Dreaming big, living small, surviving lightning and not postponing joy

My children don’t want to postpone joy. They dream big and want to try things, see things, be with us (still), and have fun. I ache for them and their future but sometimes I have to let go and experience the joy of simply being alive with them. For that reason, on the last day of school, we bought an old low-tow hydraulic pop-up caravan (that our 4 cylinder car can drag along), and on the 2nd January headed off to Narrabeen for a holiday by the sea.

Without the annexe

With the annexe

Our little home at night

We’ve been surfing, riding scooters, cycling, walking and enjoying time together.

Maxie’s first visit to a skate park on his new scooter

I can’t switch off my concerns about the future, or my need to take action, but escaping home, and living in such a tiny space together, has made it easier to share joy with my family (and harder to work!).

In America, where so many are suffering as a result of the Global Financial Crisis, a Tiny House Movement has sprung up. Jay Shafer, for example, who started the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company , decided to inhabit just 89 square feet, partly because of the impact of building large houses on the environment, and partly because he didn’t want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space. He says that his houses have met all his domestic needs without demanding much in return and that the simpler, slower lifestyle his houses have afforded is a luxury for which he is continually grateful (mind you he doesn’t have children to share such a tiny space when he’s trying to get work done). He sells the homes he builds as well as the plans to make them, so it is easier for anyone else to do the same without being indebted to banks for the rest of their lives. If you click on the link above you can download his book to see more examples.

Speaking of banks and other money grabbing corporations, one of my political actions in the last few days has been to sign an Avaaz petition calling on Western Union to stop taking critical money from the world’s working poor by charging predatory transfer fees.

As the new year starts, millions of hard-working men and women gather the money they have saved throughout the year, go to a local Western Union office and wire it to their relatives throughout the developing world. But up to 20% of these savings are taken in transfer fees, allowing companies to make billions of dollars in profit on the backs of the world’s neediest.

Despite the World Bank calling for a maximum of 5% transaction fees, Western Union has never faced a public outcry to challenge its shameless profiteering. If we raise our voices loudly now to challenge their predatory fees, we could challenge them to stop.

You can find out more and add your name to the petition by clicking here.

Avaaz describes itself as the campaigning community bringing people-powered politics to decision-making worldwide. Simple actions like signing this petition, can make a profound difference and signing the petition certainly didn’t take much time away from our holiday enjoyment.

The other political action I took was to make a quick phonecall to organise to do a video interview next Monday about saving The Kimberley in Western Australia – one of the world’s most beautiful places as well as being a critically important biodiversity hotspot.

But back to our holiday camp. Never having caravanned, we’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the whole experience and, of course, it’s made us think more about how little you really do need to live and enjoy life, and how easy it is to become more independent and self reliant.

Charging our solar lantern

While I’ve angsted about the issue of peak oil and the energy consumption of driving a caravan, we’ve also been aware that we’ve gained a much needed bedroom, with no additional materials to build an extension, and from this caravan park we can cycle almost anywhere we need to go. It’s also giving us the chance to turn weak pathetic jelly legs to fit cycling legs!

As soon as we left home we switched off the hot water and fridge and are now living with a very tiny fridge in the van, very few lights, no television or heating, and only the occasional shower. We’re using solar lanterns, and, given that we’re reusing an old caravan and only using gear we already had, we are well ahead in energy and water savings.

Thinking about these savings concerns me daily given that this year the world’s population will have grown by almost a billion since my children were born : going from 6 billion 12 years ago to 7 billion people in 2011. If we’re to reduce energy consumption, smaller houses will probably be part of the solution.

Mind you, while we’re having a ball now, the hardest part of coming away was the day leading up to leaving. After an almost non-existent summer, temperatures suddenly soared (for Blackheath) into their 30’s, our hens gave birth to 12 chicks and everywhere I looked there was work to be done. Worst of all, the fruit I’ve worked so hard to grow was all starting to ripen and would be eaten by the birds while we were away.

I felt so cranky about losing my blueberries, after nurturing the plants all year, that I decided to experiment with picking them green and seeing if they’d ripen off the bush.

I have to admit I’ve become so annoyed with the birds taking everything that I’ve started eating some of my fruit green (eg strawberries) , just to beat the birds!

