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The Synchronicity of Service

The first Ampersand apprenticeship is complete! So much has happened in these last six months and the apprenticeship has woven through everything. But there are a couple of things I really need to say.

First of all, Janus Herrera is a great role model for directing one’s own path of self-education.

If you want to learn more about living sustainably and gain more hands-on skills, there are programs out there. Classes, internships, programs you pay for- and with good reason. It takes a lot of time and effort to offer an educational program. I know, of course, because I’ve been doing this at Ampersand for some time.

But there is another valuable item of exchange not to be overlooked. It’s your own attention, dedication, and elbow grease. We would not have offered the apprenticeship at all without Janus’s request to get more involved in Ampersand. She offered her interest and some consistent help. She had already proved her responsibility and dedication during the time she spent in an Ampersand work-trade position during October of 2016, when she lived on site for three weeks. Because I knew she was the kind of person who would honor an agreement, communicate about her needs, and dive into whatever task was scheduled for the day, we created this apprenticeship opportunity. Her ability to pull off an amazing ensemble from the costume box for Halloween was duly noted.

Our main project over the winter was to erect a hoop house and outfit it as a propagation environment. We called it a Greenhouse Apprenticeship, and it culminated with our two Spring Fundraiser Plant Sales.

From November to May, our weekly work days progressed from getting the hoop house up, to making propagation tables, painting water tanks and installing gutters, planting and transplanting, and tending to the plants in the mature greywater greenhouse. We now have three different greenhouse spaces that have different ranges of temperatures and qualities of light. Turns out there is a lot we can learn from it all.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a plant person. After falling in and out of love with farming in my younger years, and settling for a life of rainwater supply, I’m surprised now to re-discover myself as a teacher in the realm of quantity plant production (quality goes without saying). I’ve been overjoyed as well as a bit overwhelmed. And so grateful for Janus’s dependable and intelligent help. Her participation has definitely been crucial to the success we have had with the plant sales.

Meanwhile, on other days of the week Janus was out following her path of self-education wherever it led her. She volunteered at the NM Organic Farming Conference. She attended a Veteran Farmers Project workshop, and volunteered with the Albuquerque Library Seed Savers group. She was also taking a welding course which she now helps instruct. Many Fridays Janus would show up at Ampersand full of information she had learned, wanting to talk about it. We all benefited from this dialogue and outside inspiration.

Janus has already had a career as a process engineer. She quit that job of security and surety of days spent indoors, wanting to be closer to the Earth. She has a drive to be in service, and that guides her life’s path. She needed a bit of free time, but not much money to navigate her own education in a world she discovered full of teachers and learning opportunities. An attitude of service and desire to connect opens many doors. When someone demonstrates a dedication to a project or place, they inevitably reap rewards. Relationship is everything.

Janus expressed her apprenticeship experience as being about relationship as well.

-A Day in the Life of an Ampersand Apprentice-

Four women outside

The greenhouse harvesting smiles

Cultured in a jar.

The haiku poem above was inspired by one of countless memorable experiences at Ampersand in the six months of my Apprenticeship there. On that Friday we worked together, Amanda, Grace, Ren, and I, emptying myceliated grain from Pleurotus Ostreatus into large tubs where the fungus will soon fruit with tender oyster mushrooms. Amanda expertly instructed us to layer the mycelia with growing medium of coffee grounds and recycled cardboard, alternating layers. We laughed riotously, eating chunks of the clumpy, nutritious harvest with our hands. I had watched the thread-like hyphae spread over several weeks inside their delicate ecosystem – a sterile mason jar that Andy had inoculated with liquid spores. Now checking on our progress, Andy invited us up the hill to view the mycelia under a microscope as he captured the images on his laptop. Did someone inform these beautiful people that I have been fascinated by the magical medicine of mycology for years? Adjusting the focus of the image, it appeared as though we were traveling deeper into the microscopic network; it was a complex, three-dimensional web. I was completely entranced. It is a wonderful challenge to try to distill the essence of Ampersand into a few sentences – I hope I have captured a snapshot of the delightful enrichment that Amanda and Andy were so generous to share with me!

The web-like growth of the mycelium in this passage describes the network of relationships that we must grow to create a resilient and regenerative world. The synchronicity that unfolds is not really too mysterious – it emerges from planting one’s care and offering one’s service. Thanks Janus for this reminder and blessings on your next adventure!

