Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hackschooling

I love TED talks. They are always so inspirational, and this young man (he's thirteen) is no exception. Funny that he's figured it out - already. The question what do you want to "be"? is not the same as what do you want to "do"?

Check out Logan LePlante on what we should really be teaching.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

When Given the Choice, They Decided Eggs.

It's a pretty well-known fact that as the days get shorter and colder, chickens don't lay as much. Older chickens, too, tend to lay a lot less than younger chickens.

As the year waned, sometime after Halloween, before our pullets were old enough to lay, we were only getting one egg a day or so. By Thanksgiving, we were down to, maybe, three eggs per week. By Christmas, we were no longer eating eggs.

Every time Deus Ex Machina goes out to check on the chickens, he will remind them, Eggs or Legs, ladies!

It feels like it must have started slowly, but here we are, almost in March, and for the first time in a very long time, I can say, with appreciation and joy, we have a glut of eggs!

And we've been eating them. A few nights ago, I made a quiche and an apple-puff pancake, which is an egg-based baked apple treat. Tonight we had crepes (four eggs for the batter). Deus Ex Machina and I stuffed ours with an egg, pepperoni and cheese scramble, and the girls stuffed theirs with fruit and topped with sweetened, whipped cream.

It's wonderful to have eggs, and we're very thankful to our chickens who, in spite of the several back-to-back snowstorms (and threats of bodily harm), have opted to give us this little treat.

We are truly thankful ... and completely sated.

Monday, February 25, 2013

And the next day ...



Today's temperatures are predicted to be in the 40's, which means this will, probably, be gone by noon. Pity, as it's so pretty ... but look at that blue sky!

I should hang out some laundry!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Winter Storms and the Economy

Deus Ex Machina and I are having a debate - well, not really a debate, per se, but I asked him the question, and I'm asking all of you now - do winter storms have a negative affect the economy?

What do you think?

Snowy Daze

Precious and Little Fire Faery were invited to a sleepover. A snowstorm was predicted with an appreciable accumulation forecast. We decided not to believe the reports and allowed them to stay all night at their friend's house.

It was probably not the wisest of moves on our part, as the snowstorm happened - pretty much as predicted - and the drive out to pick them up from the party was a bit harrowing. We were nearly sideswiped by a huge municipal plow (Dude! Seriously! We get it - just doing your job, and frankly, I would have stayed home had I not had to get my daughters, but can't you share the road - a little?), and then, a guy who failed to yield nearly caused us to spin off the road in the traffic circle.

I am very happy to be home, safe, where we can watch the snow from the warmth and security of our little suburban home.





Thursday, February 21, 2013

Big Things in Small Spaces

When I talk about what's possible - not what I have, personally, accomplished, but what's possible -, I'm often met with blank stares or with an it can't be done attitude. Sometimes, it's just a really good thing that I'm pretty stubborn, or that I have this weird little personality quirk that forces me to try to prove wrong the naysayers.

But it's not even a life-or-death scenario, or even the difference between poverty and properity, for me (yet), because I still live in the richest nation in the world in a little suburb in a fairly affluent community, and Deus Ex Machina and I still have jobs that pay pretty well, and so even if my experiments in growing food fail, we'll still eat (for now).

The same can not be said for some of India's farmers - especially those who live in extremely impoverished areas and depend on their crops, not only for their families' sustenance, but also for their livelihood.

And what they can do on 2.5 acres of land without high yield GMO seed is pretty remarkable.

Contrary to what those seed companies want us to believe, we don't need to change the seeds and make them better to feed the world. In fact, using those seeds and other chemical inputs have caused devastating losses to Indian farmers and have certainly caused more harm than good.

The bottom line is that we don't need better seed. What we need is different techniques. In short, we need to change the way we grow things.

And that's exactly what several farmers in India's poorest region are doing, and the result is an enormous rice harvest - over 22 tonnes - on a piece of land that is a mere 2 and a half acres (1 hectare).

I think it's incredible news, and I'm so excited, because if they can grow 22 tonnes of food - enough to lift themselves out of poverty and significantly improve their lives - then, just maybe, those of us who are stuck on postage stamp-sized lots in the suburbs still have a fighting chance of growing enough food to feed ourselves.

