Archive for September, 2007

Vegeculture: Further Rethinking How We Eat

Sharon September 15th, 2007

In his book _African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South_, Richard Westmacott notes that a good bit of Southern African American agricultural practice derives from West African and Caribbean practices of “vegeculture” as opposed to European style-seed agriculture. The term, coined by D.B. Grigg in his classic _Agricultural Systems of the World_ is based primarily on root crops, including manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, arrowroot, and in cooler climates was adapted to potatoes as well.

Vegeculture has several advantages over grain culture. For example, you don’t have to till up a lot of ground at once, since these crops are adapted to “patch” culture. They often can be stored in the ground and dug up as needed, and can tolerate being integrated with perennial tree plantings. The tradition of planting in patches and leaving grown fallow to restore fertility in West Africa translated well in slave garden in the US and Caribbean islands because such gardens often had to be hidden. Often slave and later share-croppers had only hilly or otherwise difficult to use land, which is best served by being kept in perennial or semi-perennial root crops. Because slaves and tenant farmers had very little time to work their land, they needed high yielding crops that could provide nutrition and caloric density together.

In her essay “They have Saturdays and Sundays to Feed Themselves: Slave Gardens in the Caribbean,” Lydia Pulsipher observes that there is considerable evidence that islands that included many slave gardens didn’t suffer the classic malnutrition of slavery. In fact, the available data on the history of produce sales by slaves (who sold their surpluses to both white and black customers), suggests that white people were considerably healthier on islands that had large numbers of slave gardens. The implication seems to be that the starchy, vegetable poor diet of Europeans on these islands was significantly inferior to the vegetable rich, nutrient rich diet of the slaves, and the influence of slave gardens improved the European seed diet enormously (probably to the less-than-total delight of the slaves themselves).

As I was reading these various sources, tracked back from Westmacott’s fascinating book, I also read The Community Solution’s latest bulletin, which among other things observes that only 2.5% of American agricultural land produces vegetables, fruits and nuts. The other 97.5% is largely devoted to the production of grains and seeds for things like feeding livestock, feeding cars (ethanol and biodiesel) and transformation into processed food.

What struck me about this is how small an impact we would on the industrial agricultural juggernaut even if we were able to replace every single vegetable, fruit and nut we eat with locally, sustainably produced produce. That is, if we are looking to home production to help end the tragic power of industrial food production with its heavy greenhouse gas outputs, water consumption and soil degradation, we need to start thinking in terms of producing more of our total calories at home. Growing our lettuce and tomatoes is a good start, but the next step is a return to home production of calorically dense foods, and to that, I am more and more convinced that vegeculture is part of the answer.

Now the majority of that 97.5% of agricultural land is producing feed for meat, so obviously, and as I’ve said before, we simply must stop eating feedlot animal products - period, no negotiation. All of us need to eat less meat altogether, but also must, if we continue to eat meat at all, choose better sources of grassfed local or home produced protein.

Now most of us, in our city lots and suburban yards, will not be raising a lot of animal products. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow some. But if we are to get more of our calories from our own yards and from local farmers wherever we are, we need to choose high-nutrition, calorically dense, satisfying foods. Right now, as Michael Pollan has documented, Americans eat mostly corn, either as meat or highly processed foods. And it is hurting us. Although our lifespans recently inched up to 78, that’s still several years behind other rich nations, while costing us twice as much. Quality of life in later years has fallen steadily over the last few years.

We simply have to change our diets, and eat more whole foods. We also have no choice but to live off a much smaller amount of agricultural land. In a 1994 paper, David Pimmental and Mario Giampietro document the falling amount of available arable land in the US per person Between desertification, the transformation of agricultural lands to housing and a rising population, by 2050, there will be less than half as much arable land available to feed each person in the US - a total of 0.6 acres, as opposed to the 1994 1.8 rate. The current American diet requires 1.2 acres. We cannot hope to continue deriving many of our calories from “shadow” acres in other nations, in part because it would be unethical, and in part because it is likely that China, which is right on the cusp of being unable to feed itself, will be able to outbid us. So while we may have the luxury of a considerable amount of land per person, our children will not. It would be unconscionable, however, for us not to begin to transition to living on a fair share.

Which means, if our children are to eat, we have to change the current American diet. One way we can do this by adding land to our stock of “arable” lands - that is, we can start growing food on lawns, in public parks and anywhere else we can fit it. There are millions of acres of lawn available to be transformed into food producing land, much of it in housing built on the planet’s best farmlands. And if there is to be enough food to go around, those gardens will have to include our staple crops, not just the things we grow for pleasure and flavoring.

And our farms will have to grow more calorically dense foods, suited to our particular climates. I’ve written about this before, of course, but we simply can’t go around with all Americans eating the same basic diet of french fries and soda. Not only do our diets have to become more nutritious, and not only do they have to be produced more locally, but they have to reflect local conditions, and produce as much food as possible in as small a space as possible. We have, for the last 60 years, concentrated on making land more efficient in the sense of reducing the amount of labor needed to produce food on it. It is now deeply urgent that we change our notion of efficiency, and think in terms of total calories, fiber and fertility per acre, investing more human energy, more attention to soil humus and more care into our choice of crops. We cannot simply go on growing continuous corn, and washing our remaining soil down into the Mississippi.

Traditional West African gardeners, growing food in hot, dry areas of comparatively low fertility emphasized perennial vegetable crops as their base food crops, as have many Latin American farmers. Indeed, despite their tendency to rely on grain crops, Northern Europe made much of its agricultural prosperity on the turnip, and later, the potato. Large scale root cultivation enabled the milk culture of northern Europe, and there is archaeological evidence that in areas where turnips were cultivated, people grew taller and healthier than in areas where wheat and barley were emphasized. Root crops were higher yielding than grain crops, particularly when grown on a small scale. Hot weather root crops like sweet potatoes were tremendously drought tolerant and could be grown on ground of low fertility.

