Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Clean As a Whistle

Hurricane Sandy didn't do much damage where I live. There were a few power outages. My daughter and son-in-law lost power for a day, but not long enough for it to be a hardship or for them to have to make any changes in their habits. The story was similar for most people I know in Southern Maine.

For the most part, our lifestyles have changed so significantly in just a few decades that most of us aren't equipped to live without electricity - even for a few days. In effect, we've put all of our eggs in the electricity basket, because coal-fired and nuclear energy power plants have made electricity not just available to even the most remote locations, but also have seemed to make the energy cheap - or at least affordable to the average person. It's not, really, either cheap or affordable when one considers the hidden costs in environmental degradation, but that's also just a smoke-screen, because the true, the absolute true cost, is mostly paid for by government subsidies to Big Energy companies, and these subsidies have helped to build the trillion dollar deficit our government has incurred. When/if the government is no longer able to meet its obligations to those Big Energy companies, be assured that the cost of doing business will fall onto the increasingly less sturdy shoulders of the consumer - that would be you and me.

In fact, that supposedly cheap energy is already priced out of range for some people, who incur huge debts during the heating season and end up with no electricity when it warms up enough not to be deadly and the power company can flip the switch to the off position for those who haven't paid the bill.

And the electric company has every right to do it, too.

See, for as much as we have made ourselves believe that electricity is a necessity, everyone (everyone including the electric company and the government) knows it's not, and while the power company can't turn off the electricity during the winter here in Maine, they can cut the power, when heat is no longer an issue. The bottom line is that providing electricity to our homes is a business, and the bottom line for business is the dollar sign.

Deus Ex Mahina and I have worked very hard to minimize the amount of electricity we use in our home, and I am, actually, pretty proud of the fact that we use one-third of the average. Most of our usage goes to powering our fairly antiquated refrigeration appliances. In particular, the freezer.

We also have an electric stove, and the washing machine is electric. We have fish tanks, which have heaters and filters that run on electricity. We have several computers (all laptops, but we also have a few LED and LCD monitors). Our tankless water heater uses propane, but it has an electric igniter, which means that if we didn't have electricity, even if we have a full tank of propane, we wouldn't have hot water.

Even with all of those electric things we use every day, not having electricity would be an inconvenience, for us, but not a hardship.

I would, definitely, miss my showers, though, because I'm one of those spoiled suburbanites who showers every day, and while I don't always wash my hair, I do like to, at least, get myself all over wet - preferably with hot water. When we had a regular hot water tank - also propane - we could just light the tank with a match (like some people light their gas stoves), let the water heat up, extinguish the flame, and have hot water until the tank cooled down.

We can't do that now, but we do have other options.

Several years ago, when we lost power for half a week, it was cold enough outside that we had the woodstove going. I put a stock pot of water on the woodstove, let it get almost to boiling, and then, filled up a wash tub that I'd put in my shower enclosure. We squatted or stood in the tub to clean off. My daughters called it our "farm girl" bath - girl, because it took us a day or two to convince Deus Ex Machina to try it out.

My galvanized steel wash tub cost around $30 at a local feed store.

In the movie, The Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, there's a scene in which she takes a bath. Essentially, she does the same thing we did, except she doesn't have a shower stall. Instead, she sets the wash tub up in, what is probably, her front room. She holds a sheet around her with one hand and washes herself with the other hand.

There's a cheaper solution, though, and next time we're faced with no hot water, I plan to use the jug shower method. It's pretty simple. Basically, poke some holes in the lid of a jug - something like a bleach jug with a screw-on lid would work well. Fill the jug with hot water (water can be heated using a candle, although it would take a long time. Sterno fuel at the grocery store is cheap). Since I have a shower stall, I'd just bring the jug into the shower with me and turn it upside down when I needed to get wet. One could get really fancy with it, use a larger container, add a shower head, and make a hanger of some sort.

The fact is that not having electricity doesn't have to mean that we can't still have all of the lovely modern conveniences that we've come to enjoy - like daily hot showers. What it does mean is that we might need to rethink how we accomplish those tasks ...

... but, for me, the reimagining the possibilities is part of the fun.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Missed ... By That Much

We were fortunate. The storm missed our little eco-pocket, and with the exception of a bit of rain and some pretty strong wind gusts, we remained untouched. We lost power for a total of ten seconds, and while I haven't checked, from the inside looking out, there appears to be no damage.

On his way home from work, Deus Ex Machina encountered a downed utility pole and some closed roads. He had to take a different route home. But, for us, that was the worst of it.

