Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Environmental Impact of Feminism

On a discussion board I frequent, there is currently a largely civilized debate about the value of what used to be called "women's work". Since nowadays, either partner can choose to be a stay at home spouse, that phrase has gone by the wayside. But the reality of the situation is that this work, that of the "homemaker" is largely devalued by society. Some people have put forth that a person with no children, or children old enough to be in school have no business even staying at home, and that such people are not paying their own way in life.

This has been going around and around in my brain all day, and even though it doesn't really apply to me (homeschooling/unschooling is more than a full-time job!), it got me thinking of not just the economic value of such work (replacing everything I do would probably cost a fortune, even if one could find someone with the diverse skills of chicken midwifery, robotics coach, and violin tutor, LOL), but of the environmental value and impact of this work.

Now before I say another word, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am in no way advocating for some return to the June Cleaverism of yesteryear. I don't think a societally enforced imprisonment of women in the household with an apron and a copy of Betty Crocker is the answer. And I fully understand that for many families in this era of haves and have-nots, having both parents work is a financial necessity (and that of course is a whole 'nother topic, on the Walmartization of the workforce where so many people are not paid a living wage). But I do think it's imperative that we look at the true value of this work, and the repercussions that abound when homemaking is farmed out to the likes of McDonalds, Eggo Waffles, and Swiffer.

I was shifting some stuff around in the freezer today, and looking at the neat packages of frozen blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and cherries that fill half of the shelves. They stand next to the meat I picked up from the butcher (a local 1/3 pasture-raised organic beef), and the baggies of pancakes and waffles that I make up ahead of time so the kids can have healthy easy breakfast on days when we have little time. This is one small microcosm of the environmental value of a homemaker.

If I hadn't taken the kids to the berry patches and roadside fields and fruit stands this summer to get local organic foods to fill our freezer, we'd be buying more fruits trucked to a plant, packaged, and trucked to our local supermarket. If my husband or I didn't have the time to find and build a relationship with the local people who supply our raw milk and organic meat, pick it up when needed, and then thaw and prepare nutritious meals for the family, we'd be driving through a McDonald's like so many Americans on the go. I did that once last year, when we were on vacation and I was completely staggered by the sheer amount of waste products generated by one fast-food meal. And that doesn't count all the trucking and non-sustainable agriculture that went into producing that meal. Likewise, if I wasn't cooking nutritious sprouted whole-grain wafffles and pancakes with our own organic eggs and raw milk, I might be opening a pack of Eggos for the kids before we rushed out the door to get to our respective jobs and school. I won't bother typing in the ingredient list, but suffice it to say that they barely resemble food and I can't even imagine the environmental impact (let alone the healthcare and economic impact) of so many of the nation's food choices being such pre-packaged dreck.

Of course, we shouldn't ignore transportation. Although I'd like to think that most two-income families go merrily carpooling out the door, this isn't the case for most in America. Our old neighbors were a prime example - both parents and the teenage child left the house in three separate cars each morning, bound for three separate places, all less than five miles from each other. But their hectic schedules were too overwhelming to coordinate, so three cars it was. And for two-working parent families, it might be completely necessary for either parent to have to drive kids to after-school activities or daycare.

There are many more incidental environmental impacts. As the hours spent on the job by members of the workforce creep up steadily, less and less time is available for simple household tasks. Thus something like the time it takes to wring out and clean a mop becomes so stupendously valuable that products like Swiffer hit the marketplace with a bang. It seems there is nothing out there that can't be made disposable. Diapers have been around for a long time, but now you can simply throw your baby's bibs away without having to take the time to wash them. Facial washcloths - who knew that they made them disposable? After all, taking the time to throw in four or five more washcloths to your laundry could be the straw that broke the overworked camel's back. And not only fast-food meals are served on disposable dinnerware. People are sometimes so time-crunched that paper plates and plastic forks are used for regular family dinners to save time on washing dishes.

All of these seemingly disparate things don't cause us to blink our eyes when taken one at a time. These things you might look at separately and say "what's the big deal, if someone wants to use a Swiffer instead of cleaning a mop?" but when you take them together, when you take them on a national scale, it's clear that the environmental impact of the absence of homemakers in so many families becomes huge. And there's no easy answer or quick turnaround (though the rising prices of fuel in a post-peak economy may turn around the Swiffers, multiple cars, fast food and such all on its own). As such things no longer seem "cheap and easy", the work of a homemaker becoms much more apparently valuable in a monetary sense.

So what can be done to jump-start this change? For one thing, think about the homemakers you know and make sure that when you talk to them you do not disparage their role, even inadvertantly. They are valuable, not just to their families, but to our society and to the earth itself. They play perhaps the most important job on the planet. If you hear someone else act dismissively to someone with a homemaking role, bring the issue to discussion. It's often a very quiet discrimination against people who are "just" housewives or homemakers or "just a stay-at-home mom". It seems that official job titles working out of the home carry so much more prestige and importance, and anything we can do to reverse this trend will be better for our communities, our society, and our environment.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Blogging First

For the first time ever, I'm going to duplicate a post across all three of my blogs. Usually, I keep them pretty separate, figuring that people reading my Ironmom blog might not be all that interested in my vegetable-growing and chicken-farming adventures. Or that people interested in my family's unschooling days might not care what kind of swim workout I'm using these days. But this one post cuts across all lines of interest in my life. It's about homeschooling my kids and the amazing things we get to do, it's about alternative energy, and it's about teamwork and fostering a positive approach to competition. And I'm so proud, I'm not just going to post a link, I'm putting the whole thing right here as well:

So, my kids' robotics team, the Solar Dragons, went to the regional tournament last weekend. I knew that they were very well prepared, their robot was solid, they had put in a lot of time perfecting their programs, their runs on the challenge table, their research project and presentation, and I knew that they were operating as an exceptional team with respect for each other and for the other teams. What I didn't even imagine in my wildest dreams is that they would WIN THE WHOLE TOURNAMENT! Yep, that's it. They really did it!

