Monday, December 26, 2011

After the Christmas Rush

Christmas came and went yesterday, and it was lovely.  Both sets of parents joined us for the day and dinner, which was nice - it was an easygoing day.   The presents and the company were wonderful.  

But today was even better.  Aside from kitchen cleanup, which continued into today, and some laundry, we've done exactly...nothing.  Except read, eat when the mood strikes, and the adorable one and I both took naps.    

I really like the day after Christmas.  After all the rushing and wrapping, all the preparations are finished, and in our house the next big event (the adorable one's 3rd birthday) is almost two months away.  There are leftovers in the fridge, which means there's no need to cook.  There's no rush to take decorations down - they can stay for a few days, or weeks at this point, until the tree starts to shed needles at an alarming rate.  We can take our time finding homes for the presents.  All the holiday-preparatory house projects - this year painting the entryway and setting up a wall gallery of family photos up the stairs - are complete.  

The only thing pending is the furnace replacement in a little less than 2 weeks.  It's still working partially, and the wood stove is supplementing, so we haven't had to rush,  which is a relief.   My brother in law, who does that sort of thing for a living, a friend of his, and my husband will replace the furnace while the adorable one spend an early January weekend with my in-laws.  It should save us about half the cost of paying someone to do it.  

And I'm mostly on vacation, so more days like this are on the docket.   We'll do a few day trips - to the Aquarium, and Old Sturbridge Village, and probably to the local zoo, but otherwise, we've got no plans.  Which is the way it should be.   

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Holidays and an Update

Happy Holidays to all!  We're 9 days out from Christmas, and I'm getting close to ready.  All the shopping is done, some of the wrapping is complete, I'll be baking more this weekend, and the two families that we've done 'Christmas' for this year - both refugee families - are starting to recieve their warm clothes and supplies.  The first drop off was this morning, and I'll do the last one on Christmas eve morning.

I love the holiday season - the lights, the tree, the food.  Our turkey (local from Vermont) has been in the freezer since Thanksgiving - if you want a local turkey, you take them when it's butchering time - and there's one last pie pumpkin on a shelf in my kitchen awaiting it's fate as several pies and pumpkin bread.

I've been preparing a lot for 2012 this year - unemployment will run out soon for my husband, and so next year we'll do more cutting back.  Which is actually OK.   But I have done some preparing - clothes and birthday things for the adorable one for next year, buying our garden seeds early, stocking up before we let our big-box store membership expire, filling the freezer with local meats.

But some things you can't prepare for except to save and hope they don't occur, like a cracked furnace and replacement heating system, to the tune of $7k or so.  Apparently furnaces are not self-healing.  Who knew?

Well, OK, we did, we just didn't expect it 2 weeks before Christmas.  As I said to my husband "It's a good thing I bought your present yesterday, before we knew".  The response "Same for yours".

But it's all good.  We probably won't get as much renovation work on the house done as we hoped in 2012, but we'll have a huge garden. 

On an unrelated note, Christopher Hitchens died.  I adored his work, and I think I would have liked him.  He was the Archie Bunker of intellectuals - nothing was to sacred to examine, not Mother Theresa, not God, and certainly not himself.  The world is a little smaller without his caustic wit.  RIP.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Expanding our Family....Sorta

I've hesitated to post about all of this for myriad reasons - it involves other people who may not prefer to be blogged about, it might sound like I'm tooting my own horn, and it's not something I'm without mixed feelings about at times.  

But it seemed like a big thing to leave off the blog, and a good opportunity to plug a good charity, so here goes.

I seem to have acquired 4 kids over the last year.   Well, two, and then perhaps another two on the side.  And before you ask, no, we're not adopting or having quadruplets. 

In January of last year, one of the gentlemen that attends our church showed up one day with a new family.  A father, and 2 daughters, recently arrived from a refugee camp in Kenya by way of Ethiopia (at least for the father, the girls were born in the camp).  Now, just for a frame of reference, they got here in a period of record snowfall - there was about 5 feet on the ground on our lawn.  And they arrived with no winter gear, and light sneakers that wouldn't stand up to a single slush puddle.

Turns out Jim heads up the board of directors of R-I-M, the Refugee Immigration Ministry, and these were houseguests until an apartment could be found.  

So, I asked what winter  gear they needed, and Sander and I got them boots and winter hats, and the girls some clothes.  And then got a thank you note from their father.  And then we babysat the girls the day of the adorable one's 2nd birthday party so that their father could move them into their new apartment.

And the girls and my daughter fell head over for one another and were inseparable after that.
So we went from winter boots to almost extended family in a matter of months.   A little odd, even for me.  And that's saying something.

Then almost immediately after they moved into their own place, Jim took on another family - this time asylum seekers - a young mother, father, 2 year old daughter, and a baby on the way.

And of course, the 2 year old had nothing that fit, and since the Mom's maternity appointments were in Boston near where I work, I started providing rides home and a loan of maternity clothes.   And of course, the adorable one decided that their daughter and she should be BFFs.  Let it be noted that she doesn't take no for an answer, my child.  I don't quite know where she got that.  ;)

And then the baby was born, and there you have it.  Since the younger family is intact, they need mostly friendship and clothes for the kids.  The other family is a bit more complex -  and they have somehow become much more wrapped up in our lives, and we in theirs.  And they may become extended family in a truer sense - my sister the farmer needs a farm caretaker, and Dawit has both the veterinary and construction skills that fit.  He needs a home for his daughters, and some stability.  We're working through the details, and the adorable one and I recently took them out for a visit to NY.

Both families have lost everything in terrible ways.   The younger family fled for their lives during the civil war in Congo, and experienced horrible things - being human trafficked, spending last Christmas in a mexican jail, a 6-day march down a river - in the river- for 12 hours a day, holding their toddler daughter up on their shoulders to keep her from drowning.

The older girls lost their mother when she was beaten to death.  The younger one was 7 months old.   Their father has lost and lost again, almost too many things to list.  

