Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Teaching This Old Dog New Tricks

Every other Wednesday for the month of April, my family went to this amazing farm where we attended a series of classes called The Earth is Our Home with these amazing people.

The first week was pre-cambrian maple sap boiling (that is, using smokin' hot rocks *not from a river* to boil sap in a wooden bowl). It was very interesting to us, in particular, because it happened to coincide perfectly with our own maple sugaring here at home.

The second week was making buckskin pouches. That day was a lot of fun, and in addition to learning to sew buckskin, we also learned some skills to help us be more observant.

Today's class, and the one I was actually most anticipating, was Wild Greens Day. Today, we foraged in the woods, and we ate what we gathered. It was amazing, and there is an amazing amount of food out there.

Chris said that he and Ashirah forage about 50% of their diet this time of year.

Talk about local ... and sustainable!

As a thank you to John and Stacy (the stewards of Broadturn Road Farm), we all helped them plant their potato crop - seven rows of potatoes, probably the length of a football field. That's a lot of potatoes!

I had the opportunity to talk a bit with Stacy. I asked her if they hand plant all of their crops. The answer was yes, and so I started telling her about my meager, little potato patch (all 16 sq feet of it), and she said she dreamed of something like mine. I thought it ironic, because I dream of something like what she has.

After a day outside in the woods, learning about foraging wild greens, and planting a (much larger) potato crop (than I'll ever plant here), I feel exhilarated, and incredibly tired ... but in a very good way.

And what did I learn?

It doesn't matter how the potato goes into the ground (although I'd heard it should be planted eyes up).

Japanese knotweed (which is an incredibly invasive, non-native species here) makes a great pie filling when mixed with maple syrup ... it's kind of like rhubarb.

A mess of dandelion greens tastes pretty, freakin' awesome sauted with a bit of butter and cheese crumbles.

And I can make a pretty decent pie crust out in the woods with a bit of flour, some butter, and a little water.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lovin' My House

For all of its quirks and eccentricities, I will say that since we added insulation to some key areas, the temperature inside is usually considerably more comfortable than that of the outside.

I had no idea it was so warm out today. I spent the morning doing chores inside, including baking bread. Right now it's near 80° outside (very unusual for this time of year, by the way), but inside, it's a very comfortable 69°.

In fact, when I was looking out of the windows just a bit ago, watching the wind blowing the baby chicks' feathers, I was thinking they might be a little chilly, seeing as how this is their first day out of the house and all. They aren't. Not at all. In fact, they're panting, because it's so warm.

But it is cool inside, naturally cool, because we have no air conditioner.

That's why I'm lovin' my house - warm when it's cold out and cool when it's warm out ... without electricity.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Tried, Failed, Done Trying and Moving On

I'm still trying, unsuccessfully, to share my experience of having a family member move in. Unfortunately, it still sounds too much like I'm complaining.

And really, it wasn't that bad, but in a lot of ways, it kind of was.

What I've come to realize, however, is that I have no advice. As I was drafting my story, I realized that there was very little that I would have done differently.

For instance, my guests brought with them a dog, who wasn't housebroken (although I didn't know this little piece of fact) and who had fleas (to which my twelve year old chow-chow is highly allergic), and an unneutered male cat who found a spot he liked in every single room with carpeting and marked it ... every day (and I spent Easter Sunday shampooing the carpets while Deus Ex Machina took the girls over to his sister's house for dinner and an egg hunt).

The alternative would have been to have told them they could not bring their pets. But ...

... our animal shelters are currently overburdened with the number of surrendered animals from families who can no longer afford to keep them. I don't know that I could, even now, force my "guests" to give up their animals so that they could stay with me temporarily. Besides we have two dogs and have had cats in the past, but with all of my years of pet-ownership, I never anticipated how difficult adding a third dog and the very well hydrated cat would be.

Verde asked if I had reread Sharon's infamous Brother-in-law on the Couch post, and the answer is no, not while they were here.

But I had thought about it a lot. In fact, one of the options I'd seriously considered for keeping our house in the event of a loss of income would have been to take in a boarder, or two, and I had thought a great deal about how we could rearrange people and rooms to accommodate more people.

In short, in the event that our home became the "go to" place, I had a plan.

In retrospect, I think there are just experiences in our lives where we can plan all day long, but until we actually get into that situation, we're just sketching phantoms. I had all kinds of thoughts about what it would be like. Suffice it to say that my fantasy and my reality were very different.