First of all, their runs on the robot table went very well. They practiced their approach so many times that there was no fumbling or nervousness at the table, just a smooth running of all the things they needed to do (remove and replace attachments, add cargo, aim robot, select program, run robot). They had decided that they would all run their programs at the table, but according to Lego competition rules, only two of them could be at the table at any given time, so they took a tag-team approach. They helped each other out, and as each kid was done with their turn, they tagged the next.

They also faced three panels of judges. One teamwork panel that asked them questions about how they worked as a team (my favorite moments, when they asked things like "who is your team leader" and the kids said "we operate by consensus", LOL.) One panel was technical judging, where they had the kids run their programs and asked them about their programs and robot design, and a third panel evaluated their research project (they had five minutes to do a presentation, and another five minutes of Q&A - they actually knew their stuff so well, the panel ran out of questions to ask them!). When we saw the research projects of some of the other groups of kids, I knew that our kids would do really well. Many kids from school teams had used their classrooms or part of their school building for the energy audit. While this was probably technically admissible, I think the real goal from Lego FIRST League in setting this as a project for this year was to get the kids out and interacting with the community. Since our team really did choose a big and complex public building to audit, and researched extensively on alternative energy solutions, I knew they'd wow the judges (and they did!).

I am proudest of the fact that they scored a perfect 100 on teamwork. I know they're a great group of kids and they have worked so well together and have had so much fun together, it really showed. Whenever they've made a team decision, it has almost always been unamimous. I think it also really speaks volumes that we have two pairs of siblings on the team (not always the easiest to work with your own family members!) and that the kids come from different educational venues (two different schools plus some homeschoolers). They also got the highest score on their research presentation, something they've put so much time and effort into (see my previous post for a description of what they did). The got the 2nd highest score on the robot table as well, garnering 195 points with their seven mission programs.

So without further ado, here's some pics of these magnificent kids in action!

Here's the table setup in the main competition hall. Two teams compete against each other in timed table runs.

Their first run at the table, Claire and Asa work together to send the robot out on a mission to plant trees.

Time for their technical presentation. Whoops, I forgot to bring the folder with printouts of their programming. Good thing I'm a trained runner!

Waiting for their turn.

Mackenzie and Daniel get the power lines in place, the rest of the team waits behind for their turn to be tagged.

Waiting outside the presentation judging room. It was cold enough to snow and the poor kids were shivering. They're holding the photos for their research presentation.

Presenting to the panel of judges.

We were all so impressed with this kid, Thomas. His entire team backed out, but he came and competed all by himself!

We can't believe it, we won the whole thing!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Taking a Page From Johnny Appleseed

As the news stories careen towards ever-scarier pronouncements (now even mainstream presses are admitting we might've passed peak oil, and objections to global warming have become the feeblest murmurs), one might wonder "What the heck can I do?"

When I was a kid, my grandparents and parents owned a theatre. During the summer months, they also did children's theatre productions. So I was a toy in Babes in Toyland, a dancing skunk in Johnny Appleseed, and a singing Gretel in Hansel and Gretel. Remembering the story of Johnny Appleseed (even though the version in the play is much dramatized from his real life), it occurs to me that we could all take a page from his book. Johnny Appleseed is known for planting orchards of apple trees, as well as fostering community, and helping out those less fortunate than himself (to the point where if people gave him clothing, he only kept the worst pieces for himself to wear and passed on the nicer items to others in need).

Right now, community and local food are two things that will be increasingly important as we head into an energy-poor future. For most of us, whether we live on suburban lots or in the country, we've got places we might be able to plant sustainable food sources for future harvesting. Of course, what is available to you to plant as part of your permanent landscaping will vary depending on your local climate, which direction your lot faces, how many shade trees you already have, and other variables. In our area, there are lots of options open for planting, including nuts like walnuts and filbert trees, a huge variety of fruit trees, and fruiting shrubs.

In a last fit of fall gardening, I picked up five more huckleberry bushes and three of a new variety of evergreen blueberry that fruits for 10 weeks a summer instead of fruiting in one short intense burst. I'm determined to both squeeze in more edible landscaping into areas that we have, and also to replace some of my least favorite shrubs (legacy of the previous owner) with fruit-bearing raspberries, huckleberries, blueberries, etc. We also planted a cherry tree this year, and I'm thinking of squeezing in a filbert somewhere. We have a yellow plum, purple free-stone plum. asian pear, and two red apple trees already.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Better Biking

Fall is here and we've had some exceptional biking weather. We've taken a nice family tandem ride - about 17 miles, the longest we have gone with the kids so far. And I got the kids out on their own bikes and we did a nice ride one sunny day. We noticed the new bicycle markings that are going up around town. Check out these lovely reflective bicycle route markers that are popping up. I also noticed some great new signage for popular bicycle routes through town, but haven't gotten any photos of them yet. It's nice to see our city is still working on making bicycling even easier and more convenient. It's the kind of investment that will definitely pay off over the years.
One thing I really like about our town is that certain streets are designated as "bicycle only" and all cars except for local traffic are shunted away onto other streets. It can be really frustrating to drivers, and since I often bicycle through town I have occasionally found myself in my car at one of these shunted streets cursing under my breath that I can't get through where I thought I could (I also occasionally end up in my car at the bike path realizing that I really can't drive home the same way that I bike home!) But overall, it's something I'm grateful for as it makes bicycling through town much safer and more pleasant.

Who can argue with a safe, friendly bicycle ride on a street as lovely as this one?

Friday, November 09, 2007

How Long Will We Believe in the Silver Bullet?