It's always a mixed bag when you expand your lives to accommodate newcomers.  And here, there's culture and language and power issues.    There's a lot to bridge in a relationship like the ones we're engaging in - our inability to begin to comprehend what their lives have been like, the simplistic view of everyone in America as 'rich', the struggle to navigate a culture so dissimilar from their own, and the difficulty in starting over as adults in a place where their experience, education and frame of reference are seen as valueless.

We've made a commitment though, to help these 2 families through to success - to make sure that the kids stay clothed and shod, to help their parents get ahead.  Somehow, some winter boots have turned into much more than that.

It's not without mixed feelings, this commitment we've made to intertwine our lives - even at a distance - with people so different from us.   When you choose to do it with people who have similar frames of reference, it's easy.  This is a bit more complex, and it's called out to me that while it's easy to give, it's not always easy to give in ways that are meaningful to others but not to yourself.  And that we all sometimes need to be made a bit uncomfortable in order to personally grow.

I think everything happens for a reason.   Maybe that's trite, but I do.  This year we acquired some extended family, and we are better people for it.  That doesn't mean it's easy.

There's more to this story, and I will tell it.  But later.  

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cooking Season

The fact that it is 84 degrees in the front yard today hides the fact that it is autumn here.   We're having some unseasonable warm, dry weather after September's deluge, and it has revived all our spirits.  

The blast of warmth allowed the tomatillos and ground cherries to flourish, and both are now dropping off the vines.  

In the summer, we fire up the grill most of the time, and slice up vegetables and some mozzerella drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar for a salad.  It's simple, quick, tasty, and keeps the kitchen from heating up.  Aside from our weekly bread making, the oven rarely turns on from June-September.

But this week, despite the heat, it is back in action - roasting tomatillos so that I can make salsa verde, turning some apples that developed soft spots into an old school recipe I found for boiled cider pie (I'll let you know how that one goes, but it smells wonderful), and dinner tonight is Congo Chicken Moambe, a recipe I tracked down when I hosted some recent refugees from the Congo for dinner, that has now entered our regular rotation of meals.  It's simple and delicious.

It's a pleasure to be in the kitchen, although I have taken several opportunities to go outside today and enjoy the sun, but since Sander and a friend are helping take down branches and small trees around the property, the adorable one and I have been shooed inside for a good chunk of the day.  The Topsfield Fair is still going on, which makes it a pain in the arse to go anywhere (at least, to get to the park, or most local farms, which are the only places we might want to go), and after a few busy weekends, I'm not exactly sad at being stuck in the house.

There's another reason that I'm cooking as much as I am today - we have an overnight guest tonight, as a very old friend is the Blacksmith at the fair, Carl having ditched IT work for something that makes him infinitely happier.  As he's been pulling 12 and 13-hour days at the fairground, we've offered crash space, and we all know that pie at 11 pm followed by croissants at 8 am are just the thing when you are blacksmithing all day.  Or at least, that's my theory.  

I love this time of year.  Besides the occasional batch of green salsa, the preserving of food work has dropped off significantly.   We have to keep a close eye on all the food we do have - potatoes, onions, and squashes don't last forever, so we have to check daily and use up carefully - but aside from the general chores that all of us have in life, such as cooking, laundry, cleaning up the house, and my least favorite, ironing, we are able to kick back, have friends over more often, and even sleep in.

Pretty soon we'll have our cord of wood delivered, and can start enjoying nightly fires. I'm ready for fall and winter - for the end of yard work, and for putting the garden to sleep finally, until the seedlings get started in the dark of late February.  I like all the seasons, to be honest- I think that gardening helps me like even the months that aren't all that pretty.  March is ugly, but it's seedling time.   April is wet, but the flowers start to come up, and we can plant peas.  January and February are good for hibernating and catching up with friends.  

But now it's cooking season, and the pie is ready.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Postcript to the Garden

It's raining.  Again. We're expecting a bit more than a 1/2 inch of rain.  And it's going to rain on and off for much of the week.  It's not that I mind rain, I'm a fan.  It's just that we've had something like 15 inches of rain over the last month, and I prefer not to live in a perpetual bog.

But hey, at least the lawn isn't brown.

It's also been really warm.  With the exception of 1 cold snap a couple weeks ago, the weather has hovered around 80 most days.  Today is cooler, and that's good - I'm ready for a frost.  It will protect the garlic I just planted - garlic is planted in fall, then harvested in summer - and kill all the bugs.  I'm really sick of mosquitos, so a frost would be nice.

We lost all the remaining tomatoes in the mold.  The rain, coupled with lack of sun (the two seem to go together, oddly enough) and the inability to dry out has molded every single tomato on the vine.  While it's normal to be done with tomatoes now, typically I lose them to cold.  The mold thing was a little disturbing.   We pulled a few green ones out last week that have been left to ripen in a paper bag, but even then - anything not in the fridge is molding in the kitchen.  Even the hubbard squash, which should have lasted well into the winter, being an, um, winter keeper squash, developed a soft spot, and had to be hacked up, baked, and frozen.

In addition, my lawn is growing mushrooms.  Lots of them. That's how wet it's been.  

On the upside, it's been a good year for mushrooms.  There's this sweet old italian guy that occasionally drives by and harvests mushrooms at the edge of our property, and as thanks brought us back a jar of them preserved with onions and zucchini.   I don't know enough to know what mushrooms are safe to forage for and which ones are poisonous, but I'm baking him some cookies, and maybe he'll show me.

I should be grateful though - at least there's been no flooding.  Last weekend's trip out to my sister's farm included a drive through of the nearby town of Schoharie, which was under 9 feet of water following Hurricane Irene last month.  It looked like a third world country, with boards covering stores and windows, and heaps of furniture and trash out on the street.  Some areas had leaks of oil and sewage, so the cleanup will be huge.  And they had a couple hours warning -another town nearby, also in the Schoharie Valley had about 8 minutes warning to run for their lives. 

Makes complaining about rain and mushrooms sound a tad whiney, eh? It definitely shook me  to see.  

