Monday, July 29, 2013

The non-chicken-like Chicken?

We raise chickens. We have some "pet" chickens. Really, they're hens and we have them for egg-laying. They all have names, and they will all live out their entire lives, until they die of whatever ails chickens, here on our farm. And then, we will bury them in our garden, and their bodies will fertilize our soil.

I've seen a lot of articles recently about raising backyard chickens. In particular, I get a little irritated by some of the holier-than-thou attitudes of people who consider themselves "experts" who have not-so-complimentary names for people, like me, who live in the suburbs and wish to be a bit more self-sufficient. Even if I have no intention of dumping my chickens on a local animal shelter when I realize how much work is involved, the mere fact that I live in the exact kind of place where I live automatically leaves me subject to disdain.

It gets exhausting feeling like I always have to defend my family's lifestyle.

And it's really arrogant and unfair of people to assume that, because I only have a quarter of an acre, because I don't have a REAL (whatever in the hell that means) farm, because I didn't grow up on a farm, or because I don't have a bajillion years of experience in farming, I must not know what I'm doing. Which leads to the assumption that I will surely make a mess of things, and probably kill myself and my entire family through some avoidable error, if only I had been smart enough to realize that such things should be left to those who have the expertise to pull it off. Because, really, it's like rocket-science ... or something.

We also raise meat birds, and what I'm going to say is that I don't know anything about chickens, apparently, because if I did, then I certainly wouldn't raise the breed of meat birds that we do - at least that's the attitude I've seen from people who know about chicken farming.

First, I have to say that when we raise birds - or any of the animals that we raise on our nanofarm - they are ALL for our personal use. We are not, and have no desire to be, commercial farmers. What that means is, these chicken experts, who have hundreds of birds to care for, will have very different experiences with those birds than I have with mine. We raise around forty birds per year - eight to twelve in a flock (and the flocks are raised in separate areas - not with each other and not with the hens). Our yield is small - on purpose. We don't have room for more than we have, and so some of the problems that others have with the Cornish X chicken breed are not applicable in our situation.

One of the biggest complaints that people have about the Cornish X is that they aren't like other chickens, and I agree that they are a lot more messy (they poop ... a LOT), and they aren't quite as mobile as the hens, but they are not stupid, and it would be a mistake to think that they don't have any personality. Among the many traits I've seen exhibited among my "not-chicken-like" Cornish X birds is curiosity. In fact, one year, I had a couple of Cornish X roosters who learned to drink water from the hose.

And they are, absolutely, trainable ... at least as much as any chicken is. Ours know what their feeder looks like, and they will follow us around the yard when we're carrying it. Maybe some people will argue that's not training, but it's not a whole lot different from how other animals behave. They learn. That's the point, right?

But here's the most important thing I want to share, and that is that, I don't think I'm an expert, and I know I will never be. I'm happy to share stories of my experiences with people who have chickens, or people who want to have chickens, but I don't want anyone to ever think that, just because I've been keeping chickens for almost a decade, that I know anything at all about them.

Every single day that I live this life, I learn something new ... I am given some beautiful surprise ... I am gifted a magical experience or given some nugget of knowledge about something I didn't know before, and I cherish each lesson, because they are all wonderful.

I'm not an expert, but I am experienced, and in my experience, Cornish X chickens are chickens. They're quirky and funny, and they have personalities. Given the space and opportunity, they will graze and take dust baths and chase bugs and enjoy sleeping in the dappled shade.

I'm not an expert, but I have managed to raise, from brooder to freezer, hundreds of chickens, of a breed that is fragile and prone to genetic anomalies that make them very weak. And I've seen them race (and if you've never seen a big, top heavy chicken running across the yard, you're missing something) around the yard flapping their wings and squawking at the dogs. I've even seen them stand up to the dogs ... who know not to snap at the chickens and don't like it, much, when the chickens peck them on the nose.

I'm not an expert, and when experts hear about the way we do things, they're more likely to tell me how I'm doing it all wrong (yes, this has happened), but I can't help thinking, there must be more than one right way, because if the goal is to have chicken to eat, I've been wildly successful - even as I'm doing it all wrong.

I'm not an expert, but I also don't go into these things with my eyes squeezed shut. We find out as much information as we can from as many sources as we can find, and then, we start very small ... because this lifestyle is an investment, and everything we do has an impact - on our land, on our time, and on the rest of the beings that live here - both domestic and wild. We want to be sure that we know what we're getting into, and yes, like every other breathing human being, we make mistakes, and we figure out what we did wrong and start again.

