Thursday, September 10, 2020

Chicken Introductions Then and Now!

It's time to update you on our chicken flock. 

We bought thirty chicks last spring, and sadly, five of them had to be put down due to various ailments. One beloved rooster, Little Mister AKA Gonzo went to live with a whole flock of lovely chocolate Orpington hens where he discovered his masculinity and now basks in glory. All the other roosters we couldn't keep have made their way to various forms of packaging in our pantry and freezer (dried, canned, and frozen). And the remaining fourteen birds are living happily in the main coop, now. 

So I thought I'd introduce those who have made their way so far into our hearts as to have received names. I'll provide baby photos as well, when possible.

Lester Clark. He's that guy. That Australorp rooster guy. The guy who always hops on the chair when the lady stands up just to show his dominance. He crows with a big proud musical voice long before the sun wakes everybody else. He's a good guy, and he's generous with food, usually allowing the hens to eat before he does, and protecting them, always. Beware if you do anything that looks threatening, because he'll stomp his feet at you! And beware if you threaten his masculinity by petting him as if he was a hen or (heaven forbid) picking him up... he'll sit patiently in your arms but as soon as you put him down he'll have to regain that masculinity by quickly mating with whichever hens are nearby.

Meet the Splash. Like every good superhero, he stands tall, protects the weaker among his flock (really just the smallest ladies, since the bigger ones are a little frightening), stands up against tyranny (as long as it's not too too scary), and has an alter ego where he hides between my ankles to get treats and snuggles into my lap for a little nap when he's tired of being a superhero. His voice is rather hoarse but after Lester starts crowing, he does his best to join in with his very rusty, uncertain little crow. He's a Splash Ameraucana and generally hangs out with the smaller hens, where he bravely defends them from unwanted advances of that way-too-big guy. Then he runs away.

Bonus photo: The Splash is not only a superhero -- he's also a parchment scroll mail delivery guy. Like Hedwig, only cooler. And gawkier.


Kalamata is an olive-egger. Or at least we think so, since we didn't order any chicks with feathery feet, and yet seemed to get four of them. The other three had some kind of health problems and we lost them. But Kalamata lives on in her delightfully reserved but curious way. She likes to hop on my lap for a snuggle that lasts about ten seconds, or preferably she likes to nestle on the back of the chair I sit in (you can see her up behind Lester in the photo above). She's always very interested in what's going on, but generally sits back and observes from afar.

Those two lovelies facing each other at the roost are Audrey (left) and Big Bird (right). That's Audrey's baby photo, too. They're crested legbars and will lay blue eggs for us one day. Audrey is very very timid, but likes to stand around my feet and get attention. Big Bird is Rhiannon's special friend and likes to wait in the coop each morning so that she'll be lifted onto Rhiannon's shoulder and can be carried around for the morning chores.

That's Blue. We don't know yet if they're a pullet or a cockerel because they're a Jersey Giant, and growing more slowly than the rest. Blue is a little aloof, as you can see even in their baby photo. They go around minding their own business, munching some tasty grubs, checking out the passing cats and dog, and just generally being independent. I really hope they're a hen because they're so beautiful and I'd like more eggs, but we'll have to wait and see.

Fluffy Face! Isn't she just adorable? She's our funny little white Ameraucana hen, and is even more independent than Blue. She really doesn't like to hang out with anybody and just waits until they're gone to come for treats or even doesn't come at all because actually she probably knows where something tastier is. If you asked her something she would answer 'hmph' if she could, but she can't because the only sound she can make is that of a squeaky barn door...

Meet Francey. She's very stalwart. We're not sure what breed she is since we didn't order any barred chicks, but possibly an Orpington or Orpington cross. She doesn't care what she is because she's just so self-assured. She often just stands and stares right at me, thinking her chicken thoughts and not posturing at all.

Lastly, the Grey Lady. She has a sister named Peeves, who is plain too peevish to photograph. The Grey Lady isn't quite as mean as her sister. Just does her best to get what she wants, usually by slipping in quietly and simply snatching whatever morsel from somebody else and then running away quickly with it, often loudly. They're not very nice ladies, but they do well for themselves, and nobody bothers them (who would dare). Like every good poltergeist, they're just there. Nothing you can do about it but learn to cope.