There are things I could have done better, I'm sure. There are things my guests could have done better, too.

The good news is that I'm exploring other options for keeping my house, and that I didn't end up getting stuck with boarders on whom I was dependent, but who were making my life less wonderful than it is.

The bad news is that I'm much less inclined to open my home to those who might need my assistance in the future.

At least, not without drafting a written agreement, signed in blood ... and no pets allowed ... especially cats.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


We no longer use regular granulated sugar, which is made from sugar beets, and isn't real sugar anyway. Some time ago, I switched, first to "raw" sugar (and I have a funny story about canning with white sugar and my daughter asking why the sugar was white - because she'd become accustomed to seeing sugar as large, brown-colored crystals :), and then to cane sugar, as raw sugar is about twice as expensive.

So, I've been using this brand of sugar, which is only available to me in these little plastic bags.

According to their website, and the information printed all over the packaging, the sugars produced by this company "are the first American sugar products certifed Carbonfree".

So, last night, when I was pouring the last bit of sugar out of the bag and into the sugar bowl, I turned the bag over and over looking for the recycling symbol. One would think that a company that made such a point of talking about their carbon-freeness would be sure to take more care that their packaging was in keeping with their company's mission statement of Eco-Friendly practices.

The bag went into the garbage.

This morning, I found a link to this company.

Very cool!

The products are made from all non-recyclable materials that might otherwise end up in a garbage dump somewhere (like the bag that contains the "carbon-free" cane sugar).

While the best answer is always *use less*, it's good to know that someone has discovered a (good) use for our garbage ...

... and they'll pay for the trash, too.

I don't think they take Florida Crystals bags, yet, but eventually, it's possible that I'll be packing our "on the road" snacks in a lunch box made from recycled bags that used to hold my sugar.

Now, that's innovation!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sustainable Quickie II

In the list of 100 Items to Disappear First Coleman Fuel (propane fuel canisters) is number six, which leads me to believe it's a pretty important item, in the author's opinion.

I've published the link to the list many times, and so obviously, I think it's a good resource, but what concerns me about this list, and others I've seen, is the assumption that the "emergency" will be temporary, and then, things will get back to "normal." In the coming times, I believe this assumption will be an incredibly misguided one. In my opinion, we're not going to be climbing back up this slippery slope we're sliding down right now. When we hit bottom, we'll have what we have, and once the consumables are used up, they won't be renewed - at least in the form we have them today.

As such, I think a dependence on those things as an alternative is going to leave many of us sorely disappointed. The list advises that one can not have enough Coleman fuel, and if one intends to be solely dependent on one's camp stove for cooking, I would heartily agree.

Except that ...

At some point, no matter how much one stores, without the ability to replenish one's reserves, it will get used up.

And then what?

My advice, therefore, would be to enjoy the campstove, for camping, and rather than store up a bunch of propane fuel in tidy little (contents under pressure) canisters, make a more permanent, long-term solution.

Fire is the element that enabled man to advance as far as we have. It gave us warmth, which enabled us to expand our range from climates that can support a virtually unprotected body into more inhospitable territory (like Europe). It allowed us to cook things that are otherwise inedible, like potatoes (unless you're my eight year old, who eats them raw). It gave us light on the darkest nights, which enabled us to work longer hours. Fire is the thing that separates man from beasts, and the ability to control it is a uniquely human characteristic.

In modern society, we've replaced fire with oil for all of those things, but in our future, it's very likely that we'll relearn our dependence on this amazing element.

The key will be knowing how to make it. So, while Coleman fuel is good in the short-term, in the long-term, we'll need to have other resources and/or more skill.

In addition to the dozens of boxes of wooden matches I hoard, we have about half a dozen of these:

They are called magnesium fire starters, and all that's needed to use them is a knife, to scrape off the magnesium and to strike the flint, and some tender (dryer lint works well, but so do cedar bark shavings).

They aren't difficult to use, but it can be frustrating, and it takes a bit of practice. Like most things, it's better to get the practice using them now rather than waiting until not having the fire is an emergency.

Of course, if like me, you're lucky enough to have someone as highly skilled as Deus Ex Machina on your team, he'll light the fire, while you run and grab the marshmallows.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Convenience "Store(d)" Foods

Some time ago, I went on a quest for convenience, but I didn't want the kind of convenience that comes in a box from the store.

