Depletion and Abundance...

Plant a garden

Depletion and Abundance are just two sides of the same coin. We're no longer speaking of the future when we talk about climate change and peak oil. So now the project is to accept depletion, and still find a good and abundant way of life, not just for ourselves, but for those who will come after us. We can do this - it is one heck of a challenge, but we have to find a way, so we will. That's what this site is for - finding a way forward.

I am the author of three books. _Depletion and Abundance: Life On the New Home Front_ explores the path to finding a good life in spite of tough times. _A Nation of Farmers:Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil_ analyzes our current food situation and offers steps for creating meaningful food security. _Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation_ explores the connections between food storage, food preservation and our democratic heritage.

Dances with Wood: Life with My Cookstove

Sharon September 30th, 2009

Note: Yup, re-runs again - busy getting all that food put away, and ready for frost and Sukkot.  And yes, still behind on my email - apologies if I owe you one.   

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.

 Why choose a cookstove?  We have both a cookstove and a wood 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. 

Independence Days Update: The Gift of Frost

Sharon September 29th, 2009

I mention our dances with frost so often because we are seasonal eaters.  When seasons pass, we feel short term sorrow, because there are things we have not had enough of.  But there are pleasures accompanying these shifts as well - the greens are sweeter after frost, the last precious ripening tomatoes extra delicious, the crisp air inspiring and energizing, and after months of frenetic gardening, the end, and a winter’s rest, is in sight. 

We had a first, preliminary frost on Friday night - it iced the car windows.  We were busily getting ready for a family gathering, and I didn’t do much more than cover some of the basil, but we got lucky - the frost didn’t penetrate to the places where most of the still-growing tender things are.  But a wave of cold air is headed our way, and the real thing is likely to hit in the next few nights.

This is ok, it has its pleasures - but today will be spent gathering the last remains of summer - basil for mountains of pesto, eggplant for parmesan and baba ganoush and strange flavor eggplant, tomatoes to be sauced, sweet and hot peppers to be dried, the last sweet corn, cut off the cob and made into chowder and succotash, the last green beans dried and dilled, the sunflower heads hung to dry for winter chicken feed, the amaranth and corn harvested.   And since we have to go visit our favorite farmstand to buy sukkah decorations, we’ll probably supplement our remaining production there - more eggplant, sweet corn (which I didn’t grow this year, since I’m saving seed from my flour corn) and tomatoes - I can’t resist one more taste of summer.

Today we will delight in green tomatoes to make pickles from, half-ripe tomatoes to sit upon the windowsill and ripen, and rich ripe ones to be sliced into a few more tomato and goat cheese sandwiches.  Today we will gnaw sweet corn from the cobs, and smear pesto on bread, layered with roasted red peppers.  Today we will grill eggplants and eat its smoky, rich innards.  Today we will glory in summer’s end.  And tomorrow, we will rise and glory in the coming of autumn, the tastes and textures and pleasures that accompany it.  We do not mourn what passes - but we do not give it up before its time.

It has been a busy week here, with visiting family and friends and getting ready for Yom Kippur, the most contemplative and thoughtful day of the Jewish year.  Now we are approaching the next holiday in the cycle - Sukkot, in which we celebrate the harvest (Judaism has two harvest festivals, one for the harvest of milk and the first harvest of grain in June, Shavuot, and then Sukkot in the fall).  During sukkot, we eat in our sukkah, a small hut we decorate with symbols of autumn, and we invite guests.  We’ve managed to arrange to have guests nearly every single night of the holiday, often many at once, so starting Friday, we will overflow with good food and company.

Today we must get the harvest in, and begin putting up our sukkah.  We are still waiting for Maia to give birth, the new chicks are out of their box (and a few of them are headed home with my step-mother this week, to fill out her chicken coop), and we’re ready to start milking Selene.  Tekiah has doubled in size (she’s still tiny and awesomely cute - I guess I hadn’t realized that the dominant mode of self-propulsion by baby goats was not walking or running, but boinging - and sideways at that) and now spends a lot of her time chasing the poultry to watch them run away - since they are considerably bigger than she is, this is pretty funny to us, too.

