Saturday, August 8, 2020

Ethical Food: killing our own meat

The set-up for this day was a big home-made killing-table, complete with a restraining-cone and sink on one end, a bunch of buckets and bowls for the parts, the hose, some newly-sharpened knives, and a borrowed camp-stove on which to scald our birds before plucking. Our first chicken-butchering day: It was a day we were afraid of, but we were committed.

Our son cleaning up after butchering his first bird.

Thirteen years ago I wrote a blog post called Wild Food: Killing Our Own Meat, which went on to become by far the most popular thing I've ever written, mostly because people are shocked and awed by the idea that we killed and ate slugs with our children. At the time we had a pair of ducks, were eating duck eggs, and thought we might end up getting ducklings which we'd raise for meat as well. But a mink killed our ducks, putting an end to all those plans. It's been a long road of parenting and growing since then, but this year we finally got back on the trail toward raising our own ethical meat.

I've been told before that no meat is ethical, but for my partner and I, the question of food seems so much more complex, so I'll explain a little, here. Please know that this is my and my partner's personal perspective, and we understand that the world is vast and varied. You are entitled to your own opinion, and we respect the choices of those who travel other paths. We hate the industrial farming industry - both the vegetable-based production and the animal-based production. Nearly all of it is deeply unethical, causing irreparable harm not only directly to animals who are involved, but to the environment, through mono-culture, exploitation of land and resources, and through physical and chemical destruction of the land. The world is a vast ecosystem of ecosystems, each with many interdependent communities within it, and each community made of many interdependent species of plants, animals, insects, microorganisms and fungi. Every single part - no matter how small - is vital to the health of the whole. Many people have been alarmed to discover that palm oil, which is frequently used in vegan products, usually involves the destruction of endangered orangutan habitat, and even outright killing of orangutans and other species. Enter "sustainable palm oil". And more products using coconut oil... but wait. Coconut oil has recently been linked to even greater destruction than palm oil! And that's just the oil and processed-foods dilemma. Most of the meals my family eats are vegan, as well as gluten- and soy-free, due to our auto-immune issues. So we eat a lot of almonds, (almond flour, almond milk, etc.). Almonds aren't vegan either, due to the massive impact that large-scale almond-farming has on the bees who are transported across the continent to fertilize the almond-groves of the west coast. Further, the impact that the large-scale mono-culture of almonds has on water-systems, forests, and the ecosystems that would otherwise have thrived there is colossal. What is an ethical eater to do?!

For us, the answer is growing our own food. In our climate, and on the 1/4 acre of land we can use, we are slowly figuring out the most efficient ways to produce food for our family. We know we can't meet all our needs, but we're having some success with peas (dried for winter soups), cauliflower, potatoes (about 1/3 of the number we eat each year), kale, (a few) tomatoes, and now chickens.

Remember those adorable chicks we welcomed just four months ago? This week we slaughtered the first four of our chickens. It was the first time I had killed any animal for meat (though I've had experience with many compassionate killings of injured and sick animals, in the past), and the first time my partner and son had butchered an animal at all. Our daughter bravely caught and handed over the roosters we killed that day, but chose to stay away from the place we butchered them, because we gave both kids the choice to join or not, since nobody should ever be coerced to commit such a traumatizing act as killing, plucking, or gutting an animal.

Bringing each bird to the back driveway (so they'd be far away from the rest of the flock who we didn't want to traumatize) was very, very sad, and a difficult thing to overcome, for our psyches. Me cutting those birds' throats was excruciating. We wholeheartedly believe that we, as animals, eat most ethically when we accept that in order for us to live, something must die, but we would like to make that process the least harmful possible for the ecosystem of our world. Part of that is accepting that eating meat is painful, so that we don't do it wantonly. 

It's important to us that if we're going to eat meat, the animals have happy, healthy lives, and we think we've achieved that in our chickens. Then, we try to maximize the nutrition from each life we've taken. After processing these four birds, I was actually quite pleased to discover that we'll get the protein component of four family meals out of each of them. Here's the breakdown of how we're using these birds:

Directly from what we processed on slaughtering day:
  • 1 cup of livers into the freezer (1x liver pate = 1 fancy family meal, later)
  • 2 jars of feet, neck and gizzard broth made and canned (2x family soup meals, later)
  • 1 family meal of gizzard and neck-meat poutine (with chicken gravy)

Then we put the four birds into the fridge to loosen up (from rigor mortis), and two days later I prepared them: I roasted two of the four, then picked, boiled and dehydrated the meat, made bone broth of the bones, and froze the roasted skin. I froze the two remaining birds whole, which will be feasts, later on, each providing an additional meal of bone broth soup. We ate four roasted wings for our dinner that night, which was delicious, and the perfect amount of meat for our family of four. Meal tally from second day of processing:

  • 2 family feasts of a whole roast bird
  • 5 bone broth soups with bits of meat
  • 2 chickens roasted and dehydrated (4 meals, later)
  • bag of 5 portions of chicken skin (to add to stir-fries and other meals)
  • 1 family meal of wings, on the day I roasted them

My partner's birthday dinner:
Homegrown beans & broccoli with chicken poutine
from the first animal he ever butchered, himself.

Total: 16 meals plus chicken skin.

I can't say I'm enormously proud that we enjoyed eating the meat of the birds we had held in our arms, but I was relieved. I wasn't sure we could do it, and we managed. We fed ourselves.

And I learned something huge about myself in this process. I've always been repulsed and horrified by gore and violence in movies, which seemed incongruous with the fact that I spent my childhood helping with trimming and gutting rabbits, chickens and pigs on my family's hobby farm. Why do those movies upset me so much? In killing my own home-raised chickens, I discovered why: It's compassion. In movies, killing is done for show. Blood theatre. It's needlessly violent, needlessly cruel, and increasingly, it's gratuitous. On an ethical farm, killing is done carefully, and at great cost to the killer. The reason my parents raised meat birds and meat rabbits was also out of a desire for ethical meat, and ethical farming - whether for vegetables or meat - requires a close connection with our food; a deep emotional journey into the lives and greater ecosystem of all the plants, fruit and animals we intend to consume. It requires sorrow, and compassion, and an overcoming of that sorrow when we accept that we need to kill to eat. We choose death in order to survive, and we never do so wantonly, or for some kind of theatre.

