Archive for the ‘Homesteading’ Category
An entry in The Household Economy
Last year, I started on the garden late. Aside from sneaking in a small potato patch in April, I didn’t really get going until late May and early June. I had some decent reasons—the terrible spring weather, the need to break new ground, having to clean years of junk out of the hoop house. (It’s terribly sad to see an abused and mistreated hoop house here on the Oregon coast. They’re so precious!) I waited on a friend’s tractor work. But really, I had some opportunities to get an earlier start and simply didn’t get myself in enough order to take advantage of them. I put it off.
This year, I aim to get an earlier start. Of course, the danger with such a notion is that March can be tricky. A few sunny days arrive, a rush of warm weather, the daffodils bloom out and suddenly you’re thinking that garden abundance is just around the corner. Unfortunately, what’s really around the corner is—more likely than not—a wet, cold, miserable, hail-filled April. To plant in optimism in March is a dangerous game indeed out here. Therefore, I’m attempting to temper my enthusiasm while also getting some good work done and a head start on the planting. I don’t want to fall into frustration, but I have no interest in not really getting going until late May again, either.
It is thus that I found myself in the hoop house on Monday, untying the old and dead tomato plants from their baling-twine trellises, ripping them from the ground and piling them outside. I cleared a multitude of weeds, clumps of grass, and plenty of other dead plants I never cleaned out from the previous season. Black, bare and woody eggplants and peppers and basil, all plucked from the soil and tossed on the pile, ready for composting. Old, brittle, but still-clinging cucumber vines excavated. The beds slowly reemerged as I worked, their outlines and contours ragged, piece meal, shrunk from last summer, the paths having slowly widened with each walk down the rows. They’ll need to be reworked, re-dug, amended before the new round of crops go in. After about four hours of work, I stood back and looked at the results of my work, of those exposed beds ready to be worked up and planted. Thick, green grass still ringed the inside edges of the hoop house, but not in the beds. I can get that out later.
It was a dusty job, the inside dry. Coming home from the job, it took me a while to get the dirt out of my nose, to dig out that blackness. I remembered it from the year before, whenever I would spend a time under the plastic, digging up a bed or weeding, tromping around and puffing the small dust clouds. I put on the sprinkler inside, just to get some extra moisture into the soil before I worked it up. Tomorrow I’ll dig in there more, fluffing and shaping the beds, adding in some amendments, and hopefully will have some beds seeded by the end of the day—salad mix, perhaps, spinach, mustards, maybe some head lettuce. Greens. My body has been craving greens of late. I always eat so heavy in the winter, meat and potatoes and squash, cheese and bread, dairy. I eat that always, granted, but more so in the winter.
— ∞ —
I’m excited for the garden, for another year of growing. Earlier today, I had a piece of toast with blackberry jam, canned last summer. A couple nights ago, polenta topped with a tomato sauce from last year’s garden, tucked away in the freezer. A few days ago, oatmeal for breakfast, with butter and milk, honey, and apple butter that I cooked and canned in October. And last Wednesday, I took a jar of salsa and pickles to share at the Grange potluck. The next day, mixed some salsa with mashed avocados and some minced onion and garlic. Instant guacamole.
Granted, these canned and frozen foods from last year aren’t the bulk of my diet, of my calories, but they’re quite nice to have on hand. At Christmas time, jars went out as gifts, too, and for some birthdays, as well. Still there are roasted tomatoes stuffed in the freezer, canned tomato sauce on the shelf. I almost never buy tomatoes from the store—it just seems an offense to me. The ones in the freezer keep me in sauce, in spaghetti and pizza, marinara for whatever.
I realized after working in the hoop house that I’m playing the long game. I’ve been doing it for years now, at least since 2009. I didn’t always recognize I was playing the long game, but that’s indeed what I’m doing. Each year, I build on my knowledge and skill, I better figure the next steps, I improve on the old and attempt the new. I expand the repertoire. Last year, I started the garden late. This year I’ll start it earlier, soon, get those first seeds in the ground in the next couple days. Greens in the hoop house and peas outside, covered up with a bit of torn row cover that Ginger is going to generously let me have. Just in case of hail, which is almost a certainty. With luck, I’ll have fresh greens and peas this year before I even had the garden started last year. And right now, too, last fall’s kale is coming back, fresh leaves emerging. That’s a remnant, a legacy from last year. The ground is already broken. Weedy and grassy, yes, but the beds are there, even if they’re vague. They’re ready to be worked, far more than they were last year. I just have to get the timing right, to get out there during a stretch of sun and dry, when the soil can be worked without clumping and hardening it. But it’s so much more ready than last year, and so am I.
It builds. Three years ago, I planted a ragged and broken garden, a small bit of nonsense that I did all wrong, discarding the knowledge I had for a misguided ideology and attempted shortcuts. Last year, I grew a real garden, late and also ragged and not as ambitious as I originally planned, sometimes a bit neglected, managed a bit haphazardly but still quite productive. I got veggies out of that. I got broccoli and kale and peas, potatoes and summer squash, winter squash and salad mix and peppers and eggplants, basil and parsley, romanesco and beans and mustard greens, head lettuce. Still out there is the legacy—the husks of winter-killed plants—various brassicas, amaranth from the salad mix that grew giant, dead and spindly bush bean skeletons—two rows of parsnips I have yet to eat, and carrots sweetened by the winter cold and putting out new growth, in need of harvesting before they become woody and bitter, their tops nibbled and chewed by rodents. And still I have potatoes in the ground! What am I doing? Got to get those out, set those aside for eating and use the ones already harvested and sprouting as this year’s seed. At least some of them—don’t need as much seed as I have sprouting potatoes. How nice, though, my own potato seed this year, not from a catalogue.
— ∞ —
These early spring days, warm and sunny, they just make me want to get in the dirt. They make me itchy. I want a couple days of good, hard, tiring work. I want to be dirty, sweaty, to smell of soil and plants, chlorophyll, and to have my fingers turn black with tomato tar—even though that’s still a ways off, the tomatoes. (Acyl sugars, for those who want to get more technical than “tomato tar,” is what turns your hands green when you handle tomato plants.) I want to get out the push-pull and the digging fork, to work the soil, mingle in my blood and sweat, get the heart rate up. I want that sense of life and importance. Of necessary work. I want to get back out that farmer within.
It’s nice, too. This year will be less overwhelming. That’s what I tell myself anyway—maybe I’m being too optimistic. But there’s not so much to do to get started. Don’t have to break the ground. Know somewhat what I’m doing, even if I plan to do some things different this year. I have a raft of mistakes made last year that I get to learn from this year, to try to correct. New mistakes will inevitably arise, but I won’t have to correct those until next year. This year, I just have to weather them. I can do that. I’m not so desperate that they’ll break me. That’s why it’s so good to make those mistakes now, to learn the lessons when there’s luxury, when there’s a cushion. I have flexibility. I have margins for errors.
This year, I’ll be more on the blackberries. Last year, I picked late, during the final and less abundant waves. Still made a lot of blackberry jam and a bit of syrup, but this year I’m going to be better on it. More jam, more syrup, but also soda. Lots of blackberry soda, absolutely. And maybe I’ll freeze fresh ones, have them for the winter. I don’t know if there’s room or not, but I bet I can find some. There are freezers around.
And the apples, too. This year I’ll be better on the apples. Maybe I’ll get to can pears—there are some pear trees where I moved to, and I bet a canning party might be in order later in the summer. Last year I wanted to buy tuna off the boat local out here and can it, but I never did that. This year I plan to. Buy off the boat, prep it and borrow a pressure canner, or maybe join in with Ginger when she’s doing her tuna.
It’s just a slow improvement coupled with the laying in of new habits and practices. It’s a layering, year over year. You do a little more, lay a bit more groundwork each new season, build up a bit more infrastructure, increase your knowledge and better your habits and make it routine, make it normal. It becomes easier. You know what to do. It’s just the long game, end of the day. I’m playing the long game. It started years ago, and it’ll be going years yet. So many yeas. Tomorrow the hoop house, working the beds, amending, seeding, and the peas planted outside, covered with row cloth. Years from now, who knows? Something more, no doubt—layered, heftier, built year by year, the culmination of much of a life.
— ∞ —
And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.
“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon—and mean it.” So God made a farmer.
— ∞ —
In 1978, Paul Harvey delivered a speech at the Future Farmers of America Convention entitled, “So God Made a Farmer.” It’s a beautiful speech, filled with stirring imagery and capturing a romantic view of the hard working American farmer. Harvey delivers it impeccably, in his distinctive voice and often falling into a poetic torrent of description. I like the speech; even in its romanticization, it speaks to the agrarian I am at heart, and speaks to a number of truths about farmers of all stripes—not just in this country, but across the world.
Yet, Harvey gave that speech one year after Wendell Berry published The Unsettling of America, a collection of essays bemoaning the destruction of rural and farming communities throughout America. Already, the process of centralization, corporatization, destructive industrialism, and overproduction was ripping through America’s farmlands, picking off farms and farmers, literally killing many of those who worked the land. From 1940 to 1970, the farm population in America dropped from an estimated 30.8 million people to 9.7 million. At the same time, the general population of the country increased by 70 million. Farmers made up 18% of the working population in 1940. By 1970, that was down to 4.6%. Two years after Harvey’s speech, in 1980, there were just 3.7 million farmers, and they made up only 3.4% of the work force. The day Harvey gave his speech, most of the American farm community had already been destroyed.
In 2013, just this last Sunday, Chrysler unveiled a television advertisement featuring portions of Harvey’s speech. Chrysler overlaid his eloquent words with gorgeous portraits of farmers and ranchers. For two minutes during America’s annual celebration of consumption and vacuity—now one of its greatest cultural touchstones—Chrysler’s ad stirred the hearts and minds of a nation of people, seducing them with a romanticized picture of American farming and evoking this country’s rich agricultural heritage. At the end of those two minutes, no doubt, the vast majority of those who had felt so stirred by the words and images set forth before them went back to their Doritos and Pepsi, Budweiser and industrially-produced meat, their various repackagings of oil-soaked corn and soy, and they watched the next commercial pimping an unnecessary industrial product rooted in the destruction of the very same land that so many past Americans loved and worked. In other words, they went back to the sort of lives that have destroyed and debased American farmers—not to mention farmers across the world, creatures across the world, the very land and ecosystems that all of us here on Earth consider home.
— ∞ —
God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.
God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.
— ∞ —
Chrysler’s commercial—the first, last, and only purpose of which is to sell trucks and boost their brand, let’s keep in mind—doesn’t present an accurate view of the American food system. The current system is one rooted largely in industrial processes, massive corporate agriculture outfits, degradation of the land, overproduction, commoditization, exploitation of migrant laborers, and the enslavement of farmers via perpetual debt cycles. Farm workers in this country are not primarily white, as the commercial might lead you to believe. They’re primarily brown; a majority of agricultural workers in this country are Hispanic, most of them foreign-born. The majority of children raised on farms don’t “want to do what Dad does.” They leave the farm. They move to urban areas, get “good” jobs, join the industrial economy and never look back.
