Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Self-sufficiency is Freedom

I watched Derrick Jensen's talk on his book Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization.

It was fascinating. In the talk, he outlines the basic premises of his book, and he discusses why he discusses each of these things. He says he bashes everyone, every convention, every ideal, every idealogy - nothing is sacred, really, except the land on which we live. He said that one hasn't truly lived until one is chased by an angry mob of Buddhist passivists bent on violence.

His ending point was that we need to do something - that the time for passive inaction has passed and those of us who are aware need to do something. He says that the something will be different for different people, and not only do we need to allow these different responses, but we also need to accept that even the most radical responses are a necessary part of our necessary transition.

I can't say that I disagree with what he says, and while I know there are certain things I won't be doing, there's also a lot I can do ... and am doing.

Today, Deus Ex Machina showed me a link to this amazing project that related (in my, perhaps warped and crazy mind) to one of the points that Jensen made in his talk. He says, as our civilization continues its slide, most of the poor are going to be in a very bad situation. The rural poor will probably survive like the rural poor always have and do, but the urban poor - well, I won't repeat his exact word, but he says he liked that word, and it was interesting because it carried such a twisted double meaning: serving both as a word to state one's desire to engage in physical intimacy, but also to do great violence.

The reason, Jensen says, that the urban poor will be in such a difficult situation has to do with the fact that every thing they need to survive must be imported, bought and paid for. The fact is that a lot of urban poor already have difficulty for this very reason (anyone read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). For the rural poor, there is an opportunity, at least, to grow food somewhere.

The project, called Freight Farms has the goal of changing the plight of the urban poor by offering them a way to grow their own food in portable units - old shipping containers in this case. Each unit would house a hydroponic garden, which would allow produce to be grown year-round, even in parts of the country (and world) where year round gardening isn't an option.

I'm fascinated with any project that brings more edibles to the urban landscape, and I am looking forward to seeing the first prototype of the Freight Farm.

Derrick Jensen may be right that our current civilization and those who run it won't "go gentle into that good night", and I believe he's also correct that we all need to be doing something - teaching or "rage"ing against - not the dying light, but the continued exploitation of the rest of the populace by a powerful minority.

I read a quote today, in of all places, the Coffee News that said: Power is the feedom people have within limits; strength is the freedom people have without limits. Power will always be restricted to a relatively small number of selected people. Anyone can be strong (James Carse).

If power is synonymous with control, we don't have to allow a small elite to have power (or control) over us. We can be strong ... and free ..., but, if Derrick Jensen is to be believed, getting to that point from where we are now - in our cushy little happy places - will be a struggle.

Projects like Frieght Farm could help us get there. If we take away the urban poor's dependence on Monsanto-raised-produce-in-a-field-somewhere-out-there-and-trucked-to-the-city, and allow them to produce their own, we wrest some little bit of power from the grasp of the few ... and we make the many a bit more self-sufficient, which is synonymous with "free."

Twelve Days of Prepping - Round Up

The holiday season is really hard for me. I have a hard time reconciling my anti-consumerist ideals with the expectation that many of those in my life have that they will receive a gift from me. In the past, I have often made gifts, but some of my home-made gifts were received with a rather disappointed expression.

I don't expect gushing appreciation, but some acknowledgement of the time and effort that went into the gift might be nice. A dismissive attitude about something that I've taken a great deal of time, effort and thought to create is a little hurtful. Once I made, what I thought, was a really nice photobook for someone, who opened the gift when I wasn't around. Later, when I asked that person if she'd received the book, at first it was "what book?" And then it was, "Oh, that book ... it was nice ... there was a misspelling on page 52."

Gift giving is hard for me, because I don't like putting so much of myself into a gift only to have it dismissed like some Dollar store trinket, neither do I like spending my hard-earned dollars on dollar store trinkets, and I just can't consider buying something for someone else that I wouldn't want to use myself.

This year, we ended up buying more than I made. But with a goal of not totally destroying my personal ethics in order to meet others' expectations, I concentrated on finding things that were useful. My Twelve Days of Prepping series was actually my Christmas list.

I did, indeed, gift one family member with a fruit tree from the Arbor Day Foundation. So, we gave that person a real gift-that-keeps-on-giving, while supporting, what we believe to be, a worthy organization.

Deus Ex Machina and I actually did give a pound of black turtle beans ... along with a book on making Baked Beans. Planted or soaked and made into soup, the beans will be awesome ;).

Someone on our list was the recipient of a French coffee press. It's very close to the one we have and use, and it's good for making tea, too ;).

Some of the items on the list, like cast iron cookware and a Diva cup, were not gifts - this year -, but in the not too distant future, some young lady who lives in my house will, likely, find one in her stocking.

Canning jars were filled with Confetti Bean Soup or Butterscotch cookie mix, and before we gave either, we made sure that we cooked them ourselves, using the suggested recipes. Both turned out amazingly delicious, and I don't feel the least bit awkward about giving those gifts. I hope the recipients will also keep and enjoy the canning jars, which make a wonderful way to store all sorts of pantry items.

We didn't put together a Forager's kit, because we don't really have any forager's on our list (yet ... but we're working on that ;), but we did put together a S'mores making kit, that included one of our homemade canning-jar oil lamps.

Kitchen hand-tools ended up being pretty popular, and one family member, who likes to make applesauce, is now the proud owner of an apple/peeler/corer. Another family member has a new pasta maker. There's nothing quite so delicious as home-made pasta.

Spices and tea have long been traded along the same routes, and both were once considered incredibly valuable commodities. In fact, it was the tea tax that finally broke the resolve of the colonists resulting in a war that created the country I live in. A few people ended up with both - well, a blend of both - spiced tea ... and a keen little ceramic travel mug to go with it.

Every Christmas for the past many, I've made pajama pants for my girls and Deus Ex Machina. The girls didn't get pajama pants this year. Instead, I made them each a padded messenger-style bag. Deus Ex Machina received his annual pants. This year, they're made out of a recyled flannel sheet ;) - not exactly long johns, but warm and cozy nonetheless.

Two of my girls ended up with gifts related to the fiber arts - not sewing notions, but rather a beginner knitting kit for one, and a drop spindle for the other. We even gave her a set of carding tools, and she's already started carding the collected dog hair to spin into yarn. Maybe I'll end up with another dog-fur scarf.

I'm not normally a toy buyer. Just the thought of visiting Toys R Us makes my skin crawl. Luckily, there are more options. For my grandchildren, I found some amazing real wooden puzzle toys at a local art store. But kids aren't the only ones who like to play. Our gift to each other this year was the Celtic Challenge Chance And Strategy Game, which we found at a small, locally owned toy/game shop.

Upon reading a synopsis of my book that included the words "sustainable" and "entertainment" in the same sentence, someone asked, "What's sustainable entertainment?" My answer: games, like Celtic Challenge, and musical instruments, like the ukulele Deus Ex Machina gifted me.

I'm not sure I found a balance for myself, but I feel better about the gifts we gave than I would have if we had just picked up something because we had to give something.

And while I don't like that most of the gifts were purchased rather than made, I am comfortable that most of them were purchased at small, local stores, so that at least 60% of the cost of the items we bought stays here, in our community ... even if many of the gifts did not :).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas - Day Twelve

On the twelfth day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

... games and toys to play with;
... pins and sewing needles;
... thermal underwear;
... a spice rack full of flavor;
... hand-tools for the kitchen;
... Forager's cooking kit;
... a Diva for the ladies;
...canning jars with rings;
... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

There's that saying "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

I think the word "dull" doesn't necessarily mean "boring", but rather, I think not learning to play makes people dull-witted. I think using our imaginations is key - to our sanity, to our success, and to our happiness; and really, when I say "happiness" I mean it to be synonymous with success.

Game playing can satisfy a lot of needs. It can be for pure fun, but it can also be educational, and frankly, many of the games my girls play serve both purposes. Like Yahtzee. We may not think much about it, but really, Yahtzee is all about mathematical skills - counting, addition/subtraction, grouping.

We play a lot of games as a family. In fact, we had to have a whole closet to house all of the games we have, from simple word games (my favortie - Scrabble!) to very complex reasoning games (we have three or four different chess sets). Currently, my girls' favorite game is Apples to Apples, which doesn't require a lot of skill, but can be just pure fun ... or it can require a lot very complex reasoning and association skills, depending on who's playing.

