Monday, February 28, 2011

Twenty-one Days - Day 3: Fuel

Back when I was a kid (and dinosaurs still roamed the earth), we didn't have gas grills. We had charcoal grills, which were always fun to use, especially if the "cook" didn't really know how to light charcoal and elected to use copious amounts of lighter fluid.

My father grew up in a coal-mining community in southeastern Kentucky, and every vacation, we would go and visit my grandparents there.

I always thought that charcoal was coal.

It's not.

Charcoal is made from wood, and I think the first time I realized this was not so very long ago. I believe I was watching some news story about deforestation somewhere on the Africa continent, and the reason they were having a problem was that large swaths of forest were being cut down and turned into charcoal.

The process is pretty interesting. Basically, it's: build a big fire, and then, cover the fire so that it smolders instead of burns. After some time, what's left is charcoal. This article explains the process in some pretty good detail, but better than the article are the comments that follow.

Charcoal can be used for cooking (outdoors), and if one lives in an area that has a warmer climate, and heat isn't as necessary, charcoal might actually be a better alternative to having a wood fire for cooking (outdoors), as charcoal requires less space for storage, and it produces a hotter fire, faster.

As a heating fuel, I wouldn't use charcoal in the house, but I've spoken, often, about using rocks heated outside as a way to warm a small space indoors, using something like the Japanese Kotatsu. Charcoal could be used to heat those rocks (outside, while one is cooking :).

In addition to being a great fuel for cooking and heating, charcoal has a number of other uses. It is one of the key components of water filters (!). It is used in incense making as the combustible material that allows the incense to keep smoking, which is how it gives off it's scent. It can be used in drawing (charcoal pencils), and some sources I've read indicate it is an ingredient in make-up (like mascara and eyeliner). Best, though, is that there is significant discussion around the Internet about using charcoal as an additive in one's garden to boost the nutrients in the soil.

Charcoal can also be used in making gun powder, but shhh ... I didn't say that.

There are a lot of low-energy fuel sources, and whatever we use will definitely depend on where we live, because things like deforestation would certainly do more harm than any good that might come from using charcoal.

One other comment about the potential of charcoal. There is some discussion that the process of making charcoal produces methane. If captured, it can be used to operate a generator, which can be used to generate electricity. It's important that we think about the most efficient ways of using our fuel. For instance, we make charcoal, the process of which emits heat, and we use that heat, while we have it, for cooking or heating or purifying water, and at the same time, we also capture the methane to make electricity to power our laptop computers so that we can go online and share our success story with the rest of the world. Then, we take the charcoal out when it's ready and grill some steaks ... or whatever. And when we're all done, we take the white ash that's left, filter water through it to make lye, mix with animal fat and make soap.

The point is not to waste, to think beyond the one-use mentality we have adopted as a culture. When it comes to fuel (especially) in a lower energy society, we will need to really heed Benjamin Franklin's advice: take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.

Fuel is only half of what's needed to make fire, and so this week, I would like to offer those who are interested a fire-making tool: a magnesium firestarter.

**Knife not included.

Magnesium firestarters are fun survival tools. I keep one on my keychain ... just in case ;).

As usual, leave a commment if you want to be included in the drawing. The winner will be announced on March 4.


The winner of the book: Green Remodeling is Steve. Congratulations, and please leave a comment with the address to which you would like the book sent. I won't publish your address.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Twenty-One Days - Day 2: Water

At the educational center where my girls take French class and music lessons there's this science book we like to look at. One of the discussions in the book centers on dehydration and has a very interesting graphic that shows a guy who's suffering from dehydration. The illustation is pretty ... *not* pretty.

One resource I consulted stated that one can live for ten days (in 50° weather) without any water at all, but as the article points out, a person who had gotten to that point wouldn't be in any condition to be looking for water, and the damage to his/her body from severe dehydratioon would be significant, perhaps not recoverable.

So, we'll say that water is pretty important. Everybody knows it. We've always known it, in fact. I can remember, as a kid, watching some of those old Westerns, and one of the tricks adversaries used to use against each other out in the desert was to "poison" the water with an animal carcass. As a kid, I didn't know why it was bad, just that it was, but now, I understand it is bacterial contamination (like food poisoning), which will cause diarrhea, which will exacerbate the chances of dehydration. One can die pretty quickly, and painfully, from bacterial poisoning.

Right now, I get my water from a municipal water company, but in a lower energy future, the ability for this company to suck water into their facility from the river where they get my water, and then, add the necessary chemicals to make it safe for drinking, and THEN, send it through miles and miles of pipes into my home, may be significantly compromised. In fact, during the summer months, when the population of my town swells to three times its winter size, there is a noticable drop in water pressure as the demand for this life-giving elixir is increased.

As such, in preparation for the coming emergency, water security is second only to making sure I have shelter.

Some time ago, I was watching a video about the problem of drinking water in a village somewhere on the African continent. Much of the continent is arid, and there are significant issues with desertification, specifically around Lake Chad, which has been receding for a good many years. As such, water is scarce, and clean water is even more so.

