Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Unschooling has recently been splashed into the national spotlight, with a show on Dr. Phil last Friday, and a fairly positive Sunday article in the NY Times covering an unschoolling family. Of course when this happens, the uninformed masses feel the need to come out of the woodwork declaring that it would be a horror and a shame to not have everyone in the country schooled to some uniform standard that would somehow ensure an educated populace (I don't know if anyone's looked around lately to see that having standardized public education has hardly fulfilled that promise, but I guess that's beside the point).

It all makes me wonder, as I often do, why monoculture is so honored in our society, and diversity, while given lip service, is often ignored. Whether it's a field of perfectly identical genetically engineered corn, with all of its tassels precisely 5 feet 10 inches off of the ground, a "tree farm" (euphemism for "former forest now planted with one species of tree") or a "No Child Left Behind" act that ensures that all the nations children will be able to be tested on precisely the same set of largely meaningless questions, we seem hell-bent on Uniformity Uber Alles.

Nature makes no such mistakes, as we have (hopefully) eventually learned. An ecosystem is a complex interplay of a mind-boggling complexity of organisms. While a pine beetle infestation can easily wipe out a monoculture tree farm, a real live forest rarely falls prey to any one disease or pest, because many species of trees, shrubs, and plants live in competitive and cooperative harmony, ensuring that at least some of them will survive.

Why then, would we want a monoculture of education? The beauty in the diversity of learning that I see among my kids and their friends is that none of them think, do, and learn in exactly the same way. Their interests, their approaches and methods are all uniquely individual. The way they approach a problem, or even the creative solution they end up at might differ greatly from one to the other. Our brains natural follow paths that work best for us, and even something as seemingly simple as how to mutiply 5 by 13 can be done a variety of ways. In a class full of children, all taught the same method, the probability that it will sink in for all of them is low. Some of them will eventually come to call themselves "bad at math", whereas if they had learned in a more organic way that worked for their particular brain and learning style, this concept of "bad at math" would probably never occur to them. I've never heard an unschooled child utter a phrase like this.

The reason these musings are here in my Urban Farm blog instead of over at my unschooling blog is because I see the parallels in nature, in my garden and the species that exist even in my very soil, and the way my kids learn and grow. The diversity I see in the children around me is a thing of organic beauty, like a rich handful of hummusy earth.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

On My Nightstand

The Omnivore's Dilemmma. Actually, it's on my nightstand, the breakfast table, my backpack when I go out... an excellent read so far, I'm about 2/3 of the way through and really enjoying it. I'll give a full review here when I'm done, but suffice it to say that if you haven't read it already you should be reserving it from the library, borrowing it from a friend, or if you're impatient like me (I was number 47 on the library's reserve list, so I figured it wasn't going to come to me any time this year), buy it from a local non-chain bookseller (and then pass it around to all of your friends).

It has definitely given me a swift kick in the pants to get down to my local Farmer's market while they still have it set up. I have so many good organic stores here, from my local corner market to our neighborhood supermarket that I get a bit lazy. But the author makes a very compelling case for even the difference between big organic and small, locally produced foods. Which of course I already knew in a sort of vague way, and we do get all of our eggs, meat, and much of our produce locally, but this was a great impetus to find local sources for the rest of the stuff we eat, with a possible exception for my lovely dark chocolate and mate' and my husband's coffee.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Peaceful Sort of Inefficiency

I'll say right off the bat that I hate leaf blowers, just loathe them. They are pretty darn close to the devil incarnate and something I sincerely wish would disappear from the face of the earth. Last year around this time, I had an hour to go running at a park next to my daughter's dance class every Tuesday. And every Tuesday the park maintenance guy would fire up the leaf blower, belching smoke and a vast amount of noise into the air to blow the same 20 leaves off of the sidewalks, until I would abandon the lovely park with its knee-saving bark trail and go run on the residential asphalt just to get away from it. Some days, he would do this in the rain (I watched him blow for at least two minutes on one wet leaf) and somedays in the wind, with the leaves whipping back onto the sidewalks behind him.

I bemoan the lost art of sweeping and raking. Quiet, peaceful, what is more serene than the image of a shopkeeper sweeping his front step and chatting with the passers-by? Instead, the passers-by are assulted by a veritable wall of sound and flying debris. It's hardly neighborly.

All this being said, however, we are now the owners of several gravel paths, for which I am extremely grateful. Last year, when I went down the slope to the chicken coop or garden, it was a slippery mudslide that I descended. This summer, my husband spent an awful lot of time with a wheelbarrow and a shovel dismantling a large gravel pile and turning it into nice, slip-free paths to which every leaf off of our oaks and big leaf maples is now sticking, wet and stubborn, just daring me to try to sweep it up. As I approach the leaves, they wrap their wet leafy selves around the pieces of gravel, bringing half of the path off with them as I rake. Yet if I leave them where they lay, they will once again turn the gravel path into a treacherous slide. The beauty of mother nature returning everything to its natural state.

