Archive for December 7th, 2008

In the Barn In Winter

Sharon December 7th, 2008

We’re having our first serious blast of winter (I don’t count the snowstorm at the end of October - that was a preview) here - bitter cold, snow, winds.  It is the kind of weather that makes you want to be indoors drinking cocoa in front of the fire. So why am I so drawn to the barn, when I could be inside?

I think it is because the barn in winter is one of the loveliest imaginable places.  The animals huddle together as well on the coldest days, and they are delighted to see us as we come and bring treats, replace frozen water with fresh and make sure all is well .  During the warm months, the animals are often busy doing their things - they are hunting bugs and grazing, and while they stop a moment and interact with us, they, like us, are attempting to get the most out of the time they have on those lush, sunny days.  And then suddenly winter comes, and the animals have time and so do we.  Shut up inside (not always, but on the coldest and stormiest days), all of us, we have a shared sense of endurance and the knowledge that friendliness passes the time and warms us up.

Thus, the angora bunnies come hopping up to be held.  They are as soft as anything you can imagine, and surprisingly small - their halos of fluff make them look far bigger than they are.  In summer, I pick them up, and they tolerate my strokings, but are clearly thinking of the green grass underneath their bunny tractor.  Today, they nuzzle against my jacket and nibble slices of pear from my fingers.

The chickens make soft winter noises as they roost around the barn.  They call softly to one another, and allow me to stroke their feathery heads.  There are only a few eggs since it is the darkest season, and hens lay by light, but what there are must be collected regularly, lest they freeze, and the cochin must have her eggs taken away, for we want no hatches in this bitter season.  She pecks at me, but gently, displeased but no where near as protective as she will be in the springtime, the right season for raising babies. I bring the scraps from the house early, since it is too cold for them to be out hunting for bugs.  The duck who thinks he is a chicken, and the two hens who reside with the goats will even come out for cabbage leaves and plate scrapings.

The goats, of course, think they are people.  Their preference would be to spend these days in the house with us, alternating between sitting on our laps and climbing on the furniture.  Since we are so cruel as to deny them our company there, they are thrilled by it when we come out to milk or bring them a handful of sunflower seeds or a slice of apple.  They eat hay from my hands, and rest their bodies against mine, warming me and themselves.  At milking time they bounce and leap, shaking out the energy that they can’t burn in the pasture on this icy, snowy, frigid day. 

Zucchini, our barn/house cat has taken a break from the space behind the cookstove, where he absorbs heat, to come radiate it in the barn and keep an eye out for mice.  He hangs out on a bale of hay, leaping off occasionally to chase a hen, pouncing at her and enjoying the sudden outraged clucks of a chicken confronting a half-hearted predator no larger than herself.  He does them no harm, and the chickens probably know this deep in some small segment of their none-too-large brains, but just as my 5 year old can’t resist rising to the bait when his toddler brother teases him, the chickens never fail to give a satisfying bit of panic to a bored cat.  Angus, who is mostly a house cat but occasionally joins Zucchini in the barn no longer plays this game, since a particularly assertive hen he annoyed suddenly noticed that she was as large as he was, turned around, and began chasing him around the yard this fall.  It took weeks before poor Angus, who is about as fierce as your average marshmallow, could get near a chicken. 

All this life together is surprisingly warm - the barn isn’t very tight - it is better for their health that they have more air circulation and less warmth actually.  But the combination of creatures all lending their body heat - and I mine - mean that the barn is surprisingly pleasant.  Nor does it smell bad, if your nose is accustomed to animal smells.  The shavings and bedding absorb much of the manure smell, and it is earthy, rather than unpleasant, at least to me. 

Sometimes the children come out and nestle down in the new bedding with the goats, or settle on a bale of hay, and wait for a hen to come and sit next to them, so they can feel the feathers under their hands.  Somehow, we fellow creatures, we animals all, human, hen, cat, goat, duck, rabbit - we are all quietly settled, waiting for spring, and in the meantime, taking comfort in fellowship.  And so do I find myself strangely drawn to the quiet - and the noise, the cold and the warmth, all the pleasures and contradictions of the barn in winter.


Independence Days Update

Sharon December 7th, 2008

Ok, it has been way too long since I’ve done one of these.  As always, the more I write about something, the less I actually manage to get done of it.  So as I’ve been immersed in the final writing of _Independence Days_ (it’ll be done in three weeks - yay!!!), I’ve been giving the actual challenage short shrift.

 I’ve also got quite a lot of new readers, and I want to invite those of you who haven’t been playing along to consider joining in - it is a great project, and a great way for me, at least to break down all the gazillion things I’m supposed to be doing. 

