Archive for September, 2008

Independence Days and a Sweet New Year to Y'all!

Sharon September 28th, 2008

Posting will be light or nil much of this week because of the Jewish High Holidays – the New Year begins Monday evening, and L’Shana Tovah to all of you (a sweet, happy and healthy new year, despite all the changes!).  I’ll be offline probably until Thursday or Friday because of that and visiting guests. 

BTW, just in case you are interested and live in my area, I’ll be on live and in studio on WAMC NPR from 11-11:30 on Thursday, Oct. 2 on the Connection. 

Ok, on to the update.  Note, this covers most of what I have done since the last one.

1. Planted something – some late spinach and some wheat.  Transplanted some herb starts.

 2. Harvested something – Yup, our first pumpkins, dry beans, lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard greens, chard, onions, beets, carrots, peppers, broccoli, hot peppers, tomatillos,  tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cabbage, various asian and salad greens, eggplant, sage, mint, catnip, elderberries, fall raspberries, everbearing strawberries, quince and apples.

3. Preserved something: Pickles, sauerkraut, kim chi, pickled onions, pickled garlic, pickled crabapples, dried tomatoes, canned tomatoes, canned salsa, canned ketchup, braided and hung garlic, braided and hung onions, dried hot peppers, made hot sauce, made applesauce, made quince paste, dried lemon zest, made horseradish sauce, made mixed dried veggies and herbs as soup base (tomatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, sweet pepper, sage, thyme, hot peppers, sea salt), made cider syrup, made apple butter.

4. Stored something – made a run to BJs using a free trail membership.  Bought recycled tp, cat litter (for our elderly cat who no longer will leave the house), Goodnights pull ups (which Eli is required to use at school – but he’s getting close to trained – yay!!!), vanilla (cheapest I’ve ever seen it – $6 for 16 oz!!!), kids multivitamins, asprin.

5. Prepped something – continued working on moving the office and all the relevant books up to our room for the winter, sorted out the kids winter clothes, washed/aired and figured out sizes, packed away summer stuff, worked on some more insulated window quilts, knit two pairs of mittens and half of a pair of fingerless gloves for typing in icy cold office, stacked wood, collected kindling, ordered hay and straw for winter animals, made appointment for chickens and turkeys that are headed off the farm to meet their maker.  Ordered plastic pants for toilet training toddler.  Began Chanukah/birthday shopping (books, mostly) for boys, three of whom have birthdays between halloween and chanukah. 

6.Cooked something new - tried three new hot sauce recipes. Still not finished with them, so not sure which one(s) we’ll be happiest with. 

7. Worked on local food systems: Began discussing the reallocation of synagogue greenspace to food production, did a talk on edible landscaping, worked on editing A Nation of Farmers.  Sold produce at my synagogue’s harvest festival and got to have the fun of telling people how to cook new stuff.

8.  Learned a new skill – gutter cleaning.  Wahoo ;-P.

 Sharon

Friday Food Storage Quickie: Week 3

Sharon September 26th, 2008

Ok, so far we’ve added pasta, popcorn, orange veggies and dried fruit.  This week, we’re adding legumes and herbs and spices.

I know you already probably have some beans or peas in your food storage, but this week, I encourage you to get something leguminous you like to eat, but don’t store.  It is so easy to just buy one kind of bean or pea at the most – all navy beans or all split peas or something.  But the range of tastes and textures involved is really quite vast and wonderful.  So even if you are primarily relying on one thing, maybe add a little extra for variety – some 16 bean mix, chana dal, anasazi or Jacob’s cattle beans, or even some nice black soybeans.  The more you vary your legumes, the less it feels like “beans and rice…again?!?!” 

 What are the best sources of interesting legumes?  Well, in some areas you may be able to get local beans or peas worth trying – Maine Yellow Eye, Southern Cowpeas….  Indian, caribbean and asian grocery stores are excellent sources of inexpensive legumes, as are coops and supermarket bulk bins.  And if you have a little money to spare and are really adventurous, seedsavers.org has beans available on their sites, showcasing dozens of rare heirlooms.  And don’t forget to pick up some seed to grow some for next year.

Next up, herbs and spices.  You are not going to be happy eating grain and legume meals unless you can vary them using seasonings.  And since asian, indian and caribbean grocers are such great sources of interesting legumes, you might as well take some time to check out their spice offerings while you are there.  They are one of the cheapest sources out there for seasonings – and they often sell whole spices which keep much, much longer than ground ones.

