Clay pot irrigation

Carol and I are experimenting with low-water irrigation systems for the garden. I’ve been using porous hose irrigation for years, purchasing porous hose made from recycled rubber tires, and burying the hose a few unches under the surface of the soil. David Bainbridge’s book Gardening with Less Water: Low-Cost, Low-Tech Techniques shows other highly efficient irrigation systems, including buried clay pots.

A buried clay pot is about as simple as an irrigation system can get: take a terracotta pot, put a cork in the hole in the bottom, bury it almost all the way in the soil, fill with water, then cover with a terracotta saucer.

Filling the buried clay pot with water

In the photo above, we’ve buried a clay pot in the tire garden built by our congregation’s ecojustice class, and Carol is filling it with water. In the next photo, Carol is about to put a lid on the buried clay pot; you can see the cork down in the bottom of the pot.

Putting a lid on the buried clay pot

Bainbridge suggests placing buried clay pots about every 24-36 inches in a standard garden. So we figure that one buried clay pot is probably enough for one tire garden. It will be interesting to see how often we have to fill the clay pot.

In our garden at home, we’re planning to try a somewhat more complicated version of this system: a porous terracotta capsule, fed by a hose. Until we get that to work, here’s a photo of the tire garden with the buried clay pot in the middle, and the squirrel-proof cage in place:

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Experiment in hugelkultur

Carol has decided to experiment with hugelkultur in the garden this year. A hugelkultur garden bed consists of decaying wood and other compostable material from plants. This technique is supposed to create more fertility in the soil, and improve water retention. Given the ongoing drought here in northern California, improved water retention alone makes this technique worth trying.

Rather than build up a mound of decaying material, as is typical with hugelkultur, Carol got me to make a raised garden bed; with the tiny amount of space we have for our garden, this seemed to make the most sense. We got some cheap boards from a lumberyard, I scrounged some scrap wood for the corners, and in about an hour we put together a bed 96 inches long and 25 inches wide. Then we put in some partially finished compost, along with twigs and small branches.

hugelkultur raised garden bed

In the photo above, we’ve put down a layer of partially finished compost; the two buckets behind the raised garden bed are more compost waiting to go in. Carol has started laying some twigs and branches on the compost. After this, she put down another layer of compost, and then added a layer of potting soil we purchased from the hardware store across the street.

Carol is also planning to set up a greywater system (she is something of an expert on the topic). We already collect greywater — we have to run about two and a half gallons of water before the water in the shower gets hot, so we collect this and use it for watering the garden. Given how bad the drought is, that wasn’t enough water, so she is looking at other easily accessible sources of greywater that we can use without annoying our very nice landlord.

If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see potatoes growing in the raised bed behind the new bed. Today they started wilting a little. The National Weather Service predicts “dry weather and above average temperatures are likely to persist into the first half of next week”; we’re going to have to start watering the garden now, right in the middle of the winter-wet season. This is global climate weirdness happening in front of our eyes; maybe hugelkultur is one small way to help restore some balance to an out-of-balance world.

another view of hugelkultur bed

Above: The bed with more twigs and branches, and more bins of partially finished compost ready to go on top (photo credit: Carol Steinfeld).

Bee nests

In the fall of 2014, the ecojustice class (gr. 6-8) at our congregation made “bee houses” to provide potential nesting sites for Mason Bees. We kept watch on the bee houses through spring of 2015, but neither I nor the teens observed any nesting activity. (Mason Bees are solitary, and do not nest in hives like the more familiar Western Honeybee.)

But when this year’s ecojustice class checked on the bee houses last Sunday, it looked like some of the holes are now or had recently been occupied by insects:

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Since Mason Bees use mud and soils to plug up their nesting holes, and these holes do not look like they have mud in them — the color of the plugs is not the color of any of the nearby soils — I’m not convinced that Mason Bees are nesting here. Nevertheless, some organism has definitely moved in to these holes; perhaps further observation will reveal what that organism might be.

A Black Universalist in the 1830s

One of the best things about being part of a typical UU congregation is that you get to hear other people’s stories. If you join a men’s group or women’s group, if you become a Sunday school teacher, if you simply open yourself to others during social hour, you will hear people’s stories: “When I first met my life partner…” someone will say; or, “When I was in eighth grade…”; or, “When I lived in Virginia….” So begin the little stories about someone else’s life.

No one is going to publish a big fat biography of an ordinary person’s life. Usually, the only time we get to hear the story of someone’s whole life is after they die, at their memorial service. Mostly we hear little pieces of other people’s lives; but if you listen long enough, over the course of years, you will hear enough to piece together — not a biography, but a sort of patchwork quilt of that person’s life.

We can also piece together something of the lives of ordinary people of the past: people who are not powerful, famous, male, white, and highly educated all at the same time. With such ordinary people, we mostly can know only pieces of their stories. But we can fill in the holes between the pieces with questions, and stitch it together, like a quilt, into a whole.

This, then, the story of Nathan Johnson, a Black Universalist who lived from 1795 to 1880.