The hard truth is that most of this country has little interest in getting out there and putting their hands in the dirt and doing the hard work of growing and raising food. We think we’re beyond that. We think we’re too “advanced.” We think that’s something best left to less civilized people. Within the context of the myth of progress—one of the ruling ideas of our time—an agrarian society and economy is seen as less civilized and inherently worse than an industrial society and economy. It’s something best left for the less developed countries. First we stopped dirtying our hands with the growing of food, then we stopped dirtying our hands with the making of actual things, and now—surprise!—we have a dysfunctional economy that no longer even provides the opportunity to keep our hands clean in the magical “information economy” that was supposed to elevate us above all the messy, nasty physical realities of our past lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken such a dim view of the dirt on our hands.
Chrysler and Harvey suggest to us that God makes farmers. I would submit that that’s the wrong message for our time. Harvey’s speech actually reveals the message we most need to hear: that work makes farmers.
— ∞ —
God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.
— ∞ —
The recurrent theme in Harvey’s speech is the hard work involved in farming. While Harvey’s math may occasionally be questionable (how does one complete a 40 hour work week in 36 hours, for instance?) the basic message is correct. Farming is hard work, and it involves quite a bit of busting of one’s own ass. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has so been cushioned by the ghost work force of fossil fuel slaves, that we’ve forgotten the hard work that’s necessary for living well in this world. It’s only been in the last few centuries, with the discovery of massive stores of fossil fuel energy, that we’ve been able to live the myth that we can survive without having to engage in hard, physical, yet rewarding labor, without having to know and intimately understand the land upon which we live, without having to have a distinct and instinctual understanding of our local ecosystems and what keeps them functioning. It’s only through the brute force of massive amounts of applied energy that we’ve been able to escape lives rooted in the earth and our fellow multitudes of creatures. And this has made us soft. The vast majority of us no longer understand the hard work that it normally takes to live in this world. We will know again, as we continue the long and ragged process of running out of fossil fuels over the next couple centuries, but for now we are a population divorced from the hard realities of surviving on this planet.
This is my frustration with Chrysler’s ad. It feeds American myths that died when everyone decided it was too much work to live the lives they exalt. It feeds our national complacence by telling us that this reality still exists—even when it largely doesn’t—and provides us a comfort that requires no work, requires no change in our lives, requires no alteration of our behaviors or decisions. By weaving these quiet and comforting tales, by obsessively romanticizing lives that most people no longer bother to live, it insulates us from the hard and necessary work of actually living those lives.
And so I argue instead that we be honest about the American food system and pay attention to the real message of Harvey’s speech. Don’t romanticize the American food system—change it by getting involved in it. Plant a garden, grow some herbs, ditch the pre-processed and pre-packaged crap and buy whole foods, learn to cook, get a CSA, go to the farmer’s market, barter with your neighbors, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt and butter, buy as much of your food as you can from local farmers who do things right. Build your own household economy and then build your local economy. Feed yourself, feed your family, feed your neighbors and help them feed you. Join your local grange. Teach your children what real food is and how to grow it. Learn to live small and within your means, with room to spare.
The food system we have now exists because of our decisions, because of the power we grant to corporations and individuals who have happily corrupted farming for their own gain, destroying farmers, rural communities, and rural economies in the process. Change your actions and decisions. Strip their power. Build a new food system. The government isn’t going to do it, the corporate agricultural outfits aren’t going to do it, even the farmers and farm workers aren’t going to do it if we don’t, through our actions, grant them the power and flexibility to change the way things are done.
It’s up to us, to each of us changing the ways we live. It ain’t gonna get done any other way.
— ∞ —
“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.’” So God made a farmer.
— Paul Harvey, 1978
— ∞ —
We’re going to have to question honestly the lives we lead today, and answer honestly about the changes we need to make. A good many of us are going to have to decide to stay put, to not leave for the city, so to speak, to not dive into the temporary luxuries of an industrial economy divorced from good and honest work, to do what dad does, what mom does, what—mostly, today—the migrant workers do. We’re going to have to return to the land, to our connection with it, and to the hard and good work of living right upon it. The fossil fuel slaves and ghost acreage aren’t going to last forever. The longer we ignore that fact, the worse off we’ll all be.
You got a farmer in you, like the ad says? Honor it. Don’t buy a fucking truck—that doesn’t make you a farmer. Work the land. Grow food. Engage the household economy. Learn to live with less, build your community, turn you back on global and corporate systems that destroy the land, destroy local communities, and make us all dependent on a rickety system with an ever-approaching expiration date. Come home and begin the long and hard work of staying in place, of strengthening the land on which you live, rather than tearing it apart for temporary luxuries.
Work makes a farmer. Inspired by farmers? Well, then, get to work.
The abundance of this year’s foray into water-bath canning. This is but a portion of what all I’ve canned, and there’s still more to be done. From left to right: blackberry jam, tomato jam, blackberry syrup, tomato puree, apple sauce, apple butter, salsa, pickled green beans.
The reintroduction continues. I’m catching readers up on my summer and current life in anticipation of resuming this blog, with some adjustments to the thrust of the content. In the first post, I talked weather. Now I want to talk about my garden and food preservation.
— ∞ —
Okay, I don’t actually have a pantry here. More like a cupboard, and counters, and a multitude of jars spread all over the place in various nooks and crannies. The contents of those jars vary: blackberry jam and syrup, pickle spears, bread and butter pickles, apple butter, apple sauce, tomato puree, whole tomatoes, tomato jam, pickled green beans, salsa. There are over 100 jars in all. It started in early September and has been going ever since, though now I’m starting to slow down. But I hope to make more salsa and apple sauce, pickled jalapenos and other pickled peppers, sauerkraut and perhaps some other ferments. I still have a couple cases of jars that I’d like to fill.
To be honest, I’m proud of all this. I’m excited, too. Before this year, my only foray into water bath canning was making some pickles last year and helping with pickled beans three years ago. I had experimented with fermenting various veggies, but I hadn’t yet fallen into the world of traditional canning. This year I was determined to tackle that project. I picked up a simple canning set and waited for the blackberries and tomatoes to ripen—my main goals. I wanted jam, syrup and tomato sauce above all else. If I managed some other projects, that would simply be icing on the cake.
I started late. I should have began with the blackberries three or four weeks before I did. However, the summer here—as mentioned in the previous post—has been warm and sunny and went late, with minimal clouds and almost no rain until the last few days. So the blackberries held well, molding a bit after a couple of misty days in the second half of September but bouncing back with new fruit. I was able to harvest out enough for multiple batches of jam and two small batches of syrup, which I wanted as a local replacement for maple syrup.
Granted, I’ll still enjoy myself a bit of maple syrup over the course of the year—there’s no real replacement for it—but one of the main goals with my canning is to attempt to replace at least some non-local sources of food with the most local of foods—those from my garden or otherwise off the land I live on. So, wild blackberries and tomatoes and apples from the farm’s two apple trees were high on the canning list. Admittedly, I have brought in some outside food. My mix of cucumber seeds turned out to largely be lemon cucumbers, which are perhaps the worst for pickling, and I had no hot pepper plants in the hoop house—just bell and sweet. So I picked up jalapenos, other hot peppers and pickling cucumbers from a couple local farms.
In terms of other goals, I wanted to extend and maximize my harvest from and use of the land I live on, to reduce the money I spend on buying canned goods, and to provide myself a stock of homemade goods for Christmas and birthday presents. I figured jam, syrup and tomato sauce were three good areas to target in that regard. Nice jam is expensive at the store (in terms of personal use) and a great gift when homemade. Also, I use a good amount of tomato sauce throughout the year. Meanwhile, there are a number of Himalayan blackberry thickets spread across the farm and I had a hoop house full of tomatoes, producing fruit far beyond what I could eat fresh. A perfect combination of factors.
If there’s one thing it seems we all should be in a world either lacking in abundant energy (eventually) or heading that way (now), it’s opportunistic of available resources. Himalayan blackberries are something of a pain and a nuisance, but they do produce copious amounts of sweet berries without any tending, and they’re well established around the farm and, well, pretty much everywhere out here. And the beauty of tomatoes is that if you can keep blight or mold from knocking them out and provide them a bit of pruning and tending, they’ll produce a ridiculous amount of fruit for you that just invites preservation and enjoyment throughout the cold and dark months of late fall, winter and spring when relatively little or nothing is growing out in the garden. So I began there, with the blackberries and then tomatoes. But then I moved into the copious and overwhelming number of green beans and then took on the desired projects of pickles and salsa, which partly required bringing in the aforementioned outside food. Finally, I began to harvest out some of the abundant apples on the farm’s two apple trees (it’s been a good fruit year) and made apple sauce and butter.
It’s been so good. First of all, I discovered in my work that canning really is quite easy. Most of my jars have sealed fine and, while it’s somewhat time-consuming, it’s really not a challenging task. There’s something very satisfying in it, in fact. Much as with building a wooden gate, there’s something incredibly fulfilling about a task that ends in a real, tangible product. Finishing up a bout of canning with a cache of cooling, canned goods on the counter provides a satisfaction unmatched by so many of the sort of ethereal tasks common in today’s supposed information economy. But also, watching the canned food pile up has been a good antidote to the other reality manifesting in the last few weeks: the dying of my garden.
It’s not yet all gone, and with luck the tomatoes will survive into November (though there are rumblings of an upcoming cold snap in the weather models, so I may not be that lucky.) However, a few weeks ago I started losing the outside crops one by one. A chilly night killed off the outside basil first of all. Then went the green beans a few nights later. The squash at that point was already looking a bit ragged but a yet cooler night perhaps a week later finished off the last remaining hardy plants. I went out one morning to see a stretch of perked up, but browned and blackened squash leaves whereas the day before they had still been a relatively healthy green. About that same time, the basil in the hoop house started to blacken a bit, though some of the plants remained strong. And the tomatoes and cucumbers are looking more ragged by the day, though they’re so far hanging on.
Some of the garden remains fine, such as the various brassicas, the lettuce and the root crops. The lettuce will go if we get a real cold night, but the more established brassicas and the root crops should be fine. They’ll provide me a bit of fall and winter eating, although my elaborate winter plans didn’t pan out to the degree that I had hoped. This was due to my own failure to follow through on those ambitious plans more than uncooperative weather or any other garden-specific variable. I simply lost some of my steam in the late summer and the fall starts that I did get in, I got in late. I have a number of very small plants that may not survive a good cold snap or that—even if they do survive—probably aren’t going to grow enough to give me any real harvest. Although, if I’m lucky, I may get some nice, early spring harvests from them if they survive the winter.
In some ways, the garden dying off is nice in that I no longer have to worry about maintaining it (not that I’ve been doing too good a job of that of late, anyway.) On the other hand, it’s another good lesson of just how tough a (partially) self-sustaining life is. I have the grocery stores for the winter, of course—which I’m going to need even with my multitude of canned goods. If I didn’t, I would be in a bit more dire of straights with the current garden (though I do have probably a couple hundred pounds of potatoes, mostly still in the ground.) I would have had to have been much more on top of things if the garden was going to be one of my main sources of food going forward.
Still, I realize that this all requires a long process of successive steps (and a number of setbacks, as well.) There’s a steep learning curve to this sort of life, particularly within the context of a culture that hardly values it. In the meantime, I can celebrate my many filled jars, my new found canning skills, my jump start on Christmas gifts, and I can dream of just how much farther along I might get next year. I plan to start my canning earlier in 2013, to expand my repertoire, and to make it more of a year round affair rather than just a flurry of activity in the late summer and early fall. I also hope to better plan my garden around canning, preservation, and winter crops next year. Not all of this will happen and what does happen may not go smoothly, but one of this summer’s many lessons is just how much you can accomplish even when all doesn’t go according to plan and even when you realize you don’t quite have the amount of personal motivation, spare time and energy throughout the summer as you might optimistically imagine during those first promising days of spring.
