Thursday, May 29, 2008

All in a Homeschool Afternoon

or, The Fire Next Time

Son finished his afternoon quiet-time reading before I finished my afternoon's writing project (reviewing an article for an academic journal). As I stared at the computer in my study, he stuck his head in and asked if it would be OK for him to try to start a fire in the front yard with a magnifying glass.

"Uh huh," I responded blankly. "Sure." I'm not absolutely sure that my brain perceived what the question was, but even if it did, I think I would have said yes. (I mean, that magnifying glass trick doesn't actually WORK, does it?) "I'll be with you soon," I mumbled.

I go back to my work and loose track of time. Suddenly:

"I did it! FIRE! FIRE!"

Quick--get the camera: Science! Our county homeschool review is next week!

* * *


I realize now that some of you may be confused by my choice of subtitle for this post. Others may find it, um, incendiary.

The Fire Next Time is a phenomenal book by James Baldwin, published in the early 1960s. It is a call to "end the racial nightmare" that he saw in the United States. My reference to the book is really for two reasons:

1. Baldwin points out how much power the "powerless" actually have to destroy this country if they continue to be oppressed: "The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and bring down the curtain on the American dream." While ignoring a child for an hour or two is in no way meant to be compared to racial oppression, I like the literalness of the "powerless" one's expression today.

2. One of Baldwin's other points is that until whites end domination and discrimination, they will be intellectually enslaved themselves. It is only through efforts to create a multi-racial society based on full equality and connection that America can become a great nation. I believe the same is true of parenting and homeschooling: it is only through recognizing the
integral worth of children, and recognizing the importance of their abilities to make decisions, that adults can be free--and families and communities made whole.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Eating at Home

Preparing ourselves for the annual return of One Local Summer,
we had a fabulous local meal--actually, another one that went a little beyond just "local".

On the menu:

Salad all grown in our garden, with a dressing made from rice vinegar marinated with our own chive blossoms and a bit of non-local olive oil.

Potatoes from the farmer's market, dressed with sour cream from our dairy supplier.

Hamburgers made with local beef, flavored with some of the last of our home-dried tomatoes mixed in before cooking.

We served the hamburgers on homemade whole-wheat buns--from wheat we ground ourselves.

This was an intensely satisfying meal--one that fed us well in both body and spirit.

Monday, May 26, 2008

In the Sun

The weather this Memorial Day weekend has been glorious! We've spent almost all of it outside in the backyard, gardening and reading and celebrating.

On Saturday morning before we got to work finally putting in the tomato seedlings and the like, we heated up the solar oven...

...harvested some rapini...

and mixed up a crustless rapini quiche to have for lunch a couple of hours later. Using our own veggies as well as local eggs, milk, and cheese made this an exceptionally local lunch--one we cooked with only the sun's energy, and ate while basking in that same sun ourselves.

* * *

This is the first time I've ever grown potatoes--this time, just red new potatoes and yellow finn--and they are doing very well, at least on top of the ground:

We're also starting the grand experiment of a "three sisters" garden of corn, beans, and squash. We've chose to plant really interesting varieties: Mandan Bride corn which is edible fresh or dried and also makes a beautiful fall decoration, Delicata squash, and gorgeous Tiger's Eye beans meant for drying. I've never tried drying varieties of anything, and never grown corn at all. David created the mounds as part of his Mother's Day present (or at least he made them that day, which I took as a present). We planted the corn seeds a week or so later and now they are as high as a ... well, about as high as a squirrel's eye. By next week we should be able to plant the squash and beans.

* * *

Some garden treats don't require as much waiting as those crops do. We harvested a few radishes:

I love their color!

* * *

Although we've had sweet woodruff in a garden since we moved to this house ten years ago, we've never made May Wine until this year. We picked a few sprigs of the woodruff...

...and let it dry. We then soaked it in white wine overnight.

On Sunday evening, we lit the citronella candles and had our Earth Evening, and enjoyed our first taste. A strawberry crushed in a little sugar made a beautiful addition to the glass.

Even Son got to have a bit--his drink being May Tea instead of May Wine:

* * *

Today: off for a picnic at the farm of some friends!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Grinding our Own

Son asked for a rather unusual birthday present:

a grain grinder!

We've had a wonderful time grinding a wide variety of grains using the book Flour Power: A Guide To Modern Home Grain Milling as a guide. I've learned so much about how different kinds of flours work--and highly recommend this book to all bread bakers, whether or not they grind their own flour. Very cool.