Actually, that's exactly what I wanted, but what I didn't want is modified food starch, disodium phosphate, mono- and diglycerides (to prevent foaming ... seriously, is foamy pudding a bad thing?), Yellow 5, Yellow 6, or BHA (preservative).

I'm not a purist or anything, but in learning to eat locally, we had to unlearn our dependence on commercial food products. So, when I went looking for "convenience", initially, it was just because I couldn't verify where the stuff in the boxes had come from, but I could find local flour and salt for the mix, and milk and butter when I mixed the pudding, and using raw vanilla beans and local vodka, I can make my own vanilla extract. So, at first, it was all about keeping our diet as local as possible, which means we had to learn to eat a lot of "whole" foods.

But sometimes, it's nice to have the convenience. You know?

Then, I started looking at what's in those boxes ...

... and, well, as Neo discovered, once you've eaten the red pill, there's just no going back.

So, I went on a quest for "mixes" I could make myself, and I found a lot of them. Currently, I have in my cabinet, pancake mix and vanilla pudding mix. I have recipe for corn muffin mix, but I haven't mixed it, yet :).

I found the Vanilla Pudding Mix recipe on

It is:

1 1/2 c sugar
1 c instant nonfat dry milk
1 1/4 c flour
1 tsp salt

Stir ingredients together and store in a tightly covered container in a cool place.

For different flavors you can add:

Caramel: 1 1/2 c brown sugar in place of the granulated sugar.
Chocolate: add 3/4 c unsweetened cocoa.

Recipe yields about 5 c of mix.

To make the pudding:

2/3 c pudding mix
1 3/4 c warm milk
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla

Stir pudding mix into the milk in a saucepan, stirring constantly until mixture bubbles throughout. Reduce heat and cook over low heat for one minute. Add butter. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Chill before serving.

There are no preservatives - except what's in the dry milk (Added later: I looked at the ingredient list, and the dry milk doesn't have any preservatives, only the addition of vitamins A and D, but there is a concern as to how the dry milk is *made*). We used real butter and raw milk when we made the pudding, and added green food coloring (because it was St. Patrick's Day ;).

It's really rich! One could probably reduce the amount of sugar by a quarter and not miss it too much.

When we first started our quest to localize our diet, I assumed it would mean giving up things like pudding, which is crazy, when I really think about it, because pudding wasn't "invented" by Jell-O, but I don't think my assumptions were too far removed from the average American's. I never thought *I* could can tomato soup, or that *I* could make cinnamon rolls that are at least as good as anything I can buy.

But I have, to both, and the more I learn about cooking with whole ingredients, the more I realize that food production isn't some magic created in the bowels of the Campbell Soup factory.

I'm a little embarrased that it's taken me so long to get where I am with regard to my food preparation skills, but, as they say, "better late than never ...."

And even better than my learning these skills, is that my three youngest are learning right along side me.

They actually know that cinnamon rolls don't come shrink wrapped from the grocery store, that milk comes from a cow's udder (which they've seen), that "chicken" is an animal that lays eggs and not just a KFC product, that yogurt and cheese can be made in our kitchen using milk and heat and bacteria, that maple syrup started out as maple sap, that potatoes and carrots grow underground, and while money doesn't, apples do grow on trees.

They may not be able to recite the Preamble to the Constitution (thanks, Schoolhouse Rock!), but they have a great deal more knowledge than I had at their ages.

And better, it's knowledge that has value.

Of course, if you'll give me a dollar, I'll sing the Preamble for you :).

Monday, April 13, 2009

So? A Needle Pulling Thread

Who says musicals aren't "real life"?

And if they're not ...

... they oughta be.

Click on the link and enjoy ;).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An April Fool ??

I've been trying for, like, a week to write a post about sharing space. I would like to address the possibility that, in our future, we are likely to be either seeking shelter with family members or providing shelter for family members, and ways we might make the move comfortable for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, as we have spent the last two months playing host to some family members who were in "transition", anything I start to write about how to handle it starts to sound a little like ... well, whining.

At some point, probably several months from now when I can no longer smell the Essence of Cat (piss) all over my house, I'll be able to offer some good advice.

Anyway ....

On a positive note, maple sugaring season has ended.