While there is a small glimmer of hope in the fact that both the media and big agencies like the International Energy Agency are finally acknowledging thatPeak Oil and Global Warming are upon us, it's frustrating that in article after article, the emphasis for change is still on investing in alternative energy solutions, like solar, wind, and hydrogen cars. Why is there still not even any lip service paid to investing in real, meaningful societal change: viable low-energy mass transit, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly cities, local food sources, permaculture, de-centralizing the food and commodities industries??? It's like they're saying "Yes, there is a fire in the theatre, but you can all continue to watch the movie, don't worry about it. Please, stay seated." And while people start to pass out left and right, they'll quietly drag the bodies away so as to not disturb the other people who are still engrossed in the fantasy before them. By all means people, keep driving 500 miles a week in your gas-guzzler. You'll be able to buy a hydrogen car in ten years and continue living the fantasy unchanged.

Wake up world, there's no silver bullet. Your life will have to change. The fantasy is just a fantasy. Start changing now. Start a garden, plant some fruit trees, find a local farmer and support them. Bike to work, meet your neighbors, carpool, never shop at Walmart again. We will either change, or change will be forced upon us.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Two Fun Things In One - Bicycle Light DIY Kit

365 Day 94: Night Commute
I found this fun little kit while looking up info on bicycle lights. I remember when I was in college, most bicycle lights did not have batteries, but friction generators that used a small wheel that ran along your rear rim to generate power for the light. They were somewhat heavy and cumbersome, and didn't produce a very strong light (this was, of course, in the days before LEDs). Now there's a kit out for frictionless dynamo lights for your bicycle. Nothing like combining some science learning with DIY ingenuity and reducing waste (batteries) as well! While I run rechargables in my bike lights with good success (the LEDs draw so little power that good rechargables actually last a long time in them), I can't resist the draw of free power from this little magnetic generator. I think I might have to order one!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Leaf Blowers....Devil's Spawn

If there truly is anything on this earth that was spawned straight from the maw of the devil, it's not Harry Potter, it's not kids in costumes trick-or-treating, it's not New Age shamans, it's leaf blowers.

Yes, it's that time of the year again. The time when the leaves fall gloriously from the trees in all their pretty dresses of red, maroon, orange, and gold. I love this time of year. I love the harvest activities, the crisp mornings, the fog that rolls in at night, the nerdiest un-partnered lone crickets chirping their last amorous ballads to the dusk. I hate the leaf blowers. They make their appearance at this time of the year too. They've replaced the kindly shopkeeper sweeping his front stoop and turned him into a headphone-clad hunch-backed animal making the most horrendous noise on the planet. I once turned away from a park that I like to run at because a man with a leaf-blower (paid for by my tax dollars no doubt!) was there. I ran for over half a mile before I could no longer hear the drone of this nasty CO-belching beast.

Leaf-blowers are the antitheses of joy. There is no enjoyment in leaf blowing, I'm convinced. The happiness one would feel in the cool autumn air, the crunch of the leaves, all the tactile loveliness of the season is blasted away in a haze of fumes and fury. Your neighbors avoid you, pedestrians and cyclists detour around you, you are deaf and mute to the world as you blast away at small pieces of dead photosynthesized plant matter with all of your blood-for-oil-powered might. Leaf blowers separate humans, instead of fostering connections. They proclaim dominance over the natural world, yet nature has the last laugh. When the man with the leaf blower turns around, shuts off his machine and walks indoors, the gust of wind appears almost mischievously and whisks all those leaves back onto the sidewalk, obliterating man's mechanized work. I can't help but see it as a metaphor for things to come.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Shedding Hopelessness

Through Blogger's own focus on earth and sustainability blogs, I found myself reading Earth Meanders, and a post completely infused with the despair that is hard to hold off if you have any inkling at all of what the words "peak oil" and "global warming" really mean for the earth and for humanity as we know it. It's a sad conundrum that the very people who care so deeply about the earth and who understand the joy and beauty that surrounds us are often plagued by depression and actual pain as we contemplate the coming debacle.

Coincidentally, on our Crunchy Unschoolers list, we're discussing the novel Ishmael, which I admit I haven't read in over a decade (note to self: re-read this most excellent book and see what it has to say to you now), and the discussion turned along similar lines: why bother pursuing a sustainable existance when all around you are Hummers rocketing towards WalMart to buy the latest shipped-from-China unnecessary products? How do we hold onto joy and yet simultaneously hold the knowledge of what is happening to the earth?

Our family is currently watching Ken Burns The War and so my thoughts have turned often recently to Nazi Germany, to what people endured there, not to mention the frightening parallels to our current eroding democracy and the almost willful giddiness and faith in the rightness of their lives that ordinary people seem determined to stick to in the face of all evidence that we have tipped over the brink of the cliff. I am reminded of the stories of the ordinary German people reported by Milton Mayer in his book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 , people who proclaimed their days under Hitler as the best in their lives. And of Sebastian Haffner's amazing observations in his (unfinished before his death) manuscript Defying Hitler. Written in 1939, before most of the rest of the world even understood the tragedy that Hitler would wreak, he writes about people retreating into a "small, secure, private domain" and of this individual withdrawal contributing to the ease with which Hitler took control.

Such historical examples make it clear to me the importance which even a few dissenting voices can hold. And a read-through of Corrie Ten Boom's amazing auto-biographical book The Hiding Place shows a path to maintaining serenity, love, and grace even in the face of unspeakable horror. Clearly these historians show us that we do have a choice that does not include despair and descent into depression over our current circumstances. The choices we make hold importance, and even the emotions with which we make them can strongly shape our experiences and those of others around us.

