Wednesday, January 28, 2015

One Scoop at a Time

Summer days that push the mercury above 95° are rare here - even in Southern Maine, where I live. Snow during the winter is not. In fact, it has snowed every. single. winter since I moved here almost two decades ago. That's almost 20 years of snow. Even I, not a native, have come to accept the fact that it will snow.

And so, I live my life during the winter aware that it will snow, and I stay ready for that inevitability.

Sometimes it's just a little snow. Anything below 3" is a dusting, and sometimes, we don't even bother to shovel such a tiny amount. Between 6" and 10" of snow prompts some warnings and reminders to be mindful of hazardous road conditions. When the forecasted snow levels exceed 12", things start to close down, and in spite of the fact that snow is a fact of life, people still tend to get wigged out by it, resulting in last minute runs to the grocery store for bread and milk or beer.

Our most recent storm was a Nor'easter, which is a bit more intense than just a snowstorm - although not an uncommon occurrence here, either. In the almost two decades I've lived here, there's been a Nor'easter every year, too. The Nor'easters that don't bring snow are actually worse than the ones that do.

Of course, giving the storm a particular name might make us feel like we have more control over it, but the truth is that it doesn't. It doesn't make us more prepared to deal with it, either, if we're not prepared to begin with.

For me, the hardest part about these storms is cleaning up. This storm dumped somewhere between 22" and 30". There's no official total for my town, but we're in between several towns whose totals were in those ranges. The snow wasn't the worst. It was really the wind, which blew the snow into drifts.

In fact, in the midst of the storm, I had to shovel a path back to our rabbits and chickens so that they could be fed and given water. Today, I had to reshovel the path I made yesterday, because the blowing snow had covered any evidence that I had shoveled the day before.

We had shoveled the snow away from the back door so that we could get out, but we had to move it again this morning.

Yes, that's snow a quarter a way up the door. The door is far enough above ground level that we need a step.

I'm not going to say that I like shoveling. I don't, but I don't mind it, so much, either. The hardest part is getting out there, but once I'm there, once I start, it just gets easier. It's one shovel full of snow at a time until the spot is cleared.

It becomes contemplative - like running. I never really liked running, but when I had to run, in formation, with my unit when I was enlisted, it actually was a kind of pleasurable experience. The hardest part is starting, but once we got the kinks out, I could go into that place where my mind just wandered and I noticed stuff, like the setting moon, the morning star, the rose-red dawn sky, and the world waking up.

Shoveling today was like that. I heard the birds. There was an occasional car on the road, but it's noise was muted by the blanket of snow. My dog's collar jingled every now and then as she snuffled around the yard trying to find where those chipmunks have their nest. It was peaceful and quiet. It wasn't even cold.

One shovelful at a time.

And, then, I had a cup of coffee in the snow chair I made.

Life is really good, and I'm blessed to live in such an amazing place ... even if I have to, occasionally, shovel a bit of snow.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Not TEOTWAWKI ... yet

In spite of the news reports, it really is not the "Snowpocalypse." Heck, we didn't even lose power.

Our best advice during this kind of weather: stay warm, stay hydrated, stay home ;).

Oh, and have fun!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Canning Season ... Extended

There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when I believed there was a "canning season." I mean, canning season is still a thing, but it's not exactly what it was - to me - a few years ago, like winter is a distinct and separate season from summer, et cetera.

As a homesteader we tend to think of things "in season." There's a growing season, followed by a canning season, followed by winter.

In reality, the seasons, themselves, overlap somewhat, too. We have warm(ish) days in January, where everything starts to thaw, and we have cold days in April when it snows. I've even seen mountains of dirty snow that survived the entire spring and are still unmelted in the mall parking lot as late as June. Not to mention that 99 years ago, there was a Year Without Summer.

Like the natural cycle of the seasons, our homesteader seasons also overlap ... or, at least, that's what I'm beginning to learn.

Eliot Coleman has done extensive research at his farm here in Maine. He grows food year 'round. In fact, anyone can grow food all year long, regardless of his/her climate and whether or not he/she has a greenhouse. I have sprouts growing on my counter, and we grow herbs and some vegetables (like beet greens) in a sunny window. All it takes is a bit of imagination.