It looks like we'll still have some wind (although I live in a area with an average of 14 mph winds all of the time, and so it just may be usual weather for us), but the clouds seem to be clearing, and it looks like it might be a hang-the-laundry-on-the-line day.

I know there are areas that weren't as fortunate as we. Reports during the storm indicated some flooding in New York and New Jersey. I heard there was snow in the mountains. Pictures from the beaches here showed the intense waves.

There are reports of widespread power outages, and I know some places, in my area, lost power.

Over the next few days and weeks, as the effects of the storm are reported, those in the worst hit areas will remain in our thoughts and hearts.

Be well. Be safe.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Making Electricity

I hopped on the bike generator this morning - you know, to charge up the batteries ... just in case. It's fun exercise. I like watching the little numbers go up to 100% and know that my pedaling is doing something more than making my legs wobbly.

It's hard work, though, and I think people who have never tried to make electricity have no, real, concept of how much electricity we squander on silly things. If we all had to pedal for most of our electricity, my guess is that sales on electronic gadgets would plummet.

I'm not just talking about bike generators, either. Anyone who's ever run the numbers for going off-grid knows. In my area, a 60w solar panel will produce about 360w of power per day or about 10kwh of electricity per month. We use 350kwh of eletricity per month - which is one-third of the average usage. A little 400w RV-sized windmill will produce, in my area where we have, on average, 14 mph winds, 38 kwh per month. With two 60w solar panels and a windmill, we could run our freezer, most of our lights, and probably the Wi-Fi ... and since we have DSL and not a cable connection, if the power goes out, as long as we have our phone connection and power the router, we still have the Internet.

That 520w system would cost around $1000. It would take nine years for the system to start paying for itself.

Having researched how much it would cost us to get the apparatus necessary to generate - and store - our own power, and how much each little electric thing in our house uses, has made me hyper aware of the cost of electricity, and while I have been accused (perhaps, rightly so) of being a luddite, the fact is that I don't hate or fear technology, I just hate the prevalent consensus that electricity is necessary for our survival.

It's not.

Electricity is a convenience, and I like it, and I'm not going to simply cut the lines from the CMP poles to my house and live without it (well, I won't cut the lines, yet :), but I'm also not as worried about losing electricity as so many other people are.

I'm more worried about the safety of the water supply should the treatment facility be inundated or damaged in the storm.

I'm more worried about trees crashing into my chicken coop.

I'm more worried about roads being flooded and damaged - especially if Deus Ex Machina ends up on the opposite side of where we are.

If the electricity goes out, we'll ride the bike generator a little more, play some games, read some books, and have some quiet. It will be no big deal, and certainly not an emergency.

Well, not an emergency until I start going through blog withdrawals ... and then, I'll just need to pedal more so that I can crank up the Wi-Fi and post ;).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Here in Coastal Maine, we're in the orange "Alert" section.

On Saturday, Deus Ex Machina and I visited the grocery store - as is our usual Saturday routine. Usually, this time of year, on a sunny Saturday late morning, it's quiet. In fact, we usually see the same shoppers.

There's Phyllis, who is ninety-two and comes to the grocery with her dog, Dexter. She likes to chat with people in the store, and I don't see that she's doing any shopping. I guess she's told Deus Ex Machina that she comes to the store for her exercise.

She likes to tell jokes, too. Her favorite is When a man goes bald in the front, they say he's a thinker, and when he goes bald in the back, they say he's a lover, but when he goes bald all over, he just thinks he's a lover. In a conspiratorial whisper one Saturday morning, she said to me that she thought Deus Ex Machina, who is not bald at all, was probably both a lover and a thinker ;).

Then, there's the sweet, older couple. The husband pushes the cart while the wife picks the groceries. It makes me think of what Deus Ex Machina and I will be in a few years.

There are some quirky shoppers, too. There's the lady, who doesn't wear pants. Just a long white, short-sleeved, mock-turtle neck and a pair of sandals. I think she's a freelance writer, who spends a lot of time at home, alone, writing, and can't be bothered with fashion. Afterall, she is *just* going to the grocery store. Seriously.

I love the fathers who are shopping with their children, and the young couples who are shopping together and the odd individual here and there, who obviously lives alone.

Sometimes, during the summer, it might be a little more crowded, but usually, especially, this time of year, it's quiet, and there are just the normal handful of folks browsing the aisles.

This past Saturday was a madhouse. The store was packed. Getting around the aisles was a crazy, slow process, but people weren't angry or agitated - just focused.