Coops and bulk stores, odd lots stores, drug- and dollar stores are all great sources of inexpensives herbs and spices.  Think quantities here – you aren’t going to flavor a big pot of lentils and pasta with a teaspoon of curry powder – cooking lots of staple foods means using a lot of seasonings.  So if money is tight, look for the ways to get lots of bang for your buck.  Obviously, if you can afford it, buy fair trade and organic when you can.

Of course, many herbs can be harvested in  your garden – or someone else’s.  Seriously, consider asking a neighbor who gardens if they ever have extra herbs – most of us have mints and oreganos that regularly try and take up more space than they are allotted.  You can take rooted cuttings and plant them and any trimmings and dry them for winter.  Plants can be brought inside for winter or the dry season as well. 

Other seasoning plants can often be found in the wild – wild onions and garlic dry beautifully for garlic and onion powder, and many herbs have naturalized into landscapes – wild thyme ranges free here, as do several mints, while other flavoring herbs have also escaped in other regions. Harvest reponsibly, of course.

This week’s extra is not a tool – it is a medical basic – the tetanus shot.  Just like it is wise to keep your flashlights charged and ready, IMHO, anyone living sustainably and playing the dirt needs a current tetanus shot going into the crisis.  I know there are those who don’t vaccinate – personally, I feel strongly that this should be the exception for anyone who works or plays in the dirt, works with tools or does any of the other things that we’re all doing. We vaccinate selectively, but our kids always have a current tetanus shot.

 Keep it updated – tetanus is a horrible disease endemic in the soil.  So if you can’t remember when you last had a tetanus shot, now is the time to get an update – and to check on everyone else in the family.  This is especially the time to push a little for teenagers and young adults who might otherwise just skip it. So please, please consider getting updated – who knows how long we will all be able  to do this.

 Ok, have a great weekend everyone!

 Sharon

Peeling the Onion: What's Behind the Financial Mess?

Sharon September 25th, 2008

If you want a pat answer to what has caused the financial crisis that is reverbating around the world, and now threatening the derivatives market, we’ve got one. Nearly everyone – in the mainstream media and outside it, tells the same story – that the crisis was caused by the unravelling of the housing market, particularly the US housing market.  And if you ask what’s behind that, well, we’re told there was a bubble.  And if you ask what was behind the bursting of the bubble, well…it is turtles all the way down.

 I’m not a turtles kind of gal, and so I thought it might be worth playing with root causes some more.  Now it is absolutely the case that original causes are virtually impossible to come by – everything is always multicausational. And there’s no question that the housing market was so ridiculously overvalued that in no sense could it have been sustained.  Still, it is sometimes interesting and productive to tease out some of the major causes of our problems, the things that explain why now and how, and I think there’s one that people haven’t been looking too carefully at – and one I think bears some exploration of.

I’m going to suggest that if you peel off the layers of the financial crisis, we’re going to find some pretty basic things.  And one of the basic things is, well, food.  It seems sort of anti-climactic, I think, if you are a pundit, to talk about the cost of rice and soybean oil as part of the root problem of such a massive financial crisis, but I suspect we’ll find it there.  And underneath the food, I think we’ll find oil. 

Most commentators have taken the food crisis, which has run more or less in parallel with the financial crisis – growing gradually through 2007, and beginning to move more dramatically towards crisis in the winter and spring of this year, as an irritating factor, a small push against already strapped consumers.  But I’m not really sure this is the right way to look at this.  Instead, we might look at the question of how the growth economy grows.  Some of it, of course, is through population increase – new workers, new consumers.  But population growth itself has proved over and over again to be insufficient – not only do we need more people, but the industrial growth economy always needs a larger percentage of the populace to serve it.  This is one of the reasons I tend to agree with Vandana Shiva that the population problem is not primarily a cause of our current crisis, but a symptom of it.

We might look at the boom and bust cycle of our economy, and indeed, the world economy, as one moved not just by energy, but by new workers (who then conveniently become new consumers and create new markets – remember, 70% of the economy is consumer spending).  Each boom cycle has followed the move of vast numbers of new workers into the economy, essentially creating more money in the form of productivity, and more income to spread around and lubrication to the economic system. 

