Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How's the Weather Up There?

The maple sugaring season is over.  For the first time since we started sugaring, we actually missed the season.  Not entirely.  We were able to harvest enough sap for a couple of pints of syrup, but we're too keenly aware that if we depended on maple syrup as our only sweetener for the whole year, it would have been a long, bitter wait for next years' sugaring season. 

Someone told me that the season was in January this year, and we did have a really warm spell, but  then, it started to snow, again, and it snowed, a lot. 

And then, it warmed up and the snow melted, and the season was over.  We ended up procuring (through barter) a couple of quarts from a farmer friend.  Hooray for farmer friends!  As it turns out, I do have something I can trade with a farmer.

So, the snow is mostly melted, except in those few places where it was piled up by the plows in shady spots that the sun can't reach.  The other day, temps were in the 70s, and we took our dogs for a long walk.  We found some snow. 


I was reading this article this morning.  I pulled this quote from it: Virtually every growing environmental and health problem can be traced back to modern food production.

According to the article, in my children's lifetime, we will no longer be able to farm the land.  The topsoil will be sterile or gone.

I have a quarter of an acre, and I know that I don't produce 100% of the food my family eats - not even close. 

But I also don't work full-time (or even part-time) at it.  If my broccoli is overrun by weeds; if I miss the sugaring season, because we're hip-deep in dance competition season; if I drop an egg on my way in from the coop; if a squirrel eats most of my apples; if the birds get most of the hazel nuts; if ... if ... if ... it doesn't matter, because I can go to the grocery store and buy food. 

And I know all of this. 

But I also know that nothing is a given, and I still work at planting a garden and raising chickens and tapping our maple trees so that we have syrup, because I need these skills - just in case. 

And if just in case doesn't happen, so what? 

I planted a whole seed packet of peas and carrots yesterday - in containers, because I'm saving the garden beds for cabbage and broccoli, and the straw bales for potatoes and tomatoes.  The garlic is calf high already and the fruit trees and nut bushes have buds. 

My annual vegetable garden this year is only going to have a very few varieties - things we eat a lot of, that are easy to cook in single pots on the woodstove, and which I can preserve in some way - peas, carrots, cabbage, potatoes and tomatoes. 

The summer is already looking like it will be very busy with lots of traveling for Deus Ex Machina and our girls.  I, on the other hand, plan to spend a lot of time outside, in the garden, growing food.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Signs of Spring

Baby Chicks


Sunny, warm(ish) days spent in work boots and torn jeans

Deus Ex Machina and I were chatting yesterday about weather stuff.  We laughed at how in the fall, when the temps dip into the 50s, we're wondering when we should start lighting the stove, but this time of year, when the temperatures climb into the 50s, we're opening the windows to invite in the warm breeze.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Gift of the Maple

Many years ago, Deus Ex Machina and I were in a hardware store.  I don't remember what we were getting.  There on the counter were maple sugaring spiles.  We knew we had some maple trees on our property.

So, I held the spile up to Deus Ex Machina and asked if he wanted to get some.  He was skeptical, but game.  Not wanting to appear too naïve (i.e. ignorant), we carefully inquired about what else we would need to tap our trees.  The list was pretty short.

**  We'd need one spile per tree we planned to tap. 
**  We'd need a 5/8" drill bit to drill the hole (and we only needed that particular size, because that's the size most commercial spiles are made). 
**  We'd need something to catch the sap in - any food grade bucket or container will work. 
**  We'd probably want to cover the bucket or container to keep out debris and rain. 
**  We'd need a way to attach the container to the spile.

The hardware store employees outfitted us with three spiles with the little hooks for the buckets, one 5/8" drill bit, and three food grade buckets.

And we tapped our trees.

We used plastic bags from the grocery store to cover the buckets. 

That first year, we boiled the sap on our propane grill.  It took a long time, and being an engineer-type, Deus Ex Machina studied the problem.  He told me that to get maximum efficiency during the boil-down phase, it was a surface area to blah-tee, blah, and my eyes glazed over or something.

What he meant, I discovered, was that the sap will boil the best and most efficiently if more of the pan is on the heat surface - shallower, wider pans work best.

A decade later, and we have almost twenty taps with buckets and lids.  We also have two 5" deep pans that are approximately 24" square.  We usually boil outside over a wood fire.  We end up with a really dark, smoky-flavored syrup.  It's good, and we like it.