As I have been reminded strongly by events over the last week or so, none of us knows the number of our days here. So living a joyful life in congruence with our values seems to be to me the only path that makes sense. I feel a qualitative difference about the things I can do, make, cook by hand or by cooperation with others. Things feel more blessed, more infused with joy. If there is any path out of the current madness, I think the light will have to be held high by people who are already starting to walk down that path. Others will be thrust upon it, scared and angry. A serious environmentalist I know sees herself as one who is learning so that she can show the way to others. Perhaps some pockets of sanity will remain, perhaps there will be good born from all of this, maybe a new society will form. I have to think that these things are still possible. Some of my relatives left their homes in Germany and moved to Russia over 100 years ago. Then war came to Russia and they packed up and came to South Dakota. They farmed, a hard life on the plains. Built a sod house. My great-grandmother who was born there was one of the most joyful people I've ever known. I have to think that joy can survive such hardship.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hooray For Oregon's New Bike-Friendly Laws

Ride of Silence 2007 #5This year's legislative session saw several new laws that should help make bicycling safer in my state. The one I am happiest about was Senate Bill 108, which requires drivers on rural roads to stay far enough away when passing a cyclist to prevent contact if the rider were to fall into the traffic lane. This should help prevent what I call "skimmers" (cars and trucks that come so close to you when you're cycling that you can almost feel the vehicle brush your legs) and should also help protect against the wind or draft vortex created by larger vans and trucks if they pass too close and can suck you off course.

Also passed this year was House Bill 3314, which ups the penalties for drivers who kill or injure a "vulnerable roadway user", and Senate Bill 789 which created a "Share the Road" license plate, whose proceeds will help fund the Bicycle Transportation Alliance , which does such excellent work helping cycling be safer, more convenient, and more fun in Oregon communities.

Hip Hip Hooray!

Tomato Sauce Recipe

Amy asked for my tomato sauce recipe. My neighbor was making some and explained her process to me, so this is straight from her kitchen.

Place your tomatoes on a baking sheet (I recommend one with sides to catch the juices) and slow-roast them at 225 F until they are mushy inside. Take them out to cool a bit, and the skins just slip right off of them. After removing skins, put the rest of the tomato into a big saucepan, remove any core if need be (or presumably you could do this before roasting. I just got my hands in the goop and took out the cores that way.) Cook the tomatoes down until the sauce is the consistency you want - longer cooking times for thicker sauce. Season however you'd like (I use garlic, basil, rosemary, and oregano).

If you're going to can it, most sites recommend adding vinegar or lemon juice to increase the acidity and prevent problems, especially if you're using a sweeter variety of tomato.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Night Magic

One thing I like about having chickens is it gets me out of the house in the morning and evening, even when it might be cold and rainy and I would otherwise stay indoors. Sometimes on these evening walks down by the creek, magical things appear. This week it was a single leaf, hanging by a spider's thread in mid-air and lit by my flashlight.

The kids and I have been working hard to clear the ivy and blackberries from the creek and it is really starting to look beautiful down there. I love that the kids have a magical place to play in the woods, even if it is not very large. I remember from when I was a kid that even a small stand of trees seemed like a forest, and a creek was a river. They build dams or small forts down there. It's been hard work, but we've got about a quarter of our 1/3 acre cleared and will try to have it half done before winter sets in. This is one of my self-portraits for the 365 Days project. When I'm down there by the creek, it feels like I can remember the magic of childhood and the beauty of imagination. We just watched Bridge to Terabithia, and that is a book I remember fondly from my own childhood because we had such places in the woods full of magic.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Tomato Sauce!

We made our own tomato sauce, for the first time ever. We didn't have quite enough ripe tomatoes at one time to can any, but we've been using it this week in bean stew and pasta. We've still got a pile of tomatoes ripening in the basement, so more on the way. I love each of these little steps toward self-sufficiency, and I remind myself that while we're not totally there, every big pot of tomato sauce I brew up is eight more cans of it I won't have to buy. That's eight cans that don't have to be manufactured, filled, shipped, stocked, and sold. And ten dollars we don't have to shuck out for something we can grow ourselves. Now I'm off to make some applesauce. Yum.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Bike is Mightier Than the Sword

Doesn't this photo just say it all? From a recent parade in our town. While I don't think it is the be-all and end-all solution to all wars ever, the bicycle can be seen as a major force for change in the current Wars for Oil that we are fighting (and will be fighting for our foreseeable future). And after seeing this guy on his bicycle, who among us has an excuse not to be pedaling!

And here's our mayor, thankfully eschewing a large 1950's gas-guzzling parade automobile for some pedal power herself. Now if she commuted to work by bike, I'd be much happier, because then maybe some of our more bicycle-friendly initiatives would be getting more play in the city council. Not that I'm complaining, this is a great town to be biking in. But there's so much more we could be doing. Why are we thinking of taking the totally bike and pedestrian-friendly fairgrounds out of the middle of town, selling that land to a developer, and re-locating the fairgrounds and event center out where everyone will have to drive to reach it, for instance? I know I won't be going to most events if I have to hop in a car instead of pedaling there. And I've really enjoyed the valet bike parking available at the fair and so many events at our current fairgrounds.

Speaking of valet bike parking, how's this for cool! Hubby and I went to a college football game and the valet bike parking there was awesome (and totally full!) It was an encouraging antidote to the endless motorhomes tailgating in the monstrous parking lot. We had a beautiful ride down there on such a pretty fall day. It was nice to know that our bikes would be safely attended while we were watching the game.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bike Friday Birthday

There was only one thing on my hubby's birthday list and that was a new bike. He's had the same commuter bike for years and not really liked it. After a season on our Bike Friday tandems, he knew exactly what he wanted: something sporty, comfortable, and foldable! As a pilot, he's often wanted to be able to take a bike with him so he can enjoy peddling around the different cities he finds himself in. Well, now he can! This is his new Bike Friday Pocket Llama, and he's really been loving it. It makes a commute to work (for him, out at the airport) into a joyride, and he's been piling on the miles. Don't let the little wheels fool you, Bike Fridays pack a punch. I even put one up against my triathlon bike, which is built for speed and found that the Bike Friday compared very favorably!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Empty Parking Lot, Full Bike Rack

Now that's what I like to see!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Pancakes That Are Not Empty

After a recent triathlon, they served a pancake breakfast for athletes and families. My son came through the line with me and loaded up on a stack of traditional pancakes, hot off the griddle. After pouring maple syrup on (and commenting how it was soaked up like a sponge), he tucked in. Almost immediately, he looked at the pancakes strangely and then said "These pancakes are completely empty! There's nothing inside them." LOL, he's used to my nutrient-dense whole grain and nut pancakes, and these were just white flour, butter, and salt.