Most of us do most of our canning in the late summer/early fall, because that's when most of the food is piling up and needing to be eaten or preserved for future use. We do a fair amount of canning here at Chez Brown during that time, but what I'm finding is that canning isn't just for September. Harvesting isn't just for July and August. Growing isn't just from May to October. Planting isn't just for April.

In the early days here on our homestead, I wasted a lot of time thinking that I had to do certain things at certain times of the year. Back in those days, I put away the canning equipment in October, and it didn't come back out again until the following year.

This year, especially, my canning stuff has moved back into my kitchen, and I'm looking for a permanent storage place for it, because I'm using it - all of the time.

What I'm finding is that a great way to keep the leftovers, even better than freezing, is canning them. The other day, I made some chili, and there was a lot of it. I pressure canned the leftovers, rather than putting them in the refrigerator. What's nice about putting it in the pressure canner rather than in the fridge or freezer is that it makes it more portable, and it keeps longer. So, in April, when Deus Ex Machina needs to take lunch to work, he can grab a jar of chili, and his lunch can sit on his desk until he's ready to heat it up. No need to worry about putting it in the fridge.

Further, if something happens (which it occasionally does), and he doesn't eat the lunch he brought from home, he doesn't have to worry that it's sat on his desk all day.

Also, canning frees up space in the refrigerator and freezer, and it eliminates the likelihood that the item will go bad because it got shoved in the back of the refrigerator and turned blue.

We have a very busy lifestyle, and I like having ready-to-eat meals that only need a little heating up. Soup is perfect, especially this time of year, but we don't buy soup in cans from the store (just say no to BPA and its substitute BPS - both of which are chemicals that are toxic to the human body), but I'm not thinking of soup during the late summer and early fall canning season.

I do a lot of canning in September, but I'm still canning now, in January, too. Yesterday, I canned chicken broth and canned chicken meat (for making into chicken salad or adding to stir-fries). The other day, I canned chili. Neither load was a full canner, and so I also added jars of filtered water, which increases my emergency water supply and gives me a way to store my jars when they aren't filled with food ;).

We also use other preservation methods this time of year. Our dehydrator has a permanent place next to an outlet. I've been dehydrating a lot of leftover rice (which turns it into a "Minute Rice").

Fermenting is a year 'round endeavor, as well. We almost always have some beer or wine in the airlock, Kombucha on the counter or sauerkraut in a jar. Fermentation is a good way to use those long-storage fruits and vegetables that are nearing the end of their shelf life.

I've been spending the last month really thinking a lot about food preservation.

My daughters and I have been volunteering at our local food pantry. Pantry clients can visit twice a month for a specified amount of non-perishable food. Perishable foods, like bread and produce, are available to anyone at any time, because the pantry regularly receives donations of these food items, but they have a very short shelf-life, and the pantry has a finite amount of storage space. Anything that is moldy or questionable ends up in the pig box.

There are so many ways to take that food and extend the life of it. Much of the produce can be canned, fermented or dehydrated. The bread can be made into croutons.

I saw this recipe today for Sinless Cookies. All of the ingredients, except the chocolate chips, are almost always available at the pantry. I think I'm going to bring a copy of the recipe, and maybe a sample of the cookies, on my next volunteer day.

The cookies aren't about canning, but using old bananas rather than tossing them in the pig box is about preserving, and placed in an airtight container, these cookies will last longer than the bananas ... oh, and they sound delicious ;).

What's your favorite food preservation method?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hiding in Plain Sight

Happy New Year!

We had a great holiday season here at Chez Brown! Deus Ex Machina had two, glorious, restful weeks off from his job, and our new year dawned with a renewed resolve to live our authentic life. Changes set in place last year (which was actually a kind of tough year for us - spiritually, emotionally, and financially) will prove a positive outcome - at least, that's the outlook right now.

We made a few of the gifts we gave this season, and as usual, it was a blast planning and creating things for our family.

The most involved gift was the cloth checkers board/memory game. I'm told my grandson loves the checkers. I can't wait to play him.

The most fun, in a wacky kind of way, was the Jim Beam soap dispenser. We just took an old Jim Beam bottle and attached a soap dispenser nozzle on the top. I'm looking for a whiskey bottle for myself, now.

We made some oil lamps out of some glass bottles we collected over time.

