Sunday, May 7, 2017

Foraging, or How to Not Shop for Food

It has been a week of free food here at Chez Blueday. First, there was a frost, so I picked the last of the capsicum crop. Then, walnuts. There is a walnut tree on the verge at the end of my street. I have kept my beady eyes on this all autumn, and over a couple of weeks I have brought home walnuts in my pockets or shopping bags every time I have been out. I think I have them all now. It is only a small tree.. maybe I will surreptitiously ply it with compost to help it grow..

My mum and I went to City Park to see the baby monkeys. Launceston is in every way a Victorian relic - it even has wild animals in an enclosure in its City Park. After inspecting the tiny new baby monkeys clinging upside down to their mamas' bellies, I dragged my mum to the other end of the park to forage for feijoas under the big old feijoa tree there. I salute the city gardeners who planted a food tree in the park many years ago. I visit it every year for feijoas to dry and add to my morning muesli.

I wanted to make salsa with my capsicums, but didn't have enough tomatoes left, or so I thought - I asked for sauce tomatoes at all the local grocers, and was told I was too late. Oh no, what to do? Well, I went out to the garden and gleaned. It is amazing what you can find if you are desperate (desperate not to pay $8kg for tomatoes for salsa, that is) and I found sixteen cups of tomatoes still on the bushes, enough for two batches of salsa. Happy days.

My friend Katherine came and brought me zucchinis, more tomatoes, some chillies and some adorable little bantam eggs. Friends with gardens :) She was here for a purpose - we were going to help another friend put up a marquee for Agfest, which is, unsurprisingly, a local festival of all things agricultural. Then we were going to visit a wonderful food garden at a drug and alcohol rehab centre. More of that in a later post, but first - we needed to do a spot of foraging.

Katherine makes old-fashioned rosehip syrup for her family to give them a shot of Vitamin C and keep winter ills away. She had spied roadside hips, so of course we stopped to pick. Luckily I always have bags in the back of the car. The roadsides of Tasmania are rich in the old fashioned dog roses that make such wonderfully flavoured red hips. Fortuitously we also found a patch of sloe bushes, and picked some of those too, to make sloe gin. Or maybe I could use Katherine's recipe for Sloe and Cider Liquer. I couldn't find a recipe for that on-line, but I did discover another wonderfully alcoholic recipe for the left-over infused sloes after you strain them out of your gin - sliders. All of these sloe recipes take a year to mature, so I will be doing a review in autumn of 2018, just after picking next year's batch of sloes.

We had such a fun day of foraging. I wish you could have seen us - we were still wearing our neon high vis vests from putting up the marquee that morning, and I am sure we looked pretty silly, but hey, we didn't get run over, and we had a blast. We also found a roadside wild apple tree that we picked some apples from - not very many sadly, as we hadn't brought a ladder.. maybe next year..

But that's ok because this box of apples came from my friend's mother-in-law's next door neighbour's apple tree in Hobart. Did you get that relationship? Six degrees.. These things turn up at my house because I am careful to say yes to all offers of food, no matter how odd, inconvenient or arcane. I figure I can always find something to do with it later. And I always do. So far some of the apples have been stewed, but most have gone into the dehydrator. Some people dip their apple slices into lemon juice and spices before they dehydrate them, but I just slice them and whack them in. Sometimes they go a bit brown, but no-one here cares, we just gobble them up regardless. Apple chips. Yum.

And finally, the potatoes. I planted one bag of seed potatoes in spring. We have been eating them since January. I haven't bought any potatoes in four months, and this week I decided it was time to lift all the leftovers, because I want to do some winter planting in their bed. 14.6kg (that's 32lbs) of potatoes I dug up. That will last us at least another month. That's five months of potatoes for a $5 bag of seed potatoes. Now that is what I call a win. The vegetable kingdom just never ceases to astound me with its generosity. It is the original gift that keeps on giving. Along with bunnies and guinea pigs.

So tomorrow's list. Dry more apples. Dry feijoas. Make rosehip syrup. Buy gin. Ah, it's the forager's life for me..

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Food Isn't Always About Eating

                  Food Gardens in the Central Highlands of New Guinea     Image credit

Meh, food. I have been known to wish for human kibble, and sometimes eye the 20kg sack of dog food in the porch with a view to its nutritious qualities. Surely the children wouldn't mind finding a tub of that in their lunch boxes? I have a tricky relationship with food. My mother isn't known for her enthusiasm for cooking. Her favourite kind of soup comes in a can. My father can make toast. Once when I was very young and Mum was sick and safely confined to bed he decided to find out how many times he could put the toast back into the toaster to toast it some more. He only stopped when he set the toaster on fire. This is my culinary heritage. But my mum is a trooper. Even though she regards the act of cooking with fear and loathing, she has put a meal on the table three times a day every day of her adult life. I think that deserves a medal, right there. Despite my parents' non-interest in food, cooking or growing it, I grew up in the midst of a permaculture paradise. The highlands of New Guinea are the world's oldest continuously worked gardens, having been cultivated for around eight thousand years. In the 1920s when the first European explorers struggled over the mountains that ring the Wahgi Valley in the centre of Papua New Guinea they were astounded to look down into a valley that resembled the countryside of medieval England, with its squares of gardens edged with hedges and trees and little thatched villages. Fifty or so years later I lived in a small town there in the Highlands with my parents. Our houses were surrounded by gardens and fruit trees and my favourite place to play was inside the hibiscus hedge that surrounded the huge vegie garden in our back yard which was grown by the young local men who worked for my parents' missionary organisation. When I wasn't in the hedge I was climbing trees to eat guavas or stuffing myself with slightly unripe Cape gooseberries. Later we lived down on the tropical coast and Mum cut down bunches of bananas with a machete and stored them in the outside laundry until they were ripe. So although my parents weren't much into food, I grew up knowing that food comes out of the earth and drops down from trees. Much later, as a teenager, I lived in an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory, where again, for tens of thousands of years a small population lived off the land and changed the environment to do that without breaking it. Extraordinary. We didn't do that of course. We went to the supermarket.

Much later again, as a young mum I moved into an old cottage with a big yard full of fruit trees. Peaches and oranges rained down, and I felt that this was how things should be, but I had absolutely no skills or knowledge to do anything with them. It was there that I first attempted to make jam, which turned out to be syrup. I didn't know what to do with that either, so I gave it away, then heard with grateful surprise that my friends loved it and poured it on their porridge in the morning. That was when I learned that almost everything you make is generally edible, but sometimes you have to relabel it. At this stage of my life I was just learning about cooking with actual, real food, instead of eating from jars and packets at the supermarket. It has been a long and interesting journey. Slowly I have learned that the food that drops off trees and springs out of the ground can be the staple part of your diet, and not just an occasional snack. That supermarkets are not really about providing us with the staff of life, so much as providing shareholders with dividends.

Food isn't always about eating. Sometimes it is about making unimaginably large amounts of money for people somewhere far away, who frankly, don't really need it. Ten multinational food corporations own most of the companies which make most of the food in the supermarkets. It is a racket. Most food in packets is made from corn, rice, wheat, soy and sugar. Most of this food contributes in various ways to making us very unwell. On top of this iniquitous peddling of nastiness, all the food in the packets relies heavily on oil - to grow the food, to process it in factories, to make its plastic packets, to transport it the average 1500 miles (2414 km) it takes to get to our plates. Then we have to drive to the supermarket, trudge around a giant ghastly architectural eyesore which is a blight on our urban landscape, shuffling behind a wonky trolley full of nasty food, and then we have to dispose of all the horrible plastic that this food leaves behind it in a trail of unsightliness.

Why do we do it? Because it is the easiest way to get food in a suburb. In Australia the two giant corporations that control 80% of our retail experience have made sure that there is a supermarket in every shopping centre near you. And me. And it's just part of our modern lifestyle.

