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The Fossil Fuel Free Garden

scythe

We use a scythe at our garden to save on fossil fuels and also because we love Halloween. Photo: Pot Noodle/flickr.

It’s the first season for our Transition group’s community garden, but already we’ve taken to calling it the Fossil Fuel Free Garden.

The tagline is an easy way for us to make the point that not only do we expect our fellow gardeners to stay organic (no chemicals, please) but that we have the additional requirement that no power tools be used at the garden.

This may sound unnecessarily fussy, but most of our gardeners just work their own plots, so any inconvenience falls only on the small team of us who mow the grass.

Now, you may ask why our garden still grows grass, America’s most common and most wasteful crop. After all, if people planted all the front lawns in the US with vegetables and fruits, it could help feed America’s hungry and save a lot of pollution. And we’d also save $27 billion each year on lawn care.

Well, as I said, this is the garden’s first season, and the property is too big for our small group to cover with edibles yet. Also, there are a couple of hilly slopes that might be good for berry bushes at some point. But to prevent erosion in the meantime, we’ve cleared the biggest brush so that grass may stabilize the hillsides without running afoul of the city’s weed and mowing ordinance.

So for now, we’ve got a lot of grass to mow. And we try to do that fossil fuel free too. That means we foreswear riding mowers and weed whackers in favor of hand tools — an old-school Great States 16-inch push reel mower and an even older-school European-style scythe from Lehman’s, purveyor of all sorts of non-electric and hand-powered tools for the garden and farm that I lust after.

Define “fossil-fuel free”

If you’re smart about energy, you’ll know that even if our garden is organic and the grass is mowed with old-timey hand tools, that it’s still not really fossil-fuel free.

Indeed, if you’re like the mostly brilliant and sometimes exasperating Dmitry Orlov, you might say that almost nothing today comes to us free of help from coal, oil and natural gas.

Knowing that I’m a solar energy developer, Dmitry informed me once that solar power is not much of an energy source. Because photovoltaic panels are made, distributed and even installed with the help of oil, solar energy is really just a way to stockpile petroleum for the future. And not a very efficient one at that.

scythe mowing

We use this scythe but we’re not as Zen about it as this woman who mows in bare feet as a kind of moving meditation. Photo: Lehman’s.

He argued that, rather than installing a bunch of PV, it would be more efficient to just store a few thousand barrels of crude on an oil tanker for future use. And I think he was only half kidding.

The whole world’s marinated in oil

It can be an entertaining party game to look at anything and ask, “Is there any oil in it?”

Try to identify any person, place or thing that wasn’t either:

  • Made with an ingredient derived from petroleum (either plastic or chemicals)
  • Built with mechanized equipment or
  • Shipped to its current destination by planes, trains or automobiles (not to mention diesel trucks) burning fuels refined from crude.

Pick anything or anybody in your city. Is he, she or it totally without oil?

When I look closely, it’s clear that the people and things connected with our community garden would fail a strict oil-free test.

Even our amusing hand tools wouldn’t pass. Sure, our scythe has a handle, or snath, hand carved by Mennonites in Canada. But we don’t live walking, biking or horseback-riding distance from those Mennonites. We don’t even live in Canada. So obviously, when we ordered it through the mail, the snath was shipped by truck to our house. The Austrian scythe blade, presumably not hand-carved but instead forged in a fossil-fuel powered factory, relied on even more oil in order to come to us.

Indeed, even as I pump up my biceps and work towards six-pack abs (I’m not quite there yet) by hefting the scythe through our grass, I have to admit that my own body is not fossil-fuel free either.

At home we rely more and more on the community garden, our farmers’ market and farmsteads out in the county, but we still do depend on some food from the industrial system, especially at restaurants. And all that food is produced, processed, packaged and shipped with oodles of crude. But even our local organic meat, dairy and produce relies on diesel farm equipment and gasoline delivery trucks.

We could carry this exercise even further — for example, to encompass the city street lights that shine on our garden at night, making the neighborhood safe, or the concrete sidewalks, made with lots of energy, that allow us to walk to the garden at all — but you get the idea.

Fossil-fuel freer than thou

So, our garden is not really fossil-fuel free.

Now, I believe in truth-in-advertising. But the Somewhat Less Fossil Fuel Dependent Garden just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

And though we’re not fossil fuel free now, and may not be for years to come, we’re setting the intention to garden without using more liquid fuels and electricity than we have to. And we want to have fun with it, so we can recruit others to the would-be fossil-free lifestyle.

Sustainability or resilience is not about achieving total ecological purity. In that case, I doubt that anyone in America or any other industrialized country would qualify. We all have some oil in us, even if we live in an off-grid eco-village.

If you have to wait to achieve 100% oil-free personal purity to take the lead in helping your community become more resilient, then you’d never do anything.

So, back in our Transition Town, we’re going to continue to refer to our community plots as the Fossil Fuel Free Garden.

But I’d like to leave you with a challenge –

If you have done better than us, we’d like to hear about it. Please, brag about how much your garden has kicked fossil fuels. This is one area where America and the world need more of a competitive spirit.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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