According to the video, almost by accident, a village woman discovered how to purify water. She would put the water in plastic (PET) bottles and then leave it on top of her corrugated metal roof for six to forty-eight hours (depending on the cloud cover). This would kill the disease-causing pathogens. The number one cause of death among children in third world countries is diarrhea, usually the result of drinking contaminated water. This woman's discovery of a very simple, very low-tech, very accessible way of purifying her water supply was nothing short of miraculous.

This article was also particularly enlightening, and just so you know, a combination of boiling and filtering (using a simple and easily homemade sand/charcoal filter) will make water safe to drink - but if there is any question as to what may be in the water, BOTH boiling AND filteration should be used. Boiling kills the pathogens (parasites and bacteria) and filteration takes out contaiminates like heavy metals.

Getting clean water doesn't have to be high tech or difficult, but it does need to be done, and those of us who are dependent on a delivery system that is, let's face it, pretty fragile and not wholly reliable, will need to make some plans for what we can do to make sure we have water, because after only a few hours without water, I start to get loopy ... after a few days, I'm pretty sure I'm a goner.

To get you started on securing your water supply, I have a treat for you.

After you boil the water from the creek near your house, you can filter it through this pitcher and have great tasting, CLEAN water for your family to drink. It holds 40 fluid ounces of water, and the replacement filters are cheap.

Some people will say store gallons of water, and if I lived in a water scarce area, I would probably have water storage of some kind, but for my preps, it just seems easier to have a way to make dirty water clean than to find a place to store clean water.

If you would like to be entered into the drawing for this Brita water pitcher, please leave a comment. The winner will be announced on Wednesday, March 2 ;).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Twenty-One Days - Day 1: Shelter

In an extreme survival situation, the first thing a person needs is shelter. One will die faster from exposure to the elements than from thirst and hunger combined.

In our lower energy future, we won't, necessarily, be dealing with "extreme survival" situations, but we will have less - less energy, less food, less money. Moving should not be a priority at this point. We're out of time to find that perfect off-the-grid piece of heaven out in the country.

Even if one could find that perfect place, today, moving takes time and energy and money. If we spend those things moving, now, we might end up neglecting some of the other things we need to be doing to secure our future.

I haven't always loved my house, and there have been times when I really felt strongly that I needed to not be in this town.

But here is where I am, and this is where I will plan to spend the rest of my life. As such, I need to be doing everything in my power to adapt this house to a lower energy future.

I can't afford not to.

None of us can.

The best we can do right now is to assume that we're not going anywhere and make where we are perfect for us. The best any of us can do right now is to make where we are as comfortable and as low energy as we can get it.

For my family, that's meant a tankless water heater, heating with wood, digging up the yard for garden beds, and keeping chickens. In the future it will mean power-generation equipment, an outdoor kitchen with a well, some sort of cold food storage, compacting our living space by adding a second floor and knocking off a couple of back rooms to make better use of solar energy, and gardening design with an eye on long-term food production.

What that means for others may be different, but the bottom line is that renovating is a much more efficient use of our time and resources than building new ... and no boxes to pack :).

In their book, Green Remodeling by David Johnston and Kim Master provide some suggestions for ways to remodel one's current home with an eye on efficiency.

If you would like to be entered into the drawing for a copy of the book Green Remodeling, please leave a comment. The winner will be announced on Monday, February 27 :).

Edited to add this link to the most recent Archdruid's Report in which he talks about insulating for energy savings (from heat/cold loss). That would be the first step toward making our homes more adaptable in a lower energy society. The less energy we have to expend staying warm/cool, the more energy we will have to apply to other areas of retro-fitting our homes - or to just paying off our homes, because really, the most important part of "securing our shelter" is being debt-free.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Twenty-One Days - The Warning

I opened up the Internet the other day to read the news. The first headline that grabbed my attention was:

Police Canvass Ocean Park for Signs of Theft.

According to the article, copper prices are higher now than they were "pre-Recession." In fact, recent news articles point out that the prices on most metals is increasing. I don't rely solely on the news media (which is often biased), however. I look around me. The other day, we were in the grocery store, and I noticed that the price of 250-foot roll of aluminum foil was $7. I thought that was a lot and said as much. Deus Ex Machina quipped that the price of all metal is increasing. The industry in which he works is heavily dependent on precious metals. He would know something about that.

Then, I noticed the heading:

Heating oil prices continue to climb.

We haven't had a heating oil delivery since 2008, when we replaced our old, inefficient woodstove with our new one and started heating solely with wood. So, I don't notice fluctuations in the price of heating oil, except as a kind of "Oh, looky there" when I'm reading the news. I have noticed that the price of gasoline has been creeping upward for quite a while now.

I looked quickly at the oil price widget I have on my blog. The price per barrel for oil is over $90 today. It's normal for gasoline prices to have seasonal increases, and we've come to accept and expect prices to go up with the beginning of Tourist Season, but it looks like, this year, we're a few months early.

Apparently, the season has nothing to do with the price increase, however, as the next headline read:

Protests in Libya put oil industry on edge.

Three years ago the world as we know it shifted, suddenly and violently, and we all felt it. There was a wave of panic that washed over us all, especially those of us in the blogosphere who'd been writing about that very sort of possibility for months (and in some cases, years). There was a lot of sitting back with arms folded across chests and heads nodding as if to say, "See? Isn't that what I said?"

It got bad. It got better ... or so the news wanted us to believe.