Every single bite of chicken that we eat this year will taste of sorrow, compassion, and deep, deep gratitude.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

the apocalypse is trickling in, and unschooling accidentally prepared us for it

dragonfly coming out of its larval skin - photo by Taliesin van Lidth de Jeude Roemer

I went in this morning to look at my eighteen-year-old son while he slept. He looked so peaceful. I wanted to wrap him up in my arms and cherish that peaceful face, now so much longer and with stubble around the chin, as I used to when it was round and soft and chubby, and the whole world seemed so much safer. It's not safe anymore. His whole future is in question, as is my daughter's, and how will we get from here to there? From pandemics to fascism to economic and social collapse to apocalyptic storms and other disasters wrought by climate change, holy this is a crazy time we're living in. Back in the 90's people were talking about this. 2020 was a year that I heard spoken of as a turning point. Would society as we know it even make it to 2020, we asked? Would it be worth having children if in fact things would be as dire as predicted?

Well we did have children. And climate change is pretty much as predicted. Turns out (also as predicted) that the rise in climate change disasters really did trigger global anxiety and a tightening of the screws of power. We're watching in real time as fascism rises, power is abused by corporations and government, the gulf between rich and poor widens, and communities are just beginning to be wiped out by floods, fires, storms, and now rioting. Social collapse is increasingly looking likely. Three years ago, Rachel Nuwer wrote on BBC Future that "Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?" Well guess what--pandemics are here too. This doesn't bode well for our children's future, or even our own. Our family is now home in isolation for the foreseeable future, and learning to grow what crops we can, hoping to develop survival skills. Pretty extreme, right? But for an increasing number of us, this is the new reality. And unexpectedly, unschooling prepared us for this.

We didn't even want to call it unschooling, in the beginning. I valiantly tried to use the terms "life-learning" or "self-directed education", because they seemed so much less confrontational. But as the wave of unschoolers grew across the world, my pacified terms increasingly met with blank stares, and we relented. We unschooled our kids because it seemed like a natural extension of attachment-parenting and the non-coercive learning environment my mother created in her preschool program. We unschooled because it made our kids happy. We continued unschooling because, as time went on, we saw that they were thriving, and that their developing interests, skills, and personal values were increasingly supported by our way of life. Now, in this time of global pandemic and societal upheaval, we are aware that the basic benefits of unschooling are what are keeping our whole family sane and together.

First, we're comfortable being maverick. This seems not like something we'd strive for, and it definitely wasn't. It just came of always being the family with the weird lifestyle. But here we are, accustomed to gently explaining our choices to people and carrying on despite the criticism. This is a very useful skill when our autoimmune-afflicted family is choosing to wear masks during a pandemic when so many others seem to find this practice ridiculous or even offensive. It's a useful skill when isolating ourselves even as the rest of our community returns to normal. Feeling comfortable with being maverick is a useful skill when staying home as a family raising chickens and vegetables and doing "farm things" that many of our kids' city friends find bizarre. My daughter and her friends like to joke that she sleeps in a pile of hay. She updated her zoom background accordingly with a hay pile, and rode the wave of her maverick.

Speaking of being home as a family and farming together (truly we can hardly call it a farm; it's 1/4 acre, but we're doing our best!), we're happy as a family. That is pretty amazing, and like any relationship, it's always a struggle and a rollicking adventure to keep the harmony alive. Especially during this pandemic when we're now having to look at all four of each other's faces most of every hour, every day. But unschooling prepared us for this. Once when my daughter was about six or seven, and we were out on adventure with a wilderness program I led, she came to me with a confused look on her face. She explained that a woman had stopped her on the trail and asked if she's sick of having to be with her mother all the time instead of going to school. She didn't understand why she would be! That is the gift of unschooling, or of any situation that leads to more family togetherness: we have to work out the kinks and create a harmonious living situation. It's not that there aren't times we're frustrated, hurt, or angry; where our various needs or values clash. Of course there are! And plenty of them. However, like in any democratic society, we have to work those issues out with as much respect and listening as possible, if we want to maintain the harmony. Yes of course there have been many times when as parents we put our feet down, because sometimes kids just really don't understand the risks of their actions. But we explain our demands, and we try very hard (not always successfully) to give our kids freedom within the structure of a family all living together. In this way we have all managed to find happiness in each other's company.

Like all democracy, sorting out ongoing life and relationships is always a struggle, and we keep persevering. Jeff Goodell says in Rolling Stone that "the other big takeaway from [the 2018 IPCC] report is that it’s time to get serious about adapting to a rapidly changing world. If we don’t, a good percentage of civilization as we know it today won’t survive." Unschooling has helped us in this by providing endless opportunities for adaptation. A kid with lots of free time and options necessarily learns to manage those options herself, to solve problems herself, to research and find solutions when nobody is presenting any. She learns to compromise and to stay strong when needed; she learns the difference between wants and needs. These are things we all learn as adults, but unschooling, in removing kids from the pre-ordained structure of school, gives them an opportunity to learn these things sooner. They gain confidence in making life-choices for themselves, confidence in standing up for their needs and values, and confidence in their ability to adapt to new situations.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, unschooling has taught us resilience. I suppose resilience is a confluence of all the things I've talked about already. It's being a person who is able to stand strong when faced with a challenge, adapt to the moment, and persevere. It's about having a positive outlook even when circumstances are dire, and using that outlook to chart a path to a happy outcome. My Dad had Parkinson's for most of my adult life, and when people asked him how he was doing, he sometimes responded "better than I look". And he managed to have a fulfilling and active life for more than a decade beyond what the doctors predicted. In the last few years of his life, when his disease made him severely disabled, he said his cup was not half full, but "overflowing". Life is always, always going to give us challenges, and some of them are going to seem insurmountable. Some of them actually will be insurmountable, and eventually we'll lose loved ones, and die. But we can go down feeling bad, or we can go down with our hearts full, knowing we lived the best life we could. That is what I hope for my weird little unschooling family.

