Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Little Jaunt

On Sunday our Living Better With Less group went for a little jaunt to visit a dear friend. Tanya started the group several years ago, but moved recently to a renovator's delight in historic Campbelltown, leaving us to attempt to run the group on our own, which we have managed so far, but without quite the grace and charm and immense knowledge and urban homestead skills that Tanya brought to the table. We missed her, plus our sauerkraut fermenting (last month's project) was going terribly, so we needed her advice and we all wanted to see her gorgeous Georgian cottage.

Tanya is a preserver. She is certainly not going to starve this winter. She took a look at our wonky sauerkraut ferments and gave a diagnosis. Mostly a case of not keeping the cabbage firmly submerged under the brine. When we had exhaustively covered the subject of fermenting she showed us her new toy - a pressure canner imported from the US. I will be watching her blog with interest to see what she whips up in that beast.

 She showed us around the cottage that she and Craig have spent months camping in as they rip up carpet, floorboards and plaster to remove the essence of the thirteen cats that lived here previous to their arrival.

They believe that their cottage may once have been a small inn - Campbelltown was a staging post. It is still the main watering hole on the Hobart road - it is halfway between Hobart and Launceston where everyone stops for coffee. Once it would have been an overnight stay where the horses were changed. And dinner would have been baked in this enormous bread oven, which now opens into Craig and Tanya's living room. I always wondered, as a child, just how Hansel and Gretel got the witch into the oven. All the ovens I had ever seen didn't seem built for any but really tiny witches. And even then you'd have to take the oven trays out first.. Now I know. It was a great big old bread oven, set into the wall at waist height, like this one. It's not clear from the photo, but the oven stretches back for several feet, and is quite wide as well. Perfect for popping witches into.

These original, wonky blackwood stairs lead up to the attic. They are so steep you need to climb down them backwards, and they are hidden behind an old wooden door with an iron latch. Tanya's lucky grandson will be able to sleep in a fairytale attic when he comes to visit.

There is so much yet to be done, but it is wonderful to see an old house lovingly restored. The thick sandstone walls will shelter more generations of Tasmanians and keep an example of fine craftsmanship alive to show us how to build into the future. Imagine a builder today building a house to last for two hundred years..

After a delicious shared lunch (clearly we all thought we needed to feed the five thousand) we toured the garden. And the chickens. Australorps! So very decorative and friendly.

Of course, when you move into a new house it is imperative that you dig up half the lawn to plant vegies.

Winter afternoon sunshine.

OK, so now we all have to go home and redo our sauerkraut. When I say 'we' I mean, that is what everyone else will be doing. I will tell you how far I got with my sauerkraut project from last month. I bought a cabbage. I ended up doing a lot of stir fries and coleslaw. So far this month I have.. bought a cabbage. But I think that shows positive intent, don't you?

We are so lucky to have Tanya, who pursues the Good Life with verve and passion. She soaks up practical knowledge like a sponge, and shares it generously, and this is a model we have taken to heart. All of us in our little group are emboldened by each other to try new things, fail, laugh and have another go. Cindy and Leah are knitting gorgeous socks this winter. Katherine and I have both actually finished afghan blankets, which especially for me is nothing short of a miracle. Kim and Katherine gave me a chicken masterclass as we were carpooling to Campbelltown, and answered all of my dumb chicken questions. We all saved the seeds from the excellent heirloom Hubbard squash that Cindy shared out amongst us last month, which grew prolifically in her garden this year, and next month Kim will show us how to make cheese. We are none of us experts, but all of us have enough knowledge to pass on something that we know to the rest of us. None of us knew how to make sauerkraut last month, but Leah shared her neighbour's kim-chee secrets, and Katherine had been to two fermenting workshops and handed out recipes. Maria, Kim and Cindy had a go, and because they were brave enough to bring their failures to show us, now we know how not to make sauerkraut, which is a pretty useful thing to find out really. I believe I really could even give that a go this month..

