Archive for the ‘The Household Economy’ Category

The Household Economy: A Return to Normal   19 comments

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.

A New Year’s Plan: Death, Poverty and the Household Economy   16 comments

Predicting the Future

As we move into 2012, my plans both for my life and this blog are beginning to take better form. As I wrote in my post on returning home, I am settling into this area—Nehalem, on the northern Oregon coast—and, for the first time since 2009, staying in a particular place for a second year. While I’ll have to leave the farm I’m on now in a few months, I hope to simply move a short way down the road. Either way, I’ll be in the area. I have work on two local farms now and have a third farm offering a significant social scene, all three of which are nothing to be dismissed. I’m beginning to integrate into the community and finding that there are many opportunities here. It doesn’t hurt, either, that this is a particularly beautiful part of the northwest, with the sort of forested landscape that holds a great draw for me, along with quick access to incredible coastal environments.

So what specifically does the new year hold for myself and this blog? Well, as I’ve been making clear, I believe that we’re a country in decline. We’re in the early stages of peak energy and face a future in which fossil fuels—the primary fuels behind our economy, behind the entire way we run our country and other industrialized nations run theirs—become more expensive and more scarce, even as worldwide demand continues to grow. This will put significant pressure on our economy, our infrastructure, our political system, on the ways in which we organize our lives, on everything. You know how most of us in recent times have been slowly ground down under the pressure of a dysfunctional economic and political system, particularly since 2008? Well, we’re not in an anomaly. We’re experiencing what is now normal in this country. We are in decline—pretty much all industrialized nations are now, but America is particularly due to its empire status—and so we need to rework our expectations and rethink how we are going to live our lives.

This isn’t just about peak energy, either. This is also about ecological catastrophe, climate change, a collapsing financial system and, I would argue, a spiritual crisis. These are all interconnected and they all work together to make one hell of a mess. Governments and municipalities are going bankrupt, families are losing their purchasing power, ecosystems are exhibiting signs of incredible strain and we have a culture that is utterly failing us, focusing more on the Kardashians and fleeting memes than these very serious problems—or even thoughtful philosophy, affecting art or explorations of religion, spirituality and nature. We no longer know our way, and many of us know we’re lost.

The way we’ve come to expect life to be is not how it’s going to be in the future. Unfortunately, most are still living as if it is. But instead of an economic correction and a return to the comfortable living most Americans expect as something of a birthright, we’re going to, in general, become poorer every year, less materially rich and comfortable, and are going to find many of our foundational supports crumbling. It’s likely to be a rough road ahead. Yet, we can prepare for it and there’s no reason not to. We need to begin to learn how to be poor, and we need to begin now.

I realize that’s not going to be a popular sentiment and I’m sure there’s a contingent reading this who might think me a bit crazy. But I really do foresee this future, and there’s a lot of science and literature out there to support it. We are coming up against some hard ecological and physical limits as a species and there’s no getting around it. For all the talk of human ingenuity and endless progress, the reality is that human history is the story of cycles and patterns, of rising and falling civilizations, of a multitude of different ways of experiencing and living within the world, and this particular way that we’re in now—industrial civilization, for everyone reading this—is starting to come apart. We’ve had our time, and that time brought us a standard of living and a level of wealth unknown throughout the history of humanity. That makes us unique, yes—but no more unique than thousands of other civilizations and no less vulnerable, either. We’ve mistaken wealth and comfort for permanence and immortality. Wealth provides neither. It’s just a different mode of living. And it’s a mode of living that’s particularly ill-suited for our future.