Last night our family put the chickens to bed, made some popcorn, and went out to the beach to look at comet Neowise. We brought our telescope and my son brought all the cameras to capture the gorgeousness of our night sky. After much standing around looking at eyepieces and setting up lenses and tripods, the sky darkened enough that we saw Neowise above the northwestern horizon. My daughter in her hedgehog onesie that feels like a mop leaned into me as we stood in the warm breeze. Eventually her brother's and father's arms wrapped around us both as we watched bats flit by against the starry sky. Soon we all found ourselves lying on the pebbly beach, comfortable being in each other's company, gazing at the amazingly vast collection of stars, meteors, clouds, satellites and black-blue space. Maybe the apocalypse is trickling in. We're as ready as we'll ever be, because our cup is overflowing.

comet Neowise - photo by Taliesin van Lidth de Jeude Roemer

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Tortillas from scratch by Rhiannon

In addition to being in isolation at home with whatever foods I deemed essential, we have decided that having the world of imported and processed foods at our fingertips was no longer sustainable, neither for our finances nor for an ethical, ecologically sustainable future. We're aiming for the following (in this order):
  1. Grow everything we can (veggies, potatoes, apples, corn, chicken meat and eggs)
  2. Source other basics from our own province (pulses, oats, corn, hay, chicken feed)
  3. Buy rice in bulk (not yet ethical)
  4. Other treats rarely (local ethical meat, cheese, imported fruits, and ethical chocolate)
Consequently, we now have a lot of dried chickpeas, rice, lentils, oats and corn, which is what we make most of our meals out of, in addition to lots of veggies from the garden, as they become ready to eat. To keep from eating rice, curries, hummus and soup every day, we're having to learn and improvise a LOT! We've discovered that we can run any and all grains and pulses through our grain mill or roller and create all kinds of gluten-free breads.

But Rhiannon wanted tortillas!! So... she made them! From scratch, using info gathered from around the Internet. What a satisfying thing to do!! I was so proud to see her determination and ingenuity. Maybe her Abuelita would be proud, too. :-)

How To Make Corn Tortillas from Scratch
On the first day, she brought about 5 cups of dried corn to a boil with some ash from our wood stove, and once the peels were coming off the kernels, she left the pot of ashy corn and water to sit for twenty-four hours.

Today she hand-scoured and rinsed the corn until the water was clear-ish, and strained it. Then she ran the corn through our meat-grinder twice, until (with a bit of water added) it became a nice masa dough.

Makin' masa, and jumpin' on the masa!
She divided it into sixteen balls, flattened each between two cutting boards (by jumping on them!!) and then cooked them up on our skillets.

Squished masa, and Tali helping to cook the tortillas.

To complete her awesome project, she made us all this wonderful dinner, including store-bought avocados and cheese, plus chives, parsley, lettuce and garlic scapes from our garden. What a proud Mama am I. And pleased to just arrive at the table to this masterpiece.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

isolation farming for now and a better future

Having committed to a year of isolation on our ever-evolving little homestead, I suppose we could say we're now farm-schooling. For me, it's also an act of rebellion and a way of working toward societal change.

Rhiannon cutting up roof rafters to make garden beds.
Soon after our family went into isolation at home, my daughter started keeping track of how much money our veggie garden was saving us. She'd pay attention to the foraged or homegrown foods we ate over the course of a day or two, then research the advertised cost of an equivalent food product from Superstore's online catalogue, and add that to her tally. After two months of keeping records, our savings total $160. We've also spent $1700 on seeds, garden supplies, chicks, chicken feed and supplies, and chicken coop building (VISA thanks us, I'm sure). It doesn't seem like it's financially worthwhile, but we're looking at the long game, here.

What we didn't expect when we started this isolation was how long it would last, nor the quickly-rising cost and unavailability of grocery store foods. Over the past few months, my daughter's research has showed us that many food items have doubled in price more than once, and food transport and supply has become threatened due to COVID-19 restrictions and fears. If there's a bigger wave of the pandemic in September, as is predicted, then that's right at harvest time, which doesn't bode well at all for our food security. Neither does it promise a return to school or community life. In addition, both my partner and I have had to take pay-cuts, either due to the economy's stumbling, or to our need to self-isolate (my daughter and I both suffer inflammatory conditions that make this virus dangerous to us). It seems evident that we're into both a longer isolation than we had originally imagined, as well as the necessity of living on less income. What do to about that?! Farm, of course!!

Taliesin building porch planters from reclaimed rafters.
We're lucky to have about a quarter acre of land at our disposal; it's not prime farming land, but it's land nevertheless, and some of it is quite good. We're planning to make the best of it. Given the uncertainty around school and social commitments, our kids have already committed to stay home from school and college for at least a year, learning online, and through farming. It's not only about food security, but also this corona-driven push towards farming is helping us realize our dreams of living locally and supporting our own community instead of just running with our noses to the grindstone, hoping to make enough money to buy whatever we can by the cheapest means. That life was no fun. By living locally we mean to do better.

Planters on the hot porch mean peppers and melons!
I've been thinking with blissful idealism about what this change means for my kids' education; their futures. And I'm OK with idealism. There has to be a certain amount of idealism to give us hope in a brighter future, and even to work towards that future at all. Our idealism is not blind nor is it ignorant. We know a quarter acre can't feed our family of four; we know our farming skills are nascent. But we have idealism and determination and a little bit of apocalyptic fear on our side, and that's got to count for something, right? Most of all we're just feeling inspired. Luckily both kids (now 15 and 18) see the potential benefit in learning to farm and provide for themselves, so we're really in this together. My daughter explains, "when I was younger and didn't go to school, I couldn't really do a lot of the [garden] work or decision-making, and then when I was older I did go to school so I was tired and didn't have time to do it. So now is the first time I can be involved, while understanding at a deeper level."

Microscopic view of the mites that came with our chicks' hay!
You probably want the details. And I'm happy to oblige! We've started a chicken flock (and if my daughter has her way we'll be adding some pygmy goats for milking). We've expanded our vegetable garden to encompass most of the free space in our yard, and working with the little bit of knowledge we've gathered from growing a few veggies here for the past 19 years, we hope to at least supply our own veggies, as well as quite a few potatoes and a little chicken meat and eggs. In addition to this we're buying grain and lentils from local (well... in-province) sellers, and I just put a deposit on 25lbs of local hormone-free, grass-raised beef which we'll pick up in December. I hope also to get a bit of local lamb, if we can.  In addition to farming, my kids have learned to cook all sorts of things that never occurred to them before, using our new staples of rice, potatoes, lentils, and current garden veggies. When the cauliflower was ready we ate it nearly every day for weeks; then the kale was ready; now lettuce and herbs. 

