Archive for November, 2010

Independence Days Update: Thanksgiving

Sharon November 22nd, 2010

Sorry for the radio silence - it has been a hectic couple of weeks here with travel and talks and family visiting and birthdays and all sorts of stuff, but life settles down for a week now - yay!  Peace and quiet and getting things ready for winter, which is on the cusp of arrival.  But the ground isn’t frozen and there’s still a few nice days coming before the weather changes.

The tulips went in last week and were promptly dug up by my damned chickens, who keep sneaking into the fenced yard. The problem was largely resolved by the reintroduction of something in a missing species niche - ie, we put the dogs in the side yard to defend the tulip bulbs with their lives. 

The hens have just about stopped laying, so I actually bought eggs to make enough pumpkin pie.  We probably should light the hen house, but the results have never been impressive, and I tend to think that the hens need their quiet time too, just like I do in the winter.

The big news is that the goats are being bred for spring babies - older does only.  Bast, Arava and Jessie have already had their day, with Mina, Maia and Selene yet to go.  Frodo is happy as a clam!

I have a bit more late garlic to go in, and a few more bulbs, and then I’m done.  But my next garden project starts almost immediately - I have to set up the seeds to winter-stratify outside - so many of the medicinals do best when they’ve had a nice period of cold. 

We have to get the rest of the firewood under cover, and the rest of the hay moved over to the barn, but after that, winter can come, and I’m ready to settle in. I’m hoping to get most of the major projects done by the end of this week - it will be a quiet one, with guests only for the actual day of Thanksgiving, and Eric is off for most of the week, so we’ll get a lot done. 

For Thanksgiving, we’re having our usual turkey, plus our friend Joe makes Peking Duck (he’s half chinese and not from turkey) as well, which is a lot of fun.  Otherwise, we’re traditional - we’ll be eating the enormous Hubbard squash that Mac the Pyr is afraid of (vengeance!) and there’ll be the usual roots and sweets.  We already have had pumpkin pie - that’s what Simon wanted as his birthday “cake” and I’m always amazed at how delicious those winter luxury pumpkins are - they are far and away the best pie pumpkin on the earth.

I cleaned out and moved the food storage over, and found some ummm..tasty snacks for the chickens.  Let’s just say that I can’t think of any good reason why there would be baby food in my food storage, given that the baby is five, but so there was ;-) .

I managed to get some of the pruning done, but I really need another afternoon with the shears.  The buns are moved to their winter quarters in the hay barn, so winter preps are coming together. I’ve got to knit faster, though, since the boys are expecting hats and mittens!

After all the chaos, it feels like we’re coming into a homestretch of sorts - that life is getting manageable. I’ve been travelling way too much - I’ve averaged twice a month, which is just too hectic and taking up too much of my mental space.  It is the season of the year to cuddle in, and I just want to be at home.  And now I am.

Plant something: Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths (ground and pots for forcing).

Harvest something: Turnips, beets, kale, chard, bok choy, arugula, turnip greens, pea shoots, jerusalem artichokes, chinese cabbage, burdock root

Preserve something: Canned up some applesauce, dried burdock root

Waste Not: Fed babyfood and a few other things to chickens, collected lots of leaves for mulch, fertility and goat snacks.

Want Not: Sorted through the blankets and flannels and mended a lot.

Eat the food: Pumpkin pie!  Shepherd’s pie (I had extra pie crust) with veggies.  My first lamb and lentil soup of the season!  Massaman curried root vegetables. 

Build community food systems: Did a talk in Albany about our local food system.

How about you?  And what are you cooking this week?


The Best Kosher Cheese…

Sharon November 9th, 2010

…Is the one that you make yourself.  One of the great problems of keeping kosher is finding decent kosher cheese.  Technically speaking, I don’t have to do this - I’m a Conservative Jew, rather than an Orthodox one, and the Conservatives have long treated rennet as far enough from its origins not to worry about.  But it bothers me, and I have friends who won’t eat cheese made using animal rennets, so I have tried to mostly serve kosher cheeses.  The problem is that kosher certification is extremely expensive, which means most small artisanal cheesemakers won’t bother, which means one finds oneself back at bigger cheesemakers from far away.

Thus my quest for really good Kosher cheeses - real Camembert, blue cheeses that can knock your socks off - and I’ve tried a lot of recipes.  I’m starting to feel like I can produce something worth having - and entirely kosher.