Of course, the brilliance of the leaf blower is that it's virtually frictionless. Gravel, being heavy, stays put. Leaves, being lighter, fly off. But I Will. Not. Succumb.

So yesterday I spent the afternoon picking the remaining wet leaves off of the paths and throwing them into our raised beds as mulch, cursing the fact that I know a technology exists to do this so much faster and easier. After awhile though, with the peaceful chickens scratching beside me, I just got into a zen-like state of leaf picking and the task became enjoyable: something that got me outside on a blustery day when I probably would've stayed indoors, something that let me work my body - surely the bending and picking were so much better for me than standing in a haze of two-stroke engine fumes and letting compressed carbon do the work for me - something that gave me time to think and contemplate in the middle of a busy set of days.

Today, I have leaf-free non-slippery paths, and a new appreciation for the simpler ways of doing things. Now I'm off to sweep my sidewalks and wave to the neighbors.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Environmental Jenga

I love the conversations I get to have with my kids: long and often rambling, their insights at such young ages never cease to amaze me. I was talking with M. (10) about environmental issues, more specifically about my current non-fiction read The Omnivore's Dilemma (which I highly recommend, but that's a whole 'nother post), when he said "It's kind of like a Jenga game, isn't it? You can take a piece out here or there, a species or an ecosystem, and it seems small enough and the whole thing keeps standing. But eventually there comes a time when the piece you take out will make the whole thing fall. I think we might be close to that time."

Out of the mouths of babes...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Path to Friendship

Just outside my back gate is a rough path. It leads across a straw-strewn (covering newly planted clover) former empty lot that is becoming the house and yard of our good friends. Eventually, that path will lead to their back deck. Our children and theirs will run back and forth along it to each others' houses. I can see myself walking along it, trailing steam from an oversized mug of tea, to share a morning moment with my friends, can hear shouted messages at twlight for the kids to come on back from mucking around the creek or throwing a frisbee.

Their house is aiming for to be a "Net Zero" or near Zero energy use house. They're incorporating all kinds of wonderful design aspects, from a huge rainwater catchment basin under the deck to innovative drainfields and solar power. I am really excited to see their design taking shape, and to get to learn from the processes that they are using. We aren't building a new house any time soon, but hope to gradually implement some of these ideas as we add to our existing structure and lot (for instance, a greenhouse addition that we are contemplating might have built-in rainwater catchment underneath its foundation.)

More than anything, I'm grateful that the view from my windows is friendship, community, good neighbors.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Clutter of Doing the Right Thing

I went over to my friend's house the other day and her entire living room was filled with laundry, literally! They moved their laundry umbrella in from outside when it started raining, and the living room is the only place big enough to put it. She laughed and said "don't mind the laundry" while her teenage daughter looked for any mortifying underwear in evidence. And the thing is, I don't mind the laundry, I'm there to see my friend.

We're lucky enough to be in a friendship and circle of friends and community and even a town that supports sustainability, even if that means socks in your living room. I also have re-used glass jars and washed ziplock baggies drying on my kitchen counters, bowls of drying seeds and pods from the garden on top of the microwave, and the laundry rack in our bedroom. I know that in other cities or communities, other suburban cultures, this sort of general untidyness of life would be something to be avoided at all costs. I think of my friends from other times and places with their lovely parquet floors and matching throw pillows and exquisitely framed artwork and I do experience a twinge of something - envy maybe? - at the lovely magazine-cover neatness of it all. But also relief that my house can be more utilitarian than decorative (though it still cleans up real nice for a party, when the laundry is very much not in evidence!)

The bottom line is that when you have a three-tiered compost system on your counter (there's the vegetable scraps for the guinea pigs, other food scraps except citrus for the chickens, and the main compost bin for everything else), your kitchen probably won't win any Martha Stewart awards for decor. And when your dryer only gets turned on once a month, you end up with more than a few socks hanging around. But you also end up with10 kg less of Co2 into the atmosphere from the clothes dryer alone, and that can only be a good thing, even factoring in childhood trauma induced by someone seeing underwear in your living room.

When The Turkeys Come To Visit

A. spotted a whole flock of turkeys on our neighbor's lawn yesterday morning. They wandered through the neighborhood for an hour or so, making house calls. Aren't they beautiful? They make the cutest little noises. I was hoping one of the males would give us a good show of his tail, but it didn't happen. A few months ago we had some come right by our house and the lead male kept puffing up into this impressive display.

I still can't ride my bicycle, but I suppose that's a blessing with the ever-changeable weather. As you can see in the photo, yesterday morning was gloriously sunny and blue, but within a few hours it was blowing and raining like a true Northwest November. I was glad not to be somewhere around town with only my bike to get home on!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I Didn't Mean to Write About Gravedigging Today

I was going to write an eloquent post about how starting to become an urban farmer has brought me out into nature in all its states. I went out to close up the chicken coop in a raging windstorm the other night. Today has me mulching in the chilly fall sunshine. On days when I otherwise would be bundled up inside, I am now compelled to be out tending to garden and animals. It's nice in a way, I think it brings a greater connection to nature that isn't dependent on sunny skies and mild temperatures. It brings me face to face with the way the world really is, which is not climate controlled.