Oh, wait. Maybe that's not a positive .... The season was VERY short.

We collected about a 100 gallons of sap and have about two gallons of syrup (we gave our neighbors each a quart in thanks for allowing us to tap their trees). It all ended up very dark. We're not sure why, but it tastes really good, and that's what counts.

I was also able to get my garden started. Last weekend, I planted peas, beets, lettuce, and spinach - all direct sowed in the garden -, and the garlic I planted last fall is growing. I dismantled my cold frame, because it had collapsed under the snow anyway, and I prepped the bed for something else. I don't know what I'll put there.

Probably cabbage ...

... or broccoli ...

... but probably cabbage, because the slugs really like cabbage, and the bed is in the backyard where our ducks will be, and they eat slugs. Maybe I'll actually be able to eat some of my cabbage this year.

Speaking of ducks, we picked up our first batch of broilers on Friday. There are eight chicks, and they're so tiny, but from last year's experience, I know they'll grow really fast.

But about the ducks ... I had ordered two khaki campbell ducks to be delivered with this order of broilers, but the hatchery did not send them. I'm not exactly clear as to why, but it has something to do with Easter, and the hatchery only sending Pekin ducks. The guy at the feedstore said he'd call the hatchery on Monday to see if he could get them to send my ducklings.

If you're interested in why I want ducks, as one homeschooling mom I met was, khaki campbell ducks are prolific layers and will provide almost as many eggs in a years time as a good laying hen. Duck eggs are really great for baking. Ducks are also good foragers and eat bugs and slugs without destroying the vegetables ... unlike chickens. The khaki campbell breed is reportedly a good multi-purpose breed, and duck fat is supposed to be incredibly good for you.

But my butcher doesn't do water fowl, and so my ducks are for eggs and pest control, and ...,

I've placed my second order for ten more broilers for the end of May, and we'll have the last eight scheduled for pick-up the end of June. That will give us twenty-six chickens in the freezer for the winter.

Last night, we cracked open our first bottle of beer. Oh, man! We brewed a Hefeweisen from a kit. I was never much of a beer drinker, until I went to Germany and discovered Hefeweisen. The stuff we brewed was as good as anything I had over there, and better than anything I've found since I came back. Brewing one's own ... HIGHLY recommended!

It's been busy here. Our "company" just left four days ago, which means I spent today "spring cleaning." I'm hoping things will get (somewhat) back to normal, but I haven't, yet, figured out what that is ... normal, I mean.

Planting season is here, which means that canning season is right around the corner, and then ... well, the wheel just keeps turning, doesn't it, and the key is to hang on for as long as you can.

Hopefully, I'll be back soon with some advice on how to handle stuffing eight people into a 1500 sq foot house with three dogs and a stinky cat ... but I need to put some time between me and the event.

Next time it happens, I hope to be better prepared, and if not, perhaps we'll still have some of our great beer ... and then, I won't care so much ;).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sustainable Quickie Challenge

****The following post will be the first in a series of easy long-term preparedness strategies.****

If you've been a reader of my blog for any length of time, you know that:

1. I consider the area where I live to be a suburb.

2. Against the advice of some, I intend to stay in my suburban home.

It is a choice, but more, I just don't think there's anywhere that will be significantly BETTER than where I am, and really, I believe that moving is no longer an option for me ... and millions of other Americans and suburbanites worldwide (did you know that Egypt has suburbs? Yeah. Me, neither).

While I agree that the suburbs are unsustainable in their current incarnation, as I've said (about a million times) before, we can't simply abandon them. They need to be remodeled, because there are billions of dollars worth of resources in these homes ... and I don't mean televisions and DVD players. I mean the time, energy, and resources - lumber from Germany for the framing, precious metals from Africa for the wiring and plumbing, quarried stone from Asia for the countertops, old rainforest wood from Brazil for the flooring ... not to mention the oil from the Middle East and South America for half the other building materials and furnishings.

To simply abandon the mess we've made and create something that better suits our vision of the future would be worse than a misallocation of resources*. It would be the greatest sin man could commit against the Earth that sustains us. Further, most of the build-out that we've witnessed over the past half century was made possible by cheap oil and imports, neither of which is necessarily going to be available in the future. In fact, it's more likely that "stuff" will be much harder to come by.