We adopted a new cat, to assauge the kid’s sense of loss over Zucchini - and lit a memorial candle on Yom Kippur, when we remember those who have died, not only for our lost family, for Inge and Cyril, my Uncle Bobby and other family, but for Zucchini, and Rufus and the baby goat born dead.  Rubeus (as in Harry Potter’s Hagrid) is a skinny black and white half-grown kitten with an affectionate personality and a purr that sounds like a marble rolling back and forth between wooden slats. 

There’s a lot to do in the fall - the season of fruits is shifting (there are still apples, of course, and quinces and pears and others, but still) into the season of roots.  I think of the Northeastern year as following the cycle of autumn, when all things are drawn back into the ground, and roots shine, then winter, the season of trees and barks, before the sap runs, when the life of the wild things and the domestic ones is best found in the traces of green and the hollows of trees, then the season of leaves, where the first green things burst forth, and finally, the season of ripe fruit, when we devour, and juice runs down our chins in abundance.  I love the season of fruits for its virtue - but I’m ready for roots, for parsnip soup and sweet potato pie, and for treasure in the soil.  Otherwise, we’re just happily busy with the shift from one season to another, one cycle, one moon to the next.

Planted: Winter wheat, some cuttings of geranium and fuschia for next year.

Harvested: Tomatillos, tomatoes, hot peppers, beets, carrots, broccoli, kale, collards, green beans, sweet peppers, eggplant, pea shoots, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers, milk, eggs, amaranth, onions, herbs, cabbages, hickory nuts.

Preserved: Basil as pesto, froze corn, froze eggplant, dried green beans, pickled zucchini, dried herbs, dried tomatoes, made sauerkraut, saved seed, made basil-chile flavoried vinegar.

Waste Not: dried corn silk for tea, fed corn husks to goats, composted, diverted new source of grey water.  Began making a quilt out of old fleece pjs with broken zippers and holey feet, of which I have many.

Want Not: Ordered rolled oats and split peas. 

Eat the Food: New recipe for German potato salad, stuffed pumpkins.

Build Community Food Systems: Not so much.

How about you?


City Farming, with Livestock

Sharon September 27th, 2009

In many ways, I’m a city girl.  I grew up in and around a number of small to large cities in the Northeast - I was born in East Hartford,  I spent my childhood playing in grubby and decaying mill cities like Lynn, MA and Waterbury, CT, and my early adulthood living in Boston.  Unlike a lot of rural dwellers, I don’t dislike cities - I rather enjoy them.  Every so often I pass by a decripit row house in Albany or visit my old haunts in Lowell, MA or friends in Newark or Queens, and think seriously about whether I could get my goats on the roof ;-).  I don’t miss the traffic and pollution, but I do miss the funky culture, the diversity and the energies of city life at times.

Reading Novella Carpenter’s _Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer_, I found myself a little jealous - sure, I’ve got 27 acres, but she has Buddhist monks across the street who help her recapture her escaped pigs.  Life is full of tradeoffs ;-). 

More seriously, what I really liked about this book was its emphasis on urban animal agriculture - Carpenter has rabbits, turkeys, ducks, geese, chickens and pigs during the course of the books.  And when she writes about eating from her garden and neighborhood for a month, she realizes something important - she’s suffering from a dearth of calorie crops.  It it weren’t for her meat production, she’d be starving.

This is the reality of urban farming today in much of the poor world - look around for statistics and you’ll see that most cities grow only a small portion of their staple starches - but often a shockingly large portion of their meat and vegetables.    For example, in 1981, Hong Kong had 5 million people and 1,060 km2, and was using 10% of that land to produce 45% of the fresh vegetables, 15% of the pigs and 68% of the live chickens eaten in the city, according to I. Wade’s essay “Fertile Cities.”

I use Hong Kong as an example of what is possible because it is an extremely densely populated city, has extremely high property values, and a comparatively affluent population, so it is a pretty good comparative to a city like New York City.  In 2002, the city had 6.3 million people in it, and had seen much of its good land developed (for example, between 1981 and 2000, all rice farming, even on the outer islands, ceased) but they were still producing 33% of the produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and farming 20% of the fish consumed within the city.  The animals were raised for the most part on 160,000 *tons* annually of food waste were being recycled into meat and egg production.