Unfortunately, the barriers to starting up a dairy in New York are so great that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to sell it.  On the other hand, if you too seek really good kosher cheese, I can sell you a couple of dairy goats and point you to some nice videos on the subject!

Making Blue Cheese

The Anyway Project: Down to Brass Tacks

Sharon November 9th, 2010

First of all, in response to reader suggestion, I’ve changed the names of the categories. People rightly felt “domestic economy” and “household economy” were too confusing, and reader Apple Jack Creek suggested we change “domestic economy” to “domestic infrastructure.” Claire also suggested that “Farm and Subsistence” was too specific to my case, and that we should just go to “Subsistence” there. I don’t think I quite agree, although I am taking the word “farm” out since not everyone has one, and replacing it with “cottage industry.” Not everyone will have a cottage economy emerge from their activities here, but I do I hope that some people will, and want a way of differentiating between purely subsistence activities and those that generate income in the form of barter, community currency or plain old money.

The new categories for the Anyway Project are:

Domestic Infrastructure - these are the realities of home life, including making your home work better with less, getting organized, dealing with domestic life, etc…

Household Economy: Financial goals, making ends meet, saving, barter etc…

Resource Consumption : in which we use less of stuff, and strive to live in a way that has an actual future.

Cottage Industry and Subsistence:: The things we do that prevent us from needing to buy things, and the things we produce that go out into the world and provide for others. Not everyone will do both, but it is worth encouraging.

Family and Community: Pretty much what it sounds like. How do we enable those to take the place of collapsing infrastructure?

Outside Work: Finding a balance, doing good work, serving the larger community as much as we can, within our need to make a living.

Time and Happiness: Those things without which there’s really no point.

So what am I trying to do in the course of November? What should you try and do in the near term? My goal is to set one or two goals in each category for each month (I’ll do this by the first each month) and go forward. Since I’m getting us started late this month, I’ll try not to overreach. Ok, that’s probably not realistic ;-) .

Domestic Infrastructure: My goals are finish moving the food storage out of the walk-in closet it has badly overflowed and into the spare guest room, where now people will have the pleasure of sleeping surrounded by jars and buckets (this, however, is one of a couple of guest rooms. I’m also moving around the space my office is in, but can’t really finish that until I get a door for said office. So my goal is to put the door on and move the furniture. Beyond that, I hope to get the firewood stacked and some of it moved into the house and get some more garden beds built before winter. That’s probably as much as I can accomplish (and maybe more). If I have time, however, I did make a list of 25 free or cheap projects I could do to improve our quality of life that I’d like to take a stab at.

Household economy: We have several times in the past tracked our expenses, but haven’t done it in a couple of years. So go back to tracking every penny we spend. I think realistically, the most I can hope for this month is to figure out where all the money goes (we know basically but I’d like a closer analysis) and make a plan for shifting our expenses starting next month.

Resource Consumption: This we’ve been tracking all along, so I pretty much know where the problems are. My goal is to drop our electrical usage by 5% over our present use, something I’m sure I can accomplish simply by staying off the computer a little more and by the normal shift to cookstove cooking away from our stove. The major problem will be our mileage - they’ve crept up with kid activities and my travel, and they aren’t immediately fixable, although they will go down after next month, since I won’t be travelling as much. So figuring out where we can cut there is the next project.

Cottage Industry and Subsistence: I need to find out if I can get an inspection that will allow me to produce small scale jams and other food from our spare apartment kitchen - there are permits for this in NY, but I am not sure if we’ll qualify. In the meantime, lots and lots of farm planning for the spring, and garden planning in general. I want to reduce our input costs and increase our outputs - some boring tax research is also required. My goal is to have a plan set out for the farm by the end of the month - a month by month schedule of what we’re producing and what I need to do to accomplish that.

Family and Community: Eric and I are committed to trying to be part of two more outside our home events every month than we had been doing - evening events are tough for us, with almost no babysitting and the fact that we’re usually really tired by the end of the day. But the fact is, human relationships happen at night, so we’re trying bring some new folks to the farm and also go out more. Oddly, this seems like the most overwhelming one - I can handle my finances or declutter my house, but when it comes to actually getting organized to do something at 8pm, I find myself struggling!

