Urban and Small Farm Agriculture

We often read about the environmental damage and unsustainable practices of modern agriculture.  Some people have proposed urban gardens and small farms as a pathway to food resiliency; repairing environmental damage, reducing fossil fuel use, and improving our health and well-being.  Others conclude that it takes too much effort; people aren’t going to change; no one wants to slave away in the garden, kitchen, or on the farm; it can’t be done in every country;  small farms and gardens can’t feed the world’s population.  All these arguments have some merit, but I have found the reality of growing local food becomes quite different once the transformation begins. Continue reading “Urban and Small Farm Agriculture”

Fish in a tank

A few evenings ago he was sitting up on his bed looking troubled. His cheeks seemed blotched and his eyes were flicking and blinking, almost as if he was going to cry. But he’s nine, and I think it’s a point of honour with him never to cry. He said quietly, as I bustled around getting ready for lights-out, “Daddy, there’s something that bothered me today…”. I paused for a proper look at him and asked what’s up? “On the way back we stopped in the Chinese supermarket. There were all these fish in the tank. There were so many they could hardly move…”, and that’s where he tailed off. His expression told the story. Continue reading “Fish in a tank”

Food as Medicine

Hippocrates said “Let food be they medicine, and medicine be thy food.”  At the doctor’s office for my annual checkup I was asked to list any herbs I take and I thought “this should be interesting.”  Sure, I take herbal supplements but what about all the fresh or dried herbs I cook with or drink as tea?  What about Mediterranean herbs in spaghetti, garlic in hummus, basil in pesto, chamomile or mint tea?  What about carrots, sweet potatoes and squash in navy bean soup to boost our immune system and fight off colds?  I asked the doctor if I should list basil in pesto and was told “No, that’s food!” (along with a look that said I must be an idiot).  Well isn’t that the point, that our food is our medicine!

Continue reading “Food as Medicine”

Winter is Coming

Fall has finally arrived.  It’s November, well past the time of year when we normally see freezing temperatures.  This year was unusually warm, a phrase that is beginning to lose its meaning since most years now are usually warm.  The leaves on the trees are finally turning color.  The nights are going to be freezing this week.  I look over the garden and see a few peppers I missed and remind myself to pick them before nightfall.  I collected masses of dill that reseeded itself from spring plantings.  I’ve learned that if I freeze the dill in tomato sauce I canned this summer the flavor in soup is the same as if it’s been picked fresh.  Good to know these things if you like the taste of fresh dill in winter soup.  I look over the garden and see bunches of herbs I need to pick before the frost or they will be lost to the freeze.  I worry about wasting them, and then I smile, remembering that the plants will give me another crop next year.  I’m still getting used to this experience of bounty from the perennials in the garden.  I’m still conditioned to think of food and herbs as things I purchase from the store, not wanting to waste money by allowing them to go bad.  Store bought food is so easily wasted.  Gardens are more generous!

Most of my life I’ve been a person who worried about waste; don’t waste electricity, don’t waste your food, “There are starving children in China”.  I wonder what was in the news in the 60’s when my mother used this phrase to make us feel guilty for not eating all the food on our plates.  Were there stories of people starving in China?  What happened, I wonder, to all the starving children?  I remember the oil embargo of the 70’s and the impetus not to waste energy.  I was old enough to understand about the lines at the gas stations, but ignorant of a thing called “peak oil”.  I remember the school placing plastic cards around light switches reminding us to turn off lights and conserve energy.  I understood about turning down thermostats and wearing a sweater.  Perhaps growing up in Minnesota we understood wintertime better than people living farther south.  To this day I still hear my mother’s voice complaining if a door is held open too long, worried that I’m ‘letting out the heat’.  I remember my father taking the screens off the windows and putting on storm windows.