This is what our little Living Better group has taught me. Have a go. If it all goes wrong, have a laugh with your friends about it. Then have another go.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Green and Thrifty

It's nearly Spring! Daffodils and fruit blossom.. it is so exciting watching bulbs popping up and flowering in my new garden. Who knows what I will find. I was weeding the other day and unearthed a potato, which we promptly mashed for dinner. Someone dug up a 4kg gold nugget in the Victorian goldfields this week, but honestly, if I could have a 4kg gold nugget, or a garden, I would choose a garden any day.

I am slowly reducing the dirt pile in the backyard as I pile it behind my new retaining wall, and I have begun sheet mulching with all my left-over moving cartons, plus several inches of pea straw. This is the only useful weed deterrent I have found that also uses biodegradable materials. Plastic sheeting works, but who wants to use more plastic? What doesn't work is newspaper. Disregard any gardening book that tells you to sheet mulch with newspaper. Doesn't matter how thick you lay it, the weeds will work their way through. Cardboard, however, two layers thick, is magic.

In other green and thrifty news, one of my neighbours hauled a ute-load of floor board off cuts from a local sawmill and invited everyone in the street to come and take a barrow load for kindling. Perfect kiln-dried Tassie oak kindling? Yes, please.

My next door neighbour brought me a bag of kiwifruit that she grows over her pergola. I love my new neighbours!

I got my first electricity bill for my new house. Lowest bill ever! Powering down appears to be having an excellent payoff:)

I had several evergreen trees cut down which some deluded person had planted in front of my windows. Sunshine in the house! Hooray! Plus, lots of extra firewood for next year.

My very old washing machine finally died. I have a heroic washing machine repairman who has been repairing it for about three years now, but one day it had a giant fit and died, taking the power with it. However, the next day the heroic washing machine repairman brought me a 'new' machine - he reconditions old machines and sells them, so now I have a washing machine that works, and he even took away the old one to see if he could resurrect it. Maybe I can buy it back one day when this one stops working! I love to meet people who are dedicated to re-making and mending.

Speaking of which, I also had my black winter boots mended by the shoe-repairman recently. He has resurrected several pairs of my shoes, put new metal poppers on my winter parka, and next week he is going to fix my purse, whose zipper has come to grief. If green and thrifty is what you are after, finding a good shoe repairman is a must. Mine can also cut keys and sharpen knives, and we buy our shoelaces from him as well.

Tell me about your green and thrifty projects this week:)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Powering Down: How Getting Rid of the TV Brought Our Evenings Back and Changed Our Lives

Like any other family in suburbia and beyond, we had a telly. It seemed to be on incessantly. It drove me insane. When we moved to our new house in April I declared that our new house would be a TV-free zone. I thought it would be the end of the world for my teenage daughters. It turned out to be a non-event. No-one really cares. We have been TV free for three months. The end.

OK, so that's the short version. Seriously, I was prepared for battles royal. What happened though, was that the 16yo said, "Meh," and the 11yo sulked for a week, when she remembered. When we moved into our new house, I put the telly in my wardrobe, to be brought out for movie nights. In three months, it has come out exactly once, to watch a movie when The Girl visited. Posy did request to watch the Olympics, and I was happy to oblige, but then she forgot. We have viewed exactly zero hours of Olympic coverage, which is just fine by me, except that it is my job in the classroom to help the children update the medal tally poster every day. So I do a quick internet search in the morning when I get to school.

So, if the children apparently don't care about watching TV, why was it previously on for so many hours every day? Habit, is the only reason I can think of. And that deadly cycle of 'just watching to the end of this program' - and then being physically unable to turn off the flickering pictures. Also, there was quite a psychological barrier to getting rid of the TV. It has turned into the ersatz hearth, the place where the family gathers for its 'togetherness' times. Maybe, at the back of my mind there was an unacknowledged worry - even though I am a dedicated TV hater, what if it really was the only thing that brought my family together? What if our only shared experience really was watching TV together? Maybe without those feel-good family programs we would all slink off to our rooms and bathe in the glow of our internet-connected devices and never speak to each other?

I must admit, the girls do their fair share of keeping our internet provider in business. But our family life has improved enormously without that annoying TV on. First, the house is blissfully quiet. Well, unless the girls have their loud music on, which they generally do when washing the dishes, so no objections there. We have dinner together at the table every night. No whining about wanting to have dinner in front of the telly, which was once a treat, and then turned into somewhat of a habit at our old place, especially in the winter as the living room contained both TV and heater.