Written by Amanda Bramble

PS Look into our work-trade positions and our Volunteer Camp-Out Weekend June 2nd through 4th. www.ampersandproject.org

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Inspiration- The In Breath

“Did you have a vision for all this when you started?” I get this question a lot when people see Ampersand for the first time. How did we create all these structures and systems in 12 years? The answer has always been that I can only envision a few years ahead, like when this house, this cottage, or this shop will be finished and we can start using the space. My mind is very pragmatic that that can limit what I’m able to dream. But my overactive will and motivation has Ampersand constantly upgrading and adding onto the dreams and visions as the manifestation takes place.

Recently I’ve been experiencing a lull in motivation. I hear some people call this”taking a break.” Along with physical indications of growing older, I have found it both disturbing and refreshing. But Mother Earth models for us seasons of expansion and rest. All of creation breathes in and out in cycles and spirals of growth. I’ve been getting a lesson in breathing in, nourishing myself, and receiving.

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Breathing in and out. Inspiration and expiration. My latest inspiration has involved gazing upon fields and mountains all day by a stream, finding and eating wild foods from the forest, and discovering the creations of another dreamer who began long before I did.

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Enter Jerome Osentowski and Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI) in Basalt, Co. He led Andy and I on a tour of the permaculture site that he’s been cultivating for 40 years. This place is in a little crook in the mountain that gives him a warmer climate than the surrounding area. And he’s been further tinkering with the climate with his many greenhouses on site. At 8000 feet elevation, Jerome grows papayas and bananas and countless other fruits we grazed on as we walked through the forest gardens inside and out.

 

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My greenhouse home at Arcosanti 1997

Jerome’s site took me back to my time at Arcosanti when I was living in and managing a large experimental greenhouse. Now I realize that I lived with an early incarnation of what has been fully explored at CRMPI, the climate battery. It’s a way of capturing heat from the air at the top of the greenhouse and storing it in the soil of the greenhouse beds with the use of a fan and various sized tubing.

It’s interesting having been created in the 1970s myself. In the DIY low-tech sustainable lifestyle education work I do, I draw on so much that began in the 70’s- having studied with John and Nancy Todd and learned about the New Alchemy Institute, after hearing stories from passive solar inventor Steve Baer and others about the old days in Drop City and the other communes and projects in the Southwest where young scientific brains were exploring how to make the world sane again with energy right from the sun and adobe bricks right from the earth. And having lived at Arcosanti where there was an explosion of interest in creating a new way of living back when it began in 1970. Some of the folks who were part of that time and that surge of exploration have gone back to civilized society. Some have further refined their work and gone on to contribute amazing things toward humanity’s evolution into an integrated life with the ecosystems that surround us.

Jerome with the giant Pasture Puffball mushroom I found in the mountains

Jerome with the giant Pasture Puffball mushroom I found in the mountains

And here we are at Ampersand gleaning the knowledge we can from the past and using the materials and opportunities of the present.  We continue in the spirit of adventure for self-reliance and creating abundance and beauty with what the earth and our community provides, and what can be harvested from the ever present waste-stream. We recently received a donation of a High Tunnel greenhouse kit. That, along with the inspiration of the work of Jerome and others at CRMPI, has given me a whole new percolating vision.

I see an earth-bermed sauna built into the side of this large hoop house, with figs and pomegranates and a whole slew of other edibles cycling through the soil and our bodies. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I’m able to envision many years into the

Jerome's great book and my first design sketches for the latest inspiration

Jerome’s great book and my first design sketches for the latest inspiration

future for Ampersand and my life. I see myself stretching my active and cared for body under a large fig tree in the winter after a long sauna session.

I have a completely different climate and resources than Jerome and CRMPI and my new living environment will develop Ampersand-style, with rain catchment, careful water budgeting and following a natural succession of annuals to perennials, pots to planters. Many thanks to Jerome and others who began this sort of work when I was busy being born. I’m grateful to be a part of and inspired by this creative community who make me feel like I’m just getting started. What a gift!

But First… This weekend we embark upon our natural building extravaganza to erect an entry room and napnest for our earth bermed solar home. Join us! We are still accepting work-trade positions and hosting local folks to volunteer for a weekend or two.

Here’s to all of our dreams! I honor the experimentation of those in past and present, and the cycles that keep us breathing inspiration for our visions of the future.

