"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Big Piece of the Puzzle (The Advantage of Family)

There are a few advantages to having six houseguests for several weeks over the Holidays. For one thing, my husband and I have been able to go out on a couple of date-nights without needing to worry about finding a babysitter. Abuelita (Grandma) has been available on an as-needed basis.

Of course, as I have documented, it has been great to have my sister-in-law Temy here to teach me how to use my sewing machine. One day, I hope I will be able to actually save us some money by making a few of our own clothes, curtains, and pillowcases. Rowan, my teenage daughter, has aspirations to be a theatre costume designer, and Temy has set her on the path. Rowan has actually begun to design clothing and make some pretty impressive pieces.

And now that my brother-in-law Fransisco has arrived, I am really beginning to derive some serious material benefit. Last fall, I gathered materials to make a greenhouse on the foundation that used to support our falling down shed we called The Parthenon. (Nasty Weather and Unfinished Business) Given my experience with my husband's efforts as carpenter (A Handy Man is Good to Find...?) I think I can be excused for not wanting Homero to build the greenhouse alone. The foundation languished for some eight months, until the other day when Fransisco said he'd be happy to build me a greenhouse.

To be honest, Fransisco doesn't have very good estimating skills, or else he wasn't honest when he said it would take one eight hour day to knock it together. We are now on day three and less than half done, but even so I am thrilled to the marrow. I can see I am going to have - eventually - a terrific, good looking greenhouse. I will be able to grow food for ten months out of the year instead of the six months that our natural short season allows.

Every year, I start to get excited about the garden in mid-February. In the past, I had to contain that excitement for another month and a half. Now, I can actually start planting when I want to, as soon as the days get long enough. Come on, spinach! Yay, radishes, arugula, onions, and chives! Woo-hoo, snow peas and broccoli! Thank you, family!

A few weeks of high grocery bills, water and electricity bills, and a few extra trips to the dump is really nothing compared to the lasting value of a solidly built greenhouse... not to mention the incalculable worth of my children's closer relationship with my husband's side of the family - their Grandma, Auntie, and cousins. And of course, their understanding of their Mexican heritage. Really, the benefits of this situation FAR outweigh the deficits. It is just occasionally hard to appreciate that fact when you want to, oh, say, make love to your husband and there are fourteen relatives less than six feet away.

But there will be plenty of time for marital relations when the family leaves in a week or two (or three... or four... I have no way of knowing). IOn the meantime, I must simply keep reminding myself of the myriad benefits of having the extended family around. And keep ignoring the drawbacks.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Accepting Responsibility (Farm Economics)

Last week, when I went out to feed the animals, I came upon a hen dangling from the cast-iron hay feeder by one leg. She had roosted on the rim for the night and had somehow slipped and wedged her leg into the V formed by two iron bars. I have no idea how long she had been hanging, but when I freed her and set her down, she could not support her weight and flopped around most miserably.

Perhaps I should have dispatched her on the spot. She is one of the older hens - at least three years old - and there is no way she is an economically viable animal. Most probably, she didn't earn her keep even before she was hurt, but I don't really keep track of who is laying well and who isn't, and as long as all chickens can fend for themselves and the flock as a whole is maintaining an average age of under 36 months, I'm happy. However, as anyone familiar with chickens knows, they are ruthless animals and will heartlessly attack any individual among them incapable of defending herself. When I set this hen down on the ground, she was instantly attacked by three or four others.

Being unwilling - or, ok, unable - to wring her neck immediately, I closed her in the Mama Barn and gave her food and water apart. She hid herself down among the bales of hay and disappeared for a week or so. Day before yesterday, she reappeared and started asserting herself, apparently wanting to get outside. So I grabbed her and put her outside, but the same thing happened. She still can't walk and the other hens attacked her mercilessly. At this point, I was ready to turn her over to Homero to be killed. She was no good as food - her injury and confinement had left her skinny as a rail fence, and she is old and tough as a boot. She'd be a total waste; the only reason to kill her would be to put her out of her pain.

