keep and store meat without freezers. Freezers are just an intermediate step, and they can be helpful. Are they necessary? Well… no, they are not.
Canned meat can be stored in the root cellar, and when a cold-smokehouse is built, meat can be smoked and cured for long-term storage. Some folks who are new to the concept of “canning” are often confused by what we mean by the term. “Canning” usually means to preserve a food product in glass jars by means of pressure canning or water-bath methods.
Meat can also be “potted” – where it is cooked and then stacked in a large ceramic crock. Each layer of meat is then covered with its own grease or lard until the whole crock is full. Meat preserved this way, and kept fairly cool, can last for months and months. Meat can also be dried and then re-hydrated for consumption. Some of the old folks would cut beef or venison into strips and dry-smoke it, then hang it until it was bone dry. It could then be dry stored until it was needed. The night before it was to be used, it would be soaked in water until it had totally re-hydrated, then it could be cooked and used like normal fresh meat.
Lewis and Clark, and most of the inland explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries survived on what is called “pemmican”, a native food that combines dried ground meat, fat (or grease) and dried and ground fruit or berries. Here is a short Wikipedia explanation of pemmican:
“Traditionally pemmican was prepared from the lean meat of large game such as buffalo, elk, or deer. The meat was cut in thin slices and dried over a slow fire, or in the hot sun until it was hard and brittle. Then it was pounded into very small pieces, almost powder-like in consistency, using stones. The pounded meat was mixed with melted fat with a ratio of approximately 50% pounded meat and 50% melted fat. In some cases, dried fruits such as Saskatoon berries, cranberries, blueberries, or choke cherries were pounded into powder and then added to the meat/fat mixture. The resulting mixture was then packed into “green” rawhide pouches for storage.” (Wikipedia)
For my family, for now, most of our meat preservation comes by way of canning. I want to stop here and make a comment about canned meat. I will engage in a longer conversation about the sustainability of canning later on in the book, but for right now I want to deal with the issue of canned meat. I have heard many ignorant persons (people who have never tried it) make sarcastic and negative comments about canned meat. I can tell you from my own experience, as a meat lover, and as someone who eats canned meat several times a weak, that canned meat is very, very good. If you like beef stews with big huge chunks of steak in it, then canned meat is for you. If you like beef stroganoff, or pork and rice, etc., then you will really like canned meat. The first canned meat I ever had that didn’t come from a store was when I stayed with some folks up north and they made some venison stew. The lady of the house went into the storage pantry and came out with some quart jars of venison, and some jars of tomatoes and other vegetables. Not thirty minutes later, we were being served some warm, incredible smelling stew. And it tasted exactly like beef stew. It was tender and delicious. I went home and told my wife and now these types of stews are a regular on our menu at home. My favorite regular meal right now is pork and rice from our canned pork. I don’t know why so many people have such a mental block about canned meat. It is easy and it preserves very well. We have been living off-grid for many years now, and as time goes by, we are learning about more and more ways to effectively can meat – – even hamburger and ground sausage, sausage patties, and bacon. Our “standard” breakfast around here consists of fried bacon that my wife has fried and then canned, with fresh eggs, fried potatoes, and tortillas or biscuits.
Canning itself is somewhat of an intermediate step for us. As we head even further off the grid, we intend to move more towards curing, cold-smoking, drying, and potting of meats – but for now we are canning most of our meat.
For thousands of years, cultures throughout the temperate zones have engaged in the seasonal harvesting of ice and snow. When one thinks about it, it makes perfect sense. It is only the entropy of our minds and of our creativity that keeps us from seeing the obvious. The Persians, the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Chinese – basically every advanced culture – engaged in the yearly harvest of “cold” for use in food preservation. Frozen ice would be mined from mountains, or harvested from frozen lakes or ponds, then stored in cellars, caves, and dugouts. The harvested snow or ice would be packed in, or covered with, insulative material like wool, sand, skins, fat, dirt, or sawdust. Later, when the weather turned warm and the ice was needed, it would be uncovered and used.
