Monday, December 31, 2007

The best of work

A photo on Flickr[posted by risa]

December thirty-first seems to be as good a day as any to practice living as I once did, and may yet again. The sun rose this morning -- a wonder in itself, after two months of dark rain and fog -- on a world white with hoar-frost, which remained all day in the shade; and I dressed for a bit of farm work. On the porch there were four pots of lavender which were getting root-bound, and I was determined they should not be frozen in their pots another night. Hardy as they are, it seemed heartless not to plant them. I have been making noises about going into lavender farming, as this is a crop that needs little if any irrigation, but Beloved, gazing on the land, does not see rows of lavender in her mind's eye as I do; she sees stock fences and geese and sheep, eating grass.

The pots are hers -- I'm not sure if they are a gift from a friend, or a purchase. I asked about putting them in the second long flower bed by the front walk, but it seems they should go by the house, under the southeast bedroom wall, between the lilacs. This bed, often neglected, has of late been home to a still-growing mass of parsley, some lamb's ears, hollyhocks, volunteer garlic, and money trees (we wish) and, increasingly, grass.

I brought out the spading fork and rooted about in the mess, separating the garlic bulbs from everything else and transplanting them to the border around the truck garden. The rest I dumped into the poultry yard, where it was greeted with joy by the Barred Rocks, who, being the most gregarious of the flock, often accept my offerings while all the others high-tail it to the other end of their yard, missing out on the bounty again, as they so often do, by their mistrust.

Then I got down the heavy tree-planting shovel, one of the few tools I've managed to retain from my tree-planting days. When I was younger, I worked in the woods, and some 325,000 trees' worth of habit reasserts itself when I set out things from pots. The shovel is held with the blade facing toward me, not away, and is chunked into the the earth an inch or two deeper than I mean the roots to go, then wedged away from me and pulled toward me, held by one hand and my shoulder, as the plant is held in my other hand and dandled into the suddenly-formed hole and tamped into place, before and behind, by the blade. It is a movement easily enough taught but not easily described, and is over in seconds.

Feeling too cold, by this time, to stay out, and wary of back trouble, I retired from farming in less than half an hour and took to housewifery.

While moving the garlic, I came across some red chard and beets, and brought in a mess of winter vegetables with which to make a rather Spartan lunch, which I do sometimes, by way of practice.

I cleaned the vegs and diced them up very small and set them in a saucepan on the woodstove to wilt. in very little time the water in the pan turned wine-red from the Detroit Red beets, and a garlicky aroma invaded the house.

While this impromptu stew was making, I brought out some red beans to soak for the morrow, and also set a pan with halves of an acorn squash and a butternut squash on the woodstove to simmer, for a dish with honey, raisins and walnuts for a potluck this evening. When the beet stew was done I had it for lunch, pouring off the red juice for a hot drink later, and peeled the squash and made up the dish, using much the same recipe as as I do for mashed sweet potato dishes of this kind. No one ever asks -- even those who hate squash -- what this is; they eat it all up and ask for more. The secret is to put in enough butter and brown sugar to make it smooth, and bake the dish, with the honey and walnuts on top, until the flavors blend.

Water from simmering the squash went into the bread machine, and formed the base for a five-grain bread for tomorrow that is rising by the stove. The skins and seeds went out to -- again -- the Barred Rocks, though certainly the other birds were invited.

I take pleasure in getting through a day of this kind without using the electric range and the microwave, though I know well what a difficult life I would have if I could not possess them.