Despite that, some of the farms on higher ground survived, so we still came home with red peppers (1/2 bushel) a bushel of onions, another 1/2 bushel of butternut squash, and 1/2 bushel of potatoes, all of which are keeping cool in the basement.  We'll need to check on them daily to make sure they aren't impacted by the damp, but if all goes well we should be able to make them last until December or January.

Even though the peppers seem to be withstanding the rot, and the 1 pumpkin we harvested is hanging in, garden season is effectively over.  We're still expecting 2 more cold-hardy cherry trees to be planted this month, and I need to order some flower bulbs to plant in the newly-redesigned back yard, but until the seed catalogs show up in December, we're done.

As for chickens, in 2 weeks there's a livestock auction, following the fair in our town.  We haven't decided if we'll get chicks then or wait until spring, but we're at least going to go check it out. 

Despite everything, this was our most successful and productive garden year yet. The containers of homemade sauce in the freezer, plus all the produce we ate are a testament to our increasing success on the home front.  Next year it will be even better.  

That's the thing about gardening - there's always next year.  

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How Does My Garden Grow 2011: Harvest Season

It got cold here this weekend.  No frost, but cold enough so that the dish detergent on the counter next to the kitchen sink, which sits right below a slightly-open window, chilled to a solid block of soap last night.  Cold enough.

The tomato vines, which delivered tomatoes very late to the party this year because of a very cool, rainy spring, are finally starting to die down.  We'll probably get tomatoes for another week or so, and then I'll be out picking all the remaining green ones for a batch of green tomato chutney.  The peppers, cucumbers and tomatillos are still going, but even they seem to sense that the growing season is ending.

The farmer's market in town, which is open on Saturday mornings, closes down next week.   It uses some of the space that will be dedicated to the Topsfield Fair, which opens in less than 2 weeks.  It's the big excitement here in town, and for 10 days there will be a traffic jam next to my road.  If you like giant pumpkins and racing pigs, it's the place to be.

We went there this morning, as we've been trying to do most Saturdays, to get some last peaches to eat and freeze, some broccoli, and a few other things that I don't have in my garden this year.  A quart or so of wax beans went directly from blanching to the freezer, the corn we'll eat this week.  We also brought home 2 giant butternut squash, as we prepare for soup season to arrive with the turning of the leaves.

Since Sander was working on the stone wall that surrounds the garden again today, the adorable one and I were on Farmer's Market duty, and decided to make a morning of it by driving out to Russell Orchards afterwards to pick some apples.     We came home with lots and lots of apples, 2 sugar pumpkins for pies, a baby white pumpkin because the adorable one was besotted with it, and one rather enthusiastically large hubbard squash.

Hubbard squash is delicious, but getting into it is tricky - but we can talk about making pie with a Sawzall another time. i-squash-hubbard.jpg

A recent re-read of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has resulted in me trying to up my game on the local food front.  There's an upside and downside to deciding to do this in mid-September.  The upside, of course, is that it's a brilliant time to obtain local food.  Peaches, apples, squash and pumpkins are in abundance.   So are greens like Kale and spinach, as they thrive in the cooler weather.

The downside of my decision is that harvest season is short, and so despite the blackberries and peaches in my freezer, the 50 pounds of local beef, pork and chicken & sausage that are soon to arrive (none spending their lives any further than Vermont),  and the ability to stockpile squashes and pumpkins, and the pasta sauce in the freezer made with our own tomatoes and some of our own peppers, we'll still be grocery-store bound this winter.  

And realistically, for a few more years. But not as much as last year, even, despite the fact that we've preserved far less food than in our 8-day preservathon last year.

The adorable one and I are off with some family friends to my sister's farm next weekend, and if the local farms weren't completely flooded due to Hurricane Irene, we should bring home lots of onions, potatoes, and whatever else we can put our hands on.  Next week Sander will clean the farmer's market out of whatever squash they have, and we'll go apple picking at least once more the following week.  The organic farmstand down the road, Green Meadows is expensive, but open all year.  A market opened in our little town last year with an amazing selection of local cheese.  New sources of 'local' constantly spring up everywhere, it seems.

Next year, with all 8 garden beds in, I'll be able to start far more seedlings in more variety.   One of the things we didn't get to this year was growing birdhouse gourds, or any of my flower seeds.  We can also put in a permanent herb garden, something we've been talking about for several summers now.  And finally, chickens - when is still unknown, but they are coming - we pay for farm eggs now, but at $3.99 per dozen, I'll be thrilled to collect them from the chicken coop, even on cold mornings.

Also, next year the adorable one will be 3, and we can have conversations about why we shouldn't buy goldfish crackers any more, but she can help make homemade granola bars instead.  She would already rather have an apple just off the tree anyway, so it's not going to be a hard conversation.  Mostly.  I think.

It's been an interesting year.  The more I learn about climate change and resource depletion, the more worried I get, and couple that with the economy, and I have developed an ant-like urge to be prepared for winter...and for later.  While on the surface everything is normal - if you could call the current economy normal, almost everyone I talk to on some level shares my deep unease - the sense that things are not quite right.  I think we know, in the same way muskrats build thick walls on their dens, somehow knowing when the winter will be particularly hard, that things are changing.  It is as though we've been out for an afternoon jaunt, when we realize with a jolt we have stepped to the edge of a precipice, and a few more steps would take us tumbling down.

But the more I learn about human resourcefulness, the more hopeful I get.  We may have lost many of the skills of our forebears, but there are many of us relearning.  I personally know blacksmiths, weavers, farmers, and people with multitudes of skills one might call 'quaint'.  There are more chickens in backyards than anyone could have imagined even 5 years ago.  Seed companies are selling out of seeds due to the resurgence of backyard gardening.  What we sow, so too we reap.

This year, our self-sustaining garden has gone from dream to reality.   Next year it will produce abundantly, and hopefully for years later. My one pumpkin may never turn into a field of them, but maybe next year the one will be five.   And then 10.

Soon the garden will go to sleep, and I'll be dreaming of how my garden will grow next year.