 So, for example, after the Great Depression, we got the country moving in large part by the industrialization of a large portion of the agricultural population – millions of farmers were brought into the industrial economy either to serve in the service or work in the factories.  After the war, many of them never returned to the farms – and the GI bill and the conversion of wartime industry to peacetime industry encouraged lower income farmers to go to work.  The movement of people employed largely in the subsistence economy into the industrial economy created a huge boost – poor black farmers in the South moved to industrial centers in vast numbers to take advantage of good wages, and low income women who had worked in the factories never did return to pre-war levels of women’s work.

In the 1970s, as the economy began to stagnate again, the answer was a new influx of workers and consumers – quite rapidly, women began entering the workforce in staggering numbers, requiring new work wardrobes, second cars, fast food restaurants and daycare providers to take the place of what we had.  Workers who had primarily provided subsistence labor not counted into the GDP were transferred into the formal economy, and disproportionately as low wage laborers.  The excesses of the 80s began just as the numbers of women workers fully doubled – all of a sudden there was more money to go around – and this is hardly surprising since there was more work being done, and more money being spent both on luxuries and on paying to do the jobs that had previously lived in the subsistence economy.

The next wave of prosperity was a world scale one, running from the 1990s until pretty much the last couple of years – and again, millions of new workers and new consumers were inserted into the world economy, spreading money.  Suddenly there was new movement of funds, new workers doing new things and buying new stuff.  There were new markets again, and plenty of growth to go around.  Again, we find that the growth is primarily produced not by high value, highly educated workers in the new information economy – the most important economic growth during those periods was of new, low wage workers, moving from the subsistence economy into the industrial economy. 

It is worth asking why these low wage workers are so important to each bubble.  There are a couple of reasons.  The first is that even in the booming periods of cheap energy, it was never possible to mechanize or use oil for the majority of jobs – and as energy supplies rose in cost and tightened, it is less and less possible to do so.  The majority of all world farmers, builders and factory workers do use some machinery, but the primary engine of production is human work.  The other thing that matters is while there is a substantial difference in the pay scale of, say, an IT professional over a construction worker or a farmer, and the value of the work of the IT professional in the industrial economy is higher, moving people over to the white collar economy isn’t nearly as effective or profitable as taking people out of the subsistence economy and putting them on the lower rungs of the industrial economy.  First of all, you take a large portion of the productivity of a human being (remember, new industrial workers generally work long, long hours), without any amortized costs to provide him or her with health insurance or education.  That is, the total society investment in someone in the subsistence economy who then moves to working 12 hours a day in the industrial economy is very small, and the amount of work she does is quite dramatically more than what she did to serve the industrial economy when she was a subsistence farmer or a housewife.  Education, on the other hand, is expensive, and white collar workers like things like health care and vacation.  The money is in the new workers.

So what happened? Well, in America and the UK, some of it really just was a bubble popping.  But what, oh what funded the bubbles?  To a large degree it was the purchase of various American assets, including a lot of mortgages, by the newly cash flush emerging economies.  And gradually, gradually those purchases have slowed down – they began slowing in the fall of last year, after some rumblings even before that, and the slowdown has accellerate – it hasn’t stopped, but the flow of money into the American economy through various routes, including buying bundled paper, has slowed.  And it has slowed at least in correlation – I do not swear about causality – with the housing market.  Now the assumption has been that the slowing is due to the increase of risk – and that’s probably true to a degree.  But I think some further scrutiny might find that there’s another factor – that it has slowed as the emerging economies have been dragged down.

One of the news stories that came out last week was that in addition to the 100 million starving people that made the UN news last spring, we’ve now got still 75 Million more hungry people in the world than there were before.  The UN announced that essentially all of the progress made on global poverty up until now is being erased by the food crisis.

Now it might be worth asking – where are those 175 million new starving people coming from?  Before they were starving, who were they?  And the answer would be that many of them were the people who left their farms in China and Vietnam and Indonesia and a host of other places to go live in the slums of various cities and work there.  They were the people who were just getting by – the ones who sent a daughter to the factories and who did day labor in construction building up the economies.  They lived quite close to the edge, and then, they crossed the edge when food prices began to rise.   Now these were the lowest level new industrial workers – they weren’t buying cell phones, but they might have bought a few things that they wouldn’t have when they needed every penny for rice or bread – they sent their children, even their daughters to school, and bought clothes and pencils, they might save up for a radio for the family, and all these things, over millions of people, added up.  And they produced more than they were paid for the economy as a whole – their work was more valuable than their salaries could account for, as is the way of things.  But now they aren’t buying those things – their kids are out of school, there is no money for radios or batteries, and there’s no food – so they are working less, getting sick more, contributing less to the industrial economy, unable to make money selling things to the other people in their neighborhoods, because their neighbors have no extra money for anything either.  Not only are they starving, but they’ve stopped adding money into the economy – and stopped spending it on anything but food.