The Persians were the ancient masters of year-round cold storage, even in the desert. Four-hundred years before Christ, the Persians had perfected ice and cold storage by building structures called yakhchals. Persian engineers built large domed buildings throughout the country (even in the deserts) over subterranean basements or pits. The thick walls of the domes (sometimes 6 feet thick at the base) and other brilliant engineering concepts, kept the buildings cool, and funneled all hot air out through holes near the tops of the domes. Ice would be harvested from nearby mountains during the winter, and used to fill the yakhchals before the hot weather made it impossible to transport the ice very far. During the summer, the ice was used to preserve food, to provide cool drinks for the wealthy or for royalty, and even to make a type of ice cream.
This basic process – harvesting snow and ice during the winter for storage throughout the warmer seasons – has gone on for centuries all over the world. It was a basic, logical, and unquestioned practice in just about every culture north and south of the tropics. In America, particularly in the South, you will find the relics of this ancient process in the ever-present antique “icehouses” in small towns and big cities all over the land. In my home state of Texas, the term “icehouse”, even today, is slang for a beer house or a beer hall, because beer used to be stored in the old icehouses before industrialism and electrification brought the advent of the personal electric freezer and refrigerator. The public icehouses of Texas were in use all the way into the 20th Century, and many of them still stand today. Probably hundreds more are still in existence on private farms and homesteads throughout the South. The point is that people lived for thousands of years, for centuries on this continent, without electrification and without modern air-conditioning, freezers, or air-conditioners.
Here is a quick snippet from Wikipedia on ice and ice storage, with some interesting tidbits of history for discussion:
“In 1790, only the elite had ice for their guests. It was harvested locally in winter and stored through summers in a covered well. Ice production was very labor intensive as it was performed entirely with hand axes and saws, and cost hundreds of dollars a ton. By 1830, though, ice was being used to preserve food and by the middle 1830s it had become a commodity. In the 1840s, it began to be used in the production of beer, and by 1850 it was used in urban retail centers. In 1861 the icebox was developed, and by 1865 two homes out of three in Boston had ice delivered every day.” (Wikipedia)
I disagree that only the “elite” had ice in 1790, since we have already established that Wikipedia has (and most modern historians have) a bias against the fact that most of the people in 1790 were middle-class (not “elite” or rich), landed, and surprisingly comfortable. While it is true that ice harvesting on a massive scale was very expensive, and the very wealthy did have the ability to use servant labor to store up large quantities of ice; small-scale harvesting for a single household had only the cost of personal labor, and it was quite common for the “regular folk” to harvest some ice to be stored for summer use and for food preservation. Almost every homestead had root cellars for food preservation, and many of these homesteads harvested ice from their own ponds (and snow from the ground) and stored it in well insulated holes dug deeply into the ground in a corner of the root cellar, or alternatively, in old or unused covered wells. By the mid 1800’s personal icehouses existed throughout the country, for people from every economic level, and ice and snow harvest was a regularly scheduled event in the lives of homesteaders and farmers.
Let me say, before I get too deep into the topic of icehouses, I do not mean to allow ice to remain as a crutch for weak minded people. Humans are perfectly able to live good and productive lives without ice. It is not my purpose at all to infer that ice is a necessary element of life. Many billions of people have lived their lives in the tropical zones (and elsewhere) and they have never even had a concept or mental image of frozen water. We often become weakened by what we become used to, and we need to recognize that some of the crippling comforts of life may someday be lost to us for a period of time (or perhaps forever) if there is ever a drastic and permanent change in the reality we experience in this world. If you were to be kidnapped off of the streets of London (as many were) as a young child in the late 1700’s, and sent to the tropics as a slave or a prisoner to work in the cane fields, then it is very likely that you would have had your last experience with frozen water. That is just the way things go (and have gone), and it is only the lazy, mentally and spiritually retarded, colonized minds of modernists today that causes them to hysterically pronounce (like Scarlett O’Hara or some coddled princess) that if they do not have cold drinks they will surely die. You can live without ice or air-conditioning, and if things go really badly in the next few years or decades, you will very likely have to.