Friday, August 28, 2020

The Medicine Forest my Parents Gave Me: how exploring and knowing our place in the ecosystem builds resilience


Once I lost my son in the forest. We were heading home through ferns taller than his three-year-old self, he carrying a harvest of licorice ferns and I carrying his baby sister and some oyster mushrooms. He followed along behind me, and when I turned around, he was gone. I called repeatedly. I retraced my steps. I gripped by baby girl to my chest and started running, panicking, and-- there he was, nestled into a sword fern, chewing on a piece of licorice fern root. He looked up blandly at my stricken face and said "I'm just havin' some licorice root." His trance-like state may have been induced by the well-known calming medicine of licorice fern, or it may have been just his joyful state of mind after a couple of hours spent wandering the forest with his mother and sister.  

My kids and I spent part of most days of their childhood out in the forest, exploring. That's what I did as a mother because it's what I knew to do from my own childhood, spent here in this same little west coast paradise. When my head hurts, I go outside. Maybe I chew an alder leaf like the wild aspirin that it is; maybe I just lift my face to the fresh air, sun or rain. When my heart hurts, I lie in the moss and let it soak up my tears. Licorice fern soothes me; so does the feeling of bark, or the creek water between my toes. When I'm hungry, I eat beans off the vine on my porch, or berries and other treats from the woods; when I'm hungry for adventure I go exploring in my medicine forest. I made up that word. Medicine Forest. It's like a permaculture food forest, but with emphasis on its healing power. My parents didn't purposely give me a medicine forest, but they did give it to me, and I'm passing it on to my children. Let me explain.

That's me with our chickens in the early 1980's, rabbit hutches on the right, and winter-covered veggie garden, behind.

I grew up in a pretty typical single family house - a modified double-wide mobile home, actually - on a five-acre piece of land that my parents purchased in 1980. This land was forest when they bought it. We used to come up here and have a picnic on the slope they hoped would one day be their building site. They let my brother and me free-range all over this place, climbing trees, damming creeks, digging great big holes and picking and using whatever plants we felt like, as they slowly cleared the land and built up what is now a developed property. We raised chickens, meat rabbits, and pigs (but only once because the experience was too heartbreaking for all of us to repeat). My parents grew food crops and allowed us to plant our own experimental gardens, while also insisting that we should help with the family food operations. My brother and I were never forced to kill or butcher animals, but because our parents nurtured our curiosity, we both knew how to clean a rabbit or chicken by the time we were twelve, and by the time we were fifteen we could cook a good family meal from the foods we'd grown or wildcrafted. We didn't even know the word wildcraft, though. We were just "picking nettles", or "finding a mushroom."

My son helping my mother pick nettles in the early 2000's.

Living in and with the forest our parents were busy turning into a home was just "life". We could pick indigenous trailing blackberries from the hillside, invasive Himalayan blackberries from the place Pappa was trying to get them out of the creek, or cultivated boysenberries from Mum's garden. Same difference. They all make good pie, if you don't eat them all before getting them home. And whether they make it home or not, your belly is full with the food, your heart is full of the joy, and your mind is full of knowing every detail of your home. That's a medicine forest. It's a place where everything is living and growing together -- humans included. It's a place you've grown so connected to that just living there heals you from the inside out.

My daughter reading in a tree she knows every inch of.

Somehow through my own teaching and parenting over the years I have come to recognize that, just like the best learning happens when we're inspired by connections to our own experience, the best living happens when we're connected to everything around us. Think of it this way: you care much more about your own backyard than someone else's. You have a lot more interest in your own little potted plant than in the weed at the edge of the pavement, or some tree in a forest far away. So somebody teaching you about a baobab tree might have a bit of a tough job keeping your interest. But what if that tree was yours? My friend went to Africa and really got to know baobab trees - and they became hers. When we connect personally with things, they matter, and mattering strengthens our neural pathways. That's great for learning, but how does this have to do with my medicine forest? Well, this place matters to me. It matters so much that I've spent about thirty years of my life exploring here, both as a child and now with my own nearly-grown children. I know exactly which part of which slope of which creek has the best clay for sculpting, and which part will still have a pool of water and some desperately-hungry trout in August. I know where the elusive white slugs live. I know how berries' flavours change with the weather and with the time of day. This deep understanding of my little wilderness is my connection, and it's why this place is my medicine.