Something happened to boost morale, for sure, but I'm still not sure what. My guess is that the warm fuzzies we've been enjoying for the past year and a half were artificially injected into our lives thanks to our federal government's willingness to exercise its rights under Section 8 of the US Constitution, which reads that Congress has the power to to borrow money on the credit of the United States and the power to coin Money, regulate the Value thereof ... and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.

From where I sit, seems like nothing really got fixed with regard to the economy. It's harder to get a loan. Prices on everything (including chocolate ... hello!?) are increasing. Foreclosures are still happening ..., but jobs just aren't.

We don't hear a lot about unemployment these days. We don't hear a lot about companies adding jobs, either. In fact, it looks like another community in Maine is losing sorely needed jobs at a time when they can least afford to. Official unemployment numbers are still hovering around 9% - no better and no worse than at the height of the "recession." Unofficial (and perhaps more realistic) numbers put unemployment above 20% - which is putting us near the Great Depression range - when there was no official way to accurately count unemployment like we have today.

When I was a young graduate student, one of my (favorite) classes was early 20th Century American literature. We were studying the "realist" movement of the 1920s and 1930s and read the classics like Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath , which brought to light the sad plight of the migrant farm workers during the Great Depression.

The novel that's stayed with me and haunted my dreams was Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie . It wasn't the title character's rise to fame and fortune that held my attention. Rather it was Hurstwood's fall from grace that was so fascinating, because it wasn't all at once (even though he made some very stupid choices). It's like he was walking downstairs backwards, one step at a time with a pause on each step. And, really, when the book opened, Hurstwood, a highly successful, financially and socially affluent man, had a long way to go to hit bottom - which he did.

The scary part is that Hurstwood isn't all that different than the typical middle class American. He was at the top of his game. He was impervious and powerful. And he had everything to lose ... and did.

If he hadn't been blinded by his lust and his greed, he would have seen the proverbial writing, and perhaps not made such imbecilic choices.

Or maybe he would have.

How many of us have been watching what's been happening for the past three years (and before!) and done nothing to change the way we live?

How many of us (are still zombies and) are still watching (and caring about) the latest Dances with the Stars or Survivor or the current season of whatever-prime-time-soap we follow as if Dr. Hard-body-cold-heart's latest sexual conquest and miraculous surgical (and completely fictitious) procedure really matters in the greater scheme of things?

How many of us are still waiting for IT to happen, that one event that will tell us that the end is here and that we need to activate Plan TEOTWAWKI - *now*?

But until that one event happens, we'll continue living as if we have all of the tomorrows we'll ever need to get ready.

But what if ....

The following is an excerpt from the Preface of the soon-to-be-released Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: The Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil

While I do not believe that we can prepare for every possible scenario, nor do I believe that it is possible to store everything we might possibly need forever ..., I do believe ... we can mitigate the effects of an economic disaster by changing some of our habits.

Let’s pretend. Let’s pretend that we are like Noah, of Biblical fame, and we have been forewarned that there will be a catastrophic event in a specified period of time. We are told that we have 21 days to prepare.

Let’s pretend that we know that in 21 days life as we know it will come to an end. It does not mean that life will cease to exist, and it does not mean that humans will be obliterated from the Earth. What it means is that all of the things we have come to expect, all of the luxuries we enjoy, all of the accoutrements of modern life that are part of our day-to-day existence will be harder to get or just no longer available. Things like on-demand grocery stores with fresh strawberries in December when there is a blizzard raging and oranges in places where oranges would never grow, an unlimited supply of gasoline, municipal water, continuous electricity, passable roads, emergency medical care (even for those with health insurance), the Internet, cable television – anything that is part of our “modern” life will be gone.

So, let's do it. Let's pretend.

Over the next month, for the next 21 posts leading up to my 500th blog post, I will explore the things that I think we should be thinking about for preparing for a lower energy society (and I might even give away a few things here and there ...).

(book excerpt)

...our survival is often dependent on an incredibly unreliable and fragile system.

And we do not even acknowledge it — probably, because most of us do not think there is anything we can do.

But there is.

And the first step is to pretend that we know the event that changes our modern lives forever is going to happen in 21 days.

We have 21 days to prepare.

What are you going to do?

Twenty-one days.

On your mark …

Get set …


Monday, February 21, 2011

The First Harvest

It's spring.

I say that despite the foot of snow that's still covering my garden beds and in spite of the new blanket of soft, clean white that started falling last night.

It's spring.

And it's time to tap the maple trees.

If I were going to write a primer for tapping maple trees for home sugaring it would be something like:
  • Any maple tree can be tapped. Sugar maples are preferred, because they have the highest sugar content, but any maple tree will give maple sap, which can be boiled to maple syrup.

  • For drilling the hole we use a 7/16 drill bit attached to our power drill (I'm on the lookout for a hand drill, but haven't found one, yet). The hole should be about an inch and a half.

  • Sap can be collected in just about anything that will hold liquid and can be attached to the tap (which has a hook for holding the bucket). Since tapping is a regular spring chore for us, we've invested in sap buckets with lids, but the first year we tapped, we used food-grade plastic buckets, which we hung from the taps using the handle of the bucket. We covered the buckets with plastic bags to keep stuff out of the sap.