My grandmother told me stories of living through the Great Depression reminding me not to take resources for granted because there might come a time when we need them.  She never wasted a thing.  That was her nature.  I’ve been conditioned by the times I’ve lived to think about energy, but mainly the cost of it more than the supply of it.  I remember the taking of our embassy personnel in Iran.   It was my first inkling that the Middle East would impact life in America for decades to come.  Ronald Regan took office and told us “Today is a new day”, and somehow people believed him.  The 80’s led to the 90’s consumption binge as if there was no need to worry about tomorrow. Credit was cheap.  We forgot about the embargo.  We forgot about saving money and living frugal.  We seemed to forget that bills always come due eventually.

Today it seems we have another Republican led effort to ignore the limits and pretend our actions won’t have consequences.  “Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.”  “Coal jobs are coming back.”  “There is plenty of oil for us to pump when the arctic ice melts!”  The cognitive dissonance this requires is profound.  If the arctic ice is melting how can we not be concerned about climate change?  As the storms, floods, and wildfires raged this year I wondered if a tipping point has been passed, if the rate of climate change is accelerating, if the dark time of climate chaos and weather disasters is upon us.  Winter is coming.  The time when food becomes scarce, when the softness of nature retreats into submission, and storms rage with callous fury.  It’s a time when we don’t know who or what will be left when spring arrives.

My ancestors are Scandinavian.  I often think their fears of winter starvation still reside in my DNA.  Those who lived in the north understood the necessity of putting up food and firewood enough to last through the winter. Winter was the time of harsh choices; when they were forced to choose the strong over the weak.   Scandinavians are often known for their stoicism.  My grandmother would fit that category, yet she had a heart big enough to love all of us as if each of us was her most cherished.  She never complained about the past, yet I knew she suffered many things.  She lived through hard times during the Great Depression, and yet still maintained the inner fortitude to keep living even when life was as hard.

Will my future be different?  I hear in people’s voices their fears of what might come, not knowing the horrors only imagining their likelihood.  I want to offer hope, but how?  How can I explain what I learned from my grandmother; that life is worth living even in the worst of times.  Family and God were all that she had but they were worth everything to her.  She had unshakable faith in the goodness of this world.  Her heart was big enough to endure pain and suffering and live through it…for us.  We were her future.  I wonder whether people truly realize how much our addiction to oil, to cars, to conveniences is going to affect our children and grandchildren’s future?

Yes, winter is coming.  But before it arrives I pause and give thanks for what I’ve received this year.  Fall gives us colors, a wild celebration of summer’s growth.  The last of this year’s crops are picked and stored away.  The wood piled high and dry under the eaves of the barn; enough to make many a warm cozy fire when the snow lays deep.  I hear the call of the wild geese passing overhead and remember how they sounded in my childhood, high in the sky, the V shape they flew as they winged their way south for the winter.  Here in Indiana they stay all year, winter and summer, never flying north.  Change has come, and more is coming.  It’s time to pick those herbs and finish my chores.  There will be plenty of time later to sit by a fire and ponder our future.

A Conversation with My Daughter, or the Possibilities and Dangers of the Future

My daughter, being sixteen, just got her driver’s license. I asked her a question a few days ago: ” If you had to choose one and give up the other, which would you choose: a personal vehicle or the internet (including social media, wifi, smart phones, etc.)?”

She thought for a bit and said: “It’s a hard question but I would choose the internet.  Nobody actually likes driving, it’s just something we have to do, but I really like having access to movies at home and all that other stuff.”

She is just one young person, but the choice and the distinction that she made surprised me.  I’m not sure that an older American (Boomers, X’s) would be capable of dis-owning the automobile with so little mental anguish. We “olds” have our sense of social identity tangled up with the system that requires a personal vehicle to “keep up.”  Car equals social survival and, beyond that, social status.

These younger ones, whose smartphone use we so often deplore, may offer a strange kind of hope.

Imagine if we could build upon this opportunity: the  remapping of social identity from personal mobility to personal connectivity.  Imagine if the US fleet of personal vehicles were to shrink just a bit every year.  That would be  an amazing reversal of our ever more frantic consumerism. It wouldn’t solve everything but it would be a beginning – a sliver of a wedge – and any wedge is welcome in what seems like a hopeless struggle .

