Monday, March 31, 2014

Honey

We opened the yellow hive. The bee colony did not survive. It looks like they froze. They definitely did not starve.


We took a lot of the honey - more than we would have taken if the colony had survived, but less than was there. We left a lot in the hive, hoping one of the other two of our hives survived and the bees in those hives will find the honey and take it.

If the other hives made it - we have more hope for the swarm Deus Ex Machina caught at our friend's house at the beginning of the summer, but it would be very cool if the swarm we caught in our apple tree in July survives - then we're more sure that the reason the bees haven't done so well - to date - has to do with acclimation. Both of the swarms were acclimatized to Maine, to our climate. The bees in the yellow hive were not (and were a package we purchased that originated down south somewhere).

We're incredibly thankful for the gift of the honey, and at the same time, terribly sad that the bees didn't survive our crazy winter.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Greenhouse

I went into the greenhouse yesterday morning. The soil in the various planters that are in there is warm and dry - not frozen. That's a good sign that as soon as my seedlings start coming up, they're going outside in the greenhouse.

This will be my first year really using the greenhouse for season extension (with a definite plan to keep the chickens OUT!). I can not wait to be eating my own greens.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Eggs

The one on the left is our first duck egg of the season.

Once it gets warm enough, my goal is to give the ducks their own space - away from the chickens - and maybe our breeding trio will make some ducklings.

*That* would be so incredible!


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Literacy Depends Wholly on Access - Not to Education, but to Books

I'm an author, and so, naturally, I want to see more people reading books - the paper kind - and I definitely want to see the bookstore industry (especially Indie bookstores) and the publishing industry flourishing. It's how I want to make a living - writing books - and my career goals are definitely dependent on the success of those industries.

But I also think that, as much as I love technology and as much as I do spend a lot of time on my computer on the Internet, paper books, bookstores, and libraries are incredibly important - especially as the world's economy expands and contracts - kind of like a slinky (remember those?). If we put all of our proverbial eggs in the basket that is dependent on our ability to generate some power to make those eggs work, we might be in a really bad place in ten or fifteen years.

We might not.

But we might.

I strongly, very strongly encourage everyone to build a library at home, because books don't need batteries to work. Not ever.

We live in a world of decreasing knowledge. The Maine DOE recently published its most recent standardized test results. Just over half the seventh grade students tested (54%) were proficient in reading. Fifty-four percent. That means four out of ten kids in our public schools are NOT proficient in reading. The United States spends more money on education than any other country in the world. You would think that we would have the best literacy rates. A Wikipedia article (to which I will not link, because the information is inaccurate) states that the US has a 99% literacy rate, which can't be true, because according to this Huffingpost article, 32 million adult Americans can not read. That would make our literacy rate a bit lower than the 99% of Americans older than 15 cited by the Wikipedia article.

The answer, unfortunately, is nothing that the schools are doing. Teaching more sight words at earlier ages is not going to improve reading (and in fact, even with all of the huge changes in education over the last decade, according to the above referenced Huffington Post article, literacy rates have not improved). More reading drills and rote exercises are not going to get kids to pick up a book. I spoke with a man, a local small business owner, in fact, who admitted that he didn't read. Not that he couldn't, but that he had not picked up a book in more than a decade.

Not.

one.

book.

I can't imagine a life that doesn't include reading - for pleasure and information. I'm currently reading Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver and No Time to Lose: A Live in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses by Peter Piot. No one told me to read these books. I'm not getting paid or graded to read them. I'm reading them, because I like reading. But, also because, through reading, I am both entertained, and enlightened. The latter of the two books I am currently enjoying is a very valuable book, because knowing more about infectious diseases (and especially those who study them) can be very useful. At very least, I can have some pretty interesting conversations ;).

What will improve reading and improve our country's overall literacy is access to books - lots of books on many different topics, and that means we need MORE bookstores (and libraries) - places where people can go and get lost in the words, discover new worlds, learn, explore, and dream.

Thankfully, there are some people who can actually do something about it who agree. James Patterson is quoted as saying “I’m rich; I don’t need to sell more books. But I do think it’s essential for kids to read more broadly. And people just need to go into bookstores more.” And to ensure that kids have those bookstores, he's donating grant funds (a million dollars, in fact) to several Indie bookstores across the country.

This is such an exciting project - for me - as a bibliophile and an author.

We need books, because in our world of decreasing knowledge, in a world where we just don't know how to do things like our ancestors did, and in a world where we are going to need that knowledge so that our children and their children can have it, the only way to recapture it is to read about it in books.

Bravo to you, Mr. Patterson! May your generosity be rewarded many times over!