  • It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, and it takes HOURS for the sap to boil down that far. Sap boiling should be done outside. Sap can be boiled in any fire-proof container. We boil our sap over an open fire in a pan that was purchased specifically for sap boiling (because Deus Ex Machina did some math calculations and determined exactly how big the bottom of the pan needed to be to get the maximum efficiency out of the boiling process). I've also seen people boiling on a gas grill. Whatever works, I say ... use what you got.

  • After the sap has boiled almost to syrup, we bring it inside and put it into a stainless steel pot and finish the boiling in the house so that we can monitor it more closely. We use a simple candy thermometer. When the sap reaches 7° above the boiling point of water, it's syrup (*Note: that number will vary depending on how far above sea level one lives).

  • Once we have syrup, we filter it through a heavy-duty felt filter into clean, sterile canning jars and top with "new" lids. The heat of the syrup will seal the jars and the sealed jars can be stored with other home-canned goods.

Maple syrup is our first harvest. I'd never thought of it quite like that, but it's true. We've been harvesting maple syrup for the past three years, and each year, we get a little fancier. We add a new tap or two each year. We're up to fifteen taps, now, and it's not enough for commercial production, but it's enough for us for the year, which is really the whole point, for us. We're not interested in making money on our nano-farm, but we are interested in feeding ourselves.

I like numbers. I didn't used to like numbers. Growing up, math daunted me, and I can remember getting a headache from having to do long division, but now, now numbers are cool!

Like 40%. That's the percentage of the population of Maine that could be fed by what Maine farmers currently produce (and, as far as I know, the number does not include home producers, like me and Deus Ex Machina).

And the number 784.28, which is the amount of food by pound that we harvested last year.

It's a tiny number - 1/10 of what some others in the non-traditional homesteading movement claim to grow - but in our first year of really keeping track (and I know we missed a few things here and there) after only our fourth year of really trying to subsistence farm on our quarter acre with only two adults who work only part-time on the farm and have outside employment also, I'm feeling pretty good about that number.

Perhaps it constitutes about 10% of my family's annual diet (maybe more, as we produce all of our own chicken and eggs ... and hubbard squash ;). If everyone who lives on a quarter acre did as much, though, the State of Maine could produce half of what its citizenry eats, and perhaps we could boost those numbers higher with just a little effort.

The more we can be self-sufficient as a State, the better off we'll be.

My good friend sent me an email this morning in response to one of my recent posts. She said it reminded her of the African proverb: If you think you're too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.

784.28. What a great number! This year, I hope to double it.

Starting now ... with maple sugaring.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A REAL Urban Homesteader

With all of the controversy over on the west coast, I am going to do something very rare and post twice in one day, but just so everyone understands how passionate I feel about the following information, I also want to add that I can't afford to squander posts right now on stuff that isn't really important to me. This is my 475th post, and it's significant ... you'll see why next week, and as a former English teacher, yes, I do very much love foreshadowing ;).

First I have to say that growing 7000 lbs of food on a 1/10th of an acre is pretty impressive - I'll give them that, but ...

... when food grows THREE-HUNDRED AND SIXTY-FIVE DAYS of the year, it would take some very extra special effort *not* to grow something. In fact, if you live in California, and you have a yard and you're not growing some kind of food, shame on you ... no offense.

But when a person is able to turn an urban yard that is roughly 50' x 100' (which is the typical sized urban yard in most east coast cities) into a sustainable food production oasis, complete with farm animals, and to do that in the northeast, where the growing season is, roughly, one-third of California, that's AWE INSPIRING ...spiring ... spiring ... spiring. Ahem!

And not only is Patti doing that, but she's also showing other people, through instructional videos and articles, how to do it, too. Her website isn't just a bunch of self-congratulatory blather about how wonderful she is (and she is), but rather it is a series of how-to's on everything from building raised beds, tapping maple trees and boiling syrup to sap (yes, in the city!), installing a pond, planting blueberries, creating an edible walkway, and sharing her design for animal enclosures that fit exactly over her raised beds so that she is, not only making the absolute best use of her limited space, but she's also using her animals to help her till and fertilize her garden beds.

Further, like me, Patti didn't grow up farming. She doesn't have half a century of farming experience on which to draw. She didn't move from the country to the city. She's always been a city girl, and like most urbanites and suburbanites, she went to college and started a career and bought a house and had kids.

Somewhere along the way, something happened, and then, like many of us in this twenty-first century blooming-where-we-are-planted movement, she started as an adult and floundered her way through learning all of the stuff she shows us how to do on her Urban Sustainable Living project.

If we're going to emulate anyone, it should be someone like Patti Moreno, who is one of us, and is really showing a way that we can live and thrive without destroying our world - someone who really has something to offer.

Bravo, Patti ... and thanks for being the voice that we need in these troubled times.

Other Urban Homesteaders of note:

Please take the time to visit any (all) of the above listed sites. None of them have ever pretended to have the answers, but they'll give you an honest assessment of what trying to be more self-reliant, against the odds, is like for them :).

{practicing gratitude}

It's been a really weird week. Maybe the planets are all misaligned. Maybe the barometric pressure is too low. Maybe the seasonal changes are wreaking havoc with people's circadian rhythms.

In my house, with all of us being sick my personal schedule has been nudged off kilter a bit. We've missed our usual classes for the past week and have even had to cancel our outdoor class (again - the first time it was weather-related).