Meanwhile, the next tier up in income were the people who had a little more than just enough – enough and a bit to send back home to their families, to get a cell phone and some jeans and buy meat a bit more often.  These people worked pretty regularly at the new jobs – in factories, in building, in making the new globalized economy.  And they spent money too and moved it around within their communities, and back into the global economy – the spent a little money buying coca cola, which came back this way.  Now they aren’t starving yet, but the rising cost of food has pushed them too – now the coca cola and the meat are gone, except for the holidays, and there won’t be any more jeans.  Because now the money goes for food – they have food to eat, but not enough for those other things.  And so the money increasingly doesn’t move around that much – because the farmer who grew the rice they are buying spent most of his money buying fertilizer.  And so the money is headed mostly back to a few small companies – without a lot of stops around the neighborhood. 

 It is easy not to pay attention to such small things, and small people – after all, they aren’t spending much money, and their wages aren’t much. But they produce the stuff we need, they move money around – and hundreds of millions and billions of these small personal economies add up to quite a lot.  And the money that they made went places  – it took trips.  The money a poor Chinese worker generated in productivity went a bit into his pocket – and some of that went back to American corporations that made things.  And a lot of what he generated went into companies that invested in other things that fed our economy.  And some of it went to the Chinese government that used it to buy up dollars and other things that seemed to have some value.  It is perhaps not totally surprising, then, that as the Chinese worker got functionally poorer because of rising food prices, there was less money to pour back – times some millions.

And so it goes, down the latter.  The new workers, and the lubrication they provide in the global money system are being systematically impoverished, and what money they do spend goes to an increasingly narrow band of companies – instead of spreading the money around, money goes for very basic things – mostly food, and mostly basic foods.  And the farmers who make the basic foods mostly send that money back to a very small number of companies – the ones that produce oil and the ones that produce fertilizer – many of them located in the same countries and places. 

What is reducing the amount of productive work accomplished, and moving the money increasingly only into a few pockets?  It is the high price of food.  And what is the root cause of the high price of food?  Well, the single biggest factor, according to a number of studies, including the UN studies, has been the move to food based biofuels.  So if we peel back the onion one more layer, what we find is that one of the major factors slowing the economy has been, well, oil.  The rush to biofuels is a response to tightening oil supplies and rising costs, and the aggregate effect has been to push up food prices all over the world, while doing pretty much nothing to increase energy security, reduce greenhouse gasses or do much of anything else useful.

I’m no economist, and I don’t pretend to be.  But I wonder, when we peel back the layers of the onion later, and look at the history of this Depression, I wonder if we’ll see that in fact, what happened was that we squeezed out the lifeblood of the very thing we’d built our economy upon – new workers/consumers who could be counted on to grow the economy outwards and upwards.  We could have forseen this – but we chose not to – we chose, as we struggled to keep our lifestyle intact on the backs of the world’s poor, not to see that we stand on their backs, and it is people…all the way down.  In killing them, we killed ourselves. It may be that besides the tragedy of starving millions of poor people, we may also have brought down our own system, simply because we did not see, did not realize that the poor matter more to us than we like to admit.

Sharon

Ordinary Human Poverty

Sharon September 24th, 2008

At one point in his writings, Sigmund Freud (who, btw, was not at all the caricature that many readers imagine him as and who is well worth reading in his own right) wrote about the difference between two states – one of them abnormal, and subject to resolution by the “talking cure,” the other ordinary and not necessarily remediable.  The first he called “neurotic misery,” the other “ordinary human unhappiness.”  His point was that psychoanalysis could only address pathological states, neither it nor any other solution could preserve us from the ordinary bad experiences of being human, and that distinguishing between them was essential.  Ordinary human unhappiness did mean, of course, that one was unhappy every second, merely that one accepted that normal human states had periods of suffering, sadness, anger and fear in them too – it was important to recognize that nothing, no tool, could ever make life good every second.