It was so frantically busy getting ready to go, what with netting, watering etc, that my personal and political action on the 2nd January merged into one efficient action to save time. In fits of optimism I notoriously buy seedlings and tubestock and then proceed to let them die on my verandah because I’m too busy to plant them. On the 2nd I gathered my native tubestock and planted them on the nature strip using water crystals to try and keep them alive while we’re away. I planted hardy groundcover (Kennedia Rubicunda or dusky coral-pea) to spread over the nature strip, acacias to attract wildlife and fix nitrogen into the soil (Acacia Floribunda or Sally Wattle), beautifully scented native mint to brush against as we come in (Prostanthera Ovalifolia) and prickly small shrubs where small birds can hide and be protected from larger birds that are stealing their habitat (Grevillea Juniperina and Hakea Sericea). The reason I’m claiming this as a political action as well is that a lot of people still think it’s against council regulations to plant on your nature strip (it’s not in the Blue Mountains) and I’m hoping it motivates other people to do the same. It’s a great way to increase wildlife corridors in urban areas, cut down wind damage to properties and just simply create a more beautiful environment for us as well. I originally got the idea by seeing other people do it so am just passing on my enthusiasm for bringing more beauty into our world.

Just before leaving I harvested a basket of fresh veges to take along on the holiday:

There wasn’t a huge amount but then again the bar fridge in the caravan is very small. Managed to get three different types of zucchini, celery, chives, rosemary, kohlrabi, 3 beans and 3 different Asian greens and all stuffed our faces on raspberries before we left.

When we finally arrived in Narrabeen the weather had cooled and we were able to enjoy watching a huge electrical storm across the sea. I was able to relax because I knew my plants would now survive in Blackheath. The electrical storm did get me wondering, however, whether it was safe to be in a caravan.

We heard the news of a rockclimber in the Blue Mountains being “struck” by lightning so I did a quick bit of googling. It seems there is a miconception about being “struck” by lightning … if someone were actually “struck” there would be not much left of them to find. There is some detailed information about lightning hitting people on this University of Chicago page:

Every second, about 100 lightning strokes occur somewhere in the Earth’s atmosphere. Every year, between 100 and 200 people in the U.S. die as result of lightning strikes, with quite a few more hospitalized.

There is quite a bit of incorrect understanding about lightning. If more people understood the subject better, greater public safety can be had.

TV talk shows often show people who “were hit by lightning.” This is (virtually always) slightly incorrect. They certainly were hospitalized and suffered burns and trauma due to the lightning, but they were not actually hit.

In a nutshell, often, the person became part of an “air-core transformer”

Whenever electricity is passing through a conductor, (whether a water-filled tree, or any metal conductor, or even moisture-filled air) it creates a temporary magnetic field in the area surrounding the conductor. This is called electromagnetism.

If a second parallel conductor is nearby, that changing magnetic field causes an electric current to be “induced” in the second conductor, called an EMF. This is also electromagnetism. This is actually the principle of all electrical transformers and many other modern electrical devices. This particular arrangement is called an air-core transformer. In the situation we are considering here, the lightning bolt is passing through a low resistance path between the ground and the cloud (the first conductor, such as including a water-filled tree). A standing person, who is also mostly (salt) water, is a pretty good conductor of electricity, represents the second conductor. IF the person’s body is relatively parallel to the first conductor, an INDUCED CURRENT is created inside the body of the person, by that transformer effect. This current can be quite substantial, and can still be plenty high enough to cause death.

There have been many cases where many people in a crowd have all “been hit by lightning” at the same moment. A well-documented case was from a 1998 soccer match that was being televised. A lightning stroke hit the field, not actually where anyone was standing, but many of the players immediately collapsed to the ground. They were all victims of this air-core transformer phenomenon. The severity of injuries in such situations depends on several things. The most important is the distance between where the lightning stroke hit and the person, because the effectiveness of the air-core transformer phenomenon depends tremendously on the spacing between the two conductors. There are many other possible variables, such as whether a player was is good electrical contact with wet ground through sweaty (electrically conductive) wet shoes. Fortunately, in the case of that soccer match, none of the players died, although some had severe injuries due to electrical burns. It seems strange that they could have electrical burns without actually having been hit by the lightning, but that is an indication of how effective an air-core transformer can be. It was not reported, but it is certain that every person in the stands watching that game would also have felt an intense electrical effect due to an air-core transformer effect. They were each farther away from the lightning stroke, they were not sweat covered, and they were probably fairly dry, so it is far less likely that any would have sustained any significant injuries. They were probably sitting down, where the “effective length of the second conductor” (their bodies) was shorter than the STANDING players on the field. It is extremely likely that they each person in the stadium felt an intense tingling throughout their bodies.

If the person has a good electrical path to ground, such as standing in water, that current can pass quickly out of the body and create serious burns. This explanation also clarifies why people holding a golf club or metal umbrella up above their head increases the chance of them “being hit.” What is actually happening is that their actions just make the “second conductor” referred to above to be extended in both height and conductivity by holding such things. More of the created magnetic field lines intercept the body and umbrella, so the induced current and voltage are therefore much greater and more damaging in the body of the person. This all means that, even though the person was not actually hit by the lightning bolt, scorched shoes, skin burn marks, and other physical damage are very real. Since a metal golf club can intercept a lot of the electromagnetic effects and then conduct the resulting electricity extremely well, a golfer can receive very serious burns on the hands as a result.