Come to think of it, it's not just this week that's been odd ... perhaps it's been the whole month so far.

I don't know why it is, but nothing seems to be exactly as it should be. So much unrest. So much controversy.

Deus Ex Machina was making a list the other day. He's recently finished reading Tom Brown's The Vision, and his list was the four things that man "works for." The list is peace, love, joy, and purpose. It's funny, because earlier, and I can't even remember what I was doing, but I scribbled a note to myself on a sticky, probably while I was working and the thought occurred to me, as often happens. The note says, Why don't natives living in their tribal units need a vacation? Why do so many "westerners" go "camping" for vacation?"

The answers to my scribbled notes are easy, and it's because people who live with nature have a connectedness to the essence of life. Their energy, their spirit, is intricately connected, and their every day lives are doing those four things that Deus Ex Machina wrote that man works for. They have, every minute, of every day, those four things: peace, love, joy, purpose.

I'm not sure that we, westerners, can even understand what that feels like - to be truly connected to all that is, and that in the simple act of living, our lives have meaning. It's such an alien idea that even as I think I understand, when I write it, and I try to comtemplate what that means, it's like reaching through the sewer grating and trying to retrieve a lost coin with only the use of my fingertips. The full understanding keeps inching just out of reach.

Most of us live here on this earth, but we do not live with the Earth, and our failure to understand is destroying our home.

We all know all of the analogies of how we've sullied our space like [insert rest of simile here]. It doesn't matter that we find another creatively vivid way to say what we all know, and perhaps it's time to stop all of the cute comparisons and just face the reality that we have gone beyond the tipping point, beyond the point of no return, beyond any opportunity to reverse the damage.

We all have cancer.

Modern medicine can not cure us.

That's not to say that there isn't hope. We can not reverse the damage, but perhaps, we can slow ... maybe, even, stop ... the spread of the disease.

What bothers me, though, is that we all seem to think that the tiny things we do as individuals don't matter, that small changes by small people won't make a difference, and I think that continuing to believe in such an illogic set of ideas is dangerous. It is ONLY through *collective, but individual changes that we will make a difference, because big policy changes only happen when enough little people demand them.

It still takes one monkey to start washing the potato before any of the others will.

Someone has to start.

The other part of the equation that I think we, westerners, tend to gloss over or negate or that we just don't really, in our very egocentric mindsets, understand is that we are all connected, and not in the way that "we're-all-in-this-together-because-we-all-inhabit-the-Earth, but rather in a more fundamental, basic, we-all-come-from-the-same-energy-source kind of way.

We are all connected. We are all one. We all come from the water - and whether we believe that, literally, from an evolutionary standpoint or not, is really irrelevant. We can all think of times when we've been influenced by other people's energy - either good or bad (think, for instance, of the excited energy at a ball game and how intoxicating and insidious it was, whether or not we enjoy the sport).

The point is that what one being does will have a profound effect on other beings, and once we really, REALLY get that, perhaps we'll be closer to fully grasping what it means to live our life's purpose simply by existing.

For me, the beginning step is to build that positive (healing) energy in myself, and therefore, in those around me, by practicing simple gratitude. To look around me and be glad that I am here, and that I have such abundance.

As I write this, on the other side of the window mostly covered with paper snowflakes, it's beautiful, warm and sunny outside. The sky is deep blue and the sun is sparkling on the melting snow.

It's time to tap the maples, the herald of the changing seasons.

And I am so grateful, so thankful, to live in a place that has so much ... LIFE. Even in this, the death of the year (winter), there is life here, life that is sustained by this cold, often referred to as inhospitable, environment, and not through the copious use of fossil fuels. Life has always thrived here.

I am awed and humbled by the resilience of the creatures and plants and organisms that have learned to survive and thrive in this climate, and I am thankful that they are willing to be patient with me while I stumble along trying to figure out what they already know.

And I'm thankful that my own body is incredibly resilient as well and that I'm feeling much stronger today.

Monday, February 14, 2011


It started Thursday with Big Little Sister - upset stomach, headache, body aches, general lethargy. We canceled all of her classes - Deus Ex Machina came home early to take the other two out to their dance classes.

Big Little Sister was feeling better, albeit a bit weak, on Friday, but Little Fire Faery had picked up right where Big Little Sister left off - upset stomach, headache, body aches, general lethargy. We canceled all of our classes on Friday.

Dance Saturdays are long and physically taxing. Big Little Sister has back-to-back classes starting at 9:00 and ending at 16:30 (with an hour break at lunch time). Starting last Saturday, we have to add two hours of practice for the Spring ballet in which each of the girls has been cast. This week, we opted out of dance classes, and decided we'd just make sure the girls were at ballet practice.

Little Fire Faery was not feeling well, still, and now I was spiking a temperature, too. I quipped that Little Fire Faery and I were competing to see who could get higher. So, we stayed home and Deus Ex Machina took the other two out to play practice.

Sunday, I was still feeling like I'd been run over by a herd of broiler chickens (did anyone see that big chicken?), and I still had a fever. Thankfully, Little Fire Faery was feeling better (though not 100%), and really thankfully, Big Little Sister was feeling MUCH better - enough that she could help us out (and she did! She even made cookies - what a sweetheart ;), because Deus Ex Machina was starting to feel not so great.