A few centuries later, John Jeavons at Ecology Action would pioneer an intensively grown diet for a human being based largely on calorie and nutrient dense root crops. In his book _One Circle_ David Duhon documents his life on a diet that could average less than 700 square feet, and heavily based on parsnips, potatoes and sweet potatoes. By eating these in place of grains, one could get virtually all the nutrition needed, keep full and healthy and feed four people on a single yard.

Meanwhile in Cuba, as grain imports fell, Cubans were raising more vegetables, and replacing rice and beans with sweet potatoes. In Russia, when no one could figure out why the Russian people weren’t starving to death, as wheat imports ceased, beets and potatoes provided the primary food sources to keep people alive.

While most of us would rather live on a diet slightly more varied than the one that Duhon describes in _One Circle_ what is remarkable about all of these agricultural systems is that they represent a high yielding, extremely nutritious, good tasting diet that can be produced easily by ordinary people on comparatively small pieces of land using hand tools. Hand production of potatoes, for example, outyielded corn well into the industrial age. Hand produced polycultures of one acre that emphasize roots integrated with perennial plantings a la permaculture or vegeculture and include animals to eat wastes and maintain fertility can dramatically outproduce existing monocultures of grains.

But this involves changing our diets to emphasize not seeds, but roots. That doesn’t mean we won’t eat bread or rice or other grains. But it means that most of us need to think in terms of the root crops we can easily grow as our household staples. And the perfect time to begin such a dietary adaptation is in the autumn, when roots are at their finest. Now is the time to think in terms of beets and tomatoes and carrots (where I am) and in terms of sweet potatoes and taro in hot places. By integrating vegetable proteins or very small quantities of meat with these roots, we can have sufficient protein, excellent nutrition, comparatively low levels of fat and a great deal of food satisfaction. These foods taste good.

In the spring, or in the winter for those in warm climates, we can begin to grow them as well. Of course, in most places, potatoes, onions and other roots are cheap and plentiful - it seems so much more sensible to focus in on high value vegetables like tomatoes and lettuces. But some potatoes on the ground, or sweet potatoes in the backyard not only are a source of security, they represent the beginnings of something important - an old new kind of agriculture, suited to a world in which fossil fuels must be replaced by human power, and old priorities must be replaced by the notion of a fair share.

I’ll write more later this week about what such a diet actually looks like, and I invite people here to share their favorite root crop recipes.



The Book of Life, Sarah and the Fairy Godmother: Stories and Prayers for the End of Industrial Society

Sharon September 11th, 2007

I attended last year’s Community Solutions Conference with some reluctance, because it was scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, and I didn’t much enjoy being away from my family over the high holidays. But I went, and I had a wonderful time, and I was selfish enough to end my talk with some meditations on the connection between my faith and peak oil. I honestly don’t remember what I said - I was making it up as I went along. But some bits and pieces remain, and I thought, in honor of the new year that begins tomorrow, I would meditate a bit on the same subjects here. This is not the speech I gave, but a variant on similar themes, brought about by the forthcoming holiday.

In Judaism, we tell the story that at the beginning of the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), G-d decides the fate of all human beings in the next year. They are, metaphorically speaking, “inscribed” into the book of life or death. Now there are several variants of this story. In some, those who do not fall in the category of obviously wicked or obviously good (that is, most of us) are not inscribed at all until Yom Kippur, ten days after. That is, there are ten days left for us to prove our worth, and to repent for our sins. Other versions suggest that G-d makes a provisional decision, but may change her mind in the interim, if we truly alter our ways during the ten days of repentence. In either case, as the story goes, our future hangs by a thread, by the things we do now to make ourselves worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life.

I know that the New Year is coming, but somehow, it always sneaks up on me. First it is summer and there’s all the time in the world, and then, in a blink, the high holidays are upon us, and I am unready to face my future. I have not prayed or prepared or thought as far as I ought to - even though I knew it was coming. I have not been the person I ought to - I have left things undone and done things I shouldn’t have, and failed to make amends. And thus, I am grateful that G-d understands us so well, that grace is offered for those, like me, who miss the obvious, who somehow convince ourselves that there is always more time, even when there isn’t.

I would suggest that this is in many ways, an apt metaphor for the place we find ourselves in right now, facing peak oil and climate change. The world is becoming something very different, something that we have made it and yet, that we are almost wholly unprepared for. We are entering an era in which the cheap energy we’ve relied upon for our wealth and comfort is moving out of our reach. We are in danger of transforming our planet in such a way that billions of us may die. The New Year, the new era, is upon us. And we are not ready. We are desperately pleading for more time, an easier transition - and the inexorable reality, which does not negotiate, confronts us. But perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a little grace left for us. We can at least hope that we still have time to repent, make good, repair.

In some senses, our fate is sealed and scheduled. We do not have the range of choices any of us would like. All of us would like to make gradual cutbacks and a smooth adjustment to the coming hard times. But that’s not an option any more. The new data about ice loss in the arctic suggests we are hitting one of the major tipping points in climate change *NOW.* Data coming in on world food supplies suggests that the confrontation between population and resources is coming very soon. We are probably already past our oil peak, and all sources of reliable energy may well peak within two decades. Our choices are few and hard, and those who will pay most and longest are those who had the least to do with causing the problems. If we are to fix things, it will involve a great deal of self-sacrifice and difficulty.

