Eventually, though, I started to really take some time to look at my yard and figure out what might be best grown where. It's ever-chaging, my yard, and in particular because, as the years have worn, I've watched the news and learned a lot more than I ever wanted to know about the fragility of the systems on which our modern culture is wholly dependent. One misstep and we fall into the abyss.
At that point, making my yard as productive as possible with regard to feeding my family became somewhat of an obsession, and it really did cause some tension, particularly between me and Deus Ex Machina. He didn't understand why I was so determined to grow all of our food, and I didn't understand why he was so laissez-faire about the prospect of empty grocery shelves followed by slow starvation.
What I didn't understand is that he wasn't disagreeing about the possibility of a very hungry future, but rather than he didn't believe we needed to grow everything. He noted that nature provided a veritable smorgasbord.
We finally heard what we were each saying, pretty much the same topic with just a different approach, and to that end, recently, Deus Ex Machina and I have embarked on what our daughters call "Starving Sundays." We're not starving, not by any stretch, but neither are we always getting the number of daily calories to which we are accustomed. We are limited by a lot of factors over which we don't have a great deal of control and a couple over which we have some control, but can't easily change.
The first issue is the fact that we are limited by laws (with which we, mostly, agree) that dictate what, where, how much and what size of animals we can take from the wild. If we were able to be true hunter/gatherers, those smaller fish would have been soup, but we completely agree that they should be throw back in and given the chance to get bigger and make babies.
We are also limited by our lack of knowledge. We know a lot of plants to forage, but many of them don't provide a lot of calories. While we've been pretty well educated in the seasonality of food, we've learned even more over the past few weeks about how real it is when one is wholly dependent on what one can find growing wild. We've come nose to nose with the reality that things really don't last forever, and those wonderful, tender, young, sautéed Japanese knotweed stalks are now stringy and gangly. We didn't eat enough when they were available, and we definitely didn't harvest enough to save. We saved only one serving in the freezer for later. If we get hungry enough, later may be sooner.
We keep learning though, and so the lack of knowledge boulder is slowly being whittled away.
The last stumbling block to our really being successful in our once-a-week-wild-foods-day is a lack of time. Anecdotally, in hunter/gatherer societies, they would spend about two hours per day searching for food, and then, the rest of day was free. At least, that's what we tell ourselves. I don't disagree with the two hours per day procuring food part, but there's a second part to that scenario that we just never considered. Some wild foods take a long time to process - like acorns - and while I can gather a lot of food in two hours, it might take another four hours (or more) to process that food to a point where I can eat it.
For the past six weeks, we have been very busy in the stuff that fills our modern lives. I say, all of the time, that we live in the suburbs, and I don't say that as a way of revealing anything in particular about our house location or design, but to remind people that we are, at the very heart of our lifestyle, still just the average suburbanite. We have jobs. Our daughters are busy with extra-curricular pursuits. We have all of the time-sucking activities that other suburbanites experience.
Last week was the closing weekend for our local community theatre's production of The Full Monty. Deus Ex Machina was in the play. The first three weeks of our project, he was busy with play rehearsals and for the last three weeks, he has been performing in the play on Sundays. It hasn't left a lot of time for foraging for and preparing our meals.
My daughters and I were out of State for one of the Sundays for a dance competition, which means I missed that Sunday, but also that I missed a week of work (and as a self-employed, sole proprietor, I don't have someone to do my job for me when I'm gone - and since my pay is based on a finished product, I don't get paid if the work isn't done), and I've been struggling to catch-up ever since. Oh, and then, my printer had to be replaced. First world problems, right?
We are learning a lot with our Sunday challenge, and we will definitely be sharing more on that as the project continues.
I think one of the biggest lessons, though, is probably what drove man toward an agrarian lifestyle in the first place, and that lesson is that, while nature really does provide, sometimes it's not a bad idea to help things along.
Humans started as hunter/gatherers, but at some point, we figured out that we liked certain foods better than others, we started catching the seeds and planting them somewhere else, or we cut away or burned away the foliage around our favorite berry bushes to ensure that they didn't need to compete for light or nutrients. Our efforts were rewarded with bigger berries or more lush greens.
This part of human culinary history is the horticulture period during which man was part hunger/gatherer and part farmer.
That's where Deus Ex Machina and I are striving to put ourselves, but as mentioned above, we will still be limited by the fact that we live in the world we live in, and we have things like jobs that need to be completed so that we can earn a little money to pay for things like dance costumes and printers.