Of course, if that person who is holding a metal golf club above his head is standing alone at the top of a hill, where he is the highest object around, there IS the possibility that he might actually be hit by a lightning stroke, but that would instantly stop his heart, boil all the water in his body, and kill him instantly. Actually, under those really unfortunate circumstances, there could conceivably be very little left to identify as a human.

Dead cows lined up along a metallic fence. Lightning struck the fence, and the electrical current traveled along the fence killing the cows. Photo Courtesy Ruth Lyon-Bateman

Of course my main concern, being away from our solid brick home in thunderstorm season, is how to keep my family safe in the event of another lightning storm. The best site I found is the National Weather Service site which you can access by clicking here.

In a nutshell it is never safe outdoors and the worst place to shelter is under trees, car ports, open garages, covered patios, picnic shelters, beach pavilions, golf shelters, tents of any kinds, baseball dugouts, sheds and greenhouses. You need to be in a fully enclosed building with plumbing or wiring.

The site explains the best options if you’re caught outside and how best to protect yourself.

A safe shelter is a building with electricity and/or plumbing or a hard topped vehicle with windows closed.

Safety precautions:

Seek shelter when you hear thunder, lightning can strike up to 10 miles from the heart of a thunderstorm.

Get away from water. On or in water is the absolute worst place to be during a lightning storm. Water is a conductor of electricity, so there is no safe place on a lake or pond to hide.

Stay OFF corded phones. You can use cellular or cordless phones

Don’t touch electrical equipment or cords. Unplug electronic equipment before the storm arrives.

Avoid plumbing. Do not wash your hands, take a shower or wash dishes.

Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches. Do not lie on concrete floors and do not lean against concrete walls.

Another good site is Campfish:

Remember, lightning is attracted to the tallest object in its path. If you are on a lake or in an open area, find shelter quickly. If you cannot find shelter, go to the lowest lying area – preferably one that does not have tall, isolated trees. Do not seek protection under a tree. If you are with others, spread out at least 30 feet from each other. This will lower the chances of multiple strikes.

Never lie on the ground during a lightning storm. The proper position is in a crouch, keeping your feet as close together as possible, leaving only the soles of your feet on the ground. Tuck down your head and hold your ears. Do not keep your body up by holding on to the ground or other objects. If you cannot hold this position, try to find a low rock to place your bottom on to help you keep this position.

You must avoid anything metal. This includes metal rods in canopies – so avoid taking shelter in tents with metal rods, canopies, dining flies or small picnic shelters.

After surviving the electrical storm, our second day included working out how to keep growing things while we were away. On our first full day I set up two jars to grow alfalfa and mung sprouts (green peaches trying desperately to ripen to the left, sprouts to the right, boys incognito to the rear):

We feasted on home grown produce for our first day – fresh raspberries, stir fried Asian Greens, potato chips, buttered beans and zucchinis with chives.

On our second full day we had delicious sorrel soup that had thawed out (the freezer in the caravan is tiny!) and I cooked up the last of the raspberries that had thawed out with sugar so that the boys had warm raspberry sauce with cream (life’s tough here!).

In terms of growing something to replace the amount of food we’re consuming, I dug up a tiny bit of dirt from near the

lake and planted some Dragon’s Tongue bush bean seeds. Bush beans apparently are more productive than climbing beans.

Narrabeen beans

I’m going to return all our vege and fruit scraps to the spot to replace the soil.

But now the kids are nagging ME to get off the computer …. Maxie folded a green tree frog and sat it on the corner of my laptop … time to go and experience more joy …..

3 thoughts on “Dreaming big, living small, surviving lightning and not postponing joy

  1. Ronald Bastian

    Once again Lis, a fascinating blog and I feel as though I was there with you at Narabeen (in spirit anyway). I have been following the writings of an Australian Geophysicist who is based at the ANU Canberra, you may have heard of him as the author of the book “Economia”. His name is Geoff Davies. Your feelings of concern for our future on a number of fronts is an obvious worry to all of us who care passionately about the way we are headed and especially for our children’s future. Geoff uses “wordpress” for his “blogs” and his latest one is absolutely magic. To understand the importance of “positivity” regarding these matters of concern. it is inspiring to read the works of someone who always manages to provide ‘do-able” suggestions and the “tools” required to make them happen. I would like to respectfully suggest that as many people read his latest report that can be found at: http://wp.me/psv91-7q

    Love your blogs and the ‘thinking” behind them.

    Warmest regards,
    Ronald Bastian

  2. Susan Girard

    Nice to see you back on the air-waves so to speak.
    As always I’m impressed with lots of your photos but most of all I’m jealous of your zuchini, I haven’t got any so far this year. Interesting having to re-learn gardening with a view to climate change…
    I hope 2012 is good to you.
    : )

Comments are closed.