And the environment may not give grace periods. If we were to make draconian energy cuts, along the lines of the ones that the Riot for Austerity advocates across the board, we’d still have no better than a 2 in 3 shot of avoiding a tipping point - and the odds are probably worse now than when they were calculated almost two years ago. James Hansen has said that any solution that doesn’t include the extraction of carbon from the atmosphere will probably fail.

It might be helpful to imagine ourselves in another story - Sleeping Beauty. The child is blessed by each of her fairy godmothers, until the one who was forgotten, the embodiment of the things we have left undone, returns and curses the innocent child to pay the price for the adults’ neglect. There remains only the last fairy godmother, who cannot undo the curse - she can only soften it a little. We too are the last and weakest of the fairy godmothers, unable to undo all that we and those before us have undone. But that does not mean that we cannot soften the curse a little. We, like the fairy godmother, can make a small recompense for what we failed to do before.

We cannot undo everything. We cannot go back 30 years and make better choices. We can, at best, only soften the blow a little, take the burden that will fall upon our children and grandchildren, and carry a little of it ourselves. We will give them a warmer world, fewer resources, fewer choices. But perhaps it need not be a disaster. We can recognize the harm we’ve caused, and resolve to shoulder as much of that burden as each of us can possibly bear, but we cannot make it go completely away.

We could weep for that. We could and rightly do mourn the possibilities we no longer have. We could, even knowing that it is just, weep for what we have, mostly unknowing, inflicted upon ourselves and our children.

Or (or perhaps “And”), we can stop weeping, and shoulder our burdens, and face the truth and find satisfaction in honor and courage. What if the stories were real, and one’s fate could be known? What should we do, if we knew that this year, this month, were our very last, that we had been inscribed for death in the coming year? Would it still be worth repenting? The parents of Sleeping Beauty know that no matter how long it is delayed, someday, death will come for their daugter - perhaps the day after she awakens from her hundred year sleep. Is it still worth softening the curse? Would any parent ever answer “no?”

It would still be worth repairing the evil one had done, even if one was to die, because in doing so, you transform both the history of your life and the nature of your death. It would still, to the parents of the sleeping child, be worth it to give her one more day, for them all to have one more day. And it will still be worth it to us to make the tremendous sacrifices necessary even if we cannot fix everything - because we will have done what we could, what we should. Even if we cannot perfectly mend the future for our own children, we will have done what we can for someone else’s, and given one less grief to the world.

It isn’t that there isn’t every reason to weep, but there are greater reasons to get to work, to face the future square on, and with all the courage we can muster. Because even if our magic is weak, and our future foreordained, we can still change the way that future falls upon us. We can face it with honor or dishonor, courage or moral cowardice, concern for the future, or eyes looking only back to what we’ve lost. The facts may not change, but the stories we tell about them, the way we understand them, the way we understand ourselves, that we have power over. And we may still be able to change the facts as well. If we are willing, if we have courage, we might still make a fairly graceful descent. If we are willing, if we have courage, we might still preserve what is most needed for the future. If we were willing to give up enough, to act, as David Orr has put it, as though we truly love our children.

At Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeda, the classic story of faith. I admit it is a tale that fills me with great ambivalence, because I certainly have no such faith, and I’m not sure I can admire Abraham for having it. Abraham, who argues with G-d in other contexts, takes up the knife here. I’ve never fully been able to come to terms with Abraham, even through the lens of Kierkegaard’s Panegyric. Nor, as is often the case, I think in religious life, am I all that happy with G-d.

I have often wondered what the story would look like if Sarah, rather than Abraham, had been asked by G-d to sacrifice her only son. I enjoy constructing Biblical sounding variants of “Are you out of your freakin’ omnipotent mind?!?!?” I cannot imagine a scenario in which Sarah and her son would walk willingly together to the mountain. That is, of course, perhaps why Abraham has the job, but I have often wondered whether it would truly be a poorer Judaism if a different sacrifice were as hallowed. Perhaps this illuminates some essential limitation in me, or perhaps in Jewish mothers.

We learn from the commentaries that Sarah dies from this event - and at least one of the tales that is told of her death is that she dies at the moment that Abraham raises the knife, whether from fear or knowledge, or perhaps, as seems appropriate, because she, at a distance, inserts her own life in front of the blade that is set to take Isaac. It is never described as such, but whether or not her sacrifice was required, in some sense, Sarah does what many parents would literally choose - to lay their bodies in the place of the children they are asked to sacrifice. I cannot imagine any conversation between the woman who had the courage to laugh at G-d, and G-d that does not include the request that the sacrifice G-d asks be made of her, not her child. Because, to the extent that we parents have the courage, that is the way of things. It is our job to value our own lives less than the lives of our children.

It is our job to find a way to return to living our lives, as David Orr says, as though we truly love our children. It is our job to find the way that Sarah found. We are not told why she died at that moment. There is no indication that her sacrifice made any difference in the outcome. Perhaps she thought it might. Perhaps she did not expect to die, merely wished for it. Perhaps she knew it would not matter, that G-d would not alter the outcome.

When Sarah was barren, she sent her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham. G-d had told Abraham his descents would be as many as the stars above, but Sarah was old and the ways of women had ceased for her. So she tried to formulate a response to bring about the future that her husband and G-d seemed to want. It is not hard to believe that Sarah, who laughed when G-d told her he could make her pregnant, believes, because she has done it (with admittedly mixed results) that she is powerful enough to transform the future, to insert herself into what is foreordained. It is not impossible to imagine that Sarah died at the moment Abraham raised the knife because she hoped, she tried to replace his sacrifice with hers. Perhaps it didn’t matter whether she believed she could alter what was ordained by G-d. It mattered that she knew that she had no choice but to try and alter it.