Instead though, I'm going to write about another side benefit (if I can bring myself to think of it that way) of the urban farming lifestyle: being dragged into close contact with nature's lifecycles. We had a mysterious chicken death yesterday. I went down to check on the ladies, and there was Speeder, face down in the middle of the chicken coop floor, looking for all intents and purposes as if she'd just decided to take a late afternoon snooze.

There was no blood around the deceased, no evidence of flying feathers, no wounds, no other indications of sickness (do chickens vomit? I don't know, but I checked for that too). She weighed a healthy chickenly amount, her combs (or "cluckers" as the kids call them) were all nice and pink and not scaly, her feathers are glossy and golden (this photo was taken last week, and you can clearly see that she is a chicken in the prime of her life.) In short, she looks reasonably healthy, except for the fact that she's dead. At only two years old, she's a bit young for a chicken heart attack (do chickens have heart attacks? Maybe I shouldn't have fed them those buttered toast scraps), but my only other conclusions are possible spider bite, or maybe she happened to peck at something like the mushrooms and toadstools that are cropping up everywhere after all this rain.

Regardless, this afternoon saw me solemnly digging a grave, standing beside it with my children and saying a few words about Speeder's life, as well as chicken heaven (somehow, "dog heaven" sounds much more dignified than "chicken heaven".) Then I played Taps on the recorder (ah, the things you do as a parent) and shoveled on the dirt.

This wasn't a pleasant duty, but in a way it also brought me closer to real life. I've read about rigor mortis, but never actually felt it before (the time my mom put my hamster in the freezer so we could bury her in the new house we're moving to doesn't really count.) I've been able to turn my head from death in that peculiar way that we in the Western World are able to do. Like our climate-controlled houses, our reality-controlled lives let us slip past the harsh and often messy realities of birth, death, sickness, old age, dying. Instead, working with earth, plants, animals, getting our hands messy in the dirt of the world, we come face to face with bad weather, bugs and grubs, stricken plants, and yes, dead chickens. As I say goodbye to Speeder and tamp down the earth, in an odd way it feels like a blessing.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Imagine, a Connected Life

One of the things I love about where we live is that I feel a part of an interconnected web. Part of it is the town, which is small enough to know many people. If we go to the library, the farmer's market, the pool, or the neighborhood store, we're very likely to run into someone we know. Part of it is the neighborhood we chose, one in which community is highly valued. We have an "intentional neighborhood" a block or so down the street, but almost everyone in the blocks around us is very community-oriented. Part of it is the circles we run in, which tend to overlap and intersect so we are always meeting people who know people who we know. Unschooling, sustainability, community, music, gardening, these themes that run through our lives bring us in contact with the most wonderful people.

This week, we took a toy bouncy horse that my kids had outgrown to a homeschooling family down the street that we met at the gym last year. They're now taking violin lessons from my daughter's old teacher. The violin teacher emailed me last week about whether or not a "chicken tractor" that she borrowed from us could be loaned to someone else. In turn, I need to call her to ask if we might be able to use her partner's saws to cut some wood for a bookcase. The circles go on and on with people helping, communicating, introducing people to other people until it feels like there is a giant lovely web that we have all somehow built.

I have lived places without this web, and it can feel lonely, isolated, disconnected. I think we are meant to feel this web connecting us - a feeling that if we somehow were to stumble or fall, that other people would hold their threads strong and we would be okay. Without that, it sometimes feels as if there is an abyss below our feet and that if somehow lose our tenuous grasp of things, we will disappear into its maw. I think about the stress that people feel in "modern life" and believe it is largely the stress of complete self-reliance, something we are probably not meant to ever be.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stuck in a Car

Just whining here... I injured my foot last weekend in my triathlon and now I can't walk, I can't bike, I am basically just limping around. I realize that I've taken this all for granted in the past, this ability to completely get around under my own steam! We tried to take a family walk to the store yesterday and I made it about a quarter mile. My husband had to take the kids while I limped home.

Plus, it's pouring rain today and just blah. [end whine]

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Back To Autumn

Ten days in Florida on gorgeous sandy beaches, lounging by palm-fringed hotel pools - okay, that was totally awesome. I can't complain at all! But by the time we were ready to come home, I was hungry for the seasonal change of my Northwest home.

Fall here is really stunning. Our town lives in a climactic confluence that gives it an astonishing variety of deciduous trees. The entire town turns gold, russet, purple, orange, canary yellow, dark red, umber, and crimson. The pumpkin patches and corn fields fall gently to pieces, and the rains come and go with brilliant flashes of blue sky between.

I'm sure by February, I will be dreaming of sunny beaches, but for now Give me Fall!