Friday, December 28, 2012

Spring Arrived During the Snowstorm

We just had our first winter storm, yesterday. It snowed all day, and there is a very nice accumulation, and if things go as they should, we won't see grass until March.

Today, the mailman dropped off my package.



Looks like I have plenty of time to make a good plan ... ;).

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Being an Entrepreneur

Love this video

How Much Money Could You Earn in 2 Hours with only $5?.

The lesson learned from the project that asked this very question is too often we frame problems way too tightly, but if we keep unpacking them and unpacking them, we realize:

A. that we have resources that are much larger and more valuable than we even imagined; and
B. that our own skills and the opportunities around us are bigger than we thought at the beginning.


It's a whole life lesson - not just about making money, but about living and knowing and realizing that we don't have to be stuck in the box - unless we want to be.

Aspiring to Be a Chinese Peasant

One day a while back, I was out with my girls on one of our days filled with classes and errands. We'd just stopped by the feed store, and the back of the SUV was full of bags of feed and hay.

The smell of the hay covered everything with a gentle perfume of real, and as I breathed in the scent, I listened to my daughters who were prattling on about their electronic devices, their iPods or Nintendo DSs.

Once upon a time, I was accused of having selective hearing, and honestly (perhaps unfortunately), when it comes to the electronics, I do tend to tune out the comments, which I find tedious.

I appreciate that these devices have some value. I liked, for instance, being in contact via text mail, with some friends and family members while we were traveling, and, obviously, I very much appreciate the Internet and what it offers.

Yet, at the same time, I think we tend to place too much emphasis on these wonderful technologies to the point that we, modern humans, are incapable of doing anything for ourselves. When the technologies fail - and they do - too many people find themselves at a loss.

Recently, the phone and Internet service here at home was out for five days. It was inconvenient, but I didn't spend hours worrying about not having that connection to the outside world. I performed my usual, daily activities, and when I had time, I dealt with trying to get my phone and Internet back up and running. It was inconvenient to not have email and Facebook for a few days, but when all was restored, I realized I hadn't missed a lot.

As we traveled along the road breathing deep the scent of the hay and listening to the techno-babble, the reality of my life struck me funny, and I, quite literally, laughed - out loud.

I read an article or saw a news report some time ago about Chinese peasants (in these reports it's always someone in some very remote and/or very exotic place that most of us will never visit). As is typical of these reports, the people were depicted as living in "squalor", which is to say, not like us. They lived in some remote, mountain village had a small (neat and clean), sparsely furnished home with no indoor plumbing. Electricity, if available, would have been limited and/or sporadic. They had a small garden where they grew most of their own vegetables, and a pig or two, raised in a small pen, was their protein source.

The object of video article was actually not to draw attention to plight of the Chinese peasants, but rather to report on the interesting contrast of their very simple lifestyles with the fact that a higher percentage of Chinese people, from every walk of life, including those who live in remote mountain villages and raise pigs in the front yard, have cellphones than any other nationality worldwide.

And that's what I thought about, driving my ten-year-old SUV, the back of which was full of chicken feed and hay, while listening to my daughters chatter about their electronic gadgets.

Unlike the reporter of the piece on cellphones, however, who seemed to be, almost, criticizing that lifestyle of living simply while enjoy some pretty advanced technology, that's exactly the kind of lifestyle I'm drawn to, and the more I shy away from modern conveniences, the more my life tends to resemble that Chinese peasant.

At some point, I found that I was aspiring to live like a Chinese peasant - in a modest home with limited modern amenities and some pretty high-tech gadgets.

When the reality of that aspiration hit me, I laughed again, out loud, and my daughters stopped their banter and looked at me.

Smiling, I just glanced over, and shook my head.

"Nothing," I said. "Life is just good. That's all."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Surviving Real Life

The irony about the whole 12/21/12 scare is that people who needed to prepare, probably didn't, because they realized that nothing significant was likely to happen on that day. Others rationalized that if it was, truly, the end of the World, it wouldn't matter anyway, because there's no preparing for the end, right?.

Now, four days later, a major, significant, and scary storm is doing things to parts of the country that are, possibly, not accustomed to the sorts of weather they are getting.

Deus Ex Machina says that his cousins out in the southwest had a white Christmas. We did, too, but here in Maine, white stuff on the ground is accepted, expected, and appreciated (mostly) this time of year. In fact, in the western mountainous parts of the state where there are ski resorts, real snow means they have to manufacture less of their fake stuff - which saves both time and money. Snow is good.

Cold and winter are part of life for us here. We have warm clothes and boots, insulated pipes, heavy blankets and a winter's worth of wood for our woodstove. With or without electricity, we're set - and so are most of our neighbors.

I'm saddened by stories about people who are not ready when the cold comes, and how they are unable to deal with a loss of amenities - like electricity - in extreme conditions. Staying warm is not nearly as difficult as we think, and there are some very simple things we could to do make it less uncomfortable, and eliminate the life threatening cold.

The key is to get smaller.

Start with our own bodies. We have all heard the advice about layering our clothes, and it is true that the proper layers will insulate against, even very cold temperatures. A few years ago, we were taking an outdoor skills class, and we spent the whole day, a couple times per month, all year long, outside - regardless of the weather. With proper clothing, we found that the cold didn't bother us.

My daughters wore a comfortable pair of pants (usually sweat pants, because that's what they like to wear) underneath their snow pants, which are insulated and water repellent. I usually just wore jeans, because I've discovered that if my hands and feet are warm, and my core is warm, what I wear on my legs doesn't matter so much. I even ski in jeans, not snowpants. So, for me, wool socks and good boots, gloves covered by mittens, a long-sleeved tee-shirt, covered by a flannel shirt, covered by a wool coat, and a scarf, are enough so that I can get away with just a pair of jeans.

The next step would be to downsize the living quarters. Most of our homes, especially here in the US are decently insulated, but they are simply too big to keep warm. In the event that we lose electricity and can't heat our homes, the best advice is to move into one or two rooms.

For us, that room would be the office. It's in the center of the house, surrounded on three sides by other rooms with only one, northeast facing, window. A room with southern exposure would be better, and we have a room like that, but it wouldn't be as warm, even with the southern exposure, because three of the four walls are external walls.

If we closed doors to other rooms, and all of us cuddled (with the dogs, of course) in the one room, we could probably keep it comfortable enough with just our body heat.

But we could do more.

A couple of years ago, the BBC aired a program on a human-powered house. For a half day, a family was set-up in this house, which, unknown to them, was entirely powered by people riding bicycles. During the program, the hosts would provide tidbits of information, advice and tips on saving energy. At one point, they even cooked a chicken using a 100w incandescent light bulb. The lesson I took from that is that a small heat source in a small space can be more than enough.

Something as small as a candle - or many candles - could heat a small room. Probably not to 70°, but enough that the occupants wouldn't freeze to death.

If open flames are a concern, there are other options. A ceramic bowl placed on a fireproof surface, like a tile, filled with wet sand, into which we could place a very hot rock (one we heated on a fire outside, for instance) would help warm up the room a bit, and as the rock cooled enough that we could handle it, we could put it inside a sleeping bag and keep a bit warmer.

Another great way to stay warm is with warm beverages. Water can be heated with as small a flame as a candle. The key is to heat small amounts at a time. Trying to heat a gallon of water using a candle would take a very long time, but heating a few ounces - enough for a cup of tea - is relatively quick.

We've been stocking up on cans of sterno, which we can use with our chafing dish for cooking and heating water, but a very simple burner can be made using a small tin, like the kind tuna fish comes in, a rolled piece of cardboard and some leftover wax.

If you're without heat and/or electricity, heat water, drink lots of tea, and make soup. Warming from the inside out does a great job of keeping one warm, and there's nothing quite so wonderful as wrapping cold fingers around a warm mug.

For those living in usually warmer climates who are experiencing a Maine-like winter, bundle up, stay off the ice, and enjoy the beautiful snow ... from inside your warm(er) house ; ).

And if you can, get a couple of these to help keep you warm. I'd like to introduce you to Morgan (the red chow) and Seven (the puppy), the two newest members of the Brown clan. We adopted them from the Chow Chow Rescue of Central New York. They are beautiful puppies, and we are so thrilled to welcome them into our home.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

21 Days to Prepare - Week Round-Up

It seemed like all of the the world is going to end nonesense had cooled, but then, as we get closer to that day of days, the fervor seems to be growing. Deus Ex Machina and I joke about it - in half seriousness. Mostly the conversations go something like, "When the zombies come we can go and live [fill in the blank of the newest place we've decided would be defensible and livable]."

Having these sorts of conversations around our daughters, especially the youngest, is probably not so wise. She's very young - and as the "baby" of the family, she's even younger than her years. She tends to hold things very tightly, and while she knows about fantasy and reality, she still believes in the fantastic. The other day, she said something about Santa Claus.