But then my sister-in-law, Temy, asked to see her. Temy is a doctor. She isn't a vet. But nonetheless, she is perfectly competent to examine the animal and say - as she did - that the leg isn't broken and that she should heal, given time.

Dammit. What to do now? I really wanted to say "Oh what the hell. She'll never be the same; she'll always be lame and weak, probably the other chickens will always pester and torment her, and she's old and hasn't got many eggs left in her. Just kill her already, and throw her to the dogs." But of course I didn't. I took her and put her in the rabbit hutch near the house. I am feeding her specially and separately every day. I am bringing her clean straw and changing her water. I am doing this, I fully admit, only in order not to seem like a monster to my Mexican relatives. That's really weird, because in most respects, they are far less sentimental and far more practical than we Americans when it comes to animals.

Here's what I wrote about that a while ago: Mexicans don't have farm animals as pets. In fact, they barely have pets at all. Seriously. I know there are a few here and there, but I feel totally confident in saying that in general, dogs are guard animals; cats are rat-catchers; burros are pack animals; and everything else is food. ( Question for People Who Kill Their Own Meat)

Now all of a sudden I find myself on the other side of that equation: I'm the soulless bad guy who has dollar signs in her eyes, and they are the ones arguing for compassion and mercy. Okay, that's projection. I know if I had actually said "I just don't think there's any point in keeping this hen alive" they would have said "Sure, you're right" and no-one would have given it a second thought. It's all me. It's I who have to get used to the idea that I have taken on responsibility for the life and death of some thirty other beings - chickens, goats, horses, dogs and cats. I'm still wrestling with this, apparently, after four years.

It's not about money. It's not about food. It's not about necessity - not yet, anyway. It's about this - me being the deciding force for the lives of my animals. If I'm hungry, they die. If I decide they aren't "worth it" they die. If I want what they have - meat, skin, feathers, milk, eggs, offspring - I take it and they lose. I am the power. I am the MAN. I take and they give.

Yeah yeah yeah, I also give and they also take. I give shelter, food, medicine, protection from predators, et cetera. In fact they wouldn't even exist if I hadn't decided they be born. Blah blah blah. That all smacks of rationalization. Here's the fact: I am a peak predator and I reap where I choose. I like meat, and I like milk and I like eggs.

Given that fact (given: wow, that's a big given, isn't it? Let's just sweep right over that) where is my responsibility? What do I actually owe this hen? Life or death? What is the more moral course; to kill her when she begins to suffer and salvage what I can from her existence (she would feed the dogs, after all), or to expend a modicum of extra energy keeping her alive, albeit in a cage, at a reduced level of existence? What for, if she can't integrate back into the flock? I'm making an assumption here that a chicken can even tell the difference between a "natural" life as a member of a flock and as a solitary being in a cage. I do assume that a chicken CAN tell the difference and that she "prefers" a more natural, free range life. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I just want an excuse to kill a chicken that causes me trouble and time.

I don't think so though. I'm pretty sure a chicken does experience some sort of reduced existence separated from the flock and confined to a cage. I see chickens interacting with each other every day. Okay, it's getting late and I'm getting tired and I haven't come to any conclusions. Part of me says why are you even wasting so much time trying to be fair to a chicken? Do what makes your life easier, as long as it doesn't involve increased cruelty. Damn, what is the BFD here?

Part of me says puzzle it out, make sure that whatever you decide to do you are doing because you feel it is right, not because it is easy. At the end of the day, that's what matters, right? What matters is not the life of an individual chicken, but that I have lived according to my principles. Goddamn it, that strikes me as a problematic statement. I don't like the way that statement feels. But I think I'm going to have to leave it for another day.

Right now, friends and neighbors, I am leaving questions of morality and ethics behind, in favor of another beer and a little time with my husband before I fall asleep. Let that stand as my final expression of my personal ethics.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Quack Quack Christmas (Shout Out to Zion)

As I have written before, I have really, really good neighbors (Hay Hay Hay (Good Neighbors)!).