Onward and beyond words!Colorado8.16 012_renamed_27329

Written by Amanda Bramble

Join us for a Water Systems Walk-Through at Ampersand: October 1st Saturday 3 to 5 with potluck after. It’s our only other organized event at Ampersand this fall.  But I will be presenting at the Master Gardener’s Conference as well as teaching at the Santa Fe Community College in the next few months.


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Tinkering for Hot Water

We love the sun! The way we appreciate this gift of nature is by harvesting it whenever we can. One way is by heating water.

We have three solar water heaters that we cobbled together from items at salvage yards, auto part stores, as well as manufactured solar collectors. One is made from a pigmat (I’ll explain below), one includes an imported Swiss panel with a selective surface (I’ll explain that too), and they all can heat water to scalding temperatures. Thankfully we have cold water too.

There will always be a special place in my heart for my first solar water heater, so I’ll start with that one.

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Way back when our bathroom was made of pallets wrapped with plastic!

My first was a batch heater, made in 2004, our first year on Ampersand’s property. At a salvage yard in Los Alamos, the much beloved Black Hole, I scored a tank. Ten gallons, black, no leaks. And I was glad to find an already constructed box to retrofit as the heater’s shell, because my carpentry skills at the time were minimal.

Some call this design a breadbox heater. The design is simple, much like a solar oven. A dark tank holds the water. The tank is housed in a box, with a window, tilted towards the south. The box is insulated. Simple, right?

A ten gallon tank was perfect size for us. We’re frugal with our water. And the smaller the tank, the less time for the sun to heat the water.

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Salvaged materials, whenever possible is one of our key design principles. A salvaged double paned window retains heat. We also insulated the inside of the box with two inches of foam board. Then we lined the inside with reflective mylar. Sun shines through the glass. That which doesn’t hit the tank reflects off the mylar towards it. The dark tank absorbs all that heat.

When I show this to folks on a tour of Ampersand, they usually ask How does the water get into the bathroom?

People see that the water heater is below the window and they wonder how could there be any pressure when it comes out the tap. Here’s the secret. The water line feeding into the bottom of the batch heater actually originates way up the hill at our large rain catching cistern. The bottom of this cistern is above the roof of the bathroom. The water line is buried underground to prevent freezing, so it’s not visible. But there is plenty of pressure that goes right through the heater into the bathroom just from using gravity.

A few details worth sharing. The pipes in and out are wrapped with insulation. The pipe out from the heater goes through a wall into our community bathroom, where the water is used. We installed a valve and a drain on the inlet. In case the tank should need to be drained for repairs or any other reason.

A couple years ago Passive Solar architect Mark Chalom (who has supported Ampersand for years) donated a sheet of selective surface for us to install on our batch heater. A selective surface is a material with high absorbence (of sunlight) and low emittance (of heat) applied to the surface of solar absorbers. In this case, that’s the water tank. It increases the efficiency of a solar heater. This selective surface came as a film and it required a high temperature adhesive to install. We wrapped the tank with the selective surface and, lo and behold, the water temperatures increased.

This batch style heater is still not as efficient as our thermosyphoning ones. But it was easy to construct with salvage materials and a few extra plumbing parts.

Reflectors would increase the sunlight and therefore the heat entering the water tank. I keep thinking I’ll build reflectors for it, someday. Ones that can withstand our high winds

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I recently inspected the batch heater to get started on the reflector project, but then realized other work was needed. The wooden box needed more screws to hold it together, the window was sagging. Basically there were air gaps where we were losing heat. And the hose connecting the heater to the bathroom plumbing inside? That needed better insulation. When we have bitter cold spells in the winter, down to 10 degrees F or below, this is where the water freezes. When it does it blocks the warm water in the tank from coming inside. So that was the last round of repairs for the batch heater, and again I postponed the reflectors.

Over the years, we’ve upgraded this heater bit by bit. And I’m impressed that it has served us for so long. In the summer it provides hot water pretty much all the time. In the winter you may have to wait till noon if you want your shower hot.

The winter nights are so long and the outside temperatures are so cold that the heater will lose much of it’s heat by morning. Removable insulation helps retain that heat. In the past we’ve just thrown a blanket over the heater at night. That does make for earlier hot water. But we didn’t always remember to remove it in the morning. And then, when that happens, the blanket doesn’t help at all! It’s a ten gallon tank though, so it heats up pretty quick once it gets some sun.