We've tried our hands at corn, oats, rye, amaranth, millet, barley, rice, lentils, split peas, and of course a couple of kinds of wheat.

There is another attachment that you can use for rolling grains for oatmeal and the like--as well as an electric base for those not looking for the mild upper-body workout. I believe there are also another two attachments that allow you to grind meat, nuts, cheese and vegetables. This machine, the German-made Family Grain Mill is extremely easy to crank--even for Son's young friends. With corn, we had to send the grain through twice (the first time at a coarser setting)--but everything else is quite fine after just one time through.

The bread we've made so far is amazing. There is a freshness that I've rarely tasted in whole wheat bread--absolutely delectable.

And best of all, as long as we keep the hopper full of grains, visitors are so intrigued that they'll do all our grinding for us!

Now I just need to start growing my own grains...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Drying Up

or, Growing Your Own for back-to-basics food independence.

In what is already the beginning of our preparations for winter, we picked lemon balm, peppermint, and spearmint from our back yard and stuck the springs in the dehydrator for about twelve hours:

When the sprigs were dry, I pulled the leaves off the stems and piled them in an clean glass honey jar. It is about half full. After we fill it with another drying session, I'll put the jar in the basement until winter--a time when we will no longer have fresh herbs for our tea available just by opening the door.

Although the plant is very tiny at this point and not ready for any significant picking, we've just acquired stevia and look forward to using a few leaves to sweeten our fresh and dried herbal tea. Has anyone tried growing stevia? Any tips?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dandy Lions

Last weekend, we had a lovely time celebrating the beginning of our CSA season. Red Wiggler sponsored a potluck muffin breakfast at the farm, allowing all the members to meet each other, get to know the growers (developmentally-disabled adults), and go on a tour of the farm.

One of the things I was most pleased to see is the enormous number of dandelions growing in fallow fields!

"Um..." you ask, tentatively. "Happy about dandelions?"

Thinking about food independence and going back to basics lately, I've been planning to make dandelion jelly. When the flowers were blooming in profusion around our neighborhood, I was busy with academic stuff, Passover, and an in-law visit--so I never got around to picking anything. On top of that, all the places with great profusions of dandelions seemed to be right along busy roads. I was hesitant to make jelly with that much car exhaust. Then--long before I expected them to, the dandelions disappeared and were replaced with new blooms of some other wild edible.

Well--when we saw the abundance in the organic fields at Red Wiggler, David reminded me that we had our marketing bags in the trunk of our car--and in the bags we had a couple of plastic quart containers (usually used for bulk grains or beans, or for small produce like strawberries) that could be useful in transporting the flowers.

With son's help, we filled up two quarts.

Then, basically following directions we found on the web, we removed all bits of green--or at least as much as we could--from the yellow petals. David is a pro at this job:

The job was a lot more time-consuming than we had imagined, so we alternated who did the picking and who did the entertaining. The one without yellow hands read aloud from a great book we just found: See You in a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America, about a family who decide to leave New York to live on a Virginia farm as if they were in 1900. What a perfect read for those moments when you're doing projects like this together.

We poured boiling water over the blossoms and went to bed. The next morning, I strained the petals, added sugar and pectin and lemon juice, and boiled the mixture up while I sterilized the jelly jars. After they were filled, I stuck them in a hot-water cannerfor about ten minutes.

The jelly is a deep honey color--a little lighter than the picture shows but not by a whole lot. And the jelly tastes like a combination of honey and orange marmalade. Absolutely fantastic--and sweet enough to send you into a diabetic shock....

Monday, May 19, 2008

Leaving the Narrow Place for the Open Fields

During Passover, Jews are asked to acknowledge the history of slavery. Not only should we "acknowledge" it: we should act as if we were personally enslaved and personally freed.

Many Jews ask what things in our selves and in our surroundings keep us enslaved now. Then we think about ways we might loosen those bonds and step away from our own Mitzrayim, our own narrow place--no matter how safe and cozy it might seem at any given moment. When we are able finally to make that first step, we will begin to see how constrained we have been. Only at that point is an end to freedom--and a start to independence--possible.

I spent a bit of my Passover thinking about how to become ready to make a change, how to be ready to abandon the things that hold us back even if they seem to put us in such a secure place right now.

Many parts of my own personal narrow place are internal personality traits--parts of my self that hold me (and those around me) back from where we could go. One is my sometimes-extreme shyness. Another is my fear of anger, whether it is in myself or in others (anger towards me or towards others). Yet another is my reluctance to do or say anything that could make me stand out too much. And a biggie: I think about big issues until they are fully dissected, get depressed (too often in a too serious way), and do nothing about whatever the issues are.