Riffing on Freud, for some years, I have been arguing that the reality of peak energy, climate change and our precarious financial situation was leading us towards re-experiencing “ordinary human poverty” – a state that I would argue is fairly normal, if at times unpleasant.  I also believe it is the future for most of us.  And it would be easy to imagine that this meant that our future was one of true horror, an pathological nightmare from which we cannot awaken.  The despair many of us feel when we see that word “poverty” can’t be underestimated.

I think we are now at the point where the argument I’ve been making all these years – that peak oil will be less about whether there is gas in the gas stations or whether the grid crashes – and more about whether we can buy gas or whether the utility company shuts us off for nonpayment is pretty much certain.  Right now, we are watching the crisis unfold mostly far from us.  It is coming home – and rapidly, and we are shifting to a lower eocnomic level.  For example, as the New York Times reports, retail chains are in real danger – remember, 70% of our economy depends on consumer spending.  Most of us will cut back, and many chains will go bankrupt for lack of funds and credit – and that cascade of bankruptcies will further echo, as more and more of us who still have jobs and money to spend see no point in buying things at successful chains – why bother when the same jeans are available at 75% off at the going out of business sale of another store in the same mall? 

We could make much the same analysis for many other segments of the economy.  Whence the high paying NYC and other urban restaurants that depend on high finance types buying expensive meals?  Poof!  Whence travel and tourism in an era of unemployment and expensive gas.  We may go some places – those who still have money may head to the beach, rather than Cancun – but the overall amount of wealth flowing through the economy will drop like a stone.  And the fear takes the rest of it with us, as we become afraid to spend, afraid to invest, afraid to lose what little we’ve got left.  Bailout or no, the economy is headed into something deep and dark, and most of us are going into this new world with it.  Poverty is about to go back to being our human norm – just as it always has been for most of the world’s people.

And yet, the reason I’m using Freud’s language here isn’t just to remind us that poverty is a normal state for human beings.  It is in part to imply that there is a distinction between the deep suffering of what I would call “pathological poverty” and the functional poverty that is “ordinary human poverty”, sometimes unpleasant, probably always troubling in comparison to the relative wealth we’ve had, but basically livable state.  In it one can have periods, even long periods of happiness and security and comfort along with some less pleasant momemtns.  And I believe that while none of us can insulate ourselves entirely from the trauma of the darker ends of this, there is a great deal we can do to ensure that our coming poverty is not the pathological kind.

I find this reassuring then, when I read Dmitry Orlov’s latest account of where we stand in his “Five Stages of Collapse” - on the one hand, there’s not much cheery about the fact that we’re jumping over from Stage One to Two – and I think he’s right. But there is the reality that we can do a great deal to keep the elevator from dropping down to the basement. 

What is the distinction between “pathological poverty” and “ordinary human poverty?”  Well, cast back in your heads to your grandparents or great-grandparents.  Among the stories of hardship in post-war Europe and Asia, of recurring crises across the Globe, and of the Great Depression in America are likely to be moments that distinguish between the pathological poor.  “We were very poor, but there was always food on the table.”  “We were poor, but we didn’t really know it.”  “It was a struggle, but we were happy.”  We will also hear stories the other side of poverty – the pain of hunger, the blind terror of being turned off with no place to go, the deaths and the pointless losses and tragedies.

The question becomes how do we turn this story into one where most of us can say “We were poor, but we had enough – just enough, but enough.”  And where our kids may grow up not really realizing just how poor we were? How do we accustom ourselves to the ordinary human unhappiness (which, after all, isn’t unhappiness every moment, merely a recognition that most people aren’t happy all the time) that is our shift in wealth, without allowing ourselves to fall through the floor, into the deeper stages of collapse?

There are three answers to this.  The first is to reduce your needs.  I expect that for a long time, the stigma that attaches to any kind of poverty will keep many of us struggling to keep up appearances.  We are likely to feel ashamed the first time we have to ask for help, ashamed that our clothes are no longer as fine, that dinner is plainer and that we now share our homes.  The best way, I think to get over these feelings is to get over them in advance – to change your values as so many here have.  Thrift shop clothes and patches should be sources of pride, symbols of your independence from industrial manufacturers. The food on the table – and the people who share it - are the point – not whether high-social value elements like wine and meat are present.  The need to speak out against the culture that tells us that poor is dirty and bad becomes paramount – because the more resources we waste keeping up appearances the harder it will be to adapt.