What I am teaching in this book, and in this chapter, are not details about how to do things. I am not providing a blueprint for how you should live your life or what you should do to avoid pain and discomfort in this life. From the very beginning I have beet talking about decolonizing the mind, and how to think differently. The point is that many of the ideas and concepts I am mentioning in this book were second nature to humans for thousands of years. We’ve been hoodwinked by a society that wants to keep us comfortable so that we will keep consuming and keep feeding the machine with our lives. It would be wrong of me, then, to merely give you a formula on how to stay comfortable when the system around you fails. Instead, I am hoping to teach people how to think, so that they can live a life of survival and preparedness in their own generation, and then hand those skills and that knowledge down to the generations that are to come. If we learn to think properly, then new and unexpected problems won’t cause us undue stress or pain. When the mind is decolonized, it begins to work more naturally and more in tune with reality, rather than being in tune with the virtual reality that is today’s world. It helps in our decolonization to recognize a very painful fact: The solutions I am describing ought to be absolutely obvious and logical to the reasonable mind. That we have not thought these thoughts before now merely exposes how unreasonable our world has become.
For our purposes, I have revised and adapted a common saying:
Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime… but he’ll get tired of fish. Teach a man to THINK, and he’ll not only eat well, he’ll prosper (Michael Bunker)
When I was a young, dumb, college student, I traveled around Texas quite a bit. A long time favorite experience for college guys was to stop in to the “icehouse”, which, as I have said, is a Texas name for “beer hall”. Out of curiosity (and as a history buff) I began looking into the history of these icehouses, and I was very surprised and fascinated with what I found out. As I have mentioned, it has long been the practice of almost every culture in the temperate climates to harvest ice and/or snow in the winter, and store it throughout the warmer months. In the northern states (and even in some of the northernmost of the southern states), ice would be harvested from ponds or lakes, and stored in large icehouses. But in many areas of Texas the ponds or lakes do not freeze hard enough, often enough, or deep enough to produce very much ice. So the very industrious people of the area would get ice a few different ways. In some cases they would make their own ice during the winter. Even here in Central Texas it can get quite cold in the winter. Only a year or two ago it got down to eight degrees Fahrenheit one morning here at our cabin, and there were many, many days during that winter where the temperature was in the teens and twenties Fahrenheit. That is plenty cold enough to make a whole lot of ice if you are prepared for it, and if you diligently pour water into pre-fabricated forms made for the purpose. But that wasn’t the only way to get ice. A very nice form of trade developed between a Texas and some neighboring states and territories in more northern regions. Ice would be shipped down in wagons (and eventually by train) in large quantities and it would be stored in the well-built icehouses. Not long after Texas won her Independence, all the way up until rural electrification almost 100 years later, ice was a regular commodity in almost every town and city in Texas.
There is nothing that is un-agrarian about trade or buying or selling ice. In fact, ice is nothing more than another crop that can be harvested for the benefit of people. The point is that the clear and decolonized mind has to be engaged in seeing weather (in this case ice) as a benefit. We, who live by God’s grace off of the worldly grid, see weather (ice and water) as a harvestable crop. There is no doubt that people who are living in the tropics or subtropical areas are probably not going to be able to use these ideas, but for most of my readers (probably over 95% of them) there is a way to make, procure, store, and use ice. It is only necessary that we get creative enough to harvest what God provides.
In fact, for most of you who will read this, you already have virtually everything you need to provide ice for yourself and your family without electricity, refrigerators, or freezers. If you live in an area with significant snowfall, or with ponds or lakes that freeze over sufficiently, all you need to do is study and research how to build a good-sized and well-built icehouse. Then you need to put aside some time in the winter to harvest God’s increase, just as you would harvest hay, wheat, or corn.