It just sucks - a lot - when people hear about one thing we've chosen, and based on their personal prejudices, assume that we must be ill-informed or naïve or reckless or whatever assumptions they make based on some very small knowledge of our whole. I don't mind answering questions, and I am thankful for advice and information that can help, but I really get annoyed by people who believe they know better than I what decisions I should make in my life.

Little Fire Faery took the camera out in the yard where our meat birds (we currently have a mixed flock of Cornish X, Freedom Rangers, and a couple of dual purpose breed chicks - it's a long story) are free-ranging and took some pictures. This one, of the Cornish X birds taking a dirt bath, is her favorite.

I love this shot she managed to get of the Freedom Ranger chick spreading its wings.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Bee Wranglers

We were out very early, for us, for a Sunday. At 9:30 AM, we were sitting in a parking lot waiting for the guy with the two hives, who was driving from New Hampshire and meeting us "halfway" (although, I think he probably had to drive further). He arrived, and we had a nice chat. He might like to barter - some veg from his dad's farm for some rabbit from ours.

In the meantime, though, we settled up and drove off in our different directions.

A friend, who also has bees, is taking one of the hives, and so we stopped at his place on our way home to drop off his hive.

It took us a few minutes of studying the bees up in that tree ... way up in the tree ... (like higher up than our ladder could reach, in fact, because our first thought was that we'd saw the branch and transfer it into the hive) to decide how we were going to get them down. Living in Maine, we have some pretty awesome tools. A roof rake helped us get the extension we needed to reach up to that lofty branch, and when ours proved not quite long enough, our neighbor (who told us we were her entertainment for the day) offered to let us borrow a couple of their extensions.

We tied a bucket to the end of the rake, and carefully extended it up to the branch. With a combination of "bonking" the branch with the bucket and shaking the tree using a rope tied to the trunk, we managed to capture most of the swarm - at least half. They weren't happy about being disturbed and loudly buzzed their irritation. Deus Ex Machina said later that he was sure he could hear them whining, Who moved my Queen?.

We weren't sure we had the queen in the first bucket, and so we tried again, with a second bucket, capturing another quarter, but there still seemed to be a lot of bees up on that branch.

Then, we took a break to allow the bees to settle a bit and realized it was 12:30. We needed to go to the feed store before they closed at 1:00 PM.

Little Fire Faery and I ran off to the feed store, and when we got back home, the bees were gone from the branch and in the hive.

Big Little Sister took pictures, and this one, of a bee on her hand, is my favorite.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Volunteering for a Better Community

The girls had a performance this evening. It was for a local community's Founder's Day celebration, and their dance team was performing. Their dance team does a lot of these Community Days celebrations. A couple of weeks ago, it was a parade. Last weekend it was a music festival at the Shaker Village. In the fall, they usually dance at the Apple Festival. In a couple of weeks, they are performing at a Nursing Home.

I love that they have these opportunities, and even though, for them, it might just be dancing, at some point, they will understand that they are performing a community service.

When we got home, Little Fire Faery pointed up into a tree behind our house and exclaimed, "What is that?!?" It was a swarm. One of our beehives is swarming. Deus Ex Machina and I discussed what we wanted to do, and we decided we're going to capture the swarm. As luck would have it, he found a guy on Craigslist who is selling his top bar hives (the very ones we use and are familiar with). We'll be picking one up for ourselves tomorrow morning. Then, we'll have three hives.

That's a lot of bees.

I might need to plant more flowers, unless I'm lucky enough to get more volunteers in my garden like this one.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Five Easy Ways to Save Money

1. Visit the Farmer's Market or Farm Stand instead of the grocery store.

Going to the Farmer's Market on Saturday morning used to be a regular errand. It got to where some of the vendors actually looked forward to our weekly trip and would comment if we weren't there. One vendor was a particular favorite. He sold vegetables, but he also sold seafood (the only one in the plaza who did). He was a crotchety old guy who actually looked like he was probably the one out on the lobster boat. I loved chatting with him every week, and his favorite topic was usually some customer who had balked at his prices, because, as he tells it, they always said something akin to, they could get the same thing at Shaw's around the corner. To which he would reply, "So, do it."

I was always sure to tell him that those customers were not getting the same thing at Shaw's - in spite of what they might believe. There's no comparing fresh picked and locally grown produce to the imported offerings at the grocery.