Now this should not be mistaken for a claim that the cities will feed themselves - they won’t.  There is no question that only small cities surrounded by rural land will probably ever feed themselves - and cities that have no waterways or well maintained rail lines may not do well in the coming decades.  But the production of vegetables and meat in cities is also not a trivial thing - and livestock production in cities is particularly important because as Carpenter found, animal proteins can compensate for shortages of available starches if supplies are delayed or costs rise, and they can provide an improvement in nutrition over the typical poor world diet, which includes grains and vegetables only.  

Yes, I know that it is perfectly possible to be a healthy vegan, and would never argue otherwise - but most of the world’s vegans-by-choice do not come from the poorest places in the world, nor do most poor-near vegans have access to the high quality proteins shipped from a distance that American vegans do now.  This is not a criticism of anyone’s choice, but I believe that cities that maximize localized calorie production will have to do so with animal agriculture, including meat production, and that in more difficult situations, comparatively fewer Americans may choose to voluntarily restrict their protein sources.

 Moreover, in cities that are importing grains and other foods, meat animals can be raised on food that would otherwise be wasted.  Carpenter raises her pigs, rabbits and poultry entirely on dumpster dived food that she scavenges for them.  Aaron Newton, my partner in _A Nation of Farmers_ raises his chickens, in the small city of Concord, NC, almost entirely on scraps.  While urban poultry raising has gotten trendy, most urban farmers are still raising their poultry on expensive grains that could be fed to people - but have an ample supply of food scraps at nearby houses and restaurants that could fill the same needs with lower impact.  This is much harder to do in less-dense settings - we’ve tried several times to work out a good system for transporting food scraps, without the use of additional oil, to our poultry, but haven’t found something wholly satisfactory (although my husband is negotiating with the SUNY cafeteria right now, so that might change) - we simply don’t have a lot of restaurants out here.  But for city dwellers, this is a no-brainer.

Meat is problematic on our society because of ethical considerations - most of it is raised in factory farmed conditions - and also because it is often raised by feeding animals grain that could be used for human consumption.  If we take as basic premises that we should and must eat less meat, eat only meat raised ethically and also, in order to feed a hungry world, raise our animal products with little or no grain suitable for human consumption, it becomes clear that pasture raising on marginal lands that are steep, erodable, rocky or wet in the countryside, and raising meat, egg and dairy animals in cities on a small scale on food wastes are probably the two best possible options for raising animal products in our world. 

Many city dwellers grow gardens, and it would be wrong to understate their importance - they provide caloric and nutritional benefits, allow people access to high value, nutritionally necessary and high-flavor foods they might not be able to afford, can provide some calorically dense vegetable and a few grain crops like sweet potatoes, potatoes, popcorn, etc….   We know that urban gardening can make an enormous difference in a city - for example in Paris in the 19th century 3600 acres of garden plots produced 100,000 tons of vegetables, more than the city itself could consume.  In 1944, US Victory gardens produced as much produce as all US produce farms combined - half the nation’s total.  So yes, your five raised beds, as part of an urban aggregate make a huge difference.

But add in livestock raising and the picture of urban food security gets much richer - those weeds growing the vacant lots can be eaten by miniature goats or rabbits - cut an armful as you walk by.  Those gardens require manures, and most urbanites lack a place for safe composting of human waste, so rabbit and poultry manures are essential to a sustainable garden.  Stop by your neighborhood coffee shop and pick up a big bucket full of stale bread and salad leaves for the bunnies, or the leftovers from the takeout chinese place (why Carpenter and her partner never actually make arrangements for places to save food for them rather than dumpster diving was one thing I couldn’t figure out) to the chickens.  And then turn that into nutritious people food, adding fat and dense protein to your diet.  Moreover, they can reduce dependency on feedlots, not just for urban dwellers, but for their carnivorous pets.