Looking at the picture posted above, though—a mere portion of what I’ve canned—I can’t help but feel a certain satisfaction, joy and pride at what I’ve accomplished. So here’s to a winter of good eating, and future winters of even better eating. And here’s to the slow emptying of the “pantry,” and the eventual replenishment of the same.
An entry in The Household Economy
I love butter. I grew up eating margarine, but those were dark days indeed and I try not to think about them now. Instead, I think about butter, and I eat it. I slather it on toast, on cornbread, on pancakes, on pretty much any sort of baked good. I love cooking eggs in it, sauteing onions with it, roasting potatoes in it. I love baking with it. It’s my main fat. Sure, I’ll use olive oil at times and occasionally something else but butter is my standby and I go through a decent amount of it. I hardly know what I’d do without butter.
This seems appropriate to me for a couple reasons. First of all, I feel right eating butter. Animal products as part of my diet just work for me. I feel better eating that way, more satisfied, more satiated, with greater energy. Something about the combination of my genetics, heritage, childhood diet, and so on comes together in that way. Second, I live in dairy country. I live right on the Tillamook county line in Oregon, home of Tillamook cheese and with a fine history of dairy farming stretching back many years. It’s a tradition that continues to this day and fits this land—and taking advantage of that local resource only makes sense.
In other words, my personal and local context fits butter. It doesn’t fit, say, olive oil. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a bottle of olive oil on my counter, but let’s just say the butter is in a more accessible location. It’s the old standby, after all.
I wrote about that context in my previous entry in The Household Economy. In that post, I used an overabundance of thought about butter to come to a philosophy of homesteading that hit on three main themes: context, education, and patterns. While other aspects will inform the homesteading adventures I’ll be writing about in this series—personal enjoyment and interest, for instance, is kind of a big one—those were the three tenets that I thought I would focus on in the hopes of making this series a bit more than just a number of how-to guides.
I already covered the relation of butter to the above tenets in the above-linked “Considering Butter,” but I’ll hit on the high points again. In terms of context—aside from the aforementioned relevancies of personal taste and local tradition—I receive a gallon of raw milk each week from a local dairy. The milk is delicious and healthy, the cows grass fed, and the milk’s fat content higher than whole milk from the store. Left alone for a couple days in my refrigerator, I can skim around a pint of cream off the top and use that as my base ingredient for making butter. I use an already-existing resource, bring a small bit of my living into my own household, and increase my personal resilience. It’s coherent.
In the sense of education, I noted that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water and that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes. That simple knowledge, combined with the knowledge that I can skim cream off the top of my own supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, allows me to see the context in which making my own butter makes quite a bit of sense for me. It’s basic knowledge, but even much of our most basic knowledge in regards to homesteading has been lost over the last couple centuries.
A steel pail full of fresh, raw milk, straight from grass fed cows. So delicious. I can’t tell you how happy this sight makes me, every time.
In terms of patterns, I noted the local abundance of quality dairy farming and the attendant access to raw milk and cream. If I want to live in a local context, then it only makes sense for me to gain access to locally-produced milk—either through money, barter, trade or gift—and then to use some of the cream from that milk to provide myself butter. It helps wean me from globalized supply chains and an industrial economy that I don’t believe is well-designed for the future and it increases my integration into the local community, as well. It works in patterns and systems, cycling in on itself and rippling its effects throughout my life. Something as small as butter can do so much.
This sense of pattern and reinforcement, in fact, is something I want to talk a bit more about. It exemplifies much of the ideal behind homesteading. Yes, there’s the intense satisfaction of making something with your own hands and providing for yourself, but it really goes beyond that. There’s little in going to the store and buying butter. Perhaps you’ll run into someone you know or make some small talk with the cashier. You’ll help to support a local business and likely will support some non-local businesses, as well. It’s not devoid of impact, but it doesn’t burrow you into your community in the way that making your own butter can.
In making highly efficient and focused, globalized supply chains, we’ve largely insulated the recipients of those supply chains from the ripple effects of their patronage. When I buy butter at the store, I often don’t know the dairies involved, the people who run them, the cows who are milked, what they eat, what the land looks like, how that butter was made, who made it, how they’re treated or where they live or if their work supports them well, and a thousand other bits of information that are intricately a piece of that one pound box of butter. But if I bring that into the household, I begin to better understand these ripple effects. For me, it’s particularly pronounced because I get the milk, and thus the cream, locally. I know the farmers who produce my cream, I know the cows whose bodies it comes from. I know what they eat. I’ve touched and talked to them. I’ve walked on the same land they walk on. I know whom I support and I much better understand the context and ramifications of my decision to drink milk and eat butter.
Skimming the cream off the top of the milk, which has been sitting undisturbed for a couple days.
My getting that milk integrates me more into my local community, building connections. My making butter thus does the same. However, beyond the local community and land, my making butter also informs my understanding of the natural patterns that butter has always been placed in under the best of circumstances. It helps root me in an entirely different way of thinking.
Buying butter at the store places me in the industrial economic context of making money at a job, spending that money at a store, and consuming what I spend. The connections are frayed and broken, or so spread through an intricate web of globalized commerce that I could never track down the ways in which they intersect, reflect and amplify each other. And that lack of knowledge, in my mind, is a huge piece of the broken world we live in now. We don’t understand our actions, we don’t understand the ramifications, and we find it increasingly hard to live our lives well when we don’t even know what our living does to the rest of the world. By bringing more and more of my economy into the household and rooting it in a local and personal context, I’m better able to gain a grasp on those ramifications, those intersections. I begin to understand how to better live my life. I begin to see the patterns.
The farmers raise the cows, who eat the grass in the pasture and the hay in the barn, who walk the fields much as the farmers do. I trade my own labor—or money from labor at another nearby farm—for the milk, which I take home in a steel pail. Already, by knowing well the place where my milk comes from and how I acquired it, I have a far more complete understanding of how I’m living my life. But it doesn’t stop there. I bring the milk home, skim the cream, and make the butter. Now I know the production of that butter and how it got to me. I also understand the process of making butter and begin to see why this was such an integral practice in times past, when cream was produced on the homestead and of course you would turn it into butter for other uses.
Furthermore, I know that after you make butter, you have the leftover buttermilk. Unlike with buying butter at the store, I get to keep that resource and, even better, I get to find out what happens with it. For me, what’s been happening with it is I’ve been using it in the baking of cornbread or the making of pancakes, and soon I’ll try baking some bread from it. The ripples from my butter continue to spread, informing my life and playing out in the days to come. The buttermilk goes into the cornbread, then the butter goes on the cornbread. These small patterns and systems emerge. One action leads to another, and before you know it you’re filling your life with good work and good food.
Suddenly, in this small ramekin of butter, I begin to find some semblance of being human. It sounds melodramatic, I know, and . . . well, it is. Yet, it also feels very true. Maybe I have too much of a sense of romanticism about the past, but the idea of having a small homestead and raising a cow, milking that cow, drinking that milk and turning it into other food such as cheese and yogurt and butter; using the byproducts of those activities to make still other kinds of food, some of which then recombine with the previous food; even taking the leftover milk from the cow and feeding it to other animals such as hogs or chickens, which then you eventually eat as well and turn into various other forms of food within the household; and all this providing you work that makes your living and provides your life meaning and satisfaction; that seems like a coherent human existence to me and one that provides ample opportunities to build and reinforce community, to live and work well, to understand and worship this world a bit more each day. The alternative industrial system that we’ve built and allowed to devour this older way of life doesn’t feel coherent to me at all. It feels empty and destructive, for the most part, and the pattern I most often see in it is degradation and alienation.
Maybe asking butter to build a community is asking a bit much. But the amazing thing is that it actually can help do that, even though it’s so small, this one dish of butter. One more reason I love it.
So let’s make some. Here are the steps.
Read the rest of this entry »
An entry in The Household Economy
A few months back, I read a Sharon Astyk post in which she wrote about a new cookbook of sorts, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. In the book, Reese engages in a wide variety of food-centered homesteading activities, like making butter and baking bread, making her own prosciutto and camembert. As she tries these different tasks, she documents the process and makes recommendations for which to take the time to do yourself and which to go on purchasing from others, trying to figure out where one’s limited time is best invested.
I haven’t read the book but found the concept fascinating. About the same time I read about the book, I found myself thinking about this series of posts on homesteading, The Household Economy, and how exactly I wanted to approach the writing of it. While I’ve made clear that the intent of the series is to focus on the various ways in which I engage my own household economy in pursuit of my broader goals of voluntary poverty, self-reliance and a modest life built on minimal money and energy, I wondered in what exact way it made sense for me to write about these activities. A series of posts as little more than step-by-step guides didn’t seem logical to me, mainly for the reason that such guides already are abundant on the internet for most of the activities I’ll be engaging in. Indeed, many of my activities will be carried out with the help of online guides, as well as with certain books I own. Simply duplicating that information makes little sense.
These considerations at some point dovetailed with thoughts about Reese’s book and the idea of making the bread but simply buying the butter, assuming you didn’t have time to do both. Since I had surmised butter-making would be one of my regular homesteading activities this year, I wondered if the effort really made sense. The difference in taste between store bought butter and homemade butter did seem somewhat negligible and making butter—while not particularly hard—was a bit of a messy affair, and did require quite a bit of cream (at least to create the supply of butter I tend to use, with it standing in as my cooking fat most of the time.) Perhaps making my own butter didn’t make sense, after all.
Despite these uncertainties, I made my own butter anyway. I wanted to at least try it, if nothing else. The first time I made it was with cream bought at a co-op in Portland, from a small scale Oregon dairy. The process proved extremely simple, though I did make a mess of a number of dishes and it did require a bit more time than I expected. But despite the clean up, I wanted to make butter again.
Time passed before that happened, but I finally made a new batch of butter a few weeks ago. The cream for this butter came from my weekly supply of raw milk, skimmed off the top after sitting in the fridge for a few days. For some reason—perhaps due to some difference created during the pasteurization or perhaps because the skimmed cream was a lower fat content than the store bought cream—the process of making the butter took longer. However, since the agitation was done in a food processor, that proved to be the most minimal of inconveniences. It was more a curious occurrence than a problem.
The final product was quite tasty and I enjoyed eating the butter smeared on bread. I couldn’t say it was an order of magnitude better than store bought butter, though. Better, yes, but not to the same degree as, say, eating fresh baked bread right from the oven in comparison to bread from the store. Furthermore, for my gallon or so of raw milk, I skimmed off a little over a pint of cream and ended up with around a quarter pound of butter. The next week’s process proved more successful, with a better skimming of about a pint and a half and around six ounces of butter, but I still realized that it takes a lot of milk to produce a modest amount of butter.
I considered all these factors as I debated with myself as to whether or not to make butter regularly. The more I thought about it, the more variables I considered, until I finally managed to turn my consideration of butter into something of a philosophy of homesteading to be used for this series of posts. The philosophy is rooted in many of the same themes and considerations that have been and will continue permeating my How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, as well as the thoughts and ideas behind this blog in general. As such, the major underlying tenets that I’ll be using for this series are that I’ll be taking into account my own personal context, I’ll be looking to educate and demystify with these posts, and I’ll be focusing on patterns and systems. All of those tenets need further explanation, so if you don’t mind, I’ll now break out the bold.