Happy Fall.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why You Really Need to Give a S**t About Climate Change & Resource Issues Part the Last: Growing Hope

It is easy to feel daunted by the changes needed to be ready for a planet with less oil, arable land, variety and availability of food, one with fewer jobs and more risks.

And, being that we're good deniers, us humans, it's much easier to duck one's head and say "It's all too much, and I don't know what is fact and what is fiction, so I'm just going to sit on this fence post for a while longer.  Maybe I'll do something later. If someone could just show me that this change is certain..."

I know I feel that way.   I feel it in the grocery store and farm stands, where eating by my moral compass continues to hike my food budget - and sometimes I don't eat my morals, so to speak,  as the cost is high, and I am time-strapped.   As illustrated by the open packet of snack stick crackers next to me.   That said, I'm not going for perfection, just better.   Somedays I hit 'better', somedays not.  But I'm going to keep trying.  Will we get to the 100 mile diet in time? I hope so.

It's not just food, though.

We priced out all the work needed to make our house more insulated this year - windows, a replacement for the front door, blowing insulation was more than $70k, which was overwhelming.  So we put some money into finishing our backyard instead, since it was dug up for a project - we took the work off of my husband's back - literally.     

The work on our house still needs doing.   It desperately needs insulation and new windows - and the house will get them.   Just probably piecemeal.  That work comes next.   We do have 4 windows for the basement, and hope to get those in before the snow flies.

And our fruit trees are all still a few years away from bearing, and the garden is always a work in progress.   As I wrote yesterday, we still don't have chickens, and after that I'm not sure what's next.   I think Sander will nix having a cow.  :)  Honeybees maybe?  I'm not sure.  Something will pop into my head, and then my amazing husband will figure out how to make it so.

So I get it that this is not simple.  But I do think that making these changes - even a little at a time - will matter in the long run.   Even if we need time to become sustainable, we're ahead of the curve.  It's kind of like the people who, when a war-torn country comes to peace, step forward with plans that they've been drawing up on how the government should run, or how the sewage system will work, or whatever.  They don't know when their plans will become useful, just that when the time comes, a governing body will be needed, and sewage will have to be dealt with.   So it is with the apricot, apple and cherry trees we've planted.  So it is with our plans to live more sustainably.

There's this idea that some problems are too big to solve.   But I don't think that's true.  There are problems that are too big to solve easily and quickly, but I don't believe there's many problems that actually are unsolvable.  We may not always like or expect the solution, but solutions are there.  

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love" is what Mother Teresa said.  

Planting a garden is an act of love, and of hope.  It's also a practical solution to $5/pound organic tomatoes in the grocery store, quite frankly.  And it is a community builder - neighbors who are there to be asked for gardening advice, neighbors to receive it.  The adorable one likes nothing better than to 'pick' - be it raspberries in June, tomatoes in August, or squash in the fall.   She is intensely proud of the literal fruits of her family's labors, and to be able to participate.  It gives us a reason to be outside, and in the kitchen, the places where families and communities gather.

After we pick whatever it is, she follows me to the kitchen, to help me prepare the food.  She wants to put her hand over mine on the knife handle (yes, we're careful) to chop things, and to stir carefully whatever is on the stove, with Mommy running interference from the flame and hot food.  Extra long wooden spoons are perfect for her purpose.   Given the choice of watching TV or joining Sander or I in the kitchen or the garden, she will choose the participative activity.  And this is a kid that never misses an opportunity to watch Strawberry Shortcake reruns.   

Planting a garden won't stop energy shortages, but it might mean jumping in the car less to go grocery shopping.  It is one solution, and it is one of the solutions all of us can take on.  Which is important - we humans are meant to be productive and creative.  Turning cucumbers into pickles, squash into soup, and tomatoes into sauce is inherently a creative act.  As is starting seeds.  You become much more than a consumer.  You too, are a creator.

Well, that's that.  You can decide to give a s**t or not about all this.  This is not about what side  you are politically (actually, the local movement has much for conservatives to like - power to the people, decentralization - it's not just a crunchy liberal thing).  I hope you decide to join in the local food thing, because we could really use your help.

Monday, September 5, 2011


I've wanted to raise chickens for a long time - close to 10 years now.  One day, not long after my sister Sharon moved out to upstate NY and decided to farm, I went out for the weekend.   She and I were going to take the kids out for lunch - my nephew who is now 11 was 2.5, and the almost-10 year old was an infant.   Her other two kids were far in the future, and while she had a garden and some chickens, the CSA and the farm were yet to be created.

So I'm putting a double stroller into the trunk my little 1999 Olds Alero, which was a tad tricksy. Took a few minutes, and much maneuvering.   When I finally managed to get it in there, I heard a little noise behind me. "Brrbuk?"  It was almost a question.

Startled, I turned around to find a line of about 6 chickens with their heads cocked, watching me intently.  "Brrbuk?" said the first one again.  Might have been chicken for "Hey, hi - haven't seen you around before and what the heck is it you are doing? You seem pretty interested in it, so can we see too?"

So, trying to be sociable, I said "Hi".

Yes, I talked to the chicken.   You would have too.  Admit it.

Apparently that was all the invitation that was needed, and they bopped around my car, looking in the passenger door, and poking at the tires.   

I was mesmerized, not unlike my kid is at Sturbridge Village when the sheep come to the fence looking to be fed, and she obliges.   They were chipper and friendly and fascinated with me, the car, and everything.   I'm not a big pet person - I like cats and dogs okay, but I've always been the sort that thinks of pets as a life option, not a necessity.

But the chicken thing stuck with me.  Since we moved into our house in 2007, we've been talking about it, but much has come first - needed maintenance & repairs, the adorable one, and so on.  This year we finally dove in and bought a coop and arranged with my sister to get some chicks.  Since they need to be ordered in batches of 25, it's always good to 'go in' with others.  Ordering issues, the heat wave in July and other things have held up the arrival for several months.

After many delays, we were expecting the chicks Sunday - yesterday.  The adorable one and I filled the box in the kitchen that was to be their first home with sawdust, and mixed some chick feed with grit.  