The basis of our wealth and comfort—the burning of fossil fuels, which provide a level and accessibility of energy unlike anything else on this planet, and certainly unlike anything renewable, as well as the intensive exploitation of this planet’s resources—is coming to an end. It won’t all be gone in our lifetime, but we will certainly see shortages and most people alive today are going to be seeing the chaos that will result in those shortages. We’re seeing it already, in fact. The financial collapse of 2008 was a necessity, not an anomaly, and there are further corrections that will have to be had simply because we chose to address that collapse with attempts at propping up an unsustainable system. The lack of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina is another indication; a society in collapse simply doesn’t have the resources to rebuild itself after major disasters the way a society on the ascent does. The gridlocked political system and vapid culture are indications, too. The keystones in declining civilizations commonly cease to provide value to that civilization’s citizens. The collapse is not on its way. It’s here now. We’re already in it.

What’s important to note is that this collapse is very unlikely to turn into an apocalypse. It will happen gradually, which is the course that collapsing civilizations typically take. The exact details and timelines are unknown, but the full process of collapse generally takes a couple centuries. That means that we will not see it through its completion. We’ve had the fine luck of drawing the straw that put us at the beginning of the collapse. We get to deal with the initial stages, which are unlikely to be too fun, and it’s entirely possible that few people of consequence will ever acknowledge this collapse during our lifetime. Again, this is because it’s unlikely that there will ever be an event so undeniable and of such magnitude that everyone will point to it and say, “Aha! Here is the collapse.” Instead, it’s just going to be a slow grind. We’ll get shocks to the system, then stabilization and a period of reduced standards of living, and then another shock, another stabilization, and another period of yet-more-reduced standards of living. We had one of those shocks in 2008 and we’re living right now in the stabilized period with a lower standard of living. How quickly is unemployment recovering? How many people have fallen off the rolls? What’s the real unemployment rate? What’s the economy like now compared to the 90s?

So, then, our future holds further monetary and material impoverishment. It holds access to less energy and less resources. And it holds the promise that if we do not start to learn how to live under these new realities, we are going to be a lot worse off than if we do. You know how every few years we hear news stories about the hot new career track? It’s the career that forward-looking people are training for so that they’ll have a place in the economy of the future. Well, I’m here to tell you that the hot new career going forward is living in poverty. Learn to do it well and you’ll be in good shape. Ignore the coming reality and cling to the hope that all the same activities that have supported people over the last couple decades in this country will continue to support them and you’re likely to have a harsh time of it.

Living in Poverty

With that mindset, I’m planning on diving full bore into voluntary poverty in 2012. Not that I’m not already there to a large degree, but there’s plenty more I could do. Luckily, I have a couple sources of work lined up, so I’m not going into a completely income-less poverty. But my cash flow will be small anyway, far below the official poverty line in this country.

My plan for voluntary poverty has a few different elements to it. Aside from working at two farms, I plan to do some serious gardening this year. Coming off three seasons of veggie farming, this should be something I can do. But I have to admit I still don’t feel fully prepared to supply myself with homegrown vegetables all through the season. I expect I’ll do fine, but imagine it will be a bit more of a challenge than it should considering my experience. Still, this is the exact experience I really do need—a situation in which I’m fully in charge, which will burn quite a bit of knowledge and experience into my brain. When working for others, I too often do the work without paying full attention to the reasoning behind it. When I have to understand the reasoning—to figure out the work myself—I learn much better.

This gardening I’m hoping to do may actually take place on the property of one of the farms I’ll be working for. If this is the case, then I’ll be doing a work-trade with them for rent and gardening space. That would leave the other farm to provide most of my cash flow. However, with my rent and food taken care of, I won’t need a significant amount of money. This is another element of my poverty: getting out of the formal economy as much as possible and working within the informal economy of barter, work-trade and so on. This is fantastic preparation for the future because it’s the formal economy which will be failing us. The informal economy should be trucking along quite well. In fact, it should be growing quite a bit in the near future, and undoubtedly already is. This is a reality simply because as the formal economy fails to provide the living of more and more people, most of those people aren’t going to just lay down and die. They’re going to find some way to make ends meet. And if the formal economy isn’t capable or willing, then they’ll turn to the informal economy.