It is now about the three in the afternoon of the last day of 2007. I pour myself a hot "toddy" of beet-juice and take up a book I've been reading, It caught my eye while cruising the stacks of the library where I work: Countryside Mood, a hodge-podge but vivid collection of essays aimed at instilling an agrarian patriotic fervor in the British forces in 1942.
Did God give Britons their soil, the finest in all the world, to use and develop or to waste if that suits the pockets of the financiers? Britain's growing arable acreage could provide life-work for hundreds of thousands of families, and a life-work calling for all that the best of work does offer -- craftsmanship, character, and courage." -- Peter Howard
The sun slants across the back of Stony Run. The lavender is already in shade. I wait for Beloved to pull into the garage, home from a day's earning of wages.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

It's better than it sounds

Advent candles: A photo on Flickr
Beloved's Advent candles

[posted by risa]

It's, as usual for December in these parts, nasty out there. The snow line, like a dithering hemline, has been up and down all week, dusted us twice and whitened our world once -- for a brief hour -- and is currently off the valley floor and onto the second line of hills. A few days ago, leaving the house, I caught a "blue hole" -- a bit of rare sun -- and almost slunk back into the house for dark glasses, as the snow on the hills behind the River was stunning, like the January photo of a New Hampshire calendar. Today, though, we're just drowning, which is more usual fare for these parts.

The small city library where Beloved has picked up work has been needing more and more of her time, and she's gone today, while I rattle around the house alone, a reversal from the past year's practice that I had wished would come more frequently. I've made the most of it.

All of the baubles have come down from the tree and been packed away in their paper wrappings in the bauble-tub, which is back in its spot on the high shelf in the garage; Susie Snowflake, the angel who was handmade in 1952 or thereabouts, receiving the greatest care as she is quite fragile now and has earned household-goddess stature.

The "tree" was, as is now traditional for us, a branch sawn from one of our fir trees (and the tree's wound painted over), which had had to be trimmed quite a bit to simulate a properly conical tree. The trimmings had been used all along the long mantel in the living room. These, as well as the "tree" itself, have been gathered, reduced to small bits, and added to the day's consumption in the woodstove. The house has been straightened, dusted, and swept (we almost never vacuum anymore) and the dishes have been washed and put away (no dishwasher either).

I have made next month's kindling, riving some old cedar fence boards with a hatchet down to lath thickness and an inch wide, then leaning them on the kindling-block and stepping on them at intervals to make sticks about a foot long, piling them handy to the mornings' fire-building rituals.

I've steamed some black beans and made a soup with them, adding home-grown corn, pok choi, tomatoes, Yukon Gold potatoes, some creamed butternut squash leftovers, beet greens and a small onion. It's better than it sounds; I had some for lunch.

The rest of the leftover squash has gone into a loaf of bread for Tallest Son and his family, who live near the Big City to the north.

Tallest Son (he's around 6'5" [!!]) is an independent sort and has always banked on youth to overcome life's troubles, but he is now twenty-seven or so. He recently lost a best friend in a very sad way, involving hospital-borne infection, and so is feeling his own mortality. So he was understandably stressed from learning he would have to undergo a rather debilitating oral surgery, which took place a few days ago.

While his friend was dying, Tallest Son ran out of his own sick time, so the recovery from his own surgery represents ill-afforded lost income. They couldn't easily come here for the holidays, so we will go to them -- for just a few hours, so as not to be too much of an intrusion -- deliver some of Beloved's free-range eggs and the loaf, exchange a few gifts, make a discreet investment in the household, and return.

The next day, Beloved works yet again -- so I get yet another home-alone day. I may find it hard to give up all this solitude, come Wednesday!

I wish it were not so far. I've come to detest the internal combustion engine, but there are just no real alternatives yet -- given the route.

With the curtains pulled back, there is enough light coming through the storm windows (even with our pea-soup sky) to do most things without artificial lighting. The afternoon's natural illumination, alternately grey and golden, suits the mood of a day like this, and helps remind me to slow down, to not rush at tasks, to pace them through the whole day and not tire myself.


I have just checked the bread. The baking stone Beloved gave me seems to have heated unevenly and broken, the two pieces springing apart about an inch. I did think it was rather wide and thin for bread -- it's meant for pizza, but I don't do pizza as a rule -- the bigger shard would do for small loaves on its own, but I think I'll be going back to the green-glazed ironstone dish, which has lasted me for three decades so far.