But that is a very tedious and boring reason to do anything. There are much more fun and exciting ways to acquire food. Even if you don't live in the cradle of the world's oldest agriculture. Even in the suburbs. For instance, one of the verge trees at the end of my street is a small walnut tree. I have been keeping my beady eye on it, and now that the walnuts are dropping I come home with a heap in my pockets every time I walk the dog. Yesterday I went walking with a friend and we discovered a patch of blackberries that need a couple of weeks of sunshine to be perfect for picking. I say yes every time someone offers me food. This week I came home from Easter lunch with a bag of home-grown grapes, and a bag of feijoas that I foraged from under my friend Sandra's feijoa tree while everyone else was hunting for Easter eggs. I dried all that fruit to add to my muesli. Then my neighbour up the street gave me some kangaroo meat and some venison from his freezer that he had accidentally thawed thinking it was something else, so he gave it to me for the dog. This week Benson-the-carnivorous-puppy has been eating like a king. Because I had a long conversation with my elderly neighbour about the iniquity of waste, which both he and I disapprove of, he is now intending to send along all the leftovers from the deer and kangaroo carcasses that his mate the hunter brings him.. Benson will be eating well. Sometimes it is just being in the right place at the right time and saying yes. Another friend emailed the other day to ask whether I wanted some pork mince for $5kg because her farmer friends were killing their pigs, which have spent the last weeks of their lives snacking on acorns and strawberries. Oh, yes please. Mind you, I cultivate the right kind of friends..

And this is just the tip of the iceberg of finding sources of local food. This is without really paying that much attention. If I seriously applied myself, I am sure I could feed us all completely from local sources without spending too much. That is the kicker, isn't it? I could feed myself at enormous expense on local gourmet delicacies, because Tasmania is a foodie paradise, but I'm not about to do that, because I can't. But anyone can pick up walnuts from the side of the road..

And there is my garden. I love my garden, and like every gardener ever I am always saying, "Next year, I can grow even more food." And every year I do, but I am nowhere near the limit of the amount of food that an average backyard can produce yet. This week we are eating potatoes, tomatoes, silverbeet, rhubarb, capsicums and lemons from the garden, plus assorted herbs, and the last of the summer's garlic that I grew in pots. I still haven't managed to get a continuous supply of lettuce going, but I should be able to, because there is no month in Tasmania where it is impossible to grow lettuce in the open. It requires regular resowing though, which is my nemesis.

Do you know what I find hardest about eating from the garden? It's eating from the garden. Using what is right out there in the backyard for weeks on end - right now it is a potato glut - and then suddenly there won't be any more for the next nine months. It means having a hundred recipes for everything that is in season, actually cooking it, and not leaving it until next week when it will have gone off, or finding a way to preserve it. This requires a lot more organisational capacity than I actually possess, but I am working on it. At least if food goes to waste in the garden it goes straight into the compost to to be made back into food again, but I do get very cross with myself when I fail to take advantage of nature's mad bounty.

There are lots of ways to eat well and local even if you don't have a garden. There are farmers' markets. These can be expensive, but a lot less so if you stick to buying fruit and veg and stay away from all the lovely cheese and meat and artisan breads that are there to tempt us all away from the straight and narrow. There are fruit and veg boxes from local farms. There is foraging and eating weeds. This year I have started adding weeds to my salads. There are about half a dozen that I use now, and they are everywhere! There is making friends with farmers and food growers, and saying yes! whenever anything is available, and going to help them and buying food from them whenever possible. I buy my eggs from a work colleague who has chickens for much less than buying free range eggs at the shops. Hunting out local and affordable sources of food can be fun. I mean, who knew that I know someone who knows someone with pigs, or who hunts deer? Networking isn't just for people in suits. I also keep my eyes peeled when walking the dog or visiting friends. That's how I found the walnut tree. There are edible trees all over the place when you look out for them. Also, weird bits of them are unexpectedly edible. This week I discovered that new birch leaves are edible and you can add them to spring salads. Amazing!

And why is all this so important, you might ask. Well, of course you know. Less oil, less energy, less plastic, more food security. All that. But for me, what is also important is more life. We have given huge corporations power over the most central need of life. Our food. It is what keeps us alive. I don't know how much life we are getting from those plastic packets though. Even in the highlands of New Guinea there are supermarkets. You can buy frozen peas and beans in cans in a big warehouse there just as easily as you can in my local suburb. But if you want some real fun, go to a market and buy beans from the person who grew them, just like people have done for thousands of years. You may meet your friends and have a good gossip and get out in the fresh air, and make your local community more fun. Or you can have even more fun and plant some baby pea seeds and watch them pop out of the ground and wave their tiny baby tendrils around, and give them some sticks to grow up. Or watch bean vines twirl around their bean poles and wait for the world's most miniature beans to start peeking out of the bean flowers at midsummer.

What I discovered from my childhood of watching gardens grow, and trees drop food and pigs and chickens running around all over the place is that food is everywhere and is also pretty much a crazy carnival. What makes supermarket grocery shopping disappointing is that it is in no way a crazy carnival. It is dreary, because it is about money. Large corporations making money so that I can eat is just not fun at all.

My relationship with food is still tricky. I am not a natural born cook. I would honestly rather read a book than make soup. But I would rather make soup than eat soup out of a can. Because when you make soup out of vegies you grew in the garden or bought at the markets, or received in a bag over the fence from your neighbour, well, that soup is pretty special. It tastes good, and it is made out of community and life and fun, and not out of money. And now I am learning to make my own dog food so I won't have to buy giant bags of it from the supermarket. My children are probably slightly relieved about that..

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Requiem for a Good Cat

Milo the tiger striped tabby cat died last night. On Thursday he wasn't eating, and he stopped purring. Milo always, always purrs. Like a freight train. I got Posy to google 'My cat stopped purring.' Guess what, it means your cat isn't well. On Friday morning he still wasn't eating. I left for work and he was snuggled in his basket. I left the window open so he could go outside. That afternoon I was planning to call the vet. We didn't see him again. He didn't come home on Friday night. I called and called, but no little cat came meowing up the steps out of the dark for his dinner. Today at lunchtime my neighbour came over to tell me that they found Milo dead in their yard. I went over and there he was, all peaceful like he had just gone to sleep. He loves our neighbours and they love him. He adopted them as his other family, and I am glad he went over there to say goodbye.

Dear wee Milo. He came to us from the RSPCA as a tiny kitten, with his buddy Polly. A dairy farmer had brought him in - he had found the tiny kitten wandering across a paddock, with no other cats in sight. Milo was an adventurer from the first. He ranged far and wide from home. When we got a dog he was so annoyed he ran away for four days. The girls and I walked the streets, shaking his food and calling. On the fourth morning after he left I met some neighbours out walking, and as I told them how worried I was, Milo popped his head out of the ten foot high yew hedge above us and meowed that it was about time that I turned up with food.

He was not impressed about that dog though, and they had quite a number of seriously impressive fights, and the dog always came off worse for wear. One memorable chase around and around the Christmas tree ended with Benson the dog wound up in the Christmas lights while Milo escaped to safety and sniggered. Another time Milo left a claw in the dog's ear, with the dog looking like a rakish pirate with a cat-claw earring.

When we moved to our new house we had to keep the cats inside at night to stop Milo trekking back to our old house, which he did several times. Polly and Milo have slept on my bed ever since. Polly chooses all sorts of places to sleep - under the bed, on the ottoman, on any pile of clothes on the floor, on my feet - but Milo always slept in the crook behind my knees, purring away like a little engine. Last night when Milo didn't come home Polly jumped up on the bed and curled up behind my knees. Clearly she has taken over his role of comfort cat.

This evening the girls and I buried Milo in his ratty old basket that he liked to use to practise his scratching, when he wasn't sleeping in it on his blue blanky. We covered him with a blanket of flowers from the garden and Polly came to sniff her goodbyes. Milo was a good cat. He was a joyful adventurer and a happy soul. He loved sunshine and climbing trees and visiting the neighbours.