So, when she said the other night, "I don't want the world to end!" it was with some nugget of belief that it was going to happen. It's a good reminder to us, as parents and adults, that we need to be very careful about what we say, and we need to be extra vigilant about and willing to explain things to our children in words they can understand.

After she said that, she and I had a conversation about astrological ages and stars and planet alignments and how the ancients marked the passing of time with where the celestial bodies lined up in the sky (the end of the Mayan Calendar is the end of a 2000 (or so) year astrological calendar, and marks the end of the Age of Pisces and the beginning of the Age of Aquarius - not the "end of the world"), and in the end, I said simply, "My calendar ends every year on December 31, and I get a new calendar for the next year."

Still, with shows like The Walking Dead and other post-apocalyptic tales, it's easy to get caught up in the when it happens, forgetting that the likelihood of an it is pretty slim, and what's more likely to happen is exactly what's happening - a lot of little somethings that change how we live here, on earth and in our respective pieces of it.

We're more likely to be dealing with the effects of population overshoot, resource depletion, economic collapse, political unrest, and climate change - bigger storms, crop failures due to drought, warming oceans, species migrations - gradually over the years with some things causing massive devastation and other things simple a ripple in the pond until it gets so big we can't ignore it ... or change it ... and, eventually, we just learn to deal with it.

That's the most likely scenario, in fact - over time, we will just learn to deal with it.

Obviously, I wouldn't tell my young daughter to just deal with it. Instead, I make it my job to help her learn the skills she might need to deal with a future that is very different from our present, in which dependence on today's tools would cause significant hardship. Doing so helps me, too, because trying to empower her to believe in her own strength and resilience helps me find mine.

For the last two and a half weeks, New Society Publishers has been posting articles from their authors about just that - learning resilience - ways to cope with the different than lifestyle we are likely heading toward.

I particularly enjoyed Oscar and Karen Will's article on fencing, because I need to fix our fences and install new gates, and doing so low cost is definitely appealing.

Day Thirteen: How to Make Your Own Fence and Gate for Free Oscar and Karen Wills

Day Fourteen: Taking the 'Burbs: Square Yard Gardening' Ellen LaConte

Day Fifteen: It's NOT all or Nothing Deborah Niemann

Day Sixteen: Tending the Fire Darrell Frey

Day Seventeen: Message from the Mayans to Us: Act Your Age, Not Your Shoe Size! Stephen Hren

Day Eighteen: 2012 Climate Change and Permaculture Starhawk

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

Living in the kind of culture we live in, there are many opportunities for certain phrases to enter and stick in our heads.  The title of this post is today's phrase.

Back in 2008, I had a lot to say about the state of things, and reading back through some of those old essays is interesting in their timeliness - in four years, things are pretty much the same - or worse.  We didn't pay attention to what was happening, and for the most part, it seems like we're still not paying attention - or worse, we've become complacent, and feel like we have no control, and so we'll just do nothing.

That's the case with so many of Americans who live in the suburbs, like me.  Since there are written and stated rules in their neighborhoods against certain things, they just decide to not look for alternatives. 

Fittingly, on April Fool's Day, 2008, I was contemplating the alternatives.

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The High Price of Food

I stopped at the feedstore on our way home from class today to pick up chicken feed.  Last time I bought feed, several months ago, it was $9 and some change for a 50lb bag. Today, I paid $10.90. That's a big jump in price in such a short period of time. [Update 2012:  chicken feed is now $14.10 for 50 lbs.  Rabbit feed has gone up even more and we're paying $15.65 for a 50 lb bag].

It's still cheaper to buy feed for my chickens and eat their eggs than it is to buy eggs from the grocery store. In fact, in what is looking like the increasingly nearer future, it might be that raising chickens becomes more of a necessity than the hobby that it is for me right now [Update 2012: we haven't bought eggs from the store in over two years.  Raising chickens is no longer a hobby, but our way of life : )].

They also had meat birds at the feedstore, and as soon as the snow melts, I'll be getting a few of those. I just need a snow-free patch of ground on which to build a temporary shelter to protect them from runaway neighborhood dogs and raccoons for long enough that they can get fat and juicy.

And there were some beautiful little bunnies for sale at $12 a piece. Big Little Sister is thinking that raising rabbits to sell to some of the local, seasonal restaurants might be a nice cottage industry, and I'm liking her entrepreneurial spirit [Update 2012: we now have two breeding does, an angora who will be bred when she's old enough and a buck.  We're not selling to restaurants, but it's a possibility].

Deus Ex Machina and I were talking this morning about food. He said, in effect, that those people who believe they can't raise animals for food in the suburbs and can only have cats or dogs for pets might be wise to consider that our cultural bias is the only thing that keeps those "acceptable" animals from being food.

He's right, but I think there are other options besides having Fido stew. [for the record, I won't and don't eat dogs or cats - they have other purposes and can be trained to do things that our livestock can not do].

I said, in the comments section of one post some time ago, that if I couldn't have chickens outside in a coop, because my neighborhood said I couldn't, I'd be raising these guys or some other bantam breed. Bantams are smaller chickens, but many are good layers, and they don't require as much space as a full-sized breed. My chicken book says that a bantam needs about half the space of a regular hen. I'd raise them inside my house. I live in a 1500 sq ft house with my three daughters, my husband and our two dogs. Three years ago, my two adult children and two cats also shared this house. If the average-sized house in a HOA restricted subdivision is 2500 sq ft, it seems to me that there's plenty of extra space to house a few bantams inside. or in a basement or garage.

Also in the comments section, someone stated that in some subdivisions, rabbits can only considered pets (and, therefore, allowed), if they are kept inside. Okay? What's the problem? Keep two as breeders inside in separate cages. An adult male and an adult female should ONLY be put together when you intend to make babies. You can breed them three times per year, and they have around five babies each time. You only have to keep the babies ten weeks before they're ready to be harvested. So, for most of the year, it would only be the two. I don't see the problem, unless your HOA rules state that your bunny has to be spayed or neutered.

In her book, Possum Living, Dolly Freed relates how she raised rabbits and chickens in her basement. Raising animals for food inside one's house can be done. I guess for some people, it's that cultural bias again. My grandmother thought ALL animals should live outside, and she'd get really mad when we let the cats inside the house. Rabbits can be litter-boxed trained, and while I wouldn't give my chickens free-rein of my house, I can't really see a big difference between keeping a parakeet in a cage and keeping a chicken inside in a cage ... except that the chicken will give me eggs, and the parakeet's only draw is his pretty song.

In an oil-starved future where food may be scarce, the chicken in the cage sounds like a better deal to me.

Of course, if you don't like the idea of sneaking around and risking fines, there are other options. In Peru, guinea pigs are raised for meat. I'll bet no HOA in this country restricts having guinea pigs. And it might not be a well-known fact, but ALL birds are edible. What does the neighborhood say about tiny, little quail?

The thing that may be required in the very near furture is creativity and a loosening up of our definition of "food."

The other thing that will be required is a willingness to question the Status Quo. Like that little girl in South Portland. She wanted chickens, they said "No", she said, "Are you sure?" They said, "Okay, go ahead." Yes, they imposed an armload of restrictions, but it's a start.

One small step. Today it's chickens. Tomorrow it may be goats, like in Seattle, Washington

A quote on one of the blogs I frequent says, "If I have a message, it is this: You can do it. So don't bother with excuses and explanations. Show me what you are doing. Now."

I guess that's what I've been trying to say. DO something about it.

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In addition to the article that I would make today, four years later, is that one should start now, because there is a learning curve, and we may not have as much time to make mistakes as we had back then.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Low Energy Soup

I made Jaeger Schnitzel (rather my interpretation of the recipe :)). The recipe called for pork cutlets. I had pork chops, which have a bone. True to the way I normally do things, I substituted the chops for cutlets, but to do so, I had to cut the bone out, which actually worked out pretty well in the end (because it gave me several small pieces of schnitzel, which were more appealing to my daughters, who had never had Jaeger Schnitzel, and only wanted a bit ... to try).

The problem is that I'm not very good at deboning meat, and so I had all of these bones with bits of raw meat on them. I do not feed raw pork to my dog, and I never give him cooked pork or chicken bones. I hated to just throw away the bones with all of that meat still on them.

My solution was to boil the bones, but not just that. I also decided that I would make a bean soup - the idea in my head was a kind of a Wendy-ized pork-n-beans.

So, I put a kettle filled with the bones and beans, and topped off with water on the back of the woodstove ... and I went to bed.

The beans slow-cooked all night. In the morning, I pulled out the bones and pork fat, tested the beans for doneness, and added some seasoning (wine vinegar, salt, garlic, cumin, and chili powder), and left the pot on the back of the woodstove, simmering, all day.