There's not a very big learning curve for boiling sap to syrup.  Once the tree is tapped and the sap collected, all that's, really, required is a pan to hold the sap while it boils and a heating surface.  We use wood.  Some people use a fancy evaporator.  We've used our propane grill.  We've also used a propane turkey fryer.  My friend boils her sap in her kitchen on her electric stove (she has a direct vent to the outside to keep the steam from soaking her kitchen).

Today, I am boiling sap on my woodstove.  It will also take a turn on the electric stove, but while I have the woodstove hot enough to boil water, I'm using that surface to save on my electric bill. 

It will probably take longer to boil it that way, because I'm using a big, deep kettle, instead of a shallow pan, but it's okay, because I don't have anywhere else that I need to be.  It's a slow, rain-chilled day, perfect for a slow, warming activity, like boiling sap to syrup.

I made a cup of tea earlier, using the hot sap rather than water.  I didn't need to add any extra sugar.  It was sweet enough to be wonderful.

I know that I consume too much sugar. We all do.  I also know that if my family could cut our sugar consumption that with our twenty taps, even in a bad year, we could make enough maple syrup to satisfy our sugar need for the whole year.

There's so much that's possible.  Usually, it's just a matter of deciding that it needs to be done ... and then, just doing it.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

No, It's Not Your Imagination. We Are All Completely Crazy!

I am completely overwhelmed right now.  It's like when I first started hearing about GMOs.  I just knew that I had to do something.  As it turns out my something was completely inadequate, and while I've managed to minimize the GMOs that my family consumes, it doesn't matter.  Most people don't think anything about it. 

We have no idea what the long-term consequences will be of genetically modifying seeds and then planting those seeds outside where they can be open pollinated and the seeds can be allowed to disperse on the summer breezes.  We know what happens when alien species are loosed on fragile environments.  We know about invasive species and the resultant species loss.  You'd think that we'd be more cautious and concerned about these, not only alien, but also unnatural, seeds being allowed free-rein. 

But GMOs are cheaper at the grocery store, and cheaper wins.  Always.  And we're okay with that.

We're okay with that.

The other day I saw this meme on Facebook.  There were two pictures. 

The top picture was titled, "1950s" and showed a woman on the phone speaking in hushed posture.  The caption read, "I don't want to say out loud.  They might be wiretapping my phone." 

The bottom picture was titled, "2016" and showed a woman in her kitchen holding a cellphone.  The caption said, "Hey, wiretap.  Do you have a recipe for (something - I don't recall)?"

If we think about it - I mean REALLY think about it - it's chilling how far we've slid into this kind of apathy when it comes to external control and monitoring of our lives.  Back in the 1950s, the idea of  Big Brother watching our every move was horrifying.  These days, we have a whole TV genre devoted to people living in conditions in which they know their every move is being taped, watched, and scrutinized ... and we're okay with that.

We're okay with that.

There's this BBC television series called Black Mirror.  It's available on Netflix, and a friend told Deus Ex Machina that we should check it out.  It's the most disturbing thing I think I've ever seen. 

It's similar to the Twilight Zone, a television series from back in the 1950s and early 1960s in which, as they describe it, "ordinary people find themselves in extraordinarily astounding situations."  There was the one episode about the guy with the nagging wife.  All he wanted to do was read, and she just nagged, nagged, nagged all of the time.  Then, one day, there was an atomic explosion, and his wife was killed.  He found himself in a library with all the books he could read for the rest of his life.  Then, he leaned over and broke his glasses.

The television show, Black Mirror, is similar-ish, because it takes these situations that are extraordinary, but completely plausible - based on where we are heading as a society.  Many of the episodes we have seen deal with our increasing dependence on technology, especially social media.  In one episode society revolves around one's popularity on social media, and everyone is rated every day based on personal interactions with others.  Rudeness to a server will result in a downgrade.  Smiling kindly at a stranger could result in an uptick.  The goal is to achieve a 4.5 or higher rating, because people in that category receive all sorts of social perks, like discounts on trendy, high end apartments.  People with lower popularity scores find that they are ineligible for certain amenities, like renting a newer model car. 

But it's just like with money in our society.  Those who have it, somehow always find a way to get more of it.  Those who don't have it, struggle every day, just to have enough to get by.  It's a constant battle.

Essentially, it's just exactly what we have in our society right now with regard to economics, but with social media ratings.  People who are lower on the socio-economic ladder have fewer social perks than people who make more money.  And please note that even our word for one's "level" is social-economic, because our social status is very much entwined with our ability to pay.