I will miss him helping me with the gardening. I will miss him gently patting me with his paws to wake me up in the morning. I am so sad that he won't feel the sun on his back and live his life under the blue sky any more. Life is so fleeting and precious. We come from the dark, and who knows where we go? Maybe he will come and visit me in the garden and in my dreams. Maybe he will remind me that what is important is the sun on your back and loving your neighbours.

Goodbye, beautiful boy. Sweet dreams.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A World Without Money?

Recently I have been thinking about the Gift Economy. It is one of those ideas that seems completely daft, but it simmers away in the back of your mind until it becomes normalised, then suddenly it starts to make sense. The Gift Economy is a way to live interdependantly within a community by sharing what you have and what you make with others without money being exchanged. If they do the same with you, theoretically we could all live without money. Our tribal forebears did it. People around the world experiment with it, but mostly don't live entirely in the gift economy, because in our society that would be very, very difficult. But taking an idea to its extreme is always exciting, so let's do it. Let's ban money and see what happens. Let's do it tomorrow.

Imagine that for a minute. It is such a fascinating thought experiment. Tomorrow we wake up and money has been abolished. Outright barter is also banned, due to it being a money-like contract. How would we live our day tomorrow without money? Would you go to work? Would you stay home and watch the telly or play on the internet instead? Oh, whoops, the people who run the TV station, keep the internet servers running and fire up the coal power stations also decided to stay home from work. The garbage collectors are really, really happy not to have to get up at four in the morning, so they won't be round to pick up the bins. Oh, oh. No electricity. No internet. No garbage collection. The whole fabric of society is falling apart! Aargh! What to do?

But wait. Some things are continuing without cease. Children are still being cared for. Animals are still being fed. Neighbours are sharing food, gardens are being tended. There are people playing musical instruments. Of course, there are other people looting and causing mayhem. Loose coalitions of neighbours and friends get together to work out a plan of defence. Ex-army and police officers who decided they weren't going into work if they weren't going to be paid are more than happy to volunteer to defend their families and neighbours, and train others to do the same.

Within a few days people are working out what kind of tasks they willing to do without money being exchanged, and for whom. People will generally be responsible for their own shit. And for their kids' shit. That is about the extent of their willingness to be responsible for that unpleasant task. Disseminating information is a much more rewarding task though, so many knowledgeable people are happy to write up posters detailing how to make composting toilets and how to safely dispose of humanure. An artist offers her hand-cranked linotype printer because this is an important community service. Posters go up all over town. It turns out that many farmers love their land and love to farm. Most of them have had extra off-farm jobs for years to support their addictive but unprofitable farm habit, and many people offer to join them, as food is a very motivating factor for, let's see, everyone. Private land-ownership also being abolished, owner-built houses pop up all over the place, especially on large tracts of farmland. Little villages begin to form.

No-one, it appears, wants to work in a factory producing endless consumer goods for no monetary reward. But plenty of craftspeople continue filling their days making all sorts of beautiful and useful objects from anything they can find, and have plenty of apprentices eager to learn their skills. Big hospitals don't work any more because all the service personnel discovered that they no longer wanted to mop floors or wipe up other people's bodily fluids. Plus, there is no electricity grid any more. The doctors and medical personnel are still mostly passionately devoted to making people well. They just do it on a much more local scale, and many of them also train up bright young offsiders. Doctors are very much valued, and fed and sheltered by the community they work for. Engineers and scientists never stop being fascinated by problems that need to be solved. They get together and tinker away in sheds between hauling their own shit and working in the garden. They find ingenious solutions for the many problems of this new society. I am imagining there would be many people volunteering to put some community hours in on learning how to manufacture anaesthetics and insulin under the tutelage of an enthusiastic chemist, and to get some local forms of electricity working again..

Gardens and small holdings are everywhere, in all the green spaces, and built over much of the road space in cities, because of course there are no cars or oil refineries any more. If you have to garden to eat, you learn to garden. And hunt. And look after animals. There are so many people whose jobs are completely redundant in this new world with no money. I bet you can think of twenty job titles without even trying, which wouldn't exist in this new society. All those people will need to learn to feed themselves and those they love. Maybe they will fall in love with plants and animals and teach their kids and other people's kids how to garden. Many of them will feed far more people than just their own families, and will enjoy being useful members of their small communities.

Here is where my thought experiment has led me so far - if there was no money in our world, and if we depended on ourselves and each other for everything we needed to live, very little of our modern society would survive. This means that almost all of the things we think are indispensable to us - sanitation, electricity, the internet, modern medicine, education, transport, all the things - are only produced reluctantly by an unhappy workforce which has to be coerced to produce them.

Our society denies us food and shelter unless we participate in its programme. If we agree to do unpleasant things like like haul garbage, mop floors or work in factories, then we get to eat and have a place to live. More or less. Other people get to do much less useful things, like moving pieces of paper around in an office, and bothering other people a lot. They get to swap that labour for a much nicer place to live and better food. But it is all the same programme. And we acquiesce in it everyday. We expect others to look after our shit, to feed us, to clean up after us, to move pieces of paper around for us and tell us what to do. Not because they value us as people and want to be part of an interdependent community with us, but because they have to, to live. We have to, to live.

There is actually enough food in the world for everyone. There is enough spare stuff lying around that everyone could build a shelter and be clothed.  There are creative people everywhere who can invent stuff and make stuff and make our hearts soar with their stories and songs. Our access to what we need is artificially restricted by society so that some people can have more than others. This seems clinically insane to me, but all the same, I am one of those who benefit from the unpleasant work of other people. In my imaginary thought experiment I would not be tapping out words on a computer right now. I would be working in the garden and making sauerkraut and in this season eating more zucchinis and less chocolate chips. Well, no chocolate chips actually. I can understand why people like me choose not to tear down the fabric of society and institute a fairer order, because that new order would cause everyone like me to do an awful lot more gardening. We would return to an age more like our tribal ancestors, who all lived in the Gift Economy. Everything they did was for the good of their family and neighbours. Mind you, it wouldn't be all hard graft. Hunter and gatherer cultures like the Australian aboriginal people had a two and a half day work week. And we think we are the 'civilised' ones. Ha.

And obviously, if the money economy collapsed tomorrow an awful lot of people would die before society reorganised itself into loose little tribal coalitions of people who were willing to contribute all they worked for to the common weal. And learnt how to feed themselves. So maybe when I am benevolent dictator of the world I won't banish money quite overnight. But don't get me wrong, I will insist on it happening..

In the meantime I am experimenting with the gift economy in my own life, and so are many, many other people, without even realising it. We share our home grown vegies with neighbours, we babysit each other's kids, we dog-sit their puppies when they go away for the weekend, we bake cakes for the school fair and join community gardens and volunteer to clean up our community or feed those who cannot feed themselves. We make things and mend things and play music round the campfire and have pot luck dinners. Every time we do anything for someone out of a sense of love or kindness and fairness instead of for money, then we are continuing the human-long tradition of connection through care. It is worth doing, because we are better than money..

Thursday, March 16, 2017

I Stop Cleaning the House

I stopped cleaning the house! I thought you would be pleased to hear this, as yes, it does mean I am writing. I thought that I might be going to write magazine articles but it turns out I am writing a novel. It is a pretty terrible novel, but it might get better. I started it once, but it wasn't right at all, so now I have started it again from a completely different point of view and it is much better. I am writing every day, but I stare out the window more than write, and sometimes I only manage a paragraph a day. I feel like I should maybe just write and come back and make it perfect later, but it really is difficult not to perfect it now. Although it is going to take some time if I can only manage a paragraph a day. For the first few days I managed to sabotage myself beautifully by doing the housework and gardening every day before I sat down to write. Then I had a four day weekend with the girls because private school reasons, then I had one day to write before going back to work, and I wrote for a day and fit in all the housework and errands after my writing work day like people with jobs have to do anyway. For a single day now I have treated writing like a real job, and it felt good. Now I have to make it pay like a real job. Today as I was chasing a four year old kindergarten escapee up the street in the rain I was thinking that writing as a job sounded pretty good really.. drier anyway..