Bees can sit on a balcony, rabbits on a back porch.  Chickens are content in small backyards and as Carpenter proves, you can even raise pigs there, although she does get some complaints about the smell towards the end - she does  observes that in 1943, London had 4,000 pig raising clubs in the city limits, with 105,000 pigs kept within the city limits.  Guinea pigs and quail, pigeons and fish in tanks can also supplement urban dwellers protein needs.  Given the amount of imported dairy, I’d also suggest the consideration of very small goats for milk and meat.

Cities will never be wholly sustainably by themselves - but neither will most rural areas, which will continue to rely on cities for the manufacture of goods from cloth to tools, and as import and transport centers from around the world.  We may relocalize, but it would be foolish to imagine that all trade and all cities will disappear.  What cities must be, if they are to have a future, is *as* food self-sufficient as possible, and they must be part of a larger project of wide food access.  We will find ways, over the long term, to transport dry goods like grains into many cities - that doesn’t mean there won’t be disruptions, or much more important, poverty - but there will be reciprocal relations between cities and countryside.  But vegetables and animal products are another thing altogether - they often require refrigeration, and without refrigerated trucking or train transport, those things are likely to become less available - or more expensive and more out of reach of many.

Moreover, we cannot permit the wasting of food in the scale that we presently do to continue - that’s why we need eggs, meat and milk that can be raised on food scraps in urban centers. 

Our own livestock breeding projects will focus on small scale livestock for densely populated areas - small goats, angora and meat rabbits, chickens with good foraging ability, even small sheep.  Not all of these will be suitable to the most densely populated areas, nor do I expect my farm to be definitive on the subject.  But if you can take the girl out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the girl - and that’s a good thing.  We need urban agriculture, and ties between city girls and country girls (and boys, of course) that help both places raise all the food they can, as ethically and wisely as they can.


Getting Ready for Winter

Sharon September 25th, 2009

Note: I’m headed offline for the Sabbath and Yom Kippur today - I’ll be back on Tuesday.  If you’ve inquired about the Garden Design class and not heard back from me, yes there are still spots available, I will reply to you on Tuesday and my apologies.  The same if you are waiting for materials about apprenticeship - I’m sorry, I had a lot of queries and a busy week or so and I’m behind - I’m not ignoring you, though! 

I thought it might be useful for me to go over all the steps we take (over a fairly long period of time) to get ready for winter - some of you probably already do all or most of these things, but there are always those people who have been accustomed to other ways, and who knows, someone might pick up (and I’m sure those who comment will offer some great ones I haven’t thought of) a new idea.  So here goes - I’m dividing it up into categories, since we get ready for winter in a whole host of ways, and this makes it easier for me to remember things.

1. Personal/Physical/Clothing: This is actually the most important category for us - we try and remember that it is always much easier to warm your body than the room or the whole house, and to start at the immediately personal level.  That means shifts in attitude, practice at accustoming ourselves to lower temperatures, and having appropriate tools and clothing.

a. We play heater-chicken, seeing how long we can go before lighting a fire or turning on heat, but also how long we can leave the windows open.  This helps us accustom ourselves to lower temps - so while a night in the 40s feels very chilly in early October, by January, that would feel warm.  

b. I dig out, clean and sort through our winter clothing, and hunt up anything we’re short of.  Standards of our winter outfitting are winter pajamas (fleece footie pjs for the boys, worn with long underwear underneath in the coldest weather; fleece and flannel for the grownups, with big foofy bathrobes over them), lotsa layers and lots of wool.

c. I begin serious mitten and hat knitting - they get lost a lot, so more is better.  The stuff from previous years gets aired out and I dig out the fingerless gloves that allow yours truly to continue blogging in her 50 degree office.

d. I dig out the bricks we put in the cookstove oven to warm the beds at night - we wrap them in flannel and put them between the sheets.

e. Down comforters, flannel sheets and wool blankets are cleaned and aired. 

f. I encourage the kids and adults to spend as much time out in the autumn sun as possible, synthesizing vitamin D.

g. I’m always a tea junkie, but we move to hot beverages on a large scale - hot cider, teas, cocoa (we’re none of us coffee people) or just hot milk with a little molasses and cinnamon. 

h. We try and make sure everyone gets up and moves around plenty - it is tempting when it is cold not to go out, but we try to force ourselves to get outside, because the house always feels a lot warmer after you’ve spent some time in the cold fresh air.

i. I dig out and size boots, snowshoes, yaktrax (ice grippers) and cross country skiis. 