Over the past couple of years, a lot has been said about "preparing" for this future where "stuff" isn't so readily available. Food, in particular, has been a concern for many people, and I hear stories about storing food and other consumable, perishable items.

While I do have some things stored up, at some point I came to the realization that there is no way I can "store" everything my family will need ... forever. Even using this list as a guide, the reality is that at some point, I will have to replenish my supplies, but if supply lines are completely broken (as depicted in Kunstler's World Made By Hand), then what will I do? If I can't buy flour or sugar or boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese, how will we eat?

I do grow some of what my family eats right here on our quarter acre. We also raise a portion of our meat and have chickens for eggs. A good deal of the food we eat comes from local vendors, which means our food supply won't necessarily be interrupted, but we'd need money, which may be an issue (and is a topic for a separate post :).

As is often the case, it was something that Deus Ex Machina said to me that I completely discounted (at first). He kept telling me that *we* don't have to grow everything we need. I ignored him, and kept making my grandiose plans for our tiny space. For his birthday, I signed us up for a wild plant walk on the marsh, because it would be fun.

I started researching animals we could raise on a quarter acre and brought home three baby chicks that would provide us with eggs, and kept insisting that we *needed* goats. Deus Ex Machina took up bow hunting, and my neighbor told me a story about his days living on the island and eating gull eggs (which he says taste "salty").

Then, I started buying perennial plants for our yard and planning where we'd put them all, and Deus Ex Machina took us all out in the woods for a walk, where I gathered wild blueberries and blackberries.

Somewhere in there that proverbial lightbulb went off, and I (finally) understood what he had been saying ... for a long time.

*We* don't have to grow or produce EVERYTHING *we* need. Nature will and does provide a veritable plethora of wild food that's pretty much free for the taking.


The only requirement is that *we* know what's available and be able to distinguish the edible from the non-edible and from the poisonous (just FYI, most plants fall into the first two categories of edible or non-edible, but harmless, to humans - like most grasses, which won't kill us, but will also not provide any nutritional value ... kind of like Twinkies and anything on the McDonald's menu ;).

And so we bought a book ... several, in fact.

In all of the preparedness advice the focus is on what one can produce and/or store, and short-term, I completely agree. We should have food that is both comforting and familiar in our short-term survival plan.

But longer term, if the crisis ends up being a full-blown TEOTWAWKI, it won't be enough, and we'll have to find an alternative.

What's the harm in starting now?

And just so you understand that it doesn't have to be completely weird and unfamiliar, where I live, we have the above mentioned wild blueberries and blackberries, but we also have *wild* maple trees (for syrup making) and *wild* oak trees (for acorn flour). Wild foods don't have to be completely weird and unfamiliar.

My first challenge to you is to pick-up a copy of a book (most libraries will have them or have access to them, but this book might be one you would want to own - longer term) that shows *local to you*, edible, wild plants, and learn to identify a couple of them ... and incorporate them into your diet ... *now* ;).

*term used heavily by James Kunstler in reference to the suburban sprawl.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

2009 Garden Plan - For Christy ;)

I designed my plan in PowerPoint and then copied it to Microsoft Composer and saved it as a .jpeg so that I could post it here on my blog.

It's not to scale.

Looks like we're going to have a fairly busy summer, though ;).

There is "Hope" in Maine

In the May issue of Down East magazine is an article about a little hamlet just northwest of Camden. Recently, a young scotsman purchased the General Store and opened for business. The store became a kind of central meeting place for town residents, and some attribute the town's recent renaissance to the (re)opening of this store.

Hope is now home to, among other things, a blacksmith and a wind-powered spinnery.


If you're looking for one of James Kunstler's "transition towns", this is it ...

... without all of the hoopla and endless, arduous hours of planning and plotting.

Even better, without any development. I think what I love the most is that Hope wasn't suburbanized. Rather than leaving the old buildings to simply rot and razing old farm land to build shiny new shopping centers and condos, community members renovated the old buildings for things like the General Store, a blacksmith and woodworking shop, a spinnery, a tavern, and a cabinetry business. They even held a fund raiser to purchase a parcel of land that would have otherwise ended up as a development and enabled its permanent conservation.

Further, the article states that community members support each other, including, but not limited to the CSA. In our future, we will need places like Hope to show us how to become communities again.

Here's to Hope ;), as they say up there, "Hope is Hip" ... or if you believe the tavern owner, "Hope is Happening!"