Now we have a dining room with a wood stove, and winter dinners include a candle, and our latest innovation, a read-aloud. Whoever finishes dinner first makes Mummy a cup of tea and reads a few pages, and then we take turns reading for the duration of the cuppa. Then we wash the dishes together. Then it is quiet hour where we do homework (girls), paperwork, answering emails etc (me) at the table. This prevents the girls from running off to their screens in their rooms. Actually, it mostly isn't quiet hour at all. Tonight one child was practising her French homework out loud, and the other one had an assignment on forms of government and seems to need to talk out loud in order to write, while I was trying to balance the budget and was yelling at everyone to be quiet until I had added all these receipts up. It was very loud mayhem, and when Posy asked the question, "How would you describe anarchy?", I had an excellent answer.

Maybe once a week or so I am persuaded to play a board game, and other times we all sit around in the warm and just read. Again, the quiet is like a divine gift. There are no voices blaring at me to buy things. No daleks or better home gurus or celebrity chefs. Just the fire crackling. Well, to be completely honest there is often a lot of sibling squabbling going on, or crazed laughter for no clear reason. But they shush eventually. And the girls have become readers. They read before, but not in any kind of sustained fashion. Now they can get through a novel in a few days, because they have time. You can see them losing themselves in another world. Often they just tuck themselves into bed with the dog and a book.

With no TV we also get to bed earlier. Reading in bed, even for a die-hard reader like me, is a very soporific exercise. Quiet, low light, warmth, the requirement for concentration, all conspire to send us off to sleep in no time. Posy has started to sleep better now she doesn't spend her pre-sleeping time in front of a screen.

So, no down side at all to the decision to get rid of the telly. So why did we spend so many years with our evenings ruled by a box of flickering images? Well, here's a reason - if you don't want to examine your life closely, spending a lot of time in front of the telly is a marvellous distraction. Sitting in front of a fire though - all the cosmic questions of life, the universe and everything present themselves. This can be quite uncomfortable, so TV may be preferable if this concerns you. It is also a matter of social conditioning. Watching TV is what everyone does. Or if not actually watching TV, watching your shows on the internet. It is startling to discover how much conversation in the staffroom concerns what was on telly last night. Really? Not only are we going to watch other people having a life instead of making our own lives, we are going to talk about those imaginary lives instead of our own? That seems like not such a sensible use of the heartbreakingly short number of moments we have left to enjoy our amazing planet before we have to leave it..

Here is a little thought to leave you with. In the last few months I have begun experimenting in the tiniest ways with living a slightly different life. Not a very different life. I have chosen a few of the machines that do some of our jobs for us - dry our clothes, wash our dishes, entertain us - and stopped using them. I wanted to find out if I could live comfortably without them. I wanted to make an infinitesimal dent in the obscene mountain of stuff that clogs our modern world. What I have discovered is something far more complex - turning off machines has profound implications for the way we live. We now have to do more forward planning (no dryer), we work together as a family (no dishwasher), we spend significant time together as a family, eating together and sleeping better (no TV).

All of this is good and makes us happier. But that is not supposed to happen. Surely machines make our lives better? Isn't that the story we have been told all our lives? Maybe what has really happened is that we have been socially conditioned to think that we need machines. We work extra long hours and go into debt in order to buy them. We live our lives in such a way that we think the machines are working for us, but in truth, we are changing the perfectly natural and human-centred way that we once lived, and have begun to adapt ourselves, voluntarily, unnoticed, to living in a way that serves the machines..

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Powering Down: Washing the Dishes by Hand

A little confession - of all the appliances I have ditched recently, the dishwasher is the one that I actually miss. Not only did it quietly get on with washing my dishes, it was also great for hiding the dirty ones from view until dishwashing time. However, that little wistful note aside, there have been positive outcomes from returning to dishwashing by hand.

First, ALL the dishes get done. So many times in the past I have packed the dishwasher, and decided that my work in the kitchen was done, and all those extra pots and pans and delicates just loitered about, waiting for some moment of dishwashing inspiration to hit me.. it was like having to do the dishes twice, which seemed excessive.