We are not asked anything so great. For us, the requirements are fairly simple. That we recognize that other lives are at stake, in danger of sacrifice. That we do what is necessary to preserve them. That we make radical and difficult changes very rapidly, so that others may live. That we live our lives as though we love others, and value their lives more than our own comfort. That we, like Sarah, believe that we are powerful, and that our actions can alter what seems to be ordained, at that we live our lives as though our actions matter - even if sometimes it seems they don’t, that they aren’t enough, or that the future is not in our hands.

And doing so, we can hope for something better. That we, all of us, regardless of faith or origin, will be inscribed in the Book of Life. Not merely for this year, or the next or the one after, but for 100 years, and 1000, and 10,000 years. That we might be better, in the next year, that we might overcome some of our selfishness, that we might remember to do what we must do, and to preserve what we must preserve. That we might do well, and honorably, and deserve to honored by future generations.

May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may you do and be well in the coming year.
L’shana Tovah Tikatevu.


Knitting for the Apocalypse

Sharon September 11th, 2007

The title here is somewhat tongue in cheek, of course, but I do think that we knitters and crocheters, spinners and weavers have something useful to contribute to a lower-impact future - warm fingers and toes, homemade reusable cloth bags, beautiful clothing - all made from local or recycled or otherwise sustainable materials. So I thought a discussion of how to knit (and all the other useful fiber arts) sustainably was in order. I want to hear what other people are doing.

If you don’t knit, and you read this for advice about how to address peak oil and climate change, you may be thinking “couldn’t she have picked something even more boring to write about?” But here’s one of the details the apocalyptic websites rarely include - disasters are actually really boring. During the instant that bad things are happening there’s likely to be all sorts of excitement, screaming and running about, but in the aftermath of a disaster, particularly the sort that are likely in a slow, grinding loss of stability and wealth like the one we’re facing, there’s an awful lot of time spent standing around. Unemployment comes. You don’t have a car any more and can’t go out to the movies or to get a beer. No more recreational shopping. You turn the lights way down to save money at night, so you can’t read. Your sister in law and her three kids moved in and there’s nowhere to go to escape. What do you do? That’s the beauty of fiber arts. They are portable, cheap (or they can be - you can blow a lot of money if you want), and accessible. They provide something to do with your hands in a dark place, or a light one, it can be complex or relaxing. Whittling and other small woodworking projects work too, but fiber arts have the advantage of using only minimally pointy things, and being permissable in places like court and planes where knives get you in trouble. Seriously, this is the way the world ends - not with a bang but with a “Mooooommm…I’m bored!” Might as well have something useful to do with your hands.

First let’s talk books and patterns. I have my favorites, of course, and lots of them are just filled with pretty things. And you really could get pretty well along with a few downloaded patterns from the internet But if I had to narrow it down, I’d probably include in my knitting library the following books:

1. A sock book. Ok, you don’t need a sock book. One book, with one basic sock pattern will get you through your whole life. On the other hand, socks wear out fast, and you are likely to have to knit a lot of them. It will be much less boring if you have a few different patterns, and also faster if you have a variety of options for different yarn weights. You could really have almost any such book, but one of my favorite basic books is Knit Socks!. I like it because it includes a wide variety of patterns, very clear, very basic descriptions and a wide variety of yarn weights. I also love Nancy Bush’s _Folk Socks_. If you don’t like double pointed needles, Cat Bourdieu’s _Socks Soar on Two Circular Needles_ is way better than its stupid title, and the patterns are quite nice.

2. A mitten/glove book. If you live in a cold climate (and why would you knit mittens if you didn’t), Robin Hansen’s classic _Fox and Geese and Fences_ has recently been reissued, I’m told. This is, IMHO, the best mitten book for *practical,* *warm* mittens in the world. If it will keep a Maine fisherman warm while hauling lines, it will keep your fingers warm. You can still find used copies around as well - mine is starting to fall apart from too much love.

3. Or, if you wanted one book to cover all the little objects, including socks, mittens and gloves, I’d go with _Homespun, Handknit_ by Linda Ligon. This is a useful book for those making their own, but also has some lovely and practical patterns, some that are intriguing and challenging, and enough basics to keep even new knitters busy.

4. Now you absolutely don’t need any books at all to make scarves, baby blankets, afghans, washcloths, towels, etc… except a knitting stitch pattern book (actually, you don’t need even that, but you might go mad with boredom making 100 stockinette washcloths). You can make ‘em up on your own - they are flat rectangles, afterall. I wish I owned Barbara Walker’s multiple knitting stitch treasuries, but instead I have the decent _Big Book of Knitting Stitch Patterns_. Since you absolutely, positively do not need such a book, I’m being selfish in recommending Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne’s _Mason Dixon Knitting_, which has a lot of patterns for cool things you can do with rectangles - felted boxes, washrags, towels, afghans. The thing is, the stuff is so cool and the book is so much fun that I’m recommending it anyway. Need is subjective here.

5. If you live somewhere cold, you need a sweater book. My favorite, because of its overwhelming applicability, is Priscilla Gibson-Robson and Deborah Robson’s _Knitting in the Old Way_, which shows you how to adapt almost any sweater structure to any size or shape, using any yarn or needles. I also like _The Wonderful Wallaby_ a pattern booklet from Cottage Creations. Wallaby sweaters are just about the coziest, cutest hooded sweaters on the planet. I’ve seen a number of them, know many people who knit them, have one on needles (for one of my sons) and am going to have to knit one for myself. It is, as the above, infinitely adaptable, and practical.