Monday, today, I'm still feverish - but am mostly able to function, as long as I move slo-o-w-l-y. Deus Ex Machina, however, has called in sick for only the second time in the fourteen years we have lived here in Maine. Which is to say that if he calls in sick, he must really be sick!

I'm pretty sure it's the flu, which means it's a virus, and unfortunately, for all their life-saving miracles, our esteemed health care professionals have still not figured out how to really deal with viruses. The best they can do, if we come in contact with the virus, is to make us comfortable, and perhaps, give us something that will make it not last quite so long, but we'd still have it.

My question is: is that so bad? Is it so bad that we have the virus?

And please, keep in mind that I'm sitting here, with a temperature of somewhere in the low hundreds, with an annoying, painful and unproductive cough, a headache, and a slightly achy body. I have the flu, and yet, I ask, is it so bad?

Here are some facts about the flu that they, who want you to get a shot, will gloss over:

  • The flu vaccine is developed months before flu season begins. There are three "types" of flu, each of which have several different strains, with Type A having the most variations. The flu vaccine contains some portion of each of these types, but influenza is constantly mutating, and so the chance that the vaccine producers choose the correct form of the virus in their vaccine is actually not so good. There's a better chance that anyone who accepts the vaccination will just not come into contact with the flu. In short, despite what health providers want us to believe, the vaccine really does nothing to keep us healthy ... and then, there's the question of the vaccine adjuvants

  • No one has ever died from the flu virus. What makes the flu fatal are the opportunistic infections that set in when a person's immune system is weakened due to the flu - in particular bacterial pneumonia(and please note that influenza is a virus not a bacterium).

  • The treatment for the flu is rest and fluids, because the biggest one of the biggest dangers associated with flu deaths is dehydration. So, grandma's advice to have lots of chicken soup and hot tea wasn't too far off the mark, was it?

  • Our amazing human bodies are built such that we develop a natural immunity to further exposures to a particular virus. In fact, during the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic it was found that survivors of the 1918 Spanish Flu were immune to the Swine Flu. This is true of most illnesses for which vaccines have been developed, and recent research suggests that many of the vaccines need to be repeated later in life to assure continued immunity. This is not true of natural immunity, which is life-long. In short, once we've kicked this virus and are on our feet again, this flu strain will not make us ill again.

I'm not telling anyone what to do. I am saying that freaking out in response to illness is not the answer. Neither is plying one's already weakened immune system with over-the-counter medications (or depending on vaccinations that may or may not work). The symptoms of fever and coughing, which most people try to "cure" using over-the-counter medications, are the body's natural defense mechanisms against the invading force, and if one takes OTCs, one is, effectively, disarming one's own army.

I don't feel well. In fact, truth be told, I rather feel like crap, but rather than trying to mask the symptoms, I'm trying to provide my body with the tools it needs to fight off the virus. I'm drinking lots of tea - echinacea tea, green tea, other herbal teas. I'm eating homemade chicken soup with lots of garlic.

And I'm resting.

In a lower energy future, we won't have miracle drugs, but we'll still have influenza.

The key to surviving these outbreaks will be knowing what to do ... and as with everything else we should be doing, figuring it out now while we still have a "just in case" support system, should be a priority.

After all, it's true that what doesn't kill us, just makes us stronger ... eventually ;).

Update: I wish I could say the update is that we're all better ... alas!

It's actually very awesome news related to us being sick and may be helpful to others ;). In the comments section, Witchymom mentioned a study completed by researchers at the University of Maine.

In response to the 2009 flu epidemic, their quest was to find a natural flu remedy, and they found it - white pine needles. They found that a tea made from white pine needles is an effective treatment for the flu.

We know about the healing properties of pine ... I can't believe (especially given the preachy nature of this post *grin*) that I forgot one of the most powerful remedies for what's ailing us ;).

Luckily, I have access to a lot of white pine, and I didn't have to travel far to find it. There's a pot of it steeping in my kitchen right now ;).

Thanks for the reminder, Witchymom!

Have I ever mentioned how awesome my readers are?!?

Friday, February 11, 2011

{practicing gratitude}

I had this amazing conversation with my adult son a couple of weeks ago. He's gone back to college and is taking a philosophy class. I can so, totally, do philosophy.

So, we chatted, and talked, and commiserated, and agreed, and then, disagreed, and then realized that we actually were saying the same thing, and agreed to ... agree.

It's fun to have adult conversations with my children.

Toward what was becoming the end of our phone conversation, I told him how I feel about the power of positive energy. I told him that I believe what we put into the world is what we get back - for good or bad.

And I challenged him to practice gratitude. I told him that if he would find one thing, however silly he may think it is, and express gratitude for that one thing every day it would change his life.

Unfortunately, I've been in a bit of a funk these days. There are some things going on that I won't share, but that have caused me to forget that really incredible, really important lesson - what we put out is what we get back, and if I put out negative energy, that's what comes back to me.

So, I'm being proactive, and I've decided to devote one day a week, publicly, on my blog, to remember that even when I feel like things are going really bad, that I have so much to be thankful for. I have an incredible life, and I am incredibly lucky.

From now until I find something else shiny to take my attention, I will be reserving Friday's post for {practicing gratitude}.