And in nearly every cart, there was one of two things: bottled water or alcoholic beverages. We chose the latter (a case of Vermont-brewed Woodchuck hard cider while we wait for our apple ale to finish its ferment) ... and we also picked up a replacement filter for a Brita 2 1/2 gallon water dispenser.

We also bought some ice cream, and the girls are hoping for a power outage ... so that they can gorge themselves on freezer treats.

**Please note that, while it may sound like I'm being a tad nonchalant about the whole storm, that's not it. From news reports this is a very serious storm, and I am taking it seriously.

We will make sure that yard toys, tools, and other scraps outside are secured. The iPods, computers, and batteries will be charged.

While I joke about buying ice cream and hard cider at the store instead of more useful preparedness items, the fact is that, for the most part, we already have what we need - as I discovered when I was taking stock for our shopping on Saturday. I found, in our stores, plenty of lamp oil (for our five oil lamps :), several boxes of wooden "strike anywhere" matches, candles of all shapes and sizes, and six cans of sterno cooking fuel - which I'd forgotten we had.

We're about as prepared as we can be, and so I'm not being cavalier. I'm just comfortable that we'll be okay, come Hell or high water, and if predictions are correct, it's likely to be a bit of both.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Here Comes the Rain ... Do, Do, Do, Do ...

New England is expecting a storm. From reports, it's going to be pretty big, too. The gist is that a hurricane (named Sandy) is making it's way up the eastern coast of the US. As it gets closer to New England, it will meet up with a cold front, and the two of them will have a big, noisy, windy, wet party.

To make matters worse for people along the coast is that the full moon - with its higher than average tides - is on the same day as the storm is predicted to hit, which means that the storm tide will be pushed higher still by the moon's influence.

Whoo boy! It's going to be one heck of a ride.

The last time this sort of storm came close to Maine, I was still several years away from making it my home, but after I settled here, circumstances led to me learning a great deal about that event.

In particular, the high water - not the tide, mind you, but the heavy rains - caused some significant flooding. All of the roads going north, including the Interstate, were blocked for several days. I imagine that hampered any clean-up or efforts to restore utilities.

If recent past is any indicator, it will be a lot of bang, but not much sparkle, which means that the media will work us all into a frenzy, the local stores will sell out of the kinds of stuff people normally buy in advance of a big storm, and then, we'll get a little rain (or snow, depending on which part of the state we call home) and go on to our next adventure.

But if predictions are correct, this time, it will be, as I said, one heck of a ride.

There's this propensity to be in one of two camps.


And the, "Storm? Maybe I'll get the day off from work."

I imagine people who are more accustomed to this sort of event (and the too often, all-bark-and-no-bite scenarios) know what I mean. On the one hand, there's this fear-fueled temptation to rush out and buy a bunch of stuff, because it could be Katrina, this time. But then, there's this more logical, rational voice (the one that holds the checkbook), who says that it will be nothing - a little rain, a little wind. No big deal, because in spite of the horror of the Katrinas, that sort of storm is not the norm.

The problem is the not knowing if this will be like last years' Irene, or if it will be something more severe, like 1991's Perfect Storm, and without knowing, it's hard to know what to do.

Which is why I have always tried to take the different approach - that of being perpetually prepared.

We always have water on hand and ways to purify it. We always have food. We have candles and kerosene lamps for lighting (and plenty of matches). We have the bike generator for some small electricity generation. Since it's October, and we heat with wood, we're set for heating and cooking.

I don't know what, if anything else, we'll do, except ... we'll probably pick-up a few AAA batteries, because Little Fire Faery found a keen iPod speaker/radio at Goodwill the other day. It uses either AC or DC power.

Today, we picked up several audiobooks while we were at the library. We'll load those books onto the girls' iTunes accounts, dump them onto their iPods, and if we lose power, we'll have these books to listen to ... if we get bored and it's too dark to play games or read.

And maybe I'll pick-up a new Brita filter ... my old one needs to be replaced anyway.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Food - It's Everywhere

When folks start talking about collapse scenarios, a faltering economy, the end of the world as we know it, the first response is always fear, followed quickly by denial. I see it all of the time, especially in the early days of my blogging, when I would mention that things were getting bad and would likely get worse ... and probably never return to normal. This was before the real estate bubble burst, the oil price spike of 2008, the increasing unemployment, and the worldwide economic disasters we've been seeing for the past four years.

Denial was fierce. Sometimes the fear is palpable.