They had arrived in NY at the farm, and my Mom was supposed to drive them here. 

Sunday morning the phone rang.  My sister.  With some really bad news.  They went out on Saturday.   Something got in the barn.  Killed all the chicks - mine and hers.  No survivors.  She's going to try to get a replacement shipment before the cold weather comes.  This time they'll live in the house until they make their way to us.  

Poor babies. The adorable one wants to know when she can feed her chickens, when Nanna will come with them.  I have no good answer for her. 2 1/2 is a little young to be talking about death.  "Sweetie, they couldn't come today, but they will soon, I'm sorry".

So again we wait.   This time with an empty box of sawdust in the kitchen.   I'm not moving it yet.   I've waited this long, I can wait a little longer.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why You Really Need to Give a S**t About Climate Change & Resource Issues Part II: It Wasn't Raining When Noah Built His Ark

It wasn't raining when Noah built his ark.  - Howard Ruff

Let's say you are given a choice.

Change your life now to reduce your impact on the earth - potentially radically and significantly, or some day in the future, your kids or grandkids may suffer for it.   That they would go hungry, do without.   Well, maybe not your kids or grandkids.  Maybe someone else's.  But maybe yours too.  Hard to tell.  As for when - well, later.  How much later?  Not sure.  Could be 10 years, could be 50.  But it's coming. 

So make the change, or something bad will happen to people later.   Sometime later.  Lots of people.  What change?  Well, buy less stuff.   What stuff?  Well, you know, the stuff you don't need.   

This is the problem with the message about the environmental issues and climate change.   There's not enough specifics for us to understand what to do now, today, and why.  
For most of us in the first world, we aren't seeing it. Okay, so 2 tornados went through a swath of Massachusetts for the first time in recent memory.   Hurricane season is getting worse. Drought and water issues across the globe, okay - but not here, right?  It has nothing to do with me, right?  

Well, yes.  Actually - it does.

It's really hard to see how the dress I bought online is impacting whether there's enough arable land or water.  Or how leaving all the lights on in my house all evening may mean that my grandkids are back to using candles.  We're not as a species good at seeing relationships between today's actions and what happens many years from now.   There's scientific data there, but seeing the correlations and causations is something that most humans, well, suck at.  Especially when we particularly don't want to hear it.

There are plenty of disbelievers out there.   Plenty of people to tell you that we are absolutely entitled to our way of life.  
That the millions of unemployed in the US are the slackers - that companies are just 'doing what they have to in order to survive' when they lay off masses of people - never mind those higher-than-ever quarterly earnings.   
That this is just a recession and we'll get over it, even though the lights went off in the economy 3 years ago and still seem to be on a dimmer switch.  
That we're entitled to giant gas guzzling vehicles because this is America, ferfrigssake, and no one has the right to tell me I can't drive what I want. 
That the poor are lazy, and could get jobs and eat better if they really wanted to - no one makes them eat fast food, right?  
That the people in the Horn of Africa are a lost cause anyway, and God, why the hell won't those people just use some freaking birth control?  

And so on.

The reality is that the resource depletion and climate changes we're experiencing are on a trajectory to get worse.   That's not a political issue, it's just the simple truth.

And we need to start preparing.

It probably goes without saying that savings helps.  Those with a little padding always fare better than those without.  

And gardening - well - I've blogged it before - it's an investment in our future and our kids.  So quit it with the Chemlawn crap, since you may need to grow food where you are currently dumping chemicals.   Let me put it this way - would you panic and call poison control if one of your kids ate the stuff you put on your lawn to control weeds?  If you would, then stop putting it in the water supplies mmkay?

Support local farms and farmers.  The more of them there are, the more likely it is that supply interruptions will be mitigated.   Mitigated, not avoided.  

Think about investing in renewables, but don't expect technology to save us.   Think about alternatives to heating oil if you live in the Northeast.  

Insulate your house.  

Quit shopping for entertainment.   Most of us don't need more stuff (as someone who likes to decorate for the seasons at home, this is one yours truly needs to listen to)

Pack your lunch, invest in a reusable coffee cup, etc etc.

Plant some fruit and nut trees.  They are pretty, and supply food.

So I've said all this stuff before.  Nothing new.  But if you wait for proof that bad things are coming, you end up like those people who run to home depot for flashlights just as the rain starts.  Buy a bunch of them to have around - and BTW, Maglite is still made in the good ol' USA, so you can stimulate the economy too.

Noah didn't wait to start building until he felt a raindrop.  His neighbors thought he was a nutjob.  They might think that of you too.  But whatever - Noah stayed dry.   They didn't.  

And hey, if by some magical outcome, I'm wrong, you'll have an insulated house, fruit to pick each summer, good lunches, have gotten to know the local growers and farmers in your area, and have some sassy flashlights to boot.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why You Really Need to Give A S**T About Climate Change and Resource Issues Part 1: An Introduction of Sorts

I want to introduce you all to someone. This is Jeremy:

Jeremy Grantham of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo asset management, or GMO, to be specific.

For those of you who speak market, you may already know who he is.  For those of you who don't, let me tell you why you should be reading and listening to everything this man has to say.

GMO manages assets for clients that add up to about $106 Billion dollars.  For individuals, the minimums run between $5M and $10M dollars to even get to talk to them about managing your money.

In other words, GMO handles really big amounts of money for really wealthy individuals and institutions.  

But that's not why Grantham is important, or even what makes me think you should listen to him.  It is because not only does he speak market, he speaks with deep market knowledge of diminishing resources, and he thinks, and analyzes for the long term. 

Which leads him to say things like this in his Q2 2011 Letter to Investors about the problems facing us, and therefore our income stability and overall stability:
Overall, the best farms will have no erosion problems but, on average, soil will continue to be lost across the
globe. Together with increased weather extremes and higher input prices (perhaps much higher), there will be
increasing problems in feeding the world’s growing population.

 In particular, a significant number of poor countries found mostly in Africa and Asia will almost certainly suffer from increasing malnutrition and starvation. The possibility of foreign assistance on the scale required seems remote.