Honestly, the best decision I've made since I moved here was to join my neighborhood church - Zion Lutheran - and get to know some of the amazing people in the congregation; not to mention our wonderful pastor, Lydia. My life has been enriched in many ways by encountering Zion, and not the least has been in coming to know my neighbors, many of whom are old time farmers whose families have been in the area for several decades. These folks are without exception welcoming, friendly, knowledgeable, and generous. I consider it a compliment and a privilege to be accepted into the neighborhood by them, and I look forward to a long and rewarding association.

Yesterday - Christmas Eve - one gentleman among them who happens to be a hunter dropped by with a whole bunch of ducks. He did the same thing last year - showed up around 8 A.M. with a brace of mallards and showed me how to extract the breasts - which is all he uses, usually. Last Christmas Day, in fact, we ate duck breast. This year, he came by around the same time (duck hunters get up early, it seems) and dropped off a sack full of FIVE still warm ducks.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I have a lot of family here. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, several nieces, and most recently a brother-in-law and his guest have all been staying in my house lo these past eight weeks. There are eleven mouths to feed, instead of the usual five. My neighbor knows this, and I assume that is part of why he chose to donate his kill to my family. Well, if this blog post chances to get back around to you, neighbor, please know that it helps! We have been dropping a lot of coin at Costco lately, and it does get difficult after a month or two. The ducks you gave us have provided several meals, and we all enjoyed them very much.

I have very little experience with wild game, and duck in particular is a meat that requires careful treatment; but as my family seems to have enjoyed this meat very much indeed, I humbly offer a recipe for how I prepared it. I make absolutely no pretense that this is the best (or even a good) way to treat wild ducks. It is only how I, in my ignorance, did it.

Oriental Spiced Braised Duck

Take five recently dispatched Mallards. Pluck (easier to pluck than chickens- most feathers can be pulled with bare hands without need of hot water. Singe off remaining feathers over a small paper fire). Gut, reserving livers for another purpose if desired. I recommend it; duck livers are delicious.

Place carcasses in a large pot full of hot, heavily salted water to which you have added several tablespoons of vinegar. Leave to soak for a couple of hours.

Four hours before the meal, remove carcasses and place in a large baking dish (or two). In a blender, blend two inches of ginger root, three or four cloves of garlic, a tablespoon or so of sesame oil and the same of neutral oil (such as canola), a tablespoon or so of soy sauce, the juice of one lime and one orange, a quarter cup of honey, and a little water. Blend well. Pour over duck carcasses and bake at 350. Turn pieces and baste every half hour.

I noticed, after a while, that the marinade was liquidy and the duck was getting dry. So I removed the duck, used a cleaver to chop each carcass into four or six pieces, and removed them to a couple of covered casseroles. I poured over the marinade and added several chopped carrots and a couple of roughly chopped onions. The casseroles were full, otherwise I would have added celery and maybe some beets (that's what I had in the house).

In approximately three hours total, the duck was as tender as it was going to get (this is wild waterfowl, people, let's not have unrealistic expectations) and giving off a fairly heavenly aroma. I had baked, along with the duck, a bunch of yams, and also cooked a pot full of wild rice. The casseroles were full of a lovely, dark, wild, bloody broth, which was beautiful spooned over a baked, split yam and a pile of wild rice.

Really, I couldn't have asked for a nicer Christmas dinner. Thank you, hunter-neighbor! Merry Christmas to all of you, and best wishes for a prosperous New Year!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Top O' the World, Ma!

Yesterday, Homero had a major triumph. The Shop Visible From Space is officially finished; the county building inspector came out and inspected it, and then signed the certificate of occupancy. Homero now has a big ass legal shop. It isn't, however, actually finished. He still has to build the doors, and he still had to tighten all the 10,000 or so screws which hold it all together.