I made a set of three pairs or pajama pants using an old flannel sheet.

My fashion-bug granddaughter received a skirt I made from a leftover animal print fabric I had.

For food gifts, we gave some of our homebrew, and combined with a jar of homemade pancake mix, we gave some of our 100% maple syrup.

I love being creative for gift-giving, but I realized that the only time I ever think about gifts is at Christmas time, and then, it's usually pretty close to the holiday before I start really thinking about things. This year, I'm resolving to be better, and in fact, I've already starting thinking about next year ... or perhaps, I'll start giving homemade on birthdays, too. Why should only Christmas be homemade?

I'm planning for next Christmas by saving links showing things (like this snowman made from mate-less socks) that I can make at home for very little money.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't even look twice at this kind of thing for a gift, but I do happen to know some people who collect snowmen, and so it would be appreciated. Personally, however, I'm not a fan of tchotchkes. Aside from the fact that I just don't dust, I also don't have room for such things. Shelves are for books or for storing my canned goods - not for displaying cutesy little ornaments, like snowmen.

That said, if one is into preparedness, there might be some wisdom in making room. In the video, the snowman is made from a mate-less sock. The sock is cut and then the openings are tied with a strong thread. It's filled with rice, and then, decorated.

When I was watching the video, my first thought was, "Oh, cute! And it could also be a hot/cold pack", because when I've made them in the past, I've added rice infused with lavender essential oil. We store them in the freezer and use them whenever one of my girls has a boo-boo. They can also be wrapped in foil and warmed in the oven (or on the woodstove if very carefully wrapped and then placed in a couple of bread pans raised above the very hot surface) and used as a hot pack. They're very useful things.

But then, I thought, if I made the snowman using beans I'd grown, they could be free - an idea, which I poo-poo'd almost immediately, as I eat those beans! They're food, not decorations.

Ah! And the clouds parted, and the sunlight illuminated the darkness below, and I had a sudden and beautiful epiphany!

In the story, The Good Earth, the protagonist loses his crop too many times to famine. Having grown up a peasant, however, he is wise to the need to secure what little they have, squirrel it away, if you will, and he hides a few beans in the walls of their mud hut. Like so many little scenes in the many books I've read in my four decades, that scene has stayed with me. A few beans is what kept them from starving. It's like Jack and the Bean Stalk - without the giant and the goose who laid the golden eggs.

I think about those things, and when I thought about the beans, and I thought about the prepper ideal of storing food, but the deep, deep fear that someone will come along and take it, as was depicted in the 2013 NatGeo special American Blackout, it seemed like having a few of those ornaments, stuffed with edible beans and rice, might actually be beneficial. If it doesn't look like food, the first raiders aren't going to take it, and once the second raiders have gone through, finding nothing left after the first raiders took every thing, word would spread that my house didn't have anything worth taking ... just a few ornaments and tchotchkes.

I've heard the saying before about hiding things in plain sight. Girls, dressed as boys, were saved from violence during wars. Hiding supplies in plain sight, or just making the best use of one's limited space by having dual purpose items, can be a very useful way to address the need to be prepared.

Here are 10 ways to store emergency supplies where everyone can see them, but no one will look:

1. Store bean and rice soup inside of a clear lamp. The variations in color and texture will make a nice conversation piece, and in a worst case scenario, you'll have a few meals.

2. Store potable water in pretty glass bottles set on high shelves. Colored bottles might not call too much attention, especially if they are on a shelf with other, similarly colored glass items. My friend has a whole collection of red glass objects: vases, bottles, plates, cups. If she put clean water in the bottles and corked them up, she could have an emergency water supply without taking away from the aesthetics of her gorgeously decorated kitchen or taking up storage space that could be used for something else.

3. Dried herbs in vases and/or hanging over doorways. We have a decorative soffit in our living room/dining room area, and I hang many vegetables and herbs to dry. To the uninitiated, it just looks ornamental, and I've even had my very décor-oriented gay neighbors compliment the French country look of the dried herbs and flowers. It was one of those *blink*, *blink* moments of confusion, for me, because it wasn't décor. It was me actually trying to preserve my harvest. Then, one autumn day, I was in the craft store, and I noticed the ornamental corn, which looked a lot like the field corn I had hanging from the ceiling in my dining room. It was another Aha! Moment.