We tapped our maples the other day. We have ten of them on our property and another five in our neighbors' yards. We've decided to expand our sugaring operation this year by adding five more taps, which will give us a total of twenty (we haven't put in the other five, yet, but will do that this weekend). Depending on the year, we harvest around a gallon of syrup for every three to five buckets. If we have a good year, we might get seven gallons of maple syrup.

Seven gallons ... of syrup.

We're not ever going to be a commercial operation, but if we put that into dollars at the current cost per gallon of maple syrup, our seven gallons is worth over $500.

We'll be sugaring for the next few weeks, and after that, it will be time to plant the peas ... and our chicken order is ready to submit (we're ordering 40 cornish X for meat chickens and four new laying hens) ... and as soon as we harvest the bunnies, we'll be planting in the greenhouse.

More isn't always better. Sometimes it's just more, and when it comes to land, more land doesn't necessarily mean security. As the farmers in India have shown, sometimes it's not the size that matters, but what one does with it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Schooling a New Generation

I'm very fortunate (and very grateful) to be part of a thriving and active homeschool community. I'm very fortunate (and thankful) that I am given the opportunity to serve a very active role in that community, and not just as a parent/educational facilitator to my children, but also as a teacher.

I knew very early in my educational career that I would go to college, and almost as soon as I got to high school, I knew I would be majoring in English. I had lots of ideas about what I would do with that English degree, but at some point, I knew that what I wanted to do was teach ... and when I finally landed in a classroom, I found that I was very good at it. I loved my subject matter, and I was complimented - on more than one occasion - for how well I knew my stuff (literature/language). To say I was passionate about English would be understating things a bit.

Unfortunately, for me, the other stuff required of good teachers (classroom discipline, in particular), I was not so good at, and it didn't take long for me to realize that my passion for my subject was not enough. I could engage one or two classes for the 50 minute learning blocks, but to keep that level of energy up for six different classes five days a week for 180 days of the school year just wasn't possible for me.

Which makes it pretty awesome that I'm able to, now, find myself back in the teaching mode, and I love it. Teaching classes to homeschoolers is nothing like teaching in the public schools, in particular, because all of the kids want to be in my class, and so they will, by virtue of a built-in interest, not need discipline, and also because the classes are much smaller (eight students versus twenty), which is a lot easier to manage.

Even better is the fact that, unlike teaching in the public schools, I don't have to limit my class topics to what I "trained" to do. That is, I can (and have and do) teach English-type subjects, including: composition, poetry, creative writing, and literature. What's even better about being afforded the opportunity to teach these classes, though is that I can tailor them, and instead of just a general literature-based class in which I teach a core curriculum that is determined by the textbook my school system opted to buy, I am completely free to choose some out-of-the-ordinary topic and teach a class on that.

Last spring, I taught a literature class entitled Dystopian Futures in Literature. The reading list included books like The Hunger Games (Book 1), Among the Hidden (Shadow Children #1), and Oryx and Crake. None of the books I chose for the class were "classics", but they were all great stories with fantastic writing and truly horrible potential futures. As part of the class, we explored the unsettling fact that too many of those dystopian futures could too easily happen in our world, if we aren't very careful.

Right now, I'm teaching a class called World Without Oil, and it's based on an Independent Lens project from 2007 in which a very large group of people played along with the scenario that world oil production had suddenly decreased by 5% - like overnight - causing fuel prices to jump. What's kind of freaky about the class is that too many of the scenarios these people are imagining and discussing in their blogs and videos are really, really happening right now. The project took place before the 2008 housing bubble burst, before the current recession and before $94/barrel oil became a daily reality.

Today my students and I discussed future jobs for them, because they are young, and we are entering a world where we simply won't have as much energy to burn as we had when I was a teenager. The fact is that the EROEI on oil is 15:1 as of 2005 and the EROEI for wind is 18:1 (as per the figures in Rob Deitz new book Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources), but no one is investing in wind energy ... and even if they were, the cost of energy, in general, compared to the return on the investment is more than twice as high now as it was when I was a kid. For me and my contemporaries, the sky was the limit. For these kids - not as much.