We've boycotted Amazon and are discovering ways of supplying our needs through local farms and craftspeople - mostly we're learning to make do with far less than we used to, and discovering that we are not wanting. We're learning to mend our clothing and entertain ourselves in the yard instead of in the city. I am even learning to offer most of the services I previously charged money for, for free, and finding that I now feel more rewarded for the work I do. This is a time of amazing empowerment.

Two of our Jersey Giant chicks - pullets, we hope, though we aren't sure yet.
At a time when disaster after disaster after disaster is upon our species, so many of us are rising up to make the changes we've needed to make for centuries or more. Coronavirus, environmental and social devastation brought by our unending exploitation of land and people; the burning, flooding, and storming of our capitalism-driven climate change... all of these things are pushing us to change. People are rising in the streets against racism, tyranny, and so much injustice. Those who can't risk exposure to the coronavirus are finding different ways to protest and to work through everyday actions to turn our backs on industrial and systemic brutality. People are stepping up to see those in need in their own communities and offering help wherever possible. We are finally finding the courage to cut ties with the industrial food complex and eat locally - sustainably. We are keeping our kids home from school, even as the schools begin reopening, realizing that school wasn't serving us well enough, and that family restructure is possible. We are discovering that the walls we built to keep us safe - the walls of capitalism, industrialism, and colonialism - are only protecting the richest of the rich, and not the rest of us. We are tearing down the walls.

Here we are doing some practice goat-feeding at my brother's house. He and his partner have recently purchased a horse and two goats to live beside their growing vegetable garden, eat weeds and fertilize the land. But mostly for love.

Friday, June 5, 2020

How seeing our children as unique individuals in a larger ecology is essential to a good education

This morning I received an email from our hydro-electric provider, advising me of two things: I’m failing to meet my energy-use-reduction challenge by twenty-nine percent (frown-emoji!) and I can earn fifty points on my challenge by sending them a photo of a fan in use in my home (the premise being that it’s replacing the use of an air conditioner, so, saving power). I assume this email was intended to gently prod me into energy-saving action, but it did the opposite.

First I was just incredulous – then a little pissed off. We’ve been on a ten-year journey of rebuilding our home to increase insulation, efficiency, etc. We dry almost all our laundry outside or above the wood stove, and generally use far fewer appliances than the average urban household. We don’t even own an air-conditioner, and right now, when the outside temperature rarely rises above room-temperature, we rarely even need to open a window for cooling. In the deepest heat of late summer we’ll start using a fan. Who are these people, suggesting I should use a fan instead of my air conditioner? They’re not people who know me – that’s for sure. I’m just a number to them. This email made me feel unseen, misunderstood, and totally unappreciated. Instead of sending them a photo of a fan to earn some ridiculous “points” for my “challenge”, I sent them an email advising them on some better ways of engaging their customers.

People need to be seen. You know how most good preschool and kindergarten classes begin with sharing circle? This enables kids to feel seen, connected, and valued at the beginning of their day together. My daughter’s progressive senior high school groups have a daily check-in, which accomplishes the same thing. It allows the group to connect before delving into other activities, so that every member feels seen, and is more able to engage genuinely with the group. Forbes tells us that Employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.”

But obviously, this feeling of being seen has to continue beyond just the daily check-in. We need to feel that the groups and activities we engage in are well-suited to us; that we’re valued, and that we’re seen as individuals. Our
education system is failing us in this.

We have made learning a desperate act. Our kids have to succeed or fail. They must remember all the elements in the top three rows of the periodic table by Thursday or they won’t pass the test. And if they don’t pass the test, they may not pass the year, and if they don’t pass the year, they’ll have to repeat science next year, or they won’t get into the program they want, or they will simply make their parents angry. Adrenaline will help them to learn. Maybe the fear of failure will make our kids remember the order of those elements; maybe they write them out a hundred times or use a song to memorize them; maybe they list them mentally before every meal, before bed and upon waking. They learn to list the elements, along with their atomic numbers and symbols. And next year they learn them all again, on the same desperate quest to pass the year. And when these kids are forty years old and their kids are listing these elements yet again, they can’t remember them anymore, or maybe worse, the recollection of learning these facts fills them with frustration or rage. Because it was a useless skill in their lives, but they feel inadequate because they’ve lost it.

That big frown-emoji on the email I received from our hydro-electric company reminds me of the disappointment of my teacher when I received similarly disappointing percentages on my tests in school. But did my shame then or now prod me on towards success? No. It made me feel worthless. It made me stop trying. This is what shame does to people. Maybe in some way we can use it to spurn us on, but not really to success – just to a menial good-enough pass or preferably to escape, as many students are waiting to do from the school system.

Does it really have to be this way? Of course not. Those of us practicing respectful, non-coercive parenting and teaching, self-directed learning and unschooling know very well the importance of building confidence and self-worth in our children. We know that when our children are respected for their own individual truth they will be motivated to succeed, and that that success will look different for every one of them. It’s not our job to mold them into a pre-designed vision of success; it’s our job to look at them with open hearts and discover how each of them defines “success” for themselves.

My son taught himself all the elements when he was seven. You know why? Because he was excited about burning stuff! He was excited about setting fire to my scouring pads since he had learned from a YouTube video that they could burn. Then he wondered what else could burn, and how, and why. And we bought him a book by Theodore Gray that explained about the elements in terms of Mr Gray’s explorative play and crazy dangerous experiments, and our son studied it until he knew it all. Because it was fun. Nobody in this house cared whether he knew the names of elements, but he was so curious about what could burn, and then what was in the things all around him, and what was in space, and what happened when he mixed these many things together, that by the time he finally took a grade 11 chemistry class in college, it was all too easy for him. It was boring. Except the chemical equations. He had to learn those, and he did so in an act of desperation because he needed that chemistry credit to attend university. Now he’s questioning his desire to study sciences because, for him, the process of discovery has been stripped from science by our education system. We can learn in all kinds of ways, but some learning delights us, and some devours us.