Second, hand washing is gentle. It doesn't produce cloudy glasses, with tiny abrasions all over them. There are so many items that can't go in the dishwasher - wooden utensils, old china, anything with gold edging on it, really large things, sharp knives, thin plastic.. but it can all go into the sink. Granted, the crockery isn't boiled and sanitised by handwashing - in fact, if you look at my washing-up water at the end of a load of dishes sometimes, you might wonder if there is any cleaning power in it at all... but excessive cleanliness has been blamed for all sorts of evils, from proliferating allergies, to asthma, to gut flora issues. So I am expecting that this innovation will cause us to be radiating good health any day now..

Hand washing also saves energy and water. You don't need much water to wash dishes. I start with an inch in the sink and wash and rinse all the glasses and mugs under the tap which tops up the level a little. Nothing else gets rinsed. I don't use our second rinsing sink for rinsing - that is where the drainer sits for drip drying the dishes. Sometimes I am forced to refill the sink for all the dirty things - but I wash them first in the dirty water, so that they are reasonably clean when I wash them properly in the clean water. Then I use that water to wipe down the stove top and benches. Also, the washing up gets done with a bulk eco-detergent from the wholefoods shop, which I am sure is much better for us than whatever is in the dishwasher powder. I am pretty sure we could eat the dishwashing liquid, whereas a substance that causes pitting on glassware? Doesn't sound all that healthy.

My next hand-wash-the-dishes positive is its social aspect. After dinner the girls and I all wash and dry the dishes together. Not always happily, mind you. But there we are, all in the same space, talking, arguing, complaining, singing stupid songs, telling each other to stop singing stupid songs.. Unpacking and packing the dishwasher is generally a solitary pursuit. Someone can do one of those jobs now, and someone else can do the other half an hour later. But the dishes have to be done together or you run out of room in the dish drainer. Although in our house the dryer has been known to slink off at the moment she judges that the rest of the dishes will fit in the drainer and 'drip-dry'. Or as my mother says, "We can let God dry the rest." If only God had known, when he created human beings, that not only would he be blamed for everything, but he would also have to dry the dishes..

The beginning of our hand-washing-the-dishes experiment was when my parents came to live with us last year while they were house hunting. It might seem like a bad idea to plan to start washing up by hand just when family numbers increased to six, but my parents have never owned a dishwasher, and have had a dish washing routine for decades. So we followed their lead, the children complaining bitterly all the while about the perfectly good dishwasher sitting in the corner of the kitchen. I was careful not to buy any more dishwasher powder, to avoid temptation. My original plan was to take out the dishwasher and have extra cupboard space, but then we moved into a house with no dishwasher, so that decision was made for us.

We do a lot of dishes. We make almost all our food and that creates a lot of dishes. We are getting a little more efficient. We each have a glass and a mug that lasts all day, and I am about to put my foot down about the blender. The girls make smoothies with berries and yoghurt and coconut cream, and sometimes they make healthy green sludge. This is all no doubt very good for them, but means washing the blender twice a day sometimes. New rule - you use the blender, you wash the blender and pop it in the drainer for good old God to dry.

Of course, the big reason I stopped using the dishwasher and don't plan to use one again, is for social justice and ecological reasons. We, the middle class in developed nations, are actually the one percent. We live in luxury that we consider normal because our neighbours live in luxury too. There are seven billion people in our world, and if they all demanded dishwashers we would wreck the planet before you can say, 'But dishwashers save water!' Now, I say this as a person who still owns a washing machine, a fridge and a car, and the same arguments can be made for them. But washing the dishes by hand is easy, and I am going for the low-hanging fruits of energy and resource consumption first! What if I can reduce my reliance on unnecessary gadgets by half, or even more, without significantly reducing the quality of my life? What if I discover the quality of my life actually increases without all those gadgets? What if we could all do that? What if all those people who currently have boring, life-sapping jobs in a dishwasher factory could become artisanal cheesemakers instead? Because I would much rather spend my hard-earned cash on nice cheese than dishwasher tablets!

Next: Why life is so much better now that I have thrown out the telly..