It reminded me of a story my mom tells about me when I was three or four years old. She had taken me over to a babysitter's house for the day and I refused to eat this lady's sandwiches because they were on strange white bread. I think it shows that what kids are raised with is what they get used to, and I've always said that there's a small window of a few years to help kids get used to what healthy food really is before they've got the rest of the universe to compare it with. In our case, my kids have grown up with my pancake recipe, and anything else tastes strange. If they'd grown up with balloon pancakes (the other word my son used for the white flour kind), that's what they'd think of as normal. In extreme cases, some kids eat such a narrow diet that what you feed them in the early years really matters. I've known two kids who really only ate a few foods by the age of five or so. One of them ate blueberries, cashews, a ginger-granola mix, red peppers, black beans, orange juice, and oatmeal. The other ate processed frozen waffles, french fries, white bread, american cheese food slices, crackers, and some kind of juice drink mix in little boxes. In both cases, the kids had settled on what they were used to by a couple years of age, so what they ate in those first couple of years hugely determined the nutrition that they would get overall growing up.

I'm lucky in that my kids both have a very broad range of foods that they eat, and it is pretty overwhelmingly nutritious. So I don't have a lot of food worries. I do think that when kids garden and pick fruits and vegetables and carry in the eggs from their own chickens, and pet the goats that are giving them milk, it really helps connect them to the food that they're eating and encourages healthy choices.

As for the pancakes, here's what's in them:

Robin's Non-Empty Pancakes

1 cup raw milk (ours is goat's)
1 cup yogurt
1 1/2 cup whole grain flour (sometimes I combine oat, spelt, wheat, coconut flour, whatever I have available)
1/4 Cup Ground Flax Meal
1/4 Cup Hemp Seeds

If I have time, mix everything above together and let it soak for 12 - 24 hours to ferment a little bit.

Then, the next morning, I mix in:
6 eggs
4 Tbs coconut oil or butter
1 tsp Vanilla
2 Tbs Raw Evaporated Cane Juice (Sucanat)
1 tsp sea salt

Sometimes I make them with bananas and pecans or blueberries or huckleberries in season. These also make great rollups with peanut butter and honey for a middle of the day snack. If I have the time, I'll mix up a double or triple batch and freeze a bunch so the kids can get pancakes any day of the week. It's both more nutritious and much more cost-effective than breakfast cereals.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Old McRobin Had a Farm

Summer is in full swing and I've literally got cucumbers coming out my ears! Thankfully, it's not zucchini and so our neighbors don't mind taking a few here and there. My secret weapon on the cucumber front is Mackenzie, whose garden box is overflowing with produce. He's got the greenest thumb in the family, and is keeping us in cucumbers and swiss chard. But this week my hubby's tomatoes are coming on and they are so amazingly good that for the first time in my life I am enjoying eating raw tomatoes. I'd also like to try making sun-dried tomatoes this year, because we use them in pasta salad and Mackenzie really likes eggs whipped up with sun-dried-tomato pesto.
With the addition of the new kittens, we're up to eighteen animals now around here! We'll be giving away at least two of the kittens, but still....and we went to the fair last night and oohed and aaahed over the goats as usual. We would love to keep goats, but inside the city limits it's not allowed. Now we could have the biggest, meanest, barkingest dog in town - 125 pounds of snarling menace. That's allowed. But not a cute little floppy-eared harmless 90 pound goat. It makes me wonder how and why our laws get written. We keep joking that we're going to have to buy a real farm someday anyways, just so Asa can keep all of her animals on it. Then we can have a little cottage somewhere on the farm and split our time between town and country. Since we only live one mile from the city limits and 10 acre zoning areas, it could even be within walking or biking range.

On the biking front, my hubby is getting a Bike Friday Pocket Lama for his birthday. He's been limping along on a cruddy Trek around-town bike forever (11 years if I remember right) and it's about time he got a really nice ride. To some men that might mean a little red convertible, but thank heavens I married a guy to whom that means a cool folding bike! While we were over at Bike Friday, I checked out their new super-fast folding Tikit This thing literally folks up in about 5 seconds, and is a terrific solution for bike commuters who also have to maneuver their rides into busses, subways, or trains. If you don't believe me, check out the video!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Never Thought I'd Say This But....

...I'm going to recommend a Reality TV Show. Wow, this is really a first. However, ABC's reality show "Wife Swap" has a local environmentalist/unschooler/and just plain cool person on this week. She was Asa's violin teacher for years and if any environmentalist could walk into an overconsuming American's home (let alone one who thinks junk food is "more nutritious" and has 5 cars, all of them SUVs and big trucks) and handle it with grace and aplomb, it's Melanie. We watched it tonight and my kids were really jazzed to see the show and were cheering her on (as she installs a bidet and forbids them to use toilet paper and asks them to sell an SUV, LOL) and we were all happy that the producers seemed to play it pretty even-handedly and let the people speak for themselves. The other mom was, well, just not very nice. At all. And not very happy. And prefers her dogs to interacting with other people, including her husband and son. So their situations really did speak for themselves.

I thought Melanie and her partner Rob and son Skye did an excellent job of repeatedly bringing up the reasons for their lifestyle choices in a mostly respectful manner. On many stations it airs on Wednesday night, so heads up if you want to catch a little bit of environmentalism invading ABC's prime time!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Power of Change

The kids and I went on a walk next to a big park by the river here. Halfway up the trail we heard this screeching from the top of a tree. When we came out on top of the little butte, we saw this: an eagle's nest, and the screeching was from a baby eagle inside! There is a pair of nesting bald eagles, less than a mile from downtown in our city.