Recently some of my friends reminisced on Facebook about our grade 8 sewing class, where we were instructed to make a pair of cotton shorts. They were hideous shorts without pockets or style or anything interesting at all other than whatever print we’d chosen for ourselves when our mothers took us shopping for that special piece of shorts-making fabric. Most kids never wore the shorts; many of us had forgotten the class. But I loved it. Because I refused to make the shorts, knowing I’d never wear them (and also afraid of that complicated-looking crotch construction), and I insisted on making a skirt with a lizard-print fabric. So the teacher allowed me to self-direct my project, using a different pattern and making a skirt. And out of my scraps I made a matching skirt for my doll, which I still have today. I remember that class and the extra hours I voluntarily put in much more than whatever we made in cooking class, and also more than the academic classes from that year, which I’ve completely forgotten, but not nearly as much as the wonderful assortment of little judges’ wigs I made for some of my dolls during my grade five math class. I stole yarn and masking tape from the art supplies trolley and stored them in my desk. During math class I reached into my desk and carefully folded masking tape into the shape of my dolls’ heads that my hands knew without the aid of my eyes. Then I cut thin strips of tape, coiled the yarn around them, and affixed them to the little bald-caps I’d made in neat rows, changing direction of the rows as they progressed across the caps so that they hung down at the back, just like old fashioned judges’ wigs. My teacher was furious. My mother thought it was hilarious. The only three things I remember from that classroom are the art trolley, the judges’ wigs, and the assortment of different reward-stickers that I rarely achieved, but learned to steal from behind the teacher’s desk.

You know why I remember these things? Creativity. Problem solving. If, instead of providing us with a shorts-pattern and allowing us to choose our own fabric, the sewing class provided us with an exciting assortment of materials, varying patterns, and free time, things would be very different. Some kids would sit around doing what appeared to be nothing. Some might make clothing, or stuffies or dolls. Some might twist the fabric into ropes and hang like monkeys from the rafters. Can you make a strong enough rope? Can you twist or braid until it holds and doesn’t tear? Can you open up the rope and use it as aerial silks? What kind of fabric will work best? Kids in a class like this will not all learn the same thing. They won’t fit neatly into a system for grading. But they will learn, and they will remember. Those who “do nothing” may in fact be learning social skills, or observation skills. Maybe they’re just processing whatever happened at home that morning. And I guarantee you, it is just as useful to learn to make stuffies, rope or social skills as it is to learn to make shorts. Each of these things involves beneficial lessons; each of them challenges the learner to solve problems and each of them provides opportunity for discovery. And if the teacher makes a point of engaging and appreciating the individualism of each student in their unique activity, each student will be seen. And far more students will have positive, memorable experiences from that class.

Of course not every student is going to learn the same thing. In the shorts class, some of us remember the teacher; some remember the fit of the shorts; some remember shopping for the fabric. The grading rubrics may have been equal, but the lessons were not. Life is like that.

I read George Monbiot’s article about homeschooling his kids through project-based learning, “placing ecology and Earth systems at the heart of learning, just as they are at the heart of life.” And I wish I knew him so I could reach out and say “YES! Yes it works, George! I’ve done this with my children, by just keeping them home and letting them explore the world, and now they understand so many ecologies!” Now they’re thriving in the time of isolation because they’ve already learned how to entertain themselves in creative, explorative ways. They’re thriving and living life.

Ecology is life; we are ecology. Ecology is the interrelationship of everything, and looking at life and parenting and school and learning as just a part of the earth’s great ecology is exactly how we see and recognize each other for our individual gifts and values. And it doesn’t have to happen only at home. This kind of learning can happen at school, too. A group of individual children is an ecology in itself, and it’s deeply rooted in the rest of the world those children relate to. School doesn’t have to be a failure. It doesn’t have to feel like a prison for our children. School can be a vibrant place for meeting up with friends who are exploring, too. School can be an open supported environment of discovery and delight. School can be a place where kids (and adults) come to get creative; to access a bunch of exciting resources and materials and make, do and explore whatever they feel like, until they go home at the end of the day all tired out from laughing and playing and learning. And will they learn to read, with nobody prodding them along with threats of failure? Yes they will! Because actually reading is fun and interesting, though they may not all learn at the same time, or for the same reasons. They will learn to read and to calculate and to care about all kinds of histories and sciences because they will have an intrinsic desire to experiment and discover.

It will be like herding cats. And that will have to be OK with us. Because humans were not built to fall into neat rows and repeat the same words their forefathers repeated in lines of desks with pencils scratching. Humans were not built at all. We are not machines. We are alive, and we are evolving. We are running around like inquisitive, curious cats, sniffing each other and poking each other, and playing with all the mice and the catnip and the strings and cardboard boxes. We are discovering and playing with all that interests us and learning from it and growing and advancing our understanding of how everything works. That is science. And when we have opportunity, we do it of our own free will, because it’s fun.

But how do we get there? We change. We change the way we’re relating to our children, so that being respected and seen is natural to them; so that when they grow up to become teachers and parents, they’ll naturally respect and see the next generation for each individual’s value, and a cycle of true individual engagement and prosperity will have begun.

So I emailed the people at that hydro-electric company. You know what I said to them? I told them that instead of sending their customers challenges, expecting us to submit proof-of-achievement photos to either succeed or fail, they should encourage us to share our own unique energy-saving innovations. Because people are innovative, and we like to share. We like to be seen. And when we feel seen, respected, and valued, we will be successful.

It’s time for us to do the very rewarding work of opening our eyes and seeing each other. We need to see our children, our partners, our friends and co-workers, employees, and just the guy standing ahead of us in the socially-distanced grocery store lineup as individuals who are interesting and valued. It’s time to see ourselves and our activities as unique and essential parts of the great ecology. That is how we succeed as a species.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

how to make the only good nuts and bolts

Walking with my husband the other day in the pre-rain quiet, he told me that if somebody ever wanted to trap me, they could bait the trap with nuts and bolts. He's probably not wrong about that.