And there is hope in thinking that our civilization’s hell-bent investment in social connectivity – the massive server farms, the underwater cables, the satellites, the FoxConn factories, the rare metal mines – might not have been entirely wrongheaded.  Perhaps we can leverage the transformation in connectivity to effect another transformation: the de-coupling of personhood from the personal vehicle?  I’m not, generally speaking, a believer in eco-modernism i.e. the idea that technology will save us from the negative side-effects of technology, but perhaps our obsession with our smartphones  could have a useful outcome after all.

The catch is that we have to actually capitalize on the opportunity and make it possible to have a decent life without each of us having to own  several tons of metal for personal transport.  We need to convert on the investments we’ve made, somewhat blindly and frivolously, in personal connectivity.  We have to dis-own car culture. And I don’t see my generation having the will to do it.

But maybe my daughter’s generation may have the social capacity to make that choice.  Maybe they can gently tip into another paradigm.

Ruben Anderson of A Small and Delicious Life  describes social capacity this way:

Three things are needed to make change;  we need three capacities. We need the Technical capacity, the Material Capacity, and the Social capacity. Let me explain:

If you have a recipe for apple pie, and some sort of an oven or other way to concentrate heat, you have the technical capacity to bake a pie.

If you have apples and flour and sugar and butter and pinch of cinnamon you have the material capacity to bake a pie.

And if you have someone who is willing to cut butter into flour, slice apples and wait around while the pie bakes, you have the social capacity to bake a pie.

If you lack any one of these three, there will be no pie. Pie will be impossible. You cannot have pie.

And the social capacity to let go of our automobiles has seemed to be the missing element .  So it’s exciting to see a glimmer of something being born that was not possible before. Just a tiny glimmer.

Of course the danger is that virtual connectivity overwhelms and undermines us humans at our very core, that we become creatures of our machines even more fundamentally,  as E.M Forster described in his prescient short story The Machine Stops, (1909)  –

…beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.   

Our greatest strength is to need no machine, no garments of steel or intricate devices.  But that is not where we are at right now.  Right now we are searching for a staircase away from the cliff, and for any little glimmer of a path.

 

A low carbon footprint

The article “A world made by hand” was picked up and re-posted on Resilence.org.  I appreciated all the wonderful discussion by others in their comments to my piece. One person commented that “when ‘stuff’ was made by hand, the world population was around 1 billion.  So let’s examine the world of 300 years ago, when if you needed a pot, someone had to make it, if you needed flour, someone had to mill it.  Idyllic?  Blinkered is a more accurate description”

My point in writing that article wasn’t that I don’t use appliances or am against technology, but rather, that we need to use our hands more.  Or as another person wrote “Many of us have one foot in the modern world and another in the world we think is likely to come”.    Exactly!  And I have found that doing something by hand turns out to be surprisingly good for my peace of mind.  I enjoy reading about human evolution and I often think about how we as a species are changing.  I wonder what if anything will survive of our species and culture as we move through this “self” created bottle neck. That is what made me think that maybe we have lost something important when we no longer have the skills to do things with simple tools.

I would like to say something about my own family’s choices.  My husband and I both decided more than a decade ago to reduce our home’s carbon foot print. We saw the writing on the wall and felt changes forced upon us won’t be pleasant. I love the phrase “Collapse now, avoid the rush.” I stopped using a clothes dryer and dishwasher, grew more food, and cooked more fresh meals. Being an avid gardener and cook it wasn’t difficult for me to do these things. I still have a clothes washer, a stove, a refrigerator, computers, and T.V., etc. Not too great a lifestyle change!