When I mentioned this was my topic for this post, Deus Ex Machina told me that he's been looking at the game Wild Crafting for a while. I asked him why he hasn't gotten it, because it looks exactly like something our family would enjoy.

Games are an excellent tool, both for learning, but also for just spending time ... and in my experience a game is a much better way to while away the hours than television.

It might be a little late to start looking for presents for those hard-to-shop-for people, but if there's still someone on your list, consider a game. And games don't have to be bought. There are plenty of games that can be hand-made pretty quickly and easily - often with things on hand.

I wish you all a wonderful holiday and abundance in the coming year. Just remember: don't focus on limitations, imagine possibilities and when you do, you'll always thrive, not just survive.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Eleven

On the eleventh day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

... pins and sewing needles;
... thermal underwear;
... a spice rack full of flavor;
... hand-tools for the kitchen;
... Forager's cooking kit;
... a Diva for the ladies;
...canning jars with rings;
... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

Every year, for many years now, I've spent the last few weeks before the holiday sewing. One year, I went all out and I made a couple of lap quilts. Last year, I made a poncho for each of my daughters - along with the requisite "Holiday pajama pants." It's become a tradition that I make a pair for Deus Ex Machina every year, too, and it's not a surprise. The surprise is the fabric ;).

I've been collecting fabrics for many years. Whenever I see a sale at Goodwill, I'll snap up whatever I can find. One year, I found this awesome black flannel with a rose pattern on it. I spent $4.99 on what was probably five or six yards of fabric. It went a really long way, too, and I made all sorts of fun things out of it, including a knitting needle holder and backing for one of the quilts I made.

The other day, I had a very nice conversation with my dad. I love when he tells me stories about his childhood, especially when the stories center on the creative solutions they found to do every day things. I've known for years that my grandmother was very creative in clothing her many children, but I didn't know how much so. My dad told me that he didn't have new shirts when he was a kid. Back in those days, feed sacks were made of cotton cloth, because it was a cheap and abundant material. Most people, including my very frugal grandmother, saved the material from those sacks and made everything from quilts to shirts. My dad said, as a kid, he would go to the feedstore and pick out the cloth he liked best ;).

I wonder what my grandmother would think if she knew that her old "feedsack" clothes and quilts were collector's items these days?

Unlike my grandmother, I'm not a terribly talented seamstress. In fact, the most complicated thing I can sew are pants, and these are not complicated pants, mind you. They're pull on pants with an elasticized waist.

Mostly, what I do best is cut a bunch of pieces of cloth and put them together into something that, mostly, resembles some useful thing. I made up the poncho pattern, loosely based on a new-sew poncho pattern we had. I've never sewed a shirt, and if it's not "simplicity", it's probably too complicated for me.

I don't sew well, but I sew well enough that, if I had to, I could keep our clothes repaired well enough, or altered adequately, that we would stay clothed for quite some time. And I could also take old cothes and stitch them together to make blankets, so that we won't freeze.

It's not something I'm terribly skilled at, but that doesn't stop me from doing it, and I want my daughters to also be comfortable stitching. For her birthday a few years ago, we bought Big Little Sister a sewing machine. While a machine might be a little extravagant of a gift for most of the people on our lists, something more simple, like some sewing needles, thread, pins, or even a cute, little, homemade pin cushion would be really nice.

Learning to sew is a very valuable skill, if for nothing else, than to do simple clothing repairs, like having the confidence to sew a button on a jacket. I mean, what's the alternative ... get a new jacket? In these difficult times, throwing away a piece of clothing because it's lost a button may no longer be an option, and even the non-preppers in one's life will appreciate the gift of a little sewing kit ... and for the real novices, perhaps a gift certificate for the local Adult Education sewing class ;).

If the gift recipient is already a sewing master, there are still a lot of wonderful options for sewing-related gifts, like a cute little sewing basket in which to stow all of those notions or several yards of a really lovely fabric.

And if the giver is really savvy, perhaps a really neat pattern ... in the giver's clothing size ;).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas - Day Ten

On the tenth day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

...thermal underwear
... a spice rack full of flavor;
... hand-tools for the kitchen;
... Forager's cooking kit;
... a Diva for the ladies;
...canning jars with rings;
... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

It's been a really warm winter here in Maine. Like today. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and it's warm enough that a little while ago, I stepped outside my door in bare feet and a short-sleeved tee-shirt to grab an armload of wood for the fire ... which I could probably allow to go out without any suffering on our part. According to weather reports - it's in the 50s today ... which is a typical late spring or early fall day time temperature.

On days like this, we don't need heat ... not really. This year it was such a warm fall, we didn't even fire up the woodstove until late October - almost Halloween.

Fact is, I think the average person could handle a lot less heat than we typically think we can. In the early fall, my family and I visited the Damariscotta River Association for a class on the way people lived in this area before the Europeans began settling here.

It was a fascinating talk, to say the least, but my favorite point was when we were talking about their housing, in particular during the winter, and one of the kids asked David, our guide, about staying warm. David talked about a couple of their techniques, but then, stated, simply, "They got used to it."

The fact is that they were a little chilly, but they stayed warm by acclimating themselves to the changing temperatures, by keeping moving when they were doing outside tasks, by doing sedentary tasks near the fire, and by dressing appropriately ... in layers.

It's taken me a lot of years of living up here where it's (supposed to be) colder to finally get that. It's never quite as cold as we think it is, if we're dressed appropriately, and I've spent many days outside for many hours in the snow and cold (for our nature classes and when skiing), but I never felt cold, because I'd be wearing layers of clothes, starting with the first layer ... underwear.

When it comes to undergarments, I'm defintely a Victoria's Secret gal. I like the fit, but I also like the quality. Three years ago I bought what one of my instructors in the military called a "foundation garment", and I'm still wearing it, and it's still in good shape after all of this time. I spent a lot of money on my initial purchase, but it's lasted a long time, too. Unfortunately, while it holds everything nice and snug, it does little to keep the rest of my core warm, and so I need a bit of extra clothing.

As such, I was very excited to learn that Victoria has discovered the secret of staying warm and has developed just the thing we need. She calls them Long Janes and hides them under the title of "pajamas", but we all know what they're for ... and they're cute, too.

For the prepper, long underwear is an investment in personal comfort for when whole house heating might not be an option or for those times when it doesn't make sense to turn on the heat, but it's cold enough to feel the chill without an extra layer or two.

For the non-prepper, Victoria's Long Janes are a beautiful gift (if anyone is still looking for something for me, I like the ones with stars :), and for the guys, L.L. Bean has some great choices.

We don't have to sacrifice comfort in a lower energy world, but we might have to change our ideas about what "comfort" means ... and it might mean adding an extra layer, or two, when the temperatures drop.

**Per an anonymous reader's request, I have contacted Victoria's Secret to inquire as to whether or not their Long Janes are treated with flame retardants (in the way that children's pajamas often are). The company rep's response is below. Please feel free to contact Victoria's Secret if you have any other questions regarding their product(s).


Dear Wendy,

Thank you for taking the time to contact us. I am happy to assist you.

I checked the product information, and found no indication that our thermal long jane pajamas are treated with flame retardants. I hope this information is helpful.



Jennifer G. Customer Service
Phone 1.800.475.1935 or (outside the U.S. and Canada) 1.937.438.4197
Fax 1.937.438.4290

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Nine

On the eighth day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

... a spice rack full of flavor;
... hand-tools for the kitchen;
... Forager's cooking kit;
... a Diva for the ladies;
...canning jars with rings;
... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

Our Pop-culture is full of end-of-the-world stories for everything from a viral pandemic that turns 99% of the population into zombies to space matter colliding with our fragile planet.

One of the one's I've most recently read is Lucifer's Hammer. It's set in the 1970s and opens with the discovery of a comet that is heading toward earth, which, at first, astronomers believe will come close, but not touch, our planet, and then, begin to realize that it might actually come a lot closer than originally thought.

As they explain in the story, the comet is not one solid mass, but rather, it's a huge (and this one is HUGE) frozen gaseous ball in which are caught a lot of smaller stones, and as the comet comes closer to the sun, the gas starts to thaw, releasing some of the solid matter.

This matter falls to the earth like stone hail, and when it falls, it wreaks havoc like nothing people have ever seen.

In the story, there are two types of people: those who believe, from the beginning, that the comet will hit and start to make their doomsday preparations; and those who believe that it will be just an incredible opportunity to see something spectacular ... and then, life as usual will continue.