The second is self-sufficiency of the kind most of us are trying to achieve.  The garden, the sewing needle, the saw and hammer, the ability to make and repair, to grow and produce and nurture things – these are things that demonstrate, as Jeremy Seabrook has contended, the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is self-sufficiency.  None of us will ever be wholly self-sufficient – but to be able to say that it doesn’t matter if you can afford shoes this year because you can repair last year’s boots, or to not have to spend much of your money on food means that you have a much better chance of covering that emergency medical bill or the property taxes. 

But these things alone are not sufficient.  One’s self-sufficiency can be taken away too easily when we lose access to land.  You can lower your standards to allow “poor but decent” but when we get to “filthy and rat infested” that’s not such a good idea.  The only way to live in the world of ordinary human poverty is to live there in a world where your pocket isn’t picked constantly, where you aren’t the victim of endless resource conflicts, where your government doesn’t sell your future out.  And the only way to be a nation of reasonably self-sufficient, ordinarily poor people living decently is this – to remember that the reason we use the word “ordinary” here is that there are a lot more of us peasants than there are of the powerful.  The truth is that repressive governments, of the sort we have had and are rapidly entrenching are scary – but they never have enough troops, enough power to stand up against the unified dignity of those who are simply ordinary, and simply want enough.  But that requires that we trust each other, that we work together, that we create the institutions of ordinary poverty, the ones that have fallen into disuse – Granges, Unions, Consumers Unions, neighborhoods, voting blocs, and larger groups that can be used to pull us together.  These things too are ordinary and human - and it is getting to be time to build them.

Sharon

Dances With Wood: Life With My Cookstove

Sharon September 23rd, 2008

As Bernanke and Paulson attempt to impress the urgency of the bailout on Congress with all the subtlety of a mob kidnapping (“Don’t actually read the plan or consider its implications, no time for that,  just give me my blank check or the markets get it”), and my congressfolk respond with all the subtlety they are capable of (“Re-election good….not getting re-elected…ummm…bad?”), while the markets teeter anyway, I’m taking a break to dream of the first fire of the season, and the soup I’ll simmer on the back of my cookstove.  Heck, a girl has to have a happy place when the world is going to hell.

Perhaps the single most visible symbol of the differences between my life and ordinary American lives is my wood cookstove.  So much of what we do to conserve energy is invisible – we don’t go places, we don’t use things, we don’t buy stuff. And the rest often looks fairly ordinary – lots of people have clotheslines, lots of people have gardens – and not necessarily for the same reasons I do.  But my wood cookstove, well that’s something rather different, something not in the kitchens of most houses.  Everyone who comes into my home stops dead at my Waterford Stanley and stares, admires, wants to know how it works.

I’m going to do a later post on wood heating and cooking in general, covering the climate impact, practicalities and dangers of using and overusing wood and the future of forests.  This time, I just want to talk about what it is like to live with wood, and particularly to combine the jobs of cooking and heating, simply because I know that thousands of people in the Northeast (who are particularly affected by rising oil prices) and all over the US (as people struggle with increasing gas and electric costs) are converting to wood, or considering it, and need to know a little bit about wood stoves in general, and perhaps about cookstoves in particular.

 Why choose a cookstove?  We have both a cookstove and a heating stove, although they only run simultaneously on unusually cold days or when we have guests enough to need to heat the whole house.  During much of the year, the cookstove is our primary heat source, particularly in the early spring and late autumn, when the worst of winter’s cold abates, but it is still chilly enough to need a source of heat. We haven’t yet started the stove for the autumn this year – since wood smoke is polluting, we try not to use it when it isn’t truly necessary.  But I’m looking forward to going back to dancing with wood.

If you are trying to decide whether to buy a cookstove or a conventional heating stove, it is worth considering what your priorities are.  Do you already live in a climate where you can use a solar oven or outdoor masonry oven most of the time (ie, somewhere sunny, fairly dry and warm?)  Then you probably don’t need a cookstove.  Do you have trees on your property or lots of sustainably harvested and carefully managed forest in the area, so that wood makes sense at all? 

Do you cook much?  Can or preserve?  If you live alone and rarely cook, I would go for the more efficient wood heating stove – remember, you can cook on one of those as well – you can put a pot of soup on the top of the stove, and even get or make a sheet metal oven to go on top of it that will allow you to bake.  It isn’t as precise, easy to control or as large a surface, but it can be done. On the other hand, if you live in a large household, preserve a lot and cook from scratch most of the time, a big flat hot surface and oven going all the time might be a huge blessing.  Also, where does your cooking energy come from? If you are cooking now with coal powered electric, replacing that stove with a cookstove might make a big dent in your emissions.

