Adventures at the Mud Hut: An Overdue Update

Prophet of Doom is a tough sell, as it always has been. Nobody appreciates a prophet in his own time, I suppose. On the other hand, there’s no need for a prophet in these times: the newspapers are filled with far more economic doom than I can keep up with, much less write about. So this post will focus on my personal approach to an economy rigged to fail.

Some people are convinced the current turn of events is temporary. The industrial economy has always recovered before, after all. Surely it’s just a matter of a few months or years before the market “corrects” and the ship of empire rights itself, to sail forever with the wind at our back on flat seas. The ship will stop for the occasional respite, when the sailing becomes too much for our tender psyches, at islands filled with exquisite cuisine and fair maidens. We’ll whet our appetites and move along, never ending our search for contentment, certain it will be found at the next port of call.
In the other corner we have people rooted in reality. They recognize reality for what she is, and adore her beauty. These people, by the way, live longer and happier lives than people who don’t appreciate nature’s beauty.
Those of us who love nature, along with those who recognize that nature bats last and she bats 1.000, are making other arrangements as the industrial economy takes its final bow. As I’ve indicated previously, I think a life on the move is a wise strategy, particular for the young and the young at heart. If you’re committed to a sedentary existence, this post offers an overview of the arrangements I’ve made, albeit with a lot of help from friends. These arrangements focus on three of the “big five” attributes I’ve described many times: water, shelter, and food. I’ll not comment here on community, because I’ve done that before and because it seems rather obvious to me that getting along with your neighbors is fundamental to survival when the economy collapses. And I’ll not comment on health care, other than noting that we’re trying to stock up, to the extent possible, on medicines of various kinds. Well, and I’m trying — thus far, unsuccessfully — to recruit anybody who knows anything about health care to the area.
Obviously, the approach we’ve taken is not for everybody. During two decades of living simply as an overpaid, under-worked college professor, I’ve managed to save a bit of money. Most of it was in retirement funds, which I’ve subsequently drained, or insurance policies, which I cashed in. Nonetheless, arrangements at the mud hut are considerably less luxurious than many people would tolerate. Depending on your personal situation, you might be well served by studying the information here and here. But I digress.
We started in the autumn of 2007, when my wife and I formed a legal partnership with a young couple and their four-year-old son. Our goal: To live close to the land and to our neighbors, sans fossil fuels (which will be in short supply after the economy completes its collapse). Although we hope to live free from fossil fuels in the near future, development of infrastructure required abundant use of fossil fuels, notably crude oil and its distillates.
We had a well drilled, into which we installed a solar pump and a hand pump. The pumps feed a cistern, which feeds a pressure pump, which feeds a pressure tank, which is operated by the off-grid solar system atop the new house. As with any approach inspired by permaculture, each function is covered by multiple structures. We have two pumps in the well, and we are harvesting rainwater off two roofs. Ideally, we will not need to haul water from the nearby river.
We designed a straw-bale house and hired an artist who learned how to build houses during summers between his school years as a college student. The house, like everything else on the property, is designed and built with durability in mind. It is a duplex of sorts, with two small living areas separated by an open breezeway. During the late spring and summer, the breezeway is home to several dozen cliff swallows. The house has an acid-stained concrete floor, a metal roof, and durable fixtures. It’s heated with passive solar technology and a small wood-burning stove in each of the living quarters. It’s passively cooled with geothermal technology we thought we’d invented, only to discover the Egyptians beat us to the idea by a couple thousand years. The house has recycled denim insulation in the ceilings and all the walls not constructed from straw bales, and passive water heaters to preheat the water before it enters the six-gallon water heaters. The concepts of permaculture and durability extend to the composting toilets (no waste-water), gray-water systems for shower and sink drains, excellent plumbing fixtures (i.e., not made in America), and composite materials for counters.
We’ve constructed planting beds, which is a relatively easy task in most locations. But our property is home to several quadrillion pocket gophers. So we excavate the soil from the bed, down about a foot, line the bed with straw bales, install a “basket” of hardware cloth inside the bales, then put the soil, liberally mixed with compost, back into the bed. We tested this design on a couple beds last summer, and we’re geared up with several hundred square feet of planting beds for this summer. It’ll be a few years before we see the literal fruits of our labor from the orchard, which contains a couple dozen fruit and nut trees (each with a hardware-cloth basket around the roots). If we’re lucky and good, we’ll live to fill the root cellar with fruits and vegetables. The gardens will be watered primarily by cisterns full of rainwater harvested from the straw-bale house and the old mobile home on the property (the latter will be used for storage of books and clothes, as well as for processing food and torturing marauders).
An outdoor kitchen, complete with wood-fired cook stove, should also help preserve the harvest. We have few dozen canning jars, and will be investing in many more, with the goal of preserving the truckloads of fruits and vegetables certain to result from our new-found gardening skills. (We’re hoping some trucks die near the property, to remind us what a “truckload” is when the trucks stop running.) The kitchen includes a human-powered grinding mill, which we use for grinding mesquite pods and acorns into flour, after they are dried in the small greenhouse we constructed near the orchard.
We built a straw-bale coop for the fowl, and a dozen two-week-old ducklings are currently under our care. We’ll add a dozen chickens to hedge our bets against egg-poaching predators, and perhaps a goat for milk and cheese.
We have a one-box apiary, primarily as a home for pollinators — yet another bet-hedging strategy, in this case against massive die-off of bees throughout the world. And we’re learning wildcrafting from a neighbor who has been living off the land for several years. Some parts are easy, intellectually and physically. We are already harvesting and milling the abundant mesquite pods on the property, which are high in protein and very sweet. But it’s bound to take a while before we’re comfortable walking all summer across a wilderness area wearing a few clothes and carrying only a knife and small fire bow, as our neighbor did a few years ago.
Until our post-carbon skills match those of our expert neighbor, we’ll stick close to the mud hut, working to ensure durable supplies of water and food. And also hosting the occasional dance party in the breezeway.