 The many stresses on agriculture will be exacerbated at least slightly by increasing temperatures, and severely by increased weather instability, especially more frequent and severe droughts and fl oods.

 These types of slow-burning problems that creep up on us over decades and are surrounded by a lack of scientific precision hit both our capitalist system and our human nature where it hurts.

 Capitalism, despite its magnificent virtues in the short term – above all, its ability to adjust to changing conditions– has several weaknesses that affect this issue.
o It cannot deal with the tragedy of the commons, e.g., overfishing, collective soil erosion, and air contamination.
o The finiteness of natural resources is simply ignored, and pricing is based entirely on short-term supply and
o More generally, because of the use of very high discount rates, modern capitalism attributes no material cost to damage that occurs far into the future. Our grandchildren and the problems they will face because of a warming planet with increasing weather instability and, particularly, with resource shortages, have, to the standard capitalist approach, no material present value.

Grantham goes on to list how we will likely respond as a society to the issues (not particularly impressively) and the specific impacts to Energy, Metals, Fertilizers such as Phosphorus and Potash (both Potash and Phosphorus are critically necessary for plants to grow - and basic elements, which means we can't manufacture them.  We run out, we don't eat.  It's really that simple),  Water and so on. 

This man, worth more than most of us probably can imagine, is talking about how Chinese farmers recycle human waste to limit their soil depletion in his letters to his investors.  Why?

Because he recognizes that we are at a tipping point.  In his own words:
Last quarter I tried to make the case that the inevitable mismatch between finite resources and exponential population growth had finally shown its true face after many false alarms. This was made manifest through a remarkably bubble-like explosion of prices for raw materials. Importantly, prices surged twice in four years, which is a most unbubble-like event in our history book.The data suggested to us that rarest of rare birds; a new paradigm. And a very uncomfortable one at that. (emphasis is mine)In short, the way we live today is a devils bargain - we have intense short term gain in, well, everything - but there is the price tag.  As with credit cards, eventually a payment becomes due, and this time the interest cost may be higher than we can manage. 

Recently, as food somehow came up in a conversation with someone I dearly love, a response to our significant increase in local and, at least - whenever not local - organic and fair trade food purchases. "Oh, I don't give that much thought".
As it is with many comments that one recognizes as the sort of thing where it's better to leave it lie and move on to another topic, I did just that.
But it bothered me. 
And I began to think that perhaps no one has, as yet, made a convincing argument to the general population about why it is absolutely, utterly critical that they think about that.  Because we are at a tipping point.  And what my daughter and her daughters may have available to them is likely to be less - far less - than what I have or my parents have. 
Those with political agendas will, by turns explain to us how everything is just fine and how we're careening into a crisis situation that is about debts or deficits.  Both are wrong. 
There's a crisis, but it's much more fundamental than that.  It's about water supplies, food availability, soil depletion.  It is about the ability to feed our families.  Our current level of abundance is unsustainable.  And we, as individuals, need to do something about it.
That box of wheat thins, that package of Pepperidge Farms whatever-it-is has implications on our future.  My choice to drive to work rather than take public transport has a price. 
I hardly fit the description of someone who has either the pedigree or the moral authority to dictate to others.  There are packages of Goldfish in my cabinets, Chex in my pantry, Hot Dogs in my freezer.  But I am trying - to carpool, to work from home to lower my impact.  To eat local and sustainable.  To find new ways to abundance that don't involve Pottery Barn. 
I have a long way to go, but I'm not alone in that - we're all a far cry from where we need to be on this.  It's kind of reassuring to have some company when I travel this road of learning how to live so that my choices don't mean some banana farmer's child  in South America goes hungry so that my child can eat. 
Few of us like being told we need to change, but, like when a toddler acts out, limits are needed.  There are those who would like us to never have to give up individual advantage for group benefit, but they are at odds with a sustainable future.  Where individualism gets important is understanding that the government, big business, or new technology aren't going to save us.  We have to save ourselves. 
So why would Jeremy Grantham, who manages more money than most of us can probably imagine, be talking about agriculture, and not the next new technology?  Talking about small farms, and European crop failure in the 1880s rather than the future trajectory of Apple and GM?

Because it's what matters.  More than anything.  It's going to be where we need to invest, where our risk lies, and where are future is.  The future is not the next IPO.  It's in the next tomato harvest. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Bulk Food The Local Way

Most of us are used to the idea of warehouse store shopping - large quantities, often lower prices.  If you are careful, there's a lot of good deals to be had.

But if you are trying to eat more locally and sustainably, you can do that in bulk as well.  It takes a little more time and effort to suss out sources of food than it does to drive to Costco or BJs, but it's well worth it. 

We do a lot of bulk-buying out near my sister's, in Schoharie County, NY.  It's a land of rolling hills and lots of farms.  One in particular, the Carrot Barn, sells bulk tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, onions, cukes, and many other things as the season progresses.  Cheaply too, and sustainably grown.  Last year a full bushel of onions cost us $18, and lasted for almost 6 months.  That's a lot of eating for $18.

We also ordered bulk beef - really excellent bulk beef, btw from a Lancaster PA farm last year, after our visit to the area. 

But I am on a mission to find even more local food in bulk near me.  And I've lucked out a bit, and the options seem to be growing. 

Recently, Valley View Farm, just a mile or so down the road started offering boxes of peppers and 'second' peaches this year, and offer shares of maple syrup, honey and other items throughout the year.  They also recently started offering bulk meat from other local farms, serving as an aggregator of sorts for the ordering - offering beef, lamb, chicken & pork from local producers.  

The other good option is to get to know local producers.  Freqenting a farmers market, striking up conversations - "Hey, I'm looking for ___in a large quantity, do you ever do that?".  It's a no-harm, no-foul conversation.  While a bulk sale has the risk of lowering a farmer's profit, it also has the upside of ensuring a sale for their goods.  So it has the potential for being a win-win.   As they say, it never hurts to ask.