But here's the thing, while his customers may have been correct that they could get potatoes or lettuce or strawberries for less at the chain supermarket, they are incorrect in thinking they'll spend less money if they buy it from the store, because they won't leave the store with just the potatoes, lettuce and strawberries. In fact, the stores count on it. Every part of the store has been designed so that you will spend more money. The best way to save one's dollars, therefore, is to stay out of the stores.

Stopping at the grocery once a month for staples (flour, rice, oats, sugar, etc.) and buying everything else fresh at the Farmer's Market or farm stand can save quite a few dollars.

Money saving bonus: The bonus is that buying and eating fresh produce is much better for our health than processed food, which will, ultimately, save money on health care costs and medications.

2. Park at the far end of parking lots nearest the exit of the lot and walk to the store.

I know it doesn't sound like much, but consider that we pay for gasoline by the gallon. Gasoline usage is measured in miles per gallon (mpg). When we look at a particular car's gas mileage, the potential miles per gallon will be higher on the highway than in the city, and the reason is that in the city, where there are a lot of stop lights, there is a lot of idling for lights, and a lot of stopping and going. The fact is that sitting with one's car idling equals zero miles per gallon, and will, ultimately, cost a lot more money. So, driving into a parking lot, where the foot traffic is heavier and where there are more cars trying to get into and out of parking spaces means doing a lot of sitting and waiting with one's car idling. Parking closer to the exit means that one's car engine is burning gasoline for a shorter period of time.

It's a little thing, but as Amy Dacyzyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette asserts, the little things really do add up.

Money saving bonus: Many of us spend hundreds of dollars per year on health club memberships. Doing a little extra walking has been proven to have long-term health benefits, and so parking at the far end of the lot and walking actually have benefits beyond saving a few pennies in gasoline. There is also the added benefit of getting some exercise.

3. Barter, trade, or find it second-hand.

When I first moved to Maine and learned about the 10% discount card at Goodwill, I thought it was the most outrageous thing I'd ever heard. First, it's important to understand that thrift shopping, for me, was a cultural hurdle that I needed to get over, because where I came from, one didn't wear second-hand clothes. Even hand-me-downs were verboten. I don't know where that idea came from, except that shopping at the second-hand stores meant that one could not afford new stuff, and of course, new stuff is far superior to someone else's cast-offs. It was a pride issue, because, like many people, I was raised with the very suburban ideal that being poor was a weakness and a personal failing. We didn't shop second-hand, because that would mean that we were failures. Releasing that ridiculous cultural bias was the absolute best thing I ever did for myself, and the result has been a savings of hundreds of dollars per year on all sorts of things from clothes to household items.

In fact, recently, we were honored to be allowed to host a wedding reception here at our house for 40+ people. We cooked most of the food ourselves (including a roasted leg of lamb, which was quite good) and dinner was served on real plates with cloth napkins. We bought the plates and utensils at Goodwill, careful to find bundles that were either the day's color (indicating that it was half off) or that were priced so that each plate was no more than a quarter. We probably spent more on the plates than we would have for paper, but we can reuse the plates next time we have a party, and there was no garbage generated during that party. So, there was a very small environmental savings, as well.

Our culture is one that values second-hand items if they are labeled antique or vintage. Many of those kinds of items can be found for very little money, often less than the cost of buying it brand new, and further, many of those vintage and/or antique items are actually better quality than what's available in our increasingly disposable society.

It was tough to get over my cultural upbringing, but once I did, I found that thrift shopping can be a bit like treasure hunting, and I've found some wonderful things. I have an equal number of what was I thinking? items that were purchased during the honeymoon phase of my thrifting when I discovered how cheap everything was, and it took me a while to get the point of thrifting, which is not to clutter my home with a lot of cheap stuff, but to enrich my home with useful items that bring me joy.

Money-saving bonus: There have been times when we were looking for a specific item that we decided we didn't want or need to purchase new, but going to the thrift store can be a crap shoot, especially if we're looking for something specific. Sometimes we find it, and sometimes we don't. What happens, though, if we wait long enough, is that we either make up a substitute, usually creating what we need from things we have laying around the house, or we decide we didn't need it after all, which means that, because we didn't rush out to buy that thing we just really felt we needed, we've saved hundreds of dollars per year ... and succeeded in not adding more clutter to our home.