Then, I added cooked rice. The result is a rich, hearty bean and rice soup with bits of pork meat ... and it is delicious.

I can't wait until dinner.

And have I ever mentioned how much I LOVE cooking on my woodstove - even when I could cook on the electric stove in the kitchen ;).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

21 Days to Prepare - Day 11

In his insightful post, On the Eve of Prophecy, From a Squat in the Woods Miles Olson reminds us that death is the inevitable outcome of life, and while we're still here, we should just live ... as fully as is possible.

Like Thoreau, he advises we should suck the marrow out of life, and that, to me, is excellent advice.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Resiliency: It's Not Just a Catch Phrase; It's a Way of Life

Day 10 was my post on building resiliency into our lives to help us weather whatever may come.

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I have worked from home since 1998. In the early days of my home-work-life, I took the title of Virtual Assistant to describe what I do. Basically, a V.A. is a remote secretary. Most of my clients were (and still are) small business owners and/or self-employed entrepreneurs, and the work mostly involves typing/copywriting, transcription, Internet research, database construction and maintenance, and some website design and maintenance. My slogan has always been “I can do anything from my home office that an onsite secretary can do, except file” (as an added benefit to hiring someone like me, I could now add, “… with no federally mandated health benefits required”). Because I am an independent contractor, hiring me has worked out especially well for business people who don’t have an office space for me and/or only need occasional, temporary administrative work done.

One of my clients was a Human Resources Management Consultant, which means that he was be hired by organizations to evaluate their employee/employer relationships and help resolve any issues that the organization might be having. He was also a motivation speaker and author, and as I was occasionally hired to transcribe his talks or type his essays for the web, I learned a lot about the human resources world.

One of the hot topics in his writing had to do with workplace resiliency, which he defined as “a person’s capacity to handle difficulties, demands, and high pressure without becoming stressed”, and he explains why having this quality is not just important, but paramount to business success. Part of his job was to teach management how to cultivate this particular quality in their employees.

I was very fortunate to have that client, because even though furthering my knowledge and education was certainly not part of our contractual agreement, I did learn a lot about corporate culture – the good, the bad and the ugly – and in gaining those lessons, I was also more prepared for the kind of life that I see us careening toward, especially here in the US.

As my client told the managers with whom he worked, resilient employees are able to better handle the daily on-the-job trials, but his lesson isn’t just applicable to a workplace environment. In fact, the ability to “bounce back” and to adapt rather than react to the global changes we’ve been experiencing and (most experts agree) will continue to experience on an increasingly accelerated pace will be even more important in the days to come.

A key component to workplace resiliency (according to my client) lies in giving employees some control. He says, “The more control employees have over their work, the more they can handle heavy workloads, major organizational changes, and difficult pressure without becoming stressed.”

I maintain that this sentiment is even more applicable to our non-work daily lives. Those who have taken control over their daily needs are far more resilient when there are “major changes” in their lifestyles, and we’ve seen proof of this resiliency recently, even. During Hurricane Sandy, those who had prepared with some stored water, food and generators, not only didn’t panic, but also shared their bounty with their neighbors – like the guy who organized a movie-night-on-the-lawn that turned into a neighborhood block party and potluck dinner.

The typical, suburban lifestyle has rendered most of us impotent when it comes to survivability. We live in an environment in which every single daily need is trucked into us. Our clothes are manufactured in some foreign locale which most of us will only ever see in the movies. Our food comes from a grocery store whose shelves are stocked with products that are grown and/or processed hundreds or thousands of miles from where we purchase it. The electricity that we so value is produced in plants that can be hundreds of miles from where we live and may use a fuel (coal, oil or natural gas) that is mined on the other side of the world. The electricity is delivered using a decaying and vulnerable infrastructure that is, as we’re seeing, increasingly unreliable.

When things, like the economic hiccup of 2007, the roller-coaster ride of oil prices in 2008, and the increasingly more devastating storms since 2005, cause an interruption in deliveries of food or other services/supplies, we grow fearful and this fear leads to anger. We are afraid, because we can’t control what is happening.

Our suburban lifestyles have robbed us of any control we might once had, but the only way to get back control is to take it. Contrary to what we may believe, no matter one’s circumstances, one can have some degree of control with regard to meeting life’s basic necessities.

Back in the 1970s, when I was in junior high school, we learned in our social studies class that human beings needed three things to survive: clothing, water and food. Over the years, sociologists have added “love” as a basic necessity. I would amend “love” to “community”, and as humans are social animals, I would agree that community is paramount to our survivability as a species.

Interestingly, there was never any mention of electricity or gasoline powered anything on that list of things we need as humans to survive, and so, when we are working toward being more resilient, the things on which we should concentrate most heavily, especially if we’re just starting to work toward being more resilient, are ensuring that we can meet those three (or four) basic needs.

The first is clothing. With the proper clothes, survival is possible even when humans are exposed to the most extremes of temperature. I was impressed the other day by a man who was clearly living outside. I was in line behind him at a local bakery/deli, and what I noticed was his clothing. His heavy-duty military fatigue jacket – the familiar OD green that was worn by our soldiers during the Vietnam Era – was draped over a chair. He had on a vest with pockets (to store change and other things) over a flannel shirt, and probably several other layers, maybe including a thermal shirt, that I couldn’t see. His pants were wool, and he had a stout pair of walking shoes on his feet. It was pretty clear to me that he knew how to dress for spending more time outside than inside.

While most of us will never experience the trials of living without a roof, his example is a good one for us all to remember. Dressing appropriate to our climate makes us more resilient to fluctuations in both weather patterns and increasing fuel prices. Richard Proenneke lived, mostly alone, in a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. In his documentary, there’s a scene in which he quips that his cabin is a “balmy 48°.” Most of us shudder to think of living “indoors” in a room that’s a mere 48°, but the fact is, with the right clothing, in particular, the right clothing material, we can live (not just survive) in temperatures that are significantly cooler than the 72° ambient temperature at which most of us try to keep our houses year round. People survived, nay THRIVED, in cold climates for centuries, without electricity or fossil fuels.

The second necessity is water. In the suburbs, most of us get our water from a municipal water supply. Anyone who has gone without water when a main breaks or who has had to boil water when the water supply has been contaminated, knows how vulnerable that source of water is. Since water is a very basic necessity for most living things, it’s pretty smart to be prepared in whatever small ways one can be. For those who can legally harvest rainwater, having a couple of 55 gallon food-grade barrels, or even four or five 5-gallon buckets (which can often be collected from bakeries at very low-cost or free) is a very good idea. At very least, having a two and a half gallon Brita water filter (that’s kept full at all times) on the counter is a good move. Any is better than none in an emergency.

Even though, of the things we need to survive, food is at the bottom of the list of essentials, it is the one that gets the most attention. We hear a lot about people starving, and even though water scarcity and a lack of clean water is a greater concern on a global scale than food scarcity, we hear more about hunger. Diarrhea, which is often a result of water-borne pathogens, is the second leading cause of death in children under the age of five, and ranks higher than malnutrition, which is number five..

That is not to say that food is not important, because it is, which is why it is such a concern, and why, those of us who live in the suburbs and rely on other people to grow and deliver our food, are becoming increasingly more fearful as food prices continue to increase. There is enough arable crop land worldwide to feed our population. The problem is that food has become a commodity, and the price and availability is controlled by those who have money. Those people send their food products to the place where they can get the most money for their wares, and invariably that place is the Western world.

Unfortunately, as the global economy continues to buckle and as significant climatic changes continue to wreak havoc on crop production, we find that we're not as able to produce as much food. Droughts and flooding have caused major crop failures, which has, in turn, driven the cost of food higher. In 2007 and 2008, there were significant and major crop failures which caused food prices to double and triple, resulting in food riots. In addition, industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and as the price of oil per barrel increases, so does the price of the food that’s grown using 20th Century food production models.

The comforting fact is that anyone, anywhere, can grow food, especially those of us who are lucky enough to live in the suburbs. More than 60% of my quarter acre lot is being used in food production (my house and driveway comprise about 18% my lot and the septic tank and leach field take up most of the front yard). Even those living in HOAs can grow some small things, in containers on a deck, for instance, or planting edible perennials in place of the ornamentals. Those living in apartments don’t need to feel left out of food production, as even they can grow something. As with storing water, something is better than nothing. I am not one of those people who advocate storing up wheat berries in preparation for the end of the world as we know it, but having a few on hand is not a bad idea – but not for the reasons other people give. Wheat makes a really nice sprouted food. Wheat sprouts are sweet and highly nutritious. They can be used in salads, on sandwiches, and in soups. They can be juiced, and even made into a sprouted bread. For those who are gluten-free, there are plenty of other grains and seeds that can be sprouted, including things like broccoli and radish. Sprouting is simple, requires nothing more than a jar with a lid, some water, and a few seeds. It can be done year-round and doesn’t require any special lighting or temperature control.