An icehouse is simply a well-insulated building, usually constructed at least partly underground, that is designed to store large quantities of ice with the least amount of melting or heat transfer. Generally, a good icehouse will be a building within a larger building, creating a structure with very thick insulated walls. The icehouse I have been studying for our own homestead would be partially in the ground (about 4 to 5 feet), built into a slight grade or a hill. The outer structure would be made of thick, slip-formed, stone walls, basically like a large smokehouse. Inside the structure, a second “building” would be built, allowing for at least two feet of space between the outer walls and the inner walls. That space will be filled with an insulation material (in the past sand, hay, cotton, wool, or sawdust was used). At the top, air venting is provided to allow the heat to easily exit the structure. And here is where it gets interesting…
Now, even in the best insulated building, you are going to have some ice melt in the summer. This melt water has to be removed, because water will cause the remaining ice to melt faster. The melting ice is not a disaster though, in fact, it is necessary and a great bonus! The floor of the actual icehouse is designed to allow water (cold ice melt) to run off through gravel into a drain pipe. That pipe runs into a “spring house”, which is another, smaller, nearby, insulated building. The cool water runs through the pipe (which is underground) down into a trough in the spring house. It fills the trough with very cold water, and things like milk, cheese, and other cold-storage items that keep well with refrigeration, are stored in the cool water. This icehouse, if it is well insulated enough, will keep at a very cool temperature, even in the summer, so it becomes the “refrigerator”, where meats and other items can be stored. So the two structures together; the icehouse and the spring house; become a single unit designed for assisting in food preservation and storage.
The construction and usage of the icehouse and the spring house is quite simple. The real tricky part (especially in our environment) will be making and storing enough ice during the winter to last through the warmer months. This is where the “process” is important, and for us this process will likely require some intermediate means, and a lot of testing. We do have freezers right now, so we can make ice provided we have enough good, clean, water; but making ice in this way is very slow and inefficient. Our freezers do not run for long enough to make very much ice at all. Because of this, I am also considering buying a used industrial ice machine. This machine could be used with our current off-grid system (utilizing solar power and the occasional generator), and, in a short amount of time, an ice house could be filled up with ice. Having a high-speed, high-capacity ice machine could give us time to test different ways to make and store our own ice without power. It could be a good “intermediate step” for us. One of the things we will be testing is block ice forms, as we try to see how much ice we can freeze at what different temperatures. I am considering getting some different sized forms made out of stainless steel, and then testing at different temperatures and for different lengths of time to see what would work.
What we learn from this process is more than how to make and keep ice. We learn how to think like our ancestors thought. Ask yourself, what would Great-Granddad do?
Home Cooling and Air-Conditioning
As I mentioned, staying cool and somewhat comfortable in the old days had more to do with intelligence, common sense, and building design than it did using brute force with electricity and machines. Modern air-conditioning is a “brute force” form of solving a problem. It is saying, “I don’t want to think about nature, geography, and how things work in the real world. I just want to be cool… RIGHT NOW!” So the brute force of energy, money, and machines are brought to bear to temporarily cool what naturally ought to be a hot space in the summer. Yet in nature, there are naturally cool spaces and naturally warm spaces. There are areas that receive more wind and cooler breezes; and there are areas that are naturally stagnant and sometimes oppressive. Animals have learned how to seek out shade and naturally cooler areas, in order to stay more comfortable. In this section I am going to be discussing some general cooling principles, but since most of the off off-grid cooling concepts are going to involve building techniques, I will discuss this issue further in the chapter on Building.