I'm not sure what scares people the most, what loss of what they most fear. For most people I talk to, our way of life isn't so wonderful that the average person really wants to keep it, but whatever other they're imagining seems much worse than what we have, and of that change, there is a great deal of fear.

. For me, the fear was not in losing jobs or money, but in not having food to feed my family. I live on a quarter of an acre in a place where our growing season is about five months long - if we use season extension. I still believe it is possible to produce a substantial portion of our nutritional and caloric needs on our quarter acre, and in fact, we do grow a lot of food, and we have room to expand even more. Sometimes it's not about what's possible, but a juggling act between what can be done and what we have time to do.

In the kind of TEOTWAWKI scenarios that are most popular, we wouldn't have to worry about the juggling thing anymore, because we wouldn't be stuck in this duality lifestyle, where we still have jobs, because we live in the suburbs and we still have expenses that can't be bartered for a bottle of lavendar mead (like this Internet connection, for instance). In those scenarios having an Internet wouldn't be an option, and neither would paying for electricity or town water or garbage pick-up, because those things would not be available. In those scenarios, we wouldn't have an outside jobs, and we would have plenty of time to do things, like planting, harvesting and preserving.

I can grow a lot, but the fact is that I don't have to, and really, it takes about the same amount of time to go out every few days and forage as it does to plant and tend a garden. In an ideal world, I would do both.

In his book, 1491, Charles Mann describes the impressions of the Europeans as they reached the shores of New England - where I live - and met the native populations. The Natives were described as being incredibly hardy folk, and the thing that seemed to strike the sailors most was how well-fed they were. Imagine, people who live completely off the land, in a place that is dead and bare for three-quarters of the year, being described as "well fed." It kind of boggles the mind.

For the Europeans, who were perpetually on the verge of starvation, it must have been quite a sight. Mann goes further to estimate that the average daily caloric intake of the indigenous tribes of the northeastern part of what-is-now-the-USA, was in the neighborhood of 2500 calories per day, per person!

At first, I thought how incredible, and that perhaps the numbers were misinterpreted. Then, Deus Ex Machina found 5 lbs of hen of the woods mushrooms (Maitake) and shot a small turkey hen. He followed up his foraging with looking at the calorie counts of those two items. Together, they equaled 4500 calories - or enough to feed two people for a day.

So, maybe those reading this are thinking that's not a lot, but, actually, it is. The natives in my area subsisted partly on what they grew (mostly, the Three Sisters, from what I understand) and partly on what they foraged.

There's a lot of food out there, and it doesn't take a long time to find it, either. I think when most of us think of foraging, our thoughts linger on things like dandelion greens and berries, which are wonderful foraged foods, but not terribly calorie dense. The natives had a lot of other, much more substantial things they foraged, including mushrooms, and some roots, like sunchokes, that aren't found wild very often, anymore, but are native to the northeast and are very easy to grow. Those things made hearty, wonderful, calorie dense meals.

Still do.

In fact, for dinner the other day, we had creamy chicken-mushroom soup - some of it foraged, some of it homegrown.

The onions and mushrooms were cut into tiny pieces and sauteed with the pan drippings from the roast chicken we had over the weekend night. The carcass of said chicken was in another pan boiling to make broth. When the onions and mushrooms were soft, I added several cups of broth and some sunchoke flour to thicken it a bit.

I also added milk to mine to make it creamy, and the soup was served with corn fritters (made with boiled corn meal that was pan fried in olive oil). If I hadn't added the milk, the meal could have been something that might have been eaten by my region's native ancestors - right down to the corn fritters.

It's interesting to realize that five years ago, I was struggling to pull an all-local meal together, and now, not only are we eating local foods in every single meal, but there are many nights when the food we eat is very similar to what the people who lived here four hundred years ago ate - people who never had access to a grocery store - who wouldn't even have been able to conceive of a grocery store - or would have never thought to pay for food.

Perhaps in our quest to eat seasonally and local, we've gone a bit off the deep end here at Chez Brown, but in my mind, worstcase scenario, I'm comforted that we will be like those natives whom the Europeans first encountered when they reached the shores of what I call my home.

Even if there is no worst case scenario, with our locally grown and foraged, seasonal diet, my family will still be like those ancestors in the most important way ... and that is, well fed.

Watching the Crude

I have a ticker here on my blog that shows the price of crude oil, and it's really interesting to watch it, because it will change throughout the day.

I noticed the other day that the price had dropped below $90/barrel (it was at, just over, $86), which is the lowest I've seen it in a while, but the price was like a basketball - it hit the floor at $86, and bounced right back up over $92/barrel.