Sometimes as an environmentalist, it is easy to become hopeless, but when I was looking at that eagle's nest it got me thinking about how things can change. Many people worked together to protect the bald eagle and bring it back from the endangered brink of extinction. And now today we can hear baby bald eagles practically on our doorstep and see their parents soaring over the playground at a local park on their way to catching fish in the river.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Grow Don't Mow

One thing I love about my town is how it's okay to be unconventional. Certainly there are areas where perfect suburban lawns stretch identically to the curb, bordered by bark and carefully pruned shrubs (I remember driving up to one such location when we were house-hunting, and telling our real-estate agent to just drive away! I couldn't see myself living there). But there are lots of funky, fun parts of town where people feel free to get creative with their gardens. Many of them have lovely perennial beds, arbors spilling over with purple wisteria blossoms, and friendly patios and porches. But others have taken front-yard gardening to new heights with productive vegetable beds, even growing gorgeous cucumbers in the space betweeen sidewalk and curb.

Here's a front yard with rows of corn and blueberry plants. An amazing amount of produce can be grown in the space that a current front lawn takes up. I recently read an article about how the city I live in has enough farmland to completely support the produce needs of our own population. But really, we wouldn't need all that farmland for produce if people make use of the space they already have available to them. Of course, with grocery-store prices still artificially low for trucked-in food, due to still-low gas prices, people will not want to uproot their lawns for food production. But I'm betting by the time we see an explosion in food prices as gasoline doubles or triples in cost, "Grow Don't Mow" will become a new mantra for many.

This is one of my favorite local house-front gardens. They've planted tall bean trellises in such a way that it forms an outdoor room in front of their house. It's really gorgeous - they have a picnic table inside this wonderful bean-enclosed green room. What a clever idea!

And some people even go so far as to giving away their curb-side produce for free. Talk about community-building and sharing. Isn't this awesome! Combine this with the insane number of fruit trees that are abundantly producing this year (and all the fruit rotting on the ground around the city, which is sad to see) and so many more people could be eating healthy, home-grown produce.

Since we live in an area of the city where deer wander boldly into our front lawns, the grow-don't-mow approach doesn't work well for the front of our house, and I'm restricted to growing perennials that the deer don't touch, plus a few assorted herbs that they don't seem to care for (fennel, chives, parseley, mint) and save our food-growing for the fenced-in back yard. So I love to wander and look at what other people down in the deer-free parts of the city are doing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

102 and No Air Conditioning

Though our local paper said people without air conditioning were "suffering" and "miserable", we were amazingly comfortable in yesterday's heat. In years past, 97 has been about the cut-off for air conditioning use, and we've turned it on for the few days it's climbed above that number each summer. But this year we're employing even more heat-beating strategies and I wasn't even tempted to turn the heat pump on yesterday! The town I grew up in regularly saw summer temperatures in the nineties and hundreds and we never had air conditioning, so I'm mostly using the same concepts I grew up with to beat the heat:

- We bought honeycomb insulated blinds for more of our windows this winter, with plans to install even more of them this year.

- At night, we open the blinds and all of the windows and let the cooler air wash through the house.

- In the early morning, I open up all of the doors as well and really chill it down as best as we can.

- As soon as the temperature starts rising outside, the house gets buttoned up tight and the blinds get closed. We try to be vigilant about not leaving doors open when people go in or out.

- We've changed over to "siesta schedule" where we get all of our outdoor chores (laundry, gardening) done in the cooler morning and evening hours, as well as outdoor play time for the kids. From about 2 - 5 we come in and head down to the nice cool basement to watch a movie or play games. Then we're outside until 10:00 at night, enjoying the nice temperatures.

- Alternative to indoor siesta is head to pool or lake or river!

- When it starts cooling down in the evening and we head outdoors, we open up the house again.

- Deciduous trees on the south and east sides of the house provide much cooler temperatures. The west is our only bugaboo with one big west-facing window that's not shaded by a tree (the neighbor's house is too close for us to plant one there. But we put some good shades on it this year and that has helped a lot.

Though the temperature outside was 102, our house never climbed above 83 (upstairs) 78 (main floor) and a wonderful 64 in the basement! By evening, it was cool enough to sleep upstairs. Nice!

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Neighborhood Ambassador

So we planted too much lettuce. Way too much lettuce. My hubby ended up taking out about half of it, and then what do you do with a sink full of lettuce (and a few earwigs)? Have a Great Lettuce Giveaway, of course! Miss A. volunteered to take lettuce to everyone in the neighborhood, so I washed and bagged and she headed out on runs to the various neighbors' houses. All in all, she delivered about six or seven lettuce bundles (hey, at least it wasn't zucchini, all right?).

That's one thing I really value about her, she knows how to reach out to other people. In that way, she's a lot like her dad. I've noticed that he always remembers people's names, and makes a habit of using their name in conversation, even if it is just the person at the hotel reservations desk in Dallas, Texas, I'll hear him say "Okay, thanks for helping me David". It's one of the things I really like about him and wish I could do better (well, I wish peoples' names would just stick in my head for starters. I once, famously, forgot my own manager's name at work and we had worked together for over six years at that point). But when it comes to maintaining neighborhood relationships, no one tops Miss A. We had a Solstice campfire (not big enough to really call it a bonfire), and she walked around inviting the neighbors. And I'm not just talking about kids, she'll walk over to houses with only adults and invite them over. She knows all the adults by name, and is more than happy to talk with them. As a result, we had neighbors come to our Solstice gathering that I hadn't seen in awhile and had the opportunity to catch up with what they're doing now.