6. If you are going to knit for babies, I think it is helpful to have one book of ideas for doing so. I like Melanie Falick and Kristin Nicholas’s _Knitting for Baby_ quite a bit, but almost anything will do. The idea is “cute ideas” to keep you entertained. The other plus of this book is that it has a giant felted tote bag pattern designed to be a diaper bag, but also useful for shopping. I can’t really justify suggesting it, but there’s also a geat _Farmer’s Market Tote_ pattern in Falick’s _Weekend Knitting_ that I’ve made twice now. But you don’t need that book. Or any of these books. What I want them for is inspiration - of course I can knit a rectangle, but sometimes I like to see how things look.

Now what if you don’t spin, or knit, or crochet or weave? How do you learn? My first choice would be from a person - find a neighbor, a friend or a family member and ask them. Or call up a senior center and ask if anyone there could teach knitting or crocheting. Or join a local stitch and bitch group and ask for help. But what if that isn’t possible?

Honestly, I think the next best option is to use the internet, and some of the excellent video and image options out there. Unfortunately, I can’t link you to any, because I have achingly slow dialup, and don’t watch them myself. Do some searching, and maybe some folks who read this will have some suggestions. But these are all things best taught visually.

Last would be books - the books are sometimes useful as a reference point anyway, but I don’t think learning these things from books is easy. But if you are trying to figure this stuff out from descriptions, the best ones are books and directions written for children. For example, Melanie Falick’s _Kids Knitting_ and the other books in the series _Kids Crochet_ and _Kids Weaving_ are all terrific - very clear, good pictures, with instructions for making low cost materials like homemade needles and a pvc loom.

Homemade tools are great - dowels make simple knitting needles, and my homemade spindle works as well as the much fancier versions I’ve tried out. I’ve not made a loom of any sort yet, although I’d like to, so I can’t discuss the merits thereof. There are also a ton of used tools out there - from cheap auctions of used knitting needles and crochet hooks to various source of pricier tools like looms and spinning wheels.

A spinning wheel is not a project for anyone but the most ambitious home woodworker, though. My personal preference (and others may have other ideas on this subject and be more right than I), if you are buying a non-local spinning wheel (in my case, non-local means “old or used,” since I don’t know of anyone manufacturing wheels here), I like Kromski, because all the pieces are metal or wooden. That means if it breaks, it is likely I’ll be able to fix it.

One thing we might want to consider is going back to the walking wheel in some cases. While I doubt that we’ll ever entirely lose the industrial manufacture of cloth, it may be that local and artisanal yarns and clothing come back into fashion, and my own observation and discussion with historical reenactors is that the walking wheel is both quicker than the seated wheel once you are skilled, and also in some ways easier on your body, since you are not sitting all day. There’s a 19th century original in good condition at an antique store near me that I can’t possibly afford, but I visit it and pine occasionally. There’s also the charka, which has its merits for spinning cotton, one of them being its potential cheapness and reproduceability.

Ok, now yarn, fleece, etc…. Stocking up for the end of the world? Planning to keep a supply coming through all sorts of hard times? My first choice would be to explore your local fleece options. Some of my favorite yarn every comes from my friend Amy at Stone Fence Farm, who had some beautiful natural colored grey yarn spun up. I made mittens for every male I knew from them, and I’ve got to see if she’s got any left in her stash. She lives about 10 miles from me, so this is really and truly local yarn. There’s a woman nearby who dyes her own using mill ends from a spinnery an hour away. There are plenty of local shepherds around, and I’m fantasizing about my own stash of Romney or Icelandic fleece, from my own pastures.

Another option - buy old sweaters and unravel and reuse them. Our local goodwill will sell woolen sweaters quite cheaply. I’ve done this once so far, but the yarn I got was lovely once it was soaked and hung up to dry for a bit - just like new.

There are yarns out there that serve good causes - yarn is one of those light, dry things that isn’t too awful to ship around the world, and some of the coops make a real difference in poor places. I’m fond of Malabrigo, Manos del Uruguay (which wears like Iron) and Peacefleece. I also like MangoMoon’s recycled sari yarn, although it is too pricey for me to do much with. There are probably other good sources as well, as well as sources of organically raised yarn. I’m not familiar enough with all that’s out there to provide a complete sourcing, and I knit mostly with wool, so I honestly don’t know what is out there in terms of organic, sustainably grown cotton, politically correct alpaca, hemp, bamboo or soy. Someone else may have good advice - I know someone recently included in the comments that she was looking into making bamboo fiber - perhaps we’ll get to hear more about that.

Someone once suggested that the day will come, and not too long out, when we’ll carefully treasure our acrylic and polyester yarns, because they will be rare and valuable materials. Right now we’re not there yet - there are good acrylics out there, but they aren’t cheaper than most natural materials, and IMHO, their utility is pretty limited. They won’t keep you as warm as wool, or as cool as cotton, linen or hemp. Their major advantage is that they go through the dryer - which we shouldn’t be using anyway. Still, when I see sacks of the nicer cheap acrylics at yardsales, I occasionally buy them and donate them to various knitting charities. I also keep a few skeins around for teaching people to knit.

Even better than stocking up may be to make your own. Even apartment dwellers can keep an angora bunny or two (which will become many if you aren’t careful), or a dog with spinnable fur. Those of us with more land can choose from a dazzling array of sheep, camelids, goats and other critters to supply us with fleece. My personal interest is in animals that need are adapted to cold, wet climates like mine, and that are adapted for thriftiness. The Icelandic sheep I’ve seen fit the bill, although I may end up with Romneys simply because they also suit my region and are vastly less expensive.

Seriously, folks the apocalypse, such as it will be (and I don’t really believe in apocalyptic scenarios of any sort) will be boring. Bring something to do. Bring your knitting.