4. Turn off the television.

I read an article a few days ago ... I wish I'd earmarked it, but I didn't. It was something like 5 Habits of Rich People and went on to discuss several ways that people who are wealthy behave as compared to people who are not. One thing that rich people do not do is spend much time in front of the television. In the morning, before work, the article states, the rich person will rise early - well before heading to the office - and take some time for personal enrichment. On the list of To Dos in the morning was reading (usually financial pages or some such) and exercise. In the evening, rather than going home and sitting on the couch with a cold beer and reality TV for the next three hours until bed time, the rich person often volunteers for some community program.

So, how does this save the average person money? Well, in a lot of ways. First, television commercials are designed to make us want. They appeal to our emotions in ways that are hard to ignore, making us feel like we are inadequate of we don't have A, B or C product, or that we are depriving our children the key to their eternal happiness, or whatever the emotion the commercials evoke. Make no mistake, advertisers are professionals in psychological manipulation. It's their job to get you to want whatever it is they're selling, and they are completely unscrupulous in the actions they will take to make you believe that what they have is what you need.

In addition, this article makes some good points about, not just commercials, but about the television shows themselves. Using the example of the popular sitcom Friends. In the show, the twenty-somethings, who are minimally employed (a waitress and a sous-chef) are somehow able to afford a sprawling loft apartment in New York City. Certainly, if they can have it, why can't we? When we start down that road of thinking, the result is our spending money we don't, and won't ever, have to maintain a lifestyle that's not even real.

The best way to avoid the temptation is to not expose oneself to it.

Money saving bonus: When people talk about the money savings options related to televisions, most of the time the advice is centered around cost savings from not having cable television, and not paying a cable bill will certainly save dollars, but what very few people ever consider is the cost involved in operating the television to begin with. We talk a lot about saving electricity by changing light bulbs or by using power strips, but what about by not turning on ... indeed, not even having ... that energy-sucking television? It uses electricity, which costs money, and by not having a television set, one actually does save money on one's electric bill.

At least, that was our experience when we gave away the television set and DVD player and switched to watching movies or whatever (commercial-free) stuff on our lap top computers - which use an nth of the electricity needed to power the television set, the DVR box, the DVD player, and whatever other peripherals are required.

If that's not enough, remember that rich people don't watch TV. They're out there doing stuff instead of being brainwashed into spending more money.

5. When it comes to heating and cooling, think small ... no smaller.

The last couple of days here in S. Maine have been in the 70s and a bit cool. No one was complaining, though, because the week before, it was in the 90s with heat indexes up over 100°, and really, for most of the people who live here, anything over 85° causes bodies to melt. I know, all of you folks down south (which is everything beyond the Pisquaticus bridge in Kittery ;)), are laughing at us up here, which is okay, because when it snows a 1/2" and your schools and businesses close, we're laughing at you ;). Just kidding ... not really. Up here, during our recent heat wave, the Grid operator here in New England cautioned people not to crank up the AC in response to the increased temperatures, which I'm sure is pretty much what happens down south when there's a cold snap and people crank up their furnaces (which in many modern suburban homes is electric). The grid has a hard time when there are spikes in usage, and in fact, I recall from my days living in the suburbs of Alabama that schools and businesses closed one year because there was a snowstorm (ha!), and the grid couldn't handle the power surge.

The problem is that we are trying very hard to heat or cool all of it - the whole house, and that's a mistake. We need to start small, and probably a lot of people are pretty certain I'm going to say something about space heating or cooling, but I'm not. By small, I mean start with our bodies. If we can keep our bodies warm or cool, the air temperature isn't as much of an issue.

Warming techniques include: drinking warm beverages, wearing layers of clothes, and keeping hands and feet covered in heat-holding and moisture-wicking fabrics (like wool).

Cooling techniques include: drinking cool beverages, wearing loose-fitting breathable fabrics like cotton and linen, wearing frozen rice packs around our necks, and frequently soaking our hands and feet in cool water.

Keeping the thermostat at 80° in the summer and at 60° in the winter would result in a huge cost savings.

Money saving bonus: It's no mistake that both the warming techniques and the cooling techniques begin with drinking something. The best way to regulate our body temperature is to be sure that we are well hydrated, and there are other health benefits to staying well hydrated. Improving our health while also staying cooler or warmer means we can decrease the cost of expensive medical treatments and pharmaceuticals.

And that's a huge bonus!