Tightening the screws involved crawling all over the skin of the shop, which is an arched tunnel some 40 feet high and 65 feet long. I had no idea how he was going to do such a thing until I saw his truly genius solution. He made a rope ladder which consists of many, many wooden steps connected by a double strand of rope knotted between each step. Then the entire ladder is thrown over the building and anchored down on either side. One person climbs the ladder and tightens the screws from the outside, while another person tightens them from the inside, which involves standing on a wooden scaffolding built onto the bed of a pickup truck. Both the rope ladder and the scaffolding can be moved along the length of the shop as needed. Alas, I don't have a photo of the scaffolding, but it is truly impressive. It's about thirty feet tall, all mobile on the bed of his chevy pickup. He calls it the "Caballo de Troya," or the Trojan Horse. I promise to get a picture before it is dismantled!

This morning, the day dawned bright and clear, one of those crystalline winter mornings where the entire world seems to be made out of icicles and light. The mountains were painfully brilliant, shining and white against a cold blue sky. Homero went out to work, but shortly came back in and said to me, "Amor, you have to come out and climb up on top of the shop. The view is so beautiful from up there. Please come."

I was torn between terror and longing, but longing won out. Nothing, I decided, would stop me from standing up on the rounded peak of my husband's shop with him and looking out over the magnificent peaks with my arms around his shoulders. I crawled up the ladder and pulled myself up like a worm on my belly, slowly and painfully, until I could extend Homero my hand and stand up. My knees were trembling and my teeth were chattering, but it was wholly worth it. Very few moments in my life match today's: holding on to my man's strong arms, standing high above my own land and home, face in the wind, looking out on one of God's great vistas.

My photography is entirely inadequate to the task of showing you what I saw. I don't know why it is that the mountains that crowd the horizon shoulder to shoulder, looming like frozen giants to the naked eye appear so timid and midget in the camera lens. It is surely my fault. Please magnify the mountains about 10 times in your mind's eye.

I'm dead certain that no other mechanic on Earth enjoys the view that my husband does. What a beautiful part of the world we are privileged to live in! I'm so happy I climbed up, even though my thigh muscles hurt and I was deeply ashamed to learn how timid and weak I've become in the last twenty years! I did not make a pretty picture hauling myself slowly and painfully up the rope ladder, nor letting myself down inch by wobbly inch. As you notice, there are no photos of me making my ascent or descent. Whatever. I don't care. Weak and wobbly as I am, today I stood on top of the world.

And it was good. It was very good.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Other Blog - Link to My Inner Mind

For a couple of years now, I have been keeping a kind of online diary in the form of a blog. This other blog deals with my personal fears and plans relating to the future; climate change, peak oil, political upheavals, financial collapse - basically all the horsemen of the apocalypse that I see cresting the horizon.

Mostly, this blog is simply a place for me to store useful articles and information relating to homesteading and self-sufficiency; to document changes to our society as I see them happening; and to record personal musings and cogitations.

Up until now, I have kept this private, but at this point it occurs to me that I have amassed quite an interesting store of useful information, and so I am going public. I realize that I may come off as a sort of a crackpot, but I'm willing to take that risk in order to disseminate the message.

Happy reading!


P.S. - okay, having a hard time creating a link. Here's the URL, but you'll have to copy and paste.



I love discovering something cool in the blogosphere! Today I followed a few links from my blogroll, and ended up at a cool blog called Sustainable Eats. It's a pretty neat site in itself, but they also do something cool there called Linky-Thursday. Anyone who blogs on topics related to sustainability (homesteading, self-sufficiency, food preservation, gardening, etc) is welcome to use their linky-tool to post a link with a thumbnail to their own blog, and it will show up on four different sites who all participate. The only rule is you must post a link to one of those four sites, so here it is:

Sustainable Eats

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Homemade Christmas, Take 12

Every year, I have delusions of producing the perfect Christmas. I'm not alone, I know - Christmas has become the 400 pound gorilla of holidays - the holiday which must be appeased. For months, starting in October, messages assault us (mothers, mostly) from every direction, shrilly insisting that we buy this, that, and the other to make our family happy. I read that the average family spends nearly $800 on Christmas every year, and most of us charge it on the credit card.