We are dog-sitting our neighbour's beautiful cocker spaniel puppy. Beautiful, but just as brain-dead as our own beloved hound. Every time I sweep the floor she comes to investigate and sweeps her long black ears through the pile of dirt. She has long elegant black ears permanently edged with a fringe of grey fluff. Today she ate my gardening shoes, which clearly tired her out.

I made salsa! Out of chilies and green capsicums and tomatoes that I grew myself! I made passata! Now I just have to find something to do with approximately seventy five zucchinis.. this time of year the garden often makes me panic, but then I realise that I don't have to do it all myself - the world is full of hungry people to share with. And only some of them have gardens full of zucchini. So the rest will be pleased to see a zucchini (or two) coming up the garden path.. won't they?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

First Whisperings of Autumn

Herb, squash and potato jungle

It is the first week of Autumn here in the southern hemisphere. We had a mini heatwave, but now the crisp mornings and deep clear blue skies of autumn are here. The garden has turned into a feral jungle, due to me ignoring it completely all summer except to water. I am nothing if not an inconsistent gardener. However, it is a gloriously productive feral jungle, with food bursting out all over the place. The first whisperings of autumn always call me back to the garden, as I suddenly wake up from my summer haze and think, "Oh, my goodness, what has been going on here? Order! I must have order! And a plan." And probably the garden is laughing at me, because I believe I am in charge of the garden..

Rocket, chard and chilli jungle

Feral tomatoes

Garden mystery. Is it a cape gooseberry or a ground cherry? It popped up out of nowhere.

This morning I imposed a patch of order on the chaos. The garden is still laughing at me..

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Keeping My Cards Close to My Chest

I am a person who always likes to keep something in reserve. I like to listen more than I like to talk. I come from a long line of introverts, all of whom tend to keep their thoughts to themselves, unless pushed. I grew up in a nice, stable extended family where everyone went to church, had a job, got married, brought up children and grew old together. No-one had fights or major dramas. There were no black sheep or skeletons in the closet. Everyone was just... nice. This is not a bad thing, by the way. Growing up loved and cared for by a bunch of genuinely kind people? Priceless. The problem with that is - I have a 'nice' filter. It is very hard for me to get beyond the superficial, or publicly explore the area outside the white picket fence that defines suitable topics for discussion for those descended from respectable evangelical Christians.

Our family are all introverts. And life-long conflict avoiders. And we believe in a Stiff Upper Lip and Just Getting On With Things. In our family we resolve tensions by a)pretending that nothing is wrong, b)smiling and c)talking about something 'nice' instead. The best way to resolve conflict as an introvert is not to have any. The best way not to have conflict is to decide that your problems/issues/tensions/emotions/needs etc, aren't really that important after all and to bury them deep inside while getting on with the much simpler task of being 'nice' in public, while being terribly sad, anxious, angry or resentful in private.

I found a man to marry who had the same kind of family and upbringing that I had, so we both brought our non-existent communication skills to the table. Then we broke the script, because no matter how hard we tried we could neither of us bear to live a life of emotions swept under the rug. But we couldn't express them in a productive way either, because we didn't know how. So we sulked. For twenty three years. Well, not the whole twenty three years. When it was good it was very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid.

Ironically, during this time we did what all the child raising manuals suggested, and taught our children how to use their 'I feel' words, and tried hard to listen and reflect back their feelings. I have a dear friend, Jane, who is especially good at this and I learned most of what I know about conflict resolution by listening to her working through conflict with and between her children over the many hundreds of hours we have spent together as parents. I was astounded. Conflict apparently isn't a bad thing. Sometimes it is a helpful tool to come to new understandings about each other. Who knew?

While nowhere near perfect I think I have done a reasonably good job of talking with my kids about difficult subjects, and helping them to unpack conflict. Unfortunately that did not translate to managing to be vulnerable and honest in my marriage, and so for that, and a multitude of other miserable reasons, we decided to part. There are only so many instances of sweeping problems under the rug and pretending nothing happened that a relationship can withstand. Interestingly, as soon as the worst had happened in our relationship, we were able to talk. I think we figured that since nothing worse could happen we could finally afford to tell the truth. While it didn't save our marriage, I think it was the saving grace of our relationship. We managed to part as friends and colleagues, and can continue to parent our kids while keeping communication open and honest.

That experience encouraged me to open up a little more to my parents. Over the last couple of years we have been able to have more conversations about difficult things. I don't find this easy, and neither do they, but we are trying. To give my parents all due credit, no matter what terrible thing I have done my life, whether it be leaving the Church or getting a divorce, they have shown nothing but love and kindness. We don't necessarily talk about it, but whenever I have asked for help, they have been there, every single time. I have never doubted that they loved me, we just find it difficult to have a conversation that isn't about "What we did this week that was Nice." We are slowly getting to be able to go beyond that, and I am very thankful, if slightly spooked sometimes. When my brother's marriage fell apart I reached out and we started talking about our feelings for the first time in.. well, really for the first time ever. I am so sorry that it took his marriage breaking up as the trigger for us to start talking, but I'm glad that we can. We are both a bit broken, and having each other to talk to just helps.

Three years ago I started to go to the gym with my lovely friend Carla. I didn't know her well before that, other than that she is lovely. Turns out when you spend three hours a week with a friend in the gym, you really have to talk about something, or end up staring awkwardly at the wall while doing leg lifts. Carla talks about everything, from why her kids are driving her crazy today, to how naughty the dog is, to the frustrations of her latest medical appointment, to tensions in her extended family. "I love the gym." she says happily, "It's such good therapy!"

And it is. Sometimes I would quietly wonder why Carla told me everything about everything that was going on in her life. Not because it was boring - I absolutely adore to hear the stories of people's lives. Interesting people are like the best books and Carla is a born storyteller. But I wondered why Carla would make herself so vulnerable, telling me things that I would never dare to admit out loud. But her willingness to be vulnerable encouraged me to do the same. I started to tentatively share the small difficulties of my life, all the while feeling like a complete doofus. Then the larger ones. The day to day worries and anxieties that we all have. And what do you know, when you talk about your worries, they aren't so worrying. You know that old granny adage, 'A problem shared is a problem halved'? Well, those grannies were onto something. I had previously never bothered people with my problems, because there was no point - they couldn't fix them for me... but der, that's not the reason you share. The problem doesn't get halved because it gets fixed, it's halved because there is someone to sympathise, to laugh with over your silly troubles, to tell you that you are doing a great job.

So it has taken a lot of years to get to this point that I can (sometimes) share (some of) the details of my life with family, some friends, some colleagues. I have challenged myself this year to put more of myself out there into the light of day. Last year I forced myself to tell some colleagues that the reason I was taking an extra day off work this year was to do some writing. Then the first day into work this year I sat down in the staffroom for lunch and the first comment I heard was, "I hear you are writing a book?" I felt so exposed, like an ant crawling on a plate. I wanted to hide under the table, put my hands over my ears and rock. Which is, frankly, behaviour that this particular staff member sees all the time, and I am sure she would have taken it in her stride and been very kind. However, I took a deep breath and had a conversation instead, and it was fine and I didn't actually even get squashed, which is kind of what you expect when you are an ant on a plate.

Last week when I published my post about wanting to write I felt the exact same terror. After a couple of days I couldn't bear it any longer and didn't even get on the internet there for a few days, but of course I came back, and there you all were, being so kind to my exposed self, and telling me about your own secret desires as well. The best part about being a little vulnerable is the connection to the vulnerable spot in other souls.