Outside Work: I have several times tried to get my outside workload down by insisting I work and check emal only 3 days a week. In principle, this seems doable. In practice, I’ve never pulled it off - but if I’m to accomplish as much as I want to, I can’t do it in front of the computer all the time. I’ve been trying to help get my ASPO commitment stabilized with more hands to do the work, and that seems like it is settling down. My biggest, perhaps most difficult to achieve goal is this - that I will work at the computer *only* on Monday mornings, and all day Tuesdays and Thursdays - and that includes everything I do online - on all other days, the computer will stay *off.* I’m hoping to pull this off by December 1 - and stick to the commitment.

Time and Happiness: I think honestly, accomplishing the above will get me both. I’ll let you know how I do.

So what are your plans and goals? You can post them here or link to your blog and we can talk about it. Let us know what you are struggling with, and what you’ve accomplished. Spread the word - get a lot of people involved. It should be fun - and we can all use a little support!

And the badges, btw, are coming!

Another Reminder of the Food Crisis….

Sharon November 8th, 2010

In this fascinating series by The Guardian on food casualties of our ecological crisis.  Well worth a read for everyone!  Consider tomatoes, which are causing riots in Egypt, quite literally. 

They are as much part of the Middle Eastern diet as hummus and olive oil, but the rocketing price of tomatoes has led many families to treat them as an expensive delicacy.

The cost of a kilogram of the usually ubiquitous red fruit has risen seven- or eightfold in Israel and Palestine in the past month as a result of the scorching summer, with some retailers charging up to 14 or 15 shekels (around £2.50).

“People are still buying tomatoes but they are buying fewer of them,” said one Jerusalem retailer. “I am hoping the price will drop soon.”

The Israeli government has waived taxes on imported tomatoes for the rest of the year to help counter shortages resulting from the unusual heat.

The exemption applies to 4,000 tonnes of the fruit, mainly from the Netherlands.

The crisis is easing as a new crop of tomatoes, grown after the intense heat of the summer, are coming on to the market, said an Israeli ministry of agriculture spokeswoman. “One of the problems has been that tomatoes don’t last long once ripe,” she said.

According to Gidon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Middle East, “We’re seeing the impact of global warming. We can see real changes having to take place on how we grow food for our basic dietary needs.”

One of the things that I think is important to remember is that foods are not automatically interchangeable - consider how you’d feel if your bread or potatoes or rice were replaced with Cassava tomorrow and someone said “well, they are all nice, filling starches…”  People are passionate about their major foods, and it is worth noting the way that those disruptions undermine a sense of stability, even if there is enough overall food.


The Anyway Project, AKA Whole Life Redesign

Sharon November 1st, 2010

It hasn’t escaped my notice that today is November 1, and I’m supposed to be starting the Whole-Life Redesign Project. In fact, I am starting it - I’m taking the opportunity created by my kids being out of the house to move all the food storage around and clean under things and get rid of things (hmmm…should there still be baby cereal in the back of my food storage, given that the baby turned 5 on Friday…ummm….) and otherwise make a giant mess in my house in the general hope of making it better afterwards.

What I haven’t done is sit down and write out the parameters of how this project is supposed to work as a group effort - and that’s not for lack of trying. Despite a number of drafts on this subject, I find myself uncharacteristically at a loss for words - or at least a good way of framing this.

The part that seemed hard is the way of making this seem as fully relevant to a single mother in a Budapest apartment as to me in a rural New York farmhouse, to an elderly couple and a single college senior as to a big family like mine. I know from the response i got that people felt that there was something there that connected to them - even given our differences, but what parameters to set on things for everyone, I couldn’t find.

It was different in my two other year-long projects. The first one, the “Buy Nothing Project” was very clear - for a year we tried to buy nothing but fuel and food (and spend less on both of those). And for the most part, we were successful - there were some failures, but we cut our expenses and the folks that did this with us mostly found that the parameters were clear. Don’t buy stuff. Ok, got it.

The second project, The Riot for Austerity, was harder, and required more figuring things out. The goal was to cut our use of energy by 90% over the American average. This did require figuring out what counted and what didn’t (how, for example, we counted technically carbon-neutral wood heat, how, for example, we calculated local food…) but eventually those details were worked out, and again, it was pretty simple. Don’t use much energy. Again we weren’t perfect, but we made deep and long term changes in our lives from the project.