The Household Economy

Part of that informal economy is also the household economy. These are the things you do for yourself at home, using your own labor, rather than paying someone else to do them. Cooking, for instance, is a big part of the household economy. Various food processing you do at home is part of that economy, too. In 2011, I lacto-fermented a variety of veggies, made traditional pickles, made ginger ale and blackberry soda, made butter from cream, made mayonnaise, helped Ginger can tuna fresh off the boat, made pesto, made my own pizza dough, roasted and froze tomatoes and did many other things, all of which were part of the farm’s household economy.

As part of my household economy in 2012, I plan to regularize a series of homesteading activities. I don’t know for sure which ones it will be yet, but I suspect butter making will be there, as well as condiments, and I want to start making my own bread. I would love to begin making cheese and I’ll continue to brew sodas. I’ll certainly be preserving vegetables and probably canning some fish. I also would like to learn how to mend clothes. And I really would like to better learn beer brewing. I’ve brewed four times, once alone, and I have the basic process down. I need to figure out my equipment situation and then start brewing beer as a matter of course.

All of these activities will save me money by transferring the processing and packaging of food from a factory to my kitchen. By saving that money, I can live richer while being poorer. This is the point of learning how to live in poverty. It’s not about learning how to survive a cold night in a cardboard box in an alley—it’s about how to make your life as comfortable and rich as possible (in both a material and non-material sense) with very little money. Most of us will likely have access to less money in the future, or more money that will buy less due to inflation. The more we figure out how to make our lives without money—with thrift and cleverness and our own labor, as well as simple pleasures—the easier it will be to maintain comfort, happiness and a decent standard of living in the midst of a crumbling formal economy.

And if I should prove to be wrong about the economy, then you’re still in a better situation, with access to far more money now that you can use to do whatever you would most want to do with money, such as buy land or travel or start your own business.

Study, Meditation and Death

While I have plenty of physical plans, I also plan to focus on the mental and spiritual in the new year. Part of this will take the form of new avenues of study, with a likely focus on history in the broad sense, history in the very local sense, and my local ecology. Part of it will also be the consideration and possible engagement with a nature-based spiritual study. Part of it, as well, will be a meditation practice, likely involving quiet sits in and observation of the local land. All of these plans are still somewhat tentative and less planned out than what I wrote about above. They also are very personal and less applicable on a broad scale. As such, I won’t get into great detail here, though I’m sure these aspects of my new year will be commented upon and documented to some degree here on this blog.

However, I think consideration of a spiritual element is important for us, especially when dealing with collapse. I believe as a society, we’ve allowed ourselves to become too cut off from the natural world. As we live in an economy and society that is predicated on the use and destruction of the natural world, being cut off from that destruction is necessary for us to not be driven insane at the death constantly perpetrated around us. But as our material society begins to fall apart and offer far less material comforts, many of us are going to need some kind of spirituality to turn to. We won’t be able to fix these problems by buying a new tablet computer or paying someone to fix us a nice meal. New clothes or the smartest smart phone won’t make these issues go away and neither will trivial obsessions with celebrities or fleeting trends. We’ve elevated shopping and electronic distractions to the level of spirituality in this country; as those go away, we’ll need something else, both to provide comfort and to provide new myths for us to use in learning how to live well in a changed world.

With that in mind, I plan to explore some spiritual aspects on the blog this year. One of those will be a series of posts on death. Many of us need to think more about death, become more acquainted with it, and better accept it. Death is something we tend to shy away from in our society and I honestly think we’ll be forced to confront it more directly in the near future. As our economy and infrastructure continues to worsen, public health will, as well. The death rate will rise and we ourselves will be more likely to die earlier. We may be caught in one of the many coming shocks I spoke about earlier. This is life; we just as well could be killed tomorrow in a car crash or die of cancer brought on by the extreme toxicity of our environment, the horrid slop we call food. Death is around us now but as the forms we’re familiar with and have normalized begin to give way more to new forms—failing public health and the occasional dramatic catastrophe, for instance—we may find ourselves forced to confront death in a more direct way than is considered normal.