52 Weeks Down - Week 20 - Think Longevity

Sharon September 10th, 2007

One of the things we simply can’t afford to have anymore - afford in either economic or environmental terms - is a throwaway society, in which things exist for short term usage. Instead, as energy and resource costs rise, we need to make our possessions last - ideally for generations.

I don’t know about you, but my observation is that old stuff is generally better made than new. This isn’t universal, but I’m often surprised by how sturdy old things are, and how beautiful, how well they last. Part of that is because people simply didn’t have as many things, or as much money to waste on things that promptly broke, so lasting materials and solid engineering were the norm. And part of it is because form and function didn’t always operate so seperately.

Right now, I plant corn and beans with a 120 year old jab planter. I serve bread and soup from transferware dishes from the 1870s that my grandmother kept in her kitchen. My kids read stories from an ancient McGuffey’s Reader, and I teach them spelling from word lists copied out of the books my great-grandfather used to teach school in Connecticut at the turn of the century - and some of the books belonged to his father.

Of more recent vintage, I chop wood with my father’s axe, about the same age as me, prune bushes with a pair of loppers that are at least 40 years old, and use a potato fork from, I would guess, the 1940s. My children keep their stuffed animals in my father’s toybox, and read the books of my childhood. My kids play dress up in fur hats and feathered ones that my great-aunt accumulated over her lifetime. I keep my food in tupperware containers my husband’s grandmother bought in the 1950s, and warm my kids beds with comforters whose err… aesthetic dates them to the late 1960s. My husband wears a lovely black suit his Grandfather bought several decades ago.

Now I’m lucky enough to have this stuff, but for me, it illustrates the possibilities of a pass-down society, where we concentrate our (fewer) purchases on high-quality items that last a lifetime, rather than focusing on mass accumulation. That is, when we buy things, we should be thinking “can my grandchildren (or someone else’s grandchildren) make use of this?” Because we simply don’t have the option anymore of treating our possessions as throwaways. Not only are the environmental consequences simply too great, but more importantly, the resource that has enabled us to have so much is getting more and more expensive and harder and harder to come by. That is, whether we want our children and grandchildren to have live with the things we pass down to them or not, they may well have no choice.

Think about it. If the next generation cannot afford as many things, or we cannot afford the environmental impact of those things, what will the consequences be? Will the dishes you eat off of, the clothes you wear, the tools you use outlast the next year? The next decade? The next generation? Whenever possible, they should.

Now some things are bound to wear out - your work jeans, your children’s sneakers, and other best loved items. And sometimes buying used means using things up - for example, the Dr. Seuss books my great-aunt gave to me in 1975 are now falling apart - not from misuse, but from age and love, and I’d rather see them read than preserved in plastic for some distant future. But other things don’t have to.

Good clothing for adults, for example, can often last a lifetime if you choose classic styles, natural materials and good workmanship, and don’t have to wear it everyday. “Sunday best” means that good shoes get taken off and replaced with work clothes, things are washed right away and stains not allowed to set. One’s tools will last if you clean and oil them regularly, put them away out of the weather and preserve the handles (says Sharon whose colinear hoe is sitting out in the garden in the rain - ooops).

Dishes and household goods, many toys, children’s clothes (the ones that get outgrown before they wear out), and books can last quite a long time. Acid based paper and age will take its toll eventually on books, and many children’s clothes get passed around (although I have some that were bought used, have been through four and still look new - and others that didn’t outlast a single child). But how would our practices change if everything we bought had to either be either used, or to last at least one lifetime?

In many cases, that could mean spending more money, or not. For example, I find heavier, more solid garden tools to be well worth the additional money. My hand tiller and that hoe I left out are both from Johnny’s, and excellent quality, that will stand up to any usage. But I’ve also found these at auctions and yard sales for a dollar a piece. A good quality winter coat that will last a lifetime could cost you several hundred dollars - or it could be bought in a thrift shop for five. Heavy wood furniture will last a century or more, while the pressboard will fall apart. Good quality new or fine antiques are pricey. But there’s a lot of older furniture made of good materials and construction that isn’t fancy enough to be an antique that can be prettied up with some paint and attention - or enjoyed as is.

But what it does mean is attention to quality, seeking out things that you will enjoy long after they are “in fashion” and taking care of what you have. It means thinking in the long term - buying a toy for your kids that will be enjoyed by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and teaching those children to take care of their possessions. It means changing the way we think about our stuff. It means valuing “visually accessible” (that is, doesn’t look weird), “easily repairable” “natural materials” and “lasting” over “I want it and I want it now.”

I’m a simple sort. I read about things like “cradle to cradle technology” where people have elaborate plans for how cell phones will be taken apart and recycled into other cell phones when they obsolete, and I think “but couldn’t you just make a cell phone that lasted 20 years?” I wonder whether we’ll have the energy to recycle all those things, or the market to buy them when recycled in the longer term. And then I look at the toy bus my step-mother made for my son. It’ll never be anything but a bright yellow toy school bus. My kids sit on it. They surf on it. They jump on it. It never notices. They push each other around on it. If it breaks, all it needs is a replacement wheel. I can lend it to my niece when my boys outgrow it, get it back, pack it up until the grandkids arrive, and it will be there. When it finally passes on its death (and I find that hard to imagine - it is very, very, very sturdy), you can burn it keep warm. Now that’s cradle to cradle.


Is It Normal To Let Your Kids Get Eaten By a Bear?