4. Vases of dried flowers weighted with coins. At first glimpse the coins will just look like filler. If there are also shells or sea glass or colored beads, it won't look like a jar of money at all, but rather a cutesy little decoration. Gold dollars would add color and sparkle, and since most people don't ever deal with gold dollars (which look a lot like the game tokens one gets at the arcades these days), in a snatch and grab situation, those little ornamentals might not even get a second glance.

5. And speaking of hiding cash in plain sight, having a bowl or ornamental mug (like one of the German beer steins) filled from the bottom to halfway with real coins, and then topped with either obsolete foreign coins (like German pfennigs) or game tokens would keep those cash reserves safe from theft. In a rush, they aren't going to take the time to look at every coin.

6. No one is going to look in a kids' room for food or water, which would make it a great place for storing said items. When my oldest daughter was a youngster, she had this doll that was filled with water and it was supposed to make it feel like a real baby. Honest. It's a real thing, and I looked it up. They are still selling them! Like, isn't this the preppers dream toy? A doll that can contain real, drinkable water that looks nothing like stored water. Very cool! Beans, rice, corn, wheat berries, and sproutable seeds can all be stored inside of stuffed animals. Little Sally's teddy bear is not going to be the first place the hungry mob is going to be looking for food, either.

7. Houseplants. It's all about the presentation, isn't it? If it looks like a garden, neat, straight, weed-free rows of corn and beans or caged tomatoes, people will look at it like it's a garden and eat from it, but if it's a lettuce plant tucked between a few bushes, or a hardy, leafy plant growing in a pot near a sunny window, the average person might not see it as food. Depending on the pot, we could grow a whole array of food plants that just look like pretty houseplants.

8. Weapons. A lot of preppers make a big deal out of the need to store weapons and ammo. While I'm not arguing either for or against that idea, I'm not against weapons, and, in fact, we own a few. Deus Ex Machina, for instance, is a bow hunter, and so we have his compound bow, and my daughters have learned to handle a bow, as well. We also have knives (which are tools, not weapons) and my youngest was learning to use a sling shot. Disassembled, the sling shot doesn't look like much of anything to the untrained eye, but even if someone figured out what it is, without the shot, it's not really very useful. The shot is, essentially, little marbles made of either steel or glass. Either of those could definitely be stored, right in plain sight, in a clear vase or in the base of a lamp. In fact, with some creative tooling, the whole lamp could be the sling shot, disassembled. The sling shot attaches to a base and holds up the shade. The band is part of the shade, and the shot is in the glass base. Someone should craft that very cool lamp. It could be a money maker.

9. Tools. There are a lot of little gadgety things on the market - multi-use tools, which look cool. Attached to a wall, it might just look like art, but could be life-saving for opening cans and bottles, starting fires, turning screws sawing logs, etc. In the above mentioned NatGeo special, one couple returns to their 46th Floor penthouse apartment with a stolen can of peaches only to realize that they don't have a can opener. Both Deus Ex Machina and I carry a P-38, which used to be included in the military rations. It's a can opener, but oh, so much more. There are also tools like walking sticks (which can also be used as weapons with the right knowledge/training) and with a divot cut out to make it an apple harvesting stick. It doesn't look like an apple picker, but it can be. In a corner, leaned up against a wall, it looks like a stick, but in the right hands, it could be a very handy tool.

10. Books. There is a book for every topic. Many of the skills I've cultivated over the last decade have been learned through books. I started my food preservation by learning to make strawberry jam from the Back to Basics book, and now, I'm canning really complicated foods, like chicken and beans. Deus Ex Machina learned to brain tan hides using Tom Brown's book, Living with the Earth. We've learned to preserve food, plant a garden, butcher our animals, secure clean water, harvest wild plants, cook, knit, and many other skills through reading. And over the years we have built a huge library of incredibly invaluable resources. When the hungry hoards come to take our food, it will be a blow for us, because we've spent so much time canning and preserving and purchasing that food, but we have the knowledge and skill to get more. Our books are one of the best and most valuable of our prepping supplies ... and the best part is that no one will ever look twice at them as being something they'd want to take in a worst case scenario.