But here we are, my family, ready to make some big steps out of our narrow place.

* * *

One way out of our Mitzrayim seems to be increasing food security both for us and for our community.

For a long time, my family has sought to eat a diet (and live a life more generally) less dependent on corporate consumerism and more reliant on the local economy of small business and small farmers. We attempt to purchase mostly foods without labels. (Ah--wouldn't the nutrition police fall over dead? No label to read?! Surely that is not healthy....)

This year we've expanded our garden to grow more of our diet in the back yard--our very tiny "postage stamp of native soil" which will really just be a symbolic way to help us understand more about how food is produced. Some of the old pros who do this (on a much larger scale in an only slightly smaller yard) call it the "path to freedom." They've launched the 100 Foot Diet challenge to help us connect with other people doing the same thing. I've mentioned their challenge before.

We've also made a serious commitment to prepare now so we will be able to keep up our non-corporate eating during the winter and early spring. And for this, the brilliant Sharon issued her own challenge:

Sharon asks us to create "food independence" (and to a degree, independence from a fossil-fuel-led society more generally) by regularly trying to, as Sharon lays out:

1. Plant something.
...The idea that you should plant all week and all year is a good reminder to those of us who sometimes don’t get our fall gardens or our succession plantings done regularly. Remember, that beet you harvested left a space - maybe for the next one to get bigger, but maybe for a bit of arugula or a fall crop of peas, or a cover crop to enrich the soil. Independence is the bounty of a single seed that creates an abundance of zucchini, and enough seeds to plant your own garden and your neighbor’s.

2. Harvest something.
From the very first nettles and dandelions to the last leeks and parsnips I drag out of the frozen ground, harvest something from the garden or the wild every day you can. I can’t think of a better way to be aware of the bounty around you to realize that there’s something -- even if it is dandelions for tea or wild garlic for a salad -- to be had every single day. Independence is really appreciating and using the bounty that we have.

3. Preserve something.
Sometimes this will be a big project, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t take long to slice a couple of tomatoes and set them on a screen in the sun, or to hang up a bunch of sage for winter. And it adds up fast. The time you spend now is time you don’t have to spend hauling to the store and cooking later. Independence is eating our own, and cutting the ties we have to agribusiness.

4. Prep something.
Hit a yard sale and pick up an extra blanket. Purchase some extra legumes and oatmeal. Sort out and inventory your pantry. Make a list of tools you need. Find a way to give what you don’t need to someone who does. Fix your bike. Fill that old soda bottle with water with a couple of drops of bleach in it. Plan for next year’s edible landscaping. Make back-road directions to your place and send it to family in case they ever need to come to you - or make ‘em for yourself for where you might have to go.... Independence is being ready for whatever comes.

5. Cook something. Try a new recipe, or an old one with a new ingredient. Sometimes it is hard to know what to do with all that stuff you are growing or making. So experiment now. Can you make a whole meal in your solar oven? How are stir-fried pea shoots? Stuffed squash blossoms? Wild morels in pasta? Independence is being able to eat and enjoy what is given to us.

6. Manage your reserves. Check those apples and take out the ones starting to go bad and make sauce with it. Label those cans. Clean out the freezer. Ration the pickles, so you’ll have enough to last to next season. Use up those lentils before you take the next ones out of the bag. Find some use for that can of whatever it is that’s been in the pantry forever. Sort out what you can donate, and give it to the food pantry. Make sure the squash are holding out. Independence means not wasting the bounty we have.

7. Work on local food systems. This could be as simple as buying something you don’t grow or make from a local grower, or finding a new local source. It could be as complex as starting a coop or a farmer’s market, creating a CSA or a bulk store. You might give seeds or plants or divisions to a neighbor, or solicit donations for your food pantry. Maybe you’ll start a guerilla garden or help a homeschool coop incubate some chicks. Maybe you’ll invite people over to your garden, or your neighbors in for a homegrown meal, or sing the praises of your local CSA. Maybe you can get your town to plant fruit or nut producing street trees or get a manual water pump or a garden put in at your local school. Whatever it is, our Independence days come when our neighbors and the people we love are food secure too.

Participants had lots of creative ideas for tweaking the rules--moving things out of one listing into their own categories in order to emphasize them more--or adding things entirely new. Some of my favorite additions:

8. Store something (edible) you'll need in the future so you won't have to go to the market as often.

9. Reduce waste, Compost.

10. Clean something, Mend something, Make do.

11. Learn a new skill, or practice one you are learning.

Coming soon: how we're taking our first steps along this new road.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Moving Mountains

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
Who age after age, perversely,

With no extraordinary power,
Reconstitute the world.

an excerpt from "Natural Resources"
by Adrienne Rich

Monday, May 12, 2008

Going On: Love in a Time of Crisis

I'm sitting down to write today almost against my will.