The first thing I ever remember stealing was a cookie from the strawberry jar in my step-mother's kitchen. It was a feat because, as my sister taught me, she used that giant ceramic cookie jar so she'd hear us when we stole a cookie. The precious can of nuts and bolts that Grandma had given us was right beside the strawberry jar, and that is the second thing we stole. We took it under my big sister's bed in the middle of the night (because obviously if somebody heard us crunching from under there they'd never find us, right??)... and we crunched up those nuts and bolts. Every piece was wonderful.

My Grandma with my dad, before my aunt was born.
Grandma's nuts and bolts are so renowned that even my brother and friends back on the island where I lived with my Mum and Pappa can remember the flavour of them. At least once a year I'd return from visiting my father, step mother, and sisters with a gift from Grandma: always in a green MJB coffee can, with a piece of wax paper under the plastic lid. The green can and the feeling of lifting off the wax paper was like the take-along version of Grandma's love, and the contents were something extra special: A small stash of the dream collection of spiced and toasted cereals, nuts and pretzels that nobody anywhere could make even remotely as good as my Grandma could.

And that was by design. There were rumours about her recipe; my Mum said she was sure it came from a local newspaper back in the 60's. But that's as close as we came to knowing Grandma's secret. A few times over the years, Grandma clapped her hands and told me delightedly about her neighbour's husband who always came to visit her for some nuts and bolts. Her eyes sparkled as she described how her neighbour came begging for the recipe so she could make them for her husband, and Grandma obliged, giving her friend the recipe... but without the key ingredient. The husband kept coming to my Grandma, because yes - Grandma's nuts and bolts are the only good nuts and bolts. There's just something about them that defies explanation, and you just. can't. stop. eating. Even when it means dangerously stealing them from beside the noisy cookie jar to eat under the bed.

Grandma in the 2009, still telling her stories!
It took me thirty years to find the recipe. When I was in my early twenties, Grandma called me with urgency in her voice, asking whether I was going to the US anytime soon. She said she was in dire need of "Old Hickory Smoked Salt", and although she refused to tell me what she needed it for, I had a pretty good idea. I never did go shopping in the US, and never bought her that salt, but I've also never forgotten the clue she gave me that day. I thought maybe Grandma would bequeath her secret recipe to her daughter and all of us granddaughters when she got old, but a series of strokes took her communication away from us before that could happen, if it ever might have at all. The last time she spoke to me about nuts and bolts it was only to tell me again the story of her neighbour's husband and the secret ingredient she never gave away. Grandma died with the nuts and bolts recipe still shrouded.

Let me just tell you a little something about my Grandma, because there's no point sharing her recipe without sharing a bit of her personality. She was the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, and talked about her mother hiding in the trees as her village was overtaken in war. She liked to eat perogy at the Saskatchewan Pavillion restaurant or the Ukrainian Village. She had ESP and had rather involved conversations with birds. Her house was a virtual shrine to the sixties, and included my father and aunt's nearly-in-tact bedrooms and rec room from that time. Her fingernails were also a relic of the sixties, but her conversation was extravagant. She was a bold teller of stories. She never stopped. She even went and kissed the Blarney Stone, on a trip with my Irish Grandfather - a feat that involves being dangled over the edge of a castle by strapping young men just to kiss the same piece of rock that thousands of babbling lips before have touched. She told that story often. So I can't tell you for sure how many of her stories were rooted more in fact or fiction, but they were sure amazing. She would tell you about anything she felt like, and nothing she didn't. Every time I asked about how to make nuts and bolts, I got some kind of story, but never the recipe.

So this year, two years after Grandma died, my aunt showed me something amazing. It was an old yellowed newspaper clipping in a plastic baggie, with the still-discernible recipe for nuts and bolts -- the original clipping from the December 7th 1961 issue of the Vancouver Sun newspaper. Page 64. Then she invited me to dig through my Grandma's ancient spice jars. I mean they're older than I am. And so stale you can't tell for sure that they contain what the labels say they do. Some definitely don't! All of the labels are Spice Islands, and you can't even buy those around here anymore. Who knows what Grandma filled them with.

So I bought some fresh spices and followed the old recipe to make a batch of nuts and bolts. I had to make some adjustments and guesses, because there are SO many types of "seasoning salt", and SO many types of "smoke flavoured salt". And also my family is gluten-free, so I had to adjust for that as well. From my Grandma's spice-seeking phone call, I knew the salt had to be hickory smoked, but that wasn't anywhere to be found, so I substituted the pepper for hickory smoked pepper that I found at Queensdale Market in North Vancouver, and the smoked salt for sea salt.

Bah. It just wasn't right. It was like all the other nuts and bolts in the world: disappointing. So I looked at the spice jars again.
Grandma Gallaher's newspaper clipping.

Oh Aunt Liz I can't tell you how informative those stale old spices were. And the one that says it's old hickory smoked salt but clearly contains some kind of flavour-deprived, petrified garlic or onion? Ew. But SO informative!! Because those old jars have no ingredient listings, so I had to go researching. And that's when I found something curious: The ingredients in Spice Islands Old Hickory Smoked Salt are salt, cocoa, smoke flavouring, propylene glycol, and silicon dioxide. WHAT?! COCOA?! I knew right away we didn't need those last two ingredients, but something in my gut told me to throw a bunch of cocoa on my inferior batch of nuts and bolts. So I did. And it worked!! Grandma's secret ingredient was cocoa. And did she even know? I'm not sure. It was part and parcel of the smoked salt she always used, but I'm telling you right now: As soon as I added a couple of heaping spoonfuls of cocoa to my already-baked nuts and bolts, they were right. The kind of right only the initiated would recognize. So I brought my brother over and gave him some to sample. He approved. It's not just my imagination.

Here's my slightly-more specific version of Grandma's nuts and bolts recipe. You might adjust to your preference, but don't omit the cocoa.