Resiliency is about taking control. Over time, those of us living in the suburbs gave over our control, often so that we could make more money, but as things start costing more, as we become less or unemployed, as circumstances, like catastrophic weather events, further wrest control from our grasp, we need to be taking steps to insulate ourselves from those potentialities.

Knowing how to dress and having appropriate clothes will help us if we lose the ability to heat our homes. Knowing where to access some water will help us if the water supply is interrupted or contaminated. Growing, even just a few sprouts, will ensure that, in the face of increasing food prices and, potentially, limited food supplies, we won’t starve.

No one knows what our future holds. We could be moving toward even worse times than we have ever known, or things could snap right back to the lifestyles we Westerners enjoyed through the latter half of the twentieth century. Either way, having control over the very basic necessities of human survival (clothing, water, and food) will ensure that we are resilient enough to make it through. That fact is that even in booming economic times, I enjoy my garden and fresh sprouts during the winter, my favorite socks are wool, and water from my Brita just tastes better to me. In the end, it’s not about preparing for bad times, but rather about cultivating a lifestyle that allows us to be in control – no matter what happens.

Dropped the Ball; Picked It Back Up - 21 Days to Prepare

I dropped the ball on posting links to New Society Publisher's 21 Days to Prepare blog posts, and there have been some excellent ones, especially John's and Lisa's tomato sauce post. Sounds delicious, and a super easy and energy efficient way to store summer's bounty for later use. Check it out here: Try Something New for a Sunday Dinner. One of my favorite bloggers and fellow NSP author, John Michael Greer offers Peak Oil Advice from German Poets on day 8 of the countdown. On Day 7, Peter Bane discussed Permaculture: How I'm Preparing for a Local Future - a topic close to our hearts. Day 6 of the preparedness countdown was Cecile Andrews' great article, Conversation Skills You Needed Yesterday. Now, I'm caught up ... maybe I won't get behind again ;).

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Beginning of the Gaian Calendar

Congratulations to Albert Bates, who has been awarded the Gaia Award for his work with developing sustainable communities and modeling sustainable lifestyles.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Things to do with Leftovers

Part of our Thanksgiving Harvest Dinner was Indian Corn Pudding that we made with corn we'd grown here on our nanofarm.

Whether fortunate or un- there was a bit of it leftover after dinner was done, and it went into the refrigerator, where too often, in our culture (or maybe, just my house), things go to get green and fuzzy. It really bothers me when I waste food, though, and so I do try very hard to keep the mold-growing experiments in my kitchen to a minimum. Over the past year or so, Deus Ex Machina has been taking most of our leftovers for his lunch at work, but some things that get leftover aren't as easily transformed into lunch as others.

After a week in the fridge, the pudding needed to be eaten by us or fed to the chickens, and so I decided to try to incorporate it into dinner. What I did was to slice it into strips, oven-fry it in almond oil (which is sweet), and then put it in a baggie with some powdered sugar.

The final result tasted a little like French Toast sticks - like the ones in the grocery store freezer section. For all my criticisms of the industrial food manufacturers, one does have to admire how well they've learned to flavor food-stuff so that even the pickiest of kids will eat that-which-should-not-be-eaten. If my "corn pudding fritters" are any indication, however, I may have stumbled upon the secret myself. Mine were a bit chewier, because of the corn, but very tasty, and there were no leftovers this time.

And I'm just thrilled that I was able to use something from the fridge before it grew fuzz.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Building Awareness of Your Surroundings

Do you stock-up on lots and lots of stuff in your preparedness efforts?

Or do you think it's smarter to learn a bunch of stuff?

In the fourth of New Society Publishers, 21 day count-down series of preparedness articles, our own Deus Ex Machina argues that without one final piece of the puzzle, neither the hoarders nor the know-it-alls will have enough. In order to have that crucial final piece, he states that you have to Build Awareness of Your Surroundings.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Collecting Rainwater

In an extreme survival situation, shelter is the first priority, and then water, but we need not be in an extreme survival situation to be smart about making sure we have an adequate and reliable supply of both.

In the third article of the 21 Day series, Collecting Rainwater, New Society Publishers author, Albert Bates, outlines how to set-up a rain barrel ... and even more importantly, why we should ... today.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

It's the End of the World as We Know it ... Or Is It?



From the New Society Publisher's Blog:

With the turn of the Mayan calendar fast approaching there is much speculation about what this means for humankind and the planet we inhabit. Theories range from this being the end of the world (and if this is the case, well, there isn’t much to prepare for…keep your loved ones close and throw a party) to radically disrupted climate and polarity, causing much destruction…or at least an interruption in the use of electronic devices.

More hopefully, it may signal a shift in consciousness; the term “Apocalypse” actually means “lifting of the veil” or “revelation.” Best-case scenario sees us headed into a collective turn away from the destructive path humans have been hell bent on following, towards a new, enlightened and caring species.

Whatever the outcome, John Ivanko suggests, what about offering readers tips for preparing? And we thought, well who better to help people prepare than New Society Publishers’ authors? Thanks, John, for a great idea!

In the spirit of Wendy Brown’s excellent book, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, we’d like to post 21 days of blogs outlining how people can prepare for an unknown crisis that may leave them without access to food, water, shelter, power, or medical aid. This will include anything from how to create a first aid kit, how to cook a great meal on your woodstove or solar oven, foods to forage for, how to poo in the woods, even advice on how to stay calm in a crisis situation. And although these sound like serious situations, we are not adverse to lightheartedness; a little laughter in the face of adversity may well be another way to prepare!

Our intention is not to create fear nor mock anyone’s belief system, but to use the occasion to offer some basic “life skills” to people. Because even if nothing happens on December 21, with natural disasters and climate-related wild weather, not to mention economic and social collapse at the door, these are tools that belong in everyone’s kit as we continue to learn the critical importance of resilience and adaptation. And if we are at all successful people will stop viewing them as simply survival skills and see them as life skills.

So we hope you will embark on this journey with us as we explore the various ways we can prepare for the unknown. And in the spirit of staying calm in a crisis situation, well a fitting song can do more to quash fears and raise spirits than any pill a doctor could prescribe. Don't panic. Just press play (...while you still can).


For the next three weeks, I will be posting links to New Society Publisher's blog posts ....

Today's post, entitled It'll All Turn Out in the End. Or Will It? , is by Ellen Laconte author of Life Rules: Nature's Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse.

Enjoy!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Teach the Children Well

Some of the world's greatest innovators were self-taught and/or homeschooled.

It's not so much that homeschooling is better, but that most of the time it allows for a freedom and flexibility that is not possible in a formal school setting. In fact, the school setting is becoming more and more rigid, and I hear teachers talking about how today's students can not even think for themselves.

In the dramatically changing world into which we are moving like a run-away frieght train, we are going to need people who are problem-solvers. People who can look at a pile of junk and see a woodshed or a methane-digester or a wheel barrow or a water catchment system. Look at a pile of ragged and stained clothes and see a quilt or a pair of curtains or a vest or hat or a pair of gloves. Look at a pile of ingredients and see a three-course meal.

The last fifty years have been amazing, and those of us who have been fortunate to live in this privileged world of plenty have a lot to be thankful for, but our children, those of us who still have young children at home or who have yet to procreate, will live in a very different world than the one we know now.

Homeschooling full-time may not be an option for many people, but at very least, we have to realize that we can not depend on the schools, in their current incarnation, to teach our children the lessons they will need to know.

If you can homeschool, do; if you can't homeschool, start teaching your children the lessons the schools will never teach about self-sufficiency and problem solving.

The most important knowledge we can give our children is not how to solve for x, but rather the passion to want to know what x is, and why it is, and how it can be rearranged to make it look like t.

Whether we teach them well or just believe we are teaching them, our children will change the world - just as we have done. The question is, will the change be better than the changes we have wrought? It's true that all parents wish better for their children than they had. The question we have to answer for ourselves, as parents, is what do we mean by better?

What I want for my children is not that they have more, but that they be free to live more; to explore and laugh and wonder; to suck the marrow from life; to sound their barbaric YAWP from the rooftops of the world ...!

And, then, go home and have a warm meal in their warm, cozy homes, and there be enough.

Anything more is just clutter.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ode to Snow

Deus Ex Machina woke me this morning saying, "It's snowing."

I love the snow. I said it my first Christmas in Maine, and the natives scoffed at me.

"Just wait," they chuckled. "You'll learn to hate it."

I'm still waiting.

Don't get me wrong. I don't love shoveling, and I don't love driving in the snow. Snowplows on the road scare me, and I've had at least two snow-related driving incidents since I've been here - one that ended with a missing taillight when my rear end hit a utility pool after I spun off the road in a snowstorm.