The matter of butter illuminates this tenet well. I’m already receiving a gallon of raw milk each week. Raw milk, for those who may not be familiar with it, is simply milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. My milk comes from a local farm, it has a fat content higher than whole milk in the store, and it’s delicious. It comes in a steel milk pail that I return each week and which has a wide mouth lid on it. That means that each week, I can bring home my milk and leave it alone for a few days in the fridge until a good amount of the cream rises to the top, then I can skim off that cream and use it to make butter.
Already receiving that milk is my context—with that context being that I already have available to me a weekly source of high quality, locally-produced cream and it even comes in a container that makes it easy for me to skim off and separate that cream. Since I have that source available to me, it makes sense that I make use of it to provide myself with butter. If I didn’t have this available to me, then making my own butter at home might involve simply going to the store and buying cream, bringing it home and then using that to make my own butter. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m not really creating the benefit of cutting out the middle man since I’m still buying the cream from the store, I’m probably not creating butter much different than what I could buy at the store, and I’m probably spending more money on it. What I’m doing instead, to a large degree, is simply introducing an extra step into my life for minimal benefit.
Now, that doesn’t mean it might not be a great step to introduce. If I simply really enjoy the process of making the butter, than that’s great. Homesteading is fun outside of moral, ethical or financial concerns, without question. But while that fun is going to be present in this series, I also am intent on rooting it in context, in what makes sense, in the sort of activities that my life already is arranged for. I want to take into account my context and work within that context, rather than creating habits without concern for the rest of my life.
In fact, this strikes me as the root of many of our problems in our society, and it contributes greatly to the unsustainability of our lives. I’ve written about this before and will write about it again, but it’s the fact that we don’t take into account our context and our personal situation when making so many of our decisions that brings us trouble. While personal debt, for instance, can arise out of situations out of our control, a good portion of it arises out of decisions made while ignoring our context, our personal reality. I know that has been the case for me before and there’s no question that our society and economy encourages this type of behavior. Our economy, in fact, is based on debt and expansion, regardless of the availability of resources for that expansion.
If we find ourselves with so much stuff that our living space is overflowing, we too often look for a bigger living space rather than getting rid of some of our stuff. We consistently, in this society and economy, default to bigger and more expensive, to growth and physical abundance, when we could just as easily default to smaller, more limited, constrained, and cheap (in the monetary sense, not the quality sense.) We’ve lost touch with thrift and have dismissed the idea of limits. When we have a problem, we as often as not look for solutions rooted in technology, energy and money rather than in solutions rooted in limitation and behavioral change. We look at the life we want and then do whatever we can to try to gain it, often to our detriment. We rarely look for the best life we are capable of having and then achieve it within the limits of our reality.
I don’t want to engage in every cool sounding homesteading activity just for the sake of doing it. I want it to arise naturally out of basic needs and my life’s circumstances. I want to make my butter not just because it’s fun—which, again, is a legitimate piece of this—but more importantly because it makes sense within the realities of my life. It flows from my circumstance and maximizes my resources. As such, it feeds my current goals rather than working against them. That’s important.
Education and Demystification
One of the critical goals that I think can be achieved through homesteading is the slow build of skills and knowledge used to make one’s own living. Every time we find ourselves purchasing something we need at the store, provided by someone whom we likely don’t know or care about and who doesn’t know or care about us, we make ourselves vulnerable. We reduce the sovereignty we have over ourselves and our livelihood, and we endanger our family and community. We put ourselves at the mercy of others—most often, at the mercy of massive and amoral corporations and too-often-corrupt bureaucracies. Meanwhile, these same corporations and bureaucracies are finding their supporting infrastructure weakened and at risk of collapse. The necessary resources for these massive entities are becoming more limited, more scarce, and in many cases are nearing full scale disappearance. Our state of dependence is an incredible danger, a huge vulnerability for most of us.
I’ve written plenty of times here on this blog about our need to reduce that state of dependence. Dramatically reducing the money, energy and resources we need is a big piece of limiting that dependence. Learning how to make, produce, or trade for many of our necessities is another huge piece and that’s the piece that I’ll be most focused on with this series. To successfully provide ourselves many of our own needs, though, we need a range of skills and education that many of us simply don’t have anymore. In just a few generations, we’ve lost a massive amount of knowledge and ability and now we need to relearn it as a culture as quickly as possible.
Assisting that need will be another tenet of this series. I want my posts not just to be how-to guides, but to attempt to break down the underlying ideas and theories that make these homesteading activities beneficial and even revolutionary. For instance, to understand why making butter makes sense for me, I need to know what butter is and where it comes from. Sure, I can decide that I want to make butter, look up a how-to guide on the internet, then go buy some cream and do the deed. But there’s still a dependency in that. If I instead have a more complete knowledge that tells me that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water; that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes; that the cream comes from milk; that cream will rise to the top of non-homogenized milk if left alone for a certain length of time; and that the cream can then be skimmed off the top of the milk with a ladle; well, if I know all these things and others, then I have the sort of knowledge that allows me to parse my own context and recognize that with my weekly supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, I also potentially have a weekly supply of cream, which I can then use to make butter.
Now, this may be known knowledge for a good number of people, but some out there don’t know it. But even if someone knows about butter, perhaps they don’t know anything about an enzyme cleaner, or why it is very effective at getting rid of certain stains and smells, or why it has many benefits over chemical cleaners, or how you make it at home, or the connection between why it gets rid of, say, the lingering smell of cat urine and why you can make it at home with some brown sugar and fruit trimmings. (Yes, I’ll be writing about this in a future post.) If you have all that knowledge, though, then you can begin to see and derive the sorts of patterns that effective homesteading make use of.
Patterns and Systems
Which brings me to the third tenet of these posts, which will be the exploration of patterns and systems. Let’s engage in one final consideration of my butter-making to better understand this.
If I want to reduce my energy consumption, save money, maximize my resources and better build my own self-sufficiency, I should absolutely make butter utilizing the gallon of milk I already get every week. The milk already exists. A good amount of cream already exists in that milk. I can bring the milk home, wait a couple days, skim the cream, and then make butter. In doing so, I’ve eliminated the need to buy at least some of my butter, if perhaps not all. That’s less butter that needs to be made by machines, brought to me by way of industrial farming. I’m eliminating one of my life’s inputs and I’m not creating a new one at all—I’m actually just more effectively utilizing another one. I’m reducing the fat content of my milk, granted, but I’m already operating at a calorie surplus. I can transfer that fat to the form of butter, cut out the imported butter, and not need extra calories to make that up. I’ve just saved money and energy by making my own butter from an already existing resource and reduced my consumption. In so doing, I’ve taken another step toward my goals of voluntary poverty, have created greater self-reliance, and am helping build a stronger community and local economy. That right there is the pattern of my behavior. But there’s a systemic piece to this, too, that I want to elaborate on.
If I’m anticipating a future in which large corporations and industrialism become less tenable and more expensive, and if I’m therefore looking to adjust my life so that it better fits into a local way of living—rooted in trade and barter, covenantal relationships and the sort of products and tools that can be made on a small scale, in a world of constrained energy and resources—well, then, my making butter fits that far better than my buying it. In such a world, there will almost certainly be a local dairy able to provide me a pail of raw milk each week. In such a world, there’s an excellent chance I could even barter or trade for that milk if I should need to, especially with the farming and ranching skills I’ve been developing. In such a world, I can just as easily skim the cream from my milk and I can even agitate it to make the butter without electricity if I should need to, transitioning from my food processor to a hand cranked mixer or just shaking the cream in a jar. Making butter at home currently uses some electricity, just by way of how I make it. But it doesn’t have to. There’s flexibility there and the adjustment could be made relatively easy if it needed to.
That sort of flexibility and resiliency doesn’t exist for the store bought butter. The butter in the store comes out of industrial systems, dependent on industrial-grade energy and resource feeds. They’re dependent on all the supporting infrastructure that comes with our industrial economy—all the infrastructure that would be very vulnerable in an energy- and resource-constrained world. That butter at the store is going to be much harder to barter or trade for, as well, if I should find myself short on money at some point. Nothing about that shelf of butter in the store makes much sense in a future beset by constraints on industrialism and it would be much harder to convert said shelf of butter to a low-energy way of life than it would be for me to switch from an electric food processor to a hand mixer or jar while making my butter. The systems I see us having to deal with in the future are going to be much different than the ones we deal with today. Making my butter at home fits that future system far, far better than buying my butter at the store.
Wendell Berry wrote an excellent essay some decades ago titled “Solving For Pattern” (PDF). In it, Berry writes, “A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body.” Making my own butter seems like just such a good solution. It acts within the larger pattern, reducing my energy and resource usage while making use of already-existing resources and behavior, and further enhancing my life’s resiliency by increasing the flexibility with which I may react to the future. This small homesteading activity fits within the broader patterns—both existing and desired—of my life. It’s the exact sort of homesteading activity that I’ll be writing about in this series.
My hope is that by following the above principles, I’ll create a series that will prove a bit more holistic and informative than simply producing a number of how-to guides. While I still intend to include step-by-step instructions for these various homesteading activities, they’ll come after I provide the context of what I’m doing and how it fits into my goals. In this way, I hope this series will, more than anything, reinforce the idea of homesteading and a patterned approach to it that will prove beneficial in the sort of constrained future I think we face—or at least will prove beneficial for those looking to live their lives a bit more modestly, whether or not they think such modesty will turn into a necessity.
As should by now seem befitting, the first project I’ll be writing about is homemade raw butter. That will be the next post, arriving soon.
An entry in The Household Economy
— ∞ —
“A system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average—one is tempted to say ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturalists and ‘agribusinessmen,’ the problem of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else—or, perhaps more typically, nobody else—will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him.”
— ∞ —
I suppose specialization is a feature, and not a bug, of the modern, industrial economy. To run such a complex and industrial infrastructure as we have come to rely upon, we need millions of people carrying out very specific and specialized tasks. This infrastructure is made up of uncountable widgets and devices and roles that all have their own particularity and that, thus, require their own particular machines or trained humans to be run and maintained. Broad classifications of generalized and necessary economic activity have been broken apart and splintered into much more specific niches, and then have been absorbed as a fraction into a far more sprawling beast we might refer to as the discretionary economy. In today’s industrial economy, the necessities of life—food, water, shelter, a clean and functioning environment, community—are now almost an afterthought to the vast and consuming industry of non-necessity: distraction, destruction, profit-driven specialization, a massaging of and attentiveness to human ego both impressive and horrifying. We have discovered an infinite number of economic niches driven not by the particularities of place and community—which would be the basis of niches in a functioning and sane economy—but on the basis of catering to the human ego by creating an infinite number of variations on conformity so that we might convince everyone that, no matter how much they immerse and then lose themselves in the base homogeneity of our culture, they truly are a unique human being, as proven by their particular combination of iPhone apps, or which of the many Nabisco snacks they prefer, or which Anheuser-Busch-owned beer they drink.