On our land here in Central Texas, there are different areas with sometimes radically different atmospheres. When I first built my cabin, I knew nothing about any of these concepts I am discussing. I looked at a spot I thought would be geographically handy for a cabin, and I built a cabin there. I spent no time scouting, testing, examining, or experiencing the location. I did not wait for seasons and weather changes to see how things changed throughout the year. I wanted a cabin, and I wanted it where I wanted it, so I built it. The following comedy of errors is added for your enjoyment and also for your education. Laugh away, but learn from my mistakes, because I can tell you that I learned more from my building mistakes than almost anything else I have done since moving off-grid. The one thing I did do correctly, is that I oriented the cabin north-south, which is probably the proper orientation for the location. Almost every single other thing I did was wrong; so let’s get to the comedy:
I built our sleeping quarters into the south end of the cabin, which is fine for winter, but which is not really good for the 7-8 months of the year when it is warm, considering the other mistakes I made. Then I put our screened porch on the north side of the building, meaning that since our prevailing winds are from the south and west, we would only rarely get a breeze on the front porch. Then I made sure not to put any south facing windows on the cabin, meaning that we would almost never get a breeze in our sleeping area. To make sure I couldn’t easily fix this mistake later, I built a storage shed and a huge water catchment system that would block any winds even if I did happen to have a south facing window… which I don’t. The only windows I put in the cabin, were two very small (2’ x 3’) windows, one on the east and one on the west side of the cabin. Then I put these tiny windows about 3 feet off the ground, insuring that any slight breeze that did accidentally sneak into the cabin would pass harmlessly a foot or so above anyone who happened to be lying in bed. But wait… I’m not done… I put a large sloping shed roof on the cabin (which was actually a good idea), with the slope going from 10 foot high on the north side, to 8 foot high on the south side. But then I closed in the roof and ceiling, not allowing any of the hot air that “stacks” up near the roof to flow outside, even though it would naturally want to flow out, provided there was a vent or a window up there… which there is not. Then, I painted the whole thing barn red, which is a very, very dark color, because I liked the barn red color of northern farms. What I didn’t consider, is that a dark color is probably not a good idea when you live in Central Texas and you have hot, warm, or temperate weather for 8 months out of the year. Aren’t I a genius?
But I did learn from my mistakes, and so can you. Had I followed my own advice and built a large root cellar first, I would have stayed nice and cool that first couple of years while I was building our farm and gardens. I would have had time to walk the land and experience the seasons and the changes. I would have learned about the prevailing winds, the water flow, erosion, etc. You can learn a lot about your land by going and experiencing it during different seasons, different times of the day, and different situations. This is one reason I suggest people consider temporary housing (a tent, camper, small cabin, or root cellar) when they first move to their land. I will discuss this all more when we get to the Building chapter, but take the time to experience your land in every season and every type of weather. Then you will just know where you ought to put your home, and just how you ought to build it.
There are many ways to build with cooling in mind, and I will discuss them in greater detail in the chapter on Building, but let it suffice for now to say that there are things that everyone should just naturally know. You should naturally know that it is cooler (sometimes 10-20 degrees cooler) in the trees than it is out in the open. In addition to providing shade, trees breathe and transpire water which makes it feel a lot cooler in the midst of them. Had I located my cabin 50 feet to the south of where it is today, It would likely stay 10-15 degrees cooler inside during the hottest days! You should also naturally know that it is cooler underground than it is on the surface; and it is also often cooler 12 to 15 feet above the ground (because of breezes), than it is on the surface. Breezes and wind pass more readily through a long thin structure than they do a large square one. Taking all of these facts into account, a one-story square box on the ground level, built out in the open and away from the trees, is likely to be the hottest and most difficult to cool structure you could possibly build. And guess what? That is generally what homesteaders end up building, because that is what they know.
When you think of cooling your structure, think of these things:
1.) Having your home built completely or partially underground can solve a lot of your cooling problems. Underground, banked earth, or combination buildings keep much cooler and are more temperature steady than other types of structures.
2.) Build your structure in the trees, if you can. Also consider planting fast growing trees around it as soon as you possibly are able.
3.) Build for a breeze. Learn where your prevailing winds come from and how they travel on your plot of land. Then build your building to make the best use of the most prevalent winds. Build yourself a large, screened, porch and make sure that porch will catch a breeze. Also, consider building your structure either a) tall, in order to be able to catch a breeze when you are upstairs, or b) narrow, like a “shotgun house”, so that wind is funneled through the house like a wind tunnel (More on shotgun houses in the Building chapter).
4.) Watch the sun, and see how it is going to affect your building. Build so that you reflect as much of the sun as possible, except in the winter. Try to use smart building concepts so that the sun doesn’t overly heat up your building during the hot months. This is where study and research will pay big dividends. By the time you begin to build, you should know exactly where the sun is at any time, during any season of the year.