I found the exercise of evaluating and reducing our home energy use very informative. So few people actually know how much energy their home uses. We planned to add renewable energy to our home and as recommended in the many books we read in preparation to install a solar PV system, we reduced our energy use in order to invest in a smaller sized system. We started with the less expensive but very effective solutions; more attic insulation, water heater blanket, and a programmable thermostat. We added motion sensors to some lights, power strips on electronics, and changed light bulbs to CFLs and then LEDs. Over time we purchased new windows, blinds, and replaced appliances. We were able to reduce our electricity consumption by 35% with investment in technology and rather modest lifestyle changes.

Eventually we added a high efficiency, wood burning fireplace insert and geothermal (a ground source heat pump) allowing us to stop using propane. When our home was all electric we added a 10 KW solar PV energy system, which with wood as supplemental heat supplied about 95% of our energy needs.   (I could have added to my article the enjoyment I find in gathering and stacking wood for the winter or sitting next to a cozy fire in the fireplace.)  So our “evolution” to reduce our carbon foot print was a combination of new technology and old fashioned skills.

Fifteen years later we bought an earth-bermed home (pictured above) and added solar PV energy.  My gardens are a bit smaller, the woods and views are larger.  I no longer have chickens and my husband says he’s done putting up fences.  My sons have grown up and moved on so I have fewer mouths to feed.  Perhaps the most satisfying thing about raising our children with a different mindset, was seeing how they think about the future.  One son who is studying engineering technology is interested in learning blacksmithing.

The point made by the person who thought my article was blinkered also wrote “individuals and small groups can and will pursue change for the better—but that the vast majority will have neither the means, intellect or inclination to do so.”  Yes, it’s very obvious (and saddening) to me that few people have the resources to make the changes we did.  But even more saddening to me is the number of people who do have the means and the intellect but not the inclination.  To be honest, living frugal has always been a choice we made.  Both my husband and I worked our way through college. We have always saved money and kept debt low. We teach our children that this is the way to live. Will my family’s actions  save the world? I am not optimistic, but we can’t let the inaction of others prevent us from taking action.

There was an excellent video presentation posted on Resilience Oct. 6, “The Gordon Goodman Memorial Lecture 2017 – Kevin Anderson.” Kevin Anderson, a climate change scientist, said something in an interview that sums up my position on climate change and peak resources. He was asked “Do you think [humanity] can keep climate change to less than 2 degrees?” He replied “I am not optimistic, but if we do nothing we will certainly fail.”  If we do nothing we will certainly fail.

So, yes, I’m changing what I can in my own life, and yes, I still fear for our collective future.  But living in fear is no way to live.  So along the way to stepping down into a lower carbon lifestyle, I’m finding that the path of change has also brought me unexpected joy and happiness.  If a doctor told you you had only six months to live how would you spend that time? Our attitudes toward life make a big difference not only to us but to the people around us.

I loved the piece written earlier by Richard “Getting Down to basics”, about his friend in Puerto Rico who was affected by the recent hurricane. I found his friend’s response incredibly inspirational!  She wrote “We have a few bananas and plantains from the remaining trees in the back, some we eat, some we put by, and some we trade with the neighbors for the things they have. It has continued raining often so we have water from the catchment. We are back to the island living that we always had before. No worries. The fishermen are out of luck with lost gear and little fuel but it gives the fish a rest and a chance to recover some…”

What remarkable calmness and acceptance in the face of such devastation to her home, their island!  And what a different point of view from what the news media portrays.  It seems that when disaster strikes the media only wants to show us people wailing and crying, begging for help.  The media wants us to think we are victims, beaten down survivors.  They don’t want to portray people who accept what happens and do what they can to help themselves and their neighbors; people who go about doing simple things like gathering plantains and water, with good spirits.

Her words confirmed what I deeply believe; that it isn’t our machines or technology that make humans such a remarkable species. It’s our resilience, tenacity, ingenuity, courage in the face of adversity…and most importantly, our ability to laugh and love.

A world made by hand

Only a few generations ago we made many things by hand.  Over the last 50 years store bought products have replaced handmade goods.  Few people still work with their hands, and I often wonder what we have lost in this process?  What have we lost when we no longer enjoy or even know how to make things with our hands?