But I love the quiet beauty of a snowstorm, and I love how the snow blankets everything with a clean purity, and how it muffles the noise of civilization. I love how, even in the middle of the night, during the winter, when the snow is covering the ground, everything is bright.

I never noticed how dark it is in my yard until the snow melted one spring, and I looked out and realized I couldn't see anything. And even though I wanted to plant my garden, I still wished, in that brief moment, for just one more night of snow.

As the seasons change, it's been an annual tradition to make cut-outs in honor of the transition. In the spring it's flowers. In the fall it's leaves (or something Halloween-related ;)).

This morning, when Deus Ex Machina woke me, I realized we have been so busy that we've forgotten our tradition. We cleaned the windows a few weeks ago, but didn't put anything back up.

This morning, I slowed the pulse of my busy-ness and cut paper - snowflakes to go on the windows.

I'm ready for the snow ... and after fifteen years of living and loving in Maine, I'm still not tired of it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Indian Corn Pudding

A couple of years ago, I grew field corn/popcorn for the first time. The story is that I wanted to grow a Three Sisters garden, because I am just absolutely fascinated by it, and the more I learn, the more I love it.

The Three Sisters garden is the perfect example of companion planting. The corn stalks support the beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil, and the big squash leaves grow in between the other two and provide a mulching effect. Plus, as food, they are perfect nutritional complements. Nutritionally and calorically, one could survive a harsh Maine winter on those three plants.

And from what I'm reading, people did.

So, I knew, when I started looking at the best bang-for-my-buck with regard to annuals to plant in my garden, that the Three Sisters would have a place. The only problem I had was the corn, and from the experiences I've had with sweet corn, I knew that wouldn't be what I would grow.

The first year I grew popcorn, I chose a small-earred blue corn. I read that field corn should be allowed to dry on the stalk, which is what I did, but when I harvested it, the ears were tiny and looked only half formed. I figured I had planted the seeds too late, and the blue corn experiment was a bust.

I pulled all of the ears off the stalks and dumped them in a wooden basket, and there they sat for the next two months. Then, in December, I decided I was going to separate the corn from the cobs and feed the corn kernels to the squirrels. As I worked, I realized that those kernels were perfect. They were popcorn - smaller than commercial popcorn, but they looked exactly the same. I decided to try popping some, and it worked!

I had grown popcorn!

And I've grown it every year since then.

This year I chose a red corn. It produced big, beautiful ears - two to three per stalk. I harvested a couple dozen, and I knew that I would, probably, be making most of it into cornmeal. I'm still learning about ways to use cornmeal, and my favorite way is to make polenta, which is, basically, corn mush. I also like to make "Johnny Cakes" and corn fritters. I especially like to make a southwestern-inspired chicken stew and serve corn fritters with it.

Corn was one of the featured ingredients in our harvest meal this year. Some time ago, I found a recipe for Indian Corn Pudding (which actually called for grits, but I decided to use my dried, ground corn). Basically, it's sweet corn mush. After I'd cooked it, I decided I wanted to see what it would be like baked. So, I divided it into muffin cups and baked it for an additional half hour until it was stiff.

The corn kernels had been very coarsely ground - only one pass through our food mill (some people see it and think "meat grinder", because that's what a lot of people use this mill for, but ours has several blades which allows us to use it to grind flour and nut butters, also) - and what was interesting was how much they puffed up during the cooking process.

Baked Indian Corn Pudding


I was pleased with the outcome, and there is more of the pudding left that wasn't baked. It will make a nice porridge, warmed on the woodstove and topped with a bit of cream, or some yummy fritters, fried in some hot oil.

I'm not much of a cook, really, but I'm also not afraid to try new things, which can be good ... or not, depending on whether or not one has to eat my concoctions. Mostly it turns out edible, and sometimes a new food will become a family favorite.

The corn pudding wasn't a huge hit, but as it was competing with several different kinds of pie, that's not surprising. In a few days, when the pie is gone, we'll pull out the corn pudding, again, and see how we like it, because I'm going to keep growing corn, and so we're going to keep eating it ... one way or another.

A Grateful Harvest

Five years ago my family was featured in a Portland Press Herald article. We were planning a "local" Thanksgiving dinner.

I remember that meal. I remember that we anguished over the menu. We'd think of some traditional thing that people serve at Thanksgiving, and often, I'd have to nix it, because the ingredients weren't local. This dinner was to be all local ... but not just "local" - all Maine grown. Once we settled on a menu, we spent countless hours looking for local sources for the food. A lot of time and effort and money went into that meal. It was totally worth it.

Little did we know where that path would lead us.

Fast forward five years, and we're again enjoying an all local Thanksgiving dinner - this time without the press :).

The difference is that we didn't, really, spend a lot of time trying to figure out what we were going to serve. We knew we'd be eating Turkey, because Deus Ex Machina shot a turkey with his bow. We also knew that we would be smoking it on the grill. This morning the turkey was brined for a couple hours in salt water. Then it was seasoned and put on the grill. It was everything we hoped it would be ... and better than any turkey we've ever had. If that's what wild turkey tastes like, I'll take it!

Other than the turkey, however, I only had a vague idea of what I was going to cook. Nothing was preppped beforehand, and in fact, it wasn't until after I got up this morning and started flipping through my recipe binder that a plan was formed.

Deus Ex Machina said that he woke up dreaming of pecan pie, but not pecan. His dream was about acorns, and so he found a recipe for pecan pie, harvested about three pounds of acorns, cracked them and boiled them, and made the pie. I made the crust ... more on that later.

We also had some usual stuff, like mashed potatoes, cranberry jelly, and roasted pumpkin. What's kind of neat about the pumpkin is that it was grown in my back yard, and half went into the pumpkin pie that was made using eggs from our chickens, milk from the local dairy farm, and some spice and sugar from away. The crust, though ... the crust was made using King Arthur flour, which is locally milled (not in Maine, but in Vermont, which is less than 100 miles from me) and lard. The lard was rendered in my kitchen from fat that I received with my cow share.

I should probably share that I'm not a baker. I don't make cookies or pies or cakes ... unless I have to, and pie crust is one of those things I'd almost rather just do without if it means I have to make it. I like pie. I like pie a lot. I'm just not good at making it. So, to say that I made a pie AND a pie crust is quite a big deal ... at least it is to me.

I also made, what we have started to call stuffing bread. It's made with jerusalem artichokes, and true to form, I didn't have all of the ingredients, and neither did I much care. I had the most important ones. I thought I'd have to skip the carrots, but when I looked in the garden bed that I planted in the late fall, I found some teeny-tiny carrots - enough for the bread.

So, while Deus Ex Machina processed acorns for his pie, I dug up sunchokes and carrots and harvested herbs from my garden for my bread. I used locally grown and milled wheat flour, and subsituted maple syrup for the sugar the recipe called for. It was all local, mostly grown on our quarter acre, and amazing.

We haven't eaten the corn pudding we made. It's a little like a sweet polenta, and after it was cooked, I decided I wanted to bake it to see if it would end up more like a cake than a pudding. It will be a snack later in the evening. The corn? Yep, grown here at Chez Brown. Deus Ex Machina and Precious ground it this morning.

It was an amazing harvest dinner and a wonderful reminder of the incredible bounty that surrounds us. No GMOs. No artficial flavors or colors. Real food. Grown where it was eaten. It just doesn't get better ... except when someone else offers to do the dishes ... :).

Happy Thanksgiving! Here's hoping that you have more to be thankful for than not

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Waiting for Godot?

She's ready. Now, we just need some snow.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude: Day 20

I am incredibly thankful for this blog. Having it, having this place to explore my thoughts and feelings about what's happening in our world and where it's going, and sharing my family's adventures as we attempt to live a lower-energy lifestyle in a high-consumption environment has changed me in very profound ways.

It's been more than just turning off the lights when I'm not in a room or hanging out laundry rather than using a dryer. It's been a complete change in my attitude about things - in particular about the very fundamental, core values that make our society continue to operate as it has for the past hundred years.

I'm thankful, because I feel like my life is better in very significant ways ... and I certainly think I'm a better person.

The other half of writing the blog is knowing that there are people out there reading it, and really, as other bloggers have observed, without readers, it's just me talking to myself ... and since I already know how I feel, it would be kind of pointless to voice my opinions, outloud, if I were the only one to hear it ; ).

In fact, if you have a moment, and you're so inclined, please feel free to add a comment about yourself and your blog on my new page.

Mostly, I'm thankful that someone is actually interested in what I say, and for a girl with self-esteem issues, I think those of you who read, and especially those who comment, have no idea how much it means to me.

So, thank you. Without you, much of my progress over the past many years that I've been blogging, might not have happened.