The idea is that instead of letting the whole thing get too intimidating, or feeling like we’ve got to devote hours and hours we don’t have to preparing, preserving, storing and making ourselves and our families more secure, if we do a little bit each day, or each week, we’ll get a lot further.  For me, the discipline of the Independence Days Challenge has been deeply inspiring - and it has resulted in more progress than waiting for open blocks of time, or when I struggled to figure out which of 20 things I hadn’t done I should be doing. 

It has also been really helpful in ways I didn’t expect - I find myself less hostile to the chores I don’t enjoy, because I know I only have to do a little bit each day.  My small steps at Independence have a sense of mindfulness, an awareness that I missed when I only thought of big projects as real accomplishments.  And most of all, the work of writing down what we’ve accomplished, and eliminating all the caveats “but I didn’t…. I never got to…. but I still have to…”  leaving all that stuff out, and simply saying “I did these things” has been heartening.  They provide a measure - life is always full of things you haven’t done, mistakes you’ve made, lists of what’s still waiting.  Sometimes it takes a moment of looking carefully at what you have accomplished to really grasp that you are making progress.

Want to participate?  Just join in.  Report on your blog, or in comments here.  And no, you won’t be able to do everything every day - but do what you can, and be proud of that.  Remember, little stuff counts - planting one seed, harvesting one pepper, trying one new recipe, cutting down on your garbage one new way - those things are accomplishments, and they deserve honor.

Here are the categories of the Independence Day challenge.  And for those of you who have been participating, I’ve added one new category, bringing us up to 11 categories.  Each day/week we’re going to try to :

Plant Something: A seed, a transplant, a tree, a bulb, some mushroom spores - could be in the earth or in a container, but the point is to green the world a little more, and plant useful plants everywhere you can.

Harvest Something: A sprig of mint, a bushel of potatoes, lettuce from a container on your windowsill, 500 acres of wheat, enough sprouts for a sandwich, enough cucumbers for 10 quarts of pickles, wild asparagus, cultivated carrots - you name it.  It could be something you planted, something growing wild or something you glean from someone else’s fields (with permission, of course), but the idea is to try and make the best use of the food around you.

Preserve something: Whether you live in a cold, snowy place like me, or a hot dry one, odds are good that you have a season where not too much is growing.   That’s when preserved foods step in to fill the empty spots, so you can still eat locally and sustainably without relying on the industrial food system.  You could be canning raspberry jam or hanging up bunches of wild thyme to dry.  You might be putting turnips and carrots in a cold place, or braiding garlic to hang in your kitchen.  Maybe you are drying hot peppers in the sun, or storing nuts in a dry, squirrel proof place.  You might be canning venison or freezing eggs for winter, fermenting kim chi or pickling olives.  Everything you do to make yourself food secure during those times of scarcity is one less thing you need to rely on corporations for.

Store something: Most of us are never going to grow or produce everything we eat - and most of us probably don’t want to.  So not only do we need to preserve the food around us, but we also will be getting some things from farmers, from stores, and from importers.  The challenge is to buy these things with as little impact on the planet as possible, and whenever possible, giving our dollars to people and institutions we want to support, rather than those that undermine and harm us.  The best way to buy many staples that we can’t produce is in bulk, and ideally (not everyone can afford this, but if you can, you should) direct from producers, or fair traded  - bulk purchasing minimizes our costs, it cuts down on packaging, and it allows us to have a reserve of food.  But that also means that you have to find a place to store it, and to do so in a way that won’t result in the loss of good food. 

So every day/week we’re going to try and build up our reserves a little, to store food and related items that help us prepare for difficult times and also buy well.  You could be putting adzuki beans or spelt in 5 gallon buckets you got from the store, putting vanilla beans in a mason jar you scavenged, storing a case of canned goods,  or finding space under the bed for extra toilet paper.

Manage Reserves: Whenever you’ve got stores, they need occasional attention, or things can get spoiled, lost or ruined.  Part of the Independence Days project is to make sure things don’t get wasted.  If we spend a little time checking on our reserves, we’ll catch that bruised apple that really would spoil the rest of the barrel, notice when the squash has a soft spot and needs to be cooked and eaten, or frozen for later use.  We’ll make sure that the stuff in our freezer doesn’t disappear to the bottom, and that we’re using the older canned goods and olive oil before the newer.  It takes only a few minutes to write the date on things, to check that nothing has spilled or gotten knocked over by the cat, and that you aren’t running out of anything, but it is so easy to let this little chore go.  This way, we keep what we have.

Cook Something New: It is hard to realize how much hangs on something as ordinary as cooking.  But it does - the ability to cook, and cook well can be the difference between food security and insecurity. Prepared and processed foods simply cost more - both in literal food costs and in later health costs than basic staple ingredients.  Living from your garden and bulk purchasing requires a different set of cooking and eating skills - most of us are used to using processed ingredients and shopping regularly - cooking from your pantry and your local foodshed is very different, and if we don’t know how to do that, we won’t be buying and eating locally, or we will buy some food reserves and let them go to waste because “they aren’t what we eat.”  Most importantly, it is eaters, not farmers, who decide how our agriculture will work.  If we don’t choose to eat the foods that are sustainable and locally grown in our communities, we will not have local farms to feed us if supplies are disrupted. 