I think when discussions turn to sustainability that building and maintaining community is often not given the attention that it deserves. Sure, it's all the rage to think about forming an intentional community. And some of them do get formed and some of them are succesful in the long-term, which is terrific. But beyond that, for those of us who are not going to uproot and move to a created community, nurturing the relationships with the people who live close to us is important, and something we don't often take the time for. Sometimes it takes a kid to remind us of the importance of reaching out to others. Of not being embarassed to go knocking on doors. Even to hand out bunches of lettuce.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gleaning Time

When I was a kid, my mom was not shy about approaching people. Oftentimes, this was to my teenage mortification as she would actually talk to the person in front of us in the grocery line while I just wanted to curl up and fade away. But she was also not afraid to ask other people things that most people would not. Like "I see you've got a plum tree that no one is picking. Would you mind if we picked some of your plums?" I grew up in a big agricultural valley, so a bountiful harvest of fruits grew there that often fell to the ground, and my mom was not going to let that go to waste. We come from a long line of pioneer spirits (not to mention Depression-era survivors), and there's nothing more egregious than wasting anything, especially if it's edible. So we once gleaned 200 pounds of peaches from an orchard that had already been picked. And I once discovered containers of plums (from that unpicked tree) in our freezer, a decade after they'd been cut up and placed in old plastic margarine tubs for cold storage.

So when our new neighbors didn't look like they were going to pick the amazing harvest of cherries on the tree in their front yard, I didn't think twice about asking them if we could pick. And pick we have. And pick, and pick, and pick. I've put up about 12 quarts of cherries so far, and we've barely touched the tree. I only have a smallish ladder and the top 2/3 of the tree is quite literally going to the birds, but we've got cherries galore and they are simply gorgeous. So today I'm thankful for my thrifty German and Scottish ancestors, and for my forward-thinking mom who set such a good example (even if it embarassed me at the time) of not letting something go to waste when a simple question might yield a bounty.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Speaking of Lost Arts

On the subject of knowledge-keepers is our neighbor Steve. On sunny days, instead of the roar of a riding lawn-mower from the field behind our fence is the steady swish, swish, swish of his scythe. It's really impressive how fast he can mow down a pretty large area with this device. But there's more to it than just learning how to swing it. Scythe blades need to be sharp to be effective, and sharpening them correctly is an art unto itself. Most of us these days don't have to know how to keep a really good edge on a blade. Unless we compete in lumberjack competitions or are top-knotch chefs, chances are the art of honing a blade has been lost on us. It's interesting how many words and phrases in our common vernacular still come from this skill. "Sharp", "keen" or "well-honed" as descriptors all come to us courtesy of the ancient need to know how to keep one's blade with a good cutting edge.

Though not as commonly used for cutting vegetation as it was in former years, the scythe remains a part of our cultural mythos in phrases like "You reap what you sow" and of course the Grim Reaper. Most of us are familiar with the image of the Reaper and his soul-harvesting scythe. Apparently, the earliest reference to this ghoulish guy in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from Longfellow in 1839: "There is a Reaper whose name is Death, and, with his sickle keen...". From Longfellow to Billy and Mandy, the "Grim Reaper" has only apparently borne that name for a few decades (though "Grim Death" goes back a few centuries more). Death had also long been associated with the turning of the year to autumn (time of harvest) and then to winter, so it made sense that death came in the form of a "reaper" who harvested souls. It's interesting how much the cycles of the land were intertwined with the human life cycle and its mythology and imagery.

Just in doing a little research on scything, I also came across some pages on scything competitions. Who knew such a thing existed? It seems that there are more than a few people dedicated to passing on the knowledge of how to cut something down without first pouring fossil fuel into an engine behind the blades. Steve assures me that almost everything one might want to know about scything can be found at which seems like a great resource for a resurgence of this not-quite-lost art.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


My husband and I were talking the other day about how much knowledge has been lost in the last generation or two, knowledge that probably took hundreds of years to originally accumulate and was routinely passed down until just recently. He wants to try canning some stuff from our garden this summer and said that his mom knew how to can, but neither he nor any of his siblings ever learned. I've been more fortunate in my upbringing. Sometimes I feel like I grew up in two different centuries. There was the century where we gardened, picked, and gleaned much of our fruits, vegetables, and nuts, canned, froze, and dried them, bought eggs and milk from neighbors (at one point in my childhood, our milk even came in glass bottles delivered to our door), and my mom and grandma sewed, knitted, and darned socks; and then there was the century where I played guitar in a punk rock band and ate at Pizza Hut. Because I lived close to my grandparents and because my parents and grandparents carried on traditions passed on to them, I have a lot more knowledge of the essential basics of sustainable living than most people my age.

It's not just knowledge about specific techniques (like canning or sewing) that get passed on though, it's an entire human database of details that encompass a way of life that used to be much more in touch with the land, the seasons, the sun, and the rain, and all things that grow or live on the earth. Our new neighbors just moved into the house next door. They seem like very nice people, but the first thing they did was to chop down the huge and beautiful Japanese Maple on the south side of the house, take out the large and flourishing grapevine on the arbor over the windows, and trim all of the lower branches off of the cherry tree in the front yard which is completely laden with cherries. I'm not kidding when I say there must've been a gallon or two of not-quite-ripe cherries just on the branches they whacked off, lying there on the ground. It's enough to make a gleaner cry!

Now, no one in my family would ever even think about cutting down deciduous trees on the south side of a house, nor would they take out a mature fruit-bearing vine, nor would they trim a tree harshly while it is fruiting (and not just for the loss of the fruit, but for the health of the tree). These things just seem wrong to me, but I had to stop my inner rant long enough to examine why something that seems so obviously insane to me does not even bother my new neighbors (who, again, seem like very nice people). I think it is because for most people of my generation, the knowledge of the seasons, the light, the heat, the fruit, the shade and the sun have been lost. They probably don't know that their house will be ten degrees hotter than ours this summer because they've taken out the trees and vines that would've shaded their windows. I can already hear their heat pump running on the day it reached 90, but the interior of our house was still a cool 71 degrees with no heat pump or air conditioning. They will probably go down to the grocery store and buy grapes or cherries while fruit from their own trees lies fallow and the grapevines that shaded their windows get added to the brush heap.