I think I have come a little way along the the road away from Niceville. Not very far really. I am still terrified of potential conflict, and flee it on a regular basis no matter how good it may be for me. But with a little help from my friends I think I am heading along the rocky path to... where? Maybe a place where Nice isn't so important as Honest and Kind. I'll see you there. I might even write about it..

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

I Must Stop Cleaning the House

Yesterday I had a cartoonish accident where I walked into my dark garden shed and stepped on a hoe whereupon its handle flipped up and whacked me in the eyeball. I now have a freakish red-veined eye with which to scare small children. That will be handy as I start work for the year later this week.. with all the five year olds.

I have taken an extra day off my work week this year as I want to do some writing - you know, the sort that is published, and someone pays you for it.. the trouble is, it is very hard to begin. Every day since they started school the girls have been coming home and asking, "Did you do any writing today?" and I have answered, "Well, not exactly. But look, I cleaned the bathroom!" The house is looking remarkably clean, and I have tidied some cupboards and done some gardening and walked the dog extensively.. but no writing.  I made yoghurt and sunscreen. And invited some friends over. And stewed a whole bunch of plums that a friend invited me to pick from her tree. And I picked some flowers and hosted afternoon tea for some old friends who are visiting Tasmania and staying with my parents. And now I have all these tomatoes I have to do something with..

Writing is the only thing I have ever really wanted to do since I was a child when I read and wrote all the time. I don't know when I lost that creative confidence, but I think I am terrified of failing at the one thing I really want to do so I never really threw myself into it in order to avoid the possibility of failure. I think it might be something I could have done while I was young and thought everything was possible but even then I found excuses. I got pregnant approximately fifteen minutes after graduating with an Honours degree in English Literature, I homeschooled my numerous children, I started on on-line children's book shop, and now I teach five and six year olds to write.. and in my spare time coach my own and friends' kids through their highschool writing and literature courses, and help friends with their writing and editing projects. It's like I have danced around writing my whole life without actually doing any.

Except here. This blog has been my lifeline to writing, my place to connect with other people via words. The most exciting moment in many of my days is finding that something that I have written has resonated with someone out there enough to have them write back to me. Thanks you guys.

Now I need you to tell me to stop cleaning the house and go and write some words already..

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Green and Thrifty

Most of my semi-regular Green and Thrifty posts aren't full of any extraordinary green or thrifty adventures - just the day-to-day bits and bobs that make our lives just a little bit easier on earth. But it is exactly those things that add up from day to day and week to week and year to year that save so much money and make a small but enduring environmental impact.

Early this month I did all the shopping at a small independent supermarket and the whole foods shop where I buy most of my dry goods from the bulk bins. Now I shouldn't have to go shopping with the car again until March. So far this week I have spent $16 at the green grocer's, and today I will send The Girl out to walk the dog and buy milk to make yoghurt. That should last us until next week for grocery spending.

This week we have been eating and cooking from the fridge. It is quite a small fridge, and what with it being shopping day last week, and the garden suddenly bursting with food, we have been very busy eating so as to have room in the fridge to store more. I am thinking it is time to start doing some preserving so I can store the garden produce somewhere other than the fridge!

We have been making zoodles (zucchini noodles) with our spiraliser, which is fun, and delicious.

I made three jars of sauerkraut, which is also delicious, and full of incredibly prolific probiotics at a fraction of the price of probiotics from the health food shop..

We did a lot of second hand shopping from op-shops and Gumtree, keeping our money circulating locally, contributing to charity, keeping stuff out of landfill, and saving our pennies.

The girls started school again this week, all kitted out in their hand-me-down and second-hand uniforms.. I managed to find a second-hand school bag for Posy (from my neighbour, actually. I had forgotten her daughter was leaving school). Whenever one of my children leaves school I offer to buy school uniform items from any of their friends who want to get rid of them. This way I have accumulated a nice collection of second-hand uniform, which is a real help, as it is unbelievably expensive when new.

We also covered all of Posy's school books with plain brown paper again. I discovered this excellent solution two years ago, and have been doing it ever since. The brown paper lasts all year which surprises me enormously, but not even any tears or rips, and then it is easy to recycle the whole book at the end of the year. So apparently it is not necessary to wrap school books in acres of plastic foil or bought plastic covers to keep them looking nice. And a roll of brown paper is much cheaper as well:)

This week I also took two bags of Posy's primary school uniform to a refugee family I know, and had a cup of tea with them. They have furnished the house Afghani style, with carpets and rugs and lots of large floor cushions. The floor cushions are beautiful, and I discovered (our conversations are mostly translated via the children) that the mother had sewn them herself with fabric she had brought from Iran (the family are from Afghanistan but had spent many years in a refugee camp in Iran). The cushions had that wonderful bulk and heaviness of old-fashioned down and feather cushions, and I asked what they were stuffed with - cut up old clothes! This is such an elegant solution for old t-shirts, I will have to remember it.

I have been washing my hair in the sink and taking very short showers, so must be saving on hot water, surely? Next week I am going to keep a record of daily electricity readings to see how we are doing.

This week from our garden we have been eating potatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers, tomatoes, warrigal greens, spinach, lettuce, lemons, rhubarb, beetroot and herbs.

Tell me about your green and thrifty wins this week.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Universe Conspires With Me

We have had some marvellous second hand finds this week. First, The Girl wanted a blender to take back to her cupboard-sized kitchen in her apartment in Melbourne so she can make yummy smoothies and dips whilst studying Chemistry and Microbiology. We found one in the op-shop, still in its box and plastic bags, never used. Brilliant!

Then in a new op shop I had never visited before I found an ironing board. A few months ago my 25 year old ironing board broke, because I had stored it next to my fifteen year old washing machine. The washing machine had a fit, jumped across the floor and jammed the ironing board against the wall, crushing all its wheels and delicate bits. I tell you, the appliances in my house are scary. My drive to eliminate appliances from my house is not all about saving electricity and living the simple life - it is also about self-defence. For a few months now I have been ironing on a towel on the end of the dining room table. Don't feel terribly sorry for me though. I have all but eliminated ironing from my life. I do it by a)not caring and b)hanging shirts, school uniforms and my work clothes on the line on their hangers. They mostly dry mostly wrinkle-free. Well, wrinkle-free enough for me anyway! Still, ironing on a towel on the table is really not that efficient, so I am very grateful for my new board. I will transfer over the intact cover from the old board, and take the old board to the metal recycling bin at the tip. It has done much honourable work in its time:)

I decided I wanted a hand-held vacuum. And I hear you asking why Ms Vowed-and-Declared Anti-Consumer wants another appliance? Well, it is to replace my standard vacuum cleaner. Since I moved to a house with wooden floors I have used my vacuum cleaner about twice in nine months. I just sweep instead. And the vacuum cleaner doesn't have a home and I trip over it constantly in the back porch. Last week I spent some time trying to work out where to store it and wondering if I needed to build a cupboard, and then I thought, "Why not get rid of it?".. but then, how to vacuum the car? Anyone who knows me will be laughing their heads off right now, because I rarely if ever vacuum the car, and this is principally because I live in a house with no off-street parking, and I would have to drag the vacuum cleaner out to the street. Who am I kidding? It is mostly because I hate vacuuming the car. BUT with a hand-held vacuum cleaner I could bribe the children to do it. And then I could store it in a cupboard.

This is the most space age vacuum cleaner I have ever seen. I am worried it may actually take off..

So I hunted for one on Gumtree, and found one, also new, never been taken out of the box. It is clearly a theme this week. I negotiated a price with the seller, which was very brave of me, because really I find the whole process very scary, and went and picked it up today, and now I have an actual new vacuum cleaner, because its previous owner bought it, then moved house and decided she needed a stick vacuum instead, without ever actually having used this one.. people are odd, but I must say, it works out well for me.

I also bought some nice clothes and some more of my favourite drinking glasses, so I think I am done with the second-hand shopping for a while. I might stay home and read a (second-hand) book instead..