Search Words

I was looking at my stats, which is not something I do very often (maybe I should). I've read other bloggers who talk about the kinds of search words that have led people to their blogs. Most of the ones I see are usually pretty closely related to what my blog is about, and so they're pretty boring - as far as searches go. You know, stuff about gardening or raising animals or homesteading and self-sufficiency. One would expect (hope) that such words would lead here. There are no crazy searches that make one wonder what on earth that person is trying to discover.

Well, usually.

This was a recent search string that brought someone to my blog: opressive suburban mothers.

I hope that person did not find, on my blog, what he/she was looking for ;).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Is This Reusing or Repurposing?

I've been fascinated by methane digesters for a very long time. There was even a point when I was, kind of, obsessed with them. In fact, I think in the kind of society in which we live, where we generate so much waste, that a methane digester is the BEST way to generate electricity. The fact is that using waste to make methane gas to boil water to run a turbine to make electricity is infinitely more efficient (methane is comparable to natural gas in the way that it can be used and burned) than any fossil fuels.

Methane is highly explosive and requires careful handling, and it smells horrible, but in a society with the millions of people we have who are generating so much waste, it just makes sense that we start closing that loop and start looking for ways to use those things that are, at the moment, just considered waste. In some cultures, there is no such thing as waste. Everything has a purpose. We'd really be doing ourselves a favor to adopt that attitude.

In New York City, a waste treatment facility is experimenting with providing electricity for homes using a methane digester. Area restaurants will be providing food scraps. It's a win/win for everyone. They're reducing the amount of food waste that ends up in landfills, reducing their dependence on unsustainable sources of electricity, and the end result of the process is, actually, compost, which could be used by urban gardeners to grow food ... that is served in the area restaurants ... that give their food wastes to the treatment facility ... that produces electricity ....

There are so very few examples of a truly closed-loop system in our society of consumerism and wanton waste. This one ... this one makes me smile.


**Edited to add: Little Homestead in Boise posted a comment about a Chinese family with a residential-sized methane digester, and in the years I've been looking at these, I've found a lot of examples of the same thing - here in the US. Several years ago, I actually found a company in India that was making residential-sized digesters (not sure what happened to them).

It is definitely time to start looking more seriously at this kind of thing for use in the developing world. I mean, just because we (think we) have access to unlimited cheap resources is no reason to use them with abandon. Even when my chickens are laying like crazy, I don't waste eggs. In fact, I freeze eggs to use later when the chickens aren't being so generous.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Remodel

As a homeschooler and a WAHM, I spend a lot of time in my house. The truth is that, over the mearly two decades that we've lived here, we've grown into and out of our house. We started with bare walls and almost no furniture to fill the many rooms, and the house was just slightly bigger than we needed for the four of us and our twice-a-year houseguest.

Then, we added two more children, and our twice a year house guest became a permanent resident, and here we are, in a house that was just only barely slightly too big for four, almost bursting with seven (and, in fact, the ancient, made-for-two-people, septic system did burst under the pressure of serving seven full-time residents with a dishwasher and a washing machine - both of which were in pretty constant use).

We started with too little furniture and too small of a budget to furnish the house, and what happened over the many years was that we ended up filling the space with, mostly, found or donated or second-hand furniture, none of which was ever pre-considered or thoughtfully acquired. It was more like we answered an ad on Freecycle for a rocking chair, the color of which never matches what we already have. We bought a desk at a yard sale. We needed more bookshelves and bought unfinished ones (which we've never finished), or we cobbled some together using old fence pieces.

The result is this mish-mash of stuff that doesn't quite go together, and often, doesn't quite fit in the space we have, because our house is incredibly unique in its construction. Nothing is level, nothing is square, and nothing ... NOthing ... is a standard size - not even our counters in the kitchen, which means, even if we wanted it, we couldn't have an under-the-counter dishwasher installed without ripping out the entire counter and cabinets (including the sink) and rebuilding the whole thing.

I'm not complaining, just explaining, because every now and again, I look at pictures of kitchens, like these, and I think how much I could see myself in any of them. I know most of the designs wouldn't really work in my kitchen, because of the size and shape, but they're pretty cool to look at, and every now and then, I do get inspired to do some quirky things.

I love my shelf of jars ...


... and my chalkboards.


The longer we live here, the more of these, little, eclectic touches we add, the more this house becomes ours.