With anything solar, placement is important. Tall structures that cast a shadow will decrease the amount of solar gain available. We constructed a garden arbor nearby, with some interns and used that task as a design exercise. Together we calculated how to not obstruct the early morning winter sun.

That’s a lot of solar design for one day, but there’s always more. Here’s a glimpse of our fancy thermosiphoning solar water heating systems, a whole other concept.

this thermosiphoning

Six years ago Steve Baer and Zomeworks helped us install a solar thermosiphoning heater on our main house. Thermosiphon is a way of saying that water rises from the panel into the tank above by using the natural qualities of water as it heats. IMG_3358There is no pump needed to circulate the water. It happens on it’s own because heat rises.

This panel also has a selective surface. Our friend Steve Baer imported it from the Swedish company Energie Solaire. It’s not sold by that company to install the way we did. But Steve is a solar pirate and he helped us get it together anyway.

At low pressures (under 32 psi), the Swiss panel (as we like to call it) can freeze and expand with water in it without breaking. That means no need for glycol solution and a heat exchanger, which many solar heaters employ. If the Swiss p045anel is frozen outside, we can still access the hot water from the tank indoors (a re-purposed 20 gallon electric water heater tank) just by turning on the tap. Once the sun comes out again, the reflectors around the distribution tubing (we used truck radiator tubing) help the ice to thaw and permit the thermosyphon to work again.

The black pigment has worn off over the many seasons. This year I repainted the panel with high temperature barbeque paint. It’s important that 008the panel rest on a layer of insulation so that it doesn’t lose heat to the ground through the back.

We love the Swiss panel. This photo of our on-demand propane heater, the backup water heater in the house, should explain how well it works. Honestly we have not turned the propane on once since installing the thermosiphoning heater.005 (1521 x 1140)This is our other thermosiphoning water heater. We use it in the summer for outdoor showers. It’s a great system for demonstrating the thermosiphon set-up because you can see it all in one place.

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The panel is below the storage tank. Whenever the sun is shining the water in the tank gets hotter and hotter. This mold for producing this panel was originally constructed to warm nursing sows, that’s why we call it the pigmat. The white tank above058 (also a re-purposed 20 gallon electric water heater tank) is the gravity feed tank. The hash marks on the vinyl tube tank gauge mark one gallon of water, allowing those using the shower to track their water usage.

I know many of you will want to know how to get the pigmat or the Swiss panel. All I can say is to contact Steve Baer at Zomeworks. I can’t guarantee he will be able to help you, but the inquiry will put a smile on the face of this true solar inventor genius. He will be pleased to hear that there is interest in these simple products, and happy to know that people are interested in using direct sunlight rather than focusing on photovoltaics and pumps when they are not needed. I’ll leave it to him to tell you about the downfalls within the solar industry and why these simple products are not readily available. Happy tinkering!057

Ampersand has posted our Spring Schedule!  We are excited to offer a Geology Hike, Archeology Hike, Floodplains and Flowforms Hike (new!), as well as Picnics, a Volunteer Day, Homeschool Day, and an Open House. We would love to see you!

Written by Amanda Bramble (with help from Andy Bramble- any incomplete sentences are included because he insisted)

 


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Rainy Day Reflections

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Sometimes I forget how nature can swoop in and save the day. A good rain recharges not only my cisterns, but also my sense of abundance.

It started a couple days after our mushroom cultivation workshop. We had set up some oyster mushroom mycelium to grow out of coffee grounds indoors, and we also installed three storm-water-harvesting mushroom beds. I came out of the weekend a bit overwhelmed with all of my new responsibilities. Not just with learning to maintain the environments for our new growing creatures, but also dealing with the five syringes of liquid spore culture in my refrigerator. They need to be transferred to sterilized medium within the next couple weeks. Add that to the maintenance and repairs of going into winter on the homestead, and I assure you it’s a formidable list.

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Then the rain came. It was a gentle one. Like music. I could hear the water seeping into the land, into the plants. It brought a deep sense of well being, and even relief. I’m not saying my list got any shorter, but watching the new mushroom beds fill with storm water was quite fulfilling. This rain was not only gentle, but there was a well timed pause in the storm too. It cleared up long enough to walk out along our dirt road and arrange the erosion control rock work I’ve been meaning to do. The ground was soft as pudding and I didn’t even need a shovel.