We are planning to continue starving ... er, foraging on Sundays, but for the month of August, we're planning to revive our goal of eating local with a few challenging twists, and we would like to invite anyone who is interested to play along with us.
I had a very long, and kind of uncomfortable, conversation recently about water rights. We have these very large corporations - mostly foreign-owned - who have purchased the right to pump quantities of water from natural springs and aquifers and bottle that water for resale. It's good for waterless areas of the world, because they get potable water and don't die of dehydration or waterborne pathogens. It's bad, because in many of these places (some of which are not as far away as we might think), people pay more for water than they pay for food, and that can be difficult for someone who is already food insecure.
Some of the people who run these companies, reportedly, believe that water is a commodity and not a right, which leads me to the suspicion that, in spite of a community's best efforts to ensure that they have done due diligence in writing contracts with these companies regarding the taking of their water, at some point they will be disappointed. When one gets into the bed with the devil, one must accept that one will get burned.
For me, it became not as much about *just* water, but about the really profound need to be able to live, wholly and well, where I am. For me, so much of what's happening in the world is exacerbated by the fact that we are trying to live globally.
Invasive, non-native species destroying whole forests.
Diseases that are spread because we are such a mobile society.
Human trafficking for slave labor to ensure that prices on consumer goods stay low-low.
I guess I've come to believe that half of the horrors we have in our modern times are a direct result of the fact that we don't live where we are. Our lives are not local.
For many years, I have been trying to move my family to living more locally. We're definitely not there, yet, but the one area where we have learned to live a lot more local is our diet.
For the month of August, I have challenged myself and Deus Ex Machina to a local-only diet, and we've decided to cinch the noose a bit tighter than we have in the past.
Several years ago, Novella Carpenter, whom I adore as a writer (and I've met her, and she's a very sweet person, too) and spearhead of the urban farming revival, challenged herself to eat only what she produced on her property. I've thought, for years, that I would like to recreate her experiment here on my property.
But then, my situation is a little different from Novella's. She is one farmer surrounded by a food desert. There aren't other people in her local area that are, necessarily, dependent on her business for their own livelihood. Or at least from her writing, it doesn't seem to be so.
The other day, we received our long-awaited call from our local dairy farmer. We're on the list for a cow-share and have been waiting for many months for the call that "our" cow (which means the next one that goes in, and not one that has been specifically ear-marked for us) was at Ken's. While I was on the phone with the farmer, he reminded me that their farm stand was open, and that if there was anything that I wanted that I didn't see, to be sure and ask.
Over the years, the farm has gone though many transitions, the most recent being that they've partnered with a local fresh produce wholesaler and devoted some portion of their 500 acres to vegetable production.
I've been a long-time milk customer, receive a cow-share (usually half) once a year, and have been an avid supporter and patron of their farm stand since its inception.
My few hundred dollars per year probably wouldn't make or break this farmer, and certainly withdrawing my business for just a month isn't going to send him into bankruptcy, but we've developed a relationship - one that I would like to maintain.
So, instead of limiting ourselves to just what's in our yard and what we can forage, we've decided to expand our challenge to include only food within a comfortable walking distance, or food that is grown within a 5 mile radius of our house. As with the Foraging Sundays challenge, drinks and some spices will be excepted, with the caveat that I won't use a store-bought spice if I have an alternative growing in my yard.
In summary the rules of our August Challenge are:
- For the month of August, we will eat only foods that have been grown or produced within a 5 mile radius of our house.
- Drinks are excepted.
- Spices are excepted - unless I have a local alternative.
- Sundays will remain foraged only foods.
I invite you to join my challenge, and if you don't feel comfortable that you can find enough food for every meal for the whole month, I challenge you to eat only local foods (within 100 mile radius is the usual accepted radius) for at least one meal per week.
If you're interested in joining us, please leave a comment on this post with your blog address. Post your local meal or a recap of your week on your blog by Friday, and I will share a summary of your meal and your blog address here each Sunday.
In an extreme survival situation, shelter is still the most important, but when we already have a place to live, the most important thing becomes sustenance, which I will call both food and water. If we are going to hope for the survival of our species as our world gets more crazy, more polluted, more violent, and less stable, we will need to live smaller.
Knowing what there is to eat where we live will be a valuable tool in an uncertain future.
Learning to eat those foods as a regular part of one's daily diet will be paramount.