2. The House: This seems obvious, and probably what most people think of as getting ready for winter. 

a. We get the chimneys cleaned, and clear out the porch, which has had gardening things on it - now it will hold self-water containers with cold tolerant plants and root cellared veggies.

b. we keep the windows open for fresh air as long as humanly possible, but eventually we do cover our windows (which are good ones for the most part, the ones that aren’t are being replaced as we can afford it) with bubble wrap or plastic (we staple it to wood frames and use it for multiple years to avoid waste).  I’m fairly slow to do this completely, simply because often into November and some years even early December, we have warm enough days to occasionally throw open the windows.

c. We bank the house with hay bales - it makes a big difference in heat transfer up from our stone basement.  The bales old hay, and used as mulch in the spring.  These also insulate the garden beds around the base of the house.

d. When it gets really cold, we shut off a portion of the house - the guest rooms (we have a large farmhouse) and move mostly into the better-insulated, smaller portion of the house.  If we ever find housemates, this will change, but we will still close a portion of the place off.  When we shut up a room (they will get opened when we have guests) we also cover up the windows entirely to reduce heat loss).

e. We put up the curtains and window quilts to reduce night-time heat loss, hang blankets on some of the less well-insulated walls, invite the cats to sleep on our beds.

f. We make any warmth-saving repairs - we try and do a little more each year that makes the old part of the house better insulated and sturdier.  This year will involve some window replacements and re-doing the porch doors, which are pulling away from their frame.

g.  We bring out the draft dodgers to block off any leaky spots.

3. Food Storage and Edible Gardens: in autumn we get ready for winter as though we would live the winter through on our stores.  In the summer we take care of our garden, all winter long, the garden takes care of us.

a. I set up bins and boxes and bushel baskets to hold the porch produce, and bring out old blankets to cover things that are best kept from light. 

b. I take one quick run through the jars of canned and dried food, and make sure everything is in good shape, all seals are solid and there is no mold or any nasty stuff.

c. I set up pop-up greenhouses or other season extension protection over beds of the hardiest crops, to extend my season of fresh greens. 

d. I move the self-watering containers filled with hardy greens into the sun porch to provide us with salads all winter.

e. I take advantage of autumn sales and bulk purchasing to make up for any bad crops or refill depleted portions of our pantry.

f. I gradually put most of the garden beds “to bed” pulling out diseased plants, cutting down (or letting the goats in to eat) the remaining stuff, and mulching plants I want to keep. 

g. I start building new beds for next year, and I dig holes for new trees we intend to plant in spring.

h. I preserve the last flush of eggs for those periods in winter when there are few. 

i. On trips to town, we take leaves on the side of the road for mulch and compost. 

4. Health: A lot of us get sick in the winter - and since my husband goes off to university and my kid to public school, we expect them to come home with a few bugs every year, but try to keep it to a minimum.

a. I strain my summer tinctures and begin digging roots after the first hard frost, but before the ground freezes.

b. I stock up on vitamin D, collect rose hips and elderberries and put up C rich fruits.

c. I restock the first aid and vet kits with all the necessaries after a summer of use.

d. I try and can a few stews and soups that are ready to eat so that if we’re all laid low, we don’t have to rely on take-out pizza.

e. I make plans for emergency Eli pickup at school, if by some chance he gets sick there - since we have only one car, and Eric isn’t always available, I make sure I can barter car use in an emergency with neighbors.

5. Winter Holidays: I should really be like my Mom, and start planning for next year’s holidays on January 1, but I find I’m not that organized - but with three birthdays and Chanukah in a six week period, plus Rosh Hashana and Sukkot in the fall giving us 15 “festival dinner with guests occasions” between September and December, it helps to plan ahead - particularly if you are going to make your own.

a. During the summer I make extra jam and preserves in small jars to give away as holiday gifts, as well as making raspberry, currant and wild grape liqueurs, goat’s milk soap and other odds and ends.

b. As much as I can, year round, I keep an eye out for new gifts being sold used, especially nice books and toys.

c. As soon as it cools off enough to touch wool, I start making mittens and hats for the boys.

d. I stock up on holiday ingredients - making sure we have enough pumpkins to make pumpkin pie, sprinkles and other decorations for birthday cakes, etc…

e. We butcher turkeys close to Thanksgiving and Chanukah.

f. I try and schedule all the events early, so that things don’t get too crazy. 