Of course, as we’ve created this insanely complex yet oddly generic economy and industrial base, we’ve come to worship at the alter of specialization. We know that we need years upon years of education and training so that we may be successful in today’s high tech, globalized economy. We know that to seize the bright future that is rightfully ours, we must *insert cliche here* so that *tribal term here* may compete in today’s *overtly positive economic buzzword here*. And we know this because we’re told it again and again, each time with slightly varying terms, and always emerging from the mouth of a respected “leader” or, even better, a certified expert.
For in today’s world of hyper-specialization, we have a never ending supply of experts always streaming across our television screens and popping up on the internet, ready and willing to tell us something that we desperately need to know but that we don’t know because we lack the training and intelligence and bottom-of-the-screen label that this particular expert does. In a world, after all, in which specialization reigns supreme, it only makes sense that we have an expert for every conceivable situation—and that we rarely have more than one expert for any particular situation. By embracing the idea of specialization, defining the industrial economy as the greatest economy that has ever existed or will ever exist, and celebrating every new fragmentation of our lives as a matter of great progress, we’ve created the necessity for this multitude of experts. By proclaiming that the height of human ability is to be trained in one very specific task and to be the sole person capable of performing that task—or to be the very best at that task, even if other people fumble through their own inadequate attempts at said task—then we condemn ourselves to, at best, being extremely good at one or two things and very bad at everything else. Or, if not very bad, then at least inadequate—unable to stake our claim to that task with the sort of legitimacy that a real expert would.
— ∞ —
“The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals—or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.”
— ∞ —
Such a world of experts is the wet dream of the industrial cornucopian. We are told constantly that the mark of a great economy is efficiency. We must grow our citrus only where citrus grows best, our apples only where they grow best, mine our metals only where they are easiest to mine, derive all our energy from centralized power plants producing the most possible energy with the least amount of human labor, build our machines where the taxes are the lowest and the energy is cheapest and most abundant and the labor is low-cost and compliant, make our butter and cheese in vast factories where machines do the work and every bit of wasted energy can be cut out, then ship that cheese and butter all around the world. We must take every meaningful human activity, load it into a spread sheet, determine how to transfer the activity to machines, cut out as many humans as possible, destroy as much of its meaning as possible, commoditize it, cheapen it, degrade it, divvy it up, and declare success. We must find wholes and reduce them to pieces, mechanize them, specialize them, burrow down into their specific depths and obsess over the details and forget always any inherent or overarching meaning, forget anything that the pieces might make together. We must never see the forest; only the trees, and then only the value in cutting them down. We must eliminate God or any semblance of God at every turn, for God only confuses the issue. We must destroy any sense of the sacred. It clouds our vision. Lastly, we must declare science and economy our new God, make them sacred, and then proclaim our vision finally clear. With this clear vision, we will specialize everything, reduce all we can see, proclaim our knowledge and wisdom infinite, and worship experts—all for the unequivocal good of humanity.
But where is this good? A life in the hands of experts is supposed to be the perfect life. That’s why we have all these experts in the first place—so we can avoid mistakes and engage our lives only in the most effective of ways. And yet, we seem in many ways a miserable and perpetually unsatisfied people. Things never are perfect but we yearn to make them so. It’s a paradox—our cult of the expert should provide us constantly expert advice, which should provide us the means to live our lives perfectly. But there’s nothing paradoxical about this at all. It makes perfect sense that in a society that worships experts and the idea that all tasks should be carried out to perfection that we find ourselves constantly unsatisfied, always searching for the perfection we can’t seem to grasp. And that’s because, rather than attain any kind of perfection, we’ve simply altered the expectations of our society, creating desires that are unfulfillable.
Seeing perfection as a possibility, we yearn for it and sense that if we can attain it, we will be perfectly happy. In our efforts to attain it, we pay attention to the experts who are supposed to know how to attain perfection—who are supposedly practitioners of it. Yet there are two problems with this approach. First and foremost is that perfection tends to be an unattainable ideal. Or, more specifically, it’s an unattainable ideal for humans. It’s a much more attainable ideal for machines, and therein lies one of our problems. Since we have allowed our thinking to be distorted by our industrial economic base, we tend now to think in mechanistic terms rather than in the animalistic terms that are natural to us as human beings—as animals. Our ideas of perfection are rooted in mechanical notions. They’re based on reductionism, strictly-defined variables and controlled circumstances. By homogenizing and standardizing the scenario in which we attain perfection, we should be able to homogenize and standardize the perfection. We define the scenario, define the desired outcome, and then use those defined realities to create the steps we need to take from scenario to desired outcome. This often works in the realm of machines. If we have a human-made screw that needs to be screwed into a human-made panel, we can create a human-made machine that will work within strict parameters to screw that screw into that panel. Every element of the scenario is controlled by us, the outcome is defined by us, and thus we are able to create the fulfillment of that outcome.
But that’s not how human lives work, now is it? If we want to raise our children well, there’s not an expert in the world who can define the full breadth of the scenario of raising children, define a final goal (what does it mean to “raise our children well?”) and then provide us the steps to get there. It can’t be done because the scenario cannot be defined and controlled by humans, nor can the outcome be so controlled, at least not completely. There are far too many variables, far too many elements, far too many other creatures involved, far too much unpredictability and lack of control. Human lives do not unfold within the same paradigm as our mechanistic creations do, and so attempting to attain perfection as defined in mechanistic terms is doomed to failure.
There is, however, an even bigger problem with our attempts to attain perfection and thus be happy, which is that perfection doesn’t make us happy. I suspect some people might argue that point, and I imagine there are even a few exceptions out there to this rule. But I firmly believe that perfection would lead to human misery—utter boredom. Even if there was some way to define and then achieve perfection in the realm of human life, why would we want to do so? How could that produce happiness? The happiness we feel as humans stems out of the inherent messiness of life. We need our successes and failures, our joy and pain, our horrors and contentments. Without these contrasts and these back-and-forths, we can’t appreciate any of this life. It’s a terribly old idea, but you can’t appreciate light without dark. We can’t be happy if we don’t know sadness and misery. We can’t enjoy our successes if we’ve never known failure.
Imagine the happiest moments of your life and tell me whether or not you understand them without contrasting them against other moments of your life. I’m not saying you always think of dichotomies when you think of happiness, but I do think it’s lurking there in the back of your mind if it’s not in the forefront. When I think about the joy of waking up in the morning next to someone I love, then maybe having some coffee and a leisurely breakfast, I understand the joy of that in contrast of waking up alone on a cold morning, knowing I have to go to work. Now, that first scenario may not be perfect and that second one may not be horrible. Perhaps I like my work, even if I really don’t want to get out of bed and prefer the idea of sleeping in. Perhaps the breakfast with my significant other isn’t that satisfying or we get into a small argument, or there’s a clash of desires. But whatever form of perfection I might see in the first scenario, I need the second scenario to appreciate the first. This is simply the juxtaposition of comforts I’ve written about before. We need a wide breadth of experiences to better understand those experiences. We need to be able to compare and contrast, to work different sensations off each other so that we may better learn those sensations.
We’ve attempted to eliminate the messiness from human lives, but in so doing we only are making ourselves less happy. Our joy comes from that messiness, even if our misery does as well. It’s the point of being human. What could we possibly have to do here if we were here only to live a perfect life? Why even bother?
— ∞ —
“The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstance and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties.
It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be—because he still has some gumption that he has not yet given up in deference to the experts. He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim.”
– Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, (p. 19-21)
— ∞ —
The industrial, globalized economy is the attempt at perfection. It’s the height of our mechanistic dreams, our specializations, our worship of experts, our attempts at control. It’s us not figuring out how to live well within the messy realities of life, but our attempts to control and purify that life, to make it work well no matter what. It’s our attempt not to find our happiness and satisfaction from within, but to impose perfection upon ourselves from outside—to control our outer environment so that we don’t have to concern ourselves with our inner environment. As such, it is an outer economy. We go to work. We leave the home. We tap outside forces to guide and maintain that economy and then we insert ourselves into it, into our very controlled and defined niche.
The household economy is much more messy, at least in terms of how we think of messiness. The household economy necessitates that we deal with ourselves, that we work within the uncontrolled variables of life. We don’t go to work in the household economy. We live there. We don’t leave the home to engage in the household economy. We stay in the home. We don’t give control of the household economy to outside forces. We control it ourselves. We don’t standardize the household economy. We make it our own and each household economy exists only in one specific home.
Similarly, the household economy is a complete affront to the cult of the expert. We should not be making our own butter; a machine should be making it, and it should be strictly controlled. We should not be making our own cheese; a machine should be making it, or a master cheese artisan should be crafting the finest cheese. Our households are not efficient. In fact, the household economy is necessarily inefficient, at least in the insane way in which we define efficiency in the industrial economy. Rather than trusting our livelihoods to machines, the household economy is about bringing our livelihoods back into our homes and into our own hands. It’s about replacing machine labor with human labor and embracing all the messiness, variability and lack of control that entails. It’s about embracing that lack of industrial perfection in the pursuit of human perfection—in that animalistic mix of trial and error, of frustration and success, in the inherent joy of creating things with our hands, of making our own life and living with the contradictory results of that process. It’s about working with the outside world rather than controlling it, and instead finding our joy in the inner familiarity and satisfaction gained slowly through good work and a life well lived.
The household economy rejects perfection in favor of experience.
That’s not to say, however, that the household economy is devoid of craft, care or expertise. Indeed, I would say the household economy features care as a matter of course, very commonly features greater craft than the industrial economy, and will often, as a matter of course, feature expertise. It takes all of these elements as part of a broader experience, though, and is not afraid to mix and match. The household economy, again, is messy. In that messiness, it’s beautiful and it’s sacred and it’s fulfilling in a way that the industrial economy almost never is. The household economy, after all, is run by humans. The industrial economy is run by machines.
As I write and advocate for the household economy in this series of posts, one of the core values is going to be a rejection of the cult of the expert. This is necessary for the household economy. If we constantly seek the sort of mechanistic perfection advocated by this cult, then the household economy can never be successful. It functions only under different ideals, different pursuits, different goals. It functions only in the real world of human care and experience, not in the mechanistic world of industry. And so one of the foundations of this series is that we all get dirty without worry of perfection, that we all be willing to make mistakes, and that we all find joy in the experience as much as in the outcome—and that we find joy in the experience regardless of the outcome.
The projects won’t always be successful when defined strictly under the terms of the desired final outcome. But they’ll always be successful when taking into account experience, the pleasure of the work, and the sense of ownership that comes from an act of making one’s own living. And while I’ve dared to throw some religious terms in this post, I’ll say once more that they also will be successful in the sense of engaging in something sacred, however you define that term. Peter Berg, in an interview in Listening to the Land quoted a woman from Mexico City who said that “the kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I dare say much more good can be done in the kitchen than in a factory—and that God, in whatever form, can much more easily be found in the kitchen, as well.
In the household economy, we become generalists. We may occasional stumble upon something that makes us, in that particular instance, want to become a specialist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we find we love making cheese, we may want to delve deeper into that craft and work to become a craftsman cheese maker. But in general, the household economy is about working as a generalist and finding our love of the work and its outcomes not necessarily in the perfection of the final product, but in the perfection of the work, in the meaning of creation, and the satisfaction of each bit of self-reliance and personal care.