I didn't make it outside much. There are some potted lavender plants that are in danger of becoming root-bound. perhaps on New Year's Day I will indulge myself. Then, early in the year, fruit trees.

"God willin' and the crick don't rise."


Monday, December 24, 2007

Quality of life

A photo on Flickr

I read that an old lady met a National Guardsman on his way back to yet another tour of duty in Iraq. She told him she appreciated his protection from the terrorists and such, and asked what she could do to thank him.

"Use less oil," the young man replied.


I've spent the day hanging around the woodstove, preparing a relatively simple dinner without going with it to the electric range or any of the other "modern conveniences." It's an entertaining exercise, but I'm not about to pretend that it's meaningful in the wider scheme of things: the wood I'm using was sawed with a chainsaw, the manufacture, transportation, sale and use of which was rife with both oil and coal usage, and brought to us in a truck that is much, much more of the same, over roads that are much, much, much more of the same, and so on.

I anticipate hard times when we all figure out our actual planetary energy income and how far ahead of ourselves we've spent. I was ranting to Beloved about all this, as I tend to do over coffee ("coffee?" says Dear Reader. "Risa -- do you realize --" Yes, I do. Hush! This is my blog.) -- ranting to Beloved, or as she experiences it, at her -- and she posed a question.

"So, what does this mean to us? Not the kids, I get all that, but just thee and me?"

"Well ... " I was brought up short. "Umm, not so much. We're both over 55, now, which is a pretty decent life expectancy given the design. So, we could starve, or have our heads bashed in and our stuff shared out by people who then get their heads bashed in, or pick up the latest epidemic, etc. But these are things that have happened to a lot of people and will happen to a lot more. And we've had a whole heck of a lot of things go our way, just the two of us. So, it's like nobody can really take that away. And if either of us were to lose the other tomorrow, thirty-one years together is the history that we had, more than most."

"Right. So what's the beef?"

She has a point.

As recipients of a portion of that lion's share of the world's resources that privileged people have received in this devastatingly "successful" generation, we've come most of our way already.

Looking back over such opportunities as there have been for finding more equitable, more appropriate, more just, and more sustainable ways of comporting ourselves, we see that we -- as a couple, as a family -- could have chosen some actions more wisely, so far as our own ethical record was concerned, but the whirlwind the world may reap will not be much affected, one way or another, by us. The scale of the problems is just too great.

I could offer to share with you a glass of water, or a meal, because you are thirsty or hungry, and I should -- and sometimes I do -- but it will not change the course of the tsunami coming our way, or the distance from here to higher ground that running will not -- now -- cover.

So, given the distance to higher ground and the speed and height of the tsunami, there's little use in my worrying about the tsunami. I might be a little disturbed by the thought that a better warning system could have been installed, or that the powers that be might have decreed that the city must be built elsewhere, etc -- I know the metaphor is getting strained, but bear with me -- since this is where the jobs were, I did not move, myself, to higher ground, because there was not going to be a way for me to live there, or to offer you food or water there, unless the city came with me, so to speak.

That is, libertarian survivalist behavior is -- it's just irrational. When you fall into the ocean off the stern of the ship, sure, you swim -- it's what you do, we're programmed to keep trying to live -- or you don't. It could be a matter of choice, or of individual temperament. But the outcome is not so much in doubt when you are 500 miles from, say, Anchorage.

So I don't feel much resentment when someone up and builds a blockhouse in the middle of nowhere, stocked with food and ammunition. That's their swim. Doesn't change the size of the ocean, but maybe they know that. So, I don't bug them about it. In fact, I enjoy practicing some of the same skills.

