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.