So every week, we’re going to try and cook a new recipe or two, one using in-season, home preserved or local ingredients.  We want to expand our repetoir, take full advantage of the fact that local, homegrown, home preserved and sustainably purchased foods taste better and are better for us.  This takes some practice - so whether we’re trying out jam recipes or working on ways to make our classic recipe for stew with home-raised goat meat, trying to figure out how to use the sauerkraut or what to do with the kohlrabi, or even just another great potluck recipe - we’re working on trying to cook and eat Independently and well,

Prep Something: Those of us who are concerned about hard times and coming difficulties are often storing not just food and toiletries, but things that are cheap and abundant now, but may be scarce in a crisis.  In an extended power outage or natural disaster, some things disappear from store shelves, and we might need more of things we ordinarily don’t use a lot of like candles, batteries and blankets.   We might need new tools - ones that allow us to live without power, for example.  And because not everyone does prepare, a lot of us want to be able to help extended family, neighbors, friends, even strangers.  So we plan now, and add a little extra.

Prepping might involve building up a supply of needed medications in case pharmacies are closed for a while.  Or perhaps buying extra blankets so that without central heating, you and your neighbors will all be able to keep warm.  It might involve making up emergency kits so that if you have to evacuate, you have what you need.  Or putting up rainbarrels so that you can irrigate the garden and wash the dishes even when the power is out.  Anything you do to make yourself and those around you more secure is prepping.

Reduce Waste: We waste more than 25% of the food we purchase.  We waste even more packaging and energy.  And every time we do that, we take fuel that future generations will need and throw it away, we warm the planet, fill up landfills and add pollution to our environment.  Living sustainably means making sure that we keep waste to an absolute minimum - that we find ways to make sure that everything we possibly can gets used wisely and well.  There’s an art to this taking care of what we have.  It also saves us money and time - we don’t have to shop as often if we eat all the food we buy and grow, we don’t spend as much on heating if we make sure our leaky windows are closed and caulked.  We cannot be independent from energy companies and supermarkets if we don’t make the best possible use of what we have.  So each week, we try to cut down on waste - maybe eating more of our leftovers and tracking what’s in the fridge better, or making sure all the lights are off in rooms we are not occupying.  We try and buy things with less packaging, and make sure we are composting all our food waste, or feeding it to some creature - worms, chickens, etc…  We cut out wasted money from our budget and cut back on wasted time as well - we try to find ways to make our precious time count.

Learn a New Skill: So many of the things people used to know how to do for themselves have gotten lost over the years, as corporations have taken over the production of everything from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (available now with the crusts pre-cut off) to socks.  But what if we can’t afford the hefty mark-up for premade PBJ or supermarket bread?  What if we need to cut back our budget?  What if we can’t afford or drive to or find socks or beer or a quilt for our bed, but we’ve got fleece, barley and yeast and scraps?  Even if we don’t want to do it every time, the ability to make our own, fix our own, build our own, mend our own, tend our own and grow our own may be essential as we face an economic, energy and climate crisis.  Most of the time, it is cheaper to make your own, or fix the broken thing than to replace it.  For a long time, we’ve been able to simply throw things away, not thinking about the ecological, economic and personal costs of this way of life, but no more.  So it is time to relearn the skills of the past - time to learn how to darn a sock, build a raised bed, make a quilt or fix your own clogged pipes; how to stretch a meal for 4 to feed 6, how recognize a medical emergency and how to sing on key. Some of these are hard, some easy - all of them are hard for some people, and easy for others.  But every week we can work a little more on our personal competence, and thus, our security.

Work on Community Food Security: None of us can be secure if our neighbors are going hungry, either morally or practically.  So not only do we need to have a reserve of our own, but we also need to help teach these lessons in our communities, and to help existing institutions that provide a safety net continue to do so even in hard times.  So we work together on making our communities more secure - this could be as simple as talking to a neighbor, family member or co-worker about why we store food and how to get started.  It might mean making donations of money or goods to local food pantries, homeless shelters, and soup kitchen, or helping out a neighbor in need directly.  We could be out starting a community garden, or helping a friend start her garden, recruiting members for a new local CSA or Co-op, or making sure our local planning board remembers the need for greenspace and farmland around our town or city.  Maybe we’re passing on skills to our kids or someone else’s kids, teaching a class, or preaching about food security in the pulpit of our church.  Whatever we’re doing, we’re trying to keep our community as secure as we can.