While we are nowhere near getting to the point we'd like to be at, with 1/2 of our food sourced locally, we're taking baby steps to get there.  I'd love to hear how others are doing with local sourcing as well.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Does Garden Grow - Late August

It's been a strange year, weather-wise, and it's had a weird impact on the garden.   Which is growing beautifully (hopefully still, Hurricane Irene isn't quite finished with us yet).  But everything is very late.  We had a great lettuce season into July, since the weather was cooler and rainier, but other than that, it's a late garden year.

We picked our first ripe tomatoes this week.  The cucumbers are fruitful, but still tiny.  Only one winter squash survived the rains, but is the size of a small end table. The tomatillos, those who haven't been stolen by the chipmunks are thriving, and have vined out everywhere.

If the warm weather holds, we should be okay - I'm much more happy when I'm faced with canning jars and a hot stove in September anyway.  As long as an early cold snap doesn't roll in, it should be a pleasure to pick our veggies over the next few weeks.

We didn't pick up a lot of bulk food this year - just a half bushel of onions and & 1/4 bushel of pickling cukes out near my sister, most of which became 14 pints and 4 quarts of bread and butter pickles.   We also picked blackberries for my birthday (that, plus a picnic made for a near-perfect birthday), which are in the freezer, awaiting some further disposition - with the advent of peaches from a friend's tree, I'm thinking blackberry peach cobbler.

We've signed up for a box of peppers from a local farm, and some peach seconds as well, which will probably go into muffins and be the foundation for peach butter.  If we can swing it, we'll get a bushel of onions from my sister's when we go out in September - last year's bushel lasted us almost to February - and we use a lot of onions!   

The chickens are still pending - the coop is here, but hatcheries in the midwest stopped shipping in the July heat wave, so they just arrived in NY, and they will come home next Sunday, September 4.  Though we can fit up to 16 birds in our house, only 8 Buff Orpingtons will call it home this year.  Next year we hope to add a few more in rare breeds.  

The garden construction still goes on.  We got the 4 4x16 beds done, but my husband ended up having to build a fairly labor-intensive stone wall to hold the dirt for the remaining 4 4x8 beds.  The wall is almost done, and then the fence, arbor and remaining beds can go in - again, we're hoping the weather holds for a while longer.  

Next year I should have all 8 beds, and then hopefully a more productive garden than ever.   And egg-laying chickens...and then...

I am starting to think I need to come up with a name for our mini-farmlet.  Hmm.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Diary of a Working Mom - Late Summer Edition

As working moms go, I'm a pretty blessed one.  I get to work from home at least 1 day a week. We can afford for my husband to be home and still have everything we need and more than a few things we want.   We have supportive family and friends who step in whenever we need the help.  And I get to live in a beautiful spot, surrounded by trees and grass and flowers.

But this time of year, as summer starts to wind down, I get a bit pensive.   I like my job.  I'm pretty good at it too, and a combination of really hard work and good luck and opportunity have allowed me to have not just work, but a true career.

Still though, I wonder what life would be like if I'd taken another path.   A stay at home mom maybe, or a farm, or an entirely different part of the world.  It's not that I resent my current life, it's just that I'd like to occasionally be able to try on different roles.   And I suppose I could, but then I'd have to leave the life I do have, and I don't particularly care to do that.  At least, not yet.   The farm will come - eventually.   In the meantime, we are adapting in place, turning this slightly faerie tale-ish spot into a teeny farm - complete with chickens, fruit trees, a huge garden, and green as far as the eye can see.

And even though I know I'm bloody well blessed as all heck that I spend as much time with my family as I do, I always want just a little bit more time.   Just a little bit.

And while I really do mean that we're going to take a year off when the adorable one is 12 and travel around the world, I'm not sure that I want to live any of the places that we talk about visiting.  Okay, except the italian riviera, which I fell in love with when we visited in 2004.  I'm just lacking the 4 million or so euros (maybe down to 3.5 million by now) for a villa overlooking the Bay of Fables in Sestri Levanti.   I smuggled home a lime from the trees there, true story.  I miss it.

Still, this is the time of year I wonder.  I love our life, but the idea of trying on new ones like new hats appeals to me.  Hmmm...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How Does My Garden Grow Volume 2: June 2011

It's been a cold spring here.   Changes in the jet stream have made it a cold, rainy and windy on and off since March, making it hard to get out and work in the garden consistently.

And this is a big garden year for us.  After 3 years of 3 temporary, stone-bordered beds, we've finally decided to spend a bit of time and money and make the garden space more permanent - more beds, a fence to keep out the unwelcome locals, such as deer and rabbits, and to keep in the newest members of our family, arriving in late July - 5 chickens (5 more will come next spring).

We've finally settled in with our new budget, and so some of the money that we had saved for projects - money we were afraid to spend until now - is getting spent.  Garden updates, a chicken coop and the associated residents, and finally, work on the exterior of the house, which is in dire need of insulation and new windows, a new front door, and various other expensive maintenance.  

I didn't start as many seeds as I had hoped to, time got away from me, as usual.  But I do have a respectable number of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, bok choy, spinach and other greens.  We 
got a few pumpkins into the ground, as well as some cukes, and we might try a few late melons too.

Along with the new garden comes more long-term plantings as well.  Two dwarf apricot trees, two golden muscat grape vines to train over the arbor entrance to the garden and some more raspberries to line the garden fence are heeled into temporary locations while we finish the garden construction.  I also got my act together this spring and ordered garlic to plant in the fall, which always sells out before it crosses my mind in the summertime.

So this year should be a good year for garden produce, and in a few years we should see the literal fruits of our labors from the long term plantings - including some apples finally from our dwarf apple trees, and perhaps a cherry or two from the North Star cherry tree we planted 2 summers ago.  We still want to fit in cranberries, bayberries, blueberries and cornelian cherries, but those can wait a little longer.  There's only so much we can do in a year.

It's funny, when we moved in, we never imagined that 4 years in we would still be working on setting up a permanent garden, or have so many house projects still in-flight or not even started yet.   Sometimes I look around us and think, "We're going to be at this forever".  