As the comet gets closer, the first group grows in number, until, by the time the comet comes within view, even those original naysayers are starting to make preparations.

Of the preps described in the book, I think Harvey Randall's last minute stocking up is probably the most creative. In particular, I liked his purchase of pepper.

Before refrigeration, meats were preserved using either drying or salt ... or a method called "salt-drying." This would make the meat very salty, and spices were valued to combat the saltiness of the food. Many of the spices used do not grow in temperate climates, like those found in Europe (and most of the US). Most of our favorite spices are indigenous to southeast Asia: cinnamon, cloves, cumin, black pepper, and nutmeg - to name a few. Wars have been fought (the Crusades were fought to secure trade routes through the Middle East from Europe) and lands have been conquered (the European conquest of the Americas was an attempt to find a water route to India as an alternative to the overland route through hostile Arabian territories) to obtain these spices .

Today, we take these spices for granted, as they're relatively inexpensive and abundantly available just about everywhere we go ... including, often, the local dollar store.

... But, in a world turned upside-down, as Harvey Randall imagined the world would be after the comet hit, pepper won't be so easy to find, and while we're probably not going to run out of pepper any time soon, and neither will trade routes simply disappear overnight, the fact is that the price of everything is increasing, and as the availability of cheap energy decreases, so will our access to cheap spices.

Of course, there are a lot of people who don't, necessarily, agree that we've entered "Peak" anything, and they'll scoff at the idea that we should, at very least, be contemplating a world of less, but even if we believe this "Re"cession is a passing thing, and that it will soon be business as usual, if we look to history, "business as usual" is usually preambled by a big, world changing event. At least in the last century of recorded history, economic down times have always been followed by a war.

I have this list I like to refer to. It was compiled by survivors of the War in Sarajevo, and it lists out the first 100 things that disappeared from or became difficult to find in their local economy as the war raged across their land. I imagine if we could get some people who lived in Europe during WWII to make a list, theirs would look similar.

Living, like we do, here in the US (or other Western countries), where we've been in a state of relative peace - i.e. we haven't been aggressed on our own turf - for half a century (and here in the US, we haven't had a war on our soil since the late 19th Century), it's easy to become complacent and to believe that all we could ever need or want will always be available. Complacency and apathy are dangerous traps, and while I won't advocate hoarding hundreds of bottles of spices, I do think that having an extra on hand all of the time is a good idea.

As a gift, spices actually have a long tradition. In fact, some believe that the origin of our gift-giving tradition in this season stems from the Wise Men's visit, and as the song goes, the men were "Three Kings from [the] Orient", and what they brought were spices - a very valued and valuable commodity.

Here, in my community, we have an Asian market where spices can be purchased in bulk at a fraction of the cost of buying McCormick brand spices at the grocery store, and at a much better quality than the generic-brand spices available at the dollar store. Bought in bulk, the spices could, then, be divided and repackaged (in canning jars) to be disbursed to many different recipients.

For the prepper-minded there is no need to explain why spices are a good gift choice.

But even for a non-prepper, spices are a good choice of gift. We may not really appreciate the long and bloody history of the spice trade today, and we may not be thinking about the possibility of spice shortages, but, especially this time of year, we highly value our spices. Afterall, where would we be without nutmeg for our pumpkin pie and eggnog or cinnamon for our mulled cider?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Eight

On the eighth day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

... hand-tools for the kitchen;
... Forager's cooking kit;
... a Diva for the ladies;
...canning jars with rings;
... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

The other day I was, kind of, on the periphery of a conversation, mostly just listening. The subject was opening cans, and they were talking about this big can of nacho cheese and how difficult it had been trying to open it, because the can was too big for the can opener.

My hands were in my pocket, and I was holding my keys. On my keyring is a P38 , which is a can opener found in many MREs.

It's this little metal apparatus with a sharp hinged piece that punctures the can, and then, there's a groove that allows the user to move the opener around the can. It's a pain to use, especially on large cans, and if I had my druthers, I'd use almost any other kind of can opener. I keep it, because it's a good survival tool, and it's one of those geeky little devices that I think is cool to have and which I've needed on more than one occasion ;).

So, when they talked about the difficulty of opening this large can, that's what I thought of.

I listened a little closer, and I realized that the problem was not that they were trying to use something as rudimentary as the can opener I have on my keyring, but rather that the can they were trying to open was too big to fit under the electric can opener. My first thought was: Wow! I haven't seen one of those in years. Do people still have those?

Apparently, the answer is yes, and the funny part is that those same people are realizing their electric can openers have some serious limitations, the least of which is that some cans are sized too big to fit under the little wheel.

Personally, I think there are certain things that should never have been electrified, like can openers ... and toothbrushes ... and it seems, to me, to be a real waste of valuable resources to do something with eletricity that can be done just as easily and just as efficiently by hand.

I guess I'd give a break to someone who has limited use of his/her hands, but for everyone else, it's just ... well (and please forgive my holier-than-thou attitude), ... a bit lazy.

I have an ultra fancy Pampered Chef brand can opener that cuts *around* the lid, rather than through the top. It does all of the things (like keep the can lid from going down into the food) that an electric can opener is purported to do, and a good many things that an electric can opener can not do - like saw through a really, REALLY big can. My hand-crank, Pampered Chef can opener will go through those big cans with ease.

Another draw back to the electric can opener ... if the power's out, there's no can opening. My PC can opener has no such limitations.

The fact is that my family doesn't have much use for a can opener anymore, because we don't, typically, eat processed food from a can, due to concerns regarding the BPA lined cans and the potential leaching of health-hindering chemicals into our food.

But not everyone on my shopping list has done away with canned foods, and for those who only have an electric can opener, a fancy-smancy can opener, like the one we have, might be just what they need ... even if they don't know they need it ;).

There are some other, pretty awesome, hand tools for the kitchen, too. I have a food processor, and for a long time, I was using it to grate cheese. Then, one day, it stopped working. Thankfully, I also have a manual cheese grater. It's not, necessarily, faster than the electric food processer, but it is more reliable, it takes up less storage space, and it's easier to clean. I use it to grate all sorts of things - not only cheese, but also potatoes (for hash browns), carrots and cabbage (for cole slaw), and bars of soap (for home-made laundry detergent).

We also have a pretty neat, little hand-crank pasta maker.

I've never used an electric equivalent, but the hand-crank model we have does a pretty awesome job. It came with several blade sizes, including a lasagna blade, and if you've only ever had those watery and tasteless dried lasagna noodles from the grocery store, you don't know what you're missing! There's simply no comparing the dried pasta from the store to what can be made with ease in one's own kitchen.

Many years ago, when Deus Ex Machina and I were first married, we had a couple of pots and pans, some cookie sheets and a set of steak knives. A few years after we bought our house, we finally went out and bought some good knives - a set that included a bread knife. I baked a loaf of bread soon after, and when I took out the knife and started slicing the bread, I was amazed at how easy it was to cut uniform pieces. I commented about it to Deus Ex Machina and he said, in effect, having the right tool makes all the difference.

For my money, that "right tool" in the kitchen is more often than not something that's non-electric, because they're almost always there when I need them, they take up less storage space, and they are easier to clean.

For a prepper, there's no better tool than something small and mobile, and a P38 would be both appreciated and used.

For the non-preppers on your list, a P38 might be a little over the top, but other really nice *manual* kitchen tools won't seem like an attempt at changing their lives. Rather many kitchen tools (like a fancy can opener or a manual pasta maker) actually look more like gourmet cooking tools that will add finesse to their meal preps ... and take them that one step closer to being more self-sufficient.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Seven

On the seventh day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

... Forager's cooking kit;
... a Diva for the ladies;
...canning jars with rings;
... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

I was reading this article today with the headline Census shows 1 in 2 people are poor or low income. The article cites a lot of numbers, including one that shows 146 million Americans are sliding into poverty.

The two key concerns with regard to those who were slipping into poverty are the rising cost of housing ... not that housing costs are increasing, but rather that the precentage of income that is being used to pay for housing is increasing as income levels decrease. One figure estimated that families are paying more than one-third of their income for housing.

The second biggest concern has to do with food. While income levels fall, the cost of buying food is increasing. In fact, the number of people in this country ... and, indeed, across the world ... who are food insecure is growing - on a daily basis.