On top of being important to my own health, my experience of exploring this place has made me resourceful and resilient. We all learn more from observing the people around us than from being taught conventionally, and I learned from watching my parents develop this land; their need to be resourceful when we had no electricity, no toilet, or no income. I learned from watching them not just survive here, but keep working even in the face of failure to find joy and wellness in whatever this land and life had to offer. The moss is not my weeping pillow because I'm an idyllic child from a book about fairies; it's my pillow because sometimes I was just plain too sad, as a child, and the moss was what I found to comfort me. My kids don't harvest nettles for brownie points or allowance; they don gloves and harvest them just because that's what we do for Easter. They get stung and they complain at me, but they also delight in testing their brawn by picking them bare-fingered or by eating them raw. They're building resilience, just like I once did. We're in this ecosystem for better and worse and every day that falls in between. Like the plants, we'll thrive or die as part of this, so we're doing our best to thrive.

My kids at fifteen and eighteen processing wild burdock root for tea.

The business of gardening and developing the physical ecosystem is nowhere near as idyllic as I imagine it sounds. There are brutal realities in nature that hurt like hell. Our crops fail, our chickens get sick and I have to put them down; sometimes we fight and resent each other's impact in the ecosystem. Sometimes money is short, time runs out, and family or world tragedy makes us doubt we can succeed. But experiencing these things, feeling them and accepting them is part of the whole picture. My medicine forest is the ecological basket that holds our family, and the love and knowledge we cultivate here, among the weeds and the crops and the chickens, the weather and the water and our own bodies living. When I leave this place, my medicine forest is carried in the knowledge of my body and mind, to nourish and grow with other ecosystems. It's a conscious choice I make to see my surroundings and live in health with them, as a part of them. 

In a monoculture garden, one invasion of a particularly voracious insect can wipe out a whole crop, with nothing remaining to re-seed. The earth itself becomes a barren place, unable to nurture new-fallen seeds without significant help from humans. In a food forest, insects may devour a plant here or there, but the diversity of the community will discourage any one plant or insect from taking over, and thus ensure that enough remains to keep the community thriving. The dead plants along with the dead insects and the droppings of all those who foraged in the forest will feed the earth, ensuring that all the fallen seeds have at least a chance to grow. In fact, the richness of the soil even means the earth will hold more water, making everything thrive more easily.

My parents have asked me how I came to know all these things, and I said "from you", because it was their willingness to let me explore that gave me the gift of knowing my ecosystem. It was their willingness to let me grow my own experimental gardens, and now to rent us a piece of their land and still let me grow my own experimental gardens that gave me the gift of my medicine forest. Sometimes they don't like the look of my unkempt yard, my son's experimental tree fort project, or the weed piles I leave laying around. But they let me and their grandchildren keep living and exploring here, because they're watching the growth of our medicine forest. And sometimes - just once in a long while - we discover things we can teach them, too. Explorative parenting is like that. It's looking at the whole family as a forest instead of one plant seeding another. Our family is like a forest of possibility, where everybody lives in community, exploring and discovering and balancing and sharing, as we all put our roots further and further down, and our branches further and further to the sky.





Sunday, August 23, 2020

Celebrating my daughter quitting school!

 

My smart, motivated, academically capable daughter just quit school -- and we're celebrating! Yep. Last year I wrote about our son, who, after a lifetime of eclectic and meandering unschooling, decided to graduate and pulled a high school grad with honours out of a hat in just two months at the end of his grade eleven year. You can do that. He did. Now I'm writing to tell you that our fifteen-year-old daughter Rhiannon, who has been mastering the distributed learning system towards what we thought was going to be a much more straightforward high school grad, has quit. She's decided to register as a homeschooler, not attempt high school graduation, and work on her own pursuits, instead. And I think it's the best decision of her academic career so far.