Human prehistory is described by the tools and artifacts left behind.  Tools were both functional as well as art.  I love handling a kitchen tool that belonged to my grandmother.  Human development is attributed to our opposable thumb and ability to make and use tools.  So how have we changed now that we seldom use hand tools, and our hands are most often busy using a computer or phone? Are these the same kind of tools as a wood lathe, a knife and cutting board, or a needle and thread?

I love making pottery, bread, and cooking from scratch.  My grandmother taught me to knit and sew and I’ve made several articles of clothes and scarves.  I taught myself to carve wooden spoons and often think I should spend more time doing that…but don’t.   Like many people in their 50’s I often think, I’ll do that after I retire.  We are drawn to the beauty of artisan crafts and desire to explore making them ourselves, but don’t.  Perhaps life is too busy, it would take too much time to make things by hand.

In a world that has less energy available, a world that cannot afford to burn more fossil fuels, we need to move away from machines and back towards things made by hand.  That probably seems unimaginable if you didn’t grow up with a parent or grandparent that made things by hand.  But I think the reality of living like this will be more satisfying than you can imagine.

Many years ago I stopped using a clothes dryer and instead hung clothes out to dry as my grandmother did, as my mother did until she could afford the modern convenience of a dryer.  I enjoy hanging clothes outside to dry.  I like the excuse to go outside, to pay closer attention to the weather.  Is it going to be sunny and dry today?  Is it a good day to wash clothes or does it look like rain?  And while I am outside I become aware of outdoor sounds… birds, insects, the wind rustling the leaves.  It makes me feel lighthearted, less weary of things I can’t control.  I notice how the air smells and how it changes with time of day or season.  Early morning smells different than afternoon, and afternoon different from evening.  There is the smell of spring blooming flowers or bushes, freshly mowed grass in summer, or wood smoke in fall.  I also noticed the fresh smell of line dried clothes; fresh, clean, and sunny.  Did you know sunny has a smell?  And of course, I slow down.

The same thing happens when I cook using fresh food, especially from the garden.  I pay attention to what is ripening in the garden and plan a meal around what’s available.  The garden food changes over the year, cool season crops in spring and fall, and hot season crops in summer.  Did you know you can dig carrots in winter?  We have gotten used to shopping for food in grocery stores with their abundant types of food available, shipped from all over the world.  In-season and climate zones have lost their meaning.  In the process the food has also lost much of its flavor, freshness, and nutrition.  Food picked before it’s ripened and shipped across the world doesn’t contain the same nutrition as food picked fresh from the garden at the peak of ripeness.  Garden fresh food tastes better and makes me feel better eating it.

Chopping vegetables for a pot of soup takes time.  People call it Slow Food.  Food processors are not nearly as enjoyable to use as a good knife and familiar cutting board.   Making soup is a creative process.  There is the usual onion, maybe celery, potatoes, or carrots, but where to go from there, meat or beans, tomatoes or cream base?  What spices or herbs will I use; Asian curry, Italian, or Mexican?  Herbs add so much flavor there is little need to add much salt.   And herbs are easy to grow making me feel more self-sufficient.  Some come back year after year and some gladly reseed themselves.  An herb garden is a beautiful, carefree kind of place.  Butterflies and bees love to visit the blossoms, and when I’m gathering herbs I can’t help but feel connected to the life with which I share my garden.

I also enjoy making bread by hand, something I learned from my mother.  I got into artisan bread and bought a stone for my oven.  Eventually I purchased a hand cranked flour mill to make truly fresh whole grain bread.  It takes longer, but the rewards are worth it; the smell of the freshly ground flour, the yeasty dough, and the bread as it is baking.  Then there is the reward of seeing my family’s smiles as they walk through the door and smell fresh bread and soup for dinner.  One Sunday morning I brought fresh bread and homemade pesto for snacks after church service.  A man came up to me and said “Thank you for your hospitality!”  And I realized that is exactly what makes sharing food so enjoyable, hospitality.  How often do we have time to entertain guests anymore?