Nor do I think some environmentalist-activist behavior is really rational either. Given the scale of the problem, as outlined by the author of Life After the Oil Crash (whose math looks pretty irrefutable to me), haranguing someone about not having yet changed out their light bulbs is an exercise in about the same amount of multilevel futility as the survivalist's.

"But, Risa," interjects Dear Reader, "you have in fact changed all your light bulbs and I've heard you recommending it, too."


Just because I think something's ultimately futile doesn't mean I can't indulge in it. Especially if I think, rightly or wrongly, that it's good for me, or my soul, or my neighbor's well-being, for me to do so.

By hanging around the woodstove, stirring, tasting, putting in another stick, and preparing to feed company, and also sitting by the window stitching a young friend's name into a Christmas stocking, and by sweeping the house, and by looking up fruit trees in the old Organic Gardening Encyclopedia and thinking of setting them out by the south wall, I'm enjoying myself.

And I'm not out frantically shopping, which means a lot to me right now ... on several levels ...

I'm experiencing the quietness of spirit that comes with relatively low-impact living. Somehow I think that will pay small dividends between now and the apocalypse. Big dividends may never come of it. But quality of life is where you find it.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

We persist

winterdiskPosted by risa. Reposted from 2002; mostly written 1997.

There is a small mountain about two miles from here that is covered with a network of trails, and is the centerpiece of an attractive county park. The mountain's south slope is a steep meadowland, interspersed with copses of black oak, and dotted with wild plum trees; the north slope is forested with second growth Douglas fir and carpeted with an understory of sword ferns, viney maples, and filberts gone wild.

I like to hike to the top, though each year I find the going a little harder, and look about me. Below, two rivers come together after dodging round the mountain toward each other. With binoculars I can find, in season, fishermen seeking steelhead and salmon.

To the north there is considerable urbanization; I can see at one glance the second largest metropolitan area in my state, but it is not unattractive as cities go, and I can forgive its noise and bustle for its not being any worse (yet) than it is.

To the south and east is the valley of one of the rivers, opening out of the foothills of a substantial and still very wild mountain range. In winter the eastern peaks are dusted white with snow, and present a dramatic and lovely scene; but my interest is generally drawn to the near view.

At my feet are a succession of habitats: the eastern ridge of the mountain, with Douglas fir forest to the left and oaks to the right, with perhaps a herd of deer placidly browsing in plain view; the meadowland within the park boundary, with a few pear trees left over from some farm venture in the previous century; the wetlands with its dark patches of sedge and the occasional blue heron.

Beyond are pastures, woodlots, filbert orchards, and fields used mostly for corn, hay, and grass seed farming. Threading among these, I see, are narrow roads along which are some two hundred houses, on properties of anywhere from one to two hundred acres, with their barns, outbuildings, and accumulated belongings left to the winter rains and summer sun: trucks, tractors, harrows, drift boats, and an occasional stove or washing machine. Most of us in this valley are not especially poor, but we are a thrifty people, many only two or three generations descended from pioneers, and we make but few trips to the county dump.

Almost no one here can earn a living from farming now.

We are an amalgam of loggers, retirees, and commuters. The commuters are of two classes: the professionals -- doctors, dentists, and the like -- and the rest. These are mostly school teachers, store clerks, and office workers. I am in this last group.

Regardless of category, almost every one of us has a garden. I can see the gardens from the mountaintop: at every house, a brown patch within easy access of the kitchen door. Some of us have enough pasture for a horse or two, or a few steers; I have room for a flock of ducks and geese; but if there is nothing else, there is a garden. Gardens here have a priority over lawns. This is a thing that I greatly admire in my neighbors.

If, like the people in my valley, you want to grow things, it can be a good idea to try to get an eagle's eye view. If no mountain is handy, try a map. Most gardeners know the dates of frost in their "zone," but there is much more to know. Find out the direction of the prevailing winds, the angle of winter sun, the temperature of June nights. Know the depth of the water table in August.