While shelter is the most important survival need, food is important enough that I devoted three (five if you include cooking and livestock) of the chapters in my book Survivng the Apocalypse in the Suburbs to food. Most of the suggestions in my book are based on the assumption that having a garden is a possibility, and while I believe, even those in rentals can grow some little bit of food for themselves, those who only have a very small space to devote to food production will still be dependent on outside sources for most of their calories.

Which brings me to the day seven gift: a forager's cooking kit.

The basic design is a belt with some pouches (and it could be a vest with lots of pockets - if the giver is particularly handy with a sewing machine :). What I envisioned was an Army utility belt. On one side would be clipped a canteen cover holding a canteen and canteen cup (which is metal, and this is important ;). On the other side would be the ammo pouch, but instead of rounds, it would contain a pair of utility scissors and/or some fold-up clippers, a spoon/fork/knife set (or just a spoon), a packet with herbs and spices, and some matches (or a magnesium firestarter or flint and steel). The pièce de résistance would be the pocket forager's book specific to one's region.

With the kit, and some wild foraged greens, mushrooms and/or tubers, one could make a very hearty soup. The metal canteen cup would be the cooking vessel, the canteen of water would be the base for a broth, and herbs would flavor the soup.

In his plant ID book, Tom Brown, Jr. states that for survival purposes a person need only be able to identify four plants - all of which grow in most places: grasses, acorns, cat tails, and pine or evergreens.

Grasses aren't eaten - they are chewed, like tobacco, but the nutrient-rich juice is swallowed and the grass pulp is spit out. Or the grasses can be brewed into a tea (*IMPORTANT NOTE: Be sure to harvest ONLY grasses that are in full sunlight. Otherwise, they might have mold growth, which can be harmful if consumed).

The leaves (or needles) of pine, spruce and hemlock trees (not to be confused with the poison hemlock plant) are steeped in boiling water and consumed as an incredibly healthy tea.

Acorns can be roasted and eaten whole, ground and boiled for a coffee-like beverage, or turned into flour - but they do require a bit of processing.

And cattail has been dubbed "nature's grocery store", because the entire plant can be consumed (different parts at different times of the year).

It's important to remember that it's only been in the last 100 years that humans have been wholly dependent on money to get food. There was a time when foraging for, at least, some part of one's caloric intake, was the norm and not the exception, and the universe does provide. There is, indeed, an enormous bounty of healthful foods that could be consumed, but aren't, because we're too busy working to buy food that more often than not makes us sick.

The fact is that foraging is still practiced in other parts of the world. I heard or read a story some time ago about a woman who was visiting southeast Asia, and she commented on how neatly the homeowners had trimmed their bamboo back from the sidewalk. Her guide told her that it wasn't the homeowners, but rather that everyone knew bamboo is edible and delicious and an important food in their country, and so when the bamboo strayed into public walkways, it was quickly snipped by the first person to find it.

I liked that story, and I thought of it, often, while we were zipping through the country-side, passing full apple tree after full apple tree, fields of yellow-headed dandelions, and large swaths of cattails.

There's food out there, free, for the taking. The key is to know what's food, and it's really not so difficult. For those who are facing food security issues, a forager's kit, complete with an edible plant identification book might look more like a life-saver and a lot less like a crazy prepper gift.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Six

On the sixth day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

... a Diva for the ladies
...canning jars with rings;
... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

This whole post is likely to be TMI for some of you, and that's fine, but like all bodily functions, which, in our uber polite society, we don't like to discuss, somethings happen whether we want them to happen or not, and we'll all be a lot more comfortable - in a low energy future when disposables aren't always going to be an option - if we make some plans for those things now.

A few years ago when I was surfing around the Internet on some different prepper sites, I came across an article, written by a man, about storage preps for women. From the gist of his article, it seemed his suggestion was to store up enough feminine hygiene product for every female in the house for her entire life-cycle.

So, I did some figuring. The average woman has a seven-day cycle. During the heaviest part of her cycle, she'll use five pads in a day, averaging two and half to three per day over the seven days. Knowing this, to make things easy for us, manufacturers put them in packages of twenty-four, which is about what the average woman will use per month.

The average woman will menstruate for about forty years (starting at around age twelve and stopping at around age fifty).

Twenty-four times twelve scribble ... scribble ... times four carry the two ...

The average female, if she uses only disposable pads, and if she has no children (which will slightly reduce the numbers of periods she has), and if she only menstruates for forty years, will need over eleven THOUSAND sanitary napkins in her lifetime.

If I were to buy all that my young daughters need, right now, I'd need to buy thirty-three THOUSAND sanitary napkins, at a cost of just under $7000. If we add what I would need for the rest of my lifetime menstral cycle, it would cost over $7000 for the four of us, and that's just for me and the three daughters who live here. That does not include my adult daughter, and her two daughters.

** I won't even go into the whole issue of disposing of said products, which will be a bit more of a challenge in a lower-energy future. **

Maybe we should bring back The Red Tent ...

Or we could, instead, look at non-disposable options.

A few years ago, I came across some information about Diva Cups. I bought one, for the low, low price (comparatively) of $35. I've used it ever since (four years or so). I also made six reusable cloth napkins, which I've also used, and my next project is smaller, cloth napkins (panty-liner sized).

I realize this is a very personal gift, and it's also full of that ookie factor - you know, that squeamishness that's so pervasive in our culture that makes touching things like *our own fluids* so ... eww! On an intellectual level, the squeamishness is utterly ridiculous, but even though I use a Diva cup, and even though the thought of using cloth toilet wipes doesn't send me screaming into the night, I'm still a little ... eww! ... about it all.

The thing is, alternatives (except The Red Tent) aren't any more appealing. Back in the day, the alternative was a rag stuffed in a girls' underwear, and frankly, that's not better than using a glad rad or a Diva Cup.

At worst, if one chooses this as a gift option for a non-prepper-minded friend, it might look like a gag, and everyone will get a good laugh (like the "Rubber Tree" gag gift for single men - or couples with a lot of kids ;) - practical, and, yet ...). At best, one could be saving oneself and/or one's friends thousands of dollars over a lifetime of being a woman.

There are a lot of other non-disposable options. Cloth napkins and Diva Cups are just the two I've used and can personally endorse.

And, yes, Virginia, we have saved hundreds of dollars ... and I used that savings to buy a few more books ;).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Five

On the fifth day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

...canning jars with rings;
... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

Come with me. We're going to take a trip back. Close your eyes and ... wait, don't close your eyes, because you won't be able to read this post if you do.

Just imagine ... it's 1976, the Bicentennial of our nation.

Let me introduce you to my very good friend (MVGF). She's a young, newly married mother, and as is the rite of passage in our culture, she and her husband are struggling to make ends meet. She is a stay-at-home mom to her toddler daughter, and among other things, she's becoming very handy. In fact, she's only recently put down a decorative wood flooring on the porch she and her husband attached to their mobile home with the wood leftover from a neighbor's building project.

MVGF is very frugal and very handy - both, probably, remnants of her Yankee heritage and upbringing.

Her parents are very supportive, as parents usually are, but they can only do so much, and so, for the most part, MVGF and her husband just struggle along, doing the best they can.

As a gift and as a way to help her daughter in her frugal endeavors, MVGF's purchases a case of Commemorative Canning Jars, which are emblazoned with patriotic symbols in recognition of the 200 year anniversary of this great nation.

Fast forward thirty-plus years, and MVGF is cleaning out her basement and finds these jars - unopened. She relates the whole story to me, which is wonderful, because MVGF is a story-teller at heart, and I always love her stories. She asks me what I think she should do with them, as her plan is to "put something in them" as a gift for the upcoming holiday season. I suggest canned pumpkin bread, which is very tasty, is in a jar and so doesn't have to be eaten right away, and is easy to make.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought "what a very incredible and creative gift" ... the canning jars, I mean, not the bread (although that's pretty cool, too :).

I love canning jars. When my neighbor was cleaning out her basement and wanted to gift me several cases of used jars, I didn't hesitate to profusely thank her and hurriedly sequester those precious jars in my house. I use them for everything from storing soups in the freezer for Deus Ex Machina to take to work for lunches to storing dried goods in the cabinets to (the obvious) preserving my summer harvest.

I have all sizes from the tiny jelly jars to gallon-sized jars. The gallon-sized jars are used, mostly, for storing dried goods, like flour, sugar, and popcorn kernels (they're too big for canning, but they'd be great for fermenting ;).