Saving money isn't hard, and, as Amy Dacyzyn, famed author of The Tightwad Gazette and self-proclaimed frugal zealot, asserts, being frugal shouldn't be something we do just to weather the bad times. If we're frugal and thoughtful with our money all of the time, especially when we have plenty, then, if we hit hard financial times, it won't feel like a struggle - it will be just how we do things.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

From Unschooling to College - a Two-Week Adventure

My daughter has been homeschooled her entire life. She has participated in a variety of classes with other homeschoolers - some very structured, like the Math and Jr. Engineering class she took, which was offered to homeschoolers and taught by a college professor. She has also been dancing since she was four and is a competition-level dancer (earning high gold at National dance competitions), which is a somewhat structured activity. She was a Spiral Scout and a Juliette Girl Scout (that is, a Girl Scout but not part of a troop). We spent two years meeting once a month learning outdoor skills with Koviashuvik and then another year working with teachers from the Maine Primitive Skills School. Our Juvenile services librarian taught a class on library skills. One year we organized an American Girl Club with several other homeschooling families. She's taken classes at Fiddlehead Center for the Arts. We met for a semester with a group of homeschoolers for Maine history lessons hosted at the York Museum. And we have gone on dozens of field trips.

With the exception of the many outside activities, however, she has been a life-long unschooler. We don't do a curriculum or force daily lessons. Occasionally, I will teach a class, which I offer to other homeschoolers, and in which she will be a participant, but for the most part, Deus Ex Machina and I don't consider ourselves her teachers. Rather we are facilitators. She finds something she's interested in learning more about, and we help her with providing resources (books, Internet access, field trips, mentors, etc.) to help her learn more about that subject.

A few years ago, she decided she was interested in sharks, and she learned everything she could about them. She researched and found a textbook on sharks that she wanted, which we bought for her. She stated she wanted to do a presentation on sharks and asked if she could invite some people over. It was a two-hour presentation, and I learned quite a bit from her.

I organized a tour of a marine animal rescue facility at a local college, and while we were there, she mentioned her love of dog fish, and we found out that one of the professors had been doing some extensive research on dog fish right there, in the lab at the college, and so we arranged to have a private tour of his lab. It was fascinating, and certainly, went a long way toward fertilizing her continuing interest in the subject.

For future careers, she's decided she wants to be a marine biologist.

Last summer, she started asking about going to marine biology camp. This year, she went. We picked her up from camp last night, and she spent the entire three-hour drive home telling us about all of the amazing things she had learned and done, including conquering many of her fears: heights (climbing a 500-foot rock face called "The Beehive"); boats; and water (she even learned to snorkel).

For us, the unschooling parents, our favorite story was her adventure in test-taking. As a life-long unschooler, taking tests has not been very much a part of her educational experience. In fact, she's taken exactly one pen and paper test, and that was an Achievement test I proctored for her and her older sister (mostly for her older sister so that we could assess her progress after she transitioned from public school to unschooling) when she was seven year old - a lot of years ago.

She said the first test was a multiple choice, and when the teacher handed out the test materials, Big Little Sister took a look at the test, and then, whispered to the girl sitting next to her, "What do I do?" Sh said the girl gave her an incredulous look, and asked, "Haven't you taken a test before?" And Big Little Sister exclaimed, "I'm homeschooled!"

The next test was the final exam. She was given the test booklet which contained the questions and a fill-in-the-bubble answer sheet. Again, she was at a loss as to what to do and asked her friend, who explained how to color-in the bubble with the correct answer.

The two-week Advanced Marine Biology camp was worth four college credit hours awarded by the University of Maine for those students who wished to be considered for the credits. Big Little Sister, a life-long unschooler received her first grade - ever. At the end of the two-weeks, she walked away having earned a B in her first college-level course.

Better, though, is the friendships she gained. The confidence in knowing that, even as an unschooler and a homeschooler, she fits. She can mix and mingle with forty-plus "schooled" kids and find that in addition to the obvious common interest (they are, after all, at a subject-specific summer camp), there are many other areas in which they mesh. Homeschooling hasn't rendered her socially inept or a cultish outcast and freak.

Best, for us, her parents, is the validation that unschooling really does work, and that an unschooler can go into a "school" situation and perform on par with her peers. She can walk away with accolades from the instructors and program director on what a great student she is and praise for her hard work, and respectable progress in a completely unfamiliar environment.