I know that few people have the luxury of working at home.  And perhaps your idea of craft making is different from mine.  But I think it’s too bad that we have given up this experience in the name of progress or modern convenience.    What was the convenience for?  Oh yeah,  so we’d have more time to do things we enjoy.

Too often people work because they need to earn a living, not because their job is their career.  I think people would like to have more time to be at home, enjoying time spent at a slower pace, enjoying more leisure time to be with their family, in the garden, kitchen, or workshop.  I think it may even be a deep seated need within us, to make something with our hands.  Unfortunately, this need gets suppressed by the demands of earning a living.  This need is ignored when we spend our leisure time staring at a phone or computer screen, trying to relax and tune out the pain we feel from the modern, convenient lifestyle we live.

A world made by hand isn’t going to happen by itself.  We need to find ways to turn off the machines, tune out the digital media, and let our hands be busy instead of our brain captured by a computer.  We need to learn to fix something that is broken rather than throw it away and replace it.  We need to find ways to express our longing for making art, crafts, food, laughter, and lightheartedness.  Hands that are busy pushing keys on a device do little to challenge our mind.  Remember that thing we call eye-to-hand coordination?  I’m convinced there is something developmentally necessary for our brains when we learn to do something with our hands.  The experience we get from spending hours staring at the computer or phone screen is not very life affirming.  Humans became human because we made the world by hand.  Will the world really be enriched if a robot can make pottery?  Will we still call it  “hand” made?

how’s that again?

have been running from required activity to required activity and not paying enough attention to some of the earlier thoughtful posts and comments, so want to go back a thread or two, to a story you all might find relevant to both the consumerism and life style thoughts. To me just naming how we live in terms of words like those implies an external point of view, similar i believe to the comments about the GDP value being greater for the overweight about to be in court smoker fellow than the obviously poverty striken family living within their means… Seems it’s about how we measure things, how we value the things that make up our lives.

The story goes somethng like this:
A successful norteamericano businessman is on a seaside vacation in a rural area of the Central American coast. He is walking along the beach in the morning below the village, and a small boat comes to shore and the three fishermen begin unloading a half dozen good sized tuna into an old rusty truck. The vacationer wanders over to inspect the proceedings, and inquires where they got the fish. “Oh we went out before dawn this morning and caught them just off here.” “Well that’s a good catch and it’s only 10 oclock in the morning. What are you going to do now?” The captain said they were going to take them up to the village, and cut them up to sell. Then we are going to go to the cantina and have some food with our families.”

The vacationer considers the reply for a bit then says “…well you know that if you stayed out longer then you could catch more fish and you would make more money.” “Well senor, that is true but…” “Then you could get a bigger boat and catch even more fish… If you did that then you might even be able to buy another boat or two.” “But senor, why would i want to do that?” “Then you could make even more money, and hire people to run your boats… and then you would have time to spend with your family.”

Getting down to basics

finally heard from an old friend from Puerto Rico more than three weeks after huuricane Maria blasted the islands back to the stone age. She has a good job in the main city of San Juan working for the US Dept of Commerce NOAA Fisheries and the federal building finally got power, and lo and behold telephone, and internet via an old “antique” 3G hotspot. We were in the middle of an all too rare volley of emails when the storm struck. i had called many times over the interim and emailed a few knowing they would stay on the servers until retrieved. Despite all the coverage on the tube of dire straits Graciela seemed happily content. “We have a few bananas and plantains from the remaining trees in the back, some we eat, some we put by, and some we trade with the neighbors for the things they have. It has continued raining often so we have water from the catchment. We are back to the island living that we always had before. No worries. The fishermen are out of luck with lost gear and little fuel but it gives the fish a rest and a chance to recover some…” What more could one want ?

an old friend said that
she wished to have only
a bowl and a spoon