How much is cost an issue?  What kind of stoves are available to you?  New cookstoves are often a bit more expensive than new conventional woodstoves of similar heating ability.  If buying an older stove, be careful with what you are buying – older stoves of both kinds may be heavily polluting and inefficient. Used stoves are often available, but make sure you know what you are getting, and that they check out for a good tight gasket seal and are in good condition.  Also think about the costs and impacts of the wood you are using. If you live in a forested area, or can manage your own woodlot or track how wood is harvested locally, wood might make sense. In an area without a lot of woodland, where wood has to be trucked long distances, perhaps a stove using another fuel would be wiser.  Many woodstoves can be adapted to use pellets or corn, but I’m not aware of a pellet/corn basket that would fit the smaller firebox of a cookstove – although such a thing may well exist. 

How often are you prepared to tend things?  A cookstove necessarily has a smaller firebox than most woodstoves, simply because a lot of the space available is used for the oven – so while some stoves can be banked and kept going overnight, many cookstoves can’t.  Certainly, when you are cooking, if you need precise temperatures, you’ll find that you need to be able to be around, to feed the stove more often and keep an eye on things – it isn’t quite like setting the oven to 350 and walking away. It probably doesn’t require as much attention as you assume it does, but it does require more than electric or gas.  Also, are you prepared to learn how to keep your chimneys clean, prevent fires, cut wood, etc…

Finally, how worried are you about having a source of heat and cooking power that doesn’t require electricity or natural gas.  Since we have regular power outages in our rural neighborhood anyway, it is just commonsense not to depend on the electric lines for our heat (our oil furnace requires electricity to be used) or cooking.  If you aren’t worried about your fossil fuel supplies, or have a better, more locally appropriate alternative, maybe a cookstove isn’t for you.  The same would be true, even if you have these worries, if you don’t expect to be home to check on the stove regularly.

If you pressed me, though, to answer which of the above was the major factor for me in choosing a cookstove, I would have to admit, although a cookstove makes sense at my house, the primary factor isn’t anything so logical.  I just wanted one, and now that I have it, I find that I love it. 

Some of the things I do to cut my energy use and live more sustainably are fine, but I don’t feel passionately about them, but the cookstove is one of my favorite things in the world (milking goats and hanging laundry also fall in the category).  I love tending it - I actually love the regular interruptions to my work to go tend it when I’m the only adult in the house.  I love the intricate dance of adjusting temperatures and cooking, and the huge expanse of hot surface that entices me to start just one more pot.  I love canning on it in the fall, the way the warmth is almost too much, and the combined smell of the wood and applesauce.  I love the way I feel it helps me cook better – the way things taste when they come out of it, and the way its enticing hot oven and surface encourage me to cook, and cook creatively.

What is it like to use it? In the mornings, whichever of us is up first lights the stove – we don’t usually keep the cookstove going overnight, even though we can, simply because if it is cold enough to need a stove going overnight, we usually prefer the heating stove with its larger firebox and longer burn.  Sometimes we take a scoop of embers from the other stove, or if it isn’t as cold, we play match games with our junk mail and the newspapers friends save for us and the kindling that my kids collect all autumn.  It takes about 5 minutes to get the stove lit and be sure it is going, and another 20 minutes of hanging about doing other things, but checking on the stove and gradually getting it up to a proper burn before we can load it up and go about our business.   I think of lighting a fire as a kind of dance – a delicate balancing of materials and the temperatures outside, the air and the draw of the fire.  I love the symmetry, and most of the time, I love the challenge of getting it right.

Once we’re up and running, I immediately put the kettle filled with filtered water on the hob, and when it starts to boil, I’ll pour my first cup of tea and move it over to the coolest part of the stove which will keep the kettle hot all day long.  Since we often bake bread in the morning that we’ve set to rise overnight, many mornings the first project is to get the oven hot enough to bake bread, which is good anyway, since a short, hot burn will keep creosote from forming on the stove.  Meanwhile, the bread is put on for a final rise in the warming oven above the stove – a nice toasty spot that sends it bounding right up.  If you are in the market for a stove, the enclosed warming oven is a wonderful place to make yogurt, raise bread and dry mittens, or even dry pieces of wood for the next day’s fire that have been iced over or had snow melt on them outside.