With this post, I will end my daily Thanks Giving. It's been a great twenty days, and I know I didn't even begin to scratch the surface of giving thanks for the many blessings in my life. My goal during this almost three weeks was to focus on some small things that, as a suburbanite, I might take for granted - things that, in a poorer world, I hope I can still have - like hot showers, dandelion coffee, and good friends. In the greater scheme of things, those are the things that are important, and part of my giving gratitude is my attempt to remember those things, especially when lots of not-so-great things seem to be happening all at once.

Here's hoping everyone has a great Holiday with more reasons to be thankful than not.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gratitude: Day 19

I am thankful for sunny days for doing laundry ... and rainy days of doing nothing ... and that I live in Maine where I get plenty of both.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Gratitude: Day 18

How we ended up with our abnormally large black cat named Mr. Pumpkin is quite a long story, the details of which no one is probably interested. Suffice it to say that he is not a cuddly cat. He's not the kind of cat that wants human attention or affection. In fact, he's pretty much content if we leave him be, and just make sure he has water, food, and a clean cat box, and he appreciates it when we bring him a sprig of catnip from the plant outside.

He has never, not by choice, sat in any of our laps, and when he's held it's with a reluctant acquiescence - which is obvious by the look on his face.

That's not to say that he doesn't like attention. Unfortunately, his way of getting attention is unacceptable as it involves claws and fangs, and we aren't very keen on having either piercing our flesh.

Over the years, he's mellowed quite a bit. He knows if he grabs us, we'll grab him back and cuddle him and pet him and maybe even (egads!) kiss and nuzzle the nape of his neck - which puts our scent all over his lovely fur in a place he can't get rid of it very easily. Poor kitty!

Occasionally, though, he surprises us when he acts, seemingly, completely out of character. Like this morning, when I woke up and found him sleeping between my feet. It was an odd, very unexpected moment ... and one I appreciated completely, because it made me realize that, even with his, rather, cool demeanor, he knows he's a part of this family.

And one other thing. When we come home, after a long day out, the one who comes to the door to greet us is the cat ... not the dog.

I am thankful to the friends who gave us Mr. Pumpkin. He's become a part of our family, and we love him - in spite ... mabye even because of ... his quirkiness.

Come to think of it, perhaps it's that quirkiness that makes him fit so well in our family.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gratitude: Day 17

Non-stop.

That's how I would describe this day. It started at 7:00 AM. We were in and out all day, and only at the end of the day, are finally home. It was one of those rare days when I didn't even check email - all day!

Part of the day's events involved a new adventure Deus Ex Machina and I are going to try which will, hopefully, help move us closer to our goal of having both of us working full-time from home.

The other half of the day was spent supporting our daughters in their dance endeavors ... and I even got to get up on stage with Little Fire Faery and perform a mother-daughter tap number.

It was a day that included a lot of things to be thankful for ... and I am thankful ... for new adventures and time spent with my amazing family.

It just gets better and better.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Gratitude: Day 16

Today is a picture gratitude post.

There are so many things in this picture for which I am grateful.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gratitude: Day 15

I was part of a conversation the other day - about prepping. Not surprising, right? Seeing as how I consider myself a prepper, of sorts. Like many conversations about preppers, these days, it was spurred because someone had seen that National Geographic Show.

I've seen bits and pieces of the show, but never a whole episode, because I don't have a television, and, well, frankly, I've seen enough to know a few things.

First, it's not real. Yes, the people are real, and yes, many of them are doing the things that are shown, but, as with most things on television, their preps are sensationalized. The film crew spends three days with the prepper, and then cuts three days worth of footage to fifteen minutes.

It's television, and they are looking for the most outlandish, most crazy-sounding things that the people might let slip in three days. Sometimes those things that are said are taken out of the context in which they were said.

Second, many of those people are just average folks, like me. Some of them might be a little over-the-top, and certainly, I don't agree with or condone building a bunker and stocking it full of MREs and biohazard suits. For me, the whole prepping thing is something different, but I can see how what I do, even, could be sensationalized to make me look a little out-there.

And I think National Geographic has done a huge disservice to people, because by making that show, and by portraying these people as paranoid, fearful, and a bit unsettled, the shows producers have given the rest of us an excuse to do nothing, which, as we've seen from the unsettled weather since 2005 and the rough economic climate since 2007, isn't such a good idea. The problem is that no one wants to be associated with those preppers, and if having some stored food and water or transitioning to some form of alternative energy means one might be considered a crazy prepper, most of the American public says, no thanks, and then, we have Hurricane Sandy, and people without electricity (and heat or a way to cook their food) for a week (or more) and fighting in gas station lines.

Prepping isn't just about TEOTWAWKI. It really is about insulating oneself against life's little hiccups. One doesn't need a bunker to be ready for a hurricane, but if one heats and cooks with electricity, one does need to have alternative heat sources and ways to cook if the eletricity goes out.

At this halfway point through my month of thankfulness, I want to pause and be thankful that Deus Ex Machina and I turned our feet onto a new path many years ago. Perhaps our preps looked the way they do, because we have never been concerned about a single catastrophic event. We started and kept prepping for a lot of reasons. In fact, perhaps the biggest motivator has been just the simple desire to have a different life - one that wasn't ruled by the corporate hierachy of a 9 to 5 soul-sucking job.

And maybe that's where and why we differ so much from the usual prepper mindset. We're changing our lives and our lifestyle so that we don't have to have money, and not just-in-case-IT happens.

I cooked breakfast on the woodstove this morning. It was a leftover baked potato that I chopped up in a pan and browned in a little bit of olive oil. I also heated some water for steeping some roasted dandelion root for coffee and heated some milk for a dandelion-root cafe au lait.

And I was thankful, because with or without electricity, with or without worldwide global trade, with or without a viable national currency, with or without a job, I could still have hash-browned potatoes and dandelion-root coffee heated on the woodstove.

For me, that's what prepping is and should be all about.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Gratitude: Day 14

It was that historic day, September 11, 2001, that I first walked into the dance studio, not knowing what a huge part it would, later, play in our lives. I remember that they discussed, in light of the days' events that were unfolding, canceling their open house. They opted not to, thinking, perhaps, that people might like some normal in what became a very abnormal day.

I was impressed by how consciously they made that decision. They didn't just plow ahead, thoughtlessly, but really considered what might be the best option, in light of what was happening in the world at large.

We started with one class per year for Big Little Sister. It was a long drive, but in those days, no one really worried much about that. Precious was born. Little Fire Faery got older and started taking classes. Precious grew up as a dance sister, and when she got old enough, she started taking classes, too. At this point, we've all taken lessons there.

I joke about being a suburban soccer mom, but the fact is, it's not soccer for us, it's dance. So, by the time driving such a long distance became an issue, we didn't, really, have an option: quit dance (because, at this point, finding a closer school isn't really something my girls are interested in doing), or drive. For now, we've opted to drive, and to cut back other driving. When we know we've got dance, we always plan what else we can do while we're in the area, and whether by design or chance, most of the places we need to go (like the feed store, for instance) are in the same direction as the dance school.

Over the years, it has become more than just a dance studio. In many ways, the other people there - the dancers, the moms, the teachers - have become a second family to us. We spend a great deal of time there, and as members of the dance team, we spend a great deal of time with the other team members and their families.

One of the things I like best about the atmosphere is that there is just not any of that aggressive-competitiveness among the team members. There's no trying to best the other kids on the team, because it's not about that. It's about each individual doing her best, and they support each other. I haven't seen that much-talked-about television show depicting the dance competition world, but I heard about it, and I can say, that what was, reportedly, depicted on the screen is not the experience my family and I have had in the dance competition world. Our studio owner would not allow it.

She wouldn't allow it, because that's not the kind of person she is. It's not about the glitz. It's not about the money. It's about the dance. In fact, our studio has a reputation for wearing ... ahem ... well-loved practice clothes. It's not uncommon to see the older girls sporting shredded tights and shoes that have been repaired with duct tape. When Big Little Sister started dancing there, it seemed to be a badge of honor, the mark of a truly talented and seasoned dancer (because all of the older girls who dance there are both) to have ragged dance-class clothes.

Nothing is ever wasted or discarded. Nothing. Costumes are reused, if possible (and for those who don't know, dance costumes can be incredibly expensive) or recycled with a bit of sequins and reused. Sometimes, when they are trying to decide on a costume for a competition solo, the girls will be told to "go shopping upstairs" in the huge, stuffed-full, costume room. Sets and props are spiffed up with a bit of paint (and were often created using recycled materials). Even dance choreography is occasionally brought back to the stage.

Indeed, it's one of the things that I love best about Ms. Vicky. She's incredibly frugal and infinitely creative. She can take a few strips of cloth, a leotard and some sparkle and make a mermaid that looks incredible up on stage. I am continually in awe of her.

Perhaps that's not the most remarkable thing about our experience there. There's another thing that goes on, behind the scenes, that many of us probably don't see or that we only see minimally ... just that little part that applies to us.