She is thrilled to have been able to have this experience, and we are grateful that we were able to help her get there.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


The price per barrel for oil is up $2 from what it was the other day. It's $108 and some change today. Remember the last time oil went above $100 per barrel? There were trucker strikes, and dozens of truck drivers went out of business because they couldn't afford the increase in the cost of gasoline. That linked article shows a gas station sign with gasoline at $3.79/gallon, and it was considered a lot. I looked up today's gasoline prices for Portland, Maine. BJ's members can get gasoline for $3.69/gallon. The rest of Portland is paying between $3.74 and $3.79.

And then, there's the story about Detroit. What about Detroit, you ask? Oh, not much ... the city filed for bankruptcy. Seriously? Like, what does that even mean? A CITY is bankrupt? They won't pay their employees, and if the employees had a retirement pension fund, they don't anymore. Will Detroit no longer pick-up the trash, fix the road, pay for the library?

But I don't live in - or even anywhere near - Detroit. So, why should I care? Because Detroit is not the only one. It's not even the first. It's the largest, so far, but it's not the first, and it won't be the last. The headline in our local rag paper last week said Last-minute budget hikes taxes. In the zero hour, my town councilors passed a budget that included a tax increase. Nice, right? At some point, they are not going to be able to raise the taxes, and then, what? Guess I better figure out what to do with the garbage ... and maybe invest in a snowmobile in case they can't plow the roads in the winter.

Greece is imposing new austerity laws, because they still haven't figured out how to balance their budget ... after how many years? Two years ago, the Guardian ran a story about Greek parents, who are giving up their children because they can't afford to feed them. It's reminiscent of stories from the 1930s. People over there are really suffering, but we don't really hear that much about that sort of thing over here on our side of the big pond. Probably, not very many of us really care, either, right? I mean, we don't live in Greece, and most of us don't even know anyone who does. It's not our problem, right?

Actually, I think it is exactly our problem, because we don't seem to be so very far from there ourselves - even as much as we want to pretend. The most recent unemployment figures show that unemployment rates have increased in 28 states. We don't have any jobs to offer these people who are looking for work. What are they going to do? Oh, there's a Market Basket opening up in a town south of us ... oh, wait. They're having problems with their CEO, and so who knows if that store will actually open.

Most people are still trying to just get by, just do their thing, just live like they've always lived, and aren't paying attention. Most people still have a job, which they may or may not like, and while we grumble about price increases and such, we're not really believing that things are that bad, right? We might even be a little distrustful of these guys, who've suddenly made a pretty big showing on the streets of Maine's largest city, but there is a lot of questioning as to whether or not these folks really are homeless or whether they're just scamming us good, honest, hardworking, job-holding individuals. The problem is so big, in fact, that Portland recently voted to ban panhandling on traffic medians. To write a law like that, there first has to be a significant problem.

Most of us, though, most of us have still not been severely affected by the economic downturn. We're paying more, but we still have homes. We still eat every day, most of us two or three times a day. We still have clothes to wear (and extra money to buy more - even if more clothes are second-hand, thrift store finds), and we still have cars to drive and enough money to put a little gasoline in them.

One of the reasons most of us, here in the US, have yet to feel the full impact of the growing worldwide economic crisis, is that our dollar is still the world's reserve currency, but that seems to be changing. It might get really tough when our US currency bond holders decide they want their money back - ASAP.

Are we living history right now? I wonder what the people who are alive 90 years from now will think about us. Will they look at our Facebook statuses and wonder what in the hell we were doing? The world is collapsing around us, and the "news for you" section of Yahoo lists eleven headlines, half of which are about the recent trial in Florida and the most recent cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Because those two things are really so much more important than the fact that our economy is collapsing; the price of food and gasoline are continuing to creep upward; big corporations like Merck, Monsanto, and Nestle are controlling our health, our food and our water supply, and our government is letting them; our Constitutionally guaranteed rights are slowly being stripped from us in the name of keeping us safe; our President is considering opening up drilling for oil in Alaska rather than helping us transition away from our oil addiction; we are in the midst of one of the hottest summers I can remember here in Maine - so much so that the Grid operator for New England is telling people to take it easy on their electricity usage, because the grid might not be able to handle it (and then a huge thunderstorm knocked out my power for ten hours - that was fun ;); and Big Brother really is watching us, and we've really pissed off some folks in Europe, because they don't like that our government is spying on them, too.