For those not familiar with the basic options available to kids in our province (British Columbia), let me briefly explain. We have five legal options: 

  • Public School: (mainstream "brick and mortar" school run by a school district)
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person, generally 5 days/week
    • complete provincial curriculum
    • graduation diploma is expected outcome
    • publicly-funded
  • Independent School: (private school - non-district-affiliated)
    • terminology: child is "enrolled" 
    • attend in-person (usually), generally 5 days/week
    • complete provincial curriculum, sometimes with a little more flexibility
    • graduation diploma is expected outcome
    • partially publicly-funded
  • Public DL: (public distributed learning school run by a school district) 
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person 2.5 days/week, OR partially or completely online
    • some PDL schools facilitate home-learning for enrolled students through year-plans and regular reporting by parents or advisor teachers
    • unschooling, diverse curricula or an outside curriculum also sometimes supported
    • complete provincial curriculum, possibly completed independently
    • graduation usually expected outcome
    • publicly funded
  • Independent DL: (independent distributed learning school, not district-affiliated) 
    • terminology: child is "enrolled"
    • attend in-person 2.5 days/week OR partially or completely online
    • some IDL schools facilitate home-learning for enrolled students through year-plans and regular reporting by parents or advisor teachers
    • unschooling, diverse curricula or an outside curriculum also sometimes supported
    • complete provincial curriculum, possibly completed independently
    • graduation usually expected outcome 
    • partially publicly-funded
  • Registered homeschooling: 
    • terminology: child is "registered" as a "homeschooler" under section 12 or 13 of the provincial education act
    • no official teacher oversight or support, although some families hire teachers, tutors, or mentors, and children may attend supervised programs outside of the public system
    • this is the most freedom available in our province, legally, and allows families to live, grow and educate in near-complete freedom
    • no curriculum is provided, but many families purchase or create their own curricula
    • no graduation diploma
    • registered homeschoolers in grades 10, 11 or 12 may enroll in distributed learning courses
  • Unschooling: Unschooling is not a registration/enrollment option. It's a lifestyle and learning-style choice, which can be accomplished in any setting to larger or smaller degrees. Generally, unschooling means following one's interests in life and learning from all experiences. For parents of unschoolers, it means also following personal interests, while supporting and nurturing children who are busy following their own. Registering as a homeschooler gives BC residents the freedom to be unencumbered by regulations and expectations, therefore allowing more time for exploration of personal interests, and it's therefore the easiest way to follow an unschooling pedagogy.

Now back to our family...

Rhiannon hand-binding the children's book she wrote in 2018.
Rhiannon is an academic queen - especially when she can blend school with her passions of teaching young children, musical theatre, and middle grade fiction. She loves to work in a structure, she loves to create neatly-packaged projects and turn them in. She loves to evaluate her progress and climb the ladder of education, just like she's slowly climbing the becoming-an-author ladder. In fact, she loves all these things so much that school held her back. 

When she had free time in her earlier years, she edited and published two magazines for children, wrote a few short books, played endlessly with her dolls and pets and imagined worlds, taught herself to play guitar, created a few complex board games, researched, wrote reports on, and attended online university courses on subjects she was interested in (usually relating to early childhood education), and developed her singing and acting skills. Then through her teens, as she attended public and distributed learning schools to be with her peers, she ran out of time for most of those things. She's been keeping up as well as she can, managing to write a few stories and papers over the years, attending various theatre programs, and usually writing a book or taking an online course in her free time from school. She's developed a children's and YA book review website, written a middle grade novel, and is currently working on a second novel. But her time is always broken by the demands of school, and often those demands have felt like aimless make-work projects just to get through specific hoops to somebody else's goal. Somebody else's goal is graduation. Hers is "to have a nice life", and highschool graduation doesn't seem to be necessary for that.

