Whenever the apocalypse hits, Nick Conrad will be my first phone call.
Of course, that’s the idea behind his “Zombie Survival Training” Dabble class, a course I didn’t realize was also his until I attended his workshop in “Window Farming for Beginners.” The two don’t exactly sound related. I come to find over the course of the class, though, that the two subjects are very much intertwined. While martial arts and arms-bearing may save anyone in face-to-face zombie combat, what really makes a difference is being self-sufficient; employing a sustainable way of life in order to both offset and outlast any environmental crisis.
Window farming is, in short, super cool. I walk into Nick’s apartment to find UV bulbs glowing on custom-cut wine bottles, hanging five tiers high in his window. A humming water pump cycles water from a reservoir basin below the window up to the top of each column, allowing water to trickle down from plant to plant and back into the basin. Each wine glass boasts healthy herbs: bushels of basil intertwined with winding mint. The entire operation is powered by solar panels he built and installed on his balcony. (His “DIY Solar Electricity” course is slated for December.) In his kitchen, a seedling-sprouting ice cube tray is on display, and a surprisingly odorless compost bin—which Nick says has cut his trash in half—houses rinds, cores, shredded newspaper and a few well-fed red worms. The UV bulbs, two window boxes on his back balcony, and a few pieces of furniture he points out for us, have all been salvaged from the alley behind his apartment.
Nick lives in a footprint-free paradise, all set up with enough consideration of the apartment’s welfare to (fingers crossed) get his deposit back.
“Environmentally it’s probably one of the best things you can do, to grow your own food,” Nick says, and hydroponics is a simple, apartment-friendly way to grow year-round. He’s been toying with his system for three years, and he isn’t stingy with the know-how, either. Over the length of the course, we learn about the earliest hydroponics farming at the Gardens of Babylon; about the appropriate pH level for plants (6.5); the best direction for houseplants to get light (South); even how to build our own small hydroponics container out of a plastic bottle. Even though Nick sells window farming kits of his own, containing “everything you need for six months,” he doesn’t seem to be teaching this course just to promote his business. He shows a photo of a crate with jagged holes cut in the top and plants growing out that he says “you could probably build for only 50 bucks, or less.” He names stores in Chicago that might have the best resources, and references other businesses that sell products similar to his. Every tool we could ever need he hands to us, from advice on how best to grow a plant on our own, to e-mailing the entire presentation to the class, to step-by-step guidance through building our own hydroponic planters.
It’s hard to believe that this friendly eco-warrior works at one of Chicago’s insult restaurants, berating customers as his day job.
The planters, it turns out, are surprisingly easy and inexpensive to make— one classmate made a successful planter from a plastic bottle he picked up off the sidewalk outside Nick’s apartment. The planters are also low-maintenance; an appealing quality for someone like myself who has a relentless brown thumb. I’m keeping a close eye on a green glass bottle, nestled in a South-facing window in my apartment, promising bean sprouts. (Beans, Nick advises, are good for less patient gardeners.)
It’s obvious that while Nick cares about his business, what matters more is his business’s mission. He is generous with this information because A) it feeds his curiosity, and B) it’s pivotal. (As his website says, “If MacGyver and Captain Planet had a love child…”) Sustainable living, even on an individual scale, can slow an unfortunate and rapid progression of environmental decay. Evryone seemed to leave the class relieved. The environment is such an enormous issue to tackle, it’s comforting to take the train home holding a bite-size solution: A bottle full of rocks and beans that may very well be the first step to a larger movement.
As for zombie apocalypses, Nick confides that his friends have an unspoken understanding that when the waste hits the fan, they all know where they’ll be bunkered.