From the mountaintop I can see that the valley runs east and west, and that the river is nestled against the northern hills; among these is Jasper Mountain, which looks much smaller than from here than from my garden.

My own little piece of land is in the middle distance, on the long glide of slope from the south hills to the river. There is a seasonal creek through the property, dry in summer and a raging torrent in winter. This means that I'm in a low-lying spot, subject to the movement of air. In winter the wind comes from the southwest generally, in the form of Pacific storms laden with incessant rain. These winds chill the soil, and the water that drops from them saturates it and renders it clammy. Pools lie on the surface in winter with no place to drain away to, as the water table is even with the surface. Dig a post-hole anywhere and it fills to overflowing. So gardens tend to be planted late, well after the dates recommended on seed packets.

In summer the water table drops to ten, twenty, or even thirty feet, while the winds are continual, shifting daily from north to south. This is because of our mountain ranges. The sun heats the slopes, and air rises, drawing air away from the river bottom. At night, this air cools and sinks back down along draws and creek valleys toward the river.

Gardens in this drainage must be almost continually watered, as the tender plants are subject to drying out. Watering is more frequent than the books recommend; corn begins wilting within a day of its last soaking. At night the wind stops, but heat radiates away quickly among the glitterings of the stars, and temperatures can drop into the forties (Fahrenheit) by morning, even if it's been close to a hundred degrees during the day.

All this gives tomato lovers fits. But we persist.

The wiser among us build wooden fences, or hedge their gardens about with shrubbery or even hay bales, to combat the winds and the heat loss. A heavy mulch would help, but the main mulching material is straw. The straw available locally contains a lot of weed seeds, and it invites tremendous armies of slugs and snails of all sizes. No one seems to care for black plastic, which takes a lot of fiddling with in the shifting winds, or newspaper, so most of the gardeners keep their soil bare and cultivated. The majority use herbicide to control grass, which is the primary weed; I have reason to believe herbicide is the greater evil in this case, and use the straw mulch, trying to stay just ahead of the weeds by piling on more.

The vetch that I planted last fall for green manure is intact, as are the piles of leaves and the compost bin. The wintered-over red chard is still usable, and our Detroit Red beets are superb. Meanwhile, our first harbingers of spring -- elephant garlic, growing from those tiny cloves that stay in the soil when we pull the crop -- have sprung from the cold, heavy soil, dotting the view from our kitchen window like randomly dibbled irises. And on the rainy nights, between the gusts of Pacific wind, we can hear the first chirruping choruses of the green tree frogs. I found one once in high summer, napping as it were, on the shore of a pond of water in the angle of a sunflower leaf. Their sound is, to me, a promise of sunflowers yet to come. I fall asleep to their frantic cheeping, and dream of green things growing in the sun.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Pineapple Express

from risa

There was a storm -- I know that the media went nuts over it, but we were not that impressed with it ourselves here at Stony Run, leastways not till we'd looked about a bit.

Big storms of this kind do happen here.

The one everyone still talks about -- the Columbus Day Storm -- ripped through in the 1960s. I missed it -- I was growing up in Georgia at the time. But some of the big redwoods, red cedars, and spruces on campus are topped out, as though someone had taken a shotgun shell the size of an oil drum to them. They had snapped off like so many matchsticks. Some rows of Douglas fir trees are a bit odd looking, as about half of them are a hundred and fifty years old, and the other half a little over forty, planted to replace big ones that had been plucked from the rows and jackstrawed across the campus. When I began working here, twenty years ago, the differences were striking. Now the younger trees are beginning to blend in.

That storm knocked over millions of trees in the Northwest; there are still places one can go to find them, all lying side by side, all pointing in the same direction, mouldering beneath the canopy of a new forest growing up around them, with the bowls scooped out of the earth where their giant root wads had heaved out into the wet and wuthering air -- afterwards places of shelter for deer and other creatures, and now filling in with new soil and lush growth of blue huckleberry and sword fern.