Meanwhile, I will probably put something on to simmer on the stove – it could be a pot of soup or stew, or some applesauce – the kind of warm, hearty food that one craves in the cold weather.  Lunch will be ready when I want it.  The stove is good for multiple purposes – the kids come there to get dressed, I come to warm my hands after typing in a cool office and refill the teacup.  We can take the grate off and toast marshmallows or grill vegetables.  We don’t have a resevoir for hot water, my one regret about my stove, but occasionally we take a big stock bucket and bathe the kids in front of the stove anyway, just for fun, heating the water on the stop of the stove.  If the power goes out, we hang our solar shower bags up on hooks behind the stove to get hot for a bedtime shower.  And most days, the drying rack comes over near the stove so that we can rapidly dry our clothing, adding pleasant humidity to the air.

 Once the stove is going, and if there’s not much food to tend, I usually visit it once every hour.  It doesn’t have to be done quite that often, but I find that it helps me avoid getting engrossed in work or homeschooling and forgetting about the stove entirely.  Plus, the break – getting up, bringing in some wood or poking up the stove and adding wood – is pleasant.  I fill my tea cup again, fill the kettle and check on my simmering thing then too.

Lunch and dinner somehow seem easier with the cookstove to me – it is so simple to put something on to cook when I’m tending the stove anyway.  The structure and discipline of dancing with wood bring food along with them.  And the rich smells of food that comes out of the woodstove oven seem to make things even more delicious.  We eat in the dining room, basking in the warmth of the cookstove.

This reminds me that where you put the stove, and the shape of your house, will also affect your decision about having a stove.  You could put your cookstove in the garage or somewhere away from the kitchen, I suppose, but that will likely create a good bit of hassle for you if you do – carrying food that is bound to be spilled sometimes, running back and forth for things.  So if the kitchen – or a room right off of it isn’t a place you want to be, having a cookstove might not be for you. For us, we have a good sized older kitchen with room for the stove, and right off of it is the dining room where most of our homeschooling is done.  The stove concentrates us in the kitchen and dining room, which is lovely – it makes our public space more public and collective – we are all together, often working on different projects.

When we’re doing a big cooking project, with things in the oven and going on the stove, this requires more attention, a familiarity with the vagaries of our draft and the best strategies for heating up quickly.  Learning to use a cookstove does take some practice, and will probably involve a few mistakes as you master the idiosyncracies of your particular stove.  I think I burned things once or twice, and underestimated the time for something at least as often, but it was a surprisingly short learning curve, and you shouldn’t be intimidated by it.  It wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected it to be, and the learning was a lot more fun. 

You’ll want a plentiful supply of potholders and wooden utensils, since these don’t transmit heat, and cast iron cookware is the nicest and easiest to use on the stove – but since I like wood and cast iron better anyway, that’s no hardship for us.  Other than a few basic fireplace tools and a tight metal can for storing ashes, that’s really all you need. 

During the daytime we all gravitate to the stove, both to tend it, to enjoy the enticing smells and to be warmed by it.  At night, we shift the stove to warming the bedrooms – that is, we put bricks into the oven (we soak them in water first)  where they get hot.  The bricks are then carried upstairs, wrapped in flannel, and put into the children’s beds to radiate warmth to the sheets, and then gradually warm up their feet as they cool down.  We also heat water in hot water bottles, and rice bags to warm the kids.  Since we do not really heat the upstairs – we all prefer sleeping in a colder room with plenty of blankets – this means the pleasure of getting into a cozy, warm bed without the fire risk or magnetic field risk of an electric blanket.  Later, we’ll do the same thing for ourselves. 

If we do keep the stove going overnight, there’s an art to banking it – it takes a little time and practice again.  Otherwise, we fill it up before bed, and then just let it go out – because our stove is cast iron and tight, the stove will still be quite warm to the touch most mornings, even hours after going out, still radiating heat into the kitchen. 

All of it, to me, feels like a dance – occasionally clumsy or awkward, but often delicate and oddly freeing, despite the structures it imposes on my day.  It seems odd that one of the secondary (after the husband, kids and other family of course) loves of my life is green, squat, named Stanley,  and often too hot to touch ;-) , but so it is. 

Sharon

Next »