She does find it important to attend the Reggio Emilia early childhood education program at Capilano University. Not some other school. Not some other pedagogy, because she's known since she researched these things in her own childhood that Reggio is the philosophy best suited to her beliefs. She's been researching careers and schools and entrance requirements for years, and now at fifteen she's in conversation with staff at the university she wants to attend about how to prepare a homeschooler's application. She figures she's got a couple of years to accomplish her pre-university goals, and she'd like to be unencumbered by school, in the meantime. 

This morning she told me, "I feel like everybody thinks that graduating from high school is the big teenage achievement, but if I don’t go to school then I can have other achievements that are even better, like getting a book published."

Knowing that she has managed to write a book and send it to publishers during her otherwise busy grade ten year, I asked her what she expects will be so different about homeschooling.

She leaned against my feet where I sat, and mused, "It used to be stressful because I had so much work to do and it’s now it's stressful because I don’t know how it will all work. It used to be a relief to know what I had to do, and now it’s a relief to know that I can do what I want. Now I can focus on writing books, managing my youTube channel and website, making music, and getting a job, which I find much more exciting than school."

And that, I think, is the key. It's why we've been unschooling all along: Because life should be exciting! Why would we drag through school just to get a diploma, only to get into university, if we can live an exciting life, and then still go to university... arriving full of passion and experience? Or, as my son seems to be leaning towards, potentially unschooling ourselves right through university and into the rest of our lives, dispensing entirely of the education system, and building our lives, piecemeal, according to our passions and opportunities?

This isn't so crazy as it sounds. Most of us are trying to follow our passions and opportunities, often at the same time or combined with our trek through the prescribed journey of life and education. With increasing instability in our economy, climate, and social structure, the gig economy is increasingly accepted as normal, and people of all ages are necessarily becoming more flexible. We're learning that not every year will be the same in our gardens; not every job will be long-term; not every passion needs to remain our focal point. Personally, I've begun blending and re-mixing my diverse careers of parent, explorative learning facilitator and artist, and finding that a whole plethora of new potential titles come out of the mix. Through this pandemic I find myself to be a learning consultant, an artist, a farmer and a YouTuber! Last year that would have sounded ridiculous. My daughter's choice to buck the norm and head to university without a high school graduation looks to me like a very good strategic plan for her, but also a great way to keep herself open and flexible in this constantly-changing world we inhabit.

We were recently celebrating the fact that our son graduated with honours... feeling weird but proud to wear this badge sported by so many conventional parents. And now I wonder if my daughter will feel let down by not having her family celebrate a graduation. Can we celebrate something else, instead? Hell, yes! I'm celebrating her embarking on the path she desires! I'm celebrating the very thoughtful human who is looking critically and creatively at a life in very undesirable pandemic-induced constraints, pulling enormous courage out of a hat and turning her dreams into reality, on her own terms. I encourage all of us to look at our children's accomplishments the same way -- to celebrate their personal choices instead of just the moments they stepped through expected hoops. I can't wait to read my daughter's next book.

---

More information for people looking into homeschooling legalities in British Columbia: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/education-training/k-12/support/classroom-alternatives/homeschooling

The photo at the top is my daughter Rhiannon's promotional portrait taken by her brother, Taliesin.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Unschooling Screen Time!

Probably the biggest source of stress in our unschooling home as been screen-time. I just can't stand seeing my kids sit in front of their screens all the time! I literally ran an outdoor exploration program since they were babies, and brought them outside to play and gallivant in the woods every single day until they were too old to be easily led outside. And slowly, as they grew into teens and now older teens, computers have seeped into every aspect of their lives. As our culture moved more online, even I became a constant screen-user, and with this pandemic, well... screens have won. 

My inner voice screams at me, "bad parent! You're ruining your children! Where's the outdoor time?!"  And at way-too-frequent intervals over the years, my inner voice invaded my throat and I bullied and badgered my kids, tried to bargain with them, tried to limit their screen-time, even took away computers and other devices, once resulting in a physical conflict with my son as I tried to walk out of his room with his laptop and he righteously tried to stop me. None of these actions align with my own moral, parenting, or unschooling values. My kids are supposed to be self-directing! They're supposed to be free-range! They're supposed to be unencumbered by my parental fears and judgments! Definitely free from me stealing their stuff. And yet my deep shame over screen-time has caused me to break all those values so many times.