Still, there are things we need the house to be that it's not. We have a lot of projects, a lot of things we're trying to learn and do that we just don't have the space for. With no easily accessible attic space, no garage, no basement, and no shed, everything we're doing is right out. Piles of soon-to-be-upcycled clothes, bags of raw dog fur, pieces of wood to be carved or "burned out" for bowls or spoons, brewing supplies, batches of wine and beer and vinegar, and canning jars and equipment all sit in wide-open spaces with no cabinet or closet or out-of-the-way, but easily-accessible place to store them. People may wonder that I rarely decorate for holidays, but the fact is that I simply don't have a place to put those ornaments when they are not in use, and in fact, the box of Christmas tree decorations is still sitting in my office - with no place else for it to go. It makes our house look incredibly cluttered and messy, which is hard to live with - especially for Deus Ex Machina who is inclined toward austerity, and me, who needs things, at least, orderly to be most productive.

We also don't make the best use of the space that we have. Like the very deep pantry cabinet that we have might be better used for storing things we don't often use than for food storage, and the more shallow shelves we have might be a better place for food - so that nothing gets lost in the back of a dark cabinet, which happens. We're working on rearranging things, a little at a time to see how it works, but the transition is incredibly messy and cumbersome.

There are also some structural issues with the house. Without going too much into things, we do need a new roof, and we've decided that we don't just need to resurface what we have (been there, done that ... x3!), but rather, we need to have the entire roof ripped off and an entirely new roof put back on. The hope is that with the new roof, we can add some much needed storage area. Oh, and wouldn't it be wonderful to have some stairs - not a pull down ladder or a tiny, claustrophobia-inducing hatch - to access the area? It wouldn't even have to be a place where I could stand upright, or even something finished, but if I could just get up to it, with my hands full of canning jars or brewing equipment, and not be afraid of falling.

Last weekend, I spoke with my neighbor, who is a few years older than I am. She and her husband have been doing extensive renovations to their home. She said that when she talked with the contractor about what she wanted her house to be, he argued with her, stating that her design would compromise the resale value. She just smiled, and, basically, told him, it's *her* house, and she's planning to live there until she dies, which may include some period of time during which she is wheelchair bound. Her house plan is designed with that eventuality in mind.

It made a lot of sense to me, and it's been in the back of my head for a long time. We've hesitated to make some of the more radical changes that I would like to our house - changes that would make the house work better for the way we want to live - because we were concerned about resale value.

But the bottom line is that most people (clearly, not us), move into a house and start ripping things up and painting walls and making it theirs. We never intended to stay in this house, and seventeen years later, we're still thinking about moving, and so we hesitate.

This roof re-do is a huge project. One of the contractors even asked, in the nicest way possible, if moving were an option. I laughed and told him that the roof really did need to be fixed, and either we could fix it or the next person, but it had to be done. If it's financially prudent, it will be done, and then, this house is ours, and a lot of other things will be changing as well.

And if we end up moving, I swear that I won't take seventeen years to make my new home work for me and the way I wish to live my life.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Everybody Wants a Dollar

I've been spending a lot of time on Facebook recently. I was a hold out for a long time. I had no interest in Facebook. I had a blog. I liked my blog. I liked other people's blogs that I used to read regularly. I like the people who comment on my blog and follow my blog. I loved the interaction. I didn't know anything about Facebook - at that time - but I was happy where I was, and I didn't see any reason to change.

And, then, I had a book published, and someone told me that being on Facebook would be a good way to promote my book. So, reluctantly, I threw my proverbial hat into the ring and joined the throng of other users.

Facebook is like some weird morph of a forum and a blog - but it's neither, too, because a forum is completely public. I can control who sees what I post, and if I post something on my Facebook page, and I don't like someone's response, I can (I haven't, but there's the possibility) ban or block them. With a forum, there isn't that freedom - at least not for the average user (sometimes moderators have the power of delete).

A blog is like a personal magazine. It is one "owner" who publishes articles, and while there can be feedback (and most bloggers welcome that feedback and absolutely LOVE comments - in fact, it's those comments that keep most of us blogging), there doesn't have to be. The key difference between blogging and Facebook is the length of the entry (at least that used to be true, but Facebook now allows longer posts and added a "note" feature, which is cumbersome and awkward to use, in my opinion), and I have never considered my Facebook page to be a blog. I have had someone say to me, "You blog a lot", and I'm pretty sure she meant that I post a lot of stuff on Facebook, because I'm pretty sure that person has never seen my blog.

Recently, Facebook has started making some changes. It started out as a free service to users and is/was a huge hit. They've linked millions of people together and allowed us to find people we hadn't seen in years. I reconnected with my very best friends in both junior high school and high school with whom I'd lost contact, because I moved, and it wasn't important enough to either of us to write letters and keep the friendship alive. Things had moved on. We'd moved in different directions. Along comes Facebook, and we're back in contact ... long enough to say hello. They're still my "friends" - on Facebook - but we rarely, if ever, talk.