As such, we need to think about death. We need to better understand it and make our peace with it as much as we can. We need to actually acknowledge it. Therefore, I’ll be writing a series of posts that will recount experiences I’ve had with death. I don’t expect to make too many grand, sweeping statements about those experiences. I imagine I’ll let them more speak for themselves—will simply try to capture some of the emotions and sensations I’ve felt and pass them on to you, for your consideration. I find death somewhat unfathomable and fascinating and frightening. I suspect many have similar feelings about it. But the more we deal with and think about it, the less frightening it becomes and the more it begins to take the shape of something recognizable, of something that is both a necessary and profound part of what it is to be here on this earth.

I, finally, plan to focus more on the Encounters category on this site, which has been neglected up to this point. These posts will deal with encounters with the natural world and its inhabitants. We are a species on this planet, as every other living thing is. We are different, yes, but I don’t believe we are inherently better than other animals or plants, or even the dirt beneath our feet. I also believe we have quite a bit to learn from the other species we share this planet with. We have proved in recent times particularly destructive, particularly hubristic, particularly immature and particularly cruel. As we necessarily transition into a less dominant and more reciprocal relationship with this planet and our local ecosystems, we would do well to observe and learn from the other species around us. They have a lot to teach us, a lot to remind us of, and much joy to impart to us. We would be wise to receive it.

A Plan, Then

In conclusion, there are four main elements of my plan for Of The Hands in the new year.

  • How To Be Poor — This will include a variety of posts, from projects I’ve done that I think are helpful for living in voluntary poverty, to thoughts I have, to posts on certain subjects and themes, to ventings about the trials and tribulations of being poor. This won’t be as structured a category, but there should be much there and I think it will prove helpful for those who are interested.
  • The Household Economy — This will be a series of documentations of my household economic activity. There will also be some theory and philosophy, I imagine, but the focus will be on actual activities that constitute a part of my household economy.
  • Considerations of Death — This will be a series of posts detailing different experiences I’ve had with death, in an effort to better understand and become familiar with it. Most of these will simply be stories rather than long pontifications, but I imagine it will trace my own evolving attitudes and thoughts toward death, as well.
  • Encounters — This will be a documentation of encounters with other species. Much as with Considerations of Death, many of these will simply be small stories or anecdotes, but hopefully they will prove helpful. Where I think I’ve gathered some wisdom from another species, I’ll share it here.

In the coming days, I’ll be doing a bit of redesign of the site’s navigation bar, making these sections easily accessible. These are the main focuses I have for the blog going forward, but I don’t intend them to be the only writings I’ll share. If I ever get my camera working again, I’ll still put up the occasional photo posts and there will be other random thoughts and musings, documentations and stories. In fact, I plan to make one of my next posts a review of some of my reading in 2011.

I also, over the next week or two, will be putting up introductory posts for each of these categories. And, of course, I reserve the right to grow bored with these plans and change the blog’s direction. But for now, I like this path and am excited to delve more deeply into these topics. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me, or at least peer quizzically from the other side of the screen.

Revisiting Old Fermentation Projects   9 comments

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.

The Fermentation Prelude: How to Extract Whey from Raw Milk   6 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

My full whey station set up, spread out on the kitchen table. The glass in front has beer in it. Not sure how that snuck into the picture.

My earliest homesteading activities involved food. I think this is common and appropriate; food is basic and elemental, inspiring and accessible. It makes sense within our culture to homestead via food because food is still so capable of connecting us with the earth on a basic level. Despite the incredible success of the industrial system to take over and pervert food within our society, we still respond to it on a very basic and emotional level. Food triggers memories within us, connects us to friends and families, and reminds us of what it is to be human. Many of us still garden, even if we also eat industrial, processed foods. And many of us still preserve food–sometimes from the bounty of our own gardens and sometimes with produce from the store. Either way, that’s a very basic connection and one that many of us still maintain.