I feel good to have found what I need second hand, reduced the enormous inventory of unwanted goods, contributed to charity, kept money local, and spent very little, but I also feel a bit appalled at the amount of stuff that is out there, abandoned because someone wants something newer, better, different.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Meditation on Stuff

Michael Leunig

God give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us, turn us sideways and around.

from A Common Prayer by Michael Leunig

I have always liked buying second hand - there is a little thrill of expectancy going into a junk shop or an op shop - you just never know what you might find. But while I enjoyed it, second hand shopping was just a hobby. I began trying to shop like this in earnest two years ago, when I started to feel too much disconnect between my values (a beautiful, clean planet for everyone, fair trade, equality) and the way that the stuff that I bought was produced. At first, I found the uncertainty of second hand shopping a little bit daunting. Then I started my year of Buying Nothing New which has turned into the-rest-of-my-life-of-mostly-buying-nothing-new. I still find the uncertainty of buying second hand daunting. Buying second hand involves not knowing when or where I will find what I want, it involves transactions with actual people. It means people give me stuff, which is wonderful, but I also find it hard to accept that, although I am getting better at the ebb and flow of the tide of 'things' coming in and out of my life. Sometimes I still do buy new things. Last year I bought a thermal cooker, a tea strainer, a spiraliser, several books, some plants, some fair trade organic underwear, some timber and a doormat. This year I will buy a solar hot water system, some PV panels and a rainwater tank. I already bought some paint last week as well, and school shoes and socks for my daughter. It takes a lot more angst these days to buy new things than it does to buy second hand. It seems abundantly clear that we treat the earth and each other so appallingly in order to get all this stuff, which turns out to be mostly inessential. If we do need to buy stuff, and sometimes we do, then let it be well-made enough to last a very long time, bought from someone local, and let's respect our stuff, which literally costs the earth.

This is a little collection of thoughts I have been working through on uncertainty, and the leap of faith that accompanies any venture into the unknown. Even the slight unknown of shopping outside the box:

There is a spiritual element to how we acquire the things that we need. If we go to a store to buy a particular widget, we generally come out of the store with that particular widget (and often a few extras as well..). There is very little unknown in this scenario. We are in control.

If we are buying second hand, or hunting for stuff that has been thrown away, or working out how we can make stuff ourselves, we are actually taking a little leap into the dark. There is an unknown space where we might land. To me this appears to require faith - in the universe, in the help of the community, in ourselves, that we can do this thing. Buying second hand might mean mooching around the tip shop trying out solutions for size in our heads. It might mean asking a friend for help in making something work. Collecting free stuff from freecyle or receiving it from friends or friends of friends means making social connections and all of this entails examining the way we view relationships and obligations and gifts.

We all live in a connected web of relationships, but when we buy stuff from stores, we have an illusion of independence and control. In reality, when we do that we are dependent on people far away who are giving up their dignity, health, and sometimes their lives to labour away in mines, out in the fields among pesticides, or underpaid on the factory floor in order that we can buy a cheap widget.

When we make awkward social contact with someone we may not know who is giving something away that they don't want and that we do want - well, it feels a little like we are dependent, but in truth, it is taking nothing from that other person, and we are receiving so little compared to the invisible transaction that happens when we buy stuff from the store. In fact, it can be a wonderful gift to another person for you to receive something freely given. When I was moving from a large to a small house, I was pathetically grateful to anyone who would come and take anything away from me so I didn't have to think about it any more! I heaved sighs of relief as furniture left the premises on its way to a good home.

Giving stuff a new lease of life, making new stuff from old stuff, accepting gifts from friends and strangers - all of this takes creativity and faith. It builds relationships. Buying widgets from the store builds walls between us and our neighbours, hurts people we don't know, and stifles our souls.

I am already a little way along the road of exploring the serendipity of acquiring things that I want and need without visiting the big box store. I want to make that more of a part of my life. Having said that, uncertainty is difficult! Control, even if it is an illusion, is hard to cede. Accepting and embracing the unexpected is a bit frightening. But also a bit magical.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

How To Wash Your Hair In The Sink

In the comments on my Electricity Challenge post, reader Marieann mentioned that she always washes her hair in the sink. As I am looking for ways to reduce my very long hot showers, I decided to give it a go. When I was little my mum washed my hair over the sink, but I wasn't sure it was possible to do it without help!

Later, after I had successfully washed my hair on my own over the bathroom sink, without having to resort to any esoteric yoga poses (which is lucky, as I don't know any), I checked my blog comments, and here was a wonderful comment from Heather, who had done exactly the same thing, and written a report and review!

Hi Jo-
Inspired by you, and in the spirit of research, I tried washing my hair in the sink today. I used a 2L pitcher, a smaller cup, and a rag, along of course with shampoo, conditioner, and a towel. Here is what I did:

1. Ran the water until it was warm, because I am a giant chicken about cold water. I caught the water in the pitcher to measure the flow rate- 1.5L of water in the 25 seconds it took the water to run warm.

2. Washed the toothpaste splatters, etc. out of the basin with the caught water and the rag. (The 1.5 L of caught water was more than I actually needed for this step.) Put the stopper in the sink.

3. Ran another 1.5L of warm water into the pitcher. Poured it over my head into the basin, wetting my hair. Squeezed out my hair, and scooped most of the same water back into the pitcher with the smaller cup.

4. Shampooed just my scalp, then rinsed with the water in the pitcher. I was surprised that less than 1.5 L seemed to get the shampoo out.

5. Put conditioner on just the ends of my hair (where it gets tangly). Drained the basin of the soapy water, bent over and rinsed the conditioner out of my hair with running water. This took about 30 seconds and so probably used about another 1.5 L of water or so. (I found that the water in the pipe had gone cold by this point anyways, so I will probably skip step 1 next time. It wasn’t that bad [squawk, squawk!] and warmed up partway through, so I finished warm.)

My hair feels as clean as it does after a shower, and only 4.5L of water! I can probably do it with a bit less next time, since I will run only enough water to wipe out the basin at the beginning. Now hair washing, body washing, and leg shaving can all be independent of each other, each getting done only when it needs doing! I’ll still spring for my nice warm shower now and again, though. 

BTW, my hair is a medium length- it just touches my collarbone. I might go a bit shorter to make the process less drippy, and to reduce the need for conditioner too. Thanks for the inspiration to burst out of my unthinking assumptions about ordinary life routines. I feel more than a little silly describing such a simple process, which our grandmothers wouldn’t have thought twice about, in such detail, but maybe another spoiled first-worlder like me who wouldn’t have otherwise thought about “breaking down the shower” will try it now.
--Heather in CA

Heather and Marieann, thanks so much for your comments; now all three of us can assure you that it is perfectly possible to have clean hair without having a shower:)

I like Heather's comment about 'unthinking assumptions about ordinary life routines'. Nothing we have done here is extraordinary, difficult or new. It just means thinking a little bit differently. In this case, trying something our grannies would have done. And it was fine, quite pleasant actually. I wandered around for half an hour with my hair in a towel, giving it a deep condition before rinsing off.

I have also been contemplating another of Heather's recent comments - she mentioned that she takes very short showers, but that once or twice a month she luxuriates in a long hot shower and truly appreciates it. And you know, unlimited hot water really is a huge luxury. In indulging in that every day we may be missing the wonder of it. So here is my new plan. Short showers when I need them. Washing hair over the sink. The luxury of a long hot shower once in a while when I really want one. 