Ms. Vicky, through her dance school, has touched thousands of lives, not just as a dance teacher, but as a community philanthropist. She gives back to the community in so many ways.

This morning, as I was saying goodbye to Deus Ex Machina, who was heading to work, my toe hit a bag that was sitting on floor next to the door. It contains some apples, squash and sugar - our donations for our dance teams annual turkey basket. It's half fundraiser and half community sharing. Basically, team members sell raffle tickets ($1 each or 5 for $6) for a chance to win a turkey basket. It will contain all of the ingredients necessary for a full Thanksgiving meal and (believe me when I say) then some ... unless one is feeding a small army.

All of the food in the basket is donated by the team, and it, truly, has everything one could need (right down to spices) for a full meal. It is an incredible amount of food, and includes both fresh (my family's contribution is local apples, local squash and 2 lbs of raw cane sugar) and canned foods.

The hitch is that we donate enough food for TWO baskets (two three-pound bags of apples, two acorn squash, and two 2lb bags of sugar). One basket is raffled off, and the second basket is donated to a local family.

In 2001, I had no idea what I was getting myself - and my family - into when I pulled up in front of that three-story building and signed up Big Little Sister for her very first, ever, dance class. It was just supposed to be a dance class. Just dance. Ha!

My girls (and I) have learned so much, and much of it is not dance related - grace under pressure, appreciation for the gifts one has been given, and the importance of community.

I am thankful that I was guided there, and that, even when driving so far got tough, we decided that it was worth it ...

... and looking to the future, I have, actually, been thinking about how we'd get there by bicyle, and how I will cycle three tired dancers home ... in the dark ... on a cold wintry night in Maine.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Gratitude: Day 13

I am thankful for aunties and nieces ... and the very interesting dynamic when they are close in age.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fortune Cookie Wisdom

Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure.

I liked the sentiment, and so I'm sharing. It took me a very long time to realize that I'd never be perfect and that the moment I believed I was perfect, I'd stop learning.

That would be a sad day for me, indeed.

Gratitude: Day 12

Today is the first day in I don't know how long that I'm having morning "coffee" instead of my usual cups of tea. It's nice ... different.

And I am thankful for all of those people, teachers, who piqued my curiosity enough to get me interested in not just learning about stuff like wild foraging, but willing to make it part of my life.

I'm incredibly thankful for the back-to-the-landers, who were willing (even if just for a little while) to buck the system and live differently, even as the rest of the US was engaging in the consumerism-orgy that's landed us where we are today. Without their example, I wouldn't be where I am today, and I wouldn't be able to consider living differently in suburbia.

My life is definitely better than it was, definitely better than it would be, if we hadn't started making changes, and I think I'm better.

So here's to the Dolly Freeds, the Nearings, the Gaskins, the Krochmals, and those writers and editors of Mother Earth News and magazines/publications like it. I raise my cuppa wild foraged roasted dandelion root coffee (sweetened with a tiny bit of raw sugar and lightened with a splash of raw milk) to you! I am thankful that you all were fearless and curious and energized enough to be the change.

Let's build a better world ... one quarter acre suburban lot at a time.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dandelion Root Coffee - The Verdict

Deus Ex Machina and I harvested dandelion roots a week or so ago. We cleaned the roots, cut them into one-inch pieces and roasted them at 350° for about a half hour. Then, we put them in a jar and left the jar on the table, because we got busy doing other stuff. Today, we took them out of the jar, ground them up, put a few spoonsful in the French coffee press, added boiling water, and allowed the tea to steep for a while.

I haven't had coffee in a while, but there was a time when I would toss back a pot of coffee in the morning and a pot of coffee at night before bed. I know what coffee tastes like.

And what's in my cup is it, and it's good.

The best part, though, is not that it's really good (I mean REALLY good), but that it's really good for me. Whether or not I believe all of the claims of the extraordinary health benefits of dandelions, I will say that as a coffee substitute, it's a winner.

I gave up coffee in favor of tea several years ago, because tea is a healthier choice. When I wanted to localize my diet, I started a search for a tea substitute, and truly, what I wanted was something that tasted like tea, but I still haven't found it. It amuses me that I have, likely, found what I probably wanted all a long - a healthy coffee-flavored beverage that can be locally produced ... and it was, literally, right under my feet all a long.

Gratitude: Day 11

Today is Veteran's Day. I am thankful for my service.

I know. It sounds weird for me to be thankful for my own service, but the military was a good experience for me, and it probably taught me more about myself than any single experience I have had up to and following my enlistment.

When I joined, I was at a point in my life where I felt I was failing. I'd been told, in not so many words, for the eight previous years that I was almost good enough, and that I could be perfect if I just met whatever milestone had be set for me - which was, usually, not verbalized but hinted at, and I simply needed to intuit the appropriate action. I think I really believed I could be perfect, if ..., but I just never learned how to read minds, and so I was always wrong.

Being a soldier taught me that perfection was not the goal. Rather we should strive for qualities like: integrity, allegiance, selflessness, and honor. I learned to, truly, do my best, and when I messed up, I learned to take responsibility for my own actions, because in the military individual actions can, sometimes, really have dire consequences. It never did, for me, and for that, I am also thankful.

I met some of the most amazing people during my enlistment (especially the one I am lucky to call my partner, my confidante, my husband, my best friend). There is something about being in that kind of environment that makes friendships happen at a hyper-speed not normal in regular life. It can't be explained, but it is pretty incredible.

I also had the opportunity to see places I would never have gone, were it not for my service.

I learned, too, that I was physically strong - something I had never considered applied to me. I could heft 70lbs of equipment on my back. I could run two miles in less than sixteen minutes. I could march for miles without complaint. I could dig a foxhole and a hasty. I could shoot an assualt rifle with 80% accuracy (32 out of 40 targets down). I even threw grenades (something some of the men at my last duty station were unwilling to do) with my wimpy little-girl arms.

One of the most important lessons I learned was not to take myself too seriously, which went hand-in-hand with the budding realization that prefection is not a goal, but rather one should aspire to be efficient and hard working. The motto is "Be All That You Can Be", which doesn't mean be perfect, but rather that each should strive to achieve his or her own potential, and then, keep pushing for more.

I learned not to take myself so seriously and that failure didn't mean I was a horrible person, but rather that I just still had more to learn.

One of my favorite memories took place at the grenade range during Basic Training, where I learned to be steadfast, even in the face of adversity - which was sometimes the visage of our Drill Instructors. It had been a very long day, and I was just tired and hungry, and I just wanted to sit somewhere and be still and quiet for just a few minutes.

After every range, we were assembled in formation for a brass and ammo check. Essentially, we were searched to make sure that we hadn't forgotten to return live rounds to the appropriate areas.

We stood in straight lines, put our Kevlar on the ground and emptied our pockets into it. We stood at parade rest until the Drill Sergeant approached us, and then, we would snap to attention and exclaim, loudly, "No brass! No ammo! Drill Sergeant!"

The Drill Sergeant on this day was one of the other platoon sergeants, and he was joking with some of the enlistees, most of whom ended up on the ground. I, so, did not want to do push-ups, and I was resolved to not make a mistake and allow myself to let my guard down.

A favorite tactic of the drill instructors was to get the IET soldier laughing or joking, and then, ask "Do you think I'm your buddy, Private? Dust yourself off" - a hated euphemism that meant do push-ups and remember your place.

When he got to me, I snapped to attention, said my phrase, and stood, eyes staring into the distance while he did his inspection.

As he was patting me down, he said, "You know you have a mustache, Specialist. I'll bet you think your mustache is pretty."

To which I replied, "Not nearly as pretty as yours, Drill Sergeant."

I managed not to crack a smile.

And the Drill Sergeant was taken off guard - probably a first for him. He finished the rest of his inspection, quickly, and no one did push ups ... including me.

And on that day, at that moment, I was very, very thankful.

My military experience may not be typical. Maybe I was just lucky. But I am thankful that I had the experience of being a soldier, and I wouldn't change that part of my life for anything.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gratitude: Day 10

Today is my parent's forty-ninth wedding anniversary.

They are still together through my father's military career, which included two stints in Vietnam, multiple separations when Dad ended up assigned to duty stations where my mother couldn't go, and moving every year for the first nine years of my life (and probably every year or two before). They've been through nearly every sort of high and low that a couple can experience, and endured ... including raising me through my teenaged years.

I am lucky to call them parents, and I am thankful to have them as an example of endurance and what really loving someone and being committed to another person looks like.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad. Here's to many, many more ;).

Friday, November 9, 2012

Gratitude: Day 9

For many reasons, I decided not to take a tap class this year. There was just too much going on when tap class started, and I didn't think that I could add anything else to my plate.