Hermila, Amo, Mischa, Bree - this is for you. Make the nuts and bolts. You deserve them. We all deserve to make a hundred cans full and eat them whenever we like until our hearts are full of all the goodness. Which apparently equals cocoa. Enjoy. And thank you, Aunt Liz.
Love, Emily

Grandma Gallaher's Nuts and Bolts
  • box of gluten-free Rice Chex
  • box of gluten-free cereal O’s
  • bag of gluten-free stick pretzels
  • bunch of peanuts
  • bunch of pecans (more than peanuts!)
  • 1 cup butter, melted
  • 1tsp smoked paprika
  • 1tsp dried and crushed summer savory
  • 2tbsp dried marjoram
  • 1 tbsp hickory smoked pepper
  • ½ tsp powdered garlic
  • ½ tsp powdered onion
  • 1big tbsp sea salt
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
Toss all together and bake at 250F until perfectly crunchy and slightly brown. 
You can add Shreddies if you're not having to be gluten-free. :-)
Maybe use a spatula to turn them over a couple of times.
Cool and package in jars or cans.
Hide them.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

some chick introductions

As a follow-up to my previous post about starting our chicken-farming adventure, I thought I'd introduce you to some of our chicks. These are just those that we are getting to know best at this point. Only a handful of the 30 it turns out we have. We aren't naming any of them until we know which ones we're keeping, but for now... meet some of our babies!

Little fluffy-face! Such a funny little one this is. A white Ameraucana.

This one is HUGE. Stands nearly an inch taller than the rest of the chicks, and spends its time calmly supervising and getting between squabbling younger chicks. We're calling it the caretaker for now. We think it's an Australorp but it might be a Jersey Giant.

The LOUD one!!! This little Lavender Orpington stands up and shouts. A LOT. And it's ear-splitting.

This little one is one of the quietest. We're not sure but it might be a Swedish Flower Hen. Just stands around observing a lot.

And here she is, one of our adorable pair of Cream Legbar pullets. She's very small and quiet, and also extremely timid.  We know we're keeping her for sure, but we don't have a name for her yet.

Friday, May 1, 2020

We're chicken farmers!

Well, we've been planning this for years, and finally jumped in and did it. Our first time raising our own chickens! So exciting!!! And if you want to follow our progress, we're going to document it every Friday on our YouTube series

Meanwhile, would you like to meet our chicks? We have 29 chicks from Greendale Heritage Farm in Chilliwack and Wild Acres Farm in Armstrong. A mix of the following breeds of unsexed chicks, and we hope to end up with about 10 good laying hens and a rooster:
  • chocolate orpington
  • lavender orpington
  • jersey giant (black and blue)
  • swedish flower hen
  • crested legbar
  • australorp
  • ameraucana

I designed a coop that met our needs for number of birds, and Markus built it using partially reclaimed materials. It's hopefully vermin-proof and easy to clean/maintain. I described it in the video.

We know there will be some heartbreaking times ahead, but right now we're in the honeymoon phase... a closet-brooder full of adorable little downy fluff-balls and hearts full of dreams. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

How Covid Saved my Husband

This is going to be a vulnerable post. Telling you what's happening now means telling you what happened before this, and that part was horrible. I lost my husband. Not his life - thank goodness - but I lost his heart to the point where we haven't been wearing our wedding rings for most of ten years, now.

Let me tell you our story. Nearly twenty-five years ago now I met Markus. We were introduced by our friend Chloe, because she said we were so similarly strange. Actually she coerced me to go meet him; I tried to refuse. But off we went to the bus station in Vancouver, where the bus from Victoria pulled in, and I sat complaining about the stupidity of a blind date, while watching the passengers get off the bus. One of them meekly stepped off towards the luggage, his head turned away from where we were sitting, and his long blonde hair tumbling over the brown leather jacket on his shoulders. I wanted to meet him before I saw his face. I wanted to meet him before I knew he was Markus. He walked over and shyly shook my hand, eyes lowered behind blonde lashes. It wasn't until a minute later that he braved a glance at my face; I saw his gentle green-blue-hazel eyes, and fell in love forever.

I knew in that first moment that he would be my friend for the rest of my life. Over the next few years we adventured together; we traveled and explored, and talked about everything interesting and zany in the world. We found we agreed about everything - even burning candles on our Christmas tree and how to decorate our home! Our Chloe was right: we were perfectly matched for each other in our apparent weirdness, and completely relieved to have each other to share such a fascinating world with. Everything was comfortable, and most things were easy.

After 4 years together, we got married. It was an amazing wedding, and although the idea had been mine, our families made the event so wonderful that it seemed to be a community event. It was a true bringing-together of our beautiful tribes. Then we left the city and moved to this house - the house I grew up in on this beautiful island I love. And Markus loved it too. He began telecommuting two days a week, and commuted to the city on the other three. And less than a year later we conceived our first child.

Our kids' early years were idyllic. There were times Markus couldn't telecommute, but mostly he managed to make it home in time to eat dinner with his children, and any distance that might have grown between us all during the week was mended on the weekend. We had such a rich and wonderful life, full of music sessions and parties, family adventures and fun. I loved being a stay-at-home mother, attachment-parenting my kids, and for the first time in my life I had lots of friends, and felt supported in a life I was creating for myself. We eventually decided to unschool our kids and discovered we agreed about even that! We thought we were doing really well for ourselves.

Then slowly there came the creeping feeling that something was wrong.

By our tenth wedding anniversary something was very wrong. I realized it had been years since we'd had a good conversation. I realized Markus had begun disappearing, both physically and mentally, on a regular basis. He would take the 4:30 ferry home, and instead of walking straight to his waiting family, arriving by about 5:30, he'd arrive at 6 or 7. Often I worried something terrible had befallen him, until I became used to it. He was usually just walking on the docks. When he was home he was usually drinking. Beer and whiskey in the evenings; coffee you could stand on all day. On weekends he'd sleep in until 10 and wake with such a raging headache that he was incapacitated all weekend.

I begged him to quit all the addictions, and he did. He's a good and loving husband, and wanted to do well by his children. We quit drinking together, and it seemed so easy (not to mention a huge financial advantage!) But we couldn't connect anymore. When we did talk he was often bitter; unhappy with who I was and unsatisfied with life. He was uninterested in our home and family, despite going through the motions of participation.