In that sense, each of us has the potential to be an honest expert—someone whose expertise is rooted not in ingraining pervasive dissatisfaction but in caring for ourselves and making our own small satisfactions and moments of true perfection, seen only in the inherent and sprawling messiness of our humanity. Someone whose expertise is rooted in work, not in theory. Someone whose expertise recognizes the folly of perfection and strives instead for joy, good work, and care.
An introduction to The Household Economy
As I write this, the smell of fresh, baking bread is wafting from the wood stove here in the farm’s main, communal house. The bread is one step in my attempt to come up with an easy and tasty recipe for sandwich bread. I’m doing this not because I can’t get good bread at the store—there are, as a matter of fact, multiple local bakeries that produce delicious sandwich bread, using good ingredients. No, I’m doing this because I want to take that small bit of dependence and bring it back into the home, to root that dependence not in a complicated and industrialized supply chain, but in my own work and care, my own flour-dusted hands.
Of course, looking at the title of this blog, that might not be a surprise. This originally started as a blog that would be focused primarily on farming and homesteading, and I imagined the possibility of perhaps teaching the occasional homesteading class out here on the Oregon coast, with this site functioning partly as a way for me to advertise such a business. As that idea faded into the background and my life took a different turn, the blog slowly morphed into what it is now: a cataloguing of my thoughts and experiences, certainly featuring farming and homesteading but also dealing quite a bit with peak oil and other energy issues. Yet, all of those subjects are interrelated and I likely wouldn’t be attempting to refine my own bread-making skills if I thought the store would be there forever and I could always afford the five or so bucks for a good loaf of bread. Why, after all, should I bother, given such considerations?
Well, there are many good reasons, including ones that hold up even while the stores remain open and five bucks always resides in my pocket. One is the satisfaction of creating my own living, even if it’s in a very small way. In a society that seems every year to tilt more toward the abstract, engaging in some good, old fashioned physical creation (not just the late night kind) is quite a satisfying experience. Much as in building a wooden gate, I find baking a loaf of bread, cooking up a pot of stew or making some ginger ale to be very elemental, and very good for the soul. There’s a real sense of pride and comfort in being able to make something for myself rather than buying it at the store. Furthermore, the more I create things, the less mystifying the process of creation becomes. As I build these skills, I feel more secure in my ability to figure out other necessary tasks and more willing to take on new projects. Before, when I was beholden to others for most all things rooted in the physical world, I found much of that world mystifying. I didn’t know how things work. Now I better understand.
There is, however, a bigger picture here. As is clear for anyone who’s spent time reading this blog, I think we’re all going to be poorer in the future due to energy and resource constraints, and I further think that beginning the process of preparing for that reality now makes far more sense than putting our heads in the sand and pretending that the powers that be or technology is going to pull our ass out of the fire at the last moment—especially since there’s no good or compelling reason to believe in that as a likely scenario.
One of the ways in which we’re most vulnerable to such a future is rooted in the reality that most of us in industrialized nations have outsourced a very significant percentage of our living. While human history has largely consisted of people making their own living via the combined labors and support of their community, we’ve come to mostly replace that community and its labors with various businesses, corporations, and other entities providing our needs via industrialized production methods. Since those methods are necessarily dependent upon fossil fuels—the exact fuel we already are running short of, and will run yet shorter of as time progresses—we find ourselves very vulnerable to a future of energy and resource shortage. If the grocery stores were to disappear tomorrow, a good number of us would be in serious trouble.
Luckily, the grocery stores don’t appear set to disappear tomorrow. However, anyone who thinks they and the industrial, globalized food system that backs them is fated to live forever is quite mistaken. That system is going to fail, and before it fails it’s going to provide us some serious dysfunction. Of course, it already is providing plenty of that. Look at rising food prices, huge food-borne illness outbreaks tied to industrial supply chains, the massive losses of arable land and topsoil across the world, depleted aquifers, poisoned water supplies, and a host of other destabilizing ills. This system is breaking apart before our very eyes, but many of us refuse to see it, or—upon seeing it—refuse to recognize the full breadth of its implications.
Seeing the precariousness of the industrial food system—and other industrial elements of the economy—with clear eyes would lead us to the conclusion that it’s in our best interest to minimize our dependence on it. This is where the household economy comes in. There are a few ways, working within the household, that we can lessen our dependence on the dominant, industrial economy. One of the main ways is by growing and raising as much of our own food as possible. This can be done via gardening, permaculture, planting fruit and nut trees, raising livestock, foraging for wild foods, hunting, and so on. All these activities begin the process of us making our own living and increase our resilience and self-sufficiency—the increasing of which will come to be quite the boon in an age of scarcity and contraction. Even if we aren’t able to or don’t produce any of our own food, though, we can still lower our dependence on the industrial economy by turning to local farmers and ranchers whenever possible and then utilizing another feature of the household economy: the in-house processing of our foods. The aforementioned bread-baking is one of these. Making jam is another, as is canning produce, lacto-fermenting veggies, making condiments, brewing our own beer and sodas, making kombucha and yogurt and cheese, sour cream and kefir and butter. There are all kinds of activities—many of them not that challenging, after a bit of experience—that we’ve unnecessarily outsourced to corporations.
That bread I mentioned earlier? Well, I’ve now eaten three slices of it, slathered with butter, and accompanying a lamb stew I also made. The stew used a package of lamb riblets from one of the farms I work for and was thus acquired in work-trade—and I helped raise the lamb. I slow cooked it for hours in our wood stove, making broth while simultaneously cooking the meat. To that, I added potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic for a simple and delicious stew. The veggies, aside from the potatoes, came from the farm I live on. (The potatoes would have, except we ran a bit short this winter.) So, all in all, I ate a meal tonight borne largely of the household economy, with minimal inputs from the industrial economy. It was delicious, and nourishing, and satisfying in both its preparation and eating, resilient in its minimal dependence on outside systems, and far more sustainable than a meal eaten at a restaurant would have been, or prepared out of a box, or bought from the store.
Which brings me to another benefit of the household economy. Aside from the unsustainable amount of energy and resources we use in industrialized nations, our outsourcing of our living to corporations gives them an incredible power over our lives, our culture, our society, our economy and our political system.
Let’s say, as a mental exercise, that you find yourself on the street, enjoying a lovely day, taking a walk around the neighborhood. A stranger comes up to you and begins to berate you, spewing profanity, agitated and angry. What would you do? I suspect most of us would take our leave of this person, or tell him to leave us alone—possibly in unfriendly terms—or in some other way extricate ourselves from the situation. Imagine, now, that it isn’t a stranger but your boss. At that point, it becomes quite a bit trickier, doesn’t it? Our boss holds a certain power over our lives, being able to interfere with our means of making a living. You may still tell your boss to knock it off or walk away, but by doing so you risk retribution, perhaps a firing. Even if that’s unfair—even if you could take your case to a court and win—you still face the potential of a disruption of your life. It’s a much more complicated situation.
By relying on corporations and other businesses to provide us our living, we make them our boss. We become beholden to and dependent upon them and that limits our ability to push back against them when they behave in an improper manner. There’s quite a lot of concern that corporations have gained too much power in recent times and use that power with impunity, polluting the earth, exploiting land, people, and communities, extracting wealth, corrupting our economic and political systems and running roughshod over much of the population. These are legitimate concerns, to say the least. But if we want to reign in these corporations and work to strip them of some of their power, we’re going to be seriously hampered in our ability to act if we’re also dependent upon those same corporations to provide us the means of our living.
There are reasons, for instance, that oil companies have vast political power. One of those reasons is that we need oil, desperately, to power the society we’ve become used to. If we didn’t need that oil to power our society—if we had the option to opt out of its use—than their power would be greatly reduced. If they had for sale a simple product rather than a necessity, their power wouldn’t be so great. We would have more ability to push back against them.
This is relevant on a somewhat more abstract level, as well. Right now, our lives are dependent on fossil fuels and all the destruction and inequity their use has come to entail. Most of us in industrialized nations would be at a complete loss without fossil fuels, our way of life pulled out from under us, extremely vulnerable and subject to significant impoverishment at best, death at worst. Due to that reality, we’re going to ultimately support the use of fossil fuels no matter what. We may talk a good game against them, agitating for change and reduced use, but our dependence on them necessitates that we continue to use them and to subject ourselves to the systems created around them. I do exactly that as I write this on a computer and ready the posting of it on the internet. Every time we make use of the industrial infrastructure, we support all it entails. If we don’t want to support that, we’re going to have to make much less use of that industrial infrastructure.
This is the crux of the argument for individual change, in my mind. We can’t get away from these systems at a societal level until we get away from them at an individual level. We can’t alter our economic and political systems until we alter the individual actions that support them. Yes, those individual actions are influenced by those systems, but it’s through individual change that we’re going to create any will to alter those systems. Without that element, we’ll be left dependent and beholden, with little to no power to change what we see wrong with those systems. And if we stay beholden to these systems, politicians will continue to support and uphold them, knowing that any imposition on those systems will be passed down to the public and that the public, whatever they might claim, will for the most part punish the politicians in turn.
There’s another, deeper layer to this argument, though, and that’s rooted in the predicament we face that I’ve written about before. If there was a broad, large scale system capable of supporting our current way of living in a sustainable manner, then it might make sense to attempt a switch over to that system rather than focusing on individual behavior. However, even if that could be done, we would need for a different system to be available to transition to without having to change individual action. We would need, in other words, the system that so many people in our society like to advocate: our current lives, largely unchanged but powered by renewable energy.
If this were possible, then it might make sense to advocate for it. It might not make sense, either, as it would not address the core issues of industrialism that lead to exploitation and destruction. It wouldn’t address resource issues or all the other natural cycles of renewal that we’re going to have to learn to live within, such as the renewal cycles for top soil and fresh water. It wouldn’t address ecosystem stability and biodiversity. But all those concerns aside, the problem here is that such a switch isn’t possible. There’s no way to power our way of life without fossil fuels. There’s no way to build the sort of centralized, industrialized renewable energy system that’s so often advocated without an industrial base powered by fossil fuels. The solar PV panels and wind turbines are made with fossil fuels, made from fossil fuels, and dependent on a vast industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels. We’re already facing the beginnings of constriction. We’re not going to be able to divert massive amounts of fossil fuels to these alternative uses, and even if we were able to do that on such a scale, it wouldn’t be supportable in the long term. Eventually, the fossil fuels run out and then so do the alternative energy technologies built on top of them.
Furthermore, even if such a system were possible, that still wouldn’t address the fact that we use our energy to power an industrial economy that is tearing apart the earth and its ecosystems. If we were to find some magic bullet solution to the energy problem, we would still be faced with the necessity of drastically scaling back our lives so as to avoid the sort of crash that always happens when a population overshoots its carrying capacity—or, more realistically, to limit the damage of that crash. We are already far past carrying capacity, even if we were magically able to switch over to an economy powered entirely by wind and solar tomorrow. We still would be consuming the earth and industrialized nations would still find their populations facing a necessary scaling back to a life more akin to non-industrialized nations.