There are people I've met via the Internet - this blog and Facebook - that I don't know in person. I feel very close to many of these people, and while it's possible that we're in a Brad Paisley song, as I've been honest about my lifestyle, I believe they have been, also. So, yes, I do feel like I know them, and I don't think they'd be surprised or disappointed by anything they found were they to show up on my door ... except, maybe, I might be a bit wigged out if someone were to just "show up" - just FYI if you're planning a road trip here. You should probably email me first ... or something.

From the beginning, Facebook has been earning its money by advertising - much the same way that local, small town newspapers earn money. I've been on the Internet for a very long time, and during that time, I've attempted a few commercial websites. I've even solicited advertisers for those websites, and I know that businesses are very willing to pay a lot of money to get their business seen by people who use the Internet (which is why I've never gotten any advertisers - except Amazon, and "affiliate links" isn't the same as paid advertisers ;)).

According to this article, Facebook is preparing to make some changes to how they allow people to do business on their social media site. Right now, many Facebook users post comments and observations and opinions on Facebook as a "page". For many bloggers, who've always been careful about sharing very personal info (like family member's names, for instance), there is a need to separate their public personas from their personal profiles - where they might be linked to young friends or family members whose identities they want to protect. Business pages on Facebook don't link content in the same way that Facebook links and shares information on our personal pages.

I have more control over who sees what on my personal page than I do on my "business page", but in the strict sense of the word, the Surviving the Suburbs Facebook page is not a "business" page. I don't make any money from my Facebook page, and I don't make any money on my blog. It's kind of funny that Facebook, now, wants me to pay to "boost" my posts so that those people who have liked Surviving the Suburbs (presumably so that they can keep up with what I'm posting) will see what I post.

It will be interesting to see what happens with this new turn of events.

And I've been thinking I should really pay more attention to my blog, anyway.



**For the record, I'm not complaining about Facebook, and I'm not criticizing them. It's a free service (at the moment), and the platform they offer is pretty impressive. If I'm not happy with the way they do things, I'm completely free to leave. They'll still have my information, which they've been data-mining since I joined in 2011, but they won't get any new data about me (and we humans are very dynamic and ever changing ;)).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

100 Items

One of my favorite recurring themes on my blog is to publish a link to this site - the 100 Items to Disappear First. I found the list some very long time ago (at least in terms of blog years - it was probably only five or six years ago in terms of people years), and I've used it over the years to assess my own preparedness.

I like the list, not because I'm going to stockpile all of the things on the list. In fact, I have very few of the items on the list (like, I won't have #8 can openers or #19 baby items, because I don't have any babies and not likely to, and I don't buy cans and therefore have no need for can openers - although I do have a can opener, and I also have a military issue P38, which I can use to open a can in a pinch) as stockpile items ... although I guess I don't really have a stockpile anyway.

The list is someone's compilation of things they saw disappear when supply lines were no longer running. In this case, I think it was the Sarajevo war, and yes, many civilians were trapped behind the lines of fighting, and no, they didn't have access to basic grocery items (for instance) that the rest of us take for granted.

I don't ever plan to stockpile anyway, really, because I think, these are the first items to "disappear", which means they'll be things that we'll use up ... first ... and if there is no way to replenish our supply, even if we have a BIG supply, then having those things, might not be too beneficial over the long run.

What I do find the list incredibly useful for is my personal skill preparedness. I don't plan to stockpile items, but I do look at the list with an eye for how I could make those items for myself.

For instance, #21 and #23 are cookstoves and propane. We, absolutely, do need to cook. Some things can not be eaten raw. Instead of cookstoves and propane, however, we have a rocket stove and a woodstove. The rocket stove uses only a small amount of fuel. I've also talked before about using a candle for cooking, and it can be done. And a "candle" doesn't have to be a wick encased in wax. We've made oil lamps using a wicking material and plain vegetable oil in a mason jar, and in her book, "Gone with the Wind", Margaret Mitchell describes the southerners using a rag soaked in bacon grease (for light, but placed under a cooking vessel, the flame could be used for heating up stuff, too).

The list is interesting and useful, but I think the most important part of list is the eight points at the end. In particular #7, because I think, when people are thinking about what they might need in a lower energy future, they forget that it's not just going to be "survival." We will be living - just not as fancy as we are right now - and people will still want to feel good.