I just think it's interesting. Here we are, four years after what was dubbed at the time a catastrophic price spike, where we were then, with gas prices hovering just under $4/gallon, but there are none of the headlines we saw back then. Back then, there was a lot wondering about how people would pay for the price of gasoline and still pay their other bills. How people could drive and eat, when they're dependent on their cars to get them to work where they earn the money they need to buy food.

Back then, truckers were striking in protest of the high price of gasoline. Many of them lost their livelihood, because they could not afford to fill their gas tanks. Store shelves in some parts of the world were bare, because deliveries hadn't been made.

And, yet, when Deus Ex Machina and I drove with our two daughters to Pennsylvania recently I noted that the trucking industry seemed to be going strong - in spite of the high price of gasoline. Living here where we do at the end of the road it's easy to forget that most of what we find in our retail stores is transported by eighteen-wheeler.

The price of gasoline is now at the same place it was, and there are no protests. There are no calls for the government to release strategic oil reserves in an attempt to reduce/control the prices. No blaring headlines. No strikes. No protests. Nothing.

And I can only assume that the difference is, this time, the change has been slow enough that we've just grown accustomed to paying more. Perhaps, when we're filling our tanks, we'll look at the price, and a brief thought about how expensive it seems will flit through our minds, but then, we fill up the tank, grab our receipt, and hop back into the car on our way to wherever we're going with not a backward glance.

Speculation in Prepper circles is a little like the Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice, with debates about how the end will play out. Some favor a fast crash and can point to current events that support their theories. Some believe it will be a slow crash.

I don't know which, but my guess is that it will be like going down the side of a mountain. There will be points during which we're in an uncontrolled slide (as it was in 2008). Then, we'll get our footing and slowly make our way down, and then, there will be another uncontrolled slide.

Fire or Ice? Probably both, and won't that be fun.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

And the Earth Shook

There was an earthquake in Maine at around 7:00 PM on October 16, 2012.

Facebook lit up with comments about the earthquake, and I swear, not more than twenty minutes after the rumbling stopped (at first, I thought it was a thunderstorm, and then, I thought the kids were running through my office, which has a bouncy floor and everything jiggles when people run across the floor), there was a FaceBook page "I survived the 10/16/12 earthquake".

It was 4.5 on the richter scale, and the epicenter was about ten miles from where I live.

It was a non-event, compared to what happens in earthquakes that get international attention.

There was a bit of shaking, followed by ... nothing.

One of my friends joked on facebook (and this is a real life friend, too) that she was a bad prepper, because she didn't go out and stock up on milk and toilet paper, and she's joking, and it's funny, but this was a good reminder, that sometimes things do happen, over which we have no control and for which we can not prepare. We can predict hurricanes and tornadoes and other natural disasters, but no one knew - a least I hadn't even an inkling - that an earthquake, rated at 4.5 on the richter scale - was going to hit Maine this evening.

It was a non-event.

This time.

But it feels to me, that being somewhat prepared, at very least believing that in an extreme emergency one has the ability to be like the floor in my office - bouncy ... i.e. resilient - is a good feeling.

It's empowering, for me, to know that I have plenty of food, I have water, I have all of the supplies I need for a long time ... if there is an emergency.

For me, that's what prepping means - knowing that, no matter what, we're okay.

And there is no greater feeling.

Monday, October 15, 2012

End of Season Harvest - What to do when frying them isn't an option

Our first killing frost was two nights ago. I knew it was coming, because I'd been watching the weather, and so, in advance of losing all of the tomato plants, I had the girls go out and pick all of the tomatoes. I told them ALL - even the green ones, and, of course, most of the ones they brought into the house are green.

I've never really dealt with green tomatoes. I like them fried, but as I'm the only one in my family, it's not a dish that I make very often. There are quite a lot of green tomatoes. In fact, I think the green tomato harvest is bigger than the red tomato harvest :).

I just can't let them go to waste. Food is food, right? Nature provides, and it's up to us to figure out what to do with her bounty.

One food my family really enjoys and eats a lot of - and in fact, is one of the few ways my family enjoys eating tomatoes - is salsa. This year, I grew peppers, but they were never quite ready at the same time as my tomatoes, and so I never got around to making any salsa with the red tomatoes.

When I saw the harvest of green ones, I thought, "why not?", and started looking for recipes for green tomato salsa.

I found several, most of which use, essentially, the same ingredients.

I also found this website with links to 25 different green tomato recipes.