Sharon September 6th, 2007

My neighbor and I were discussing a favorite children’s book the other day. The book is Robert McCloskey’s classic _Blueberries for Sal_ in which a mother human and her daughter go blueberrying, and have a minor mix up with a mother bear and her cub. The book is charming and wonderful, and one of my own childhood favorites, now beloved of my 3 year old. My neighbor was telling me that she loves the book, but can never read it without a frisson of horror at what a neglectful mother the parent in the book is. And she’s got a point. After all, the mother of a child who is clearly a toddler tells her daughter to go pick her own blueberries and leave mother alone to pick hers, on a wildlife rich hillside, where bears are known to be. Mother, the book tells us, wants to pick blueberries to can for winter. And given such parameters, she can’t spend the whole day watching her daughter, who is left to take care of her own needs.

But, of course, the book is older - it dates back to my own childhood, was released in 1976 when I was four. And my neighbor and I both remember from our own childhoods that the kind of parenting illustrated in the book was normal. By four my sisters and I roamed our housing project with other children, playing in the woods behind it or on the gravelled hillside. We weren’t allowed to cross streets, but otherwise, we were remarkably free. Living on a busy, urban street at 6, my five year old sister and I and several neighbors of roughly the same vintage crossed several busy streets walking, alone to school. And yet neither my neighbor nor I permit or children to walk long distances, cross streets along, or roam the neighborhood without supervision. Now some of that, in my case, has to do with having an disabled oldest child who cannot be trusted. But most of it has to do with higher parenting standards today. Letting your children roam is perceived as unsafe, and to some degree it is.

Children’s death by accident rates have fallen significantly since 1970, mostly in a reduction of deaths in traffic accidents. In Britain, for example, such accidents fell by 75% from 1970 to 2000, while the population and number of cars grew,,2097858,00.html. On the other hand, absolute numbers of deaths on playground equipment and by child abduction are about the same - in 2005, 25 children died on playground equipment in the US, in 1970, 28 did, on the old “deathtrap” equipment we used to use and love. So in some areas our greater caution is providing real results - several hundred kids each year who aren’t dying in car accidents, for example.

The sheer number of cars on the road, the speeds they travel at and the reality that quite a number of kids did die from this means that we have a real reason to fear letting them roam the way our parents did. And yet, there’s also a cost - by not allowing children the range of independence and freedom we did, our kids lose something. They lose maturity, judgement, independence, autonomy, time in the world as children. They lose contact with nature, and solitary imagination, playtime with other children. Their world is much more processed and managed by adults - safer, but less free.

And, of course, there are physical consequences - fewer of our children may die from road accidents, but more of them may have shortened lifespans from obesity, take medications for hyperactivity that in some cases (not all) is merely shorthand for not enough exercise. Richard Louv exhaustively documents the effects of nature contact on children, and documents the consequence of Nature-Deficit disorder, which include behavioral issues, depression, obesity, sensory issues, anxiety, and slower development of things like independence.

Historically speaking, we are the only parents in history to spend this much time and energy protecting our kids. And, of course, it isn’t a hard sell - who doesn’t want their kids to live. If you offered most parents the blunt choice “ok, your kid can live to 58 and die of obesity and diabetes related consequences from being kept at home and indoors too much or your kid can have a 1 in 100 chance of simply dying when a car hits him” who wouldn’t take the 58? You’d be crazy not to. But, of course, those aren’t the real choices.

During most of history, most parents provided either benign or not too benign neglect by the standards of the day. Most parents were more like Sal’s mother than like I am - they expected children, from a very young age, to entertain themselves while they worked. There is some evidence that in the past, in some societies, many parents simply didn’t allow themselves to become deeply attached until it was clear the children had left early childhood and the danger of death. Lawrence Stone argues this in _The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500-1800_, but Stone’s conclusions have been disputed, and there is a simple dearth of evidence to be overcome. Many traditional societies that are or have been in existence until recently are deeply affectionate to their children, despite the high risks of infant mortality. But it is definitely true that most societies have judged children to require less care and attention by a primary caregiver after infancy than we do.

For example, women in all parts of society have always worked both in and out of the home. Historically speaking, poor women who worked often left their children home alone for long stretches, very small children left with nearly as young older siblings, or in the 19th century, perhaps dosed with alcohol or opium to keep them from doing anything dangerous. At home parents in the 18th century made babies where clothes with giant pillows embedded in them to keep them from getting too badly hurt - but still lost children to fireplace accidents, accidental ingestion, drowning, etc…

What is different about the way we parent now? One of the major differences is the sheer amount of attention we have to give our children - as domestic labor of all sorts has decreased, and many of the traditional functions of homemaking have been dropped, as Juliet Schor notes, we’ve transferred that time to parenting. People are still spending about the same amount of time they were on domestic labor 100 years ago - only this time, they are attending their children and vacuuming, both to higher standards, rather than making candles and baking bread.

Barbara Ehrenreich has observed that no human society has ever simply allowed women only the work of childcare and domestic labor - women were simply too valuable, and other needs so basic that the notion of an at-home life with children at the center simply didn’t emerge until the 19th century. Which raises, of course, the question of whether any future, low energy, less industrialized society will be able to give to their children the same degree of safety attentiveness that we are now.

But this isn’t the only difference. One of the major differences is the structuring of childhood itself. For example, my four year old sister was struck by a swing at the playground, and lost two teeth and received a concussion. This crisis was resolved by the fact that the playground itself was full of children, including children who to my five year old eyes were near-adults - big girls and boys of 10 to 12. One of them ran for a nearby neighbor, another carried my sister home across the road. One of the most important differences was that all the children of the neighborhood played together this way - it was not a matter of letting a four or five year old wander the streets alone, because older children could be counted on to be present. Similarly, there were many more adults at home, and a custom of adults sitting on porches and otherwise keeping a general eye on things. If we began to do something wildly unsafe, the chances were good someone’s mother or father would stick their head out and yell at you to cut it out. And the chances were good you’d obey - adults had status.