We bring milk home in half-gallon-sized jars, but they also see their fair share of dry stored items.

Quart jars have all sorts of uses with my favorite being the storage of dried beans, and a quart jar will hold about a pound and a half of the larger dried beans (like kidney or Jacob cattle beans), which can be as many as six meals, depending on how I use them. In addition, the quart jars are favored for canning pickles, applesauce and tomatoes, but I also like them for freezing leftovers.

Pint jars are as versatile as the quart jars, being the perfect size for most canning projects, including the above linked pumpkin bread, but we also use them as drinking glasses during the summer when we have cold beverages, and much to their amusement, I even brought out a case of pint jars during a party for my guests to use.

Even though, I have cases and cases of canning jars, I like them so much, that I sigh deeply and sadly anytime one of them gets broken.

I won't go into the health benefits of glass storage versus BPA-contaminated plastic storage containers, because despite the Maine governor's claim that the worst a little BPA would do is cause women to have "little beards", the health risks of consuming food that has been in contact with BPA are pretty well documented. We all know what they are, and we all know we should be avoiding it. As such, we all know that canning jars as a storage option are far superior to plastic.

What's even better is that canning jars hold their value. A case of canning jars costs between $12 and $20, depending on the time of year, the store, and the jar size. That's about a dollar per jar. When I was in the thrift store the other day, I found a lone quart-sized canning jar for $1. While it's true that people give away canning jars like so much clutter, it's also true that Ball is making a healthy living manufacturing their storage containers.

In fact, when MVGF found her case of 1976 jars, one of the first things she did was to go on eBay, just out of curiosity, and yes, she could have "earned" a few dollar selling those jars (about twice the cost of a case of new jars today, which is a significant increase in value from 1976 dollars). In the end, though, she knew that making a profit by selling the jars would never be as meaningful or as fun as putting something very cool in the jars and giving them as a gift - in memory of the woman who first gave them to her and in recognition of how important "preserving" is.

For the record MVGF is not a prepper, and she wasn't a back-to-the-lander of the 70's either. She is just a regular Jo-Ann, who enjoys thrift-store finds and annual trips to New York City. A gift of canning jars, for her, would be seen as practical and appropriate - not a manifestation of some prepper-crazed belief in TEOTWAWKI.

In fact, with the increased interest in canning, a gift of canning jars, even for the every day person, won't seem like a prepper gift at all and is wholly appropriate ... for just about everyone.

And for those who want to make sure the recipient doesn't think of it as proof of our nuttiness, there's always the option of filling the jars with bean soup mix or any other of the gifts in a jar.

Finally, when the jar is emptied of its contents, the recipient can fill it back up, with anything he/she wishes. Canning jars are the gifts that keep on giving ... and a encouraging others to store something in those jars is a very good start to helping them start prepping ... without having them realize that's the ultimate goal ;).

Friday, December 9, 2011


My blog has been chosen as the Featured Blog on I am so honored, as BlogHer is an incredible, positive, social force.

Welcome BlogHer visitors.

In recognition of this incredible event, I would like to offer a copy of my book Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs to one of my readers. Simply leave a comment. The recipient will be chosen by a random highly scientific drawing (i.e. names in a hat, probably selected by one of my lovely daughters).

Thank you for giving me this honor ... I am truly humbled.

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Four

On the fourth day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

... a cast iron skillet;
... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

For many years I've been hearing and reading the horror stories about what the teflon coating on our cookware does to our bodies. It's not pretty. Of course Dupont and the other companies that manufacture these, admittedly, amazing technologies will beg to differ with regard to the negative research findings about their products, but being the sort of person I am, I like to err on the side of caution.

My mother is still using the same set of *not coated* stainless steel cookware she bought when I was a kid. I even remember when she bought it. Some guy came to our house with a bunch of pans and other really cool gourmet cooking equipment (like this awesome manual food slicer/dicer/mincer thingy). Then, he cooked us dinner, to demonstrate all of the neat things his cookware would do, and my mother spent a couple hundred dollars (a LOT of money back in the day) buying this cookware. I'm pretty sure my dad didn't like how much she spent, but I hope he appreciates the fact that, many years later, they still have the same cookware.

I covet her cookware, and I've been looking at replacing all of mine - one piece at a time, because I can only afford one piece of really good, high-quality, long-lasting, not-mass-produced-in-China cookware at a time.

But to start, I have my favorite piece of cookware - a cast-iron skillet, which was a gift from my children.

Like stainless steel, cast-iron is pretty durable. Further, once it's seasoned, the non-stick surface is far superior to anything Dupont could come up with. In addition, cooking with cast-iron might actually be good for one's health. And, the best part, I can use metal utensils in my cast-iron pan ... which are also more durable than their plastic counterparts.

As I said, my cast-iron skillet was a gift, and since then, I've added a dutch oven and two more, smaller skillets. Next, I'd like to add a stockpot, and if I had my druthers, I'd have a sauce pan, too.

There's one more thing that makes cast-iron far superior to the chemically coated cookware (especially for the prepper-minded), cast-iron can be used for cooking on a rocket stove or over an open fire. Try that with teflon and be prepared to eat plastic.

For the not-prepper-minded cook, receiving a gift of cast-iron won't even raise an eyebrow, and any cook worth his/her salt will see the value in such an extravagant gift.

And, maybe, that person will be compelled to be very generous ... and cook dinner ;).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Three

On the third day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me,

... a French coffee press;
... black turtle beans;
... and a sapling apple tree.

I imagine that there are those who would not consider a French Coffee Press a prepping item, but if you will indulge me for a moment ;).

For those who are unfamiliar with the coffee press, it is, essentially, a glass (or sometimes plastic) pitcher with handle. The lid is attached to a mesh frame that fits securely inside the pitcher. Coffee grounds are put in the bottom of the pitcher, and then, boiling water is poured over the coffee grounds. The lid with the mesh screen is placed on the pitcher and a plunger is pushed down. The screen keeps the grounds on the bottom of the pitcher, and after four minutes of steeping time, the coffee can be poured, ground-free, into the mug or cup of one's choice.

No electricity is needed to make a cup of coffee - only hot water, which can be had by filling a pan with water and putting it over a heat source. The press should not be placed on a burner or over a heat source.

Of course, for some of us, coffee may be a luxury, exotic treat in a lower energy future, but the coffee press works equally well for brewing teas, and we're not talking about only the types of tea that come from the equally exotic camellia sinensis plant (which doesn't grow in Maine without some heroic efforts on the part of the gardener - and then for the amount of space required, perhaps not well enough to actually produce a decent tea crop).

When it comes to talking about tea, I know, most people are thinking, "just use a tea bag", and yeah, perhaps, but what most people probably don't realize is that the tea in those bags isn't a very high a quality tea compared to loose-leaf tea (and might contain the "tea dust" that is produced when the leaves are cut and shoved in the disposable bag) ... further, the loose-leaf tea, even the highest quality gourmet stuff, is cheaper than the stuff in the bags ;).

And if one uses loose-leaf tea, one can add other herbs for a custom taste. One of my favorites was a blend of (organic, fair-trade) green tea with peppermint from my garden.

There are some quite lovely substitutes, in every environment, for both of the familiar and well-loved tropical beverages. One of the coffee substitutes we've been trying is roasted dandelion root, and a tea substitute we've been using is polypore (tree mushrooms).

We've been using a coffee press for a couple of years, now, and couldn't be happier with the product. It's easier to use than a camping percolator, which will occasionally spit grounds into the coffee, and it's non-electric, which makes it more useful for a low-energy lifestyle.

Plus, for those non-prepper minded family members and friends, the coffee press is actually a pretty nifty gift, and looks like something that should be in a gourmet kitchen. Those non-prepping friends might not think us so crazy when they receive this sort of gift ... and we don't have to tell them it's for prepping ;).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Masonry Heater ... Rocket Stove ??

This year marks our fourth winter of heating exclusively with wood. It's the sixth year of heating with wood, if we counted the two winters that wood was the primary heat source with a heavy supplementation by our oil furnance (we installed a more efficient woodstove in 2008 and began heating 100% of the time with wood), and before that, our woodstove was always a supplement to the furnace, anyway. We used it when we were home all day, and at night, to take out the chill.

When I wrote Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, I devoted a whole chapter to fire, in which I discuss, mostly, how to heat one's suburban home in the absence of modern amenities, like electricity, natural gas, or oil burning furnances.