Feel free to join me, either on your own blog or in the comments (but if you put it on your own blog, be sure to leave a comment so that everyone can find you :). There are no rules, except that you should simply state (or verbosely pontificate, as I will do) on those things for which you are grateful.

Today, I am grateful that I was born when I was and where I was. There has never been a better time or place in recorded history to be a woman. We have more freedom, more opportunity, than women have ever had.

I'm a lucky girl :), and for that one stroke of fortune over which I had no personal control, I am very grateful.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What's Twine is Twine and What's Twine is Yours

The other day, Deus Ex Machina and I were visiting a nearby farm. We struck up a conversation with the farmer, and during the conversation discovered a treasure trove.

This farmer has several hundred acres of land, part of which is turned into hay each year, which he cuts and bales to feed his livestock. When he's baling the hay, he uses hemp twine (an all natural fiber) to hold the bales together, and he estimated that he uses a couple of miles of twine each year - none of which can be reused for baling hay, and as such, he had little use for it.

I use twine for all sorts of stuff, and like many of the things I use around my nano-farm, I never have enough from just repurposing. With as few animals as I have, most of whom are on grain, not grass, I only use a couple of bales of hay per year, which translates to, maybe, ten six-foot pieces of twine. By contrast, our farmer friend has hundreds of six-foot pieces of twine. Our farmer friend uses what he can, but most of it ends up in the waste stream, which means he burns it in his wood furnace.

He told us we could take as much as we wanted ... please ... and don't even ask!


So, we grabbed a bunch hanging on a nail in the barn with no idea what we'd do with it. This time of year, we don't need it for tying up plants, but I figured, if nothing else, we could find a place to store it until the summer, when we'd need it in the garden. It's completely biodegradable, perfect for the garden. There were other possibilities, too. We've seen twine used as a tinder bundle when making a bow drill fire (and it works great!). We figured we could use it with our outdoor skills class. On the way home, we discussed showing the kids how to make rope using the cords.

It was the idea of making rope that sparked Deus Ex Machina's memory. After we got back home, he remembered a video he'd watched on making cordage baskets and set about to find it.

At one point during the hour (or so) that we were making our baskets, I started to giggle, and Deus Ex Machina asked me what was so funny.

"When I was in college and we wanted to describe what we thought was a pretty useless degree, we called it ...."

He interrupted with a chuckle. "We did, too. Underwater Basket Weaving."

And it struck me how arrogant ... and totally wrong ... I had been, and how very useful this task that I was doing was - especially compared to my University degree.

After an evening spent by the fire weaving, we ended up with two, small baskets made entirely from repurposed hemp cord. We can use the technique to make smaller or larger baskets, placemats, and small rugs. My goal is to make a "market basket" using the repurposed hemp.

The smaller basket is mine. I'm planning to gift it to the farmer, in thanks for giving us the cord.

And we used all but one piece of the cord we'd taken ... we'll need to go back and get more ... a LOT more ;), and as luck would have it, the farmer has a LOT more he'd like to see gone.

And, perhaps, someday, we can establish the University of Useful Skills.

Deus Ex Machina can teach Basket Weaving 101.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Knitting Hope

Back in November, my friend, and fellow homeschooler, Wendy (no relation) emailed me about an opportunity. Her daughter's 4-H group has participated in the Warm-Up America! Afghan project for the past couple of years. Last year, I knit ten squares. This year, I offered ten more squares. It's a wonderful opportunity for me, with my very limited knitting skill, to do something positive, to contribute to an amazing project.

What's even better about this project is that I'm not the only one who finds it fulfilling. Wendy writes about collecting the squares from the many hands that knit them. It's an amazing story ... one of hope, one of faith in her fellow man ... er, women :).

Wendy writes about her belief in the goodness of people, stating that perhaps she is naive, but I could relate to what she said. Perhaps I, too, am naive, but I really do believe that given adequate food, shelter, and clothing, and given meaningful work, that people will do the right thing.

Unfortunately, so much about our society tends to take those things away from people.

Deus Ex Machina and I often have these deep, philosophical conversations. This weekend we had one of those times. We had some commitments to honor, one of them being my need to do some "for money" work. As a result, I didn't take the time to make sure that we had all had an adequate meal before we left the house. The result was that Precious was a bit cranky, because she was hungry.

The epiphany hit us, when I said, essentially, that our society forces us to concentrate so much of our energy on irrelevant tasks (like "for money" work) that we often don't have time for the things that really matter - like making sure we have all eaten good food.

How many times have we opted for fast food or easy prep foods because we were too tired or too busy to really make a meal? And how much of that "busy-ness" was important? Really? In the greater scheme of things did any of that busy work we so often do directly improve our lives?

We could argue all day long that making money enables us to buy ... blah, blah, blah ..., but how many people in our world, in our society, in our very communities, work forty or more hours per week, just like we do, but still don't have enough money provide those simple things: food, shelter, and clothing? And they spend so much time and energy struggling to make money that they have too little time or energy left to find those things outside of the money economy.

What if those people were given the opportunity, the skills, and the resources to make those things for themselves? What if the work they did directly improved their lives in ways that aren't defined by the amount of money they make? What if they could build their own shelter, make their own clothes, grow their own food?