The Independence Days Project has been ongoing and focuses on integrating basic food and subsistenct activities into daily life - that too has been a success and a pleasure, and that one seemed perhaps closest to what I was getting at - but there were so many pieces. Not for nothing was I using the uneuphonious “whole life redesign” name to describe this project of sorting out my life - and inviting other people to share in the project. So how to narrow it - and to narrow it in ways that were open to people with different needs and realities - but the same desire to have a working whole.

Framing this seems harder to me, maybe because it overlaps with so many things. There are a lot of people out there with a program or an idea that covers a portion of this. They’ll help you get out of debt and cut your expenses. They’ll help you declutter. They’ll help you organize your time. And all of those things are part of this - but they aren’t the whole.

When I sat down to think about what this project actually *is* as a whole I found myself struggling to articulate what this was about, and why it felt so important to me, and I found myself back at my favorite thing that I’ve ever written, the riff I wrote on Pat Meadows’ wonder idea, “The Theory of Anyway”.

My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls “The Theory of Anyway.” What it entails is this - she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crises in energy depletion, or climate change, or most other global crises are the same sort of efforts. When in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing “Anyway.” Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels. That they also have the potential to save our lives is merely a side benefit (a big one, though).

This is, I think, a deeply powerful way of thinking because it is a deeply moral way of thinking - we would like to think of ourselves as moral people, but we tend to think of moral questions as the obvious ones “should I steal or pay?” “Should I hit or talk?” But the real and most essential moral questions of our lives are the questions we rarely ask of the things we do every day, “Should I eat this?” “Where should I live and how?” “What should I wear?” “How should I keep warm/cool?” We think of these questions as foregone conclusions - I should keep warm X way because that’s the kind of furnace I have, or I should eat this because that’s what’s in the grocery store. Pat’s Theory of Anyway turns this around, and points out that what we do, the way we live, must pass ethical muster first - we must always ask the question “Is this contributing to the repair of the world, or its destruction.”

Here I found something of the central organizing principle for my project. Because what I want is to have a life that works - one that works whether the money is coming in or not, one that operates whether the lights are on or off, one that works and gives us what we need and doesn’t use what we don’t need. That’s what has been missing - in the rush to get things done, the rush to go forward, I’d stopped asking quite so often what was right, and was making do with what is.

And because figuring out what you should be doing “anyway” means going against the natural grain of our lives - it means stopping and taking apart the things that are givens and reconsidering them, that takes time. And finding ways to make those things economically viable, finding the time to do them and building the skills to integrate the right things into your life in such a way that they become natural and a part of you, well, that’s a project. Because it isn’t something our society makes easy or cheap, or accessible.

That said, I have perfect faith that most of them are achievable. After all, when I started the Riot for Austerity with Miranda Edel, what everyone told us was that we had to wait - that cutting your energy consumption as dramatically as that would require government programs and subsidies and a whole host of things that we had to wait for. But those things were not forthcoming - they are still not forthcoming, and we found - and hundreds and hundreds of other people in cities and country and suburb, in 20 nations, and all over the world found, that it was in fact possible to do most of this now, with what you had, cheaply in the life you lived. That we didn’t have to wait. But it took a lot of time and thought and talk and support and figuring.

So I feel I can trust that all these things - that a life lived as rightly as possible is achievable. Moreover, I feel that I can trust that it is better achievable in a group - with all of you filling in ideas and arguments.

I was very fortunate that my editor, Ingrid and my publisher, New Society also felt that they wanted to participate in this - one of the big questions was whether this is an entirely separate project from my Adapting-In-Place book or something else, a part of it - the project of integrating my life today with the life I anticipate tomorrow, and making them work together in greater synthesis. Ingrid and New Society, despite the fact that the book has already been delayed once, trusted me and this project, and that including it would make a better book. So this will be a story I tell in the next book - thanks to them and their generous willingness to wait and see and risk something.

So I’m renaming this “The Anyway Project” - because I think that’s what it is. The goal of the project is simple - and huge - to ask how we can live the life we ought to be living anyway now, where we are, with what we have.

I’ve divided up the project into seven categories (somehow I always end up with sevens of things ;-) ), and offered suggestions for how other people might do this. In my next post on this subject, I’ll list off my goals and my time frame on each project, and my plan is to do monthly posts, on the first of the month to talk about what progress I’ve made. I hope you’ll do the same! If there’s enough desire, we could certainly set up a discussion group, but I do want a lot of the conversation to take place here and at my other blog, because I think that the conversations here are so good.