Don't bother trying to diagnose. I tried that. And when I realized his memory was disappearing, we involved the doctors. Sometimes he forgot important life events; sometimes he forgot what happened two minutes earlier. Constantly, he just couldn't. get. moving. He drove off the ferry at about one quarter the speed of the other cars, and it took him at least a minute to get up to speed. He took so long to answer the phone that it often went to the answering machine. He couldn't make sense of simple household tasks, even though he was simultaneously working full time as a software developer, raising two kids, and miraculously rebuilding our home on a relative shoestring and partially reclaimed materials. Despite being one of the cleverest, most interesting people I knew, his brain seemed awash with confusion. He said he lived in his "empty box". I noted that our problems began soon after we moved to this island, and asked him many times if he'd like to move back to Victoria; if maybe being nearer his parents would help, or in the city he had lived in before me. He had no interest. In anything. At my behest, he asked the doctor about his symptoms, underwent various tests including a CT scan. No cause of this misery was found.

For over ten years now, if I ask him what he thinks or feels, his answer is "I don't know". We've fought many times because this is so unbelievable to me. I've accused him of not caring; of being lazy with our relationship. But it has persisted. He says he loves me but he's just not there. The kids tease him about smiling because it happens so infrequently that it seems weird to see on his face. I wish I had been more gentle with him.

Then came this pandemic. He was reluctant to work from home, because for nearly two decades, now, from the day we moved to this island, he's been getting up at 5:30am at least three days a week and trekking into town. It's his routine. It's one of the few things that's normal to him. He has always said the lack of sleep doesn't bother him, and the morning walk to the ferry is nice. He goes to work like a zombie and wakes up by the time he's there in the city at 7:45. Also, how would he connect with his coworkers by virtual meetings? He feels connection at work is important (ironically, I thought, since we don't have much at home).

But he had to stay home, so he did. And the miracle happened. We didn't get covid; we just self-isolated. And eventually he even received a pay-cut from work. These aren't supposed to be miracle-inducing events. But here we are, one month into this isolation, and I have my husband back. He wakes up every day around seven or eight, and commutes one minute to work in the office of our home. Then he makes me breakfast and brings it to me in bed. I make him lunch and we sit on the porch and look out at the world together. Sometimes we walk down the hill to get the mail and we look at all that changes along the trail, on the way. We talk about everything. For the first time in twenty years, I can say he's my best friend again. I feel supported by his love, again. He has ideas. He has opinions. And he smiles.

And now we know: It wasn't addiction or lack of love, or depression or even illness that took my husband away from me. Those were all symptoms of lack of sleep. We know that sleep deprivation causes many terrible symptoms, including most of those experienced by Markus over the past couple of decades. He now sleeps eight to ten hours a night, and his symptoms are gone. But just in case this wasn't enough to convince me we'd found the root of the problem, we ended up going back to the mainland a few days ago. We woke up at 6:40 and drove in for a day of shopping - our first masked and gloved isolation shop. He drove off the ferry at the same speed as all the other traffic, and was helpful and thoughtful about our shopping! It was wonderful to feel in connection again - living life together for the first time in so many years! But he hadn't slept well the night before, and by the time we returned home in the late afternoon, he was exhausted. He walked around like a zombie. He couldn't understand what our evening plans with the children were, and my heart broke a little to see him so weak. It took him two days to return to the old normal. Two days to get my husband back again from one night of bad sleep.

Never again. Sure, we'll go to town again, and there will be sleepless nights. But this rift in our marriage - this long, slow tumbling off the cliff of mental wellness and family connection - this can't happen again. The life we were living - that so many of us have been living for so long - this can't go on. We can't do it. Our supposed future security isn't worth the loss of our present life, as we trudge along the conveyor belt of our society's life-plan. No way. By whatever means necessary, we're going to have to stop this conveyor belt, and build a new and better normal that affords us the fulfillment of a simple basic need: sleep. As much as food and shelter, we need sleep, and somehow our whole culture needs to build that into our expectations. We can do this! The pandemic situation is giving us impetus to develop new ways of working and socializing, and as an added bonus, we're already getting more sleep. I love this train that we're on. Let's keep it going.

*Note*  I never write about other people's struggles without their permission. Markus has read and approves of this sharing of his story. We both hope it brings some clarity to a world where most of us have been pushing ourselves too hard, and maybe we can use this isolation time as a new beginning.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Old Sour Ma's Singin' Saloon

Well hello there! Since we're documenting our family's recent theme nights, here's mine. 
Welcome to Old Sour Ma's Singin' Saloon!

Hi. I'm Ma! Anybody comin' off a train at the station outside my establishment is welcome here. Just introduce yourself at the door. I get most of what I need for the saloon out of Billy's out back. He's never there, but there's a good supply of useful things, there, and nobody ever complained. Except my potato liquor. I make that in my own still just down below the outhouse. Free with dinner. And dinner's also free. Likewise supper. And pie.

The place where you find yourself: in a land unknown and a time untold. Ma's.

This is Annie - she wouldn't give her last name, nor much else about herself, and we feared she was Annie Oakley until she let slip that she didn't have a gun. Got all kinds of fanciness about her, including that she's been to Canada! She went up there herself and just picked wheat after wheat after wheat up there before she come home! She says she lives "down the railroad track" but won't tell us where that is. She also has a lot of cash, which she says just "has ways of finding her". Mysterious lady.

Anybody walkin' in the door to Ma's gets dinner on the house. There's only one dinner. You get what gets put on your plate. Beef and biscuits, most of the time. Beef I found hangin' in Billy's giant larder right behind that big old jug of rye I steal borrow from. Pie after supper. I get the apples from a tree in Billy's yard.

Anybody willin' to play for us gets a bottle of store-bought root beer. This gentleman come in callin' hisself a lightnin' rod saleman, though he didn't appear to have any lighnin' rods on him. Said his name was Clark Withers, and he turned out to be quite the entertainer. So busy with playin' piano he didn't drink his store-bought until later while we were playin' poker.

This guy was a little bit worrisome. Said his name was Fred Likely, but we thought that was Unlikely. Also said he was a cat rustler, and I had to rescue my cats from him on more than one occasion. During the poker playin' we figured out where that Annie gets her load of cash. Now she has all of ours, too. Whether by bettin' or stealin' ... she's got it all.

When that Clark wasn't playin' for us we listened to a lot of music on the jukebox under the bar. A lady named Kitty Wells happened off the train here one evening and left us a heap of music records in return for dinner. Best paying customer I ever had. It was a good time, and Fred turned out to be a likely dancing partner for old Ma.