For almost eighteen months, I've been struggling to write about all the intensity going on in my head. I think out posts in my mind, imagining what I am going to write and planning when I will actually post it. Many nights at 3:00 AM I consider going downstairs, flicking on the computer, and just pushing that orange "publish post" button before I start worrying what other people will think. ("Is she a total nut? a conspiracy theorist? suicidal? a doomer? And whatever happened to the fiber arts, for goodness' sake?!")

My fears about what is happening to the world certainly have come through at times in various posts. I'm sure all of you who still come for the knitting were a bit overwhelmed by my angst about global hunger, for example. But for a long time, even after I said I was ready, I've been too scared to go too far into what my fears are, what we are currently doing, and what we are thinking we may do in the future.

I think I may be ready to start.

* * *

My nine-year-old son has picked up far more than he needs to about issues such as climate change, peak oil, violence and war, economic collapse, etc. He has overheard and sometimes participated in conversations with us and with our friends. The news on the radio seeps into his life with a lot more intensity than I realized for a while. And even his much younger friends are coming home from school with details about species extinction and the like.

On a recent evening--right before the cold wet snap we are currently in--we took our dinner outside for our weekly Earth Hour celebration. As our son ran around the garden covering up the growing potato sprouts, checking on the radishes, and pulling a few weeds, David and I talked more about the possibility of moving to a co-housing farm--something we've been contemplating for about a year.

We were talking about the difficulties we might have selling our house, the fact that we might be more car dependent even while at the same time less reliant on non-renewable energy otherwise (due to solar power, etc.), etc. All our panics and insecurities about changing our lives so radically came to the surface.

Son joined us, nervously coming to sit on my lap. He broke into tears and said how afraid he was of the future, how ashamed he was of the way human beings could be both to each other and to the world.

(He is always an emotional child prone to take everything very seriously. But usually he is far less overwhelmed than he was that evening--a time when he was absolutely exhausted from a long and busy day. But I know I must be much more careful what I say or show in front of him.)

As he dried his eyes, I asked him what he thought could help him feel better. He answered immediately and very clearly:

"We need to DO something--really do something much bigger than anything we have done before!"

I am ready.

* * *

And today, Sharon at Casaubon's Book writes:

"What could work--with great difficulty--is for us to enlist our fellows in a great project of courage and self-sacrifice. People climb mountains, run marathons, march off to be killed at war, and engage in all sorts of grand, painful and difficult challenges because doing so expresses their sense of honor, their courage, their patriotism, their love for others. As long as we fear to call upon one another to sacrifice, as long as we sell the narrative that an essentially similar life is possible, as long as we deny the costs, we will give up the greatest tool we have - the passionate energy of those who are doing what must be done for a better future."

* * *

What our family can do (as a family, as opposed to any actions that David and I might make as adults) must be something that allows our child to feel joyful--and to feel safer than he now feels. I'll talk soon about some of the changes we are going to try to make--but for now, let me leave it with this:

Life as we know it will change--yes, absolutely. But it is essential that our son know that the most essential thing will always last: our love and our commitment to care for one another.

This photograph, of which I was reminded at this blog, was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. With its mother reveling in her peaceful sleeping child, it shows the great power--and simplicity--of relationship, no matter how difficult the circumstances of one's world may be.

I am struck by the great courage it can sometimes take just to invest fully in love and joy. Never let me forget it.

Friday, May 02, 2008


Son and I both had birthdays during Passover last week.

I always love cooking during Passover. The challenge of coming up with celebratory foods which do not use wheat, oats, rice, beans, etc. is often a challenge--but it forces me to think more creatively.

On the other hand, Passover pretty much changes the meaning of birthday cake....

This year, Son turned nine years old. I've been thinking about the fact that his time at home with us may already be half over. And each day I notice how much taller he is now.

Luckily, he is still young enough to enjoy handknit toys:

Son read the first Harry Potter book when he turned six years old. David and I have loved the whole series, but we felt then that our son was just too young for most of the books. We made a deal with him: he could read one new Harry Potter a year, so he would age just as Harry does in the books.

At 7 AM on his birthday, Son ran into our bedroom straight to the shelves where we keep the series. He pulled down the fourth book and started to read.

We saw him again in time for cake.


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