Therefore, we find ourselves back to the necessity for individual change. Our scaling back begins in the household. It was not so long ago that a good deal of America’s economic activity happened in the household economy. To this day, many non-industrialized nations have thriving household and subsistence economies—it’s how they survive. Thus, it likely won’t be that long before we’re back to a similar reality. As we all become poorer, resources become tighter, and money becomes harder to come by (or less able to purchase goods and services) we’re going to find ourselves having to make use of our own labor and good work to keep up a decent standard of living whenever possible. Rather than spend five dollars on a nice loaf of bread, we’ll more likely bake it at home for a fraction of that cost. Rather than buy expensive organic jam, we’ll make it from the fruit or berries supplied by a nearby farmer, or picked out of our own back yard. Rather than purchase a variety of dairy-based products, we may just find a local source of fresh milk and make our own butter, yogurt, sour cream, and so on. Rather than eat out, we’ll make our own meals. Rather than buy a tiny, three dollar package of basil, we’ll snip it off our own basil plant.
We’ll recycle, and reuse, and wear things out. We’ll darn our socks and patch our clothes, mend our shoes, and learn the fine art of attrition as we simplify our lives, whether we want to or not. We’ll make blankets out of leftover scraps of cloth. We’ll cook our food in hayboxes or on rocket stoves. We’ll brew our own beer, make our own hard cider. And we’ll learn to rely on the other members of our community to help us make our living rather than on faceless, dominant corporations and on the continued functioning of assembly lines populated by robots.
This is the reality that I think will be asserting itself. It’s a reality, as well, that offers us the hope for a better future than the one we might otherwise have. If we begin to grow the household economy, we’ll begin to provide more of our own living, gain a greater control over our own lives, insulate ourselves against economic shocks, free ourselves from dependence on entities that would as soon harm us as help us, begin the process of building relationships, strengthen our community, and provide more space to work for a better society. It may not all turn out well—it probably won’t. But we’ll give ourselves a much better chance than if we just wait for someone else to fix our problems, then wonder what the hell we’re going to do when the industrial infrastructure that keeps us alive begins to crumble beneath us. We also will gain a satisfaction from our own labors, will likely find ourselves much healthier, and will refocus our attention from useless and unhealthy distraction toward good work done in support of ourselves, our family and friends, our community.
This series of posts, then, will focus mainly on my trials and tribulations with getting my own household economy going. It’s already up and running to a degree, but it could stand to be enlarged, to encompass more of my living. And it’s going to find some changes this year with my shifting circumstances. I’ll be writing, therefore, about my adventures in gardening, my various homesteading activities, possibly some building projects using reclaimed and recycled materials, and whatever other paths my particular household economy takes. This will be something of a companion to my How To Be Poor series of posts, in that it will focus more on the actual activities with which I reduce my costs of living and usage of energy and resources, while How To Be Poor focuses more on the theory and philosophy of voluntary poverty—though I reserve the right to occasionally veer into the theoretical, as I may very well do in the next entry.
Throughout most of history, we’ve made much of our living at home and in our community. Over the last few centuries, we’ve slowly outsourced that living. In the last few decades, we’ve mostly abandoned it to the province of corporations and governments. It’s time to bring back the household economy, both as a necessity and as a moral good. It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with our own living. It’s time to get off this misguided path and return to normal.
Today marked my first day off from working since I returned to the farm. As such, today has been more relaxed. I’ve been puttering around the farm, having a decadent and leisurely breakfast of french toast and bacon, doing some relaxed reading, a bit of cleaning, preparing dough to bake bread later this evening, and noticing old fermentation projects.
This last came about due to Ginger mentioning the possibility of a dinner using sauerkraut. I went exploring what we had on hand, knowing I made some this summer and that I even had a couple quart jars of the stuff from a year and a half ago floating around. The sauerkraut from this summer sat in a crock out on the porch and, upon the last check, it had been covered by quite a bit of nasty looking mold. It might be able to be saved, but I didn’t feel excited about trying. So next, I checked the oft-ignored cold box in the house and scrounged up a quart jar about two thirds full, made in the summer of 2010 when I was farming at Sauvie Island Organics. That, too, had molded on the top—though perhaps not to the same degree as the crock sauerkraut.
Voicing my distaste for that jar, Ginger noted from upstairs that I had a few other random fermentation projects I should check, sitting on the kitchen shelves in mason jars. One was a batch of ginger carrots and the other a jar of cherry chutney. I hadn’t forgotten totally about the carrots—I consistently would catch glimpses of their orange presence while in the kitchen—but the cherry chutney had long exited my memory. Curious now, I pulled down the ginger carrots and took a taste. The fermentation process on these had clearly gone into overdrive. Most of the liquid had dried out and while the carrots hadn’t turned moldy (perhaps due to the ginger) they had turned to the consistency of mush. They also had an incredible bite to them, not so much from the ginger as the long fermentation and high build up of lactic acid. They weren’t particularly pleasant, but I imagine they could give quite a boost to the digestive system. Perhaps they could be turned into a tonic.
The cherry chutney also packed a punch, but it had better survived the long months of quiet shelf life. This had been my first attempt at chutney and came from a recipe in Nourishing Traditions, dusted off after Ginger acquired multiple large boxes of cherries from a fellow market vendor on the cheap. After spending an hour or two pitting the cherries alongside some WWOOFers, I decided to finally try out a chutney recipe—something I’d been wanting to do for years but had never gotten around to. Lo and behold, the recipe turned out great. A mix of cherries, cloves, coriander seeds, and the zest and juice of an orange, the chutney ended up sweet and spicy, with a bite from the lactic acid.
In the months that followed, the chutney sat on the shelf, somewhat forgotten as, while I loved it, I wasn’t entirely sure what to use it on or with. Tasting the chutney now, I found that it had preserved wonderfully, not molding a bit and essentially becoming tangier. The lactic acid had increased, but otherwise it was the same lovely chutney. So now I have to figure out some way to eat it. Perhaps just a spoonful or two with the occasional meal for digestive purposes and to add a little something interesting.
Finally, having explored these random jars of fermented foods, I remembered my forgotten bottles of ginger ale out in the tool shed. I started making ginger ale this year and it proved a success—with certain caveats. The bottle conditioning proved a bit overzealous, creating a drink carbonated to the point that it would either explode out of the bottle upon opening it (though I developed quite the skill for popping the cap outside while holding a large glass and being able to immediately direct the fountain into said glass, preserving most of the soda) or sometimes just shatter the bottle. This happened with one batch sitting on the same kitchen shelf that the chutney now sits on. I was standing next to the bottles when one of them exploded, sending out small shards of glass and sticky soda. Somehow, none of the glass hit me. Needless to say, I moved the soda to a less exposed place, which in this instance meant a box tucked away in the tool shed.
Of course, I promptly forgot about the soda. It was made on July 19th—much of it is still out in that box in the tool shed. I noticed it about a month ago, much to my surprise and chagrin, and so today I figured I should give one of those bottles a try since I was in that mode of past project exploration. The reused beer bottle was dirty, the cap a bit rusty, but it otherwise seemed okay. I pulled my trick of popping the top outside with a glass handy and pretty soon had a nice mug of fizzy ginger ale, no worse the wear for being nearly six months old. In fact, it was delicious and I drink it now as I write this post.
So by my final count, that’s three less-than-successful projects (though all of them had their day) and two that had survived the months of neglect to still provide tasty, fermented goodness. Not a bad haul for such a lack of attendance! And a good reminder of one of the joys of fermentation projects: they’re alive and changing and so you never quite know what you’ll end up with as you let them play out their existence. While the moldy sauerkrauts don’t shock me, I didn’t expect the ginger carrots would fail to mold but turn to mush as their brine dried out or that the cherry chutney would remain mold free and as delicious and edible after multiple months on the shelf as shortly after I made it. It’s a pleasant surprise to return to old projects and find their success continuing, and a nice reminder from the less successful ones that a bit of care and attention can make the difference between maintaining something useful or losing its function.
For 2012, then, I resolve (amongst many other resolutions) to provide more care to my fermentation projects and to be more attentive to my food preservation attempts. As for my other 2012 resolutions relevant to this blog, that promised post is still coming. It should be up later today, in fact, or Sunday evening at the latest. And for those who have done their own fermentation experiments, feel free to share your successes and failures in the comments. I love a good bit of fermentation, and am always interested in hearing what others have done.
A Need For Response
For those following this blog, it’s likely become clear that I don’t expect our society, economy and general way of life—either here in America or elsewhere in the industrialized world—to last far into the future. Despite previous stages of this belief of mine, I don’t currently think that the end of our way of life will manifest itself in some extreme, apocalyptic moment. Rather, I have come to believe in the likelihood of a stairstep collapse, thanks to the writings of a certain Grand Archdruid. I think the underpinnings of what we consider modern society will come apart—as they, indeed, already have started to come apart—and this entire sorry game will unravel. I don’t expect that unraveling to happen entirely in my lifetime, but I expect to live through enough of its beginning to see and be forced to deal with quite the fallout. I have no illusions of a zombie apocalypse, but I neither have illusions of a relatively easy transition or the saving grace of new technology or a grand shift in consciousness that solves all our problems. We’ve made a mess of the world and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.
Similarly, the mess we’ve made is a mess that most everyone in the industrialized nations have had a part in. That’s not to say there aren’t certain bad actors who have turned in virtuoso performances, but even they have almost certainly been functioning to some degree within the context of this insane society and culture we’ve all helped to create. I have been no stranger to bitter complaints about Obama’s failed promises—and much less a stranger to bitter and venomous rants about Bush the younger’s detestable administration—but Obama’s is a presidency in context as much as all the others. As a society, we have not shown a particular interest in being told the truth and even those of us who have opted out of our culture’s dominant narratives of myth have too often opted into alternate narratives of apocalypse that serve just as easily to protect us from the hard work a new way of life requires. That politicians are less than eager to tell us the truths that we are so quick to avoid ourselves is no surprise. It’s not particularly relevant whether they do it because they don’t know those truths or because they are actively ignoring them due to a recognition that speaking them would not be beneficial to them on a political or economic level. Either way, our broader society holds a certain level of culpability.
Within this mind frame, I wrote a recent post that served as something of a criticism of the Occupy movement. It was my attempt to advocate for a longer view within the movement: a recognition that our problems are not just about social and economic inequality—which is a serious issue, no question—but also a distorted view about what is a reasonable standard of living. I specifically called the American middle class way of life bullshit. I stand by those words. We have a worldview that is built on top of a fantasy of independence from hard ecological and environmental realities. That worldview is falling out from under us and we need to respond to that changing landscape immediately and with an intention based in community, care and cooperation. Unfortunately, that’s not a task that will be easy, and there are many forces, both external and internal, which will serve to push us toward more destructive responses.
The Risk of Demagoguery
One of those responses that I worry could happen is the Occupy movement turning more and more toward a movement of revenge. I’m not saying this is what will happen, but I do consider it a legitimate and reasonable concern. As the world economy continues to spiral out of control, austerity measures assert themselves ever more harshly and the ability to get by financially for a majority of the population becomes more challenging, our collective level of stress will rise. And the sort of harsh and stressful environment I think we’re facing in the near term will be a fantastic place for demagoguery to flourish.
Understand, I think many in the financial industry should be doing perp walks and the lack of that reality is a massive failure of justice and the rule of law. Similarly, the way Obama swept the war crimes of the Bush administration under the rug was despicable. But all of these injustices happened, again, within a societal context. And that context is something that all of us have played a role in. Hell, if you’re reading this blog, I can pretty much guarantee you that you had a role in this reality, because the internet and the vast infrastructure put in place to maintain it and provide access points to end users (i.e. me, you, and somewhere around two billion other people) is an infrastructure built on vast ecological destruction. It is an infrastructure built on economic and social inequality. It is, as well, an infrastructure that helps to perpetuate the sort of war crimes that the Bush administration engaged in. While the Iraq war might not have literally been conceived in a cartoonish, movie villain style plot geared toward oil capture (though it certainly may have) our country’s never-ending need for fossil fuels brought that war into existence. The outsized existence that we have become accustomed to powered the mechanizations that led, tragically, to that war. It’s easy to put it all on the head of W and Dick Cheney, but that’s the sort of short view that leads to demagoguery—of which I have engaged in, believe me—and the convenience of never having to examine oneself in the mirror.