6. Barn/Livestock:

a. We make any needed barn repairs and begin bedding the animals more thickly as it cools off.

b. We butcher cull livestock and fall poultry before the animals are spending most of their day in the barn - we don’t want them to be overcrowded.

c. We begin tracking heats and planning our breeding schedule. 

d.  We put the winter’s hay and grain under cover in the hay barn, and encourage our cats to keep the rodents out (we also set traps). 

e. We bring sunflowers, oats and amaranth into the barn and hang them from the rafters to dry for winter feed. 

f. When it gets truly cold, we move the rabbits off the porch and into the barn. 

g. I begin kicking hens off nests, as we don’t want any hatches in the cold weather.

8. Pasture/Garden/Woodlot:

a. We have a neighbor with a tractor mow the pasture, to cut back any plants the sheep have left. 

b. We begin hauling our wood in from the woodlot, and the kids start taking kindling walks, to collect the winter’s starter fuel.

c. We stack and chop wood.

d. I order seed so that in February or March, I can frost seed the pasture for improvement purposes.

e. I put ribbons around the sugar maples so that I can find them all in February, when they have no leaves.

f. I plant bulbs, garlic, walking onions, potato onions and jerusalem artichokes.   Some years I also plant winter rye or wheat as well to be grazed by the chickens.

g. I dig out the sled for bringing wood in from the woodlot in winter.

h. I plot trees to coppice and some standing dead trees to be left for wildlife.   

Then I put soup on to simmer and a pumpkin pie to bake and enjoy winter!

There’s probably more, but I can’t think of any now.  How about you?  What are you doing to get ready for winter?


Massachusetts, Vaccinations and Pandemic Response

Sharon September 25th, 2009

I spent the better part of two decades living in Massachusetts, so when I saw several people linking to a Fox News report (this should be an alarm button right there) that Massachusetts had instituted forcible vaccinations, would be kidnapping people and instituting a “medical police state”, etc… I figured I ought to at least go read the language of the new law, senate bill 2028.  Now remember, this is not law, it has passed the state senate, but not the house.

What I found is troubling, but perhaps not quite what some of its critics are saying.  What’s most troubling about it is the idea that these policies could be enacted for a low-severity flu virus like the present form of H1N1.  I think that this is extremely disturbing - the level of hype about pandemic influenza is so high that it is extremely worrisome to imagine that the Massachusetts governor could apply these to a low-severity virus.   This bill *absolutely* must include clearer language about when a pandemic emergency can be declared, and about the number of medical agencies that must achieve consensus that there is just cause for such an emergency.  The absence of sufficient language in that regard should be enough to kill the bill.

That said, however, most of the most controversial requirements are medically appropriate for preventing the spread of disease, assuming that the disease was a high mortality, highly contagious disease such as Ebola, Plague, a very high mortality flu, etc….  It should not be applied to any medical emergency that doesn’t meet both the criteria of high mortality (in excess of 5%), and *also* high degrees of transmissability - ie, airborn or easily contact-spread virii only.  What the bill needs is a set of restrictive premises under which it could be enacted, and a lot more appropriate medical language.  There are also some real concerns, particular permission for law enforcement officials to deem appropriate arrest without a warrant, to enter buildings without a warrant, and the lack of parameters about what constitutes “decontamination of persons”.  Again, there’s a lot not to like here, and I think the bill should be killed and sent back for rewriting.

But I’d like for a second to talk about the medical realities of a real, high mortality pandemic - consider, for example, the outbreak of pneumonic plague that occurred in Ziketan in Northwest China over the summer.  Pneumonic plague is airborn, highly contagious, is often fatal as quickly as 24 hours after being contracted and has a mortality rate of nearly 100% without aggressive early treatment within 24 hours of symptoms, and mortality rates above 20% with aggressive antibiotic treatment.  7 days of heavy antibiotic treatment in advance will almost always prevent the spread of the disease.