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Progress of a Wall

First came the posts, one of which is slightly more wonky than the others. Then the seemingly endless task of creating a flat and level surface for the first horizontal row of sleepers. Then the serendipitous visit of The Boy for a weekend, who helped with the next two rows. Luckily, because each sleeper weighs 50kg (110lbs). Actually, when I say 'helped', I really mean, 'he did it all while I handed him the screws'. But apparently he was having fun.

My lovely neighbour offered to cut of the upright posts with his chainsaw, but then he did his knee in. However, when some nice young men arrived to cut down some trees for me, I asked them very politely if they would mind levelling the posts for me, while they were brandishing chainsaws and all. They kindly lopped them off, the job taking all of two minutes.

Today I lugged 200kg (440lbs) of gravel down the hill from the back of my car. See, this is why I go to the gym - so I can build a vegie garden. The gravel goes under and over the ag pipe to provide drainage so that the retaining wall won't slide down the hill in a flood. I am happy to report that I managed to buy all of these supplies from a local landscaping firm.

Now to back-fill with dirt. Luckily there is a large pile of it in the middle of the garden, possibly pertaining to some renovations undertaken by the previous owners. The big problem for building at our place is access. No driveway. So I can completely understand why they deposited this dirt in situ. I hope there is enough, because honestly, I am not sure how I am going to fill it up otherwise..

One of the joys of digging in the dirt at an old house is finding what others have left behind. I treasure every piece of old crockery I dig out of my gardens. My old garden (circa 1930) provided a few pieces, but this garden (circa 1860) clearly belonged to several generations of housekeepers who were very careless with their crockery.

This was my reward for today's digging efforts. It's like a lucky dip, turning up a spadeful of dirt then spying something white - is it a rock? A root? Or part of someone's treasured dinner set?

And clearly, future generations will be just as lucky, as I faithfully promise to bury all the shards of my op-shop derived blue and white crockery collection in the garden as and when it shatters, because all good things come to an end. Luckily, op-shops seem to have an endless supply of blue-and-white china.

Sunny winter's afternoon in the garden? Yes, please.. Me and the cat and some gravel and some dirt, and visions of a glorious, technicolour edible garden come Spring. Maybe Spring of 2020 at the rate we are going, but we will get there, the cat and I..

Monday, August 1, 2016

Powering Down: Wood Heater vs Microwave

Fire is nature's microwave. Steven Universe

Who remembers life pre-1980 when everyone washed their dishes by hand and heated food in a saucepan? As far as I remember, nobody died of it. The first time I remember a microwave was circa 1985 when my boyfriend's mother bought one and cooked every last thing in it, because she was so excited by her new gadget. It was awful. She even made cups of tea in it.

I left my combination convection oven/microwave in the old house because it was built-in above the oven. I didn't buy a new one, because buying new gadgets is not part of my powering down plan. Also, I decided I valued my limited bench space. Also, it seems silly to buy all that technology just to melt butter and reheat soup, which is mostly what we used the microwave for. Oh, and the girls made porridge and cake-in-a-mug in it, both of which are travesties of real food, in my opinion.

Now we heat up food in a saucepan on the wood heater which so far has been alight all winter long. It is great for melting butter and keeping a stack of pancakes warm. It cooks the soup and reheats it later.

The only downside is I end up washing a lot of saucepans, and I would like a couple of very small saucepans to reheat one serving of soup. Fellow Tasmanians, did you know you can buy Tasmanian-made copper saucepans?? Be still my beating heart. I want the tiny milk pan, or maybe the sugar melter. I am saving up. While I love thrifty and second-hand, I also love hand-made, expensive, last-forever-beautiful.

Of course, microwaves are a very power-efficient option if you don't have an oven. The Girl has a microwave and a hot-plate as her only food-heating options in the small cupboard she calls home as a student in a big city. I would find a way to cook with a microwave and like it if that was all I had. Or maybe I would become a raw-foodist.

But I love my wood heater:) And when I use it to cook food, it is doubly fine, due to its multitasking wonderfulness. In the summer I may need to resort to the stovetop for reheating purposes. It will be useful, but lacks the romance..

Would you buy a microwave again? Does anyone out there dabble in other low-energy cooking options? I want to try a sun-oven, thermal cooker or hay box one day. Has anyone given these a go?