About Nathan Johnson’s early life, we can only ask questions. Who were his parents? Was he born free, or did he emancipate himself from slavery? How did he learn to read? How did he get to the north? He was born about 1795, perhaps in Virginia; [1] or perhaps in Philadelphia, either enslaved or free. [2] The first real fact we know about Nathan Johnson’s life is in 1819, when he was in his twenties, he got married in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

New Bedford in that time was a city with a surprisingly enlightened racial outlook. The Quaker residents of the city had been helping enslaved persons run to freedom since at least the 1790s. [3] The city was a terminus for the Underground Railroad. And in New Bedford, a person of color could do quite well financially: by about 1800, one black man, Paul Cuffee, of African and Wampanoag descent, had amassed a small fortune through shipping and international trade. [4] Continue reading “A Black Universalist in the 1830s”

Who was A. B. Windom?

I’m trying to track down Aaron Bash Windom, a mid-twentieth century composer of gospel music from St. Louis. One of his better-known songs was “Let Us Sing Till the Pow’r of the Lord Come Down,” often known as “Now Let Us Sing.”

My best guess is that Windom was born in 1910, and died in 1981. The Catalog of Copyright Entries, Third Series, vol. 2, part 5A, number 1, Published Music, January-June 1948 (Washington, D.C.: Copyright Office, Library of Congress, 1948) reveals that his name is Aaron Bash Windom, that he was born in 1910, and that he was the sole owner of A. B. Windom Studio, St. Louis, Mo. The Find-a-Grave Web site has a photo of a grave stone of Aaron Bash Windom who died in March, 1981, at age 70; the grave stone is in Saint Peter’s Cemetery, Normandy, St. Louis County, Missouri.

Windom is mentioned in passing in Horace Clarence Boyer’s The Golden Age of Gospel ([University of Illinois Press, 1995], p. 138): “Two other S. Louis natives who were important figures in gospel between 1945 and 1955 were Martha Bass and A. B. Windom. … Windom, a one-time accompanist for Mother Smith, composed several gospel songs: her ‘I’m Bound for Canaan Land’ and ‘I’ve Got the River of Jordan To Cross” became gospel standards.'” Several other sources indicate that he taught piano; in a couple of places he is referred to as “Professor A. B. Windom,” though I don’t know if he was affiliated with a school or college, or if he, like many other music teachers, was accorded the honorary title lf “Professor” by his students and local community.

The gospel song “Let us sing till the pow’r of the Lord come down” was published in St. Louis, Mo., and is copyright 1948 by A. B. Windom Studio. If you look around online, you can find recordings of it by various musicians. Some online discographies seem to indicate that he made some recordings of his own music, but I can’t confirm that.

But I have no idea if he was white or black; if he played anything besides gospel music; to what extent he made his living as a performer, a teacher, and/or a composer. I cannot find him in the 1930 or the 1940 U.S. Census. Was he married? Did he have children?

If anyone out there knows anything about him, I’d love to hear.

Drama in the portable toilet

Several us went out to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area on Saturday to look for birds. We did see some fabulous birds, but the highlight of the trip for me was seeing a Black Widow spider capturing a wasp of some kind, and wrap it in spider silk, and slowly kill it. This all took place inside one of the portable toilets, just below the urinal. Had anybody seen several of us standing around and looking in the door of a portable toilet for five or ten minutes, I suppose they would have thought us odd. But it was a riveting drama, well worth watching.

Emily, who was with us, has posted a series of photos showing the whole process; my favorite of this series of photos is here.

I spent a little time trying to track down what kind of wasp the Black Widow was preying on. The best I could do was to say with certainty that this insect was in the order Hymenoptera; with somewhat less certainty, I’m willing to say the insect was in family Vespidae. But is it a paper wasp, a hornet, or a yellowjacket? I have neither the patience nor the expertise to answer that question.

The joy of accounting

While cleaning out my files, I found this essay on the joy of accounting, which I wrote in February, 2005, when we lived in Geneva, Illinois.

How do you give an account of your spirituality? Perhaps I’d start in the present day, and in the place I’m now living. I live in Geneva, Illinois, on what used to be either an oak savannah or a prairie (we are no longer sure exactly where the boundary between the two lay), about a five minute walk from the Fox River. The Fox River originates to the north of us and eventually empties into the Illinois River. Most of the land in Geneva is now dominated by housing developments and shopping malls.

My partner and I arrived in Geneva last August, having driven here from Oakland, California. The rental market in Geneva had slumped, and we were able to find an affordable apartment a ten minute walk from the church where I’m now serving, and a fifteen minute walk from the commuter rail station, where we can catch a train that leaves us, an hour and ten minutes later, in the Ogilvie Transportation Center in downtown Chicago.

We are sharing a car this year. My partner is a freelance writer who travels frequently, and she owns a car which she keeps on the east coast, where she still does much of her work. The car we have here in Geneva is now twelve years old, and we drive it only once or twice a week.

People live in their cars here in the Midwest. It is common to drive your car to drive half a block, rather than try to walk. This part of Illinois alternates between hot, humid summer and cold, bitter winter, with perhaps two weeks of pleasant weather in the spring, and again in the fall. It is easy to get into the habit of driving everywhere. As a result, roads are wide, buildings are set far apart, housing developments go on for miles, shopping malls seem endless. There is no particular reason to leave any prairie or oak savannah within Geneva when you can drive a short twenty or thirty minutes to a county park. Continue reading “The joy of accounting”