We knew when we bought the house it would be a project house, and that some things would take years (not in small part because house projects are paid for in cash in MoneyPenny world).  But some of the smaller things have hung on far longer than we hoped for - pre-empted by other projects in some cases, pre-empted by lack of time in others.  

But first, the garden. Have you ever seen 15 yards of dirt in your driveway?  It looks something, like this:

Although actually, this was after a yard or two was used.  Affectionally titled 'Mount Dirt', it has taken up a good chunk of the driveway for the better part of the last 8 weeks.

The garden will eventually be 8 beds of varying sizes surrounded by a retaining wall, a fence, and an arbor with golden muscat grapes growing over it, flanked by apricot trees.   So how do you build such a dream garden? (please note, when I say 'you', I mean your incredibly tolerant and accomodating husband who hasn't yet run away to a nice clean white condo where no one talks of wanting livestock).

Well, so first, you tear up a good chunk of the front yard.   
Then you buy 15 yards of dirt to level it, that is, if your yard slopes down a hill as ours does:

Then you get $500.00 worth of lumber and start building beds.  3 of the long beds are done (16' x 3').   You make the beds, drag them up the yard in the hot sun, and line them with weed-suppressing cloth.

Then you fill them with dirt.   Approximately 35 wheelbarrows of dirt fill one.   Patiently ignore wife who is fretting over how 'leggy' her seedlings are getting and she needs to plant them today, now, after you've spent hours of backbreaking labor filling aforementioned freaking beds with dirt.

Once beds are finished, then call in garden expertise to plant:

And then:

Well, okay, now we repeat it 5 more times, and then start on the fence, but you get the idea.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Food: It's What's For Dinner

It's the friday before Memorial Day, almost the start of a nice long weekend. Sander is out building me the new garden beds so that we can do some planting this weekend, I've been inside working, and the adorable one has been at 'school' - the toddler program at the local Congregational Church, which she attends 2 mornings a week.

This weekend is a bit of a milestone - last year on this Friday, Sander came home from his job for the last time.

But this year is nothing like last year.  Usually we spend Memorial Day weekend up at Moosehead Lake, but this year we're home, aside from a brief overnight trip to my inlaws Sunday to Monday.   And we're excited, because it is a garden weekend.  3 of the new raised beds are in and just about ready to plant in, the muscat grapevines and the apricot trees have arrived...and in a few more weeks, chickens!!

But before I can get to all that, I need to figure out what the heck to make for dinner.   Friday dinner is important, because Friday is date night here.  We don't get out much (although next week we have a babysitter so that we can go to 'beerfest' - should be fun even though I'm a wine drinker).  On Fridays we put the adorable one to bed, crack a bottle of wine, and relax together.  I don't dial in to work, we don't try to accomplish anything, and we don't worry about anything more than whose turn it is to sleep in on Saturday.   It's rather nice, actually.

We've tried to have a standing meal, like pizza, every Friday.  The problem with that is that the adorable one is coming into her prime pizza-eating years, and so we'd rather share that meal with her.  And other meals got sort of boring over and over.

So on Friday afternoons it is my job to come up with something.  Some weeks I am right on top of it.  Today, not so much.   

This week we took in our final CSA winter share delivery, so there are a lot of green things to be used up - spinach, kale, lettuce, leeks, scallions...that sort of thing.
We haven't been so good lately at staying on top of food before it goes bad, so I'm trying very hard this month to ensure that nothing rots.

There's plenty of food in the house, but of course, that hasn't prevented me from opening cabinets and the refrigerator and freezer and staring into them blankly.  I could go to the grocery store, but that would be a waste of time and money - I have plenty already.  I just need to figure out what the hell to do with it.

But in a tiny flash of inspiration, I remembered one of my favorite blogs:   And sure enough, there it was.  Sausage (lean chicken sausage) with onions and a bunch of green things sauteed in garlic, with a bit of salt and some red pepper flakes.  

And something else.   Maybe a touch of pasta.  Maybe popovers.  Maybe.....

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Perfect Day

Today is my 3rd Mother's Day, and by far the best one yet.  Not  because of any particular gift, although my husband and daughter did give me a gift of 2 hanging plants, and my daughter potted me a petunia  at Sunday School.   Mostly because our life, while absolutely, insanely busy most weeks, seems to have hit a groove on weekends.  We seem to have finally figured out how to balance work (around the house and sometimes for me extra hours on the weekend at my paying job), errands, fun and rest.

Not always, mind you, but we're definitely getting better at it.  Mostly.

Take this weekend.  We're just back from a 4-day trip to Disney(insanity with a toddler, as well as a rediculous indulgence, but fun), and of course, everyone was unpacked but me - for the record it is after 9 pm on Sunday and there is still stuff in my suitcase. But on Friday I went to the grocery store on the way home, so that was done.  And Saturday, in and around lunch with friends, we managed to get all the housework done (okay, all the housework that we planned to do, anyway. There's always more.)  Which meant today got to be for pleasure.  In and around church, a visit to my Moms, and planting lilacs and begonias in the yard, I took a nap.  A real nap, for almost 2 hours.  

In Mommyworld, naps are the holy grail.  I slept so long this afternoon I dreamed.  And that after I got to read for an hour, uninterrupted. For pleasure, not for research.  A novel, even.  If you don't know what a treat that is, you either don't have kids or never pick up a book.  

Alert the media.  

And I finally found the time to transplant my seedlings -some, anyway - and still make a stir fry for dinner.  After which Sander did the dishes.

It might not be a perfect day by most people's standards.  There were no expensive flower bouquets, nor was there any restaurant meals or spa visits.  We all got pretty dirty in the garden - the adorable one loves to dig in the dirt as much as her parents. Our breakfast was at our church, where a small group of people spent their hard-earned time and money to make brunch to celebrate mother's day.  The waffles won't win any awards, but the food was good, and the community better.  And so went the day - family, friends, flowers, and rest.

Happy Mother's Day.