Updated to add: I have just done my second sink hair wash, and I can report - not a drip on my face. Again I did a ten minute conditioning treatment while I read the internet, then rinsed with cold water. I read recently that while warm water is good for washing hair, cold is good for rinsing because it leaves a little conditioner in to do its good work. Not something most of us want to try in the shower, but because I only put conditioner on the ends of my hair, rinsing it out in cold was fine. It is also the quickest hair wash ever. Five minutes tops for my shoulder length and very thick hair. This is a keeper:)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Chinese New Year

At a New Year's party, I met Lillian, who is enthusiastic about everything, and apparently has a wonderful garden, also chickens, whom I am going to meet soon. But yesterday Lillian, who is Chinese, invited me to watch the Chinese New Year lion dance and eat lots of delicious Chinese food, which I did, as a truly excellent alternative to painting doors and shelves.

I really love community events where enthusiastic people share their passions, and lots of people cook great food. There is such great energy about this, such a sense of involvement and shared experience. Afterwards Lillian toured me through the Asian grocer and told me all the best things to buy there. She was buying lemongrass stalks which she keeps in a glass of water and uses the leaves and stem, and when the bottom of the stalk begins to sprout roots, she plants it in a pot. In 2013 I attempted to overwinter lemongrass in the laundry in a pot, and it worked beautifully. In the winter of 2014 I left the lemongrass outside to see what would happen. What happened is it died of hypothermia. So now I know - bring the lemongrass inside in winter. But instead of shelling out $15 for a pot of it at the nursery I paid $1.50 for a stem and will plant it out when it roots. Hopefully.

During a long hot walk home I decided that what I really wanted was chocolate milk. This doesn't happen very often, but if you want chocolate milk, then nothing else will do. I don't keep chocolate milk powder at home because it would last about two days, plus many cocoa products are farmed using very dubious practices such as forced child labour. I sometimes make my own chocolate syrup, which is delicious, but again, mysteriously disappears.. so generally, if you live in our household, you have to make your own from scratch every time. This is not at all arduous, but it tends to keep levels of child-chocolate-milk-making down to about once a week or so. Also, SO much cheaper than bought chocolate milk powder, even when made with fair trade, organic raw cacao powder..

Into a large glass put two rounded teaspoons of cocoa powder and half a teaspoon of icing sugar (I like my chocolate milk bittersweet - jiggle the amount of flavourings until it suits you perfectly). Add a shot of boiling water from the kettle, stir. Add vanilla essence (I have some wonderful home made vanilla syrup gifted by a friend. I am so getting the recipe for that).

Add milk and icecubes. If the weather is cold, make it into hot chocolate by heating it in a small saucepan. Make more every time you get fed up with painting. You know you deserve it! This year I am hoping to buy less from the supermarket and make more from real ingredients at home. Less packaging, more real food. And so often, as with this chocolate milk, could it be any simpler? I think the big food corporations are having a lend of us..

And, ta da - painting finished. Here are the elegant white doors. When the elegant white shelves are dry I will pack all my things back in and show them off as well. Painting is a terrible pain, and I am covered all over in paint, but now the house is a vision in white..

Friday, January 27, 2017

Less Thinking, More Painting

Today I have been painting. Remember the amazingly colourful doors I bought at the tip shop for Rosy's room? When we bought the house there was no door on the doorway up to the attic, which clearly had been intended to be used for storage or maybe a studio. Anyway, no door, so after I received a very scary quote from a builder to build a double door for us in the space, I went to the tip shop and found the very thing for $15. The handyman just cut a bit off the bottom and it fit perfectly. Amazing! But very pink and blue. The girls are away visiting their dad this week so I am spending a peaceful few days painting. I also had some shelves built in my room when we moved into our house, and they need to be painted too. This is why I had to wait for the girls to leave, as I had to pile everything that lives on the shelves (all my clothes. Our whole linen collection) onto my bed for three days while I paint, and I am sleeping in Posy's room.

My room draped in drop sheets after undercoating the shelves and covering myself in paint.

It turns out that in the shed I have enough paint (I hope) to do two top coats of the doors and the shelves, but there was no undercoat. So this morning I did some research on which small business stocked low VOC paint, and then I found one and spent some time on Google maps (I am somewhat directionally challenged) to find out how to negotiate that particular tricky bit of highway (the only one in town, of course) and finding where to park (nowhere, by the looks of it), when I finally switched my brain on and realised it was only about a twenty minute walk away. So I walked in the sunshine and bought my paint, and it was even less than fifteen minutes' walk in the end. 

I have noticed a strange phenomenon - in my head things are further away than they really are. When I start walking I get there quicker than I ever imagined. The range of places I am willing to walk to has expanded enormously over the past couple of weeks.

I am a very messy painter and always manage to cover myself in paint. While I was busy doing this I wondered if I could have acquired the undercoat I needed in some other way. Could I have asked around to find out if anyone had any in the back of the shed they weren't using? Does our local tip shop sell paint? I haven't seen any, but then I haven't been looking either. Could I have advertised on freecycle? My problem with freecycle is that I have signed up twice now and forgotten my password both times. The internet is way too hard for me..

This brings me to the next subject I would like to consider on the Quiet Riot Project. Stuff. What are the ethical dilemmas involved in buying stuff? Well, you know I have held forth at length on this subject. I mostly buy second hand, but this year I have to do some things. I want a rainwater tank. I want solar hot water heating, and maybe some PV panels. I want extensive fencing for chickens. I think these are all excellent things to buy as stuff goes, but it always irks me to make the choice to buy things in order to use less.. I feel like a really resourceful person could crochet chicken fences out of wire coat hangers, whip up a rainwater tank with a piece of old roofing iron and a welder and cobble together a solar panel with more roofing iron and a fan (clever reader Angus did just that). Just buying stuff seems so tame in comparison. I think in my head I live in The Little House on the Prairie with The Swiss Family Robinson. I think this is possibly quite a good thing, because when I think about trying new and odd things like making yoghurt and knitting chicken fences, it seems totally normal.

Does anyone else worry about this kind of thing while they are painting? Maybe I should just listen to the radio..

Monday, January 23, 2017

Driving Fail

So on Thursday I decided to not go out in the car for the next few days. Well, Friday morning dawned and it was pouring with rain. I popped on my raincoat, put up my brolly and went on a brisk walk to the gym. My gym buddy offered to drive me home, and I let her drive me as far as her house, then walked home. It was still pouring when it came time to go to the optometrist with Rosy, so I caved in and we drove, and then went to the vegie shop on the way home. The rain had cleared up by the time we came out of our appointment. We could very well have walked - we have plenty of umbrellas. What did occur to me though, is that neither of the girls have a really rain-proof coat. I know, here in rainy Tasmania. It's because we are always in the car, and only go out 'for a walk' if it's fine. For school camps the girls take my Goretex raincoat. But, if I am going to make them walk to the school bus and to town in the rain, I will have to think about buying them proper raincoats (don't worry, they do have warm coats - they are those down jackets though, which are not in the least bit rainproof).

Then, Saturday morning there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth - apparently, there was 'no food in the house'. Nonsense of course. There are plenty of ingredients in the house, and between the huge reserves of dried beans in the cupboard and what's in the garden I am pretty sure we could withstand a two-month siege at least, but I was ground down by the whining, so I made a list of everything we normally buy from the supermarket and drove (well, The Girl drove, killing two birds with one stone) to our local independent supermarket (local, but not walking distance. It is opposite a retirement village and full of little old ladies with walkers), where I stocked up with what is hopefully about two months' worth of groceries.

What I buy at the supermarket is just dry goods - toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste etc, plus cans (coconut milk, tuna, stock powder) plus things like dog and cat food, tomato passata, crackers, mayonnaise, big blocks of cheese, butter, frozen peas and frozen corn. All the other dry goods like flour, sugar, beans, dried fruit, nuts, vinegar, honey, oils, dishwashing liquid, laundry liquid etc I buy in bulk at the whole foods shop once a month.

Everything else - vegies and fruit, meat, dairy, bread - I can buy from local shops just a couple of blocks down the hill. And then up the hill on the way home. All that weight bearing exercise is so good for me.