The law in the United States was specifically written in an attempt to eliminate an aristocracy, but somehow we've still managed to cultivate this, sort of, class society.  Poor people are the lowest class (don't we even call them upper class and lower class?) with the least ability to move freely about society.  The upper class can, essentially, do whatever they want - cheat, steal, destroy, perpetuate violent crimes, even murder, and get away with it, because they have the ability to purchase away their crimes.

The BBC show was a lot like Wall-E - a very blatant criticism of our social structure.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

People at the top aren't interested in what happens to the people at the bottom, and in fact, will continue to simply live their lives as they have been for centuries - with little regard for others as long as they remain comfortable.  Let them eat cake!  Oh, but then, pass an ordinance that prohibits baking so that they have to purchase the cake that they will eat ... or they have to go hungry. 

The sad, sad fact is that even people at the bottom, as they try climbing that social ladder, will show these same sorts of apathy toward others.  We have all sorts of clichéd statements to describe the phenomenon of stepping on others as we try to increase/improve our own social standing.

The fact is that all of the jobs that we do to maintain our way of life are extremely important.  Don't think so?  Try figuring out what to do when the garbage is overflowing and no one is taking it away.   Why do we think garbage men are less important than CEOs? 

I imagine that in a completely uncivilized life system, the organisms involved don't have these sorts of personal conflicts where their importance is questioned by someone higher on the food chain.  They are all important.  They all do a job that is necessary.  If one organism fails to do his job, everyone suffers.  Even the lowly fly larvae serve a very valuable and necessary function.

I watch these shows, and I'm terrified for us, as a culture.  We're heading down a very slippery slope.  Fiction writers have been warning us against it for decades, and instead of heeding those warnings, we're happily grabbing all of the amenities that our culture is giving us, thinking, "Oh, that makes life BETTER!"

But we're sicker, and we're sadder. 

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Seems we might be a bit insane, as well.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Yes, America, Climate Change WILL Affect You, Too

I was reading this article yesterday.  For those who don't want to click-through, it's about the perception of "climate change" by the American public.  The gist is that most Americans believe that Climate Change is a real thing - that is, that the climate is changing, and it could be a problem that, maybe, someone should do something about.

As the article points out, however, that problem is that, while most Americans recognize the fact of Climate Change, most of them don't believe it will really affect them.  I mean, we all know that those of us living on the coasts might end up having to move, because our houses will get flooded when the oceans rise, but what-evs, right?  We live in a mobile, disposable society.  Who cares if we have to move off the beach and further up the hill?

Unfortunately, it's really not that simple.  There are, actually, deeper concerns than just ocean rise that WILL affect us.

I read this article a few weeks ago.  It's been in the back of my head to say something about it, but I didn't know what to say, until I saw that report about the common view of how climate change will affect us. 

For those who don't want to click through, the article is entitled "The Five Big Mass Extinctions", and according to the article, around 251 million years ago, there was an eruption near Siberia that sent massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and "methanogenic bacteria responded by belching out methane (a greenhouse gas)."  The combination of the two events caused a warming of the planet and an acidification of the oceans, resulting in a 96% species loss.  In short, life on Earth was nearly wiped out.

CO2?  Greenhouse gasses?  Global warming?  Acidifying oceans?  Sound familiar?

The end of the world is all too scary and catastrophic for the average, chick-flick-loving American to think too much about, and so we tend to bury our heads in the proverbial sands and just go about our day.  But the reality is that there are less apocalyptic events than the end of life on Earth that ARE occurring and that DO affect us.

First there is the issue of species migration.  When Deus Ex Machina was a kid, there was no such thing as opossum living in Maine.  I see them here all of the time, now.  They've migrated north with the warming of the overall temperatures. 

Opossum going north?  So what, you say?  Yeah, it's probably a good thing, actually, because opossum eat ticks.  Ticks are the main, known vector for Lyme disease.  In the last forty years, since it was first discovered, Lyme disease has proven to be a lot worse than was originally thought.  In fact, in a recent article Dr. Mercola states that Lyme will "plague America."  Most of us living in the northeast know someone who has had or does have Lyme.  It's a real issue. 