At the school where I took tap, and where my daughters dance a collective 20+ hours per week (yes, getting them to and from dance class is the equivalent of a part-time job for me ;)), performance is a big part of the experience. In addition to the annual recital, there are multiple opportunities throughout the year for performing, which I think is just amazing, because, to me, the arts are all about sharing.

One of the annual events is the Festival of Feet, which is a tap dancing show. Last year, as a tapper, my whole tap class participated, but since I'm not taking dance classes this year, I just assumed that I wouldn't be dancing the Festival of Feet this year.

Someone had a different plan, and last night, I worked with Little Fire Faery, two other moms and their daughters to learn a mom/daughter dance.

It's just such an incredible thing - all of it: that my daughter wants to dance with me, that the dance school owner is willing to take the time and energy to, essentially, give us a free class, that the other moms are interested in doing the dance, too.

I am so thankful that we have found this dance family ... and that Little Fire Faery isn't embarrassed to be seen on stage with me.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Gratitude: Day 8

True to the forecast, we had snow last night. The predicted Nor'easter materialized. We were put on alert and told to expect 1" to 3" of snow along the coast (more inland) and high winds. This afternoon it's supposed to turn over to a rain/sleet mix, possibly causing the formation of ice on trees and power lines.

With the heavy snow, strong winds, and potential ice cover, the likelihood of power outages is pretty high. So far, I haven't seen any reports of such, but it's still early in the day.

I'm not worried. Just like with Storm Sandy, we're as prepared as we can be, and given that a Nor'easter is a pretty common force of nature in these parts, my guess is that most people aren't really worried. At least there seems to be none of the subtle agitation that usually accompanies predictions of severe weather. I haven't been to any stores, but unlike the weekend prior to Sandy, this weekend at the grocery store was quiet - and they've been predicting this storm since last week.

I'm thankful that five years ago, Deus Ex Machina and I started transitioning to heating our house with wood. I'm thankful that four years ago we replaced our old, tiny, inefficient woodstove with a new model that heats our whole house. I'm thankful for all of the free wood we're able to collect and are given. It's knowing that we're not dependent on electricity for heating and cooking that gives me peace of mind at times like this, and I am eternally grateful to know that we'll be warm and cozy even as the storm rages outside.

I hope those south of us didn't get hit, especially those who are still trying to recover from Sandy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Gratitude: Day 7

Nobody feels completely well here at Chez Brown. We've definitely caught something.

I'm thankful, though - not that we're sick, but that our lifestyle is such that we're able to get enough rest to allow our bodies to complete the healing process.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Gratitude: Day Six

Since Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: the Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil was published, I've been asked many times about security. I cover it in the book, my ideas on it, but my suggestions go contrary to what most people think of when they think of safety in TEOTWAWKI-scenrios.

There have been a lot of people who want to argue the point with me, and I'm not, necessarily, interested in arguing it, because it's not really something we can know until it happens. One of us will be wrong and one of us will be right, but at that point, all that will matter is who was right, and if it's not me, I will suffer the consequences of my ignorance.

The burning question is: when TSHTF will there be groups of mauraders bent of violence and destruction roaming the land and terrorizing the people?

My answer is there may be a few, but I believe those types of people will be the exception, rather than the norm. Mostly, I believe that people will come together in small, supportive groups - whether those groups form from neighbors or from nomads doesn't matter. What matters is that humans are social animals, that we prefer peace to war, and that worstcase scenarios as often bring out the good in people as the bad.

New York City and New Jersey were pummeled by Hurricane Sandy. The pictures show widespread destruction, and I think those of us who don't live there and don't have family in the area haven't even begun to see the scope of the damage. From some sources, it seems on the scale of Hurricane Katrina.

I've been to New York City, and while there were a few kind people (by comparison), mostly people were just neutral, apathetic. They weren't unkind, and neither were they friendly. One woman in a hurry to get to wherever it was that she really needed to be and pulling a rolling suitcase down the crowded sidewalk, actually rolled her suitcase over my foot. She never even looked back.

What I'm seeing now, though, in the face of this disaster, is people reaching out a helping hand to other people. There's the picture of the power cords hanging on the fence with a sign that says, "I have power. Charge your cellphones." And there was a person in one of the devastated neighborhoods who organized a movie night for his neighbors who didn't have power. He had a generator. It ended up being an old-fashioned block party, with snacks and movies and a bonfire. Everyone shared what they could, and everyone benefitted from the generosity of the neighbor with the generator.

Those stories are the ones that make me secure in my PollyAnna beliefs that most of us won't ever be faced with the gun-toting lunatics, and that as we slide deeper into this life of less, that neighbors will become neighbors. We don't have to agree with them, but we will learn tolerance - for each other - and we will learn to depend on and support each other.

Today, I am thankful for the reminders, from the worst hit areas in this most recent disaster, that humans can and often are human, that in the face of adversity, we are just as likely to reach out a helping hand as not. It's what I've always believed, and it's comforting to have my deepest held beliefs validated by reality.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Gratitude: Day Five

We had just the craziest weekend one could imagine. It started with Deus Ex Machina on Friday night having practice for the play he (and two of our daughters) is in. Saturday was a usual dance-busy day followed by a not usual dance-busy night, and the busy, busy-ness culminated in a drive to the Portsmouth Music Hall in New Hampshire to see our music teacher performing the Mark O'Connor Fiddle Concerto on Sunday.

It was one of those non-stop crazy whirlwind adventures that we often seem to find ourselves in, and it's wonderful, because we are so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by these amazingly talented people who are completely willing to share their expertise and talent with us - as teachers, mentors and friends.

Sometimes, though, I just want to curl up, at home, and have nothing to do. Or rather, I want an opportunity to stay home and do all of those things that aren't getting done on the homestead, because we're so busy doing other things.

And then, I realize that I really do have enough time to do both.

Which is what I did this weekend. On Sunday, I took an hour or so and went outside, and (finally) planted my garlic. It was a two-step process, and I envisioned it many times in my head - clean out the bed, plant the garlic has been a running scenario in my head for a couple of weeks.

I keep hearing rumors that we're going to get hit by a Nor'easter this week. The rumors are just quiet little whispers, and so, perhaps, it will just be another rainstorm, or perhaps, since it is just whispers, this time it will be what everyone feared from the last couple of big storms that came our way.

Either way, the garlic is planted, and I'm incredibly thankful that I didn't miss the window because I played the movie in my head instead of just taking the time to put the thoughts into action.

Next summer, when I'm harvesting garlic and next winter, when we're eating the garlic I planted, I'll have another chance to be thankful.

Afterall, gratitude is cumulative - the more one expresses thanks, the more one realizes one has to be thankful for.

And that really is what it's all about.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gratitude: Day Four

Sometime in the late spring a lovely young homeschooler who participates in 4-H contacted me. She lives on a three-acre suburban farm and raises pigs that she sells at the Fair. Last year, we had hoped to bid on one of her pigs, but stuff happens. So, we proposed that if she were interested in raising a pig for us, we'd be interested in buying it.

When she contacted me this spring, she said she was planning to raise two pigs, and she wanted to know if we wanted one.

Um, let me think ... YES!

First off, I know this young lady, and she is as sweet as the day is long. I knew that she would provide a calm and gentle life for this pig, who would be raised and cared for by someone who really cared for him. It's exactly the kind of meat we raise in our backyard, and the kind of meat we want to eat.

The other awesome part about having our pig raised by a young lady we know was that it would be butchered by our butcher and so I could, perhaps, ask for cuts that I might not ordinarily get. Like the jowls.

Since reading about Kate's experience with curing meat, I've wanted to try it, and this pig was just the opportunity I needed to do so.

And so I did. I (mostly) used Kate's instructions (the meat stayed in the cure a little longer and then, I never moved it out of the fridge) with some additional guidance from this website.



The final product is delicious. It tastes a little like bacon, but not exactly. It's more delicate, like the difference between a slow-cooked meat that falls off the bone and one that was roasted and sliced. Both are very good.

We used the guanciale to make the traditional Spaghetti a la carbonara. It was an easy dish to prepare, but was a little daunting for someone who's never done it, and it did turn out just as creamy as it's supposed to, which was a real treat for me.

Like with most things, for me, once I've stepped over that fear line and actually accomplished the task, I'm eager to move forward and conquer other, similar, feats. Now, I'm very excited about the idea of making cured sausage, and I can see all manner of sausage links hanging in the vaulted ceiling in my hallway.

We're planning a Sunday brunch that will include the guanciale ... and eggs from our chickens ... and maybe we'll toast a couple of those English muffins we picked up from a local bakery.

I'm incredibly thankful for the amazing network of people who have expanded my food repertoire, palette and culinary skill. Our local foods diet would not be as tasty without the carefully raised ingredients and the diversity of preparation options.

And I feel incredibly blessed that I'm able to offer my family wholesome, healthful foods and entrees that are completely new, even to me.