So maybe, just maybe, I can stop driving to the shops every couple of days for food now. Well, except that of course, I forgot several things at the supermarket. I didn't buy any sanitary products or coffee and The Girl certainly didn't buy a month's worth of soy and oat milk. But I am sure I will be visiting my parents soon, and on the way to their house is another independent supermarket, so I can pop in there to top up with those extras.

I remember reading Agatha Christie's autobiography, and as a small child she would accompany her grandmother to the Army and Navy Stores in London, where her grandmother would order a year's supply of household goods. A year! She must have had an excellent list, and kept meticulous records. She also had a large and rambling English country house to store it all in. I only have a small three bedroom cottage but I am rather surprised to be able to report that all that extra food fitted right into my kitchen and bathroom cupboards, with the toilet paper stuffed under a table next to the bathroom.

I am now going to go and compile a master shopping list, and keep some records so I know how much toilet paper we use in a year. I am sure you are all waiting with baited breath to find out:)

I wrote this yesterday, and today it is Monday and Posy and I walked into town to buy school stationery, school shoes and zinc oxide powder. The zinc is to make more sunscreen. The Girl has continuing and unresolved eczema and my home-made sunscreen is the only one that doesn't make her eczema worse. We bought the stationery at an independent book and art supplies shop, the zinc oxide at a compounding chemist, and tried to buy shoes at a local school outfitters - but Posy had forgotten to bring her orthotics. Aaargh! In the end, we drove back to town this afternoon to buy her shoes. Well, again The Girl drove and we did parking practice. It is a delicate line I am treading to give The Girl enough practice for her driving test, and not just driving all over the place for the sake of it.

It's ok, we're trying, we're learning. Sometimes it doesn't all go to plan, but what ever does? The great thing about failure is what you learn from it. On a positive note I haven't been into a supermarket chain or department store for weeks. Local all the way..

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Electricity Challenge

We have lived in our new house for nine months. Over that time I have attempted to keep the electricity bills in check. I banished a lot of appliances - I don't use a tumble dryer, a dishwasher, a TV, a vacuum cleaner, or a bunch of small appliances. When I moved to the new house I bought the smallest, most energy-efficient refrigerator I could find that wasn't a bar fridge. I heat with wood, and we use a couple of small heaters on a cold morning.

I have had three electricity bills during that time, each of them tells me I use about 16kWh per day. That is 5.3kwh per person per day, or 486kWh per month in total for our household, or 5840kWh per year. This puts my electricity uses squarely on the Australian average per household of 5817kWh per year. But when you take a closer look at the figures, this is not taking account of national energy use, merely electricity use. In most states houses and hot water are heated with gas, whereas in Tasmania we mostly only have the option of heating with electricity - so Tasmania's figures (you can see the breakdown of electricity use between states if you scroll down the page in the link above) are for practically all our energy needs. At our place, as I mentioned, we heat with wood, and we also use bottled gas for our stovetop - we go through about 2 barbeque gas bottles per year - but everything else is achieved with electricity.

The average electricity usage for Tasmanian households in 2014 was 8813kWh. So I use 34% less electricity than the average Tasmanian. This is a very similar percentage in savings to my driving numbers - there I discovered that I drive 38% less than the average Tasmanian. There seems to be a theme here..

Now most of that electricity saving is because I don't heat with electricity. But that 16kWh per day seems awfully high for a household with so few electrical gadgets. I drilled down into my electricity bill and discovered that 60% of my electricity use goes to hot water. Sixty percent!!

Three things stand out here:

1. Yes, I admit it, we all love our very long, hot showers. We definitely need to do something about that. And yes, by 'something' I mean we could all have shorter showers.

2. Our hot water is hotter than it needs to be. We tested the temperature of the hot water at our kitchen sink, and it is 56C (133F), which is 6C (43F) higher than it needs to be. It's even higher in the bathroom, including the shower, which is nearly 60C (140F). In order to lower the thermostat though, we need to move an armchair and a heavy cupboard which are in front of the secret trapdoor which hides our hot water cylinder.. and probably call the nice plumber to do it, as the hot water cylinder needs to be at least 60C (140F) to kill bacteria and I have no idea what I am doing. Presumably lowering the thermostat will lower our electricity consumption, while using the same amount of water which seems like a good deal. But yes, of course we will have shorter showers. Of course.

3. We are excellent candidates for solar hot water. Does anyone out there have a solar hot water system? Does it heat up the water enough? I suspect that winter in Tasmania is not great for solar hot water, but I am willing to stand corrected on this. I am also quite interested in the idea of connecting my wood heater to the hot water system, but have no idea what is involved. The fact that my wood heater is inside the chimney space will probably make that more difficult..

I would also like to put some solar panels on the roof. But we have an awkward roof for solar panels - gables all over the place, and no long flat run of roof with the right aspect. I will get the solar panel people to have a look and see what is possible. But first, I need to use less electricity. To start with we will tackle the showers.. and then.. well, I am sure I will think of something but there is not a lot else that we use. We have a tiny oven that we could use more efficiently by batch cooking. The girls have their laptops on all the time, and are forever charging up their phones. They also use the hair dryer and make rather a lot of smoothies in the blender. I give the electric kettle an excellent workout and use the washing machine a lot. I am pretty sure I can't use it any less though, because already we re-wear our clothes a lot, and probably wash sheets and towels slightly less than we should:)

Tell me what you do to save electricity.. and how I can save more at mine.. there are probably dozens of small things that I haven't thought of that would add up to savings over time.

By the way, if you are in Australia you can enter your postcode here and discover how your electricity usage compares to the rest of your suburb. The residents at my post code use even more electricity than the Tasmanian average. Apparently. My neighbours must be taking long showers as well.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Quiet Riot

Rosy, me and The Girl facing a stiff on-shore breeze. 
Photo by Posy

We have just spent three days at the beach with no internet. I read three novels, we all slept a lot, and played stupid games, like sports trivia quiz, which was very funny because none of us knows the first thing about sport. We watched a movie. We lay on the beach and read, clambered over rocks, lay in bed and listened to the rain. The girls all went swimming in the freezing cold ocean and I... minded the towels.

Earlier this week the deep-thinking and adventurous suburban homesteader Wendy wrote about The Riot for Austerity challenge I set for myself, and called it The Quiet Riot. I like that. Here we are in the suburbs, a little quiet family, beavering away at reducing our consumption to help make it possible for us all to have a quietly fulfilling life on this little blue-green jewel of a planet into the future. And all over the cities and the suburbs and in the countryside all over the world other families are doing the same. And together our quiet rioting may chip away at the huge monolith of consumerism. Of course, it may make only the tiniest little dint in the bottom left-hand corner. But if you are going to topple a monolith, you have to start somewhere.

One of the reasons I want to do this is because when people say that it is impossible to live with less I want to be able to put up my hand and say, "Um, actually it isn't. See?"

Another reason is to become both more dependent and independent and creative. Limits force us to be creative, to try new things, to think our way around problems, to ask around, to rely on our communities, to learn how to make, mend and reuse and look at life in new and different ways.

And yet another reason is that I want to have a stab at not being a 21st century-living-in-a-bubble-of-privilege softie. You see I am generally the person who chooses not to swim in the freezing cold water, or go out in the rain, or stretch myself to my physical limits. I love my creature comforts, as most of us do. But that's really not how our minds and bodies want us to live. We most of us need a bit of a challenge, and this seems as good a way as any to get me out of my high-speed, highway armchair or out from under the hot shower and away from all that tempting fake food that comes wrapped in a packet.. We only have one short life. We might as well do something interesting with it.

And as Wendy pointed out in her Quiet Riot post, consuming less is just more thrifty. My ultimate aim is to work less and spend more time growing strawberries.

So, after driving just over an hour each way to the beach and back, now we will be having a bit of a driving fast for the next few days while we stretch our legs and walk our way through our lists of things to do. And next, I will be tackling the dreaded electricity bill... come and help me quietly riot away at making the next bill the lowest yet.

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