As I mentioned in the early chapters, the Romans had air-conditioning back in the 4th and 5th centuries. Many of the wealthy citizens were able to pay to have cool mountain water diverted from the city’s aqueducts and piped through their houses where it was used in a variety of ways to cool the stone structures.
Another method that the Romans utilized to cool their homes was by installing underground air pipes to create actual air-conditioning. Hundreds of feet of ceramic pipe would be laid several feet underground with the far end coming up out of the ground as an air intake. The temperature of the ground at that depth would likely have been around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which would often be 40 or more degrees cooler than the ground level air during the summer. The air would be piped into the house with an air vent placed at the lowest level of the interior of the house. At the top of the home, a convection chimney would be built and painted a dark color. As the air in the convection chimney heated up, it would rise, pulling air from the house, and sucking air in from the air register and from the hundreds of feet of underground pipe. This air would enter the house at a fairly strong speed, with temperatures, as we have said, up to 40 degrees cooler than the ambient air. You talk about air-conditioning! This was a cool way to cool a home.
It has been hundreds of years since people have actually, on any large scale, tried to build using these methods, so some trial and error will be necessary. The point is, it is possible, and it is important for us to consider these things.
On a recent trip down south of here to Fredericksburg, Texas, we had the wonderful opportunity to tour around the area. Fredericksburg is an old German colony founded in the 1840’s in South Central Texas. Some of the “old European” building styles can still be experienced in and around this wonderful village. At an old homestead in Fredericksburg, we were led from an ground-level kitchen, into a partially underground basement or root cellar. We were told that this small room was the “brewing room”. Outside, on that hot August day, it was nearly 100 degrees. The brewing room was built about 5 feet underground and extended about 2 to 3 feet up above the ground where windows near the roof allowed any warm air to flow straight out. The walls of the structure were mainly made of stone, and were about 2 feet thick. The temperature in t brewing room was a very pleasant mid-70’s. It actually felt air-conditioned in that wonderful room. The Germans used it as a brewing room because German ales could be brewed, fermented, and stored in the room year ‘round.
Back to the South
In my studies I learned that many of the Old South plantations were built with natural cooling in mind. If you watch any of the old movies of the Old South, you’ll notice that most of the plantation houses had a similar building design. The bottom floor had very high ceilings, and usually there were at least one or two underground root cellars or basements built beneath the first floor. The high ceilings allowed the heat to rise and high windows that went nearly to the ceiling would allow this heat to pass out instead of “stacking” into the room. The bottom floors generally included a very open floor plan, with lots of windows and very thick walls. This kept the bottom floor much cooler than the outside air. The second floor of these plantation houses generally started more than 12 feet up in the air. According to my research, there is almost always a minimum wind speed of 5 to 7 miles per hour at 12 feet above ground level, meaning that there was a near constant breeze for the second floor. All of the bedrooms were placed upstairs for this reason, and there were large balconies with French doors and large windows that would allow for this constant breeze. During particularly stifling heat spells, the Southern folk would sleep out on the balcony so that they could catch the breeze. As a bonus, the high second story was also usually above the “bug line”, so most flying bugs (like mosquitoes) wouldn’t find their way up there.
Now, earlier in the book I asked the question: In those pictures of the Old South, why did the people generally wear heavy clothing, and why did they seem cool and collected, even during the heat of the summer?
Because they knew how to keep cool!
All of this is to prove to you that we don’t need to invest money, time, and effort into addictive, corrupting, industrial cooling systems. The more we use our brains, wisdom, and a good knowledge of history, the more money we save and the better will be our choices. As I’ve said several times before, you probably cannot afford to go off-grid when it comes to food preservation, air-conditioning, etc., but you can afford to go off off-grid.
Other Appliances and Tools
A short word about electrical appliances and tools. Much of what I have to say has been covered earlier in the chapter on going off-grid, and much more will be covered in the chapter on Building. But since I am concluding the couple of chapters on electricity (and how not to use it), I want to say a few things about “other” appliances and power tools.