If I have more tomatoes than I need for salsa, I might try out one of these others. No sense in wasting any of the harvest. Nature provides, and it's up to us to figure out what to do with her bounty.

Friday, October 12, 2012


The price of crude oil has been going down. The price of gasoline has been going up.

I find that interesting.

Monday, October 8, 2012

*Not* Bike Riding in the Rain

Precious tells me that it's clouding up outside. She's telling me, because there are clothes on the line. I tell her that it was cloudy when I put the clothes out there.

It won't rain on them. I hope.

Then, much to my surprise, given that she's already expressed belief that it might rain, she says, "I'm going for a bike ride."

What I hear is that, in spite of the clouds, she's headed outside to ride her bike up and down our road. I'm a little concerned, because the neighbors are having some work done on their house, and there's a lot of vehicular traffic over there today. We live on a fairly narrow road - barely wide enough for two cars.

What she really meant when she said, "I'm going for a bike ride," was vastly different ... and safer ... and if it does rain, a much drier bike riding experience.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Fancy Bacon

I'm about a week behind schedule, but the guanciale is (finally) hanging in the fridge, which is step 2. It's very cool how the meat is exactly like the instructions say it should be.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sustainable Harvest

I know some people will object to this picture, because someone always objects to something, but the fact is that Deus Ex Machina and I are omnivores (just like every other human being on this planet) and because of that, we have made the - very conscious - choice to ensure that the meat we eat has been ethically raised and sustainably harvested.

It's why, very early in our homesteading endeavors, we added rabbits, why we raise the chicken we eat, why we were thankful to the young 4-Her who raised a pig for us this year, and why we are willing to pay a local farmer $3/lb for ground beef.

It's also why Deus Ex Machina decided to try hunting. It has nothing to do with male ego or wanting to kill or even the sport. It is about eating.

In fact, there is not a more sustainable - or ethical - meat than wild caught. One may feel whatever one wishes to feel about hunters (and meat-eaters, in general), but the fact is that this animal was never confined, lived exactly as an animal should be live, was never fed anything that its species should not eat, was never shot-full with chemicals or antibiotics in an attempt to make it healthier (but in fact slowly killing it), and had as good a chance of survival as not. This turkey was killed using one, single, perfectly placed arrow.

We are neither celebrating our victory nor mourning the loss of the life of this turkey. It's not about victory or defeat. It is, for us, about eating. And the fact of life is that everything eats and everything gets eaten.

We are very thankful for this turkey, and it will be a part of the harvest meal we have at the end of November, and while we do and will celebrate that Holiday with the rest of the country, for us, it has taken on a deeper meaning than some artificial show of patriotism or a glut-fest. Rather it is an opportunity for us to remind ourselves of the bounty that surrounds us, and for at least the last five years, we've taken this opportunity to really enjoy all our local environment has to offer.

This year, we'll be taking our celebration that one step further - and not just have local foods, but have truly native, truly local foods, some of which we foraged, some of which we grew, and our wild hen turkey will take the center spot.

With our gratitude.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Your Cute Little Puppy is NOT a GMO

I've been accused of spouting bad science, and so I wanted to get a few facts straight.

First is to link to an article on Gregor Mendel, who was alluded to in a recent comment as the Father of Genetics. Mendel was a monk and a teacher in the 19th Century, who, through trial and error (using pea plants), discovered that it was possible to isolate and bring out hereditary characteristics in offspring that aren't evident in parents.

It was not new stuff, exactly. In fact, people had been manipulating plants and animals for centuries before Mendel's research. In the book 1491, for example, Charles Mann states that there is no "ancient" plant that is exactly like what natives called maize. It is suggested that humans created this plant by cross-pollinating several grass-like plants to create this grass with a huge seed head. One of the reasons anthropologists believe this to be true is because of the nature of the corn seed head, which is very tight clusters of seeds that, without some help, wouldn't be able to propagate. Specifically, unlike other grasses, the seeds don't easily release from the plant and blow away in the wind.

Many animal species have been subjected to human intervention, as well. Every breed of animal that has been domesticated by humans has been altered using selective breeding. A woman named Mrs. Campbell, for instance, wanted a duck that was flightless and didn't need a pond to be healthy, and she crossed a couple of different breeds and ended up with a brown/green duck, the color of which reminded her of the English uniforms - Khakis. And that's what her duck breed is called, Khaki Campbells. I have two of them in the backyard. If Padoda, the drake "Call" duck, is ever able to sucessfully fertilize his dames, we'll have something else.