The reason my early homesteading involved food is because one of the main books that inspired my interest in homesteading was Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon–and Nourishing Traditions is a book about food, through and through. It’s an alternative cookbook aligned with the Weston A. Price philosophy of eating and rails mightily against not only the industrial food system, but a good deal of mainstream health and diet beliefs. It deals in traditional foods and contains quite a bit of information and many recipes involving the fermentation of foods, demonstrating various ways of lacto-fermenting vegetables and fruits, championing homemade condiments and sauces that are lacto-fermented, and recommending using lacto-fermentation as a way to help break down grains before eating them.

Nourishing Traditions (and another book, Real Food by Nina Planck) altered much of my thinking about food. One of the manifestations of that new thinking was to start drinking raw milk and, in general, eat more raw dairy products. I tracked down a source of it (not the easiest thing in Oregon, as there are strict laws governing how you can legally obtain raw milk, requiring that you purchase it directly on the farm) and before long I decided to engage in what I consider my first real homesteading activity: obtaining whey from raw milk.

Whey is essentially the liquid aspect of milk. It’s what’s left over when milk is curdled and strained, separating out the proteins from the liquid. When obtained from raw milk, cultured milk, or yogurt, whey contains active cultures and bacteria–it’s a living substance. It is, in fact, an incredible healthy and robust living substance and, as such, it’s the perfect additive to various foods to kickstart the lacto-fermentation process. In lacto-fermentation, these bacteria basically start eating whatever food is immersed in them and then excreting lactic acid as a waste product. That lactic acid, in turn, builds up and ultimately preserves the aforementioned food by creating a brine that is too acidic for putrefying bacteria to live in. In other words, this is how you naturally pickle vegetables. Rather than putting them in a vinegar solution and then boiling them to kill off any bacteria, you use lactic acid-producing bacteria to create a living environment that is inhospitable to putrefying bacteria, thus keeping the food from spoiling as long as it stays in that environment. The benefit of this process is that the food is significantly healthier for you. It’s easier to digest and laden with living cultures that will assist your digestive system.

This process also works without whey, simply by putting whatever you’re attempting to pickle in a salt water brine, which slows down the putrefying bacteria long enough for the natural lactic acid-producing bacteria in the air to get into that brine and do the work described above. Whey just gives this process an incredibly effective head start by putting the bacteria into the brine right from the beginning. It also allows this process to happen in other environments that don’t work with a salt water brine (such as making homemade mayonnaise and then preserving it with a bit of whey so that it will keep for months in your refrigerator rather than just a few days.)

The front jar is milk after it's separated and the back right jar is full of strained whey.

All that being said, today I found myself with somewhere around three gallons of soured raw milk sitting out on the counter. This milk came about a few different ways. Some of it was from a large pail of milk I had inadvertently acquired just before taking a week long trip to Portland and it had soured before I returned home. Some was from a cheese-making experiment that did not quite work out. And some I just didn’t drink before it soured because I hadn’t been in the habit of drinking milk. (I had a couple months there when I wasn’t receiving it.) The beauty of raw milk, though, is that because it’s a living food filled with active bacteria and cultures, it doesn’t actually go bad when it sours. It just changes. It doesn’t taste as good, but it’s perfectly drinkable–if anything, it’s healthier for you. But since I don’t particularly like to drink sour milk, I decided to extract the whey from it instead, with the intention of embarking on future fermentation projects.

The whey being strained through the towel and into the pot. The towel catches most of the milk solids and allows the liquid whey to pass through.