Maybe it's just that there are too many really big issues to choose from, and so rather than worry about any of those things that are kind of important, and that we should really be thinking about, and deciding how we're going to protect ourselves against, we worry about stuff that won't even really matter - except to the very few people who were directly affected.

I'm thinking I need to spend more time in the garden, because out there, planting food means that we won't starve even if we can't afford to buy food; out there, I can control what goes into our food and protect my family from corporations who only see dollar signs; out there, I am becoming acclimated to the warmer temperatures so that I'm not so bothered by the hot weather (not that I have an AC anyway); and out there, I'm not online, and so Big Brother can't follow my movements.

Huh? Who knew that gardening was the solution to so many of the world's BIG problems?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to Eradicate Poverty

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I've tried a couple of times to write about it, but it's a tough topic. The solution is even harder, because I think, while there are a lot of people out there who talk a good game, no one really cares enough about the problem to want to fix it. As the line from the song, Everything's Alright (from the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar) goes, "There will be poor always; pathetically struggling."

The topic is poverty and it's defined as - lacking a certain amount of material possessions or money.

That's the simplistic definition. The Wikipedia article on poverty goes further to define absolute poverty (or destitution) as the deprivation of basic human needs, which commonly includes food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, health care and education.

Poverty is an economic invention. It's a result of living in a society in which everything has a price. If we really want to eradicate poverty, we have to start by removing price tags from those things that are essential to survival: shelter, food, and water.

In cultures where there is no monetary value assigned to basic needs, like shelter and food, where everything is free to those who have the know-how and willingness to acquire those things, there is no poverty. No one is considered destitute. By our standards, they may not be living high-on-the-hog, but their basic needs are met, i.e. everyone has the basic things they need to survive, and it's possible, because the idea that any one person could "own" something like the land or the rights to the water is just inconceivable.

In indigenous cultures, there was no ownership of the land. While certain tribes might have considered a certain area of land their territory, it's not the same as the notion that Maurice Minnifield has the right to claim ownership of 10,000 acres of land in Cicely, Alaska, or that Nestle Corp can seize control of something as basic as water and express the attitude that someone needs to be in control of this substance so that the rest of us don't squander it.

Poverty exists because we have allowed ourselves to be duped into believing that everything has a price, that everything can be assigned some arbitrary worth based on the assumption that those paper dollars floating around have any actual value beyond what our brains have been washed to believe. The key to eradicating poverty, therefore, is to change those assumptions. Some things should not have value. They should be priceless.

I read an interesting article today about the so-called dark underbelly of Las Vegas. It was about people who live in the labyrinth of tunnels underneath the city. One couple who was featured in the article calls the 400 sq ft section of the tunnel which they have claimed as their home, a "bungalow." In fact, with the exception of the flooded floor, it looks quite nice, and it's at least as cozy and comfortable as the barracks I lived in while enlisted in the Army.

I guess that's part of where my very radical ideas are rooted - the fact that, as a soldier, I was allotted less than 200 sq ft of space for my "home." That's where I lived, where all of my worldly possessions were stored, and it was not just "adequate." It was actually quite a nice room, and more than big enough for me. I shared a bathroom and a shower with the ten or so other females who lived on my floor, and we had access to a kitchen, if we wanted to cook. We were not allowed to have hotplates in our rooms, but we could have coffee pots (which most of us did have), and I could have had a microwave (and we also had access to the dining facility).

The higher the rank, the larger the living quarters, and soldiers with families were given family housing (which were usually very nice and quite large apartments).

I'm not proposing that we all join the military and get free housing, but I am proposing that the practice of private ownership by individuals who can buy and sell these properties for outrageous sums of money be outlawed. While I'm loath to give the government more control, in this situation, I do believe that land should be a community asset, and not something that can be bought and sold and traded ... and then, kept out of the hands of the very people who most need, but can least afford, the stability and security that having a home provides.

My proposal is that all land and the buildings on them become the property of the municipality in which they are located. So, in effect, my town would own my quarter acre suburban lot. Yeah, that does, kind of, turn my blood cold, but there's more to the deal.

First, we have to understand that, while I think I own this land, my town already dictates what I can and can not do with it. So, in effect, while I'm paying the bank for the privilege of living here and pretending that I will someday own this house and the 9000+ sq ft lot on which it stands, the fact is that the town has control over how I use it. So, I'll never, truly, own it. Further, not only does the town have control over its use, but they also tax me to live here.