But let's be very clear here, and I'll bold face and italicize it so that we can all really see these words and let them sink in selective breeding so that a flower is bigger is not the same as splicing a gene of a plant with the gene of an animal so that the flower will be poisonous to aphids.

What humans have done for centuries through selective breeding and hybridization is to take a plant or an animal and breed it with the same species of plant or animal to highlight certain desired characteristics that are already genetically programmed into that plant or animal.

Genetically modified organisms are not the same thing. In fact, this definition on makes it pretty clear that simple selective breeding could not produce a GMO.

We can play semantics and say that "breeding is genetic manipulation," and justify genetically modifying our food plants by pretending it's all the same, but we would be deluding ourselves and anyone we're trying to convince. Monsanto and their ilk are not creating disease-resistant corn or sweeter beets or more cold tolerate tomatoes by cross-breeding corn with corn or beets with beets or tomatoes with tomatoes. Rather, they are adding genes from bacteria to the corn and genes from fish to the tomatoes. They are changing the DNA code of these vegetables by adding DNA code from an organism that would never, in a natural setting, be able to cross-breed with that other organism.

There's another fact that we should discuss, too, and that is that, while humans have had a hand in genetically altering many species through selective breeding programs, nature, herself, is pretty adept at creating new species through happenstance.

For instance, I had, what is probably, a new breed of squash in my garden this summer. It had the shape of a pumpkin, with the skin color and texture of a butternut squash, but the meat was like a pattypan. What happened was that we had a butternut squash in our winter CSA share, and we ate the squash and threw the seeds in the compost pile. We also had a patty pan that we'd bought, because it was tiny and cute, and it ended up in the compost, too. In the spring, I prepared my beds, adding a dressing of, mostly, finished compost, and planted some hubbard squash seeds. When the vines grew, the fruit they bore was not hubbard squash. It was a natural, accidental, genetic modification through cross-pollination, when the patty pan or butternut seeds actually grew and produced flowers and then, all of the squash plants were pollinated by the bees.

The fact is that my ducks are DUCKS. My squash was SQUASH. But the seeds, the Bt corn and the fish tomato, are not corn or tomato, they are something else, and those something else's have been proven in numerous studies to be unhealthy for human consumption.

What's most disturbing is that many countries around the globe have already moved to ban GMO seed and GMO food imports. Europe requires that food containing GMO ingredients must be labeled as such. Haitian farmers are burning GMO seeds to prevent them from contaiminating their crops. Most recently, Russia has (temporarily) banned import of US grown corn, and China has banned import of US grown soy - because both of these crops are GMOs. Their motivation was research that shows these foods are unsafe for human consumption. And, in fact, China is buying land in Africa and South America so that they can grow their own, non-GMO soybeans.

I'm left, wondering, why the US is still struggling to ban these products when, even countries like Haiti, where starvation is a real issue, won't accept GMO seeds, because they seem to understand what those seeds really are.

Genetically modified organisms, also referred to as genetically engineered organisms, are not the same as crops or animals that have undergone selective breeding, and to claim so is to be grossly misleading or misinformed ... or to just not understand what the scientists at Monsanto are really doing.

Of course, none of this matters, because if one believes gene-splicing is just a more efficient equivalent to decades of selective breeding and is comfortable eating corn that has a gene that is designed to explode the stomach of its predators ... and a predator is defined as something that eats something else ... then, I say, go right ahead and eat it.

Just ... stand over there ... away from me ... when you do.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Genetically Engineered Food - It's What's for Dinner

In the beginning of my talk at the Mother Earth News Fair, I shared why we decided to start wild foraging - or at least why it appealed to us.

In 2006 I first swallowed the Red Pill*, and for me, it was all connected - learning about peak oil led to reading about climate change, which led to topics on food safety, resilience, self-sufficiency, and urban gardening. It seems that a lot of people, at least the people I was meeting online, had started urban homesteading out of a desire (or fear?) to be more self-sufficient.

At that time, there wasn't a lot of information about GMOs, but they were out there, and we already knew they were suspect. In fact, in 2000, taco shells were recalled, because the corn used to make them was a GMO (or GE, genetically engineered - same thing), and it hadn't been determined, at that time, whether or not GMO foods were safe for human consumption.

I mentioned that in my talk, and it was a little like a light bulb went off. When I said it there was a collective head nod from the 100+ people sitting out there, and everyone in the audience remembered that in 2000, GMOs weren't proven safe for humans, and products that were known - by the public - to contain GMO ingredients were recalled as being potentially unsafe to eat. What I also remember was the collective outrage by the public that this unsafe substance had, somehow, been accidentally leaked into our food stream.