The point is/was, as the price of oil becomes less affordable (the price per barrel was over $102 today) and less available for use as a heating fuel, as electricity becomes prohibitively expensive and/or scarce, as natural gas lines stop delivering, more people will need to find alternatives. In fact, Mainers already know this, and the State has seen a substantial increase in the number of people who are, now, heating with wood.

We have a woodstove, but installing a more efficient woodstove in our house was simply a matter of taking out the old one and putting in the new one. For other people, the change won't be/isn't so easy.

When I was researching my book, one of the great heating technologies I stumbled on was the masonry heater, and let me just say, if I could have picked any option available to me, a masonry heater would have been high on the list. Not only are they incredibly efficient heaters, but they are also, quite simply, beautiful. And, of course, the pièce de résistance for me is that some designs of masonry heaters also include cookstoves and ovens. I like having multi-purpose functionality in my house.

A masonry heater is definitely a viable low energy choice for people who are in the process of building a home, but adding one to an existing structure is a bit more complicated. Not impossible, mind you, because nothing's impossible, but difficult and expensive.

I also knew about rocket stoves for low-polluting, low-fuel cooking, and in fact, I mention them in the book. These little gems are incredibly efficient, get incredibly hot and use almost no fuel - just a few twigs to cook a whole meal. The simplest ones I've seen are a couple pipes, one inside the other with a layer of insulation in between. Fuel goes in the bottom and heat comes out of the top.

I'd never considered that a really good, inexpensive-to-build, highly efficient option for heating a home would be a marrying of these two technologies until I saw this article today, and I have to say that this is just the coolest thing I've seen in a very long time. The article mentions the book, Rocket Mass Heaters, which might be a good investment for someone who could use an alternative heating system (and also for someone with some masonry skills who might be looking for a new vocation ... :).

The coolest thing, though, is that the picture on the front of the book is of a woman sitting on the bench that makes up part of the heater, and on the top of the heat exchange/fire box (which is a metal drum) is a water kettle - heating water for tea. I like multi-purpose functionality :).

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day Two

On the second day of Prepping my Prepper gave to me black turtle beans, and a sapling apple tree.

I had this idea for a story. It's kind of a Gregory Macguiresque retelling of the classic story Jack and the Beanstalk, only I don't do fantasy writing well - I'm more of a realist, a la John Steinbeck or Theodore Dreiser. In fact, if had to pick a favorite genre, I'd have to say it's early 20th Century American realism, in particular the Depression Era stories.

So, in my story, Jack and his mother do, indeed, have a cow, and it's wonderful, because they have something that most of their neighbors do not have - milk, enough to drink, to make cheese, and to sell/barter for other goods they do not have. Having the cow is quite a bounty for Jack and his mother.

Unfortunately, those who know anything about milk cows, know that milk cows only give milk for a set period of time (around a year) following the birth of a calf. After that, the cow needs to be impregnated, if one wishes to continue getting milk. If there's no bull, and there's no insemination, that cow is, at best, a lawn mower, or there's the option of making her into meat.

The problem for Jack and his Mom (aside from not having a bull) is that they don't have any way to preserve 500 lbs of beef - at least they aren't up to the chore of butchering and preserving that much meat by themselves, and so Jack is, indeed, tasked with taking the cow into town to see what he can get for her.

And also, like the original story, along the way, he meets a man who offers to trade him some beans, but not just a tiny bag of magic beans. Rather, this man has bags and bags of dried beans of every color and size imaginable. Some, he says, were the food for the Pharoahs of Egypt, some were named after the royal families of Rome, and some, came from wild-eyed natives in a land across the great, wide ocean.

While the fantasy of the origins of the beans may be enough to convince young Jack of the value of the stranger's wares, for the rest of us, there's something pretty remarkable, magical actually, about dried beans.

First, they're edible, and I've made many a fine meal out of dried beans, including the ones I added to last night's chili (or, as I call mine, "Glorified Tomato Soup" ;). According to this article, beans have a long and glorious history as a cultivated crop, dating back to the Bronze Age. It has been a staple in many cultures, including among the indigenous people of North America, and in the Middle Ages, it was the mainstay for European peasants.

Second, the dried bean is also the seed, which means that it can be planted, and it will grow a whole crop of beans. One bean makes one plant and one plant can produce several meals' worth of beans.

So, back to Jack ....

Of course, being a boy, Jack is taken in by this man, who seems more mystery than mortal. Afterall, everyone knows there is no "across the ocean." Nevertheless, Jack is convinced, and a trade is made. Jack takes home two large sacks (about fifty pounds in total) of mixed beans. The man ties the cow to the back of his cart and disappears down the road.

When he arrives home with his sacks, Jack's mother is, as in the original, a little peeved at Jack coming back without the cow, dragging a couple of very heavy sacks of beans. Unfortunately, when he gets to the house, they discover that one of the sacks has a tiny hole, and they've lost half the contents of that sack.

To say Jack's mother is upset is an understatement. She's livid. Not only has Jack brought back peasant food, but he also lost a quarter of it on his way home.

"How will we survive?" she laments.

Still she cooks up a pot of beans for supper, seasoned with some wild herbs Jack forages, and they both go to bed with a belly more full than they've had for weeks.

The next day, Jack takes a couple of handfuls of the colorful beans and plants them outside around the house. It's spring, see, and it's planting time anyway. Jack figures, what the heck, might as well give it a whirl.

He gets very engrossed in the task, planting them according to size and shape, and then, color, and then, he starts making geometric shapes with them around the yard, spirals and stars and circles, making pathways lined with beans, and little rooms, that when the beans grow big and tall, as Jack is sure they will, he can sneak into and enjoy playing at his fantasy games all day, hidden among the greenery.

It doesn't take long for the bean sprouts to start popping up, and a month later the vines are starting to wend their way up the sides of the house, all across the yard, up the fence, and out into the road, threatening to swallow Jack and his mother and their modest cottage in their snaking tendrils. Jack's mother starts to get a little nervous, because their home is beginning to look a bit like a jungle, but then, she notices the pretty little flowers, and all of the neighbors mention how colorful and pretty their formerly drab yard is starting to look. So, she leaves the plants alone.

But they grow, and grow, and grow ...

... and soon, Jack and his mother can no longer see out of the windows, and they have to take care when walking down the pathway from the front door to the road, lest they trod on a snaking vine. Jack is thrilled to note that his beans have created all of the private rooms deep in their vines, just as he hoped.

The summer wanes. Just when Jack and his mother are getting close to the very last of the dried beans that were purchased with the cow, and Jack's mother is ready to box his ears and order him to take an hoe out and hack up the crazy overgrown yard, they notice little green pods all over the vines - everywhere they look.

Jack gets to work picking the beans, but they simply have too many to eat, and the more he picks, the more the plants seem to produce. So, he takes the green beans into town, where he sells them. Every week for the rest of the summer, he sells beans at the market, and again, they have a little money to buy things they can not make themselves.

As the season ends and the bean plants begin to dry and wither, to their horror, Jack and his mother realize one morning that they've neglected to save any beans for themselves. What they did not eat, they sold, and while they have some little bit of money stored, there's not nearly enough for a whole winter.

It was a great year of beans, but now that it's over, Jack is terrified of another lean and hungry winter. He resolves to find a way to remedy the situation, and decides to go into town to look for work, even though he knows there are no jobs, and being just a boy, it's unlikely that anyone will hire him.

He walks slowly, head down, stumbling along, the enormity of their sad plight weighing heavily on his young shoulders, because the reality is that he is, still, just a boy. Tears fill his eyes, and the road gets blurry. He stumbles off the road into the weeds, where he falls into a bunch of dying vines.

They seem familiar.

He hastily brushes the tears from his eyes and looks closely at the plants in which he is sitting. Beans. He's sitting in beans. The seeds from the hole in his bag took root and grew along the side of the road. While he was harvesting and selling (and eating) the plants in his yard, these were growing wild.

He jumps up and starts filling his pockets with dried bean pods. When his pockets are full, he pulls up his shirttail, making a basket and fills it, too, and then, he stumbles home with his treasure, dumps his shirt onto the table, empties his pockets, and grabs a basket to continue his harvest.

The original Jack and the Beanstalk story is a fantasy tale about how Jack gets rich by duping an evil giant, but in my opinion, the real treasure is in the potential a real bean plant offers for security during hard times. Not only are bean plants beautiful (for those more interested in ornamental gardening), but they also produce an amazing food that has an incredibly high nutritional value, and for the prepper-minded, dried beans have a long storage life.