Well, and then, there's also the hollowed out book with all the valuables. Good luck finding that book in my enormous collection :).

Hiding in plain sight is also known as natural camouflage, and it works for many animals. It can work in our favor as preppers, too.

I know the rice-filled snowman will be on the Gifts from the Homestead list this year. I'll also be trying to incorporate more emergency supplies masquerading as décor. I wonder if my oldest daughter would like another Water Baby ... only, maybe, these days, she'd prefer it filled with wine ... or Tequila ;).

Friday, December 26, 2014

Clean Air and Water ... Way More Important Than Electricity. Just sayin'.

It's interesting to me when I hear people complaining about the EPA, particularly in regard to the recent more strict air quality regulations, but when stuff like the events that resulted in this over 200 acre "superfund" site happen, people get angry if the EPA does nothing. Granted, the dumping that occurred on this site happened many years ago, but it also continued for decades during which open pits of harsh chemicals and heavy metals just sat, seeping into the ground water ... and, eventually, flowing into the very fragile eco-system that is the Scarborough Salt Marsh ... and then, out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Deus Ex Machina and I have a friend who worked for the water company a while back, and he said that tests of the ground water in my area (only a few miles from this site) tested positive for arsenic. I think he has been trying to discourage my talk of digging a "garden well", because, in his belief, the ground water isn't safe.

A few years ago, Deus Ex Machina and I were looking at purchasing a house that was a few miles inland and in another community. Ultimately, we opted out of purchasing the house, because the water test came back with higher-than-we-were-comfortable-with levels of arsenic in the well. I didn't, really, know what it all meant, except that I had just given birth to a beautiful little girl who'd spent a week in the NICU and two more weeks in the hospital on antibiotics, and I wasn't going to risk doing any damage to her fragile system with bad water.

This house was sitting on top of a granite bedrock, and we were told, at that time, that drilling for wells through the bedrock was what caused the higher than okay levels of that particular heavy metal.

The common belief is that the ground water in much of Maine has fairly high levels of arsenic, because of that bedrock, although fairly high may be somewhat subjective, as the acceptably safe number of parts-per-million keeps changing, perhaps in response to learning that higher levels aren't good.

That said, given what I've learned about the superfund site that is, essentially, in my neighborhood, I wonder how much of the problem with contaminants in the groundwater in my neighborhood is because of naturally occurring arsenic and how much of it is due to industrial pollutants that weren't properly disposed of.

The fact is that humans need air, and we need water - both of which have been significantly polluted thanks to our incessant quest for more advanced technologies. When we learn that some "evil empire", some "corporate thug", has been polluting our environment and causing cancer or birth defects, we get all pissy and moany and start clamoring for something to be done. We call Erin Brockovich and she swoops in with her litigation experience and sues those bad guys for millions (which is little more than a pesky gnat to a multi-billion dollar company), of which the real victims get piddly, and Ms. Brockovich gets famous.

But, then, the next day, we find out that the EPA is cracking down on polluters, which might mean rolling black outs and/or brown outs for some parts of the country. And, suddenly, we don't give a shit about whether that coal-burning power plant is sending carcinogenic particles into the air, or the process required to get the coal in the first place is resulting in toxic sludge pits that have contaminated the ground water in hundreds of communities that are unfortunate enough to be located in areas of the country that are rich in that particular mineral.

We want natural gas ... until natural gas is being fracked in our community and the water coming out of our tap is flammable.

We want the electricity generated by Maine Yankee, until there's a meltdown in Fukishima and we all freak out about what will happen when it happens here.

The EPA is monitoring that superfund site up the road from my house. So far, nothing is leaking ... we hope. I'm glad the EPA is there. I'm sure the farmer a few miles up the road and all of the suburbanites who've built their McMansions around the corner and down the road are, too.

And now, the EPA is being called all manner of bad names, because they're going to make it tougher for electricity producers to continue polluting our air (which also, eventually, pollutes soil and water).

We need clean water and clean air to survive as a species. And we need the biodiversity of other plants and animals to have clean air and clean water so that they can survive, because we're dependent on those species for the survival of our species.

We're all connected. We all live or die ... together.

I applaud the stricter regulations, because I don't want the air quality that many of the Chinese are having to breath these days. Unless it's fog, air so thick you can see it is not something I want going into my lungs.