How fast things change. How soon we forget.

Fast forward twelve years, Monsanto and the FDA have still failed to prove, conclusively, if GMOs are safe for people to eat. In this January 2012 article, Monsanto insists that there is no need to test, because the plants are altered by adding DNA (from other organisms - not always plants) and everything has DNA, so it must be safe.

In the past twelve years, Monsanto has managed to sneak its GMOs into the food stream, mostly, without any of us knowing. White sugar, which is a dietary staple here in the US and is in many processed foods, is made from sugar beets (according to this article, 54% of U.S. sugar comes from sugar beets [and] 90% of the sugar beets out there are already GE). Over 90% of the soy grown and eaten in this country is from GMO seed. More than 80% of the corn grown in this country is from GMO seed. What's more disturbing is that, even if we try to avoid the GMOs, doing so is nearly impossible. Even reading labels doesn't, necessarily, mean that we'll be successful in keeping those GMOs out of our bodies. Corn, for example, has a huge list of aliases. We see things like "distilled vinegar" in the label, and we think "this is okay", but according to this list that white, distilled vinegar might actually be corn - GMO corn - derived.

Nice, right?

I spend a lot of my time wishing that I had not taken the red pill. Sometimes I'd rather just not know, because once one starts knowing, one cannot go back to blissful ignorance, and it's cumulative and insidious. One fact leads to another, and another, and another.

I no longer trust any processed foods, and while we still have some things in our diet that are processed (not regularly, but as an occasional treat, and I really do struggle with the whole idea that our "treats" are poisoning our bodies), I try to stick with things that are labeled "organic", because - at least I've tried to convince myself - those products will not contain GMOs (and given the number of "organic" companies that are subsidiaries of larger non-organic food companies, that may no longer be true).

It would be nice, if there was a label, even a small one, on processed food packaging that warned us the ingredients might be derived from GMOs, but Monsanto is a very large, very rich, and very powerful company. According to this article, they've invested $7.1 million to defeat Prop 37, which would require food products sold in California (this is just California, mind you. Neither the federal government, nor most other States, have started trying to push this kind of initiaive) to carry a GMO label.

So, to recap, twelve years ago, there were concerns about the safety of GE corn that prompted a nationwide taco shell recall. In the years since, GE substances have crept into our food supply. Monsanto, the company which manufactures these GE seeds, doesn't think it's necessary to do any kind of safety trials of their product on humans, and neither do they wish products that contain ingredients derived from their questionably safe genetically altered seed to be labeled as such.

Personally, when a person or a company works so hard to assure me it's perfectly safe, but the only thing I get from them is their gushing assurances - and especially when they're trying to convince me it's okay because they want my money - I am very apt to question the validity of their words. It's the old saying actions speak louder than words. I begin to wonder, if the product is so safe, why is the company working so hard to keep us from knowing what foods have the GMOs?

I think the answer is that all processed foods contain some GE ingredient - and if we knew this to be true, what would that do to the multi-billion dollar food industry, from which Monsanto earns billions in revenues and millions in profits? Monsanto ranked 357 in the Fortune Magazine's Top 500 Companies and made a PROFIT of $267 million dollars in 2005 (This site was pretty interesting and allows one to compare one year to the next. Monsanto has been around for a long time, and the year I was born, Monsanto was actually in the top 100 highest grossing companies in the US). Clearly, they're in it for the money, and whether or not their products will cause significant long lasting environmental and human health degradation is not their concern - as long as they keep making money.

It is mine, though, and I am very concerned about what's being sold to us at the grocery stores. As my very innocent and very precious young daughter asked (with tears pooling in her big blue eyes) that day that I pulled up a list of food products that probably contain GMOs and should be avoided, "What can [we] eat that won't hurt [us]? I couldn't answer her that day, but my answer, today, is wild blueberries and fried dandelion flowers. Wild foods may not be as much palatable as Poptarts and Mountain Dew, but they are safer, and foraging the wild is a lot more fun than foraging the grocery store aisles ;).

*Reference is from the movie, The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves, in which humans are being used as batteries to power a huge computer, which is keeping people imprisoned by giving them computer-generated images that trick their minds into believing they are living a real life. Keanu Reeves' character, Neo, knows something is amiss, but doesn't really "know" until one day when he meets a woman named Trinity (played by Carrie Ann Moss), and then, he is taken to meet Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) who gives him a choice of a red pill, that will wake him up to reality, or a blue pill, which will allow him to go back to sleep.