Doesn't it seem a shame that we're always looking for meaning to our lives in things external to ourselves, in religion, in science, when the real meaning of life is in the simple pleasure of being self-reliant?

Our recent philosophical moment was actually a continuation of a conversation that started a few days prior, when Deus Ex Machina was lamenting how much he procrastinates. In native cultures, there is no procrastination, because if they fail to take an opportunity when it presents itself, they will lose that opportunity.

I heard what he was saying, and I didn't disagree. However, as is often the case, I had to say, "yeah, but ..."

In native cultures, they have the luxury of taking opportunities when presented, because they don't spend precious time and energy doing things that are irrelevant. They pick blueberries when the blueberries are ripe, because they're not too busy spending forty hours a week in office. We think the work we do is important, and maybe, on some level, it is, but in the greater scheme of things, the only important "work" is that which keeps us alive, and that kind of work is the stuff that most of us no longer do for ourselves. We don't feed ourselves, we buy our food. We don't cloth ourselves, we buy our clothes. We don't shelter ourselves, we buy our shelters. Heck, most of us don't even know how to do those life-saving (and, ultimately, life-enriching) tasks. If dropped in the middle of the woods, we wouldn't know what to eat, how to shelter ourselves from the elements or how to find materials that could cover our hairless bodies and keep us warm and dry.

Greed, envy, sloth, gluttony, lust, pride, selfishness - these things are not - can not be - a part of native cultures, because the people who live in those cultures have meaning to their lives. Everything they do, every minute of every day has meaning and value and helps to further their physical and spiritual selves. They don't have to wish they had what someone else has, because they can, and do. And if they don't "have", they know how to "make" for themselves.

I believe in the innate goodness of people, but I believe that in order to really express our goodness, we need to have meaning to our lives, and we need to feel that what we do, who we are, is valued and valuable.

The Warm-Up America project gave the many people who helped a tiny taste of what doing real work feels like. Those of us who participated were providing a valuable service, because we wanted to do so, because it meant something to us.

Give a person meaning in his/her life, and s/he will do the right thing.

I believe that, and as we move further into a lower energy future, we'll be forced to live closer to each other with less. The key and the challenge to survival will be finding meaning in our lives outside of making money and to learn to place value on the doing, rather than the having.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Cindy Lou Who Moment

Early this morning I was standing in my living room, and I heard the sound of a chainsaw in my front yard. We're getting low on wood, and while we do have a back-up plan for dry firewood that won't cost us anything, we're still a little concerned about the fact that we didn't put up quite enough for the whole season (and, perhaps, were a bit wasteful early on when it was still a bit warmer, and we could have done without such a nice fire inside - lesson learned, right?).

So, I hear this chainsaw in the front yard, and I'm thinking, "What the ...? I look outside and there's this guy out there hacking branches off my maple tree.

I whip open the front door and exclaim, "Why, Mr. Chainsaw Guy? Why? Why are you cutting my maple tree?"

Okay, I didn't call him "Mr. Chainsaw Guy", but I did ask, in my best Cindy Lou Who impression, "Why are cutting my tree?"

He tells me that he's from the town, and they're cutting anything that hangs over the road so that it doesn't get in the way of their equipment. I guess with this latest storm that's moving toward our area, they're concerned about heavy, snow-laden branches either snapping and landing in the road (or on power lines) and impeding their ability to do their jobs.

Then, he tells me it's an "invasive species." Apparently, it's a Norway Maple. I tell him that we tap it every year for maple syrup, and as I'm talking with him, I'm hoping that his cutting doesn't damage the tree and prevent us from tapping it, because we're nearly out of syrup, too. Plus, it's the one that my clothesline is attached to, and I kind of need that tree.

This whole time he's looking at me warily ... and then, I ask if he could leave my branches.

"You want the branches?!?" he asks, increduously. He can't imagine why on earth ... and then, a little bulb goes off, and he asks, "For burning?"

I kind of shrug, yes, but really, I'm just thinking, they're mine, from my tree, and if we're going to cut down branches, then we should recycle them on the land where the tree lives, but, okay, I'll burn them.

Then, he asks if I want more branches, because he has a bunch of trees left on my road to trim, PLUS several more streets.

More? And the little bulb goes off in my head. FREE FIREWOOD, the neon light in my brain blinks.

"Yes, please," I reply.

He finishes up in the front of the house, and as he's walking down the road, I'm stepping outside to tend my animals, and I note that there's a broken branch on one of our trees that's way too high for us to reach, and we've been looking at that hanging branch for a year or two, and I ask him if he could get it ...

"I know it's not hanging in the road, but ...."

And he does!

A little later, another truck with two other guys pull up. They're the ones who clean up the branches, and they get the word that I want the branches. Not only do they make sure that my branches stay in my yard, but they make sure they are all the way in my yard (which is no easy feat given the amount of snow that's also in the yard right now, and they also trim any really long branches into smaller, more manageable pieces. So nice.

When they're finishing up and leaving, I walk out to ask if they'd like some coffee or hot chocolate. They decline, but the guy driving the clean-up truck asks me if we heat with wood, and I tell him we do. He says, "We'll take care of you."

So incredible! A reminder of how very much I have to be grateful for.

Looks like we're starting on next year's supply of firewood ;).