Well, we all know that's not sustainable. Not only is a buying spree at the mall expensive, but it is also stressful and leaves many of us with a feeling of soul-lessness and disappointment. The children shriek with glee for one-point-seven seconds as they rip open every lovingly wrapped package, and then have a sugar-induced meltdown and throw a temper fit that they didn't get (insert name of this year's hottest toy here). And has there been any mention of peace on earth or of goodwill towards one fellow man? Has anyone felt the "Spirit of Christmas?" Well, maybe you watched the Peanuts Christmas Special. It's a good show, and as close as most of us get.

I know I'm not alone in wanting to opt out of the whole American Big Business Christmas. Also, most of us would like to avoid paying 18% interest on an average of $800. So what is a mother of young children to do? There are various ways to opt out, I suppose: one could convert to another religion and celebrate Hanukkah or Yule instead. But Christmas would happen around you like the tide breaking on a rock and the children would not be fooled. You could ban gifts altogether and do something like volunteer as a family at the local soup kitchen instead. Now, I'm not suggesting for a minute that volunteerism is a bad thing, but that solution feels drastic and kind of Grinch-ish to me. I can't endorse any solution that completely bypasses gift-giving. Gifts are good, gifts make both the giver and the givee happy. Giving with a capitol "G" is in fact the root of the meaning of this holiday, is it not?

So, like many of you, I look for less expensive and slightly more meaningful ways to give gifts. Some people (like my mother, bless her heart) choose to make donations to causes that they know are close to the heart of the person they wish to give to. Last year my mother gave to the Heifer Project in my name. Last year, I myself chose to do an all-secondhand Christmas (Christmas 2009, Thrift Store Edition). That was less than wholly successful, but it was not a failure either.

This year, I am going for the gold: a wholly homemade Christmas. Well, okay, a mostly homemade Christmas. I will still stuff stockings with candy and small presents, but the gifts under the tree and those that I send to family and friends will be homemade. As it happens, I have recently been learning to sew, so if you are a part of my circle you should expect cloth-based presents. And yes, I freely admit, I am a novice seamstress, so my gifts may not be up to professional standards. But neither are they produced in overseas sweatshops; nor do they cause me to go into debt; and every last one was made with the recipient in mind, individually. And humble as they are, they are expressions of my love and care for each one of you, and gifts of my heart and hands.

So go ahead and laugh, but keep it to yourself!

Rowan spinning yarn for her homemade gifts

Paloma modeling a child's apron (not saying who it is for)

Me, actually using a sewing machine all by myself.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Kayaks!

This is exactly what it looks like at my house, except for the fact that the statue of Liberty isn't in my backyard. It's been raining for a week, pretty steadily, and pretty hard. There is no dry land anywhere on the farm - it's all either ankle-deep puddles, knee-deep mud, or shallow rivers.

I meant to get chips ordered two weeks ago, during the snow. I knew then that when the cold snap was over, mud season would begin in earnest. But between Thanksgiving, in-laws staying indefinitely, preparations for Christmas, and oh yeah, six different kinds of home-improvement going on, I didn't get around to it.

Poor animals. The horses have been moved to the winter sacrifice area, and all they have for shelter is a three-walled field shelter. They are pretty miserable looking and I think they need blankets. The goats have the big barn to themselves and so they are pretty happy. Chickens can go wherever they want, of course, but there's just nothing on Earth shabbier and sadder-looking than a wet chicken.

The dogs don't even want to go outside to poop. We have to shoo them out into the driving rain and they immediately scratch to get back in. Then we won't let them in because they are so muddy, so they live in the playroom. The playroom is getting pretty gross, too.

