Whenever I venture off the mountain into the “real world”, I find myself awash in data but starved for interpretation. It’s confusing. There’s no recycling bin, yet the green pamphlet on the hotel nightstand hints I should avoid unnecessary water use by reusing my towels. Meanwhile I have just got in from a dip in one of three indoor pools. Dinner in a San Francisco restaurant features fresh, farm to table cooking, and I find myself paying an incredulous amount of money for a side of vegetables. Now, it isn’t that I mind picking up my towels or paying for vegetables, but I find that what is expected of me sustainably in the city, as opposed to the country, is vastly different. The word sustainable is used in a commonplace way; however, I don’t think many are able to comprehend the personpower it takes to facilitate ‘going green’ in every aspect of our lives. We refer to Milewide in different ways: the mountain, the country, the nursery, the ranch, up the hill, heaven in the spring, hell in the winter, and above all, a homestead. Milewide was built at its core with a sustainable system of solar panels and water tanks that I would like to review, as well the practices that we follow – which are much too habitual to be nostalgic about.
Overtime, as most things so naturally do, Milewide has inched its way into solar power. Ten years ago the first installation, consisting of a small series of panels, was meant to supply a simple greenhouse with air circulation fans and a little electricity. Today, our solar power is used for light, power, and to run our electronics in just about every structure on the ranch. I’m no solar authority, but I will give you my brief understanding of how it works. The solar panels absorb the sunrays, which is sourced into energy, stored in batteries, and then dispersed to our needs throughout the day. Sometimes, when a gloomy Humboldt fog sets in we take extra care to not drain our solar batteries by keeping energy usage to bare minimum. There is a learning curve to using the system, but getting it down soon becomes second nature. Once the solar is in place, things seem simpler. It’s not a ten-point plan to save the world from fossil fuels, but we do our best. Maybe you aren’t so certain about trading your washing machine for a five-gallon bucket, and who would be? We certainly have a standard washer and dryer, but more often than not, we put our laundry out on a line in the sun. Our hands are our dishwashers. When leaving a room, we turn off efficient CFLs. Firing up the indoor wood burning stove on chilly winter nights is ritual. And, in worst-case scenarios, we do have a back up diesel generator.
The second approach to getting sustainable necessities is the water tank. Ever wonder about the trail behind the water flowing out your faucet? If you’re in southern California, rest assured it is being pumped from a place very far, far away. Northern California luckily has a different water situation. Our main source of water is from a spring that goes into a large tank – we call it the Fifty – which then streams down the mountainside, to spout out of our hoses and faucets. The water crisis this year weighed heavy on the ranch, and priorities changed when the spring was drying up. This year a rainwater tank was brought in as a backup for the spring tank. Perhaps it came too late to make an impact this year, but it is better late than never. Hopefully, with the hoped for end of the drought and this winter’s estimated 40 inches or more of rain, we will be OK. I believe Steve is planning on installing the plumbing for the new rain tank himself, and I am interested in the filtration system when he merges the two tanks together. Milewide and all its plant life from the maples to our white oaks, and all the garden contingents alike, drink an incredible amount of water every year so it is necessary to use every resource we can.
Most of us who work on the ranch are conscious about the “trendy little green things” like reusing glass bottles, recycling our waste, and up-cycling old furniture. The single most important lesson I have learned working here are the wonders that steep in a compost bucket, and the importance it has on our crop cycles. The story of how this works is simple: Let’s say we harvest all of our artichokes, and maybe cherry-pick some peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, figs and basil for dinner, too. After the meal, some measly left over’s go into the compost, which I’ve been meaning to take out for days. The next morning, it’s time to clean up the artichoke beds. Soil is a funny thing because the chemical nutrients necessary to grow decent crops are removed with every planting. So, it is necessary to restore them. We do this by putting our compost back into the soil in a mulch ranch mix, as well as using a technique called ‘cover cropping.’ Fava beans are planted in the old bed as a cover crop; they grow quickly and will be cut down right as they flower, and then we compost the remains. The favas, adorable as the dickens, actually put some sweetness (Nitrogen nodules on their roots) back into the soil, so that the next crop will be able to have a substantially improved growing environment. So you see it’s difficult for the circle of sustainability to ever stop at Milewide since livelihood is so closely dependent on it.
If you aren’t living on a homestead, having your own rainwater collector probably isn’t in the cards for you. I’m sure solar panels are still feared by many on a Home Owners Association. Which is probably why the information about eco-friendly cleaning supplies, packaging, and locally sourced foods is so rampant. It suggests that the small act of kindness toward our planet by many, may in fact even beat out the large efforts of one (not that it’s a competition!). I believe the numbers indicate that as a world, we are making strides to reducing pollution, however we are still far away from sustaining ourselves as a human population. So, perhaps your 25% eco-friendly water bottle is 100% recyclable, you purchase overpriced WholeFoods “If You Care” saran wrap, you turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth, eat local foods, or go all out and invest in a hybrid. All of these things make up an incredible amount of energy and effort in reducing our dependence on nonrenewable resources. We’ll keep fighting the good fight, with more sustainable stories from our stint at the farmer’s market to a courageous attempt at refurbishing an old rocking chair, and we hope to hear yours too.