The first step in getting whey from raw milk is to leave the milk out at room temperature for a few days until it separates. I just put it out in whatever jar or container it already was in and tuck it away into some corner, making sure not to completely forget about it. Within one to four days, the separation should have occurred, which you can usually tell happened if you have your milk in a glass jar. As you can see in the picture, the milk will often separate enough so that there is a layer of clear(ish) liquid visible. Sometimes that layer doesn’t appear, though, and so after a few days I’ll open up the jar and stick a spoor or knife down into the milk to see if it has solidified. If it seems to be something of a gelatinous mass throughout, it should be ready. (Note that you can use a plain, live-culture yogurt if you don’t have access to raw milk. You don’t have to put the yogurt out in advance, either. Just use fresh yogurt in place of the raw milk and follow the rest of the instructions as normal.)

The separated milk after being dumped into the strainer lined here with a towel (or you can use cheese cloth.) Not the prettiest, admittedly.

Next, you want to set a wire mesh strainer over a large bowl, then line the strainer with a couple layers of good cheese cloth or a towel. I used cheese cloth the first time I separated whey, but I found it allowed more of the milk protein through than I preferred. I later switched to a thin, organic cotton flour bag towel that drains slower, but otherwise works great.

Once you have your strainer and towel set up, you can dump your jar of curdled milk into the strainer. You should have an initial rush of whey that drains through into the bowl and then you’ll be left with the more solid mass, from which whey will drain for a couple hours if you let it. I typically let it drain for awhile and then later tie the towel’s corners to a wooden spoon so that it forms a small bag hanging from the spoon. You can then hang this over your bowl and let more of the whey drip out for however long you’re willing to wait.

Here I am holding up the cloth bag of separated milk. You can see the whey streaming out into the pot.

Now you’re almost done. Once all or most of the whey has dripped from the bag, you can simply pour the whey into a mason jar and store it in the fridge. The whey should keep for many months, ready to provide an assist any time you need to lacto-ferment something or soak some grains. Or you can just drink the stuff–it’s extremely healthy for you and will give a great boost to your digestive system. As for the leftover curdled milk proteins in your little cloth sack, that’s basically fantastic cream cheese! It’s a little different than what you would buy in the store. It has a sharper taste and isn’t as smooth of a consistency, but I’ve spread it on a bagel and found it to be fantastic. It also is far healthier for you and, like whey, is full of good cultures and bacteria that will give your digestive system a nice charge.

The leftover milk solids (protein and fat.) This is nutritious stuff, but I don't have the desire to deal with it today. So out it goes into the woods, where a whole host of other creatures will enjoy and partake in its nutritious bounty.

Unfortunately, my various milk products that I separated the whey out of today were all pretty well-aged. As such, the milk proteins were funkier than I prefer and I knew that if I kept them and threw them in the fridge, I would never get around to eating them. So I decided to dump it all, which I at first felt guilty about. It seemed like such a waste of some very nutritious food. But, of course, there’s no need to waste that food even if I don’t eat it. I took it out into the woods on our property and found a secluded spot to dump it. While I won’t be eating this good food, it will feed literally millions–if not billions–of other creatures. Tons of microbials will munch on it over the next few days, a variety of bugs and insects will surely get into it, and I imagine a few little critters will have their share, as well. There’s plenty of life on this land–the food won’t go to waste.

After dumping the milk solids, I still had myself quite a bounty: over a gallon of whey. Luckily, it’s the height of summer and there’s plenty of food around that can be fermented. Over the next weeks and months, I plan to make pickles and sauerkraut, to ferment squash, make kimchi and chutneys, to lacto-ferment roasted red peppers (I did this last year and they were amazing), make live culture homemade condiments, probably soak some grains, and more. This is part of the beauty and excitement about extracting whey from raw milk: it’s a prelude to still other projects. It’s a laying of the foundation. It seems, then, appropriate that it was my first real homesteading project. It led me to further projects and set me on a fermenting path I’m still on today.

The project's results: over a gallon of fresh whey from raw milk, ready for use in various fermenting projects.

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