We have learned, gradually, to relax with our children in places like our synagogue, and trust that if one of our sons goes out with a friend, there will be adults hanging about to keep an eye out, and that if someone misbehaves, a firm correction will be issued. But there are comparatively few places like this in our children’s lives. In many neighborhoods, there is simply no one home for long hours, and children’s lives are formal and structured. So letting your kids roam the neighborhood means letting them roam alone.

And, of course, there are those cars again. More cars, going faster, with less experience keeping an eye out for young kids, and less reason to expect that kids might be playing in the roads. I live on a rural road, and might reasonably expect that my street, with perhaps one car every 20 minutes except during commuting time, would be a paradise. But I’ve seen folks come barrelling over our hill at full speed with no awareness of who might be on the other side, and have had one close shave myself while walking it - I don’t think I’m entirely ridiculous to fear what might happen to a five year old with less well trained reflexes and less fear of stupid drivers. On the other hand, I’ve seen how extreme our fears have gotten, and perhaps mine are just as excessive. I’ve seen parents say that their children can’t be considered safe playing on their own front lawns, for fear that the child might run into a busy street. This is certainly true of toddlers and even four and five year olds, but I’ve seen parents make this argument about children who are 7, 8, 9 or older. I’m not sure in our reasonable desire to keep kids safe, we aren’t doing more harm than good.

It is remarkable, to me, how much we’ve consented to sacrifice for our cars. Our children’s freedom to run around is only one thing - our health, their health - cars are the leading cause of death in children, teens and young adults. Our rising asthma rates, and, of course, global warming are prices as well. In fact, it seems that we’re willing to sacrifice anything, pretty much, to keep the cars coming down our streets. What if we weren’t? We parents clearly think that our children’s relationship with nature is something worth sacrificing to keep them alive, and I, for one, cannot say we’re wrong. I want my kids *living* - but I’m not sure we’re making the right trade off. I want my kids living and in nature, my planet to have a sane climate and my kids healthy. Might it not be wiser and more loving to give up the economic and social benefits of cars, in order to have fewer dead and maimed kids?

But all of that is, in part, a side issue, since this column is about the price of parenting while doing other things. What happens if more of us go back to large-scale domestic labor, if more of us go back to working from and at home, and fewer of us have the time to give our kids all the attention we have been? Does that mean that a few of them will get eaten by bears? Is the only choice neglect and death or not letting our kids out of our sight?

To some degree, I think the reality is that that is the choice - that we have to risk our kids lives to some degree to give them lives. What degree that is, I don’t know. It isn’t a perfect solution - and it isn’t clear to me what the point of optimization is - the minimum number of children that have to die by accident so that the rest of the kids can have a meaningful childhood. Somewhere between the youth spent in a bedroom, wrapped in cotton wool and Huck Finn’s trip down the Mississippi lies a happy medium, and I haven’t found it. Nor do I know if it is possible to identify that point.

Going to a less industrialized society means reducing some risks (car accidents), and raising others (fire). It means most likely having less time to supervise our kids, and it means that some parents will probably experiencing horrible outcomes. It probably also means in some ways other of us will get physically and mentally healthier children. Depending on how non-industrial, some of the consequences will be more serious than others. It depends what we lose, and what we can keep up. Bike helmets? Ration vaccinations to those able to pay? Do we try and keep the cars on the road at the expense of things like education and health care? That seems to be where we’re headed.

A few months ago, my autistic oldest son opened a locked door, opened a latched gate and, while Mommy was catching up on sleep and Daddy was changing a diaper, started walking down the road, bouncing his ball. It was 15 minutes before Daddy noticed that he’d gotten out and the gate was open.

We were lucky. Eli happily bounced his way down our rural road, and was not struck by a car. He didn’t go off into the pond and drown, he didn’t wander across the fields and get lost, where, unable to call out if we called him, he might of died of exposure. A neighbor spotted him, didn’t remember who he belonged to and stayed with him. Another neighbor, on his way to work, stopped, seeing me frantically race around saying “are you looking for a little boy.” I climbed into his car (not waiting to see if he wanted to drive me somewhere or not” and ordered the poor man to take me to my son. He did. My heart started beating again, and eventually I stopped crying and praying. Eli was fine. We got better locks. It was my personal vision of hell.

The irony is that this escape was motivated, I think, by my seven year old’s desire to get out from under his parents’s thumb. He’s autistic. His judgement is impaired. We can’t trust him to wander - which means that his father and watch him constantly, are always with him. But he also has a powerful urge to be alone, and an appropriate 7 year old’s desire to explore, have adventures and do cool things. There’s nothing wrong with his intellect and he’s an ordinary kid inside, with ordinary desires to do stuff. It is hard to know what Eli was thinking because he can’t talk to us, but I suspect that some of my fear was created by the protection I’ve so lovingly arranged.

It isn’t an irony I know how to navigate, and I’m not sure how other parents should. But I suspect most of us are going to have to risk our children in some way, balancing one risk (not enough food) against another (accidental death) in a less certain, less secure world. I suspect we may get happier, more confident, more competent children from this harrowing by fire that demands they learn to keep themselves safe, but that will be no real consolation for those of us who pay too high a price.

But there are some things we can do to keep this freer world safer for kids - reduce the sheer number of cars, perhaps to nil in large chunks of our society. Perhaps most of us could have “walk only” areas in our towns or communities. More of us could risk a little bit more, so that there were more children of various ages working together to protect one another. And perhaps we can bring more adults home to work and domesticate, so that children need not be roaming their world unobserved or unprotected.

Sharon, who is perhaps reading too much into _Blueberries for Sal_ ;-).

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