Many years ago we bought some battery-powered 18 Volt power tools when we were building our barn at our old on-grid homestead. I had a choice between buying some really nice and expensive cordless power tools, or some really cheap ones. I decided to buy the cheap ones and figured if they got me through that one project, they would have been worth the price. Four years later we were still using them. The original set came with a drill, a flashlight, a hand vacuum, and a circular saw. We bought a second set of batteries a few years after the original purchase. A couple of years ago, while working on our root cellar project, I was irritated that the batteries weren’t lasting very well, and we had so many things going on that I needed to have another set of batteries on hand charging, so I went to town to buy another set of batteries and a second charger. It was going to cost $59.99 for the batteries and charger; but then I discovered I could get a whole second set of tools with batteries and charger for $99.00. I bought the whole second set. This allowed us to have a second set of tools, so we could have more people working at once. This gave us a second flashlight too. Later I bought a car charger so I can charge the batteries in my truck whenever I go to town. This allows me to charge batteries (for the most part) using power I am already paying to produce. Since I purchased my first set of these tools, they have created dozens of other tools and accessories that will run off of these same 18V batteries. We use our 18V flashlights every night and every morning since we are up before the sun. We milk the cow by these lights as well. The point is that, as an intermediate step, some cordless, rechargeable, power tools can be a good investment. But…
Once again we must apply our philosophy to the use of intermediate means. What will happen if the system crashes and soon I am unable to charge or use these cordless tools? They will become useless to me. So here is what I do: Every time I use one of these tools, I deliberately stop and ask myself. How will I do this task or chore if and when I don’t have access to this tool? Then I ruminate on it and force myself to remember what solutions I come up with. Later on, when I am in a flea market, an antique or junk shop, or at a garage sale, I look for “old-timey” tools (like hand drills, hand saws, planes, etc.) that will allow me to continue working and growing even after I am unable to use power tools. But, it is not enough to own some old tools. We need to know how to properly use them. For this reason, I have taken several courses at Homestead Heritage in Waco, Texas, in order to learn how to work using non-electric hand tools. And, I have to tell you, what I have learned there has been well worth the money. There are likely similar schools and classes near you, or maybe you can contact an old-timer who still builds furniture or cabinets in this way who will teach you. There are many ways you can begin to learn and practice these old skills and I do suggest that you begin immediately. It will likely be too late to acquire and learn to use these tools after an emergency has made them necessary.
We also use a few electrical appliances or tools in the kitchen. We have a few blenders, an electric juicer, a coffee grinder, etc. that currently we operate using our off-grid power. Our process, in mitigating our risk when it comes to kitchen appliances and tools, is the same as the one that I used with other tools. Every time we do something, we ask, “How will we do this without power?” Then we set out to procure both the tools and the know-how to be able to continue our work without electrical or other type of power. We now have an old hand powered coffee-grinder, a large butter-churn, a cheese press, and a hand-operated food processor. We have all kinds of other “antique” hand tools for the kitchen, and we are looking into buying some fruit processing equipment (peelers, juicers, presses, etc.).
This process can seem overwhelming at first until you stop and figure that all of the hand tools we have purchased, all of them put together, cost less than a new refrigerator, a dishwasher, or a new electric stove. And we will never have to pay for electricity to power these hand tools.
My friend Herrick Kimball said recently, “SIMPLE, people-powered machines are best”. Most of them do not break down, and will work dependably for years with only some cleaning and a spot of oil now and then.
Looking towards the old paths is not a melancholy dream, or some fantastical wish for a mythical bygone paradise. We don’t look to the past as if it was the perfect, idyllic, pastoral utopia. We know it wasn’t perfect. We look to the past for a few great reasons: Because the Bible tells us to (Jer. 6:16); because there is wisdom and reason in learning these old and valued skills; and because the way the world has chosen, though it seems to be right for a time, has wrought nothing but damage, destruction, intellectual and spiritual entropy, and mental colonization. The product of the modern way of doing things is spiritual emptiness and sadness, and creates a crazed urge to fill the void with consumption and “stuff”.
May we all start looking backwards with hope and joy. Our political mottos might be: Building A Bridge To The Past, or, Agrarianism: Change We Can Believe In… Because it Worked Before.
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