Comments 23

  • Professor Guy:
    Great work !!. I just received Dmitry Orlov book “Reinventing Collapse”.Total Turboguy is correct–you two were seperated at birth.
    The only missing ingredient is a few drops for those inevitable moments when your group experiences conflict or stress.
    Also a crank powered short wave receiver to know what’s happening outside of the Mud Hut.
    You’re our leader.

  • I’ll be interested to hear how your anti-gopherization works. In 1991 I double-dug garden beds that are 4′ wide by about 8′ long and 24″ deep, and lined them with galvanized aviary wire — looks like chicken wire, hexagonal weave and same gauge wire, but with openings 1/2″, not 1″. That kept the gophers out for about 10 years but they started appearing and feasting on the tender winter veggies, so I quit using the beds and went to containers.
    We are now reviving everything, digging out the old beds and pulling up that aviary wire. There are several 4″ gopher gateways chewed right through the wire. So this time we’re re-lining with much heavier wire (3″ by 1/2″ openings, 4′ X 8′ aviary panels, with wires about 1/16″ thick).
    Trapping gophers is the other option but while I’ve never had any trouble trapping things I needed to, gophers are hard to catch and by the time I’ve caught them, they’ve usually undone a whole season’s worth of winter garden plants… plus Sonoran whip snakes that use their tunnels, and I wouldn’t want to kill one of them by mistake.
    If this doesn’t work, we’ll dig the beds out again, pour cement floors with lots of drainage holes made with dowels, and build the walls up with cement blocks.

  • Orlov tells how to survive in an urban area–amazing,I never thought.He knows.Hint:You will have plenty of security.There are plenty of people like Total Turboguy who know what to do,unconstricted by laws,court,he’s in his element.Food,shelter,transportation and security.Who’d of thunk, you will have them all in the big city.

  • Congratulations on your work. Even without a collapse tomorrow, your efforts are impressive.
    Right now, I’m adrift in the category of sitting duck. I’m in last ditch arrangement mode. If I let on what my plans are as of this moment, I think several people in the comments section would hunt me down and slap me silly. Possibly rightly so.
    We all do what we can, though, right?
    Again, congratulations. Your neighbor sounds like a fascinating person. I bet he has some stories to tell…and then some.

  • Charlene, if you mean that you’re pulling funds out of your 401k or somesuch, you’d better not be. That’d be foolish.
    Let’s for argument’s sake say that somehow our economy is rekindled and tears off toward new horizons. Right now you’re 401k is buying stocks at a greatly reduced price. Were the tearing off occur, those stocks would multiply by trigometric function in their value.
    I’m not personally putting more than I normally would into my retirement fund, but I damn sure aren’t pulling it all out either. If you did so you’re just going to be taking a huge loss. Leave it there and hope for the best. Remember the old addage: Don’t leave all your eggs in one basket! Life’s a gamble and I like to bet on all the horses.

  • Sounds like heaven and then some! You will surely know contentment.

  • No, I don’t have a 401k. My husband does, sort of. I used to have a big mutual fund, but that’s another long story.
    No, I was thinking of trying my luck with the armed forces since my degree is done (as of May). It’s looking as though I’m unwelcome there, too.
    I’m probably too crazy for most established groups. The jury is still out on whether or not that’s a bad thing, though. Maybe if gypsy caravans come into vogue…