Beans would make an amazing holiday gift. A jar of assorted beans, layered by color, is very pretty. In fact, a jar of bean soup is one of those great home-made holiday gifts. If one wanted to get really fancy with the gift giving, one might add a seed sprouter, maybe a bean pot, and/or a favorite bean recipe.

If one wanted to push the prepper ideal a bit without wanting to be pushy, one could add a set of popsicle sticks/row markers and maybe some seed starting trays, and a suggestion to plant a couple of the beans to "see what happens" :).

When it comes to beans, there's no shortage of creative ways to give them as gifts, and for those family members who aren't prepper-minded, a gift of beans won't seem like an attempt to drag the unconvinced into the craziness. It'll just be a really neat gift.

Beans, beans they're good for the heart,
The more you eat ....

Friday, December 2, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping - Day One

On the First Day of Prepping, my Prepper gave to me ... a sapling apple tree.

Most people who know me, know that I'm interested in self-sufficiency. They also know that I garden. What they may not realize, however, is that, while I do have a wild and crazy jungle of annuals every summer, I've been working more toward a sustainable landscape. That is, perennials are a bigger focus of my energy and pocketbook than annuals (except garlic, and I love garlic, but really, if one does things in the right way, collecting the heads and replanting a few each fall, it's sort of a perennial :). I like lettuce and tomatoes and broccoli, but I value more the long-term investment of my fruit and nut trees, the herbs and berries, and the root crops, like Jerusalem Artichokes, that I've planted, because even if, for some reason, I'm unable to tend my garden, these things will give my family food.

At the moment, we have two sapling apple trees, two dozen or so edible herbs, three (struggling) hazelnut bushes, a jungle of raspberry brambles, a couple of blueberry bushes, and a huge patch of ridiculously overgrown Jerusalem artichoke. If all of these plants hit full production mode and combined with the wild-growing pot herbs (a.k.a. weeds) on our property (like dandelion and lamb's quarters), we could have enough food to sustain us ... on just our quarter acre.

Of course, not everyone on your list will be like me (at least one can hope, right?) with the goal of a sustainable suburban garden. In that case, an apple tree (or other flowering fruit/nut tree) is still a good gift option, because, as mentioned, apple trees flower, and the flowers are just lovely. Around here, apple trees are used as ornamental plants. Most of the ornamental apple trees are those crabapple hybrids with teeny little apples (which might be useful for making vinegar ... or jelly ... but not much else :), but there are some newer subdivisions that sport full-sized apple varieties. In fact, one of our apple foraging forays took place in a new subdivision, where the apple trees were planted, because they're pretty, and because the suburb is "apple themed" with road names like "Granny Smith Court" :).

One other argument against this gift idea might be that the recipient doesn't have yard space for an apple tree or that he/she is a renter. Not to worry, because apple trees, like many other plants, can be grown in a container.

Storing food is an absolute must for any prepper. What better way to store food than in the form of a plant that will keep on giving, perhaps even after the original recipient is no longer around for the harvest? It might be tough to convince our non-prepper family members and friends to store up cases of applesauce, and buying them all of that applesauce might not be an appeciated gesture, but in giving them an apple tree, we have, essentially, given them a potential emergency food supply.

And don't let the idea of cost deter you. It's true that some nurseries charge exhorbitant prices for their trees, but an Arbor Day Foundation fruit tree is not only affordable, it is also a two-part gift - first it's tree for the person getting the gift, and second it's a charitable donation to an organization that's trying to do good work.

This holiday season, consider skipping the mall and giving something that has a longer life than even the most robust, rechargeable battery ;).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Twelve Days of Prepping

This time of year can be very difficult for those of us who are a little ... well, offended ... by the wanton consumerism and wastefulness of the "Holiday Season." It's not so much that I mind the garish decorations (the lights are pretty ... until I think of all of the electricity they are unnecessarily consuming) or blatant commercialism, but rather it's how unneccessary it all is. I mean, most of the people I know have everything they could possibly need, and most of what they want ... and even a few things they didn't know they wanted until they had them. The question I almost always end up asking is "what do I buy for someone who has everything?" because even those of us who don't think we are so fortunate have more than we "need", and in spite of Madonna's assertion sometimes "nothing" is better than "more" - literally (especially when more means we need to find someplace to store it ;).

Every year, I end up in the balancing act of not wanting to disappoint my family while also not wanting to add to the clutter of holiday's past that fills every nook and cranny in every room of our "large-by-global-standards", smaller-than-typical suburban home. Unfortunately, our world is such that when it comes to this time of year, we have very few choices.

We can don our hat of moral superiority and when asked about our druthers for holiday gifts state boldly that we don't celebrate and wish for nothing and plan to gift nothing either. So, there! And if we have the kind of leathery skin one needs when one is so strongly pushing against the cultural tides, epithets like "Scrooge" that will inevitably be lodged in our direction, won't bother us. Just don't look 'em in the eye, because while they may say nothing, the disappointment on those little faces will rip the heart right out of even the most staunch holiday-hater.

Or, we can succumb to the fervor of the holiday and join the mob mentality as we rush to all of the holiday sales, pull out the plastic or over draft our bank accounts (oh, I still have checks, and therefore, I must still have money!), ensuring that every single little bright eyed doll-faced cherub in our lives smiles broadly and brightly as s/he rips into, yet, another cheerily wrapped box of uselessness that seems to have become the norm on most traditional gift-giving days. As winter is the literal "death of the year" (in the sense that "life" in general is usually dormant), no one will be too worried when we slip into the inevitable post-holiday buyer's-regret depression, and we can wallow in our self-deprecating stupor as we wonder how we'll pay for our extravagance.

Thankfully, those aren't the only two options. There's a third, and it might involve some shopping (as with all things, the key is moderation :), it will definitely require some thinking about stuff, and it might involve the need to be creative.

I'm not a crafty person, in general. I've made some interesting costumes and altered some clothes - for fun. I enjoy making baskets - when I have time. I knit, but only enough to make dishcloths, and really, how many dishcloths can one give before the receiver starts putting that gift in the Yankee Swap (kind of like the infamous tie for Dad in days-gone-by)?

I also believe that things are definitely changing. I don't know that there will ever be the "catastrophic end" we, preppers, like to imagine, but I do look at world events, and I can see that there will be a lot of us who will be living differently in the years to come. Some of that change, I believe, will mean that we'll need to do more for ourselves than we are currently doing.

With that in mind, my daughters and I have been discussing potential gifts for the "Twelve Days of Prepping", and the plan is to post an item each day that might be useful to those with a prepper mindset ... or for those people in one's life who aren't prepper-minded as a way to help them prep without them realizing that they're prepping ;).

It should be fun, and if you're in my family ... close your eyes ;).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NaNoWriMo - FAIL!

As with most things, when I decided to - once again - embark on the NaNoWriMo 2011 adventure, I did so hoping for the best, expecting the worst, and also, as with mos things, I grandly exceeded my expectations ;). That is, I barely made a dent in the 50,000 word requirement. Sure, I have the rest of the day, but I also have some "real" work to do, and, unless I mimic "Jack" in The Shining, there's not much chance I can reach the goal.

Instead of writing for the month, I've been reading, and I finished four or five books this month - which is a personal record ;).

Now that the pressure's off, I might actually finish my novel ... not the one I'm reading, rather the one I'm writing. Yesterday, I finally wrote out my outline ;). Perhaps I should have done that first ... at very least, it would have increased my word count :).

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday

As I do too often, I posted a scathing comment regarding shopping on Black Friday on my Facebook page. Basically, it said, I don't shop on Black Friday, because there is nothing I would want to buy badly enough to kill someone to get the cheapest price. My comment was in reference to the 2008 death of a Wal-Mart employee who was trampled while trying to open the doors as the throng of shoppers attempted to push their way into the store. It was a tragedy, and not a usual occurence, but at the same time, it spoke volumes to me.

I have, personally, chosen to have no part of it.

Unfortunately, a lot of my friends and family members do enjoy shopping, and like to check out the Black Friday deals. I am not judging. *For me*, shopping on Black Friday would be an unnecessarily uncomfortable ordeal, but I recognize that not all people in this world feel the way I do about things, and that's okay. My opinion about Black Friday was not meant as a character assessment of those who enjoy the excitement of the day.