It's a struggle, for sure, and I know it's the same in so many homes around the world. But I'm writing this to share the one thing I think really helped us in this situation. Did you notice I said I was "stealing" my son's laptop? That's because it's his. He owns it. And that's the big deal, here.

My kids at 11 and 14 with their first personal laptop.
 
I remember a Mad Magazine comic from my childhood in which Webster (I think?) gets sent to his room, and is delighted to go up there and be with his big TV and whatever other electronics he had. I remember thinking what a good child I was to own none of those things - not even as a family, at that point in my 10-year-old life. And I think that pride set the stage for my rampant shame over screen-time.

Then I had my kids in the early 2000's. In their first few years we had one family desktop computer which my husband used for telecommuting two days a week and the kids and I shared for online adventures like videos, games, Google earth expeditions (WOOOOOT!!) and word or image processing on other days. It was pretty ideal. I felt like we were graciously treading the waters of screen-time.

Then we went to an unschooling conference where we discovered entire families of people gleefully wrapped up in creating a Minecraft version of the hotel where the conference was taking place. COOL!! I discovered that it's really OK to enjoy video-gaming with our kids, and in fact it can be a creative family experience. Enter Minecraft in my life. And with so many more amazing resources becoming available around 2010, enter so many more amazing times spent on screens. I didn't feel really bad about getting a family laptop. It meant the kids and I could use a computer even when their father was working from home on the main computer! 

I saw our slow slide into more screen-time, and the conflicts became more frequent. Also, conflicts between the two kids became more frequent as their screen-time needs and values diverged.

Around that time, my kids became old enough to earn their own money, and we have always maintained that while they don't earn money for chores at home (because we don't earn money for this either; it's just a part of living in a home), any money they earn for themselves is theirs to spend as they'd like. This is basically our unschooling way of teaching them to manage their money. And they managed it differently from each other, one saving and saving, while doling out tiny bits for necessary items like gifts and dates with friends, and the other saving exclusively until making larger passionate buys. And guess what! The first big purchase each of them made at around twelve and fifteen years of age was a refurbished laptop. Now at fifteen and eighteen they're migrating to more powerful desktops as their studies and interests have pushed them into daily computer use. My daughter has recently been given a free desktop and financed her own accessories, and my son built himself a powerful machine for his rendering and digital music composition. 

My son's new fancy set-up, complete with a rolling stand that he built to hold it.

Why is this so great? Learning. Self-discovery. Money-management. And personal health choices. The best part of all of this is that they always financed their computer owning on their own. This gave them the independence to provide for themselves in a limited but very important way. It made them feel powerful. It means I can't freak out about screen-time, because they truly own their computers, and they worked a long long time to get to this point -- on their own terms. 

Of course, I still freak out about screen-time once in a while, to my great shame, including that time I tried to steal my son's laptop from his desk, but I'm getting better over time, and so are they. The fact that they own their own devices helps remind me that their lives are not mine to control. The basic tenets of the unschooling life we aspire to mean that I will do better by loving them and leading by example than by trying to control them. Just seeing their fancy self-designed set-ups on their desks reminds me of that. Life and living in community is always a complex challenge, and my own growth as an intentionally laid-back parent is always slowly improving as well.

Most wonderfully and surprisingly, having complete ownership of their own devices seems to mean that my kids are also pretty responsible with screen-time. The pandemic has meant a lot more computer time, and I've noticed both of them intentionally scheduling outdoor, off-screen, or exercise time into their lives. I won't say I'm always calm and accepting, nor that there aren't days they rarely see the light of the sky outside, but despite all my fears over the years, I think we've done all right in navigating this one. 

I'd like to thank the massive support network of unschooling families all over the place who have kept reminding us that it will be OK. It truly is. May we all keep swimming up like good little Minecraft players before all our bubbles pop, and then run around on the land exploring and being creative!

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.