Regenerate What Is Lost: This one is new, and stems from my concern that in our attempts to protect and preserve ourselves in hard times, we’ll forget about making our choices truly sustainable, that is, something that not only we can do, but all the generations that follow us.  That is, not only do we have to do a little each day to protect ourselves, but we need to put back a little each day into the system, making it a little richer than before.  We’ve stripped the earth, and stripped the social and communal structures of our lives that support us, and support our future.  Thus, we can’t just do less damage - we have to do more repair, to give our posterity a future.

What does that mean?  It means that we make sure we’re adding organic matter to our soil even as we’re growing vegetables.  It means we don’t just plant a tree for each one we harvest - we plant an extra one as well.  It means we let some areas of our yard grow native plants to make space for native pollinators.  It means we reach out and tend a little space that belongs to no one, protect land that is already wild.  It means we do a little more to build community than our share, that we are kinder than we have to be to someone we don’t always find it easy to like. It means we choose a little less than our rightful share, so that someone who can’t use less can have what they need, it means we try a little harder to enable a decent, humane and just future.  In Judaism, we call this “tikkun olam” or the repair of the world, and it helps me to put it daily upon my agenda.

Ok, here’s my list for the last few weeks:

1. Plant something - Garlic and bulbs in pots and self-watering containers.  I had some garlic and flower bulbs that didn’t get planted this fall, but I didn’t want to waste them, so the boys and I planted them in containers and decided to see how they do.  We’re going to gradually force the bulbs starting in February, to have bright spots around the house.   If this works well, and I can force enough inside, I’m thinking of selling pots of forced bulbs around the spring holidays next year.

2. Harvest something - kale and leeks.  It has gotten very cold lately, and that’s about all that’s left in the garden - the collards finally bought it.  Boy do they taste good, though.  Oh, and some of the herbs I brought in for the winter - I finally remembered to pot up some thyme, because fresh is so lovely.  I’ve got rosemary, my lemon verbena plant (which is trying to take over the entire house), mint, chives, sage, gotu kola, bacopa, rau om (vietnamese coriander), and salad burnet.    My attempt to keep basil going all winter has yet again failed miserably - it is just too cold in my house.

3. Preserve something - Apple and pear sauce from the pears I picked up at the local state park and the apples we bought early in the season that were getting mushy.  Dried pears (still using those up).  Pear butter.  Pear wine (it remains to see how this will taste).  Apple and pear vinegar.  Cider syrup (reduce cider over low heat until it gets thick and appley, add cinnamon and serve on pancakes or over ice cream - mmmmmm….)

4. Store something: 20lbs of dried cranberries (got a good deal on bulk, and my kids are addicted to them - they are even fairly local), hazelnuts, yeast, rabbit pellets for the angoras, cat food.

5. Manage Reserves: Am in the process of finally moving everything that isn’t frozen out to the porch - November was very up and down - first warm then cold then warm, so we had to go back to the icebox (our fridge is kept cold with ice packs from our freezer - saves lots of energy and money) for a while.  Now I’m getting things organized so that everything is in one place.  I also need to clean out the food storage closet, but that’s going to have to wait until the book is done.  But I’ve thought about it - does that count ;-) ?  Oh, and am neatly collecting my pile of seed catalogs (they’re out early this year!) for January, when I’ll have time to appreciate them.

6. Cook something new - Pulled lamb, from the lamb we got from our own pastures.  Yum!!!  Like pulled pork, but kosher. 

7. Prepped something: Bought a ton of used homeschooling books in Boston, including a whole batch of Hebrew language textbooks that the boys will use later.  Upped our stash of candles and lamp oil for winter power outages.  Bought a replacement mantle for our Aladdin lamp. 

8. Learned a new skill - am working on getting more than two stitches on a needle when quilting.  So far, not so good.  Until I finish this book, that’s about it, although I’m working my way through a book on plumbing for the seriously incompetent in preparation for my first competence project merit badge.

9. Worked on community food security: Began putting together a committee to green up my synagogue - they don’t know it yet, but food is going on the agenda ;-) - including making use of some of the shul’s underutilized greenspace.  Agreed to write a column for a local paper’s new online segment - food will again be a major topic.  Am plotting a neighborhood swap/preparedness group come January, but must finish book….

10. Reduced waste: Sucked it up and decided to pay for recycling pick up - our local dump doesn’t take a whole bunch of things, and we’ve been hauling them into town and dumping them at a friend’s house.  Decided to stop wasting time looking for things and get organized, but so far, deciding is as far as it has gotten ;-) .

11. Regenerated: Upped our donations to charity as much as we can, tried to help someone I can’t stand with a problem I know something about, even though I’m appalled by her solutions (no more details than this, since I don’t want anyone to know who she is), offered to help a friend put in a garden this spring for the first time as a holiday gift.

Ok, how about the rest of you?