I was working on a Christmas-tree-harvesting contract in about 1982 when a similar, though smaller, storm had blown in from, seemingly, nowhere, at midnight. I had parked my little trailer under an old oak, right out in the middle of 160 acres of seven-year-old Douglas firs, and gone to bed. I was awakened by moaning winds and rattling branches. The trailer began playing hopscotch. Its tongue jounced off the cinderblock I'd rested it on, and everything seemed to be going down by the bow. I felt a little as though I were on board the Titanic.

Beloved had baked chocolate-chip cookies for me -- enough to last out the week.

I opened the kitchen cabinet, by feel, in the roaring darkness, and took the big bag to bed with me.

If I'm going to die, I thought, it would be a shame to waste all these cookies.

So I ate them.

Every one of them.

Beloved, on the other hand, had missed the whole thing. Our house, built snug against an eastern slope away from the wind, hardly jiggled. She, and the baby, and the chickens, ducks and geese slept through the night, and in the morning she got a call from a neighbor.

"Is your power out? I hear the whole county's electricity went out."

"Umm ... well ... "

"Ohhhh, that's right. You guys don't even use it!"

Which was true -- we were off grid. It was nearly a week before some people got their power turned on again, while our 12-volt lights and propane refrigerator chugged right along.

We have had other such storms, mostly of the kind known as the Pineapple Express. A low forms in the vicinity of Hawaii, picks up an unbelievable amount of water, and brings it and dumps it in our laps. The temperature here can soar, in midwinter, into the sixties, while the barometer drops through the floor. It's not, maybe, a typhoon, but pretty darn near it sometimes. The most rain I have seen from one of these (1996) is eight inches in three hours. That was enough to widen our three-foot-wide creek to more than ninety feet across and put a bow wave on the corner of our house foundation.

This week's storm was noisy, but not as noisy as that one. It was wet, but not that wet -- here. The creek didn't even jump its banks.

Elsewhere, north of us, was another matter.

Seas reached forty feet in height. One gust was clocked at nearly one hundred thirty miles per hour. Rain was measured in several places at more than fifteen inches in a twenty-four hour period. Trees fell across cars, roofs, power lines, and people, killing some. A woman was swept away from her pickup truck and hasn't been seen since. Railroads were flooded, bringing seasonal shipping to a standstill, and brown water, ten feet deep, buried Interstate Five, practically cutting Seattle off from Portland.

At our house, though, all was relatively normal until about six in the morning. We brewed coffee and drank it sitting by the fire, talking about storms and global warming. I went to get dressed and put on my workaday face.

And the lights flickered and went out.

It was still quite dark out, so we felt around for matches and candles. I took a taper, on a chair-back candleholder, to the bathroom and hung it on the towel rack by the vanity mirror.


No way I could "put on my face" in such dim light. I would have to wait until I got to work (assuming I could get there) -- campus has backup options for power that seldom fail. This minuscule incident rather forcibly reminded me of how little stands between the pampered people of the "developed west" and the dark nights and hand-tooled, leg-and-arm-and-animal powered lives most humans have lived and continue to live, across the world. We do not well when we take this civilization thingy for granted. It's a privilege at best, which any Hawaiian low can take away pretty much as it pleases.

Beloved, of course, takes such occasions very much in stride --it seems to make her, if anything, extraordinarily cheerful -- and lit a lantern to go see about letting out the chickens.

Right after daylight, about an hour after we'd been plunged into darkness, there was a click in the circuit breaker panel and everything began shining and humming again. The heroic people of the Emerald People's Utility District, doing what they do best, were out there somewhere. I hope people remember to thank them. We blew out all the candles and I grabbed my purse and coat and headed for the door.

Other than the fact that a strip of our roof, twenty feet long and three feet wide, had blown a hundred feet through the air, smashed through the deer fence and lay draped across the winter garden, it looked like we had come through pretty well.

Lucky us.