At some point in the future our society will be unable to continue cooling houses with gas or electric power when a shade tree would suffice. I grew up in an area where it routinely reached 100 F in the summers and we never had an air conditioner. I remember opening all the doors and windows in the house overnight, and then in the morning pulling all the shades on windows that got sun, and buttoning the house up to keep the cool air inside. That's how our house now is cooled all summer long, and on the hottest nights we'll be sleeping in the basement. In the winter, I often open up our garage door on sunny days and let the south sun bake the cement garage floor. At night, it radiates the warmth back up into the garage, providing a warm room as added insulation between our living areas and the outside of the house. Eventually, we hope to add a greenhouse room on our south side to make the passive solar process much more efficient, but my makeshift garage heat-sink does quite well in the meantime.

I think a time may be coming when keepers of such knowledge are needed. Those of us who are remembering, re-learning, or improving on ancient knowledge will be as essential to our culture's survival as the tribal storytellers were to theirs. And since much of this knowledge is specific to a certain area, it will be vital to local communities to have people who have accumulated local knowledge for years or even generations. As I stood there dumbfounded when my neighbors described all of their "improvements" to their landscape, I didn't know how to say any of this in a way that might be useful and not come off as criticizing their decisions. So I stayed silent. But maybe there will be a time when this 3rd-generation Oregonian and great-granddaughter of a woman who was born in a sod house on the prairies of South Dakotah will be able to share something of use.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Climbing Back Into My Happy Bubble

Thanks to those of you who commented on my last post, it really helped to hear I'm not alone going through these feelings! I know I read an article a couple of years ago about how the suicide rate is higher among those who consider themselves environmentalists, and I believe it. It is easy to get sucked down into hopelessness, to be overwhelmed by fear or anger, to lose sight of the things that are truly important: family, friends, beauty around us, living in this moment. And I really don't want to become that kind of environmentalist. You know, the doom-and-gloomer who turns all but the most dedicated tree-huggers completely off by preaching, ranting, and railing at the current scenario or at what other people are doing. For one thing, I know that with as much as we do try to do, we're still having a huge impact on the earth. We still drive a car, though so much less than we used to, we haven't given it up. Haven't moved off the grid, haven't eaten a 100 mile diet (though we've eaten plenty of 100 mile meals, and trying to do more all the time.) So I don't feel like I can really be pointing fingers, and I know that's not the path I want to take anyways.

So here and now, I'm going to try to climb back into that happy bubble. After all, the positive energy we put out also has an effect, I really believe that. So I weeded in the garden today and fed the weeds to the chickens, who like to peck through them. I went by our farmer's market and got fresh local strawberries, honey, carrots, and picked some lettuce from our garden for supper. We biked on our tandems to the park and picnicked with friends in the evening hours. Life is good here in the happy bubble

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reconciling Discouragement With Hope

For some reason, it has been really hard for me to write about sustainability since we got back from Southern California a couple of weeks ago. I guess it was just so disheartening being in the land of 12-lane freeways and drive-thru everything, my little happy bubble got popped for awhile. It's easy, when you live where I do, to believe that most people are interested in and striving for sustainability, that people really do think about the consequences of their actions, that change is starting to happen. And perhaps it is, still. I know things have to start at the grassroots level, and I know that every little bit helps and as those little bits join together, real change can happen.

The irony, of course, is not lost on me. We went to Southern California to do the whole Disney thing. The kids love it, I love it, my mom has just retired and hasn't been to Disneyland since I was ten, so she has really been looking forward to going there with the kids. And we totally had a blast. It's almost blasphemy around here to admit that you like Disneyland, but despite the fact that it is a wholly commercialized mecca, I still check my sense of reality at the gate every single time and have a great time. So we were there to soak up the total commercial experience, I don't know why it would be so shocking to encounter everything that goes with that.

I guess it's strange to think how far outside the mainstream norm your everyday life is. We went by a McDonald's one day for lack of time and opportunity to find a different restaurant. Got a meal to go and went down to the beach to eat. I was just shocked when we were done by how much garbage there was left over. Big plastic clamshells from the salads and napkins and boxes and plastic forks and all. And of course not even any recycling to put it in to mitigate even a fraction of it. Taking that big bag of stuff and throwing it in a trashcan felt so awful. It was about as much garbage as our family generates in a week - seriously! And then thinking of that multiplied by all the fast food meals sold in an hour in this country, well, I felt like crying.

So right now I'm trying not to feel hopeless, trying to get back into that happy bubble and do what I know I need to do: change the things I can, work towards bringing change to the world around me, walk on the path I want to be walking on.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Connecting the Dots

The people we buy our goat's milk from let us come out for a visit since the baby goats have been arriving. Of course, the kids jumped at the chance to go out and see the little goats, and it was great to have the opportunity to meet the goats who supply our wonderful milk. I feel so lucky that we made this connection, more or less by an accidental encounter of a friend of ours. The milk from these goats is really a huge step above what we can get in the store, the taste is really amazing and also it's raw and not homogenized and all of that, and to have a connection directly between what you're eating and the people and animals who produce it is something that's somehow greater than I can express. It's such a simple thing, a pattern of connectedness that's much older than our present society, which is perhaps why it feels so right.

The little kids (of the goat variety, not human) ran around and played king of the haystack, and Miss A. had a great time picking up each and every one of them. The farm is at a beautiful place on the river, so peaceful and lovely in the spring sunshine. The kids (human, not goat) engaged in that timeless activity: throwing rocks in the water while I soaked up the late afternoon light. As the day drew to a close and we headed home, I mused that at least for our kids (the human ones, not the goats), food is not an abstraction. We grow it, we buy it from the farmers and beekeepers at the farmer's market, we pick the eggs up from our chickens, and now we get to see and appreciate the goats whose milk graces our table. Food, animals, human connections, it's all a part of re-connecting the dots of an integrated community food web. Just as a side bonus, it's more sustainable and a healthy way to eat and live as well.