Even more remarkable than my being able to be a teacher in the homeschool community is the fact that my teenaged daughter can also be a teacher. For homeschoolers it's not about credentials, but about experience. My teenaged daughter has been an avid aquarist for the past several years, and not only have I been completely hands-off when it comes to her fish, but I find myself asking her to help her younger sister who has developed an interest in fishkeeping as well. My teen currently has three tanks, all of which she has decorated, stocked and maintains without any help or advice from me or Deus Ex Machina. There's something to be said for passion and a willingness to research for the answers one needs.

She has planned a class on setting up and maintaining a healthy aquascape for fish, written the syllabus, and is now taking students. She's pretty remarkable. Did I mention she also teaches intro-level dance classes?

It might be true that not everyone can do what I have done with my daughters' educations. It might be true that not everyone can homeschool, or even should, but what is definitely true is that our kids are going to need more than the kind of education we had, because the sky is not the limit for them, like it was for me, and they are going to have to be much better trained and/or a lot more creative if they hope to have anything close to the kind of lifestyle we've raised them to expect.

Personally, I'm very excited for my daughter. She's building a skill set that's pretty remarkable and could turn into something really amazing, and I'm pretty excited to see where it all takes her.

Friday, February 15, 2013

How Do You Spell Spring?

We spell it m-a-p-l-e s-y-r-u-p.

We put in three of our fifteen taps today. The rest will go in this weekend. The sap is flowing!

Prepare to Thrive

I just received my copy of the March/April edition of Back Home magazine. There's a lot of great information (including a really cool how-to article on building a pallet garden) and an article entitled "Preparedness and the Less Traveled Road" featuring ... me!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Teaching Babies to Read Doesn't Make Them Smarter

In the US, we spend more money on education than any other developed nation in the world - an average of $7700 per child. No country in the world spends more on education than we do.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. *Attributed to Albert Einstein

The problem is for all of the money we spend on education, we're not really seeing the kind of results one would expect to see. We spend more money than any other country, but we don't have a superior education. In fact, the opposite really does seem to be true, and rather than being significantly more educated, we fall far below many countries that spend two-thirds what we spent. Unfortunately, the usual response from our leaders is to spend more money on education.

In fact, it seems that our President plans to increase educational spending in an area that has shown to be very ineffective. The plan is to increase spending for preschool care, but in a study that asked the question, "Does Universal Preschool Improve Learning?" the answer was no. The study found that "More than a decade after offering students universal preschool, neither Georgia nor Oklahoma has shown impressive progress in student academic achievement ...."

And so we go back to Einstein's quote, and the fact that our educational system - indeed most of the government-run institutions in this country - has become an exercise in insanity, where we keep doing the same things, offering the same sorts of curriculum opportunities (which more and more encourage memorization over any real learning) with no results and more money spent trying to make the results look different than they really are.

I wonder, if our Administration would put those extra dollars into funding higher education opportunities - State-sponsored college educations, free vocational/technical training, and sponsored internships - rather than forcing kids into institutionalized learning at younger and younger ages, how much better things would become?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

We Didn't Lose Nemo

The National Weather Service has started naming winter storms. The one that is still speaking to us here in the Northeast is named Nemo, and as to be expected, Facebook is lit up with pictures of Nemo, the Pixar clown fish, with captions like, Just keep shoveling!

It has turned out to be a pretty large snowstorm with pretty strong gusts. The snow is the feathery light stuff, which makes it easier to shovel ... except that the wind keeps blowing it all over the place, and so we don't know if it's still snowing or if it's just the wind blowing the snow.

Either way, we don't ever recall being quite so buried with only one storm. This is the first time, ever, that I can remember looking at the road outside and nothing - not.one.car - passed for more than a minute. Even in the wee hours of the night, I've seen more traffic than I see today.

Not complaining, mind you. I'm actually quite thankful. We have a warm house, thanks to the woodstove. The animals in the backyard are safe in their sturdy enclosures (although the opened side of the rabbit's hutches are filled with windblown snow). The beehive was, quite literally, buried. We could only see a corner. That could be a good thing - as the snow may have provided some insulation against the cold wind.

We have plenty of everything we might need. The food is abundant, and we have multiple ways to cook it. We'll roast a chicken for dinner tonight.

If we lose power, we have oil lamps and candles, a plenty, and we have ways to power laptops, if we really need or want them.