Ahhh well, what can you do? This is life in this part of the world. Six months of mud. It's the price we pay for not having to deal with either extreme heat or extreme cold practically ever. Just keep thinking about our beautiful, comfortable summers. And keep a pot of soup on the stove at all times.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Small Farm Tidbits

Not much news on the farm - it's the quiet season.

Storm Cloud is probably going out to service a couple of does this week. His stud fee is a kid back.

My sister gave me six chickens. She had a spectacular survival rate on her chicks this year and ended up with more chickens than she really wants. I think she gave us four hens and two roosters. They are super cute, white and spangled. They are tiny, bantams that hatched out of blue eggs, so maybe I will have some blue eggs again in the spring. Right now they are separated in the coop (mine are all free-range) to et them acclimate and learn where they live before I let them into the general population. Chickens pick on each other, and I don't want them to get beat up.

We repaired a length of fence between our house and the neighbor's, so Lancelot the big dumb collie dog can't keep going over there are destroying our neighborly relations by digging up gardens, chasing cats, and relieving himself on the lawn.

Homero's family is still here. They will be at least through Christmas and possibly the New Year. I have spent more time in the grocery store lately! Nine people go through a large amount of food every day.

We are halfway through the construction of a shamefully shabby gingerbread house. It looks like it was built by stoned trolls. Pictures upon completetion.

Happy Holidays all.

Friday, December 3, 2010

O (Live) Christmas Tree, O (Live) Christmas Tree...

When I was a child, we always had a live tree. Every year since us kids were born, at least one tree was planted per year, in every yard of every house my parents ever owned. It's not likely these days, but should we drive past an old house, we could still point at the old Christmas trees and say "look! There it is! Christmas tree 1981!" or whatever.

For all the years I lived on a small city lot (fifteen of them), I did not have a Christmas tree. I had used up all my available space planting fruit trees and I refused on principle to buy a cut tree. My daughter complained, but I didn't give in. Either we made a tree out of paper (kind of cool, actually - paint a big tree on butcher paper, put it up on the wall, and decorate with real ornaments and tinsel) or I made a gingerbread house instead. I'm not good at gingerbread houses.
This, for example, is not one of my gingerbread houses. This is an image downloaded off the web. I can, however, turn out a more or less respectable cube-shaped gingerbread house with a couple of stained glass windows and a roof paved with Necco wafers. A gingerbread house can sit on the mantel for a full month and still be edible come Christmas morning. More or less.

Once we moved out here, I insisted on a live tree. Partly, this was to relieve me of the strain of making a gingerbread house. Partly it was because everyone in my family likes trees and thinks gingerbread houses are stupid, unless they are the kind that could be featured on the Food Channel. Also, I think everyone should plant at least one tree a year and Christmas is as good a time as any. This property has a severe lack of trees and room for many, many Christmas trees before it begins to feel crowded.

It's that time of year again, and this year I am going to have a real tree AND make a gingerbread house, for the first time ever. Why? Well, I miss making gingerbread houses, actually. My younger children have never made one with me, and I think they would like it. Especially all the candy. My relatives in from Mexico have certainly never done the gingerbread thing. And Rowan might be old enough to find it nostalgic, though I kind of doubt it. I find it nostalgic, though, and I'm sure I will even when I'm tearing my hair out because the royal icing won't set up.

Wish me luck! We are going down to the Fairhaven Train Station today to see the gingerbread house competition - there are always about fifty houses of varying intricacy and competence. Some of stunning in their beauty and complexity - others are stunning in that whoever made them didn't throw them away but instead allowed them to be displayed publicly. It's a great way to spend an hour or two with the kids on a winter saturday.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Floor Photos

I have a nasty chest cold and will be spending the next couple of days in bed. Meanwhile here are a few pictures of the new floors! In these pictures we hadn't yet put the furniture back where it belongs, so the room looks weird, but the floors look great! And you can see how long my hall is... just right for playing "dogsled."