The Need for Good Work
It also leads to the convenience of not having to throw oneself into the challenge of doing good work. The myth of progress leads inevitably toward desires for utopian schemes. We imagine new ways to structure our economy or our government or our cultural institutions to lead to a gloried future, a cornucopian golden land in which we have everything we’ve ever needed or wanted. We proclaim the ability to smooth out the inherent vagaries and fallibility of human behavior, if only we create the proper context for their existence. The problem here is that we seem too quick to place our hopes into the utopian basket of revolutionary change (or forced utopia that always seems to be waiting on the other side of apocalypse, once all the people we don’t like have died) and too hesitant to engage in the long, hard work of actually creating new cultural and economic contexts that can indeed inspire better behavior and constrain damaging impulses.
Let me provide an example. I have been meaning to write this blog post all day. However, I didn’t start it until late afternoon. For multiple hours before that, I poked around on the internet engaging in largely useless but satisfyingly distracting behavior. This is a common theme of mine: the lack of self-discipline and the propensity toward distraction. Overcoming it can only happen through restraining my own behavior, dedicating myself to what I consider worthwhile pursuits, and ignoring the need for overstimulation. This is all hard—oddly hard—and it as often as not devolves into me wasting hours of time looking at shiny things on the internet because, you know, it’s easy. Writing, on the other hand, is intensely satisfying when it comes out well but also, often, extremely hard. It’s so much easier to read about the NBA or look at my blog stats or read someone else’s hard work. This, of course, extrapolates out to TV, shopping, bitching about whatever we happen to not like at the moment, speaking rapturously about whatever we happen to like at the moment, eating, drinking, and a thousand other ingrained societal behaviors that serve to distract us and keep us from the hard work of making our life and community better.
Another example. I have participated in the Occupy movement and thoroughly enjoyed my time marching and shouting, protesting and bonding. I met great people, I felt empowered, I believe without question that I did good things. I also thrived off the emotional power of laying the blame for our very messed up world at the feet of other people. I felt the bonds of shared outrage and anger. I felt the easy pull of demagoguery. This is a fine line, of course—where does a legitimate demand for justice end and the blaming of problems on everyone else but yourself began?—and I have not figured out the exact placement of that line. I probably will never figure it out exactly. But there is a line and I think all of us need to both be very aware of it and be constantly vigilant in wondering whether or not we are crossing it. This is especially true in our culture, where distraction and shallow soothings are constantly championed at the expense of the long, hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world.
And that is the idea I keep coming back to. This is an idea championed by Wendell Berry, and there’s no question that I have been greatly inspired and influenced by my readings of him. We have to begin—or for those who have already begun, continue—the hard work of figuring out how to live and work well in this world. That’s an incredible challenge. I would argue it’s the central challenge of being human, of being alive in this world. What else could be the point? For what other reason could we be here? It’s not to see who can die with the most toys. It’s not to see how high a percentage of our life we can spend being distracted by shiny, technological toys. It’s not to discover how quickly we can convert the living creatures of this world into cheaply-made commodities. And it’s not to find the one person who’s screwing everything up for the rest of us. It’s the very personal work of living well in this world. That is a challenge. That is a huge, never-ending challenge—a lifetime of work, the question that only has incomplete, always changing answers.
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Today, I worked at many jobs. I woke early in the morning, in a freezing cold yurt under a pile of bedding, and allowed the alarm clock on my cell phone to ring multiple times. Eventually–knowing I needed breakfast, and knowing I needed to conduct the day’s business–I eased my way out of the warmth of my bed and into the extreme chill of the morning air, pulling on yesterday’s Carhartts (belt still threaded through its loops) and a fleece and an extra pair of thick socks, then walking–cold, stiff–to the main house both for breakfast and its small, lingering warmth from the previous night’s fire.
I ate a pair of duck eggs from the farm, bacon and toast not from the farm. I made coffee and filled my thermos with it. I attempted to wake up. Before leaving the house, as the sky finally began to lighten, I opened the duck and chicken houses, welcoming them to the cold world. The birds seemed largely unperturbed by the chilly weather: the chickens cautiously wandered outside in typical fashion and the ducks went straight for their
pond plastic kiddy pool, though the coating of ice delayed their entry into its waters. Meanwhile, I drove to the farm down the road. There, the farm’s owners and I loaded six lambs into the back of their canopied truck and, shortly thereafter, I drove off with them–and with one of the farm’s owners, Brian, riding shotgun.
We were driving about two hours to a small butcher. Today was to be those lambs’ final day. As it turned out, it could easily have been Brian’s and my final day, as well. About half an hour into our drive, at perhaps 60 mph or a bit less, I lost control of the truck on a patch of ice on Highway 26, the main route between the Oregon coast and Portland. We spun 180 degrees and I have little idea of what I did during that spin. It was fast and slow–a bizarre meditation. I know I hit the brakes at one point and I think I let off them not long after, some small voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t hit the brakes. I don’t know which way I turned the wheel, if any. If I had moved quicker, with more certainty, with greater skill, perhaps I could have avoided the full spin and danger of that moment. But what little I did or did not do ended up not mattering. We simply spun around in a half circle, the tires squealing, the truck out of control and sliding out of our lane, into the lane of oncoming traffic, toward a hill side. I remember thinking, don’t flip over.
We didn’t flip over. No oncoming traffic hit us, either, as we had the good fortune of there being no oncoming traffic. We came to a stop in the left lane of the opposite direction of traffic. Having completed a bit over a half circle, we faced approximately in the right direction. I noted no traffic coming in either direction and I tried to start the car, which had died. It was still in drive and thus didn’t start, though I hadn’t yet recovered my wits enough to realize that. I knew we needed to get out of the road, to make sure we hadn’t lived through this spin only to get plastered seconds later by traffic coming around the bend a short way behind us. I let my foot off the brake and we coasted forward, which happened to be down the hill, and I guided the truck over to the side of the road.
Brian and I caught our breaths. We tried to calm our adrenaline and talked a moment about what had happened. At most, a minute had passed.
On the shoulder of the road, facing the wrong direction, I put the truck in park, engaged the parking brake and then checked on the lambs. They seemed fine–all upright and oddly calm. I can’t imagine they had enjoyed the ride, but who’s to say? I know not the mind of a sheep. Returning to the cab of the truck, Brian and I decompressed a bit more and then I awaited a full clearing of traffic to maneuver my way back out onto the highway. We had survived. We still had work to do. So back on the road we went–this time at a slower speed and with the four wheel drive engaged.
We made it to the butcher almost two hours later, due in part to my slower, steadier pace. There, we unloaded the lambs, picked up some stored cuts of beef, hit a nearby farm supply store to buy poultry feed and then headed into Portland. We met up with a chef and sold him twenty pounds of beef brisket. We ate at Burgerville–a local fast food chain that prides itself on using many local and seasonal ingredients and engaging in sustainability initiatives (see my previous post for related thoughts)–gassed up the truck and headed home.
After the trip back, I used the remaining hour of daylight to feed the awfully hungry ducks and chickens back on my home farm and then went down to the lower field, where I inspected some damage to the hoop house from a previous storm and replaced the blown-off row covering on our overwintering beets and carrots. I returned up top to the main property, closed up the ducks and chickens in the waning daylight, then brought firewood into the main house, fired up the stove, sat down with a beer, and promptly became distracted by the writing of this blog post.
Which brings me to now. So why did I just regal you with tales of my day? First, I wanted to write about the more exciting moment of spinning out of control on the highway. Second, I wanted to note a thought I had earlier this evening, when I was walking down to the lower field, which was that if I had died in the Great December Spin-out, and the six lambs in the back had happened to not only survive the wreck but break free of the back of the truck and escape into the woods, I would like to think that–should I have some form of post-life consciousness enough to note this exciting development–I would be supremely pleased, despite my own death. For all the misery we’ve heaped on the animal world as humans, why shouldn’t they get the last laugh now and again?
Finally, though, I couldn’t help but place my day today in the context of something I read last night. I’m currently reading The Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer, a masterful peak oil writer and Druid. In this book, he writes about the future he foresees for industrial civilization, which is one of contraction and collapse. He believes, as I do, that we are running out of fossil fuels and that, in the last three hundred years or so, we have built an industrial economy that now guides the world but can’t run on anything other than fossil fuels–which means that we’re in for some rough times ahead. There is far more detail to this story and I would recommend the book for anyone interested, even if you’re familiar with peak oil theories and have read other books about the subject. Greer takes an approach that I find unique and only 78 pages into The Ecotechnic Future, I find myself fascinated and extremely engaged by all the possibilities and theories he throws out in the text–many of which I likely will write more about on this blog in the future.
Anyway, Greer believes that in the not-too-distant future, we will all find ourselves living with much less (energy, stuff and stimulation) and scrambling to make our way in a new world. He writes, at the end of one chapter, that “Most of us will learn what it means to go hungry, to work at many jobs, to watch paper wealth become worthless and to see established institutions go to pieces around us.” Today seemed to me to be a small glimpse of that future reality. While I certainly did not go hungry (I ate as a glutton, though not in any way other than normal in this country) and my money still means something, I worked many jobs. I worked here at the farm I live on, I worked at the farm down the road, and all that work was varied and piecemeal–a lamb driven to the butcher here, some frozen meat sold there, a duck fed here, a row of beets covered there. I also simply lived meaningfully–bringing in firewood to provide heat and cooking, burrowing deep under my covers on a very cold morning. I also had small moments of joyful clarity–not just the very long seconds of spinning out of control and wondering if I was about to die, but also the moment when multiple small icicles slipped out of the hose along with icy cold water while I refilled the duck’s water jug. True, I drove far more than will be feasible in the future and ate fast food and drank both homemade and purchased coffee–also unlikely future activities–but I lived today a life that seems to hold something of a framework that will be quite relevant in the future. There will be exposure to the actual local climate, not just controlled environments. There will be close interactions with a variety of animals–many of which will be feeding us in some way. There will be both mundane and enlivening chores. There will be direct engagement in the production of heat, not just the turning of a switch. There will be moments when you will suddenly realize you might die, much sooner than you think, which Greer also notes in the sentence right before the one I quoted. There will be moments of wonder at the world around you and its beauty, both despite and because of its challenges. There will not be air conditioned or over-heated offices, nor will there be many highly-specialized careers. Most of us will again become generalists, and our work will be about providing basic needs.
I feel like I glimpsed all that today, and I must say that I enjoyed it. Of course, the future will be harder, but there is an undeniable joy in the immediacy of such a life–and that joyful immediacy will be more common even as the discomfort and challenge is more present. I enjoyed the variety of my day, the direct engagement of it, and the sense at the end that I had lived honestly, had even almost died, but had not just trudged and–other than at a certain literal moment–had not just drifted.
Today I worked at many jobs. Today I lived a future life.