I do forget sometimes how the whims of nature can make life easier. Despite the reality of living off rainwater and sunlight, so much of the time it seems we must swim upstream against the entropy of our environment.

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But this time the message was clear. We’ve been meaning to fill in some flood scoured holes in the restoration project since August. This latest flood was a reminder that nature is sometimes indisputably on our side. The whole flood path in our restoration project filled with a new fine silt and no signs of erosion anywhere. I’ve been waiting for this moisture to transplant some wild cuttings out there. So I’ve started filling in the bare areas with a variety of floodplain plants in our new soft moist soil.

There’s nothing like the meditation of tracking flood patterns through a landscape. This time I learned that I can use a shovel in one hand while holding an umbrella with the other. And after too many times of wandering out in the rain longer than expected, I’ve learned the benefits of rain gear. My wet clothes are dry now after an afternoon of sun. Thank you sun. Thank you rain. It’s a good life.

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Written by Amanda Bramble


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Snapshot of a Solar Stew

Until recently the questions that guided my cooking strategies were:

  • How many dishes will I have to do?IMG_4206
  • Can I do something else while I cook this?
  • How do I cook it with sunlight?
  • Can I fit fairly balance nutrition into one dish?

And sometimes:

  • How would a cave person do this?

As you can see, I’ve got some wholesome ideals, but I’m no Martha Stewart. No one comes to my house expecting three course meals, matching china, or even a napkin, really (or it’s best not to).

But I’m getting slightly more civilized. I just finished Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked. It has inspired me to put a little more attention to “building flavors” and the alchemy of timing and temperatures. This book taught me about a new primary flavor called umami- it’s a savory yummy flavor. Kombu seaweed actually excretes crystals of it. (I swear this is what he says) Following Pollan’s suggestion I was able to re purpose a rind of Parmesan cheese for the first time. How cool!

IMG_4245I adapted his recommendations for building flavor into a stew to solar cooking. I’m blessed to have both a high temperature solar cooker, the parabolic, and a slow cooking box style oven. They both helped me and Andy make the perfect stew. It involved many stages of cooking and mixing, and still we did a bunch of other unrelated things today too.

Here were the main elements of the process:

We chopped two onions finely, added a bouquet of freshly picked parsley from the greenhouse, along with some carrots and garlic and homegrown coriander. We put this in the box cooker. The swiveling one outside the front door, so we could catch the morning sun.

We boiled a bunch of potatoes with vegetable broth on the parabolic cooker,IMG_4171 turning it a couple times as the sun moved through the sky. It was afternoon before we combined these dishes in a big pot and added the browned buffalo chunks. Oh, and we salted the buffalo a few days before, and stuck it back in the refrigerator. The salt pulls moisture out at first, allowing the meat to absorb all the tasty goodness of the broth once it has the chance.

About the buffalo meat: I was a vegetarian for over 15 years. This was due to my disgust with factory farming conditions and the impact of growing a country’s worth of poison riddled corn to feed cows, to feed the US population who would be healthier with a lot less. Now I eat free range organic meats (preferably loIMG_4254cal) on average two or three times a month. Stews are a great way to make a little bit of meat go a long way.

We could have browned the buffalo on the parabolic, but we were alternating this with cooking beans, so we used the propane stove inside. We have a rule of thumb for the propane stove. We limit the use of it to 15 minute chunks. That way we won’t grow dependent on fossil fuels as a main cooking source and we only use about 7 gallons a year. But it allows for early morning tea and omelets, quick quesadillas, and reheating things.IMG_4258

We mixed the slow cooked onions and veggies together with the buffalo, added some chopped chard also from the greenhouse, some red wine, water, and a puree of leftover pinto beans- and the Parmesan rind! We brought it to boiling on the parabolic, and put it back in a slow cooker for the rest of the day. We stuck the stew in the fixed one that we can access through the greenhouse. That way there would be not need to put on a coat to retrieve it come dinner time. I should mention that it’s winter- the short days of early January, and even now there’s plenty of sun to meet all our needs for hot showers, electricity, and the supreme flavor-constructed solar stew.IMG_4252

Wish you could taste it. Definitely the best one we have made yet, and of course extra magnificent the next day. Maybe Martha Stewart can help with the napkins.

Written by Amanda Bramble

Inspired to build your own Solar slow cooker? Here are the construction plans.