Now we are all very fortunate that during the last outbreak of pneumonic plague, it occurred in very isolated northern china, and that no one got on a plane that was infected.  The total deaths were limited to three, only 12 people actually contracted the disease.  But this is the case *because* China enacted policies that are pretty much the ones described in the Massachusetts laws - they isolated the entire town, quarantined people in their houses, with strong penalties for leaving them, they treated anyone who might have been exposed with antibiotics, whether they wanted them or not, they commandeered facilities and enacted martial law.

Had they not done so, had a person carrying pneumonic plague, say hopped a flight to London and survived 48 hours touring that city, while his flightmates went on to New York, Paris and Johannesburg, we might have had a world-wide outbreak of pneumonic plague.  In that situation, any rational government would do what China did - quarantine, close the cities, ground the planes, mandate antibiotic treatment or quarantine for everyone exposed - period.  And quite honestly, it would be insane to do otherwise - the rights of other people stop well short of killing thousands of other people.

Everyone raise your hands who would be happy with a purely voluntary treatement and quarantine policy in this case?  Every parent who has ever known any other parent to send a sick kid to school, raise your hands?  Every adult who has ever had a co-worker come sick to work, even when they shouldn’t have, raise your hands.  Everyone who has ever met an illegal immigrant who would be unlikely to come forward to for any program involving “authorities” raise your hand.  Seriously, I think while it is deeply important not to overstate the risks of H1N1 or to allow them to constrain our freedoms, it is also important to recognize that in a world where people travel the globe, it is possible to imagine a situation in which the transmission of a major illness can only be constrained with the restriction of personal freedoms. 

I generally support the right of parents and adults to choose to be vaccinated or not - and much of the controversy focuses on the provision for vaccines - Fox News talks about forcible vaccinations. In fact, the bill provides for forcible vaccinations *or* quarantine - that is, if you are exposed to the disease or living in an area where a pandemic is rampant, if you decline vaccination, you must be quarantined.  I have no ethical problem with this, again, provided that reasonable provisions are made to make sure that pandemic response is enacted only in the case of a high mortality outbreak.  I think that given the limited testing of the H1N1 vaccine, it is perfectly reasonable, in a low mortality outbreak like the present one for everyone to have the right of refusal. 

But that is not the case were the H1N1 documentably to mutate into a high mortality disease - I agree that even in those cases, no one should be forced to take the vaccine.  But if you aren’t going to take it, *in a situation where there is a high mortality virus to which you could expose others*  you do have an obligation not to infect others - ie, to accept quarantine.  This cannot cause undue hardship because the Massachusetts law explicitly provides for unemployment payments for anyone who either is in quarantine themselves or who is required to tend a quarantined child, and prohibits with legal penalties the firing of anyone because they have been put into quarantine.  IMHO, this is about as just an arrangement as can possibly be made - my family might well refuse a vaccine I believed to be dangerous or ineffective, but I don’t believe that the quarantine obligation is then unfairly onerous - again, assuming that the regulations are enacted only in situations of great exigency.

The reality is this - there are occasions in which personal freedoms are subsumed in a crisis.  I understand that all Americans have excellent reason to fear, in the years since 9/11, the use of a crisis as excuse to limit our freedoms - this is legitimate, and it is right. But it is also the case that there are times when all of us using our own personal judgement to make decisions are unacceptable - and we know this.  It is a difficult thing to balance these, but I think it is important for Massachusetts residents to oppose senate bill 2028 *on the correct grounds* - not because the state never has the right to subsume individual rights the rights of the public not to die, but because they only rarely, and in extreme exigency do.

I think that Senate Bill 2028 is a failed bill, that it should not pass the House in Massachusetts and it needs to be rewritten and amended.  That said, however, it is also necessary at times for us to be able to constrain the spread of disease - because the odds are excellent that sooner or later, some of us will need someone to articulate the rights of other people not to be exposed.


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