  • My interest in the collapse of industrial civilization began in the summer of 2006 when I came across a magazine article by Jim Kunstler, which led me to his site. From there it was a short step to Latoc and many related sites. Since then it’s been at the forefront of my mind, and has had an impact (mostly negative) on various facets of my life. I’d been trying (to no avail) to get my family on board with the notion of collapse in order to convince them to begin preparing–of course, I didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant, and never have–when Guy made this detailed post about the mud hut. Having read it and the associated links, I am very skeptical of anyone’s chances of survival using the means Guy is employing.
    It was easy to reach this conclusion simply observing my own diet. In the last three years or so, I’ve become serious about nutrition and have started to eat a lot more vegetables. About the time the mud hut post went up, I noticed that I had used, among many other things, about 5 whole cauliflowers in about 3 weeks. This works out to just under 90 per year. And that’s just cauliflower! I also eat a lot of broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, peppers, onions, etc. It would be one massive garden that would be able to produce such abundance, year after year, dodging the ever-present threats of pests, aridity, animals, and thieves–and then there is the matter of storing the vegetables reliably, overcoming all the same threats. We then have to account for the fact that I would probably need even more vegetables than I am eating now, since in Guy’s scenario, the store would be unable to provide any food to supplement what I could grow. Sure, I might get a few eggs if I kept chickens, but I sure wouldn’t be able to eat chicken most days (even once a week means I would need to maintain a brood of about 50!), and deer are hard even for a skilled hunter to bag.
    Most important, vegetables, while high in nutrients, are low in calories. How is someone in a “mud hut” going to acquire the high-calorie grains necessary to bring one’s daily caloric intake to the 1800-2000 necessary to avoid gradually starving oneself? How is he going to grow, harvest, and process them? It’s great to have a garden, but we simply lack the skills to live off the land in any meaningful sense, except possibly for a few days in a survival situation while waiting for a rescue party, and even then only with prior instruction or research.
    Guy has mentioned learning from someone schooled in ancient traditions. But that idea seems very risky: such an expert is probably able to point out some sources of protein and fat (usually berries, nuts, or leaves), but again, it’s hard for me to imagine how these can come close to supporting anyone long-term, esp. in Arizona. Are 1800 calories easily available in these forms? (And yes, I have read the work by Guy’s students from last year. It seemed to be a noble effort, but not anything to rely on long-term. Ditto for the articles dealing with survival on Latoc.)
    If what Guy is predicting actually occurs, the only ways to survive, as far as I can tell, are 1) to move to a country whose food production system and general mode of life are not bound up with the industrial economy, such as a country in the tropics, or 2) to join a community in America already accustomed to living close to the land, such as the Amish. In arrangements such as these, nearly all are able to eat enough because there are networks in place that allow food production and distribution without each individual having to fend for himself on a daily basis. No one would willingly put himself in the latter position, because everyone knows that would be tantamount to suicide.
    Guy’s purpose in doing exactly this, however, is to remove himself from the teeming masses of starving folks in the city. I remember a reference somewhere to his fear that potential thieves would kidnap the small boy who lives with his neighbor, and use the child as a hostage to force Guy’s group to give up their home and supplies. This appears actually to be wishful thinking. In the extreme scenario Guy is preparing for, perhaps some traversing the countryside would have such a well thought-out plan of attack, but most would be too desperate and too hungry to reason out anything like that. I suspect the average would-be usurpers wouldn’t kidnap the boy; they’d kill him, and everyone else in the group. I know at some point Guy said his group was well-armed, but no matter how well-armed they may be, they can’t be looking out for threats continually. At the very least, they have to sleep. Please don’t tell me there is a plan in place in perpetuity for one rotating member of the group to keep watch at night. That is no way to live long-term. And, even if they have occasion to rely on their weapons to protect themselves, and even if they are successful, if doing so is a regular necessity, it’s just a matter of time before they are overmatched. One “loss” in a conflict will be sufficient to end their lives, no matter how many “victories” preceded it.
    So the mud hut, far from a safe haven, seems like a death trap to me. If we get a hard, fast crash, those preparing in the way outlined here may survive the initial waves, but will ultimately succumb along with the rest of us. Or at least, it’s very hard for me to envision any other outcome.

  • Jeremy, he will have a group, or at least says he will. If a few garden while others hunt they shouldn’t have too much trouble. And deer are easy as hell to hunt and kill. My other observation is that his mud hut is far in the desert and away from where any would be marauder might be. Vigilance would be important, but with dogs that bark and the distance involved the odds of surprise attack are very low.

  • “If a few garden while others hunt they shouldn’t have too much trouble.”
    Quite casual.

  • Sounds like you have got it all worked out. And if you are one of the ones who manages to make it through the current economic situation happy then all the best to you. However not convinced drawing from your 401K is the greatest idea.

  • Gardening is so relaxing and a wonderful way to spend time outdoors. It is one of my favorite hobbies that I love to share with others online! Thanks for taking the time to write this post, I always learn so much about gardening from many different sources online!

  • Great job on the massive adventure! Sounds like it was a lot of fun.

  • Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful and beneficial to your readers :)

  • Great post! Very informative and please let us know more…

  • Excellent piece of work. You’ve given very informative and effective information. I want to say you congratulations on your brilliant work. But give more information. Thanks

  • Living a life natural way is really great. I really think sometimes if i could go back and lead the real life. Congratulations, this is a great work.

  • I had not heard the term “nature bats last and she bats 1.000” but I love it! I will start using it now and give you credit:) Great post.

  • hi friends i wanted to take your attention to a specific issue as For healthy life human body needs fresh air and it can only be obtained if we have greenery in our surrounding but due to human development the massive cut off the trees and vanishing forests have boosted the global worming. So as to give our children better future we can play a part on our side by developing the home garden and educating our children how to use home garden products so that children can develop love for nature and ultimately we develop a beautiful world for our children and the upcoming generation.