We'll be fine while the storm rages, and even if we had to spend a few days snowed in, we'd be fine.

Actually, it's a nice change of pace.

That little black speck in the fore ground of the photo is the roof of the beehive

Deus Ex Machina's car is buried under that drift.

We, literally, had to dig to get out of the house.

By the way, I will admit to running out to the store in advance of the storm to pick-up some stuff, but what I brought home was probably not the usual storm supplies.

I stopped at the hardware store for paint. I figured if we were going to be snowbound for a day or two, we could take that time to do a project we're usually too busy to accomplish ...

... which gives me one more reason to be thankful for this forced hibernation.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Are You Tapping?

If you're thinking you might like to tap some maple trees this year, but just can't invest in the equipment, Deus Ex Machina is sponsoring a giveaway on his blog.

Joe at TapMyTrees.com, for the second year in a row, is offering a starter kit. Enter to win at Mooseboots.com

You don't have to have sugar maples to tap, either. Any maple will work. In fact, we don't have any sugar maples, at all, and we have managed to make real maple syrup for many years with sap from our swamp maples.

Go over to Mooseboots and enter the giveaway.

Everyone needs a little sweetness in his life ;).

Monday, February 4, 2013

Poverty - Perception is Everything

I read an article about the poverty in Appalachia the other day and thought it was funny that they said the homes (in the 1960s) didn't have "plumbing or sanitation." Say what?

My grandmother kept a very neat house. She didn't have an indoor toilet, but no one, who visited her home, would ever have called her house "unsanitary." In fact, my house is probably a good deal less sanitary than hers, and I have both indoor plumbing AND sanitation. The fact that I have dogs and cats (nasty, dirty critters) living inside my house would have disgusted her.

It annoys me - a lot - when the media tries to spin the poverty issue as if it is a disease that needs to be eradicted. People who don't have money aren't sick, and funneling more money into the system does not make things better for the people the system is supposed to be helping. The more money we spend to fix poverty, the more cumbersome the system becomes, and the more money it takes just to administer the programs. It costs more money to pay for all of the people to do the paperwork than we actually give to the people who get the money. It's become a great, big, huge, unwieldy system that is going to buckle under its own weight, and the people who will get crushed are the people who are always crushed - the ones it is supposed to help.

Poverty happens when a small percentage of people claim ownership of things they have no business owning, and then, charge others for the use of those things. When one has to pay for such basic, necessary items like food, shelter, and water, one must have money, and if one can not afford those things, then, one's quality of life is degraded.

But poverty isn't about not having money, it's about not being able to provide for one's own needs, because someone has taken that freedom away.

The sun is out. It's not warm, because it's winter, but there's a brisk breeze and it's sunny. It's a perfect day for line-drying clothes. I was thinking about that article I read, and about how we no longer have a clothesdryer, and I mentioned to Deus Ex Machina that it was funny, because some time ago, I had some neighbors who did not have a clothesdryer - not because they chose not to have one, but because they were unable to afford to buy one - and I can remember that I considered offering to allow them to "borrow" mine. I think I actually felt some pity for them, because they had to hang their clothes on the line to dry - like that was just some incredible hardship. Maybe not exactly the same thing, but it reminded me of the time that a very well-meaning acquaintance found out we don't have a television and offered to take up a collection to buy us one. I'm certain there were deep feelings of pity involved in her offer. She thought she was doing us a favor, and it was a very kind, but unwelcome, gesture.

We have these crazy notions about what's necessary for quality of life, and among those things are some real non-essentials, like televisions and clothesdryers. I have neither, now, and I don't feel that my quality of life is diminished at all.

Mind you, this post is not me feeling superior to those people who do want those things, but rather a simple musing out loud about the difference between being poor and feeling poor. I wonder how many of the people who lived in Applachia, largely ignored by the industrializing world until the old growth trees were coveted and then, the coal supplies were discovered, would have considered themselves impoverished. Certainly, they had little money, but they probabaly had a warm cabin, and plenty of food, and lots of time for making music and communing with friends and family.

I wonder if we will ever get to a point where we feel sorry for people who are forced to use clothesdryers because they don't have the space (no yard) or time to hang their clothes out where the sun can carress and sanitize the fabric and the wind can whip the moisture out of the cloth.