Ticks aren't the only disease vectors, and insects who carry potentially fatal diseases are moving into areas where they weren't normally found, because the environment for them has become more hospitable.  Tropical diseases, like West Nile, are finding their way into places as far north as New York City.  Zika?  Yep, on it's way up

Of course, that's no big deal, right, because they'll spray the mosquitoes, and we can just avoid ticks by staying out of the woods, or we can use a bug spray to protect ourselves.  Ignore that pesky evolution thing, you know, that allows species to mutate and develop immunities.

There are other issues that will, at least, marginally affect all of us.

One of the most concerning has to do with growing food.  Most of the produce we Americans find in our grocery stores is grown in California - an area that is being plagued by a decades-long drought.  There are places in southern California where their water supplies have completely dried out.  Changing climate patterns are going to exacerbate the drought conditions.  How much longer we will be able to depend on that area for our food production? 

Or, worse, when will they start to transport water, the way we transport oil, from water-rich places to those agricultural centers?  When will they start to take Maine's water to hydrate the fields in California?

Water wars are already happening in other parts of the world.  Lake Chad sits on the border between Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon on the African continent.  Over the past several decades, it has been shrinking.  The millions of people who have depended on the lake for their water are finding themselves in dire straits, with each country claiming the rights of access to that water for its citizens.  Imagine if Lake Superior started getting smaller, and the people of Michigan started to feel like the Canadians were taking more than their share of the water, but water is life, and we all need it to exist.  Both the Americans and the Canadians would fight for the right to access that water.  That's what's happening with Lake Chad.   As the lake recedes, there's less water, but there are the same number of people needing that water.

Another issue has to do with rising temperatures, and I know, this time of year, especially here in Maine, where I look out my window and I see snow still blanketing everything, summer heat seems a distant promise, but there are parts of the US where they may experience more than just heat.

I lived in the southeast US for most of my childhood and early adulthood.  I spent my elementary and junior high school years in Georgia and Alabama.  I lived in Kentucky as a teenager.  After I graduated from college, I moved to Florida for a little bit.  After I joined the military, I spent just over two years in South Carolina, Alabama and Texas.

The one commonality of all of those places was the astronomical summer temperatures combined with oppressive humidity (yes, even in Texas the humidity was oppressive).  I used to joke that we had to have gills to live there. 

It was only half of a joke, actually, and there is a term that is used to measure the combined heat and humidity.  It's called "wet bulb."  I actually experienced what wet bulb can do to a body when I was living in the south.  The gist is when the temperature rises, the human physiological response is to sweat.  When the sweat evaporates, it cools our skin and keeps our core temperature from rising.

The problem is that when the air is already too heavy with water (humidity), it can't evaporate our sweat off our skin, and we end up just dripping, but not cooling.  As a youngster, I suffered heat exhaustion when my body couldn't cool itself. 

One of the results of climate change will be an increase in the wet bulb phenomenon in the US southeast, and at some point, those places where I lived as a youth in Alabama, Georgia and the panhandle of Florida, may no longer be habitable by humans during the summer.

This year, we experienced a very long "January thaw", and we tapped our maples.  Unfortunately, for us, the weather turned cold and snowy again, and we haven't, really, harvested enough sap to boil.  We may or may not have any syrup this year.

The maple sugaring industry here in Maine has been hard hit for the past several years, thanks to some really weird weather.  Most of the last five years of sugaring have been short seasons for us.  For the sap to run, the nights have to be below freezing, and the days have to be above freezing.  We haven't had long enough stretches of that occurring for the last few years for commercial sugar houses to make what they used to make.  When sugarers get less sap, but still have to do the same amount of work to get the syrup, the price of the syrup increases.

Maybe most folks don't care about *real* maple syrup, but for those of us who do, it is a real-life example of how climate change is personally affecting us. 

Look around you.  There is something similar happening in your world - an insect or animal that wasn't in your town a few years ago but has suddenly appeared on the landscape; a plant that used to thrive in your climate that no longer grows well; a plant that your climate couldn't sustain that is suddenly thriving; more water in places where there used to be none; streams or lakes drying up; birds that used to migrate that have become year round residents. 

Climate change is real, and it's a real threat to life as we know it.  We probably can't stop it, now that it's already happening, but being aware can at least allow us to make some changes in our own lives that will help us weather the effects. 

I don't know how many more years we'll have maple syrup, but as a hedge, I could start planting other tap-able trees that were not cold hardy enough for our past climate.  Chances are, they'll do fine now, as my hardiness zone grows warmer.