I can deal with brown outs and rolling blackouts. I'd even be okay with regular, scheduled black outs (and I'd actually prefer it be scheduled so that I could be ready. You know?), if it meant that I could have clean water and clean air. I like my computer, and I like the Internet, and I like this blog, but I'd even give up electricity, if doing so would ensure I'd have clean water and clean air.

How about you? Would you give up unlimited access to electricity (from coal-fired, natural gas, and nuclear plants, in particular) to ensure clean drinking water and clean air?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tomato Soup on Salad? Yep.

My daughters and I are volunteering once a week at the food pantry. It's been an incredible experience so far. I have some pretty amazing kids. Just sayin'.

The pantry is really neat, and I like the way they run things. There are certain items that are limited, and each person who comes into the pantry gets a set number of these. For instance, if it's a family of four, they are allowed to pick fourteen of these special grocery items. What's really neat is that the family is permitted to pick their own items, which probably cuts down on overall waste, as folks can pick what they know how to use and know they will eat. The pantry always has bread - lots and lots of bread. And in fact, while people are limited to twice monthly visits to the pantry for regular grocery items, they can come whenever they need to get bread.

The other item that's available in quantity that no one seems to want is tomato soup. What's that saying, we can't give the stuff away.

Last week, I thought, maybe people just don't want plain tomato soup, and so I found a bunch of simple recipes for using, mostly, items they could find at the pantry to add to tomato soup to make it more of a meal.

Today, at the pantry, along with the millions of cans of tomato soup (and bread), they also had been given bags and bags of precut lettuce and heads and heads of iceberg lettuce. I kept looking at that tomato soup and all that lettuce, and I figured there must be a recipe of some kind that uses tomato soup as an ingredient for salad dressing.

And so there are! Lots and lots of recipes, and from what I could find, it appeared that tomato soup based dressing is basically a French dressing.

This one was my favorite, because it used the soup can as a measuring cup, and the ingredient list was pretty simple.

Next week, I'm going to bring the recipe (it makes a quart) and maybe a case of wine vinegar to donate ... and I'm thinking I might even make some of the dressing myself as a sample.

I'm also thinking, some salad topped with tomato soup French Dressing and some toasted bread would be quite delicious for lunch.

Monday, December 22, 2014

It Did Happen!

There's a running joke in my family when someone makes a blunder that if there's no picture, it didn't happen.

I used to be very good about having a camera ready. I took it with me everywhere ... and I have the pictures to prove it. Back in those days, I would compile the pictures at the end of the year for our homeschool portfolio - which is very much like a yearbook one might get from school. It was a wonderful way to look back at the year and remember all of the awesome places we went and things we saw.

Then, we started using rechargeable batteries that had this way of always dying right when I was about to take the best picture. I think I missed a lot of moments.

So, when I see blogs of friends and virtual friends filled with the pictures of their lives, I'm a little envious, because, while I always seem to miss that perfect shot, we have so many of those same kinds of perfect moments. I just don't have any pictures to prove it.

Of our Solstice celebration, very few pictures were taken, but it did happen, and while we didn't record those memories in digital images, I hope that they are burned in our brains as a wonderful time of family togetherness ...

... Big Little Sister making dinner, which we ate (for the first time in a very long time) all together at the table (because our table has been covered with stuff since emptying the back room so that we could rebuild it - which is still happening).

... Decorating the Yule log with our thanks for the blessings of the year past and hopes for next year.

... Giving each other one special gift.

... Apples to Apples and Scrabble - and losing the games, but winning at spending quality time with my awesome family!

... Baking wish bread that ended up being breakfast, because by the time it was finished baking, half the family had gone to bed ;).

We had talked about staying up to greet the sun, but it didn't happen. Even on the Solstice, Deus Ex Machina prefers to adhere to the wisdom of Ben Franklin - early to bed ... and all that.

Sometimes, at least just for having something to share of our lives here on this blog, I wish that I were better at remembering to take pictures ...

... but then, if I always had my hands filled with a camera, I wouldn't be able to roll dough balls into wishes with Precious ... and she might enjoy the picture later, but I know she enjoyed making the wish bread now, and now is what matters ... now.

Wishing everyone a joyful abundance this Holiday season!