So, the reality is that the only thing that would be changed by my proposal is that there would never be a bank involved in the transaction. In short, there would be no more mortgages, and the fee I would pay to live here would be the same fee that I'm already paying to live here - my annual taxes to my town.

Initially, we would all be given the places in which we live. It would be a lifetime lease. That is, I would be permitted to stay in my property for my entire life, and when I die, my property would be given to any of my surviving heirs who wished to live here. Just exactly as if I had purchased it from the bank, it would be mine, but if I died, and none of my family wanted it, the town would assume control and have the right to place a new family here.

The city under the city in Las Vegas is not an anomaly. There was a similar community in Las Angeles living under the freeway. There was a "homeless" group that had set-up make-shift housing on public lands in another area. I don't remember, now, exactly where they were, but I remember the details, and they had really built a nice community, that included a laundry facility and other sanitation efforts.

I worry, now that this story is breaking and a book about the people living in their underground "bungalows" has been written and published that they will lose their homes the same way that the people in Los Angeles and the homeless community living on the public lands did. Someone in Las Vegas will decide that those people would be better off above ground, and their comfortable little spaces - furnished entirely with things that would have ended up moldering in landfills - will be razed. Unfortunately, those do-gooders, who can't stand the idea of people living (rent/mortgage-free) in the tunnels under the city, will not have any solutions for giving those folks housing they can afford, and so they'll end up in not-so-comfortable street accommodations, sleeping on park benches (until the cops make them "move along") or in dumpsters ... or eventually, some other unused, forgotten nook or cranny.

We could go a long way toward eradicating the worst of poverty's ravages by giving people places to live. In fact a home with enough land to grow some food, clean water and sanitary waste disposal would knock out four of the seven needs listed in the Wikipedia definition above. With half their needs met, most people would be able to find ways to satisfy the others.

In his book, Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women, Eliot Liebow draws attention to the plight of the homeless women with whom he worked in Washington D.C. He said these women are homeless, not because of the myriad of reasons we want to assign to the homeless (drug/alcohol problems, mental illness, etc.), but because they do not have a place to live. Making housing free, except for the inevitable tax, would not solve the problems of drug/alcohol abuse or cure mental illness, but it would eradicate homelessness, and it would go a long way toward diminishing the ravages of poverty.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three Season Living

Maine really does have four, completely distinct seasons - if we're talking about winter, spring, summer, fall. People here like to joke that we have winter, hunting season, mud season and tourist season, or other humorous ways to describe life here in Maine. Here at Chez Brown, we have three seasons: winter, spring, and getting-ready-for-winter.

At least, that's the way it often feels during the summer and fall (I separated the spring as it's own entity, because, while we are planting the garden and starting our wild harvesting, etc., we are just so grateful for the retreating snow, warm sunny days, and the return of green after the bleakness of our long winter, that it doesn't feel like we're getting ready for the next one). In January, when we get the seed catalogs, it's all giddy and fun and exciting to look at the colorful photos, mouth watering, imagining how yummy everything will taste fresh from the garden. The reality is that most of what we plant is not for us to enjoy "in season", but for us to harvest and store for winter.

In addition, when the woodstove is not in operation, that's when we're getting the fuel for it.

So, while the rest of the world is down at the beach, soaking up their winter stores of Vitamin D, and leaving their trash that will be cleaned up with my tax dollars (with the ever increasing rates for which I get nothing extra), I'm getting ready for winter.

It might sound like I'm complaining, but I'm not. I love my very simple life. In the winter, I am thankful for the stored food, grown locally by farmers I trust, or hand-raised here on my quarter acre, and for the warmth of the woodstove that keeps our home cozy. I am blessed to have a yard that's big enough for some growing, but small enough that I'm not overwhelmed. I'm grateful for my amazing children, who help without complaint, and for Deus Ex Machina, my amazing partner - in all ways - who follows the advice of the Nike shoe corp marketing team just do it.

As I pulled the wagon filled with split wood to the fence-line where it was being stacked to dry, those were my thoughts. I listened to the birds and watched the bees flitting from flower to flower - pollinating our crops and making honey so that we have food.

Yesterday, Little Fire Faery gathered two baskets full of mixed greens and herbs - some cultivated, some wild. These were dehydrated, and we'll use them over winter in soups.

So far, we have one quart jar. We're planning for at least two more before the season is over ... and maybe we could even squeeze in a day - or two - at the beach.