The fact is that I don't really like to shop, but even if I did, I wouldn't shop on Black Friday, because I hate crowds and I hate standing in lines (not my idea of fun, even if I think I'm getting a good deal).

But more than that, I don't think the deals are really so great.

A couple of years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who worked in retail for years. She was very open (too open, perhaps) about the kinds of things retailers do to attract customers, and to encourage people who are unwitting enough to get caught in their web to spend more money. In grocery stores, for instance, higher priced, "luxury" items are placed at eye level and in eye-catching places in eye-catching displays. The price tags will be bright and visually appealing, and even if it isn't a "sale" item, it will look like a good deal, because we have been programmed to view items placed in certain areas or in certain configurations as "deals."

It's not paranoia to think that we're constantly being manipulated to spend more money. Most companies have done long-term marketing studies on how to motivate people to spend money - and they're getting better at it all of the time. Ever wondered why so many resturants seem to have the same color scheme? It's not a coincidence.

In retail, they place certain items strategically and in eye-catching displays, and most people will pick up the item as an impulse buy. We all do it. All of us. Even those of us with lists will, occasionally, pick up that impulse item.

Impulse items are not deals and are often marked up beyond the normal mark-up, because they are the high profit items. When I worked in the food industry, our high profit item was the drinks. The mark-up for beverages was as much as 80% above the cost of that item. Eighty-percent. Crazy! But we pay it, because we think we're getting a deal.

Make no mistake. On those "shopping holidays", the retailer is going to make its money. After all, it *is* all about making money, and they are not doing us any favors by offering these "great deals." If there wasn't something in it for them, they wouldn't do it. A few items might, actually, be marked down (but never below the cost), but often those items are in "limited quantities" and would be gone before most people are even able to get into the store. One year, for example, a major retailer offered a highly desirable electronics item at a ridiculously low price. The advertisement flyer said (in a very, very tiny font) "limited quantities", but who reads the small print, and who could have imagined how "limited" those quantities would actually be?. Each of the 100-plus stores had FIVE.

As such, the best idea is to understand when the best time to buy things is, and there are certain times of the year when the cost of certain items is significantly lower than at other times. In fact, according to this list, right now is a good time to buy aluminum foil, and according to this list, aluminum foil is a good thing to have around the house.

It's not that I don't like getting a good deal, and it's not that I would deny any other person the joy of finding a bargain. It is that this "shopping holiday" is just one more way for retailers to wrest the few dollars we've managed to keep hold of out of our collective fingers, and if we think they're doing us any favors, we're deluding ourselves. Their goal is to make money, and they'll do nearly anything to achieve that goal - even if it means trickery and deceit - two traits most retailers have in spades.

The wiki-history of Black Friday is both funny and a little sad.

All the more reason I choose not to participate.

And in this season in which thanks should be ever on our lips, I'm thankful that there has never been a Black Friday deal so compelling that I risk my life or that of another to shop on this day.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Storing Food

In her excellent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich points out that one of the biggest problems for the working poor, when it comes to food and nutrition, is that many of them have no place to store surplus food, even if they can afford to purchase it. I won't disagree. I lived in what can only be described as "transient" housing while I was in the military, and while my situation was significantly different and slightly more stable than someone who lives in a motel room, with regard to storing food, it wasn't much better.

Of course, being who I am, I can't simply accept that as the final answer, and I think, for those who look deeper, there are solutions.

One of my favorite, all-time, television shows, and, indeed, the one that got me started on this path to suburban self-sufficiency and homesteading, is the 1970s BBC classic, Good Neighbors. The story is about a man who reaches his forty-second birthday and, suddenly, realizes that nothing he does is meaningful. He gets up in the morning, goes to his job where he is a (top) designer for the plastic toys that end up in cereal boxes, and then, he comes home at night to his lovely wife, has dinner, and the next morning, wash/ rinse/repeat.

He decides he wants more from his life, and so the show begins.

In one episode Tom (the protagonist) goes fishing with his buddy and next door neighbor, Jerry (the foil - sort of). Tom is fishing for sustenance, and everything he catches will feed him and his wife, Barbara. Jerry is fishing, because it's relaxing and a nice departure from his high-stress job as a corporate executive. Tom has a good day at the pond, and he brings his fish home, where he cleans them, and then, stores them in the freezer (which is powered by a methane digester, which is fueled by pig-waste). Unfortunately, Tom has some mechanical problems with his generator, and his fish is in danger of thawing. So, he runs next door to ask Jerry if he can store his catch in their freezer, but Jerry informs Tom that the grid is down. Thus, the episode ends with rotting fish.

What I loved about that particular episode from my "doomer" perspective was that it was a reminder that dependence on modern, electrified conveniences could be very bad - even if we believe we can power those things ourselves. Tom had his own, home-made methane digester to provide some electricity for his home - specifically, to power the freezer in which they planned to store much of their food (including the pig, who provided the fuel for the digester ;). He believed himself to be independent of the grid, but when his home-made generator failed him, he realized he needed the very thing he'd eschewed on principle.

If he had thought beyond the obvious, Tom would have realized that he had other options - other than freezing the fish, or watching it rot when he couldn't use his neighbor's freezer.

Several weeks ago, my daughters and I went to the Old York Museum, which is a living history museum in southern Maine, where I discovered salt-dried fish. I came home, resolved to try it for myself, and after my successful attempt at salt-drying fish, Deus Ex Machina bought the book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning ..., which I have been skimming.

And it got me thinking about people who are living on a very fixed income in very small quarters and who don't have space to store traditionally preserved foods. They don't have a huge freezer (grid-powered or otherwise). They don't have a root cellar, and often not even an extra room that's in a cooler part of the house. They don't have lots of cabinets or a food pantry.

Further, they don't have the cooking facilities to can 2 dozen jars of applesauce.

So, what's the option?

And that's when I had my Aha! moment, when all of the pieces clicked together, and I thought, if I could suggest one thing to people who might be in a position where they needed to have some food stores, but simply did not have the space or the facilities to preserve them, I would tell them to get a food dehydrator.

This year, Deus Ex Machina and I harvested almost 100 lbs of "wild apples." We made cider out of most of them, but they could easily have been peeled, thinly sliced, and put in the food dehydrator.

In the past, we've bought cheap cuts of meat, sliced it very thin, marinated it in a seasoned brine, and then, dehydrated it.

A few years ago, a local farm store had 50 lb bags of potatoes for $15. Yes, that's right. FIFTY pounds of potatoes for FIFTEEN DOLLARS! If I had no way to store or cook 50 lbs of potatoes, a good alternative would be to thinly slice the spuds and dehydrate them. My family and I might get sick of potato soup, but we wouldn't be hungry.

What's funny is that most of us never think about dehydrating our fresh food, but most of us, in this processed food generation, regularly cook with and eat dehydrated foods. Instant potato flakes, "just add boiling water" soups, flavored instant oatmeal ... raisins.

There's nothing mysterious about dehydrating foods, and when it comes to preservation methods, dehydrating can, actually, be the cheapest way to process the food we want to keep. When Deus Ex Machina and I bought our dehydrator over a decade ago, we bought the cheapest model available. It's not a heavy-duty commercial quality, but it does the job, and we paid less than $40 for it. From the bit of sleuthing I did, it looks like similar models are still available at a similar price :).

The food dehydrator Deus Ex Machina and I have is electric, but it takes far less energy - even with the dehydrator running full out for the two days it takes to dry meat - to dry four trays of meat than it does to store it for months in the freezer. The dried meat also takes up less space than an equal amount of fresh meat, and if it's kept in an air-tight container, it will last for months (maybe years) - even through a power outage :).

We use an electric food dehydrator, and for people living in a motel or a small apartment, an electric dehydrator is probably the best answer, but dehydrating food does not require electricity - just so you know.

Unlike canning, which requires monitoring through the whole process, most of the process of dehydrating requires no effort on our part. There was a commercial a few years ago for some "As Seen On TV" Ronco product in which they declared "Set it and Forget it!" That's how preserving food by dehydrating works - for the most part.

Dehydrated food can be rehydrated and cooked, as we all know from our days of eating "just add boiling water" soup packets, but it can also be eaten as is, which makes dehydrating food, probably, one of the best methods of preserving.

As for Tom Good, I wish I could tell him about my salt-dried fish. It was delicious in chowder, and salt-drying or even smoke drying his fish would have saved the all of that food he caught.