Material Witness

Last week, I spent two days processing some old wood.  So it goes; de-nailing, tar-scraping, jointing, and re-sawing are all part and parcel of using old lumber, be it architectural salvage or alley finds.  I've worked with a lot of old-growth wood, which is embedded with history.  The trees themselves began life maybe fifty years before they were cut down, and then were used to construct buildings that stood a hundred years more.  By the time I come into contact with that wood, touch it, cut it, plane it, taste its dust hanging in the afternoon air, I am knifing through almost geologic layers of time.  Those trees were teenagers in some Michigan forest as Abraham Lincoln dropped the Gettysburg Address on freshly bloodied ground in Pennsylvania.

This time, the wood I was milling was different -- it was redwood.  That name sparks up a whole chain of associations, images of clear-cut hillsides, logging protests, and dim, fog-spooked forests.  Now endangered, redwood is rarely logged.  They are difficult to grow from seed, take an enormous amount of time to mature, and need a perfect storm of ecological conditions to prosper.  Once going, however, the giants are unstoppable, growing to unimaginable proportions and capable of living hundreds of years.  

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, fire-suppression technology became very important.  A fast-growing, mostly wood-framed city, Chicago was devastated by a lack of fire-fighting infrastructure.  New building codes mandated the installation of water tanks on roofs, allowing for a large, gravity-pressurized water supply for each building.  Tanks were built from then-abundant West Coast redwood and Gulf Coast cypress, two highly rot-resistant, spongy woods that made tight, leakproof tanks once the wood fibers swelled with water.  Redwood and cypress are also not good for much else, as their grain makes them unsuitable for structural applications.

Drawing for a railroad water tank in Chicago, circa 1937, similar in design and construction to the rooftop towers.  Courtesy of Cyberspace World Railroad.



A week before Christmas, I fell into conversation with an old Polish scrapper at the ReBuilding Exchange.  He had an epic beard (one that may have supported a small ecosystem of bacteria and woodland creatures) and a slight accent from his boyhood in Eastern Europe.  He and his brother were there to pick up pallets, which they would then strap to the roof of his biodiesel Mercedes wagon and sell.  Small -- 36" x 36" or so -- go for a dollar each, while large -- 36" x 48" -- go for a solid two-fifty.  

It seems like small cash, and it is.  You have to collect a helluva a lot of pallets to turn a profit.  But, as my Polish friend discovered, if you can drive costs down, and find an efficient pick-up route, the economics creep into the black.  By using vegetable oil in his car, he's eliminated the biggest cost, fuel.  By finding an efficient route, he's cut man-hours to the bone.  I saw him again last week, prowling my neighborhood for promising construction dumpsters.  The car was rattling within an inch of its life, throwing up a stream of french-fry scented exhaust.

A pallet recycling yard near my work, at Hoyne and Grand.


Open Source Ecology

A couple of days ago, I caught a story on NPR about Open Source Ecology, an initiative begun by a young astrophysicist, Marcin Jakuboski.  As he explains in his TED Talk, he found himself, at the end of his twenties, book-smart and real-world useless.  Searching for something more tangible to do with his life, he tried to go back to the land, becoming a farmer in rural Missouri.  He found his plans stymied again by unreliable machinery.  As he tells it, Marcin was then inspired to build his own tractor, using a "simple X, Y, Z geometry" and an interchangeable, de-mountable hydraulic power plant.  

The LifeTrac, the first project in the Global Village Construction Set.
This led to a wiki, which led to global collaboration, which spiraled into a project that hopes to open-source fifty industrial machines essential to humanity.  Jakuboski calls it a "civilization starter kit."  As the idea snowballed, he became a TED fellow and has now turned his property, the Factor E Farm, into a laboratory for prototyping these machines.  As of this fall, employees and volunteers are hard at work building an compacted earth-brick and strawbale lab and dormitory where designers, engineers, and builders will live and work on the GVCS.  The structures on the farm are being built with the GVCS brick press, the soil pulverizer, and the LifeTrac tractor, directly testing prototypes as they are created.  

The Global Village Construction Set, via Wikipedia


Winter Biking

It's been cold out.  

Chicago has had a relatively mild winter, especially compared to last year, but, coming from Alabama, it has been harsh enough to me.  The last two years, I lived in a place where it rarely dipped below freezing, frost was rare, and it never snowed.  This year, I managed to escape to San Francisco during the worst month of winter, but came back to some snow and damp cold.  We've had a number of days over forty, even flirting with fifty, but wind and clouds and the lake distill the chill into the bones.  

Through it all, I've struggled to keep biking.  I have two jobs; three days a week at the ReBuild Foundation, about five miles from home, and two days a week at ReBuilding Exchange, about a mile and a half from my apartment.  Both require a good bit of physical work, and topping the day off with a bike ride can take the last bit of energy out of me.  However, it is faster, more satisfying, and reasonably better for the environment for me to ride the bike instead of fight through traffic in the 'rolla.  

In a nod to the weather, I did pick up some new gear back in November.  I got a neoprene face mask, good for robbing banks in a pinch; neoprene gloves, warm and waterproof but also clammy and weird; and a thin merino-wool hat that fits under the helmet.  The hat and face mask are key, because the sub-freezing wind will drill into your brain, creating an ice-cream-headache-like effect that can be quite distracting.  For Christmas, I got a sweet hoodie -- it appears to be plain cotton, but the fibers are treated somehow, so water beads up on the surface.  This has been fantastic on the bike, as it blocks the wind and damp while staying breathable.  Lastly, glasses of some kind are essential, be it sunglasses or goggles, to keep the wind out of the eyes -- it dries out my contact lenses and makes them prone to blinking out, which is dangerous.  

Geared up!