My one guilty pleasure is nail polish. I wouldn't trade food for the privilege of having painted toenails, but I do buy the occasional bottle (purple is my favorite color), and I do enjoy painting my toenails. I guess if I'm stockpiling anything, it's nail polish, and while times are good, I have pretty toes. If that changes and times aren't so good, you can bet your socks, that nail polish will be a barter item.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Gratitude for Eggs

With the increased sun, our chickens are starting to ramp up their egg laying. We have fourteen hens, at least half of whom are older than three years. They have been giving us an average of five eggs, per day, for the past several weeks.

Deus Ex Machina remarked the other day that we had no idea how much eggs at the grocery store are going for. We got our first three hens in 2006, and, for the most part, we haven't bought eggs since they turned our yard into a farm.


Please note that the "last week" number is actually three weeks ago. The intention was to erase the number and add up each week's totals, but the totals are transferred to Deus Ex Machina's spreadsheet, and I wanted to be sure he'd recorded the numbers before I erase them :).

The chicken's increase in egg production means spring is here, which means planting is right around the corner. I've already got a bit of a head start, and it's really, REALLY hard not to go whole hog (and probably lose most of it, because I got too eager).

That said, while I didn't (officially) join Jenna's Snap Pea Challenge, I'll be putting some peas in a pot in my sunny bedroom window. I'm looking forward to some fresh, green pea shoots ... and maybe I'll try out her sandwich recipe - only with pea shoots instead of spinach.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Giving Them What They Want

This morning Precious opened the kitchen pantry cabinet looking for something. Not finding what she wanted, she says, "Next time you go to the grocery store, can you get some cereal?"

Occasionally, we buy boxed cereal in the health food aisle. We stopped buying the stuff in the regular cereal aisle a very long time ago, and unfortunately, the healthy stuff has a lot fewer choices of manufacturer and flavor. My girls' favorite is some cinnamon biscuit kind of thing. Personally, I don't like cereal, and I don't eat it. As such, I never remember what it's called until I see the box in the grocery store, and yes, I do hate it when they change the package design, because then, I can't find what I'm looking for.

The cereal is incredibly expensive, and even though the box says "organic" blah, blah, it's still a packaged convenience food, and too often the companies that make the "organic" foods are owned by the same guys that bring us the chemical-laden, sugar-coated delights that line the regular cereal aisle. Who knows if what I'm paying for is what I'm getting.

So, I just prefer not to buy it, but then, there are days, when my girls want ... something. Like today. Precious wanted cereal, but we don't have any.

I have a pretty well-stocked pantry with a huge variety of stuff to eat - most of which requires some preparation. I knew I had all of the fixings for granola, and so that's what I made. My daughter wanted cereal, and while I couldn't give her the cinnamon crunch stuff she wanted, I could give her the texture experience.

The recipe is very simple:

1/2 c butter, softened
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c syrup (I used our maple syrup)
vanilla extract (or I used almond, which adds a different depth of flavor)
3 1/2 c oats
optional: 1/4 c chocolate chips or nuts or fruit

Mix butter and sugars. Add vanilla. Mix. Add oats. Mix. Add optional. Mix. Put on a cookie sheet and bake at 350° until it's lightly browned.

Some recipes call for eggs, too, which might help bind it all together better if one is hoping for bars.

This morning's granola was going to be used, specifically, for cereal, and the plan was to crumble in a bowl and add milk. On cold mornings, we even add warm milk for a crunchy, warm, hearty meal.

It may not have been exactly what my daughter wanted, but in my opinion, it's better (probably healthier) than the pre-packaged stuff in the store, and it's significantly cheaper.

Now, if I could just be organized enough to always have it on hand ... :).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Honored

Browsing Nature's Aisles: a Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs has been nominated for Fore Word Reviews Book of the Year award in the nature category.

It would be impossible to even begin to emphasize how huge this is for me and Deus Ex Machina. We're honored, and humbled, by this recognition of our project ... and we're incredibly excited to start our spring foraging :).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sap Update

So, it's been crazy weather, and while we've gotten some sap, we haven't gotten enough yet to do a full boil. We've been keeping the sap in our 55 gallon storage container until we get enough. To make it worth the work, we usually try to have about 30 gallons of sap when we start the boil.

Looks like we'll be getting more of the kinds of temperatures we need for sap flow this week, and we may start our first boil Sunday ... unless something else unexpected crops up ... like more snow ;).

It's been a crazy late winter.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Spring Reading List Inclusion

Browsing Nature's Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs, the book Deus Ex Machina and I co-wrote about our adventures with learning to incorporate foraged foods into our regular diet, was listed on Food Tank's Spring Reading List.

I'm humbled and honored to have my book included in such an incredible list and on such an important website.