Here are the categories and how I’m thinking about them:

- Domestic Economy

This is the territory of home life. Here’s where we start thinking about what we want our home life to actually be like. For me, the critical requirements are less cluttered, less disorganized, a home that functions better in relationship to what I actually do and intend to do at home. I’d like to set up the house in order to be able to bring people here for some of my teaching projects, and also to use some of the space for farm projects.

- Household Economy

This is the territory of making ends meet and meeting financial goals. My goals here are to up the portion of our personal economy that comes from barter and personal exchanges, to drop our expenses by 20% and transfer the money to savings and to infrastructure like insulation that will cut expenses in the longer term. I want to have a plan for dealing with money and benefits cuts that we expect on Eric’s end.

- Resource Consumption

This is the territory of what we use. Our lives are enhanced when we use less, and so are the lives of others and our environment - it is as simple as that. We’ve seen some creep in our energy usage, and we need to get it back down. Right now our family of six is using less than 1/5 the US average (and most of those are based on household numbers with the average US household being 2.6), but I want to get back closer to 1/10th which, while not a fair share, is a lot closer. We need to get back in the habit of accurate bookeeping on our energy usage as well.

- Farm and Subsistence

This category may be more relevant to us than some people, but everyone does some subsistence work. For us, we want the farm to be the center of our lives, and to integrate ourselves more into the farm - that is, we want as much as possible my work and our lives and the farm to be one thing. For a long time we’ve used Eric’s work to subsidize the farm, but now it needs to be self-supporting, and that’s part of that equation, while we also expose what we’re doing in low input agriculture to other people. We’d also like to up the degree to which our subsistence activities teach and help others.
Most of all, I want to do a full evaluation of all our projects, both so that others can begin to understand them, and also to make sure that we are doing everything we do as well as possible.

- Family and Community

This is a big one for us - the reason we considered moving earlier this year was the desire for a closer knit community - we had that but have seen some changes over the years. But the reality is that we’ve been allowing those changes to frustrate us, but haven’t necessarily worked as hard as we could to compensate. So our goal is to spend more time working on our community building, and bringing our far-flung communities and our local ones into a state of connection. It is sometimes hard to be so far from our family, from close friends, but if we can build better on what’s near us, we can reach out through a chain of links, rather than across a wide distance.

- Outside Work

If my children were hungry, I would and could do any work necessary - there is no doubt about that. But while my family lives on comparatively little money (we qualify for food stamps in our state, although we don’t use them), we also have enjoyed the fact that we have the luxury of choosing our work. In many ways, we’ve had an enormous luxury - my writing and teaching and farming didn’t have to pay much, because Eric was subsidizing them. Now my work may have to support us, but I still want, to the extent that’s possible, to make what I do the right thing to do. I am enormously fortunate, in that I can earn money doing what I care about, and that I have had the luxury of giving things - my writing, my farm products, etc… away for free. Indeed, often the return of giving things away has been greater than those I use for money - but I don’t live entirely outside the cash economy, unfortunately. So I need to balance my work - find the ways to make some money doing what I care about, while reducing expenses, so that I have the luxury of keeping giving things away.

- Time and Happiness

In the end, these balance sheets have to be even for me to begin to go forward. The good thing about this is that I know how easy it is to even up this part of the equation. My husband and children and the farm and gardens, friends and family give me a deep, inner core of happiness. Whether we stay or go, whatever changes we make, whatever we do without or give up, if I have some simple things - a little dirt (and I don’t have to own it) and the loves of my lives in place, I am not afraid of the future, and I am happy. The thing that buys me the most happiness is time - but it doesn’t have to be free time. Indeed, the thing that gives me the most comfort in the world is knowing that Eric and I can spend an entire day working in arm’s reach of one another, with the boys helping and playing around our work, and know that at the end of the day, all of us, exhausted, will have found the time well spent. Finding time and finding happiness, are not, for us, a matter of more vacation time or things we want to try - they are simply the by products of trying to bring the pieces of our lives together.

I suspect most these categories will have something people want to address and perhaps change, even if your list doesn’t look exactly like mine. I’ll post in the next day or two a list of specific goals in each category, and how I plan to go through and track these. I hope you’ll offer suggestions and ideas as well!